The Bible and the Future: Hope Nurtured by the Word
Most people have a keen interest in the future. There is a kind of curiosity about the events which lie on the horizon of our lives that we find difficult to suppress. We want to know what is coming; we don't like to be taken by surprise. That's why we are often ready to listen to anyone who boldly claims to be a prophet or seer, who believes he can see into the future and predict what is going to occur. That's also why we are inclined to support the political candidate who can make the most compelling case for what the future would hold, were he to be elected (otherwise known as "campaign promises"!).
This general interest in the future has become especially pronounced in North American culture. An American who visits the countries of Europe cannot help but notice by contrast how much more attention they pay to the past. Among European countries, traditions shaped over centuries still continue to influence the patterns of people's lives. By contrast the "new world" of North America seems largely oriented to the future, and relatively unimpressed by ancient traditions and ways of doing things. This characteristic of American culture has often been noted by interpreters of American cultural traits. Whether these interpreters attempt to describe the future by determining the "megatrends" of our day or by noting the "future shock" (Toffler) that many people are experiencing, they generally agree that North Americans are far more preoccupied today with the future than in many previous generations.
Christian believers today often share this heightened interest in the question of the future, but are terribly confused as to whom and what to believe about it. This may reflect in part the confusion and uncertainty of our culture, to the extent that this confusion spills over into the church. It may also be due to the host of Christian teachers whose pronouncements about the future so radically differ. However, it is largely owing to a lack of careful study of and reflection upon what the Bible teaches us about the future. Here — on the subject of the future — as elsewhere, we need as believers to study the Word of God so as to become wise unto salvation in Jesus Christ. We need to examine the Scriptures to determine what we can know and believe about what the future holds.
As we approach the subject of the Bible and the future, there are several things that we should bear in mind.
Staying within the Boundaries of God's Word
The most important rule with which believers ought to approach the subject of the future is: stay within the boundaries of God's Word in the Scriptures. Much of the confusion and uncertainty that abounds today on this subject is due to a failure to abide by this rule.
When we contemplate the future, we are contemplating something that in the strictest sense might be termed a "mystery." Though we may have many reminders of the past, this is not the case with respect to the future. You cannot consult a scrapbook, examine historical documents and search out the historical evidence to determine what the future holds, as you can to determine the past. The future is, from our vantage point, hidden. It is shrouded from our view. Even though we can conjecture about what it might bring, we cannot really predict with any certainty what will occur.
But this needs to be qualified. Though we cannot know or predict the future, the Triune God who created the world and all things in it, who providentially superintends the life and history of the creation — He is able to reveal to us in His Word the things we need to know for our salvation, including those things which pertain to the future. Christian believers know Someone who can disclose, to the extent that He is pleased to give us to know these things, the shape of the future, of things to come.
This is the only antidote available to the speculation that abounds today about the future: we need to listen carefully to the Word of God, taking notice of what it promises regarding the future and disciplining ourselves not to go beyond what it warrants. The only safe course available to us in this otherwise confused and disputed terrain is one which is charted by the compass of God's Word. We need gratefully to receive what God has been pleased to teach us in His Word about the future; but we also need humbly to remain within the limits of this revelation.
Christ, the Lord of History
If Christian believers approach the subject of the future in strict conformity to the teaching of the Word of God, they will be compelled to focus their attention upon the truth as it is in Christ, who is the Lord and center of history.1
One of the common mistakes believers make when they consider the future is that they become disoriented by focussing upon a variety of matters, without seeing any biblical connections between them. When we consider the future for example, we think of such things as: the millennium, the signs of the times, the return of Christ and the resurrection of the dead. But we don't have any focus to our vision; it is as though we see a whole complex of disconnected events looming large upon the horizon. But we remain confused as to the whole picture, what joins these events together.
This disorientation toward the future occurs whenever we fail to see that all of God's ways in history are centered upon and realized in Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ, who is "the same yesterday, today and forever," is the One through whom we are given to know the meaning and purpose of all history. There are a number of ways in which this can be illustrated from the Scriptures.
In the Old Testament the Lord's dealings with His people continually pointed to the future and particularly to One in whom His promises to His people would be fulfilled. Already in the "mother promise" of Genesis 3:15, the focus falls upon the "seed" through whom God promises to crush the head of the serpent and bring blessing to His people. The promises of God's gracious covenant communion with His people constantly find their basis and fulfillment in Christ. Christ is the seed of Abraham through whom all the families of the earth will be blessed (Genesis 17:7; compare Galatians 3:16). He is the promised Son of David who will be established upon His father's throne forever, reigning in righteousness and peace over the people of God (2 Samuel 7:12, 13; Psalm 89:3, 4). Accordingly, when Luke describes the risen Christ's conversation with the two men on the road to Emmaus, he notes that "beginning with Moses and with all the prophets, [Christ] explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures" (Luke 24:27).
Similarly, the New Testament treats the history of the Lord's previous dealings with His people as a preparation for the coming of Christ in the "fullness of time" (Galatians 4:4). In the genealogies of Matthew and Luke for example, Christ's birth is traced back through the centuries to Abraham (Matthew 1:1) and ultimately to Adam (Luke 3:38). Matthew, by crafting his account of Christ's genealogy in terms of three sets of fourteen generations (the number 14 being the numerical equivalent of the name of "David" in Hebrew), clearly wants to reveal that history has been moving forward under God's faithful superintendence to the great and decisive events (for all history!) of Christ's birth, life, death, resurrection, ascension and anticipated return at the "end of the age" (Matthew 28:20).
The central place of Christ as the Author, Governor and End of history within the will and purpose of God, is explicitly affirmed as well in several New Testament passages. In Ephesians 1:9-11 the apostle Paul describes the "mystery of God's will" revealed in Jesus Christ as "the summing up of all things in Christ, things in the heavens and things upon the earth." In Colossians 1:16-17 we read, "For by Him [Christ] all things were created, both in the heavens and on the earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities — all things have been created by Him and for Him. And He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together." The apostle John's visions on the isle of Patmos, recorded in the book of Revelation, describe Christ as "the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth" (Revelation 1:5). Only Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God, has the power and authority to "open the book and its seven seals" signifying His power to administer God's sovereign purposes in all of history (Revelation 5).
But this is not all. Just as Christ fulfills all of the Old Testament promises (2 Corinthians 1:20), Christ also guarantees the future consummation of all God's promises by His resurrection from the dead, session at the Father's right hand and outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost. These events are disclosed in the New Testament as end time events, events which mark a decisive turning point in history. These events signal that Christ has been given all authority in heaven and on earth and will reign until all things have been subjected to Him, including death, the last enemy (1 Corinthians 15:25-26). By His resurrection from the dead, Christ has become a "first fruits" of all who will, through union with Him, share in His victory. By His session at the Father's right hand, Christ has been given the keys to unlock God's plan for history until He be revealed at the "last day." And by His outpouring of the Holy Spirit, Christ has entered into the last and most decisive epoch in His church-gathering work which, once completed, will serve to prepare all things for His coming again.
The biblical revelation regarding the future, therefore, always fixes our attention upon Christ. Just as God's ways with His people in history in times past have all met in Christ, so all of His ways in the future will meet in Christ. The great event on the horizon of the future, in biblical perspective, is accordingly the event of Christ's return or "Second Coming." This event is the great event toward which all history is moving; it is the event which gives meaning to present history; it is the event which will consummate God's work of redemption; it is the event with which the entirety of the biblical teaching about the future is intimately linked.
Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained
Another theme in the biblical revelation regarding the future is that of "paradise lost, paradise regained." To understand the biblical promises for the future, it is necessary to go back to the beginning, to the circumstances of God's original covenant fellowship with Adam and Eve, our first parents, in the garden of Eden. For in these circumstances we see something of that communion of life with God for which man was created, and that which will be restored to Him in the new heavens and the new earth.
It is striking for example, how closely the vision of the new heavens and the new earth in Revelation 22 resembles the original circumstances of paradise. In Revelation 22, the last chapter of the Bible, the new heaven and earth is described not only as a city, the new Jerusalem come down out of heaven to earth, but as a renewed garden of life: "And he showed me," says John, "a river of the water of life, clear as crystal, coming from the throne of God and of the Lamb, in the middle of its street. And on either side of the river was the tree of life, bearing twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit every month; and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations" (vv. 1-2). The "first things" of creation are thus prophetic of the "last things" of the new creation. The fullness of redemption for God's people in the new heavens and the new earth is reminiscent of the life Adam and Eve (and in them, all men) enjoyed at creation.
This does not mean that the future, in which paradise is regained, will bring nothing more than was man's at creation. This would be to deny the progress of history and the greater glory that is given in redemption through Christ. The Christian church has understood that the new heavens and the new earth will surpass the old in glory. Not only will God be acknowledged throughout the whole of His creation as the Most Holy One, but He will also suffer no further prospect of rebellion against His dominion or covenant unfaithfulness by His people. The covenant communion which God's people will enjoy before the face of God will be an unbroken and unbreakable friendship. It will not be threatened by a "fall from grace" or defection among those who comprise the new humanity, the company of the redeemed from every tribe and tongue and people and nation.
A Living and Certain Hope
The biblical promises and expectation for the future are not to be confused with the modern practice of "fortune-telling" or attempts to predict the precise timetable for the events of the future. There is much in the future that God does not give us to know in His Word. But what He has given us to know kindles in the believer a living and certain hope, a confidence that the redeeming work of God in Christ will not fail to be fully accomplished in God's own time. Through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, "we have been born anew to a living hope" (1 Peter 1:3). Such hope will not die.
This is the style of the believer's expectation for the future: it is characterized by a hope nurtured by the Word. It is marked out by a lively expectation of the accomplishment of God's purpose in Christ. The future does not loom darkly on the horizon as something to be feared. It is something eagerly expected and anticipated, something which the believer is convinced is bright with the promise of the completion and perfection of God's saving work.
It is true that many of the biblical exhortations relating to the future call God's people to watchfulness and sobriety, warning them against being found unprepared at Christ's coming (1 Peter 4:7; 1 Thessalonians 5:6; Matthew 24:42-45). They often warn the church to remain faithful and steadfast in holding to the apostolic teachings and Word of God (2 Thessalonians 2:15; Hebrews 10:23). It is also true that the biblical descriptions of the meaning of Christ's coming for the unbelieving are often starkly descriptive of its frightening and terrible consequences for the wicked (2 Thessalonians 2:8; 2 Peter 3:12; Revelation 18:10).
But the chief note sounded in God's revelation regarding the future is one of hope. God's people eagerly await the return of Christ. They eagerly await Christ's return because it promises the completion of God's work of redemption for them and for the whole creation. The Christian's approach to the future is always one of hope nurtured by the Word.