In God's Time: The Bible and the Futureby Craig C. Hill
Enormous confusion exists today concerning the Bible's teaching about the future. Millions of contemporary Christians are caught up in "rapture" fever, evidenced by the phenomenal success of the Left Behind novels. At the opposite end of the spectrum are those, such as the leaders of the Jesus Seminar, who believe that Jesus did not teach about the approaching
Enormous confusion exists today concerning the Bible's teaching about the future. Millions of contemporary Christians are caught up in "rapture" fever, evidenced by the phenomenal success of the Left Behind novels. At the opposite end of the spectrum are those, such as the leaders of the Jesus Seminar, who believe that Jesus did not teach about the approaching Kingdom of God.
In God's Time offers an alternative to these two poles in the debate, an alternative that is at once faithful and sane, readable and scholarly. Author Craig C. Hill encourages Christians both to take seriously and to think sensibly about the hope of God's ultimate victory. His new book includes chapters on the nature of the Bible, the history of prophecy, the meaning of apocalyptic writings, the interpretation of Daniel and Revelation, the expectations of Jesus, and the hopes of the early Christians. It also includes an appendix ("Not Left Behind") on the subject of the rapture.
Endorsed by a wide array of top scholars and church leaders, In God's Time is a reliable guide to this often bewildering but always fascinating subject.
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In God's TimeThe Bible and the Future
By Craig C. Hill
Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing CompanyCopyright © 2002 Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe History of the Future
The future has a long and colorful past. For untold millennia, human beings have contemplated what lay around the next bend, or season, or lifetime. Indeed, the ability to imagine and plan for the future is fundamental to our intelligence and essential to our survival. Our forebears were hardly the most imposing species to trek the African plain: without fang or claw for attack, without speed or camouflage for defense, humans needed all of the forethought they could muster. Add to the mix consciousness - and with it, a voracious appetite for meaning - and it is easy to see why people have looked to the future as a way of understanding their world and interpreting their purpose. Although true eschatologies (systems of belief about God's ultimate victory) probably came on the scene fairly recently, that is, only about 2,500 years ago, their antecedents are much more ancient.
Of course, not all interest in the future springs from lofty purpose. Knowledge of the future is valuable in countless practical ways. So farmers listen to weather reports and investors read market projections. Those who possess, or at least are believed by others to possess, reliable information about the future control a vital and desirable commodity. This truth has not escaped the notice ofa thousand generations of diviners, seers, mediums, oracles, and other prognostic professionals, to which one could add modern-day economists and "futurists." (The examination of birthrates and income trends seems a tad more rational than the analysis of entrails, but both pay the rent.) Moreover, knowledge of the future is a much wished-for antidote to the nagging, sometimes paralyzing uncertainty of life. A trip to the local Tarot card reader or equivalent may assure anxious souls of future happiness. Some seek to dodge personal responsibility by offloading important decisions onto others: "No, I can't visit Grandma today. My horoscope plotter warned me not to leave town on Thursdays." It may well be that much knowledge of the future is not good for us, encouraging passivity, resignation, and moral infantilization.
The idea that we can know the future and the conviction that the future is inevitable are closely related. Each opinion naturally but not necessarily leads to the other. (I have heard it argued that God exists beyond space and therefore also outside of time; therefore, God may have foreknowledge of events that, technically speaking, are not predestined. I confess that such matters are beyond my small powers.) Not surprisingly, belief in both prediction and destiny was widespread in the ancient world. Modern readers are often struck by the fatalism they encounter in Greco-Roman texts. The world had a given structure, individuals had a station in it, and that was that. Often this attitude was reinforced by a cyclical view of history modeled on the endlessly repeating pattern of the seasons. In short, history was not going anywhere and neither were you. Much of the moral philosophy of the day taught that it is best to learn to be happy where you are. After all, the lowliest slave could be inwardly free and content, while the mightiest king could be enslaved to passion and beset with worry. (Of course, I might choose to be a free and contented king, but that option was not suggested.) Wrote Epictetus, the Stoic philosopher, "I am without a home, without a city, without property.... Yet what do I lack? ... Who, when he lays eyes upon me, does not feel that he is seeing his king and his master?" Those who sought a better fate - a destiny upgrade, so to speak - could pursue various forms of popular religion or magic (incantations and charms, not tricks with rabbits) in hopes of altering the course of future events. The classic expression of the conflict between fate and choice is Sophocles' play Oedipus Rex. Oedipus was told by an oracle that he would kill his father and have children with his mother. This was disquieting news, to say the least. He fled, but in his very attempt to outrun fate, Oedipus raced toward fate's terrible conclusion. Against his will and yet by his choice, he fulfilled his destiny. What's a good tragic hero to do? Apparently nothing. Though the future may be ours to see, "whatever will be will be."
Unlike most first-century religions, Judaism and Christianity linked piety toward God with morality toward others. The human response to God is first and foremost that of behaving righteously, not that of offering sacrifices or performing rituals. This emphasis on right behavior appears to assume a measure of choice, else how could God hold us responsible for our actions? Nevertheless, the impulse toward a belief in predestination is strong in monotheistic religions. To the extent that other beings - whether human, angelic, or demonic - can make things happen, God's power is limited. The difficulty is particularly acute with reference to the existence of evil. If God is all-powerful, why are wickedness and suffering tolerated? One way of dealing with the problem is to postulate a degree of divine self-limitation. God has ceded some authority to others while still overseeing the big picture. I vividly recall a conversation that I had with a woman whose son had been murdered several months before. She left the church after a minister, undoubtedly acting with the best of intentions, consoled her with the news that her boy's death had been God's will. Understandably, she found little comfort in this report and was repelled by the idea that God could have wished her son to be fatally stabbed. I responded by saying that I considered the murder to be a tragedy, not an act of God. I was first startled and then moved as she wept with obvious relief. I had never been so aware that airy theological ideas have tangible earthly consequences.
The degree to which God both knows and controls history has been disputed for centuries in both Judaism and Christianity. Many of the historical books of the Hebrew Bible (another title for what Christians traditionally call the Old Testament) were written from a "Deuteronomistic" perspective in which God rewards good and punishes evil in the here and now (see below). This viewpoint is evident also in the book of Proverbs, for example, in 10:3: "The Lord does not let the righteous go hungry, but he thwarts the craving of the wicked," and 10:22: "The blessing of the Lord makes rich, and he adds no sorrow with it." In other words, God actively governs this world, and humans pretty much get what they deserve. Job is prominent among the OT books that call into question the simple association of prosperity with virtue and suffering with wickedness. Job's accusers suppose that his miseries are proportionate to his sinning, but the reader knows otherwise. Bad things can happen to good people. Similarly, Paul wrestles with the question of human responsibility in the face of divine action (or inaction) in Romans 9:6-29. Protestantism itself is split between those like Calvin who emphasize Providence and those like Wesley who tip the balance to the side of human freedom. (You might have heard the story about the Calvinist who, after falling down the stairs, said, "I'm glad I got that over with!")
It is important to observe that biblical prophecy as a whole is more concerned with influencing the present than with revealing the future. The linkage between right behavior and right worship is central to the Hebrew Bible's prophetic literature. Self-acknowledged "prophets" were two-a-shekel in the ancient world, as the famous conflict between Elijah and the 450 prophets of Baal illustrates (1 Kings 18). When the great Hebrew prophets did foretell the future, often as not it was to prevent some impending disaster. "Here is what things will look like if you do not straighten up." Such prophecy called the nation to repentance, warning the people of Israel not to take God's favor for granted. Their future was not inevitable; it was conditional. This sort of prophecy is quite dissimilar to the fatalism of Oedipus and quite unlike the determinism of the later apocalyptic writings. Generally speaking, Hebrew prophecy assumed both that human choice could affect the future, and that God's will was beneficent. In time, it also came to view history from a linear perspective, that is, to assume that history is going somewhere, that ultimately the future will be better than the past. The New Testament itself is predicated on this belief. But, as humans are prone to do, we are getting ahead of ourselves.
Biblical Prophecy in Context
A prophet is one who speaks for God, whatever the form or content of the communication. The Hebrew word for prophet, nabî', means literally "one who calls" or, possibly, "one who is called." In NT Greek the word is prophetes, meaning "one who speaks for another." Both senses are evident, for example, in Exodus 7:1, in which Aaron is appointed to be the "prophet," the mouthpiece, of Moses. In fact, the Greek version of the OT, the Septuagint, translates nabî} as prophetes.
It is common for theistic religions (that is, religions that believe in a god or gods) to affirm the existence of human intermediaries, persons specially equipped to address, hear, and speak for the god(s). This is entirely understandable; a speechless idol might be of some decorative value, but it is of little practical use. Nevertheless, unlike Ray Kinsella in the movie Field of Dreams ("If you build it, he will come"), most people do not appear as a matter of course to receive messages from the divine. If they did, there would be no need for mediators; hence Moses' wish in Numbers 11:29: "Would that all the Lord's people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them." Even the early Christians, who unhesitatingly affirmed that they possessed the Spirit (see especially Acts 2:16-21), regarded prophecy as a particular endowment given only to certain individuals.
Prophecy is a very ancient phenomenon, predating the birth of Israel by centuries at least. Examples of prophetic texts from other Near Eastern cultures abound. For example, a prophet at Mari recorded this message some 3,800 years ago:
Am I not Adad the lord of Kallassu who reared him ... and restored him to the throne of his father's house? ... Now, since I restored him to the throne of his father's house, I should receive from him an hereditary property.... If he grants my request, I will give him throne upon throne, house upon house, territory upon territory, city upon city; even the land from east to west will I give him.
It is likely that the prophet was associated with the temple, which would be the beneficiary of the king's gift, should he obey the words of the prophecy. I once visited a large "charismatic" church that was in the midst of a building campaign. A handful of people stood during the service to give prophecies (e.g., "Richly give to the building fund, and richly will I bless you") that sounded eerily similar to the above oracle!
Nearly four millennia ago, a woman prophet named Baia of Arbela spoke the following:
Fear not, Esarhaddon! I, the god Bel, speak to you. The beams of your heart I strengthen, like your mother, who caused you to exist. Sixty great gods are standing together with me and protect you.... Do not trust men! Turn your eyes to me, look at me! I am Ishtar of Arbela; I have turned Ashur's favour unto you. When you were small, I sustained you. Fear not, praise me! Where is the enemy which blew over you when I did not notice? The future is like the past! I am the god Nabu, lord of the tablet stylus, praise me!
Centuries later, an unknown Assyrian prophet spoke this oracle:
Fear not, [King] Ashurbanipal! Now, as I have spoken, it will come to pass: I shall grant (it) to you. Over the people of the four languages (and) over the armament of the princes you will exercise sovereignty.... Fear not! As she that bears for her child, (so) I care for you.... Fear not, my son, whom I have raised.
We see numerous parallels to biblical prophecy in these three examples, including mention of the authority of God over the king, the ability of God to know and control history, the favor of God toward obedient subjects, the call to put one's trust in God rather than in humans, and so on. It is clear that prophecy was a long-established activity that included conventional vocabulary and topics, much of which is represented in the Bible. Many of the stylized behaviors of ancient Near Eastern prophets are also found in Scripture, especially in the accounts of Israel's early history. For example, it was common to think that prophets possessed or were possessed by a divine spirit, which was thought to produce the ecstatic or trance state in which they prophesied. Note the rather odd story recorded in Numbers 11:24-25:
So Moses went out and told the people the words of the Lord; and he gathered seventy elders of the people, and placed them all around the tent. Then the Lord came down in the cloud and spoke to him, and took some of the spirit that was on him and put it on the seventy elders; and when the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied. But they did not do so again.
- and the even odder story in 1 Samuel 19:20-21:
Then Saul sent messengers to take David. When they saw the company of the prophets in a frenzy, with Samuel standing in charge of them, the spirit of God came upon the messengers of Saul, and they also fell into a prophetic frenzy. When Saul was told, he sent other messengers, and they also fell into a frenzy. Saul sent messengers again the third time, and they also fell into a frenzy.
Music was often employed to induce the prophetic trance state, as, for example, in Exodus 15:20 and 1 Samuel 10:5. (Church choir directors please note.) A particularly fascinating incident is mentioned in 2 Kings 3. Elisha was asked by the king of Israel to prophesy. In response, he requested a musician. "And then, while the musician was playing, the power of the Lord came on him" (v. 15). Compare Samuel's charge to Saul (1 Sam. 10:5-6):
After that you shall come to Gibeath-elohim, at the place where the Philistine garrison is; there, as you come to the town, you will meet a band of prophets coming down from the shrine with harp, tambourine, flute, and lyre playing in front of them; they will be in a prophetic frenzy. Then the spirit of the Lord will possess you, and you will be in a prophetic frenzy along with them and be turned into a different person.
Of course, the use of music (and dance with it; e.g., 2 Sam. 6:14-16) to create an altered state of consciousness is a practice of many religious people today, from Whirling Dervishes to Pentecostals, perhaps even the occasional Methodist or Presbyterian.
Ancient prophets received their communications in signs, visions, dreams, and words (cf. 1 Sam. 28:6). The first means, which includes the use of omens and divination, is the rarest in the Bible. The clearest example is the priest's use of the Urim and Thummin, what appear to have been sacred dice that could yield a yes-or-no answer. (If the thought of priests huddled over a table throwing dice strikes you as a bit incongruous, you are not alone!) We also hear from time to time about the casting of lots. Other forms of divination, such as the examination of the livers of sacrificed animals, were strongly discouraged or forbidden, as was the practice of magic and necromancy (calling up the spirits of the dead). See, for example, Joshua 13:22; 1 Samuel 15:23; Deuteronomy 18:10-12; and Isaiah 8:19.
Prophetic dreams are mentioned frequently in Scripture, although the interpretation of dreams is usually credited to "wise men," such as Joseph and Daniel, and not to prophets. The distinction between dreams and visions is often vague; typically one speaks of a sleeping person having a dream and a fully conscious person having a vision, but the biblical authors sometimes refer to dreams as visions. The content of visions and dreams is wide ranging indeed, everything from an appearance of God (Gen. 15:1) to the sight of a fiery chariot (Ezek. 1:4-28) to a glimpse of Jerusalem's destruction (Jer. 38:21-23) and restoration (Isa. 40:1-5). The New Testament records its share of visions, for example, the appearance to Peter of the sheet containing unclean animals, which he interprets as a sign that uncircumcised Gentiles (non-Jews) should be admitted into the church (Acts 10:9-29).
It is the third form of communication, the word from God, that dominates the Bible's prophetic literature. The well-known phrase "Thus says the Lord" was modeled on an already existing messenger formula. (See Gen. 32:4: "'Thus you shall say to my lord Esau: Thus says your servant Jacob ...'") Given the number of such statements, it is remarkable how little the Bible actually has to say about the manner in which these messages were received. Occasionally, Scripture speaks of hearing a literal voice of God. Sometimes words are conveyed in a vision. Far more often, we are told only that "the word of the Lord came to" someone.
Excerpted from In God's Time by Craig C. Hill Copyright © 2002 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Craig C. Hill is research professor of theological pedagogy and executive director of D.Min. and M.A.C.P. programs at Duke University Divinity School, Durham, North Carolina.
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Ever since the time of Pentecost, the Christian church has been interested in the future. What will happen when I die? How will the world end? During times of intense social, cultural or economic dislocation (such as the present) there have been repeated outbreaks of prophetic speculation among Christians. During the nineteenth century, for example, numerous individuals made a close study of the prophetic books of the Bible. Some devised highly elaborate and speculative prophetical systems that attempted to provide a Scriptural interpretation of a number of deeply unsettling contemporary events. Despite attracting considerable followings, these interpretations always proved to be wrong. Unfortunately, they encourage countless numbers of the faithful either to abandon hope in the gradual alleviation of the world¿s suffering and alienation from Christ, or to give up on life altogether in the expectation of Jesus¿ imminent return. Despite the abysmal success rate of each of these prophetic speculations, they continue to exert enormous influence over the church in America. Since the 1970s, there has been a virtual explosion of works emanating from conservative evangelicals which, building on the discredited prophetic ¿systems¿ of the past, offer ¿end times¿ certitude to believers who are confused and bewildered by the chaos of modern times. At the other end of the theological spectrum are those academic scholars of the past decade who have wished to dissociate Jesus from any form of future eschatology. In addition to distorting Scripture, this interpretation of the prophetic nature of Jesus has left many modern Christians even more confused and with a profound sense of hopelessness and despair. What can we possibly make of all this confusion? Is there a way forward that is both intellectually credible and faithful to the prophetic texts of Scripture? In his new book, In God¿s Time, Craig C. Hill has managed a remarkable balancing act through the disheartening extremes of ¿end time¿ speculation. He is a first-rate scholar, and his work is a demonstration of what academic discovery and integrity ¿ at their very best ¿ have always represented. At the same time, he is a devout Christian who takes the Bible very seriously. Consequently, his work provides for believers a way faithfully to understand the prophetic texts contained in the Bible (including those associated with Jesus), while resisting the pressure to run headlong into the latest prophetic fad (or speculation) sweeping America. In God¿s Time has been enthusiastically endorsed by the most remarkable and eminent collection of Christian leaders and theologians imaginable, including Eugene Peterson, Tony Campolo, Jürgen Moltmann, Rowland Williams and Walter Brueggemann. They have discovered in its pages a marvelous, often witty and always clear explanation of one of the most topical, albeit confusing, themes in the entire Bible. Every person of faith should read this book and take its message to heart. For the benefit of the church ¿ and our nation ¿ In God¿s Time is the book of our generation.
Here is another author trying to impress others with his personal views. First of all, he made comments on the difficulties of taking the Bible 'Litterally'. I feel that these comments, alone, are what causes so many conflicts and divisions of believers. Good folks have tried to interpret the Bible for centuries, what makes this author think he has the right answers now? He is just another individual attempting to accomplish the most difficult task this world has ever seen. I personally take the Bible literally and nothing this author can do or say will ever change my thinking on it. And humor? The Bible isn't any kind of joke or laughing matter neither are any of the people that the Bible speak of. This author needs to back off and sit this one out. We do not need another 'Personal Opinion' trying to be pushed off on us as fact. The only reason I gave 1 Star is because this is the lowest I could render. There are no '0 Stars' available for rating.
Professor Craig Hill has written an extraordinarily accessible book that condenses the best in biblical scholarship on his subject. He has a lightness of touch that is rare in books of this nature. What he delivers is a narrative which teaches us to read Scripture without fear, to read Scripture not with the eyes of a Christianity misshaped by modernity, but with the eyes of hope in God's redemption. If you have always wondered what the book of Revelation is really about -- if you've always been suspicious of a Christianity that finds conspiracy theories at the heart of every political event, then here is accessible biblical scholarship that will help you to read Scripture again, not with suspicion and fear, but with faith and hope. Recommended reading for all those who have struggled with a fundamentalist past but still want to hold on to an evangelical faith.