International Bulletin of Missionary Research
Christian Mission and the End of Time
The future begins in the past and powerfully shapes the present. This is as true of civilizations as it is of religions and individuals. Despite a virtually unblemished record of failure in making predictions, we humans continue to forecast. Apparently we have no choice. Thinking about the future is in our genes.
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In the days of the Roman Republic, learned Etruscan soothsayers ventured to forecast the future by close scrutiny of the liver and entrails of sacrificed animals. The Delphic Oracle, one of the best-known and most prolific forecasting businesses in history, provided a full millennium of unbroken pronouncement between 700 B.C. and A.D. 300, when it ceded the field to Christians.
Divinely revealed futures within Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have served as the underpinning for invasions, occupations, wars, genocides, exterminations, expropriations, migrations, executions, suicides, racism, and ethnocentrism, as well as various kinds of bizarre but essentially harmless behavior. One recent survey chronicled several hundred predictions of the Messiah’s return and the end of time as we know it, beginning with Theudas’s announcement in A.D. 44 that he was the Messiah, and including Jerry Falwell’s 1999 pronouncement that the Antichrist was probably alive then and that the Lord would return within ten years (www.bible.ca/pre-date-setters.htm).
As Steven Schnaars reminded readers in a book published twenty years ago, religious prognosticators do not have a monopoly on failed predictions (Megamistakes: Forecasting and the Myth of Rapid Technological Change [Free Press, 1989]). A detailed analysis of thirty years of technology forecasts appearing in seven of America’s most prestigious news publications showed that fully 85 percent of all predictions were dead wrong.
In Fortune Sellers: The Big Business of Buying and Selling Predictions (John Wiley & Sons, 1997), William Sherden took a hard look at the modern prophecy industry and at the soothsayers who make a handsome living out of human anxiety about the future. He estimated that North Americans spent $200 billion dollars annually for the forecasting services of meteorologists, economists, stock market gurus, demographers, technology assessors, and, of course, prophecy buffs. Of fourteen different genres of forecasting identified by Sherden, only two—one-day-ahead weather forecasting and predictions positing an aging population—have proven reliable.
As the essays in this issue remind us, our understanding of the future has a direct bearing on how Christians (and Muslims) have understood their mission in this world. Each part of the Christian Bible seems to have been written without any anticipation that it would one day be incorporated it into the vast seamless garment typified by the “Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth” chart on the cover of this issue. This compilation of disparate books and letters has never easily yielded to even the most ingenious attempts to systematize its contents and deduce our present location on the continuum of time and eternity.
And yet . . . we seemingly must try. In this issue Edward Rommen, an Orthodox priest, theologian, and missiologist, leads with an article that demonstrates Christian interpretation of biblical eschatology at its least speculative. David Shenk follows with an essay reminding us that Muslims, too, embrace a messianic hope that both informs their understanding of the here and now and guides them in and through it to the ultimate beyond. Susan Perlman, associate executive director of an organization dedicated to proclaiming to Jewish people the Good News that Jesus is their long-awaited Messiah, demonstrates how crucial to this enterprise is one’s particular understanding of biblical eschatology. Other authors in this issue evaluate the impact of premillennial eschatology on twentieth-century American evangelical mission theory and practice. First, Michael Pocock points out in his carefully crafted and highly instructive piece that it would be difficult indeed to overestimate the influence of premillennialism. Then Colin Chapman and Andrew Bush, whose own understanding of eschatology has been influenced by personal, prolonged immersion in the lives of Lebanese and Palestinian believers, follow with passionately written critiques of on-the-ground implications of Western armchair eschatologies for dispossessed, dislocated, and ravaged populations in that deeply troubled part of the world.
If there is one lesson to be learned from millennia of religiously inspired but misguided speculation about the future, it is that we should indulge the impulse to forecast only with deep humility and a great deal of caution. Christians who predict the future on the basis of insider religious knowledge should recall that prophecy has always been a risky undertaking—unless one is a false prophet! In the Hebrew and Christian record, official liars were generally popular with the masses and with the powers of their day, while authentic prophets got themselves into trouble by speaking unpleasant truths to anxious kings and smugly complacent nations.
The outcome of all authentically Christian hope is the pouring out of God’s love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit (Rom. 5:5), evidenced by the fruit of that Spirit and grounded in the here and now of love for God, neighbor, stranger, and enemy (1 John 3:3; Luke 6:35). Any other outcome is an evidence of hope manipulated, ill-conceived, or simply false.