With all this recent talk of the future (usually very bleak) and what it may hold, it might be worth asking a theoretical question. Does history repeat itself or is it linear? In other words, should we view history as a circle or a line? Or is the answer somewhere in the middle? The answer we hold will make a practical difference in our lives. For instance, if we hold a view of history that is cyclical, then we might be tempted to say, “what we are experiencing has always happened, and what we need to do is learn from the past and wait things out.” Sensible. There is less alarm; cycles are natural within this framework. Ride things out. If we view history as linear, then we might say something like, “history is culminating towards a cataclysmic end and we need to prepare for the worst,” assuming our view of the future is dark.
On one level, a Christian view of history has to be linear for the simple reason that there is a beginning and an end in the biblical narrative; there is movement from creation to consummation. The whole biblical story is structured in this fashion. This is such a fundamental assumption of Christianity that there is a strong case to be made that this framework has shaped the modern western novel, which also has a beginning, middle, and end. Endings of stories untouched by Christianity have a hard time with closure. Another reason for a linear approach to history is rooted in the unique and unrepeatable work of Christ. His one life, death and resurrection, according to Christianity cannot be repeated. Hence, from this perspective, history is a line.
If we look at the biblical data more closely, there is also a case to be made that history repeats itself. A quick glance at the book of Judges shows at least this point. There is a cycle of sin, oppression, and deliverance. Moreover, other patterns and types emerge as well, such as the wilderness motif. Just as Israel was in the wilderness, so is the church. (Hebrews 4) There are so many of these patterns that Paul even says that the stories of Israel were written to educate us on how God works. (1 Corinthians 10:1-13)
So, what is it? Well, as you might have guessed, the answer is both. If we view things from an x, y, z plane, then we can say that history is akin to a spiral. So, on the one hand, there are lessons to be learned from history. This is why it is wise to know history. On the other hand, history is moving forward towards a culmination in Christ. I think we can be more precise. These spirals are not only moving forward on the z plane, but these spirals are also getting bigger. For example, there have been wars as early as historical memory, but the next world war may threaten human civilization, as we know it. The book of Revelation suggests this point, as there is cycle after cycle (seals, trumpets, bowls) with increasing intensity of outcomes until the final act of Christ’s return and heaven.
Now, we need to ask what all this means for us. How does all of this help us in 2011? Four points. First, since history is cyclical in a sense, we can look to the past and gain great wisdom. Most importantly, we can see that God has always been faithful and his mercy triumphs over judgment, when it comes to his people. So, there might be hardships that make a nation shake, but behind all of this is a God of grace who is in control. His sovereignty will be an important doctrine here. So, we might see a glimpse of his holy righteousness, but it is also coupled with his love and mercy as seen in Christ. Remember he is faithful, and he promises to be with his people forever.
Second, no matter how hard life gets, there is a glorious end. In other words, morning, in the end, will always come as night gives way. The culmination of history is a new heaven and a new earth, where there are no more tears, pain, brokenness, and any consequence of sin. To use the language of Matthew 24, we can say that tribulations are birth pangs, which are necessary to usher in the end. (Matthew 24:8) A thoroughly eschatological perspective gives more comfort, encouragement and hope than imaginable.
Third, no matter what happens, the believer does not need to be moved. As Hebrews 12:28 states, we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and as Revelation 3:12 states, we can be pillars in the temple of God. When the world shakes, we can stand firm with incomprehensible peace as we fix our eyes on Christ. In fact, during this time, we can even give ourselves wholeheartedly to the work of the Lord. (1 Corinthians 15:58) This brings me to my last point.
When the world shakes, God will open up a door for incredible ministry. There will be a door that no one can shut. (Revelation 3:7). What we need to do now is prepare. More practically, we need to be in prayer, in his word, in worship, in community, in outreach, in preparation to give when people want to preserve, in the spirit to see behind the façade of the opinions of our worldly leaders to see what the Lord of heaven really has to say. We need to fight fear with love, and seek to be bold when safety is on everyone’s mind. We need a vision of the cross, where weakness is strength, foolishness is wisdom, and where death is life. I cannot help but feel that hard times are around the corner, but we need not fear. God will be with us, and there will also be great opportunities. How we fare will be largely determined by how we live now.
Tags: End times, eschatology, harold camping, prophecy, the future, tribulation