One of the more interesting books I've read in the past couple of years is one titled, Your Flying Car Awaits: Robot Butlers, Lunar Vacations, and Other Dead Wrong Predictions of the 20thCentury, written by Paul Milo. It’s a look at some of the technologies and lifestyle changes that people from about 1900 to the 1980s thought would be part of our lives in the year 2000 and beyond—stuff like, well, like this:
Many of us who were born in the early to mid-twentieth century believed that by now we’d be using flying cars, that science would have figured out a way to keep the majority of people alive and well long after the age of 100, that we’d have a colony on the moon, or that weather would be controlled and predictable. We figured that the Jetsons life was just around the corner, but it hasn’t quite worked out that way.
Now, granted, there have been some tremendous advancements in techonology in the past 20 years—think about life pre-internet, for example. When I was a kid, cell phones were for fabulously wealthy people and computers were big banks of machines with blinking lights and reel to reel tape drives. I served in the Army and learned how to use a map and compass, which seems so medieval compared to GPS. Going back to school for my doctorate has been fascinating in that vein, given the fact that I went through seminary without the net and without the benefit of a powerful laptop computer (I remember paying my cousin $1 a page to type my history papers in college). Professors used chalk instead of powerpoint, and I jotted notes in a real notebook instead of a notebook computer.
That’s not to mention, of course the many advances in medicine and in other areas that would have amazed our early 20th century ancestors.
But despite all that advancement, there are still lots of visions that we haven’t achieved. Take the flying car, for example. In 1943, an aviation publicist named Harry Bruno said that “automobiles will start to decline as soon as the last shot was fired in World War II. The helicopter will all but replace the horseless carriage as the new means of popular transportation…These copters will be so safe and cost so little to produce that small models will be made for teenage youngsters. These tiny copters, when school lets out, will fill the sky as the bicycles of our youth filled the prewar roads.”
Uh-huh. Imagine teenagers running amok and buzzing your house in a chopper. You thought auto insurance was expensive! Then again, quick survey, how many of you have ever flown in a helicopter? Certainly not as many who have driven a car!
Consider the kind of air travel we actually do—flying in airplanes. I found it interesting that in 1895, Thomas Edison—himself considered to be a innovator who invented the lightbulb—declared that research into the airplane was a “dead end whose possibilities have been exhausted.” Even Orville and Wilbur Wright’s father, who was a preacher, scoffed at the possibility of heavier-than-air flight in a sermon.
Well, we know how it turned out. Within 50 years of the Wright brothers first flight, people were routinely flying around the country in large airliners. But even then, people thought that the technology would enable them to go even farther and faster. The Concorde was an answer to that for several years, but the sonic booms it produced were disruptive and the fuel consumption expensive, so ultimately the Concorde was retired. Milo observes that while avionics have evolved, the planes we fly in aren’t that much different in terms of power and speed than those of the 1960s. In fact, it now takes us longer to fly than it did then because of all the security protocols!
See, the future is here, but it’s proven to be pretty expensive. The technology for electric cars and automated roadways has been around for a long time, but no one wants to really pay for it on a grand scale. We’ve mapped the human genome, but we haven’t yet figured out how to prevent every disease or regenerate non-functioning organs—working on it, mind you, but not there yet.
If someone awoke, Rip Van Winkle-like, from the 1920s, they’d certainly be impressed with our advances, but they’d still notice that war, death, and the internal combustion engine are still with us. The future isn’t everything it’s cracked up to be.
I think about this when I read the book of Revelation, which everyone seems to want to discuss, especially during tough times. I find it interesting that there are so many Christians who look at Revelation as a prescriptive vision of the future, a roadmap of sorts (or GPS—God Positioning System, if you like). Every generation has turned to Revelation, it seems, to try and make sense of the events of their own time and, in turn, to map out the time and circumstances of the end of the world—a future filled with mysterious beasts, avenging angels, and cosmic battles.
But is that what Revelation is? Is it the literal vision of our future, or is it something else? And since we’ve been looking in depth at the story of Scripture and where it is leading us, what does Revelation’s placement at the end of the Bible say about it and its role in the rest of the narrative?
Well, to answer that we need to take a step and define our terms. We use the word “apocalyptic” to talk about end of the world events. What we need to understand, however, is that apocalyptic is first and foremost a genre of literature, Apocalyptic literature uses a lot of symbols to describer current events. Those symbols act in some sense like political cartoons—you have to understand the symbols in their own time to understand what the artist is saying. Apocalyptic literature is usually couched within the idea of a vision or a dream (Revelation is the English translation of the Greek “apocalypsis”). Daniel was a dreamer, as was Joseph and many others in the Bible. John had a dream as well, but a dream with a very distinctive purpose.
Revelation was written by John, whom many believe to be the same John who was a disciple of Jesus. He wrote down this vision while he was in exile on the island of Patmos. The text doesn’t say he was the beloved disciple, but we do know that this writer, like the others we’ve studied, was writing to a specific Christian community about some specific issues they were dealing with—namely, the distress and harassment they were experiencing as a marginalized community in the Greco-Roman world. The letter is addressed to seven churches throughout Asia Minor and to their present situations. In other words, Revelation has a specific first century context, and many interpreters forget this or ignore it in favor of making it say what they want it to say for their own time.
Lots of people have spent their time envisioning the future as being pretty bleak for the world. Hal Lindsey or Tim LaHaye who have written books claiming that Revelation was written to predict the events of our own time, but their credibility is in question. For example, when Lindsey wrote in the 70s that the Soviet Union was the beast and its leader the Anti-Christ, he had to change it in the 80s after the wall fell. What we’ve had since then is a kind of “beast of the month club.” The Left Behind series plays on the idea of a rapture that takes people away from the corrupt earth before it gets destroyed. You get the picture. You’ve got others like Harold Camping who periodically come up with dates for the world’s end, and this year even the Mayans have entered the picture. Lots of Christians and even non-Christians have this vision of the future—a vision of cataclysm, war, and destruction. What you don’t hear is a lot of hope for the world.
What’s interesting about these visions of the future is that, historically, each generation interprets Revelation through its own situational lens, and each generation faces much the same circumstances—war, famine, despotism, injustice, violence—you get the picture.
Our short time together this morning doesn’t permit me to go into a lot of detail here, but the point I want to make is that the meaning of Revelation is not to be found in a detailed prediction of what the grim future end of the world will look like. Jesus himself warned his disciples to not engage in that exercise. Rather, I want to suggest that the point of Revelation is not about the end of the world, but rather the completion of God’s good creation. Instead of a horror film, it’s designed in the end to be a vision of hope—hope that God will be doing in the end of time what God was doing at the beginning, making all things new and good.
We’ve been saying all along that the Bible is a record of God’s redemptive mission for the whole creation. God creates the world, creates humanity to care for it and to have relationship with God. But the humans choose to try and be gods themselves and derail the goodness of creation. Yet God does not abandon these people—God chooses instead to work with and through them—specifically through the family of Abraham, whose descendant Jesus would deliver the climactic act to the whole project. God makes covenant with these people—they break it, they suffer the consequences, they are forgiven, and God restores them. This pattern is repeated over and over again. Ultimately, God comes in person in Jesus Christ and does for his people what they could not do for themselves. He fulfills the covenant promise, offers himself as a sacrifice for sin, and rises from the dead, defeating death and ushering in a new age—the age of the Kingdom of God, the divine project that ultimately sets the world to rights. Revelation is a vision, albeit a highly symbolized one, of how this age comes to reality. It’s an age that recaptures the goodness of God’s creation-a way of going back to the future, if you will, back to the image of God we were created to be in the first place.
And it’s a vision of the return of the King. Today is Palm Sunday where we celebrate Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, which is a kind of model for the triumphal entry he will make in the future. Yes, Jesus will return, but he will not be coming back to take us away. Rather, he will be coming back to take over and complete the vision of hope for the whole creation.
Revelation is thus a lot less about the specifics about how Jesus returns, but more about the result of a world transformed by his righteous rule. Notice the power in these verses from Revelation 21:
- A new heaven and a new earth—not an abandonment of the first ones, but a renewal—the old has “passed away,” meaning it has fulfilled its time, and the new has come. This world, God’s good creation, is not replaced but redeemed. God does not make “all new things” but rather, “all things new.” There is a continuity, a recognition that God is completing his good creation.
- Notice—“the sea was no more”- Remember that the sea represented chaos in the ancient world—now God dries up chaos.
- And notice the direction – the new heavens and the new earth, the new Jerusalem, coming down—God dwelling with God’s people in person, a new relationship free from the dividing spectre of sin and death.
- In fact, as Paul would say in 1 Cor. 15, death will be defeated and be “no more.” The fear of death and the pain of life will be swallowed up and replaced by the joy of life in God’s presence and power.
- God is the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end—and God completes the divine rescue mission. “It is done” reminds us of the words “It is finished” that Jesus utters from the Cross
The point is that, in the end, God wins and those who follow him participate in that victory, finding themselves restored, redeemed, renewed in a new creation. All the visions of beasts and horns and blood are simply symbolic plot devices and cartoon symbols–interesting for discussion, but ultimately not the main point.
The main point is that Revelation invites to envision God’s future. While it’s fun to speculate about what life might be like for people in 2112, as Christians we focus our hope on a future where we are alive and well in God’s good creation, a future made possible by the coming of Jesus.
During our Wednesday night Lenten class I taught those in attendance some important seminary words. “Eschatology” refers to the “study of last things.” Ecclesiology refers to the “study of the church.” These two words are very closely related. Your eschatology largely determines your ecclesiology. If you vision of the future is a world that is to be abandoned and blown up, then your ecclesiology will be all about how you escape the world. If your eschatological vision of the future is, like that of Revelation, a world restored and renewed, then your ecclesiology will be focused on engaging the world with a message of hope. That’s a message so different than many have offered, but it’s a vision that I think the world can embrace. For God so loved the world that he did not abandon it, but came and dwelled in it in Christ—that’s good news!
So don’t worry about who will get your flying car when you’re raptured up to heaven. John wanted his readers to stop speculating and start living a life of hope even in the midst of persecution. Revelation is less about the future and more about how live and work as a disciple of Christ in the present. Participate in his project of making all things new. Make that eschatology your ecclesiology.
I don’t know if we’ll be zooming around in personal helicopters any time soon. What I do know is that God’s future for us is a promise of hope that’s something to look forward to!