Updated: Sep 18, 2020
Large sections of the Bible focus on eschatology. Why are we pretending these passages don't exist?
The Book of Revelation begins with a blessing as unique as the book itself: “Blessed are those… who keep what is written in [this book], for the time is near,” John writes in Revelation 1:3. This might seem a confusing way to begin a book of the New Testament; after all, Paul wrote that “all scripture is profitable.” Yet not even the Gospels begin with a blessing on those who keep them. Why is Revelation different?
John answers this question in the very same verse: those who keep his vision are blessed because “the time is near.” Like when Proverbs 3 says “blessed is the one who finds wisdom,” the blessing in Revelation is a very specific benefit. John is not saying the reader is blessed simply because this is the Word of God. John is saying that if we study his vision we will recognize what is happening when those events begin to occur.
John may therefore be called the father of Christian “eschatology.” Eschatology, from the Greek word “eschatos,”—the “last” or “uttermost”—is the study of what the Bible has to say about the unfolding story of human history.
Yet, unlike John, most Christians today do not see the in-depth study of eschatological visions as a “blessed” endeavor. For educated believers in the West, eschatology is kept securely in the basement of the house of theology. My own Christian journey is a prime example of this: I had been a Christian for years before I finally made a serious study of the visions in Daniel and Revelation. To say that I viewed end-times visions as an afterthought would be charitable. The only really important thing to know about these visions, I had always assumed, was that one should not be too confident in espousing any particular view of them.
I now think this assumption is—in part—a kind of cultural conceit. Educated Christians feel that being reticent about eschatology is a mark of our sophistication. We wish to differentiate ourselves from the archetype of the crazed fundamentalist aunt raving about how Obama is the Beast of the Earth, and the result is that we effectively treat 32 chapters of God’s word—Revelation and most of Daniel—as if they are not even in the Bible.
Consciously ignoring eschatology is sometimes referred to by the cute, hand-waving pun “panmillenialism—it’ll all pan out in the end.” The implication is that our crazy aunt has not only gone wrong in her particular identification of the Beast, but that—by trying to identify him at all—she has gotten wound up over a silly triviality.
Our unspoken assumption, then, is that God included these 32 chapters for the rubes. We educated Christians believe that, because we are more spiritually mature than our crazy aunt, we do not “need” to study eschatology. We do not deny that the Bible’s prophetic visions have a specific meaning: we simply scoff at any attempt to understand that meaning today. The only real lesson to be learned from Daniel and Revelation is therefore something like “God is in charge.”
I went on being a de facto “panmillenialist” until, sitting down to prepare a Bible study on Daniel—one of the most eschatological books in the Bible—I was struck by a question that my prejudices couldn’t answer. If I don’t think that the actual content of these visions is important, I wondered, then how can I claim to be treating them as scripture?
The Bible directly calls us to study and understand eschatology.
In fact, I realized, the whole of the Bible repeatedly encourages us to interpret and understand eschatological prophecy. John’s statement that we should “keep what is written in [Revelation], for the time is near,” would be an odd thing for John to write if nobody will be able to recognize anything in Revelation until after all of it has finished occurring.
John is not alone: when Daniel is shown eschatological visions, he repeatedly asks for clarification and interpretation. In Daniel 7, he writes that “I approached one of those [angels] who stood there and asked him the truth concerning all this.” Later, he says that “I desired to know the truth about the fourth beast.”
How are Daniel’s questions received? If the angels agreed with educated Western Christians, we might expect them to rebuke Daniel for trying to understand the future. Instead, when Daniel asks for understanding, it is given to him. In response to his question about “the fourth beast,” for example, Daniel is given five more verses providing more detail about the Fourth Beast. This is consistent with the promise of James 1:5: “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.”
Later, in Daniel 10, Gabriel praises Daniel for seeking understanding:
Fear not, Daniel, for from the first day that you set your heart to understand and humbled yourself before your God, your words have been heard, and I have come because of your words.
Note that Gabriel praises Daniel for seeking understanding in humility. Plainly, then, Gabriel does not conflate a desire to understand with arrogance. Gabriel also does not tell Daniel to be less intellectual, to be more “childlike” in his faith, or that he should be apathetic about the meaning of the visions. Instead, Gabriel repeatedly emphasizes the importance of “understanding,” saying “O Daniel, man greatly loved, understand the words that I speak to you.”
The clear biblical norm is for prophecies to convey a specific meaning in advance of the events they describe.
The idea that prophecy can be understood only in retrospect was a recurring theme in classical paganism. The Oracle of Apollo at Delphi was notorious for advising Greek rulers with vague, open-ended prophecies with disastrous results. In the most well-known instance, Croesus, King of Lydia, asked the oracle whether he should go to war against Cyrus, the biblical king of Persia. In response, the oracle told Croesus that if Croesus attacked the Persians he would “destroy a great empire.” Encouraged, Croesus attacked Cyrus. To Croesus’ surprise, Cyrus defeated his armies, conquered Lydia, and took Croesus prisoner. The “great empire” Croesus had destroyed was his own.
Although most Christians today probably do not know about the oracles of Delphi, I suspect that pagan stories like this still lurk in our collective subconscious. Less than two centuries ago, after all, many educated Americans and Britons were weaned on classical history. The echoes of these Delphic riddles might help incline us to see any prophecies about the future as functioning basically to conceal and to deceive, rather that to convey specific truths about God’s plans.
But this is not the way prophecy works in the Bible. Deuteronomy 18:22, for example, says that the test of a prophet’s authenticity is whether his prophecies are actually fulfilled. This rule only makes sense if prophecies contain definite, understandable, and falsifiable content. Biblical prophecy is therefore less like a Delphic riddle and more like a tangible verification of God’s providence.
Let’s consider some specific examples. Daniel 8 should make a good starting point—for it is the single most agreed-upon prophecy in all of scripture.
Every major Bible commentator in the history of the church has agreed on how to interpret Daniel 8, which we can clearly see has long since been fulfilled. For the same reasons, we can see that the meaning of Daniel 8 would have been clear to ancient Judeans living before the events took place. In its style, Daniel 8 is the opposite of Delphic Hellenism: it is designed to foretell the future, not to obscure it. If a Jew living shortly before the Maccabean Revolt read the chapter, he would have had a clear idea of what it was describing. He would recognize the Greek conquest of Persia, Seleucid rule over Judea, and Anitochus IV defiling the Second Temple. This reader would therefore know that, according to Daniel's prophecy, the Temple would eventually be “restored to its rightful state," which was in fact accomplished by the Maccabees. If the chapter seems puzzling to modern people, that is only because most of us are ignorant of the historical context that makes its meaning so glaring. The prophecy is so precise and accurate that atheist scholars use it to argue that Daniel must have been written during the events it describes.
Of course, much of the clarity in Daniel 8 comes from Gabriel’s interpretive asides to Daniel. In Daniel 8:20-21, Gabriel explains: “The ram that you saw with the two horns, these are the kings of Media and Persia. And the goat is the king of Greece.” Yet interpretation by angels is not limited to Daniel 8. Exactly the same kind of comments appear in Revelation 17:8-18, for instance. An angel explains to John: “This calls for a mind with wisdom: the seven heads are seven mountains on which the woman is seated… the woman that you saw is the great city that has dominion over the kings of the Earth.”
These angelic footnotes would not exist if eschatology was designed to be confusing and obscure. On the contrary, angels offer these explanations precisely to help us understand the practical, real-world meaning of these prophecies. We can imagine that, if Gabriel had appeared to poor Croesus, he would have ruined all the fun of the story, adding “The empire that will be destroyed is your own.”
Isaiah’s prophecies also illustrate the startlingly simple nature of biblical prophecy. Isaiah foretold that God would save Jerusalem from an Assyrian siege and, that very night, an angel appeared and slew 185,000 Assyrians. Isaiah also prophesied about Cyrus by name in Isaiah 44-45, foretelling that he would defeat Babylon, release the Jews from exile, and rebuild Jerusalem. The thrusts of these prophecies were fulfilled in understandable, practical ways.
Of course, prophecies can certainly be appreciated most powerfully, and in each of their dimensions, after their fulfillment is complete. For example, Isaiah’s prophecy about Cyrus also describes God as saying to Babylon: “Be dry; I will dry up your rivers.” The meaning of this verse was probably unclear when Isaiah wrote it. Isaiah’s audience may have interpreted it, just as we might, as a generic metaphorical curse. Yet when Cyrus invaded the Babylonian Empire, he literally diverted the Diyala and Euphrates Rivers to make way for his troops. While the main point of Isaiah’s prophecy was straightforwardly fulfilled, its impact must have been deepened when those Judahites who knew Isaiah’s words saw the dry riverbeds left in Cyrus’ wake.
Nonetheless, there is no mistaking the main thrust of Isaiah’s prophecies, which describe understandable, recognizable, public, and geopolitical events. Cyrus did more than fulfill Isaiah’s prophecies in some figurative sense, such as by “spiritually” rebuilding Jerusalem in the throne room of heaven. Rather, Cyrus did what Isaiah’s audience would have immediately imagined when they heard Isaiah’s prophecies: conquer Babylon, release Judah, and reestablish them in their homeland.
Cyrus’ conquest of Babylon brings us to another important difference between the Bible and Delphic Hellenism. When Cyrus conquered the city of Babylon, the river Euphrates flowed through the middle of the city, running under its walls. Under cover of darkness, Cyrus massed his troops at each of the river’s entrances, and then diverted the Euphrates into a basin. As the river basin dried up, Cyrus' Persian troops marched into Babylon in a surprise attack. Herodotus and Xenophon report that the Babylonians were especially caught off guard because they were in the middle of an annual festival that involved heavy drinking.
This festival should sound familiar to readers of the Bible, for it is also the beginning of Daniel 5. “King Belshazzar made a great feast for a thousand of his lords and drank wine in front of the thousand,” the chapter begins. Piercing the festivities with terror, a disembodied human hand suddenly appeared, writing on the palace wall: "Mene, Mene, Tekel, and Parsin.” Daniel was then summoned to interpret the sign for Belshazzar, and gave this solemn interpretation: “God has numbered the days of your kingdom and brought it to an end.” Within hours, Babylon had been conquered by Cyrus and Belshazzar had been killed.
Both the Bible and Delphic Hellenism therefore share one theme thing in common: each uses prophecy to humble mighty rulers. But there is an important difference. No biblical ruler is ever humbled for trying to understand a prophecy and acting accordingly. If anything, the opposite is true: in the Bible, rulers are humbled precisely because prophecies are directly and plainly fulfilled.
“All that matters is that God is in charge” is a suspiciously convenient way to interpret scripture.
Admittedly, I can't recall where I got the idea that anti-eschatology Christians use the slogan “God is in charge,” so I poked around online to see how the phrase was being used in the eschatology world. Sure enough, one blogger writes: “I don’t know what is going to happen, but God is in charge, so … everything will pan out in the end.” Another, in order to argue for a highly figurative interpretation of Revelation, writes “The purpose of Revelation is to show that GOD IS IN CHARGE.”
Those who are skeptical of eschatology, apparently, believe that their skepticism is just a deep affirmation of God’s sovereignty. On reflection, though, this idea makes little sense. Which ruler do you think had the strongest sense that “God is in charge”: poor Croesus, realizing that he had been confused by the vague words of an oracle, or Belshazzar when Daniel pronounced that “God has numbered the days of your kingdom”? Hazy ambiguity does not point the way to God's sovereignty: knowledge does.
In any case, while God’s sovereignty is a lesson we must always learn when reading the Bible in humility, it is hardly "humble" or helpful to say that the bare fact of divine sovereignty is the only conclusion that one should reach. As Paul writes: "stop thinking like children. In regard to evil be infants, but in your thinking be adults."
Imagine a Christian who was asked by a seeker to explain the meaning of 2 Corinthians 5:17: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation.” Suppose the Christian only replied: “I never bother trying to understand that sort of thing—the only thing we really need to know is that God is in charge.” We would probably not applaud this Christian for his humility or mature understanding of scripture. On the contrary, we would rightly criticize him for being disengaged and apathetic about the Word of God. If God only wanted us to know that He is in charge, the Bible would probably not contain tens of thousands of verses on a vast range of topics and covering every literary genre. All scripture is profitable, including passages about eschatology. Yet eschatology involves a blessing not found elsewhere. It has something more to teach us than a generic message of sovereignty which the rest of the Bible already conveys—and it was not written down for Christians to ignore. It has been given to us to study and to understand.
Eschatological prophecy is also more than one genre among many. It is the arc around which the whole narrative of the Bible is built, climaxing with Christ’s wedding to the New Jerusalem: “the Bride, the wife of the Lamb.” If we set our hearts to understand it, and humble ourselves before our God, then God, who gives generously to all without reproach, will give understanding to us. Editor's note: This column is the first part in a series on eschatology. You can read part 2 here.
 Revelation is attributed to John by the earliest and most reliable extrabiblical Christian writers—men like Ignatius of Antioch and Irenaeus, both of whom personally corresponded with or knew John’s student Polycarp.
 “Childlike” is not actually a good metaphor for anti-eschatology Christians, as children often ask questions.
 Herodotus 1.52.
 2 Kings 20:34-35. For an independent Egyptian account recalling a miraculous defeat of Sennacherib’s army in the Sinai, see Herodotus 2.141-142.
 Isaiah 44-45.
 Herodotus 1.187-191; cf. Isaiah 44:27.
 Herodotus 1:191 (“There was a festival going on, and they continued to dance and enjoy themselves, until they learned the news the hard way.”); Xenophon, Cyropaedia 7.5.15 (“Then, when he heard that a certain festival had come round in Babylon during which all Babylon was accustomed to drink and revel all night long, Cyrus took a large number of men, just as soon as it was dark, and opened up the heads of the trenches at the river.”).
 Herodotus and Daniel are evidently independent sources, for Herodotus’ account of the invasion does not mention Belshazzar.