Not long after my conversion, I was given, in rapid succession, J. Dwight Pentecost's Things to Come, Salem Kirban's 666, and Hal Lindsey's Late Great Planet Earth, which I dutifully read cover-to-cover. Had I not been given C. S. Lewis's Mere Christianity earlier, I would have acquired, at the very outset, a radically distorted view of Christian life and thought.
Except for one, my well-meaning spiritual mentors served to nourish only a taste for the sensational, not my new hunger for God and godliness. While even now I appreciate their zeal and their good intentions, I realize, in a way I did not (indeed could not) realize then, that their conception of Christian nurture and of eschatology were truncated and stifling. They apparently had never learned, and therefore could not impart to me, that eschatology is no beginner's subject. I know now that it is not. I sympathize, for example, with the Protestant reformers' reluctance to address Biblical texts like John's Apocalypse -- a book upon which even Calvin himself refused to write a commentary and which both Luther and Zwingli (and St. Jerome before them) rejected as non-canonical.
Evangelical theologians typically pursue their study of eschatology under one of two controlling images: they see it as analogous either to a railroad timetable or else to nature and to natural processes. While I (and the New Testament) generally prefer the latter, the books I was given to read focused almost entirely upon the former. Nor is the choice insignificant. Very much depends upon the controlling images we employ. As a timetable devotee I was reading Matthew 24 and Revelation 6 as if they were tomorrow's newspaper headlines and reading the New York Times as if it were a biblical commentary by F. F. Bruce or B. F. Westcott.
Only later did I learn the hard and humbling lesson that virtually every generation in Christian history thought of itself as the last, and that in every instance they were wrong. How could I escape their fate?
Only later did I discover the changing face of Antichrist and the many different names from history that well-informed theologians had assigned him -- Pope Julius, Napoleon, Adolf Hitler, and John Kennedy among them. Either those theologians were flatly mistaken or else the Evil One is very much like George Burns in the movie Oh God!: he can do any face, any voice.
Only later did I question (and then disavow) the facile identifications I had made between biblical motifs and texts, on the one hand, and current events, on the other. On what demonstrable basis, after all, did I so blithely assume that the political entity produced by United Nations fiat in the late 1940s was the very same entity as that created by God when He called Abram out of Ur millennia earlier, or that was crushed and dispersed by foreign powers in 70 A.D.? As Russell Kirk observed in a different context, “The twentieth-century democracy of Israel, with its secular parties and western parliamentary structure, bears no resemblance to the Kingdom or to post-exilic theocracy.” Don't get me wrong -- I don't oppose the modern state of Israel. It is our best friend in that deeply troubled corner of the world, and we ought to support it vigorously and consistently. But eschatology has nothing to do with it.
I had overlooked the cryptic, almost cynical, nature of the answers given by Jesus to any question posed to Him about the timing of the eschaton. He told his questioners that the end would come when people were engrossed in buying and selling, eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage; and his listeners (not to mention some of his modern evangelical readers) seemed to act as if they had actually been told something. He would tell them that the end would come when there were earthquakes, wars, and rumors of wars -- a not too helpful reply given that in the 2,000 years since He spoke only 44 have been free of military combat of some sort, on the one hand, and that during those war-laden years we have witnessed thousands upon thousands of earthquakes. The language of theophany, I was slow to learn, is picturesque, not perspicuous. At other times Jesus became far less oblique: He told his questioners that “the kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed” (Luke 17: 20). But they seemed not to get his point. At least once, He flatly told his listeners that He simply did not know (Matt. 24: 36). Only the Father knows the time, Jesus told them, and concerning it the Father has said precisely nothing.
Timetables, in other words, are out. Global eschatology remains what it always has been, a mystery.