Prophecy and Interpretation

Here’s something that I think is really important for Christians to understand about prophecy:

Prophecy isn’t about predicting the future. It’s much more about interpreting the future.

If you look at the example of Old Testament prophecy, it was never mere prediction, but always interpreted prediction.

Likewise, the primary purpose of prophecy in the Church is not prediction but interpretation – and not only of the future, but also of the past, and even of the present.

Sometimes we place a lot of weight on whether a prophecy is falsifiable. A pastor prophesies to his church something like, “This year is going to be full of new challenges that we haven’t experienced before, but these challenges will bring new opportunities.” And, yes, it’s vague. And so we say, “That’s vague; there aren’t really any eventualities that are incompatible with this prophecy, such that if they happened it would prove the pastor wrong. It’s an unfalsifiable prophecy.”

But when we say this we miss the point. God isn’t trying to prove himself to you through prophecy. He’s already proven himself more than we could ever need him to in Jesus. He is trying to build you through prophecy.

He doesn’t want to just tell you the future. He wants to tell you his interpretation of the future. And that is far more important. Because it’s not about proving himself or informing you of events; it’s about preparing you for the events by getting you to see them the way he sees them.

The main point of any prophetic word is not, “This is what is going to happen,” but rather, “This is the meaning of what is going to happen.” Because God’s purpose in prophecy is to align our hearts, our thoughts, and our worldview with his. Not producing in us knowledge, but producing in us faith.

Physicist and TV presenter Brian Cox said on Q and A tonight that the power of science is that it’s the only discipline that admits its own fallibility.

Seems like a really nice guy, but I’m perplexed as to why he would believe something that is so obviously false: I’ve never met a philosopher, historian, economist, lawyer, literary critic, OR theologian, who does not admit their own fallibility and the fallibility of their discipline.

And yes, I meant it when I said theologian. Theologians consider the text they work with (e.g. the Bible) – their data source – to be infallible, but they consider their own interpretations of the text to be fallible.

Note that this is exactly the same as scientists, who consider nature – their data source – to be completely infallible: never lying to us, and never changing, but constantly being misinterpreted by us.

Scientists and theologians are no different in this regard.

On the Progressiveness of Science and Conservatism of Religion

We all know how often science and religion are pitted against each other. And it happens in so many ways. Various inherent differences are suggested between these two enterprises. They say that science appeals to reason while religion appeals to authority; science improves society while religion hinders society’s progression. We’ve all heard the fairy tales – you might not call them fairy tales, but I do. Anyway. There’s one particular difference that I commonly hear suggested as existing between science and religion, which I want to address here. And that is that science is inherently progressive, while religion is inherently stubborn or static.

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We have been taught to believe that world history turned its big corner in the late 18th Century with the birth of modern democracy and the rise of modern science.

The Christian claim is that world history turned its corner when Jesus came out of the tomb.

– N.T. Wright

Scientism

…is the view that scientific knowledge is the only valid kind of knowledge.

Scientism can only be argued for with a philosophical argument; Scientism is a philosophical viewpoint.

Therefore Scientism entails the validity of philosophical knowledge.

Therefore Scientism entails its own negation.

Whose Immortality?

Bruce Lee said, “The key to immortality is first to live a life worth remembering.”

People through history, particularly modern history, have said some profound things along these lines about immortality. And many of these insightful quotes are so striking because they wilfully play with the meaning of the concept. Of course, in its original basic conception, the word means ‘the capacity to live forever’, and means so in a very literal manner. An immortal is destined to live on through the ages, never to expire.

But of course, it eventually becomes clear that nature does not allow for immortality. In nature, all living things must perish; that’s how it works here. So when we accept this, we accept that immortality is ultimately a supernatural idea. It is only by the power of something divine or magical that one could escape the natural necessity of death.

But I do believe people still like something about the idea of immortality, and they want to hold on to some remnant of it. I think this is what causes people who don’t believe in the supernatural to come up with such beautiful proverbs redefining immortality.

“You don’t need to actually live forever in order to live forever. Just do something amazing with your life. Look at the ancients like Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar, like Socrates and Cicero. Look at the modern figures like Napoleon Bonaparte and Winston Churchill, Beethoven and Tolstoy. Consider the lives they led, and the impact they had. Have not their political systems still influenced the one you live in? Has not their courage inspired you, their wisdom edified you and their words moved you? Are these men not living and breathing today in their continuous causal interaction with all of us? Surely they are immortal! Do likewise, my friend. Live for something bigger than yourself. Do something people will remember. Then you will live forever in your legacy, in the memory of those who come after.”

The problem with this idea is that everybody who remembers you is gonna die too. And eventually the whole human race will see its end, and the greatest of all people will die with the last conscious breath. And all their achievements will finally amount to nothing.

“But maybe immortality is something still more profound. Maybe I like to think that humanity, though it be a short-lived phenomenon in the scheme of the universe, will always leave its mark. Surely the Earth is different because of us; after all the buildings and roads we built, and the landscapes reshaped, this planet will never be the same – it will never forget us. And then when the sun finally reaches its end, and expands to such a size as to absorb the whole Earth like a drop into the ocean, and the planet is incinerated and assimilated into the giant gaseous sphere, and when all those molecules that spent the ages circulating through our ecosystem are decomposed into their atomic sub particles and dispersed throughout the star, beginning their next journey as components in a new celestial body, I know that by the laws of causality all those atoms that composed me and that I came into contact with will be in a different place to where they would have been had I never existed.

This is my immortality: that I played a part in a larger causal network that extends across the entire universe, that after my body perishes, the actions I performed will forever affect the future. Whether the causal chains I set into motion are on a small scale or large, and whether their events will be witnessed or not, they will be my legacy. They will be the enduring continuation of my life. My immortality.”

Well if that’s what immortality is, then I don’t need it, and I don’t care about it.

lt may sound sublime and meaningful, but it only does so by rhetoric. All metaphors aside, it has no substance, no true meaning, and no genuine relevance for my life.

I, for one, am gonna chase something more real than that.

The idea of love.

Lately I’ve been truly perplexed by this whole idea that God loves us. And yes, people always this, and I can’t really know what’s going on in people’s minds when they say it, but to me it often seems like either a catch-phrase or an intellectualised puzzle: “why does God love us?”

I’m not really trying to downplay it as an intellectual puzzle. It’s probably a good question to ask. But that question doesn’t confuse me that much. My perplexity lies elsewhere, and has quite honestly resulted in a few deeply striking moments of “like… what?”

I like thinking. And I like thinking about really, really big ideas; the meaning of the universe, the genesis and trajectory of the history of humanity, the concept of knowledge and free will, and all this stuff. And then you come to this question of the nature of God. What is the nature of the one who created everything? And really, this is the only question; all things considered, this is the question. And the thing for me is: with all that’s going on all over the place; with all that’s happened in history – all the wars and political events and human achievements; with the magnitude of the physical universe in which we are situated – the stellar explosions so big that they would effortlessly wipe out any remnant of our planet and any memory of all we ever accomplished on it, (events happening distances away from us that we really couldn’t fathom); amidst all this, and among all the characteristics of God, like his might and creative power, and his wrath and his justice, it is his love that he wants us to focus on. It is his love that he considers to be in his very essence. And that’s just crazy.

See, so often, when I’m praying for somebody or another, I find myself constantly and repeatedly making reference to God’s love. And then sometimes I just think, “Hold on. Is this a shallow prayer? Am I missing something here? Aren’t there more important things about God to talk about? Am I just being an over-sentimental, 21st century, post-Freud, credit card era Christian? Surely those ancient Christians who actually wrote the Bible weren’t so into this emotional stuff, right?”

And that’s the thing that perplexes me. The answer is no. I am not over-sentimentalising things by talking excessively about the power of God’s love. The love of God is not some modern construct or fantasy produced by a society that’s obsessed with self-esteem.

It’s just that love doesn’t immediately seem like such a God-like tendency. We don’t really hear about the love of Zeus or Apollo, not that they were very well behaved anyway. But if we were conceiving of a really benevolent God, it would be easy to imagine that he would be just and powerful and wise – and in his wisdom he might know a lot about love, but to feel it himself towards humans? Would this be strange?

But if we look at the Bible, all the way through, we find a mighty God, a just and wise God, but also one whose followers testify to his love. The same King David who fought battles against surrounding idolatrous nations, proclaiming and delivering God’s just judgement in a violent and politicised manner, was the same David who wrote and sang of God’s steadfast love and forgiveness, referring to a deep, personal relationship whose intimacy and affection cannot be edited out. The same Apostle Paul who grew up on the strictest of Jewish law, who became one of the greatest persecutors of the Church, and then became one of the greatest sufferers for the Church and its Gospel, who had seen all the terrifying glory of the Roman empire, and yet wrote of the surpassing glory of God and his Christ, who wrote of suffering in his name, and of justification and sanctification and blood covenants, was the same Paul who wrote so moving a passage as 1 Corinthians 13, where he essentially said that the greatest of all things is love.

All these Apostles who wrote the New Testament, they were so into these grand majestic ideas of the redemption of all humanity and such metaphysical and large-scale notions, but all of them were talking a lot about love, to the point where John said that God is love, which doesn’t mean that God and love are exactly the same thing – because that would have to mean love is God – but rather, that you can’t talk about God without referring to love. Love is fundamental to God’s essence. And no matter how intellectually gigantic, or Biblically conservative or theologically sophisticated you want to be, you cannot get past this elementary Sunday school fact that “God loves you.”

I’m not really trying to argue a point here, so much as convey an impression – this impression that has been coming upon me of how utterly strange the idea of the love of God could seem. The reality is that love is the most central and highest of all Christian concepts. Jesus said that all of the commandments in the law are reducible to love. All of God’s actions are reducible to his love for humanity – his very hatred for sin hangs on the fact that he not only loves you, but he loves all the people you hate and mistreat. His son’s gruesome death on a Roman cross for the atonement of our sins was an radical act of love; he wanted to reconcile humankind just because he loved and desired to be with it.

There is no risk of exaggerating the significance of love. And if we fail to understand all of our responsibilities, and all of God’s actions, in light of, and in terms of God’s love, then we fail to see the whole point.

The final end of Science is to tell us what will happen. But the end of History is to tell us what did happen. “That is physically impossible” is a scientific statement. It will not suffice as an adequate refutation within the field of History.