God’s Responsibility 2
The second thing for which God is responsible, and which surely must have been planned by Him, is the passage of time.
(For the first thing, see God’s Responsibility 1, 13th May.)
It looks from the New Testament as if all its writers, and Jesus Himself, expected the Second Coming and the end of the age (world? Solar system? Universe?) to happen within a few decades of the Resurrection. We have references such as “you see the day drawing nearer” (Hebrews 10:25), “the appointed time has grown very short” (1 Cor 7:29), and supremely “this generation will not pass away before all these things take place” (Mark 13:30).
(Incidentally, the fact that this passage is still translated “this generation”, despite the difficulties that this causes us all, speaks highly for the integrity of Bible translators.)
I hope I don’t need to point out that 1900+ years have passed since Jesus was crucified and rose again. So why the delay?
This delay, the delay in putting all things right, and openly taking the victory that has already been won, tends to be described, somewhat glibly, I feel, as “living in the now and the not yet.”
The Bible passage that addresses this is of course 2 Peter 3: 3-10: “First of all you must understand this, that scoffers will come in the last days with scoffing, following their own passions and saying, ‘Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things have continued as they were from the beginning of creation.’ They deliberately ignore this fact, that by the word of God heavens existed long ago, and an earth formed out of water, through which the world that then existed was deluged with water and perished. But by the same word the heavens and earth that now exist have been stored up for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men.
“But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slow about his promise as some count slowness, but is forbearing towards you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief…”
(This argument is weakened if you don’t believe in a worldwide flood, but that is a post for another day.)
Peter points out that God, being God, may naturally work to a different timescale to that of people, but he suggests that the reason for the “delay”, which was presumably for him some decades, is caused by God’s kindness in hoping for all to reach repentance and be saved from hell. A bit like allowing a less academic pupil a five minute extension to finish their essay.
This argument is convincing when we are talking about decades, but not for centuries. More and more people are being born all the time. All the existing people need to hear the gospel and be saved, and so do all the new ones. More people are in danger of judgment and destruction the longer God waits. And although it is true that God’s view of time may well be, and doubtless is, different from ours, 2000 years is a long time from any possible perspective other than God’s or a geologist’s. Even one of Tolkien’s Ents would notice 2000 years. It is twice the length of time from King David to Christ.
So what is God waiting for?
I suggest four possible answers:
- He is waiting (as Peter hints, and in accordance with “this gospel of the kingdom will be preached throughout the whole world… and then the end will come”, Matt 24:14) for us to finish the task of world evangelism. When the gospel has finally been preached to all nations, and not before, Christ will come again. My problem with this answer is that it puts something as crucial as the date of the end of the world in the hands of the fallen and inadequate human race. And the difficulties in spreading the gospel doubtless do owe a lot to the failures of the church past and present, but also to other factors, such as the fall of the Roman Empire, and the state of technology through history, factors which are not within the power of the church to change. Even if it is true that when all have heard (except those who died in say, 10th century China, who are now beyond human preaching), then the world will end, this is surely within God’s knowledge, and therefore must have been factored into His plans. (And could have been factored into the Bible, but that is a problem with any explanation.)
- He is waiting for us to build the New Jerusalem. The church could and should have changed society, and created a society that was, not perhaps perfect, but vastly improved in love, equality and integrity. The church, up to now, has failed. (I don’t think this view necessarily implies that heaven is or can be here on earth, but it could go that way, and remove the perceived need for a Second Coming at all. This seems to contradict a substantial amount of the teaching of the New Testament.)
- He likes people. After all, if the world had ended in 70 AD, a lot of folk wouldn’t have been born – St Augustine, Shakespeare, Martin Luther King, you and me. Again, this must have been part of His original plan, surely, but He didn’t tell St Peter.
- There are things He wants to happen (and always planned to happen) in the interim period – the “now and not yet”, or the “last days”. This is of course connected to b), but here the delay would not be, or not necessarily be, because we have failed, but because we just haven’t seen the timeline. This seems to me the most rational conclusion. What then does God want to happen?
It’s a bit risky to say “it’s God’s will” of almost any event in post-Biblical human history. Even spreading the gospel has sometimes been done in deplorable ways. Has society improved at all?
Well, we’ve certainly acquired a lot of additional knowledge and skill. (I mean by “us”, the human race collectively, of course, not me. I have no right to despise the ignorance of 1st century peasants for not understanding about hygiene, considering that I neither understand the internet, nor have the skills to milk a cow.) We have learned how to do safe caesarean section deliveries, under anaesthetic; to visit the moon; to watch royal weddings, live, from almost anywhere on the planet; to compose and perform works like Bach’s Magnificat. These are all major achievements.
We may not have learned how to eradicate violence in either public or private life; to prevent people from starving; to work together against climate change or terrorism; or to respect everyone no matter their race, nationality, parents or religion – but at least we’ve learned that these are things to aim for.
Let’s hope God was watching, and approved. He may have wished we could have got to wherever we are faster, with fewer outbreaks of genocide and oppression along the way.
The church has been part of this process. The Bible provides knowledge of the way of salvation, but it took a little while after it was written for the Church to formulate the doctrine of the Trinity, one of the most distinctively Christian doctrines, but nowhere spelt out in scripture. And rather a lot longer to decide that slavery, permitted in Bible times, was not compatible with a modern and civilised society.
My point, which you have seen coming, is: God has given us 1900+ years in which to move our society, and even our church, onwards. What are we doing with this time?
Love from the PPI Blogger