Reading biblical eschatology, especially in books like Revelation and Daniel, is like being a stranger in a foreign country. The Bible student is suddenly immersed in a confusing culture of strange language and unfamiliar customs and alien sights and sounds. All that they have learned and experienced in their native country is of little value as they try to make sense of the new environment.
What is the student of eschatology to do? The student must study end-times literature (“eschatology” = study of last things) with the humility of a traveler going to a foreign land, having the attitude of an observant learner. Here is what this looks like:
“Oh, wait! I have heard that phrase before. That seems to be an important phrase. I wonder what that means.”
“Now, wait a minute. When my host said this word, that happened. So, that word must mean this.” And so on, through countless iterations, the learning continues.
As time goes on, the traveler develops theories about the language and the culture, and then begins testing those theories to see if they are true. “Let me see. I think this means that. Does this mean that? Oops! Awkward moment! No, maybe this doesn’t mean that.” Gradually, step by step the culture begins to make sense. Words that were once strange become familiar and useful. Sights and sounds that were once alien and confusing become normal.
Time and humble observation are the keys. Couple humble observation with a system for capturing and connecting your observations and, over time, you will understand the culture. If you are humble and patient and diligent, you may eventually be mistaken for a native.
But notice that with eschatology, as with a foreign culture, you are required to adopt it. You do not impose your views on it, but you patiently and humbly conform to this unusual, unfamiliar, God-breathed Scripture, as you adopt it as your own. In other words, you do not conform the inspired Word to your ideas, but rather you allow the Word to teach you its ideas. In our analogy, the Word is the native, and we are the foreigners.
To give a personal example, I moved to Russia in January of 1997 to begin what turned out to be three years of “missionary” work with the Navigators, a US-based parachurch organization. I lived in a small town called Pushkin outside of St. Petersburg. I immediately entered a foreign culture where I could not talk (I did not speak Russian at the time) and where I had difficulty walking, since the streets were covered with ice and snow. If I had entered that environment resolved to teach the people of Pushkin how to speak English and to convey to them the pleasures of peanut butter, I think that I would have been frustrated. A better approach was to resolve to learn Russian and to try to walk on ice and to eat what they eat and to adopt their culture as my own. By God’s grace, that is what happened.
You can see the analogy with eschatology. Perhaps one of the reasons why Americans have difficulty with understanding eschatology is that most Americans have never had to adopt a foreign culture. That means most Americans have never been through the process of humble observation needed to change their perspective and to see things through a different lens. But eschatology is not like gospel or like narrative history or like Psalm or Proverbs. When studying eschatology, you must adopt the culture of eschatology or you will remain a foreigner and the culture of eschatology will be forever confusing.
SDG rmb 2/17/2021