Friday, May 05, 2017

Time lag

I'm going to return to a topic I've discussed on more than one occasion. 

The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show to his servants the things that must soon take place (Rev 1:1).

1. This is a prooftext for preterism. On this view, John expected the predictions in his Apocalypse to be fulfilled within the 1C, give or take. Of course, that's a somewhat anachronistic way of looking at it. People in the 1C didn't think of themselves as living in the 1C. They didn't think of the end of the 1C as a terminus ad quem. That's a retrospective calendrical distinction. 

2. In addition to Rev 1:1, we have similar sounding passages at the end of the work:

And he said to me, “These words are trustworthy and true. And the Lord, the God of the spirits of the prophets, has sent his angel to show his servants what must soon take place” (Rev 22:6).

“And behold, I am coming soon. Blessed is the one who keeps the words of the prophecy of this book” (Rev 22:7).

“Behold, I am coming soon, bringing my recompense with me, to repay each one for what he has done (Rev 22:12).

He who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus! (Rev 22:20).

And I doubt it's coincidental that these kinds of passages come at the beginning and ending of the Apocalypse. It forms an inclusio. 

And these passages are customarily understood to refer to the end of the world. The return of Christ and the aftermath thereof. 

3. Before discussing that, I'd like to draw a technical distinction. A linguistic or philosophical distinction. Expressions using terms like "I," "sooner," and "later" are call indexicals:

An indexical is, roughly speaking, a linguistic expression whose reference can shift from context to context. For example, the indexical ‘you’ may refer to one person in one context and to another person in another context. Other paradigmatic examples of indexicals are ‘I’, ‘here’, ‘today’, ‘yesterday’, ‘he’, ‘she’, and ‘that’.

In the philosophy of language, an indexical is any expression whose content varies from one context of use to another. The standard list of indexicals includes pronouns such as “I”, “you”, “he”, “she”, “it”, “this”, “that”, plus adverbs such as “now”, “then”, “today”, “yesterday”, “here”, and “actually”.

A temporal indexical is only be true at a particular time. A spatial indexical is only be true at a particular place. Mind you, that doesn't necessarily mean it can only be true once. Once person's "now" may be another person's "then," and so forth. 

By themselves, indexicals don't pick out a particular time and place. They don't have a date-stamp or place-name. 

4. In addition to the first set of passages I quoted, there's another set:

Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent (Rev 2:5).

Therefore repent. If not, I will come to you soon and war against them with the sword of my mouth (Rev 2:16).

Only hold fast what you have until I come (Rev 2:25).

Remember, then, what you received and heard. Keep it, and repent. If you will not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come against you (Rev 3:3).

I am coming soon. Hold fast what you have, so that no one may seize your crown (Rev 3:11).

Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me (Rev 3:20).

Like the first set, these refer to Jesus "coming" or coming "soon," yet unlike the first set, these seem to refer to events within church history rather than events that terminate church history. Indeed, the Apocalypse is inaugurated by Jesus coming to John, on Patmos. So the variety of similar sounding statements, that can't all converge on the same event, should make the reader cautious about assuming that when Revelation talks about the coming of Jesus, or his coming "soon," that this is necessarily an end-of-the-world prediction, with a terminus ad quem around the turn of the 2C, give or take. 

5. The thief-in-the-night motif (Rev 3:3; 16:15) is in tension with a predictably imminent event. The point is to keep Christians watchful. They can't afford to let their guard down, because the timing of the Parousia is unexpected. That, in itself, qualifies how imminent it can be. 

6. A theme in some science fiction stories is a character in the present sending a message to people in the future. This may take the form of a warning. The messenger has foreknowledge that if the current trajectory continues as is, it will culminate in a catastrophe one or more generations in the future–or possibly centuries in the future. He needs to send this message into the future, or at least have a message from the past which, when they discover it, future readers will recognize is about their situation, enabling them to deactivate the time bomb before it detonates (as it were). The impending disaster can't be prevented in the present.  

So this raises a practical question: how to send a message about the future to people in the future. How to send a message about the future to people in the same future as the message is referring to. The message would have to be sent in the past. There'd be a time lag between time-frame when the message was sent and the time-frame when it took effect. 

Suppose, for the sake of argument, that predictions about Jesus coming soon are not to give people in the present (i.e. John's contemporaries) a preview of the near future, and not even to give people in the present a preview of the distant future, but to give people in the future a preview of their impending future. How would a seer in the 1C, or Jesus speaking through a 1C seer, give people in the distant future advance notice? How would you signal them?

As in science fiction stories, there's a certain paradox when a character must speak over the heads of his contemporaries to an audience that doesn't yet exist. His contemporaries may be the first people to hear it, although it's really not about them. And it order to reach the target audience down the line, it may have to be transmitted from one generation to the next. Handed down by scribes who copy it down and recopy it, century after century, until it finally reaches the intended audience. 

We can't literally send messages into the future. We can't skip over the intervening time. A message to future recipients has to begin in their past. In some cases, in their distant past. It has to work its way through the intervening years or centuries. 

That's the nature of long-term prophecy in general. Promises or forewarnings to people who do not yet exist. The carriers of the message are, in a sense, the immediate audience. But it's really not for them or about them. They are just switchboard operators. 

7. Scholars typically think the letters to the seven churches (Rev 2-4) were addressed to real 1C churches in Asia Minor. And that's my own predilection. 

But suppose, for the sake of argument, that you took a consistently futuristic view of Revelation. Could Rev 2-4 be reconciled to that position?

Well, this goes back to the science fiction conundrum. How would Jesus signal churches far into the future? The letters can't be addressed to the church of Manilla, the church of Buenos Aires, the church of Helsinki, the church of Singapore, the church of Fiji, the church of Bombay, the church of Cape Town, &c. That would be anachronistic to the point of opacity. 

Moreover, it would be counterproductive. If the NT used placenames that didn't exist in the 1C, Christians would name localities prematurely after those placenames. So the message would never get to the intended target. It would be diverted.

Therefore, a seer would need to use familiar localities that function as placeholders for the future counterpart. Suppose this was really for the benefit of Christians in Manilla. One of the ancient churches will be a stand-in for that future referent.  

I'm not saying I agree with this. I think it's overstated. My own position is that Revelation was occasioned by the situation facing 1C Christians, that it's intentionally germane to the situation of Christians at different times and places throughout church history, but it also has a climactic fulfilment in the future. 

8. A critic might object that my explanation could rationalize any failed prophecy. That raises several issues:

i) A dated prediction is falsifiable after the fact. That's more specific than mere indexicals.

ii) It's true that a long-range prophecy may be unverifiable or unfalsifiable in advance. But if there's a track record of fulfilled predictions, then that supplies a reason to believe the next prediction.

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