Tuesday, January 09, 2018

The end is at hand!

So also, when you see all these things, you know that he is near, at the very gates (Mt 24:33).  
The end of all things is at hand (1 Pet 4:7).

1. The Bible uses variations on this eschatological imagery. For modern readers, ir creates the impression that the Bible mispredicted the future. Let's consider that.

Both passages use metaphors. There are different kinds of metaphors. Let's consider three. 

i) Dead metaphors

That's a word or phrase which no longer evokes an image in the reader's mind. That can happen through popular repetition or because the origin of the metaphor has been forgotten. 

ii) Temporal metaphors

As a temporal metaphor, the nearness of the end denotes distance in time. It means time is running out (itself a metaphor!). The wait is almost over. 

In that sense, the end is inevitable. There's no stopping it. There's less and less time until there's no more time before the denouement. Like a countdown. 

iii) Spatial metaphors

A spatial metaphor can have temporal connotations. But let's consider a spatial metaphor in its own right. As a spatial metaphor, the nearness of the end denotes distance in space. For instance, a journey in which a traveler is approaching his destination. 

2. Sometimes these coincide. Suppose my destination is an hour's drive from the point of origin. Suppose my destination is 50 miles from the point of origin. Halfway through the journey, I now have half as much distance to cover, and half the time remaining. 

3. But sometimes these come apart. As a temporal metaphor, you keep on getting closer until you run out of time. But as a spatial metaphor, you may come near without closing the gap. As a spatial metaphor, moreover, nearness is repeatable. 

Take orbital motion, like periodic comets. Sometimes it's closer to earth, sometimes further away. It has a nearest point, and a farthest point (in relation to earth). Unlike linear motion, it doesn't get closer and closer until it reaches the end. Rather, it circles back around.

4. Mt 24:33 is an extended metaphor rather than a dead metaphor. The reader should try to visualize the implicit imagery. It suggests a traveler or conqueror approaching a fortified city. 

On the face of it, this is a spatial metaphor, although it might have temporal connotations. Unlike "end is near" temporal metaphors, where that's bound to happen, in exponentially decreasing increments, "end is near" spatial metaphors are not necessarily inevitable or unrepeatable. 

I already mentioned periodic comets, but let's take some other examples. I once rode a bus home across a bridge. However, after the driver got across the bridge, and let some passengers off that the bus stop, he made a wrong turn by taking the exit back onto the bridge. Instead of crossing the bridge once, we had to cross it three times! We were closer to home, then further away, then closer to home, as he circled back to rectify his mistake.

I once saw a special about the USS Enterprise. Not Star Trek but the aircraft carrier. In one episode, the admiral had his pilots practice landing in choppy seas. That makes for dangerous landing conditions because the deck is bobbing up and down. If you try to land when the stern is on the way down, you may crash into the deck, but if you try to land when the stern is on the way up, you may slam into the back of the carrier. Not surprisingly, none of the pilots tried to land the first time around. They'd come in close to gauge the conditions, then come back around until the angle of the deck was level enough with the jet to risk landing. Several times they were almost at the point of landing before they pulled away to try again. Timing is everything. There's no margin for error. 

Or take Westerns in which the good guy is pursuing the bad guy on horseback. The hero wants to get positioned to jump from his horse onto the villain's horse. But of course the villain doesn't want him on his back, so he tries to pull away. Sometimes the horses are closer together, sometimes further apart. The trick is when to make the jump. If you don't to it just right, you fall off your horse. Fall between the galloping horses. 

Or take a river you can cross during the dry season which is impassable during snowmelt. 

5. As a spatial metaphor, end-is-near imagery may suggest an opportunity. It might turn into a lost opportunity, but sometimes you get a second chance.

Take an army marching to a fortified city. How will the city respond? Will the army lay siege until the city surrenders? Will the city be able to repel the invader? Will the city pay tribute? 

6. A common theme in Scripture is threatened judgment. "Repent or else!" 

In some cases, judgment is not inevitable. Indeed, the purpose of the warning is to give sinners an opportunity to repent. 

Moreover, this is a cyclical process in Bible history and church history. Even if one nation or generation blows the opportunity, another nation or generation may take advantage of the opportunity. Even if that's a missed opportunity for one individual, the same opportunity may come back around for another individual. 

7. It's possible to overinterpret metaphors. Conversely, it's possible to pay insufficient attention to metaphors. My point is that I think we should make allowance for different connotations, depending on whether the metaphor is temporal or spatial (in the aforementioned examples). 

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