Friday, October 17, 2014

What does the future look like?

1) There are different ways of interpreting the Olivet Discourse. Some view it as all in the future. Some view it as all in the past. Some view it as partly past and partly future. 
Of those who view it as all in the past, we can break that down into three subdivisions:
i) Those who think it was a failed prediction.
ii) Those who think it was a retrodiction.
iii) Those who think it was a true, but figurative prediction.
Even if we rightly discount the liberal interpretations, conservative, capable scholars struggle to present a consistent interpretation. Why is that?
2) Let's take a step back and ask how Jesus knew the future. How was he in a position to answer the disciples? What was his source of information?
i) One explanation is divine omniscience. And in the Gospels, Jesus certainly makes statements which dip into his divine omniscience. 
However, a problem with that explanation in this case is his admission of ignorance regarding the timing of the event (Mt 24:36; Mk 13:32). He knows what will happen, but not when it will happen. 
ii) In light of (i), it seems more likely, in the case of the Olivet Discourse, that Christ's foreknowledge is based on revelation. In principle, this could be indirect. It could be based on his understanding of OT prophecy. Or it could be direct. He himself was the recipient of divine revelation. 
3) Let's explore the latter option. Assuming the source of his foreknowledge was revelation, what mode of revelation would that be? Well, in principle, it could one of two different modes:
i) It could be propositional revelation. He was given true ideas about the future. 
ii) It could be visionary revelation. He saw the future. 
Certainly, visionary revelation has ample precedent in the OT, as well as NT counterparts. 
4) Suppose his foreknowledge (in the Olivet Discourse) was based on visionary revelation.  
i) To begin with, what does the future look like? If you could see the future, would it look futuristic? Let's consider some examples:
a) As a kid I saw a short-lived SF series called UFO. The series actually began in 1970, but was set 10 years ahead in 1980. 
Problem is, 1980 came and went, but 1980 didn't look anything like the projection. it only took 10 years for the series to appear hopelessly anachronistic.
b) Even if I didn't know for a fact when Bullitt was made, or who the actors were, I could tell from the cars (e.g. Mustang, Dodge Charger) that it was either made in the late 60s or else it was set in the late 60s. The film contains datable artifacts. Datable technology.
However, even that depends on the background knowledge of the viewer. I was a kid when the film was made, so I remember cars like that. But, of course, you could have a viewer who doesn't recognize period cars. 
c) Suppose I had a vision of a Siberian forest in 1000 BC. Suppose I had a vision of a Siberian forest in 1000 AD. Could I tell, by what I saw, whether I was seeing the past or the future? Does the image contain any chronological clues? Or is it too generic?
d) If I saw a vision of a London in the middle ages, and I knew enough about historical architecture, I could place it somewhere in the middle ages. But suppose I saw an image of the Cliff Palace in Mesa Verde. Could I tell if that was earlier or later than the image of London? Presumably, Cliff palace didn't change as much over the centuries. 
5) My point is not that a prophet can't know if he's seeing the past or the future. My point is that, taken all by itself, what he sees may not be time-indexed. Over and above what he sees, God would have to tell him if it was past or future. 
6) Then there's one additional complication. That's reducing a prophetic vision to a verbal description. Suppose I foresee a Siberian forest. Suppose I describe what I foresaw: "There were lots of fir trees and snow on the ground."
The verbal description doesn't contain any chronological clues. That would have to be supplied by an editorial comment. 
What makes that vision a vision about the future? Basically, the intent of the writer. I intend it to refer to a future scene or future event. 
7) Now, it's possible that this is why some of the descriptions in the Olivet Discourse are chronologically ambiguous. Visions of the near future may be indistinguishable from visions of the distant future, or vice versa. And that same ambiguity may carry over to a verbalized vision. 
Unless you have an editorial aside or parenthetical comment, it may be hard to sort them out.    

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