Thursday, January 20, 2011

Every Generation Thinks It's the Last

As Wilco's Jeff Tweedy sings, "All you sword-swallowers, pull yourselves together.  Every generation thinks it's the worst, thinks it's the end of the world."  The picture above was from a premil, dispensational  magazine in 1919.  90 years later, and you can still find the same fears out there, albeit expressed in somewhat different "isms."  Today, the magazine cover might add "terrorism" and "secular humanism", and "pluralism."  The firm belief that one's own generation is likely the end of the world is the height of generational narcissism, and it's a theme that has happened throughout history, especially among Christians.  Among the various expressions:

-Taking a more positive view of the current events of the time, some early Christians (such as the historian Euesebius)  believed that in the 4th-century, Roman emperor Constantine's conversion to Christianity would usher in the "millenium" in which Christ would reign on earth.  Later on, Oliver Cromwell's Puritan takeover of England in the 17th century caused some Christians (among them, Roger Williams) to believe that Cromwell would be the one to usher in the millenial reign of Christ.  Those in England even went so far as to allow Jewish immigrants into their country (a policy which many European countries did not have) because they believed it was necessary that the Jewish people needed to convert to Christianity in order to bring in the millenium...and how could you convert Jews when you did not let them into your country?

-Savanarola, a Dominican Friar in Florence, Italy in the late 1400s, became wildly popular (and controversial) with his message that the Last Days were approaching.  For him the "signs of the times" were the recent wars in Italy, the excesses of the wealthy artistocrats, the worldliness of Church leaders, and a deadly outbreak of a mysterious disease that we now know as syphilis.

-Protestant reformer Martin Luther was a firm believer that the Last Days were arriving.  The signs of the times seemed obvious to him...the encroaching Islamic threat in Eastern Europe, the corruption of the Catholic Church, and the bloody and bitter religious wars being fought. 

-In the early 1800s, John Nelson Darby began preaching a theology of dispensationalism, in which the key to understanding the Bible was found in properly dividing it.  God worked throughout history in distinct "dispensations" and the person who studied the Bible needed to figure out which scriptures go with which dispensation.  Those who followed in Darby's footsteps came up with various schemes for dividing Scripture, but in general they agreed that the Old Testament was the "Age of the Law" and that Jesus ushered in the "Church Age" (or "Age of Grace").  The world was currently in the Age of the Church, and the next stage, coming soon with the sudden and destructive judgment of the present world, would be the Age of the Kingdom.  For dispensationalists, when Jesus talks of the "Kingdom of Heaven" in Scripture, he is not referring to the present age, but to an age that will come in the next dispensation.  Thus, the Sermon the Mount was not a call for how Christians should live in their present situations, but rather a description of how Christians will live when the Age of the Kingdom commences.  Below is a chart, from 1919, of how one dispensationalist divided up Scripture. 

You'll notice that the main focus for Dispensationalists is the prophetic Scriptures of Daniel and Revelation.  A key for the dispensational scheme was trying to figure out how to interpret the apocalyptic language found in Scripture, which people generally tried to interpret in light of major world events...things like the rise of Russia into a Communist state caused interpreters to believe that prophecy was being fulfilled regarding a "beast from the North."  While other Christians throughout history had looked for and discovered "signs of the times" that would usher in the Last Days, the dispensational scheme placed a premium on taking historical events and matching them up with Scripture.  The goal was evangelism...if the Bible could be interpreted as a guide to when the Last Times would come, then dispensationalists could use it to let the unsavd know that time was running out, the Last Days were near, and they needed to repent and be saved.  Dwight Moody, the famous revivalist preacher in America during the late 1800s, expressed the worldview of many dispensationlists when he said, “I look upon this world as a wrecked vessel.  God has given me a lifeboat and said to me, ‘Moody, save all you can.’"

There are plenty of people today who still follow the dispensational scheme, although it has undergone various revisions.  Ultimately, it provides just another example of the way that Christians have tried to interpret surprising, shocking, and sudden changes in their world in light of Scripture.  There are signs of the times everywhere, and there always have been.  We are so unaware of what's behind us and before us, that we assume the historical moment that we are in must be the ultimate. However, the reality is that for us, our "sign of the time" is the same as it was in Scripture (check out Matthew 12 and Matthew 16)'s Jesus' life, death and resurrection, and His call to repent.  It's a call to every generation, and it's of the same importance no matter what events are happening in the world at large.  Our generation has no greater or lesser need to repent than the ones before.  The true sign of the times turns out to be an event that happened thousands of years ago, but that still resonates with power and judgment, mercy and grace, today.