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Christian Biblical Studies
Scripture references are to the King James (Authorised) Version
‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.’
PERHAPS THE WORDS of Charles Dickens about the ‘best of times and the worst of times’ are more apt in this high-octane, complicated twenty-first century. But the complexion of the modern era has its roots in the dramatic developments of the late 1700s, the beginning of a period styled by dispensationalists as the ‘Time of the End’, based on Dan. 12: 8, 9:
According to this view, during this long period from 1799 to the present, Jehovah has been shaping world events in such a way as will lead to social collapse in the time of ‘great tribulation’ of Matt. 24: 21. The years from 1775 to 1799 constituted a period of revolution: the War of American Independence (1775-1783), followed by the decade of the French Revolution (1789-1799).
These events, by introducing a more or less radical approach to national governance, helped to determine the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, leading us to where we are now. The breaking away by the United States stimulated Britain to fortify its empire elsewhere and to consolidate its control in India, accruing the advantages of economic and military dominance. Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821) stabilised France after its revolution and proved an important factor in the dilution of papal authority. His various campaigns against the British and her allies had the unintended effect of cementing Britain’s dominance in international affairs and its decisive influence in laying the foundations of the modern world.
Breaking New Ground
The onset of the Industrial Revolution in Britain, then in Europe and North America, brought a new style of prosperity, rising levels of education and technical skills, and a growing urbanisation stimulated by the new railways, which in its turn encouraged a massive migration of workers from field to town. The resulting dislocation and shift from an agrarian order to one run by and in the service of the machine was on a scale unlike anything seen before. Mushroom-like, wealthy industrialists and paupers sprang from the same economic soil, defining the social landscape which Dickens would immortalise in his novels.
The humane response to the distresses aggravated by these phenomena led to religious and secular movements intended to address the problems of overcrowding, pauperism, and ill-health. By the end of the 1800s there was a general expectation that a utopia was nigh, a new order in which the peoples of the world would live in harmony, their daily routine simplified by the new labour-saving devices and the thousand-and-one innovations in science, engineering, philosophy, chemistry, medicine and hygiene.
The expectation was immature. The beginning of the Great War in August 1914 shattered the naive hope. The commemoration of that gruesome, drawn-out conflict begins in Britain next year. The aftermath of the First World War precipitated what we might term the second phase in the development of the modern world. The economic, social, and political upheavals, resulting in geographic re-alignments of national boundaries and the dissolution of established sovereignties and other forms of legitimate government, acted as a spur for the frenetic 1920s and 1930s and the eventual outbreak of a larger, ‘total’ war in 1939.
The ending of the Second World War in 1945 introduced what might be termed the third phase in the development of the contemporary world, signalled – if any one event could be said to do so – by the introduction and use of the atomic bomb. The decades which followed have been overshadowed by the spectre of this weapon, and the dark fears of humanity have coagulated around it.
When I Was a Lad
Lionel Bart’s popular British song of the 1950s generation declared that ‘Fings Ain’t Wot They Used to Be’, comically enumerating how old-fashioned virtues and simplicities had been displaced by the trendy and sophisticated. It is the common lament of each of us as we grow older that things are not as good as they used to be. In reality, conditions were rarely as good as nostalgia portrays them. As the old man said, ‘I never was what I used to be.’
Nonetheless, vague pronouncements that conditions are intolerable and that terminal catastrophe lurks around the corner have been proven wrong many times. Human society is resilient, with a boundless capacity to adapt to radical alterations in the basic conditions.
Imagine that collective human suffering was graded on a scale of one to ten. No one at the time of the greatest difficulty can know what point of the scale he or she is at, but must base a judgement on a perceived tolerance for distress or, perhaps, on the sum of their worst fears. God has not granted us crystal-clear insight into the future. This is not to say that there is no upper limit of societal distress or that society will not reach it. But it is apparent that, as of now, that point has not been reached.
A hole in the house roof left unattended may one day, through the action of rain, snow, and infesting vermin, bring down the whole structure. But a sensible person will plug the hole long before that eventuality. So it is in human affairs. There yet remains in society a recognition that problems neglected get worse. As Jesus declared, the children of this generation (the world at large) are in many ways wiser than the children of light (Luke 16: 8).
At some point, however, the remedies employed to combat widespread societal collapse will prove ineffective. From the Biblical standpoint we may be many years away from this outcome. Nonetheless, anecdotes and statistics appear to join in broad agreement that the state of British society is less satisfactory than it used to be or ought to be. Nor is this disgruntlement confined to our own prosperous land. Most Western nations are experiencing broadly similar upheavals.
The word ‘appearing’ in the Scripture at the head of this article (Titus 2: 13) is the translation of the Greek word, epiphaneia. Its basic meaning is that of ‘bright light’ or ‘manifestation’.[* ]The Biblical context is that of the return of Christ at His Second Advent, and denotes His work in bringing to an open scrutiny things formerly hidden, on all levels – the exposure of persons, principles and things, secular and religious. The term may be applied both to a period of time and a process. Here we emphasize the latter – the process. However, we should not lose sight of the fact that this process would not be possible without the preceding events of history sketched above. Godʼs Plan moves irresistibly forward to a happy outcome, but many of its features will be unpleasant in the short term.
There are good reasons to believe that the times in which we live exemplify this Epiphany process more than any previous age. Though it is not possible to point to one single cause or event, the general results of this bright shining are radical, overturning long-held opinions, valued traditions, exposing falsehood, corruption and casting doubt on all roots of authority. In short, it is iconoclastic – a destructive force, and will eventually lead to a dissolution of the prevailing order. The searchlight of the Epiphany catches everything in its beam. Today no question is unasked, no subject too cheeky, tawdry, vulgar, obscene or offensive to be broached, dissected and deconstructed.
Nothing is out of bounds. Not even God.
‘When the Son of Man cometh, shall he find faith on the earth?’ So asked Jesus rhetorically (Luke 18: 8). Certainly there is a crisis of faith in this country. Not that Christianity is a spent force. It isn’t. There are many hundreds of thousands in this land who are passionate about their belief in God and in Christ as Saviour, and who have not bowed to the contemporary Baal, nor sold their integrity to the riches of Mammon. But in the modern soil of cynicism, faith is a difficult plant to nurture and the Christian faith is being – and will continue to be – severely tested.
Tinted as they were by the notions of Christianity, secular traditions in Britain and the Western world as a whole kept at bay a complete dissolution of morality and veneration for sacred things. An implied truce existed at the popular level whereby certain subjects were protected from mockery. That truce was broken some years ago and there is now an almost unbridled assault on the doctrines and virtues of the Christian faith and those who hold to them.
Unpleasant the trend may be, but it is the logical outcome of the Epiphany. No field of investigation will be overlooked, no stone unturned. God Himself is now in this harsh spotlight. The favourite question for the unbeliever is that of the permission of evil. ‘Why’, so the argument goes, ‘if God is good does He allow suffering and random destructive events?’
It’s not an unreasonable enquiry. It follows in a long train of such interrogations, many of them appearing in the Bible itself, and from the friends of God. ‘Wilt thou also destroy the righteous with the wicked?’ (Abraham of God, Gen. 18: 23). ‘Why standest thou afar off, O LORD? why hidest thou thyself in times of trouble?’ (The psalmist of God, Psalm 10: 1). ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me’ (Jesus of God, Matt. 27: 46).
But Why . . . ?
Doubt is not a sin. But Faith is the satisfaction of doubt, the answer to honest enquiry. And God’s ways will be vindicated for all to see. The Almighty is self-sufficient and independent of all outside forces and influences. He does not exist to please and does not fret over unfavourable opinions of Him. He cannot be pressured to explain Himself on demand or to modify His plan to assuage the critics who queue up to revile Him. Perhaps it’s not too much to assert that God’s humility is demonstrated in His willingness to be criticised and cross-examined, not only by His enemies, but also by His friends.
For the foreseeable future, Faith and Doubt must jostle uncomfortably side by side. And to what extent the unravelling of society will run before God says ‘enough’ is not for us to know. In every era there is an inclination to exaggerate the severity and variety of the difficulties on hand. We would do well to resist the temptation, lest we compound our dismay. Our short lifespan tends to focus our attention on the more immediate, so troubles loom large when they are close. And without a thorough understanding of the past, and being unable to predict the future, we are often left confused as to where we stand in the stream of time. Probably most of us have been troubled by such questions or the seemingly long delay in the setting up of God’s Kingdom on earth.
‘Surely I come quickly.’
So says Jesus (Rev. 22: 20). To come quickly is to proceed without unnecessary delay or undue haste. With this assurance we may wait in a responsive Amen.
[*] Five other texts in the KJV also translate epiphaneia as ‘appearing’: 1 Tim. 6: 14; 2 Tim. 1: 10; 4: 1, 8. In 2 Thes. 2: 8, it is rendered ‘brightness’. (See Paul S.L. Johnson, The Epiphanyʼs Elect; Philadelphia; 1938; Chapter I.)
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