September 17, 2012

Can Humans Know the Future?

Wouldn’t it be good to know the future? How much better would everything be if we did! Many ancient nations developed whole systems of predicting the future. And people want to know today, just as people did yesterday, what the future will bring. The “end of the world” is now “a concern of every thinking person,”1 because of such major issues as climate change, world population growth, failing global finances, terrorist threats, and moral decay. As a result the Bible’s portrayal of the time of the end looks “as timely as the morning paper and the hourly newscast.”2 But the question may still puzzle you: Is it truly possible to know the future, or where history is leading?

God and Tomorrow
Thankfully, there is a God, the God of the Bible, who knows the future, who tells the end from the beginning (Isa. 46:9, 10). As Jesus stated: “I am telling you now before it happens, so that when it does happen you will believe that I am who I am” (John 13:19; cf. John 14:29).3 The Bible is replete with similar statements referring to divine foreknowledge.

But how reliable are these biblical claims? The answer is clearer when we understand that God and humans experience time very differently. With Him, time is best explained as a line moving forward from past to future toward its final goal. We humans see only our present point on that line. We cannot see the future. 

2012 1525 page26Ancient Greeks, among others, thought of time as a recurring circle in which history repeats itself. In this concept, the future has no significance except as a recurrence of the past. But if time is a line we travel along from present to future, the Bible’s God is as grand as the whole page where the line is drawn. He is outside, above, and contemplating the entire line. From where He lives in eternity, He sees yesterday, today, and tomorrow better than we see the current instant, and experiences future events as if they are already taking place.4 Knowing future events, He kindly shares His knowledge with us. This is what the Bible calls prophecy.

Trustworthy Predictions?
A lot of the Bible is prophecy. While most biblical messages address people’s immediate situation, the prophetic sections, in most cases, extend beyond that current and local situation, providing important insight into the future. Hundreds of predictive prophecies confirm the Bible’s divine inspiration. Unlike books such as the Koran, the Confucian Analects, or the alleged predictions of Nostradamus and others, only the Bible manifests evidences of many fulfilled prophecies that affirm its divine origin, sometimes long after the prophetic writer had passed away. For example, the prophet Jeremiah predicted the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, and the Jews’ 70-year Babylonian captivity, after which the Persian king would authorize them to rebuild the city and Temple (2 Chron. 36:22-23; cf. Jer. 29:10). Almost a century before he appeared on the scene, Cyrus was predicted by Isaiah to be that Persian king (Isa. 44:28). 

In 603 B.C. Daniel predicted that there would be four world empires to appear successively on the world scene: Babylon, Medo-Persia, Greece, and Rome (Dan. 2 and 7), embracing a historical period of more than 1,000 years. Daniel further prophesied that the Roman Empire would be followed by divided nations (Dan. 2:41-43) dominated by an oppressive religious-political power through the medieval period to the establishment of God’s kingdom (Dan. 7:23-25).  

These prophecies were all literally and ultimately fulfilled centuries later. Despite consistent efforts by some to undermine the reliability of these prophecies, the overwhelming evidence of their authenticity through their precise and ultimate fulfillment continues to fill many thinking skeptics with amazement.

In addition, Christ’s first coming fulfilled many messianic prophecies. Centuries before Jesus the Messiah was born, the prophets had predicted, for instance, that He would come out of the tribe of Judah (Gen. 49:10), be born in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2), would bear human sins (Isa. 53:4, 11, 12), die a substitutionary death (verses 5, 12), win ultimate victory over Satan by His death (Gen. 3:15), rise again (Ps. 16:10), and be exalted on the heavenly throne (Ps. 110:1). Daniel also prophesied that the Messiah would come 483 years after the Persian edict allowing the Jews to rebuild Jerusalem (Dan. 9:24-27), which then lay in ruins. The Bible also contains prophecies that are yet to be fulfilled. The certainty of their fulfillment is guaranteed both by God’s knowledge of the future and by His predictions already fulfilled in the past. This is why we can say that we “have the prophetic message as something completely reliable” (2 Peter 1:19).

Necessary Predictions?
The Bible provides the best answer to this question. There we find two analogies of biblical prophecy: 
Prophecy is identified as a lamp shining during a dark time until the dawning of the day (verse 19). The lamp of prophecy shows us where we are now, as well as where we are going. It also tells us where this world is going and how it will end. Until Jesus, the “Morning Star,” arises (Rev. 22:16), we shall need prophetic guidance. Thereafter we shall have no further need of this lamplike prophetic word (1 Cor. 13:8-10). 

Prophecy is also compared to a mirror by which we can see the future dimly (verse 12), a reference to the imperfect reflection given by the polished brass mirrors of Paul’s day. This dim aspect of biblical prophecy refers to the peculiar, sometimes obscure language in which it is expressed. In Revelation, end-time events are not portrayed in straightforward language but in symbols. Understanding the meaning of these symbols gives us the key for unlocking and decoding the message they contain for us.

What We Do Know
End-time prophecies, particularly those recorded in Revelation, inform us about what will happen in the world at the time of the end. The Bible states that God “does nothing without revealing his plan to his servants the prophets” (Amos 3:7). Prophecy reveals end-time information that is profitable for our salvation and entry into God’s kingdom. Its purpose is to tell us, from heaven’s perspective, why and how events are going to happen. God has revealed in the prophetic word all future events important for us to know. For this reason, two things must be kept in mind. 

First of all, prediction is not itself the primary goal. The deeper purpose, however bizarre and frightening the portrayal, is not to intimidate us, but to help us get ready for the end. Prophecies are intended to make us better Christians, to help us take this life seriously, and to inspire us to try to reach people around us with the gospel message for the kingdom.

Second, end-time prophecies are utterly different from horoscopes and fortunetelling. They are not given to satisfy our obsessive curiosity about the future. Their purpose is rather to assure us that God holds the future. He knows what the future brings, and He will be with His faithful people “always, to the very end of the age” (Matt. 28:20). “When these things begin to take place,” Jesus said, “lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near” (Luke 21:28).

What We Aren’t Told
Here a caution is necessary. While prophecy tells us what will happen at the time of the end, there are clearly two things that prophecy does not reveal regarding end-time events. 

First, there is no precise when. Only God knows time’s precise end (Matt. 24:36). Jesus stressed repeatedly that the date of His coming is not revealed to any person on earth.5 Nobody has been given the ability “to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority” (Acts 1:6, 7). The exact time of the end is not given to us to know.6 Prophetic fulfillment of end-time events will indicate clearly enough that the end has come and that Christ is “at the door” (Matt. 24:33).

Second, prophecy also lacks an exact how. The manner of the unfolding of the final events is a secret that God has reserved for Himself. But we do know enough to obey (Deut. 29:29). Books and Web pages proliferate, endeavoring to explain how end-time events will take place. Their mostly misleading ideas are drawn not from the Bible, but rather from newspaper articles and allegorical methods of interpretation.7 Exactly when and how the final events will take place will be clear enough at the time of their fulfillment (cf. John 14:29; 16:4).

How to Recognize the End
Christ’s second coming will be biblical prophecy’s ultimate fulfillment. But although this event opens the door to the end of sin and the beginning of God’s eternal kingdom of wholeness, joy, and justice, we must shun speculations about its date, and the sequential events preceding it. At the same time, Jesus identified signs that will show He is near (Matt. 24:4-14), signs that will be evident in all spheres: natural, political/social, moral, and religious (see Rev. 13-16).

The intensification of these signs in today’s physically, morally, and religiously deteriorating conditions, in context of the astonishing advance of worldwide proclamation of the gospel, are a clear indication of the imminence of Christ’s coming.8
And as we wait for that glorious event, let us keep a balance between the future and the present. While prophecy informs us of what the future will bring, it also constantly reminds us of the fact that we are still here, and urges us to readiness and active waiting. Until Jesus comes, we must hold up proph-ecy’s reliable lamp and hold to Jesus’ promise to be with us always (Matt. 28:20). Then when He, our Morning Star, appears, we shall behold Him in all of His glory (2 Peter 1:19). 

1 Richard Rice, The Reign of God, 2nd ed. (Berrien Springs, Mich.: Andrews University Press, 2005), p. 320.
2 Ibid., pp. 320, 321.
3 Bible quotations in this article are from Holy Bible: Today’s New International Version. Copyright 2001, 2005 by International Bible Society. Used by permission of International Bible Society. All rights reserved worldwide.
4 C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Harper Collins, 1952; reprint 2001), pp. 168-170.
5 Matt. 24:36-44, 50; 25:13; Luke 12:40.
6 See 1 Thess. 5:2-4; 2 Peter 3:3-7, 10; Rev. 16:15.
7 See Ranko Stefanovic, Revelation of Jesus Christ, 2nd ed. (Berrien Springs, Mich.: Andrews University Press, 2009), p. 1.
8 Ranko Stefanovic, “The Second Coming of Christ,” Ministry, December 2004, p. 8. This section has been abstracted from that article.

Ranko Stefanovic is a professor of New Testament at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary. This article is an adaptation of his chapter “Does God Know the Future?” in Humberto M. Rasi and Nancy J. Vyhmeister, eds., Always Prepared: Answers to Questions About Our Faith (Nampa, idaho: Pacific Press Publishing Association, 2012), pp. 163-172. This article was published September 13, 2012.