Christ instructed his followers that they cannot know the day or hour of his coming, and his followers have been ignoring the instruction ever since. Barely a single significant disaster or crime can pass without someone seeing it as a sign of the end of the world. All these predictions make for side-splitting comedy, though not simply because they are universally proven wrong, or because the predictors are habitually unfazed by the failure – all this is all a minor subplot in the great comedy. The great comedy is that such prophesy works from a view of history that is distinctively human, while any account of God’s return requires a view of history that is exclusively divine. Those who think they can predict the end of the world think that they can read such an account of history in Scripture, but in turning to the actual pages of Scripture, one gets a view of history which is utterly unlike anything a human being would write, and utterly unlike the sort of historical events that we think foretell the end of the world or the great workings of providence.
To understand this, consider the reasonable response to being told to teach a class on ancient history, or write a book on it. The product would be primarily a story of great powers, significant battles that determined the fate of these great powers, terrific calamities that affected millions, great works of art and culture, catastrophic falls and corruptions, etc. Turning to, say, the book of Genesis gives us almost nothing of this. By the time the book begins speaking in more or less plain historical terms, it is telling the story of a nomad who becomes a farmer, struggles with infertility, wins a battle that would be utterly forgotten by history if not for Scripture, and various other small sundry life events. The story goes on to tell stories of feigned prostitution, incest, the building of small altars, petty infighting and family squabbles, dating, shady business deals, familial reconciliations, etc. It was as if we asked God to write a book of contemporary American history and he comes back with a story of county politics in Tomah Wisconsin. Why is he telling us this story? In fact, was it even history at all when it was being written and heard? If your grandmother tells you the sorted and exciting story of your family tree, you don’t then to call her a historian for doing so. Even if all of granny’s details are true down to the last word, history requires a sort of obvious grandeur and public significance that her story does not have.
But yet we constantly try to write our own divine histories with the sort of details that God never quite bothers with in his own histories. September 11 is the end of the world, we can find it in a bible code! Great event X was a punishment for the dramatic Federal action of doing Y, and for the large, well recognizable evil trends in our culture! There is widespread attrition in Church attendance, Jesus is coming soon! Kids and queers are having sex, this must be the end of the world! This is a view of history that would have skipped over Moses to tell the story of Ramses, skipped over Ezra to tell the story of Cyrus, and ignored Christ to tell us about Tiberius Caesar. We simply don’t have the kind of intellect required to tell a history that could situate the end of the world in contemporary events, in fact we don’t even have an intellect that is capable of understanding the prophesies of it concretely until after the fact.
There are also a few critics of Scripture that work from the same notion of history as those who think they can see the end of the world. Where is Arimathea? Where are the contemporary accounts of Mary Magdalen? Why don’t we have more evidence for the life of Christ? The reason is simple: to write about such persons was not to write history. What historian could teach a class on contemporary America by telling the story of his life in a small, break off religious sect?