Nerd Alert! Nerd Alert! If you’re not into temporal mechanics or Eschatology you will likely find this boring but I just had to get this off my chest. Some of these blog posts I do just for me and, judging by the page counts, you already seem to know that.
We usually think of time (if we think of it at all) as a dimension of reality. You can stand still but time keeps moving in one direction (forward) without evidence of being there at all. There are a few problems with this concept of time (e.g. General Relativity for starters) but one problem in particular has more of an impact on you than you realize. Picturing time like a scale that we are sliding along limits your conception of God.
It’s important to note that the notion of linear time is not, in fact, biblical. It is a modern scientific concept that can be traced to Aristotles’s Physics. It quantifies time, where past and future are merely segments on a line. They are equal in quality. You add a pointer forward to account for the fact that the future becomes the past but never the other way around. Time appears to “flow” out of the future into the past.
A problem with this view is that it creates a “Watchmaker God” who draws up the blue prints and stands back with all foreknowledge and just lets it go down. Lots of people struggle with this idea on two fronts. First, it leaves God sitting back, passively watching the world go by like a twisted and sick movie. “Why doesn’t God intervene!?” The second problem is the classic chicken and the egg question, “is God unable to change the future?” If God makes a plan, is he then bound by that plan?
In Revelation 1:4 John describes Jesus as the one who is, who was and who is to come. The wording here is a bit odd. We would have expected it to be “was, is and will be.” That is the way Zeus is described in ancient Greek literature. He is described as eternal, always existing in the present tense. There is a subtle difference here in what John is saying about Jesus. He uses the future form of the verb “to come” rather than the verb “to be.” Jesus “was, is, and is to come.” The linear concept of time is broken in this third term. The way John describes it, God is not stationary, awaiting our arrival at some future point in linear time. It is God who is on the move. He is coming toward the present. God’s being is in his coming, not in his becoming. This is a subtle but significant difference.
God is not the Future King, he is the King right now… and he is coming. God’s promises and God’s Spirit precede his coming and announce it. God now already sets the present and the past in light of his final arrival, an arrival that will mean the establishment of a new kingdom. Jurgen Moltman once said that “the coming of God means the coming of a being that no longer dies and a time that no longer passes away. What comes is eternal life and eternal time.” The Kingdom of God comes from eternity into time, not out of the future into the present.
Chuck Klosterman, in his book Eating the Dinosaur has a great analogy that you can read about here. In short, he says that time is best thought of as a train riding along a track with one significant difference from your typical train. There are little people on the back of the train that pick up the tracks as soon as the train is finished travelling on them and these little people pass the track back up through the train and some other little people put these tracks back down in front of the train as it travels. The analogy is this: the past doesn’t exist, from our present point of view. Like our weird little train, you can’t go back into the past. It doesn’t exist! We remember it, we might try to construct a narrative description of it, but it doesn’t exist any longer. Once a moment is over, you can never go back.
Likewise, the future doesn’t exist from our present point of view. You can’t somehow skip ahead and find out what is going to happen. It doesn’t exist. All that exists, in our temporal created world, is the present. We remember the past, but can’t go back there. We are present in the moment, but the future is not out there waiting for us to arrive.
This is why Jesus describes the Kingdom of God as “near.” When the Pharisees asked Jesus when the Kingdom was going to come, Jesus said “The coming of the kingdom of God is not something that can be observed, nor will people say, ‘Here it is,’ or ‘There it is,’ because the kingdom of God is in your midst” (Luke 17:20-21). It’s on it’s way. “When” is the wrong question to be asking. Likewise, Mark’s summary of the Gospel is that “the Kingdom of God has come near” (Mark 1:15).
I think this way of seeing God’s engagement with the world is helpful. If God’s preferred future is out there somewhere and we are the ones that are moving toward it, why did God put it so darn far up the track? Why is he waiting so long?
But if God’s future rule and reign is already breaking into the world I can be on the lookout for where I see it happening. I can be part of it! In this way a church, any group of believers, can be an advance taste of the Kingdom. A place and a people where God rules and reigns.