by Edward W. H. Vick
What do you make of the following sentences taken with the qualification, ‘But we cannot tell you when’?
The end of the world is nigh.
Jesus is coming again soon?
God is about to judge the world and bring in his kingdom.
I am going to tell you a story soon, a parable really! But first some explanations.
Eschatology has to do with the end. The Greek word eschaton means ‘end’. In Scripture and in Christian theology that means we shall talk about the future of the human species. But while so talking we involve ourselves in the present. Sometimes that present brings very trying times, the desolation, suffering and despair hardly expressible. Indeed Scripture expressed recognition of this and provided encouragement in striking and disturbing symbols. Some whole ‘books’ employ apocalyptic language, their purpose being to offer the hope that God is in ultimate control. For that reason, even if the present has to be lived under galling, violent and destructive conditions, it can be a hopeful present but one calling for continuous courage and patient endurance.
Since the ‘end’ is in God’s hands, in the present there may be contentment, courage and hope born of patience. Eschatology touches the life of the believer in all aspects of life.
The believer may live in hope that in the end goodness may prevail over evil. God will act in his wisdom and in his own time. But that time is never disclosed to humans. No one knows the day nor the hour of the final dénouement. There can nevertheless be an incentive in the here and now for constructive efforts, for endurance when persecuted. Such hope for divine intervention when final justice will prevail provides incentive for constructive, courageous and ethical activity in the here and now.
Some, taking their cue from apocalyptic passages, feel that they have authentic knowledge of the nearness of the Advent, the parousia, the Last judgment. These believers even attempt to calculate from numbers in the apocalyptic writings when the final events will occur. When the event did not take place on the date or dates predicted, they experienced bitter disappointment. There are those today, retaining some of the original fervour, who say that they are living in the ‘time of the end’, a phrase often left undefined, but still serving as a basis for expectation.
Among the many themes discussed in the book, I now select one for our consideration. For those who take their primary interpretations from the apocalyptic portions of Scripture the issue is about the end of the world and the introduction of the new age. Many believers are ready to say that it will be ‘soon’ but insist that neither they nor anyone can know when the event will take place. They cannot say how long it will be for the waiting to end. While they say they cannot specify a date for the Second Advent, they persist in saying, even with urgency, that it will be ‘soon’. They use various synonyms when asked what ‘soon’ means: ‘imminent’, ‘in the very near future’, ‘without delay’, ‘nigh’, ‘almost upon us’. Such emphatic denial that specific times can be given would seem to make the claim empty, or even not a claim at all. Look a little closer.
There are some sentences that cannot be false because they cannot be true either. Why not? What kind of sentence could that be? Does it depend on what the words mean or what even a single word in the sentence means, or on how the sentence is put together?
Finally, here is the parable.
There was a farmer who had three sons. Each one of them said, ‘Father, I shall come to help you soon.’
The first one, Bob, said ‘I shall come to the farm soon, this Wednesday in fact.’
The second one, Tom, said ‘I shall come to the farm soon, within the next ten days.’
The third one, Hank, said, ‘I shall come soon, but I do not know when and cannot say when. Nor can I give you a set limit for when it will be.’
Father was well pleased, and went to bed content that evening.
The sons got together afterwards and fell into conversation. Hank said, ‘Father seems very pleased and is looking forward to my help, even if I did not commit myself in any way. I did not give a particular date, and I did not set a time limit either’.
‘So, what do you mean then? That is not a proper way to use the term “soon” is it? It amounts to an empty promise doesn’t it?’ asked Tom.
‘I mean just what I said, I don’t know when.’ responded Hank.
Bob broke in, ‘If you don’t know when, then you cannot say ‘soon’ can you? Or if you do, it can’t mean anything. We know what we mean. We know what we intend. Father knows exactly what to expect of us. But as far as you are concerned, you might as well not be coming to help at all. You have given father hope by saying you will come soon. You have taken away all meaning by saying that “soon” does not mean what the rest of us take it to mean. It is an empty term.’
‘So be it’ said Hank.
‘But look here,’ exclaimed Tom. ‘You have raised hopes in father but his hopes are not at all well founded.’
‘Look!’ said Hank, ‘what is important is that dad is happy. I do not see myself in the near future being able to spare the time. But if Dad thinks and hopes that I shall be helping, that is what is important. Hank smiled and continued, ‘Every time he asks why I have not yet come and when I will be coming I can always go on saying that I am coming soon to help. My “soon” is a kind of elastic ‘soon.’ It is an extensible ‘soon.’ So as long as Dad hopes and I go on saying I will come “soon”, we are both happy. He is happy because he thinks I shall be not long in coming. I am happy not to have to fulfill a definite promise. My “soon” is a different “soon” from your “soon”. ’
‘Promise!’ shouted Will. ‘You can’t call that a promise when no-one can possibly know what it means in terms of real time. It can’t be false and it can’t be true. It’s an empty sentence and such sentences can’t be false or true.’
Bob said, ‘We have given definite information about when he can expect us. You have not said anything at all. You could go on saying your ‘soon’ as long as you live!
So it was. Hank is still saying his ‘soon’ and Dad is still waiting expectantly.
Consider hortatory meaning.
Let’s now look at another example of a sentence that looks at first sight to be stating simple facts but whose primary meaning is something else and ask what that is.
It’s six thirty and the shops shut at seven.
If you ask, ‘What is the function of this sentence?’ the answer might very well be that it is suggesting, urging, reminding you that you should be getting off to the shops. It is not just giving you information. It is saying, ‘Let’s go. We’re hungry!
It is to be taken as a command, a call for response. Commands are neither true nor false. They are not cognitive. So the primary function of a sentence that makes a statement may not be to assert something, to inform you of a state of affairs, even if you take it to be doing that, but rather to arouse you to do something. Its primary function is hortatory. It may state a fact. But the statement of the fact is not the primary intended meaning of the sentence. Its primary meaning is non-cognitive. The essential function of such a sentence is not to state a fact, but by stating a fact to urge you to action: ‘Go and buy some bread while you can! Don’t you know we’re hungry?’ The function of the whole sentence is to provide encouragement, to exhort, to suggest (sometimes urgent) action. That’s what ‘hortatory’ means.
It has its hortatory function when two conditions are fulfilled. First, that what the sentence states is both true and is understood, and second that the hearer accepts that it states a fact. In our case, the temporal reference (i. e. within half an hour, or at seven o’clock) can be checked and only, if true, can it provide the ground for the incentive to act appropriately. Note that the temporal reference may consist in reference to a specific time, date or to a limit, a stretch of time as in the above case: ‘at seven o’clock’, ‘within half an hour’.
What we have here discussed represents one topic expounded in the book Eschatology. Others include:
New Testament Eschatology
Prophecy and Apocalyptic
Different kinds of eschatology
Words and Meanings
Jesus of the Gospels, the Eschatological Jesus
After the End
Another book by the author discussing these themes is available from Energion Publications: Edward W. H. Vick, The Adventists’ Dilemma