Book review: “Christ and the future”

Christ and the Future: The Bible’s teaching about the last things
Cornelius P Venema
Banner of Truth, Edinburgh, 2008. 240pp.

True story: I’m at a bowling club, and a slightly drunk middle-aged man approaches, recognizing me as the local Anglican minister. We get chatting as he waits for his lift. I ask whether he has any church connections. It turns out his wife’s sister is married to a Baptist pastor. “Is that a fact?” I say. “Do you ever talk to your brother-in-law about what he believes?” He says he doesn’t see him that often, but he’s a pretty good bloke, and he did lend him a book recently, which he read. (Praise God!) “What did you make of it?” I ask. He says it was pretty interesting stuff; it was called Left Behind. Have I read it?

Actually, no.

Where would you have gone with this conversation? I was aware of the Left Behind series and its take on how God’s plans might play out in reality. This is why, as we chatted, it struck me that beliefs about the future really matter, even at the level of basic gospel understanding. I didn’t want to say, “Jesus returned to the Father, and three major schools of thought have arisen about what will happen next”. I didn’t want to discuss differences between interpretations of the Bible. But this stuff is important: the gospel involves an announcement about the future.

This brings me to the subject of this review: Christ and the Future: The Bible’s teach­ing about the last things by Cornelius Venema. It’s hard to know what to say about this book. I’m glad I read it. Would I recommend it? Not for everyone. Let me explain.

As a serious book on an important subject, Christ and the Future has real virtues. For one thing, it’s a realistic length (240 pages). It’s biblical, clearly written and well set out. There are other recent books in similar territory, but this is more textbook-ish and less chatty than the excellent 666 and All That by John Dickson and Greg Clarke, and more comprehensive and less historically concerned than NT Wright’s Surprised by Hope. It’s pitched at the same level as The Briefing’s most substantial articles. Writing genuinely substantial books at this level is not easy to do! Scholars tend to overburden their books with detail and length, while those writing for the ‘average’ Christian can easily end up ‘dumbing down’ their subject and patronizing their readers. But Venema gets it right.

He begins with the Bible’s teaching about what will happen to each individual, before moving on to discuss the return of Christ, signs of the times, the kingdom, resurrection, judgement and new creation. At each stage, he explains the major alternative views before defending the one he sees as most biblical. This is why the book won’t be ideal for every reader: a large proportion of it is given over to explaining and examining views Venema thinks are mistaken. One-third of the book is spent addressing different understandings of the ‘millennium’ mentioned in Revelation 20. If you just want a handy reference guide to the Bible’s teaching on the future, this book will take you places you don’t want to go. But if you want to understand where the authors of Left Behind are coming from and where they go wrong, this may be the book for you. Venema’s purpose is not simply to set out the biblical position, but to help people find their way among competing understandings of God’s plans for the future.

It was written for an American setting where there are all sorts of influential and seemingly biblical beliefs about the future, shaping everything from expectations of gospel growth to views on wealth and contemporary Israel. Understanding these ‘isms’ and the differences between them is no easy task. With patience, Venema explains how people have arrived at such positions and why a careful reading of the relevant passages enables us to choose between them. To stay with him, however, you must stare down sentences such as “Historic Premillenialism is often referred to as post-tribulationism, in distinction from the pre-tribulationism that is commonly a feature of Dispensationalism” (p. 93). You up for that?

Venema recognizes that the core issue behind the ‘isms’ is hermeneutics—how you work out the meaning of a passage of Scripture. He takes the time to examine key passages (e.g. Rev 20), consider different ways of interpreting them, and argue for the sense he thinks most defensible. To his credit, he doesn’t shy away from important questions, such as annihilationism, judgement of believers and rewards in heaven.

This book clarified and challenged a couple of my views, but its main value was in helping me understand the range of positions held by others with whom I rarely come into contact. It also gave me a better sense of perspective on my own position.

So it’s a good book. But for whom? It’s hard to say; perhaps an ideal read for my new acquaintance’s brother-in-law?

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