When you read the Bible in its full sweep—not just bits and pieces here and there, a verse-of-the-day or even a chapter a day, but as one interconnected whole—you get the feeling that the universe is going somewhere. There is a story that is being played out, even if its plot line is sometimes hard to discern. This may seem obvious, because in our worldview history is viewed as something moving along a line. (It’s not for nothing that embedded in the word “history” is that word “story”, which implies a beginning, middle, and end, or at the very least a first chapter and then second, third, fourth and on in subsequent order.) But that is because our Western culture has its roots in a church culture (even if that church culture was at times not a Christian culture) that shaped it. Not all cultures and the religions that shape them look at history in the same way. Buddhism, for example, has no account of creation and denies any beginning or end of space or time: what is now always has been and always will be. The Hindu saga consists of endless cycles of time and innumerable universes. History is not a line but a circle or perhaps more accurately a spiral. But the biblical story is neither static nor cyclical. It depicts a reality that is moving in a certain direction. The Bible opens poetically with a world rising out of chaos (“the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep,” Gen. 1:2) and ends, also poetically, with a world in which “there are no more tears” (Rev. 21:4). The Bible portrays the world as a creative process, not the changeless substance the ancient Greeks favored. And even science agrees.
It’s not popular in some Christian circles to embrace current scientific theories concerning the origins of the universe, but if we would stop and listen, we might hear some pretty profound things. Starting with the fact that our universe is expanding and working backward, scientists postulate a time, called a singularity, when the entire universe was densely compacted into a space just a few millimeters in diameter. It then exploded and has been cooling and expanding ever since.
What was the universe like before the singularity? No one knows, and there is nothing out there that gives any clue. There is just the singularity, and nothing before. In other words, there is a beginning, and there is everything after that. And to say that there is a beginning is to say that there is an end, but not in the sense that all movement will come to a screeching halt. To say there is an end is to say that the universe is going somewhere—that there is a destination. It isn’t static. There is a past, and there is a future, and while the two are linked, they are different. The future is not the same old thing as in the past—a static view—nor is it a repeat of the past—the cyclical view, but it is a whole new thing that is in keeping with what came before. This is very biblical. The Bible portrays our world as having a beginning and an end i.e. a goal, a time of fulfillment. Jesus called it the Kingdom of God.
There is a clear link between past and future, beginning and end. But it does not consist of trying to return to a lost golden age. All churches face the struggle with those who want the church to be the way it always was and those who want to move it forward, but this is natural. Indeed, just about every denomination and every recent new movement in Christianity claims to be trying to return the church to some ideal past, whether it be Pentecostals reviving the church depicted in Acts, or Catholics claiming a straight-line progression from Jesus through the apostles down to the present pope, or the Baptists, Presbyterians and Congregationalists each claiming that their form of governance is that of the New Testament church. But there is no road back to the primitive church or to the “old-time religion” American revivalists sing about.
Nonetheless, the impulse to look back is good. The future is not forged by forgetting the past but by learning from it, both from its mistakes and from its successes. What we should be doing today and tomorrow is to continue what Jesus and those who immediately followed him were doing; otherwise we’ll find ourselves doing something very different and calling it Christianity. Looking backward in order to move forward is not easy, but it is not frivolous. Unlike Hinduism, whose beginnings merge into the mists of primeval legend, there was a real historical time when there was no Christianity; then suddenly there it was. It is understandable, therefore, that Christians periodically revisit Jesus and the first few Christian generations to remind themselves what the original movement was about at its onset. Understanding our past can reopen roads that might have been taken, but were not.
Our pasts can shackle us, but if we follow Jesus as he moves toward the promised Kingdom, our pasts can also root us into the full sweep of an ever expanding faith.