666 and All That: The Truth About the Future by John Dickson and Greg Clarke (Sydney: Blue Bottle Books, 2007).
Reviewed by Katy Annis
What happens in the End? What does the Bible say will happen in the future?
The theological term most often used to describe the end of times is ‘eschatology’. 666 and All That by John Dickson and Greg Clarke addresses the topic of eschatology, a subject that both fascinates and concerns many people.
Dickson and Clarke treat this subject with a clear, concise and ‘no-nonsense’ approach. This book has a simple underlying argument; that is, Scripture itself does not provide a literal ‘play-by-play’ description of what the future will be like, therefore, we have little to gain by attempting to understand it in this way. Rather, they suggest that our focus should be on the promises, the hope and the joy that Christians can anticipate in the future Kingdom.
In the introduction, both Dickson and Clarke explain their personal reasons for writing this book. They acknowledge a preoccupation with eschatology in their earlier days as Christians, and state a desire to help other Christians read the Bible in a way that is both helpful and faithful to scripture (pp 7-10). With their sound use of Scripture and clearly stated opinions on the subject matter, I think they achieve this goal well. However, it could be noted that at times the reader is informed of an opinion, as opposed to being given both sides of the argument.
The first chapter of this book focuses on the subject of hope. This is a helpful beginning because it points the reader towards the future and simultaneously grounds them in Scripture. Quoting Paul’s phrase in 1 Corinthians 13:13 (‘faith, hope and love’) as the characteristics of Christian life, the authors identify hope as the often forgotten (or ‘poor-cousin’) of the three, claiming it is often overlooked and misunderstood. The chapter then proceeds to discuss a correct understanding of hope as we find in Scripture. Especially helpful at this point is the explanation that our future hope is something all Christians can look forward to because of what has been accomplished through Jesus (p 22). The benefit of beginning the book this way is that it quickly suggests to the reader that whatever the future holds for Christians (whatever the order of events, whatever the details), our hope is in a wonderful and glorious promise, and that fact alone should provide us with joy, not anxiety or concern. This book begins with a ‘pastoral feel’ to it.
The argument that future events are not literally described in Scripture, is most comprehensively addressed in Chapter 5 with the topic of Jesus’ return. Dickson and Clarke argue that the Old Testament prophesies about the promised Messiah lacked precise details. They support this argument by citing the seemingly contradictory prophesies of Isaiah in Chapter 11 and Chapter 53 (p 66). They then logically suggest that if the prophecies regarding the first coming were ‘abstract’ and ‘multi-layered’ why should we expect something different at the climax of salvation history (p 67)? Put simply, I think their message is: if the precise details are not provided, Christians should avoid being so consumed with trying to find precise answers. Instead, the Bible’s use of imagery, symbolism and metaphors are a means of helping people to understand the glory of the Kingdom of God.
One of the chapters in this book that I found most helpful from a ministry perspective was chapter 9. This chapter addresses the question: what will happen (in the future) to those people who have never heard the gospel? This chapter answers the question by exploring the nature of God and the nature of judgement. The authors write about this topic with wisdom and compassion (p 132).
The penultimate chapter of this book is also helpful from a ministry perspective. It addresses the effect our actions in this life will have on our final judgement. While the chapter provides a fairly cursory explanation of how good deeds and faith work together, it implores the reader to remember that our actions in this life should be taken seriously. Quoting 1 Corinthians 3:12-15 (‘fire [that will] test the quality of each persons work‘), it explains that as Christians we will ultimately be protected from God’s wrath (because of Jesus). However, this will not make us immune to feeling some of the effects of our deserved judgement, in accordance with our actions. The authors use the illustration of a bomb shelter; we are kept safe and alive, yet, we will still feel the effects (p 187). While this chapter has some very helpful points, I think more Scriptural evidence, or further explanation, regarding what it means to partially feel the impact of God’s judgement would have been useful.
The book concludes with a chapter on God’s grace. This final chapter pulls the threads together and emphasizes the sure hope that Christians have. If we truly trust in Jesus as our Lord, then no matter what mistakes we make, or how we interpret future events, the ultimate message is ‘God’s grace triumphs over our failures’ (p 192). Above all, God’s grace and Jesus’ death are the one thing that we can, and should, be certain of.
The breadth of topics covered make this book a great resource for introducing someone to these issues, and I would happily give it to someone in this position. However, its lack of depth, and failure to delve deeply into both sides of the arguments, make it less suitable for someone who has already done a significant amount of reading on the topic. That being said, the authors themselves state that some topics are not explored deeply because they do not warrant the amount of time that people spend trying to work them out (p 77).
In addition to writing about eschatology, Dickson and Clarke also provide people with a sound insight in to how the Bible should be read and interpreted. They helpfully outline the various genres of the Bible and demonstrate why anyone reading the Bible (for any reason) should be aware of them. Chapter 2 does this especially well with an overview and explanation of each genre (pp 25-35). Especially helpful is the section on symbolism, as it is distinguished from the use of imagery (p 30).
Dickson and Clarke have written a book that both educates and encourages readers regarding the topic of eschatology. Their opinions are given directly and unapologetically, with careful use of Scripture. My favourite thing about this book is its pastoral perspective. It helpfully addresses many questions that cause people concern, however, the overall message is one of hope and assurance as we anticipate the glorious Kingdom of God.