Reading the last chapter first

Do you read the last chapter of a book before you decide whether you want to read the rest of it?

I don’t, personally, but I have friends that do.  This past week, I even took a show of hands in one of my classes: a few students admitted that they habitually read the last chapter first, but many more seem to regard this as a species of cheating.

I can certainly understand the impulse.  One novel in particular (which shall remain nameless!) immediately comes to mind.  I was enjoying the writer’s style, the insider portrait she painted of a non-Western culture, the depth she gave to an ambiguous and festering marital conflict between two of the principal characters.

And then, just before the end of the book, she killed off the wife in a seemingly random act of violence and mistaken identity.

If I had known the book was going to end that way, I probably wouldn’t have read it.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not planning to adopt a last-chapter-first policy from now on (that’s not what Jesus meant by “the last shall be first”).  I would miss the satisfaction of enduring through the tension of a well-plotted novel to enjoy the resolution at the end.  And while we’re at it, I certainly wouldn’t ask anyone to give me the punchline of a joke before I decided whether to listen to the rest of it.

But there’s an important sense in which the Christian life is lived into a future that is already known, already anticipated.  We live a story whose last chapter has already been written, and we are encouraged to keep that last chapter in mind as we go forward: what kind of life now is appropriate to that ending?

This is particularly true of the way the Bible makes sense of suffering.  Here’s Paul, for example, writing of Christian hope: “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us” (Rom 8:18, NIV).  Or take Peter, writing to a scattered and persecuted church:

May the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ be blessed!  On account of his vast mercy, he has given us new birth.  You have been born anew into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.  You have a pure and enduring inheritance that cannot perish—an inheritance that is presently kept safe in heaven for you.   Through his faithfulness, you are guarded by God’s power so that you can receive the salvation he is ready to reveal in the last time.  (1 Pet 1:3-5, CEB)

In a deeply therapy-minded culture, we are much more prone to making sense of our present by reference to our past: I am who I am today because of the experiences of yesterday.  We’re less inclined to ask how we should live in the present in light of the future, in part because the future seems uncertain.

But the biblical perspective is one in which we’re asked to believe that God is bringing all of human history to a glorious conclusion, in which heaven and earth will be renewed, and God will dwell with his people (e.g., Rev 21:1-4).  And knowing this, we are asked to live accordingly, as a people who have a firm and unshakeable hope.

I know.  The Bible does not and cannot tell each individual person’s story.  It cannot answer all the questions about the future that plague us.  We’re finally getting married; but am I making the right choice?  My teenager has gone off the rails; will he ever get his life together again?  I’ve been out of work for a year; when will I find a job?  My mother has just been diagnosed with cancer; will this be the end? 

These are legitimate questions and concerns, reasons for prayer and seeking the support of our brothers and sisters.  I just hope that part of the conversation would be to encourage one another to know that whatever happens in our limited lifetime, we are all part of a much grander story whose ending is already given to us:

He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more. There will be no mourning, crying, or pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.  (Rev 21:4, CEB)

That’s the last chapter; that’s our ultimate destiny.  How might that make a difference today?