Reckoning with Tech
“The doctrine of last things certainly has to reckon with all these things.”
The above quote comes from an interesting little paragraph in Herman Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics, “the concluding high point” of four centuries of Dutch Reformed reflection. By “these things,” Bavinck means the technological developments in communication up into the early 20th century. He writes,
“The inventions of the past century—for the purpose of mutual contact, the exercise of community, hearing and seeing things at a great distance—have shrunk distances to a minimum; and it is likely that they are a mere beginning and prophecy of what will be discovered in the centuries ahead.”
The new communication technologies during Bavinck’s life time (1854-1921) included telegraphy, the “wireless,” the telephone, the radio, and cinematography. As early as 1900 enthusiasts were even discussing the possibilities of something called “television.” That Bavinck relates the importance of these inventions to the coming apostacy, the Apocalypse, and the Parousia is . . . well, interesting. Humans have harnessed electricity to see and hear from afar; might this play some part in understanding John’s unique descriptions in his vision (e.g. the image of the beast)?
Bavinck contrasts these all-at-once technologies with the glorious appearance of Christ, an occurrence that includes a series of events: the resurrection of the dead, a meeting in the air, the defeat of Christ’s enemies, and the Judgment. Bavinck says all of this cannot possibly take place in one moment, but will probably happen within a 12-hour or 24-hour time span.
Of course, one is hard pressed to believe that television is required to fulfill the prophecy that every eye shall see Him (Rev. 1:7). Yet while Jesus does not need television (despite what some televangelists might believe), the Beast of Revelation might make good use of it. For that matter, the antichrist might even benefit from the kind of surveillance technologies now being used in places like China.
While we are speculating, electrical artifice certainly seems more fitting for the son of perdition than the Son of Man. After all, Christ, made the world out of nothing. The Parousia will be a super-organic event, what Geerhardus Vos called a “phantastic” phenomenon. As the occasionally astute theologian James T. Kirk once asked, “What does God need with a starship?” More to the point, why would Jesus need television cameras to bring down heaven and transform the earth?
Nevertheless, Bavinck was on to something as he considered the connection between eschatology and technology. And he wasn’t alone. Born just a decade before Bavinck’s death, communication theorist Marshall McLuhan would spend much time reflecting on the subject. It was McLuhan who helped coin the term “global village.” Appearing before a New York audience in the mid-1960s, McLuhan said,
“There might come a day when we will have portable computers, about the size of a hearing aid, to help us mesh our personal experience with the experience of the great wired brain of the outer world.”
That was really weird back then. But he was talking about how all electronic media, taken together, would restructure the world as we know it. He said the entire globe was fast becoming a small village-like affair where speech, drum, and ear are transmitted through every-where-at-once technologies. Fifty or sixty years ago intellectuals scorned McLuhan for saying such things. Now they take his writings much more seriously.
McLuhan saw both promise and poison in new media. A Roman Catholic convert, his optimism was fueled by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s theology, which allowed him to ponder how the “psychic communal integration” made possible in a global village might usher in a universal consciousness assumed in a future mystical body of Christ.
On the other hand, McLuhan’s darker pessimistic side gave him reservations about where our great global hookup was taking us. In his mind there were two possible destinations: Christ, or chaos. Toward the end of his life he contemplated how the Apocalypse might reckon with our new lightspeed visual technologies where new tribal chieftains would replace democratic-oriented politicians. Hitler had already taught us that propaganda, effectively used, could create a highly persuasive dream-world pointing back to the gods of old.
As communication technologies continue to shape and reshape the world, McLuhan’s words are worth revisiting:
“The extensions of man’s consciousness induced by the electronic media could conceivably usher in the millennium, but it also holds the potential for realizing the Anti-Christ—Yeat’s rough beast, its hour come round at last . . . slouching toward Bethlehem to be born.”
Arthur W. Hunt III, PhD, teaches Public Speaking and the Rhetorical Tradition for the Honors Program at the University of Tennessee at Martin. He is also a student at Reformed Theological Seminary Global Studies. He enjoys speaking to churches about faith, culture, and technology.
Podcast: "Three Pieces of Glass"
"Envy in the Digital Age" by Brad Littlejohn
"A Celebration and Lament over Science" by Vern Poythress
"The Bible and the Future" by Anthony Hoekema
PCRT '20 — Revelation: The Sovereign Reign of the Exalted Christ, with Cornelis Venema, Derek Thomas, Philip Ryken, Richard Phillips, and Joel Beeke.
 Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics: Holy Spirit, Church, and New Creation, vol. 4, John Bold, ed. John Vriend, trans. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006), 692.
 See editor’s introduction in Bavinck, 16-17.
 Ibid., 692.
 Ibid., 691-2.
 Geerhardus Vos, The Pauline Eschatology (Anthem, 2019), 155.
 Philip Marchand, Marshall McLuhan: The Medium and the Messenger (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1998), 180.
 For more on McLuhan see Arthur W. Hunt III, “Remembering Marshall McLuhan,” in Surviving Technopolis: Essays on Finding Balance in Our New Man-Made Environments (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2013), 1-11.
 Marchand, Marshall McLuhan, 216.
 Eric McLuhan and Frank Zingrone, eds., Essential McLuhan (New York: Basic Books, 1995), 268.