1 Then I saw another mighty angel coming down from heaven, wrapped in a cloud, with a rainbow over his head, and his face was like the sun, and his legs like pillars of fire. 2 He had a little scroll open in his hand. And he set his right foot on the sea, and his left foot on the land, 3 and called out with a loud voice, like a lion roaring. When he called out, the seven thunders sounded. 4 And when the seven thunders had sounded, I was about to write, but I heard a voice from heaven saying, “Seal up what the seven thunders have said, and do not write it down.” 5 And the angel whom I saw standing on the sea and on the land raised his right hand to heaven 6 and swore by him who lives forever and ever, who created heaven and what is in it, the earth and what is in it, and the sea and what is in it, that there would be no more delay, 7 but that in the days of the trumpet call to be sounded by the seventh angel, the mystery of God would be fulfilled, just as he announced to his servants the prophets. 8 Then the voice that I had heard from heaven spoke to me again, saying, “Go, take the scroll that is open in the hand of the angel who is standing on the sea and on the land.” 9 So I went to the angel and told him to give me the little scroll. And he said to me, “Take and eat it; it will make your stomach bitter, but in your mouth it will be sweet as honey.” 10 And I took the little scroll from the hand of the angel and ate it. It was sweet as honey in my mouth, but when I had eaten it my stomach was made bitter. 11 And I was told, “You must again prophesy about many peoples and nations and languages and kings.”
Kurt Vonnegut’s 1969 novel Slaughterhouse-Five is a truly odd and wonderful piece of fiction. There is a scene in it in which aliens called the Tralfamadorians struggle to understand what time is for human beings. In describing this scene, Vonnegut crafts a truly memorable picture of our human limitations in perceiving reality. Here, the aliens are observing the human, Billy Pilgrim, who is being held in an alien zoo and observed by an alien crowd of onlookers.
There was a lot that Billy said that was gibberish to the Tralfamadorians, too. They couldn’t imagine what time looked like to him. Billy had given up on explaining that. The guide outside had to explain as best he could.
The guide invited the crowd to imagine that they were looking across a desert at a mountain range on a day that was twinkling bright and clear. They could look at a peak or a bird or a cloud, at a stone right in front of them, or even down into a canyon behind them. But among them was this poor Earthling, and his head was encased in a steel sphere which he could never take off. There was only one eyehole through which he could look, and welded to that eyehole were six feet of pipe.
This was only the beginning of Billy’s miseries in the metaphor. He was also strapped to a steel lattice which was bolted to a flatcar on rails, and there was no way he could turn his head or touch the pipe. The far end of the pipe rested on a bi-pod which was also bolted to the flatcar. All Billy could see was the little dot at the end of the pipe. He didn’t know he was on a flatcar, didn’t even know there was anything peculiar about his situation.
The flatcar sometimes crept, sometimes went extremely fast, often stopped—went uphill, downhill, around curves, along straightaways. Whatever poor Billy saw through the pipe, he had no choice but to say to himself, “That’s life.”
What a fascinating picture! We perceive reality, Vonnegut says, not by seeing the big picture but by being like a man on a train whose head is in a sphere and who can only look out through one little hole in the sphere down six feet of pipe which is itself bolted to the bed of the train car. So what we see is just the tiniest most miniscule perception of reality as it comes shooting past us on the train of life.
What an image! The Apostle Paul said something similar, though far less dramatic, when he wrote in 1 Corinthians 13.
12 For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.
Notice that Paul agrees with Vonnegut on the limitations of human knowledge. We see “in a mirror dimly” and we “know in part.”
But Paul adds something. Paul says that, because of Christ, we will be able to see more and more until we can see with perfect clarity when he comes.
In Revelation 10 we find a fascinating scene, another interlude in the action (this time between trumpets 6 and 7) which says something about time, about reality, and about our perception of it. In chapter 10, some things are hidden, some things are clear, but the picture begins to emerge more and more.