Definition of Eschatology: 1) a branch of theology concerned with the final events in the history of the world or of humankind; 2) a belief concerning death, the end of the world, or the ultimate destiny of humankind; specifically: any of various Christian doctrines concerning the Second Coming, the resurrection of the dead, or the Last Judgment
Life on earth will certainly not continue for ever. Even if it survives the hazards of future local catastrophes, either of a natural kind (such as the asteroid impact that eliminated the dinosaurs sixty-five million years ago) or of the kind that results from human folly (such as an all-out nuclear war), there will inevitably come a time when the sun will have used up all its core hydrogen fuel, with the consequence that it will expand to form a red giant, thereby destroying any life still surviving on this planet. This solar disaster will not happen for a very long time, for the sun has about five billion years' worth of hydrogen still left to burn, but it will happen one day... Ultimately the whole earth is condemned to final futility, either as a result of the bang of collapse back into the Big Crunch or as a result of the whimper of decay into low grade radiation, expanding and cooling for ever....If things continue as they have been, it is as sure as can be that all forms of carbon-based life will prove to have been no more than a transient episode in the history of the universe (John Polkinghorne, Science and the Trinity: The Christian Encounter with Reality. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004, pp. 143-144).
And with these words, theoretical physicist turned Anglican priest, John Polkinghorne reveals the challenge theology is faced with now that we know the transient nature of the universe. Polkinghorne asks, "How then can theology claim to interpret this dismal forecast as the 'thorough finishing' of God's creation?" (p. 144).
The stakes in this discussion are high. The fact is, though it is billions of years away (and if we don't do ourselves in first), the earth will indeed one day become very inhospitable to life. And then long after that, the universe will possibly collapse in on itself-- a big bang in reverse. And if it doesn't end that way, it will end in another. Does all of this suggest, as some believe, that the universe is not really a creation at all, but an order without a purpose that inevitably will end in a meaningless chaos to be followed by nothing? How do those of us who believe that the universe is no accident, that it is indeed a creation with meaning and purpose, respond to the grim character of such future predictions?
Polkinghorne has a response and he thinks this is no time for Christians to be timid in expressing our convictions on these matters. He writes, "...it is of the highest importance that Christians and the Christian Church should not lose nerve in witnessing to our generation about the eschatological hope that is set before us" (p. 145).
In developing a "credible theology" on these matters, Polkinghorne establishes four "eschatological criteria:
1) If the universe is a creation, it must make sense everlastingly and so ultimately it must be redeemed from transience and decay.
2) If human beings are creatures loved by their Creator, they must have a destiny beyond their deaths. Every generation must participate equally in that destiny, in which it will receive the healing of its hurts and the restoration of its integrity, thereby participating for itself in the ultimate fulfilment of the divine purpose.
3) In so far as human imagination can articulate eschatological expectation, it has to do so within the tension between continuity and discontinuity. There must be sufficient continuity to ensure that individuals truly share in the life to come as their resurrected selves and not as new beings given old names. There must be sufficient discontinuity to ensure that the life to come is free from the suffering and mortality of the old creation.
4) The only ground for [eschatological] hope lies in the steadfast love and faithfulness of God, which is testified to by the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
We will look each of these criteria in more detail in future posts.