A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Monday, August 27, 2012

Science and the Eschatological Challenge to Theology (Part 3)

(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 (John Polkinghorne, Science and the Trinity: The Christian Encounter with Reality. New Haven: Yale University Press, p. 149.)
Once again, John Polkinghorne reminds us of the question in focus: "Does the universe make total sense, now and forever?" (p. 151). His response to the question is yes, but the answer is complex. If we accept the belief that there is a Creator and that Creator is relational and loving, then it is logically coherent to accept that human life does not end at the cessation of biological functions. There is more to come. I have divided this second of Polkinghorne's eschatological criterion into four parts.
First, if everything is to be put to rights, it cannot happen in this current futile state. There can be no fully attainable utopia this side of human history. This does not mean that human beings should not be diligent in seeking justice and peace for all, but a terrestrial utopian kingdom cannot be utopian simply because "it could only be the subject of the transient enjoyment of its mortal members, and it would have been denied totally to all the generations that had preceded its coming" (p. 149). Those preceding generations cannot find such justice unless there is a destiny beyond their deaths. And that leads logically to the second part of the argument.

Second, justice can only be achieved if there is life after death. Polkinghorne writes eloquently on the matter. "We shall all die with our lives incomplete, with possibilities unfulfilled and with hurts unhealed. This will be true even of those fortunate enough to die peacefully in honoured old age. How much more must it be true of those who die prematurely and painfully, through disease, famine, war or neglect. If God is the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, all the generations of oppressed and exploited people must have the prospect of life beyond death, in which they will receive what was unjustly denied them in this life" (p. 150).
Every human being has experienced life's incompleteness. We not only sense this with our own lives, but with the lives of our loved ones and friends. We may enjoy the blessing of parents who lived to a ripe old age, but after death, there is still more we would like to say if we could, and there is still more we wish we could do with them. Their absence at the table is felt, years after their demise. It is because we human beings are relational and loving that we feel this sense of incompleteness. If God is loving and relational as well, God too does not want the relationship with his Creation to end. God desires more as well.
If God is just, then everything must be put to rights. If, for example, there will be no ultimate justice given to the victims of the Holocaust and served to its perpetrators, then if there is a Creator, he is neither loving nor just. Atheism is to be preferred to the belief in an unloving, uncaring deity.
Polkinghorne also puts forth his belief in postmortem evangelism-- that those who never had the opportunity to hear the good news of the gospel in this life must have it presented to them after death. This too is a matter of justice. It seems to me, however, that Polkinghorne's concern here can be adequately addressed by embracing an inclusivist approach, in which God judges all persons based on the revelation they have received in this life.
Regardless of the differences of perspective on how one is judged in light of the gospel, the point is clear--a just and loving Creator will not allow death to be the end.
Third, since human beings are always ends and never means, "then it is a theological truth that each individual human being has an everlasting ultimacy in the purposes of the Creator" (p. 151). Christianity takes death very seriously; it has never denied death as a stark reality. While much popular Christian reflection in the Platonically influenced West has viewed life after death as a kind of disembodied spiritual experience in heaven, the New Testament writers instead affirm bodily resurrection. Eternity will be in some fashion a material existence not subject to decay and futility. "Death, in Christian understanding, is a real end, but it is not the ultimate end, for only God is ultimate. The last word does not lie with death but with God" (p. 151).
Fourth, the animal kingdom will participate in the new creation. As mentioned in the previous post, very few theologians have taken up this matter directly. C. S. Lewis and John Wesley are two exceptions. For both thinkers, it would be unjust for God not to allow the animals to be a part of the new creation since they are not responsible for its transience and decay. Polkinghorne's embrace of this possibility is more experiential-- "...I cannot imagine that there will be no animals in the new creation. That would be an impoverished world" (p. 152).
Of course, Polkinghorne is quick to recognize that while animals must be valued because they are part of a lovingly created world, he does not think they should be valued in the same way ("more in the type than in the token") as human beings. He writes, "This is the kind of understanding that enables many of us to agree that it is morally permissible, in circumstances of limited forage, to cull a herd of deer, preserving the group at the cost of humane killing of some of its members. Such a policy could certainly not be ethically countenanced in relation to a human population" (p. 152).
Indeed, we may debate whether or not the gospel will be presented to human beings after their death, but there is good reason we do not have the same discussion over horses and dogs and chipmunks.
Polkinghorne warns at this point, that there "comes a time when it is best to call a halt to eschatological speculation and to heed the advice, 'wait and see' (p. 152).
I shall take his advice and end the post here.
More to come in the fourth part of this series.


John said...

I have to take issue with the claim that a just and loving god must provide for a life after death where all wrongs are righted and all possibilities and promises are fulfilled. The promise is that healing will occur, which can take on many meanings; regarding the idea of accomplishing justice, healing will likely involve more forgiving on the part of the victims than retribution and debt paying by the perpetrators. Healing is about shalom and peace, not reciprocal fairness.

Unfulfilled possibilities? The progression of life is the progression of choices, by others and by ourselves, each of which pushes us toward one set of possibilities while moving away from others. Each of the discarded possibilities will remain unfulfilled. In death our potentialities are narrowed yet again, but at the same time we embrace all new possibilities, as yet undisclosed.

Justice is a human notion, a human hope and a human expectation. It means nothing in the divine context, which is governed, according to Scripture, by the preemanent values of love, compassion and mercy - each of which are defined by God and not humans. Human abstractions and realities are not standards for God, even though we filter our beliefs, hopes and dreams through them.

The notion of animals in heaven makes no theological sense to me. With respect to the idea of bodily resurrection, I have interpreted this to mean not that we will have bodies, but that we will retain our sense of identity.

We need to move away from notions of the afterlife as sequels to our earthly existence. We don't ak our bodies with us, or our pets, maybe not even those people we love the most. We don't get revenge and we won't get rewarded, and we won't fulfill our limited human dreams, if we continue to dream on such a limited scale at all.

The afterlife is about hope, and healing, and moving to the next stage in our relationship with our Creator.

John said...

...we don't take our bodies...

Allan R. Bevere said...

Thanks for your comments, John.

I am having trouble reconciling your views with Scripture.

First, regardless of how justice is defined (and I am not defining it as you seem to think I am), the Bible is clear that God will judge. If God is perfectly just then God will act in accordance with God's nature.

Second, justice is certainly a human notion, but our sense of justice comes from a just God. It is true that often we are not exactly sure how to secure the justice we seek. It is as unbiblical to marginalize justice in favor of love, mercy, and compassion, as it is to marginalize love at the expense of justice. Indeed pitting justice against love misunderstands both.

Third, there are visions in the prophetic literature of a peaceable kingdom which includes animals. Moreover, in Romans and in Colossians Paul clearly envisages a redemption that is cosmic in scope. It's not just human beings longing for that day, but all of creation.

Fourth, the New Testament assumes that resurrection is somehow bodily. You can take issue with that, but your interpretation is not the biblical portrayal.

John said...

God is just. OK. And God will judge. OK. But what do those concepts mean to humans in practical terms?

A God who promises unlimited mercy cannot at the same time be one who demands compliance with a strict standard of thought and conduct. Scripture sets out specific teachings on mercy, forgiveness and love, and repeats them over and over again.

Scripture also repeats the claim that God is just, and that we are called to be a just people. But we are also encouraged to forego our rightful claims to justice in favor of forgiveness and mercy. Divine justice remains undefined for the most part, and the world remains unfair for the most part, and it cannot be denied that there is no visible evidence that justice, however defined, prevails. There will be no compensation for the the various acts of genocide which have taken place through the millenia of human existence. The murdered and the violated, those ruined and destroyed by disease and cruel misfortune, they cannot be rendered whole. But we humans see mercy, and love, and forgiveness, and we express and experience them all the time.

Whatever 'justice' means to God, mercy trumps it. For humans 'justice' is at best an abstraction; mercy is attainable, compassion is doable. That seems to me to be the message of Scripture and the message of the natural world.

John said...

The only notion justice which comes wholly from God is that of a life lived consistently within the will of God. Such justice will not include retributive components, and will not include reciprocal fairness between neighbors. It will not involve any sort of equal distribution of blessings. Each of these notions are purely human in origin.

Justice involves unlimited neighborliness, loving kindness, covenantal responsibility, and self sacrifice. Blessings will flow to each according to God's mysterious will, measured only according to God's boundless love.

Allan R. Bevere said...

A God who promises unlimited mercy

Where does God promise mercy to be unlimited?

For humans 'justice' is at best an abstraction; mercy is attainable, compassion is doable.

That is a rather odd claim. It is true that doing the just thing is not always clear, but neither is it clear what actions are merciful and compassionate.

Allan R. Bevere said...

I should have said, "neither is it always clear..."

John said...

The assurance is that if we repent we will be forgiven. No qualifications. Seems pretty limitless to me. Not that there will not be natural consequences to our actions - especially in this world; in terms of divine response, mercy seems to be the prevailing quality.

Justice IS an abstraction. If absolute justice exists, it is as incomprehensible as God. It cannot be measured or even defined. And given that each of us defines justice differently in each situation, the human understanding of justice is indisputably relative. So what value is justice?

But we can see and do mercy. And mercy and compassion are of immeasurable value. While we can also respond with different degrees of mercy and compassion, the responses are nevertheless merciful, no matterhow far they fall short of what God requires.

Please understand, I am not opposed to seeking justice however an individual might define it, it is that I abhor those who claim the Christian label when seeking justice over against compassion. And I am certain that those who live in the hope and dream of one day receiving or witnessing God rendering "justice" to those who deserve it are going to be sorely disappointed.

Divine Judgment will surprise us all. I suspect that it will not involve the dispensing of rewards and punishments so much as the healing of those who have suffered, no matter how unjustly.

Allan R. Bevere said...

We will be forgiven if we repent. Of course, but we must repent.

I find the rest of what you say to be incoherent.

John said...

Incomprehensible? Really? Nothing new here, just an argument for mercy over justice.

I am surprised by your opposition. Sorry to trouble you.

Allan R. Bevere said...


You are not troubling me. It's hard to answer you when you speak in such abstractions as mercy and compassion being of immeasurable value. That really makes no sense. Neither does it make sense to say that justice is an abstraction only. Yes, there is an abstract quality to it, but that by far does not explain the nature of justice.

Moreover, the Bible has just as much to say about justice as it does mercy. You reject the former in favor of the latter, which is something Scripture does not do.

And I did not say incomprehensible. I said incoherent. It seems to me that your argument is arbitrary.

Allan R. Bevere said...

And again, you pit justice against mercy, which is something Scripture does not do either.