(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.