What can we hope for?
By Lee C. Barrett | Reprinted from the June 1994 issue of the Presbyterian Survey (now Presbyterians Today)
We hear either too much or too little today about what Christians can ultimately hope for. On the one hand, contemporary “dispensationalists” like Hal Lindsey offer detailed accounts of the last days, rivaling Jurassic Park for sensational action. According to these epic scenarios, specific events like the establishment of the Jewish state in Palestine have initiated the spectacular end of our present era. The drama will culminate in the “rapturing” of believers out of automobiles and office buildings and into the heavens, followed by a time of terrible tribulation and the return of Christ to earth to rule for a thousand years.
On the other hand, the “mainline” pulpits, perhaps embarrassed by the “pie-in-the-sky-by-and-by” orientation of earlier generations, are strangely silent about “heaven” or “the end times.” One analyst of contemporary Christianity remarked that many Protestants seem to be hoping for nothing more than present personal “holism” and some form of social justice. If psychological and societal health exhaust Christian expectations, he concluded, the services of a good therapist and participation in a social action project should satisfy human yearnings adequately, making Christianity superfluous.
Eschatology, the doctrine of the final destiny of both human individuals and the entire cosmos, is caught between fanciful speculation and benign neglect. Both attitudes are harmful. The proliferation of end-of-the-world epics distracts us from the serious business of living the Christian life now and violates the humble limitations of human comprehension. On the other hand, the failure to say much at all concerning our ultimate hope leaves the church without a message powerful enough to grip the human heart enduringly. Is it possible to say something intelligible about our expectations without falling prey to escapist fantasies?
A look at deep-rooted themes in the Reformed theological tradition that undergirds the Presbyterian heritage may help orient us. The 16th- and 17th-century Reformed theologians and confessions of faith, while differing on some details, agree on most issues concerning the content of the Christian hope. Most important, their focus is consistently on God. The goal of life is the glorification and enjoyment of God.
Two themes are prominent here. First, we can be assured that God’s purposes for the entire created order will be achieved. God’s creative energy and sublime artistry will be magnificently displayed. Rather than being obliterated, the cosmos will be renewed, perfected, purged of impurities, and subjected to the rule of God.
Second, faithful persons can hope to experience unsurpassed communion with God, characterized by awe, wonder and fascination. After death the souls of the faithful joyfully anticipate the full blessedness that will follow the final judgment, while the souls of the unfaithful cringe in terror at the prospect of their condemnation. On the last day Christ will reunite all souls with their resurrected bodies, admit the faithful to perfect bliss, and consign the unfaithful to perdition. In their spiritual bodies the saints will live forever in rapt adoration of God.
Differences of opinion did develop within this tradition, largely generated by the tension between the focus on the fate of the soul immediately after death and the competing focus on the future judgment and end of history. One issue concerned the relation of resurrected individuals to the renewed earth. Would the saints exist in the purified earthly environment or merely view it from a heavenly perspective?
Another issue concerned the exact nature of the soul’s state between death and the resurrection of the body and final judgment. What is the difference between the soul’s joy immediately after death and its joy after the future resurrection of the body?
A final issue involved the relation of possible spiritual progress in history to the ultimate manifestation of Christ’s kingdom. Can we expect an increase in love and righteousness prior to Christ’s return, or will sin and tragedy continue unabated?
In spite of these tensions and ambiguities, we can find wisdom in the dual perspectives of Reformed eschatology. Both the “resurrection of the individual” and the “renewal of all things” address profound human longings. Humans ask both, “What can I personally hope for in the face of my own death?” and “What will ultimately happen to future generations and this planet I have called home?” Does my life add up to nothing more than a pile of decomposing organic matter? Will humanity continue to torture itself with economic exploitation and war, destroying other species until either we blow ourselves up or a solar explosion puts this globe out of its misery?
We long to know both that our personal lives will not vanish without a trace into the void and that somewhere, somehow swords will be permanently beaten into ploughshares and the lion will indeed lie down with the lamb.
The “soul” and “resurrection” imagery of the Reformed tradition dispels the paralyzing shadow that death casts over personal life. Admittedly, the tradition often speaks too precisely about things that are beyond human comprehension. Its concepts and images should not be treated as journalistic reports of future events, but rather as guidelines to give shape to our hopes.
The doctrine of the continued existence of the soul suggests that an individual life possesses a significance that will not be obliterated by death. Our yearnings for joy and satisfaction will not be frustrated by personal extinction. “Heavenly life” emphasizes that the essence of this bliss will be the direct experience of God’s glory and love, something that far surpasses the happiness this world can offer. As Christians we are hoping for something far more wonderful than functional families, intimate relationships, equitable economic opportunities, and psychological health.
Balancing this “soul” theme, the “resurrection of the body” motif reminds us that our eternal identity is rooted in our physical nature. My body is not a prison to be escaped from or an inconvenient piece of clothing to be discarded by the soul. My body is an integral part of me. Who I am cannot be divorced from the bodily particularities that have shaped my experience. Our past identities will not be negated nor will our earthly joys and sorrows be trivialized. Our resurrected selves will not be totally new selves unrelated to our past selves.
On the other hand, the reminder that our “spiritual” bodies will not be exactly like our earthly bodies warns that this preservation of our physical selfhood need not involve the reassembling of our scattered molecules or the resuscitation of corpses. We need not worry about the eternal perpetuation of warts or acne.
The theme of a “final judgment” of individuals underscores the eternal importance of the personal decisions that determine the course of our lives. It is a graphic way of insisting that what we have done with our lives is not a matter of indifference to God. Of course the imagery of the separation of sheep and goats, of lurking demons, and of unquenchable fire does not mean that God will literally torment certain individuals forever. We should be extremely loathe to put limitations on the extent and power of God’s reconciling love.
The theme of the future consummation of the entire cosmos compliments this “soul” motif like a contrapuntal melody. It corrects the first theme’s potential individualistic excesses and abuses, protecting our Christian hope from becoming self-centered and possessive. It counteracts the attitude that says “As long as I get saved, everything else can go to hell.”
Talk of the “end times” brings the destiny of future generations and God’s creation as a whole to center stage. The expectation of the coming “Kingdom of God” has a corporate, social dimension in which the human race’s aspirations for justice and community will be satisfied. The initiation of God’s realm in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus gives us the strength and courage to enact love and justice more fully in our current situations, confident of God’s final victory over inhumanity.
The reminder that the full manifestation of God’s reign will be brought about through God’s own activity in God’s own time warns us against ascribing redemptive power to our own political efforts and projects. The final triumph of love and justice will be God’s gift to the universe, not a human achievement.
Finally, the image of the whole natural world being purged of discord and tragedy reminds us that God’s purposes are not exhausted by the well-being of humanity or even of this solar system. Humanity is not the only show in the cosmic town. The vision of “a new heaven and a new earth” portrays the eventual participation of the entire created order, the universal family of which we are members, in God’s victory celebration. The “end” that Christians await will not be the destruction of the universe, but its fulfillment.
Our tradition offers a hope that is both individual and corporate, both other-worldly and this-worldly. We are promised both “heaven” and “the kingdom.” But what exactly will heaven or the kingdom be like? How are the two related? When or how will we experience them? In response to these questions the Reformed tradition advises a humble confession of ignorance. John Calvin wrote in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, “As far as I am concerned, I not only refrain personally from superfluous investigation of useless matters, but I also think that I ought to guard against contributing to the levity of others by answering them.”
We do not need to know the dimensions of heaven or the social arrangements of the kingdom. All we really require is the assurance that our future rests in God’s loving hands.
Lee C. Barrett, formerly on the faculty of the Presbyterian School of Christian Education, is now professor of theology at Lancaster (Pa.) Theological Seminary, a seminary of the United Church of Christ.