Disciples and Eschatology Part 3: The Future of Hope
Note: This is part three of a conversation about eschatology. With this series of posts I bring to a close a conversation about Disciples of Christ theology, what I hope is the foundation of a book on Disciples theology for use in churches to stimulate theological conversation.
Although the various millennial viewpoints disagree as to the time line of the kingdom, all affirm that at some point the kingdom of God will be established in its fullness. With this linear view of history in place, the end of history is not seen negatively, but is seen as more a transition to something else in God’s economy. Therefore, the future holds out for us the promise of God’s hope. Our hope for the future is, as Jürgen Moltmann asserts, found in Christ, and our remembrance of him, including our remembrance of his death and his resurrection.
The present and the future, experience and hope, initially clash in Christian faith. Between them is the remembrance of Christ crucified by the powers of this world. It is only beyond the cross that we can see the first daybreak colors of God’s new world. This means that Christian hope is a “hope against hope,” or a hope where there is nothing left to hope for. [Jürgen Moltmann, In the End – The Beginning: The Life of Hope. Margaret Kohl, trans., (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004), pp. 89-90.]
As Christians, whatever we say about the future must be seen in line with what has already happened in and through Christ’s death and resurrection. As Paul makes clear in 1 Corinthians 15, the resurrection of the people of God is contained in Christ’s resurrection. He writes: “Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died” (1 Cor. 15:20). Paul suggests that the time of the resurrection of those who belong to Christ awaits the coming of Christ (1 Cor. 15:23). Thus, even as we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus, we do so in the hope of our own resurrection.
The Christian understanding of eternity must be seen in light of Greek understandings that have greatly influenced the development of Christian beliefs about the next life. Plato, and most Greeks with him, sharply distinguished between the soul and the body, with the soul being immortal and the body perishable. It was believed that the soul entered the body at birth and left it at death. While Christians have traditionally understood the soul to be immortal, the idea of this intrinsic immortality is not found in Scripture. 1 Timothy 6:16 asserts quite strongly that God "alone has immortality." Whatever immortality we have comes as a gift from God, but it does not define who we are. There is a further problem with such an understanding, for it presents us with an inherent dualism between body and soul, where the human essence is found in the soul and not the body.
Christian faith proclaims the reality of life after death, but what is its nature? There have been several answers posed, especially concerning an intermediate state. For some death serves as immediate entrance into eternity. Death and resurrection are essentially one event. A second view is "soul sleep." In this view, after death the soul sleeps and awaits the resurrection. Among the proponents of this view was Martin Luther as well as modern Seventh Day Adventists. Biblical passages that at least suggest sleep as the intermediate state include: 1 Kings 2:10; John 11:11; Acts 7:60; 13:36; 1 Cor. 15:6, 18, 20, 51; 1 Thess. 4:13-15. Another way of viewing life after death is to speak of a conscious existence of the soul. In this view the period between death and resurrection involves a disembodied state of personal consciousness outside bodily existence. One of the ways this has been conceived is in terms of purgatory, a place and time of further purification of the soul. The biblical foundations of this view are weak if non-existent. While each of these views has some support in Scripture and/or in Christian tradition, Scripture itself is quite sketchy. Much that we do know comes from parables, such as the parable of Lazarus and the rich man (Luke 16:19-31). From a biblical perspective, hope is placed in the resurrection, even if we do not know what that resurrected life ultimately looks like. The New Testament assumes that this will be a bodily resurrection of some type. Paul suggests that the natural and perishable body will give way to a spiritual and imperishable body in the Resurrection (1 Cor. 15:42-46). With this there is the idea that immortality is a gift (Rom. 2:7).
It is important that we recognize that whatever resurrection is, it’s not the same as reanimation of the body. When we see Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead, which is reanimation of a body, not resurrection, because Lazarus will at some point still die. In fact, Mary and Martha knew the difference (Jn. 11). Instead of reanimation, resurrection has to do with transformation. We receive a spiritual resurrection body, much as Jesus himself possessed a resurrection body. This body will not suffer death or decay. The Christian view of resurrection would also seem to preclude the idea of reincarnation. Reincarnation posits an eternal soul that is recycled through different lives, each time adding to the experiences of the soul. Resurrection suggests that we live but once, so that each life is unique.
In the traditional Christian view, whatever the future is like, there seems to be some continuity between what we are now and what we will be then. However, whatever will be is not exactly the same, for there will be a transformed body: “He will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, but the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself” (Phil. 3:21). It does seem that there is both continuity and discontinuity. Paul suggests that the perishable must first die so that the imperishable may live. He uses the image of a seed, which is first sown as a bare seed but is transformed into a plant (1 Cor. 15:35ff). Continuity may be preserved in three ways: memory, bodily identity, and character. Even here there are problems that must be overcome.
Part of the message of the Parousia, or return of Christ, is that when Christ returns, he will come in judgment. We may not know when and where and how this will happen, but the promise is there (Mt 13:36-43). Alexander Campbell followed a traditional perspective, noting in an article in the Christian Baptist (1825): “I am content to be assured that whosoever hears the gospel and believes and obeys it, shall be saved, and that whosoever hears and disbelieves it, shall be damned” [Compend of Alexander Campbell’s Theology, Royal Humbert, ed., (Bethany Press, 1961), p. 276]. While Campbell’s views are still present in Disciples circles, it might not be the majority position among Disciples theologians and pastors.
While it is certainly parabolic in form, the description of judgment found in Matthew 25 does offer a vision of what judgment might look like. In this vision Jesus will, sitting in judgment, separate the sheep and the goats. And the criterion of judgment is one’s active love of neighbor (Mt. 25:31ff). The Christian belief in final judgment essentially serves as a final no to human sin. The judgment brings to an end to evil and brings out the contrast between the goodness of God and the failure of the current human condition. Ultimately the judgment is a work of grace, for with it comes full communion with God. No one is exempt from this judgment (1 Pet. 4:5; Acts 10:42), even the cosmos itself will be brought under judgment, for it is ultimately a movement from the old creation to the new creation (2 Cor. 5:17).
The doctrine of divine judgment ultimately serves as the means of holding us accountable for what we do. At the time of the judgment we will stand before God and give account of what we have done. With Jesus Christ being the foundation, that which is made of precious stones and gold will persevere, but that which is made of hay and stubble will be burned away. Only that which is lasting will survive (I Cor. 3:10-15). In this there is the sense that judgment is like the refiner’s fire. It doesn’t destroy, but instead purifies. Could the message of judgment be just such as this? The message of divine judgment stands over against the belief that what occurs in this life is of no account.
Having explored the possibility of judgment, we return to the possibilities of life beyond this life. From its inception, Christianity has drawn from at least one Jewish tradition extant in the first century that this life is but a precursor to another. While the promise is certainly present, Scripture tells us very little about what this new world is like. What we know comes largely in the form of parables, apocalyptic revelation, and metaphor. We are given hints, but little explicit information.
There is in Revelation a picture a new heaven and a new earth (Rev. 21:1ff). We’re told that what is will pass away and something far grander will replace this world. Ultimately, to be in heaven is to be in the presence of God (Rev. 21:2; Mt. 6:9), or to see God face to face (1 Cor. 13:12). Heaven is where Christ has ascended and dwells (Heb. 4:14), and where those who believe in Christ go at death (Phil. 1:23; Lk. 23:43). Now there is some ambiguity in Scripture about how and when all of this happens. Does heaven begin at death or does it wait for the final resurrection and judgment? As we saw above some Christians distinguish between what happens at death and what happens at the final resurrection. In between the two events believers are in a disembodied, spiritual state and wait for the final resurrection when they will receive their resurrection bodies. Other Christians try to bring these together, so that at death we receive our resurrection bodies. The latter can be explained by a difference in the time-space continuum. Therefore, eternity stands parallel to human history, a history that will at some point be brought to a conclusion, ending the difference between continuums. Both positions are based largely on biblical silence and speculative interpretation. Therefore, one should not be dogmatic either way.
It is important to note that for some Christians, the promise of eternity is not entirely positive. While some Christians hold out the promise of a universal reconciliation, there are many others who would suggest that at the very least, those who do not believe, will cease to exist if not face the torments of hell. In the gospels the picture of hell or Gehenna, is a place utter darkness and unquenchable fire, where the unbeliever experiences destruction and exclusion from the presence of God (Mk 9:43; Mt. 8:12). Paul also speaks of destruction, death, and corruption for those who do not believe. Much of what Christians believe about hell, however, is taken not from Scripture but from medieval paintings and texts such as Dante's Inferno. Others, do not believe in the eternal nature of divine judgment, and posits instead annihilation. This concept is rooted in the idea that immortality is contingent and therefore not required, and thus judgment should be seen as separation from God’s presence not eternal punishment.
For those who believe that God’s mercy and grace is final, and that in God’s wisdom, all will be reconciled, then the idea of hell simply makes no sense. It is a concept seems contrary to the premise that is God is love, especially the picture of God as a loving parent. This doesn’t mean that the idea of judgment is not present, but that as was noted before that which is true and good in us all will survive, as God reigns over all.
Thy Kingdom Come
In praying the Lord’s Prayer, we repeat the words, “thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Too often our thoughts of the future focus on a life after this. These words of the prayer taught to us by Jesus, however, remind us that the kingdom is present and growing. The kingdom ethic that we are enjoined to seek (Mt. 6:33) applies in the here and now. In seeking the kingdom, we should not forget the world in which we live, and our responsibilities to be stewards of God’s gifts, including creation (Gen. 1:26-28). In speaking of the reign of God, we hear a call to engage in mending and transforming the world. There are, therefore, two poles to consider—the work of God in this world and the work of God in the next. Returning to 1 Corinthians 15, we hear Paul declare that the future will bring a time “when all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will be subjected to the one who put all things in subjection under him, so that God may be all in all” (1 Cor. 15:28). As Disciples theologian Joe Jones suggests, Paul isn’t saying that in the end there will only be God, but instead “God will be all in all in such wise that no thing is without God and without God’s eternal life and love.” [A Grammar of Christian Faith, Vol. 2, (Rowman and Littlefield, 2002), pp. 740-741]