The Structure of Human Hope: personal eschatology
As I've hinted in my previous posts (1, 2), I think God means that there is progress and growth for infinity, that our efforts and actions reverberate down through eternity, and that there are always new things to learn and achieve. To me, this is what it means to believe in a personal, theistic God. Certainly other theologies suggest different scenarios - scenarios where in the end, everything we've done simply dissolves back into the emptiness from which it came. Those theologies are legitimate, but I would question whether they are theistic.
In broad form, here is what I perceive as the theistic view. There is a reality which underlies the world we see. That reality is firm and solid, and has consequences. Through history, that reality continues to be brought more fully into view, and the forces which stand against that reality (violence, oppression, slavery, hatred) ultimately collapse, either slowly and peacefully, or quickly and dramatically. And so, as each obstacle is overcome, we grow unendingly upwards and onwards toward unification with that ultimate reality.
This identifies both the cause and the direction of change.
Here's why this is important. For hope to be real, it must be the case that things will get better. But this can't be an immutable progress that happens with or without us, leading to laziness and resignation. Instead, it must be a progress that is built with our efforts, upon the work of countless others before us - a participatory growth. It must, in fact, be in participation with the underlying nature of the universe itself - co-creation with God. Without that, our obstacles will begin to seem insurmountable. But if indeed things are getting better, there are only three ultimate endings: things eventually revert back to decay, things finally reach a utopia, or growth continues forever. And I would argue that only the last one offers an ultimately real hope.
For many of us, the idea of society progressing without end is only comforting if we get to be part of it. But very few philosophies offer us any real chance of being involved - either we die and are gone, or we get resurrected into a changeless heaven. A third alternative being proposed recently in books such as "Surprised by Hope" by NT Wright, is that we are eventually physically resurrected and the earth is transformed.
This third alternative has the benefit of having us back involved in the progression of human society. But, at least in the way it is being imagined, it leaves a lot to be desired. It foresees an eternity of existence in a still-limited body. It requires God to step in and recreate the earth. It relies on a misreading of the New Testament, seeing it primarily concerned with changing the physical universe, rather than a more audience-relevant transition between covenants.
I think we need to do what the New Testament seems to: strike a very delicate position. The way I read it, the New Testament is almost entirely focused on the horizon of the first century. Jesus affirms the resurrection, but does so in an unusual way. In Luke 20:38, Jesus says, "[God] is not the God of the dead, but of the living, for to him all are alive."
Jesus seems to connect resurrection, not to a specific event, nor to an immortal soul, but to the all-knowledge of God.
This, to me, is pretty profound, and needs to be the basis for a re-thinking of the ideas of immortality and resurrection.
Interestingly, the book of Revelation mentions very little about resurrection - focusing instead on the vindication of the oppressed, and the downfall of the oppressors. The only real mentions seem to be an intriguing statement about deeds following the dead, and the scene often called "the final judgment".
First, Revelation 14:13:
Then I heard a voice from heaven say, "Write: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on."
"Yes," says the Spirit, "they will rest from their labor, for their deeds will follow them."
My initial interpretation is that this is describing a "before", during which people's deeds are a barrier between themselves and God (going before them), and an "after", during which people's deeds no longer separate them from God (trailing behind them).
Second, Revelation 20:12-15:
And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books. The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what he had done. Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. If anyone's name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.
The focus here is on judgment, on the one hand, and on the abolishment of death, on the other. While we have the wicked being dismissed, we do not have a similarly concrete statement about those in the book of life. Whereas in Jesus' parable of the sheep and the goats, he invited the sheep to enter in, there is no such invitation here. All that is really said is that death and Hades are burned up.
To me, these passages seem to leave a lot of questions about the afterlife and resurrection. Revelation seems to be telling us that barriers between man and God are being removed ("death and Hades", and whatever was letting deeds proceed people), not describing the actual ramifications and effects of that removal.
If we triangulate with a third scripture, then we end up with an interesting picture. In 1 Corinthians 15:54-57, Paul says:
When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: "Death has been swallowed up in victory."
"Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?"
The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
He seems to be saying that the physical body does not need to be removed in order to become immortal, but instead will be "clothed" in immortality. And the way in which this happens is that death is overcome by the removal of sin, and sin is overcome by the removal of the Law, and the Law is overcome through Jesus.
If we can assume that these passages are talking about connected things, then it seems like Paul says death is overcome when the Law is removed, and Revelation points to the victory over death and Hades as the removal of the separation between God and man (one's deeds no longer precede them, getting in the way). And Jesus points to immortality as being known, having a certain relationship with, God.
So it seems like the focus of these scriptures is on a resurrection event as the removal of certain relational barriers, not specifics of the timing or nature of personal immortality. It seems like the scriptures are not telling us about immortality or the afterlife, but telling us that we can rely on our confidence in the power and knowledge of God.
In other words, the scriptures seem to be about the removal of fear. And the way that is portrayed in the New Testament is a two-fold process, through the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, and then through the removal of the Law and the institutions of condemnation that surrounded it.
So then, we should be really hesitant about looking to the scriptures to understand the nature of resurrection. We should instead look to the scriptures for the kind of confidence Jesus demonstrated on the cross, trusting himself to God and his love.
Jesus' confidence was rewarded in an extremely unusual way - a bodily resurrection less than three days later. This isn't what we expect for ourselves, but it should push us in the direction of thinking that whatever happens, it may be unexpected and unusual, but always flows from the love and power of God.
As society moves forward, finding itself more and more in touch with the reality that lies beneath it, we should expect to see the glory and power of God more and more. And as that happens, we can be confident that in ways surprising and unexpected, God will be protecting, preserving, and restoring us, never letting us go, because to him, nothing is lost.
Though we do not know in what way things are being preserved, we can know that they are safe. And though we do not know in what way they may re-appear to us, we can know that we will indeed see them again - because to God, and increasingly to us, all are alive.