No area of Christian theology has been subjected to more Enlightened scorn than eschatology. Eschatology is myth to end all myth, superlatively mythological: All human beings ever will stand before the enthroned Jesus at a final judgment, some transfigured into Spiritual bodies to enjoy eternal bliss while others thrown with the Satanic dragon into a pit of horrors beyond even Dante’s imagining, while a gleaming city (or is it a bride?) of gold and pearl descending from heaven.
To believe traditional Christian eschatology, you have to believe in angels, devils, demons, and all manner of spiritual whatnot; that death can be reversed, and clammy corpses can pop up from the ground, pink and warm; that God records every stray word and thought in His celestial notebook, so that He can confront us with it, publicly, at the last day. Most unbelievably of all in our cynical age, you have to believe that every evil will be finally punished, every forgotten kindness rewarded.
In prying apart myth and faith, post-Enlightenment theology attempted to construct a non-eschatological Christianity. The effort failed. Over the past century and a half, New Testament scholars rediscovered the central importance of eschatology in the teaching of Jesus, Paul, John, and the other writers of the New Testament. Eschatology, they found, is at the center of the apostolic gospel.
Jesus came preaching that “the time is fulfilled” and the coming of “kingdom of God.” John quotes Jesus saying that the cross is the “judgment of this world” and the triumph over the “prince of this world,” and Jesus’ resurrection is the “firstfruits” of a future, eschatological resurrection. Paul’s entire theology stretches over the poles of what theologians call the “eschatological tension,” the fact that the end has “already” come in Jesus but has “not yet” reached its consummate form.
A Christian faith scoured of eschatology turns out to be no faith at all. A gospel without the “myth” of the end brings no good news.
These revolutionary developments in New Testament theology took place in hidden highways and byways of modern intellectual life, and few non-believers are even aware of them. What am I saying? Few Christians seem to be aware of them. Evangelicals especially tend to equate eschatology with the fervid sensationalism of Tim LaHaye’s Left Behind series, and secularists are only too happy to make the same equation, the better to mock Christian faith.As it turns out, those apparently myopic scholars poring over their Greek texts stumbled across a central cultural and intellectual issue. Eschatology is the debate of our time, not just in theology but throughout our culture.
Postmodernism pretended to be a fresh start after gray modernity. It wasn’t. It’s just that postmodern theorists recognized, as moderns did not, that if you give up eschatology, you not only lose the Christian gospel but also knowledge and ethics. Postmodern announced the end of man because it believed that man has no end.
Script writers who have never read a word of Derrida have the same non-eschatological outlook. When we lived in Cambridge, my wife and I were regularly frustrated by British detective dramas. Hetty Wainwright investigates with all the shrewd boldness of Columbo or Jessica Fletcher. She gets her man. Most of the time. Sometimes she doesn’t, though. Worse, sometimes she knows exactly who he is and he still gets away. Worst of all, sometimes she lets him get away. Credits roll, but we feel cheated, desolated.
American TV cops would never let that happen. American TV is notorious for its formulaic, childish end-tying. But you have to hand it to those American policemen and detectives: Their dramas always end in court, with a trial and a final judgment that consigns the guilty to a place of weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Sophomores dismiss Aristotle’s claim that stories have a beginning, middle, and end as a lame “Duh!” Contemporary fictions show that this dismissal is sophomoric and that Aristotle’s axiom is far from the trivial truism it appears to be.
Books, thank God, must end. Stories needn’t, and today’s poetics of inconclusion leave us wondering if we are even capable of writing stories with endings if we disbelieve in the ending.