The last couple of chapters in John Polkinghorne’s book The God of Hope and the End of the World deal with the four last things (death, judgment, heaven, and hell) and with their significance. There is something of a divide within the church … between those who preach hell, fire, and brimstone and those who find such ideas part of a barbaric past we’ve out grown. Now this is a caricature of course, but there is a tendency to either overemphasize coming judgment or to dismiss it altogether. John Polkinghorne counters: “Those of us who adopt the more balanced stance of an inaugurated eschatology will not be content with a neglect of the Four Last Things.” (p. 124) His penultimate chapter is structured around these four things.
Death. Death, in Christian thinking, is an evil to be overcome. It is a darkness that is accepted in the light and hope of the resurrection. Polkinghorne points out that even Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane experienced a reluctance in the face of mortality. Humans were not created immortal, but there is a bitterness to mortality that accompanies a broken connection with God.
As self-consciousness dawned – itself a process as difficult to envision as it is certain that it happened – there would surely also have dawned a form of God-consciousness. The episode that theologians call the Fall can then be understood as a turning away from God into the human self, by which our ancestors became curved in upon themselves and alienated from the divine reality. This was not the cause of physical death but it gave to that experience the spiritual dimension of mortality. Self-conscious beings could anticipate their future death, but at the same time they had become divorced from the God who is the only hope of a destiny beyond that death. (p. 126)
This life lived is significant, and we should make every effort to be “right with God” and to proclaim and teach the gospel. Polkinghorne does not think, however, that an “iron curtain comes down at death” with no subsequent opportunity for repentance. The mercy of a God will surely allow “those who, through circumstances beyond their control, have never truly heard the gospel of Christ, or never had a real opportunity to respond in to its call in this life” a chance to respond. (p. 128)
Judgement. Judgement is and will be real, something we should fear and something we all face. (Image: Michelangelo’s interpretation in the Sistine Chapel) Polkinghorne makes three points concerning the judgement to come.
One it that God is a holy God whose kingdom is the realm of moral purity. … The Cross of Christ is the measure of the costliness of divine forgiveness. Sin is no trivial matter, but it is in fact a deadly matter. … [J]udgement is no superficial matter nor one of mere conventionality but the recognition of the nature of reality. (p. 128-129)
The stern images and warnings in Scripture should be taken seriously.
The second point is one with which some may take exception. Polkinghorne suggests that we shouldn’t assign people unambiguously to the company of the blessed or the company of the damned. We are neither wholly sheep nor wholly goat.
Perhaps judgement is a process rather than a verdict. Perhaps its fire is the cleansing fire that burns away the dross of our lives; its suffering the consequence of the knife wielded by the divine Surgeon who wounds to heal. Perhaps judgement builds up the sheep and diminishes the goat in each one of us. (p. 130)
This isn’t “testy rejection by an angry God” but includes exposure and purification of his people.
The concept of judgement as the painful encounter with reality, in which all masks of illusion are swept away, is powerful and convincing. It is also basically a hopeful image, for it is only in the recognition and acknowledgement of reality that there can reside the hope of salvation. It has some resonances with a different image used by Paul:
… If what has been built on the foundation survives, the builder will receive a reward. If the work is burned, the builder will suffer loss; the builder will be saved, but only as through fire. (1 Corinthians 3:11-15)
It is in the purging fire of judgement that there lies our hope for purification and redemption. … Properly conceived, judgement is the divine antidote to human sin, just as resurrection is the divine antidote to human mortality. (p. 131-132)
No cheap grace for Paul, nor should there be for us.
Finally, judgement isn’t simply something between individuals and God.There is a systemic and social dimension to sinfulness and Polkinhorne agrees with Miroslav Volf that judgement will also have a social and corporate dimension. He quotes Volf: “If sin has an inalienable social dimension, and if redemption aims at the establishment of the order of peace … then the divine embrace of both victim and perpetrator must be understood as leading to their mutual embrace.” (p. 132)
Heaven. Heaven will be greater than we can imagine, but Polkinghorne believes (and I agree with him) that it will continue to involve process and time and an unfolding of our being. It is simply impossible to begin to imagine a timeless eternity. The essence of our being, as God has created us, is growth.
The life of heaven will be lived in the presence of the divine reality, but the exploration by finite creatures of the infinite riches of that reality will be unending. (p. 132)
Polkinghorne quotes a similar hope from Gregory of Nyssa (ca. 335-395) and then continues:
The first stages of this eschatological journey will surely involve that encounter with the holy reality of God that we have called judgement, together with the associated cleansing from those many unrealities with which our lives have been laden. This purgative process will be an indispensable preparation for the more profound engagement with the life of the holy God that lie beyond it. If this is right, some revalued and re-expressed concept of purgatory seems to be an essential component in eschatological thinking. (p. 133)
This isn’t purgatory as in some punishment for transgression from which we can buy time off through indulgences. It is more of a training and shaping to be God’s people.
Polkinghorne also emphasizes the ongoing importance of the human individual in God’s sight. Some egoless state or preservation of humans in the memory of God doesn’t do justice to the biblical teachings. And he answers the question “Will I see my loved one again?”
Since human relationships are constitutive of our humanity, and central sources of human good, one can reply unhesitatingly, ‘Yes – nothing of the good will be lost in the Lord’. In fact, what can at best be only a partial good in this world will be redeemed to become a total good in the world to come. Human hope is a community hope; human destiny is a collective destiny. Fulfillment lies in our incorporation into the one body of Christ. (p. 136)
The church is not for this world alone.
Hell. In Michigan we know precisely the distance from Paradise to Hell – 338 miles, traveled in 5 hours and 6 minutes without traffic according to Google maps. More seriously, hell is the hardest of the four last things to deal with. The existence of Hell is hard to stomach. Polkinghorne wanders through a number of ideas … hell, annihilation, and universalism.
The image in Dante’s Inferno (Image: Botticelli’s 1480’s version) is not one Polkinghorne finds consistent with Scripture or theology. He is convinced that those consigned to hell will be those who have condemned themselves to hell through a “resolute choice to exclude the divine life from their lives.” (p. 136) He sees it as a place of boredom rather than torture and never ending punishment. He also sees some persuasiveness to the notion of annihilation – where those outside of the divine presence fade away into nothingness. He continues: “It is hard to know what to think, just as it is similarly hard to know whether the universalist hope, that in the end and in every life, God’s love will always be victorious, implies though there is, so to speak, a hell, ultimately it will be found to be empty.” (p. 137) Perhaps God’s love for all is the ultimate power in human existence.
Polkinghorne suggests that perhaps it is better that we don’t know much about hell. Certainty of universal salvation encourages a reliance on cheap grace. Certainty of eternal punishment seems beyond comprehension and raises questions of its own, like why did these people exist anyway? Sometimes the appropriate answer is simply that we don’t know for sure.
The significance of the end. Eschatology is not something we should brush off and ignore. We may not have all the answers, but the story is meaningless without an end. “Eschatology is the keystone of the edifice of theological thinking, holding the whole building together.” (p. 140)
Polkinghorne summarizes what he sees as a viable eschatological expectation with four propositions (p. 148-149):
(1) If the universe is a creation, it must make sense everlastingly, and so ultimately it must be redeemed from transience and decay.
(2) If human beings are creatures loved by their Creator they must have a destiny beyond death.
(3) In so far as present human imagination can articulate eschatological expectation, it has to do so within the tension between continuity and discontinuity. (He elaborates a bit – there must be enough continuity that we truly share in the age to come, and enough discontinuity to end suffering and mortality.)
(4) The only ground for such a hope lies in the steadfast love and faithfulness of God that is testified to by the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Christian belief must not lose its nerve about eschatological hope. A credible theology depends upon it and, in turn, a Trinitarian and incarnational theology can assure us of its credibility.
This is a fine short book on Christian hope. It runs through a number of important ideas and Polkinghorne speculates on a number of these from his perspective as Christian, scientist, Anglican priest, and scholar. Christian eschatology and the significance of the end is too important to be brushed off or given over to speculations of novelists who glory in entertaining tales of destruction.
What importance does your church put on the four last things?
Are these important topics?
If you wish to contact me, you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net.
If interested you can subscribe to a full text feed of my posts at Musings on Science and Theology.