- Summary of how hope for a heavenly afterlife supplanted hope for resurrection in popular Christian theology
The New Testament barely ever talks about “going to heaven when we die,” but it talks a lot about the hope for bodily resurrection to everlasting life in a renewed and glorified creation. Yet the popular understanding today is that “going to heaven” is the central promise of the Christian Gospel. How did this happen? Well, it was a long and involved process of historical development, but here is a simplified summary: As Christianity spread beyond the Mediterranean to the Franks, Goths, Celts, etc., of Europe, theological attention to the resurrection hope faded in favour of hope for a heavenly afterlife. Unlike the Greeks, Jews, Egyptians, Mesopotamians, etc., who believed that all the dead descended to an underworld of some sort, these peoples tended to believe that at least some people (e.g. brave warriors) would be taken to the heavenly dwellings of the gods. Whether by intentional evangelistic strategy or by steady cultural osmosis, the focus of both theology and popular piety shifted from resurrection by the grace of God in Christ to going to heaven through the grace of God in Christ. This became entrenched in the Middle Ages as the veneration the saints became established and spread, since such veneration and the associated practices only made sense if the saints were both enjoying the full blessedness of heaven and fully aware of events transpiring on earth. After one medieval Pope tried to correct the distortion and earned for himself a whole bunch of infuriated pushback, the next Pope issued an edict that rejected what the previous Pope had taught and instead made it official church teaching that each person after death faces “particular judgement” to determine their fate, upon which they are sent either to hell, purgatory, or (if one was already holy enough) straight to heaven. The Protestant reformers rejected the purgatory element that official Catholic doctrine taught, but most kept the rest of the rest of the framework. (Luther notably rejected the whole thing and instead taught that the dead essentially sleep until the resurrection. However, he was not followed in this by later Lutherans.) Throughout all of this no theologians who were even remotely orthodox ever rejected the hope for resurrection and cosmic transformation when Jesus returns. The problem was rather that the final hope was relegated to the status of a nearly forgotten appendix. As more and more of the theological work that rightly belongs to the resurrection hope was transferred to a hope for a blessed disembodied existence in heaven, preachers and teachers found less and less reason to talk about the resurrection, and so the public came to believe that going to heaven when they died was the entire hope.
- History as subject to the eschaton, updated
After discussing the modern notion of history, which assumes that all the events that transpire in time and space are fundamentally similar and therefore always to be understood in terms of analogy with other events with which the historian is already familiar, Moltmann notes that such a view of history is essentially incompatible with the Christian belief that Jesus Christ rose from the dead. Orthodox Christianity very much believes and proclaims that Jesus’ resurrection was an event that occurred in time and space, but not one analogous to other events. Therefore, an authentically Christian understanding of history must set aside the presuppositions of the modern, Enlightenment view and build instead on very different ones: Only if the whole historical picture, contingency and continuity and all, could be shown to be in itself not necessary but contingent, should we come within sight of that which can be called the eschatologically new fact of the resurrection of Christ. The resurrection of Christ does not mean a possibility within the world and its history, but a new possibility altogether for the world, for existence and for history. Only when the world can be understood as contingent creation out of the freedom of God and ex nihilo—only on the basis of this contingent mundi—does the raising of Christ become intelligible as nova creatio. In view of what is meant and what is promised when we speak of the raising of Christ, it is therefore necessary to expose the profound irrationality of the rational cosmos of the modern, technico-scientific world. By the raising of Christ we do not mean a possible process in world history, but the eschatological process to which world history is subjected.1 1 Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 179–180. Moltmann is correct here, and the implications are significant. Placing history (and thereby our experiences of the world) within a larger, eschatological framework relativizes and limits the authority of experiential similarity as a guiding principle. It is not the case that all things must be like what we already know. It is not the case that the world is now already fundamentally the way it will always be. Rather, the world is still on the way to its final form and final dynamic. Now, we can also look at Jesus’ resurrection and see that there is much continuity between what was and what will be. The new creation is not a different creation but a transformation of this self-same creation we are part of now. The radical newness of the resurrection does not negate history and historical processes. Instead, it becomes part of history from the moment of its unprecedented occurrence. Moltmann does not address this latter aspect in this quotation (indeed, it is not a theme he pays much attention to in general, preferring as he does to emphasize the “otherness” of the eschatological intervention into history rather than the integration of that intervention into the history it invades), but the implication remains. If history is subjected to an eschatological process, then history has been, is now being, and will continue to be shaped by the eschaton. Conversely, therefore, the eschaton does not simply stand over against history. Eschatological reality becomes integrally involved in history any and every time it occurs. Whenever and in whatever way God acts in history to create conditions that more closely resemble his ultimate, eschatological goal for creation, those eschatologically directed events become part of the shape and course of history. Thus we see the essential dynamic of Christian faith: God must act in history, but also God acts in history. Christians, however devoted we may be to God’s purposes, cannot bring the eschaton to pass in this world by our efforts. But when he acts and as he acts, Christians are able to participate in the reality that his actions bring into being, and even to further their effects. Only God can enact his reign in our world, but when he does, he calls us to help.
- On history, truth, and postmodernism
It is interesting to observe the author of this article, “You Have Your History, I Have Mine.” He recognizes the validity of postmodern critiques of modernist approaches to history, but also the problems of (some forms of) postmodernist approaches. So far, so good. But his solution isn’t one at all. He simply wants to set up fences and say to the postmodern critique, “Thus far you may come, but no farther.” That won’t do at all. His “national parks” of historical fact would only be those areas where a given social group—a nation, for example—agreed not to question the traditional narrative. It’s a rearguard action, trying to preserve some modernist “truth” against postmodernism’s “relativistic” “opinion.” It is doomed to fail because there is no discernible rationale to determine where those fences and borders should be drawn. The author actually acknowledges the hopelessness of his idea at the end of the article, but he can see no better alternative and no way forward. This is because his thinking is still thoroughly modern. The way he uses terms shows, for example, that he thinks of facts as the “most true truth”—an idiosyncratically modern notion, akin to suggesting that a pile of lumber and nails is a house—and that he thinks postmodernism is essentially synonymous with relativism. It is true that there is such a thing as postmodern relativism, just as there is such a thing as modern relativism, but that doesn’t make postmodernism relativistic in general any more than modern relativism makes modernism relativistic in general. Moderns tend to think of postmodernism as inherently relativistic because it undermines key assumptions that modernism uses to guard itself against relativism, but they don’t usually appreciate that postmodernism also undermines those other key assumptions that that impel modernism toward relativism to begin with. And so is the case here. If the author of this article understood more of what postmodernism posits, and not just what it critiques, he would be able to see that there are ways forward, and they are good. It would (will?) take me a book to explain what I see as the positive resources (both in the sense of positing something and the sense of being good and encouraging) of postmodernism and how they can be used to embark upon a better way, and this is already ridiculously long for a Facebook comment. I’ll just say that it involves a deep rethinking of our ideas about what truth is, but the results are epistemic humility, a recognition that our ideas are only ever approximations of reality, which leads to an open-handed stance toward the ideas we hold, and a newfound appreciation that wisdom is where the “most true truth” resides (even as the Book of Proverbs told us millennia ago). It is a big shift, but it is a good one. So far from this author’s dystopian vision of relativistic chaos and destruction raging around park-like sanctuaries of modernist historical fact, the future of second generation postmoderns and beyond may well look like the epistemological equivalent of re-greening our neighbourhoods where modernism paved everything over to put up carbon-copy condos and shopping centres. Never mind “national parks” to preserve valued historical narratives from threat; let’s get on with planting the trees of truth, in all their different kinds and wild diversity, in our backyards and streets and cities so that our children can grow up in that ever-growing, ever-changing, ever-breathing forest.