March 31, 2012

Theodicy Part 3: The New East Boston

Filed under: Theology — Bob Gifford @ 3:19 pm

“The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed…For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.”
Luke 17:20-21

Your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.

Matthew 6:10

A future eschaton is a comfort in times of earthly hardship, but it is not the answer, or not the entire answer, to the problem of evil in the world. We need the eschaton now, not in some unknowable future. And this leads us to one of the many paradoxes of Christianity: God’s kingdom is both now and not yet. Jesus teaches us to work towards building an eschaton in our own communities here and now. Of course we will always fall short. But this is why God has created a universe that can be so cruel: so that when faced with pain and sadness in others we will bring the eschaton back to the present to the extent we are able. And we do this, as Jesus taught us, through love. It is not through laws, judgment, purity or power that we make the eschaton a present reality, but through love.

If God is a God of love, then a world that includes pain is the best of all possible worlds. But it is more than that. It is a world that tells us that the highest good is not the absence of pain, but the presence of love. It is a world made by a God who loves us enough to ask us to participate in creating the eschaton instead of being passive and naive recipients. A world with pain is not just the best possible world, but a thing of perfection, because it requires us to become more than unthinking children but something far greater: the kingdom of heaven in our midst.

The book of Revelation describes the future eschaton as a New Jerusalem. In her book The Rapture Exposed, Barbara Rossing quotes Beth Utto-Galarneau, a Lutheran seminary student:

“What does our city look like?” I asked this question of our Bible study group one Wednesday evening…I hardly had to wait for a response: stinky, scary; there are gangs…people are crying because they are hungry…there is poverty; people are homeless, it’s unsafe…It seems a far cry from the glorious, radiant New Jerusalem.

“Where is that holy city where God dwells among the people?” I asked. They replied: The promised city must be describing heaven. It’s something we look forward to, in the future, after we die. It’s impossible now they said.

Then I asked the group, “Can we try to imagine what the holy city, what the new East Boston might look like?” The people were quiet…and in the end this is what they said: “We saw the holy city, the new East Boston, coming down out of heaven from God…It has clean streets in which people can walk in safety and with peace at any time. There are no drugs, no fire, no fighting; no one is hungry; everyone has a place to live. People are planting flowers and trees…and God is there.” (pp 166-7)

This is both God’s reason for and answer to the problem of evil.

March 3, 2012

Theodicy Part 2: Eschaton

Filed under: Theology — Bob Gifford @ 5:57 pm

He will swallow up death for ever.
Then the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces

Isaiah 25:8

Theologians prefer the term eschaton to the more common heaven, because its meaning is far more precise and not easily confused with popular but theologically suspect images of clouds, harps and wings. The eschaton is the end of time, the fulfillment of existence. It is not where we go when we die, but where we go when we are resurrected in a new creation, a new heaven and earth, where there will be no tears, no want, no pain or violence, disease or death. Hamlet got it wrong. The eschaton, not death, “’tis the consummation devoutly to be wished” which will “end the heartache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to”.

Unlike our present existence, the eschaton is described in Revelation as a place where God is not hidden from us, where we will abide in God and God in us. The problem of pain will be solved not by a system of overlord super-drones, but by the presence of the actual Overlord among the Overlord’s people.

The eschaton is understood to be eternal. Plenty of fun arguments can be had over whether this means an infinite length of time or a state of timelessness, but either way it will make our 70+ years of mortal existence seem like a blink of an eye.

So is this the answer to the problem of theodicy? That we may have to suffer pain and sadness now, but it will all seem like nothing after a couple of eternities in a new tear-free eschaton? It’s true that this vision of the eschaton is achingly beautiful and a real comfort in times of earthly sadness. It is also an important hope and expectation, or better yet, a divine promise, for Christians.

But if we let this be the final answer to the problem of theodicy, that our present pain doesn’t matter because all will be made well in the eschaton, we will find ourselves following the path of the gnostics. We will want to remove ourselves from this world, which after all is just a temporary illusion, and live solely in anticipation of our life in the only truly real existence, the future eschaton. Instead of allowing our present pain to teach us to love, we will let our present pain cause us to withdraw, to seal ourselves off, to deny our humanity. As Hamlet asked, “who would bear the Whips and Scorns of time…The pangs of despised Love” if this life is just illusion? This gnostic response to the eschaton will not teach us to love, but prevent us from loving.

So while the hope and promise of the eschaton is very important to any Christian answer to the problem of pain, it is only part of the answer. To get to the whole answer, the eschaton must be brought to the present.

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