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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