Christianity that is not entirely and altogether eschatology has entirely and altogether nothing to do with Christ. - Barth
[This post is the result of a fascinating 2 hour conversation Greg and I had a few weeks ago. I couldn't resist forcing him to write some of his ideas, observations, and insights down in a glorious guest post. Enjoy. Hopefully we'll be hearing from Greg again soon!]
Karl Barth wrote those words some 80 years ago, and judging by this criterion, I’m left wondering if the 21st century Catholicism I hear spoken of every day has anything to do with Christ. For too long non-biblical language has plagued traditional thinking, writing, and preaching regarding salvation, heaven, and consequentially, the human person. The “Kingdom of God” has become a synonym for “Heaven” - the “spiritual”, gaseous place you go when you die (if you’re lucky) - and the Cross and Resurrection have been watered down to simply mean “Jesus opened heaven for us”. “Heaven” has become equated with “good”, and “earth” equated with “bad”. Christians talk joyfully about the hope of “heaven” and “eternal life” as the ultimate fulfillment of all of man’s desires, while non-invested Modern Man watches on from the other side of the glass, careful not to tap on the window, severely doubting the idea of some disembodied “eternal life” awaiting us and greatly questioning whether he would even want to go there.
He realizes something is wrong with the Christian’s message. There’s no way the expanding Cosmos worked so hard, for so long, just to produce self-aware beings that could one day die and escape this mess for eternal bliss. More so, how in the world is it fair, or just, or great, for God to “reward” our suffering here in our bodies with some sort of disembodied, “spiritual” existence in Heaven? No. Nonsense. Better to face the grim reality of decay and entropy: these carbon-based bodies simply die, and one day the universe will either collapse back in on itself or continue expanding fruitlessly into the cold abyss. Escapism can’t be the answer.
And, well, he’s right. The point of the Resurrection is not “we can go to heaven now”. The Resurrection is the beginning of God’s new universe. The sooner we get this right, the sooner we can enter into meaningful dialogue with those around us, offering a Hope worth living for.
“The Resurrection is a wondrous event which is not only absolutely unique in human history, but which lies at the very heart of the mystery of time.” – JPII, Dies Domini, 2.
A brief look at the New Testament offers a radically different hope than the one often preached. The significance of the Resurrection in the New Testament is not that Jesus “died and rose so we can go to heaven when we die”, but rather God is going to do for us, and for the entire Cosmos, precisely what He did for Jesus; namely, Resurrection. The Resurrection means, ultimately, that God’s New Creation has finally been launched. The risen Jesus is the “first fruits” of this New Universe, and one day God is going to harvest the rest of His crop (us). In 1 Corinthians 15 Paul speaks of our current fleshly bodies being sown in the earth to one day be raised as “spiritual bodies” -- meaning these very bodies will be animated by God’s Spirit, not “spiritual” in some non-physical, gaseous sense – and in Romans 8 he speaks of our redemption as simultaneously the redemption of Creation. Combine these verses with the “New Heavens and New Earth” of the book of Revelation, mix in 2000 years of theological reflection and scientific progress, and you get this Eschatological take from the CCC:
1042: At the end of time, the Kingdom of God will come in its fullness. After the universal judgment, the righteous will reign for ever with Christ, glorified in body and soul. The universe itself will be renewed:
The Church . . . will receive her perfection only in the glory of heaven, when will come the time of the renewal of all things. At that time, together with the human race, the universe itself, which is so closely related to man and which attains its destiny through him, will be perfectly re-established in Christ.
1043 Sacred Scripture calls this mysterious renewal, which will transform humanity and the world, "new heavens and a new earth." It will be the definitive realization of God's plan to bring under a single head "all things in [Christ], things in heaven and things on earth."
1044 In this new universe, the heavenly Jerusalem, God will have his dwelling among men. "He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away."
In other words, Jesus is going to be bringing Heaven with Him. The Resurrection launched the beginning of God’s New Creation, but in the end, Heaven will come in full. “Knowledge of the Lord” will cover the cosmos like “waters cover the sea” (Isaiah 11:9). Scripture uses an analogy for what will occur between Heaven and the Universe: marriage.
“The Resurrection of Jesus is the seminal event from which the New Creation has already begun to grow.” – John Polkinghorne
The pattern for this great act of Resurrection is the Resurrection of Jesus. The Risen, glorified Jesus appears in the Gospels in varying scenarios, but there is one strand that runs though all of the accounts: the disciples fail to recognize Him at first, only to come to realize that it is indeed Jesus after some act of His. He is clearly different, but also clearly still Himself. He passes through walls and appears at will, but also eats with them and allows them to touch His wounds.
So it will be with us. We will receive transformed, glorified bodies. I will still be Greg, but Glorified Greg. More shockingly (grab your hats), so will it be with the universe. Matter, space, and time are the form for this current cosmos, and we ought to expect some form of these three in the “world to come” that we profess hope in each Sunday (though the third part of that triad is admittedly contestable). We will live in a new world, after all. In this new universe, God will have his dwelling among men. It’s going to be a glorified party (the Wedding Feast of the Lamb is not a Baptist wedding). There will be glorified adventure to be had. My friends (God-willing) will be gloriously there. I’m going to drink glorified PBR. I’m going to go glorified whitewater rafting down the glorified rivers of Maine. Perhaps I’m getting a bit carried away (I’m definitely getting carried away) -- The point is, as author/physicist/theologian/Anglican priest John Polkinghorne reiterates: nothing good is lost in the Lord. Polkinghorne recounts a particularly poignant story: When asked what he would do if he was told the world would end tomorrow, Martin Luther replied, “I’d plant a tree.” Bingo. Nothing good is lost in the Lord.
Such is the grandeur of Christian hope. Rather than allowing the expanding universe to collapse back in on itself or ceaselessly expand into desperate nothingness, the Resurrection tells us that God has given a definitive Yes to His good Creation. In a divine act of Resurrection, all things will be made glorified, and man will live forever in this new universe. This is Heaven. This is Christian Hope. The challenge for us 21st Century evangelically minded Catholics (Hey, Weigel) is, I think, to recover this language of Resurrection and New Creation. We ought to be joyfully inviting others to be challenged by the Resurrection: Why live your life running from pleasure to pleasure or giving the finger to the expanding cosmos in despair when the hope of the Resurrection is knocking on your door?
A preoccupation with the “Four Last Things” handed on to us from the Medieval era has minimalized the importance of Resurrection, making it, at best, a strange bonus add-on to “Heaven”. This isn’t Biblical, and especially since Vatican II, it isn’t Church teaching either. Yes, we believe that when one dies their soul goes to be with God and they behold the Beatific Vision while they await their resurrected bodies, and yes, we can refer to this as “Heaven”. But if we speak as though this is the goal of Christian life, we are literally castrating the Gospel: we are robbing the Resurrection of its potency.
One last point; God has redeemed us entirely, as persons. The Resurrection tells me that God loves me so much, as Greg, that He desires to be with me in all of my awkward Arabic hairiness, receding hairline and all (although I expect that to be corrected in my future glorified awesomeness). He didn’t merely “save my soul” – body/soul dualism is blatantly rejected by Scripture – He saved me. This also means that what we do in the body matters: this is why Theology of the Body (and the 1st Letter to the Corinthians) exists. But I’m getting ahead of myself. The practical impact of the Resurrection on Christian living is the topic of my next post.
Greg is a MA Theology student at Providence College in Providence, RI. Follow @gchurst.
Interested in learning more? CCC 988-1019, 1042-1050 International Theological Commission: Communion and Stewardship N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope John Polkinghorne’s The God of Hope and the End of the World JPII Dies Domini 2