The Last Judgment, mosaic in the Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta, Torcello, Venice, illustrates Revelation 6:14, “The heavens receded like a scroll being rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place.” (NIV) In this column, John Polkinghorne reflects on a different biblical text, but it’s about the same basic theme of eschatology.
Introduction by Ted Davis
Christmas is about the coming of Christ, the Incarnation, the literal personification of divine love in our world. As Christina Rossetti wrote in her beautiful poem, “Love came down at Christmas, Love all lovely, love divine; Love was born at Christmas, Star and angels gave the sign.” To celebrate of the birth of an extraordinary child in an ordinary Bethlehem cave, we pull out all the stops. We all know the drill: music, lights, and special delights, with gifts and good cheer for one and all. With so many wonderful things to enjoy, we don’t usually associate Christmas with the end of the world.
But, we used to. We called the season “Advent,” in anticipation of the first “coming” of Christ. It was a time to focus on the way the world is, on our need for repentance, and on the ultimate hope that the second coming of Christ offers for a world that will not last forever. If Christmas is about love, Advent is about hope. In this column, John Polkinghorne reminds us of the joyous fact that the Christian God is a God of hope—a hope that transcends this world, a hope that goes beyond what science alone can tell us about the end of the world.
The end of the world
‘But in those days, after that suffering, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see “the Son of Man coming in the clouds” with great power and glory. Then he will send out the angels, and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.’
Powerful words, describing dramatic events. Many of the original readers may well have thought of them as predictions of what might literally happen in the near future, perhaps within their own lifetime. For us the images are striking, but tinged with an antique quaintness. The stars are not heavenly lamps that might tumble down from their celestial fixings, but they are indications of the vastness of the universe within which we live (100 billion stars in our galaxy alone, almost all of them too faint to be seen with the naked eye). Not too many contemporary Christians go around thinking that one day they might look up and see Jesus riding on the clouds like a Christianized Valkyrie. So is all this just baggage from the past, something that we would do best to jettison as fast as we can?
Not at all. It was always a mistake to take these images with a plodding literalism, but it would be an even greater mistake to throw away an understanding of the realities that they symbolize. This passage, taken from what is sometimes called ‘Mark’s little apocalypse’ (as if it were a condensed version of the much more extended, technicolour apocalypse of Revelation), presents us with two important Christian truths: that this seemingly substantial world is not going to last for ever, and yet the faithfulness of God and of God’s Christ will never come to an end. On this Sunday, the beginning of Advent, it is the first of these thoughts on which I want us to concentrate our attention: the theme of eventual cosmic futility. [SNIP]
Human recorded history is very short (a few thousand years) in relation to the timespan of the universe (14 billion years). That is why we are unaware most of the time that we live in a world that is in a state of flux. Things change, but they only change very slowly on a human timescale. It is also a dangerous world, containing many threats to the continued existence of life. Sixty-five million years ago the dinosaurs were knocked out by the disastrous effect of an asteroid colliding with the earth. That gave the little furry mammals, who were our ancestors, their evolutionary chance. One day humanity might suffer a similar fate, if it does not destroy itself earlier through its own follies such as nuclear war. Even if our descendants do make it through all these hazards, life on earth cannot go on for ever. One day the sun will have burned up all its hydrogen fuel and it will then turn into a swollen red giant, about the size of the earth’s orbit. No terrestrial life could possibly survive that catastrophe.
But maybe by then life will have migrated elsewhere in the galaxy. It is quite possible, but that would amount to no more than a temporary reprieve. After almost unimaginably long periods of time, the universe itself will also die, either in the long drawn out dying whimper of a world that is continually expanding, while simultaneously cooling and decaying, or in the bang of a fiery collapse into the final big crunch. Either way, freeze or fry, science tells us that there is nowhere where life can succeed in going on for ever. There will indeed be and End of the World.
Religion has to take these gloomy predictions with absolute seriousness. To do so raises the question of what God is actually up to in creation, if eventually it is all to end so miserably. The only answer – but a totally sufficient answer – is that science cannot tell us the whole story, for it does not know about the everlasting faithfulness of God. In that steadfast love of the creator for creatures lies the only possible ground for the hope of a destiny beyond death, either for ourselves, who are condemned to futility on a timescale of tens of years, or for the universe that is condemned to futility on a timescale of many tens of billions of years. We shall die, and the cosmos will die, but the final word does not lie with death but with God. [SNIP] This does not mean that death is not real, but it does mean that it is not the ultimate reality. Only God is ultimate, and that is a sufficient basis to enable us to embrace the Advent hope.
Jesus dealt with this very point when he had his argument with the Sadducees (Mark 12.18-27). He reminded them that God is “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob” and he went on to say, “The God not of the dead but of the living.” The reasoning is clear and convincing. If the patriarchs mattered to God once (and they did), then they must matter to God for ever. If you and I matter to God once (and we do), then we must matter to God for ever. And I think that we can also say the same about the whole created universe.
God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble;
Therefore we shall not fear, though the earth change,
Though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea.
In this beautifully written, insightful little book of exactly 99 pages, Polkinghorne displays much of his characteristic eloquence. A gift from my pastor, it has enriched multiple Christmas seasons for me: why not read more of it this year?
References and Credits
This excerpt from John Polkinghorne, Living with Hope: A Scientist Looks at Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany (2003), copyright SPCK Publishing, is reproduced by kind permission of the author and The Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge. We gratefully acknowledge their cooperation in bringing this material to our readers.