Saturday, December 17, 2011

More on the Way to Heaven and Hell

Earlier this year, I posted something on "Heaven and Hell" as I took in the controversy over Rob Bell's Love Wins. That post has dwarfed all my others in the number of hits it has received. As I noted, it's excerpted from the final chapter of my book, Creation and Last Things: At the Intersection of Theology and Science. (I added the link to Amazon in case my publisher becomes a little uncomfortable with how much I'm putting into my blog. Hey, I'll even add a picture of the book.) 

Even this week, that particular post was by far the most popular. So I thought I'd excerpt a few subsections that lead up to my comments on heaven and hell. I'd also be interested in any comments you have. They could be especially helpful as I prepare for a class in April and May on Rob Bell, Love Wins, and the Bible.

The Science of the End           

John Polkinghorne, the particle physicist and theologian, spoke to his assembled, attentive audience for the University of Edinburgh’s Gifford lectures in 1993-94. He reminded them that cosmologists do not only peer into the past. They also attempt to discern the future. On a cosmic scale, he noted, science tells the story of the end of the universe. Its history is a enormous tug-of-war between the expansive force of the Big Bang, driving the galaxies apart, and the contractive force of gravity, pulling them together. If expansion continues, the galaxies will continue to separate, and the universe will decay into low-grade radiation. Continued contraction will collapse the universe into a fiery, big crunch. These two effects are so evenly balanced that we cannot tell which will win.


William Stoeger, a world-class astronomer and staff scientist for the Vatican Observatory, has added a few possibilities for our earth’s demise in an article with the daunting title, “Scientific Accounts of Ultimate Catastrophes in Our Life-Bearing Universe.” They are destruction of earth by asteroids and comets, the decline of our sun, and the explosion of a nearby supernova. However it arrives, the destruction of life on earth remains certain.


But we come then to a significant problem for Christian faith. These endings hardly represent the glorious fulfillment of “a new heaven and a new earth” that Revelation 21:1 promises. But John Polkinghorne reminded his listeners in Edinburgh that 

Cosmic death and human death pose equivalent questions of what is God’s intention for his creation.
Only God offers hope. God’s new creation will be a transformation of the current order, no less surprising than our resurrection, initiated by Jesus’ resurrection at the first Easter.
How can Christians relate scientific cosmology and Christian eschatology? There is a comparable scientific phenomenon to God’s continual work in the world. Evolutionary science depicts the created order as constantly unfolding into ever-greater complexity. Quantum theory’s indeterminacy describes creation as irreducibly open-ended. I am reminded again of a jazz chart—the basic melody and chord structure are written out, but the actual song has elements of surprise or improvisation. The future depicted by scientific cosmology displays openness to creating “new things” (as in Isaiah 43:19) and thus to God’s continual action in the world.
On the other hand, science does not provide complete answers to the end of the world. It offers an ending only in the sense of how the physical system will probably run down. It does not, indeed cannot, speak of the end in the sense of a goal or direction. Science cannot—if it remains true to its own parameters—speak of forces outside of nature. Even with science in hand, theologians come to the question of whether Christ’s return relates directly to the destruction of the universe as a whole, of specifically the earth, or whether the end of this world is simply an act of God without natural precedent. Put bluntly, will Jesus return because an asteroid destroys the earth?
Regarding God’s action, science must therefore remain silent. At best, scientific study may lead us to the threshold but cannot open the door to God. Here we come to the limit of general revelation, of God’s disclosure through nature. Only in God’s revelation in Scripture can we find the new creation.

The Resurrection of Christ
Science describes only indirectly ways the world may end. The Bible, however, speaks clearly of God’s directing the final act of the cosmic drama. Three times Revelation (1:8, 21:6, 22:13) calls the Lord the “Alpha and Omega,” which represent the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet. Nothing precedes nor slips away from God. God knows the entire history of creation. We can discern the script of this history through Scripture of both old and new creation.
The initiating act of the new creation is the resurrection of Jesus Christ on the first Easter, the third day after his death on a cross. And there, at the cross of Christ, one must begin. There we find the most heavily attested historical fact of Jesus’ life. Two historians, the Roman Tacitus, in about 110 AD and first-century Jewish chronicler, Josephus, clearly speak of Christ’s death on a cross. Besides the disciples had no reason to make it up. The cross represented a shameful, four-letter word in Latin, crux, since it signified a death reserved for political traitors and villains and never for Roman citizens. Cicero’s Orations denounced both the reality of the cross and its usage by polite Romans. Death on cross was “the most cruel and abominable form of punishment”, and the very word “should be foreign not only to the body of a Roman citizen, but to his thoughts, his eyes, his ears."
Here the science of medicine has much to say. A physician can describe death as painful, as excruciating (from the Latin, excruciatus, “out of the cross”). Death by crucifixion damaged no vital organs, and the crucified sufferers could no longer lift themselves and the weight of their body rested on their chest and did not allow them to breathe. Death usually came slowly through dehydration or asphyxiation.
Out of this shame and surprise—for no Jew could conceive that the Messiah would ever have died this death—a surprising testimony arose: “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures.” Paul wrote this earliest written record around 55AD in the First Letter to the Corinthians, saying that 500 others witnessed this appearance. In these appearances, Jesus’ resurrected body at times resembles ours, such as when he urges Thomas to touch his wounds (John 20:27). He also appears unlike a normal body when he disappears suddenly (Luke 24:31). This new creation is both similar and dissimilar from the old creation. To the degree that one finds correspondence to this world, science can offer insight. To the degree it speaks of a new creation, science has little to add.
The Resurrection of Christ restored the disciples’ faith and hope and sends them in a mission. It also vindicated Jesus as Messiah, turning the shame of the cross into God’s victory of death and sin. Finally, the Resurrection of Christ initiates the new creation. On that first Easter morning, as Jesus cracked open the tomb and burst forth, the crack of the new creation spread through the old creation and has not stopped since.

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