Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Palingenesia and futility

I have usually arranged my eschatological thought under three headings: (i) the return of Christ, (ii) the resurrection of the dead, and (iii) the last judgement. However, I'm becoming more convinced that there is a fourth heading: (iv) the renewal of all things, or palingenesia (Matt 19.28). I used to consider this as a sub-point under resurrection (since the revelation of the children of God is the condition for the creation's own liberation in Rom 8), or perhaps as a consequence of the judgement in which that which is evil is finally repudiated and brought to an end, while that which is good is affirmed and released and revealed and vindicated. But illustrating intersecting themes does not itself justify their conflation.

Corresponding to this hope for universal restoration is a fourth fundamental aspect of our present situation. Not only is (i) divine presence hidden or absent, not only do (ii) all the living die, not only does (iii) evil infect every good thing, but (iv) the entire created order is subject to futility. In each case, the solution is found in the inbreaking of the kingdom of God in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, and in his pouring out his Spirit upon all flesh. The solution is Christ and the Spirit: (i) God with us, (ii) new life to the dying, (iii) forgiveness and vindication - and (iv) liberation. These have each begun, but the problems remain until the end. This is often called 'inaugurated eschatology'. Neither side of this dialectic can be safely neglected. The kingdom is geniunely at hand, but not yet established beyond dispute. It appears as the mustard seed, the field shot through with weeds (seedy and weedy): holding out the promise of great things and purity, but presently small and ambiguous.

So 'now and not yet': perhaps nothing particularly new here. But my point is that futility must also be placed within this dynamic. Christians too continue to find life frustrating and thwarted. The good gifts of the earth are filled with - vanity. Even as we give thanks for them we groan and yearn for what they are yet to be (just as we give thanks for health even as we waste away, just as we give thanks for forgiveness even as find ourselves once again sinning, just as we grasp the promise of Emmanuel in Word and Spirit even as we await the coming of God). Without this, Christian interaction with our physical context becomes either a gnostic hostily (in both active and apathetic varieties) or a triumphalist presumption. The former is found in endless world denying dualisms that justify the marginalisation of environmental considerations; the latter in prosperity gospels (found in both pentecostal and bourgeois comfortably complacent varieties). Admitting futility doesn't come easily.

Biblically, this theme, apparent in the 'thorns and thistles' of Genesis 3, is also evident in the life of Cain, marked as a wanderer (as suggested by Andrew Shead in a sermon today). Futility and exile belong together. For the rootless existence of the wanderer is also fruitless. It is the child of Cain who first builds a city, an attempt at civilisation, at a lasting legacy. But the mark that lasts is the one that God inscribed upon Cain. The very soil recoils from his touch. Adam, taken from the ground, given to it as its servant (Gen 2.15), begets a son to whom the ground no longer yields. The ground cries out with his brother's blood. This chthonic cry remains (Heb 12.24); the earth groans at being thwarted (Rom 8.18ff).

But the blood of Christ speaks a better word, a word of hope for spilled blood, untilled earth, fruitless labour.

I beseech you, my brothers, remain faithful to the earth, and do not believe those who speak to you of otherworldly hopes! Poison-mixers are they, whether they know it or not. Despisers of life are they, decaying and poisoned themselves, of whom the earth is weary: so let them go.

- Friedrich Nieztsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Prologue §3


Anonymous said...

Nice post Byron.

Drew said...

Yes; I like your use of Nietzsche.

Anonymous said...

Your comment on our continual sin was right on target. As we lament over the evil in the world, we realize that we help cause our own individual problem of evil within. Nice post, as usual!

Mandy said...


michael jensen said...

Hmm. I am still waiting to see where you put discontinuity... I am very much in sympathy as you know, but I want put the devil's advocate question... What is NEW about the New Heavens/Earth?

and 'chthonic'? Great to see that word get an outing.

byron smith said...

Hey MPJ, I've tried to start a response under a NEW post: 'A whole new world'.

Mmm, 'chthonic' has always been a fav.

Anthony Douglas said...

Just read this post while thinking about the issue of futility (Rom 8) - I've started my preaching series on 'heaven' - and couldn't resist the following:

You did of course mean a chthonic sonic, didn't you? ;-)

byron smith said...

Of course! How have I not seen that before?