Christian Doctrine (19)

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“Let us then be content with this simple doctrine, — that such will be the constitution and the complete order of things, that nothing will be deformed or fading.”
Commentary on Romans

Here are my summary notes for Shirley C. Guthrie, Jr., Christian Doctrine, Chapter 19, “What’s Going to Happen to Us? The Doctrine of the Christian Hope for the Future,” which is also (just in time for Christmas) the final chapter in this series:

We know we are going to die, and everyone we know is going to die – although a lot of the time we ignore that fact. The world doesn’t seem to be in much better shape: no grounds for thinking that we will eliminate war, poverty, disease, greed, hate, etc. etc. in our lifetimes, or the next millennium … So how do we give an account of Christian hope for individuals, which is based on the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and is expressed doctrinally as hope in “the resurrection of the body” and “the life everlasting”? Likewise, Christian hope for the world, that “through the risen Christ the God who created heaven and earth at the beginning will create a new heaven and earth” and that the coming kingdom of Christ “will have no end” (374).

First, Guthrie clears away four specific not-Christian articulations. Christian hope is not identical to:
(1) “historical optimism” – the conviction that there is any political system or ideology or reform program or revolutionary moment that will solve the problems that face humanity. In contrast to that, Christian hope is grounded in the activity of God, not humanity. (375)
(2) “historical pessimism” – the sense that there is no hope for people or the world, since people never get better. While it’s true Christians don’t believe in human perfectibility, Christians do believe in the sovereign power and love of God, and in the worthwhileness of working in the direction that the Spirit is already working in the world. (376)
(3) the idea that death is not powerful and a big deal – rather, Christians believe in the power of God over the power of death. Guthrie cites Ecclesiastes to demonstrate that a clear-eyed view of death recognizes that it renders human toil and activity meaningless; and that a view of this life as all there is can be compatible with profound integrity and morality. Christians who deny the significance of death are not taking the Biblical view seriously. Christian hope, however, takes its cue from the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and so trusts that death is not the last word, even though it is a real and certain word (378).
(4) the idea that there is something in us that is more powerful than death. Guthrie spends some time taking apart the notion of “the immortality of the soul.” Even though this is a popular idea among Christians, even Christian theologians, because of the enormous influence of Greek thought on Christian theology, the idea of the immortality of the soul is not a Biblical idea. The soul, in the Bible, is “the life of my body,” not some divine substance distinct from my body. When it departs, it’s gone. The idea of the immortality of the soul is a kind of denial of the reality of death – similarly, not really what specifically Christian hope is about. Sometimes people may look upon death as a blessing – a release from pain, or dementia, or debilitating age. That doesn’t alter the fact that it’s a terrible alternative to what we really want: continued relationship, growth, and so on. Finally, this idea posits a division between “body” and “soul” that does not fit the holistic understanding of the human person – embodied soul, ensouled body, total human existence – that we see from the very beginning of Genesis. So: a big, fat “No!” to the immortality of the soul from the Christian perspective. (378-381) [So if you hear this idea pop up in a sermon some Sunday morning, just know that Guthrie would be throwing a hymnal in the general direction of the pulpit, were he there to do that.]

Then Guthrie lays out some “guidelines” for asking the right questions about what exactly Christians do hope for.
“We must not want to know too much” (382) – speculations about “the furniture of heaven or the temperature of hell” and so on are out of bounds, really.
“Biblical language about the future is metaphorical or symbolic” (382) – so, for instance, we ought to be aware that “paradise” – where Jesus says the “good thief” will join him that day – is a symbol, of “the best condition a person can imagine” – and the main point is the idea of what it would mean to be “with Jesus” (383). He provides several additional examples of that kind of thing, in reading Biblical language about the posthumous future. His main point is that we have these symbols, they are symbols of something – and we need to recognize that, while recognizing that we still don’t have a literal representation of that something in those symbols.
“Scripture offers us not one but several hopes for the future” – that is, we have the vision of the “peaceable kingdom” and the creation of a blessed state within history, and we have the vision of the apocalyptic destruction of the world and the new heaven and new earth – both in the Hebrew Bible, and the New Testament. This suggests that we can’t try to read the Bible to come up with “one neat biblical timetable for the future” (385), even though some brilliant readers of the Bible (e.g., Jonathan Edwards) have tried to do exactly that. The different models agree, however, on a couple of points: “God in Christ stands at the end of history in general; and … God in Christ stands at the end of the life of every individual person” (385).
“The best insight we have into what God will do is found by looking at what God has done” (385). Guthrie’s point here is that we don’t need to turn to the book of Daniel and the book of Revelation, as much as we need to look at the rest of the Bible, to see what it is Christians really hope for: shalom, justice, love, redemption, “the renewal of the life of our created world and our creaturely lives in it” (386). So, whatever we are looking ahead for, we can count on it being good news.

For the future hope of Christians is not a world-denying hope disinterested in or contemptuous of a genuinely human, earthly life. The ‘end’ we Christians look forward to is not only the conclusion (finis) but the fulfilled goal and purpose (telos) of our earthly, worldly, human life here and now. (386)

Guthrie then addresses some of the central Christian convictions about the future of the world, and of individuals. With respect to the world, he focuses on the doctrine of the “last judgment” and of the “new world.” With respect to individuals, he looks at “the resurrection of the body” and “the life everlasting.”

The key point about the Last Judgment is that we need to reform our ideas about it. The “judge” in Biblical thought is a restorer of order, more than a rewarder of good and punisher of bad. So the Last Judgment is a point from which justice triumphs over injustice, love over hate, etc. It’s still ominous, because there is the idea of a final accounting. On the other hand, the person who is to receive this accounting is Jesus Christ, and what we know about Jesus Christ is that he was willing to go to a great deal of trouble and personal cost to redeem us. We are also justified in having a good hope for all – since we, ourselves, are relying on a lot of grace. Our hope has to be “for” the wicked, since, let’s face it, we are among them (389).

“The New World” isn’t described in detail, but we do know that it will be without the church (389) (see Revelation 21:22), since the church’s work will be done. And it will be a city –the point being that it’s not described as a bucolic place of relaxation, but a place of intense human relationship, work, creativity, etc. It will be “happenin.’” Only, we suppose, without the ills of the urban environments we know today.

“The Resurrection of the Body” Guthrie subdivides into a discussion of three key questions: Why do Christians have this idea? What does it mean? When will it happen? The origins of the idea of the resurrection of the body lie in Jewish apocalyptic, which shaped the thinking of the first century milieu that produced Christianity, whether people were for (Pharisees) or against (Sadducees) the idea. Christians referred back to the resurrection of Jesus, which was a bodily resurrection, and took that as proof that this would be happening more generally in the future. What it means for Christians is that the resurrection will involve “us” – that is, not rebirth as someone else; that we will be ourselves; but surely not that we will have bodies identical to the ones we have now, especially since in many cases these are … less than desirable (e.g., some of us have debilitating diseases or are missing limbs); instead, the idea is that we will have somehow different, “spiritual” bodies that are nevertheless bodies. The answer to “when it happens” is complicated by the fact that the Bible gives two answers: we can expect to “go immediately to be with God,” but we can expect “the dead to be raised first” at the last day. Classical Protestant theology solved the problem by relying on the distinction between body and immortal soul, which Guthrie earlier discussed as untenable. Guthrie solves the problem by suggesting the kind of “already-not yet” structure familiar to Christians in this world applies as well to the experience of heaven. People who go to be with God are really happy – no pain, disease, injustice, etc. there – but they realize that the world is still subject to these things, so their happiness remains incomplete until the final realization of the new heaven and new earth, since the people with God, like God, care about what is happening to everyone. (395)

“The Life Everlasting” Guthrie discusses in a counter-intuitive way. We typically think “heaven is for good people and hell is for bad people.” Guthrie points out that Christian doctrine affirms that “Heaven is for sinners and hell is for ‘good’ people.” (396) At least, that fits Jesus’ sayings and behavior better, and it can be explained by saying that the “sinners” know they need grace and help, while ‘good’ people think they are making it and don’t need anyone’s help, are “self-sufficient.” In Guthrie’s view, then, people choose their destinations. People who want to be certain of their own correctness, to judge and instruct others and not need others judgment or instruction, and who are convinced they don’t need God or other people get to have what they want: separation. And people who admit their fault and responsibility and who desire reconciliation and are willing to accept its terms – surrender to Christ who was and is totally with and for God, and totally with and for humanity, and therefore the fulfillment of humanity – get to have what they want, too. (398)

So while Christian doctrine about “what happens to us” is short on details, the general outlines are clear enough: it is going to be OK, and more than OK. As Julian of Norwich said: “All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.”

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