I’m doing a 4-part series on my favorite book, “Jesus, Humanity, and the Trinity” by Kathryn Tanner. I normally just write single reviews, but this book’s influence upon my life requires that I share some of its more important considerations for my readers. Here are links to my guides to chapters 1, 2, and 3.
Appropriately titled, “The End,” Kathryn Tanner concludes her brief offer of systematic theology with some reflections about Christian eschatology. Responding to scientific understandings of the natural world and cosmology, Tanner attempts to offer up what she terms “An eschatology for a world without a future.” By taking seriously what scientists have to say about the eventual fate of the earth and the universe (e.g. the sun will consume the earth one day, or the universe will end through heat death according to the laws of thermodynamics,etc.), Tanner formulates what she determines are the most important aspects of eschatology without an appeal to the future of the earth.
If this is true, what are we to make of the eventual failure of biological life? Or perhaps more worrisome is the truth that sin is never overcome in this life nor do we ever come close to exhibiting the perfection of Christ’s humanity. In short, we should not expect to be free from the same types of resistance that Christ faced in his life. Toward a more comprehensive solution however, one might hope that God will somehow intervene in history to stop the natural processes that lead to death or the growth of our sun, or that God will use the world’s death as a purifying element of the New Creation (for views utilizing these types of solutions, see Moltmann or Rahner whom both posit God’s intervention to change history in these ways – however, to deny this as a possibility would be to limit God’s freedom; but to say it must happen is presumptuous, and Tanner thinks either option misses the real point). Yet, in light of death, might eschatology require a reinterpretation just as the doctrine of creation did (e.g. the theology of creation is not the belief in exactly how the world came about, but primarily that all have God as the ground of their being irrespective of the actual processes of the universe’s beginning)? Perhaps the way forward is to make eschatology a present concept rather than a future-oriented one.
For Tanner, eschatology is the description of our new relationship with God by virtue of Christ. Relationship with God, then, gives meaning to whatever thoughts about the future one might have. Relationship with God (along with what it entails, more on this later) could therefore be true regardless of what the future of the world holds. While seemingly out of left field (at least for the average Christian), this type of view has great biblical precedent. In the Bible, the concepts of “life” and “death” always have more than a mere biological meaning. There is a possibility of a life even within (biological) death and a death even within (biological) life. Life, in fact, often refers to the way in which someone lives their life – whether it was lived for God and others, for example. Death, along these definitions, would then be the act of cutting oneself off from life in God or relationship with God. However, Tanner recognizes that it is not enough to try to spiritualize the meaning of death and life.
Death, the Bible tells us, is a sphere within God’s power. The dead are not cut off from God and death does not ultimately have the power to separate one from God. This is the New Testament’s idea of eternal life, broadly speaking. Jesus, likewise, is not separated from God because he happened to die a biological death, because he is always in close union with the Father and the Spirit in the life of the trinity. Tanner continues, “united with Christ, we too are inseparable from God even in death” (Romans 8:38). Because we are united with Christ, God can sustain us even when we die. Our powers of life will be gone, however, leaving us to rely completely upon God’s power to give and sustain life; the only life we will have will be from God’s life.
“Because it runs across the fact of death, life in Christ is eternal life. There is a life in the triune God that we possess now and after death, in Christ through the power of the Spirit” (compare with Romans 14:8). Eternal life means that life with God is not conditional, even by our deaths, nor is it conditional on the existence of biological life. For Tanner, “eternal life is not the endless extension of present existence into an endless future, but a matter of a new quality of life in God… even now infiltrating, seeping into the whole. Eternal life is less a matter of duration than a matter of the mode of one’s existence in relation to God” (it might be worth reading that quote a second time!). As stated in the beginning, what ultimately matters for eschatology is the character of our relation to God, not whether the world itself has a future. Eternal life does not need to be associated with any moment of time, then. We also do not need to wait until our deaths to experience this new relation to God, but this does not mean it is complete in the here and now (it is not, clearly).
On the cross, in fact, death is taken up into the life of God, and Christ proves that it cannot separate us from God. Nonetheless, how should one understand this in light of the observation that death continues all around us? Tanner, perhaps controversially to some, argues that biological death is actually a good of creation. Without death, she says, no moment of our lives would have significance. She uses the prophet Isaiah as support for this line of thinking. In chapter 65, in his vision of the New Creation, there still seems to be death, but there is no mention of “bad” death, or harmful death (e.g., children dying young, death through freak accidents, etc.). Christian theology, likewise, should not promote an escapism from death; we should proclaim that Christ has overcome death’s power to break our relationship with God.
Moreover, we should not imagine that mortality will be overcome independent of our relation with God, as if the world will eventually have natural processes that do not result in the death of our bodies. If we ourselves were made independently immortal, we would have no more need of God! (see my extraordinarily underdeveloped thoughts on this idea here) Instead, it is only in union with Christ that our faculties are elevated and God provides the life power of our existence. Mortality per se, is then not the wage of sin, but rather removal from God’s life giving power is – something we do, not God (for example, it was not that Adam and Eve’s bodies could live forever or were naturally immortal, but just that their perfect relation to God, and God’s provision of God’s own life-giving powers prevented their deaths, until sin entered the picture and estranged humanity from God and the proper relation to God).
With a few final reflections on Christian action for the betterment of the world, Tanner rhetorically asks how her thoughts do not imply passivity if we indeed, as she describes, already have eternal life now and it is unconditional. We still work for the world’s betterment, partly because that is just how life in God manifests itself in the Christian life, but more fully, because there is a gap between the way the world ought to be (that is, living in this new relationship with Christ) and how the world actually is (suffering under the effects of sin). This is not a disparity between the present and the future (remember, Tanner’s goal is a theology that’s not dependent upon the future – a meteor could strike any second, or the threat of nuclear war, among billions of other ways the world could end quickly), but rather a disparity between life in and life apart from God. The Christian life, and its liturgy, can be a place of protest against the current state of reality.
Action, moreover, is the proper response to a world that is not what it should be. In relation with God, we act as God acts in the world, participating in Christ’s mission. We should conform our lives to the relationship with God that we have already been given through the incarnation. Yet, our apparent failures to do these things is not sufficient ground for despair. Christ, too, seemed to have suffered defeat and death at many points in his life (not to mention his death!), but his success was ultimately veiled in those various “defeats.” It could indeed be the same for us as we try to make the world a better place.
This concludes Tanner’s reflections on eschatology (at least until she publishes a further book!). The key things to take away are first, that theology (in light of modern understandings of the world) should articulate an eschatology that doesn’t depend on a particular future of the world, and second, that the kind of relationship one has with God due to Christ is what is of primary importance in any thinking about eschatology. It is the constitution of our relationship with God, and our dependence upon God’s own life that is ultimately of the most significance here.