One of the things I usually make a point of doing when we’re visiting my wife’s family in Indianapolis is to make a trip to Half Price Books. They sell both used books and remainders, and it’s rare that I can’t find some gem at low, low prices. (They also have HPB in California, but I’ve yet to find any on the East Coast.)
Anyway, when we were there over Christmas I picked up John Polkinghorne’s The God of Hope and the End of the World. Polkinghorne, the physicist-turned-Anglican-priest, offers here a meditation on eschatology in the 21st century. His contention in that Christian theologians need to engage with the picture of the destiny of the cosmos delivered to us by modern science: cosmologists are able to predict with a high degree of certainty that the physical universe will end either in a “big crunch” — where the universe essentially collapses back in on itself — or will continue to spread out indefinitely with entropy reigning as everything decays to low grade radiation. More locally, our sun will eventually go nova and destroy any remaining life on earth (assuming we have avoided man-made or biological catastrophes).
Even though these events are billions of years in the future, Polkinghorne says, they still call into question the ultimate significance of the universe. If the cosmos is destined to end with a bang or a whimper, it seems to threaten a kind of ultimate meaninglessness. The human prospect will long since have come to an end and all that will be left is, at best, a dead cosmos. Polkinghorne thinks that a credible eschatology has to take this rather bleak picture seriously. His book is part-apologetic, part-constructive theology as he attempts to show how sense can be made of the biblical promise that God will create a “new heaven and new earth.” In this series of posts I’ll highlight some of what I think are Polkinghorne’s more fruitful and intriguing reflections.