One problem for any Christian eschatology–an underappreciated one, it seems to me–is reconciling it with the rather bleak view of the universe’s future provided to us by modern science. We’re told that our universe will, after billions of years of expansion, either collapse back in on itself in a “big crunch” expand endlessly into an ultimately lifeless, dissipated “heat death.” Neither scenario aligns particularly well with the hope of a “new creation” offered by Christianity.
In How God Acts Denis Edwards tries to provide an account of that hope that is intelligible in terms of modern science. He says that it is first important to be clear about the limits of theological concepts and language; imagination is indispensable in religion, but we shouldn’t mistake our images of the ultimate destiny of creation for the thing itself. Nevertheless, he ventures that the Christian hope should be seen in terms of a “deification” of the created, material universe. Taking the death and resurrection of Christ as both an analogue and the definitive sign of God’s promise, the destiny of the material universe will be one of both radical change and continuity. Somehow, the material world will be taken up into the life of God. We hope for this because, echoing N.T. Wright, we hope that God will do for the whole universe what he did for Jesus at Easter.
Edwards emphasizes that we are to see this transformation as entailing real continuity. We shouldn’t think of the new creation as God scrapping the old one and starting over. But what does continuity mean here? We can, perhaps vaguely, understand what it might mean in the case of a human being–we at least think we can understand how a person’s individual self could be preserved even through a radical transformation. But what about the physical cosmos? Edwards suggests that we should think of matter as inherently “transformable” into a new state; it has a potential, as part of its nature, to become something more–and radically different–than what it is. He points out that our tendency is to think of “spirit” as somehow mysterious and “matter” as basically straightforward. But science has revealed, particularly over the last hundred years or so, that the nature of matter is far more mysterious than we thought. Who knows what it might be capable of becoming?
This sense of continuity, Edwards contends, gives weight to our actions here and now. While the final consummation of all things is definitely God’s action, everything will in some way be preserved in the new creation:
Our own efforts, our ecological commitments, our struggles for justice, our work for peace, our acts of love, our failures, our own moments of quiet prayer, and our sufferings all have final meaning. Human history and our own personal story matter to God. The Word of God has entered into history for our salvation. History is embraced by God in the Christ-event. In the resurrection, part of our history–the created humanity of Jesus–is already taken into God. We are assured that all of our history has eternal meaning in God. This means that our stories have final significance, as taken up into God and transformed in Christ. (How God Acts, p. 159)
It seems that both radical transformation and continuity are necessary to make sense of the struggles and suffering that take place in our world. Transformation is required to right the wrongs and wipe away every tear, but without continuity the whole history of the world would look like a pointless waste. Paul’s metaphor of creation “groaning” like a woman in childbirth is apt.