A better hope

In continuing to circle around the question of eschatology and look at it from different angles, I went back to Clark Williamson’s Way of Blessing, Way of Life. I wrote a short post on his eschatology here, but I thought it might be worth looking at it more in-depth. This is partly because I think Williamson avoids some of the pitfalls that Borg (et al.) fall into.

Williamson begins his chapter by noting that, according to Jewish theology, there are two topics for eschatology:

1. “The Day of the Messiah” – This refers to “that future state of this world when God’s intent with God’s creatures shall have been realized, when redemption shall have been accomplished” (p. 297). In short, a this-worldly utopia characterized by perfect justice in which the needs of all are met.

2. “The world to come” – This refers to “our ultimate resurrected life in God beyond history” (p. 297).

For Williamson, the key to an adequate eschatology is to hold on to both of these poles.

In his teaching and ministry, Williamson says, Jesus exhibited a tension between the soon-to-come and the already-present basileia (kingdom or rule) of God. God’s rule entails blessings (for the poor, etc.) and has as its ethical corollary “an inclusive, egalitarian movement that featured free healing, free hospitality, free and open eating, and free welcome to the stranger” (p. 301).

The trouble that Christian theology ran into is that with the resurrection and ascension of Jesus, this promise of the kingdom remained largely a future promise. The early Christians (some of them, at least) expected Jesus to return soon to usher in the Day of the Messiah. However, as the second coming continued to be delayed, the tendency of the church was to downplay or deny any this-worldly element to eschatology and push it off the historical stage entirely (to a heavenly realm after death and/or a “last judgment” at the end of history).

Williamson contends that Christianity needs to recover the this-worldly element of its eschatology, which is intimately connected to Christology. “We may never properly separate claims about Jesus Christ from talk of that future redemption that remains to be accomplished” (p. 304). Christ is a foretaste of God’s reign, but there is more of it to be realized in this world; it’s not something simply postponed until after death.

Nevertheless, a number of contemporary theologians have fallen into the opposite error of confining salvation to liberation from this-worldly oppression. Williamson suggests that this may be in part because modern people find it more difficult to make sense of ultimate salvation than our forbears. But he offers three reasons why this isn’t a viable path:

– If salvation is for this world only, then we have to say that all those who died before the promised utopia is created are not saved. “All those who die without being liberated are not saved, but damned” (p. 311).

– Salvation thought of in strictly this-worldly terms is likely never to be realized because “on any realistic assessment of human history, we will never arrive at a utopian state of total liberation” (p. 311).

– When salvation is detached from an ultimate hope beyond history, our efforts at pursuing justice are likely to meet with burnout and frustration.

Thus any adequate eschatology can be characterized in this “two-poled” fashion:

Political eschatology – This means trying “to make incremental gains in justice, reconciliation, equality, liberty, and sustainability” (p. 312). Part of the mission of the church is to be a model community that can demonstrate the possibilities for greater justice and liberation in its corporate life.

Ultimate salvation – This refers to our ultimate destiny with and in God. Williamson warns against over-literalizing symbolic language (heaven, hell, judgment, etc.) Instead, we should recognize that statements about our ultimate destiny are, in the final analysis, “statements about God and God’s love for us” (p. 311). They are existential-theological affirmations based on “radical trust” that God’s loving grace will have the last word.

Eternal life is the gift of the God who is eternal, and hence the only One who can bestow such a gift on mortal creatures. (p. 316)

Williamson concludes with a suggestion that salvation will be universal in scope. The alternatives, he says, deny the freely given grace of God because they are either based on a works-reward scheme of some sort or because they make God’s grace capricious and arbitrary, as in some schemes of double predestination.

What I like about Williamson’s position is that it includes much of what I find valuable in, say, Borg and Crossan’s thinking. For them, Jesus’ mission and message was about creating an inclusive, egalitarian community under God that posed an alternative to Caesar’s imperial rule by violence and coercion. Thus, Jesus shouldn’t be seen as a strictly other-worldly figure who wasn’t interested in justice in this world. Williamson affirms all this. But he goes further and points out that this-worldly liberation isn’t enough and that ultimate salvation is something that can be given only by God.

 

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