Its only four hours since it became clear that the UK as a whole had voted to leave the EU, and only some minutes since the Prime Minister announced that he would stand down in the autumn. Too soon, therefore, for any disciplined reflection on this result, except to record how proud I am of Scotland and my fellow citizens, that we have shown our acceptance of inter-national cooperation and our rejection of racism, by voting 62% to remain. Of course we never saw ourselves as masters of the world, as the English did – even if we shared their imperialism, we were in fact their first colony- nor do we have the levels of immigration experienced in certain parts of England. Still, we have clearly shown our different political values in this vote and I hope they will guide our future.
I promised to devote this blog to a consideration of what theologians call eschatology, that is, thinking about the end times. The classic Christian doctrine is that in the end time, Jesus will return in glory to judge the living and the dead; that God will create new heavens and a new earth; and that God’s people will share the divine life forever and ever. I guess that very few of the believing people in the churches I serve either know or believe this teaching, but believe rather in individual judgement and reward at the end of their own individual time. Few believers now hold to the concept of a future general resurrection and universal judgement with the possibility of heaven or hell. The eschatology of the faithful has been privatised.
Of course any just judgement has to be personal. I wrote in my bible blog yesterday (emmock .com) that I see the final judgement of Jesus as happening in a time aslant historical time but impinging on it, so that every day is judgement day, every day people are welcomed into the light of God’s love or left in the darkness they have chosen. When I call God “the beyond in the midst”, I mean that God’s goodness (Jesus/ heaven) is available to me here and now, where I may choose it( life) or spurn it (death). Of course there is a sense in which evil people do not choose death; they choose wealth, power, violence, lies, lust and so on, but they are always aware that these goods are devoid of life. They are choosing the death of their humanity and in their own end time they get what they wanted. Good people may be afflicted by evil or tempted by it, but they know that it offers no life, and therefore choose to reach out towards a goodness, which in their end time reaches out to them and gives them life.
But that is a personal vision. What about the world in which we live? What about the countless people who never had a chance to be persons because of oppression and deprivation? What about the ecosystem of the earth and our fellow creatures? What about the universe and its evolution, including perhaps forms of life of which we at present know nothing?
The bible offers visions of the end which are broader and deeper in their scope than individual salvation, and which give content to the believer’s prayer, “Your kingdom come; your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven”. In this blog I’ll use just one of these, leaving other vision for subsequent blogs. Here it is:
The Peaceful Kingdom Isaiah 11: 1-9
11 A shoot shall come out from the stock of Jesse,
and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
2 The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him,
the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of counsel and might,
the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
3 His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.
He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
or decide by what his ears hear;
4 but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.
5 Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist,
and faithfulness the belt around his loins.
6 The wolf also shall live with the lamb,
the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
7 The cow and the bear shall graze,
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
8 The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
9 They will not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.
This dates from the reign of King Hezekiah of Judah 715-687 BCE, and comes from the pen of the first prophet Isaiah, who communicated to the rulers of his people what he believed to be God’s message, in vivid diatribes and visions. He was open to the politics of his nation and area, capable of assessing these out of a profound grasp of his religious tradition, and of expressing his assessments in language of beauty, precision and wit.
Here, towards the end of his life, he provides a vision of how his God will fulfil his promise to the great King David, that his dynasty will last and will be fruitful. In this vision Isaiah was looking I think into later, if not the last, times.
The instrument of God’s transformation will be a politician! In this case, a king of the Davidic dynasty, who will bring God’s rule to the people. He will not be a superman, but rather a man inspired by the fear of God, and moulded by God’s spirit. The qualities which are developed in him are not supernatural, but human: wisdom, understanding, counsel and might. This ruler sets aside propaganda and makes judgement in favour of the poor and the humble of the land. His harshness towards the wicked is shown by the force and accuracy of his words. His whole character is bound together by goodness and faithfulness. This description is given by a man who knew kings and their frailties yet trusted that God’s purpose would be achieved through a human ruler, by human means.
But then the vision makes an extraordinary leap. The establishment of social justice will lead to a paradisal peace in which all enmity will be abolished between predators and prey, and between animals and human beings. The reconciliation of animals with each other is twice emphasised by their gentleness to children. It is a vision that still brings a catch to the voice almost three thousands years after its composition. The abolition of the need to kill in order to eat does away with the most fundamental of all types of violence and convinces the reader that it is not necessary.
The summing up emphasises this possibility:
they will not hurt or destroy – that’s the result, and it is achieved by the universal knowledge of God:
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea-
-that’s the means: the prophet declares that the impossible possibility of peace will come through human knowledge and action that is rooted in the creative impulse of God.
I’ll conclude with some brief points about this text.
- It is set in this world of human beings and other creatures
- It is set in history yet transcends it.
- The events are encompassed by God’s presence but they are brought about by human action.
- Government, in this case by a King, is envisaged as necessary for justice.
- The opposition will be destroyed by the truth and wisdom of the ruler’s judgements.
- The Government is inspired by the character of God to dismiss lies and attend to the needs of the poor and the gentle.
- The life of the ruler is bound to the life of God.
- The ecosystem is returned to the state described in the vision of Genesis, in which there is no predation amongst creatures, no enmity between humanity and animals.
- Human justice is the precondition for this transformation, but does not define its scope. The just society flowers into the garden of Eden.
- This vision of the last times finds its imagery in a story of the first times, completing the arc of creation
We should note that all species including humanity are what they are because of predation, amongst other factors. Does this invalidate the vision? I think not, as Isaiah knew he was appealing from the real condition of the world to God’s original intention for it. This is the way he marks the transcendent nature of his vision.
All of these points deserve incorporation into Christian teaching about the end time.