The World to Come: From Christian Past to Global Future by Lloyd Geering
Lloyd Geering is a Presbyterian minister and former Professor of Old Testament Studies at theological colleges in Brisbane and Dunedia, and Professor of Religious Studies at Victorian University in Wellington, New Zealand. He is author of Tomorrow's God (1994), The World to Come (1999) and Christianity Without God (2002). Published by Polebridge Press, 1999, Santa Rosa, California and by Bridget Williams Books Ltd, Wellington, New Zealand, 1999. This material was edited for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.
This book had its beginnings in the English summer of 1997, during a three-month spell in Oxford. Since the idea of the year 2000 CE was already creating some excitement, I began to ponder the questions posed by the century’s end. And so, in the Bodleian Library, I read around the theme of the millennium.
What, after all, does it commemorate? If we really wished to celebrate the two-thousandth anniversary of the birth of Jesus Christ, the year 1996 would be nearer the mark (though this is only an intelligent guess). Even by traditional reckoning, the start of the new millennium should be January 2001, as the Royal Greenwich Observatory has declared and the title of the popular film, 2001: A Space Odyssey, suggests.
The Christian calendar, long believed to be commemorating a divine event, is not only the product of the creative human imagination but also reflects the errors so often made by fallible human beings. So the year 2000 is but a human convention which rests both on a miscalculation and on convictions which have now become outmoded. Yet Mikhail Gorbachev, himself instrumental in altering the course of events in the former Soviet Union, was probably right when he said that humankind stands today at a watershed in its history. Thus, for reasons quite different from those associated with the origin and meaning of the western calendar, the year 2000 appears to mark a significant turning point in human history.
Some look forward to the new millennium with keen anticipation; others approach it with foreboding. The optimists see it as a golden age of unprecedented prosperity sustained by expanding knowledge and technology. The pessimists fear that the third millennium, perhaps even the first century of it, may bring crises of colossal proportions for the human species.
This striking ambivalence is sufficient to make us pause and take stock of what lies ahead. It is not only the second millennium which is coming to an end, but also much of what we have taken for granted in the past. We are living in a whole series of ‘end-times’. People who have already distanced themselves from traditional Christian beliefs may well question the need for a book about the end of conventional Christianity, when this seems self-evident. However, the end of the Christian era is likely to have far-reaching consequences, and we need to understand the reasons for its demise. Many who have abandoned all commitment to the tradition overlook the fact that many aspects of Christian civilization are also under threat in the post-Christian age. The end-times of the late twentieth century are on a global scale, and it is not only Christians who are at risk.
Most people who are still practicing Christians, in one form or another, will not want to contemplate the possibility of the Christian era ending. Yet, in turning to the Bible to defend the traditional Christian teaching. they will find that concern with the end-times is a dominant theme of the Bible itself. The anticipation of the end of the age, along with the hope for a new world to come, has had a long history in Judeo-Christian tradition. The Israelite prophets used words like these:
It shall come to pass in the last days that the mountain on which God dwells will be established as the highest of all mountains. All the nations will stream towards it to learn from God how to walk in the paths designed by him. He will establish justice among the nations, so that they beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks and abandon war for ever. Thereafter they will sit by their vines and under their fig trees fearful of no one.1
Yet the prophets also warned that the God who had created the world could end it by destruction. About 620 BCE the prophet Jeremiah. observing the signs that the Kingdom of David was about to be swallowed up by invasion from the east, spoke of the end not just of the people of Israel but of the whole earth in these alarming words:
I have seen what the earth is coming to,
Christianity emerged during a resurgence of this Jewish concern about the likely end of the age. It was a period of widespread cultural change and turmoil not unlike that which we have now entered. The Greco-Roman civilization had just passed its zenith. The Jewish people, after a dramatic political recovery in the time of Herod the Great, were experiencing their second expulsion from their ancestral land. The first Christians were Jews who shared this expectation of an imminent end with many of their fellow Jews. But they also believed that the Messiah had already come -- a Messiah who would usher in a new age, and thereby bring the Jewish tradition to its logical end or fulfillment. They went out proclaiming the advent of an entirely different world. Thus, for a variety of reasons, the first Christians saw themselves living in the eschata (end-times or last days) and this belief permeates the writings of the New Testament.
Today there is some doubt among scholars as to whether the idea of an end-time was actually taught and shared by Jesus, but it certainly became dominant in the rise of Christianity after his death. The imminent end-time is described in the New Testament in such striking passages as:
In those days the sun will be darkened and the moon will not give its light and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken . . . this generation will not pass away till all these things take place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but these words will not pass away. Of that day and hour no one knows . . . but the Father only. As were the days of Noah, so will be the coming of the Son of man.
In the last days there will come times of stress. For men will be lovers of self, lovers of money, disobedient to their parents, inhuman, slanderers, haters of good.3
I saw a new sky and a new earth, for the first sky and the first earth had passed away and the sea was no more.4
The earliest of the New Testament writings also refer to it; in his letters, Paul wrote with passion and complete confidence about the approaching time when
the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead will rise first; and then we who are alive, who are left, shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air; and so we shall always be with the Lord.5
Paul clearly expected the end of the present age and the coming of the new world to occur in his own lifetime. His attention was so focused on the immediate future that he showed little interest in the words and deeds of Jesus, as remembered from the latter’s earthly ministry. Paul saw the now glorified Jesus as the first of a new kind of human being, the new Adam.
The Jewish Christians came to see Jesus as a new Moses, who would lead not only the Jews but the whole of humankind out of enslavement to the Devil. The Gentile Christianity shaped by Paul went further in the second century, even debating whether to cut its links with its Jewish past. Thus Christians joyfully hailed the Christian Gospel as a new beginning, saying, ‘The old has passed away, behold, the new has come.’6 They looked expectantly to the forthcoming time when the world of the past would be completely replaced by a new world of peace, order and wholeness.
The early Christians’ expectation of the world to come was not fulfilled, at least not in the way they imagined it. As someone has succinctly put it, the first Christians looked expectantly for the coming of the Kingdom of God, but what they got was the church! By the end of the first century, and certainly during the second century, a good deal of readjustment in Christian thinking had to be done. What eventually emerged from the chrysalis of early Christianity was Christendom, ruled by an ecclesiastical institution which inherited the structures of imperial Rome. The church affirmed an increasingly detailed body of authoritative Christian doctrine in which hope for the world to come had been subtly transferred to a distant future, to be reached only after death and resurrection. Right up until recent times the Christian west was being openly shaped and motivated by what Christianity had ultimately become.
But we have now come to the end of Christendom. We are nearing the end of the global supremacy of the Christian west. We are even seeing the collapse of conventional Christianity. We are suffering the loss of what we long took to be verities and certainties. We are already caught up in a process of cultural change more rapid, more deeply rooted and more widespread than ever before in human history. We are now entering a post-Christian and uncertain global future. The sandwich-board message of the proverbial Hyde Park preacher, ‘The End is Nigh!’, has unexpectedly become relevant to everybody, Christian or not.
Conventional Christianity is, somewhat ironically, declining in the context of great cultural change not unlike that in which Christianity emerged. There are some clear parallels between now and the time of Christian origins, as there are also between the disintegration of the Christian west and the decline of the Roman Empire. Much of what the west has long taken for granted is now disappearing: the security provided by Christendom; the Christian way of interpreting reality; the confidence that the Christian path leads to eternal salvation; and the belief that Christian doctrine embodies the essential and unchangeable truths by which to live. All these are passing away. We face a future without them, a post-Christian future which will be very different from the past.
There are, however, some significant differences between New Testament times and ours. Christian fundamentalists, who read the New Testament at face value, and who look at today’s events through the lens of the New Testament, are inclined to treat the passing of the last 2,000 years as if nothing has substantially changed. They still look expectantly to the bodily return of Jesus descending from the heavens, the battle of Armageddon in the Middle East and the replacement of this present world with a ‘new heaven and a new earth’. But the end-times of the first Christians, on which Bible-believing Christians of today fasten their attention, are very different from our current end-times, described in Part I of this book. For the latter reflect the history of the Christian era and all that has happened in the centuries since Christianity came into being.
Today’s fundamentalists who proclaim that the end is nigh are apt to anticipate the destruction of the world with enthusiasm. Recently, for example, planeloads of American fundamentalists have been travelling to Israel to view the site, Megiddo, where they believe the great clash among the nations will break out, and the battle of Armageddon will bring to an end the world as we know it.7 As this event is believed to herald the return of Jesus Christ, they have no fear for their own future, understanding from the words of Paul quoted above, that they will be ‘raptured’ (lifted up into the sky and preserved from destruction) and that only non-believers will perish in the death of the old world.
Most mainline churches have little sympathy with this talk about end-times, whether it comes from the fundamentalists or from those who warn of the end of conventional Christianity. Mainstream Christians tend to look to the past rather than to the future, and to search for ways to restore Christianity to its former glory, as manifested in the flowering of Christendom. Only a minority of Christians show any awareness of the crisis now facing Christianity.
There are a few who are looking more seriously into the future of Christianity, and writing about it. They include: Stanley Romaine Hopper, The Crisis of Faith (1947); W.H. van de Pol, The End of Conventional Christianity (1968); David Edwards, The Futures of Christianity (1987); Ewert Cousins. Christ of the 21st Century (1992); Donald English, Into the 21st Century (1995); Douglas John Hall, The End of Christendom and the Future of Christianity (1997); John Shelby Spong, Why Christianity Must Change or Die (1998); and Don Cupitt, After God (1997). By and large, however, there has been great reluctance on the part of the churches to acknowledge that we are entering a post-Christian age.
An examination of today’s end-times is, however, highly pertinent to Christian and non-Christian alike. And what better time to attempt it than as we pass into the third millennium? What does the end of the Christian era mean, not only for the post-Christian west, but for the world as a whole? ‘What will follow this series of end-times? What sort of post-Christian future can we expect in the twenty-first century? What does the world face beyond 2000 CE?
In Part 2, this book attempts, tentatively, to take stock of just where we humans are in the evolution of human culture on this planet, to explore the significance of entering a new era that is both global and post-Christian, and to look into the future.
Humans have long been used to contemplating their own personal future. Unlike other animals which (as far as we can tell) live in a timeless present, we have a sense of the passing of time. We humans are aware of change in personal development, as described in Shakespeare’s ‘seven ages of man’; so we are used to planning for the next day, the next year or even for a lifetime as when, in early adulthood, we choose a career or a spouse. But in the past this contemplation of a personal future normally took place with the idea that the cultural and physical environment had some permanence. The physical world in particular seemed to be changeless. Its mountains, rocks and rivers had such apparent reliability that God’s eternal presence was likened to a rock.
With the advent of the modern world view, humans have become increasingly aware of the phenomenon of change as something which permeates the whole of reality. From geology we have come to understand that, in geological time, the earth is continually changing its surface and the physical environment within which life is to be lived. Hard on the heels of the idea of a slowly changing earth came the notion of biological evolution. The planets’ innumerable living species are not fixed but are subject to slow evolutionary change, leading sometimes to the emergence of new species and sometimes to their extinction.
The ideas of evolution and historical development in the distant past were barely accepted, before the current process of cultural and religious change gained momentum. The widespread consciousness of this in the latter half of the twentieth century caused Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock to be a runaway best-seller. It struck a chord with what people were beginning to feel.
Thus it seems that nothing in the world stays the same. The Buddhist idea of universal impermanence has largely been confirmed. Moreover, the process of change is now accelerating, both in human culture and in our physical environment. So radical is human change that many national and minority cultures are threatened with extinction and are beginning to take desperate measures to try to preserve themselves. We can therefore no longer take the future of the world for granted as our forebears used to. But neither can we afford simply to ignore the future and stoically await what comes. If there are still different possible futures for planetary life in general, and for human existence in particular, those futures have come to depend increasingly on decisions made by the human species. We now have to plan not only for our personal future but also for the future of the earth itself.
Part 2, in assessing the trends now dominant in the global cultural change we are facing, will sketch the process of globalization, humanity’s threat to itself, the human threat to the planet that sustains its life, and the possible scenarios that may result from these threats. It will conclude by exploring the possible emergence of a new kind of society -- a global society, whose cohesion and harmonious life rest upon the rise of a global culture.
Every culture in the past has had a religious dimension, which motivates the culture and supplies it with its values and goals. As the word ‘religion’ has, in popular usage, become associated with an outdated supernatural world, we need to return to the original meaning of the word if there is to be any profitable discussion about the religion of the future. The Latin word religio meant devotion or commitment, ‘a conscientious concern for what really matters’; the English word ‘religion’, while often implying a sense of the sacred, originally referred to the human attitude of devotion. To be religious in any culture is to be devoted to whatever is believed to matter most in life. As we shall see, religion has been usefully defined as ‘a total mode of the interpreting and living of life’.8 That is the sense in which the word will be used here.9
The religious dimension of global culture, if it comes at all, will be naturalistic and humanistic in form. Yet it will evolve out of the many cultures which have preceded it -- and in particular its Christian heritage, simply because the civilization of the Christian west indirectly caused the modern world to come into being. But what could the Christian tradition (long wedded to a supernaturalist format) possibly contribute to the growth of a humanistic global culture? Curiously, the religious dimension of the new global society may draw on some of the long-neglected elements in the biblical tradition itself. The books known as the Wisdom Literature, also referred to as the documents of Hebrew humanism (Proverbs, Job, Ecclesiastes, Wisdom of Solomon, Ecclesiasticus), describe a religious way of thinking drawn from the lessons of daily experience. It was humanistic and universalistic, and it almost completely ignored the historical and theological themes which dominate the rest of the Old Testament. It drew freely from non-Israelite sources. And recent New Testament scholarship suggests that Jesus of Nazareth had much more affinity with this stream of thought than previously realized. ‘Jesus may well have been a wisdom teacher -- a sage,’ concludes Robert Funk of the Jesus Seminar.10
There are other (often forgotten) voices from the Judeo-Christian past which are now being heard more clearly -- people whose work or writing has contributed to the rise of the contemporary naturalist worldview. Modern ecologists (usually non-religious) are singing the praises of the mediaeval Francis of Assisi, a man who abandoned material riches and the life of sensual pleasure to adopt the simplest and most frugal of lifestyles. In particular, he turned back to the natural world, long neglected by earlier Christianity, and acknowledged his kinship with all living things. The order of friars that Francis founded was forbidden, at first, even to own property; they had to live by the work of their hands. The Franciscans also produced some remarkable thinkers -- Roger Bacon, Bonaventure, Duns Scotus and William of Ockham (who indirectly influenced Luther and Feuerbach) -- men who pioneered some of the ideas that led to the modern world several centuries later.
Exploring the idea of Christ in the twenty-first century in 1992, Ewert Cousins wrote: ‘with a penetrating spiritual insight, Francis saw an organic relationship between nature, the human and God . . . For him nature was sacred, an expression of God himself; it was a divine gift which bore God’s imprint’.11 He suggested that Francis’ integral humanism is even more relevant to the global context of the twentieth century than it was to the thirteenth.
The seventeenth-century Jewish philosopher Spinoza (1632-1677) also affirmed the relationship between divinity and nature. He began to speak of ‘God or Nature’, as if these were alternative concepts. Convinced of the unity of all reality, Spinoza effectively eliminated the great gulf previously thought to exist between the Creator and the Creation, between the spiritual and physical. He was far ahead of his time, however, and was completely rejected by both Jew and Christian. Yet his ideas later flourished in the writing of Hegel, Schelling, Schleiermacher and Feuerbach in the nineteenth century and in Buber, Teilhard de Chardin and Tillich in the twentieth.
Ludwig Feuerbach shocked the western Christian world in 1841 with what might be called in current terminology the ‘deconstruction’ of Christianity in his book The Essence of Christianity.12 While he set out to expound Christianity positively, he did so on a completely natural basis and without any reference to supernatural forces. Feuerbach already sensed the radical cultural change beginning to take place. He spoke of the coming of a new era in human history and the need for a new religion. In his lectures to students in Heidelberg he concluded:
We must replace the love of God by the love of man as the only true religion . . . the belief in God by the belief in man . . . My wish is to transform friends of God into friends of man, believers into thinkers . . . candidates for the hereafter into students of this world, Christians, who, by their own profession are half-animal, half-angel, into men, into whole men.13
Feuerbach further offended the people of his day by suggesting that the ancient nature religions remained superior to Christianity since they were sensuously in touch with the earth and with nature, whereas Christianity had become separated from nature, and had made of God a separate, sexless, spiritual being. Some of his words could have been written today.
The Christian tradition has contained many different elements in the past, some of which were in their day rejected and condemned. Ironically, it is some of those dissident elements of the old tradition that may well contain seeds of the religious dimension of the future global society. The global era will, in some respects, be very different from the Christian era which preceded it, but there will also be continuity. The transition from one to the other forms the subject of this book.
1. Isaiah 2:1-4.
2. Jeremiah 4:23-26.
3. Condensed from Matthew 24:29-39 and 2 Timothy 3:1-3.
4. Revelation 21:1
5. I Thessalonians 4:16-7
6. 2 Corinthians 5:17.
7. Grace Halsell, Prophecy and Politics: Militant Evangelists on the Road to Nuclear War.
8. See Chapter 6.
9. There is a fuller discussion in the author’s Tomorrow’s God, Chapter 7.
10. Robert W. Funk, Honest to Jesus, p. 70.
11. Ewert Cousins, Christ of the 21st Century, p. 135.
12. For a fuller account of the work of Ludwig Feuerbach see the author’s Faith’s New Age, Ch. 7.
13. Ludwig Feuerbach, Lectures on the Essence of Religion, p. 172.