“Eschatology” is the name given to the understanding by religion of the ultimate destiny of the world and of man, the doctrine of the so-called “last things.” Everyone agrees that the early Church was eschatological par excellance. Her whole faith, her whole life, was shaped by her joyful and confident expectation of Christ’s return in glory, her anticipation of the common resurrection, and the consummation of all things in God. “Come, Lord Jesus: Maranatha!” This is the ultimate expression of her faith and worship in the liturgy, in prayer. This eschatology can be termed “cosmic,” for it is distinct, as such, from the individual or personal one.
To put it differently, and in somewhat over simplified terms, eschatology’s interest lies not in what happens to me when I come to the end of my life and die; rather, it is concerned with what will happen to the entire creation when Christ returns in glory and, according to Saint Paul, “All things shall be subjected unto him, and he himself be subject unto him that put all things under him, that God may be all in all” (1 Cor 15:28). (Fr. Alexander Schmemann, The Liturgy of Death, 120-121)
Studies show that humans have a tendency toward optimism as they look to the future. And it doesn’t take any studies for us to realize people’s memory of the past is often murky. Tali Sharot in the 6 June 2011 issue of TIME magazine, The Optimism Bias, explores some of these ideas from the basis of human evolution. Sharot asks:
Where did these mistakes in memory come from?
Scientists who study memory proposed an intriguing answer: memories are susceptible to inaccuracies partly because the neural system responsible for remembering episodes from our past might not have evolved for memory alone. Rather, the core function of the memory system could in fact be to imagine the future — to enable us to prepare for what has yet to come. The system is not designed to perfectly replay past events, the researchers claimed. It is designed to flexibly construct future scenarios in our minds. As a result, memory also ends up being a reconstructive process, and occasionally, details are deleted and others inserted.
So in this thinking, memory lapses may actually be part of an evolutionary survival tool. We don’t simply record the past, we re– member it, adding and deleting elements in a reconstructive process that also serves to help us survive and want to survive. We re-create the past to allow us to have hope for the future.
To think positively about our prospects, we must first be able to imagine ourselves in the future. Optimism starts with what may be the most extraordinary of human talents: mental time travel, the ability to move back and forth through time and space in one’s mind. . . . It is easy to see why cognitive time travel was naturally selected for over the course of evolution. It allows us to plan ahead, to save food and resources for times of scarcity and to endure hard work in anticipation of a future reward. It also lets us forecast how our current behavior may influence future generations. . . . While mental time travel has clear survival advantages, conscious foresight came to humans at an enormous price — the understanding that somewhere in the future, death awaits. Ajit Varki, a biologist at the University of California, San Diego, argues that the awareness of mortality on its own would have led evolution to a dead end. The despair would have interfered with our daily function, bringing the activities needed for survival to a stop. The only way conscious mental time travel could have arisen over the course of evolution is if it emerged together with irrational optimism. Knowledge of death had to emerge side by side with the persistent ability to picture a bright future.
Death is a frightening stumbling block to thinking about the future. Yet even in Genesis where death is a bad consequence of human choices and behavior, the text does not despair about humanity. The text is always pushing toward the future, toward a better time and place which becomes part of the woof and weave of the scriptural fabric. There is exile from a better past, but a hope of a better future. Death is not an obstacle to what God is doing and what He hopes humans will do. God continues to work with His people and the people continue to try to figure out what direction God is leading them. By the time of Christianity, there is total hope in the defeat of death, and the promise of a blessed life with God. The mistakes and sins of the past will not prevent the better future from materializing.
While humans seem to have developed an unrealistic optimism about the future, some suffer from depression. Mild depression, which can be debilitating to anyone person, can serve a purpose within the human community: it can help us be more realistic about the future.
While healthy people expect the future to be slightly better than it ends up being, people with severe depression tend to be pessimistically biased: they expect things to be worse than they end up being. People with mild depression are relatively accurate when predicting future events. They see the world as it is.
This may explain why some people with mild forms of depression are often viewed as being pessimistic by others (those unduly influenced by an unrealistic optimism!), while these people often see themselves as not being negatively pessimistic, but rather as being realists. They are clairvoyant in a way that the unrealistic optimist does not like.
A final point that caught my attention in the article: when subjects in a study were primed with words that would make them think they would do poorly on a test, “the brain…did not show signs of surprise or conflict when it made an error. A brain that doesn’t expect good results lacks a signal telling it, “Take notice — wrong answer!” These brains will fail to learn from their mistakes and are less likely to improve over time.” Those in the study who were primed with positive reinforcement had activity in the parts of the brain (the prefrontal cortex) that are associated with reflection and correction. The brain “remembered” the mistake and attempted to use that information to help deal with the future. The brain thus generates its own optimism – it is possible to learn from mistakes.
Genesis opens with words of grandeur and mystery: “In the beginning, God…” God creating the heavens and earth is the beginning of space and time which are necessary for our own existence. Genesis does not begin offering insights into this God apart from His creating and His creation; despite God’s revelation of Himself, He remains a mystery to us, with His essence beyond our capability of knowing. (Fifth Century Bishop Theodoret of Cyrus postulates that Genesis does not begin with dogmatics because the ancient Israelites were not yet ready to understand the depths of such revelation and rather needed to learn about the Creator to refute the false worship of creation the Jews were coming to accept from the Egyptians at the time of Moses who is credited with writing the story).
The story of God for us commences not in eternity but in His self-revelation in time and space. We in fact can know nothing about God apart from creation: all that we can know about God is known by us (mediated) through created things (including ourselves!). When God chose to reveal Himself, He created that which is “not God,” that to which He can reveal Himself. God’s initial action inaugurating creation is to speak His Word, and in doing so light comes into existence. God’s spoken work is all about illumination and revelation, making it possible for those with eyes to see. God brings forth life, which is to say “not God” into being, and also empowers this “not God” with the ability to perpetuate itself through procreation. That which is “not God”, creation, shares in the life of God and the life-givingness of God. We create and procreate because God shared Himself with His creation.
While we logically read the Genesis story as the beginning of our story as human guests on God’s earth starting with verse 1:1, experientially the story of Genesis begins for us in its last line: “So Joseph died, being a hundred and ten years old; and they embalmed him, and he was put in a coffin in Egypt” (Genesis 50:26). This last line of Genesis causes us to stop and ask, “Why do we die? How did we humans created to live in Paradise, ever get to this point of lying dead in a coffin in Egypt?” We started with God creating the heavens and the earth. We started with God breathing His breathe into dust and forming a living being. How did humans created in God’s image and likeness, placed in a perfect garden whose landscape architect and maker is of God, created by God to have dominion over the entire world, chosen by God to be His people and doers of His will, ever end up subject to mortality and lying dead in a coffin in the foreign land of Egypt? Why aren’t we living in a perfect world, in which God clearly reigns over all, and in which humans are clearly regents over every other form of life on earth? Why aren’t we living in paradise or at least the Promised Land? The answer to that question is exactly what the Book of Genesis is about.
Genesis is our spiritual sojourn to discover how we became the beings we humans are. More than a historical accounting, Genesis is a spiritual sojourn – the unfolding of human interaction with God and with creation. Archbishop Lazar Puhalo, sums it up this way: “The book (Genesis) commences with, ‘In the beginning God created…’ and ends with the words, ‘…in a coffin in Egypt.’ These first and last words of the First Book of Moses, Genesis, are in themselves a summary of man’s spiritual history, for God is ever saving and man is ever falling; God is ever delivering and man is ever becoming enslaved; God is ever giving life and man is ever choosing death.” (TCAF, p. 3).
We read Genesis to understand our human condition, our human nature, our human plight, and our common human experience. We read Genesis to experience God’s role in the world in order for this to be the foundation for our faith in God and our hope in the future. We read Genesis to understand Jesus Christ. We read the first book of the Bible to learn how to live in this world with faith and hope, and to prepare ourselves for life in the world to come. Genesis is thus much more about our present and our hoped for future than it is about the past. “For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope” (Romans 15:4). We read Genesis not so much to discover the past, which we cannot change, but to prepare for the future – for the eschaton which we change by our choices now.
I conclude with the same words with which I ended QUESTIONING GOD: “We could say more but could never say enough; let the final word be: ‘He is the all.’” (Sirach 43:27, NAB)
Genesis 11:1 Now the whole earth had one language and few words. 2 And as men migrated from the east, they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. 3 And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. 4 Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.”
“Come, let us..” The humans demonstrate some unity, common mind, and willingness to work together. So far the text has not suggested any strife on a large scale between families, clans, towns, nations, peoples. But human unity, something many modern peoples crave, is not going to produce something of which God approves. Human unity does not axiomatically lead to human unity with God. So it should give us great pause when we hear Jesus say, “that they may all be one; even as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that thou hast sent me. The glory which you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you hast loved me” (John 17:21-23). Even with the coming of the God incarnate Christ and the Holy Spirit, has humanity progressed enough to be ready for international unity? Apparently God thinks so. Of course then different Christians at different times have tried to realize this unity in various ways – the one cup of the Eucharist with one bishop, or the one empire under Constantine with one God and one religion, or one holy, catholic and apostolic church with one heart and mind which voices one creed, or the one church under one Papal authority, or the broad and perhaps vague oneness of modern ecumenism.
‘….let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens…” When God first made the humans, he planted a garden for them to live in (Genesis 2:8). Humans left to their own devices build a city to live in. A city in Genesis is a place of human ingenuity. The first builder of a city was Cain the murderer of his brother Abel (Genesis 4:17). God did not command humans to build a city nor did He build one for them, rather He commanded the humans to fill the earth and subdue it and to have dominion over all the other animals. While building a city does not countermand God’s order, city building tends to be done by excluding wild animals and curtailing their numbers within the bounds of city not spending time to develop a dominion over them. Some city building demands that the animals be exterminated within the precincts of the city and once the city is rid of the animals to treat most wild animals as vermin. God’s idea of humans having dominion over animals and subduing the earth seems more related to ideas of farming, being park rangers, or natural resource managers. God did not speak of erecting buildings or fences or walls or barriers or gates. Cities were often built as a means of protecting a population. However, so far in Genesis there has been no mention of war or invasion of enemies. The human vision for what they should be doing is protecting themselves from nature having dominion over them! Humans had been created by God to subdue the earth (Genesis 1:28), and yet the flood certainly showed the humans that they in fact were at the mercy of natural forces and were no better off than dumb animals who were not rational. So perhaps the humans imagined by building a city they could protect themselves from God too. Did they imagine they could wall a capricious and angry God and unpredictable nature out of their city? Genesis 10:32 which leads into the Tower of Babel story says this is where the descendents of Noah spread out after the flood. Is the destructive flood what is on the mind of these men of Shinar? Is building a city the best plan they can come up with as a defense against the forces of God and nature? Perhaps the tower to heaven is being built so that if another flood occurs they can have a way to remain above the flood, or perhaps even escape into heaven from the flood. Or, is the Tower to heaven being built as a hoped for way to control God? Perhaps if they can control God’s entrance into their city – if God has to come down through the Tower, they can somehow predict where and when God appears and thus control what He sees and does. But the humans’ anthropomorphic thinking about God so limits their understanding of Him and underestimates His real power. God scatters the men in the imaginations of their hearts, bringing their plans to naught. Certainly a theme of Genesis 11 is man proposes but God disposes.
Jesus uses the imagery of the man who plants and vineyard and builds a wall around the vineyard and a tower in it as a parable about God who does all of this work in order to yield an abundant harvest (Mark 12). But Jesus doesn’t see the building of this protected space as a place to live but rather a way to protect the grapes from harm so that they can produce an abundance of fruits. Jesus’ own ideas about building buildings and cities may be best summed up in Mark 13:2 when asked about the great buildings that Herod had recently built, Jesus said, “Do you see these great buildings? There will not be left here one stone upon another, that will not be thrown down.” Interestingly, John in the Book of Revelations envisions the final abode of all in God’s kingdom as being a city not a garden planted by God. “And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband” (Revelations 21:2). The eschaton is not a return to the Garden of Eden, but rather a move to a heavenly city. This city is not built by men, but is established by God. There is no tower reaching up to heaven, for the city itself comes down from heaven as God Himself does in Genesis 11:5.
Genesis 7:21 And all flesh died that moved upon the earth, birds, cattle, beasts, all swarming creatures that swarm upon the earth, and every man; 22 everything on the dry land in whose nostrils was the breath of life died. 23 He blotted out every living thing that was upon the face of the ground, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the air; they were blotted out from the earth. Only Noah was left, and those that were with him in the ark. 24 And the waters prevailed upon the earth a hundred and fifty days.
How did the people of the world benefit from this tragedy? In Hebrews 11:39-40, we are told, “And all these, though well attested by their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had foreseen something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect.” The salvation of the world is done as whole for all of humanity – those people living in the past as well as those in the present and who will live in the future. Those living in the past could not be made perfect apart from those who live in the present or apart from those yet to be born. All that happens benefits future generations even if in the present we do not understand the purpose of the events we live through. The suffering of past peoples may not immediately have benefited them, but it does potentially edify and benefit us. In this we can also understand how and why the literary power of the Genesis stories is not in their literal detail and reading, but rather in the lessons and morals of the stories. The stories are a prophetic witness to God’s Lordship, will, plan and Kingdom. They reveal to us both the eschaton(what God is guiding us to) and the teleology by which God guides the universe. When we understand that God loves all His created people, we can understand how events of the past benefit us more than they benefited ancient people – we are the ones who learn the lessons from what they suffered. And our suffering today will benefit our fellow humans in the future. We are all part of the one human race and we all benefit and suffer when any humans anywhere are blessed or suffer. Our sense of absolute individualism causes us to fail to take into account just how connected each of us is to all other humans. We share a common humanity and a union with all other humans. We share a common human nature. St. Paul also uses the image that we are all members of one Body. “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body–Jews or Greeks, slaves or free–and all were made to drink of one Spirit. For the body does not consist of one member but of many … If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together. Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it” (1 Corinthians 12:12-14,26-27).
Some Patristic writers see in the story of the ark a prototype of the Church, outside of which no one is saved from the deadly flood of sin.
In St. Peter’s First Epistle, Peter has Christ upon his death descending into the nether regions to preach salvation to those “… who formerly did not obey, when God’s patience waited in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water. Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a clear conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ…” (3:20-21) So though they were blotted out as a result of their wickedness by the deluge, St. Peter claims Christ redeems these people once judged by God. The judgment rendered by God on the wicked in Genesis is thus not a permanent judgment. Those who died in the flood were not condemned eternally to hell, nor were their sins considered unforgivable. In the end, God’s own mercy and love overcame even the wickedness of those whom God could no longer tolerate on earth! (Additionally, by connecting baptism to the ark, St. Peter treats the Flood story as a prefiguring of the salvation offered to the world through the Church. Formerly only a few, eight people in the ark, were saved. Now the Church as the ark of salvation is capable of having the population of the world board in order to be spared from God’s judgment.)
Only land animals and birds are included in the destruction. Sea creatures are not destroyed by the flood – in any case Noah would have lacked the technology to build a sizeable aquarium which could save sea creatures and thus preserve their seed..
“And the waters prevailed upon the earth…” When God unleashes the waters from the vaults of heaven upon the earth, He seems to be saying to the people on earth, “You didn’t like the order I imposed upon the cosmos and you prefer to follow your own disorderly and destructive ways, alright then, I will let disorder and destruction reclaim the earth. You can have your way but I will no longer protect you from the chaos, from the randomness of an ungodly universe, from the entropy described by your laws of thermodynamics. You prefer disorder in the world to my divine order, now you will see what happens when I decide not to impose my order on the universe. See if you can survive when the world ignores the divine order.” Or, as the Lord says in Deuteronomy 32, “The LORD saw it, and spurned them, because of the provocation of his sons and his daughters. And he said, ‘I will hide my face from them, I will see what their end will be, for they are a perverse generation, children in whom is no faithfulness. … For a fire is kindled by my anger, and it burns to the depths of Sheol, devours the earth and its increase, and sets on fire the foundations of the mountains. And I will heap evils upon them; I will spend my arrows upon them… destroying both young man and virgin, the sucking child with the man of gray hairs” (32:19-25).
In physics and cosmology there is an idea that there are certain limits or boundaries to what we can know. The Big Bang in which our universe came into being is one such limit. Science can only study the empirical universe and what if anything was on the other side of (‘before’) the Big Bang is beyond the empirical universe and so remains hidden from our knowledge. As astrophysicist Robert Jastrow writes:
“At this moment it seems as though science will never be able to raise the curtain on the mystery of creation. For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.” (God and the Astronomers)
Sergius Bulgakov, Russian Orthodox philosopher and theologian, wrote in a similar way that the end of the world – the eschaton, the parousia – remains equally veiled from our eyes as the eschaton is describing a reality beyond this present world. Scriptural references to the parousia, Bulgakov maintained, are endeavoring to use the inadequacies of human language to describe something not quite of this world. He thus warned against an overly literalistic reading of New Testament passages referring to the parousia. Those who wrote about the eschaton were trying to use human language and symbols to relate what vision had been given them about life in the parousia. But precisely because they were translating the vision into current human language and symbols, their efforts must be read in a more symbolic way as they only approximate what they saw, for what they saw is beyond our experience in this world. Bulgakov wrote in THE BRIDE AND THE LAMB:
“The idea that the cosmos is transformed, not abolished but transfigured, is expressed in images of the destruction of the old heaven and old earth and the ‘creation of a new heaven and a new earth.’
This is not a new ‘six days of creation,’ a new creation out of nothing: this creation cannot be repeated. Rather, it is a renewal of the created world. …
An ontological connection is thus affirmed between our world and the world to come. They are one and the same world in its different states. However … they are separated – or united-by a chasm …
Human life is connected by its yesterday and tomorrow, between which today is suspended, but the last day of the world will not have a tomorrow and will not become a yesterday. …
… the parousia takes place not in this world but upon a new earth and under a new heaven. The present world, this heaven and this earth, will not see Christ again. The parousia is therefore not an event in the life of this world, and even less is it one of the world’s events. Rather, it is an accomplishment that entirely transforms the life of this world as well as that of the humanity that passes through resurrection.
The appearance of Christ in heaven, His descent from it on clouds accompanied by angels and saints, seen simultaneously in all places by all of humankind, is, of course, only a symbolic figure of what the helpless language of our spatiality and temporality cannot describe or express. This only means that the entire world and all humankind will be penetrated by the appearance of Christ; it will be visible and palpable to them. Let us add that He will appear not only to humankind but also to the angels, including, in their own manner, the fallen spirits, for whom the Lord’s coming will signify, first of all the expulsion from the world of the prince of this world as well as their own expulsion. It will signify for them their accusation and judgment. In other words, the panorama of the parousia is indescribable; it serves only to express the general idea that the Lord will be manifested and that He will be accessible to all creation, which will become transparent for his presence. …
The end of the world is not physical but metaphysical. In reality, the world does not end but is transfigured into a new being, into a new heaven and a new earth.