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Surprised by Hope – VI

Reading: N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope, Chapters 10-11.

Why is it, I have sometimes wondered, that, as Adventists understand it, the unrighteous must be roused from their graves at the end of the millennium, only to meet an already-decided fate of execution? Wouldn’t it be punishment enough to leave them in non-existence? I don’t yet have an explanation that neatly conforms to the narrow confines of my understanding, though the Gospel of John makes clear that it has something to do with the righteous judgment to be meted out by the Son of Man (5:24-30).

It is to such punitive aspects of the “last things” that N.T. Wright turns in this week’s reading (Chapter 11), following a chapter on the redemption of our bodies (10). There is much fodder here for a good old-fashioned doctrinal discussion over such matters as purgatory (denied), intercession of saints (denied), the intermediate state (“sleep” regarded as a conscious state of blissful rest — the “paradise” of Luke 23, and “dwelling place” of John 14), hell as a place of unceasing fiery torment (denied), and eternal punishment (affirmed with a novel, admittedly speculative theory about sub-human existence “beyond hope and pity”).

However, it is once again in the central theme of final judgment that underlies all of these matters that Wright’s work holds it greatest significance as a text informing Christian social thought. In it, I propose, we find one remedy for the “lifeboat” eschatology that has helped debilitate Adventist action for peace and justice in the present evil age….

Consider the following elaboration on the theme of Jesus as coming judge (also discussed in last week’s post):

…Judgement — the sovereign declaration that this is good and to be upheld and vindicated, and that is evil and to be condemned — is the only alternative to chaos. There are some things, quite a lot of them in fact, that one must not tolerate lest one merely collude with wickedness….The problem is that much theology, having lived for so long on the convenience food of an easygoing tolerance of everything, an “inclusivity” with as few boundaries as McWorld, has become depressingly flabby, unable to climb even to the lower slopes of social and cultural judgment let alone the steep upper reaches of that judgment of which the early Christians spoke and wrote.

But judgment is necessary — unless we were to conclude, absurdly, that nothing much is wrong or, blasphemously, that God doesn’t mind very much….

God is utterly committed to set the world right in the end. This doctrine, like that of resurrection itself, is held firmly in place by the belief in God as creator, on the one side, and the belief in his goodness on the other. And that setting right must necessarily involve the elimination of all that distorts God’s good and lovely creation and in particular all that defaces his image-bearing human creatures. Not to put too fine a point upon it, there will be no barbed wire in the kingdom of God. And those whose whole being has become dependent upon barbed wire will have no place their either.

For “barbed wire,” of course, read whichever catalog of awfulness you prefer: genocide, nuclear bombs, child prostitution, the arrogance of empire, the commodification of souls, the idolization of race. The New Testament has several such categories, functioning as red flashing lights to warn against going down a road that leads straight to a fenceless cliff….(178-79).

These thoughts prompted me to take a new look at how Ellen White depicts the execution of final judgment. Among those to be destroyed by the brightness of Christ’s second coming, Ellen White gives particular attention to two classes: 1) ministers who have preached “smooth things” rather than unpopular, prophetic truth; and 2) those who have enriched themselves through economic injustice:

The rich prided themselves upon their superiority to those who were less favored; but they had obtained their riches by violation of the law of God. They had neglected to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to deal justly, and to love mercy. They had sought to exalt themselves and to obtain the homage of their fellow creatures. Now they are stripped of all that made them great and are left destitute and defenseless. They look with terror upon the destruction of the idols which they preferred before their Maker. They have sold their souls for earthly riches and enjoyments, and have not sought to become rich toward God. The result is, their lives are a failure; their pleasures are now turned to gall, their treasures to corruption. The gain of a lifetime is swept away in a moment. The rich bemoan the destruction of their grand houses, the scattering of their gold and silver. But their lamentations are silenced by the fear that they themselves are to perish with their idols (Great Controversy, 653-54).

Adventists have often denigrated and held themselves aloof from efforts to address poverty and its sources in systemic injustice, citing the futility of such efforts when the world is rapidly and inevitably sinking into deeper evil, towards its final demise. Only rescuing of individuals into the lifeboat matters in such circumstances. This line of thought has a logic to it, but its shallowness becomes apparent in the light of repeated exhortations of the Bible and the writings of Ellen White to be the kind of people prepared to live without “barbed wire” in the world to come. How could we expect to stand in the scene of judgment depicted above if we have not aligned in every possible way with efforts to counter economic exploitation and relieve poverty and suffering during our time of “probation”? The fact that evil will remain and in some ways worsen should not deter such effort any more than our effort to cooperate with Christ in the ultimately impossible project of perfecting our own characters.

Similarly with regard to war and militarism, which comes particularly into view in connection with the final judgment per se. After the “second resurrection” and the descent of the New Jerusalem at the close of the millennium, Satan marshals the hosts of evil for a final assault on the holy city (illustration above from Amazing Facts online Bible Study):

…There are kings and generals who conquered nations, valiant men who never lost a battle, proud, ambitious warriors whose approach made kingdoms tremble. In death these experienced no change. As they come up from the grave, they resume the current of their thoughts just where it ceased. They are actuated by the same desire to conquer that ruled them when they fell.

Satan consults with his angels, and then with these kings and conquerors and mighty men. They look upon the strength and numbers on their side, and declare that the army within the city is small in comparison with theirs, and that it can be overcome. They lay their plans to take possession of the riches and glory of the New Jerusalem. All immediately begin to prepare for battle. Skillful artisans construct implements of war. Military leaders, famed for their success, marshal the throngs of warlike men into companies and divisions.

At last the order to advance is given, and the countless host moves on–an army such as was never summoned by earthly conquerors, such as the combined forces of all ages since war began on earth could never equal. Satan, the mightiest of warriors, leads the van, and his angels unite their forces for this final struggle. Kings and warriors are in his train, and the multitudes follow in vast companies, each under its appointed leader. With military precision the serried ranks advance over the earth’s broken and uneven surface to the City of God…. (Great Controversy, 664).

The subsequent execution of carefully measured degrees of fiery torment on those irrevocably committed to “might makes right” and similarly destructive principles (673) does indeed raise difficult questions about vengeance and divine violence. Yet it also seems significant that in the final battle scene itself, the rebels against Christ’s reign are defeated, not by superior force of arms, but by the the power praise and the force of truth. A great “panoramic view” of history brings home to all “just how far pride and rebellion have carried them in violation of the law of God” (666), and “God’s wisdom, his justice, and his goodness stand fully vindicated” (670). They are swept up in the “outburst of wonder, rapture and adoration from the saved” at the coronation of Christ (668-669). When Satan nonetheless attempts to rally his forces for a desparate charge, they, having seen “the total failure of his cause,” turn on him and his angels “with the fury of demons” (670-671).

More fundamentally, how can a people whose lives gain direction from this vision of the future, who recognize that it is Satan who “delights in war” and makes “his object to incite the nations to war against one another,” heedlessly collude with the militarism that pervades our society with the complacent observation that “wars and rumors of wars” will persist to the end? Do we even bother with the kind of scrutiny over it urged by that unusually wise warrior, Dwight D. Eisenhower, in his farewell speech nearly fifty years ago, much less seek to find a more truly prophetic stance?

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