The Challenge of an Ecological Eschatology

Written by: 
Published:
May 12, 2022

Adventist eschatology has two distinctive features. On the one hand, it is premillennialist, and on the other, it has a cosmic scope. Ellen White’s book The Great Controversy devotes Chapters 18–21 to premillennialism, as I examined in an earlier column entitled "An Eschatological Critique of the Present." And White's book devotes Chapters 39–42 to this cosmic scope, as I will explore in this column. Adventist premillennialism is essentially a critique of humanity's optimism in claiming to solve the problems of history by reminding us that only Christ's return will end human tragedies. The second feature, this cosmic dimension, essentially reminds humanity that evil is not only in the heart of the individual, or even human history, but in the cosmos. For this reason, any attempts to solve the human problem remain partial and insufficient if one does not go to the root, to the resolution of cosmic evil.

In this sense, the Adventist eschatology articulated in The Great Controversy expresses an excellent descriptive and even resolving perspective of the central eschatological questions and themes. But this particular Adventist reading is not the only one. We have, for example, seen in a previous column how postmillennial Catholic eschatology (social doctrine of the church/encyclical "Laudato si’" etc.) is responding better and doing more in our time than the more biblically based "premillennial" Adventist eschatology.

At this point, we should distinguish between theological “genotype” and “phenotype.” Theological “genotype” is the foundational structure and perspective of a church—its basic biblical genetic structure. Certainly, there is no unique, single possible genotype but several, starting from the Bible itself. In an exercise of denominational pride, we could boast that the Adventist genotype is best. Even if this were true, religious and historical success is unfortunately still not guaranteed if the phenotype is lacking. The phenotype, unlike the genotype, expresses not just the structural conditions but actual historical achievement. Phenotype is not only genetics but also environment, interaction, education, and wisdom of choices. There are some people and communities with a compromised (cultural and biblical) genotype that, by virtue of appropriate choices and wise leadership, enables people to be better off in life and faith. Conversely, there are people and communities with an excellent (cultural and biblical) genotype, like Adventism. But due to lack of flexibility; lack of historical and human wisdom; and a short-sighted, militant, uncompromising religiosity, it doesn’t assist people in living well or offer fruitful answers for the problems of our time.

Adventism has constructed an eschatology that is excessively tied to old and now-irrelevant themes while remaining insensitive to issues that matter today. For example, the classical "cosmic" orientation of Adventist eschatology does not correct, as it could, the impact of mankind on nature. This is one of the most intractable problems of our current age, as described, for example, by the latest IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) report released this year. Indeed, Adventist cosmic eschatology makes the situation worse because, through its ethics, it reinforces the anthropogenic element and not the cosmos as it should.

Early Christianity was a neither spiritual-only nor church-centered religion. As Colossians points out, Christ is a cosmic Christ, and consequently, the Christian's whole experience has the cosmos as its horizon. But regardless of Christianity as a faith, all premodern cultures were in essence cosmos-centric. For them, the cosmos mattered and was an essential reference point for their identity and in all their activities.

With the arrival of modernity, this changes. We witness a gradual but marked estrangement from the cosmos, perhaps beginning with Thomas Aquinas. Despite the fact that Aquinas tries to enhance the cosmos through his famous five cosmological proofs, he in fact reduces the cosmos, and also God, to a rational equation. The cosmos becomes sublimated because it is only an object of reasoning and calculation.

Next comes Nicolaus Copernicus. The Copernican Revolution was the paradigm shift from a Ptolemaic model of the heavens, which described the cosmos as having Earth stationary at the center of the universe, to the heliocentric model with the Sun at the center of the solar system. Without doubt, this modern vision is scientifically true while the Ptolemaic view was false. Nevertheless, on an existential and anthropological level, the scientifically false Ptolemaic view probably helped premoderns to cope better with meaning in life than the scientifically true heliocentric model does for contemporary humans—because a scientific truth is not the whole truth, only part of it. Of course, a more general and comprehensive anthropological truth can't be based on scientific falsities, but neither can it be reduced to only scientific truths.

A Ptolemaic model had the advantage of describing a limited universe and thus a nearer and more familiar universe for humans. This gave premoderns a strong sense of cosmic rooting and belonging. With Copernicus and modern science, as Alexander Koyré argues in his famous work From the Closed World to the Infinite Universe, the universe became infinite—as it really is. But the existential effect of this facilitated an increasing sense of rootlessness. Human rootlessness today is not only psychological or geographic but starts by being "cosmological." In other words, the cosmic space (universe) becomes better known but also becomes "disenchanted." The paradox is that we have "more cosmos" (more scientific knowledge) but "less cosmos" (less cosmological meaning).

The cosmos receded further as the scientific rationalization process continued. With René Descartes, the Earth itself started to be considered predominantly through just one of its various characteristics: measure. In fact, Cartesian reductionism considers all operational things, such as animals, trees, and the earth itself, as reducible to mechanisms. This is similar to the way a clock marks the hours using gears internal to its composition. Once again, nature itself was more precisely known but at the same time "disenchanted." And Galileo Galilei, then scientists after him, will just confirm this new trend. The cosmos (universe) is reducible to numbers, to mathematics. The new modern world knows more about the cosmos quantitatively, but qualitatively it is an a-cosmic culture, one detached from the cosmos.

Finally, Christianity, in its broad spectrum, does not introduce any substantial corrective element. All contemporary Christianity starts from the "anthropological turn," as theologically articulated by Friedrich Schleiermacher. Contemporary Christianity, modern and postmodern, is in its essence as anthropocentric as the culture around which it revolves. In the best of cases, it only makes criticisms of form, not substance. The environmental crisis is therefore also a crisis of theology and Christianity itself, because it is instigated from, and has the help of, certain central theological concepts and categories.

And Adventism has not been able to correct this trend and introduce an alternative. Cosmologically and environmentally, Adventism has become part of the problem because the contemporary culture it criticizes, most often without knowing it, paradoxically ends up reinforcing and prolonging its essential trait: anthropocentrism. Adventist anthropocentrism certainly has other (purportedly biblical) motives, categories, and postulates. But in essence, it is the biblical-Adventist expression of this anthropocentric and a-cosmic culture.

And it is from this premillennial and cosmic eschatology that it derives its most anti-cosmic character. For by positing the cosmic dimension as valid only after Christ's return, at the time of the eradication of evil in the millennium, Adventism points to: history not the cosmos, individual ethics not environmental ethics, obedience not contemplation, heaven not earth, the new creation not this creation, truth not life, holiness not vitality, and Christ the advocate not the Holy Spirit as the Spirit of life.

Such a paradoxical cosmic misunderstanding occurs at Adventism’s core, in the reading it makes of the first angel's message in Revelation 14: 6,7:

Then I saw another angel flying in the midst of heaven, bearing the everlasting gospel to proclaim it to those who dwell on the earth, to every nation, tribe, tongue and people. He said with a loud voice, "Fear God and give him glory, for the hour of his judgment has come. Worship him who made the heaven, the earth, the sea and the fountains of waters.

In these verses, we have the first angel with a double message. The first is an implicit message about the Sabbath (through creation) and the second is an explicit message about creation—i.e., on ecology (cosmos/ecosystem). Not only does Adventism tend to forget the second message about the cosmos/ecology (which is the most explicit) but it privileges the first (Sabbath) message even though it is less explicit and dependent on the second. The first angel explicitly speaks about care and respect for creation and thus less about the Sabbath itself. And we ought to understand the Sabbath in a less ethical, ecclesiological key and more in an ecological and cosmic key. But we are not doing that. Ours is not a joyful, inclusive “ecological eschatology,” but rather an “anthropocentric eschatology” of sanctity, obedience, fear, moral reliability, and human perfection.

 


Hanz Gutierrez is a Peruvian theologian, philosopher, and physician. Currently, he is chair of the Systematic Theology Department at the Italian Adventist Theological Faculty of Villa Aurora and director of the CECSUR (Cultural Center for Human and Religious Sciences) in Florence, Italy.

Previous Spectrum columns by Hanz Gutierrez can be found by clicking here.

Photo by Aleksandar Popovski on Unsplash

We invite you to join our community through conversation by commenting below. We ask that you engage in courteous and respectful discourse. You can view our full commenting policy by clicking here.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

 

Spectrum Banner Ad: Click for Grow the Vision