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A Kenotic Eschatology


The end of the world (End) cannot be revenge, an act of vindication only, and a manifestation of God's power. If so, God would be worse than the prophet Jonah, who waited confidently for judgment on Nineveh and wanted love to yield to justice. For Jonah, justice should swallow up mercy. But that would deform it. Justice would be made inflexible, mathematical, definitive, and finally predictable. A "loving justice" or "righteous love" is never a summation, an equalization, or a statistical average. It’s in the realm of the unpredictable.

The End will be an act of humility where we contemplate God's respect for all human beings. We will see his sadness, flexibility, compassion, and surrender to love. God is not only the "King of kings and Lord of lords," as we rightly but partially learn from Georg Friedrich Händel’s famous "Hallelujah Chorus." That text is drawn from Revelation 19:6-7 where God is, above all, the Lord of the “wedding of the Lamb.” And a celebration, like a wedding, is never an event against anyone but is an event in favor of someone, in favor of others, even in favor of enemies (Ps. 23). And to favor others, to celebrate with others, you cannot give the superfluous, the leftovers. You have to give up a piece of yourself. You have to lose something important: part of a beloved and cherished program, a piece of an ideal, a fragment of life, or a passion. Sometimes love forces us to downsize. God is not great because he makes himself great, saying that, at the end of history, he was right. He is great because he makes others great: the different, hesitant, cynical, nihilistic, angry, agnostic, or inconsistent. In other words, "the poor and the barren" (Ps. 113). Eschatology, then, is a kenotic[1] (self-emptying) moment for God, a relinquishing of divine attributes. It is humility, in what God is and does. Not the "all-powerful" God who has become even "overbearing" in the militant sense, as understood by some Christian legalists and zealots. Not the one who is praised by the crowd at the end of time (Rev. 19:7).

Then again, it could not be otherwise. The kenotic God who returns at the end of history is the same God who created the universe at the beginning of history. Contrary to what is commonly thought, creation is not a monolithic act of a powerful God. It is a mixed act of God, where power and vulnerability coexist. Behind the obvious manifestation of power, for example, and especially in the "Elohist" version of creation (Genesis chapter 1), we also see a God full of vulnerability. Compared to traditional origin stories, God creates atypically. For if that newly created being is to be an “other being,” and not a mere extension of God, that other being must have its own particular space, which God himself must respect.

Without that space and place of its own, the new being would be no one. It would be a mere idea, a prototype, but not a real being. So God, in creating a new being other than himself, must "surrender" a part of his divine space. Strictly speaking, God is no longer "omnipresent" in the sense of exercising full and total control over all the space in the universe. Now God has only an indirect prerogative over space belonging to that other. By creating the new being he has delegated management of some of his own space. Creation is thus an act of "sobriety," through which the Creator renounces the fullness of his prerogatives in order to give real and concrete space to his creatures. Creation more fundamentally presents itself not as an act of power but as an act of humility. It is a true kenotic act. Kenosis is not just a Christological act, and it does not only have Christ as its protagonist.

Kenosis is a Trinitarian act and one that corresponds to a double movement, which actually distinguishes the entire Trinity. On the one hand, each member is able to "affirm themselves" (capable of exuberance, generosity, and creativity). On the other hand, they also "empty themselves” (capable of sobriety, flexibility, and renunciation). This allows emergence of the others—the created beings. If the Creator were not capable of kenosis, neither would the Son. Kenosis is thus an ontological movement of the Father “shrinking” his visible self to manifest the incarnation of the Son. This is Isaak Luria's reading of creation and is known as the doctrine of Zimzum,[2] a Hebrew term that means the concentration, shrinking, and withdrawing of God into an attitude of humility and kenosis, precisely in order to truly interact with humanity within the covenantal framework. Hebrew scholar Gershom Scholem[3] has taken Luria's view and elevated it to one of the fundamental concepts of Judaism, notably because of the corrective that this kenotic version of creation[4] brings to the rational medieval Jewish doctrine about the almighty God, expressed, for example, in the 12th century by Maimonides.[5]

So the End is not a muscular moment of God asserting power as master of history through justified bullying. There are at least four reasons:

1) Anthropological: God does not take pleasure in the judgment of the wicked, much less in their death. And especially, out of respect for the value he recognizes in his creatures, his final pronouncements (judgment) will certainly not be an accounting exercise, either of people's actions or intentions. Nor will it be done in advance, to their detriment and unbeknownst to them, but it will take the form of a close and honest dialogue.  The people he created as responsible beings will have full participation and involvement. Historically they had neither the space nor a suitable time where they could give their version of events. In this sense, death cannot be the end point, nor can God's verdict be passively suffered by people. Too many things escape us, and thus we lack a vision of the whole. That is impossible to have in this life, but without it no judgment can be said to be right.

2) Hermeneutical: The Bible does not say everything. For example, the idea of "salvation of all" ("apokatastasis ton panton") is defended by Origen, Schleiermacher, Karl Barth, and Hans Urs von Balthasar. It is not overtly biblical, but also not necessarily anti-biblical. It is simply "beyond the Bible," just as what Adventism says about vegetarianism, total abstinence or ascetic lifestyle is beyond the Bible. In a strict sense the Bible is not "the word of God." It is "the incarnate word of God," embodied in a pre-modern historical period, but it cannot constrain God's future words. What God will eventually do will not contradict the Bible but will certainly go beyond it. Consequently, the Bible must not become God's “prison” for the future.

3) Soteriological: The End is not the realization of a program but the articulation of God’s relationship with people. One as diverse as people are. There is no single soteriology just as there is no single eschatology. God is flexible in salvation as he is in eschatology. In Luke Chapter 15 we read of a salvation that does not always manifest in the same way, under the same conditions and rules. The End cannot be compared with the Flood or even reduced only to the Last Judgment.

4) Theological: The End is the moment par excellence of the "glorification of God." But can God glorify himself? Certainly he can in theory but it would automatically become trivial and narcissistic. The "glorification of God" is a kenotic moment par excellence because in it God appears powerless and dependent on human action. Only another can tell me whether I am good or not. And God's “other” is the human being: small, limited and, transitory. But, because humans are created in the image of God, they can do one thing that God himself cannot do—praise himself. To be praised (glorified) God needs his creatures.

These are the extremes of a "slow eschatology" which in its essence is a kenotic eschatology and which I have tried to outline in this series of articles on the End. A typical Adventist interpretation of the End as righteousness and justice, emphasizing holiness and obedience, is a kind of "fast eschatology." This does not make it illegitimate. It is legitimate because it is based on various Bible passages and fits within the pluralistic biblical perspective. But it certainly does not express the whole biblical view of the End. It can become illegitimate if it wants to pass itself off as the one biblical understanding. The Adventist version is important, noble, and is binding on Adventists, but it is neither sacred nor final. It is an interpretation and not a picture of the End. As such, it must be able to dialogue with other equally biblical and noble visions, as expressed by different faith communities. It is actually good that not everyone has the same ideas about the End. Openness to others, and to other churches, cannot take place within Adventism itself unless experiential and alternative readings also emerge. Adventism does not have an eschatological monopoly, just as it doesn’t have a monopoly on the Sabbath, let alone on God. Adventist eschatology, besides being an interpretation, is only an honest testimony about the End, not an absolute and definitive description of it. A kenotic eschatology must be able to be matched by a kenotic ecclesiology. If the message is kenotic the messenger cannot be swaggering, much less overbearing.


Notes and References:

[1] Kenosis, or chenosis, from the Greek word κένωσις, "to empty oneself, to strip off." The most representative verse of kenosis is from Philippians 2:7 in which "emptying" (lowering) is applied to Jesus in his incarnation. "But he stripped (ekenosen) himself, taking the form of a servant, becoming like men."

[2] Cf. J. Moltmann, Trinity and the Kingdom of God. Op. cit., pp. 120-123.

[3] G. Scholem, Die jüdische Mystik in ihren Hauptströmungen, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt 2009, pp. 285 ff; G. Scholem, Schöpfung aus Nichts und Selbstverschränkung Gottes, Eranos-Jahrbuch, 1956, pp. 87-119.

[4] G. Scholem, Fundamental Concepts of Judaism, Marietti, Milan 1820, 1986, pp. 43-73.

[5] Ibid, pp. 4,21.


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 Devin Avery on Unsplash

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