Transforming the World series (9) Eschatology and world transformation

This is a re-post from a series I’ve kindly been asked to do over at Scot McKnight’s Jesus Creed.

The next chapter of Transforming the World?: the Gospel and Social Responsibility (edited by Dewi Hughes and Jamie Grant) is by Tim Chester, ‘Eschatology and the Transformation of the World: contradiction, continuity, conflation and the endurance of hope’

Here’s a key question : how does hope of the new creation (eschatology) shape and motivate Christian work for the transformation of this world?

Or to put it another way, what is your motive for getting engaged in work to make this world a better place?

This essay is based on Chester’s PhD published here and which I have reviewed here. As the chapter title suggests, he looks at three ways of framing the relationship between future hope and present world transformation – ‘contradiction’, ‘continuity’ and ‘conflation’.

For reasons of space I’m going to skip over Chester’s discussion of how Jürgen Moltmann sets the two in ‘contradiction’ to each other and Nicholas Wolsterstoff’s alleged ‘conflation’ of present and future hope. Rather, I want to focus on ‘continuity’.

I find this interesting territory, especially given the popularity among evangelicals and others of what Chester calls an ’ontological continuity’ between this world and the next as a motive for social responsibility in the here and now. Chester gives examples of Bryan Walsh, Vinay Samuel & Chris Sugden, the significant ‘Grand Rapids Report’ of 1982, Miroslav Volf and so on. I’d add in N. T. Wright, Rob Bell, Chris Wright and, to a degree I think, a certain Scot McKnight.

Obviously, their theologies are not identical (!), but on this issue there is overlap. And there is a concern to repair the damage done by popular evangelical schemes of radical discontinuity that imagine the total destruction of this world and where Christian hope becomes more or less as ‘a ticket to get the hell out of here’ (my words not Chester’s.)

Here’s how Chester describes the continuity case:

“If salvation is cosmic in scope, they have argued, then work done in the world will be redeemed along with creation. This continuity gives our actions eternal significance  – our mission work, our attempts to foster a distinctively Christian culture, will have value not only for this world but even for the world to come.” (233)

That there is some sort of continuity is undisputed. Texts like 1 Cor 3:10-15, Rev 14:13; 21:24, 26 all point to it. Jesus’ physical resurrection also suggests a type of continuity between present physical bodies and resurrected spiritual bodies fitted for the New Creation (1 Cor. 15).

But those arguing for some form of ‘ontological continuity’ take this a step further. For example, Miroslav Volf suggests that our work represents cooperation with God in the transformation of creation, not just its current preservation.

Chester cites the work of Stephen Williams in questioning this sort of ontological continuity. It’s important to be clear what Williams is not saying.

– he is not denying some form of continuity between this world and the next;

– he isn’t denying the importance of social action;

– nor is he denying that future hope should and does impact how Christians live in the here and now.

But he is questioning the usefulness of eschatological continuity as a motive for social action.

– he says that the primary biblical motive for seeking justice and caring for the vulnerable is love, regardless of one’s precise understanding of eschatology.

– Williams also questions how meaningful it is to talk of human achievements continuing into the new creation. The more concrete questions we ask the more obvious it becomes that we simply don’t know. Vague possibility isn’t the same as hope in the NT sense.

So, concludes Chester, continuity is at best ambiguous as a motive for social action. At worst it can turn into an ‘eschatology of glory’ which seeks the victory of the resurrection by by-passing the cross. A theology of the cross will see glory and victory as present now, but in a hidden form, in the midst of shame, weakness and suffering. ‘This is true for personal discipleship and it is true of world transformation.’ (244)

This raises a question: evangelicals [dare I say particularly Americans? ;)] are not exactly known for their lack of confidence in being able to ‘change the world’. Sometimes that confidence can be astonishing. But is such evangelical overconfidence actually a symptom of a ‘theology of glory’ that leaves little room for a ‘theology of the cross’?

And if evangelicals were more profoundly marked by the cross what implications might this have for how they deal with suffering, marginalisation and weakness?

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