What do you hope for?: why Christianity is eschatology and why it matters

If one scene in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri raises questions of what it means to die well, another asks a profoundly important question.

It comes in one of the very rare tender moments when Mildred, planting tubs of flowers under the billboards looks up to see a deer standing quietly in front of her.

3 billboards deer

Normally guarded and combative, Mildred softens and shares her heart with the deer. She wonders aloud ..

Still no arrest, how come I wonder, because there ain’t no God and the whole world’s empty and it doesn’t matter what we do to each other? I hope not.

In one sentence we have:

  • the reality of evil (the rape and murder of Mildred’s daughter)
  • the posited non-existence of God
  • the meaninglessness of existence if God is a fictional idea
  • a consequential absence of justice where evil goes unpunished

This little soliloquy faces head on a problem all of us face in one way or another – whether Christian or not. How to make sense of the reality of the world we live in?

A world about which, in these days of global communication, we know too much. The suffering of the planet fills our screens on a daily basis. This is a world where, as NT scholar Richard Hays puts it,

history continues its grinding litany of human atrocities, and we see no compelling evidence that God is answering the prayer that Jesus taught us to pray: ‘May your kingdom come; may your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven’ (Matt. 6:10).

One response is to agree with Mildred’s question and face the implications head-on. So what if the universe is bleak, cold and empty? So what if there is no transcendent and good God? So what if notions of fairness and justice are fantasies? So what if nothing we do, for good or ill, has any enduring consequence beyond this life? Just get on with life as best you can. Find meaning where you can – whether in hedonism, materialism, relationships, power, experiences etc

Mildred’s question is a very 21st Century one. The 20th did a very good job of destroying centuries of Enlightenment optimism about human progress and the power of reason.  World wars, the Holocaust, the use of nuclear bombs on civilian populations, the Cold War and an exploding world population competing for scarce resources sort of does that to utopian progressivism.

Add to that developments in the 21st Century of a mounting ecological crisis, 9/11 and global terrorism, neo-liberal fueled economic crashes, and the development of artificial intelligence where robots may soon threaten millions of jobs – and you have the seeds of a post-Enlightenment, post-modern, post-progressivism that does not hope for the future to be better than the present.

As with Mildred’s first sentence – we are on our own and making a mess of things. And that is not a very comforting thought.

All this makes her second sentence all the more interesting.

‘I hope not’.

Now those three words are perhaps vague wish-fulfillment, but they express a longing for hope beyond the injustices and pain of this world.

What might a pastor have said to Mildred if sitting beside her, surrounded by the flowers planted in memory of her daughter? (and what follows is not a suggested counselling conversation!)

First, perhaps that she is exactly right. Dale Allison, a NT scholar, puts it this way,

… Jesus, the millenarian herald of judgment and salvation, says the only things worth saying … If our wounds never heal, if the outrageous spectacle of a history filled with cataclysmic sadness is never undone, if there is nothing more for those who were slaughtered in the death camps or for six-year olds devoured by cancer, then let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die. If in the end there is no good God to calm this sea of troubles, to raise the dead, and to give good news to the poor, then this is indeed a tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing.

Second, here is exactly where Christianity says ‘Yes, there is hope’. And this hope speaks into the realities of suffering and death. It is not a vague hope that things will get better. It is grounded in the historical resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Richard Hays, says this

The church needs apocalyptic eschatology to speak with integrity about suffering and death. The New Testament’s vision of a final resurrection of the dead enables us to tell the truth about the present, including its tragedies and injustices, without sentimental sugar-coating, without cynicism or despair. It allows us to name suffering and death as real and evil, but not final.

Christian hope is not ‘going to heaven when I die’, but a realistic hope that faces death head-on. Hays again – this time about Paul in Thessalonians

The striking thing is that Paul does not seek to comfort the grieving bereaved Thessalonians by telling them that their loved ones are already in heaven with Jesus. He acknowledges that the dead are dead and buried. The apocalyptic hope is that in the resurrection they will be reunited with the living in the new world brought into being at Christ’s return. These are the words with which Christians are to “encourage one another” (1 Thess. 4:18). These same considerations apply on a larger scale to Christian theology’s reflection about the terrible tragedies that violent human cultures bring upon the world. In the face of mass murders, non-apocalyptic theology is singularly trivial and helpless.

In other words, Christianity is eschatology. It is nothing without the future hope of resurrection, of God’s justice being done and that one day death, pain and grief will be swallowed up in a glorious new creation (Rom. 8:18-25; Rev. 21:1-4).

Comments, as ever, welcome.

[1] The Allison and Hays quotes are taken from Richard Hays, ‘”Why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” New Testament Eschatology at the turn of the Millennium.’ Modern Theology 16:1 January 2000

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