A mini-essay on why The Good Place didn’t end in a good place

SPOILERS AHEAD

This post will make sense only for viewers of Michael Schur’s The Good Place. If you haven’t seen it and may want to one day, then best to quit now because there are SPOILERS all over the place and I’m assuming a working knowledge of the show – which I’ve loved by the way.

The Good PlaceThe four unlikely friends, Eleanor (Kristen Bell), Tahini (Jameela Jamil), Chidi (William Jackson Harper) and Jason (Manny Jacinto), have spent 4 seasons of a comedy show navigating some very surprising twists and turns of the afterlife accompanied by their reformed demon friend Michael (Ted Danson) and all-knowing Janet (D’Arcy Carden).

Who knew that the route to heaven was a complicated points race for good behaviour on earth? Who knew that demons, getting bored of conventional torture in the ‘bad place’, had devised ways of making deliberately incompatible groups of humans drive each other mad in a cheery paradise-hell masquerading as the real Good Place? Who knew that the afterlife was ruled by an impatient judge with little empathy for humans who likes nothing more than binge-watching the Leftovers? Who knew that due to a fault in the system, no human has qualified for heaven in hundreds of years?

Many Christians might find such a premise trivial, not to say heretical. I can understand if it’s not your cup of tea. But underneath the colourful froth and humour, Schur cleverly explores some profound moral and philosophical questions. He combines wit, warmth, fun, and surreal silliness with real emotional and intellectual depth. It’s not often a hit comedy show, with episodes of 25 minutes, includes discussion of Aristotle, Kant and Schopenhauer et al. Can someone be redeemed by learning to be morally good? Where is meaning ultimately to be found? When is judgment merited? On what basis is anyone worthy of heaven?

Over the 4 seasons each of the characters are, in their own way, transformed for the better to live for the good of others: Eleanor the selfish bimbo, Chidi the insufferable ethicist, Tahini the superficial socialite, and Jason the amiable wastrel from the backend of Jacksonville. So much so that finally, and to their surprise, they earn their way to the real Good Place as a reward for fixing the system and giving all humans a fighting chance of getting there.

Good Place Season 4Maybe the show should have finished as they got in a balloon and ascended toward heaven. It would have been a fond farewell to deeply human and loveable characters. But the final double length episode goes a step further to ask ‘What might life in heaven be like?’ And the answers it came up with left me feeling rather depressed.

It turns out that the Good Place isn’t all it’s cracked up to be

After 50 episodes, our heroes’ arrival in the Good Place is an anti-climax. It felt, and looked, empty; reminiscent of the artificially manicured campus of an anonymous multinational. Very quickly we get a sense of imperfection. The hyper-nice managers of heaven pass the buck of running heaven on to Michael and clear off as quickly as they can. Why they do so soon becomes clear – perfection is boring. The Good Place, it turns out, is effectively life on earth with all obstacles to pleasure, happiness and fulfilment removed. However, endless satiation, we learn, dulls the mind. Phoebe from Friends is there as Hypatia, a Greek philosopher-mathematician who can hardly remember her name, let alone any algebra. Her mind is turning to mush. The citizens of heaven are a subdued lot – there is nothing to look forward to, nothing to challenge, nothing to fight for as they sleepwalk through eternity.

Faced with such an appalling future, our friends persuade Michael to give people in the Good Place an opt-out clause – non-existence. All they have to do is, when ready, to walk through a door and dissolve into a great nothingness. This introduction of finitude into heaven, paradoxically brings everyone alive again. Life is worth living once more – the party begins and the energy rises. Joy, it seems, can only exist in opposition to loss. Love only gains depth and poignancy in the face of impending separation. Real life only flourishes when it is temporary.

A Future Hope of Non-Being

And so, one by one, our friends make their own journeys towards that pretty door of woven branches in a forest glade. They are in no rush – there is infinite enjoyment in the Good Place after all. There is a sense of perfection or fulfilment to be reached, but once this transcendent moment arrives, it is time to die to the self – literally.

Good Place doorJason cannot ever top a flawless game of Madden with his father. Chidi reaches complete peace with himself, his family and Eleanor. Tahini perfects herself by acquiring endless new skills (I was reminded of Bill Murray in Groundhog day here) and by finding reconciliation with her sister and her parents. Eleanor, the real heroine of The Good Place, finds ultimate fulfilment in helping Michael realize his dream of becoming human and experiencing life (and eventually death) as a mortal.

The mood for each parting is a strange mix of muted grief and cheerful thankfulness for love and relationship that has now reached its end. Jason says goodbye to his beloved Janet. Tahini’s about to go but finds a reason to delay in a new career as an architect creating other worlds – but we can only assume this too will eventually pall and she will return one day, alone, to the door.

The centrepiece of the episode is Chidi regretfully leaving his soulmate Eleanor, despite her desperate attempts to inspire him to stay with her by revisiting together all the places he loves most on earth. But once she sees he has experienced ‘the’ moment of complete fulfilment and ‘has’ to walk through the door, she knows it would be ‘selfish’ to make him stay. It’s like both of them have no choice – they can only submit to the inevitable dissolving of their relationship – and literally of themselves.

Sugar Coated Suicide

Eschatologically speaking The Good Place presents future hope as non-being. Death, ultimately, is the goal. Jason, Chidi and Eleanor all voluntarily end their own lives, their selves fragmenting into the impersonal universe.

In other words, these were at once cheerful, sad, yet noble, suicides (‘an act of taking one’s own life intentionally and voluntarily’).  They may be a very long way from a brutal and upsetting suicide In Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri that I wrote about some time ago, but they shared its portrayal of self-inflicted death as poignant and virtuous.

In the finale, in one of the only references to a specific religion in the show, Chidi explains Buddhist philosophy to Eleanor; life is like an ocean wave, it takes form for an instant, before dissolving on the beach and washing back into the ocean. The two lovers are comforted by that image as a prelude to Chidi’s dissolving. He will not be ‘gone’ altogether, his self will be absorbed into the great oneness of the universe.

Everyone I’ve talked to about the finale has shared a sense of unease, loss, ‘being cheated’ or feeling depressed. And for good reason. Let’s be blunt, the message is ‘death wins’. After all the laughs, fun, learning and growth in love among the main characters, all those relationships are eradicated. Why The Good Place was such a great show was the sheer likability of its characters. Each discovers that life at its best is self-giving love for others, but the finale celebrates the cessation of all relationship. The ‘second death’ of Jason, Chidi and Eleanor (to be followed by Tahini and Michael) not only ends the show, it negates what the show has been about.

Which eschatology?

All this made me think afresh about what Christians hope for. A number of contrasts with The Good Place come to mind.

The end of love or unending love?

First, The Good Place’s eschatology is one where individualism trumps love. Chidi has to follow his inner sense of completion all the way to the ‘death door’ in the forest. Obedience to the authentic self comes at the expense of his love with Eleanor.

In the Bible, the goal of God’s redemption is love. The message of 1 Corinthians 13 is that love in the present is just a foretaste of ‘love unleashed’ in the future. The Christian hope is of a ‘good place’ of creative, dynamic and joyful other-centered relationships, where love flourishes to an unimaginable extent as citizens of heaven are perfected to love as God loves. Love, not non-being, is the whole goal.

Impersonal universe or personal creator?

Second, I mentioned earlier the weird emptiness of The Good Place. It took me a while to pin this down and then I realised that it was because when the friends arrive there is no-one to meet them. A few moments later Michael finds himself in charge. The Good Place may be filled with people, but they remain on their own, each pursuing their own version of happiness. And when that pursuit palls, they can always dissolve themselves into an impersonal oneness.

In contrast, Christian eschatology is personal and relational through and through – God’s people together enjoying the presence of God because of his relentless commitment to restore and redeem his good creation.

Probably the most powerful image of this is in Revelation 21. The descent of the holy city, the new Jerusalem, marks the union of heaven and earth and of God and his people.

“Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. (Rev 21:3)

Christian hope is not happiness, nor heaven, nor overcoming death, nor personal fulfilment: ultimately it is being in the presence of the triune God who is the source of all life and love. Believers look forward, not to an empty paradise, but a new creation in which God will be ‘all in all’ (1 Cor 15:28).

Relentless eternity or eternally creative life?

Third, using a literalist and individualist perspective The Good Place concluded that heaven will become boring, even oppressive, as the self comes to the ‘end of itself’.

This isn’t a new question; Christians have long speculated about what life in the new creation will be like. Rather than an endless praise service, biblical imagery suggests a dynamic, productive and creative existence full of joy and purpose. From a mortal point of view this is literally unimaginable. No human language can describe an unexperienced future. But the picture is of life in the Spirit lived outwardly to the praise of God and the good of others. It is in giving that we receive life and that is a source of inexhaustible fulfilment.

Death or Life?

The Good Place pictured death as a friend to be actively embraced, a form of release from the burden of even what the very best of life has to offer. Not without reason, there has been a lot of online comment about the finale being a trigger for those wrestling with suicidal thoughts.

In utter contrast, Christian theology sees death as an alien destructive power, an enemy to be overcome, a malign force that ruins God’s good creation and devastates relationships. It is such powerful an opponent that the climax of the whole Bible story revolves around the ‘death of death’ in the victory of God in Jesus Christ. It is the resurrection of Jesus the Messiah, God’s Son, through which death has lost its power:

“Death has been swallowed up in victory.”

“Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?”

The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Cor 15:54-56)

Christians affirm life, not a culture of death – however cheerfully and colourfully packaged.

Detoxing from the news this Brexit Day

On this ‘historic’ ‘B-Day’ – a post about the news.

I haven’t listened to RTE news (or any Irish news station) for a long time – I used to consume them voraciously. Neither do I watch RTE. Some years ago we got rid of the TV, so I don’t watch the news there or watch online (I confess that I’m rather delighted not to pay the licence fee. Long may it last before threatened action by the Govt to introduce a ‘household charge’ for RTE regardless of whether you ever watch it or not as an act of enforced patriotism to support ‘the national broadcaster’. There’s something Stalinesque about that argument Richard Bruton).

The first time I realised that an election had suddenly been called in Ireland (for 8 February rather than an expected date in May) was walking home one evening from work and seeing two guys up a ladder putting up election posters.

I joined Facebook for a day about 10 years ago, regretted it instantly and deleted my account (if such a thing is really possible).

I’ve looked at Twitter now and then. I can see the appeal; there are a lot of witty, smart people posting witty, smart things but it’s not for me. First of all, I’m not witty and smart. Second of all, is the relentless assault on the mind of information, ideas, campaigns, political opinions, controversies, trivia, moral outrage etc. It makes me feel like I do when I listen to or read a lot of news – which brings me to the main point of this post which is …

Consuming too much news* is toxic for the soul

(* I’m defining ‘news’ here broadly in terms of information about the world that we watch or listen to via TV or online. It includes social media like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram)

This is a personal opinion (and experience). I can’t say I have a high-minded and carefully researched philosophy to unpack for you. If you want to get theological, I accept that even the concept of the soul is debateable, but let’s leave that aside for another day.

Neither can I say I am consistent. I’m well aware of the irony of arguing this view by linking below to resources that are from newspapers and magazines. I’ve a particular morbid fascination for the unravelling of contemporary American politics that I have to resist getting lost in. I listen to radio news and read online newspapers, but I’m trying to wean myself off them bit by bit. I’m also aware that I am of a particular vintage which may colour my views of this new-fangled interweb thingy. But perhaps, just perhaps, experience counts for something.

Here are some voices I’ve come across that have resonated with my own experience in some way.

FIRST is the well-known research by Jean Twenge arguing that smartphones are causing a devastating mental health crisis. If you have not read this, you should. Related to this, today my Firefox browser tells me that adults spend about 4 hours on their smartphones per day and gives tips on how to cut down.p068myhz

SECOND is the witty and smart novelist and commentator Sarah Dunant talking about a growing explosive anger building within her for years from consuming news of one political disaster to another.If you have 10 minutes do listen, she is quite brilliant. Her response was to try a complete news detox. She went cold turkey,

“… turning your back on the whole seething noisy excruciating mess … cut the adrenaline feed .. I stopped listening to news bulletins, stopped accessing news websites, buying or reading any newspaper, participating in any social media. Nothing. How did it feel? Well some strange things happened. The passage of time, for instance, altered. It got slower. Or maybe that was just putting together all those little gaps where my fingers used to be on the keyboard or staring at the screen. In public, I noticed people more. I actually spent time looking at them. Almost willing them to look up from their phones, and if they did, I smiled … I am up to seventeen returned smiles. I have also taken to breathing, consciously that is …. To tone down the volume of thoughts, to try to be in the moment.”

She knows such a radical detox can’t last. But her experience of making human connection in is telling. We are embodied people. Love and relationship are innately physical, not virtual.

51n1jdr470l._sx314_bo1204203200_THIRD, is the Swiss writer Rolf Dobelli who has written Stop Reading the News: A Manifesto for a Happier, Calmer and Wiser Life.

He can find out the important stuff that is going on without daily consumption of news bombarding him from every angle. He gave an interview in the Irish Times (yes, I know) earlier this month.  Consuming news neither helps us to understand what is going on nor does it help us make better decisions in our personal lives or work.

News consumption, he argues, breeds superficiality and short attention spans. Online ‘noise’ militates against sustained engagement with ideas. It is also overwhelmingly negative and fosters chronic stress, anxiety and has physical effects of lowering a person’s immune system.

Online news and social media works on clickbait. We not only waste time but get sucked into an ephemeral world where nothing is solid. News has become little more than a form of entertainment, desperately trying to catch the consumer’s fleeting attention.

And so the noise, and extreme opinion, gets louder and louder.

News, the Body, the Mind and Eschatology

So in 2020 I’m trying to turn the volume down and perhaps you might give it a go as well.

Perhaps this upcoming Lent, what about trying a total detox from the news and social media and see what happens?

Since we are embodied pepple, what about getting up from your chair, or lifting your eyes from the screen, and getting outside for walks in places of beauty? Take up Park Running on a Saturday morning – its’ a great detoxifer. If possible, talk to people rather than emailing or texting them. Spend the ‘extra’ time away from the screen in connecting to people ‘in the flesh’. Cook food and invite friends around. (Feel welcome to add other suggestions for an ‘embodied life’ in the comments if you wish).

9781540961136Finally, since this is a theological blog, there is a question here related to the mind and what we put in it.

Recently, Craig Keener has written a major book on the neglected topic of the Christian Mind – The Mind of the Spirit: Paul’s Approach to Transformed Thinking (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2016).

At the heart of the renewing of the mind (Romans 12:1-2) is an eschatological dynamic. It is from the perspective of God’s future that a renewed mind is enabled to discern right choices in the present

1 Corinthians 2:15-16 and the mind of Christ versus human judgments

15 The person with the Spirit makes judgments about all things, but such a person is not subject to merely human judgments, 16 for,

“Who has known the mind of the Lord
    so as to instruct him?”

But we have the mind of Christ.

Colossians 3:1-2 and minds set on things above rather than things on earth cf Phil 3:19-20).

Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things.

Philippiaans 4:8 needs to be heard and acted upon in these days of information overload

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.

The ‘tryanny of the urgent’ within the never-ending cycle of news of human behaviour is relentlessly non-eschatological. It is also relentlessly anthropocentric. Both emphases are inimical to Christian faith in the triune God.

If Christians fill their minds with such content it is not hard to see what the results will be:

– a lack of prayer

– anxiety

– fear

– a loss of transcendence;

– obsession over human agency in the world

– a loss of hope

– anger (as with Sarah Dunant)

– an over-reliance on politics to fix the world

– a shrivelled sense of worship.

Perhaps it’s time to detox and use the body in better ways and fill the mind with better things.

Eschatology and Advent (11): is Christianity a delusion?

As Advent comes to a close, this is the final post in our series. Here’s a fundamental question that we are left with:

Is history moving towards an ‘end’? And to be more specifically Christian, is that end a good one in which God renews and restores this broken world?

OR

Are such hopes human delusions? History just keeps grinding away. There have been and are any number of utopian dreams, both religious and secular, that imagine history is about to end and a dramatic transformation is about to occur.

The political philosopher John Gray was on BBC Radio 4 ‘Point of View’ this week arguing the second option. The title of his talk was ‘The Recurrent Dream of an End Time’.

‘Human beings dread the prospect that the world they know is coming to an end, while at the same time they long for a world different from any that has ever existed.’

He gives various examples of a ‘millennarian mindset’ – particulaly political ones – in which hopes of a dramatic and imminent transformation of the world is about to dawn.

Failed Dreams

CHRISTIAN MILLENNARIAN MOVEMENTS – there have been many throughout history

FRENCH REVOLUTION – a new world order of reason – that descended into chaos and bloodshed

COMMUNISM: Russian and Chinese (Mao). Gray could have included Pol Pot in Cambodia setting the clock back to year zero. They also ended in bloodshed, genocide and disillusion.

LIBERAL OPTIMISM: the dream that ‘history had ended’ with the spread of liberal values (Francis Fukayama in the 1990s. It wasn’t convincing then, its seems even more foolish now).

ALIENS: (no, not the movies). Think H G Wells’ The War of the Worlds’ and movements since that imagine imminent catastrophe or new beginnings.

EXTINCTION REBELLION. The world as we know it is about to ‘end’

SILICON VALLEY. The dreams of tech executives that an ‘Omega Point’ in human history is about to arrive where we can develop a new sort of humanity, coupled with AI, to create a new age of transhuman immortality.

“The belief that the end of history is imminent is always near”

Can We Face the Truth?

The reason, Gray suggests, is that if history is linear it is going somewhere. There is a story to the world, to our lives, and the fact that we can have a part to play in participating in that future gives hope.

The human animal, cannot bear to think that its existence has no wider story. It denies the reality that our lives, and our civilisation, will start and end, to be succeeded in time by others.

It is this delusion that Gray rejects. All dreams of a golden new age will perish. There is no escape from everlasting recurrence. History is not going anywhere.

The question is, he asks, is whether we can overcome our obsession with hope of a better age to come, or will we be like the hapless characters in Samuel Beckett’s piece ‘For to end, yet again’ who are always waiting for an ending that never arrives?

If Christ is not raised

Gray is always refreshing to listen to. He sees how much politics, technology and religion overlap in how they represent ways to think about our place in the world. Nothing is ‘value free’ or ‘story free’. He’s especially astute in describing the optimism of so much secular liberalism – that it is somehow ‘beyond’ the outdated and regressive beliefs of religion(s).

So I’m with him. Human dreams of a new age about to dawn are just those – dreams. We do not hold the future of the world in our hands. In fact, we are horribly brilliant at making a violent and unjust mess of this world.

And this brings us right back to advent and apocalyptic theology. The Christian faith is either true or it isn’t.

Either God has been active in and through human history (the story of Israel) or he hasn’t.

Either God has apocalyptically invaded that human history in the ‘once and future coming of Jesus Christ’ (to quote the strapline of Fleming Rutledge’s book) or he hasn’t.

Either history is pitiless endless recurrence (Gray) or it is unfolding in God’s eschatogical time towards the parousia of Jesus, final judgment, resurrection of the dead and new creation in which all things will be finally be put right.

In the Bible, Paul sees this ‘either / or’ of God’s eschatological future or human delusion just as clearly as Gray does.

While he was not writing apologetically trying to ‘defend’ the truth of the gospel (his main concern is to affirm the resurrection to come), in 1 Corinthians 15:14-19 he imagines the world if Jesus Christ was just another man who lived and died.

And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.

So am I – and you if you are a Christian – a ‘hapless’ figure waiting for an ending that will never come? Well, it all depends if the new age has already begun in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ or not.

Eschatology and Advent (10) Fleming Rutledge on the good news of judgment

If you are a Christian, what are you waiting for?

Or, in other words, what is the content of Christian hope?

This is an advent question since the Christian faith is lived out in the overlap of the ages, awaiting the return of the King.

To make the question more specific, how is God’s judgment hopeful?

In her book of (mostly) sermons related to Advent preached over decades, Fleming Rutledge addresses this question from various angles.

One angle is how divine judgment is good news.

I’m referring mostly here to material from two sermons within a section of the book on ‘Justice and Final Judgment’. The sermons are ‘Loving the Dreadful Day of Judgment‘ and ‘The Great But

Some key points she makes include (and this sort of summary does not attempt to capture the flow of a sermon which is dialogical, the text of a spoken address)

1. The judgment of God as good and necessary

‘Judgmental’ is a relatively new word, not appearing in the OED until the 20th century. Today, to be ‘judgmental’ is socially unacceptable and a perjorative description of an intolerant person.

Rutledge comments that in the past judgment was a process of discernment leading to wisdom in assessing the value or truth of something.

The real theological problem here is that we have lost sight of the fact that an act of judgment may very well be an act of liberation (180)

… The coming of the Lord will be accompanied by the final judgment over all things – over the waste we have made of God’s creation by wars and greed and rapacity and cruelty and self-aggrandizement at the expense of the poor and needy whom God loves (180-81)

(My comments) We don’t have to look far back into 2019 to know what she is talking about.

If we struggle with the idea of judgment, we need to look into the heart of darkness – not to ignore those raped, abused, trafficked, used and discarded; not to close our eyes to injustice and exploitation, to those that deal in arms at the expense of millions globally. God will judge the destruction of his good creation and those he loves.

And as we look upon this broken world – our hearts should cry out for the justice of God to be done.

  1. Syria: 13.1 million people needing humanitarian aid. 6.7 displaced. 350,000 or so dead.
  2. Yemen Civil War. 22 million displaced. 230,000 dead. 380,000 cholera. 1.8 million children suffering malnutrition
  3. Royhinga ethnic cleansing by the Myanmar military: 750,000 fled. Rape and murder, systematic destruction of a people with no place to call home.

It is these sorts of evils we need to look at in the face, especially if

we are unable to live with the thought of the judgment of God because we don’t want to allow it into our tidy concept of God as loving, forgiving, and accepting (175)

… in such circumstance, we can understand that the judgment of God upon all evil is good, right, and necessary, A culture of impunity is nothing less than hell. (175)

2. God will save us from judgment but he will not save us without judgment

But, if we are honest with ourselves for a minute, we know that we cannot stand before God’s judgment either. It’s too easy to see the manifest wrong others do and either naively or self-righteously exempt ourselves.

This is the ‘BUT’ Rutledge refers to. How are we going to survive such judgment? She refers to this Advent text from Isaiah 57:15-19

For this is what the high and exalted One says –
he who lives for ever, whose name is holy …

I will not accuse them for ever,
nor will I always be angry …
I was enraged by their sinful greed;
I punished them, and hid my face in anger,
yet they kept on in their wilful ways.
I have seen their ways, but I will heal them; I will guide them and restore comfort ..

‘But I will heal them’ is the only source of hope for God’s people.

Hear also this advent text from 1 Thessalonians 5:2-5

for you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. While people are saying, ‘Peace and safety’, destruction will come on them suddenly, as labour pains on a pregnant woman, and they will not escape. But you, brothers and sisters, are not in darkness so that this day should surprise you like a thief. You are all children of the light and children of the day. We do not belong to the night or to the darkness.

Judgement will come – but those in Christ are children not of darkness but of light. They have no fear of God’s final judgment because judgment has already been passed in Christ.

This is the reason for Christian hope – the saving love and compassion of God.

GOD WILL SAVE US FROM JUDGMENT, BUT HE WILL NOT SAVE US WITHOUT JUDGMENT (182)

3. Personal Judgment

And such judgment is more than a ‘not-guilty’ verdict. It is transformative. The Christian gospel is anything but naive about human nature. It is not as if Christians are somehow morally superior people who have ‘done good things and will therefore be rewarded’ (181)

Even our best efforts are like dirty rags (Isaiah 64:6). We need the judgment of God.

Rutledge is refreshingly honest here. There are not many leaders / preachers who speak as she does of a growing weariness of personality traits with which she (and therefore others) have struggled, even though she has worked hard at overcoming them. She looks forward to God’s refining and purifying judgment when all that is sinful and twisted will be ‘judged and gone forever’.

We rejoice to know that it is the Lord himself who will come to be our Judge. (184)

This reminds me of Eugene Peterson who said something along the lines that the gospel brings us to the end of ourselves. Self-obsession is a dead-end, it is in losing our lives that we find them; it is in repentance and humility that we come into the presence of God.

These themes are not popular today which is why Rutledge’s writing on Advent, and her book on the cross, are so important.

Do you think of the judgment of God as ‘good and necessary’? What causes you to cry out for justice to be done?

Do we have space in our ‘tidy’ theology of a loving God for a God who is also a fearsome judge?

What is it about your own life and character that you look forward to having purified and transformed by the judgment of God?

Eschatology and Advent (8): Fleming Rutledge and Apocalyptic Theology

Advent is a time of waiting, in hope, for a transformed future. The season of Advent makes dedicated space in the church calendar to reflect on the nature of the Christian faith as life lived in the eschatological tension between two ages – the old age that is passing away, the new age of the Spirit that has dawned with the coming of Jesus the Messiah.

This eschatological framing of Christianity is a very long way away from the liberalism of Ritschl and Wrede, or the demythologised existential faith of Bultmann.

It sees the coming of Jesus, the kingdom of God, the victory of cross and resurrection and the outpouring of the Spirit as apocalyptic events.

Apocalypse (apokalypsis) means ‘revelation’. Technically it refers to a particular type of literature (like the book of Revelation), full of dramatic symbolism, revealing divine realities in order to help readers (often facing persecution or suffering of some sort) to interpret their present circumstances and live accordingly.

But a broader understanding is used by many today, including Fleming Rutledge. When she uses ‘apocalyptic’ she is referring to a divine invasion into the present world order, a catalyst for something dramatically new that has happened in the here and now, so much so that nothing will ever be the same again.

[An aside: the ‘apocalyptic turn’ in NT theology is not uncontroversial. Building on work by J C Beker (1980) and J L Martyn, others like Beverly Gaventa, Philip Ziegler, Douglas Campbell, Martinus de Boer and others, have stressed themes of divine invasion, discontinuity with previous revelation, and a cosmic war with almost personified forces of Sin, Death, Flesh and the Powers. This emphasis on a great spiritual conflict behind the scenes has a very different feel to emphasis in much traditional Christianity on individual faith, divine grace and forgiveness of sin. It does not have to be a case of ‘either / or’ – though some theologians push in that direction].

In her Introduction Rutledge summarises the main components of apocalyptic theology (pp.18-21). All of them resonate with the fully eschatological character of the Christian faith that we have been talking about in this series.

These themes continually appear in her Advent sermons and are thus essential for the book as a whole. We will summarise them here and after this post we will simply look at a selection of her sermons in the lead up to Christmas.

A question first – do you think of Christianity as an ‘apocalyptic’ faith? Do you see your life, and the vocation of the people of God in the world, as being lived out within a cosmic battle behind the scenes between God and forces opposed to his good purposes?

Does this sort of language and imagery feel a bit ‘extreme’? Or do you find it truthful, making sense of the ‘heart of darkness’ which describes our world?

The Components of Apocalytpic Theology

1. God is the acting subject

The action of God is revealed in Jesus Christ (‘When the time had fully come’ Gal. 4:4). It is God who inaugurates his kingdom and takes on the forces of evil. It is God’s prophet John the Baptist who announces judgement. The active agent in history is God.

2. The Three Agencies

Liberal theology tends to elevate human experience and reason. God may or may not be an actual person. Apocalyptic theology begins with God, his enemy who has invaded the world, and human beings who are under his power.

3. Two Ages Overlapping with one another

The NT world is one of two ages, two powers in conflict with each other: Spirit versus Flesh; God versus the Devil; two kingdoms in battle; darkness versus light. (Rutledge has a passing swipe at language of ‘spiritual journey’ as if we face no opposition, just a journey towards maturity and wisdom).

4. Struggle and Conflict at the turn of the ages

The ages are in battle; believers are called to participate – to be non-violent soldiers in a spiritual conflict against this present evil age (Gal. 1:4) and the Enemy and his powers.

5. The Apocalyptic Role of the Church

Christians do not fight alone. Called into community, the battle is corporate not isolated soldiers on their own. The task of the church is to be a bridgehead of the kingdom of God in the world (kosmos).

6. The Armour of Light

The ‘weapons’ of the Church are different to those of the world. Patience, love, kindness, forgiveness, prayer (see Eph 6)

7. The Stance toward the Enemy

Rutledge calls the Great Enemy “the personified power of Sin and Death” to whom all humans are in bondage. All of us are God’s enemies until the Gospel brings us over to his side (not by our own wisdom or efforts but by grace).

8. The Justification of the Ungodly

Everyone is ungodly – this is the great argument of Romans 1-4. Pagan Gentiles but also Jews are alike unrighteous. “None of us deserves God’s favor” (p.20). Hope depends utterly on God’s redeeming action.

9. The Future of God

The Christ-event has inaugurated the reign of God but it remains unfulfilled. “God’s future determines the present, rather than the other way round.” The present evil age is temporary.

10. Suffering and Hope

In the inbetween times Christians are to expect suffering, trials and tribulations. Apocalyptic literature is written to encourage believers in desperate circumstances. But the promises of God will have the last say at the return of Christ.

11. Apocalyptic Transvision

Christians need discernment to understand the battle they are in. The Spirit is given to the church as a sign of the age of come, empowering and equipping the church for life in the inbetween times.

12. Continuity and Discontinuity

Rutledge rightly acknowledges that this is the issue where most controversy exists around apocalyptic theology. Some so stress ‘invasion’ and newness that it seems to cut off the NT from the story of Israel (N T Wright is especially critical of some apocalyptic theology at this point). She argues discontinuity does NOT mean severance from the OT.

What it does mean is a rereading of the Old Testament in light of the first and second comings of Christ. It means that the hope of redemption and the advent of the age to come no longer seeks evidence of the promise of God from present circumstances, but only in terms of the promised future of God … This is the truly radical nature of the Advent promise, which sweeps away cheap comforts and superficial reassurances and, in the midst of the most world-overturning circumstances, still testifies that “Behold, I am coming soon! … I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end! (Rev. 22:12, 13) (p.21).

What, I wonder are your present circumstances this Advent? Perhaps they are, humanly speaking, practically devoid of hope. Perhaps you find little to rejoice about this Christmas. Or perhaps you feel overwhelmed by the scale of bad news and prophecies of doom in your newsfeed.

It is precisely into such darkness that Advent speaks hope.

Eschatology and Advent (7) Fleming Rutledge ‘Advent Begins in Darkness’

The vast hoards of readers of this blog will know that during Lent earlier this year, we read our way, one day at a time, through Fleming Rutledge’s marvellous The Crucifixion of Jesus Christ.

I don’t do end of year lists, but I can say that it is easily the best book I read this year – in fact in quite a few years.

So I’ve been looking forward to reading her Advent: The Once and Future Coming of Jesus Christ (2018). Of disappointment there has been none.

The introduction to thinking theologically about Advent is excellent. Most of the rest of the book consists of sermons preached over the last 30 or so years organised loosely into various themes. The next few posts in this series are going to give just a flavour.

So let’s get going.

What other time or season can or will the Church ever have but that of Advent?

Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics

Rutledge quotes the Swiss pipe-smoker early on because his words encapsulate her overall argument – all Christians live in eschatological times between the ages. The kingdom of God has arrived, but we pray ‘Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.’

The world in which we live is riven by innumerable horrors – war, famine, disease, abuse, injustice, environmental destruction, ethnic cleansing, violence against women, industrial levels of abortion …

This is, in Joseph Conrad’s words, the heart of darkness. And Advent looks unflinchingly into that darkness and names it for what it is.

It does not do so nihilistically. Advent awaits a transformed world; it looks forward in hope to a future consummation of the kingdom because of the victory of God in Jesus Christ over Sin, Death and the Powers.

In this sense, the Christian faith has a threefold dynamic that Rutledge puts this way (p.7):

The past: God’s initiative towards the world in Christ (Christmas)

The future: God’s coming victory in Christ (second coming or Parousia, made present in the power of the Spirit at Pentecost)

The Present: a cruciform (cross-shaped) life of love for the world in the present time (Epiphany, Lent and Holy Week)

The surprising twist that she traces is that historically Advent is NOT orientated primarily towards preparing to celebrate the birth of Jesus at Christmas. Rather, it is primarily a time of reflection on, and preparation for, the second coming of Christ.

If you’ve followed this series, you can appreciate why focus on the second coming has been neglected in the church. In the modern period it was either dismissed as mistaken, mythological, symbolic or scientifically untenable. Rutledge tells the story of, as a young woman, being told we don’t believe that sort of thing nowadays.

If you are in a church community, how much is the second coming talked about? Is it preached on? If so, how? Or is it quietly ignored – with such silence speaking a thousand words?

Another way of putting this is, how honest is our theology in facing up to the darkness? What has Christianity to say to those suffering, to the sick, to the trafficked, the abused, the poor and those without hope?

What has our theology to say to those who use others for their own ends, who exploit, abuse, hate, kill and bully? To systemic evil? What do we say about final judgement and the reality of hell?

As we have seen in this series, Christianity is eschatology – is future hope. So what Barth means is that Advent describes living within the tension of the now and not yet while patiently awaiting a transformed future.

Rutledge puts it this way

… the Christian disciple finds his or her vocation precisely here: in the collision of the ages where the struggle of the Enemy against God continues, making space for the conquering love of God for the world. (16)

Advent requires the courage to name the darkness of the now and that judgement is something to be hoped for. (She’s good here noting how ‘justice’ is a popular word but ‘judgement’ is equated with ‘judgemental’ which is ‘bad’).  Yet God’s judgement is a putting all things right.

Advent faces into death and looks beyond it to the coming judgement of God upon all that deceives, twists, undermines, pollutes, contaminates, and kills his beloved creation. There can be no community of the resurrection without the conquest of death and the consummation of the kingdom of God. In those assurances lies the hope of the world. (22)

 Honesty requires that this truth is acknowledged and faced. Christianity is not sentimental or trivial – God in Christ has confronted the darkness of evil and death at the cross.

Faith and hope means trusting in God amidst the confusion, pain and transitoriness of life in the now. Much that happens in this world now is not God’s good intent. In fact he is waging a war against powers and principalities opposed to his good will.

All this has the flavour of apocalyptic theology – we’ll summarise how Rutledge defines this in the next post.

Eschatology and Advent (6) the inaugurated eschatology of N T Wright

This post finishes our sketch of the recovery of eschatology within contemporary New Testament studies. To bring the story up to date I’m going to look at one of the main voices in NT studies and in eschatology – that of N T Wright.  

From this foundation, some follow on posts will dip into Fleming Rutledge’s marvellous preached eschatology within her book of sermons on Advent.

Doing things this way will highlight how eschatology is no Cinderella doctrine tacked on to the end of Christian thought and life. It is key to understanding and interpreting the gospels, Paul and all the other writers of the NT

Switching focus from eschatology in modern theology to Rutledge on Advent, is deliberate. Not only is eschatology central to Christian theology, it preaches! We’ll look at examples of how.

N. T. Wright

Wright’s eschatology is central to most of his work. And it is most certainly not a fluffy, sentimental, vague hope. Indeed, Wright has spent a lifetime battling against what he sees as popular Christianity’s platonized eschatology – a form of dualism that wants to escape the world and get to heaven.

At times, so much has his emphasis been on realised eschatology along with a historically realist interpretation of the gospels, that when Jesus and the Victory of God (JVG) came out in 1996 some reviewers wondered if Wright had abandoned the ‘not yet’ altogether.

An example is Wright’s reading of Mark 13 and the Olivet Discourse. This is a clip – see the whole chapter.

20 “If the Lord had not cut short those days, no one would survive. But for the sake of the elect, whom he has chosen, he has shortened them. 21 At that time if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Messiah!’ or, ‘Look, there he is!’ do not believe it. 22 For false messiahs and false prophets will appear and perform signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect. 23 So be on your guard; I have told you everything ahead of time.

24 “But in those days, following that distress,

“‘the sun will be darkened,
    and the moon will not give its light;
25 the stars will fall from the sky,
    and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.’

26 “At that time people will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. 27 And he will send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens.

Rather than read this as futurist end of age language, Wright’s reads it as Jewish apocalyptic language, referencing Daniel 7:13, referring to the vindication of the Son of Man within history (namely the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70) and not as a literal description of Jesus’ second coming in the clouds with power and glory.

Wright self-consciously travels the Schweitzerstrasse in his reconstruction of Jesus within history coming to understand himself, through reading of Israel’s scriptures, as the embodiment of an Israel in exile awaiting YHWH’s return to his elect people.

Acting in faith, Jesus the Messiah acts courageously in himself to confront evil in and through his sin-atoning and representative death. His coming simultaneously enacts divine judgement on Israel’s rejection of her true king and his gospel of the kingdom come.

But Wright departs from Weiss and Schweitzer in seeing Jesus’ death not as a failure of mistaken hopes, but God’s paradoxical victory over sin and death, witnessed in the vindication of the resurrection Christ.

Since JVG, his inaugurated “already and not yet” eschatology has become clearer and more fully worked out.

Jesus is an eschatological and apocalyptic prophet in and through whom the kingdom comes. This world has been changed as a result and, because of Jesus’ resurrection, will be fully transformed in the future.

Thus, Wright says for Paul

“this hope both had been fulfilled through Jesus, in his kingdom-establishing death and resurrection, and the life-transforming spirit, and would yet be fulfilled in the second coming of Jesus and in the work of the same spirit to raise all of the Messiah’s people from the dead.”[1]

And from my chapter in The State of New Testament Studies

The nature of that transformation is holistic; it embraces the spiritual, political and social within a renewed creation. A consistent Wrightian theme is that the emphatically “earthy” nature of that future hope has social implications for the praxis of Christian ethics in the “here and now”.

Wright loves the big picture. Some say he pushes this too far in ways that the evidence does not support. But the story he tells is that Paul, the Synoptics, John and other New Testament authors all, in distinct ways, articulate a recognisably consistent eschatological hope in light of the story of Jesus Christ.

Wright summarises Paul this way

“The belief in a now and not yet inaugurated kingdom through the exaltation of the human being Jesus, Israel’s messiah, was not then a piece of clever apologetic invented in the late first century let alone the mid-twentieth century. It was part of the earliest apostolic gospel itself.”[2]

And for the Gospels

“John has his own ways of saying the same thing, but it is the same thing [as the Synoptics]. The gospels do not contain apocalyptic; in the first century sense they are apocalyptic. They are describing how the revelation, the unveiling, the visible coming of God took place.”[3]

God has disrupted the world in Jesus Christ’s life, death, resurrection and ascension to become reigning Lord.

A new revelation (apokalypsis) has unfolded. Reality will never be the same again.

The victory of God has been won, the long promised Spirit has been poured out, we live now in the overlap of the ages, the present evil age is passing away, the new age has dawned, flesh against Spirit, Spirit against the powers, God versus his enemies – all until the final consummation of the Kingdom when God will be all in all.  

This is how the NT sees things.

And it means that the Christian life within the community of the people of God, is eschatological through and through.

We live in an age of sin and death that is under the power of spiritual powers opposed to God and his kingdom. Unless Christians grasp this, and face the darkness head on, they will be ill-equipped for the battle.

Christmassy sentimental religious feel-goodism just does not cut it. The world is too broken. Injustice is too brutal. Sickness and suffering is too painful.

And this is where Fleming Rutledge comes in.

Few preachers have seen the challenge more clearly and how Advent is NOT primarily a time for preparing to celebrate the incarnation and birth of baby Jesus.

Rather it is a time to look into the heart of darkness with hope in the future coming of Jesus Christ as Lord and judge to overthrow Sin, Death and the Devil and establish his kingdom of light.

The next few posts this Advent will be in her company. You are welcome to join us.                                                                                                                                                   


[1] Wright, PFG, 1258-59. Emphasis original.

[2] Gifford Lecture 4, “The End of the World?”

[3] Gifford Lecture 4, “The End of the World?”