Eschatology as if Jesus Mattered

Ted Grimsrud and Michael Hardin (eds), Compassionate Eschatology: The Future as Friend (Eugene, OR.: Cascade, 2011). 294 + xii pages. Paperback.  US$32.17 (Kindle Edition $22). ISBN 13: 978-1-60899-488-5.

Reviewed by Scott Cowdell, Charles Sturt University, Canberra, Australia

The Colloquium on Religion and Violence Bulletin

This is a very strong collection. Every essay makes a significant contribution to rethinking eschatology as if Jesus mattered—and forgiveness, and new beginnings beyond our human-generated hells of violence. The first part is devoted to biblical studies, chiefly on The Book of Revelation (René Girard’s longstanding apocalyptic interest having focussed almost exclusively on Gospel texts). The second part offers a range of spiritual, theological and political reflections. The overall message is that the last things—death, judgement, heaven, and hell—can be good news not bad news for right-thinking Christians, despite widespread claims to the contrary.

The book is dedicated to René Girard, “teacher, visionary, prophet,” though it is not heavily explicit in its Girardian content, with most references in the second half. I can only touch very briefly on each chapter, but it is important to do so.

Editor Ted Grimsrud makes a strong start with his overview of biblical apocalyptic texts and standard reading strategies. Focusing on Revelation he contrasts the witnessing Church with the death-dealing empire, interpreting the conquering lamb as a deconstructive sign of world-transforming power. Richard Bauckham develops this sense of militaristic language referring figuratively to the overcoming power of Jesus’ self-sacrificial love.

Nancy Elizabeth Bedford gives this a post-colonial twist, meditating on America’s horde of undocumented migrants as an eschatological sign of escape from the power of empire, with reference to Jeremiah counseling Israel to settle at peace in Babylon, also his purchase of a field at Anathoth as a sign against that empire’s future hold on Israel.  My Canberra colleague David Neville, in dialogue with the range of modern interpreters, reads Revelation against the grain of its violent language, based on a “hermeneutic of shalom” argued for in the light of a “critical traditioning” which he grounds in textual dissonances. I note with approval David’s gentle but firm treatment of Miroslav Volf’s violent eschatology (I regard Volf to be the Mel Gibson of pacifist Christianity).

Barbara R. Rossing squares up to the eschatological inferno of 2 Peter 3 in the context of today’s global warming crisis, along with fundamentalist enthusiasm for a coming great conflagration. She finds surer ground in Revelation, where a warning to humanity and a call for witnesses forms the message, rather than a prediction of divine violence. James E. Brenneman shows how Eucharist trumps the gloating victory banquet (familiar from ancient texts and modern practice) in a Christ-formed eschatological vision, while John E. Phelan invokes Raymund Schwager to reveal the non-violent arc of judgment in scripture. Next, J. Denny Weaver identifies the dragon of Revelation in a variety of imperial pretensions, extending from the Roman Empire to today’s militaristic nationalism and consumer capitalism.

Part II is quite diverse, beginning with Editor Michael Hardin expounding authentic native American apocalypses as prophetic warnings about the consequences of human actions rather than divine violence, in tune with Girard’s convictions. A veteran Girardian analyst of systemic forces, Walter Wink, provides an elegant, short summary of his position. Wink is strongly in tune with the writings of Wolfgang Palaver and others on the Katéchon function of powers and principalities, but also their ready corruptibility.

Two insightful Girardian chapters follow. Anthony Bartlett offers one of the best essays on Girard and philosophy yet, in conversation with Heidegger’s kinetic vision of being, in which eschatology outdoes ontology in best-revealing something’s identity—it’s position in Christ and the new creation proving more important than its state of being in the old creation. Stephen Finamore names the post-Achever Clausewitz tension in Girardian circles, going on to expound Girard’s apocalyptic vision as a neglected theme in presenting Girard’s program.

The key theological chapters follow, arguing for compassionate eschatology but with a differing place for human free will. Jürgen Moltmann develops the pacific eschatology he began in The Way of Jesus Christ, declaring eventual universal salvation. He interrogates violent eschatology about what Jesus’ compassionate, transformative praxis actually reveals. Moltmann dismisses the widespread modern view that damnation is our choice not God’s, claiming that God would not be so easily persuaded. Andrew P. Klager offers a comprehensive Orthodox treatment of eschatology as inherently compassionate, drawing on patristic and contemporary theological and liturgical sources. The human freedom that Moltmann refuses to erect into a determinative principle is treated as crucial by Klager but, intriguingly, as non-determinative. How? By allowing us in freedom to variously construe a single, entirely compassionate eschatological outcome according to our own state of conformity to God’s will. In other words, the eschaton for everyone brings eternal life with a compassionate God, though depending on where we are up to that will either seem like heaven or hell, joy or torment. I often question why theological entities need to be so multiplied, for instance wondering why heaven, hell and purgatory cannot simply be different ways that saints and sinners experience God’s loving face turned towards them in eternity. Now I discover that this view has strong traditional warrant in Orthodoxy.

The book ends with a challenge from  Barbara R. Rossing for some reader to answer the un-biblical but popular, pornographically violent, dispensationalist nonsense of the “left behind” novels with a different eschatological novel: something orthodox, Gospel-driven, compassionate, and hopeful. Carol Berry provides a fitting and moving conclusion with her luminous chapter on Vincent van Gogh as a mystical evangelist for God’s compassionate embrace of creation and human life.

Volumes of essays are often a mixed blessing, but not in this case. Compassionate Eschatology works well as a collection and holds interest throughout due to the uniformly high quality, thoughtful arrangement, and cumulative impact of its chapters. It will assist Girardians to think through the bigger theological picture opened up by Battling to the End. More generally, it will help any reader to reset their eschatological thinking along more authentically Gospel lines.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s