The Promise and Presence of the Future

Note: this article first appeared in Merri Creek Anglican’s online magazine Headlight.

Richard Pipes, the venerable historian of modern Russia, once wrote that “the emotional appeal” of Marxism “is not much different from the religious faith in the will of God, inspiring [its adherents] with an unshakeable conviction that no matter how many setbacks their cause may suffer, ultimate victory is assured”.

Marxist ideology can ultimately be traced to Karl Marx, a nineteenth century philosopher and social theorist. He envisioned a future where private property had been abolished, and complete equality had been won for all. Marx thought that the economics of his time were teetering on the brink of failure. In his mind, they were corrupt and irredeemable; those exploited by the system would rise up and tear it all down, thereby preparing the way for a new society where inequity was a thing of the past. Marx not only saw such a future as desirable, but inevitable. For him, history was moving inexorably towards what he saw as its final goal.

Marx set about trying to construct a theory to show why all this was the case. Bundled up together, his ideas became an all-encompassing system of thought. Those inspired by Marx’s writings sought to transform their own nations, styling themselves as agents of the future. Self-cast as specially-elect groups, these individuals (sometimes calling themselves Communists) believed they could successfully mould entire societies according to the promises contained in Marx’s ideas.

Looking back on the events of the twentieth century, however, it seems Pipes’ observation was pretty close to the mark: despite widespread disaster, Communist leaders retained their faith in an ideology that seemed to have led down them down a blind alley – and their countries down the path of economic and social ruin. Some people continue to tout the virtues of Communist theories, even though most states operating under its enervating tutelage collapsed long ago.

But what do we make of Pipes’ characterization of religious faith as unswerving belief in a better world, even in the teeth of evidence? If Communism can be faulted for invincible confidence in the arrival of utopia, surely Christianity is susceptible to the same criticism? After all, the Christian faith also proclaims the eventual defeat of evil, and the final advent of a new world that will erase everything marring the present one. Christians everywhere continue to hold fast to this belief – 2000 years after the ministry of Jesus, and in the face of a litany of evils that seemingly undercut the claim that “ultimate victory is assured”. It’s tempting to lump Christianity in with Communism as yet another failed attempt to tell a “master story” about the world and its destiny (if indeed it has one). What evidence is there to suggest that, in the case of the Christian faith, the victory of God is certain, and the triumph of justice and peace in a world of chaos is guaranteed?

Here, a word about eschatology can shed some light on these questions. Now, when many people hear the word “eschatology”, images of odd cults predicting the end of the world, or of wild visions of the future, are bound to arise. But it’s not all that hard to grasp, really. In fact, eschatology is basically a way of saying that history has a goal to which it is drawn; that the world is moving towards something greater than the sum of its parts, such that the apparent randomness of so much of life is actually meaningful. One could even say it’s really just the conviction that there’s a point to it all!

Many big systems of thought seeking to interpret the world have their own brands of eschatology, of ultimate conclusions towards which the world is headed. Communism itself promises the erasure of private property and economic differences in a classless utopia. The specific concerns of the Nazi Party led it to try and claim the role of Germany’s martial elite, vowing to lead the nation into an idyllic realm of racial purity. Even the Enlightenment contains an implicit eschatology, proclaiming the eventual advent of a thoroughly secular world, where all instances of religious superstition have long since withered away.

In one sense, Christianity is no different from these other grand narratives, since it also operates with a “big picture” understanding of the world and it course. And yet, an authentically Christian eschatology depends, not on people, nor on the laws of history. Instead, it is founded upon the final purposes of God, as he sets about accomplishing creation’s renewal. Theologian Michael Bird writes that “God’s [eschatological] promise to put the world to right[s]” is the basis for all Christian theology.

Although their fulfilment lies in the future, these purposes have present consequences. As Angus McCleay has written in these pages before, eschatology is, in part, about “making sense of the present in light of the future”. But it is even more than that. According to Christian theology, the future that has been set by God has also burst into the current world of sin, death, injustice and evil, in and through the person of Jesus. This is what so clearly sets Christianity apart from its rivals. The goal of a world freed from those malevolent forces has already been previewed in Jesus’ life, ministry and death. Crucially, however, it is in Jesus’ resurrection that one catches a present glimpse of what God will do for creation in its entirety.

It’s difficult to overstate the significance of the resurrection. Despite the apparent victory of evil, and the failure of every effort to bring about a better world, the raising of Jesus from the dead provides a concrete sign that such a world will be born – a window, if you like, into a newly fashioned creation, freed from the bondage of everything that defaces and ruins what now exists. More than just another miracle amongst others, it not only signals the presence of the future, ordained by a God of love and justice; it represents, in some sense, the beginning of that future – the radical in-breaking of the Creator’s just and wise plans for the world that he had made.

The writers of the New Testament saw this clearly. For them, the resurrection was not an isolated act of divine power, but represented a fundamental change of course in the fate and direction of the world. Or, to put it another way, it was the advance realization of new creation. The apostle Paul could say that a Christian’s present “labor is not in vain”, precisely because of the sure sign, seen in Jesus being raised, of God’s determination to consummate history (1 Corinthians 15:58). To Paul, even the deepest travails, the most unendurable hardships, made sense in light of that world-shattering event.

As such, the Christian’s conviction of the assuredness of victory is no forlorn hope, bereft of foundation, since it has already been anticipated in a foretaste of what’s to come. The “unshakeable conviction” of the followers of Communism is quite different from that expectation. Jesus’ followers are not simply sustained by a sheer will to believe (even in the face of clear evidence to the contrary); rather, their belief is based on the fact of Christ’s resurrection, and the redemption of the world it both looked forward to and ushered in. It is the guarantee that this master story will reach its end, and the promise of eventual peace – both personal and cosmic – will come to pass.

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