A Few Things Before You Go

Book cover
The God of Hope and the End of the Worldby By John PolkinghorneYale Univ. Press 154p $19.95

How many times have we mumbled our way through the Nicene Creed, giving not a second thought to our firm, vocalized belief in the revolutionary proposition that there shall be a “resurrection of the body” after death, and not simply some vague new life for our immortal soul?

How often, perhaps during the same Mass, have we dutifully mouthed along with the congregation the words “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again,” while ignoring the universe-shattering implications of those phrases? John Polkinghorne’s book is a loving wake-up call for all of us who shilly-shally along like that. Polkinghorne is well suited to the task, writing in an easy, accessible style about the difficult study of eschatology—the doctrine of final things.

A former professor of mathematical physics at Cambridge University, Polkinghorne now is an Anglican vicar and assistant pastor of a large poor parish south of Bristol. He abandoned a prestigious academic career at the age of 49 to dedicate himself to religion. In April of this year, he won the $1 million Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion, the world’s largest annual monetary award given to an individual, larger than the Nobel Prize. A scientist and theologian, Polkinghorne is past president of Queen’s College, Cambridge, and the author of several other books on eschatology. Among the best is Faith of a Physicist: Reflections of a Bottom-Up Thinker, (Princeton University Press, 1994). That wonderful book argues that the Darwinian theory of perfection-through-elimination is nonsense and that “only a great act of God can deliver the universe and ourselves from eventual futility.”

Underpinning all of his thinking in the new book, The God of Hope, is the idea that the Supreme Being’s “steadfast love is the only ground for true and everlasting hope.” Whenever Polkinghorne comes to a particularly dicey question, he follows that dictum and considers possible answers that God’s endless love might provide. He chides scientists who have never seen a quark but who believe in their existence as immutable truth, while at the same time they reject the idea of a Supreme Being who gave humans the “consciousness” that separates us from Darwin’s turtles.

The God of Hope is not as feisty as Faith of a Physicist, probably because it is a kind of book-by-committee. It is an outgrowth of three years’ work by a group of scientists and theologians, under the auspices of the Center for Theological Inquiry at Princeton University. It is therefore, in part, an attempt to synthesize many viewpoints.

Polkinghorne’s strong views and straightforward composition shine through on every page. Among his conclusions: Don’t look forward to golf in the next life for thousands of days straight—you’ll get sick of it. Moreover, it’s equally unlikely that you will grow angel’s wings and, despite your tin ear, spend eternity plinking away at Mozart and Chopin on a gold-encrusted harp.

He does posit the possibility that our pets might join us, because they were such a great part of the earthly lives that are a prelude to heaven. “Perhaps,” he writes, “they will have a particular role to play in the restored relationships of the world to come.” Polkinghorne draws the line, however, at the possibility that billions of bulls, water buffalo, hyenas, anacondas and bacteria will join us in those more stately mansions that Jesus Christ promises. Both logic and Scripture, he writes, point to a perfectible life in “heaven”—in a physical sense—that may not be radically different from our lives here and now.

Has God created the universe only to abandon it to collapse or dissolution a few billion years from now, as the scientists promise? Not likely, concludes Polkinghorne. What God will do, though, the author does not predict. Ultimately, for the faithful, belief in a life beyond death rests upon the words of the Scripture and our logical minds, he says.

In several chapters, Polkinghorne delves into the abundant evidence to support his affirmations concerning the resurrection of the body and Jesus’ promise to “make all things new” in God. Paul’s promise in 1 Corinthians that the faithful will be changed in a “twinkling of an eye” would seem to mesh with Jesus’ promise to the penitent thief dying with him on Calvary: “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.”

Christ’s own rising from the dead points the way, Polkinghorne contends, to the manner of life expectable up ahead. In the 40 days after his resurrection, Jesus ate, met with his disciples, presented his wounded flesh to be examined by Thomas, yet came and went at will, as a spirit. And mysteriously, the Gospels report several times that the risen Jesus usually was difficult to recognize, as when he joined the two disciples on the road to Emmaus or when he appeared near the shores of Galilee.

No one can say what God foreshadowed for us in making himself hard to identify in the body of his Son. But it is logical to conclude that our own experiences after death will mirror Jesus’, in some lesser way. Polkinghorne does not pretend to know what heaven will be like. But he believes it is important to press the study of eschatology rather than leave the ground open to cynical, nonbelieving scientists and their simplified “extrapolation of history.”

The God of Hope and the End of the World is both challenging and comforting. It is an excellent work, providing gallons of fuel for debates or personal pondering about the probable or possible shapes of the life of the world to come.

 

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