Unsystematic liberal theology: eschatology

Third in an occasional series of essays in unsystematic liberal theology, in which I assume theology is a literary genre more than a science, a conversation more than a monologue, descriptive rather than prescriptive.

Eschatology is that branch of theology that asks questions like: What will happen at the end of time? What will happen after death? What is our final destination?

Religious liberals tend to avoid the questions associated with eschatology, and one of the ways we avoid these questions is by allowing science to provide answers; e.g., we might say that what will happen at the end of time is governed by the second law of thermodynamics. However, such answers are often not satisfying to many religious liberals; the question as asked is usually not a question about physics or cosmology, it is a personal question related to the meaning (or lack thereof) of one’s own existence. Thus, some religious liberals with an existentialist bent might say that when you die, that’s it, that’s the end, there is nothing more; while that might not sound very comforting, that’s just the way it is.

Religious liberals who have been influenced by the Universalist tradition may draw on their tradition for a more theological answer to eschatological questions. A more traditional Universalist could say that at the end of time, all souls will be reconciled to God, and that there is no such thing as hell where eternal punishment awaits sinners. A less traditional Universalist might generalize from this Christian standpoint, and say something to the effect that we, like all living beings, will be recycled by the interdependent web of existence and the molecules that make us up will become parts of other living beings.

Some religious liberals have been strongly influenced by other religious traditions, e.g., various eastern religious traditions, and they may adopt the eschatologies of their favored tradition. Thus, for example, those who have a connection with Buddhism or Hinduism may believe that after death we are reborn into another body; those with Buddhist inclinations might say that eventually we can hope for nirvana, or nothingness, when the cycle of rebirth comes to an end.

Many religious liberals do not see any connection between our morality while we are alive, and what happens to us after we are dead. Some religious liberals, however, might see some connection between our actions in this life and what happens to us after we die: if we don’t behave well in this life we will not achieve nirvana; if we don’t behave well in life, there will be some limited period of punishment after death before our soul is reconciled to God; etc.

In general, though, religious liberals don’t worry as much about eschatology as do many other religious traditions. The emphasis of liberal religion tends to be placed strongly in the here and now, in this life. What will happen at the end of time? — that’s the wrong question to ask, ask instead what we might do here and now to make the world a better place.

2 thoughts on “Unsystematic liberal theology: eschatology

  1. Jean

    End of time, or as they say out here, “endtime,” skipping the preposition altogether, seems to be a rapturous moment where everyone ascends (if they’re good enough) up to a giant WalMart in the sky and can shop for all eternity. Okay, that’s not entirely a fair summary, I admit.

    Still, to even ask the question — “what will happen at the end of time” — presumes that time will end, that it’s going to run out, that it’s linear, finite. It also creates a paradigm of the universe that mirrors our own existence: we end, we die. Therefore, in this model, the universe must too.

    Hm. Not necessarily so. I’d like to think of this crazy place humming along forever. Then, after I’m done shopping at the eternal WalMart, I can come back and visit. In the form of, oh, a warrior princess, on a pony. That’s *my* vision.

  2. fausto

    Liberals have eschatology. They just don’t call it that. Liberal eschatology is typified by Unitarian Julia Ward Howe’s “Battle Hymn of the Republic”, by her pastor James Freeman Clarke’s “progress of mankind onward and upward forever”, by his friend and colleague Theodore Parker’s assertion that (as MLK Jr. paraphrased it) “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” and by MLK’s struggle to establish the “beloved community”. Liberal eschatology does not wait passively and fatalistically for God to appear ex machina to provide a supernatural rescue from a corrupted material existence; rather, it affirms that “the Kingdom of God is among you”, that it is like the little bit of leaven that leavens the whole loaf, and that it arrives gradually as we continue to build it.

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