The Age to Come – New Creation After Darwin

We’ve been looking at the essays in a book Theology After Darwin centered around a simple question: What are the implications for Christian theology if Darwin was right? The Christian story and Christian worldview is often summarized as Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Consummation. Modern science – cosmology, astrophysics, geology, paleontology and evolutionary biology has an impact, at times a profound impact, on our understanding of all four of these elements. We’ve hit on a number of these in prior posts, yet much remains to be considered.

The last chapter in this book is by Denis Edwards “Hope for Creation After Darwin: The Redemption of ‘All Things.’  Edwards is a Catholic priest and theologian who has written extensively on theology in the context of evolution. In this chapter he starts with an assumption that our Christian hope is for bodily resurrection and asks what this means for all of creation.

The guiding thought in this exploration is what I take to be the fundamental Christian conviction that in the incarnation God has embraced not just humanity, and not just the whole world of flesh, but the whole universe and all its dynamic history, and that this embrace constitutes an unbreakable promise. (p. 171)

This is a powerful idea, and one that must be approached with some caution and constraint. He outlines two fundamental principles that guide the interpretation of eschatological statements in scripture:

The first is that the future of our world in God remains radically hidden to us. The future has been announced and promised in Christ and his resurrection, but it is announces and promised precisely as hidden mystery. (p. 172)

The second principle is that the future will be the fulfilment of the salvation in Christ that is already given to us. It will be the fulfilment of what we experience in God’s self-communication in Christ and in the grace of the Holy Spirit. … We do not have supplementary knowledge of the eschatological future over and above what we have in the theology of Christ and of grace. (p. 173)

A Christian understanding of all elements of the purpose and mission in the world – creation, fall, redemption, and consummation are intrinsically and inseparably connected to the work of God in the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection of Christ. This is an important point – any proper theology of creation and the nature of human sin must start with Jesus and the incarnation occupying a central position. Incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection are not plan B correcting an error or oversight in God’s plan nor are they responding to a credible challenge to God’s plan. Incarnation and redemption was part of the plan from the beginning. Turning to consummation then –  the age to come is not simply a return to what might have been had Adam and Eve remained faithful it is something completely new and completely different.

Where do you start when thinking about the future fulfillment of creation? Is this impacted or enhanced by your understanding of science – either cosmology or evolutionary biology?

Edwards looks at three sources in fleshing out some ideas about the age to come: Romans 8, the writings of Maximus the Confessor (580-662 AD), and the more recent writings of Karl Rahner in the 1960’s and 1970’s.

Romans 8. This image of birth pains in Romans 8 is significant – creation groans as something radically new is about to be born. This is an anticipation and a longing for the full realization of God’s plan and design.

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the anxious longing of the creation waits eagerly for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now. And not only this, but also we ourselves, having the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body. For in hope we have been saved, but hope that is seen is not hope; for who hopes for what he already sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, with perseverance we wait eagerly for it. (Ro 8:18-25)

Edwards points to several Pauline scholars, including NT Wright, who see a redemption and fulfilment of the whole of the cosmos in this passage of Paul. Wright takes the view, in his Romans commentary (The New Interpreter’s Bible Volume 10) and in Surprised by Hope, that this passage reflects the anticipation that God will do for the whole cosmos what he did for Jesus at Easter. Edwards connects this with the age of the earth and the evolution of life:

The Earth has given birth to bacteria, trilobites, dinosaurs, mammals, and human persons with their immensely complex brains. It has been a labour that has brought forth staggeringly diverse and complex forms of life, but in a process that has been very costly. In the Pauline vision, it has not yet reached its completion and fulfilment. It will not be fulfilled until it shares with human beings in God’s final redemption and transformation of all things. Creation groans still as something even more radically new is being born. With the information we have today, I imagine that Paul would see God at work in this whole process of evolution of our universe over the last 13.7 billion years and the evolution of life on earth over the last 3.8 billion years, and that he would see God in Christ as promising a future not just for human beings but for the whole labouring creation, when God will bring it all to redemption and fulfilment. (p. 177)

Maximus the Confessor. Edwards uses the writings of Maximus the Confessor as a summary of the Patristic tradition expressing a hope for the whole creation…Irenaeus, Athanasius, Maximus. Edwards summarizes: “The whole history of history is taken up and recapitulated in Christ. The visible universe is destined to be restored and to share in the glorification with the human community saved by Christ.” (p. 177)  The incarnation is central here – Edwards points out that for Maximus the incarnation is ‘the end for whose sake all things exist.’ No plan B here. Everything will be brought into right relationship with God in Christ, the whole of creation fulfilled.

Karl Rahner. Rahner sees a deification of all of creation – not a pantheism, but a completion. The incarnation is a key piece here as well. The resurrection is in continuity with the life Jesus lived and with sacrifice in love he presented in death on the cross. It is not a radical clean break. In the same way there will be continuity in the transformation of creation.

Rahner argues that something similar happens when the whole cosmos is finally taken up into God. All that constitutes our cosmic, social, personal history, the emergence of the universe, the evolution of like on Earth and our human history, will be taken up and find fulfilment in the life of God. On the one hand, the coming Reign of God will not simply be the outcome of the evolution of cosmic history and it will not be simply the result of  the history that is planned and accomplished by humans. On the other hand, it will not simply come upon creation as an act of God from the outside. It will be the deed of God, but this deed of God is to be understood as the self-transcendence of history, both cosmic and personal. It will go beyond (transcend) natural and human history in a real transformation by God. But it will be a transformation and a transcendence of and from what is already there – hence Rahner’s language of self-transformation.

In cosmic terms this suggests that the coming of God will fulfil rather than overturn the laws and processes at work in the history of our universe and the evolution of life on earth. (p. 183)

God’s material creation is good. God entered his creation as a part of creation, a fully human man Jesus of Nazareth. The redemption begun through the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus will be fulfilled in the age to come; an age in continuity with the present world but transformed and completed.

The post on Wednesday asked about the impact of gospel and the way the gospel message is framed on the conflict between science and the Christian faith.  The vision we see for the nature of the Age to Come – the Kingdom of God also plays a role in magnitude of the conflict between science and faith. If earth is irredeemably corrupt to be destroyed and replaced, if this corruption is the consequence of the sin of Adam, it is hard to see any reasonable consistency between the age of the universe, evolutionary science,  and the Christian story. But a vision of the fulfilment of creation cast here by Romans 8, Maximus in the patristic tradition, Karl Rahner, and and others is, or can be, consistent with an evolutionary creation. Perhaps what we learn about the world around us, in conjunction with a careful study of scripture, can point to a more complete understanding of the mission of God in creation.

How does your view of the gospel influence the way you consider the implications of evolutionary biology or cosmology for understanding the goal or fulfillment of creation?

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