The God of Hope and the End of the World

John Polkinghorn Yale University Press, New Haven, CT September 1, 2003
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Polkinghorn is a fellow of Queens’ College, Cambridge University, a fellow of the Royal Society, and canon theologian of Liverpool. A distinguished participant in the continuing dialogue between science and religion, he was the recipient of the Templeton Prize in 2002. This volume is an outgrowth of the Eschatology Project of the Center of Theological Inquiry at Princeton University and is a “stepchild” of his edited work with Michael Welker in The End of the World and the Ends of God (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity, 2000). “The group decided that there would also be merit in there being a smaller book, drawing inspiration from Ends but having the unity that would come from its having a single author. . . . Since I like that kind of task, I volunteered to undertake this piece of writing and I was given the encouragement of my colleagues to set to work on the present volume” (p. xvi).

The author addresses “the end of the world” from the standpoint of a “scientific theologian.” As a theistic evolutionist he holds that the universe emerged from its “big-bang” origin fifteen billion years ago, pregnant with anthropic possibilities for life. “Theologically one can understand this [the universe’s] complexity as the result of creation’s having been endowed by its Creator with profound potentiality which it has then been allowed to explore and realise as it ‘makes itself’ ” (p. 114). The end of the universe lies billions of years in the future, either as a crunching implosion or a “whimper of decay.” What is the point or purpose of the universe, Polkinghorn asks, with such a gloomy end and an apparently futile existence? “Ultimately the issue is whether we live in a world that makes sense not just now, but totally and forever. The thesis of this book is that Christian belief provides the essential resource for answering this fundamental question. . . . What I am seeking to do is to present the motivations for Christian eschatological hope and to show that this hope is one that is intelligible and defensible in the twenty-first century” (pp. xvii–xviii).

For Polkinghorn, the “God of hope” is the loving and faithful Creator who resurrected Christ to assure believers of their fulfilling destiny beyond death. Jesus’ resurrection is “the seminal event from which the whole of God’s new creation has already begun to grow” (p. 113). Its hope is a “significant human intuition that in the end all shall be well” (p. 31). As a “pivotal truth for Christian belief” (p. 68) resurrection hope is nurtured by daily “signals of transcendence” that there is an everlasting reality beyond transience. Because of science’s pessimism about the universe’s future and because of Christianity’s assurance of resurrection, Polkinghorn joins theologians like Karl Barth and Jörgen Moltmann in affirming that Christianity is eschatology (p. 93). “Eschatology is the keystone of the edifice of theological thinking, holding the whole building together” (p. 140).

The book closes with Polkinghorn’s interesting comparisons of scientist-theologians and systematic theologians, notably Moltmann and Pannenberg. These concern their respective approaches to time, the discontinuity of the new creation, and the dynamics of future perfection. The book should be interesting to students of eschatology, though it wrestles with issues that are outside normal evangelical concerns. It is a rather conservative approach to scientific and religious debates about the meaning of life and the universe, a subject that everyone should know something about.

—J. Lanier Burns

April 1, 2004
 

Biblotheca Sacra

This review appeared in the Apr-Jun 2004 vol. 161 no. 2 issue of Biblotheca Sacra, DTS’s quarterly academic journal.

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