My title for this blog post is both slightly irreverent in its misuse of God’s name. It is also ironic in that it was a popular joke obituary for the creator of Star Trek, Gene Roddenberry. Roddenberry was an atheist, and used the series to promote scientific materialism.
Cultural reference asides, I think a good deal of both secular and Christian eschatology reflects this idea of being beamed up out our present situation into another, often immaterial place. As I emphasised in my last post, we are intimately connected to the Earth through our physicality, a physicality in which we image our creator. So let’s examine some popular eschatologies from our “Earthy theology” perspective.
Technological eschatologies are secular in the sense of having no return of Christ, no divine righting of wrongs. They are also are Pelagian in that human effort through technology bring in the golden age of humanity. What is hoped for is a kind of post-millennial techno-utopia. We see this most clearly in the waxing lyrical about medical technology and the possibilities of curing major diseases, extending human lifespan, and so on.
As Australian theologian Brian Edgar points out, if we think of the image of God as becoming, and not just being, of looking forward and not just backward, then a whole range of therapeutic technologies can be seen in a more positive light. The issue shouldn’t be with therapeutic technologies that add to our quality of life per se, but with technologies that more clearly seek to assert our independence from God and separate us from the rest of his creation.
An example of a thoroughgoing techno-Pelagian eschatology would be moral enhancement. In an issue of Philosophy Now, and subsequent book, Julian Savulescu and Ingmar Persson argue for moral enhancement because human evolution has not equipped us to deal with modern moral problems. In particular, they argue that our origins in small groups means that we are psychologically ill-equipped. Our altruism is parochial, extending to our own kinship groups. Likewise, our focus is often on the short term; we’ve moved from finding that water source or game to focussing on our next meal or holiday, rather than long-term planning. This is pretty obvious when considering the short term thinking in politics of profits before a future stable climate. Given the threat of war and climate change, we need, according to Savulescu and Persson, moral enhancement to overcome our evolutionary limitations.
Australian medical ethicist Denise Cooper-Clarke points out that this approach is entirely reductionistic, with morality being reduced to biology, emotion and consequences. This techno-Pelagianism ignores the need for a meditative transforming experience such that Paul speaks of in Romans (12:1-2), which can only occur by the Spirit of God. At the heart of the gospel is a God who loves his enemies, and calls us to love enemies as neighbours.
Another type of physical eschatology acknowledges that all of our attempts to enhance and extend life fail in the end, and that people die. In The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace, Margaret Werthheim recognises that beginning with cyberspace and online multi-user games, a techno-gnosticism has developed that deliberately echoes Christian eschatology. It is gnostic because it seeks to free humans from the confines of the physical form. This desire runs through the cyberpunk literature of William Gibson and others. The hope that our minds might one day be uploaded into the ether mirrors much Christian dualistic eschatology.
In his new book, The Future of the Mind, physicist and futurist Michio Kaku suggests that uploading our minds will become possible in the not too distant future. This could be achieved by replacing our brains neuron by neuron electronically and then placing our new brain in a robot, or by recording our memories. Scientists have already recorded a memory from a mouse brain and reimplanted it.
At a public lecture in Melbourne, in a beautifully well worded question, one audience member asked Kaku was asked whether or not he thought all of this was a good thing. These technologies were taking us away from nature from which we sprung. Kaku’s answer was typically trite – this is what people want! People want a lot of things, but is everything, including our humanity simply to be decided by market forces? Truly Page and Plant said it right that “she’s buying a stairway to heaven.”
If secular techno-eschatologies are dualistic, postmillenial and Pelagian, then the Christian versions that mirror them are premillenial and equally as dualsitic. The Left Behind series is an immensely popular series of books and movies. More than a work of fiction, it is a whole theological system that is widely embraced by many US Christian leaders and conservative politicians, as Michael Northcott points out in An Angel Directs the Storm.
Apart from a literalistic reading of the 1000 years of Revelation 20, often understood without an appreciation for first century politics, one of the centrepieces of this view is the rapture. As taken from the Left behind website “… the Rapture when Christ calls His church to heaven to be with Him in His Father’s house (John 14:1-3).” The Rapture is explicitly mentioned in 1 Thessalonians 4. This notion of God “beaming us up” to avoid the suffering of an evil world is easily demolished with some exegesis.
As Tom Wright points out in his massive tome on the resurrection, John 14 is not to be understood as speaking about our final resting place. The word in verse 2 translated as “resting places” (NRSV) or “mansions” (KJV) literally refers to resting places, or temporary dwellings for travellers. What Jesus is saying is, to borrow from Wright again, heaven is important but it isn’t the end of the world. Beyond being with Jesus in heaven is the resurrection, with resurrection bodies, here on a renewed Earth. Earth 2.0 if you will.
So John 14 is not about the rapture. Likewise, 1 Thessalonians is not about the rapture either. As Wright has pointed out in his commentary of 1 Thessalonians, the secular use of the Greek word translated as “appearance” or “coming” (parousia in the Greek) is important. When Caesar appeared at Rome after some great military victory, the dignitaries would go out to greet him, not to go off to the battlefield but to welcome Caesar into the city! We are not raptured off to heaven but will meet Christ in the air to accompany him back to the Earth.
This much is clearer in Revelation 20-21, when the city of God descends to the Earth. There is no temple because the city itself is a temple and God is everywhere. Heaven and Earth meet where God’s kingdom has come and his will is done.
So rapture eschatology is as dualistic and unbiblical as any techno-eschatology of uploading our souls into cyberspace. Instead, our fates are tied up with that of the rest of creation. Romans 8 is essential to our understanding in this regard. In brief, creation groans under human misrule and longs for the resurrection of the children of God so that it might too be freed from its bondage to decay. Both the state of humans and of the non-human creation are described using Exodus language.
Christians too groan for the renewal of our bodies, sometimes via the Spirit on our behalf. And if some of our suffering relates to that which we cause to the rest of creation, shouldn’t we groan with that creation as well? Groan with our neighbours whose countries are sinking beneath the waves? Grown with those who starve, who die in war, who feel persecution and seek asylum on our doorsteps?
If Jesus suffered with humanity to redeem it from sin and death, the the church should not look forward to tribulation as a sign of the end so we can cry “beam me up Goddy” and avoid the worst of it. Instead, we are to identify with the suffering of the world just as Jesus did, the human and non-human suffering. We live as those expecting the kingdom to come and God’s will be done on Earth as it is in heaven. Come, Lord Jesus.