Sunday, July 7, 2013

Review: "Hope in an Age of Despair" by Jonathan Moo and Robert White
I just finished reading this new book, which is subtitled The Gospel and the Future of Life on Earth.  I'm not sure whether the physical edition is published in the USA yet, but I had pre-ordered it on my Kindle and it duly showed up on electronic publication day (June 21st).  As I mentioned in a comment on a previous post, I had the opportunity to meet Dr Moo at the beginning of last year and to hear about his theological work on the contribution of New Testament eschatology to environmental ethics. I therefore looked forward eagerly to this more extended treatment.

I think of the book as like a sandwich.  The two slices of bread are the beginning and ending chapters - setting the scene with the provocative question Apocalypse now?, and concluding with a charge to the reader to find joy in an active and living hope.  The sandwich contains two rather different fillings.  Chapters two and three review some of the scientific results of a "planetary health check", and chapters five through eight expound key New Testament passages relating to Christian hope and the future. (I particularly appreciated the exegesis and interconnection of Jesus' sayings in Luke 12.)  Chapter four, a brief transition, addresses the question, "Why think about eschatology (in the context of creation care) at all?"  The authors agree that  "even if we concluded that the Bible had nothing to say about the future of life on earth, we would still have plenty of reason to engage seriously with the environmental challenges facing us".  Nevertheless, they continue, "there are at least two reasons why it remains important for us to attend to what the Bible says about the future of creation – and these two reasons are in addition to the urgent, practical need to provide a robust Christian response to today’s ‘apocalyptic’ environmental rhetoric." These are
  1. biblical hope provides the context in which Christian love and charity are to be worked out [in the present age].  For instance, we will relate to the non-human world rather differently if we see it as raw material for human projects, or indeed as gross material that the "spiritual" person will eventually leave behind, than we will if we see it as also the object of God's redemptive purposes, to be brought to completion, along with human beings, in the age to come.
  2. the Christian gospel is "driven by hope and inseparable from its orientation towards the future": "the outworking of God’s faithfulness and righteousness is throughout the Bible bound up with the future vindication and full revelation of his divine justice and his love".  This "not yet" compels an eschatological perspective: eschatology not in the sense of "the end of the world", but "the full realization of hope."
The exegetical chapters of this book (5-8) are a rich resource for those who want to understand how the New Testament thinks of future hope and, in particular, who want to avoid the simplistic language of "leaving the world behind" and "going to heaven".  Here's one extended quotation from the introductory part of chapter 5, to give the flavor.

The New Testament nowhere suggests that heaven is our final dwelling place. In fact, what we sometimes mean by ‘heaven’ – a place in the sky to which we hope to go when we die and live for ever away from this earth – turns out to be misleading. The New Testament says less about people going to heaven than it does about heaven being realized on earth. It teaches us to pray for God’s will to be done ‘on earth as it is in heaven’ and promises us that God will come to dwell with his people at the renewal of all things. Notice how even when Paul talks about our ‘citizenship’ in heaven in Philippians 3: 20, he does not therefore conclude that heaven is the place to which its citizens might hope to go one day. Rather, by analogy with the way that Roman citizens living in Philippi conceived of their relationship to the Roman emperor, who might one day come to their city from Rome, heaven is the place from which heavenly citizens await the coming of their Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. While we can with Paul be confident that at death we ‘depart’ to be ‘with Christ’ (Phil. 1: 23), the Christian’s ultimate hope according to Paul is for Christ to come to earth (Phil. 3: 20). In Revelation we learn that even the heavenly city – the new Jerusalem – comes down out of heaven to earth in the new creation (Rev. 21: 2). At that time, the distinction between earth and heaven will no longer matter because God’s glory and presence will be displayed fully throughout the new heaven and new earth.  [Robert S White and Jonathan A Moo (2013-06-21). Hope in an Age of Despair (Kindle Locations 1533-1543). Inter-Varsity Press. Kindle Edition.]
 Elsewhere, the authors discuss Romans 8, Luke 12, Revelation 18, and other passages from a similar perspective.

The mention of Revelation 18 reminds me of one line of thinking that I would have loved to hear White and Moo say more about.  In that passage, you will remember, we here about the collapse of the huge consumerist trading empire, Babylon the Great, false rival to the Kingdom of God - and clearly, in the historical context of Revelation, a code-name for the city of Rome.  But the end of the Roman Empire was not, as a matter of history, the final end of the age; John's apocalyptic language  was applied in anticipation ("proleptically" as the jargon is) to the first-century world.  Now when White and Moo turn, in Chapter 9, to apply their exegesis, they are mostly concerned with the attitudes (prayer; no excuses; love, hope and joy) that biblical hope will educe in the present-day believer as she addresses environmental concerns.  Well and good.  But is there also a place for the kind of anticipatory, proleptic application of eschatological language that we find in Revelation 18 (after all, the book begins by noting the apocalyptic tone of some environmental pronouncements)?  White and Moo apparently don't say, and I would love to know what they think.


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