Eschatology As Imagining the End

Faith Between Hope and Despair

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Editor(s): 
Sigurd Bergmann
  • New York, NY: 
    Routledge
    , June
     2018.
     188 pages.
     $140.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781138481367.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Images and thoughts about the future of our planet and the end of times tend to be viewed as trivial by the academic world; but, as the contributors of this volume clearly proclaim, eschatology matters! 

A group of eight Nordic scholars analyzes contemporary and historical eschatological reflection from interdisciplinary perspectives, bringing into conversation an extensive collection of sources in theology, moral philosophy, ethics, art history, and literature. Engaging specific social and environmental themes such as the 2011 Norway terrorist attacks, global climate change, the ethical questions concerning euthanasia, the human understanding of time, eternity and spatiality, and the understanding of reconciliation related to social justice, the contributors of this volume demonstrate the complexity of eschatological reflection on the one hand, and the importance of different approaches on the other. With the intent to contribute to the wider international eschatological discourse from a Nordic horizon, and through their own particular contextual lenses, the scholars assert that the way we imagine the end has a profound effect on our attitudes toward issues we face in the here and now.

In the book’s introductory chapter, editor and contributor Sigurd Bergmann sets the stage for the discussion by offering four preliminary reasons why eschatology matters. He then sketches three common but distorting “dead-end-roads” in eschatological discourse in hopes of strengthening the reader’s awareness of this wide-ranging topic and assisting in the identification and articulation of fresh perspectives on the last things. The way forward, Bergmann argues, includes avoiding overly nuanced one-sided perspectives in eschatology in light of the field’s complexity and ambiguity, avoiding a one-sided narrow view of time that focuses on existing in the tension between the “the now” and “not yet,” and avoiding the one-sided emphasis on the future in combination with the neglect of the past.

The book is comprised of nine chapters, each with a diverse approach to completing the task of elaborating a socially relevant eschatology that avoids the abovementioned “dead-end-roads.” In spite of the diversity in approach, the authors exhibit unity with regard to three methodological standards. First, all contributors agree that eschatology should be constructed contextually (13). Second, eschatology should always be articulated as “proto-eschatology,” in remembrance of and in binding connection to the past (13). Third, eschatology must move beyond the limits of the linear concept of time and should be formulated with the integration of spatiality and timeliness, and place and history, because eschatology is “about creating places to allow encountering the eschata in the light of the first things, especially for those who have neither room nor future on Earth our home” (14). The hope of this multifaceted approach is for synergies to appear with the reader’s own experiences and contexts between hope and despair.

Limited space prevents the proper engagement that each contribution deserves. Thus, I will highlight two chapters that caught my attention. First, Kjetil Hafstad’s challenge to classical theology through the lens of art and history is thought provoking. Hafstad works from the premise that for too long, eschatology has been emptied of its purpose by trying to map out one future through studying apocalyptic prophecy and searching history for the “signs” of the times. Hafstad argues that stories and reflections within art and history offer new perspectives on eschatology, and by engaging these perspectives, we can get beyond a single vision of history and embrace the “pluriformity” inherent in the events, accidents, dreams, and hopes of human experience (124-28). Second, Cristina Grenholm’s discussion on the prerequisites for finding an eschatology that expresses hope beyond time is insightful for theologians interested in constructive work. Grenholm explores how a fresh eschatology can include a hope that transcends immanent categories without slipping into the view that this present life is of no importance (133). Grenholm advances three necessary prerequisites for such an eschatology: first, the understanding that eschatology forms part of a tradition;  second, the need for a coherent worldview that does not interpret violence and conflicts separate from peace and harmony; and third, eschatology needs an image of God that can deal with darkness and despair in a way that does not compromise our understanding of God’s anger and love and leave God volatile, terrifying, or impotent (137-38). Grenholm believes the result of such an eschatology will motivate people to hope for a better future for this world and engage in the struggle for reconciliation.

Applause is warranted for the commitment to interdisciplinarity, which aids in demonstrating the importance of eschatological reflection on the one hand, and its impact on how we live today on the other. Interdisciplinarity also allows themes to be discussed more extensively that would otherwise be treated superficially. I also celebrate the enthusiasm to formulate eschatology beyond the confusing, and frankly, irresponsible timetables which produce fear-driven escapist mentalities. The authors are correct, imagining the end should shape how we bring hope and change to the here and now. Critique comes to the limited scope of this volume, which consequently leaves important gaps that ought to be filled. Key subjects in Christian eschatology such as the final judgment, millennialism, hell, and the controversial Book of Revelation are omitted. The narrow focus also leads to a lack of interreligious awareness, as eschatology in other religions is overlooked. Unfavorable criticism will also come from advocates of traditionally rigid eschatological paradigms, as they will most likely remain unconvinced of the collective assertion to avoid both the one-sided perspectives and the linear concept of time, and as a result, will inevitably continue navigating down the “dead-end-roads.”  

This well-written volume showcases the creativity and excellence of Nordic scholarship. The serious treatment of the last things will make this book interesting for scholars specializing in eschatology, practical theology, religious studies, as well as philosophy of religion. Seminary-trained pastors will turn an ear to the highly accessible content and see ways in which they can craft socially relevant eschatologies in their ministry contexts. All readers will ascertain that eschatology matters, and that through faith, imagining the last things can take someone from despair to hope.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Brandon F. Babcock is a doctoral candidate in Christian Theology at Regent University, Virginia Beach, VA.

Date of Review: 
January 7, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Sigurd Bergmann is Professor of Religious Studies in the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Norway. His interests include theology, studies of religion and the environment, and religion, arts and architecture, and he has published multiple books and articles including, Religion, Space & the Environment (2014), Religion in the Anthropocene (2017), God in Context (2013), and In the Beginning Is the Icon (2009).

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