Everyone is hoping for an end to our present COVID-19 crisis. It is one of the few hopes that is truly universal in our divisive era. But what do we mean? What does it mean to hope? What “end” are we hoping for?
When we start talking about “ends” and “hopes,” what we are really talking about is eschatology. Traditionally, Christian eschatology has dealt with four last things: death, judgment, heaven, and hell. (There was also significant interest in the beatific vision, seeing God face to face.) In the twentieth century, Christian eschatology experienced several important changes. The traditional four last things and the beatific vision were largely displaced by a certain kind of interest in the resurrection and in the kingdom of God. At the same time, as Richard Bauckham has suggested, eschatology “became something more like a dimension of the whole subject matter of theology” (“Eschatology,” in The Oxford Handbook of Systematic Theology, ed. John Webster, Kathryn Tanner, and Ian Torrance [Oxford University Press, 2007], 306).
Out of this twentieth-century change in eschatology emerged a renewed awareness that eschatology is not just something that we are waiting for but something we are living now. As it is with theology, so it is with the life of the church: eschatology is a dimension of the whole rather than just a topic of occasional importance. This awareness has clear biblical roots. In 1 Cor 10:11, Paul declares that we are those “on whom the ends of the ages have come” — have come, not will come (NRSV). Similarly, in 1 Pet 1:3, we are told that God the Father “has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.”
In the resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ, the end has already arrived: the end as God’s final Word on life, death, sin, and salvation; the end as our goal, our destination as followers of Jesus Christ (see 1 John 3:2)—and not just our goal, our destination, but somehow also the goal of all creatures, in what is called the new creation. This is, as Christians, our cosmic or ultimate hope, that in Jesus Christ we have already met the end, the eschaton, of all things.
Part of our life as the church is to sustain our cosmic hope in the face of other grand visions of hope that compete with or undermine the hope we have in the resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ. Still, we also have more local or proximate hopes—for ourselves, our families, our world. Another part of our life as Christians, therefore, is to keep our local or proximate hopes connected to and shaped by our ultimate, cosmic hope. Daily life is full of the pursuit of local hopes, always with the possibility of pursuing hopes that are disconnected from or at cross purposes with our ultimate hope. If indeed we have been born anew to the living hope we have in the risen and ascended Jesus Christ, then we should always, in every hope, live in harmony with that ultimate hope. The cosmic hope has priority because it is the true “end” of all hopes.
This brings us back to the COVID-19 crisis and our human hope that this crisis will end. With this hope we have a very good, very legitimate proximate hope. The core content of our hope, that this crisis will end, is certainly in harmony with our cosmic hope. But as Christians we ought to be asking ourselves: How do we maintain a faithful connection between this local hope and our ultimate hope? How should this proximate hope be shaped by our cosmic hope?
There are signs that Christians are maintaining a wholesome connection between this urgent hope and our ultimate hope. Among them are both the many things churches are doing to foster some ongoing sense of community and the energy poured into caring for people whose bodies are weak or whose economics are precarious. You may be able to think of more examples. There are also ways of living this local hope now that need clarification. When that hope is expressed as a desire to get back to “normal life,” the church could be more precise, and less sentimental, about our hope for a “normal” life. What about “normal life” do we want to return? What parts of life before the pandemic might we hope to leave in the past? A similar examination also is needed of our abundant use of technology. Does its use create a longing for less mediated relationships (or, perhaps better, for relationships mediated solely by Christ and the Spirit, and not by screens and the internet)? Or are we unintentionally reinforcing unchristian notions that our ultimate hope rests in our ability to create a better future for ourselves through technological innovation? The church needs to clarify what its “living hope” truly is.
Christ is our true end, the goal of our lives and the source of our hopes. Our ultimate, cosmic hope in him does not negate our more local, proximate hopes: it perfects them. We can best wait for the hoped-for end of the pandemic by living according to the end of all things in Jesus Christ.