Dale Allison in Night Comes points out that even in movies and novels today the last things often receive more attention than they do in mainline pulpits. He thinks we are short-changing people by not talking about last things. By leaving this topic alone the church allows people’s ideas to be shaped by either secularism, the latest excitement of the people who say the Bible talks about specific current events, or sensational new age speculations based on things like Near Death Experiences.
Also he sees how ignoring life after death cheapens this life. In the New Testament the nearness of the end gives a special moral intensity to this life (Romans 13:11-14 and 1 Peter 4:7-10). Also think about the statement attributed to Jesus in John 9:4 that night comes when it will be impossible to work (from this verse Allison gets his title: “night comes”).
A common way of thinking today is that the lack of immortality gives value to experiences in this life. “You only go around once.” But the fact that after our loved ones die their memory fades and we only sporadically think about them bothers Allison. This seems to him to devalue life. If there is no survival of death, then memorial days will eventually not work and, for most of us, our existence will be completely forgotten and insignificant.
As I know from having read other books by Allison, Albert Schweitzer has been a strong influence. Schweitzer saw the historical Jesus as a prophet proclaiming the coming apocalypse. Here Allison clarifies more about his interpretation of Schweitzer. Indeed, the message of Jesus was about last things. But the ethic of Jesus was more than an interim ethic that loses its punch the longer the world goes on as usual.
Schweitzer is saying that Jesus, in his imagination, didn’t just look forward, from the present to the consummation, but rather projected himself into the future and from there looked back, from the consummation to the present. He appraised what he saw around him over against what he saw coming. He assessed this world over against the world to come (p. 88).
Allison draws on some liberation theologians to flesh this out a bit. He quotes Gustavo Gutierrez as saying that Jesus saw “the utopia that sets history in motion” (p. 88).
It seems to me that the term “utopia” is unfortunate here. Allison applies it by saying that utopia is a better way for Christians to speak than Christian realism (is this a reference to the Niebuhrs?). He refers to Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream speech. But did MLK have speak in terms of utopia?
I associate utopia with totalitarian dreams. T. S. Eliott has a line that speaks of those who dream of “systems so perfect that no one will need to be good.” Neither Jesus nor MLK was doing that. While agreeing with Allison’s understanding of Schweitzer, I would be more inclined to use the metaphor of Helmut Thielicke who said that the Christian is a citizen of two ages and that the age to come keeps this age under covering fire.
A perfectly nice nun and friend once accused me of “dualism” for speaking favorably of Thielicke’s position in his Theological Ethics. So be it. We have to distinguish between the now and the not-yet. Thielicke lived in Nazi Germany and vividly saw the need for covering fire.
My idea here is that some secular ways of doing this present age are better than others. It may seem like compromise not to press for theocracy now. But we can keep trying to improve this world and praying for the kingdom to come without trying to compel others to live in our idea of the kingdom.
Anyway, I do not see that a utopian, or even idealistic, view of this world follows from a belief in the future kingdom of God. I certainly do not see some Hegelian/Marxist movement of history toward utopia.
What I do see is that an idealistic, progressive world view fits well with that of many mainline clergy. So Allison’s arguing for such clergy to speak of last things may benefit from framing it this way.
Aside from that, I basically agree with Allison. He says he hopes in the “ultimate, transcendent triumph of God” (p. 91). So do I.
He is going to talk about hell in his next chapter.