Hartian Illuminations: Pascha as Final Judgment

In this series of “illuminations,” I quote passages from David Bentley Hart’s collection of essays The Hidden and the Manifest that I have found particularly instructive. I hope they will generate good discussion.

The heart of Christian preaching is the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ–Pascha! And perhaps that is why authentic preaching so rarely happens. It is much easier to urge the brethren to repentance and commit themselves to good works or wax lyrical on the unconditional love of God or expound upon a doctrine of the catholic faith. Resurrection inevitably gets worked into the preaching, especially on Easter and at funerals, but most other days it’s just missing. And it’s easy to understand why: the significance of Pascha is difficult to fathom, much less put into words. We know it’s supposed to be good news (especially for Jesus), but what does it really mean for us? How is the world different, how are our lives different, because Christ Jesus is risen from the dead?

One can scarcely exaggerate the scale of the disruption of many of humanity’s most cherished religious expectations that the Christian proclamation of Easter constitutes. There could hardly be a more disorienting claim than that the resurrection–the eschatological horizon of history, the act of divine redemption that lies entirely outside the cycle of nature, the kingdom of God beyond the reign of death–has occurred (suddenly, incredibly) within the very heart of history and nature, in a way that breaks them open from within. It is, of course, obvious that Easter runs contrary to “nature” as we understand it, and utterly subverts the logic of “natural” sacrifice: after all, there is no older religious wisdom than that which teaches us the sacred necessity and irreversibility of death; and a victim once offered up to “order” (divine or human) is meant to be transformed into some higher, more abstract good, not return again in his own particularity, glorified and vindicated over against the powers that destroyed him for the sake of that higher good. But, in a sense, the resurrection is every bit as much a disruption of “sacred history” and of eschatological expectation. History, it would seem, is not simply the time prepared for us before the final judgment, the occasion of moral labor before the appointed end. The judgment has already come, out of season; history’s great crisis has appeared now, in our midst, and has rendered all our certitudes concerning the cosmos and history untrustworthy. Time itself is fallen; its ultimate consummation is not simply the final expression of a truth it already possesses in potentia. Rather, it is enslaved to a “false story,” which leads–if left undisturbed–toward absurdity and nothingness. The history that God confirms as the path to his truth is the unique story of Christ, from the incarnation to the resurrection; this is the story he raises up, and seals with an eschatological verdict; and, in so doing, he also pronounces his final verdict upon the fabulous tales that humanity tells about itself, and upon the historical “logic” that leads to the building of crosses. Time is to be redeemed, it turns out, and so it must be invaded by God’s Logos, shattered and restored by the advent of God’s kingdom; the judgment of God will not be a final confirmation of history’s “total synthesis,” or even of our various moral positions before an omnipotent justice, but the event of an unmerited salvation. Our only hope now lies in the power of the Holy Spirit to integrate our lives into that one true story told in Christ; we hope that the final judgment already pronounced upon him will include us too in its ultimate determinations. …

In a sense, the resurrection of Christ–understood as the revelation of God’s final judgment within time–calls humanity to a second naïveté, a postreligious return to our most primordial intuition of death as something unnatural, obscene, and intrinsically evil, and a return consequently to our inextinguishable disquiet before the power of death to interrupt our “natural” orientation toward an unlimited future. That disquiet, it emerges, is a sign of a created predisposition to grace; it is the original agitation of a spiritual summons to a kingdom not of this world, to the eternal life of a renewed creation. In the light of Easter, however, that aboriginal anxiety is transformed into a kind of spiritual bliss. For what God raised up on Easter was the deified humanity of Christ; and he thereby revealed that the “true story” of our humanity is that of a true union between humanity and God, a marriage of the finite to the infinite, a divinization of the creature in Christ.

That is to say, God’s judgment on humanity, as revealed at Easter, is a call to an inexhaustible experience of the intimate presence of God (a call that, inevitably, leaves open the possibility of the soul turning from God’s love toward an indeterminate dereliction). The only truly “natural” human destiny is made known to us in our ontological vocation to the vision of God, and to the nuptial union of the divine and human natures in those who have been joined to Christ. One of the most exhilarating theological attempts to capture this mystery in a single metaphor was that of the fourth-century church father Gregory of Nyssa, who defined the union of the soul with God as one of eternal epektasis: an endless ecstatic growth of the soul into that which always infinitely exceeds and infinitely beckons it. For Gregory, this pilgrimage “from glory to glory” has the character of a “pure future,” so to speak, in which all memory is always being assumed into ever greater anticipation and ever grander adventure: a motion prompted entirely by love and blissful desire, rather than by tragic anxiety or painful recollection or egoism. It is, in a sense, that very futurity that renders death so tormenting a mystery to fallen humanity–the futurity from which various religious wisdoms have sought over the ages to deliver us–but rescued now from the falsehood of death, and shown to be the deepest truth of our nature, and the mark of a divine destiny. The true meaning of our life, it turns out, is its openness to God’s eternity: a meaning revealed to us by a divine judgment that has made that eternity at once the proper content of our historical memory, the correct measure of our created nature, and the true object of our hope. (“Death, Final Judgment, and the Meaning of Life,” pp. 266-268)

We typically think of the final judgment as a future event. We may look forward to it in confident hope or anticipate it with fear and dread–in either case, it remains future. But what if the final judgment has already occurred?

(Go to “Is God responsible for evil and suffering”)

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4 Responses to Hartian Illuminations: Pascha as Final Judgment

  1. danaames says:

    Fr Stephen writes of the Cross as The Judgment Seat of Christ – some of his most profound words.

    Dana

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