How Will It All End? Eschatology in Science and Religion

By Gillman, Neil | Cross Currents, Spring 2007 | Go to article overview

How Will It All End? Eschatology in Science and Religion


Gillman, Neil, Cross Currents


In retrospect, eschatology has been part of my theological agenda since I began to reflect on theology, some fifty years ago. I recently came upon the essays I wrote for admission to Rabbinical School back in the spring of 1954. To my amazement--I was then a rank undergraduate at McGill University--they were suffused with the issue of messianism. When I arrived at the Jewish Theological Seminary, one of my mentors, Professor Gerson Cohen later to become Chancellor of the Seminary, made an off-hand remark to the effect that every significant Jewish movement had an eschatological impulse at its core. That remark stuck with me and remained one of many issues that I wish I would have been able to explore with Gerson before his untimely death.

Eventually, that impulse culminated in my book-length study of Jewish thinking on the afterlife, The Death of Death: Resurrection and Immortality in Jewish Thought (Jewish Lights Publishing, 1997). My original plan had been to write a book on eschatology in general, but I soon realized that it was impossible to embrace the topic in one book. I then focused on what, to me, was the most interesting of the sub-topics involved in Jewish eschatology--what happens to us when we die?

At the same time, I remained puzzled as to why eschatology was so significantly absent from the writings of my contemporaries in the field of Jewish theology. I recall with particular pain my late teacher Abraham Joshua Heschel's comments in a television interview that he gave just weeks before he died in 1972. Carl Stern, of NBC, asked him--Heschel didn't know that he was about to die--what do you think is going to happen to you after you die? Heschel responded, "I have so many things to worry about while I'm alive, I'll let God worry about what happens to me after I die." How could Heschel not think about what was going to happen to him after he died?

Interestingly, the one exception to this pattern was a book published in 1952 by Will Herberg, Judaism and Modern Man. It is probably not accidental that this was the book that brought me back to Judaism when I was at McGill. Herberg was a disenchanted Marxist which explains why he was interested in eschatology and why he saw Marxist eschatology as an echo of the biblical model.

Equally puzzling to me is why Christian theologians are so preoccupied with eschatology. Why is it everywhere in contemporary Christian theology and so strikingly absent from the writings of 20th century Jewish thinkers? Still more puzzling to me, is why our cosmologists and astronomers are so preoccupied with the question of how it all will end. It's almost as omnipresent in the writings of astronomers and cosmologists as it is in Christian theologians and has produced a new school of scientists/theologians like Ian Barbour and John Polkinghorne who try to graft a Christian eschatology onto their science.

Why do they care? Why is so much scientific money and energy poured into trying to understand how it will all end in trillions and trillions of years from now?

Why eschatology?

The term eschatology refers to that sub-field of theology devoted to the discussion (logos) of the last things (eschatos). It was located within the field of theology because of the assumption that the "last things" would represent God's ultimate intervention in history. Today, we talk of secular eschatologies--Marxism, for example--and scientific eschatologies. Some would argue that Marxist eschatology is part of what makes Marxism a religion. So, perhaps, the term "secular eschatology" is an oxymoron after all.

But, why the impulse to discuss the last things? Why are we curious as to what will happen at the end of time, or "after" the end of time, as if it is even possible to think of an "after" to the end of time? Why does all of this preoccupy us?

Speaking anthropologically, my sense is that it comes out of the human need to bring cosmos out of chaos, order out of anarchy. …

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