Saturday, June 22, 2013

Justice and Eschatology

There is no religious tradition that I am familiar with - certainly among the so-called "literate" religious traditions - that have not been forced to confront, in one sense or another, the problem of justice. There is, to begin with, the intimate relationship that always pertained between gods and the provision of "laws" in the ancient world. Whatever power was vested in the king was invariably justified on the basis of his unique connection to the gods, and whatever laws he enacted were said to have been delivered, with his mediation, by the gods. The link between God and the authority of Law (or, more generally, morality itself) has persisted in the Abrahamic traditions down to this very day.

More than simply acting as a legitimising conduit for legal authority, however, religions have also been forced to confront the problem of justice as it presents itself beyond the mere provision of laws. It has long been recognised, for example, that many evil people have prospered where good have suffered, thus originating the long-standing quandaries that exist at the heart of theodicy. The problem has been tackled in many different ways throughout history, though it must be said that modern resolutions to the problem of theodicy - which I will address shortly - took a long time to emerge. The earlier solutions were rather more "crude", if that is a fair judgement to impose, and reflect a vastly different view of humanity's relationship with the divine.

In the ancient world, gods were heavily anthropomorphic and believed to have motivations and failings almost indistinguishable from those of human beings. Initially in all religious traditions, Ernst Cassirer argues, the "gods" represented nothing more than the instantiation of ephemeral - yet deeply affecting - moments of "spontaneous feeling", that can be encountered in "every impression that man receives, every wish that stirs in him, every hope that lures him [and] every danger that threatens him"1. In this there was no sensation - nor no physical object which may give rise to such a sensation - that could not have been treated as some manifestation of the divine. In such a way, as we find in the ancient Greek culture and many others, every feeling and every physical facet present within the human world could find itself deified. The next stage (Cassirer here is using Hermann Usener's tripartite scheme) involves the reification of these "momentary gods" into discrete, permanent entities, that are capable of persisting even in the absence of the phenomena which gave rise to them. It is in this stage that the gods were vested with (generally) human personalities, their essential characters furnished by rich sets of mythological histories and motivations. It is at this stage (that all literate religions traditions that I am familiar with have graduated to) that the gods could be worshipped and entreated as one might a king. 
If the gods at this level of religious development were heavily anthropomorphic, it should come as no surprise that their basic motivations and behaviours were - by modern standards at least - relatively base and capricious. The favour of the gods could generally be one with the provision of ritual sacrifices, which were not merely symbolic but rather genuine gifts to be consumed by the deity in question (even the OT God consumed the burnt sacrifices in the form of their "pleasing odour" - see Numbers 28 etc.). The gods, in their turn, could react to this human supplication by visiting various favours or abominations upon the worshippers depending on how well the rituals were performed. Note, though, that for all the caprice that could be shown by the ancient gods in their disposition towards human beings, it was invariably assumed that the visitation of divine intervention - for good or for bad - was somehow conditional on the behaviour of human beings. Proper conduct before the gods would deliver blessings, improper conduct would deliver curses. This rather prosaic formula was never questioned, certainly not in terms of the reasonableness or otherwise of the divine requests. If calamity struck, it must have - in some sense - been the fault of those in the community who had failed in their duty towards the relevant gods. 

This is brought into particularly sharp focus in the treatment of theodicy in the the early Old Testament texts. The theodicy of the Book of Kings for example - and other such Deuteronomic texts - was predicated entirely on the basis of Israel's faithfulness to Yahweh. Where they had approached him with due deference, and not provoked his jealousy through the worship of other gods, they prospered. Where they had abandoned this single, overriding duty, Yahweh in his wrath saw fit to use his power - via the intermediary of foreign powers - to visit wanton destruction on all the land. Even where the course of history failed to fit this rather simple pattern, the author(s) of Kings simply explained it in terms of deferred punishment for earlier crimes (e.g. 2 Kings 24:26). For the Judahites in the 7th century, then, the logic of divine justice was rather simple: obedience and unwavering deference to the will of Yahweh was the path to prosperity, all other paths led to ruin.

This simple logic was, however, severely undermined by the Babylonian invasion of the early 6th century, less than three decades after Josiah first launched his religious reforms. If the Judahites had done everything within their power to abolish the shrines and places of worship devoted to other gods, then why had Yahweh seen fit to launch the armies of Babylon against them? What more could they have done? The questioning of divine justice appears prominently in the Biblical texts here for the first time, especially in the books of Ezekiel and Lamentations. There was the very real sense of anguish in these texts that Yahweh had acted in a distinctly unjust way, in plain contradistinction to the pliant and dutiful acceptance of divine whim in the earlier texts. For some authors (for example, the second Deuteronomist) the theology needn't be amended: as mentioned above, the horrors visited upon the Judahites were merely a sign of deferred punishment for the sins of earlier generations. For other authors, however, this explanation would not suffice and they were drawn increasingly to explanations outside of the Hebrew tradition to explain the otherwise gratuitous nature of the injustices they had suffered.

It is the period after the Babylonian exile that gave us much of the so-called "Wisdom" literature in the Bible. Although much of this literature plainly sees itself as forming a continuum with earlier Yahwistic traditions (e.g. those of the Torah), it is also clear that the wider Wisdom tradition from which it emerged had a rather more international origin, and that Wisdom philosophies could be readily found in most near-Eastern cultures at the time. Rejecting - at least in part - the preceding cosmology of conflicting, parochial, anthropomorphic gods who were entirely constrained to very specific regions and / or duties, Wisdom philosophies took a rather more secular attitude towards the world. They searched for universal truths and rationales, largely detached from any specific theological premises. The rational order of the of the world - including the order of justice - could now be explored in ways obviating the need for officially sanctioned religious practice.

It was this search for such truths - in the context of divine justice - that gave us, for example, the Book of Job, a fairly sophisticated and honest look at the problem of evil. In contrast to earlier texts - and the theologies that were previously typical to the near-East - Yahweh is no longer an anthropic figure who can be assuaged by mere ritual or sacrifice, but rather a transcendent and eternal figure, for whom the struggles of human existence are comparatively trivial. That is not to say that Yahweh existed entirely beyond or outside of the everyday struggles of humanity, but rather that the human relationship to the divine needed to be completely rethought. Yahweh, suddenly, existed on a plane of time and space which absented him from the possibility of direct and immediate entreaty (in the form of sacrifice etc.) and who must now be approached with rather a longer view in mind. Whatever misfortunes may befall you from day to day, the Book of Job seems to say, keep it in perspective: in terms of the eternally transcendent nature of the deity with whom you wish to maintain a relationship, your daily troubles do not count for much. It is at this point that we start to get a clear indication of a belief in the afterlife in Hebrew literature and the conterminous belief that one's relationship was Yahweh could extend beyond the limits of the here and now. That is, whatever injustices that might be meted out over human time scales could surely be rectified over divine time scales. Psalm 49:15 and Job 19:25-26 are good indications of this kind of belief first emerging.

With time, these rather vague and half-formed intuitions of the afterlife became reified into something far more specific. In the context of Judaism, we can evince the emergence of two related kinds of belief in the Hellenistic period between around 332 and 63 BC: namely, the belief in an imminent eschatology and the belief in bodily resurrection. Both were intimately related to conceptions of justice. The former was, from the outset, linked with prophecy and revelation, generally penned in the name of ancient prophets. The Book of Daniel and the Book of Enoch are good examples of this kind of genre. The eschatology in question was generally that of the imposition of a coming divine intervention that would effectively end (or cause a sharp break with) history. Sometimes this was imagined in purely heavenly terms, sometimes it was imagined as the definitive imposition of divine will on Earth. In either case, the eschaton would mark the cessation of the tyranny of the powerful on Earth: for the oppressed, the belief in a coming eschaton was essentially conceived as a future antidote to their powerlessness in the present. The evil of the powers that be would be finally and forever banished from the Earth, and those who remained would be granted the justice denied to them for so long.

A conterminous belief was that of bodily resurrection, which seems to have been occasioned largely by the Maccabean revolt in 166 BC, and presented in the Books of Maccabees. Those who participated in the revolt noted acutely the injustice of the fact that the slain - though offering everything to the cause - had not lived to see their revolution to its final fruition. Passages such as 2 Mc. 7:11 and 14:46 give clear indication of the belief that the bodies of those who had perished might be resurrected in the future by Yahweh. Note that such passages constitute the belief in a literal bodily resurrection: to the extent that one's bones persisted, it was not beyond the power of Yahweh to cover them once more with flesh. More importantly, though, this belief - as with the belief in a coming eschaton - was predicated by a belief in the injustice of the present world that would be rectified by Yahweh in the world to come. The Jews ceased believing in the possibility of Yahweh administering justice by intervening in history, and rather started to believe in the possibility of Yahweh administering justice by ending history.

While it's difficult to completely recapitulate the philosophy of Jesus with any confidence, it seems relatively clear that such eschatological beliefs - like John the Baptist before him - were central to his world view. The earliest Christian texts - the authentic letters of Paul, gMark and the putative Q Gospel - all have clearly identifiable eschatological emphases and it's difficult to make sense of the fervour of the early Christian community without the presence of the belief in a coming eschaton. For Jesus, it seems, the iniquities of his age (and there were a great many of those, to be sure) constituted the mere presaging of the coming "Kingdom of God". The current age was one dominated by evil, yet the future age would be one dominated by good. Hence, those who resisted the temptations of the current age (i.e. those who declined the trappings of wealth and power) would be those to profit most in the coming age. As Jesus himself was said to have put it, "who are first will be last, and the last will be first" (Mk. 10:31). In other words, the problems of injustice in the Kingdom of Man would soon be rectified in the coming Kingdom of God.

Resurrection held a similarly important place in the beliefs of the earliest Christians. For them the resurrection of Jesus was not a sign of his divinity and his uniquely divine constitution, but rather the "first fruits" (as Paul put it) of a more general resurrection to come: that is, even those who had died in the age of injustice would still be present to enjoy the "fruits" of the age of justice to come. The horrors of the present age - including the ongoing travails of Roman imperialism - would come to an end at the moment of the parousia, and the dead and living alike would be resurrected to heaven (1 Thess 4:17). As a consequence, calls towards forceful rebellion against the forces of Rome seem to have been completely absent from early Christianity, in contradistinction to other Jewish movement of the 1st century which often took on a more militant edge. Jesus, for example, is depicted as advocating the dutiful payment of tax to the Roman empire (Mk 12:13-17) despite the fact that the onerous Roman system of taxation frequently rendered Palestinian agriculturalists of the first century destitute. Paul, for his part, advocates "subject[ion] to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established" (Rom 13:1), ignoring the disenfranchisement that God's chosen people were experiencing under the imperial yoke. Whatever prospects existed at the time for the provision of justice were now entirely out of the hands of ordinary people, and had become entirely vested in the eschatological return of Jesus. 

As the parousia continued to be interminably delayed against all expectations, however, and the prophecies of the first generations of Christians predicting a return of the Lord before "some who are standing here... taste death" (Mt. 23:36) failed to be realised, a different theological tact was required. Already by the time we reach the Gospel of John, we witness an almost total de-emphasis of eschatological expectations among the early Christian communities and a corresponding rise in the belief of "eternal life". Borrowing heavily from Hellenistic conceptions of the immortality of the soul and the persistence of one's spirit after death, Christians came to abandon the more Jewish conception of bodily resurrection at some definite period in the future, and came rather to embrace the idea of a spiritual resurrection at the moment of death. Justice remained the sole domain of God, but now the judgement of the good and the wicked had been entirely removed from the earthly realm. Whatever prospects existed for justice would no longer be realised here at some historical moment Earth, but rather in the timeless realm of heaven. Such beliefs were to remain normative in Christianity, and would also emerge in Islam, where eschatological expections (such that they are) are now entirely confined to speculations concerning the nature of heaven and hell: the concept justice in these faiths must now be considered to exist completely outside the earthly realm.

Note, then, the progressive abstraction of justice in the history of the Abrahamic faiths. The theology which originated as a means of explaining earthly injustice has been entirely translated to idle speculations concerning the nature of alternative worlds. God's justice is no longer to be expected in this world, but rather at the moment of some timeless, dimensionless eschaton that we may only enter upon death. While this view in some ways delays the problems of theodicy (in the sense that apparent injustices will eventually be righted on a long enough time scale) it invokes a sense of justice that is far too attenuated to be of any value to us in this life, in this universe. Where injustice exists, the idea that such injustices will be addressed by God on some different metaphysical plain at some point in the indefinite, atemporal future can surely offer us little consolation. In any case, such eschatological beliefs overlook the very real fact that we can already construct the future direction of the universe and what will happen to us when we die, and that such constructions leave very little room for Gods or heavens.

Upon death, of course, our body will decay. The elements in our body will be broken down and reused in other living organisms. We can expect such a process, such a recycling of the elements of life, to continue for at least a billion years after we leave this planet. By this time, the growing, slowly dying sun will be 10% hotter than at present, potentially triggering a runaway greenhouse effect on Earth and transforming it into a hellish sister planet of Venus. Whether or not life is capable of existing on Earth by then, within 5-7 billion years the sun will have ballooned into a red giant, engulfing Venus and Mercury and extending its diameter all the way to the orbit of the Earth. By the time it explodes, the sun will have already transformed the Earth into a barren, unimaginably hot world, drowning in molten metal. During this time, our galaxy will have collided with the nearby Andromeda galaxy, potentially banishing what is left of our solar system to the obscure fringes of our galaxy's mighty arms.

Within one trillion years, the galaxies in our local super cluster will likely converge, forming in the process a super-galaxy. Within two trillion years, as the universe expands ever faster, all galaxies outside our local cluster will move away from us at ever faster speeds until the point they start to recede at such speeds that they become red-shifted beyond any possibility of detection. Ours will then be an island universe: any future observers will have no way of knowing that other galaxies exist beyond their own. For the next 100 trillion years, star formation will proceed as normal, until the point at which all the available stellar fuel is used up. The bigger, brighter, more spectacular stars will be the first to become absent from the universe, their cooling cores - the white dwarfs - the only remaining evidence of their existence. Eventually even the small, stable red dwarfs will dwindle out of existence, and nothing material will be left in our galaxy beyond the cold, black ashes of once brilliantly burning stars. Eventually even the ashes will decay, with atomic nuclei breaking apart and eventually even the protons themselves decaying into a weakly interacting soup of photons and leptons. About 10100 years from now, no matter will exist in the universe at all, whatever energy is left will be entirely bound up in photons, neutrinos and leptons, all rushing past each other at the speed of light, completely oblivious to each other. Here the universe will reach heat death, with all signs that there was ever a universe of such beauty and complexity as the one we see around us today will be completely lost forever. We are bound to return to the formless void from which we sprang.

It may sound grim, but this is the only future - the only eschaton - on which we can reliably pin our. For all the religious speculation on the topic, we now know through scientific investigation the fate to which we are all careering. In this bleak scenario, even concerns of justice reach their ultimate apotheosis. For here, in this cold, undifferentiated, inexorable soup - a fate which nothing and no-one can hope to escape - there exists no possibility of greatness or mediocrity, no possibility of good or evil. All shall forever be a single, undifferentiated unity and therein lies our prospects for eschatological justice: here, in the final equation, all shall be equal.


1) Language and Myth, p. 18.