There’s an interesting passage in Romans 9 from which we can mine a number of interesting truths:
I am speaking the truth in Christ—I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit— that I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh.Romans 9:1-3
Among these truths are:
- It’s good and right to love your people in a special way. Therefore, the multicultural/egalitarian urge to say that we should love all people equally is false.
- If man is determined to either accept or reject Christ by God Himself, then it’s not a stretch to say that Paul loves Israel more than God – Paul would trade his salvation for theirs and God won’t merely change their desires to accomplish the same thing. But we know God loves Israel more. Therefore, exhaustive divine determinism is false.
But there’s something else buried in here that’s worth thinking about. To set up this “something else”, consider this relatively famous quote from the deeply conservative mind of Tolkien:
I am a Christian, and indeed a Catholic; so I cannot but view history as a long defeat.JRR Tolkien
The conservative disposition is to be left alone and to see the world as one in decline. It’s a naturally pessimistic view, one prone to nostalgic longing for a past golden age – often something that looks a lot like our own childhood. I think a good, healthy upbringing naturally brings us to the temptation of taking this attitude. I don’t think we should give in, though. It’s good to want to bring forward the best parts of our childhood, but to settle for dreaming about a return to the past is foolish.
Say not, “Why were the former days better than these?”Ecclesiastes 7:10
For it is not from wisdom that you ask this.
Tolkien was nothing if not conservative, and his nostalgic longing filled his writing. You can feel it when you read his fictional accounts of Middle Earth, especially when he describes the Shire. The writing itself is not a problem; if we are at peace with the past remaining forever behind us, then a love for the past is good. It anchors us. But if we take it to its extreme, we will be pessimists watching the world crumble around us.
What does all of this have to do with Paul?
Paul wished he could trade his salvation for those of his kinsmen. He knew he couldn’t, but he wanted to. Consider this desire combined with the pessimistic eschatology of Tolkien. If the history of the world is one long defeat (until the end), then why not wish to get to it? Why not work as hard as you can to send the world into the pit of hell? Sure, you’re talking about doing a lot of evil yourself, and you’ll be held accountable, but so what? You actually have the chance to trade your salvation for the salvation of the world because if your efforts bring us to the apocalypse sooner, you’ll have helped spare everyone the horror of that long decline.
What’s the alternative? If you try to fight evil, you delay the inevitable and cause untold billions of people to be born, to suffer, and to die. The most successful reformers and saints end up causing the most harm. The most depraved sociopaths at least keep the game moving.
If pessimism is the right sort of eschatology, then we can do that which Paul longed for but couldn’t accomplish.
The conclusion is wicked, and I think this helps us see that the premises must be rotten, too. The premise that the history of the world is one long defeat is simply false. From the backwater of Judea, a small band of believers transformed the Roman Empire and then the world. Christendom was a real thing. There are more Christians alive today than any time in the history of the world and Christianity grows every day. If this is what defeat looks like…
Tolkien may be right in saying that the Catholic view is one of long defeat. I don’t know enough about Catholic eschatology to dispute him. But it is most certainly not the necessary Christian position. Even fellow Catholic, GK Chesterton, gets much closer to the truth when he writes:
The one perfectly divine thing, the one glimpse of God’s paradise given on earth, is to fight a losing battle – and not lose it.GK Chesterton
As I’ve written of before, I think the history of the world will look like a hopeless cause that just keeps winning until the end. When we get to that end, we will fight the most hopeless of all losing battles, but Christ will win it, because it was His victory to win all along.
We should be optimistic until that day. We should build the kingdom like we were commanded to do. I am a Christian, so I cannot but view history as the triumph of Christ over sin, death, and hell.
Reblogged this on Calculus of Decay .
Might one hint that, if you wish to explicitly take sides in the matter of optimism vs. pessimism, it is unwise to call to your aid G. K. Chesterton, of all people? This is, after all, the man who said of the book of Job, “It is a solemn and uplifting sight to see those two eternal fools, the optimist and the pessimist, destroyed in the dawn of time” – which passage, had I been you, I should have very much wished people not to think of in connection with this column.
I disagree with Chesterton about all kinds of things. That doesn’t mean I can’t quote the man.