The second angel sounded his trumpet, and something like a huge mountain, all ablaze, was thrown into the sea." (Revelation 8:8, NIV)
In 1998, Touchstone Pictures released Armaggedon, the most recent in a premillenial barrage of films focused on the end of the world. The film included a trendy Hollywood cast, headlined by Bruce Willis, Billy Bob Thornton, and Ben Affleck, and was directed by Michael Bay, whose previous film credits included the 1996 top ten hit, The Rock. Although Armageddon received nods from the Academy of Motion Pictures for Best Effects (Sound Effects Editing and Visual Effects), Best Music (Song), and Best Sound, film critics were not so enthusiastic. On average, Armageddon received 1Ĺ to two stars. The American public, on the other hand, made Armageddon the second most profitable film of 1998, exceeding its "sister" film, Deep Impact, whose similar storyline included an equally fashionable cast of characters, by over $60 million. In the end, Armageddon raked in over $201 million.
The story begins as an amateur astronomer detects an asteroid "the size of Texas" a mere 18 days before its collision with earth. In desperation, NASA recruits and trains a team of expert deep-core drillers, led by Harry Stamper (Bruce Willis), to accompany a team of astronauts into space. Their goal is to land on the surface of the asteroid, plant nuclear bombs within its core, and detonate them remotely. The astronauts are charged with splitting the asteroid into two pieces before it reaches "zero barrier" so that it will conveniently bypass Earth.
Harryís team of roughnecks spends less than a week-and-a-half training for space under the intense scrutiny of hypercritical government officials. Six days before the asteroid is scheduled to collide with the Earth, the mission begins. Everything that can go wrong in space does: one of the shuttles crashes on the face the asteroid, while the other shuttle overshoots its landing area; miscommunication with NASA nearly results in detonating the bomb before the team has finished drilling. Nevertheless, the team miraculously reaches target depth only a few minutes before the asteroid reaches zero barrier. However, because the remote signal was destroyed during an unpredictable mishap on the asteroidís surface, someone must be left behind to manually detonate the bomb. In a final act of heroism, Harry arranges to be the last one left. As the space shuttle flies away, Harry pushes the button, saving the earth but sacrificing himself. On earth, humanity rejoices as its destruction has been circumvented.
Background of the film
Armageddon was not created as a whimsical fantasy of Hollywood masterminds. In fact, its basic premise stems from a distinct historical event. In 1994, for the first time in the history of humankind, scientists were able to witness in detail the collision of two solar system bodies. Having circled Jupiter in an enclosing elliptical pattern for what scientists speculate to be hundreds of years, comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 was wrenched out of its orbit by Jupiterís gravity and into a collision course with the planetís dense atmosphere. This collision produced "bubble[s] of superheated gas that blazed with 50 times the infrared luminosity of the entire planet, briefly blinding some telescopes." Comet fragments pounded Jupiter at an estimated speed of 60 kilometers per second (134,000 miles an hour), and although the largest fragments measured no more than 700 meters in diameter, they left scars on Jupiterís atmosphere that were larger than the size of the earth. The fireworks from this event were so spectacular that "even little telescopes dug out of dusty attics for the occasion caught a glimpse of them." In the wake of this cosmic event, Armageddon found its roots.
Undoubtedly present in the minds of Armageddonís filmmakers was international anxiety over the end of the millennium. With the year 2000 rapidly approaching, countless predictions about its implications on life as humans knew it had been made. Preparations for the coming of the new millennium included stock piling food, building bunkers, and extensive technological precautions. In light of these extreme measures, Armageddon tapped into the collective anxiety of the time regarding not simply the end of the world but also the uncertainty of the future. Armageddon also portrayed the spectacular triumph of humans over and against all odds in the face of certain destruction. More often than not, the film proved to be a cathartic experience for moviegoers, who left feeling hopeful.
As stated above, in the eyes of film critics Armageddon was among the lowest-rated movies of 1998. However, in the United States, Armageddon raked in over $201 million and became the second-highest grossing movie of the year. Worldwide, the film grossed over $553 million, making it the 13th highest grossing movie of all time, preceded only by such classics as Star Wars and E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial. Clearly, Armageddon tapped the worldís collective imagination and succeeded as a popular representation of human victory over the end of the world. Thus, Armageddonís indisputable success points to its importance as more than simply entertainment.
One might conclude that Armageddonís filmmakers knew the right formula for success. However, Armageddonís subject matter is more than textbook science fiction. For many years, cosmologists have theorized about the eventual dissipation or collapse of our universe. Some have posited that expanding heat from our sun will envelope the earth. In the case of asteroids and comets, scientists estimate that, although comets capable of causing mass extinction come along only once every 100 million years or so, smaller asteroids and comets with similar destructive power bypass earth frequently. For instance, in 1989 an asteroid one-quarter mile wide came within 400,000 miles of Earth. Scientists estimated that Earth and the asteroid Ė weighing 50 million tons and traveling at 46,000 kilometers per hour - had passed the same point in space just six hours apart. The content of Armageddon, then, rehearses a scientific probability, though in fantastical proportions. Therefore, Armageddonís treatment of the end of the world by cosmic catastrophe is timely.
For Christians, knowledge of cosmology proves problematic. A God-World relation implies that things will work out in the end, and cosmic catastrophe seems antithetical to our beliefs in divine love and benevolence. Certainly, God is not careless about Godís creation! Traditionally, Christians have held onto the view that God is in control of the worldís end. The New Testament book of Revelation reveals the early Christian conviction that God is in control of history, regardless of appearances. For centuries, Christians had no reason to doubt Godís sole significance in determining the eschaton; cultural influences of the times did not contradict what people believed due to their religious convictions. With the advent of the Age of Enlightenment, however, Christians found themselves challenged by a new understanding of science and its affects on their traditional beliefs.
New discoveries in scientific arenas led some Christians to hold more tightly to their traditional views of God, while others explored the wealth of new information that oftentimes challenged these views. Knowledge of the ways of the world provided explanations for some questions but also raised larger questions of Godís relationship to the world. Clearly, since the time of the Enlightenment there has been no ceasing to the discovery of new scientific theories and methods. Additionally, humanityís interest in religiously-based understandings of this world have also increased. Dialogues regarding scientific and religious understandings of the end of the world have been most controversial. More often that not, the question that ends these conversations is the same question that began this study: "What is Godís purpose for the world if the world is going to end anyway?"
Two contemporary theologians who have grappled with the eschatological tension that developed after Christianity experienced the Enlightenment are JŁrgen Moltmann and Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki. Each of these theologians claims strong ties to the Christian tradition but also embraces the implications of modern discoveries. Suchocki and Moltmann represent two differing approaches to the fusion of cosmic and religious eschatology; their ideas are explored here.
JŁrgen Moltmann is best known for restoring eschatology to a prominent place within Christian theology. In the wake of nineteenth century optimism, the Christian hope of a "new heavens and a new earth" had been declared obsolete, as humanity was already progressing toward utopia, without further need of help from God. However, two world wars challenged modernityís view of the progression of history toward its "fulfillment." No longer did we perceive that humanity would infinitely advance toward perfection. Humankind now had to account for evil and the possibility of global destruction at its own hands.
It was Moltmannís experience as a prisoner of war during World War II that led him to speak so decisively about the Christian hope. Much like Victor Frankl in Manís Search for Meaning, Moltmann realized that hope for the future was what separated the people who survived those dark years from the ones who did not. A new convert to Christianity, Moltmann found "an inward drive, a longing which provided the impetus to hope." During that time, Moltmann also found the God who could break through the power of history to "give hope for the oppressed and suffering."
Although Moltmannís theology is infused with eschatological overtones, his primary thoughts on eschatology are included in Theology of Hope (1964) and The Coming of God (1995). In essence, Moltmannís eschatology recovers Christís resurrection as the paradigm for understanding both our individual and collective futures. This recovery places hope as beginning with the reality of Christís death and resurrection. Christís resurrection signaled the "future of the new creation of all things" as having "already begun in the midst of this dying and transitory world." In other words, in Christ we have a model for Godís intentions. In Christ, the eschaton has already begun.
Moltmann also places hope squarely in Godís ability Ė and intention - to transform the entire created order and share in eternal life with them. Godís benevolence toward Godís creation is all-encompassing, willing that nothing should be left out. For this reason, Richard Bauckham characterizes Moltmannís eschatology as being both integrative and redemptive. Because of Jesus Christ, "resurrection has become the universal Ďlawí for creation." According to Moltmann, "when God, the creator of all things, arrives at their redemption, all the things that have been separated and isolated, forsaken and lost, will be sought, gathered up, and rescued from the abyss of nothingness."
Traditional Christian apocalyptic asserts that in the creation of the new heavens and new earth, the old will be annihilated. Moltmann rejects this view. Instead, Moltmann insists that just as the earth and heavens were originally created ex nihilo, the new heavens and the new earth will be created ex vetere, or out of the old. "As a Creator who is faithful to his creation," God transforms everything. Nothing is wasted, and nothing is lost. This includes time, history, and all who have died.
A new beginning presupposes an end. This is why Moltmann is helpful in interpreting the ultimate significance of cosmic events in Godís overall purpose for the world. If an end is inevitable, how can we make sense of Godís purposes for this world? Moltmann does not guarantee us that the world will not end; instead, he assures us that whatever may become of this world, God will not leave us alone. Moltmann reassures us that there is a greater future for our world than either human optimism or cosmic eschatology will allow.
Astrophysicist William R. Stoeger, S.J., acknowledges the challenge that science and technology present to Christianity. For Stoeger, science is a search for truth, and to deny scientific discoveries is not an option. However, Stoeger allows for another alternative:
We do not know that the world will not end catastrophically. In fact, we will more likely be victims of natural disaster, nuclear war, ecological crisis, or famine than any of the cosmic catastrophes that have been discussed in this paper. However, that is not the final word, according to Moltmann. Neither death nor destruction is ultimate; only God is ultimate. The faithfulness of our Creator means that annihilation is not really a possibility. As Moltmann says, "Eschatology is not about the worldís happy endÖNo one can assure us that the worst will not happen. We can only trust that even the end of the world hides a new beginning if we trust the God who calls into being the things that are not, and out of death creates new life."
A Theological Analysis Using the Work of Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki
It is not uncommon to hear Christians saying, "Since I have no control over the end of the world, then why should I even care about it?" From non-believers we hear, "Whatís God going to do about an event that God has no control over? Itís all about science anyway." It should be noted here that for non-believers, there is no reason even to consider God as a part of the eschaton since the end of the world is, in their view, out of Godís control. For believers, however, the importance of Godís reign must be questioned when the end of the world is considered. Thus, the question of the end of the world is complex, as it affects both believers and non-believers.
Essentially, there are three scenarios that describe the end of the world. In one case, the end of the world will come by way of a cosmic event, and human existence as we know it will cease forever. In the second case, the end of the world will come, and humanity will find itself in an entirely different world Ė there will be a world beyond this world. The third case is the view of a few process theologians who claim that the end of the world will never come and that the world is in a continual state of flux and transition, never reaching an end but always evolving. In the following analysis, a process theology approach to eschatology is explored using the work of Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki.
In the introduction to her work, The End of Evil, Suchocki writes, "When finitude is the primary problem, then existence is its own reason for evil, and all resolutions to evil in history are but partial triumphs against the greater tragedy of timeÖ When finite existence is viewed as created existence, then the problems for theology move into theodicy, or the justification of God in the face of unnecessary evil in creation" (2). Here, Suchocki presents a new approach to dealing with the reality of evil in the world and the eschaton in a theological way. She also writes:
In this view, Suchocki embraces an idea about the eschaton that allows for people to believe wholeheartedly in the power and reign of God while not letting go of the natural human need to have a purpose in this world. In another of Suchockiís works, God Christ Church, she suggests, "How we develop our notions of eschatology must now depend greatly upon how we answer [the] question ĎWhat did Jesus mean by the reign of God?í" (184). Clearly, Suchocki takes an innovative approach to the problem of evil, the reign of God, and their relationship to eschatology.
It could be that the solution to the problem of "Why is Godís purpose important if the world is going to end anyway?" requires a reframing of theological ideas similar to Suchockiís. What if Godís purpose for humanity is not even comprehensible to humanity? What if Godís plan for us is beyond what we can conceive? What if this world is never ending? If God has a plan that is Ďbiggerí than humanity, there is no need for people to worry about the end of the world. Even if the world did end tomorrow, for instance, God would have a larger plan for a continuing world that might incorporate more than what humans are aware of in this earthly world. Suchocki presents a fresh way to understand the end of the world and its relationship to Godís purpose for humanity while tracing the historical roots of her proposal.
In Suchockiís view, the world is in a process of becoming. It is never finished, and it never will be finished. God does not have an end in mind, and God does not dictate the actions of humans in this world. Instead, God lures people to a set of possibilities, while humans maintain their free will. In this scenario, people should not fear the end of the world, for the world will never come to a conclusion! Instead, people should strive to make Godís divine plan a reality for themselves; people should view their time in this world as their contribution to Godís plan which includes more than what we see, hear, and do as human beings on this earth.
The reality of time is of great significance in this scenario. For instance, the average human experiences approximately seventy years of life on earth. If God is responsible for the end for the eschaton and it comes within an individualís precious seventy years, then of course that person will feel as if he/she is directly involved with the event Ė that his/her life has meaning in light of the event. However, if the average person has no reason to think that the end of the world will occur within his/her lifetime, then it is difficult to impress upon him/her the importance of Godís role in his/her life. In both situations, people can be easily overwhelmed by the time frame attached to the eschaton. If the end of the world is to come in the near future, then humanityís purpose is questioned just as if the end times are unknown. Moreover, if existence is merely a Ďblip on the screení as some contend, then it is no wonder that thoughts about the eschaton are overwhelming. If our individual lives have little influence on the rest of existence, then why are we so consumed by thoughts of our possible non-existence?
Suchockiís idea of there being no end to the world might prove to be helpful. Instead of fearing the final days of life as humans know it or constantly questioning oneís purpose in a life that seems to have an end far off in the future, Suchockiís thesis that there is no end but rather a continued process of becoming is comforting. In this understanding of the eschaton, one can be confident that although he/she might be unaware of Godís plan for the world, the individualís life is a necessary portion of the entire process. The individual is but a dot on a line that extends forever in both directions. Or maybe the individualís life is a single point on the surface of a sphere that is constantly enlarging; as the sphere increases its surface area, the individualís contribution to its overall composition is no less significant than when the sphere was small enough to fit into oneís hand. In each of these illustrations, it is neither the shape nor the makeup of the image that is important but the realization that in a world without an end, all things are important.
Of course, some might respond that the opposite could be true; in a world with no end, nothing is important. This is a logical refutation of Suchockiís claim, but it does not work in terms of process eschatology. If it is accepted that God exists and that God knows all possibilities while luring humanity to the best of all possibilities, then it follows that there is a reason for Godís luring of humanity in a particular direction. On a more basic level, if nothing were important, then as humans we would not feel the dynamic changes to the earth when natural disasters strike, for such destruction would not be important. If nothing were important, then humans would feel no sense of obligation to each other or to the surrounding world. Suchocki argues that all things are important and that only God truly understands why this is the case. As humans, we are limited in our understanding of each other, the world, and ourselves. The only way to better understand is to trust in Godís overall plan for the world Ė not the world as we know it Ė simply the world.
If everything in life is important, why then, are movies that promote a meaningless end to the world (like Armageddon) so popular? The answer is simple. Even in light of Suchockiís theology of eschatology, there is room for imagination, for questioning, and for fear. These three things are at the root of many peopleís musings about the eschaton. It is not that Suchocki wants for people to stop thinking about a possible end to the world Ė denying people of their desire to explore the boundless ways for this world to come to an end would be futile. Instead, Suchocki would suggest that movies like Armageddon be approached as yet another portion of Godís vision for us. Movies can foster hope within people, yet they can also breed frustration. In Armageddon, both options are possible; some come away thinking that the end of the world is no more than an unavoidable cosmic event, while others are lured back to God to find their answers. Both scenarios can fit into Suchockiís theology, where the point is not to know the end or even attempt to be certain of the end but to live in the present, trusting that the ultimate order of life is much larger than one thinks initially.
Many individuals, no matter what their background, cannot help from thinking of eschatology in cosmic terms. Human beings often have less trouble considering the end of their own lives than conceiving of the end of the world. In our highly individualized societies, this comes as no surprise. Many of us have experienced the loss of a family member or friend, but (obviously) none of us has a clear understanding of what it will be like to lose this world. There is a personal connection to questions of eschatology that cannot be avoided. Suchocki, in her process model, does not suggest that people ignore these tendencies to cosmic eschatology but instead urges people to broaden their thoughts Ė to accept that ambiguity that accompanies eschatological thoughts. In other words, Suchocki would agree that thinking about the world without ourselves in it is easier than thinking of our world not existing. However, Suchocki would then challenge us to think beyond the limitations of this world. She would concentrate on seeing this world as only a small portion of what actually is a part of Godís realm. In other words, simply because we do not know of something on earth does not mean that it does not exist.
For many people, this is less than comforting. The question arises, "Why canít we know of all that is out there? If science tells us so much, then why canít we explain God and the end of the world?" Suchockiís response might be, "Why would one want to explain such things?" It is through the unknowing of this world that God works in such amazing ways. If people were to know precisely when and how the world would end, then their purpose might be questioned. This knowing of when the world the world will end, of course, is not the case; we do not know when the world will end, and even if we gain an idea of when the world will end, the timing is so beyond our comprehension that it becomes difficult to respond to.
Finally, if Suchockiís understanding of eschatology is anywhere near the mark, one must think of it in light of church traditions. Consider the doxology, for one. The traditional words are as follows:
If Suchockiís notion of a world without end is correct, new light is shed on the meaning of the doxology. "World without end" then truly means a world without an end. The ramifications of this are astounding. The doxology becomes a statement of eternity, a statement that does not suggest human involvement in the end of the world but does not deny it either. The doxology emphasizes the role of the Triune God and the world without end that is the cosmic Ďprojectí of such a divine presence. Clearly, if one chooses to accept Suchockiís notion of a world without an end, it is crucial for that person to realize the affects of such a thought on traditional Christianity.
In this study, we have explored two divergent Christian views of the eschaton. JŁrgen Moltmann and Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki offer two plausible understandings of eschatology and Godís telos. The film Armageddon served as the catalyst for this theological analysis, as popular culture often does. Although Moltmann and Suchocki do not agree, their views of eschatology represent a cross-section of Christian reflection on the subject. It is probable that the work of these two theologians will result in extensive conversations surrounding eschatology. It is also probable that films like Armageddon will continue to fascinate and engage audiences worldwide. It is our hope that this theological analysis, which combined popular culture and two leading theologies, will stimulate further discussion surrounding eschatology.
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