Secular Eschatology

by

The Bible teaches that the universe had a beginning and that it will have an end. Christians believe this, though controversies about eschatology (the end times) have long roiled in Christian circles. It illustrates how profoundly the Bible has influenced Western civilization that secularists too have their eschatologies.

The natural view of time is cyclical. The Bible also recognizes — and organizes — the cyclical nature of time. But in addition to affirming the sense in which time can involve recurring cycles, the Bible also teaches that time is linear. It has a beginning and an end. Not only that, time has a direction. It goes somewhere.

This linear dimension of time seems to have been unique to the Hebrews in the ancient world. Even the Greeks, for all of their sophistication, knew only of a cyclical view of time. They had no concept of a creation from nothing for a specific purpose; rather, they posited a universe that was continually created and destroyed and created again.

In the West, the secularism that began with the Enlightenment tried to set aside Christian dogmas. But, ironically, the new thinking retained the dogma that time is linear. This manifested itself in God-free eschatologies that were unintentionally shaped by a biblical view of time.

The new worldviews rejected the coming paradisiacal kingdom of God, but they substituted a coming paradisiacal kingdom of man. The past was a time of darkness; in the modern world the light has dawned. In this age of progress, things are getting better and better until eventually we will build a utopian paradise.

Not that we will arrive there without a tribulation. The French Revolution taught that the Reign of Terror was necessary to destroy the old order, whereupon the people’s paradise would emerge. Darwinism, which put a scientific veneer to the myth of progress, taught that we have evolved and will continue to evolve to a higher state, but not without a struggle in which the unfit will die out and only the fittest will survive. Marxism was outright dispensational, dividing history into different socio-economic eras that will end, after a bloody revolution, in a “workers’ paradise.”

Other utopians thought that the earthly paradise could be achieved peacefully. One group of early Marxists founded the movement known as Social Democracy — which today is very influential politically in Europe and, more recently, in the United States — an ideology that believes Marx’s “workers’ paradise” can be achieved through the ballot box and gradual social change.

Just as Christians see not only the sweep of history but their own lives as linear, their conversion culminating after death in eternal life, some secularists follow suit, only without God. Nietzsche believed in the “doctrine of eternal recurrence,” that since time is infinite every random combination — including those that constituted his own mind and body — would happen again, so that some time after he dies, he will exist again. (Mathematicians have shown that things don’t work that way.) More recently, the “posthumanists” say that eventually the body will become obsolete and we will all be able to download our minds into the Internet, whereupon we will all be one and we will have no problems. (I hope some tech people will be left behind for when the system crashes.)

Nineteenth-Century materialists ascribed God-like properties, such as eternity, to the universe. But more recent scientists have discovered evidence that the universe did, in fact, have a beginning, labeled the “Big Bang.” Some theorists think that it will all end when gravity causes the expanding universe to contract again until it all crashes together in a “Big Crunch.” But that will create another super black hole that will explode in another Big Bang, creating a brand new universe — and, in effect, returning us to the cyclical notion of time. Most scientists today, though, seem to hold to linear time and the view that the universe will keep expanding forever, though at some point it will become too cold to sustain any kind of life. This view of the end times is called the “Big Freeze.”

Long before the Big Crunch or the Big Freeze, though, according to most cosmologists, human life on earth will have ceased. The sun will first expand into a red giant, incinerating the earth, and then the sun will just go out. Human beings will be extinct. Unless, of course, as some are saying, we evolve to such a level that we can leave earth behind and inhabit the rest of the universe. Or, to take the posthumanists a step further into a new religious realm, if we evolve into pure spirits.

But the world’s time not only has a beginning and an end, it has a middle: a turning point, a climax. That would be the incarnation of God into His creation and into time, a historical moment during which Christ died to atone for sin and rose again.

This is reflected in the practice — begun in the West but now used around the world — of numbering each year from the time of Christ. All of history is either “BC” (before Christ) or “AD” (anno Domini, the year of the Lord). Secularists have changed these notations to “BCE” (before the common era) and “CE” (common era). But it’s the same difference, Christ still being the reference point. The secularists cannot get away from the Bible, no matter how hard they try.

 

We Recommend

© Tabletalk magazine
Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that you do not alter the wording in any way, you do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction, and you do not make more than 500 physical copies. For web posting, a link to this document on our website is preferred (where applicable). If no such link exists, simply link to www.ligonier.org/tabletalk. Any exceptions to the above must be formally approved by Tabletalk.

Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: From Ligonier Ministries and R.C. Sproul. © Tabletalk magazine. Website: www.ligonier.org/tabletalk. Email: tabletalk@ligonier.org. Toll free: 1-800-435-4343.