On the lack of eschatological regret

In a public conversation with Ian Coffey (at this conference), I hit upon a phrase, quite by accident, which I’ve been musing on since. A vital theme in Christian eschatology is an adequate account of ‘the lack of eschatological regret’. That is, it seems to me a necessary part of the experience of eternal life that there is nothing we–or indeed God–look[s] back on and thinks ‘I wish it had been different’.

One consequence of this, of some pastoral importance, is the suggestion that I will not regret God’s sovereign decisions concerning the final fate of my parents, wife, children, …

A universalist stance is acceptable on this canon, it seems to me (even if not on several others); the older Reformed orthodoxy which suggested (on the basis of a reading of Lk 16:19ff.) that the saints in heaven would see the sufferings of the damned, and rejoice at the display of the glory of God’s justice also makes sense in these terms (and is also unacceptable for various other reasons). Most of the recent ‘soft conservative’ eschatologies just fail, however. Whether perdition is annihilation, or some form of conscious torment that is quietly ignored in heaven, unless I simply forget the relationships that have made me who I am on earth (and I don’t find Volf convincing on this point), I will still regret God’s decisions. And an eternity of regret is indistinguishable from hell, as far as I can see.

5 Comments

  1. Chris Green
    May 23, 2008

    So… What DO you make of this “lack of regret”? I agree with you: Volf isn’t convincing. (Lewis’ narrative account in the Great Divorce bests Volfs by a mile.) But if you will have nothing of universalism on the one hand and particularism on the other, then what?

    I’m not being contentious. I’ve found myself deeply bothered by this question, and am still between answers myself. So I would like to hear your conclusions…

  2. Steve H
    May 23, 2008

    Hi Chris, thanks for coming by.

    I found my week at Spring Harvest interesting. I had to lecture, to a basically evangelical audience of non-theologians, on ‘Heaven and Hell’, and did two question-and-answer sessions on the same subject, one shared with Russell Rook & one with Steve Chalke. The Q&As, in particular, forced me to find ways of answering questions I would rather not have asked…

    I’ll perhaps say some more in another post, but the short answer to your question for me is something like this: there are things about God’s eschatological judgements that I know I can affirm; but I don’t think I can give a complete account of what those judgements will look like, and in particular I am convinced that speculating about the outcome of God’s reception of a particular human being (except, perhaps, oneself) is almost always foolish.

    My problem with both universalism and the particular form of particularism I was discussing in the post is that they both foreclose too quickly, thinking they know what God will do and why He will do it. Something like one or the other might actually turn out to be right in the end, but I don’t think we know enough to know that yet.

  3. Steve H
    May 23, 2008

    Thank you, by the way, to some of you who, knowing something of my life at the moment, have taken the trouble to express concern after reading this post. I am deeply grateful for your care. I actually wrote this several weeks ago, and then let it sit until I had convinced myself it was worth something (my normal practice with these blog posts); it thus reflects a set of thoughts I have been working through over the last few months. Recent days have convinced me that there is some pastoral comfort in thinking like this, however–a necessary, although of course not a sufficient, condition for a theological position to be judged adequate.

  4. Chris Green
    May 23, 2008

    Thanks for the quick reply. I can agree with your critique of both universalism’s and particularism’s tendency to foreclosure in certainty. And of course we don’t know enough yet to be anything like certain. Still, I think we have to give some account of the final judgment (heaven and hell) that fits with our claims about God. While I disagree with Volf, I appreciate his willingness to take seriously the problem.

    For my part, I would say we can’t know what God will do, but we can be confident why He will do whatever it is He does: Because it is good – for us and for all creation. Anything other than that wouldn’t fit with the God the Gospel proclaims and the Church confesses.

  5. Steve H
    May 23, 2008

    As to taking the problem seriously, absolutely. And I would be happy to affirm everything you say in your last paragraph.

    I think the way I want to move forward on this is not to ask the pressing questions, but to find the things that it is possible to affirm, and then to be willing to see how they illuminate, or deconstruct, the questions that we naturally want to ask.

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