Editor’s note: Mark Shea responds to Christopher Hitchens’s question, “Why do you look forward to a second visit from the Redeemer, and why is this necessary?”
Ask any fan of Douglas Adams, “What’s the meaning of the universe?” and you’ll be told, “42.” Adams, author of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, was an atheist. Indeed, Adams cheerily explains in a last collection of his work called The Salmon of Doubt how he not only lost his faith (such as it was) when he was 18 but how, much later, Richard Dawkins’s books The Blind Watchmaker and The Selfish Gene Explained It All for Him. And the explanation is this: “The universe we observe,” Dawkins writes, “has precisely the properties we should expect if there is at bottom no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pointless indifference.”
And so Adams is delighted to say that the universe is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. The universe appears to fit us, Adams says, just as the hole in the road appears to “fit” the puddle, because we are evolved to fit the universe as water fits the hole, not because we and the universe share a common Creator. Meaning is an illusion. Design is an illusion. God, above all, is an illusion.
But then Adams has some explaining to do, and he does it about as well as Dawkins, which is to say, not very well at all. For Adams taketh meaning away, but then Adams giveth meaning back—as does his hero, Dawkins. He is outraged, for instance, at the rapacity of the human race with respect to the environment. He once climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro in a rhino suit to raise funds and consciousness about the need to preserve the wild rhinoceros. He was an ardent supporter of various other causes he believed to be not merely “preferable,” like his taste for beer, but, well, what’s the word we’re looking for? Right. True. Just. All words that don’t fit well into a meaningless cosmos.
And this poses a problem for the delightfully funny but ultimately simpleminded atheism that Adams proposes. For the fact is that nothing as easy and simple as Adams’s explanation for the origin of theism is found in the history of religion. For Adams, the idea of God arises in the primitive mind of early man because, being accidentally evolved to be a maker himself, early man thought the fit between us and the rest of the world was so perfect that only a Maker could account for it. And so, according to Adams, the myth of a Creator God arose. But the reality is that early man was just as likely to see the world as coexistent with, not the creation of, a god (indeed, the Jews are completely alone in their belief in creation ex nihilo). Similarly, countless ancient creation myths view the world as the creation of an evil god, not a good one. Ancients were just as likely to dwell on the fact that we don’t fit here one little bit. Douglas Adams is blissfully unaware that the oldest book in the Bible is not Genesis but Job.
But most significantly, Adams does not notice that the anguish and outrage that prompt Job’s complaints just as often prompt the impassioned social commentary of an H.G. Wells, the bitter excoriations of Bill Clinton by Christopher Hitchens, the invective of a Karl Marx—and the jokes of a Douglas Adams. Oh, to be sure, they’ll all protest that they’re not appealing to the supernatural but merely making a plea for “rationality” or “what works best for the proper functioning of the ecosystem” or “human values” or “scientific economics,” but as C.S. Lewis observes in his wonderful and observant little book Miracles, this is all fuddlement, and usually unconscious fuddlement:
It works—or seems to work—like this. They say to themselves, “Ah, yes. Morality”—or “bourgeois morality” or “conventional morality” or “traditional morality”—”Morality is an illusion. But we have found out what modes of behavior will in fact preserve the human race. That is the behavior we are pressing you to adopt. Pray don’t mistake us for moralists. We are under an entirely new management”…just as if this would help. But it helps only if we grant, firstly, that life is better than death and, secondly, that we ought to care for the lives of our descendants as much as, or more than, for our own. And both these are moral judgments which have, like all others, been explained away by naturalism. Of course, having been conditioned by nature in a certain way, we do feel thus about life and about posterity. But the naturalists have cured us of mistaking these feelings for insights into what we once called “real value.” Now that I know that my impulse to serve posterity is just the same kind of thing as my fondness for cheese—now that its transcendental pretensions have been exposed for a sham—do you think I shall pay much attention to it? When it happens to be strong (and it has grown considerably weaker since you explained to me its real nature) I suppose I shall obey it. When it is weak, I shall put my money into cheese. There can be no reason for trying to whip up and encourage the one impulse rather than the other. Not now I know what they both are. The naturalists must not destroy all my reverence for conscience on Monday and expect to find me still venerating it on Tuesday.
In short, the passionate moralizing of atheists bears unconscious witness to the God who demands righteousness and who will be vindicated on That Day. It does not at all bear witness to “no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pointless indifference.”
So what does this have to do with a topic as juicy and mystical as the Second Coming of Jesus Christ? Once we grant that the universe does indeed have a point (as theists do willingly and atheists do accidentally), we still have to deal with the fact that it doesn’t look as though we’ve come to that point yet, which is why atheists are miffed. In short, the resurrection of Jesus Christ, great as it is, isn’t the end of the story. Something more is necessary.
I was, myself, remarkably slow to appreciate this fact. As a pagan, I had little trouble believing in Something Behind the Universe. I could buy the idea that this Something might from time to time interfere in our world. As an exercise of the imagination, it wasn’t so hard to buy the idea of miracles or the Incarnation.
But my imagination never ran along eschatological lines. Oh sure, I could envision a secular apocalypse in which people got incinerated or infested with plague or drowned by melting polar caps or devolved back into Morlocks or withered away on a worn-out earth billions of years hence. But it was all quite secular not-with-a-bang-but-a-whimper stuff.
Why? Well, the sheer age of the earth has always exerted enormous imaginative weight on me. I was always impressed by the unthinkable aeons of time in which whole species evolved, prospered, and went extinct. Just as some people are overawed by the size of the universe and feel tiny, so I am easily overawed by the age of the universe and feel as fleeting as a subatomic particle in the grand scheme of things. My imagination has always had an extremely difficult time taking seriously that Something might suddenly and supernaturally intervene to bring this extremely durable universe to a close instead of letting it slowly perish in the cold and dark of universal heat death. And I found it particularly hard to imagine that this Something was doing all this with me and my fellow human mayflies especially in mind. I was much more content with the idea of nature and supernature running forever on parallel tracks and never finally converging. Nature could be “visited” in small and unobtrusive ways by supernature from time to time. But it could not finally and irrevocably be altered on a cosmic scale in some final apocalypse. The two lines must never converge, I thought.
Now, when I became a believer, I happened to fall in with Protestants who were, on this score, in total agreement with me. They taught that the only Second Coming was when the Holy Spirit comes to dwell in you once you have asked Jesus into your life as your personal Lord and Savior. This, they said, was when Jesus “comes again” and any expectation of some cosmic apocalypse or Last Day was just “Christian science fiction.”
It’s only fair to note that there is, in fact, a great deal of bad Christian “science fiction” on this theme (see, for instance, the Left Behind series). The Protestant minister who originated this particular “Pentecost as Second Coming” doctrine was reacting to the kooky Pentecostalism of his youth, which taught that a physical “New Jerusalem” was supposed to fall out of the northern sky and land—kaboom!—on top of the Old Jerusalem. From this flat-footed literalism, the pastor fled—right into an equally flat-footed spiritualism. When you die, I was taught, you “get rid of” the body and return back to pure spirituality, there to be one with God in the nonphysical ether of heaven. Creation is sort of a launchpad that rockets us into disembodied bliss. Where atheists were telling me nature was all that mattered, my pastor told me supernature was all that mattered.
This made sense to me—till I began to see that God seemed to think creation was a good thing, not a bad one. Then I noticed that God, in becoming human in Christ, didn’t regard the Incarnation as an unfortunate and messy thing, like slipping on muddy, wet clothes. Rather, He seemed to think it a good thing: so good that when He was raised from the dead, He didn’t strip off the human bio-envelope and return back to pure gaseous spirituality. He took His humanity with Him to heaven and glorified it. And…
And what? It was this question that began to bug me. Yes, I acknowledged, Christ does come at Pentecost in the power of the Holy Spirit. Yes, He comes when three or more are gathered in His name. But still something nagged at me. It was basically this: Without a Second Coming, either this world is as good as it gets (as naturalists wanted me to think), or this world is simply a disposable container for pure spirit (which is what my old pastor was saying). Either way, this suffering world is junk, of no interest to God, and without any hope whatsoever.
Now atheists can pretend they believe this world is as good as it gets, but it’s a pretense, as the passionate scorn of Hitchens and the passionately absurdist laughter of Adams have convinced me. By their screams of anger at sin, they bear witness as clearly as any Old Testament prophet to the demand for a redeemed and healed world even if they invoke God’s justice without invoking His name. Theists cannot pretend this way. Theists—or at any rate, Christian theists—have to answer yes to the question, “Shall not the Lord of all the earth do right?” Moreover, they have to believe not that creation is a disposable hatchery for disembodied spirits but that “the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God” (Romans 8:21).
And yet, as everybody knows, the world in its present configuration stinks. Indeed, that the world stinks is the only positive argument against the existence of God in the history of religion. Even the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Christ have not stopped this from being so. Israeli kids get blown up on the way to school. Priests rape little boys. War, famine, and disease haven’t gone away. So what do we make of it? The atheist, of course, thinks he knows. The meaning is “42.” But then he blows his case by appealing to values that are meaningless outside of the theistic universe he denies. The Christian analysis is at once more subtle and more sensible.
Christ didn’t come to end the world immediately but to inaugurate the Last Days, the days in which we are offered the choice to share in His life—or not. Sharing in Christ’s life means sharing in His cross. Faith grants no exemption from suffering. Suffering isn’t just meaningless garbage flung at us by an idiotic universe. But neither is it something God wills or desires, except insofar as He desires freedom for His creatures. Suffering is the result of the Fall, the disruption of creation caused by sin. Just how ancient and how deep that damage goes we do not know. Certainly it affects not merely human beings but the whole of creation. The central point is that God Himself has chosen to embrace suffering—to transfigure it by joining His divine life to a bleeding world. It has a point. Life, the universe, and everything are, in fact, going somewhere: toward consummation in God through our participation in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. So it makes sense, at the profoundest level, for Hitchens to rage at Bill Clinton’s lies and for Adams to satirize human folly. Our cry for justice is meaningful. It has a point because the world has a point.
But if the universe has a point, then it’s not just going to fade out. The Resurrection isn’t the end of the story. The Last Days have been inaugurated, not to go on forever but to come to a climax. The glorified humanity of Christ promises glory to those who follow Him. And our glorified humanity—which includes our bodies as well as our souls—involves what any bodily existence must involve: a glorified world for that bodily existence to dwell in. In short, it means a “new heaven and a new earth.”
And that means a Second Coming, a consummation of all things, and the final triumph of the justice and mercy the atheists can’t help longing for underneath the Douglas Adams jokes and the Christopher Hitchens outrage. The ancient Christian faith (as I discovered when I looked outside the confines of my little church and discovered the Catholic Church) has always insisted on this: “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.” And so, despite my bad early instruction, my lack of native sympathy with the teaching, and the limits of my imagination, I am now convinced that the Second Coming is, in fact, reasonable. (That it is the teaching of Christ and the apostles is beyond dispute.) Without it, the universe of both the theist and the atheist is simply incomplete. With it, the hope that the theist willingly holds to and the atheist grudgingly and involuntarily demonstrates is fulfilled in that day when “there shall no more be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb shall be in it, and his servants shall worship Him; they shall see His face, and His name shall be on their foreheads. And night shall be no more; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they shall reign for ever and ever” (Revelation 21:3-5).