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the Complete Review
the complete review - science fiction / religion

The God of Hope
and the End of the World

John Polkinghorne

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To purchase The God of Hope and the End of the World

Title: The God of Hope and the End of the World
Author: John Polkinghorne
Genre: Religion
Written: 2002
Length: 156 pages
Availability: The God of Hope and the End of the World - US
The God of Hope and the End of the World - UK
The God of Hope and the End of the World - Canada

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Our Assessment:

-- : misguided and deeply disturbing (see also this note)

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Christian Science Monitor A 28/3/2002 Thomas D'Evelyn
The LA Times . 4/5/2002 Jonathan Kirsch
The New Republic F 5/8/2002 Simon Blackburn
The NY Rev. of Books . 28/3/2002 Freeman Dyson

  From the Reviews:
  • "Polkinghorne is a model public intellectual; he refuses to distort one body of knowledge to advance his own position on another. (...) And yet the yield of the investigation is substantial. (...) His range does not lead him to sacrifice reason or particularity. (...) This mighty little book could well make eschatology sexy." - Thomas D'Evelyn, Christian Science Monitor

  • "Polkinghorne's argument ultimately relies on a leap of faith that many of his readers may not be prepared to make. (...) Polkinghorne betrays a measure of chutzpah that is refreshing if somewhat at odds with his solemn declaration of faith: He demands of God a world and a world to come that make sense." - Jonathan Kirsch, The Los Angeles Times

  • "I do not know whether Polkinghorne's position is orthodox; from the outside it strikes me as somewhat blasphemous. (...) And yet I did end Polkinghorne's books, with their supreme contempt for philosophical reasoning and historical thinking, in despair about humanity's desperate self-deceptions and vanities and illusions." - Simon Blackburn, The New Republic

  • "What are we who are not Christians, or we Christians who are not theologians, to make of all this ? We are in the position of anthropologists observing the rituals and liturgy of an alien culture. (...) I find Polkinghorne's theology altogether too narrow for my taste. I have no use for a theology that claims to know the answers to deep questions but bases its arguments on the beliefs of a single tribe." - Freeman Dyson, The New York Review of Books

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       John Polkinghorne famously worked as a theoretical physicist for decades, before switching vocations and becoming a clergyman. He is among the best known figures straddling the scientific-theological divide, and one of the few who can claim to have a profound working (and theoretical) knowledge of both. He has written widely, trying especially to bridge the scientific-theological divide. His contributions to the field have been widely recognized -- most recently when he was awarded the cash-rich Templeton Prize (which rewards thinkers "For Progress Toward Research or Discoveries about Spiritual Realities"). His books have been published by some of the most prestigious university presses around, including those of Princeton, Oxford, Cambridge, and Yale. (This volume is published by Yale University Press in the United States, and the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge in Great Britain.)
       The God of Hope and the End of the World deals specifically with eschatology: the question of what happens after the end of the world and of humanity (i.e. the time after the hoped-for "Last Judgement"). Eschatology is a specifically religious concern, but science also seems to be a way to go at it -- or at least is something that must also be considered. The physical collapse of the universe or a fading Wärmetod surely also tell us something about the future and eschatology must address these theories and their consequences. And, for a while at least, Polkinghorne pretends to do that in this book.
       Polkinghorne is a scientist, and he accepts many scientific truths. He has no problem considering the Big Bang or the first three minutes of the universe or the fact that some five billion years from now the earth's sun will burn itself out, "burning any life surviving on Earth into a frazzle in the process." So the book looks vaguely promising, offering scientific approaches (or at least acknowledging scientific truths) in considering an interesting problem.
       But the promise is let down. The God of Hope and the End of the World isn't science; it is science fiction -- and programmatic science fiction at that. Scientific truth plays only the most peripheral role; dominant instead is crude and airy theology. And note: only Christian theology is worthy of much consideration here. This isn't a book driven by reason, but rather by faith. That wouldn't be so bad if it weren't cloaked (however crudely and ineffectively) in science: Polkinghorne means to invoke added authority because he is a man of science -- and no doubt some people might be taken in by his impressive qualifications (a prestigious American university press was, after all, persuaded to publish this book). What should be the focus is the actual presentation of his case (and the case itself), and here the book fails miserably and completely.

       Polkinghorne explains from the first what he is driving at:

What I am seeking to do is present the motivations for a Christian eschatological hope and to show that this hope is one that is intelligible and defensible in the twenty-first century.
       He's also sure, from the outset, what (and what alone) will be the basis of that hope: "a rich theological account, Trinitarian and incarnational in its foundation". Christian Polkinghorne is firmly convinced of only one truth, the Christian truth. That is perhaps understandable: it's the story he preaches, after all. But such firm conviction proves completely blinding: he can't see practically any alternatives, and he won't consider them.
       Science itself is most easily dismissed, a simple example sufficing:
It is perhaps not surprising that the distinguished American theoretical physicist Steven Weinberg, writing within the limited horizon of an atheist physicalism and with science alone as his guide, could say that the more he understood the universe, the more it seemed to him pointless.
       One can almost here the cry: 'See the light (and the point), Steven ! Embrace the lord ! Move beyond your limited horizon !' But, of course, there is no more limited horizon than theism. Polkinghorne's objection, here and elsewhere, to any and all other ideas about what might become of man and the world and the universe is that they are so without hope. And he just can't stand for that. There's gotta be hope !
Hope enables the acceptance of existence and its possibilities and impossibilities as they actually are. In that acceptance, and not some will-o'-the-wisp illusion of unrealistic and unattainable immediate perfection, lies the possibility of entering already into joy in this life.
       I.e. instead of unrealistic immediate perfection, aim for that other will-o'-the-wisp illusion -- perfection in the hereafter -- and you can be happy now. Why the one is superior to the other is unclear. And why some sort of hope -- in the broadest sense Polkinghorne uses it -- can't be found in non-Christian beliefs (or even atheistic non-beliefs) isn't clear either. He doesn't even allow for the possibility, though we've never found a problem in leading an entirely will-o'-the-wispless and determinedly atheistic (and perfectly happy) life.
       (The recent rage to engage in acts of suicidal terrorism suggests a few of the dangers of a worldview that promises a better hereafter: if these maniacs pursued unrealistic immediate perfection, rather than striving (admittedly in a very perverse way) for a Polkinghornesque hope in the hereafter the world would certainly be a better place. But Polkinghorne perhaps doesn't care much about what the world is like, eagerly accepting that god allows for suffering and misery, since he's only interested in the the idyllic after-world. Most suicidal killers admittedly don't worship Polkinghorne's triune deity (but rather a variation on the theme), but the problem remains the same: there are very real dangers in having the specific "hope" Polkinghorne embraces, and they have been the cause of much human suffering. Of course, what counts for Polkinghorne is the everlasting life, not the brief tour of duty on earth .....)

       "This life is too hurtful and incomplete to be the whole story", Polkinghorne insists -- without offering any basis why that should be true. "We shall all die with unfinished business and incompleteness in our lives. There must be hope for more." Apparently logic was not a field of interest to Polkinghorne: these are not convincing arguments. These aren't arguments at all: they are ridiculous propositions, made by someone who is dissatisfied with certain aspect of life and chooses to find a solution by imagining some sort of after-life.
       The Christian deity Polkinghorne worships, the "triune God", conveniently offers all the answers. But note that it is only this triune deity that does the job. And it is only the special aspects of faith unique to Christianity that are -- to Polkinghorne -- fully convincing.
       The resurrection of Jesus is an integral part of Polkinghorne's "argument", since that, for Polkinghorne, paves the eschatological way. And it is about here that Polkinghorne completely jumps the tracks and the book -- despite its gentle and supposedly understanding tone -- is reduced to little more than sophistic sermon.
       Polkinghorne is certain that in his infinite wisdom his god will take care of everything:
God must surely care for all creatures in ways that accord with their natures. Therefore, we must expect that there will be a destiny for the whole universe beyond its death, just as there will be a post mortem destiny for humankind.
       Conviction is a marvelous thing, but hardly convincing. Consider the claims: "must surely", "in ways that accord with their natures", "therefore", "there will be", "there will be". Why ? Why ? Why ?
       Polkinghorne is so enthralled with the image (and reputation) of his god that he feels perfectly comfortable proposing any sort of claim about him. No doubt: Polkinghorne knows his theology and his bible, and one can cobble together a version of a deity with the attributes Polkinghorne assigns to that deity. But just because he believes it should be so is nothing resembling any sort of evidence that even his god "surely cares for all creatures" in a certain way, etc.

       Polkinghorne can't believe in a universe without meaning or purpose. He grabs onto the "deep order of the world, the fruitfulness of its history" as part of the proof that there is something more to it. And he is able to find the meaning and purpose he apparently needs in his bright vision of some sort of Christian post mortem existence. Along the way he completely pushes aside all other possible notions of meaning and purpose that people have found and felt comfortable (or uncomfortable with). For him the pointlessness Weinberg sees in the cosmos is bleak and horrible -- primarily, one assumes, because it is spiritually empty. Yet many godless folk seem to be happy enough dealing just with the world they know, without having to pin their hopes on an other-worldly one.
       There are also other spiritual folk with other ideas about the way the world ends. Some also offer reincarnational theories (Buddhism, for example), while others make do without rebirths of this or the Christian sort. But Polkinghorne offers no comparative analysis: he isn't looking for actual truths, or even willing to consider other hypotheses. He is simply preaching. Not a scientific way to go about things.

       Polkinghorne admits in his introduction that he doesn't aim "to 'prove' Christian eschatology". Proof, apparently, "is an inappropriately cut-and-dried category for the discussion of any kind of profound metaphysical issue" (though not the less profound metaphysical issues ?). He makes it terribly easy for himself, admitting from the beginning that 'proof' is too high a standard to aspire to. But by expressing himself this way he is still suggesting that he is doing something approaching proving it, that he is offering a serious, well-founded explanation, with evidence and substantiation. In fact, however, he does nothing of the sort. This might pass for theological debate -- on the level of the question of how many angels fit on the tip of a needle -- but it is not real debate.
       The rational elements and tone of the book are clearly meant to carry over to the irrational, apparently in the hope that the reader will be impressed by the scientific bases Polkinghorne appears to build his argument up from and ignore the fact that the actual foundation is much less secure. The only basis for all the essential parts of his argument is found only in the bible -- and specifically the Gospel.

       Unacknowledged by Polkinghorne are also the dangers associated with the world-view he is pitching. Eternal salvation sounds like a good deal -- and perhaps it is, over the long (i.e. eternal) run. But the real-life consequences can be devastating, as is too evident all around us at the beginning of the 21st century.
       "Without forgiveness there can be no redemption of the past", Polkinghorne claims. His triune god's forgiveness (coming to us "through the cross of Christ") apparently "frees us from the shackles with which we have enslaved ourselves". Hallelujah, eh ? Forgiveness is one of the most striking aspects of Christian dogma. Polkinghorne sees it as noble, marvelous, etc. The dangers that come with a religion that allows so easily for forgiveness -- that promises it, no matter what the transgression -- are ignored. In our transgressive age a more vengeful god might be of more use -- but Polkinghorne doesn't care about mundane matters such as what living men do to one another. All that matters is what happens in eternity, and for his vision of it a forgiving god is much more useful.
       Polkinghorne -- getting on in age, too -- is preoccupied with endings. There's probably not all that much left for him in this realm, so he is preparing himself for the next. At least he is an optimist.
The meaning of stories lies in their endings, an insight that points to the significance of the future. The prevalence of 'happy endings' is not mere sentimentality, but an insight of eschatological hopefulness that in the end all shall be well.
       But endings of stories are arbitrary -- and indeed often placed exactly at the point where they are 'happy', e.g. the prince and the princess get married and "live happily everafter". Reality, of course, is different: the story ends, but life goes on, and the prince and princess likely don't remain on that singular high. Tellingly, German fairy tales end much more realistically, substituting "happily everafter" with: "and if they haven't died then they're still alive today".

       So who is this book intended for ? Surely the faithful don't need convincing, while the unfaithful will fling the book to the floor in disgust and with contempt (as we did, repeatedly). Apparently, it is intended as a sort of feel-good affirmation for Christians, a book reassuring the flock that they are on the right team after all because it offers the best hopes for a meaningful after-life existence.
       We found The God of Hope and the End of the World to be a terribly upsetting book. It presents a single (admittedly popular) theory, with some scientific theory decoratively draped around it to make it look more serious. Perhaps it is acceptable as a book about Christian eschatology (and perhaps Polkinghorne meant it to be nothing more), but even as such it seems remarkably empty, unscientific, and incurious.

       Note: We did not give a grade to this book because it defies measurement in this manner. However, if we had, we probably would have given it the lowest grade ever assigned to any book under review. It is an abomination.
       Polkinghorne writes reasonably well, and pieces of his arguments -- restatements of scientific fact and of religious fancy -- are presented quite well. But the pieces do not fit together, and the ends to which he puts them are deeply disturbing.
       This is one of the most upsetting books we have ever encountered. A scientific reputation, and an assortment of facts, are used to buttress pure religious speculation. Science has nothing to do with Polkinghorne's conclusions. Facts of any sort are entirely irrelevant. There is nothing tangible to his claims.
       In a purely religious work these fanciful conjectures and pseudo-proofs (based on Biblical exegesis and the like) might be acceptable, but Polkinghorne has dressed them up to appear "scientific" when they aren't.
       No less disturbing is the fact that he is unwilling to consider any other sort of future: only the Christian theory of life everafter will do, only the Christian theory is worth considering. And equally disturbing, he does not consider the very real and harmful consequences of his ideas.

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The God of Hope and the End of the World: Reviews: John Polkinghorne: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       John Polkinghorne is a scientist and clergyman. He was President of Queens' College, Cambridge, and is a Fellow of the Royal Society. In 2002 he was awarded the Templeton Prize.

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