The Hope Function and the Second Coming

Ruma Falk writes:

Imagine searching for a paragraph that you read some time ago. You have a visual memory of that paragraph on a right-hand page of a book, toward the top. Though you think you remember the particular book, you are not absolutely certain. Systematically, you begin leafing through the book’s 10 chapters. The paragraph does not turn up in the first chapter, or in the second, third… As you proceed without success through the chapters, does your hope of finding the paragraph in the next chapter increase or decrease? And what of your hope of finding it in the book at all? Imagining yourself in this familiar situation, you may feel that before you reached the end of the book, despair would set it (“this must be the wrong book”). On the other hand, the longer you search the more reluctant you may be to quit, not only because of the efforts invested up to now, but because of a persistent intuition that the chances of finding the paragraph in the next chapter increase after each successive disappointment.

Describing a similar example from fiction, Falk says,

In Arthur Conan Doyle’s story, The Six Napoleons, the great detective Sherlock Holmes deduces that one of six plaster busts of Napoleon conceals a priceless pearl. As the story unfolds, the busts are smashed one by one, until Sherlock finds and dramatically smashes the last one, recovering the pearl. As usual, the detective reveals his reasoning, noting that the numerical chances of finding the pearl in the next bust increased as their number dwindled, until with the last bust it reached certainty. Jones (1966) points out that the scientific viewpoint would doubt Sherlock’s initial certainty, and would start with, say, only a 50% chance that Sherlock’s theory is right: “As successive busts are smashed and no pearl is found, the rising chance of finding it in the next is balanced by the evidence of this growing succession of failures that Sherlock is wrong, and that there isn’t any pearl at all.”

We could think of any number of similar examples from real life. The chance that a single person will get married sometime during the next year will increase as she grows older, at the same time that the total chance that she will get married at all is going down. Of course, at some point there will be a turning point where even the chance of getting married in the next year begins to decrease.

A similar process happens with the idea of the Second Coming. Speaking of the end of the world, James Chastek says,

The end of the world must either be an interruption in human life or an event that occurs after the race has passed away. There are suggestions of the first in Scripture (Mt. 24:40) and in the creed (“judge the living and the dead”), but these ultimately turn out to be ambiguous (“living and dead” seem better understood as speaking of the saved and damned, for example, which is what judgment is about.)

The second interpretation is the better choice. The two judgments have distinct objects and so are not muddled together, and so just as God gives a private judgment to those who have run the course of their life and meet their end either by nature or man, the general judgment happens in the same way. Death is the price to be paid by human life in all its forms, not just by individuals but by the merely human collectives that they form.

The judgment is therefore not coming to save us. It won’t interrupt social evils or break in upon them before they run their course, or leap in front of nature before it finds the keys to making human life just the food source for some other sort of life (like bacteria). We’re in this to its bitter end.

While Chastek does give an argument for his position in principle, one concrete thing that makes his position more likely is the fact that nothing in particular has happened so far. As the scoffers said, “Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since our ancestors died, all things continue as they were from the beginning of creation!”

The supplement to St. Thomas’s Summa remarks, “these signs that are mentioned in the gospels, such as wars, fears, and so forth, have been from the beginning of the human race.” This also in a certain way favors Chastek’s account: these things are indeed signs of the end of the world, in the sense that they are signs that the world is a historical reality, and historical realities begin and end.


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