Dec 1, 2023
“Isaiah’s vision of Eschaton is a vision of a world without conflict. Is such a world even conceivable? If it is, is it possible to conceive of Eschaton as anything other than such a world?”
On Christmas, we celebrate the birth of Jesus, a Nazarene who Christians believe is the Christ, the Messiah foretold in the Old Testament. Seven hundred years before the birth of Jesus, the prophet Isaiah predicted the rise of just such a King from the House of David (Is. 11: 1–9):
But a shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse, and from his roots a bud shall blossom. The spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, a spirit of wisdom and of understanding, a spirit of counsel and of strength, a spirit of knowledge and of fear of the Lord, and his delight shall be the fear of the Lord.
Not by appearance shall he judge, nor by hearsay shall he decide, but he shall judge the poor with justice and decide fairly for the land’s afflicted. He shall strike the ruthless with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall slay the wicked…
Then the wolf shall be the guest of the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat; the calf and the young goat shall browse together, with a little child to guide them. The cow and the bear shall graze; together, their young shall lie down; and the lion shall eat hay like the ox.
The baby shall play by the viper’s den, and the child shall lay his hand on the adder’s lair. They shall neither harm nor destroy, on all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be filled with knowledge of the Lord, as water covers the sea.
Wow! Some King! What can we say about this king?
The spirit of the Lord will rest upon him, bringing wisdom, understanding, counsel, strength, and knowledge, culminating in ‘fear of the Lord’.
He will be a Judge, a righter of wrongs. Judges ruled Israel for c. 250 years, from the death of Joshua until the coronation of Saul. Before Saul, “there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in their own eyes” (Judges 21:25). As judge, Isaiah’s King will proactively defend the rights of the poor, advance the interests of the weak, and slay the wicked (literally…or metaphorically).
His Reign is nothing less than the Eschaton itself…the Kingdom of Heaven: “The wolf shall be the guest of the lamb” and “the earth shall be filled with knowledge of the Lord”.
So are we talking about one man here…or three? In just nine verses, Isaiah seems to have given us three royal prototypes, each entirely incompatible with the other two. Plus, if this is one ‘man’, he seems more ‘anti-king’ than ‘king’. Where are the references to historical power, political cunning, legislative acumen, soaring rhetoric, and popular adulation?
Instead, we are introduced to a holy man, perhaps a scholar, almost certainly a recluse, who also turns out to be a political activist, a revolutionary, perhaps even a vigilante, whose reign brings about the resolution of all conflict and the advent of universal peace.
For real? Is there any way we can reconcile these ‘three kings’ with one another? A tall order, no doubt! Let’s work backwards from the very last line of our excerpt: “The earth shall be filled with knowledge of the Lord as water covers the sea.”
First, does water cover the sea? Would it not be more accurate to say that water is the sea? But if water is the sea, what does that mean for the other side of the simile: “The earth is filled with knowledge of the Lord”? If Earth is filled with knowledge of the Lord as water covers the sea, then we must conclude that ‘the earth’ is knowledge of the Lord. But we know that isn’t true, don’t we?
Not so fast! Eschaton is the world, whole and entire, as it ultimately will be (in history) and as it is now (in eternity). Isaiah’s vision of Eschaton is a vision of a world without conflict. Is such a world even conceivable? If it is, is it possible to conceive of Eschaton as anything other than such a world?
Conflict is inherently destabilizing; every action provokes a like and opposite reaction. In the historical world, conflict begets conflict. Change, born out of conflict, is the stuff of the spatiotemporal world (Heraclitus). But that sort of change seems incompatible with Isaiah’s Eschaton: “They shall not harm or destroy on all my holy mountain”.
Eschatologically, the destructive antagonisms and conflicts of the historical world function as enriching contrasts. But how can that be so?
All entities share a common origin, a common aim, and a common destiny. God is Good, the unconditioned valuation of all things, just what Nietzsche dreaded most:
No one gives a human being his qualities: not God, not society, not his parents or ancestors, not he himself…One belongs to the whole, one is in the whole – there exists nothing which could judge, measure, compare, condemn our being, for that would be to judge, measure, compare, condemn the whole…But nothing exists apart from the whole! (Twilight of the Idols)
Every entity initially comes to be by virtue of its appetite for the Good that is God. This is the definition of ‘appetite’. What else could an entity possibly have appetite for except the Good? We have appetite for pasta at Rao’s, not so much for a box of spaghetti, cooked at home on my stove and served plain (ok, with a pat of butter).
However misguided an entity’s development may turn out to be, it originates with the purest of intentions. The urge to be is the urge to be good. There is no such thing as a ‘bad baby’…just a baby trying for the good as it understands ‘good’. In this sense, every actual entity has a common origin and a common aim.
Every entity is a process. (Buckminster Fuller: “I seem to be a verb.”) That process originates as appetition for Good. But the process is drawn forward by a desire for ‘objective immortality’, i.e., to become a settled matter of fact, to have ‘meaning’, to influence the development of other entities, to ‘be someone’. As the entity evolves, it draws into itself material from the settled entities that comprise its world. In later stages of development, mistakes can occur and entities can wander off course.
Think of an unborn child. It begins as a largely faithful synthesis of a maternal and a paternal chromosome. It reproduces; each ‘daughter cell’ inherits a more or less faithful copy of its parent cell’s DNA. But as the process continues, ‘mistakes happen’. The phenotypical child may not always faithfully express its parents’ genes.
Nevertheless, every child longs to grow up, to ‘make a difference’, to have meaning. We are all driven to share who we are and what we do with others. In this sense, every entity has a common goal: participation in the construction of a world.
Once an entity becomes a settled matter of fact, it is available to other entities as they develop. This is how an actual entity ‘makes a difference’. Gregory Bateson defined “mind” as “a difference that makes a difference”. He was certainly not wrong; he just didn’t go far enough. Every entity makes a difference; that’s what it is to be an entity.
Every entity is different from the world it inherits, and every entity makes a real, unique contribution to the entities that succeed it. God is an actual entity and, as such, a settled matter of fact—the ultimate matter of fact. But God is eternal; therefore, God is not subject to the limitations of spacetime.
Now by definition, there can be no actual entities ‘outside’ of God (or God would not be God). Therefore, God can and must ‘know’ every other entity. Otherwise, there would be no entities other than God. Conversely, every actual entity can and must ‘know God’. Otherwise, there would be no God, and therefore no entities either. In this sense, then every entity has a common fate as well as a common origin.
Because all entities share a common origin, a common aim, and a common destiny, the antagonisms that exist among them, however extreme, will ultimately turn out to be just contrasts. We can see this from the perspective of Eschaton…but not from the perspective of history. How come? Because the common origin and destiny of entities lies in the Eschaton, not in the spatiotemporal world. Only the common aim lies in the realm of history, and, as we all know all too well, that aim is not incompatible with conflict.
The antagonisms that manifest as destructive conflicts in the historical world function as enriching contrasts in the Kingdom of Heaven. In turn, the phenomenon of change that manifests as destruction in the historical world manifests as harmonization at the Eschaton. Therefore, we can say that Isaiah’s irenic vision of Eschaton is conceivable; in fact, no vision of Eschaton is conceivable that is not based on conflict resolution.
So long as conflict continues unresolved, there can be no Eschaton because there can be no ultimate state of affairs. Conflict is an imbalance that requires balancing; it is destabilizing. Contrast, on the other hand, is the scaffolding of harmony.
Consider the analogy of siblings. They spring from a common origin (parents), they share a common aim (adulthood), and they viciously kick, scratch, and claw each other to get there; but ultimately, they resolve those conflicts and rediscover their primal kinship. “We are family!” (Sister Sledge)
But what about “the earth shall be filled with knowledge of the Lord”? How is the resolution of conflict into contrast related to knowledge of the Lord? And are we referring to creatures’ knowledge of God…or God’s knowledge of creatures?
Both! In Eschaton there are no subjects and no objects, no active or passive verbs; those are the cases and voices of history, i.e., of conflict. Viewed from the perspective of the Eschaton, all process is reciprocal so there are no cases, and all verbs are in the middle voice: ‘Being is reciprocity’. (Anaximander)
Check out Isaiah’s text: wolf and lamb, leopard and goat, calf and lion, cow and bear, lion and ox, baby and viper, child and adder. In Eschaton all relationships are harmonic.
Therefore, God cannot know a creature except in so far as that creature knows God, and a creature cannot know God except in so far as God knows that creature.
‘Knowledge of the Lord’ then can only mean both God’s knowledge of the creature and the creature’s knowledge of God. Knowledge is a two-way street – even better, it’s two faces of one phenomenon. The Kingdom of Heaven and the ‘kingdoms of this world’ (Handel) are one. God’s knowledge of a creature is that creature’s knowledge of God, and that creature’s knowledge of God is God’s knowledge of that creature.
But is that actually the case? It seems (above) that the Eschatological process is not reciprocal. God knows creatures as settled matters of fact, but creatures only know God only by their participation in the values that form the ground of all Being.
But we’re forgetting something. God is an actual entity too. Just as God is the ultimate process, God is also the ultimate matter of fact. That ultimate matter of fact can be nothing other than Eschaton itself, God’s Reign. God is the Eschaton, the Kingdom of Heaven.
Furthermore, because God is an eternal entity rather than an historical entity, God is available to every other actual entity, without regard to the limitations imposed on historical entities by spacetime (the Light Cone). The so-called “Second Coming” is the ingression of God, the Eschaton, into the constitution of every spatiotemporal entity.
The birth of Christ is the ‘particular Incarnation’. The Second Coming is the ‘perpetual Incarnation’. The birth of Christ happened just once; the second coming happens with every other event. The Catholic sacrament of Eucharist is a bridge. In it, the ‘particular Incarnation and the ‘perpetual Incarnation’ marry.
Every actual entity is known to God, and God is felt by every entity as part of its process of self-actualization. So, as God knows a creature, it knows that creature knowing God, and as a creature knows God, it knows God knowing it.
There is but one ‘knowledge." God and creature are the terms (or reciprocal terminals) of that knowledge. Therefore, everything is ultimately ‘knowledge of God’ and so at last we can affirm with Isaiah that the ‘earth’ is knowledge of the Lord; it fills the world. Did you think we’d ever get here?
The prophet Jeremiah affirms this: “I will place my law within them and write it upon their hearts…They will no longer teach their friends and relatives, ‘Know the Lord!’ Everyone from the least to the greatest shall know me…” (Jeremiah. 31: 33-34)
But how can any of this possibly have anything to do with a king who is either a political vigilante, a reclusive scholar, or both? Is our king ‘bipolar’? No…and yes. In the Old Testament, the concept of ‘justice’ is represented by two different families of words. One family is typically translated as “right/righteous” while the other is typically translated as “just/justice”. (Recall that ‘judge’ in Old Testament Hebrew does not mean ‘arbiter of justice’ but ‘ doer of justice’).
When Isaiah speaks of our King using terms like “wisdom, understanding, council, strength, knowledge and fear of the Lord”, he is speaking of our King as ‘righteous." But when Isaiah says, “judge the poor…and the land’s afflicted…strike the ruthless…and slay the wicked,” he is speaking of our King as ‘just’.
What’s the difference? As an entity constitutes itself, it incorporates conceptual and physical elements. Conceptually, the entity incorporates God’s values, both as they make up God’s nature and as they are at work in the world; physically, the entity incorporates the ‘superjects’ of other actual entities, i.e., settled matters of fact. In this sense, then, every actual entity is bipolar: it has a conceptual pole and a physical pole…and our King is no exception.
Our King is righteous because God’s values are always uppermost in his mind, but our King is just because he intervenes in history to right wrongs. It turns out that these two ‘sides’ are not only not in conflict; they actually presuppose one another. It is impossible to intervene effectively in history without keeping God’s values top of mind, and it is impossible to keep God’s values top of mind without those values spilling over and influencing the way one lives one’s life in the world.
Wisdom is a window in history that opens onto Eschaton. It is through Wisdom that we are able to see conflicts as contrasts. To be ‘wise’ is to see the common seed in conflicting entities. Likewise, Justice is a window in Eschaton that opens onto history. It is through Justice (activist justice) that barriers to harmonization (e.g., exploitation, persecution, and evil doing) are knocked down.
So it turns out that Isaiah’s ‘three kings’ are one King after all, just three complementary views of that King. Christians believe that Jesus of Nazareth is that King. Whether confounding the rabbis in the Temple at the age of 12, fasting in the desert for 40 days, or turning over the money changers’ tables in the temple, Jesus is invested with the messianic attributes celebrated by Isaiah and other prophets.
Isaiah 7:14 refers to the Davidic King as “Emmanuel”, i.e., “God with us”. And we know that God is with us, initially as the ‘Ground of all Being’, Good, and ultimately as Eschaton, Peace, the resolution of all conflict, the harmonization of all contrasts, the Kingdom of Heaven.
Christmas is the celebration of Emmanuel, God with us. Specifically, Christmas is the celebration of the birth of Jesus and the entry of the Christ into history. But in a larger sense, Christmas is not just a one-time event or even just one day a year. It is not the case that “Christmas comes but once each year!” Christmas is the permanent condition of the world: Emmanuel, God, is with us. Christmas is ‘with us’. That’s what we celebrate on December 25th.
David Cowles is the founder and editor-in-chief of Aletheia Today Magazine. He lives with his family in Massachusetts where he studies and writes about philosophy, science, theology, and scripture. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.