Religions provide us with both alpha and omega mythologies.1 In order to help us to understand where we have come from and to where we are going, religious traditions typically bracket human time between a primordial golden age at one end and paradise at the other. These are often descriptions of wonderful realms that could have been and might yet be if we only lived our lives differently than we do. It is not just the Abrahamic faiths that do this. Asian religions, too, have their myths of blissful spirit lands from which our earthly ancestors descended and their pure lands and Buddha fields where the dead may spend eons enjoying the sound of musical instruments playing endlessly, showers of lotus petals from the heavens, and long, delicious naps, before their dissolution into nirvana or moksha, where the troubled lives we lead will eventually find a final peace.
It is to the omega myths and their corresponding rituals that we now turn. Christian theology uses the Greek term "eschatology" (eschaton = the end, last things) as the heading under which such last things as death, resurrection, souls in the afterlife, final judgment, heaven and hell are discussed. These are all symbols that portend a final, satisfying ending to history, when the forces of evil will be conquered and the purposes of God will finally be fulfilled through the restoration of cosmic harmony. It is common to consider each of these symbols in both cosmic and individual terms, as they have implications for both the cosmos and for individual lives. Because of the speculative nature of these topics, the eschatology chapter in modern systematic theologies is often very brief, offering little more than the oblique assurance that God, who can be trusted, will have the final word. But within the life of religious communities, eschatological beliefs can be very prolific - indeed popular religion tends to provide a more hospitable home to these beliefs than does the religion of scholars and theologians.
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