This is very much someone outside the bailiwick of this forum looking in, but I was told it could be interesting to share this article I wrote recently.
I'm a Catholic priest, with a prior background in Electronic Engineering, currently working on a PhD in Theology at Durham University. I am researching how the Catholic Church can engage with longtermism and better play its, potentially significant, part in advocating existential security. I'm particularly interested in how a Christian imagination can offer unique evaluative resources for attributing value to future human flourishing and to develop a sense of moral connection with our descendents, better motivating the sacrifices safeguarding the future demands.
Much of the material will be very familiar to you as the article was written for a Catholic publication, and so also serves to introduce and promote some of the basic ideas to a new audience.
I'm certainly interested to receive any comments or questions!
Called to Share the Father’s Love for Humanity’s Future:
A Scriptural and Patristic Perspective on Eschatological Cooperation in the Age of Anthropogenic Existential Risks
As the 16th day of July 1945 came to a close, the sun set over a changed world. For the first time, humanity had detonated an atomic bomb, and after the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki later that year, society struggled to come to terms with the forces unleashed. Amidst the cacophony of devastation and the uproar of anti-nuclear movements, there were those who caught whispers of a dark threshold quietly crossed. One such thinker, Bertrand Russell, stood in the House of Lords to describe the shadow of a new kind of threat:
We do not want to look at this thing simply from the point of view of the next few years; we want to look at it from the point of view of the future of mankind. The question is a simple one: Is it possible for a scientific society to continue to exist, or must such a society inevitably bring itself to destruction? ... As I go about the streets and see St. Paul's, the British Museum, the Houses of Parliament, and the other monuments of our civilization, in my mind's eye I see a nightmare vision of those buildings as heaps of rubble, surrounded by corpses.
Russell recognised that the development of nuclear weapons marked the dawn of a new age: humanity had become its greatest risk to itself. Adam and Eve, in eating the forbidden fruit, opened the way to individual death, but we have now “eaten more deeply of the fruit of the tree of knowledge” and are now “face to face with a second death, the death of mankind.” An antithesis of God’s creatio ex nihilo, we have obtained our own absolutising power, the “potestas annihilationis, the reductio ad nihili.”
A philosophical response to this new power suggests that threat of nuclear apocalypse is but one example of a category of anthropogenic existential risks (AXRs). Other self-caused threats to humanity’s future potential also include engineered pandemics, human-caused climate change, and unaligned artificial intelligence, all of which could cause existential catastrophe. Further AXRs still await discovery, and we have no reason to believe these will be less hazardous. Without action, the danger humanity creates for itself will continue to grow and Ord, from Oxford’s Future of Humanity Institute, argues such increasing risk is unsustainable. We will either learn to mitigate existential risks or one of them will eventually play out, causing a permanent loss of humanity’s potential. In the past, survival could be taken for granted as natural threats to the human species are vanishingly rare on the timescale of human history, and technology had yet to develop existential threats of its own making. Yet Ord warns that now our “long-term survival requires a deliberate choice to survive.” He illustrates his point by describing humanity in its adolescence, in urgent need of moral maturation; “just coming into our power, just old enough to get ourselves in serious trouble.” We would certainly be foolish to neglect mitigating natural existential risks, but the possibility of human agency playing a role for species survival, by causing or mitigating anthropogenic risks, poses unique philosophical and theological questions.
How might a Christian respond to these? Why not scepticism? The psalmist assures that “the righteous shall inherit the land and live in it forever (Ps 37:29);” Jesus himself told us not to worry about tomorrow for “today’s trouble is enough for today (Matt. 6:34),” and asked, “can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life (Luke 12:25-26)?” Trust in providence, however, now coexists with awareness that good choices contribute to long and healthy living. By analogy, when any given generation’s influence over mankind’s long-term potential was negligible, trust was the believer’s disposition towards the future. Now, however, faith in divine providence must coexist with awareness that our choices make a real difference for, and could even destroy, the future of humanity. I propose, on Newmanian terms, that theology needs to assimilate awareness of the potestas annihilationis, and so long as no discontinuity of principles arises, any theological implications and adjustments inferred by the discovery of AXRs would constitute authentic development of dogma. There is much to learn about humanity’s role within salvation history from even a brief return to the sources of faith in light of this new power. Assuming dystopian scenarios are the reserve of science fiction has become a dangerous option because we will not get a second chance if that assumption is proved wrong.
Before all else, Genesis reveals a fatherly love. God’s will that humanity be fruitful (Gen. 1:28) culminates in His promise to make Abraham’s “descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky (Gen. 26:4).” Even in the fifth century Augustine understood it was “nonsensical to be sure there are not stars that cannot be seen,” and we now know of at least two trillion galaxies, each with billions of stars. Perhaps God’s promise to Abraham can be taken literally after all? We know of no reason why humanity could not survive for millions of years, so we discover the possibility of “a truly staggering number of descendants, with the time, resources, wisdom, and experience to create a diversity of wonders unimaginable to us today.”
This vast potential future need not be dismissed as fanciful, for Jesus’ commissions of evangelisation show no temporal limitation. In Matthew, the charge to “make disciples of all nations (Matt. 28:19, emphasis added),” given at the ascension, binds expectation of the Lord’s return to a universal mission, in response to Jesus’ promise to be with us ‘to the end of the age. (Matt. 28:19).” Jesus’s lordship is not limited to the world as known to his time on earth, as the Easter liturgy reminds us: “He is the Alpha and Omega, to whom all time belongs.” When the first Christians realised Jesus was not coming back soon, they realised the Church had a future of service to “a cosmic Lord,” with a horizon of discipleship “as wide as the world.”
Saint Paul’s letters exemplify the broad scope of the call to evangelise, as “the horizons of Christian mission are pushed beyond the ethnic boundaries of Jew and gentiles to embrace the entire universe:” Colossians celebrating how the Gospel grows in “the whole world (Col. 1:6.),” and Ephesians lauding God’s “plan for the fullness of time (Eph. 1:9-10).” Certainly by the time of writing of 2 Peter, the acceptance of the delay of the Parousia, and the significance therein for the Church’s mission, were firmly established: The Lord, to whom “a thousand years are like one day” is being patient with humanity, “not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance (2Pet. 3:8-9).”
On such scriptural foundations, the spread of the Gospel became a measure of readiness for the Fathers of the Church, who prayed that salvation is not drawn to a close too soon that humanity might have the best possible chance to accept the Gospel in Augustine’s “time of mercy.” Along these lines, Hays and his collaborators from the Oxford Postdoctoral Colloquium on Eschatology have argued from the Tradition that we cooperate within salvation history, and that the time of the eschaton is not just unknown, but un-fixed, contingent in some way on the action of humanity. Many of the Fathers of the Church believed the eschatological timetable can be “delayed or hastened by the piety, prayers, and penitence of God’s people.” Justin Martyr explains that “God delays causing the confusion and destruction of the whole world... because of the seed of the Christians, who know that they are the cause of preservation in nature.” Likewise, Tertullian prays for “emperors, for their ministers and for all in authority, for the welfare of the world, for the prevalence of peace, for the delay of the final consummation.” Perhaps contingency helps to explain why Jesus tells his disciples that He does not know “the hour (Mark 13:32)?” Our Lord says plainly that the “good news of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the world, as a testimony to all the nations; and then the end will come (Matt. 24:14).”
Bringing the fixity of the eschaton into question has considerable ramifications for a Catholic response to AXRs, particularly considering human freedom, which “has the power to make choices for ever, with no turning back (CCC §1861).” To paraphrase Newman, in my freedom and human weakness, I can fail to do the definite service God has created me for. I can fail to live out my vocation, and even a committed Augustinian notion of perseverance as entirely God’s gift maintains that “a man who does not persevere fails by his own fault.” By analogy, if human flourishing has a role to play in God’s plan for the last-things, and humanity itself can utterlyfail by self-destruction through AXRs, then we must take seriously the idea that anthropogenic extinction could just be that, humanly, not divinely, caused. A cosmos without humanity is now conceivable, something Aquinas considered as an impossible supposition. I therefore make a bold, but simple, claim: Awareness of humanity’s newfound potestas annihilationis exposes a presumption that humanity will persevere until some appointed end moment. In the past, if human history were to be ending through some natural cause, a believer would have recourse to an eschatological explanation. Apocalyptic interpretation, however, cannot be uncritically applied to AXRs. Do believers have grounds to presume the Parousia would be triggered in response to mankind’s self-extinction so as to ensure the end of humanity and the end of creation be coterminous?
I contend that theology cannot now remain unchanged because the potestas annihilationis was unthinkable throughout the formation of dogma. Pannenberg’s view that “what is undoubtedly true in science cannot be wrong in theology” suggests we need to consider the possibility that, by failing to mitigate AXRs, humanity could fail to live the fullness of life God would otherwise will for it. Some might argue that anthropogenic extinction would just be the final catastrophe scripture foretells, but to resist shouldering new responsibility on such apocalyptic terms constitutes little more than a projection of human failure onto a diminished eschatological screen, counsel to despair. Hays’ case that the end of history is temporally undetermined establishes contingency on humanity succeeding to live out God’s will, not on humanity failing, as if the eschaton were in some way history’s safety net in case of man-made calamity. God trusts and hopes that we mature and develop the moral capacity necessary to mitigate the risks to our future we cause for ourselves.
Consider a Christian adjustment of Ord’s adolescent humanity: our species can be thought of as a young person, with both a vocation to sanctity and the capacity to squander it. Our loving God wills that His child grow in virtue and make the necessary choices to protect and answer His call. Like a young believer, humanity must now make a concerted effort to face the challenges to growth in the life of grace, and this does not exclude trusting in providence. Let us not forget that the command to take nothing for the journey, “no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money (Luke 9:3)” was not the last word on the matter. After the disciples learned to trust in God, Jesus instructs them that “the one who has a purse must take it, and likewise a bag (Luke 22:35-37).” As the mission on which Christ’s followers were sent became more demanding, a pragmatism was embraced. The challenges that face the spread of the Gospel now include threats to our very survival, so we too must adapt to protect our future from ourselves. We can thus collectively cooperate with grace, to answer God’s calling for humanity. With potestas annihilationis comes the greatest responsibility, to ensure our descendants receive the best possible chance of living out their vocations, to pass on the gifts of life, faith, and the conditions and environment that make those possible. On these terms, hope for future health and wellbeing does not entail the eschatological reductionism such thought might otherwise attract. We do well to follow Augustine: “Belief in the city of God does not mean that the earthly city is a point of indifference. The earthly city strives for peace, an end it shares with the City of God, as the two cannot be thought about as radically different as in this present transitory world, they are interwoven and mingled with one another.”One need not surrender belief in a transcendent finalising moment that will occur in history to have a sense of accountability, and legitimate hopes, for humanity and the Church in the time, of indeterminate length, between today and the Parousia.
Like the first Christians, we too face a little-evangelised world, and so are also grateful for the time of mercy, the opportunity to make disciples of all nations, including the potential trillions of descendants to come. If human history is just the beginning, if we are in the earliest time of the Church, then God could well bestow countless future graces: saints will be raised up, sinners will be forgiven, theologians will explore new depths, the faithful will experience new heights of spiritual experience, carried higher by new insights into the nature of prayer, fostered by the cumulative enrichment of religious tradition. Saint Peter could not have foreseen the baroque basilica that now stands at the place of his last earthly moments. The early Church could not have imagined the beauty of Durufle’s motets on Gregorian themes. Augustine could not benefit from the spiritual exercises of Ignatius, Bonaventure had no way of anticipating the personalism of Saint John Paul II. The Church will be more and more at home in the spiritual richness that the human experience can offer, and perhaps, with the opportunity of millennia, even discover modes of spiritual experience, or categories of theological value, which are unknown today. We rightly believe that the major event in Christian life has already happened in the paschal mystery, and we await the day when the Lord will draw all things to himself. Nonetheless, we can look forward to the future of humanity and wonder what prayer and worship we are blind to, what music are we deaf to. Let us dare to hope the Church has a long and bright future, and let us be unsettled by the threat of that future being lost: In light of scriptural and patristic sources, I have sketched out some conditions of possibility for allowing these sentiments of love and concern for our distant future without fear of doctrinal discontinuity. However, moral judgement is one thing, action is quite another.
Safeguarding humanity’s potential tomorrow involves making sacrifices today, and faith might make its greatest contribution to mitigating AXRs by providing Christian reasons for motivating costly action. A post-Christian worldview lacks evaluative resources for adequately relating to humanity’s future, having set aside beliefs which forged and sustained links between generations. Scheffler, for example, explains that many “experience the poverty of our evaluative thought about the future as a form of privation,” recognising “an inchoate sense that other generations matter to us in way that we cannot easily explain,” so he, Ord, and others, develop theories of value, axiologies, with which one might find underappreciated reasons why we should care about the future of humanity. Faith can provide compelling and greatly needed reasons why the future matters, inspiring believers to act in charity towards our descendants.
Christians aspire to turn to the past with faith, the present with love, and the future with hope, but these triads can be paired in other ways. I propose that faith in the Gospel received from the past also shows how hope can shine more brightly in the present by a love of the future. We need to learn to appreciate the blessings to come in a new way, and a dialogical study of the future axiologies offered by philosophy helps express the rich evaluative resources available to the Christian imagination for overcoming temporal parochialism. Catholics are particularly good at experiencing meaningful communion with those in the distant past. Can we not do so for the distant future too? The stakes are potentially little less than human life itself, and with it the very phenomena of prayer, beauty, and value. In learning to love the future, we can grow not only in fraternity, but in parental love, the desire to “bring life into existence out of nothing… which begins even before any child exists” and does not attach any conditions for the beloved, “it only wants him to be.” Sharing in the Father’s desire that our descendants will be able to praise Him and follow Him as best they can, we learn to love and protect humanity’s future. God realises his promises in the time to come, but that future is now, at least partly, in humanity’s hands.
 Bertrand Russell, “The International Situation,” in Parliamentary Debates (Hansard), vol. 138 (The House of Lords, 1945) 89.
 Jonathan Schell, Fate of the Earth (New York, N.Y: Avon Books, 1988) 115.
 Günter Anders, as cited and translated in U Körtner, The End of the World: A Theological Interpretation, (Westminster, 1995) 181.
 For a description of the full range of known existential risks, see Nick Bostrom, “Existential Risks: Analysing Human Extinction Scenarios and Related Hazards,” The Journal of Evolution and Technology, vol. 9, No. 1 (2002).
 Toby Ord, The Precipice (Oxford: Bloomsbury, 2020) 191.
 Ibid.,, 21.
 For more explanation of natural risks see Toby Ord, “Natural Risks”, 67ff.
 See Chapter 5 Genuine Developments Contrasted with Corruptions in John Henry Newman, An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine (Notre Dame: Notre Dame, 1989).
 Augustine, City of God, Penguin Classics (London ; New York: Penguin Books, 2003), XVI, 23.
 Davide Castelvecchi, “Universe Has Ten Times More Galaxies than Researchers Thought,” Nature, November 14, 2016.
 Toby Ord, 217ff.
 Ibid.,, 21.
 “The Easter Vigil in the Holy Night”, in The Roman Missal, 2010, §11.5.
 Donald Senior and Carroll Stuhlmueller, The Biblical Foundations for Mission (Maryknoll, N.Y: Orbis Books, 1983) 208.
 Senior and Stuhlmueller, 191.
 Augustine, The Works of Saint Augustine, vol. 1, Sermons on the Old Testament, 20-50 (New City Press, 1990) 369.
 For the claim that the eschaton is, at least partially, contingent on human agency, I closely follow Christopher M Hays et al., When the Son of Man Didn’t Come: A Constructive Proposal on the Delay of the Parousia (Fortress Pr., 2017).
 Hays et al., 100ff.
 Justin Martyr, Opera Quae Exstant Omnia, vol. 6, Patrologia Graeca (Paris: Apud J.-P. Migne, 1857), 2 Apol., 1:190, 456.
 Tertullian, Opera Omnia, vol. 1, Patrologia Latina (Paris: Brepols, 1844), Apol. 39, 3:46, 532.
 Augustine, A Treatise on the Gift of Perseverance (Aeterna Press, 2015) 40.
 St Thomas Aquinas, De Veritate, trans. Robert Mulligan, (Hackett Publishing Company, 1994), vol. I, I.11.
 Wolfhart Pannenberg, “Theology and Philosophy in Interaction with Science”, in John Paul II on Science and Religion (Notre Dame, 1991), 78.
 For proposed practical steps see Toby Ord, “Safeguarding Humanity”, 187ff.
 See Paula Fredriksen, When Christians Were Jews: The First Generation (New Haven London: Yale University Press, 2018), 139ff.
 Augustine, City of I, II.I, Book I, preface.
 Such ideas are a Christianisation of a mode of thought characteristic of Ord, cf. Toby Ord, 237-238.
 Samuel Scheffler, Why Worry About Future Generations? (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020) 86.
 Jonathan Schell, 175.