I was hearing recently about a group of teenagers reflecting on the meaninglessness of their existence and commenting that they feel they can cope with it so long as they are remembered after they are gone. This ought to unnerve them, because the odds are heavily against them being remembered by anyone for very long. Looking in the handwritten inside pages of a family Bible I know little more than the words tell me: ‘Isabella Winter, Born Febry 22nd 1844, Baptized March 20th 1844 Born ¼ Past 9 O’clock in the Evening… Died Janry 18 1874’. Beyond the image in the photograph of my great-great-great-grandmother Mary Winter my relation to her is the sum of all I know. The same would be true of nearly all our ancestors. Most of us will be unknown to our great-great grandchildren, perhaps other than as digital curiosities, though the sheer accumulating mass of information may make even that kind of immortality problematic to maintain.
So we stare into the abyss of being forgotten, not just by the people we know (apparently a fear with a label, athazagoraphobia), but totally, utterly forgotten, remembered by no one on earth. As far as anyone’s conscious memory is concerned, it will be for us all as if we never existed. Reflecting on being forgotten is a humbling experience and one that can make us feel acutely the transitory nature of our existence. We are indeed like the grass that withers. I find this thought of being utterly forgotten deeply troubling. I’m a child of the 70s and 80s so I grew up singing ‘Fame! I’m gonna live forever, baby remember my name, remember, remember, remember’ (and so forth, a lot more times).
As the fear of oblivion unnerves me I find comfort in the attributes of the triune God. Again, as with providence (see a previous post, ‘God, Freedom, and Self-Definition’), there is true pastoral solace in deep theology, at this point the theology of divine omniscience. Here is how Johannes Heidegger contrasts creaturely knowledge with God’s knowing: ‘By perceiving steadily creatures are worn out and become bored, whether because they do not achieve perfect knowledge, or because they hurry to another act of perceiving something else, or because they are busy perceiving alien things. God is not so. He understands by one infinite act; nor does He understand anything but Himself and what is of Himself in Himself. Hence His knowledge is pure, most single, one, perpetual, never weary, continuing from eternity to eternity. It is activity without beginning or end, and so essence itself, by which as being infinite and the cause of all things He comprehends at once all things and sundry.’ We get tired and our attention shifts, but God never tires. We find things out by looking at them, he knows all things by knowing himself as the cause of all things, and so he knows them all in a single, un-tiring, eternal act.
The knowledge of God means that no one will ever be forgotten. None of us faces the oblivion of being forgotten. God knows us better than we know ourselves, inside out (literally, Psalm 139). But we can say much more than that. Even the unbeliever is known by God in his omniscience, but one who faces God unforgiven in the judgement will find being known far worse than being forgotten. Oblivion is not the worst fate. Isaiah depicts people wanting to hide from God when he catches up with them: ‘people shall enter the caves of the rocks and the holes of the ground, from before the terror of the Lord, and from the splendour of his majesty, when he rises to terrify the earth’ (2:19). Being known will turn out to be worse than being forgotten. Our comfort is not just to be known forever by God, but to be known by him as our heavenly Father who has forgiven all our sins and adopted us into his family. This is an eternal state of being known that is the true hope in the face of either feared oblivion or the worse fate of being known forever in our sin. The believer is known by God not simply as a fact, but as a child, within the Father’s knowledge of his beloved Son. We are known as those hidden with Christ in God, the Christ who remembers us in his kingdom. We can even go so far as to say that to be known by God like this is even more important than to know God given Paul’s correction of his own description in Galatians 4:8: ‘now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God’. We are known by God before we know him, as the basis for our knowing him. There is an asymmetry in the knowledge of God, and in the priority of God’s knowledge within that asymmetry we find our great comfort. There is One who will indeed remember my name, forever.