The eschatology of Downton Abbey

March 16, 2016

Warning: Spoilers ahead.

Longtime fans of Downton Abbey probably guessed that the show would end with a Christmas special. And they were right; at least, partly right. To be more precise, Downton ended on New Year’s Day, 1926. It turns out, the series finale was less about endings and more about beginnings. It was about the dawn of new age, a new order. It was about the Kingdom come. Indeed, it pointed to the Christian gospel: Christ is not ending the world, but making it new.


The episode began with most of its characters in a resigned estrangement. Edith and Bertie, for example, are still not speaking. Edith withheld the fact that Marigold was more than her ward, she was her daughter. Upon learning their true relation, Bertie promptly said his goodbyes. Within the first few minutes of the episode, Edith referred to herself as a “spinster” and “damaged goods,” destined to live a lonely, husbandless existence in her London apartment.

Thomas the footman is beyond Downton’s property for the first time in years, having been pressured into taking a position at a house far less regal and familial. His new benefactors obviously don’t care for him; he’s simply their butler, an employee of the estate. Like Edith’s mess, this exile could have been avoided. From the beginning, Thomas’ wounds were self-inflicted (remember how he got a built in his hand?). His conniving and manipulation did him no favors as he now longed for the castle over the hills.

Because of their deceit, Edith and Thomas lost the only thing which could bring them satisfaction: Edith was without love and Thomas without home. This is always the path of sin. In rebelling against the order of the house—in trying to manipulate the system to gain power—Thomas was like Adam and Eve who were not content with the just rule of paradise. They didn’t want God dictating right and wrong to them, they wanted autonomy—a kingdom of their own law. In trying to hide her daughter, Edith was also like Adam and Eve: hidden, shamed, isolated. Of course, our first parents eventually shared in Thomas’ expulsion: exiled from the garden, driven away from home. The house in which they now served was hard—thorns and blisters abounded. A smiling Father was traded for a scowling master.


The question of Downton—the question which Mr. Carson was never able to stomach—was always: How can we adapt to the changing world? How do the ethics of the new age relate to the systems of the old? Put simply, how will we have a happy ending? The answer, it turns out, is simple: we walk into the new world humbly.

Thomas was a footman in the Abbey, and he resented that fact. He did everything in his power to move, even ever so slightly, up the ladder. He lied. He cheated. He blackmailed. He bribed. The end of all Thomas’ scheming came this season in a bloody bathtub with his wrists slit. While he was rescued, he was still not invited to make his home at Downton.

That background sets the stage for perhaps the most moving scene in the finale. Mr. Carson’s “palsy” prevents him from properly pouring the champagne, and it becomes obvious that his days as butler are over. These circumstances—which Thomas could not have orchestrated—lead to Mary’s nominating the estranged footman for the job. While he’s at his least powerful—indeed, while he’s completely estranged from the family—he’s mercifully invited back into the fellowship. Not based on something of his own doing, but wholly based on Lady Mary’s favor and mercy. Forevermore Thomas’ service in the home will be a testament not to his trademark ambition or merit, but to the Crawley's grace.  

Just as Thomas was able to go home in humility, so too did Edith receive love vulnerably. Weddings are always eschatological events in the Christian understanding of things. The bride is a pointer to the church and Christ is the ultimate Bridegroom. One day, the institution of marriage will fade like a shadow as the substance—Christ and his bride—are united. We go into that day the same way Edith went into her wedding: vulnerably. For the first time Edith was completely honest. To her fiancé, to her soon-to-be mother-in-law, to herself. As the minister asked if there were any objections to their nuptials, there was silence. There were no secrets left—Edith had shared them all. She was known fully for the first time, and loved anyway. The love given to Edith was just that, given. It was a gift.  It was grace. Such is the love which will bring in the Kingdom.

We can never demand love, we can only receive it—after all, we, like Edith, have betrayed the trust of our Bridegroom. That great wedding feast is coming in grace, in love. The Kingdom will not come in protests or in riots or in persuasive speeches. The Kingdom does not come by demanding bread and wine, but by receiving the elements. The Kingdom does not come by the church covering her shame and nakedness with the vapid leaves of power and influence, but in prayer and service to the poor. Like Thomas, we go home not based on our own merits, but on the grace of our master. Like Edith, we don’t look for our wedding day as if it’s owed to us, but we look as those waiting on a gift. Which is to say: we wait humbly.


From the show’s inception, two worlds are taken for granted: the upstairs world and the downstairs world. The basic tension of the series lies in the two worlds dissolving into one another. Upstairs is moving downstairs (think early on of Lady Mary’s going down to the servants quarters to talk with Carson) and downstairs is moving upstairs (think of Tom, the driver and mechanic, moving up to marry Lady Sybil). This is typified in the closing minutes of Downton’s finale, which could not have be more different than the opening minutes of the show’s pilot. After going into labor, the penultimate servants, Anna and John Bates, lie upstairs in Lady Mary’s bed as tea is served to them by Lord Grantham himself. The old order has passed away. Baby Bates is delivered along with a new age, a new rule.

This scene sums up the plot of Downton well. Anna and John had a hard time conceiving a child. To Anna, it seemed impossible at times. This new birth came only through much pain, sorrow, and heartache. That’s the eschatology of Downton Abbey: resurrection comes through the cross. New life comes through the painful death of the old.

Watching a century after the fact, the death of this bygone aristocratic era seemed imminent. If the advent of the automobile and telephone didn’t quite usher in the new age, the Great War surely did. Nothing could be the same. How much more so should the coming Kingdom of Christ seem inevitable? After all, we’re watching our present drama play out some two millennia after the Kingdom was decisively secured by Christ’s life, death, resurrection, and ascension.

The writers of Downton are clearly emboldened by their belief in the inevitable “march of progress.” Yet, the Christian gospel offers something different, something more. History is under the sovereign rule of Christ: it has a telos. So we walk humbly into the future, receiving the Kingdom as a gift. We live in this present “kingdom of darkness” with the sure knowledge that its day is setting, even as the “Kingdom of light” is dawning. In the end, Downton offers a glimmer of our Christian eschatology of hope. To quote Isobel Crawley in the closing words of the series: “We are going forward to the future, not back in the past.” From Eden, to the New Jerusalem. Amen.

Dustin Messer

Dustin Messer teaches theology at Legacy Christian Academy in Frisco, Texas. Additionally, Dustin is senior fellow of theology and culture at the Center for Cultural Leadership and pastoral associate at Christ Church (PCA) in Carrollton, Texas. A graduate of Boyce College and Covenant Seminary, Dustin is completing his doctoral work … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24