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The renewal of eschatology


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Juan Luis Lorda |

Professor at School of Theology

Throughout the 20th century, a multitude of inspirations of various kinds transformed the content and importance of this treatise on the afterlife and "the last things". It went from being more or less marginal to being at the centre of theology. 

In the 20th century, two theological treatises (leaving aside exegesis) have claimed to take over the whole of theology. One is Fundamental Theology, because it claimed to be the justification for all matters of theology. The other, more minority, is Eschatology, when it argues that the whole Christian message is and must be eschatological. These are quite antithetical approaches. The claim of Fundamental Theology comes from the demands of reason, sometimes from academic reason. The claim of Eschatology, on the other hand, is mainly theologically inspired. The former can err on the side of rationalism. The second, in its extremes, can point towards the utopian. This leads to the conclusion that they are needed to compensate each other.

Jesus Christ, the centre of Eschatology

Eschatology is truly all-encompassing, because Christ himself presented his Gospel announcing the Kingdom to come. And also because the essence of Christianity, in Guardini's words, is a person, Jesus Christ. But Jesus Christ in his fullness, and therefore risen. We live in tension towards the Parousia. And both in the Liturgy and in Christian action: we expect the Lord to come now and in the end. 

Some Protestant theologians emphasised that theology had to focus on the risen Jesus Christ (Karl Barth), and some concretised this for eschatology (Althaus, Die lezten Dinge). Jesus Christ is the cause, the model and the foretaste of the human being in his fullness, as sample St. Paul. 

Catholic manuals had divided eschatology into two parts: individual and final. In the first part they dealt with the problem of death (with the problem, perhaps, of the separated soul), judgement and the three possible states (heaven, hell and purgatory), sometimes adding a reflection on beatitude. In the second part, the final eschatology, they dealt with the second coming of Christ with its signs, the resurrection of the body and the new heavens and the new earth. As these subjects were more mysterious, it was a kind of appendix. Eschatology was focused on the end of each person. It was even asked whether the resurrection of the bodies added anything, and it was answered that a certain accidental glory. This was in contrast to the idea that the resurrection of Christ is the essential event of Christianity and has to be the centre of eschatology.

Inspirations from Scripture

Many points emphasised by Exegesis contributed to the same line. First of all, of course, the centrality of Christ. Then, the fact that Christ's preaching was eschatological from the beginning: he announced a Kingdom, whose leaven in this world is the Church. This gives an eschatological tone to the whole Christian advertisement and to all its history. 

And it is not primarily an individual matter, but is realised in the Body of Christ in history, which is the Church. First in Jesus Christ, who "was raised from the dead as the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep" (1 Cor 15:20), and in this movement he draws his mystical Body and even the whole of creation, "which waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God" (Rom 8:19). The revelation of God is at the same time the history of the Covenant, the history of salvation and also the history of the Kingdom. The Kingdom (with Christ at the centre) is the great topic of eschatology and runs through the whole history of salvation. 

Patristic and liturgical endorsements

It was necessary to turn the treatise around: to begin with the resurrection of Christ, the first fruits, promise and cause of our resurrection; to speak of the history of salvation or of the Kingdom, and of the realisation of the Church; and to give the whole Christian message and all theology this eschatological tension. Moreover, it is eminently expressed in the Liturgy, in every Eucharist, where the Lord's Passover is renewed until he returns. And in the liturgical year, from Advent to the last week of Ordinary Time, the second coming of Christ (Christ the King and Judge of history).

The contact of eschatology with liturgy was very enriching for both treatises. In fact, these now rediscovered relationships were already present in the Fathers of the Church. It was yet another manifestation of a common effect in the history of theology. Scholasticism had focused on studying the reality of things with the ontology inherited from Aristotle; the separate soul, contemplation, the condition of resurrected bodies, also the "res" of the sacraments or of the Church as a social reality. That was his contribution. But he had no method to deal with the symbolic dimension. That was his oversight. By reconnecting with patristic theology (and also with Eastern theology, which is patristic by tradition) the approaches were renewed. 

A novelty: the theology of hope

Another inspiration came from a completely different direction. Already the great Russian Christian intellectual Nicolai Berdiaev (1874-1948) had warned that Marxism is a kind of Christian heresy and that it had secularised his hope, promising a heaven on earth. A critical Marxist thinker, Ernst Bloch (1885-1977), noted precisely this in his voluminous essay The Hope Principle (1949). And he identified hope as the fundamental impulse of human life, which needs a future. Or it is even future, because it has to be realised as a person and, above all, as a society (which is the permanent thing). In this sense, it is not a question of being, but of becoming. That is why hope and, to that same extent, utopia as goal are the keys to being human.

The idea impressed a then young Protestant theologian, Jürgen Moltmann, who reviewed the book and discussed it with Bloch. The criticism that could be levelled at Bloch was obvious: hope is indeed the great driving force of human psychology, but the Kingdom on earth is impossible, because neither death, nor human limitations or human failures can be overcome. Apart from the fact that all hope really disappears staff to immolate oneself for the benefit of a social kingdom. But no matter how much is done, it is impossible in this world to pass from facticity to transcendence. Here there is always something to be done, and we never get out of it, no matter how much we improve. With all the paradoxes that can come, moreover, about what improvement really means.

But it was clear that Bloch was quite right. Hope is a driving force, the human being is hope. Secular hope does not have a credible goal , but Christian hope does. Taking up the inspirations we have mentioned and Bloch's challenge , Moltmann constructed his Theology of Hope (1966). And it had a huge impact. It became clear that an eschatology is, at final, a theology of hope, and vice versa. Hope was no longer the little sister of the other two virtues, as Péguy had poetised(The portico of the mystery of the second virtue). 

Moltmann has always been a man of easy words and great perspectives, but perhaps he has the opposite problem to scholasticism. In scholasticism, attention to reality led to disregarding the symbolic. Here, sometimes, attention to the symbolic can lead to detachment from reality. That is what tends to mythology... The resurrection of Christ is real and not just a wait in the future where it has to be revealed. 

The place of utopia

Among other things, the "theology of hope" posited the role of utopias as the driving force of human history. Precisely when Marxism had spread as a planetary ideology, when it had achieved various symbioses with Christian thought and when it had become clear that it was not heaven. It would be one of the inspirations for Metz's theology of politics and liberation theology. 

We need utopias, a certain Christian left will later nostalgically repeat, trying in passing to justify a rather imperfect (and in many cases criminal) past. But Thomas More's utopia, which was the first, killed no one. And the Marxist one, many millions. Hence the postmodern reaction: we don't want grand narratives, which are very dangerous. The management of utopia requires discernment, but, above all, a thorough acceptance of the great moral principle that the utopian end does not justify the means; one cannot do anything in the name of utopia.

Joseph Ratzinger's guide

In all this ferment of ideas, the then theologian and later pope taught eschatology, among other subjects, in Regensburg. And he composed a small guide (1977) with many intelligent and well-judged things. As he points out in the foreword, the guide has two concerns. On the one hand, it embraces the endeavour to re-centre eschatology in Christ, the thrust of the theology of hope, and discerns its political and historical consequences. It also qualifies the idea that death is a moment of fullness, as Rahner had wanted to present it, because, rather, the experience is the opposite. 

But it contains a remarkable novelty. It addresses the topic of the separate soul, which is difficult to present in our modern scientific context. financial aid It is inspired by the Philosophy dialogical of Ebner and Martin Buber, who formulates it with more persuasive force. From a Christian point of view, the human being is a being made by God for a loving relationship with Him forever. This is the theological basis for understanding the survival of persons (of the soul) beyond death. It does not depend on the current plausibility of ancient demonstrations of the soul or Plato's view. The Christian message has its own instructions in this "dialogical personalism", which also allows us to delve into what it means to be a person. This topic, which is already pointed out in the Introduction to Christianity, was a beautiful contribution of Joseph Ratzinger's guide , although it is not original to him. But it gave it strength and spread. 

The problems of the separated soul  

Actually, the state of the separated soul between death and resurrection is a complex question. St. Thomas Aquinas had seen it, and he has a quaestio disputata on it. There must be a survival, otherwise every resurrection, even that of Christ, would be a re-creation. But that soul is deprived of the psychological resources of sensibility, and therefore its subjective time cannot be continuous like the time we experience with the body. St Thomas also saw this. Therefore, it is possible to think of a certain subjective proximity between the moment of death and the moment of resurrection. Some Catholic authors have identified the two moments (Greshake), but this is not possible, because there are intermediate events, such as the judgement and the relations of the communion of saints. But it cannot be thought of with our experience, because the soul is already before God who works upon it. It is not a natural survival but an eschatological status . 

Interestingly, while the question of the separate soul is difficult to present to a fairly materialistic public, belief in reincarnation or metempsychosis has grown, by cultural osmosis from Buddhist or Hindu convictions. And it demands attention.   

And the theology of history

Parallel to these developments in eschatology, the twentieth century witnessed an abundance of reflection on the theology of history, which has hardly interacted with the treatise, but deserves to be taken into account. 

The thesis of the Jewish philosopher Karl Löwitz on Augustine's theology of history and his essays on history and salvation and on the meaning of history are well known. Also Berdiaev, cited above, has a B essay on The Meaning of History. And the great French historian Henri Irenée Marrou. On the other hand, we have The Mystery of Time, by Jean Mouroux. And the Mystery of History, by Jean Daniélou. And the Philosophy of history, by Jacques Maritain, who sees both good and evil growing. And Bruno Forte's Theology of History, whose theology is built precisely from history. And, on the other hand, the attention to utopianism paid by Henri De Lubac, in his essay on The Spiritual Posterity of Joachim of Fiore. And Gilson, in The Metamorphoses of the City of God.