CHRISTIAN consideration of “the last things” (in Greek “ta eschata”) is generally carried out under the theological description of “eschatology”.
Too often eschatology has been last, not just in the list of doctrines treated in theological textbooks, but in the significance accorded to it in Christian theology as a whole. It often seems to be a detachable doctrinal appendix, without any apparent purchase on most of what precedes it. But this reflects a failure to grasp the sense in which Christian faith and theology are, or should properly be, eschatological from first to last.
Eschatology concerns the fact that, just as God spoke the primordial word that called the world into being, so too God will have the final say about its future — a word that he has already uttered in the form of promise.
And while eschatological doctrine does concern itself with final destinies — of individual people, human history, and the cosmos as a whole — beyond the threshold of transience and death, it is not just about the final few pages of the world’s story, but about the story as a whole past, present, and future, and about individual parts of it as they appear in the light of that promised end.
None of this means that theology should lose sight, or fail to speak, of the final things themselves; but in eschatology these can never be the focus of a wholly other-worldly esotericism. Instead, our imaginative grasp of the shape of God’s promise quickly discovers it to be pregnant with meaning for faith’s present, and constantly threatening to break in and transform that present through the Holy Spirit’s action.
THE intellectual climate of modernity has rejected many of the traditional elements of Christian eschatology as part of its thorough-going secularism. What is interesting to note, though, is its appropriation of the broad shape of eschatological expectation, which relies heavily upon the linear understanding of time and history proper to biblical narrative. Modernity, too, in other words, has its stories to tell about the meaningfulness of human history, and about a bright future towards which history as a whole is gradually moving.
Torn out of its biblical and theological context, such secular eschatology inevitably has a radically different tone.
The most familiar example of this is what is sometimes referred to as the modern dogma or myth of progress, a secularist notion that understands natural and historical processes themselves as being possessed of an inbuilt capacity for, and tendency towards, perfection. From an empirical observation that, with the passage of time, certain things in human understanding and behaviour might be said to progress, we witness a shift to the dogmatic (one might almost say religious) claim that that things are bound to get better as time passes.
Modern science and technology represent huge strides forward in human understanding of the world, and have brought significant improvements for large portions of the human race. What must surely be acknowledged with equal force, though, is that the basic moral and spiritual disposition of human beings appears not to have changed, and shows no prospect of doing so.
Against genuine advances in Western society, such as the abolition of slavery, the establishment of universal suffrage, and the promotion and protection of human rights, we must set those inhuman atrocities that human beings are still perfectly capable of perpetrating upon one another.
Indeed, the technological mastery of nature itself, wedded to this abiding fundamental moral flaw, has enhanced and extended both the repertoire of humanity’s self-destructive options and the set of precision tools available with which to commit them. It is not a recipe for unalloyed progress.
Additionally, of course, there looms the shadow of one uncomfortable reality that calls even such progress as has been made into serious question. Death eventually robs us of it, and brings it all to nothing. The cruel fact of transience, and of scientific predictions of our planet’s own end in some cosmic conflagration, challenge all attempts to locate the meaning and value of existence within the limits and patterns of historical existence as such.
FOR those who adhere to a Christian faith, though, the end and meaning of history can come only from beyond it, from an act of the God who transcends all creaturely reality, and whose promised redemptive act always comes as grace — something that history and nature alike are incapable of providing.
In the mean time — the period between the present and history’s end-point — we have a time of anticipation, when human life must be lived in the light of the promise, and in the power of the Spirit of the promise.
The puzzle is how this life should be lived. An eschatology concerned entirely with the expectation of other-worldly realities quickly degenerates into an ethically, politically, and ecologically irresponsible attitude to the here and now. This can take the form of quietism — an effective withdrawal from practical, social, and political concerns, tolerating conditions of injustice, oppression, and worse without protest, because the present state of affairs is recognised to be temporary and penultimate, to be replaced duly by enjoyment of a kingdom of peace and justice and unimaginable bliss.
More damaging still are those forms of end-time obsession that take the biblical promise that God will fashion a new heaven and a new earth as notice served from on high that this current world is already marked for destruction. This can be seen as tacit licence to treat the world and its resources carelessly, or even in a ruthlessly exploitative manner.
It is important to observe that the new creation of which Christian scripture speaks does not entail the replacement of this world, but precisely its redemption. This means, of course, that, as the object of God’s creative and redemptive purpose and promise, this present world and our existence in it have supreme value for God. We must value it, too, not just in theory, but in the way we treat it.
And, even though no historical initiative or action can ever establish God’s Kingdom, Christians are none the less called to act already in ways that correspond to the shape of the promise; to fashion (in the Spirit’s power) concrete parables of the new creation in the midst, and under the conditions, of the old.
Nor does the biblical vision of the end times lend itself naturally or easily to spiritualising interpretations, in which immortal souls survive the perishing of material and historical existence to enjoy a private, disembodied vision of God. The bodily resurrection of Jesus (the touchstone of Christian eschatology) reminds us that material as well as immaterial reality awaits its transformation and glorification at God’s hands.
Meanwhile, prophetic expectation of a heavenly kingdom characterised by justice and peace compels us to imagine redeemed existence in communal rather than merely individual terms. And the core image of a new creation envisages the salvation of humans only as part of a hope that extends to the non-human creation, too.
CHRISTIAN eschatology over the centuries has often been focused primarily on a cluster of four biblical images depicting the “final things”. The images are those of death, judgement, hell, and heaven.
In broad narrative form, it was traditionally maintained that, at the point of death, human beings entered an “interim state”. This was an area of some ambiguity, but was widely understood to involve either an immediate particular judgement and conscious disembodied existence (sometimes entailing a purgation to fit the faithful soul for eternity), or some form of “sleep”.
This intermediate condition continued until the second advent, or Parousia, of Christ, when all the dead would be raised up and judged, before being dispatched to an eternity in the presence of God (heaven) or in eternal separation from God (hell).
The modern world has an odd and uneasy relationship with death. In part, it is fascinated by death’s mechanics, and cannot leave it alone, making it the gruesome subject of a myriad film and video-game simulations. But this is a fascination born of fear. Actual dying in our communities is largely banished from public gaze, hidden away in hospital wards, the processes of dealing with the dead being left in the hands of professionals, and more or less industrialised.
One contemporary way of dealing with death is through euphemism, referring to it as someone’s passing, and even presenting it as a friend to be welcomed.
Christian faith is less sentimental. It understands death not as a friend but as something unnatural that tears away from us the gift of life that God has granted. In biblical terms, indeed, death does not refer simply to a biological process, but to the additional power that sin invests mortality with, to interrupt our spiritual relationship with the God of life.
Death robs us of God — this, and not its robbing us of the many other good things of life in the world, is its full and final horror.
That faith can look death in the eye without blinking (and even picture it as a mere falling asleep) has nothing to do with sentimental denial of this horror. It rests securely on the promise of resurrection, the gift of immortality that will restore to us, in all its fullness, not just the best of what creation has to offer, but that new quality of living that faith already tastes and enjoys in the here and now.
THE central Christian creeds follow the pattern of scripture in their expectation of a glorious return of Christ at the end of history to judge “both the living and the dead”. This image of a final judgement has suffered neglect in the modern period, but it is an essential part of the promised future to which faith looks forward expectantly.
Despite the way in which it has sometimes been presented and deployed, it must be understood fundamentally as an image of hope and good news, rather than a mechanism for generating guilt and fear.
Judgement means both an acknowledgement of realities and a dispelling of all illusions, and also the destruction of evil by a holy God in whose presence it cannot, finally, exist. Nothing that does not correspond to God’s own holy character can be taken up into the new creation: it will be identified and purged, whether instantaneously or via some process entailing the passage of time.
Furthermore, while the cosmic assize is pictured as involving the judgement of individual human lives in terms of their complicity in good and bad actions, it must be related theologically to the atonement in which God himself has borne the penalty of sin “once and for all”.
Thus the Last Judgement cannot be a new judgement — introducing some ground for fixing the eternal destiny of God’s creatures beyond that which faith discovers in its crucified and risen Saviour. It must be understood as the divine confirmation and final implementation of a verdict already reached.
The significance of the symbol of Parousia is precisely to stress this essential continuity: the God into whose hands our final judgement will fall is the very same one who, in an act of holy love, first permitted himself to be judged in our place. Therefore the place of punishment and exclusion from God is described as “prepared for the devil and his angels”. It was never intended for God’s human creatures; and, by entering it himself, God has robbed it of any legitimate hold on them.
Those pictured as entering any such place must thus be reckoned to be those who, despite the destiny created and secured for them in Christ, have made an irrevocable and final choice for evil, and thus can have no possible place in the coming kingdom of holiness.
Again, God’s final judgement is not understood as a legalistic implementation of distributive and retributive justice. What is judged is the appropriateness of a life for entry into eternity, its fundamental alignment towards God and the good, or its fundamental rejection of them.
In closing, we should note the inherent vulnerability of all attempts to systematise what are, within the pattern of God’s revealing of himself and his purposes, necessarily imaginative expressions rather than literal descriptions of what will occur at the end. Any exegetical and theological confidence need to be balanced by caution in a doctrinal territory that, biblically speaking at least, is often characterised by the note of surprise.
The Revd Professor Trevor Hart is Rector of St Andrew’s Episcopal Church, St Andrews, Fife, and Honorary Professor of Divinity in the University of St Andrews, where he was Professor of Divinity 1995-2013.