RECENTLY THE International Theological Commission issued a document entitled De quibusdam quaestionibus actualibus circa eschatologiam.(1) In this article I shall start by giving a brief summary of the content of that document. Secondly, and principally, I will highlight for critical reflection some of the most significant issues the document raises and some of the disputed questions it touches on. Finally, in light of my critique, I will make some suggestions as to how eschatology should be approached today.
From the viewpoint of content, and also in other ways, the recent document of the International Theological Commission is a continuation and confirmation of an earlier and much shorter document issued by the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on May 11, 1979, entitled Recentiores episcoporum synodi.(2) Questions in Eschatology takes up again each eschatological issue mentioned in Reality after Death and reaffirms in globo all the doctrinal teachings contained there.(3) On the other hand, in view of theological developments in the intervening decade, the recent document elaborates at much greater length upon the theological context in which contemporary eschatology is being formulated. It also singles out for extensive discussion certain aspects it considers essential to an orthodox doctrine of the last things.
Like Reality after Death, the document begins by affirming the centrality of the article of the Creed regarding the resurrection and future life. Unfortunately, it points out, the Christian faith in life everlasting is seriously threatened by the contemporary cultural and theological context. It identifies three factors of this context: secularism, "theological darkness," and temporal messianism. Secularism, with its autonomous vision of humanity and the world, removes the sense of mystery, and hence of the life beyond. By "theological darkness" the Commission refers to what it regards as novel interpretations of dogmas, especially in Christology (e.g. interpretations of Jesus' divinity and resurrection), that throw doubt on articles of faith regarding eschatology and hence perturb the faithful, particularly when these interpretations seep into catechesis and preaching. Finally, temporal messianism is detected in "some theologians of liberation" who so emphasize political and economic liberation that they obscure, if not deny, transcendental salvation.(4)
After these introductory reflections, Questions in Eschatology passes in review the major elements of Christian eschatology and contemporary theological interpretations of them. Its positions can be summarized in the following twelve points.
1. The resurrection of Jesus is the cause and model of our resurrection. Since the risen Jesus' body is identical with his earthly body (albeit transformed), our resurrection will also be bodily. Our risen bodies will not be spiritualized or ethereal bodies created ex novo by God, but will be really identical with our earthly bodies, though transformed like that of Jesus. Nevertheless, the resurrection is not a return to the conditions of earthly existence. In other words, it is not reanimation. Rather, "this body which is now shaped by the soul (psyche) will be shaped in the glorious resurrection by the spirit (pneuma)."(5)
2. To defend the identity between the earthly body and its risen form, Questions in Eschatology appeals to a series of hermeneutical principles.(6) Since eschatological assertions do not refer merely to the future but also to realities that have already occurred in Christ, made evident in his resurrection, the first principle of hermeneutics of eschatological assertions requires that we fully accept truths which God, who has knowledge of the future, has revealed to us. Second, our interpretation of the resurrection of the dead must be based on our knowledge of the resurrection of Christ. Third, our eternal life must be understood as a life of communion with God in Christ. Lastly, our interpretation of the resurrection must take into account the teachings of the Creeds and of the Fathers, both of which emphasize the bodily dimension of the resurrection and the identity between the earthly body and the risen one.(7)
3. Questions in Eschatology strongly rejects the recent theory of resurrection at the moment of death. While sympathetic to its aversion to Platonic dualism, it argues that the theory does not do justice to the future character of Christ's parousia with which the resurrection is professed to occur simultaneously. Violence is done to the New Testament texts, the document maintains, if Christ's parousia is interpreted as a permanent event consisting in the individual's encounter with the Lord in his or her death. Moreover, Questions in Eschatology claims that the atemporalism theory (which holds that since after death time no longer exists, each person who dies rises in death, and his or her resurrection coincides with a simultaneous collective resurrection) does not conform to the biblical notion of time.(8)
4. As a result of its view of the resurrection as a future event connected with Christ's parousia, Questions in Eschatology emphatically affirms the existence of the intermediate state. It argues that such a state is implied in the Old Testament concept of sheol and in such New Testament texts as Luke 23:43, John 14:1-3, and Phil 1:21-24. Such a state is transitory; it looks forward to the future parousia of Christ who will conform our lowly bodies with his glorified body.(9)
5. Another consequence of the view of the resurrection as a future event, and not something that occurs at death, is the affirmation of what the Commission calls the "eschatology of souls." Between a person's death and his or her resurrection something that is conscious perdures and can be called the "soul." The survival of the conscious soul prior to the resurrection is, according to the Commission, the guarantee of "the continuity and identity between the person who lived and the person who will rise, inasmuch as in virture of such a survival the concrete individual never totally ceases to exist."(10)
6. Questions in Eschatology rejects the charge that its "two- stage" eschatology is derived from Platonic dualism. Rather it is based, the Commission argues, on Vatican II's anthropology which recognizes the duality of the human person, constituted by body and soul. Furthermore, such an anthropology is implicit in the Bible, and the Commission cites among other texts Wis 16:13-14 and Matt 10:28 to support it.(11)
7. For the Commission death is both an evil and a good. Insofar as death tears the human person asunder, it is an evil, and a sense of repugnance and sadness over one's impending death or the death of others is quite legitimate. On the other hand, since the resurrection is not possible without death, and if death is a "death in the Lord," it becomes a good. This fact explains, the Commission says, the hope for death found among saints and mystics. The Commission also points out that, though the Church no longer forbids the cremation of corpses, this practice would be wrong if it expressed a denial of the resurrection of the body.(12)
8. On the basis of the doctrine of the communion of saints, Questions in Eschatology reaffirms the validity and necessity of the invocation of saints. It carefully distinguishes this practice from that of evoking spirits, which is designed to obtain hidden information from the dead. The Commission also reiterates the validity and necessity of praying for the dead.(13)
9. The practice of praying for the dead as well as the burial liturgy implies the existence of a "post mortem purificatory phase." Questions in Eschatology warns that too close a parallel between the purificatory process and the process of damnation (hell) should be avoided, as if the difference between the two lies merely in that the former is temporary while the latter is eternal. In fact, the former is characterized by love, the latter by hate.(14)
10. Questions in Eschatology categorically repudiates the doctrine of reincarnation: "This is a child of paganism in direct opposition to Scripture and Church tradition, and has been always rejected by Christian faith and theology."(15) It charges that this doctrine denies three central Christian dogmas: the possibility of eternal damnation, redemption by God's grace rather than by human efforts, and the resurrection of the body. In opposition to the doctrine of reincarnation, Questions in Eschatology affirms that "we have only a single life on earth.,"(16)
11. The Commission interprets eternal life and beatific vision in terms of friendship with God: "The theme of the vision of God 'face to face' (1 Cor 13:12; cf. 1 John 3:2) is to be understood as an expression of intimate friendship."(17) But since friendship cannot be forced and its offer may be rejected, Questions in Eschatology warns that the possibility of hell must be seriously taken into account, though one should be sober in its description and should "avoid attempts to grasp in concrete detail how to reconcile God's infinite goodness and human liberty."(18)
12. The Commission concludes by applying the principle that "the law of prayer is the law of belief" to the doctrine of the last things. From the liturgy for the dead, the Commission derives the following doctrines. First, the resurrection of Christ is the ultimate reality which throws light on every other eschatological truth. Second, our resurrection will take place at the end of the world. Third, there is an "eschatology of souls," that is, an intermediate state which in turn implies the immortality of the soul. Fourth, there is a postmortem purification. Finally, the eschatology of souls is ordered towards the resurrection of the body. In the words of Questions in Eschatology, "the liturgy serves to strike a balance between the individual and collective elements in eschatology and to bring forth the christological meaning of the ultimate realities, without which eschatology would be reduced to mere human speculation."(19)
ISSUES AND DISPUTED QUESTIONS
My intention in this section is to highlight certain issues broached by Questions in Eschatology for critical discussion. For clarity's sake I will divide the twelve points made by the Commission into three groups: those that should command universal agreement without reservation; those that would elicit consent, but iuxta modum; and those that will call for critical evaluation. Attention will be focused on the second and third groups.
Universally Agreeable Statements
To the first group belong such affirmations as the following: 1. The resurrection of Jesus is the cause and model of our resurrection and therefore must be the starting point for Christian eschatology.(20)
2. The resurrection is not a return to this life or reanimation.(21)
3. The resurrection concerns the whole individual and not only the body or the disembodied soul.(22)
4. The resurrection is not only an event happening to the individual but also an ecclesial and cosmic event.(23)
5. There is both radical continuity and radical discontinuity between the present life and the future.(24)
6. The theological principle lex orandi, lex credendi holds for eschatology so that the Church's liturgy for the dead and the practice of interceding for the deceased by prayer, alms, good works, and, most importantly, the offering of the Eucharist constitute an indispensable locus theologicus for a theology of the life beyond.(25)
Points Agreed Upon Iuxta Modum
Besides these by-and-large uncontroverted statements there is another series of affirmations and theological elaborations contained in Questions in Eschatology which, in my judgment, would meet with a sympathetic hearing from many contemporary Catholic theologians, though they require further nuancing and expansion. These are the hermeneutics of eschatological statements, the description of death, and the doctrine of purgatory.
The Hermeneutics of Eschatological Statements
With regard to the hermeneutics of eschatological assertions, there can be no disagreement with the four principles formulated by the Commission.(26) However, it is rather strange that in dealing with this theme the Commission quoted a text from von Balthasar(27) and ignored a work of Karl Rahner which is one of the most influential essays on the hermeneutics of eschatological statements in the history of Roman Catholic theology.(28)
There are several points in which the Commission and Rahner would agree.(29) But there are other principles espoused by Rahner that, had the Commission taken them into account, would have enriched its document considerably. I will mention only four. First, Rahner strongly insists that "knowledge of the future will be knowledge of the futurity of the present: eschatological knowledge is knowledge of the eschatological present. An eschatological assertion is not an additional, supplementary statement appended to an assertion about the present and the past of the human person but an inner moment of this person's self-understanding."(30)
Two corollaries follow from this principle: (1) A balance is preserved between presentist and existentialist eschatology (that of C. H. Dodd and R. Bultmann) on the one hand and eschatology as prolepsis and hope (that of W. Pannenberg and J. Moltmann) on the other.(31) In this way, …