Contemporary Context and Issues in Eschatology

Article excerpt

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. …