A Sense of an Ending

One of the many elements of a coherent Christian vision lost in the past half-century is a clear sense of how things end. Catholics profess in the creed that “he will come again in glory to judge the living and dead, and his kingdom shall have no end,” and that “we look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.” The catechism version of eschatology was the four last things: death, judgment, heaven, hell.

When I was a boy, Catholic mission preachers passed through our tiny parish, delighting in the challenge of measuring eternity’s ocean with temporal teaspoons and making the reality of judgment and hell chillingly clear. Catholics took these things personally. Then we didn’t know about the world’s future and didn’t speculate much about Jesus’ arrival, but we all knew the options that pertained to us, and three of them were scary.

The tradition of memento mori (“keep your death in mind”) meant taking with utter seriousness a continuing existence after death that was consequent on our choices. No passage of the Bible was more pertinent to our lives than Matthew 25:31–40, where the Son of Man separates the sheep and goats and sends them to their eternal destiny. Every cup of water we gave or withheld helped determine whether Jesus would say to us, “Depart from me,” or “Come, inherit the Kingdom.”

How things have changed. Many Catholics today, if asked how they are preparing for the four last things, would respond with a blank stare. Like their Protestant friends (in this case unfortunately), they do not count the four last things among the great truths by which they live, but find them embarrassing relics of a former piety: hell is incompatible with a merciful God, heaven a vague compensatory notion, judgment offensively personal and public (and not televised). As for death, it is not to be conquered by faith but delayed by medicine.

Reasons for the change are, as always, multiple. The strain of modernity that infects us all finds heaven and hell too mythic; the excesses of millenarian Christians (of the Left Behind sort) make most of us wish eschatology would go away; and some among us are convinced by the argument of liberation theology that expecting “pie in the sky by and by” inhibits authentic social engagement. And it must be admitted that reading Scripture for eschatological guidance doesn’t help much. The biblical writers offer a number of future scenarios, but the variety of their offerings supports the common-sense conclusion that they had no more certain a vision of the future than we do.

Some of us yearn for personal immortality. We want our parents and our children to have a better life than this one, and if possible, we would like to have a glimpse of the face of God as well. Driven by such longings, we may seek for signs from the next world. Others among us adopt a form of “for this life only” approach, finding eternity in the moments of transcendent joy that grace our lives, even considering ourselves a superior sort of Christian because we are “not in it for the reward,” but practice mercy and justice for their own sake.

But in this, as in other cases, the church believes more and better than any one of us does, reminding us that God’s future is larger than our individual destinies. The creed isolates and simply states the point of all the diverse scriptural witnesses concerning the future: God’s triumph has already begun in the new creation that is the resurrection of Jesus. Our hope for the future is based on the work God is already doing in human lives, work that we recognize as but a stage toward something greater for ourselves and for the world.

We don’t know for certain what that greater reality may be or when it may appear. But then, neither did Jesus: “But of that day or hour, no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the son, but only the Father” (Mark 13:32). We only live in the quiet confidence that the one who creates the world at every moment, calling into being that which is not, is drawing his creation ineluctably toward himself.

We are right, then, to celebrate the small glimmers of “eternity” that appear in our lives. They are intimations of immortality, and (as the sociologist Peter Berger put it) “rumors of angels.” But we are wrong when we assume that such states of momentary joy constitute the entirety of eternity. In the creed we gladly proclaim that we “expect the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come,” because we have come to learn, from the continuing power of the Lord Jesus active among us in the Holy Spirit, that what is truly real remains.

Published in the 2006-12-15 issue: 

Luke Timothy Johnson is emeritus Woodruff Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at the Candler School of Theology, Emory University, and a frequent Commonweal contributor. His many books include Among the Gentiles: Greco-Roman Religion and Christianity (Yale) and Prophetic Jesus, Prophetic Church (Eerdmans).

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