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....

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About the Author

Luke Timothy Johnson, a frequent contributor, is the R.W. Woodruff Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins at the Candler School of Theology, Emory University. Two of his most recent books are Among the Gentiles: Greco-Roman Religion and Christianity (Yale) and Prophetic Jesus, Prophetic Church (Eerdmans).