Throughout the Gospels, Jesus teaches that after our death we shall be welcomed into heaven or destined to hell; resurrected and judged at the end of time. Over the centuries the popes and councils have clarified these teachings on the last things (eschata in Greek, novissima in Latin) in a series of dogmatic declarations. Modern theologians refer to this area of Christian doctrine as eschatology.
Increasingly, eschatology has come "to dominate the entire theological landscape" (Joseph Ratzinger) and constitute its "storm-zone" (Hans Urs von Balthasar). Far more importantly, Christ urges us to have our gaze fixed on the last things and ready ourselves for eternal life. It is crucial that we understand his teaching on the last things. To help us do so, Prof. Michael Root explains his pick of the five best books on eschatology.
Michael Root is Professor Emeritus of the School of Theology and Religious Studies at Catholic University of America. He served on the drafting team for the Catholic-Lutheran Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, and on the Catholic-Lutheran dialogue both nationally and internationally, the international Lutheran-Anglican dialogue, and the US Lutheran-Methodist dialogue. He was a staff consultant to the 1993 World Conference on Faith and Order (Spain) and the 1998 Lambeth Conference (England). He has been the executive director of the Center for Catholic and Evangelical Theology.
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In layman’s terms, what is eschatology? What are the last things that Jesus and the apostolic tradition distinguish? Eschatology is the theological study of the last things, of our final destiny, be that heaven or hell. ‘Eschata’ is simply Greek for ‘last things’ Eschatology as an area of theology has come to include all the events included in the New Testament picture of the End: the return of Christ, the universal resurrection, judgment, heaven, hell. Also, it is usual to include our own individual fate at and after death: the nature of death itself, the situation of the soul between death and resurrection, purgation.
These matters are central to the preaching of Jesus and to the entire New Testament. The individual topics are closely connected in the Bible; the theologians divides them up for the sake of discussion, but we need to remember what ties them all together—the final triumph of God’s will in Christ.
What drew you to make eschatology one of your areas of research? When I first became interested in theology as an undergraduate in the early 1970s, a lot of attention was being given to a new “theology of hope” in Protestant theology. I did my undergraduate thesis in this area. I was drawn back to the topic by accident. I had become deeply involved in Catholic-Lutheran dialogue and the American dialogue took up eschatology as its topic from 2005 to 2010. I found the issues involved fascinating and taught classes in the area regularly when I joined the faculty at the Catholic University of America.
Are there any major differences between Catholic doctrine on the last things and that of the main Protestant ecclesial communities? The doctrinal differences are relatively few, related to the invocation of the saints, purgatory, and prayers for the dead. These differences point to some real differences in piety, though. For the Catholic, the dead are with us. We ask the saints to pray for us and we pray for our loved ones who have died. For almost all Protestants, the saints and the dead are simply gone.
The individual topics are closely connected in the Bible; the theologians divides them up for the sake of discussion, but we need to remember what ties them all together—the final triumph of God’s will in Christ.
One of the main debates on eschatology among Catholic theologians in recent years surrounds Hans Urs von Balthasar’s book Dare We Hope That All Men Be Saved. What are your thoughts on the matter? Balthasar argued that, since neither Scripture nor the Church has ever authoritatively taught any particular person is eternally lost, we should hope that ultimately all humanity will be redeemed. His argument has been widely influential. He is correct about formal Church teaching, but it does seem to me both Scripture and tradition have assumed that some are finally lost, for example, Judas. Unfortunately, Balthasar’s argument has had the effect, I think, of reinforcing our natural tendency not to take seriously the effects of our present decisions on our eternal fate. When Paul says “take heed lest ye fall” (1 Corinthians 10:12), he means it.
The tendency in contemporary American culture to make religion therapeutic, a matter of helping us get through the day and find meaning, also tends to undercut the importance of the last things.
At present, do the last things feature as prominently as they should in Catholic preaching, catechesis, and spirituality? I think there is still a tendency to focus practical preaching, catechesis, and piety solely on the survival of the soul and what happens when we die. For the New Testament, the focus is more universal—the return of Christ, judgment, the transformation of all things. That universal future can seem distant, however, and not directly relevant to daily life in the present. The tendency in contemporary American culture to make religion therapeutic, a matter of helping us get through the day and find meaning, also tends to undercut the importance of the last things. We need to find a way of seeing the present as always oriented toward the end that has already come in Christ, that is present in the sacraments. After all, “here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city which is to come” (Heb 13:14). Shaping our life toward that end is no easy matter, though. The opportunities for preaching and catechesis are there, in the feasts of All Saints and All Souls, and in the mass readings for the last Sundays before Advent and the feast of Christ the King. We need to make use of them.
You have settled on a little treatise for your first recommended reading. Is this your way of saying that Catholics wishing to read about eschatology should begin by acquiring a working knowledge of the Church’s teaching on the last things? In that case, why should we read the treatise of a German theologian? Does not Jesus teach us all we need to know in the Gospel and in an infinitely more authoritatively manner? Moreover, out of the many treatises on the subject, why have you selected Romano Guardini’s? I recommended this book first for just the reason you name—one needs a good overview of the comprehensive Catholic teaching on last things to get a framework of thinking about the details. The Guardini book does an excellent job in providing such a framework from a broadly traditional perspective, but with attention to modern life. All the central topics are taken up in a brief scope. For the reader not interested in a technical treatise, I can’t think of a better place to start.
Guardini has thought through the technical philosophical and theological issues, but they remain in the background. He was a master of combining careful theology and a spirit of devotion. One doesn’t just get the information; one gets some guidance on how to appropriate the information into one’s Christian life.
Guardini wrote this book in Germany in the late 1930s, but it doesn’t show its age or origin, despite the turbulence of the time (Guardini was fired from his teaching position by the Nazi administration at about the time he wrote this book). Guardini was born in Italy, but his parents moved to Germany while he was an infant and he grew up fully bilingual in Italian and German. Some of his writings now seem dated, but not this one.
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