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Hans Memling, "The Last Judgment" (detail)

Eschatology: Dying to Live

Life: Issue Four

Andrew T. J. Kaethler

“Let him easter in us, be a dayspring to the dimness of us, be a crimson-cresseted east”
Gerard Manley Hopkins

The Swiss Protestant theologian Karl Barth famously wrote, “Christianity which is not wholly eschatology and nothing but eschatology has nothing to do with Christ.” Isn’t Barth overstating the point? If he is not, then it seems fair to say that Christianity has little to do with this life. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church sets out, “Eschatology refers to the area of Christian faith which is concerned about ‘the last things,’ and the coming of Jesus on ‘the last day’: our human destiny, death, judgment, resurrection of the body, heaven, purgatory, and hell—all of which are contained in the final articles of the Creed.” What does hell, to choose but one of the “last things,” have to do with the present? I am not Barthian, but there is a profound truth to his statement, and if we understand eschatology in light of Christ, He who died and rose again, it is a truth that has everything to do with this life.

The last things all hinge on death. Death is the passage that leads to judgment, purgatory, resurrection, and so forth. It is also the one aspect of eschatology that is of equal interest to medical science and metaphysics, theorists and theologians. Death is both natural and historical, biological and spiritual. Romano Guardini writes that “death is built into life’s structure, and issues from its course. It is present long before the conclusion, actually throughout the whole development of life.”[1] There is physical death, psychological death, and what Guardini calls “biographical death,” chapters of our life that close before new ones open. For human persons, Guardini argues, death does not belong to the natural order but to the historical order. This is most clearly seen by juxtaposing animals with humans.

For animals, death belongs to the natural order of things: “The form of the animal’s growth, maturity, decline, and death unfolds in a self-contained whole.”[2] The nature of each animal encompasses what is essential for it. For the human person, on the other hand, existence is not fulfilled in nature but in what Guardini refers to as the “enactment of a ‘history.’”[3] The shape of man’s life is “an arch that reaches out toward something that in turn comes to meet it.”[4] Man is that paradoxical creature who only comes home to himself by reaching beyond himself. His nature demands relational encounter; he is a creature that exists as an I-Thou-We. This dialogical triptych is only possible if man is a self-determining creature that is incommunicable. That is, he must be so that he can receive from others and gift himself to others—the I-Thou-We. Likewise, he must be able to freely choose to give himself; otherwise, self-gift is an illusion. It would be mere determinism (cause and effect), no different than a leaf that is carried downstream in a current. Each person is defined by these relational encounters, but herein lies the difficulty: in his brokenness man incessantly resists looking beyond himself.

All our little breakdowns in life, from failing an exam or losing a job to the breakdown of our aging bodies, are eschatological. They are intended to break us open to Christ and his body, so that we do not remain alone.

The ending in every novel is intimately bound together with the beginning; analogously, eschatology concerns protology, the beginning. Poetically set out in the book of Genesis, Adam and Eve eat the forbidden fruit of the tree and God says to Adam, “In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Gen 3:19). The historical consequence is that historical man is marked by death and marred by sin. The two go hand-in-hand: “When you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. But then what return did you get from the things of which you are now ashamed? The end of those things is death” (Rom 6:21–22). But why does sin lead to death? St. Augustine helpfully defines sin as incurvatus in se, to be curved inward on oneself. Because of the Fall, man’s proclivity is to seek autonomy (self-deification) over being-in-relation (deification as gift). This disposition (the stain of original sin, i.e., concupiscence) moves man away from his humanness and is a fall into animal nature: man is reduced to a trousered ape or, in Guardini’s words, becomes a “self-contained whole.” We can see here that death is twofold. On the one hand, it is biological as the cessation of our natural life. On the other hand, it is “historical” as the death of personhood, the move from person to self-enclosed animal. In both cases, death concerns a biological reduction. In fact, the latter is the ground for the former, for life is relational.

The consequence of sin, incurvatus in se, is death, and God counters death through death. Christ dies to death and death is defeated thereby. This divine pattern of dying reveals the logic (the logos) of life. It is therefore fitting that God punishes sinful man with death: God breaks something that needed breaking. That is, by breaking death, God broke man out of himself, and this is why our existence is intertwined with death and life.

There are two absolute certainties to existence: birth and death. Life naturally and theologically precedes death, and both are mutually informing. Furthermore, death is subservient to life. Joseph Ratzinger writes, “Dying is inherent to life, the processus [progression] of living is per se also the processus of dying into that life, so that that whole life is imbued, as it were, by death and in its movement is both a movement of living and a movement of dying.”[5] Death is what Ratzinger calls a “breakdown,” and life is full of little breakdowns, little deaths. All these little breakdowns affect us in the same way that biological death is intended to affect us; “[t]hey are ultimately God’s action upon us, through which he tears away from us our selfish, self-seeking, egotistical existence so as to reshape us according to his image.”[6] Death is intended to re-order us toward relation.

To avoid naturalizing death, it is important to think clearly about its origin. Life precedes death, and life not simply in terms of birth. Life is ultimate reality, is true “nature,” not death. Human death is not natural. Physical/biological death is the outcome of an existential choice, a choice that we repeat every time we turn inward. We move toward life when we fix the arc and the curve of our lives is directed out and beyond ourselves: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24). Death is not intended to be the impetus to make a bucket list. Rather, it is intended to open us to the other.

Physical death, which, as we have seen, is fundamentally spiritual or existential, is eschatological because it is the pathway to Christ. Hence Guardini notes, “The last thing is not death, but life.”[7] Likewise, all our little breakdowns in life, from failing an exam or losing a job to the breakdown of our aging bodies, are eschatological. They are intended to break us open to Christ and his body, so that we do not remain alone. The sacrament of baptism is just this: death to self so that we may live in Christ. It reveals the connection between death and life, and that life precedes and succeeds death. Man’s life is not measured by nature, life as bios, but as zoe (life of the spirit), “for man’s mystery is this, that his life, in the last analysis, is not under an inexorable law but results from his encounter with God and with His loving freedom. Death is the stern barrier that separates this loving freedom from any noncommittal attitude.”[8]

Without negating free will, death forces us to decide whether to open ourselves to life or to close ourselves off; we are offered the opportunity to be cracked open like the grain of wheat or to harden and turn inward. In doing the latter, we become the living dead. That is, our life closes down zoe and we are reduced to bios. Yet, bios and zoe are intertwined. The diminishment of zoe is also the diminishment of our embodied selves and leads to an impoverished, hell-like existence. As C. S. Lewis sets out in The Great Divorce, heaven or hell begins in this life. It is here and now that we, by breaking open like the grain of wheat, encounter Christ and become little Christs. In Christ, the eschaton is ever present, and so in our little daily deaths we can encounter the radically other and taste the delights of heaven, Christ Himself. Or, by turning inward, fleeing from the radical Otherness of Christ, we can remain self-enclosed—an experience of hell. In The Last Battle, the last book in The Chronicles of Narnia, Lewis provides a powerful image of hell, which can also be an image of our present existence. Here the dwarfs, who have rejected Aslan, are depicted sitting in a self-enclosed circle on the outskirts of heaven. They are surrounded by light and beauty, and yet all they see is darkness. Peter, Edmund, Lucy, and the others seek to help but to no avail. Aslan explains: “They [the dwarfs] will not let us help them. They have chosen cunning instead of belief. Their prison is only in their own minds, yet they are in that prison, and so afraid of being taken in that they cannot be taken out.”[9] Writing to a friend, Lewis extends this image of a self-enclosed hell:

About Hell. All I have ever said is that the N.T. plainly implies the possibility of some being finally left in “the outer darkness.” Whether this means (horror of horror) being left to a purely mental existence, left with nothing at all but one’s own envy, prurience, resentment, loneliness and self-conceit, or whether there is still some sort of environment, something you could call a world or reality, I would never pretend to know. But when there is nothing for you but your own mind (no body to sleep, no books or landscape, no sounds, no drugs) it will be as actual as—as—well as a coffin is actual to a man buried alive.[10]

Refusing to die to self, man climbs into his own coffin—hell. Death is intended to save us from the finality of total self-enclosure.

Eschatology, like all doctrine and dogma, concerns our everyday life. Death and all the breakdowns or little deaths of life are eschatological openings to the Eschaton himself, Jesus Christ. Death is the hinge to the last things; so too is death the hinge to first things, right here and right now.

Be adored among men,
God, three-numberéd form;
Wring thy rebel, dogged in den,
Man’s malice, with wrecking and storm.
Beyond saying sweet, past telling of tongue,
Thou art lightning and love, I found it, a winter and warm;
Father and fondler of heart thou hast wrung:
Hast thy dark descending and most art merciful then.
Gerard Manley Hopkins

[1] Romano Guardini, The Last Things: Concerning Death, Purification After Death, Resurrection, Judgement, and Eternity, trans. Charlotte E. Forsyth and Grace B. Branham (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1965), 13.

[2] Ibid., 18.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Joseph Ratzinger, Dogma and Preaching: Applying Christian Doctrine to Daily Life, trans. Michael J. Miller, and Matthew J. O’Connell (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2011), 244.

[6] Ratzinger, Dogma, 250.

[7] Guardini, The Last Things, 16.

[8] Ibid., 28.

[9] C. S. Lewis, The Last Battle (New York: Harper Trophy, 1984), 169.

[10] Walter Hooper, ed. The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis: Books, Broadcasts, and the War 1931–1949 (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2004), 710.

Andrew T. J. Kaethler is Academic Dean and Associate Professor of Theology at Catholic Pacific College in Langley, British Columbia, Canada. He is author of the book, The Eschatological Person: Alexander Schmemann and Joseph Ratzinger in Dialogue (Cascade, 2022). He lives with his wife and six children in Aldergrove, British Columbia.

Posted on June 14, 2024

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