Cardinal Dulles’ Reinterpretation of The Inheritance of the Vatican II Council

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In January of 1959, Pope John XXIII surprised the world with an announcement that he would be convening an ecumenical council in Vatican City. The council would meet in 1962 and would represent the beginning of a transformative period in the life of the Church, one that would focus on the Church becoming an apostle to a world rapidly undergoing large-scale changes and unifying hugely segmented Christians. Gathering between 1962 and 1965, the Second Vatican Council became a significant turning point in the history of the twentieth-century Church.

In his opening declaration, the Gaudet Mater Ecclesia, Pope John XXIII professed before the Council in an open assemblage the stirring words of their greater purpose: “What is needed at the present time is a new enthusiasm, a new joy and serenity of mind in the unreserved acceptance by all of the entire Christian faith, without forfeiting that accuracy and precision in its presentation which characterized the proceedings of the Council of Trent and the First Vatican Council.”  

It was becoming increasingly obvious that the world in which they dwelt was no longer one where individuals were being raised in the religious faith, transmitting it in turn to their own children, thus passing it safely from one generation to the next. The contemporary world was becoming progressively more and more fragmented, characterized by rapid-fire change and a near-defiant spirit of individualism. People were moving, perhaps too easily, in and out of homes, jobs, marriages, and churches.  It was the Second Vatican Council’s estimation that the Church needed to progress and adjust, as well, in response to the changing times. According to the opening address, anyone truly infused with a Christian, Catholic, and/or apostolic spirit should long for the doctrine of Christ to be more extensively acknowledged, more profoundly understood, and more impactful in the lives of men and women. If framed in meaningful ways, the faithful would respond—after all, they crave to pursue the doctrine to which they owe their obedience. The goal of the Second Vatican Council, then, was to renew and reformulate in contemporary terms the environment of the Church in such a way that it answered the natural longing of the faithful to study and pursue the doctrine. 

Cardinal Avery Dulles became a staunch proponent of this purpose, his own carefully considered theological vision finding roots, ironically, in the sheer revolution of the Second Vatican Council. “Always he sought to display the continuity of that momentous event with the rich biblical, doctrinal, and spiritual heritage of the Catholic Church, even while embracing the council’s significant reforms and invigorating theological developments.”  After the Second Vatican Council, Dulles aimed at being true to the principles of his faith while at the same time working to employ them with creativity and invention in an apathetic world. His writings reflect a mind always seeking to reconcile a number of ideas emergent with the Second Vatican Council—chiefly, how could there be unity with the Church’s faith and still permit theological diversity among the plurality? How could diversity exist within the Church, be productive, faithful to the Christian dogma, and not eventually disintegrate into disorder? The Council had already declared that members should have freedom in terms of spiritual life and discipline, liturgical rites, and even explanations of theological truths. Dulles’ apprehension for how to balance such a rich diversity within the confines of the faith-bound unity inspired much of his body of work, as he sought to understand how the potentially contradictory images, models, and positions could be complementary rather than contradictory, and  “. .meshed [in such a way that]. .the beauty of the Church would be properly manifested.“  It became clear that the Church must renew its focus as far as eschatology was concerned, in the context of a Christocentric immediacy imbued with an ecclesial, ecumenical spirit. Through a discussion of the Church’s rejection of a liberal eschatology, its need to return to clear faith regarding the Last Four Things, and a renewed eschatology in the context of Dulles’ ecclesiological model, it will become clear how the Second Vatican Council did reconcile the Church with a contemporary world.

1.1. Rejection of Liberal Eschatology

A chief principle expressed by the Second Vatican Council is that the Church exists utterly and only for the Kingdom of God; i.e., it is an eschatological community in that it is concerned with the death, judgment, and final destiny—be it Heaven or Hell—of each individual person. Eschatology, from the Greek eschatos meaning “last” or “end,” should inhabit a central place in the Christian faith, as it concerns man’s faith in the coming day of salvation. Karl Barth once said, “if Christianity is not altogether thoroughgoing eschatology, there remains in it no relationship whatever with Christ.”  He was referring to the inescapable tie between the Last Four Things (death, judgment, heaven, and hell), and how one cannot exist without the other in the life of the Christian. Eschatology reflects the natural questions concerning the end of days that plague us as human beings: where are we going, as Christians? What happens to all of our loved ones? What future does God have planned for us? What is in store for our earth? What happens to all of those who have gone before us? The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes) reflects that as far as eschatology is concerned, the Church’s intention is singular—ensuring that man recognizes the surety of God’s kingdom and its pending arrival, and how man’s salvation might be assured before that time. 

Eschatology is a pivotal concept in Christian theology, an integral foundational principle of the revelation and man’s response to it. It certifies the truths that follow death as final but also illuminates “…the self-revelation of the threefold God expressed in his firm resolve that man be saved. God offers himself eschatologically; i.e., finally and unrepentantly, like the horizon, substance, and consummation of human existence.”  In other words, matters surrounding death, judgment, heaven, and hell serve to illuminate how God reveals himself as the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit in order to proffer salvation to his creation. God shows himself to be Love—i.e. God; Righteousness—i.e., the Son; and Eternality—i.e., the Holy Spirit. He is, in other terms, the beginning, the context, and the conclusion of everything. 

Despite this scripturally-based, theologically-centered eschatology, though, there arose several chief impediments in contemporary times to a stable foundation in such; chiefly, historical consciousness, pluralism, and a free-market mentality. Instead of a firm eschatological base, the contemporary church of the twentieth century was marked by the growing schism of liberal eschatology. This was a significant problem of the contemporary church, remarked John Paul II when he belabored the fact that recent generations had experienced a lessening interest in and respect for eschatology and the church in general. This is due in part to the apathy created by poverty, war, social injustices, and technological advancements that have worked to divert man’s consideration away from things of the faith, making them seem as abstraction and myth;  however, it is also easy to see the role history, pluralism, and the free market of ideas plays in its decline.  

As Dulles states in his book The New World of Faith, it is difficult not to give credence to the historical consciousness that has developed since the eighteenth century. After a scientific and industrial revolution, closely held convictions regarding certain things were questioned, if not removed completely. Man no longer believed that the earth was the center of the universe, for instance, or that it was flat, for that matter, in spite of several scriptural passages that had seemed to indicate otherwise. Biblical stories that were once accepted as certainty made their way into a place of mythology and a type of non-literal figurative languages, such as the story of creation, Jonah in the belly of the whale, and Noah’s ark.  Rather than the earth being created in seven literal days, for example, there emerged different schools of thought that posited that each day equaled eons, rather than twenty-four hours in a literal sense. Thus, stories that were once accepted as truth and proof of God’s existence gradually became relegated to a mythologic stance, and as such, God’s relative divinity could be called into question. 

A second impediment to eschatology was pluralism. The world, and by extension man’s worldview, was not as limited as it once was. While in some ways the work of pluralism has been beneficial in regard to theology, there are simultaneously new institutional perspectives and assumptions in thought that have weighty consequences for Christian eschatology and advance some disturbing questions. Some schools of thought falter at confirming the divinity of Jesus, for example, and add him to a list of many possible bringers of salvation and/or prophets—just another Allah. Others focus exclusively on attempting to tie science and religion together, rather than the fullness of the history and message of Christ.  

It is difficult for the Christian, particularly for the new in the faith, to know which theology is right and which is wrong. This is especially true in the sense that today, an individual is no longer bound to a single religious authority. There are no village friars to dictate what one shall believe. A person is not necessarily tied to a solitary set of social mores or the small-town values that s/he grew up with. In the days of just a few generations past, an individual could conceivably be born, raised, educated, married, and die all within the same ten to the twenty-mile radius. 

Today, in contrast, the world and its offerings have expanded on an exponential scale. Children now are born sometimes hundreds of miles distant from extended family and travel across state lines to visit them on a regular basis. They communicate with pen pals from foreign countries via Skype in school. Teenagers receive social media updates from their favorite celebrities, athletes, and activists around the world in real time. News, media, religion, and culture is live streamed continually on television and the internet. Unless one lives a hermetic existence, it is virtually impossible to hide from the stream of influence steadily arriving from all sides. People travel, mix with visitors from other regions, intermarry with other races and ethnic groups, learn about other cultures and more through other people, community, contemporary varied media channels, and much more. Through exposure to the truths and anti-truths of a truly global world, it becomes obvious that the faith espoused by family and social groups may not be the true faith or even a desirable faith to follow. The recognition that the faith one’s family has followed for generations is merely one of many possibilities makes any potential commitment a difficult option to bind oneself to.  Why should one follow a faith for that reason alone? In youth, in particular, the idea of autonomy is a strong aspect of development, as is rebellion against the status quo, making choice in any arena very appealing. 

The third impediment to eschatology in modern times is the free market of ideas, which is quite similar in aspect to pluralism. Like the free market of products, where new products, entertainments, and gadgets are constantly being introduced to consumers and sold, consumers of faith are caught up in a whirlwind of competing ideologies for sale, as well. “Skilled recruiters, intent upon ‘church growth,’…are pressing us to join a multitude of vying movements and causes. Secular ideologies compete with religion, and the various religions are forced to compete among themselves.”  Due to the plethora of choices, no one choice—no one eschatology—is obligatory or even a completely clear-cut yea or nay.  The choice of doctrine becomes a matter of temperament, personal preference, convenience, saleable attributes, and ultimately, how well it is marketed. It is difficult, as well, in this free market of ideologies, to grasp completely the fullness of any complex knowledge such as eschaton. Without conscious realization, the individual holds on to the shallower understanding of what is offered, failing to journey into a deeper reflection of its true import.

These impediments were in part the hallmarks of a liberal eschatology that held no firm beliefs in any one thing and failed to communicate the right tenets to believers. There are regrettably too many examples of this contemporary society, usually with negative consequences at some point in the future due to the shallow foundational ground the theology has been built upon. A liberal view of freedom, for instance, that discerns authority from within rather than from an external source, because indecipherable from licentiousness, when behavior becomes deemed “moral” if one follows one’s heart. This can be used, for instance, to justify adultery or any form of idolatry. Self-interests collide and conflict—such as when the notion that one’s body is a matter of one’s own choice, versus the more fundamental interest of another life’s right to exist. When authority, itself, is viewed as oppressive then individuals become immune to external criticism—their choices become immutable. Some sins might be deemed criminal because they infringe upon others’ autonomy, but not because the actions are in and of themselves contrary to any sort of universal law.  

Looking backward, modern criticism of Christianity began to destroy the concept of traditional eschatology in totality around the time of Marx and the late-nineteenth, early twentieth century and allow for it to be rebuilt according to a more liberal slant. According to Karl Lowith (1897-1973), ideas such as Marxism, positivism, and materialism initiated a shift in eschatological thinking, eventually providing for total freedom from ways of traditional theological philosophy.  Christian eschatology became framed within the context of an anthropocentric worldview, thereby separating from its former theocentric orientation that anchored God solidly as the foundation. 

Pertinent to eschatology, especially, the Enlightenment bred a number of utopian visions, notions that mankind was on a trajectory of progress, with a termination that would eventually breed the ideal world. History itself was viewed as a product of impersonal and man-driven economic forces and political figures. If we are the authors of our history, it would be presumed, that we are also the authors of our future. Prior to the twentieth century, in fact, the illusion of progress seemed to confirm the idea that mankind was on the ascent, conditions were improving, and based on developments in philosophy and science, there was cause for great optimism. Progress, so-long as humanity held the reigns of science, was deemed an inevitable force leading humankind to a better tomorrow. In such a climate, classical and biblical eschatology fell upon deaf ears. Why tie one’s hope to a future kingdom of God when, by all appearances, mankind could effectively inaugurate God’s kingdom here and now through human achievement? Savvy liberal theologians reframed this notion of man-centered progress not as a departure of faith, but in terms of mankind’s participation in God’s better hope for our world. The error of prior ages of the Church, it was argued, was that man played too passive a role in anticipating God to act and intervene in history. Faith was not a matter of trusting God to fulfill his promises but instead was placed in the capacity that God gave human beings themselves to bring about God’s kingdom through ingenuity. 

This notion hit a high-point in the late eighteenth century. According to Pohl, “it was the industrialist’s investment in waterways, steam locomotives, manufactories and other technological advancements supported by a very distinctive credo of individualism, which emerged in the late eighteenth century that recast the wilderness into a de facto industrialist  utopia.”  Liberalism, more than purely a historical phenomenon, represented an ideological shift that demanded theology, itself, to modernize. Continuity with the past, the valuation of Tradition, was exchanged with the experience of the present, and whatever vision one hoped to make for the future of one’s choice. With man at the center rather than God, once-pivotal ideas of eschatology, such as the role of God, God’s gift of free will to man, and God’s gift of eternal life began to be understood by a society as mainly hypothetical conditions to be realized in order for man to look upon himself as a moral creature. In his flawed understanding of the divine, the man began to see God not as a savior, but as a competitor, and in public forums such as the state, the legal, economic, and educational systems, theology became secondary to a more natural system of pragmatism.  Science, reason, and common sense began to reign supreme—a man no longer had any use for the relative mystery of faith and its incomprehensibility. If it could not be proven, touched, felt, seen, or the like, it was not real. The world had quickly become so different from an intellectual stance from when Christianity was first founded that current biblical dogmas were all but incomprehensible to the faithful of contemporary times, and as such, was failing to reach them. 

While the nineteenth century, especially as the failures of colonialism became evident, should have halted this notion it was not until the horrors of the twentieth century that utopian notions for a better future were almost entirely dispelled. The Great Depression challenged the notion that human progress could be achieved in wholly economic terms. The rise of Nazism and Communism, two World Wars, and other violent conflicts, rattled Enlightenment presuppositions. As Weigel has noted, humanism declared freedom its highest aspiration, but in this worldview “freedom decays into license; anarchy threatens; and in the face of that anarchy a host of devils, each promising security amid the chaos, is set loose—demons like the supremacy of race (Hitler) or class (Marx), the messianic lure of utopian politics (Lenin), chapter after bloody chapter, the butcher’s bill always lengthened by humanity’s increasing technological accomplishments.”  Many, having already bought into the liberal criticism of classical theology, were left in the wake of these tragedies little more than existential angst, a nihilistic sense that life is meaningless and that hope, itself, is a futile idea.

Simply returning to traditional theology, however, seemed untenable. Liberalism, for all its social and political failings, had irrevocably undermined many core convictions at the heart of classical Christianity. Over time, the advocates of liberalism sought to refute theology based on the authority of reason and intellect alone. In the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, Elwell and Treier underscore this idea, stating,

“All beliefs must pass the tests of reason and experience, and one's mind must be open to new facts and truth, regardless of where these may originate. No questions are closed or settled, and religion must not protect itself from critical examination. As the Bible is the work of writers who were limited by their times, it is neither supernatural nor an infallible record of divine revelation and thus does not possess absolute authority.”  

Their statement that even religion is not exempt from scrutiny paired with the idea that its authors were mere men, limited by their humanity, is one that rocks the inviolability of scripture to its core. The faithful have always been taught to trust in the authority and authenticity of the Bible, the reliability of its authors, and above all, the idea that those authors were chosen and inspired by God Himself. Elwell and Treier’s statement casts into question this very inspiring and was, unfortunately, the hallmark of a trend in liberal philosophy affecting the world. These leaves theology, ultimately, at the mercy of whatever intellectual movement dominates the day. After all, if there is no reliable standard or basis for the faith—and in liberalism, the Church is equally susceptible to scrutiny as Scripture—then one is left with a sort of Christianity that allows the adherent to simply select what doctrines or believes he or she deems relevant or helpful, while discarding the rest. Ultimately, this turns one’s self into a false god—the individual becomes the arbiter of his or her own truth, meaning that the individual is ultimately accountable to no one. Also known as modernism, this describes a significant shift in thought, and yet is a somewhat vague notion, characterized by a variety of changes in liberal thought over the passage of time, differences in the region such as Europe and North America, and slightly different modalities of thought. Chief tenets of liberal eschatology include a wish to adopt theological ideas to modern culture and views.

Divine immanence represents the third keystone of liberal theology; God is extant and within the world, not apart from or raised above the world as an untouchable being. God became a working aspect in all that occurs; thus, with no division between the natural and the supernatural. The rational accomplishments of man, the beauty of art, even charity masquerading as righteousness, became sacramental, signs of God’s presence in human accomplishment.  Liberal theologians often emphasize God’s imminence while minimizing, or excluding God’s transcendence. According to Greer, Friedrich Schleiermacher—often called the “father” of liberal theology—deemphasized the Church’s belief in man’s sinful or fallen reason, and argued that because of God’s imminence, if “an individual surrendered him or herself in an attitude of total dependence upon God, he or she would make genuine contact with deity.”  As Schleiermacher, himself, put it, religion “springs necessarily and by itself from the interior of every better soul, it has its own province in the mand in which it reigns sovereign, and it is worthy of moving the noblest and the most excellent by means of its innermost power and by having its innermost essence know by them.”  In other words, if one hopes to find deity in liberalism one should look inward, to one’s own soul, rather than outward to an external authority like the Church, or even Scripture. While the idea remains pervasively popular in common spirituality, the question that remains to be asked concerns what loyalty one’s faith must have to truth. Further, what use is a deity who simply confirms one’s own inclinations?  Many are right to criticize this view as self-idolatry masquerading under the guise of spiritual double-speak. According to Müller, however, God’s transcendence and immanence are inversely proportional, “it is only because God is absolutely transcendent in juxtaposition to the world that he can also be immanent in the world in an unsurpassable sense.”  Traditional theology recognizes God’s imminence, but not at the expense of his transcendence. These two notions must, in the final estimation, be held in tension. A wholly imminent God is little more than an idol, who offers little guidance when one’s life goes awry. A wholly transcendent God, however, more closely resembles Aristotle’s unmoved mover—he may provide a helpful explanation for first causes, or for the universe’s existence, but has very little relevance for life beyond that. 

The concept of sin, in liberalism, must also be refined. As discussed previously, Schleiermacher had to downplay human sin in order to maintain that God could be imminently found, at the deepest level, within the individual soul. As he put it, “Everything human is holy, for everything is divine.”  There is no room for a doctrine of original sin, and therefore, little need for a theology of atonement in liberal thought. Sin, according to liberal theologies, was that of imperfection or ignorance rather than the defining flaw of humanity. The man felt that these imperfections, confusions, or immaturities could be absolved with education, and salvation would eliminate them altogether. Religion was a means for one’s personal ideals to obtain their peak expression, and provides, in essence, spiritual therapy. Prayer offered steadiness, self-government, and inward peace.

Liberal theology also espoused a kind of humane cheerfulness at the aspect of the realization of the kingdom of God. It saw the coming of the kingdom as the movement of the faithful working together to build the kingdom according to the precepts and ideas of Christ, who proffered the perfect example of selfless love, rather than a literal arrival at some point of God and his kingdom. Their journey—i.e., a continual, rising progress of doing God’s work—among mankind was one characterized by redemption and salvation, rather than punishment and shame.  In protestant liberalism, this became known as the “social gospel,” advanced preeminently by Walter Rauschenbusch who stated, “We are accustomed to connecting piety with the thought of private virtues; the pious man is the quiet, temperate, sober, kindly man. The evils against which we contend in the churches are intemperance, unchastity, the sins of the tongue. The twin-evil against which the prophets launched the condemnation of Jehovah was injustice and oppression.”  While this was certainly characterized by an effort to emulate the activities of Christ, this theology represented a pick and choose a response to scripture in that it selected the aspects it liked and discarded those it was uncomfortable with, such as judgment and hell. Within Catholicism, more nuanced visions of what might be called “social Catholicism” emerged, criticizing theologies of imminence, balancing such views with transcendence in a way that saw God as active through human action in the world. Maurice Blondel sometimes called the philosopher of the Second Vatican Council, critiqued Durkheim’s positivist sociology and Marx’s dialectical materialism for dissolving the human person in naturalized and collectivized views of human society. According to Blondel, “Our mission is to bind the whole of creation, by  means of a truly social bond, to Trinitarian society itself, across the gaps brought back by the divine Word, incarnate and bruised, so that we may be led, with all others, to become children of God.” As such, according to Blondel, Christian duty “is not, essentially, to combat enemies; it is, always, to illumine obscure truths and to constitute an order of self-sacrifice, of union and of peace.”  While social Catholicism, espoused by Blondel, is sometimes confused or paralleled with the “social gospel” of liberal theology, it represented an attempt to hold divine immanence and transcendence together in a way that does not, for the sake of transcendence, lead to a Church withdrawn from, but remains active in the world through mission and charity. In Blondel’s more nuanced view of social Catholicism, human action in the world is construed “not so much against injustice as for justice in its fullest form, ‘no longer oriented towards the world but towards the principle of all things.’”   Blondel’s arguments, emerging from conflicts native to France, nonetheless were not best construed as liberalism against totalitarianism—Blondel is, sometimes, likened to liberal theologians in this respect—but as “being between materialist-immanent ideology and a view of life which is genuinely totalizing and synthesizing in a lifting-up (sursum) of the world to God…Intrinsic to this truly totalizing vision of the world is a personal decision and spiritual eschatology, both of which sit  uneasily with the collectivism and immanentism of Marxist soteriology.”  However, while Blondel maintained this connection, other liberation theologies in Catholicism, impacted by liberalism, took Blondel’s advocacy for social action and focused, instead, on social action for its own sake without the same commitment to divine transcendence as the spring from which one can come to embrace a view of the Church, a body of Christ, immanent in the world. 

In the social gospel an in liberal liberation theology, by contrast, immanence was pitted against divine transcendence, forfeiting the later for the sake of the former. In this case, this eschatology espoused man’s utter autonomy on intellectual, ethical, and social levels, thus effectually denying God’s supremacy in these areas and others. In logical terms, it eventually leads to supplanting the deity of God, replacing it with a man.  The man was in control, both on earth and after. God’s kingdom was “now”—not something to look for. There was no judgment; they were living in Christ’s love and salvation right now. 

Certainly, liberal theology was not a monolith. There are degrees of departure, from traditional Christendom, amongst liberal theologians—some of whom one might, nonetheless, deem orthodox and Catholic. At the same time, however, the tenents outline above tend to unify liberal theologians by and large. Clearly, all of these elements have an impact on how eschatology is both articulated, and the role it plays in one’s theological system. While eschatology at its core is more than a single theological discourse, it must be established within the limits of God’s intercession of himself for mankind in terms of revelation doctrine. This raises the question of the fate of the human soul. Will all souls be saved, simply out of divine mercy? The answer to this can be discovered in the tenets of universal eschatology, as follows—

1. In the end, Christ will return in his previous human form. 

2. All men, damned or saved alike, will share in the resurrection, whether it is in being granted eternal life or eternal damnation. 

3. The resurrection will be followed by the judgment over the whole of mankind. 

4. The time of this day is not known to men or angels but is known to Christ. 

5. These events will be followed by the material end of the earth, making way for the creation of new earth as promised.

6. At this time the blessed and the Church will pass over into the Kingdom of Heaven, which will remain as a reward of salvation rather than a means of salvation. 

The Second Vatican Council took substantial steps toward renewing a theocentric eschatology, establishing these points in its Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen gentium) while retaining the social breadth that so inculcated generations before. Its opening statement, which describes the church as a mystery in which all men and women are called by God to share in the life of the Trinity, is aimed at casting a net of welcome to all men and welcome regardless of faith, gender, race, age, or other demographic. The church is detailed as the “budding forth of the kingdom, revealed in the word, the work, and the presence of Christ and…in his death and resurrection, while it looks toward its consummation when [she] will be united with her king in glory.”  It presents a picture of the Church in all its fullness, provided it is composed of the richness of its human membership. 

The Lumen gentium—the Dogmatic Constitution of the Church, affirmed by the Second Vatican Council—details the eschatological and pilgrim nature of the church, reminding the people that the Church will acquire the fullness of its perfection only in heaven, when it is restored in Christ; likewise, shall mankind be restored in Him. In as much as the Church has not reached this period of restoration, like man, it is on a similar journey of penance, continual renewal, and transformation. The Second Vatican Council is an example of one such period of penance, renewal, and change. The Lumen Gentium offers a gentle but definitive eschatological rejection of liberal theology according to scripture, describing man’s journey through that of the church. Man is called, as is the church, and contracted by the Holy Spirit, even if he has not yet seen his inheritance or the realization of that call. During this time, although he may moan with frustration and pain, man is ever urged to “live more for Him, who died for us and rose again.” Man must endeavor to please God, resist sin and evil, and be continually vigilant until he completes “the course of [his] earthly life…enter[s] into the marriage feast with Him.”  The church has a similar call and journey. Although oppressed throughout history, but particularly in modern times, the Church is called by God to go forth and witness, serve, and be a presence in this world, so that it also may enter into the kingdom of God. The documents of the Second Vatican Council serve as the Church’s admission of fault; its acknowledgment that it had not done enough to reach certain segments of humanity and witness to them effectively. It reveals its penitence in its humble yet firm avowal to change in the coming times. 

Despite the erosion of liberalism upon traditional eschatology, religion and faith are generally experiencing a worldwide resurgence. Dulles offers an explanation of this phenomenon in The New World of Faith. “A partial explanation, I believe, can be found in the human heart. We were not made for this world alone or this life alone, but for something higher which we can only glimpse. Spontaneously we reach out in hope of the eternal and divine. The sense of God is implanted very deep in our nature.”  Virtually everything of the world is set against man developing any kind of meaningful relationship with God. There are too many distractions, too little truth, and not enough wisdom. The world is, quite simply, fatiguing. Despite these truths, the heart of man continues to seek that of his Creator. The steadfast nature of God is a balm to those weary of constant change. Further, since God is the author and creator of human reason and intellect, the pursuit of both God and science are not necessarily mutually exclusive entities. Rational thought, post-Enlightenment, need not be an exercise of mankind examining nature in isolation but can manifest as the Creator’s foremost creatures revel in creation—admiring and stewarding God’s handiwork. 

1.2. The Need to Return to Clear Faith About the Last Four Things

A second thing made clear by the Second Vatican Council was the need for clarity and a reaffirmation in the matter of the Last Four Things, or death, judgment, heaven, and hell. Man’s understanding of these things was skewed by a more modern lens and the noise of too many ideologies by the time the Second Vatican was held, rendering nothing about the Last Four Things clear to many young in the faith or newly considering a relationship with God. As stated earlier, man is not capable of having a relationship with God without an accurate understanding of what will take place at death, during the Judgment, and beyond. 

Due to this, how the theology of any discussion of eschatology is presented is critical to establishing this foundational understanding. Although simply stated eschatology is the part of theology concerned with the last four things named earlier, there are many more intricacies associated with these things that should be addressed. This entails a systematic presentation of the theological ideas involved. Any systematic presentation of the eschatology should have a theocentric, rather than an anthropocentric thrust. The Triune God is the center of His own creation. Affirming this central truth, eschatology can progress in further detail through a more vivid description of each of the Last Four Things. As the Father, God is Love. As the Son, He is Righteousness. As the Holy Spirit, He is eternal life.  The Creator is also the redeemer and sustainer of creation, who vivifies human hearts through the ministry of the Church by the operation of the Holy Spirit. Thereby, the Creator himself proclaims the consummation of all he made. 

Systematic Overview of the Last Four Things

As indicated above, a systematic overview of the Last Four Things should first and foremost present the eschatology within a theocentric framework. This begins with an understanding of God as the center of His own creation, vast and infinite, created out of an eternal expression of love. 

God as Love

In presenting God as Love eschatology begins with a discussion of his essence. God has often said in scripture that He loves the world, but more significantly, God’s essence in and of itself is love. “His essence is accomplished as the eternal origin of love in the Father, as the eternal self-encounter in his self-expression in the Word.”  God encounters Himself in the form and expression of his love: his creation of man. According to John Paul II, in his Mand and Woman, He Created Them: A Theology of the Body, God’s act of creation, in the beginning, was an act of selfless love. With man and woman made, uniquely in God’s own image man comes to know God’s love first, by recognizing his “original solitude,” his uniqueness in contrast to other creatures, and finally through the spousal bond between man and wife, leaving out views on polygamy. It is the love of God that initiates human history, ultimately bringing history and creation itself to its consummative end in the eschaton.  Every genuine human experience—the experiences enjoyed based on God’s original righteousness—is thus an experience of God’s love, a participation in what John Paul II calls the “hermeneutics of gift,” a pattern of life, exemplified and experienced according to the spousal meaning of the body, whereby one comes to participate in the life of God, the bond of love uniting the Trinitarian persons.  Understanding the character of God—namely, his character of love—allows the human being to understand his life experience from beginning to end. The love of God envelops the entire biblical narrative, from Genesis through Revelation, and thereby envelops the proper orientation of all human experience. At the same time, as the source of love, God also defines what it means to love. Accordingly, the spousal image occurs at the beginning of creation (Gen. 2:23) and at the consummation of the age (Rev. 22:2, 9).  This suggests that God’s love—experienced through the spousal meaning of the human body—is the very force of history, regardless of human experience to the contrary. Theodicies inevitably beg the question—one cannot judge what a “loving God” would do, or should not do, because the definition of love itself proceeds from the nature and definition of God. Similarly, any concept of human history or destiny must be theocentric. Man-driven histories, exemplified by the illusions of liberalism, inevitably betray themselves. Human progress in technology breeds deadlier forms of war. Socialist ideologies, dependent upon the notion of collective humanity, invariably fail to meet high human expectations. Only an eschatology thoroughgoingly defined by God’s love can adequately explain the course of history, and only such a theocentric vision can sufficiently address the perils of human experience and human suffering.

God is Righteousness

The overview next presents God within the context of the Trinity as his Son, or Righteousness. To present God as Righteousness the systematic progression takes a number of steps, beginning with the trinitarian God as the measure of the creature, his creation. God imbues man with a totality of spirit and will, allowing him to choose eternal communion with him as his desire. In other words, man is not merely a puppet with which God toys at will; he possesses his own will and is able to use it to make decisions that will impact his eternity. God gives man knowledge and will to know the Father; to know the Son, he gives a man to love; and to know the Holy Spirit, he gives man the will to be directed toward Him. 

The eschatological progression next moves to a presentation of Christ, who justifies man through his own righteousness. This presentation should involve an explanation of how Christ became a man in order to provide a path of communion with God, which had been closed due to sin. This was accomplished through Christ’s total obedience on the cross as he subjugated his human will to his Father’s divine one. The Son’s act of righteousness extends even further back than his actions on the cross, however. Scripture states in Matthew 5:48 that if a man wants to enter into Heaven, he “must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” They must have, in other words, exceeding righteousness, not merely in law and deed, but also in thought and heart. Everything man does must stem from a love of God and love of neighbor—certainly a worthy ideal, but unattainable by worldly standards. On his own, man is incapable of attaining the standards of righteousness God demands. He cannot love God wholly, or his neighbor, and be compelled intrinsically in every instance to act on that love because he is also compelled by his own original sinful nature. Man’s sinful nature impacts him decisively to his core and lends a taint to everything he says and does. All the good he attempts is like a “polluted garment.” 

Jesus, on the other hand, has no such problem with sin. His righteousness was perfect and complete because, from the very beginning, his mission was not simply to die on the cross but to live a life of perfect righteousness in order to make that sacrifice worthy. When he humbled himself and went willingly to the cross to die between two thieves, Christ’s righteousness was made manifest to all who believe. According to Müller, “In Christ, the righteousness through which God makes us just (iustitia Dei passive) has become historical reality…In this way, Christ, who was made for us for the sake of righteousness in the incarnation, can also be our righteousness.”  Our obedience in answering the call to trust and follow Jesus in faith echoes his own righteousness, demonstrating why ma an should be obedient to the call of faith. Anyone who has demonstrated this obedience to the call and responds in faith shall be justified and live.

The person of Christ, whose love is exemplified in the cross, death, and resurrection, enters into human history and redeems it, from the beginning through the eschaton. Jesus Christ represents, therefore, the climax of history whereby all history before had led and all history afterward must be judged. Therefore the consummation of history occurs in the Parousia, the second coming of Christ. The problem with liberalism is that is attempts to usher in the Kingdom of God through human achievement, here and now, rather than realizing the Kingdom as it has come, already, in Christ and as it will be more fully realized when he comes again. Jesus envelops human history, even assuming sin into his person, and redeeming man’s instrument of death to be the way whereby all may die to themselves and come to participate in his righteousness. Death and the grave lose their “sting,” not because death or the grave is good or represents anything less than a violation of God’s good created order, but because the Son has entered death and overcome its hold on human destiny. The next point of eschatological concern is time, death and eternity. There is no real chronological and spatial time once an individual has died. He is, simply, eternal. Time and space are not viewed in the same sense that they are during man’s physical life. 

God as Eternal Life

After viewing God through the lens of love, as the Father, and God as Righteousness, as the Son, it is now time to view Him through the perspective of eternal life, as the Holy Spirit. First, an understanding of exactly what eternal life is important. “‘In him [God] we live and move and have our being.’ (Acts 17:28) Eternal life is our consummated fulfilling communion with God.”  Eternal life is not the same in chronological terms as physical life, having a start and finish, or being capable of categorizing things as ‘always…never.’ This is a difficult concept for man, who only has the conceptual measures of beginning, middle, and end by which to compare other items. God’s eternality speaks to man from scripture, though, saying in Genesis “In the beginning God…”  indicating that God has always been. Likewise, the Holy Spirit and the Son are also eternal. Further, each member of the Trinity has specific roles and functions to fulfill. Among them, the Holy Spirit directs man, according to this statement in the book of Romans, “For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the Sons of God.”  It is, as well, a guide to all things eternal, as referenced in John. “He will guide you in all truth, for He shall not speak of Himself, but whatsoever He shall hear, that shall hear, that shall He speak, and He will show you things to come.”  When Jesus ascended into heaven, he indicates it was necessary for him to ascend in order to send the Holy Spirit.  This is because salvation history is not merely a matter of the past. The Holy Spirit rends what Jesus accomplished, in history, our history—we become participants in the death and resurrection of Jesus, and the coming Kingdom of God, through the Holy Spirit. The Spirit makes us participants in a communion of saints that transcends the boundaries of time and space. Thus, when we ask the saints to pray for us, it is through the ministry of the Holy Spirit that we have access to the departed faithful. The boundary between death and life does not cause a schism in the Church, because the body of Christ—in whom the Church is united, one in flesh—has already passed from death to life. The Spirit assures our participation in the body and rends all salvation history our own. While the Kingdom of God has yet to come, we are nonetheless citizens of the Kingdom already. The Holy Spirit rends eschatology more than an eventual hope, but a hope that envelops our lives here and now. This is not the sort of kingdom inaugurated by human action, as with liberalism, but is an eschatology inaugurated by the activity of God and the ongoing work and presence of the Holy Spirit who rends the creation of the Father and the redemption of the Son, ours through the Church’s mysteries. The complex narrative of eternity can be likened to the complete melding of being and life which occurs only in God. Man’s participation in eternal life occurs only through the intercession with Christ. 


From an outward, science-based appearance, death is merely the absence or withdrawal of life. It is a biological occurrence, an inevitable follow-up to life that all of the creation trundles toward inexorably. Death is not simply the biological result of sin, but the theological one, as well. It is the physical display of what occurs when sin separates man from God. Muller explains that this “is why we experience [death] as an obliterating and paralyzing force, as the radical isolation from love, from transcendental meaning and as fear of nihility in the sense that nihility is the complete absence of life and love.”  It is this debt of sin that Jesus Christ took upon himself to pay, although he himself was without sin. It is only because he was without sin that he could take on and pay man’s in debt, as it required holiness absent in man. This enabled man to become purified through Christ.

The status of the dead follows next in a systematic progression of eschatology. When he dies, a man enters into a final relationship with Christ. There are two states of death. First, relative to himself, man is in a state of joy as far as his salvation is concerned. Second, relative to the physical world, he has departed corporeally and is now in a different, other-worldly relationship to the earth.  Pope Paul VI, in his Gaudium et Spes, notes, however, that man carries within him an intrinsic awareness of the gift—or curse, depending on one’s view—of eternity. As such, rebellion against death is virtually inherent. 

What is the eschatological nature of death? In his apostolic letter Salvifici Doloris, Pope John Paul II addresses this question with a description of how Christ conquers death. It is, in its finality, the summation of all the destruction man has done to both his corporeal and his psychical form. It is the termination of the complete psychophysical character of the man. While the soul will endure and exist distinct from man’s physical body, the body is ". .dust and to dust. [it]. . .shall return" according to God’s edict on the consequence of man’s original sin nature. It is, in other words, the separation of man’s mortal body and immortal soul. As referenced in the Book of Romans, This is a temporary state, however, for Christ, by his work of salvation, was able to free man from sin and death. Christ first erases the rule of sin, which initiated with the original sin, from the annals of human history, and then provides man with the opportunity to be saved by grace. Following this, he removes the dominion of death with his own resurrection.  

This does not mean that Jesus’ death on the cross erases God’s law concerning sin and death. Rather, Jesus’ salvific work blots out man’s sin, removing the record of man’s transgressions. Jesus was officially crucified as a transgressor; the decree Pilate had nailed above his head bearing the public proclamation that he was the “King of the Jews.” This was a false accusation, though, a reflection that Caesar realized indicated that, perhaps, the tide was turning against him politically.

Although the accusation was false, Jesus refused to respond to it in any form, choosing instead a kind of tacit agreement that allowed him to become the proxy sin-bearer for all of mankind’s legitimate charges of sin. With his death, he blotted out the record of sin against man, taking the consequence for those sins on himself and making the forgiveness of man’s sin possible. 

Another area of death that must be explored in eschatology is that of intercession. Intercession, or the act of interceding, is when one individual prays or petitions on behalf of another. This was addressed, in part, above with respect to the ministry of the Holy Spirit. History is not a divisive force, separating us from what God has done for his people in the past, but in the Spirit, we are united to Christ, and to one another, through history. One of the greatest and most obvious acts of intercession is that of Christ for a man when he interceded with the Father on the cross.

Until the final days of the Lord’s arrival, he says, when death is no more and the Church has cleaved together in Christ, Christ is not “weakened or interrupted, but on the contrary, according to the perpetual faith of the Church, is strengthened by communication of spiritual goods” in which they intercede on behalf of those who are still here on earth. They are able to do this by merit of the fact that they are closer to God in heaven than on earth and are able to offer those still moving through life some of the nobility of spirit they have gained, and by their communal interest in the struggles of their brethren still on the earthly plane, they are able to help shore up their weaknesses.  

Aware of this intercession, the body of Christ has always taken care to nurture with fondness their remembrances of the dead.

"…because it is a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead that they may be loosed from their sins. .The Church has always believed that the apostles and Christ's martyrs who had given the supreme witness of faith and charity by the shedding of their blood, are closely joined with us in Christ, and she has always venerated them with a special devotion, together with the Blessed Virgin Mary and the holy angels. The Church has piously implored the aid of their intercession. To these were soon added also those who had more closely imitated Christ's virginity and poverty, and finally, others whom the outstanding practice of the Christian virtues and the divine charisms recommended to the pious devotion and imitation of the faithful."  

In the Lumen Gentium, Pope Paul VI explains that it is considered a holy and wholesome action to pray for those who have died that they might receive expiation of their sins while they are in Purgatory. Further, the Church has always held the belief that there are a special few martyrs, saints, and select righteous who have been blessed with God’s favor. The Church has always held that through their prayers, God would be more receptive to man’s petitions. Thus, a man prays to these individuals, entreating them to intercede on their behalf with God for various matters.  

Another aspect of death that must be addressed from an eschatological perspective is man’s view of the state. In a discussion of death and its eschatological purpose, a story told by Pope Benedict XVI in his 2007 encyclical Spe Salvi comes to mind. The priest, upon asking the parents of an infant being baptized their reason for communion with the Church, was told that they wanted faith, and by extension, the eternal life faith would bring. Benedict pondered the question—do we really want to live eternally, though? Death, according to the pontificate, is frequently seen as an escape from life’s suffering.  With the use of the word escape, it is an interesting point of irony that perhaps many people today reject faith and the eternal life that it offers because of the potential for eternal life. Some may see this as more of a curse than death—to live forever, without end. .would this not be dull and eventually intolerable? Benedict quotes the words of Saint Ambrose in a funeral address given for his brother on this subject.   

“Death was not part of nature; it became part of nature. God did not decree death from the beginning; he prescribed it as a remedy. Human life, because of sin ... began to experience the burden of wretchedness in unremitting labor and unbearable sorrow. There had to be a limit to its evils; death had to restore what life had forfeited.”  

Death had to restore what life had forfeited. These are weighty words, filled with meaning and worthy of deeper consideration. What had life forfeited that death could possibly restore? The answer, paradoxically, lies in eternal life. 

In spite of man’s view of death as an escape, there is a very natural human antipathy towards the state. As alluded to earlier, “man, bearing in himself the seed of eternity, which cannot be reduced to mere matter, rebels against death.”  The paradox inherent in this mentality begs the question of what, precisely, life and its greater meaning is—the eternal question, for some, about which songs are written and philosophers hanker. There are times, Benedict writes when it suddenly seems as though everything becomes clear and life is exactly as it is meant to be. St. Augustine, in a letter to Proba, asks if this, “…this the same for everyone, this ‘blessed life,’ this ‘happiness,’” stating that really, man has no understanding of what it is he truly wants, and yet knows there is some elusive something towards which he yearns.  Maybe it is simply a desire to make the best of the transiency of the situation of life, with the knowledge of the permanency of death to follow. 

The story of Saint Francis of Assisi is an incredible example of this yearning to live a fulfilled life. Touted frequently as one of the most influential and beloved saints in all the world, Saint Francis’ life is nonetheless somewhat mysterious. The 4 PM Media film St. Francis of Assisi: Sign of Contradiction brings him to life as an initially ambitious man who sought after the things he was told would make him happiest—nobility, knighthood, honor. After a military stint in the battle of Perugia, in which he was captured and released after a year’s time, though, Francis returned home a different man. He had been headed toward honor, glory, and fame, but he returned home dejected and having failed and with the ability to see himself clearly for perhaps the first time. It was at this time that Francis had a dream and experienced the calling of God. He heard, in his dream, a voice that he attributes to God asking him, “Who is it better to serve—the master or the servant?” Although Francis felt that serving the master would avail him of more, the voice commanded him to return to Assisi, and he did so in obedience, taking the path of servanthood. 

It was at this time that Francis began to truly recognize the presence of God in God’s pursuit of him. Fr. Michael Higgins, President of Franciscan Theological Studies says that “only when a person has God as a measure can he see himself. .unless we follow this, we try to distract ourselves, going deeper in our pleasures, and we stay at this very superficial level.”  In listening to the call of God’s voice, Francis averted his distraction and saw himself clearly for the first time. He saw his flaws and sins, in the full hamartano sense of the word. Hamartano means to sin in the sense that one misses the mark or target. In essence, says Fr. Paolo Benanti, Professor Pontificia Universita Gregoriana, “we are like an arrow that is made like the Lord to hit the target of joy, of good, of love. When we have sinned, or when we have sinned, we have missed the target, so repentance is what is needed to align ourselves to the real target.”  Francis’ story, then, in addition to being one of seeking, is one of repentance and grace, of renouncing himself to follow Jesus. 

The story of Francis may seem an odd one to relay in connection to death. It is more significant in terms of his life and how he chose to live it with the end continually in sight. As a young man, Francis had dreams, ambitions, and goals much like any other. Although it took him some time, once Francis came to the realization that he was missing the mark with the activity of his life, he devoted the remainder of it wholeheartedly to God, knowing that he would experience God’s joy as a result. Man does not select his death, but he does in some respect decide the way of it. Man’s death arrives as a zenith of the choices he has made during his lifetime. Francis’ death reflected this idea. Although at one time despised and ridiculed, Francis’ devotion to servanthood and his complete renunciation of all worldly possessions in his quest to be God’s servant ultimately made him beloved. In death, as in life, Francis requested to be near to nature and naked in the arms of his Lord.  


Christ’s purpose in coming into the world was to provide a path for life in salvation rather than eternal death in sin. Despite this, there are plenty who choose to reject the provision offered, which is their privilege under the benefit of free will. Regardless of the choice one makes, Christ will still offer judgment on the day of reckoning. This is not unknown to man. The presence of the Holy Spirit works in the world to convince all of several things, including that they possess a human predisposition to sin, that they will be judged accordingly in a final judgment, and that this judgment is righteous and just one. Although all sins will be forgiven if sincerely confessed before the Savior, “the final and unforgivable sin consists in a radical refusal to accept the forgiveness that God offers in Christ—a refusal whereby one condemns oneself to judgment.” This alone is the unforgivable sin because to reject Christ’s offer of forgiveness and eternal life is to essentially call the Holy Spirit’s leading regarding Jesus fallible. Jesus was not just another teacher of religion; He was God in flesh. Consider the context in which Jesus’ well-known words, “Truly, I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the children of man, and whatever blasphemies they utter, but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”  were uttered. It is the time of the Gospels, and God in flesh walks and teaches alongside teachers of his covenant people. Out of jealousy, spite, and ignorance, they are not only rejecting the teachings of Christ on a personal level but are working actively to pull others away, as well. Their primary method of doing so is by saying that the power revealed in Christ is not from God, but from Satan. This is when Jesus issues the warning that whoever speaks thus against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either then or in the future. Blasphemy such as this against the Spirit, or, in other words, denial that Jesus is who He says He is, is to limit Him and cast aside the only means of salvation God has offered. An individual who goes so far as to blaspheme against the Spirit is revealing that his heart is hardened, perhaps to a permanent degree. Without some degree of receptivity to the leading of the Holy Spirit, an individual’s heart is too callous for genuine repentance and thus is unlikely to ever meet the conditions for forgiveness. 

This and all other sin leads inevitably to God’s judgment. From the earliest of days, knowledge of the coming Judgment has weighed heavily in how Christians, even from the Jewish perspective, lived their daily lives. Reminders of the final Judgment are fully present in all areas of the Christian life, from its literature to scripture to the iconography in areas designated for worship. Images and icons of the crucified and risen Christ reside in magnificent cathedrals and humble chapels the world over, for example, displaying God’s gift of justice and redemption alike. Dostoevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov illustrates the Redeemer’s brand of justice, not one that regards a sinner’s misdeeds as though nothing had ever happened, but instead one that tells the sinner he will “stand naked before the judge.”  The parable of the rich man and Lazarus, found in the book of Luke, shows an image of a rich man who has all but destroyed his soul with greed, creating a chasm characterized by a burning thirst and an inability to love. This chasm was God’s judgment.

While in earlier times the idea of the Last Judgment inspired hope in God’s justice and plan for eternity, in the modern era it has taken a bit of a back-row seat. Man has a fundamental problem finding a good and just God in one who allows the unchecked injustices, suffering, and social strife present in the world today.  Again, however, like the love of God, God’s justice must be coupled with an understanding of his transcendent wisdom. One can only question God’s justice when he fails to embrace God’s transcendence. This is because justice is nev