Hermeneutics of Eschatological Statements

The content of Christian hope, and before that of biblical hope, has been expressed in prayer, confessions of faith, and catechesis in bold, concrete images such as a banquet (Lk 14: 15-24), a wedding feast (Mt 22: 1-14; 25: 1-13), a city without walls or a city of light that no longer needs the sun for illumination (Rev 21), a society in which the barriers between people collapse, and so forth. There have also been more subtle expressions such as eternal rest (e.g., in the office for the dead and the responsorial at evening prayer), everlasting beatitude (office of the dead, collects), and the beatific vision (literally, a gazing that makes one supremely happy; Cf. 1 Cor 13: 12). It is clear that such expressions are metaphors. They try to capture something of which we do not have direct experience by an analogy with situations of which do have such experience. Metaphors have also been used to express the realization that it is possible for human freedom to be misdirected and fail to reach the promised goal. Thus we have biblical images of loss and damnation such as the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth (Mt 22: 13), the fires of Gehenna (Mt 5: 22-29; Lk 16: 19-31), and so forth.

The theological interpretation of these expressions is made more difficult by the fact that through considerable periods of history the metaphors were dealt with rather literally in visual arts, drama, and literature, as well as in preaching and catechesis. Yet interpretation is clearly necessary if the traditions of eschatology handed down through the ages are to be intelligible in our own times, playing their proper role in the shaping of Christian life and action. Moreover, interpretation has always been part of the process of passing on the tradition, though until recently those who engaged in the handling on were not quite as explicitly and critically aware of their own method and function.

Rules for the interpretation of eschatological statements and questions present special problems because we are not dealing with the understanding of past events or present situations and experiences. We are not dealing with a future that has never yet been, and indeed with what might be called the absolute future that is radically different from anything that has ever been.[1]

In the first place, therefore, any effort to describe the content of Christian hope shares the limitations of other attempts to describe something that is in the future. We do not know the future in the same way in which we know the past and present. We do not know it in the same definitive concreteness, but by a kind of extrapolation from what we have already experienced. We have a high expectation that certain event will be repeated in much the same way, for instance tomorrow’s dawn or next year’s spring, or the general pattern of birth and growth, decline and death of generation of living beings. Where human freedom is concerned we can anticipate the future only rather cautiously, for instance, how an election will turn out, what children will become when they mature into adults, what an artist will produce when commissioned to design a monument.

When we turn our attention to the absolute future, knowledge must necessarily be even more tentative. The fulfilment of the whole movement of history, or the resolution of a person’s life and striving and development, eludes our comprehension though we can glimpse some of the possibilities. We can glimpse the possibilities because they correspond to our nature and the nature of the world in which we live together. There is an exigency and a promise in our freedom or creativity, and in the fact that we are conditioned in our possibilities by our situation in time and space and corporeality, and by our interdependence on one another, as well as our total dependence on God for existence and all its aspects. We are blessed with great possibilities and great yearnings, which imply a promise in creation that they can be fulfilled. But these possibilities also imply an exigency upon us to co-operate in the fulfilment of what is promised. Even if we do not refer explicitly to revelation, but simply think about our human nature as we experience it, we find ourselves goal-directed, with a sense of purpose moving us forward in our individual lives and in the history of the human race. We move toward a future that is partly shaped by the demands and limitations of our present and partly shaped by the projection of future possibilities.

It may seem that this kind of reflection is irrelevant once we turn to revelation, because God who is all-knowing has communicated something of the divine foreknowledge of future outcomes to us. A careful reading of the Bible and tradition refutes this easy solution, however, because what is said about outcomes is subtle, suggestive, and expressed in analogies (1 Cor 15: 33-44; 1 Jn 3: 2). Moreover, the analogies are necessarily culturally conditioned by the contexts in which they were first used, and they acquire additional meaning and connotations as they continue to be handed on and reflected upon in changing circumstances. A general pattern that emerges is the choice of actual experiences of personal and communal happiness as promissory events pointing to the open future, and of experiences of intense pain, deprivation, and frustration a warning events of possible final disaster.

The interpretation of eschatological statements needs to be guided by a few basic principles.[2]

First, eschatological statements are not about the provision of information concerning the future, nor are they about the prediction of events to come, nor do they deal with a sphere of reality that is in any sense empirical. Instead, eschatological statements are a particular interpretation of the potential of human experience, especially human experience that has been shaped by the Christian reality of grace and Christ. Eschatological statements must be grounded and controlled by an appeal to Christian experience. The kind of experience in question would include the human experience of being personally incomplete and unfinished, an experience that generates hope, discloses our orientation towards the future as promise, and ultimately reveals our dependence/relatedness/belongingness to the mystery of God as absolute future and fulfilment.

Second, we need to keep in mind that the language of eschatology is both metaphorical and symbolic as well as dialectical and analogical. Like all theological language, eschatology is significantly limited in its final import. The little we do know about matters eschatological is given to us more by way of negative than by affirmation.

Third, we need to take into account the critique made by the modern masters of suspicion (Marx, Nietzsche, Freud), namely that eschatology is a distraction from the pressing problems of this life. In the light of this criticism it must be affirmed that authentic Christian statements of eschatology commit us with a new energy and deeper zest for the cultivation of this life in virtue of the Christian promises held out for the future. An eschatology that does not take seriously our responsibility for this world is not a truly Christian eschatology. Interpretation of eschatology that fall short of this requirement are in danger of becoming ideological and are also at the same time theological defective. In this regard we take seriously that words of Vatican II in the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, “They are mistaken who, knowing that we have no biding city but seek one which is to come, think they can shirk their earthly responsibilities” (G.S. 43, Cf. also 39).

[1] The major work and indeed ground breaking text for contemporary Catholic thought on the interpretation of eschatological statements is that of Karl Rahner, “The Hermeneutics of Eschatological Assertions,” in Theological Investigations, (NY, 1982), 4: 323-354. Cf. also Peter C. Phan, Eternity in Time: A Study of Karl Rahner’s Eschatology, (Toronto, 1988), chaps. 2 &3.

[2] Cf. D. Lane, “Eschatology,” in The New Dictionary of Theology, 329-342, at 340-341.

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