Eschatology is the study of the eschaton, of the last things. It deals with God’s eternity and man’s final relationship with God. And so it pertains to questions concerning heaven, hell, purgatory, the particular and final judgments, the resurrection of the body, and the new heavens and the new earth.
One of the most important questions surrounding this discipline is the nature, meaning and purpose of death. While we recognize, through faith, that death occurs because of sin’s reign in the world, certain questions arise. Our theological understanding of the human person tells us that man is an embodied soul. But we also know that, through death, the soul and body are separated. Eschatology considers how this works, such as what happens to the soul, or what is the dignity owed to the body as a preparation for the general resurrection.
Death also brings us to the question around the particular judgment. This is when, in death, we stand before God and our life is made transparent before God. Yet your understanding of the judgment often takes different perspectives. For example, some see the particular judgment as a time of self-awareness of one’s sins and virtues in the light of the truth of God and makes the choice they made with their life: either for God or against God. Others see it more like an impugning of a judgment by God himself. While we have no direct data from revelation to come to a definitive answer, the idea around judgment must always take into account the two aspects revealed in those examples: the objective judgment of God and our subjective acknowledgment of our own sin and virtue.
Our particular judgment leads us to one of three destinations. Two permanent, one is temporary. Concerning Hell, eschatology thinks about questions that come from the depths of our heart: how could a loving God allow people to go to Hell? How populated is Hell? Can one be in Hell temporarily? While this last question is one that arises often, the deposit of faith is clear: Hell is a permanent choice. What is the nature of the punishment? How is it that a loving God upholds a creature in existence who is in Hell? These questions lead to a variety of possible and legitimate answers that help us understand the mystery of the rejection of God’s love.
It is possible to be destined for heaven but still need purification. Catholics believe that sacraments such as baptism, confession and the Eucharist forgive sins to varying degrees. But that is only the forgiveness of the guilt due to sin, it is not the forgiveness of the effects of the sins. This is something we often try to atone for in life through penance, indulgences, fasting, acts of charity, etc. For those who still have not shared in Christ’s sufferings to atone for the effects of those sins, purgatory serves as their place of purifying love. One of the intriguing aspects around the doctrine of purgatory is the fact that we do not have foolproof, direct facts of its existence in revelation, just hints of it, such as the prayers for the dead in the Old Testament (2 Maccabees 12:38-46) or the early practice of praying for the dead in the Christian tradition. One of the most famous examples of this comes from St. Augustine’s Confessions, when Augustine’s mother, St. Monica, asks her son to remember to pray for her when she dies. This makes the study of purgatory all the more important because it helps us understand those vague hints in connection to the mystery of God’s love.
Those who complete their time of purgation, as well as those who do not need it, are admitted to heaven. Heaven is where we are immersed in the mystery of God’s very life, where, in the Son, we worship eternally the Father by the power of the Holy Spirit. Many important questions are raised here: what is time like for the created soul? How does the soul exist apart from the body in heaven? What is the connection between heaven and earth?
Eschatology, when dealing with heaven, must also make us aware that heaven, in a manner of speaking, is not the final, total goal. Rather, and this is the most mysterious element of the discipline because it is the final end of creation, it moves us beyond everything to the coming together of the new heavens and the new earth (cf: Rev 21, 2 Pet 3:13), where man will live with God in the state of a resurrected body like Jesus had. We so often think of heaven as the final goal, and to an extent that is true. But heaven as it is right now is a sort of middle ground waiting for Christ to come again, to bring his general judgment against the whole of earth, and to establish the definitive and final kingdom where God and man dwell together.
Father Harrison Ayre is a priest of the Diocese of Victoria, British Columbia. Follow him on Twitter at @FrHarrison. Read more in the “Introduction to Theology” series here.