The Foundations of Karl Rahner
Chapter Nine: Eschatology
The Foundations of Karl Rahner
Publisher: Herder & Herder
Publication: November 25, 2005
Paraphrase by Mark F. Fischer
Chapter Nine: Eschatology
Chapter Nine has three parts. In the first part, Rahner lays out the presuppositions for understanding eschatology, the doctrine of the last things. He states that we must understand eschatological statements as a projection by the Christian community about its own future. That future is not to be understood merely as the future of individuals, but also as the collective destiny of all persons. It cannot be reduced to a single scenario.
In the second part of the chapter, Rahner examines the individual aspect of eschatology. Rahner distinguishes individual eschatology (the destiny of the individual at death) from collective eschatology (the destiny of creation as a whole). He rejects, however, the idea of two eschatologies, for together they make up a single reality.
The eternal life that is God's will for human beings is their participation in the good, the good which God invites them to choose. Once they have chosen it, their participation in God has communal consequences.
The third part looks at the collective dimension of eschatology. The death of an individual is not simply a moment of his or her escape from history. It is rather the moment in which the individual's contribution to history—i.e., to the fulfillment of human destiny—begins to achieve its final form. The individual's concrete acts of love are a participation in the salvation and love of God and contribute to it.
Part 1: Presuppositions for Understanding Eschatology
Eschatology is traditionally the doctrine of the"last things"—death, judgment, heaven, and hell. But fundamentally, says Rahner, it is about the human being," a being who ex-ists from out of his present 'now' towards his future" (431). This means that the human being lives by anticipating and choosing. We are creatures and we cannot dispose of our future as if it were wholly in our control. But we can say what possibilities we hope will be freely given to us and freely accepted by us.
In this first part, Rahner begins with the hermeneutical distinction between traditional statements about the last things (often made in the language of apocalyptic) and the eschatological reality they are meant to convey (A). He then introduces the concept of a unified eschatology, in which the entire person, body and soul, experiences death, judgment, and final destiny (B). Finally, he speaks about the"hiddenness"of eschatology, an eschatology that rejects the temptation to predict the future and instead focuses on the incomprehensible mystery of God (C).
A. On the Hermeneutics of Eschatological Statements (p. 431). When Christians read eschatological statements in the Bible, they are tempted to interpret them"As anticipatory, eyewitness accounts of a future which is still outstanding" (431), in other words, as predictions. But although the Bible and the Church say a lot about the future, Rahner asserts that their statements should not be read as if they denied the human ability to make choices. Eschatological statements do not destroy human freedom.
To be sure, every human being is a member of a community. That means that every human being belongs to a collective history. One corollary of this"belonging"Is the existence of a collective eschatology. It makes sense to say that all human beings will face the last things. But a collective eschatology does not mean that every person will share the same fate. Eschatology is the realm of freedom. Christian statements about the future, says Rahner, speak of this eschatology as"The milieu and environment of transcendental spirit" (432). We are not merely actors reading our lines, but manifest the human spirit in our choices. Hence eschatological statements are not the plot outline of a drama whose final act we know in advance. They are rather"conclusions from the experience of the Christian present" (432). They are the Christian community's collective projections about the future. We project our own future and understand the present as its coming-to-be.
Rahner distinguishes between eschatology and apocalyptic. Eschatology is a view of how the future"has to be"If the Christian's view of the present is correct. Apocalyptic is a mode of expression that takes seriously the concreteness of the eschatological future. Biblical apocalyptic speaks of the future as if the writers were eyewitnesses. Eschatology is what the apocalyptic writers mean. They are projecting their interpretation of the present into the future. We have to distinguish between the apocalyptic form of thought and expressions, on the one hand, and the true content, on the other.
Apocalyptic images speak of what is real, namely, our hope for the future. It is real because it is based on a real experience of the present. But often the images suggest a future that we, with our present Christian anthropology, may not be able to affirm. As an example (an example not proposed by Rahner), consider the statement by the author of Revelation (7.4) that the number of those"sealed" (under God's protection) is 144,000. It is hard to believe that the number of the saved is so small. A deeper analysis suggests that this apocalyptic number does not predict the number of the saved, but connotes an eschatological truth. It is the truth that God's salvation will be a complete salvation. Rahner urges us to use caution when interpreting apocalyptic statements.
Undoubtedly there are implications in Biblical apocalyptic from which we can learn. That is the task of hermeneutics, to discern the truth that the Biblical authors intend. But Rahner warns against extravagant claims."We know no more about the last things," he writes," than we know about people who have been redeemed, who have been taken up into Christ, and who exist in God's grace" (434). We know about them only from their life in our midst. We do not know about their present experience in the"Afterlife."
B. The Presupposition for a Unified Eschatology (p. 434). A unified eschatology includes both the body and the soul. Rahner contrasts it with the partial eschatology that looks only to the salvation of the soul. Rationalists in the style of the Enlightenment understood eschatology in this partial way. The problem with this partial understanding is that it ascribes immortality to the soul as an abstraction from the body. It is an individualistic and private salvation. But the destiny of the soul, Rahner asserts, depends on"The transformation of the world"And is not independent of the resurrection of the flesh. To be sure, it is correct to speak of the immortality of the soul. It is a part of the salvation of the single person. But there is more to eschatology than the fate of the individual. The last things have to do, not just with the individual soul, but with the body in general. They have to do with the collective destiny of all persons.
C. The Hiddenness of the Last Things (p. 434). An eschatology that"Is not apocalyptic" (one that does not mistake the language of allegory for the realities it expresses) remains focused on the incomprehensible mystery of God. It is hidden. Such eschatology cannot speak as if it could predict the future. When Christians speak about eschatology, they should move"beyond all images into the ineffable" (434).
Part 2: The One Eschatology as Individual Eschatology (p. 435)
The second part of this chapter is about the last things understood from the viewpoint of the individual. Rahner distinguishes individual eschatology (the destiny of the individual at death) from collective eschatology (the destiny of creation as a whole). He rejects, however, the idea of two eschatologies. Although one can speak of them as individual and collective, they mutually influence one another and make up a single reality. Rahner begins by noting that, although it is customary to distinguish between the body and the soul, this is the language of apocalyptic, and the two form an eschatological unity (A). The eternal life that is God's will for human beings is their participation in the good, the good which God invites them to choose and which, once chosen, has eternal consequences (B). Purgatory is the doctrine that expresses the interval between an individual's fundamental decision for God and the integration of that decision in the whole of one's reality (C). The many statements in tradition about the last things represent a plurality of viewpoints and we should not expect to synthesize them into a neat concept (D). Hell represents the possibility of eternal loss, a possibility that exists throughout all of one's life, but which is not equal in weight to God's will that all will be saved (E).
A. The Definitive Validity of Free Human Actions (p. 435). Rahner begins this section by recalling Chapter Three. There he argued that statements about heaven and hell are not parallel."Heaven"Is a much more potent symbol. Why? Because Christian faith teaches that"The history of salvation as a whole will reach a positive conclusion" (435). Hell, by contrast, is a negative symbol. It symbolizes what God does not want, namely, the rejection by human beings of God's vision for the world. To be sure, we cannot simply hold a theory of"Apocatastasis" (i.e., the restoration, re-establishment, or renovation of the world by an act of God that makes all things right). But we are not obliged either to say that the history of salvation will result for some people in absolute loss. God wills that all will be saved, but merely allows creatures to reject salvation.
When Christians speak of the last things, they normally distinguish between the fate of the body (which undergoes corruption) and that of the soul (which is immortal). But Rahner questions the value of the distinction for a unified eschatology. What does it mean, he asks, to speak about a person whose body is buried and whose soul or transcendental being enjoys God's presence? The human being is a unity. We only meet the human spirit as corporeal and historical. It is"superfluous," says Rahner," to ask what a person does while his body is in the grave and his soul is already with God" (436). The dichotomy is more apocalyptic than eschatological. In other words, we distinguish between body and soul to express a profound truth, namely, that the spiritual reality of the person does not die. We express this reality in terms of the traditional concepts of beatific vision and resurrection of the flesh. They mean that the entire person, body and soul, is fulfilled in God.
What, then, does the Church mean by speaking of a"time"between the death of the individual and his or her ultimate destiny? Rahner answers this question by speaking of two"finalities."One finality is that of the individual's personal history. That personal history ends at the moment of death. The other finality is that of the human collective reality. It refers to the ultimate destiny of humanity, including the effect that every individual has on that ultimate destiny. Thus the two finalities are not separate. The finality of each individual's death is linked to the finality of human destiny, a destiny to which each individual contributes.
B. Death and Eternity (p. 436). What does it mean to say that the dead are"still alive"? It certainly does not mean that life just continues after death."Death marks an end for the whole person," says Rahner (437). But it is equally wrong to reject the concept of eternity and to say that human life is over at death. The individual has a proper end, an end that begins in life and continues after his or her death. The new does not simply annul the old that has died.
Rahner expresses the doctrine in this way: "Eternity subsumes time by being liberated from the time which came to be temporarily so that freedom and something of final and definitive validity can be achieved" (437). What does this mean? Eternity subsumes time because what was achieved in time becomes eternal. It is no longer time-bound. Yes, our actions are temporary, but their value is not. Their value expresses our freedom.
When we act freely—that is, in true spiritual freedom, unhindered by what would prevent us from obeying God—then we are joined with God's eternal life. Our deeds in time flower in eternity. They flower in that they are the mature expression of God's Spirit in us. Death, the end of the whole person, allows that person to reach or express his or her God-given freedom in a final way. Our final validity comes to be in time, not to continue on in time, but to"form"time. In other words, we are co-creators with God, and we put God's stamp on time.
Personal existence survives despite biological death. It does so because the person is more than time. He or she is part of an"Inexhaustible and indestructible mystery" (438). The person's real self does not simply fall into nothingness after death, but rather shares in an absolute good. The self has produced something in time that cannot be erased by time. Our good, that is, the good we have chosen and to which we have committed ourselves, has"ripened into an experience of immortality" (438). Death is not the end because we have already experienced immortality before death. It is the immortality of a commitment to the good. It is the immortality of a hope that God's grace and promise are real.
The good we do, and the hope we have, are experienced in moral decisions. These decisions are"Incommensurable"With transitory time. Our present assessment of them is not a final assessment. There is more to them than we can say. In a decision for absolute goodness, we transcend time. When we choose the good, we participate in the eternal life of God, the source of good.
It is not uncommon to hear today that by rejecting Christianity's moral law, one is ultimately expressing one's freedom. The rejection of Christian morality, some say, frees people from superstition and the inhibitions of outmoded belief. Liberated individuals, it is said, make responsible choices without a slavish belief in religion's"ultimate good."But Rahner questions this assertion. He states that the very concept of free choice, even the supposedly free choice to reject the moral laws that society (including Christian society) defines as good, implicitly affirms the basis for the moral law. It does so by affirming the existence of freedom, which is a spiritual good. When a person proclaims himself or herself as"liberated"from morality, he or she implicitly affirms the spiritual freedom that is the foundation of morality.
The materialist states that all evolution is due to chance. He or she believes that what Christians call the"good"Is merely a radical and empty arbitrariness or a set of conventional moral expectations. Christians affirm, however, that one choice is truly better than another. They mean that there is a spiritual reality, unseen by the materialist, namely the good itself. This has consequences for the understanding of eternity. When people commit themselves to the good, they are setting this commitment over against time. The very act of making a commitment to the good is an experience of eternity. Eternity lives in our choices, which are our participation in the good.
Christian revelation suggests that God allows every person to experience eternity in this life. We experience what St. John called eternal life in our moral choices. Rahner puts the matter this way: "Scripture does not know of any human life which is so commonplace that it is not valuable enough to become eternal" (441). When we experience this eternity in time, i.e., the eternal life of our good choices, we experience our final and definitive validity. God validates our contribution by adding it to the final destiny of human beings. This final and definitive validity is what the Church calls the resurrection of the flesh.
C. On the Doctrine about a"Place of Purification" (441). The doctrine of purgatory expresses two main ideas. One is that the basic disposition of the human being, a disposition that has come about in the exercise of free actions, acquires a final validity at death. The other is that the person continues to mature after death. Even at the moment of death the basic disposition of the human being has not permeated his or her concrete, corporeal existence. The person has made an ultimate and basic decision, but this decision has not yet been fully integrated.
Rahner explains this, first of all, by distinguishing between language and what it intends to convey. We commonly say that there is a"time"that arrives"After"death during which the person still can become his or her true self. The meaning of such temporal categories (e.g.," after"death) is far from clear. Moreover, symbols such as purgatory's"purifying fire"Are apocalyptic images whose eschatological import must be rightly interpreted. We cannot simply accept the traditional language without asking what truth it means to convey.
Next, Rahner focuses on the temporal categories themselves. His main point is that there must be an interval between an individual's death and the person's corporeal fulfillment. One such interval exists between the act of making a fundamental decision for God and the full integration of that decision. Another interval exists between the fulfillment of the individual in death and the fulfillment of the world. A third interval exists between the final validity of a person in death and the manifestation of that fulfillment in the glorification of the body. This notion of interval is problematic, he says, and it is not clear in what senses such a temporal category can be applied. Ultimately, the dogma of purgatory needs to be retained, says Rahner, but not necessarily its mode of expression.
D. On the Necessary Pluralism of Statements about Fulfillment (p. 443). In this section, Rahner distinguishes between the fulfillment of the human being and the various statements used to speak about this one reality. The Church has transmitted a number of ways to express this fulfillment. Immortality of the soul, resurrection of the flesh, interval after death, and collective eschatology, are all ways to speak of the destiny of the person. The plurality of statements cannot be synthesized into a neat conceptual model. The Bible speaks of the last things in a straightforward way, but not all of its statements can be easily reconciled with one another.
E. The Possibility of Eternal Loss (p. 443). The most important thing to know about hell, says Rahner, is that it always remains a possibility for the human being. Up to the very end of life, a person must reckon with"Absolute loss as the conclusion and outcome of his free guilt" (443). This is fundamental to human freedom.
But the individual"does not need to know anything more than this about hell."For example, people do not have to resolve the question of the relation between the content of Biblical statements about hell and their mode of expression, even the content of the words about hell ascribed to Jesus.
Finally, Rahner repeats his remark from Chapter Three that statements about heaven and hell are not parallel. Christian faith affirms that the history of the world as a whole will in fact enter into eternal life with God. By contrast, the possibility of eternal loss is merely a possibility, not God's will.
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