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Panorama: 10th April 2006

An Eschatology for Contemporary Times



Mathew Chandrankunnel



            Eschatology is a theological science that deals with the end of a human person as an individual and with the possible end of the society as a whole from a religious point of view. The end of the society as a whole is discussed of Apocalyptic Eschatology in terms of the cataclysmic end of the cosmos, that is to say, in terms of the collision and collapse of planets and stars accompanied by the curious inter-play of thunder, darkness and lightning. So, in a way, the end of the universe and the end of the human society would happen simultaneously or, more precisely, the end of the cosmos and the totality of creation would occur in an inextricably interrelated manner. This paves the way for a possibility of science and eschatology meeting together, especially when we look into the future of an individual person, the collective society and the end of the totality of matter as such. Science does not concern itself with the unique significance of the human person as it regards the human person as a mere speck of matter having no specific influence on the immense matter-space-time, continuum of the universe. Thus a holistic understanding would require a reflection on the end of the universe from these two perspectives, namely, the religious and the scientific. In the first part I shall explain the religious point of view and argue that this classical eschatology is inadequate to represent the holistic, dynamic, co-existent human experience of today. This will be followed by an inquiry into the possibility of developing a holistic and dynamic eschatology with the aid of contemporary cosmology, which may replace the static and outdated eschatology.

Classical Eschatology

Eschatology is a term conied by theologians, in the early nineteenth century, from the Greek work eschatos which means either the last of final, and, as such, it was employed to articulate the theological speculation on the Christian beliefs concerning death, and after-life realities such, judgment, resurrection, (and after-life). It has two components: the micro-eschatology and the macro-eschatology. The former deals with the individual end of a human person, while the latter concerns itself with the end of humanity as a whole, thereby striving to give it a social dimension of eschatology.

            In the early stages of (Judaism and) Christianity eschatological beliefs had, indeed played an important role in shaping the spiritual and moral thinking of its followers. Religious persecution and social suffering made them think of an imminent end of the individual and the society which was to take place at the Second Coming of the Lord, generally spoken of as Marantha (Aramaic) or Parousia (Greek). This course occasioned a later crisis in theology owing to the non-occurrence of this long expected catastrophic and cataclysmic end. This has caused eschatology to develop into two widely separate branches: apocalyptic and prophetic. While the former envisaged an immediate occurrence of the cataclysmic end, the latter thought of a gradual transformation of the sinful and unjust society into a virtuous and just one. Prophets were continuously admonishing the Jewish society to return to its old roots of social equality and fraternity, and hence the name prophetic eschatology. Let us have an over view of the mystery of the human end, of the individuals and the society as a whole.

            The fundamental problems of human existence have been one of the major concerns for all religions. Eschatology is a mythical mode of understanding the complete realization of salvation as a future event or series of events that are linked to the present. For this reason, in Judaism and Christianity, there has existed a tension between the present and the future. The present can always serve the role of staging the inauguration of the eschatological drama and the future can always be drawn into the present through ritual anticipation. The emphasis on the immediacy of the end has, however, fluctuated, depending on the social, economic and political conditions of the Jewish community. During adverse periods the eschatology had played an important role in the social and religious dynamics of the early Judaism and Christianity.

            The ancient Jewish tradition focused on a transformed society living in an ideal environment. Hence its eschatological concerns were of materialistic and temporal nature. The Israelite eschatology was based on beraka-blessing- that consisted exclusively of material benefits signified by an abundance of food, crops and numerous herds of animals; long and healthy life; many healthy and intelligent children, victory over adversaries and the permanent possession of land whose centre was at Jerusalem. Thus the material prosperity of the individual and the society was denoted as the external sign and symbol of God’s blessing.

The Reign of God: A tension between the present and the Future

            The above expectation and eschatological hope do make up the background of Jesus’ ministry and mission, the overarching horizon of which was the announcement of the arrival of the kingdom of God.

Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilie, preaching the gospel of God, and saying ‘the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand, repent and believe in the Gospel (Mk 1:14; Lk 4:43)

          The parables and the miracles of Jesus were to signify the ushering in the kingdom of God. On the one hand, the reign of God is ‘at hand’ (Mk 1:14-15) and ‘in the midst of you’ (Lk 17:21). It was denoted by the signs of healing, exorcisms and the preaching of good news (Mt 11 4-5; Lk 4: 18-19). On the other hand, the reign of God is catapulted to an infinity time, not realizable in this lifetime. The strain of this non-reliability expressed in the prayer ‘Our Father’ (Lk 12: 2-4). Jesus’ preaching upheld a tension between the present and the future, between the prophetic and apocalyptic eschatology, between the visible and the invisible components of the reign of God. Thus the immanence (nearness) and the transcendence (distance) of God’s reign were emphasized by Jesus. Jesus death on the cross was described by Mathew (Mt 27:51-53) and Mark (Mk 15:3-39) as an embodiment of the immanent eschatology. After Jesus’ resurrection the disciples experienced a new presence of Jesus in the form of an internal peace, inner strength, and the out-pouting of the Spirit, etc. In this respect the Christian eschatology can be said to be inextricably interwoven with Christology. Paul emphasized the Christological character of eschatology by describing Christ as the “fullness of time” (Gal 4:4; Eph 1:10) so much so that the believer is a new creation (2 Cor 5:17). Here we find the tension between the already and not yet aspects of the arrival of the kingdom of God, a concept parallel to that of the prophetic an apocalyptic eschatology. The speculation on the second coming of Christ and the consequent final judgment and the reign of God which would endure continuously for a millennium was also an important factor contributing towards the deepening of the tension which was already present in the early Church.

Development of Dualism

            In the middle ages there took place an imaginative, materialistic and simplified development of eschatology that had economical effects and caused a tumultuous revolt in the Church. The unified vision of the present and the future of the early Church was further differentiated along with the concepts of body and soul and of the resurrection of the dead-individual as well as the dead- community. In the medieval period the immortality of the individual soul was highly emphasized which led t the development of an individual eschatology even neglecting its social dimension. During the twelfth century, purgatory was given a separate place between heaven and hell which came to be deeply rooted in the western mind through the successful literary works such as Divine Comedy of Dante and the Paradise Lost of Milton. A picturesque presentation of the hell, purgatory and paradise in terms of animal like demons, everlasting fire, groaning souls depicted the alienation of the soul from God. Along with this picturesque conceptualization of eschatology there occurred the elaborate distribution of indulgences that ultimately lead to Reformation and Counter Reformation.

            Due to the successful rise of Classical physics, a deterministic, mechanistic, dualistic and all controllable view of life filtered into the Western culture, which was to a certain that souls who were to be saved were already determined and rest would have to be perished for eternity. Along with this deterministic and all dominating attitude towards life and nature there developed an exploitative tendency that lead to the rape of the mother earth and women under the guise of controlling history and the domination of nature. A secularized form of eschatology based on domination and progress termed as naturalistic teleology came into prominence. The caring, affectionate, eschatological relative presence of God affectionate, eschatological creative presence of God was negated from the sphere of nature and humanity.

            In the twentieth century, the scientific developments had shaken these traditional belief systems such as domination, determination, exploitation etc., and people seemed not at all concerned about the future. Competition and success became the new driving force for life. The sophist values of ancient Greece, success, money, power, authority, force that are available at the present are given more importance in life that led to the forgetfulness of an eschatological dimension of life. People sought for new opportunities and the availability of an infinite variety of consumer products eclipsed the search for the transcendental and the eschatological dimension of life. Unlimited progress, material pleasure and the immersion in the momentariness of life led the contemporary human person to the forgetfulness of the definiteness of death and the ultimate meaning of life and cut her/his umbilical relationship with the source of creation.

A New Eschatological Framework

            Jurgen Moltmann pioneered a rediscovery of the eschatological dimension of life for the contemporary human person in the seventies and in the eighties through his books The Theology of Hope, The future of Creation etc. Moltmann sees the future as something radically new and different from the present. He describes God as a God of promises who intervenes in history from above. For him future and past have bearings on the present. “Present and future, experience and hope, stand in contradiction to each other in Christian eschatology” (The Theology of Hope, p. 18, 143). Thus the future belongs to the active and creative love and the compassionate and merciful grace of God. Moltmann is able to discover newness, transformation and unexpectedness in the active, creative and compassionate, mercy of God.

            On the other hand, Karl Rahner described the importance of experiencing the present through the gift of the spirit that was poured out into the world through the death and resurrection of Jesus and Jesus’ interpenetration into the world through ascension. Jesus danced into the space-time, into the universe bringing the whole of the universe, not only the nature and humanity into a close togetherness but also the distant eschatological future and the immediate present. Thus the Christ-Event became a continuum of Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension, guaranteeing the graceful and compassionate presence of God in the creation. This is the solid foundation on which we can hope for a consummation in the distant future. God’s loving presence, creative intervention and compassionate-dynamic guidance, acting from the very historical beginning of time authenticates the transcendental ending of time. Thus the eschatologies of Rahner and Moltmann are complementary since the anamnesis of the active past guarantees the redemptive intervention of God in the al consummating distant future. However, these two approaches have to be refined by incorporating the contemporary human experience and the contemporary epistemology of science.

            One of the basic problems in reinterpreting the eschatological dimension is that the underlying social and cultural bulwark of the present day eschatology is still caught up in the medieval categories. The conceptual foundation, the active and organic experiences of contemporary human person are in direct conflict with the medieval or classic representation of the eschatological statements. The mode of signification is no longer in touch with the reality signified. The dualism between body and mind, matter and spirit, heaven and earth, rationality and intuition, this life and next life do not translate the contemporary experience of existence, society and the world. As Rahner had already prophetically proclaimed, the new cosmology, ecology and anthropology had to be seriously undertaken in our theologizing. (T.I. Vol. 4, p. 324) Vatican II had also acknowledged the same by emphasizing the radical change that had occurred in human experience and the changing worldview. (G.S. 5) The static, authoritative and dualistic worldview has to be overthrown and is to be replaced by a dynamic and holistic epistemology of the sciences. Any new framework of eschatology has to be capable of mediation between the eschatological statements and the holistic, coexistent and dynamic world-experience. This emerging vision of interconnectedness, interdependence and holism raises humanity and nature into a continuum of Gelasenheit. In this trans-cosmic unity, the past, the present and the future are not at all separated: but fused into the creative activity of God that will transform the whole of creation into a trans-cosmic singularity in the fullness of time. Such a framework is attempted below from the new developments in cosmology.

New Epistemology of Science

            Theory of Relativity and Quantum Mechanics conceptually revolutionized our thinking patterns and brought already a new way of looking at the cosmos. In the quantum level, the micro particles are behaving in an inextricably interwoven manner, even violation the principles of the theory of relativity. Such an experience is technically known as non-separable in space-time. Time and space cannot separate an entangled, once interconnected absorbs all matter, the whole of creation and transform them into the divine. Thus, the fragmentation between matter-spirit, creation- creator, past-present-future can be resolved. Everything submerges into this Trans-cosmic singularity, oneness, a togetherness that transcends our dualistic conceptual thinking pervades the nature and the cosmos.

            The advantages of this new eschatology are the following. First of all we transcend the dualistic thinking patterns of classic period. Secondly we can get rid of the metaphorical representation of the hell, purgatory and heaven and replace them in terms of this Trans-cosmic singularity which is more appealing to contemporary taste and rationality. It presents the alienation of the soul as a deprivation from the Trans-cosmic singularity. Then we shall be thinking just in the same wavelength of the patristic apokatastasis, unification of everything into the Divine Totality. Thirdly, we shall be incorporating the dynamic, holistic, co-existent new thinking of the contemporary world-experience. Moreover, its basis is biblical and Christological. The interconnectedness and the oneness of the Trinity are emphasized in the pastoral prayer of Jesus in St. John’s Gospel. Also Paul’s letter to the Romans, chapter eight, describes the groaning of the whole creation for the ultimate liberation. It is a groaning of all creation to collapse into the Trans-cosmic singularity. Creation returns to the creator, i.e., merges with the Trans Divine Totality. Christ is at the centre of this new eschatology. Christ is the force that attracts the individual and the community into a total transformation and trans-integration of all reality. This trans-cosmization transcends all the bindings of materiality and sublimates to the Gelasenheit of the Ultimate. A Gelasenheit of openness, interconnectedness and interdependence that incorporates the contemporary world experience is thoroughly Christological. It incorporates the Rahner’s vision of the creative presence and love of God present already in the world as well as the Moltmann’s concept of the consummation of everything in future. The past, present and future are inextricably intertwined in this new mode of eschatological expression. This dynamic, active, holistic and co-existent eschatology has to replace the classical, deterministic, mechanistic, manipulative and fragmentary eschatology.


The New Dictionary of Theology. Edited by Joseph A. Komonchak, Mary Collins and Dermot A. Lane, Theological Publications of India, Bangalore, 1994.

The Anchor Bible Dictionary. Vol 1 & 2. Edited by David Noel Freedman, Doubleday, New York, 1992.

Heinz R. Pagels, Perfect Symmetry, Bantam Books, Toronto, 1986.

Gelasenheit is a German word used by Heideggar meaning an ultimate openness devoid of all bondage.

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