Two Eschatologies

The end of the world must either be an interruption in human life or an event that occurs after the race has passed away. There are suggestions of the first in Scripture (Mt. 24:40) and in the creed (“judge the living and the dead”), but these ultimately turn out to be ambiguous (“living and dead” seem better understood as speaking of the saved and damned, for example, which is what judgment is about.)

The second interpretation is the better choice. The two judgments have distinct objects and so are not muddled together, and so just as God gives a private judgment to those who have run the course of their life and meet their end either by nature or man, the general judgment happens in the same way. Death is the price to be paid by human life in all its forms, not just by individuals but by the merely human collectives that they form.

The judgment is therefore not coming to save us. It won’t interrupt social evils or break in upon them before they run their course, or leap in front of nature before it finds the keys to making human life just the food source for some other sort of life (like bacteria). We’re in this to its bitter end.

8 Comments

  1. thenyssan said,

    June 27, 2015 at 12:02 pm

    Unless it goes in the other direction with a “natural” end–some epic catastrophe (Vonnegut-style) that would be quite the interruption of human events indeed. I’m not sure we have to rule those out a priori to make room for the Second Coming and the general judgment. Or I’m hesitant to do so, even if they are harder to reconcile with a Second Coming.

  2. Jack said,

    June 27, 2015 at 12:45 pm

    Mr. Chastek

    Are you saying that human collectives and institutions will be judged? You can’t judge a thing (in this sense) if it has no will and the will is a faculty of the soul. So, if you say collectives can be judged, then you seem to be saying that collectives have souls of their own, a sort of supersoul. If you recognize that supersouls can exist, then you have many further questions to deal with, like how a man made institution can be ensouled.

    • June 27, 2015 at 8:54 pm

      It would be a dead end to speak of supersouls, though it’s hard to see how nations, movements, and other various institutions and collective actions can escape some sort of ultimate reckoning. St. Thomas’s account of this ultimate reckoning is that, while we are judged by our actions in the personal judgment, we’re judged by all of the effects of our actions throughout time in the general judgment. I had something like this in mind – the various collectives we are a part of are ways of continuing our lives throughout time, and we need to be held to account for all that arises from this which is not purely accidental.

  3. Fr. Thomas said,

    June 28, 2015 at 12:31 am

    Although I agree that overall this is the more reasonable position, it can potentially lead to other theological problems. It seems to be the teaching of the Catholic Church that it will last until the end of the world, which under this account would be until the end of humanity. I can see several ways this would be possible: either the world as a whole converts to Catholicism at some point, or else the world ends in a natural catastrophe extremely quickly, or else the Church is just lucky.

    The first possibility isn’t very likely because it probably requires improbable apocalyptic events in itself (e.g. the kind of full scale conversion of Russia predicted by some). The last is simply directly positing an unlikely event.

    Thus the second possibility seems the most likely, and certainly it is possible, but it is not clear that it is actually the most likely kind of human extinction event. More likely seems to be cases like e.g. there is full scale nuclear war, followed by several centuries with a small human population which finally fails, and these cases would require the third (lucky) possibility.

    • June 28, 2015 at 8:28 am

      I was worried about the Church problem – one reason why I needed to speak of “merely human institutions” in the OP. I couldn’t figure out how to resolve the problem, though I think you hit on the possible alternatives.

  4. Dave said,

    June 29, 2015 at 6:42 pm

    The second position is irreconcilable with statements of St. Paul. In 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, he explicitly states that some individuals will be alive at the final coming of Christ, and will be given immortal bodies once the dead have been raised and given theirs. He echoes this in 1 Corinthians 15:51: “We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed.”

    • June 29, 2015 at 8:46 pm

      Thanks for bringing that up. I wanted to deal with more objections but I only had a few minutes to write that post.

      My reading of 1 Thess 4 is as a response to the false belief that it is a special grace to be alive at the time of the Second Coming. Paul insists rather that the dead are given preference. Line 17 can be read as requiring that there be persons still living, but it can also be read as a acknowledgement of a common belief in the early Church that Christ will return soon, or simply as a hypothetical statement. But I think what is required in the 1 Thess. passage is the teaching that to be alive at the time of the return of Christ would not be a special grace or mark of honor (this is an important fact for us to understand even today – we are continually prone to flatter ourselves with the idea that we live in the last days), and I think the second position is a way of defending the truth of that claim.

      The quotation from 1 cor turns on the sense of the men…de oppositions and the sense of “sleep”. Paul uses sleep to mean both death (which is how you take it) and not accepting Christ, or living in darkness (cf. the same book, 11: 30 and 1 Th. 5:6 and 5:7), and men…de is a way of drawing any sort of comparison or opposition. We could read 1 Cor. 51 as “Not everyone will accept Christ, but everyone is going to be changed.” Paul then proceeds to speak of those who are saved, having just spoken of those who will not be. My way of reading v. 51 takes it as following or re-expressing the previous verse as opposed to introducing what comes after it. That said, it’s hard to deny the rational pull of your argument. It’s a compelling way to read the text.

  5. Florentius Georgius said,

    July 10, 2015 at 7:45 am

    Not sure if this helps, but you seem to have St. Ambrose on your side here: cf. a hymn for Easter Day, which contains the following lines: “Cum mors per omnes transeat/Omnes resurgant mortui/Consumpta mors ictu suo/Perisse se solam gemat”.
    Thanks for this great blog.


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