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  • Philosophical Myths of the End
  • Judith Wolfe

This essay traces the course of eschatology in the modern West as a site and tool of secularization, but also as a powerful resource for its resistance, one that Christians cannot ultimately do without. First, though, a set of definitions. By "eschatology," of course, I mean the study of the last things. Traditionally, these have been itemized as death, judgement, heaven, and hell. But my use of the term is inflected structurally. I am interested specifically in thought about the "last things" as they relate to present systems of life and action; and about those systems insofar as they are seen as determined by their end. This delineation of eschatology admits of a widening of the term (one that is not mere obfuscation) beyond the four traditional loci, to capture wider thinking about the shape and end of human life and history. In this domain, eschatology goes beyond teleology in that the end-relatedness it envisions is often other than simply teleological: many eschatological accounts involve a peripeteia, whether this "turn" be that of divine judgement, Tolkienian eucatastrophe, or Ragnarök. Eschatology does, however, require that the "last things" be thought of as relating to, and in some sense determining, the system they cap. The pragmatic prediction that a nuclear war may end the world is not in itself eschatological; a narrative of the human condition as an arc of human progress that bears the seeds of its own ultimately inevitable destruction is.

Eschatology in both its traditional and this wider sense, perhaps more immediately and starkly than any other theological field, reflects the state and role of the Christian Church in the world at any particular time. For Christians of the first to third centuries, as for their Jewish forebears, political oppression and persecution found their correlate in vivid apocalyptic [End Page 55] visions of liberation, triumph, and a messianic kingdom of peace. During periods of secular Church government, much theological effort and imagination were invested in intricate maps of the next world, detailing eternal rewards or punishments for moral and civic obedience or subversion. This is not to suggest that eschatological beliefs have merely been a product of social and political circumstances; indeed, they have often contributed to such circumstances. Still, it is undeniable that eschatology often projects onto the screen of eternity the concerns, priorities, fears, and hopes of the present. Eschatology is therefore a good "weather cock" for the state of Christian culture in different periods, and its course over the last few hundred years charts remarkably incisively both the causes (or at least contours) of modern secularization and the potential of compelling Catholic responses.

This is particularly true because eschatology acts as the framing device for the way we understand and experience the shape of the world, and our place within it, more broadly. For most of Christian history, the biblical promise of Christ's Second Coming, followed by the resurrection of the dead, the Last Judgement, and the advent of the heavenly Jerusalem, guided people's understanding both of their own actions and of the times they lived in. That promise had both a moral and a historical dimension. Morally, it set all actions within the purview of an omniscient judgment to come: regardless of current inequalities and deceptions, at the last the all-seeing God would weigh all deeds and judge all people equitably. Historically, it ordered all events within a divine drama leading through anguish to triumph: suffering, humiliation, and persecution were no more than the biblically foretold birth pangs of the messianic kingdom. Throughout Christian history, religious conflicts arose from disagreements over how rightly to map biblical prophecy onto the present time: whether, for example, the pope should be understood as the vicar of Christ presiding over the thousand-year messianic reign preceding the Second Coming, or as the antichrist beguiling the faithful. But these disputes did not touch the explanatory framework itself. The pressing religious question, in other words, was not how the drama of life and history was plotted, but only what role each was playing in it.

The Enlightenment, challenging the reliability of revelation as a source of historical and...


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