Theologian Father Paul O'Callaghan Discusses the "Last Things"
ROME, 2 JUNE 2011 (ZENIT)
Is there such a thing as life after death? Is the claim that humans can live forever in perfect bliss after death not a meaningless exaggeration? Would it not be more realistic to say that humans simply disappear at the end of their lives? Is it not grossly unfair to claim that those who have sinned in this life will suffer grievously forever?
Father Paul O'Callaghan, professor of theological anthropology at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome, addresses these and other questions on what happens after a person dies in "Christ Our Hope: An Introduction to Eschatology" (Catholic University of America Press, 2011).
In this interview with ZENIT, Father O'Callaghan discusses the scope of his textbook and he offers an overview of the field of eschatology, which is the study of the four last things — death, judgment, heaven and hell.
Part 2 of this interview will appear Friday.
ZENIT: Why did you write this book?
Father O'Callaghan: I've been teaching the subject for nearly 25 years. So the time had come to put pen to paper. It took me longer than I thought it would to write it. Eschatology is a complex and ample subject, or at least has become so in the last century.
Some years ago, in a hospital waiting room, a woman said to me: "My father died last year." It was obvious she remembered him fondly. And she asked: "Where is he now?" It just did not seem possible to her that a person she loved, someone who had given her life, would just disappear off the face of the earth. I think this simple incident brought me to be very attentive to the anthropological implications of eschatology.
Some Christians are afraid to speak about the "last things." This is understandable since it is not easy to describe in detail what the afterlife consists of. But people are looking for answers, often desperately so. They're looking for something to give them hope, to keep them going, to make love meaningful, to make life worth living.
ZENIT: Benedict XVI is particularly sensitive to issues related to eschatology
Father O'Callaghan: The Holy Father's encyclical "Spe Salvi" came out in 2007, when I was writing the book, and I used it throughout. I think it's fair to say the book is an extended commentary on this extraordinary document. Some 30 years earlier, Joseph Ratzinger had written what many consider his most cogent and profound work,
"Eschatology: Death and Eternal Life" (also published in English by Catholic University of America Press). I have read it repeatedly over the years. So I was aware of his thought. Still, a few issues that arise in the encyclical drew my attention.
"Spe Salvi" very openly admits that for many people nowadays the promise of eternal life is unattractive. They're interested in this life, not the next life, which for many is considered as a source of eternal boredom. And since they don't hope, they don't believe. So in each chapter I've attempted to show that eternal life, judgment, resurrection, post-mortem purification and all the rest, are extraordinarily attractive and meaningful from the human point of view. Far from distracting us from the world we live in, they motivate us deeply and prompt us to live life to the fullest. In Christianity, on earth we can "store up treasure in heaven" (Mark 10:21). The provisional character of human life inculcated by different versions of reincarnationism does the exact opposite.
Still, I had to be careful not as it were to "project" Christian eschatology out of human experience or striving. Christian hope is the fruit of God's action and promise. It's not our doing. Our task as Christians is to open ourselves to God saving action, for eternal life consists principally of God's life in us. Theologians call this "divinization." Matthew expresses it as follows: "Enter into the joy of your master" (25:23). After all, hope is what's called a "theological virtue," not only in that's it's directed toward God, but is infused by God into the human heart.
ZENIT: I see you pay a lot of attention to Scriptural issue.
Father O'Callaghan: Eschatology is based on the divine promise, which is revealed to us mainly through Scripture, and principally in the life, words and work of Jesus Christ, God's Word and Son, our Lord and Savior. The Fathers of the Church developed their eschatology also on the basis of Scripture, and I gave prominence to their writings as well. I attempted to apply to Scriptural texts a strictly theological hermeneutic, indeed a Christological hermeneutic.
ZENIT: That's a big word, "hermeneutic."
Father O'Callaghan: Indeed. It needs some explanation. Literally, hermeneutic means "interpretation." Two examples may suffice to explain it. The first example is as follows. When we read in the New Testament that those who die confirmed in sin will be condemned for all eternity, immediately we begin to ask: but what does this mean? Could it be that Jesus was just provoking his disciples to react decisively to his message, to convert, to make up their minds once and for all? This was the understanding of Origen and others.
Obviously, Jesus achieved the conversion he sought, but I don't think this was the primary purpose of these statements, because he moved his followers to conversion not through fear and harshness, but by love and mercy. I think Jesus meant just what he said: that those who persevere in their infidelity to the end of their lives will be lost forever. This is such a serious issue, such a real possibility, that he was prepared to give up his life to save us from sin. God gives more weight to human freedom than we do at times.
The second example. On several occasions, Jesus said he will raise humans up on "the last day." Some authors have felt embarrassed at these texts, seeing in them the danger of crass materialistic interpretations of revelation. The biblical exegete Rudolf Bultmann said that the resurrection of Jesus took place as he died on the cross, and our resurrection would be of a kind. Resurrection therefore must be considered as a purely spiritual reality, linked with our baptismal conversion from sin. The fact is, however, that the Fathers of the Church interpreted final resurrection in clearly cosmic terms, and came to accept the doctrine of the deep, essential union existing between body and soul on the basis of the promise of the future resurrection of the dead, or "of the flesh."
ZENIT: Why the title "Christ Our Hope?"
Father O'Callaghan: The title "Christ Our Hope" is a paraphrase of the expression "Spe Salvi," (We Are Saved in Hope, Romans 8:24). Eschatology is simply a working-out of Christ's work of salvation. Benedict XVI's apostolic visit to the United States of America in the year 2008 was titled "Christ Our Hope."
The painting on the cover [of the book], by the pre-Raphaelite English artist William Holman Hunt, depicts the risen Christ still walking the face of an unredeemed world, carrying a light in one hand, as he knocks at a door with the other. The painting clearly evokes Revelations 3:20: "Behold, I stand at the door and knock." The door, so the artist noted, has no handle on the outside. It can only be opened on the inside.
Humans are never forced to accept God's gifts, even the greatest gift of eternal communion with him. God doesn't want slaves in heaven, but sons.
ZENIT: And "hope?"
Father O'Callaghan: The work is structured around the virtue of hope. Chapter One is on the dynamics of hope, and sets the scene for the rest of the work. One aspect I emphasize particularly is that hope is the result of the working of the Holy Spirit. Chapters Two to Seven deal with the object of hope, what we hope for: the "Parousia," or final coming of Jesus Christ in glory, final resurrection, the renewal of the cosmos, general judgment, heaven and hell.
Chapter Eight deals with the stimulus of hope in the world, its presence in human life and political activity, the visibility or otherwise of the Kingdom of God on earth. Chapters Nine to Eleven deal with the honing and purification of hope: the doctrine of death, purgatory and intermediate eschatology. The last chapter attempts to show that Christian hope provides a key for understanding all aspects of Christian theology: Christology, ecclesiology, sacraments, anthropology, ethics and spirituality.
Theologian Father Paul O'Callaghan Answers Questions on Death
ROME, 3 JUNE 2011 (ZENIT)
Is there any basis for saying that the world will come to an end, after a string of cosmic and social catastrophes? Is the possibility of obtaining purification for sin after death not likely to lead people to moral irresponsibility? Does the promise of eternal life after death bring people to forget about improving the world we are living in?
Father Paul O'Callaghan, professor of theological anthropology at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome, addresses these and other questions on life after death in "Christ Our Hope: An Introduction to Eschatology" (Catholic University of America Press, 2011).
In this interview with ZENIT, Father O'Callaghan discusses the renewal of the cosmos, the joy that will be experienced at the moment of the Final Judgment, and other questions regarding the four last things — death, judgment, heaven and hell.
Part 1 of this interview appeared Thursday.
ZENIT: Several questions arise regarding the topics included in your book. First: what is the renewal of the cosmos?
Father O'Callaghan: We can understand something of the realism of the risen body from the appearances of the risen Christ to the Apostles. Though material, his body was glorious and difficult to recognize. They identified him not by looking at his face, but at his hands, which carried the marks of the nails by which he was crucified. In effect, between the earthly body and the risen body there is continuity and difference.
Even glorious matter requires a cosmic context. Thus, the renewal of the cosmos. But we know little of the revitalized cosmos that God will prepare for those who love him. Theologians over the centuries have depicted it in an extraordinary variety of ways. But in matters eschatological, it's best to be sober, so I won't make any further suggestions.
ZENIT: Second question: medieval art depicted the final judgment as inflicting terror and pain on a vast scale. Can it really be the object of Christian hope?
Father O'Callaghan: The book of Revelation depicts the martyrs crying out to heaven for vengeance (6:10). They hope for judgment in that they hope for justice. Christ himself taught his followers that "to hunger and thirst for justice" was a sign and source of beatitude (Matthew 5:6). Christians forgive, indeed, but hope God will bring about justice on earth, in this life and the next. But it should be pointed out that God brings about justice not only by condemning the confirmed sinner, but also, and principally, by making the sinner just, by offering humans the possibility of justification, or conversion. Benedict XVI in "Spe Salvi" said that a world that has to create its own justice is a world without hope (No. 42).
Christians hope for judgment because they believe there is such a thing as truth. Only sinners need fear it. For God's children, however aware they may be of their own weaknesses, the definitive revelation of truth will be a moment of stupendous joy. Strange though it may seem, the definitive truth about the world has a name: "charity." St. John of the Cross said that "in the evening our lives we will be judged on charity."
ZENIT: Why does Scripture speak of angels and saints accompanying Christ at judgment?
Father O'Callaghan: St. Patrick in his Confessions asked God for the privilege of judging the Irish at final judgment. Time would show that maybe he was biting off more than he could chew, numbers-wise, and contents-wise. But I suppose he was convinced that he had a special understanding for the people he evangelized and was in a better position than others to put them in the place God intended for them. Of course only God can judge, and has handed on that power to his Son, Jesus Christ. But the saints do provide for the rest of humanity a living and concrete reference of lived holiness. Rather than saying they judge humanity, it might be more correct to say they reveal to humans what God intended his children to be. Their very lives ipso facto judge that of their fellow men and women.
Likewise, the angels belong to God's court, and accompany Christ in every moment of his saving work, and so also at judgment. They reveal in a special way how creatures, all creatures, are meant to direct their lives to God, praising him incessantly, giving God all the glory.
ZENIT: Is there any way of knowing when the world will come to an end?
Father O'Callaghan: Only God knows, Mark tells us (13:32), when the world will come to an end. Even the signs that seem to indicate that the end-time is near at hand (the preaching of the Gospel, the coming of the Antichrist, cosmic upheavals, etc.) are ambivalent: We don't know to what degree they have been fulfilled, and how much time will go by from their fulfillment to the coming of Christ in glory. Attempts to make exact predictions about the end of time have often made Christians look foolish. Still, growth in holiness and evangelization may, indeed, be considered as signs that the final coming of the kingdom is close at hand.
ZENIT: Third question: As Christians we don't hope for the condemnation of anybody, obviously, but would it not be correct to say we should hope for the salvation of all human beings?
Father O'Callaghan: The theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar held that the saving power of Christ was so powerful and incisive that it should penetrate even the darkest regions of the human heart, even of those who have been condemned. Thus he taught that as Christians we should hope for the salvation of all humans. Still, though we can and should desire that God gives each and every one the grace of conversion, we don't in a strict sense hope for their salvation. We can only hope for our own personal salvation. The freedom of each individual human being is paramount. The door of the human heart has the handle only on the inside.
ZENIT: Fourth question: Is there such a thing as a purely human hope?
Father O'Callaghan: Humans are structured for hope. Philosophers say hope is the last thing that is lost, that it is very fabric of the human soul (G. Marcel). Still, hope is enlivened, authenticated and made perpetual only by the intervention of God's grace. Hope of some kind is absolutely necessary for people to work, to live, to befriend other people. But if it is not based on God's grace, it easily withers and fades. I'm convinced that the Church nowadays more than anything else must preach hope ... but not only preach it: it must live hope, communicate hope, make it joyfully contagious.
Many Christians know how they should act, but don't manage to do so, because they've lost hope, they've given up. And it's up to their fellow-Christians to give it back to them, gently and patiently, day by day, stage by stage. In a very inspiring paragraph of "Spe Salvi," Benedict XVI speaks of Christians as "ministers of hope" (No. 34).
ZENIT: Another question: Why death?
Father O'Callaghan: Scripture speaks of a close linkup between death and sin. Yet death is natural, it belongs to the very biological structure God gave us. I think we can say that God provided mortality as a kind of safety mechanism for humans: once people stop recognizing that God is the only source of life, and attempt to live as if he didn't exist and wasn't meant to be respected (this is what sin means), the prospect and reality of death becomes an extremely powerful reminder of the limited character of our existence, a stimulus to convert and avoid sinning.
God stays our sinful tendencies by reminding us we are mortal, and by promising a fullness of immortality only to those who are humbly faithful to him. Animals die, and so do humans. But only humans are aware of the fact. And that makes a very big difference. The poet Goerge Herbert said: "Death is working like a mole, and digs my grave at each remove."
ZENIT: One last question: is it not true that Protestants and Orthodox Christians deny purgatory?
Father O'Callaghan: I have attempted throughout "Christ Our Hope" to look into every question from the ecumenical angle. Obviously, post-mortem purification is a critical issue. Keep in mind that Christians from the very earliest times prayed insistently for the dead, especially in the celebration of the Eucharist. It was a universal practice. Such prayer would be useless to those already in full communion with God (for example, the martyrs) and to those who are condemned. Thus prayer for the dead is directed to those who are not fully purified at death. This is the ancient faith of the Church.
It is true that Orthodox believers do not share the fine points of Catholic theology of purgatory, but at a substantial issue there is a common faith. Protestants for the most part are wary about anything that smacks of giving value of human works in God's sight, and have attempted to eliminate the doctrine of purgatory. Still, the 1999 Common Declaration between Lutherans and Catholics will make it easier in the future to establish common ground on this front. While writing the work, I paid special attention to the Lutheran theologian and close friend, Wolfhart Pannenberg.
ZENIT: Do you think the book will sell well?
Father O'Callaghan: I hope it will... but I'm not sure if this is theological hope! Also, I have to be careful when recommending people to buy it. At a certain age, people get sensitive when you suggest they read books on eschatology. It is a bit like telling them, in the old days, that it was high time they received the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick! After all, eschatology is a matter of life and death.
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On the Net:
"Christ Our Hope: An Introduction to Eschatology": www.amazon.com/Christ-Our-Hope-Introduction-Eschatology/dp/0813218624