Errors in Contemporary Eschatology

Michael F. Hull

The Second Vatican Council did not address eschatology per se. However, since eschatology is inextricably linked to Christology, soteriology, and eccesiology, the fathers could not but express certain eschatological teachings, especially when discussing the Church in Lumen gentium (nn. 48-51) and Gaudium et spes (nn. 38-39) as well as in the foundational principles of Nostra aetate, Dignitatis humanae, and Ad gentes divinitus.1

Traditionally, Roman Catholicism spoke of the De novissimis, an appellation gradually supplanted by the term "eschatology," the study of the "last things" (ta eschata): death, judgment, heaven, and hell. To be sure, a plethora of ambiguities and errors regarding things eschatological arose in the years following the Council, and many continue into our own day. To recount each and every one of them is beyond the pale of this presentation. In 1979, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith succinctly reiterated the Church’s basic teachings on the last things.2 This corrective highlighted the prominence of eschatology in contemporary theological speculation, a persistent prominence, especially as we begin a new millennium.3 Christians are perennially concerned with the last things, and rightly so. It is with the last things that the promises of Christ come to their final fruition. Therefore, it is no surprise that ambiguities and errors should arise in this area, even as the Church cogently and consistently teaches the revealed truths about death, judgment, heaven, and hell.

As one might expect, eschatology revolves around these four realities and their interrelationship. Of the four, two present little difficulty today, namely, death and heaven. Death is a reality all too plain to us: each of us faces the immanence of his own death and the deaths of those whom he loves. Though we may question its why and wherefore, we cannot question its actuality and inevitability. That which sees us through the horror and darkness of death is the promise of eternal life, the promise of a life hereafter. Heaven is both a hope native to us and a reality revealed to us: each of us desires to transcend the threat of annihilation of himself and those whom he loves. Heaven is death’s defeat. "One short sleep past, we wake eternally, // And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die."4 In a sense, death and heaven go in tandem. The prospect of heaven as expressed in John 14 and the resurrection as explained by Saint Paul (1 Thessalonians 4:13-5:11 and 1 Corinthians 15) represent relatively minor difficulties in contemporary eschatology.

Judgment and hell are quite different matters. As we enter the twenty-first century, we carry much baggage from the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries. Especially, we bear the brunt of a religious indifferentism that has grown into a religious pluralism. Not only do some claim that religious affiliation, specifically baptism in Christ, is inconsequential, but others claim that justification may come through persons and means other than Jesus Christ and his Church. Closely allied to such thinking is triage of psychological, sociological, and sociobiological deterministic theories that discredit human responsibility. Such theories propose that human beings are basically inculpable for their choices. Wrong doing—or sin, even if we dare speak of such a thing—is the result of disordered personalities, inadequate relationships, or genetic inheritance. The idea of judgment, other than a medicinal and temporary one, is anathema to many in our day. It follows therewith that there cannot be a hell or, at least, that even if such a place were to exist, no one would be there. So too, in a sense, judgment and hell go in tandem. Thus, the principal errors in eschatology are rooted in a denial of judgment, or a denial of any consequences to such judgment other than purgation or reward, that is, in a denial of hell.

In terms of eschatology, the first problem has to do with the state of the nonbaptized at judgment. The baptisms of blood and desire notwithstanding, it has been the constant teaching of the Church—stemming from the Lord’s own words to Nicodemus, "Amen, amen, I say to you, unless a man be born again of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God" (John 3:5)—that the fate of the nonbaptized after death is unknown to us. Though we rely on the mercy of God in such cases, we cannot affirm salvation for the nonbaptized. The second problem has to do with the state of the guilty at judgment. Even if we were to assume that the Christian and the nonChristian stand side-by-side at the judgment seat, we cannot affirm pardon for the unrepentant sinner. Again, we rely on the mercy of God.

Are All Christians? Does It Matter?

Some contemporary theological thinking, no doubt influenced by the political theories of egalitarianism and democracy as well as misinterpretations of Dignitatis humanae, longs for an equality of outcome rather than an equality of opportunity when it comes to salvation. That is, some are discontented to find all men equal before God in their human freedom; instead, they desire to see all men equal before God in justification. However, by denying consequences to man’s freedom in accepting the Savior and man’s cooperation his own salvation, they forfeit the effects of baptism and maintain that all men, baptized or not, are eligible for the promises of Christ made to the baptized. In other words, even if some rejected Christ in this life, they shall still be with him in the kingdom of God. Cognizant that such a thinking is inimical to Scripture and Tradition, they seek to solve the problem of the incorporation into Christ and his Church in one of in two ways. The first is to assert that all humans beings are Christians—whether they choose to be or not, whether they know it or not. The second to is to dismiss the claims of Christianity—to assert that Christianity’s claims are true for some but not for others, that there are ways to salvation other than Christ.

The notion of the "anonymous Christian" is most closely associated with the work of Karl Rahner.5 In short, Rahner proffered the thesis that some men, who are not baptized and who claim no allegiance or even knowledge of Christianity, are in some fashion anonymous Christians. Since all men are by nature ordered toward God and capable of sensing his sanctifying grace operative in themselves, those who existentially accept that grace manifest an implicit desire for incorporation into Christ and his Church. Insofar as they live justly and according to their consciences, they are in fact Christians and therefore redeemed men. Though Rahner was careful to indicate that not all nonChristians were anonymous Christians and that any and all who were saved were saved through the paschal mystery of Christ, the concept has developed in many minds that anyone who is basically of good will is oriented to Christ and saved: everyone is really a Christian in his heart of hearts.

Comforting as anonymous Christianity may be to some, it is loathsome to others, whose thinking has progressed so far as to consider anonymous Christianity unduly triumphalistic, for it presumes to posit Christianity above other religions.6 At root, theories of anonymous Christianity attempt to hold the claims of the Church by incorporating as many as possible within her (in)visibile confines. However, it is all-too-short a gap from implicit Christianity as a path toward salvation to nonChristian religions as paths to salvation. Why should Christ be the exclusive mediator of salvation? When it comes to salvation, does it matter if one is a Christian or not? It comes as no surprise, then, to find that gap bridged by those who would make Christianity as kind of primus inter pares among religions, for example Jacques Dupuis.7 Dupuis’ book has already received significant attention from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith,8 and we will not belabor it here, especially since Congregation’s declaration Dominus Iesus has already answered the difficulties in question.9

In point of fact, not all men are Christians—explicitly or implicitly. And Christianity, incorporation into Christ and his Church through the sacrament of baptism, does matter in the end and in the end times.10 To think otherwise is to be in error. How far can such error go? How deeply can it affect the missionary efforts of the Church? Consider the remarks of an American missionary priest in Bangladesh about the people whom he serves: "I’m not interested in them becoming Christians. I want them to be the best Muslims they can be."11 Such thinking cannot be reconciled with the Lord’s command: "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age" (Matthew 28:19-20).12

Are All Saved?

Even if we were to admit, for the sake of argument, that all men whether they be Christian or not are justified, we are still left with the problem of the reprobate. Although the various determinisms would seem to exonerate all culpability, the Stalins of the last century and the Domitians of the first century give pause. Nonetheless, the theory of universal salvation, that all men will eventually enjoy the beatific vision, is certainly in vogue. This notion has its roots in the concept of an apokatastasis pant*n (restoration of all things) at the end time. First introduced as a heresy by Saint Clement of Alexandria,13 it is often claimed to have been held by Origen.14 In brief, the theory of apokatastasis holds for the eventual renewal of all persons and all things in Christ; even the fallen angels will be reinstated, and hell will come to an end. For obvious reasons, apokatastasis was widely condemned in the early Church.15

Today, the notion of universal salvation is most closely associated with the work of Hans Urs von Balthasar,16 whose universalism continues to inspire debate.17 Though quick to distance his own thinking from apokatastasis,18 Balthasar’s thinking is quite similar. For Balthasar, the mercy of God compels us to hope that everyone will be saved and that hell is reserved only for the fallen angels.19 When it comes to men, who are different in the created order and incapable of the final decisions of the angels, Balthasar maintains the possibility of hell as a theory only (albeit one that should be retained because it helps to motivate man toward the good). Balthasar states: "All-merciful love can thus descend to everyone. We believe that it does so. And now, can we assume that there are souls that remain perpetually closed to such love? As a possibility in principle, this cannot be rejected. In reality, in can become infinitely improbable—precisely through what preparatory grace is capable of effecting in the soul."20 That is to say, grace will continue to work on the soul, in this life and in the next, until the soul disposes itself to redemption. Because there are no limits to divine mercy and love, there can be no limits to our hope of redemption for all souls. For Balthasar, it is our duty to entertain a theological hope that no one soul is damned.21 Quite simply, we may have a human hope that all souls are saved, but a theological hope is excluded by divine revelation.22 As C. S. Lewis asked: "I would pay any price to be able to say truthfully ‘All will be saved.’ But my reason retorts, ‘without their will, or with it?’ If I say, ‘Without their will,’ I at once perceive a contradiction; how can the supreme voluntary act of self-surrender be involuntary? If I say ‘With their will,’ my reason replies ‘How if they will not give in?’"23

The long and short of it, of course, is that Balthasar affirms the existence of hell, but denies that any man can end up there, by claiming such a possibility infinitely improbable. This is tantamount to a rejection of the doctrine of hell and a denial of man’s free will. Balthasar skirts the issue of hell’s existence by leaving the fallen angels there. With regard to man’s will, he does address the problem in speaking of the juxtaposition of the divine will that all be saved and man’s free will, but he does so most inadequately. Balthasar states: "Human freedom can neither be broken nor neutralized by divine freedom, but it may well be, so to speak, outwitted."24 Outwitted? Clever as such a statement is, it is hardly explanatory or illuminating. It would seem that Balthasar’s understanding of divine mercy and love tramples upon divine justice and human freedom. It is meaningless to speak of human freedom if the ultimate end of each man is determined in advance,25 but is nearly divine deception that men be outmaneuvered in their most crucial of choices (even if by a perpetual divine purgation of sorts). Moreover, Balthasar’s contention dismisses an insight expressed so eloquently by John Henry Newman, who when commenting on Hebrews 12:14, said that "even supposing a man of unholy life were suffered to enter heaven, he would not be happy there; so that it would be no mercy to permit him to enter."26 Divine mercy, as Balthasar seems to speak of it, is either an annihilation of man’s freedom or a disregard for his will. Newman continues: "Nay, I will venture to say more than this;—it is fearful, but it is right to say it;—that if we wished to imagine a punishment for an unholy, reprobate soul, we perhaps could not fancy a greater than to summon it to heaven."27

In point of fact, there is a hell—not just for the fallen angels but for the unrepentant sinners, Christian and nonChristian, who make their decisions in this life—and some will place themselves there.28 Jesus’ parable about Lazarus and Dives (Luke 16:19-31) is warning enough for the possibility of hell, and Jesus’ remarks about the narrow gate (Matthew 7:13-14) only serve to heighten the possibility. Even though Balthasar and all those who subscribe to the theory of universal salvation are correct in stating that the Church has never formally defined a particular person to be in hell as she does with particular persons in heaven vis-à-vis the process of canonization, that is a far cry from saying that no one is there. The "second death" (Revelation 2:11; 20:6, 14; 21:8) is a real possibility. As our Holy Father says, "the words of Christ are unequivocal. In Matthew’s gospel, he speaks clearly of those who will go to eternal punishment (cf. Matthew 25:46)."29 To think otherwise is to be in error. How far can such error go? How deeply can it affect the pastoral ministry of the Church? Consider the now commonplace homilies so often preached today at Christian funerals to the effect that the deceased has passed from this world directly into heavenly—with no mention of sin or particular judgment or hell, not even of purgatory. Such thinking cannot be reconciled with the Lord’s own words regarding the wicked: "And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life" (Matthew 25:46).


The admonition of our Lord that the good will rise to the resurrection of life and that the wicked will rise to the resurrection of condemnation (John 5:29) is an article of faith. It behooves us to remember that ours is a religion of divine revelation and not of human rationalization. While we may struggle to reconcile God’s mercy and justice, God does not. Insofar as the Church is the "sacrament of salvation," she cannot balk in her mission to save the world by the proclamation of the truth about Jesus Christ as the unique and universal Savior and Judge of mankind. In our own times, numerous ambiguities about the end times have arisen, but none are more dangerous and erroneous than those that would deny the necessity of baptism for salvation and affirm the salvation of all. Such a denial is deleterious to the Church’s missionary efforts; such an affirmation is deleterious to the Church’s pastoral ministry. We must ever recall that faith in Christ and moral behavior in this life are inexorably linked to the next life and the eschaton. We must ever recall that what we believe and what we do will count in the end. Otherwise, we run the risk of diluting the Faith to a pluralism and conceitedness such that we might fear the worst of answers to the Lord’s question in Luke 18:8: "When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?"

1 For an exhaustive treatment of eschatology and Vatican II, see A. Dos Sangos Marto, Esperanza cristiana, futuro do homen: Docrtina eschatolólogica del Concilio Vaticano II (Rome: Gregorian University Press, 1978).

2 Sacra Congregatio pro Doctrina Fidei, "Epistula ad Venerabiles Praesules Conferentiarum Episcopalium de quibusdam quaestionibus ad Eschatolgiam spectantibus," Acta Apostolicae Sedis 71 (May 17, 1979): 939-43.

3 See, e.g, Regis Martin, The Last Things: Death, Judgment, Heaven, Hell (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1998), the articles in the January (vol. 16) 2000 issue of the Protestant quarterly Modern Theology.00]), the essays in John Polkinghorne and Michael Welker, eds., The End of the World and the Ends of God: Science and Theology on Eschatology (Harrisburg, Penn.: Trinity Press International, 2000), and the essays in David Fergusson and Marcel Sarot, eds., The Future as God’s Gift: Explorations in Christian Eschatology (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 2000).

4 John Donne, "Death Be Not Proud," Holy Sonnets (1633).

5 Rahner’s ideas on this matter are spread over a number of his writings. For a succinct understanding of his thought, see Klaus Riesenhuber, "Der Anonyme Christ nach Karl Rahner," Zeitschrift für katholische Theologie 86 (1964): 286-303, and Anita Röper, Die Anonymen Christen (Mainz: Matthias-Grünewald-Verlad, 1963). Rahner himself approved of both Riesenhuber’s article and Röper’s book in a letter, printed in the English translation of Röper’s book (The Anonymous Christian [New York: Sheed and Ward, 1966), vi-vii).

6 On this, see Gavin D’Costa, "Karl Rahner’s Anonymous Christian—A Reappriasal," Modern Theology 1 (1985): 131-48, and Lucas Lamadrid, "Anonymous or Analogous Christians? Rahner and von Balthasar on Naming the Non-Christian," Modern Theology 11 (1995): 364-84.

7 Jacques Dupuis, Toward a Christian Theology of Religious Pluralism (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1997). For positions more radical than even Dupuis’, see inter alia Paul F. Knitter, No Other Name? A Critical Study of Christian Attitudes toward Other Religions (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1985); idem, Jesus and the Other Names (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1996); and Gavin D’Costa, The Meeting of Religions and the Trinity (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 2000).

8 See the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s "Notification" (January 24, 2001) and the subsequent "Commentary on the Notification" (March 12, 2001), both of which are available on the Vatican’s homepage:

9 Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Dominus Iesus: On the Unicity and Salvific Universality of Jesus Christ and the Church" (August 6, 2000), again see Vatican’s homepage.

10 Legion are the misreadings of Nostra aetate on this point. In fact, the declaration states that the Church "is in duty bound to proclaim without fail, Christ who is the way, the truth and the life (Jn. 1:6). In him, in whom God reconciled all things to himself (2 Cor. 5:18-19), men find the fullness of their religious life" (2).

11 Robert McCahill as quoted in Jim Daniels, Lives of Service: Stories from Maryknoll (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 2001), 21.

12 See also Mark 16:15-16; Luke 24:47; DS 1618; Lumen gentium, 14; and Ad gentes divinitus, 5.

13 See John R. Sachs, "Apocastasis in Patristic Theology," Theological Studies 54 (1993): 617-40.

14 However, it is uncertain whether or not Origen actually subscribed to it, see "Origenes und die Apokatastasis" Theologische Zeitschrift 14 (1958): 174-90.

15 For the condemnations, see James T. O’Connor, Land of the Living: A Theology of the Last Things (New York: Catholic Book, 1992), 76-80.

16 Especially in his Was düren wir hoffen? (Einsiedeln: Johannes Verlag, 1986) and Kleiner Diskurs über Hölle (Ostfildern: Schwabenverlag, 1987), both of which were translated into English by David Kipp and Lothar Krauth as Dare We Hope "That All Men Be Saved"? With a Short Discourse on Hell (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1988).

17 Presently, there is a lively debate in the United States between Richard John Neuhaus (editor of First Things) and Dale Vree (editor of the New Oxford Review). The debate began when Neuhaus ("The Public Square," First Things 104 [June/July 2000]: 99) criticized an article by Regis Scanlon ("The Inflated Reputation of Hans Urs von Balthasar," New Oxford Review 67/3 [March 2000]: 17-24). Vree responded with an article ("If Everyone Is Saved, Why Bother?" New Oxford Review 68/1 [January 2001]: 28-36), which supported Scanlon and criticized Neuhaus’ latest book (Death on a Friday Afternoon: Meditations on the Last Words of Jesus from the Cross [New York: Basic Books, 2000]). Neuhaus responded ("The Public Square, First Things 111 [March 2001]: 79). For the latest, see Vree, "You Make the Call," New Oxford Review 68/5 (May 2001): 4-5.

18 Balthasar, Dare We Hope, 44-45, 154.

19 For a concise explanation of Balthasar’s understanding of salvation and the problems therewith, see James T. O’Connor, "Von Balthasar and Salvation," Homiletic and Pastoral Review 89 (July 1989): 10-21.

20 Balthasar, Dare We Hope, 219 (emphasis original).

21 Balthasar, Dare We Hope, 212. Here Balthasar quotes Rahner, but Rahner’s position is more nuanced; see Karl Rahner, "Hell" in The Concise Sacramentum Mundi (New York: Crossroad, 1982), 602-4.

22 O’Connor, "Von Balthasar and Salvation," 20. See also Saint Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, II, IIae, q. 17.

23 C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: Macmillan, 1962), 118-19 (emphasis original).

24 Balthasar, Dare We Hope, 221.

25 Zachary Hayes, Visions of a Future: A Study of Christian Eschatology, New Theology Studies 8 (Liturgical Press [Michael Glazier], 1989), 189.

26 John Henry Newman, "Holiness Necessary for Future Blessedness," Parochial and Plain Seromons (1891; rpt. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1987), 6 (emphasis original).

27 Newman, "Holiness Necessary for Future Blessedness," 9.

28 For the citations from Scripture and Tradition, see Rahner, "Hell," 602, and Joseph Ratzinger, Eschatologie: Tod und ewiges Leben, Kleine Katholische Dogmatik 9 (Regensburg: Friedrich Pustet Verlag, 1977), 176-79.

29 John Paul II, Crossing the Threshold of Hope (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994), 186.