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.
[Friday: Questions on 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