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Impressions of “Eschatology: Death and Eternal Life,” by Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI)

In Eschatology, Pope Benedict XVI (writing under his birth name, Joseph Ratzinger) synthesizes ancient, medieval, and contemporary thinking on the afterlife. Throughout, he seeks to emphasize that the thoughts in this book are the best description of the Catholic – and indeed Christian – perspective on the afterlife possible. Ratzinger describes Soul and body, Heaven and hell, Purgatory, and the underworld as being authentically Christian and authentically different from what had come before.

The heart of Ratzinger’s approach is justification by faith, that by Christian faith we are put in a right relationship with God. This faith is not works-based, one cannot save oneself through specific physical (give this many alms), spiritual (spend at least so many hours a week contemplating the Lord), or verbal (repeat this or that formula), or mental (hold this or that belief). Rather, we are faithful by the “daily drama” of preferring the good to the bad, to choosing the Spirit of Love to the spirit of division, to looking to Christ not in work but by our free choice of the free gift of Christ’s grace and love for us:

In the light of this one can reach some understanding of the Christian language of “justification” through baptismal faith. The doctrinal assertion that justification is by faith and not by works means that justification happens through sharing in the death of Christ, that is, by walking in the way of martyrdom, the daily drama by which we prefer what is right and true to the claims of sheer existence, through the spirit of love which faith makes possible. Conversely, to seek justification by works means trying to save oneself through one’s own efforts in isolated concentration on the principle that finds the inevitable fruits of one’s actions in one’s destiny. As worked out in detail in particular cases, this attempt can take very subtle forms, but the basic pattern is always the same. Justification by works means that man wants to construct a little immortality of his own. He wants to make his life a self-sufficient totality. Such an enterprise is always a sheer illusion. This is true no matter on what level it is undertaken, whether in a primitive fashion or with the utmost scientific sophistication in the attempt to overcome death by means of medical research. Such self-assertion is as root a refusal of communication, which issues a misjudgment about reality at large and the truth of man’s existence in particular.
Joseph Ratzinger, Eschatology, pg 98

Justification by faith – and especially what justification (or right relationship) implies about God, neighbor, and ourselves, as we move across time and with reason – is described in several aspects. These are the Church in Salvation History (or the body of believers across time), death and salvation history (whether death, or the Last Day, is experienced as the end of time from the perspective of the faithful), Judgment (how we discover in the end the real status of our relationship with God), the whole of salvation (what will be restored on the Last Day), the salvation of intellectual or mental time (how internal dialogues, whether social or psychological, are redeemed).

The Church in Salvation History

God created history, time with people, as a way of mediating Himself to us for him. Salvation History is not just one inexplicable event after another, but is one of the creatures that God uses to bring His creatures to Himself. As with any of God’s creatures, Salvation History makes a good friend, but a terrible “god”:

The world’s salvation rests on the transcending of the world in its worldly aspect. The risen Christ constitutes the living certainty that this process of the world’s self-transcendence, without which the world remains absurd, does not lead into the void. The Easter Jesus is our certainty that history can be lived in a positive way, and that our finite and feeble rational activity has a meaning. In this perspective, the “antichrist” is the unconditional enclosure of history within its own logic – the supreme antithesis to the Man with the opened side, of whom the author of the Apocalypse wrote.
Joseph Ratzinger, Eschatology, pg 214

Salvation History, like any creature, cannot save itself.

The first, and more obvious, group of signs can be summed up as war, catastrophe, and the persecution of faith by the “world.” Two points here call for special attention. First, what prepared the transition to the End is not some consummate ripeness of the historical process. Paradoxically, it is the inner decadence of history, its incapacity for God and resistance to him, which points to the divine “Yes.” Secondly, even a cursory glance at the actual reality of every century suggests that such “signs” indicate a permanent condition of this world.
Joseph Ratzinger, Eschatology, pg. 196

But just as Salvation History mediates God to the Church, so the Church mediates God to Salvation History. It is not just individuals who Christ saved but a community – a body across time – that He saved. Thus not only lives but the great drama is saved:

This theory reduces Christian hope to the level of the individual. If individual men and women qua individuals can, through death, enter upon the End, then history as such remains outside salvation and cannot receive its own fulfillment.
Joseph Ratzinger, Eschatology, pg 267

The saved, including salvation history, will be in Heaven when we are with Christ:

Christ inflicts pure perdition on no one. In himself he is sheer salvation. Anyone who is with him has entered the space of deliverance and salvation. Perdition is not imposed by him, but comes to be wherever a person distances himself from Christ. It comes about whenever someone remains enclosed within himself. Christ’s word, the bearer of the offer of salvation, then lays bare the fact that the person who is lost has himself drawn the dividing line and separated himself from salvation. Joseph Ratzinger, Eschatology, pg 203

Heaven – togetherness with Christ – is both personal and historical. It is our soul that is in Heaven and received there in a historical drama. The unfolding of events are not mere debris to be discarded in Heaven but are internalized within us individually and ecclesiastically:

Heaven’s existence depends upon the fact that Jesus Christ is God, is man, and makes space for human existence in the existence of God himself. One is in Heaven when, and to the degree, that one is in Christ. It is by being with Christ that we find the true location of our existence as human beings in God. Heaven is thus primarily a personal reality, and one that remains forever shaped by the historical origin in the paschal mystery of death and resurrection.
Joseph Ratzinger, Eschatology, pg 233

Death and Salvation History

What is the experience of the Church, that is, of all her members and her stories, both individual and collective, after earthly death? Encounter. We will see each other face to face. We live in a world where time is measured through radioactive decay, the end of material atoms, and the universal increase in entropy, the death of the universe. An encounter without death that lifts all of salvation history:

A person’s entry into the realm of this encounter cannot be quantified by the measurements of earthly time. It is, indeed, not eternal but a transition, and yet trying to qualify it as of “short” or “long” duration on the basis of temporal measurements derived from physics would be naive and unproductive.
Joseph Ratzinger, Eschatology, pg 230

Christ, using language that seems to be hyperbolic but perhaps points at a transcendent reality, gives us images for what this fire is like, both as a prison:

In Tertullian’s Montanist essay On the Soul a step is taken which leads to the concept of Purgatory in its proper sense, though even here we are not dealing with an idea which is straightforwardly identical to the teaching of the medieval councils. Tertullian’s starting point is Jesus’ parabolic advice to reconcile oneself with one’s opponent on the way to court, since otherwise:

“You will be thrown into prison. I tell you solemnly, you will not get out till you have paid the last penny.

Interpreting this text in terms of human destiny in the world to come was made easier by the fact that phylake, the word for “prison,” was also one of the current terms for Hades.
Joseph Ratzinger, Eschatology, pg 223

And sitting next to our dearest father:

In the New Testament and the fathers, all the images generated by Judaism for the intermediate state recur: Abraham’s bosom, paradise, altar, the tree of life, water, light. We shall see in a moment how conservative the early Church was to be in this very area of eschatological representation. So far from undergoing the sea-change from “Semitism” to “Hellenism,” the Church remained fully within the Semitic canon of images, as the art of the catacombs, the Liturgy and theology combine to show. It simply became ever more lucidly clear that these images to not describe places but transcribe Christ himself, who is true light and life, the very arbor vitae. In such a fashion, these images lost their more-or-less cosmological status and became the vehicles of assertions about God in Christ. In thus floating free, they took on a new depth.
Joseph Ratzinger, Eschatology, pg 129-130

and even Paradise, the preferred term in the Qur’an:

And yet the New Testament is also aware, and this time in full continuity, with the faith of Judaism of its day, that in between the first Easter and our own resurrection human beings do not sink into nothingness. The description of this intermediate state, which hitherto was carried out with the help of such terms as “Paradise,” “Abraham’s bosom,” “lying under the altar,” “dwelling in the ‘place of refreshment,’” is now strikingly integrated into a Christological context: the person who dies is with the Lord; whoever is with the Lord does not die.
Joseph Ratzinger, Eschatology, pg 245

Church fathers gave different images for this Encounter, that add to the richness of the biblical account without taking any truth from it.

These images include “ascent,” preferred by Thomas Merton in The Seven Storey Mountain:

Clement [of Alexandria] proved able to integrate into a most compelling synthesis the whole drama of Christian existence: life and death, immortality, resurrection, the Last Day. In this drama, there takes place an “ascent” whereby the soul is transformed into a soma, “body,” of even greater pneumatic perfection. This is a picture which leaves no room for the distinction between the soul and the glorified body. The two components melt into self-identity in the glorified subject.
Joseph Ratzinger, Eschatology, pg 224

“Fixing” or “solidifying,” used (along with “Ascent”) in C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce:

Even though the definitive truth of an individual is fixed in the moment of death, something new is contributed when the world’s guilt has been suffered through to the bitter end. It is at this point that one’s final place in the whole is exhaustively determined: after what one might call the solidification on their finished state of all the effects to which one has given rise. Thus the completion of the whole is not something purely external to the individual, but a reality which determines him or her in the most interior way.
Joseph Ratzinger, Eschatology, pg 205


These churches, after the elimination of the Alexandrian attempt to synthesize Greek and Biblical thought, held to a somewhat archaic conception. The intermediate state, “Hades,” applied to everyone in the period between death and resurrection. But this state contains “Various levels of happiness and unhappiness,” which corresponds to the different levels of justification and sanctification of the faithful on earth. The saints intercede for their brethren here on earth, and we may call on them for their intercession. Through the Eucharist, through prayer and alms-giving, the living can bring “respite” and “refreshment” to the souls in Hades. However, the “unhappiness” to be alleviated by such actions is not taken to include a purifying or atoning suffering.
Joseph Ratzinger, Eschatology, pg 227

And even “judgment”:

The truth of a man that Judgment renders definitive is that truth which has emerged as the fundamental orientation of his existence in all the pathways of his life. In terms of the sum total of decisions from out of which an entire life is constructed, this final direction may be, in the end, a fumbling after readiness for God, valid no matter what wrong turnings have been taken by and by. Or again, it may be a decision to reject God, reaching down into the deepest roots of the self. But this is something that only God can determine. He knows the shadows of our freedom better than we do ourselves. But he also knows of our divine call, and unlimited possibilities. Because he knows what human weakness is, he himself became salvation as truth, yet without stripping himself of the dignity that belongs to truth.
Joseph Ratzinger, Eschatology, pg 208

So what is sitting by our father, Paradise, Ascension, Judgment, and all these other terms?


So who is sitting by our father, Paradise, Ascension, Judgment, and all these other terms?


Jesus is Truth himself.

Ratzinger sees a central Christian belief as Truth is a person. Jesus literally is Truth, Truth is not impersonal. Being with Christ means being with the Truth. Yet not an instrumental mechanical truth, but a Truth-in-Love:

In death, a human being emerges into the light of full reality and truth. He takes up that place which is truly his by right. The masquerade of living with its constant retreat behind posturings and fictions, is now over. Man is what he is in truth. Judgment consists of the removal of the mask in death. The Judgment is simply the manifestation of the truth. Not that this truth is something impersonal. God is truth; the truth is God; it is personal. There can be a truth which is judging, definitive, only if there is a truth with a divine character. God is judge inasmuch as he is truth itself. Yet God is the truth of us as the One who became man, becoming in that moment the measure of man. And so God is the criterion of truth for us in and through Christ. Herein lies that redemptive transformation of the idea of Judgment which Christian faith brought about. The truth which judges man has itself set out to save him. It has created a new truth for man. In love, it has taken man’s place and, in this vicarious action, has given man a truth of a special kind, the truth of being loved by truth.
Joseph Ratzinger, Eschatology, pg. 203

The direct encounter with Truth, both individual and collective, is how we (when we’re not fully one with Christ) are still with Christ. This encounter, Ratzinger believes, is what is meant when the Catholic Church talks of “purgatory”:

It may be the basic decision of a human being is covered over by layers of secondary decisions and needs to be dug free. In the Western tradition, this intermediate state is called “Purgatory.”
Joseph Ratzinger, Eschatology, pg 218

Purgatory then is the continued working out of secondary decisions, where we grow closer to each other and to God. To view it as a punishment is backwards, which is the reason for metaphors like “ascent” or “solidification” above. Through Purgatory is our hope that all men may be saved.

The Whole of Salvation

Because “purgatory” – this Encounter with Christ while not being one with Christ – occurs while we are still outside of Christ, “Heaven” is when we are in Christ. But salvation is not merely individualistic because the Church is not merely a collection of individuals. We are with the whole of Christ when we are with the whole of the Church: when we’re leaving “purgatory,” we’re leaving it together:

Let us say it once more before we end: the individuals’ salvation is whole and entire only when the salvation of the cosmos and all the elect has come into full fruition. For the redeemed are not simply adjacent to each other in Heaven. Rather, in their being together as one in Christ, they are in Heaven. In that moment, the whole creation will become song.
Joseph Ratzinger, Eschatology, pg 237

Of course, people vary in terms of their justification – their love of god and love of neighbor – both in this world and in that “Judgment.” So to some extent, when we talk as if death is the greatest dividing line we’re confused. The core distinction is how close to oneness we are to Christ. Life and death, by contrast, is a secondary concern and a secondary distinction:

More clearly at Alexandria than in the Western tradition, this conviction rests on the Pauline-Johannine belief that the real frontier runs not between earthly life and not-life, but between being with Christ, on the one hand, and, on the other, being without him or against him.
Joseph Ratzinger, Eschatology, pg 226

The wholeness and togetherness of Heaven is not a confusion of individuals into an amorphous blob, but the greatest individuality possible. Just as the saints are all unique and sinners all alike in their disorganization, at Heaven we are our perfect selves, in our highest potential, with our most unique and customized experiences.

The integration of the “I” into the body of Christ, its disponibilite at the service of the Lord and of others, is not the self’s dissolution but a purification which is, at one and the same time, the actualization of its highest potential. This is why Heaven is individual for each and every one. Everyone sees God in his own proper way. Everyone receives the love offered by the totality in the manner suggested by his own irreplaceable uniqueness.
Joseph Ratzinger, Eschatology, pg 234

Man’s nature, not merely as an academic being but as a created being, destined him for relationship-with-God, and thus indestructibility. Not only, it seems, did Jesus die for dogs too, but he built dogs and all creatures to have a relationship with him.

When man is understood in terms of the formula anima forma corporis, the relationship to God can be seen to express the core of his very essence. As a created being he is made for a relationship which entails indestructibility.
Joseph Ratzinger, Eschatology, pg 154

Man, dog, or angel, on creature can cancel its own existence. God is Being, and it is his beingness that holds up everything into existence. Creatures can reject God and grow farther and farther away from him, but to un-be is a decision beyond them.

This does not mean, however, that man can cancel God’s creative act or put it into reverse. The result of his sin is not pure nothingness. Like every other creature, man can only move within the ambit of creation. Just as he cannot bring forth being of himself, so neither can he hurl it back into sheer nothingness. What he can achieve in this regard is not the annulment of being, but lived self-contradiction, a self-negating possibility, namely “Sheol.” Joseph Ratzinger, Eschatology, pg 156

The soul of a created creature is the form of its body, the body the self-realization of the soul. This self-realization, made perfect, made perfect not just in itself but in its atoms and the other creatures it is related to, is resurrected in its own body, perfected, in Christ:

The quest of the correct understanding of the soul was, throughout the entire debate, rendered more difficult, not to say blocked off altogether, by a whole schematic comprehension of the relation between Hellenic and biblical thought. The joy of Greek culture in the body was overlooked, as was the insistent orientation of that culture towards the polis, with its common life of “justice.”
Joseph Ratzinger, Eschatology, pg. 265

The Salvation of Intellectual Time

Ratzinger is not just a church leader but also an academic, so it’s not surprising that some of his remarks are addressed to academic issues. For instance, the historical-critical method – the attempt to use historical context when understanding the Bible as in N.T. Wright’s How God Became King and Ratzinger’s own Jesus of Nazareth – can be a dead weight if not livened by faith:

Modifying an image used by Kolakowsi, we could say that the intercourse of the historical-critical method with its object may be compared with a kind of necrophilia. The individual data are arrested in their finitude and fixed fast in their pastness.
Joseph Ratzinger, Eschatology, pg 248

Equally dead is history itself, including salvation history and theodrama, without the ontology of logical thought of who God is, in Himself and not just in His actions in our world:

In theology, people liked to set over against ontological thought, now denounced as static, the historical and dynamic approach of the Scripture. Thus the ontological was counterpoised to the dialogical and the personal. Joseph Ratzinger, Eschatology, pg 249

It is this ontology mediated by history, what things are moderated by how they interact, which allows all creatures (from the Church to individual men) to be not just incoherent and self-contradictory cacophonies but real individuals living across time:

When attention is exclusively directed to the succession of phenomena (of texts), the binding power of internalization is forgotten. There remains only a mere succession of contradictory states in faith and ecclesial life. As between Scripture, the Fathers, the Scholastics, and the modern age, no inner living context suggests itself: one stands before a sequence of but partly reconcilable texts.
Joseph Ratzinger, Eschatology, pg 270

The teachings of the Church across time are thus not a dichotomy between true faith and its corruption, but evidence of the liveliness of the Word mediated by the Spirit across Time:

But for Luther, the Church had ceased by to the protector of identity. On the contrary, she was the arrogant corrupter of the pure Word. Tradition is no longer the perpetual liveliness of the Origin but its adversary.
Joseph Ratzinger, Eschatology, pg 246


A quasi-universal Purgatory awaits us all. This is the only concept of afterlife clearly described in the Bible, where it’s called Hades (same term in Eastern Orthodoxy). Experience in Purgatory ranges from the exceedingly pleasant (where it’s called “Paradise” or “the Bosom of Abraham”) to the rather less pleasant. Heaven is unity with Christ, Kingdom of Heaven is rule of Christ in this unity. Thus Heaven has broken into both the current earth (during the incarnation) and into Purgatory/Hades (Harrowing of Hell). The fundamental dividing line isn’t between earthly life and death, but unity or disunity with Christ). To be fully with Christ means with the full Christ, His whole body. The Saints are in Heaven as they are united with Jesus. Yet they are not fully in Heaven, as parts of body of Christ are not also in Heaven. At oneness is the Resurrection of the body, in an existence that is not merely spiritual or merely corporal but perfectly corporal and perfectly spiritual. This eternity of the New Heaven and New Earth is not simply more of this existence because we will share in Christ’s eternal newness, transcending time.

Throughout this are Ratzinger’s discussion of the soul, the form of the body; and the body, the self-realization of the soul. These two views, the Purgatory that always us until we go to Heaven, and the soul-body unity are summarized by Ratzinger:

What seemed philosophically impossible has thus been achieved. The apparently contradictory demands of the doctrine of creation and the Christologically transformed belief in Sheol have been met. The soul belongs to the body as “form,” but that which is the form of the body is still spirit. It makes man a person and opens him to immortality. Compared with all the conceptions of the soul available in antiquity, the notion of the soul is quite novel. It is a product of Christian faith, and of the exigencies of faith for human thought. Only the downright ignorance of history could find this contestable. Since this point is so central, permit to make it again in a different way. The idea of the soul as found in Catholic liturgy and theology up to the Second Vatican Council has as little to do with antiquity as had the idea of the resurrection. It is a strictly Christian idea, and could only be formulated on the basis of Christian faith whose vision of God, the world, and human nature it expresses in the realm of anthropology.
Joseph Ratzinger, Eschatology, pg 149

Or, more concisely:

It is not that some kind of body holds the soul fast, but that the soul itself, in its continuing existence, retains within itself the matter of its life, and therefore tends impatiently towards the risen Christ, towards the new unity of spirit and matter which in him has been opened for it.
Joseph Ratzinger, Eschatology, pg 257

I read Eschatology: Death and Eternal Life in the Kindle edition.

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