International Theological Commission:
Some Current Questions in Eschatology
The following is a summary of an important document compiled by the International Theological Commission, a group of theologians appointed by the Pope to assist him in reflecting on timely theological issues. This document, appearing in 1991, deals with Eschatology, the branch of theology which treats the “last things” – death, judgment, heaven and hell.
For the Latin text = Gregorianum 73 (1992):395-435; For an English Translation = Irish Theological Quarterly 58 (1992):209-243; For analysis = Peter Phan, “Contemporary Context and Issues in Eschatology,” in Theological Studies 55 (1994):507-536
1. The Resurrection of Jesus Christ is both the cause and the pattern of our own resurrection. Resurrection will be the glorification of our body upon being reunited with our soul; this rules out both simple resuscitation and the creation of a new body – there is both continuity and transformation. Eternal life must be understood as a communion with God in Christ.
2. Rejection of “a-temporal”resurrection, i.e., rejects the idea that at the moment of the individual’s death, s/he already shares in the resurrection.
3. The resurrection is a future event coincident with Christ’s parousia (His return in glory). This means there is what theologians call an “intermediate state” which is transitory. This is confirmed by the Old Testament concept of sheol, which is picked up in several New Testament texts. We are to look for the future parousia of Christ in human history.
4. As a result of , there is a perdurance of the soul between the moment of death and the parousia of Christ and consequent resurrection.
5. While rejection Platonic dualism (body and soul as two almost opposed principles), there is nonetheless a duality of body and soul in the human person.
6. Death is both an evil and a good. It is repugnant in that it is the separation of body and soul and the cause of grief to those who lose loved ones. Yet a “death in the Lord” in patient imitation of Christ’s death and in anticipation of the New Creation, is a good.
7. Rooted in the doctrine of the communion of saints, the invocation of the saints is reaffirmed. Rejected, however, is attempted communication with the spirits of the dead (as in the séance of spiritualism). The ancient practice of praying for the dead is reaffirmed.
8. The practice of praying for the dead and the burial liturgy itself imply the existence of the possibility of post mortem purification (purgatory). This is not to be viewed in terms of a “lighter-version” of hell, which is characterized by isolation and loathing (which is also eternal), but rather by the increase in the capacity to love (which is temporary).
9. Categorical rejection of reincarnation (transmigration of souls or metempsychosis): this idea is pagan and is in direct contradiction to three tenets of the faith: the possibility of eternal damnation, the redemption through Christ rather than mere human effort, and the resurrection.
10. Eternal life and beatific vision must be understood in terms of the intimacy which comes from friendship with God. Because of human freedom, Hell must be maintained as a real possibility.
11. The Church’s liturgy serves to strike a balance between individual and communal dimensions of eschatology: these realities are revealed to us and mediated in the person of Jesus Christ.
Father Michael Heintz