Towards an Eschatological Ontology

The consequences of this thesis for system theology deserves special emphasis. In the first instance it is no longer possible to treat eschatology as the last chapter of dogmatics, as it has been the case at least since the Middle Ages in all dogmatic manuals. Eschatology does not refer to the ‘last things’ or the ‘last days’ as the culminating point in the history of salvation. It is rather a dimension running through the entire doctrine, at least in what concerns the oikonomia. Even the doctrine of creation must be placed in the light of eschatology if it is to acquire its full meaning, let alone Christology, soteriology and the doctrine of the Church. Without reference to the eschaton, the entire oikonomia loses its meaning. The last things colour and decide the entire Heilsgeschichte.

Secondly, the doctrine of the ‘last things’ is affected seriously by this thesis. Traditionally, this doctrine concerned matters after death, such as the fate of the body and soul after the grave, the last judgment etc. If this thesis is accepted, eschatology should be understood as affecting also the present life before death, indeed the entire history itself. The misunderstanding of eschatology as a dimension of history, as a key and a method in dealing with history, opens up the frontiers of history and, instead of creating a dilemma, ‘history or eschatology’ it turns existence into an ‘event’, its brings together event and being, the world as it is and the world as it will be. Thus, whereas the classical eschatology affected the present only psychologically (the hope for a new world, the expectation of a future, etc) it is now understood as affecting it also ontologically, ie as determining our very concept of being.

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Eschatology is one of the dominant themes of the theology of our time. It was mainly since the work of biblical scholar Johannes Weiss under title Die Predigt von Jesu vom Reiche Gottes (particularly in its second edition of 1900) that eschatology began to occupy the centre of Christian theology. One may even say that eschatology began to occupy the centre of Christian theology. One may even say that the history of eschatology is divided into a pre-Weiss and a post-Weiss period. It is no longer possible to return to the period before Weiss, neither in Biblical nor in Systematic theology.

The work of this German scholar was intended to criticise the Protestant liberal theologians of the nineteenth century. Its purpose is to show that Jesus was not interested in preaching a God who reigns in the souls of men, or in proposing ways by which society would improve morally, but in proclaiming the immediate intervention of God in history in accordance with the prophetic tradition of Israel and in the form in which the apocalyptic literature of his time expected the coming of the kingdom. Thus, the ‘essence of Christianity’ was not to be found in certain ethical principles, such as Harnack and other liberal theologians believed, but in the coming of the kingdom. Whether this coming was imminent or delayed, future or realised (as C.H. Dodd would prefer) is of secondary importance. Eschatology constituted the heart of our Lord’s teaching, and this is in itself a thesis of tremendous significance.
The consequences of this thesis for system theology deserves special emphasis. In the first instance it is no longer possible to treat eschatology as the last chapter of dogmatics, as it has been the case at least since the Middle Ages in all dogmatic manuals. Eschatology does not refer to the ‘last things’ or the ‘last days’ as the culminating point in the history of salvation. It is rather a dimension running through the entire doctrine, at least in what concerns the oikonomia. Even the doctrine of creation must be placed in the light of eschatology if it is to acquire its full meaning, let alone Christology, soteriology and the doctrine of the Church. Without reference to the eschaton, the entire oikonomia loses its meaning. The last things colour and decide the entire Heilsgeschichte.
Secondly, the doctrine of the ‘last things’ is affected seriously by this thesis. Traditionally, this doctrine concerned matters after death, such as the fate of the body and soul after the grave, the last judgment etc. If this thesis is accepted, eschatology should be understood as affecting also the present life before death, indeed the entire history itself. The misunderstanding of eschatology as a dimension of history, as a key and a method in dealing with history, opens up the frontiers of history and, instead of creating a dilemma, ‘history or eschatology’ it turns existence into an ‘event’, its brings together event and being, the world as it is and the world as it will be. Thus, whereas the classical eschatology affected the present only psychologically (the hope for a new world, the expectation of a future, etc) it is now understood as affecting it also ontologically, ie as determining our very concept of being.
This is precisely the question with which we are concerned in the present paper. theology cannot operate successfully and persuasively with an eschatologically conditioned doctrine of creation, Christology, ecclesiology etc, unless it clarifies and establishes its ontological premises. With what kind of ontology do we operate when we separate off, for example, creation or the Church in eschatological terms? Is our ontology, ie our use of the verb ‘to be’, the same when eschatology is introduced into our thinking as it would if we did not introduce this dimension? If what will be is not a posterior phase of what is, but a dimension of it; if the future is not a metapresent, but a condition of the present; what meaning does the term being acquire? Let us look at this question in some detail, before we apply it to Christian doctrine.
The ontological question in the light of eschatology
How truly can something be said to be, to possess being, if it is going eventually (or in the end) to cease to be?
The answer to this question would depend on whether our ontology is based on and derived from the A or the O, the beginning or the end; whether in other words it is a ‘protological’ or an ‘eschatological’ ontology. In our ‘common sense’ rationality we would have no doubts as to the answer to above question: of course, we would reply, something can be said to be now, even if it ceases to exist in the end. Existence is full of existents that have been and no longer are, and will continue to involve such ‘beings’ which we normally call ‘temporary’ or ‘transient’ as opposed to the ‘eternal’ and ‘everlasting’ ones.
It is not difficult to detect the kind of ontology that lies behind this common sense rationality: it is a protological ontology. Since something has existed it has had true being. Being is derived from the past, and it is because of this that it can be true even when it is ‘past’. On the same basis what belongs to the future, what will be, can only be said to have true being if it can be turned into fact, ie into a reality capable of being enclosed into a past; otherwise it is either fantasy or wishful thinking. There is no substance to things hoped for in this protological ontology; there is only a psychological anticipation or expectation. The ‘already’ and the ‘not yet’ constitute a contradiction in terms.
This protological ontology bears a certain characteristics which are worth mentioning. At the level of ontology this leads to what we call metaphysics. Metaphysics in this case is, what the etymology of the word suggests: a step beyond physics, a transcendence of something already there, of a pre-existent. Metaphysics depends on ‘physics’; it cannot function otherwise. Its function depends on substance and substance indicates something already in existence, whether as ‘first substance’, which in Aristotelian terms is the particular and in Platonic terms the universal, or as ‘second substance’, which even in Aristotle is to be identified as being already there in eternity. In other words, substance ontology, in whatever form, and protological ontology go together. A protological ontology is substantialistic ontology.
To this characteristic we must add one that has to do with epistemology. In the case of a protological/substantialistic ontology knowledge is found by the given, by what is already there, by the past. Being and truth are ‘given’. You cannot deny what is already there, what factum est, there is no higher and more persuasive truth than and ‘fact’. Facts are decisive for identification, because given beings are compulsory knowledge; they are ontologically, as well as epistemologically necessary beings. Protological ontology cannot incorporate into itself the notion of freedom. Freedom is a psychological category; it concerns will and choice, not being. You can be and not be free. Is this not what our common sense tells us? If you wish to introduce freedom into your ontology, you have to choose between rationality and absurdity. If you deny a fact you escape to the irrational (cf Pirandello, Ionesco, the existentialist artists and writers).
Things are different in the case of an eschatological ontology. In this case, the truth of being lies not in the past, but in the future; not in what is already there, but in what will survive in the end. If something has no future it cannot be said to have true being, since non-being will overcome it in the end. A being which is overcome by non-being is cancelled ontologically, it is annihilated and cannot be said to have being in any real sense. In an eschatological ontology the things hoped for do possess substance (Hebrews 11.1) although they are not facts, given and necessary. For the eschatological ontology to become operative and be accepted as ‘true’, freedom is a sine qua non conditio: only in faith, in freedom, can the future acquire ‘substance’. The definition of faith in Hebrews 11.1 implies a use of the idea of substance (hypostasis) totally different from the way the classical Greeks would be used to. All Greek philosophies would find this biblical verse totally absurd. That is why in their ontologically conditioned mentality all Greek philosophers find it impossible in their thinking to accommodate the idea of hope.
In the case of an eschatological ontology the O decides the truth of the A; it is the criterion of the ontological truth of whatever has had a beginning. No substantialist ontology and no metaphysic is possible here. We cannot place our security in what is given to us, or facts and substances graspable by our minds or senses. Facts do not decide in identifying beings: only the future can disclose the truth.
Now, this contrast between two kinds of ontology leaves us with a number of questions in our minds. We can describe some of them and then try to take them separately:
a) If truth is not derivable from ‘given’ realities and ‘facts’, what ontological significance are we to attach to the facts of revelation? Are we not called to base our faith on the Law and the Prophets, the historical life of Jesus Christ, the sacraments of the Church etc?, on God’s past and given?
b) How can such an eschatological ontology as the one just described here accommodate the doctrine of creation, ie the truth of the given and existing world? Does the created world have a true being in its past and present state, or is it rather only in the end?
c) How true is the knowledge of the world would results from, let us say, natural science, since the object of science is to discover the laws of nature which already exist and are ‘given’? Is there any room in scientific research for faith and an eschatological ontology? Finally,
d) What would be the ethical implications of such an eschatological ontology in our everyday lives? Can we treat pp on the basis of what they will be and avoid operating in ethics with factual truths?
Let us consider these questions briefly.
Truth and the ‘facts’ of revelation
The problem was raised as early as the second century AD. It was prompted by the embarrassment caused to the Church by the abolition of certain Old Testament practices and commandments, such as circumcision, sacrifices, etc. were these not ordered by God Himself and therefore gift and true in themselves? Why did the Church abolish them?
Two answers were possible to this question. The first is that these things were not good and had to be abolished. This was the position taken by St Justin. Such a view implies that there was not truth or ‘but’ in these Old Testament practices; they were annihilated by virtue of their evil nature as non-being (me onta) in the same sense in which evil as such had to be regarded as non-being (a typical Greek patristic view of evil). Such a position was not satisfactory, if it was taken into account that these practice originated in God’s will. God cannot will evil things. the knowing law being God’s will had to be accepted as good. Why then was it abolished with regard to this practices?
The other answer to this question came from St Irenaeus. And it is relevant to our subject. Irenaeus, as we know, held an eschatological approach to the history of salvation. Nothing was created perfect from the beginning. Everything, including especially the human being, was meant to grow into perfection; their truth lay in the end, not in the beginning. The Old Testament Law was not evil. It was good, yet only in so far as it led to the future things of which it was a foretaste and a preparation. The arrival of the future for which the past things of the Law existed brought about their ‘abolishment’. But this ‘abolishment’ was no annihilation; it was rather confirmation and affirmation, since the truth of these past things, their ultimate being, their ‘ontology’, we might say, consisted in the future from which they drew their meaning. With the arrival of Christ, the Old Testament Law fulfilled itself: this is the meaning of its abolishment.
Irenaeus makes use of St John the Baptist’s say that with the arrival of Christ he must diminish while Christ must increase. The end for which he existed affirmed his being. Its was at the end that his ‘truth’ was to be found. Such a position ran contrary to classical Greek ontology. This was dramatically expressed in the way the Greek Fathers used and applied the term skia (shadow) in connection with the history of salvation. Shadow is always a term denoting and lack of reality, implying that truth and being are to be found in the things of which it is a shadow. In classical Greek thought the shadow always follows the thing of which it is the shadow. Reality comes first, it cannot be otherwise. In Greek Patristic thought the reverse is the case. Following the use of the term skia in the Letter to Hebrews the Greek Fathers describe the Old Testament as shadows of the things to come, attaching reality to what follows, not to what precedes in historical events. The image is of someone approaching us with the light thrown on his figure not from Hebrew us but from the side facing us: his shadow reaching us before the person arrives; the truth will come to us after the shadow as a result of our looking forward, not backwards. This ‘typology’, which the late J. Danielou studied in detail, was particularly evident in the way the liturgy was understood in the ancient Church. But on this we shall say a few things below.
Before we draw our conclusions from this Patristic approach to skia we must stop a little at St Maximus the Confessor. This Father not only emphatically endorsed the view above that skia (shadow) precedes reality by applying this term to the Old Testament, eikon (image) to the New Testament and aletheia (truth) only to the future things, but in revolution way which has, as far as I know, passed unnoticed by the students of his thought, introduced a concept of causality that not only ancient Greek philosophy, but nay philosophy we know of would be unable to accept. All philosophy, we well as our common sense rationality, would place the cause logically and chronologically before the thing caused. You first push the table (=cause) and then the table falls. The idea of a falling table causing the movement that made it fall would be at least absurd (if not crazy). It all has to do with the protological ontology by which our minds our fashioned. Maximus, however, writes:
‘I call the end the cause of beings toward which everything is naturally born.’ (Patrologia Graeca (JP Migne) volume 90, 253B)
By a radical transformation of Aristotelianism, St Maximus sees being as being moved towards an end (entelecheia), but in reversing Aristotle’s thinking he makes the end towards which beings move the cause of their having come into being. This is probably due to his Christocentrism which leads him to a view of reality receiving its raison d’être from Christ. but even this shows that he is in line with Irenaeus and all those who placed the truth of things in the end rather than at the beginning. The only difference is that unlike his predecessors Maximus makes the bold step to involve in this eschatological ontology even the concept of cause. This could prove to be helpful in a systematic approach to eschatological ontology.
After this brief historical introduction we can move to a consideration of the question we posed earliest: what ontological significance are we to attach to the facts of revelation, if the truth of things is to be found only in the future? Are we not implying by this eschatological ontology that history has no ontological content in itself and time is a more or less ontologically meaningless thing?
Origen seems to operate with an eschatological that leads to an understanding of history. For him the historical events of revelation, including even the cross of Christ are important only in so far as they point to spiritual realities which are timeless and eternal. The interesting point in this position is that it presupposes a protological ontology. Origen believes in a typically Platonic manner the perfect and ideal world lies in the beginning of things and that eschatology is nothing else but the return to the beginning. Augustine seems to share the same view. It is therefore note-worthy that the more one operates with a protological ontology the more one risks undermining history and time. Theologians like Irenaeus and Maximus who worked with an eschatological ontology took a very positive view of history and time and attached crucial importance to the Incarnation. In the same way the Fathers of the Council of Nicaea insisted in their Creed that historical aspects of the Incarnation such as the crucifixion of Christ ‘under Pontius Pilate’ are essential to the faith, while the Second Council of Nicaea based its entire argument in support of the holy icons on the historical and material character of the Incarnation. The eschatological ontology of the Fathers, therefore, was pro-historical, rather than anti-historical. In what way can the historical facts of revelation be accommodated in an eschatological ontology?
If we take Irenaeus and Maximus again as our guides, we have to think of history as a movement consisting of two kinds of directions: one is the direction towards the end for which the world was created; the other is away from this end. Since the end decides finally about the truth of history only those events leading to the end will be shown to possess true being or being tout court. As St Maximus argues extensively, evil has no being precisely because it is a deviation from the end, not from the beginning, as Platonism and Origenism would claim. The historical events of revelation, therefore, are true and real only because they lead to the end for which they came into being, not in themselves. In such a view not even the cross can have a meaning of its own: it is the Resurrection that reveals the meaning of the cross. Each historical event has to be verified and affirmed by a following event until the final end ‘comes to judge’ (notice the importance of the aspect of judgment in eschatology) which event possesses ontological significance and content and which must be regarded as non-being. To apply this to Christian doctrine, we believe in truth and the reality of all the historical events of revelation only because we believe in the coming of the kingdom in the end. (Note again what each said at the beginning of this paper with reference to J. Weiss: the essence of Christianity lies in the proclamation of the kingdom.) Paul’ saying that our faith is ‘in vain’ if there is no resurrection of Christ means ontologically precisely that. The resurrection as an eschatological event gives content to our faith and with it the events that precede it historically. And what is even more interesting and noteworthy: in Paul’s mind even the historical event of our Lord’s resurrection would make no sense if there was not to be a final resurrection of all human beings in the end: ‘if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ was risen’ (1 Corinthians 15.13) – a striking and strange thought, indeed, comprehensible only with the help of eschatological ontology! Taken literally, what Paul says here is not that Christ’s resurrection would be meaningless without our final resurrection, but that it would not exist as a fact. The eschaton gives being to history.
So much about historical events of revelation and their ontological affirmation by the eschaton. Similar observations must be made concerning the Church. The Church is a historical reality like all other ‘facts’ and communities of history. if her being is to be affirmed and verified at all she must have her ontology placed in the kingdom, she must be a reflection of the eschatological community. The true being of the Church lies not in what she is but in what she will be. The Una Sancta is essentially an eschatological reality; whichever community in history claims to be the Una Sancta must be a faithful reflection, an eikon (image) in St Maximus’s terms, of the kingdom. It is with this ontology in mind that we can say that the Church is ‘holy’ or ‘sinless’, although her members include sinners and her actions in history are often under the influence of sin. In speaking of the Church’s holiness, we make an ontological, not a moral statement. Yet such a statement can make no sense without applying the principles of our eschatological ontology, as we tried to explain them above.
It is on such grounds that ecclesiology can only be eucharistic if it is to make sense from the point of view of eschatological ontology. St Nicholas Cavasilas, and fourteenth century Byzantine theologian (contemporary to St Gregory Palamas, who was not a monk, but a lay person living in the world), wrote with emphasis that it is ‘only’ in the Eucharist that the Church is realised and revealed. This, however, must be immediately qualified with a definition of the Eucharist in eschatological terms. Theology in the West, and also, alas, in the East, in modern times and under Western influence, has understood the Eucharist as a memorial of the past, mainly of our Lord’s Passion, and has argued for centuries since the Reformation for or against such views as whether it is a repetition of Calvary, or a continuation of it, etc. In the midst of these discussions, it was totally forgotten that the Eucharist is nothing but the eschatological meal or banquet of the kingdom, the eschatological act of the Church par excellence. That is how the Orthodox Church understands the Eucharist in the actual celebration of the liturgy, although Orthodox academic theology seems to have paid little attention to it.
If the Eucharist is understood as the eschatological banquet of the kingdom, what takes place in it is true and real only as an anticipation, a reflection and an ‘eikon’ of the kingdom. In every eucharistic celebration and communion, the eschatological community is anticipated. in this sense, the Eucharist proclaims Christ’s passion and resurrection ‘until the Lord comes’, to use St Paul’s phrase, ie in anticipation of his coming. Maranatha. In ontological terms this means that the eucharistic event owes it being to the kingdom: if there will be no kingdom, there has never been a Eucharist (to paraphrase St Paul’s words concerning the resurrection to which we referred earliest). Interestingly, again St Maximus applies the idea of cause to the liturgy in an illuminating way. In one of his scholia to the Areopagetic writings he calls the kingdom the cause of the Eucharist. What happens in the Eucharist is caused by the future kingdom. We cannot understand the Lord presence in the Eucharist – and much debated question particularly since the Reformation – without an eschatological ontology. The present One is the coming One. Not only the primitive Maranatha, but also the Sanctus as an essential part of the eucharistic liturgies throughout the centuries, not to speak of sources such as Revelation and the Didache, testify to this. the so-called ‘real presence’ question, which has bothered theologians for so long receives a different meaning in the light of eschatological ontology from the one we are accustomed to.
The eschatological character of the Eucharist constitutes the reason why in the early Church all sacramental acts were liturgically connected with the eucharistic celebration. Just as the gradual loss of the eschatological outlook explains why the Church eventually attributed autonomy to the so-called ‘sacraments’, and started argument about their number. Everything in the Church, whether baptism, or confirmation, or ordination, or marriage etc, has to be connected somehow with the Eucharist, because everything has to be eschatological confirmed and verified. The same is true about the preaching of the Word: unless it is a proclamation of the kingdom, it is not Christ’s word, and unless it is somehow embodied in the eschatological event par excellence, namely the Eucharist, it remains a sheer historical occurrence whose ‘truth’ will always be subject to the eschatological judgment and verification.
Such considerations must lie behind the theology of ministry. If the bishop is to be accepted as a central and even indispensable as head of the local Church through whose approval everything should pass in order to be valid’ in the terms of St Ignatius of Antioch, this is only because this ministry occupies the presidency of the eucharistic community. The authority to ‘bind and loose’ given to Peter and the Apostles by the risen Christ is connected with the ‘keys of the kingdom’, not with historical prerogatives. Without eschatological, the Church’s ministry is deprived of any ontological content, it is just ‘functional’ and ‘unreal’ with respect to ultimate truth.
All that has been said so far about the historical facts of revelation, including the Church, her sacraments, and her ministry, shows the important of Pneumatology in our theological thinking. For it is the Holy Spirit that brings the eschaton into history (Acts 2.18), introducing the eschatological dimension into the work of Christ. The Spirit is associated with freedom for exactly the same reason. Where He blows He liberates us from the bondage of the past, from enslavement to ‘facts’, from whatever constitutes necessary being. By bringing the kingdom into the world he leads us into ‘all the truth’, ie He reveals to us the final destination of existence and makes the end ‘cause’ the beginning. The Spirit is not the force that animates the world; it is the bearer of the new creation as the truth of the old, the existing creation of our ordinary experience.
This leads us to our second question, namely that of the bearing of the eschatological ontology on our doctrine of creation.
Truth and Creation
In the ancient Greco-Roman thought the would was regarded as a complete and finished reality which has had no beginning and will have no end except for specific beings within it, which come and go without affecting the world’s eternal being. Judeo-Christian cosmology, on the other hand, understood the world as an event, a creation in time, with a definite beginning and an expected ending. In certain circles, apocalyptic eschatology was expected to involved the complete disappearance of this world and its replacement by an entirely new one, while others conceived of the end as a transformation of the existing order within the same ontological structure. In Patristic thought one can distinguish two trends, depending on the degree of Platonic and Stoic influence. One represented mainly by Origen and Augustine conceived eschatology as the return to an original perfection involving to some degree the disappearance of the material world, while another trend which included Irenaeus, the Cappadocians, and Maximus, viewed the world as an open-ended reality with infinite movements ‘from beginnings to new beginnings’, as St Gregory of Nyssa put it, a dynamic movement ending up in an ever-moving stillness (aeikinetikos-stasis) as Maximus put it.
All this meant the of the Fathers of this second trend that creation is an unfinished reality with a future still awaiting it, and that eternity is not a timeless otherworldliness, but an unending and not aging aeon (aion), as St Basil put it. The present world was not there in order to disappear in the end, as Origen had suggested, but time be confirmed as being ‘very good’, according to the story of Genesis. Creation was for these Fathers true and real and the eschaton would prove it to be so.
But the crucial point lies precisely here: if the present world is true and real, it is because it has a future, and that end will prove it to be real. This is so, according to the Fathers, because of two reasons.
The first reason is that the present world, creation as it is now, is contaminated by evil involving an annihilation of being by non-being. Death is the most serious form that evil takes from an ontological point of view, since it threatens created beings with annihilation, ie with a return to non-being. Evil, however, has no being itself. As Maximus put it, evil has ‘neither substance nor nature nor hypostasis nor power nor energy in beings; it is neither quality nor quantity; neither relation nor replace; neither time nor position; neither creation nor movement nor habit nor passion’. What is it then? Maximus’ answer is extremely important for our subject.
‘Evil is the absence (or depletion) of the energy inherent in all natural power [toward the end (telos)] and nothing else – in other words, the irrational movement toward other (things) than the end.’ (Patrologia Graeca volume 90, 253).
This means that evil is not a deviation from beginning, as Origen would claim, but from the end. Given the fact that evil has no being, only what leads to the end for which the world was made can be said to have being. Once more, it is the end that decides what is true and real in the existing world. Life as we experience it is false and not true being, because it is contaminated with death. Only when death is overcome in the end can we tell what true and real life is. Without the overcoming of death we cannot tell what real and true being is.
The second reason why for the above Fathers it is the end that will prove the existing world real is a more positive one and independent of the fall and evil. It is because the world was created with Christ in mind. The doctrine of creation is bound up with that of Christology. According to Maximus, ‘this is the blessed end for which everything was created’, namely, to be incorporated into Christ. this may sound a little like Teilhard de Chardin, except that for Maximus Christ is not operating from within creation’s natural laws, but in and through the freedom of the Holy Spirit. The Christological end has to be understood again in Pneumatological terms. The end does not spring from the laws of nature like a leaf from the branch of a tree; it is related to the human being, which is the only material being possessing freedom and personhood.
If this is the way to understand the end or purpose of creation, [in terms of] human being we may wonder what natural science may have to do with the eschatological ontology we are discussing here.
The truth of natural science
Natural science has for a long time been enslaved in a mechanistic world-view and approached the world as a reality determined by the laws of nature which it tries to discover. We know that scientists have departed from this view and operate with the assumption that the world is relational and contains elements of unpredictability and ‘chaos’. Science is therefore more reluctant today to posit the claim of absolute and final truth regarding the world. Certain ideas, however, which most scientists today would tend to accept, may be of relevance to our subject.
It is widely admitted that the universe had a beginning and that it moves toward some kind of end. Whatever the Big-Bang Theory may mean, it is not unrelated to the doctrine of the creation of the world ‘out of nothing’. This seems at least to exclude a protological ontology with regard to creation. The beginning does not stand for perfection; the past is not the ground and basis for working out the ontology of the future. The first moment of Christian does not contain as in a seed what follows after it. the world does not evolve, it happens. To this ‘happening’ of creation many and unpredictably new factors contribute. As in the words of Gregory of Nyssa quoted above, creation is a series of new beginnings, time interplays with space, substance with event, in one word, the beginning does not determine the end.
It is also of special interest to theology that more and more scientists accept what has been named ‘the Anthropic Principle’. This principle places the human being at the very end and purpose of the universe – a striking similarity with the Patristic view of man as the microcosm and as the crown of creation. We should not expect natural science to discover personhood and freedom in electrons and chemical elements. It would be sufficient for theology if natural science agreed to relate the direction creation follows with the presence of the human being. The ‘Anthropic Principle’ is full of interest for theology. As theologians we cannot but welcome the statement by John A. Wheeler in his foreword to the book by John D. Burrow and Frank J. Tipler, The Anthropic Cosmological Principle (Oxford, 1986):
‘It is not only that man is adapted to the universe, the universe is adapted to man. Imagine a universe in which one or another of the fundamental dimensionless constants of physics is altered by a few percent one way or another? Man could never come into being in such a universe. That is the centralp of the anthropic principle. According to this principle, a life-giving factor lies at the centre of the whole machinery and design of the world.’ (p. viii)
We cannot go here into further discussion on this matter. The point we wish to make is that once natural science has moved away from the mechanistic conception of the world and is prepared to consider a teleological approach to the universe, the eschatological ontology we are talking about here may at least in principle make some sense of scientific thinking.
The ethical implications
Perhaps the most important implications of an eschatological ontology are to be found in the area of ethics. What does it mean to behave in an eschatological way?
If the truth of a human being lies not in what he or she has been or is at present, but what they will be in the end, the first and most important ethical implication is that we should treat and identify persons not on the basis of their past but of what they will be in the kingdom. This is experienced as what we call forgiveness.
Forgiveness is in the Gospels inseparably united with the proclamation of the kingdom. This is not accidental. Both God forgives us in and by establishing his kingdom and we are called to forgiven as we invoke the coming of the kingdom. Participation in the Eucharist which is the banquet of the kingdom is inconceivable without the forgiveness of self by God and of the others by ourselves.
Now forgiveness is normally understood in psychological terms, such as not feeling animosity towards those who hurt us, but it is difficult to apply psychology at least to God’s forgiveness of our sins without falling into anthropomorphism. When God declares ‘I shall no longer remember your sins’ (Jeremiah 31.34) he pronounces an ontological reality. He annihilates an evil act by removing it from our personal identity: we are no longer recognised and identified by our sinful act but we are made ‘holy’, ‘saints’ – an expression used in the New Testament to denote all the members of the Church precisely because they had enrolled through baptism in the kingdom. If there is no such thing as an eschatological ontology, our personal identities would be determined irrevocably by our past. This is what we encounter in ancient Greek tragedy, precisely because the ancient Greeks operated with a protological ontology. Is there therefore no ontological significance in our past?
The answer to this question brings up the importance of freedom. If one decides to enslave oneself in the past and refuses to repent, one will not enter the kingdom. Metanoia is a prerequisite of forgiveness because of the importance of freedom. There is always for free beings the possibility of remaining enslaved in their past even when the future takes over the ontological scene and there is no past any more. Eschatological ontology stumbles at the threshold of freedom. It can never turn being into a compulsory or necessary reality. It is cannot eliminate Hell. However, it is doubtful whether the state of Hell can properly be described in eschatological terms. Tradition uses for it non-ontological terms such as ‘perdition’ and Maximus seems to reserve the term ‘being’ only to those saved in Christ. Hell remains a mystery to eschatological ontology – an unavoidable mystery owing to the freedom one can have to will non-being, even if non-being is not a possibility any longer.
Eschatology is about the reversal of the rationality which resulted from the Fall. This rationality does not allow God to undo the past, as it subjects truth to the necessity of the ‘fact’. Forgiveness in this case can only be psychological; it does not affect one’s identity. To forgive ontologically means not to use the verb ‘to be’ in referring to someone’s sins. Not to say, for example, that someone is a murderer because he or she committed murder. If what one ‘is’ is determined not by one’s past, but by what one will be in the end, human judgment is irrelevant, since it can only be based on the past. An eschatological ontology would lead to a non-judgmental attitude towards one’s fellow men in ontological terms such as stereotypes and permanent characterisations. Every person is entitled to a new identity, to a future.
We have tried to show that eschatology can have important implications for ontology, ie for being itself. The coming of the kingdom is not only about the well-being of the world, but of its very being. The Fall has affected the world’s being by allowing death to threaten existence with annihilation, and if the last things have nothing to do with ontology they have no redemptive significance at all.
The world was created with a purpose, and the end which would be greater than the beginning. This is the view of the Fathers, such as Irenaeus and Maximus. We have made use in this paper particularly of the latter, for he contributed particularly to the eschatological ontology by making the end the cause of all that is, of the world’s being. The implications of such an idea are revolutionary, both historically and experientially. It represents a reversal of the ancient philosophical idea of causality as well of our common sense rationality, according to which the cause precedes chronologically as well as logically the this caused. It is the opposite of protological ontology, which makes the past decisive for the future. Eschatological ontology, therefore, is about the liberation of being from necessity, it is about the formation of being. Man and the world are no longer imprisoned in their past, in sin, decay and death. The past is ontologically affirmed only in so far as it contributes to the end, to the coming of the kingdom. The eschaton will ‘judge’ history with this criterion alone. The last judgment as part of the eschaton represents an ontological, not a moral event.
In our modest attempt in this paper, we have seen how this eschatological ontology permeates Christian doctrine, particularly that of creation and ecclesiology. We have also tried to point out some of its ethical implications. Yet I realise that this concept is most difficult to grasp and to experience. We still live in a fallen world in which protological ontology is the dominant form of rationality. Eschatological ontology is precisely a call to the salvation of our rationality from this bondage to the past, a call to faith in ‘the substance of things hoped for.’