Interest in what Jesus was like and exactly what he said has grown in tandem with the awareness that Christian doctrine as we have it was not what he had in mind. As scholars pursue their quest for the historical Jesus one of the principal currents that they have identified was his belief in the imminent end of time. It was a focus prominent in the rest of the New Testament as well, and it differs markedly from ours. For them the end and its judgment responded to political oppression and established a community of justice on earth; for us it is individual reward or punishment in another world.
It has been conjectured that Jesus’ belief reflected the influence of a contemporary separatist sect of Jews known as Essenes who, had withdrawn from society and set up a community in the desert around the Dead Sea east of Palestine. The central belief of the Essenes was that there would be a final war, led by the messiah, that would definitively establish the dominion of Israel’s “God” and end forever the oppressive control of pagan conquerors who worshipped a multitude of false and unholy gods. The Roman occupation was the obvious reference. Some believe it was in anticipation of that impending “war” that preachers like John the baptizer, and Jesus who followed him, issued their call for repentance. The Jewish War of liberation against the Romans in 70 c.e., less than a generation after Jesus’ death, seems to have been a consequence of that belief.
Clear as that current is, the Christian communities responsible for producing the gospels remember Jesus’ preaching having a different center. However indisputable it is that Jesus shared the belief that the end was not far off, and that it was the reason for his sense of mission, the gospel authors said he did not offer it as the incentive for his program. His call was to love one another in imitation of a loving, forgiving “God.” Even when Jesus made reference to judgment, it was always secondary to the main message: “I was hungry and you gave me to eat … I was homeless and you took me in … I was in prison and you visited me … blessed are those who hunger and thirst after justice.” The surprise of his listeners confirms that they did not think of those things as “commandments” for which they would be judged.
During the early years of Christian expansion into the Greek-speaking world it seems the eschaton — the end — was expected shortly. In preparation for that event some new converts, like those in Thessalonica, stopped working altogether and just waited; Paul reproved them for it: “if you won’t work, don’t expect to eat.” One didn’t become a Christian just to get something.
When it became clear that Jesus was not coming any time soon, one of the principal motivations for joining the Christian community disappeared. Desire to be on the “right side” at the end must have been central to the Christian appeal because it was immediately replaced by an emphasis on personal immortality and the individual’s judgment at death. This shift, while it served to maintain intensity, represented the transfer of the “kingdom of God” from the political sphere to the solitary person and the “end of the world” to individual death. This had the effect of changing the focus of the Christian program from building a community of justice and mutual love in imitation of our forgiving “father,” to an individual blamelessness pursued out of fear of punishment.
The change did not go unnoticed and seems to have created a reaction. I believe it was reflected in the writings of Origen of Alexandria who worked in the early 200’s. It took the form of his theory of apokatastasis. The term means “restoration” in Greek and had been used by the Stoic philosophers to refer to the return of all things to their original state, a moment in the eternal cycle of the rebirth of the universe. Following Peter’s use of the word in Acts 3, Origen applied it to the Christian eschaton and for him it meant universal salvation, i.e., that no one, not even evil spirits, would remain eternally unreconciled. There may be a “hell” but it was for the purposes of correction and it was temporary. In the end all would return to the Source from which they came. In this scenario without an eternal hell, being “blameless” lost its urgency.
Origen’s teaching continued on in the east for centuries. Gregory of Nyssa was a vocal proponent of it, and even went further and claimed that both hell and heaven were not places but states of mind that result from the choices we make in the way we live. It is significant that all official condemnations of apokatastasis came in Councils held after Constantine had given the Catholic hierarchy the theocratic responsibility of guaranteeing behavioral compliance in the Empire. Apparently the bishops felt that fear of eternal punishment was a necessary tool for achieving that purpose. Many still see that role and that tool as essential to the definition of the Church.
Origen’s doctrine preserves the spirit of Jesus’ message: the all-forgiving mercy of “God” and the communal nature of the coming kingdom. Anything else should have been recognized as essentially antithetical to tradition. The quid pro quo obedience-or-punishment that accompanied the new focus on the immortal individual soul and the “other world” was a sea-change in moral perspective. It was the reversal of Paul’s entire thesis, clearly delineated in Romans and Galatians: that Christian life was not a matter of obeying “law;” there was no more law. It was the free loving response of man to the free forgiving love of “God.”
When Erasmus of Rotterdam and Martin Luther debated the issue of free will in their exchange of essays in 1524-25, Luther accused Erasmus of Pelagianism precisely because Erasmus saw salvation as a product of human cooperation with “God’s” grace. Erasmus had got the Catholic position right: Augustine’s more radical theory of grace and human impotence had never been fully embraced; the Catholic Church had always insisted that the individual was free to sin or not to sin. Luther, following Augustine, rejected that. But in order to make the case for the exclusive operation of “God” in salvation while simultaneously maintaining the threat of eternal punishment, Luther had to reassert Augustine’s claim of moral impotence, effectively denying free will. He had to make all of universal history the inexorable unfolding of a divine plan — the saved were “elected” and the others were allowed to slide into perdition. Humans were incapable of not sinning, and “God” had no obligation to save them from the damnation that inevitably ensued; if he forgave the elect, it was pure gratuity; it had nothing to do with human merit. Luther’s call for those with faith to trust in the forgiveness of “God” was welcomed in practice for it took the burden of responsibility for “earning” salvation off the individual believer, but it did not change the source of moral energy: it was still “salvation” — the fear of hell and the desire for virtually any alternative.
If we were to “theologize” Jesus’ message of love — and by “theologize” I mean think of it as a metaphysical reality not just a moral injunction — then, theologizing is what John was doing when he said “God is love.” “To love,” then, is to be like “God,” it is theosis, “divinization.”
John’s theology could have prevailed. But it did not. What prevailed was an image of “God” as judge and executioner that corresponded to the definition of the eschaton as individual judgment — reward or punishment — exactly what was required for the effective running of an empire.
But if John’s theology had prevailed, then all the words that have been traditionally used to refer to the ultimate Christian achievement — redemption, salvation, eternal happiness — would apply to love. To learn to love would be “ultimate;” it would be to achieve all there is to achieve as a human being. That means there is nowhere further to go; there is nothing more to get. From this angle both Erasmus and Luther (and Augustine) are shown to be dead wrong. “Salvation” as reward whether gained through one’s own efforts (Erasmus) or as a free gift of “God” (Luther), ran counter to the teaching of Jesus. For to love is precisely not “to gain” or “to get” anything. Love “seeks not its own.” That is the ultimate human achievement. Religion for Jesus was the pursuit of a new way of being human. It’s what you give freely not what you get for your obedience.
The inverse would be true as well: to fail to love is to suffer an ultimate failure. To put it in terms of this present discussion of the eschaton, it might also be said that to continue to think that the ultimate human fulfillment is something you get after your human life is done, is hell. It means you never understood life: who you are and what “God” is. “God” is what “he” does, and you are what you do. Jesus’ message is that in each case it is love.
All “ultimates” get translated into metaphors; the more ultimate the more eschatological the metaphor: judgment, reward, punishment, heaven, hell, etc., correspond to the ultimate values of western Christian culture. For that is the way we humans deal with intangibles: we “personify” or “reify” them. It’s a spontaneous human function that we even see at work in childhood. We translate imponderables and uncertainties into imagery we can handle. Children create rules for their games without being taught; all games have to have rules — structure — or they evaporate into chaos. Life is intrinsically imponderable and uncertain, we have to impose structure and that structure is our culture from which our societies emerge. Each culture runs by its own set of rules.
There is no problem with these structures unless we forget that they are our impositions and we begin to take them as reality … that we have a right to impose on other people. In the case of the privatization of the Christian eschaton, learning to “seek not your own” — the point of Jesus’ message — got inverted into a selfish acquisitory attitude toward life that had repercussions in all areas, like the kind of social system that western Christians created. A market-dominated society runs on rules that eliminate community survival and define value as the individual’s power to acquire and accumulate. Penury entails isolation and death. It’s the game of life as we have structured it. It mirrors the Christian imagery of the personalized eschaton — a reward earned by an individual’s hard work and compliance with the commandments. The “particular judgment” means there is no communal salvation available, and “eternal” punishment means isolation from LIFE. There is no forgiveness for failure.
We are reminded again and again: in the West our religious impasse has been created by taking our metaphors as facts instead of poetry. We have to learn to understand that our religion is an ancient ancestral guide, stitched together from the experience of untold generations of people, about how to live — what to do — and what poetry may help us in doing it. Religion is a structure we impose on life. It must be re-evaluated and reactivated in every generation.
The study of the historical Jesus has revealed attitudes embedded in his message that we in our times find remarkably appealing. The fact that in this regard Jesus seems to have more in common with us than with the centuries and centuries of western Christian doctrine is a result of the spirit of our times and the “rules of the game” that we apply. Jesus’ rules resonate with ours … they are moral rules, not metaphysical or scientific rules, and they are communitarian.
What comes after death, if anything, is a matter for physics to discover, not religion. Do we have immortal souls? That’s a factual question. We either do or we don’t; it doesn’t matter how much we “believe,” our faith does not make it so if it is not … and vice versa. Religion should have nothing to say about it and in fact shouldn’t really care, because its moral commitments — its counsels about what to do — are applicable no matter what the physical reality. Once we realize that Jesus’ message is a moral invitation to imitate the benevolence of “God” our father, and not a hidden cosmology or game of thrones … and that the ultimates implied in this moral message may be given poetic ultimacy in imaginative metaphors about the end of time and judgment for life after death, we can separate the one from the other. The need for humans to love is a moral imperative that remains true whether we live forever or not. The Christian images of the eschaton, on the other hand, are not facts, but they may be taken as metaphors that evoke the ultimate nature of the human need to love.
To learn to love is not optional … our very destiny as human beings, individually and socially, depends on it. Learning to love is not the means to get something else — something we really want. To love is an end in itself. If we are really going to learn to love, we have to learn that there is, ultimately, nothing else worth wanting.
And, despite all indications to the contrary, if life as we know it should happen to continue after death, it will not change that formula one iota. Life after death will offer nothing but the opportunity to go on doing what we do here: loving one another.