Catholicism has always considered creation to be the place of God’s saving activity, but the Church’s eschatological vision has often focused on an otherworldly destiny that forgets the importance of this world. This otherworldly escapism still lingers in some Christian descriptions of salvation: the individual human soul is saved for heaven. An example of such an “escapist eschatology” is Dr. Jordan Peterson’s recent More-Christian-Than-The-Pope tweet — “Redemptive salvation is a matter of the individual soul” — directed at Pope Francis’s prior comments on social justice. For the doctor, “There is nothing Christian about #SocialJustice.”
Within the Catholic Church, the escapist view of salvation envisioned by Peterson has become less prominent during the last century. While pre-conciliar eschatology sometimes focused on the “Last Things” as a postscript to the Christian Faith, now there is a different eschatological focus: the Church does not exclusively seek salvation from Earth but also salvation for Earth. The Second Vatican Council helped to re-emphasize an authentically Christian eschatology in which creation and eschaton belong together — in which the world is even now being called to its final fulfillment. This new eschatological focus is not really new but rather a harkening back to the biblical and patristic teaching that, in Christ, creation “waits with eager longing” for its full restoration (Rom 8:19). For early Christians like the second-century Irenaeus of Lyons, Christ came that “He might draw all things to Himself” (Against Heresies 3:16:6). The salvation brought by Christ includes the recapitulation and fulfillment of the entire creation.
What accounts for the change? The Church’s re-evaluation of its role in the world and a renewed biblical hermeneutic of “salvation history” were major factors in this shift. Additionally, the natural sciences have necessitated a new consideration of the entire cosmos in God’s plan. Ultimately, this renewed eschatological vision provides a thoroughly Christian foundation for concern for this world in the here and now. Our attempts to build up the Kingdom of God through the pursuit of social justice have a solid theological foundation.
The Church is for the World
Whereas we may have once thought of the Church primarily as a haven — a collection of the “saved” — from the world, the Vatican Council reminds us that the Church is for the world. As the “sacrament of salvation” (Lumen Gentium [LG] 48) the Church is the mediating presence of the Spirit, who forever creates the world anew. It is true that as an institution, the Church is often as messy as the world around it. But precisely as sacrament, the Church is the designated locus of God’s saving activity. Just as Christ was the Kingdom of God in person, so the Church continues to incarnate the Kingdom in the world.
That the Church is for the world — for its sanctification and transformation — means that the Church is active. The Church can never be turned in on itself. Christ indicated as much when he designated his followers as the “light of the world” (Matt. 5:14).
Now, no Christian will find any of this particularly surprising. Since the Church exists in the world, every believer understands that the Church must have some sort of role to play within it. Yet we still slip into an otherworldly Christianity whenever this role is posited as a mere project of gathering-the-saved. This truncated eschatology does not fully appreciate the Church’s relationship to the world. Precisely as the means of the world’s sanctification, the Church assists the world in its eschatological journey. Christ’s identification of the Kingdom of God with a mustard seed suggests as much. The seed will grow into the “largest of plants” so that even the birds “come to dwell in its branches” (Mt 13:32). Likewise, the Kingdom grows within the created order, ultimately becoming home for all creatures. The Church is for the sake of God’s great gathering of the world.
Echoing the image used by Christ, Vatican II identifies the Church as “leaven” in the world, the means by which it is gathered into God’s family. As leaven, Christians must “build a better world based on truth and justice” (Gaudium et Spes [GS] 55). This only makes sense if the church is sent into the world so as to sanctify and transform it from within. The eschatological vision renewed by the council is clear: “Earthly progress…is of vital concern to the Kingdom of God” (GS 39).
Salvation History means the Eschaton in History
The council’s renewed interest in the primacy of Scripture in theology also enables a revived eschatology of a creation-in-progress. In particular, the council’s framework of “salvation history” places the work of God in this world, here and now. Creation, covenant, sin, redemption, judgment, resurrection — all of these elements comprise one united telling of exitus-reditus, of creation’s proceeding from and returning to God.
This kind of identification of the world as the locus of God’s promise is apparent throughout the Bible. Genesis situates God’s relationship with Adam and Eve in the garden — in the world. Their very purpose is to be priests of creation in its praise of the Creator. Humanity’s sin does not change this fundamental anthropology. Rather, from Abraham onward, the divine project of salvation involves the restoration of creation’s purpose. The completion is yet to come, when God will establish the “New Heaven and New Earth” (Rev 21:1). Even so, salvation history means that the eschaton “takes place in history rather just at its end.”
The history of salvation culminates in the Resurrection of Christ. Recovery of the centrality of the Resurrection means the recovery of an authentically Christian eschatology, for belief in the Resurrection means a belief in the eschaton in history. Indeed, the Resurrection concerns the very goal of the entire cosmos. Christ is but the “first fruits,” as Paul says.
Because the Resurrection is not just a past event but a “vital power which has permeated this world” (Evangelii Gaudium [EG] 276), the Church is called to mission. Christians who evangelize, says Pope Francis, are “instruments of that power” (EG 276). Lest one thinks such evangelization is a mere promulgation of propositions for one’s individual salvation, one need only read Francis’s Evangelii Gaudium to better appreciate the social implications of the Gospel. For the Holy Father, evangelization and human advancement are two sides of the same coin.
As an instrument of the power of the resurrection, the human endeavor for justice — inspired by the Gospel — is a means of re-creating the world anew in advancement of the Kingdom. “All Christians,” continues Francis, “are called to show concern for the building of a better world” (EG 183).
Science and the New Eschatology
The findings of science within the last few centuries have also motivated Catholic thinkers to stress the importance of creation and its connection to the eschaton. In the context of surveying modern trends in science, the council acknowledges that “the human race has passed from a rather static concept of reality to a more dynamic, evolutionary one” (GS 45). The entire cosmos is on a journey. The Catechism declares that the universe is moving “toward an ultimate perfection yet to be attained” (CCC 302).
If the universe is ever advancing to its goal in Christ, then one can no longer make a strict distinction between creation and the eschaton. Though yet to be fully realized, creation’s aim is the eschaton. In his book Resting on the Future, theologian John F. Haught explores the implications of an unfinished Universe for eschatology. Rebuking both naturalistic pessimism, and otherworldly optimism, Haught advances what he calls “cosmic hope.” Such a hope recovers that Abrahamic truth: Namely, creation is seeded with the divine promise of the future.
This anticipatory vision is not a type of escapism, for it includes the entire story of creation. It hopes for the redemption of all of cosmic history. The Catechism likewise says that God guides “his creation to that definitive sabbath rest” — the very reason “for which he created heaven and earth” (CCC 314). Clearly, then, the Universe is not a mere stage for the salvation of individual souls. An eschatology that takes science seriously admits that the entire Universe is in a state of journeying toward its ultimate salvation.
Building Up the Kingdom, Anticipating the New Creation
This kind of identification of the here and now with the eschaton — as well as the present responsibility of humanity — do not result in a mere equivalence between the current order of things and God’s ultimate plan. Nor does it mean that the destiny of creation is reducible to human effort. Nevertheless, the new eschatological emphasis imbues all of creation — from the smallest molecules to the entire cosmos — with the transforming power of the Resurrected Christ.
Perhaps the most manifest indication of the Church’s new emphasis on the eschatological impact of human activity is the heightened call to ecological responsibility. In his environmental encyclical Laudato Si’, Pope Francis unfolds the eschatological vision that identifies the now with the new, the present with the eschaton. The encyclical depicts creation as “moving forward with us and through us towards a common point of arrival” (LS 83) — thereby envisioning human cooperation in creation’s consummation in Christ.
With this new eschatological outlook, the Christian Faith can never imply detachment from the world. Contrary to the unfortunate — even if unintentional — impression given by pre-conciliar eschatology, then, belief in the Kingdom of God does not imply waiting around for the world’s betterment at the second coming. In fact, human persons play a central part in the ultimate destiny of all things for “by their labor they are unfolding the Creator’s work” (GS 34).
As can be discerned from the above contributions, an authentically Christian eschatology is synonymous with the Gospel message: Namely, in Christ, salvation has come to the world — the entire world — soul, body, and cosmos. It is this truly Christian eschatology that is the basis for social justice — for making a positive difference in the world, here and now. Taking all this into consideration, it would seem that authentic Christian eschatology — that is to say, authentic Christianity — has little to do with “the individual soul” and very much to do with “#SocialJustice.”
 Joseph Ratzinger, Principles of Catholic Theology: Building Stones for a Fundamental Theology (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1987), 171.
 John F. Haught, Resting on the Future
Image: Lawrence OP. The apse of St Barnabas in Oxford has an image of Christ Pantocrator (Ruler of all) blessing the cosmos. Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0). Via Flickr.
Patric is a 27 year-old graphic designer, writer, and wannabe theologian. He graduated from Western Kentucky University with a BA in Religious Studies and BA in Graphic Design. He is currently working on an MA in Theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville. He is an active member of his parish in Bowling Green, KY, where he acts as a catechist and member of his church’s young adult core team.
He is active on his faith blog www.smellysheep.wordpress.com.