What happens when we die?
Roman Catholics have death ever on the mind. It is part of Christian theology, to follow the commandments and sacraments so to be prepared when death comes. But then, why do we still fear death? Why when death comes does it seem unexpected and much too soon? For Joseph Ratzinger, who grew up in Bavaria under the horrors of Nazi Germany, when death was ever present, thinking about the end of things, eschatology, was an issue to explore and to understand.
Ratzinger, when Professor of Dogmatics at the University of Regensburg, began a project working with co-author Johann Auer to write a two-volume work on Eschatology and Dogmatic Theology. Ratzinger wrote the volume on Eschatology, but by the time he was to work on the volume on Dogmatic Theology, he had been appointed Archbishop of Munich and Freising, hence it remained unwritten. Eschatology is a brilliant and thought-provoking look into Catholic teaching on the afterlife: Heaven, Hell, Purgatory. Not all Catholics agree with his argument, and most Catholics doubtless have not read the book, as it is dauntingly complex. In what follows, I provide a brief synopsis and analysis of Ratzinger’s book.
In Eschatology, Ratzinger argues that the secularization of world thought beginning with the 18th century Enlightenment has negatively influenced the Church, so that many Christians believe in the secular promise of progress, hence Christians focus so much on the present that the future, death and salvation, appear as something unwelcome, to avoid, to stave off as long as medicinal miracles allow us to hang on to life. Happiness has to be squeezed through the ever-present moment. Ratzinger condemns modern philosophy and theology, which by accommodating current trends of thought and power-struggles focuses on the immediate and an unknown future, which “emasculates Christian hope.” Ratzinger argues, rather, that Christianity is a dialogue of present Christ and future occurring in Christ. Christian existence is the interaction between the historical message of the Gospels and present reality.
Ratzinger thinks that the historicity that began with Biblical criticism in the 19th century was embraced by Catholics in the 20th century because of Paul XII in the 1950s and Vatican II. Tradition was lost. What was Catholic was lost. The critical historical method attempts to uncover what happened precisely in the past without contemplating tradition-over-time. Catholicism after Vatican II focused more on the “theory of resurrection in death, and consequent rejection of the concept of the soul.” But Ratzinger argues, why therefore pray for the dead if “dying means an exit from time to non-time” and “nontemporal is straightforwardly identified with eternity”?
Human history, he argues, our own direction of life, has replaced, in our modern world, providential history. Hope based on faith has been replaced by hope in technology and futurism.
What is Death?
Ratzinger begins his book arguing that the Bible, hence Christianity, does not teach what ministers and priests often preach, that when we die we immediately experience salvation, immediately either achieve bliss in Heaven with God or damnation in Hell with Satan. Rather, Ratzinger argues that Jesus returned in His resurrection, continues to return in the Eucharist, and will return in the future. Christ is “the world’s future in the world’s present.” He says further, “the walls separating heaven and earth, and past, present, and future, are now as glass.” The word eschatology does not refer to time rather to existence. Christianity is therefore “an ever renewed act of encounter.” For Ratzinger, the human experience of time occurs according to the ever-present Christ; when an individual dies, time continues on, and for the dead individual, “eternity is not commensurable with time, being of a wholly other order.” Ratzinger, heavily influenced by ancient Greek philosophy, finds with the Greeks a similar point of view to his own that death is not final, rather a passage to a different form of existence. “Man’s own truth is that he passes away, having no abiding existence in his own right. The more he takes a stand on himself, the more he finds himself suspended over nothing.” Christianity does not teach the soul’s immortality, rather “the resurrection of the complete human being and of that alone.”
Christ and History
Ratzinger’s thought has a sophisticated philosophy of history that is completely at odds with what modern historians believe. The Bible teaches that “each and every human being [and animal] is a suffering being. The moment of death is not our first experience of finitude.” “Death is ever present in the inauthenticity, closedness and emptiness of our everyday life.” Suffering is therefore a means to find God. Death becomes “purifying and transforming.” Ratzinger points to Psalm 73, where the despair and inequality of life is found in the relief and happiness of God in Heaven. Here one finds communion with God, which is the essence of authentic life: “communion with God is reality”—more real than death. The desire for immortality occurs when one finds communion with God, in Love. It is going beyond self-existence.
Scripture, he writes, does not support the idea of a sleep of death that occurs between dying and end of time; rather those who “died in Christ are alive.” Likewise, the idea of a dualism of body and soul is not supported by Christianity; rather the unification of body and soul, even after death.” The idea so popular among Christians of an eternity with a beginning is no eternity at all. Someone who has lived during a definite period of time, and died at a definite point in time, cannot simply move across from the condition “time” into the condition “eternity,” timelessness. “The resurrection [is] a pledge to the future of man and the cosmos, and in this sense a pledge to space, time and matter. . . . In the resurrection, God proves himself to be the God also of the cosmos and of history.” The Last Day is not the “moment of individual death” rather “the shared ending of all history.” There is no interruption in life between death and the end of the world.
Ratzinger’s thought on death and time was heavily influenced by Aurelius Augustine, the author of Confessions and The City of God. Augustine taught that the past is recalled in the present, it is past in its quality in the present; likewise with the expectation of the future. Humans experience time as a movement, not just of physical bodies, but the spiritual component of humans allows for a different, deeper experience than a mere physical body. “In human consciousness, the various levels of time are at once assumed and transcended, rendering that consciousness temporal, in a way all its own.” Humans externalize time by memory and anticipation. Also, human love experiences this temporal process, so that “the fabric of shared humanity is a fabric of shared temporality.” Humans, per Augustine, have therefore memory time shaped by our temporal experiences. When we die, memory time separates us from biological time, and we retain this memory for the “possibility of purification and fulfillment in a final destiny which will relate us to matter in a new way. It is a precondition for the intelligibility of the resurrection as a fresh possibility for man.” Augustine (and Ratzinger) believed that death does not end our memory, but there is a continuing reality.
“ln the man Jesus, God comes in one and the same in a human and in a divine way. His coming transcends the logic of history, yet concerns all history. Human activity carries on with its own kind of objectivity, but a new dimension is opened up pertinent to human existence and thus to all the world. The divine coming compels man to adopt an attitude of watchful readiness which looks out for the Parousia of Jesus and thus prevents history from falling into a self-enclosure which would condemn human existence to meaninglessness and purposelessness.”
The Salvation of All Life
One of the most compelling and controversial arguments in Eschatology is Ratzinger’s discussion of the “dynamic unity of the entire created world.” Humans are anima forma corporis, an essence, an indestructible life form; human is “the creature . . . for whom the vision of God is part and parcel of his very being.” Ratzinger was also heavily influenced by Thomas Aquinas’ theology of creation: “nature is only possible by virtue of a communication of the Creator’s, yet such communication both establishes the creature in its own right and makes it a genuine participator in the being of the One communicated.” Further, “the claim that the whole of God’s creation, in whatever form, will enter upon its definitive salvation at the end of time is so palpable that any reflective systematization of the biblical data must do it justice.” Further, “no part of God’s creation is too insignificant to be made perfect.” “God is faithful to his whole creation.” “By announcing a new heaven and a new earth, the Bible makes it clear that the whole of creation is destined to become the vessel of God’s glory. All of created reality is to be drawn into blessedness.”
His comments are an astonishing argument that all life is united in God, which is not terminated in death, rather is fulfilled with the coming of Christ.
Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven
Ratzinger’s discussion in Eschatology of heaven, hell, and purgatory is a riveting discourse on theology and the Bible. “In death, a human being emerges into the light of full reality and truth.” Hell is “a challenge to oneself. It is a challenge to suffer in the dark night of faith, to experience communion with Christ in solidarity with his descent into the Night.” Hell is the consequence of the personal decision by each individual who pushes God away. But there is hope, offered by God. The sufferer must, however, relinquish control, and accept God’s will.
Most people die to purgatory, which is part of a historical process uniting the alive with the dead because “everyone exists simultaneously in other people. What happens in one individual has an effect upon the whole of humanity, and what happens in humanity happens in the individual.” “Even,” he writes, “when they have crossed over the threshold of the world beyond, human beings can still carry each other and bear each others’ burdens.” Purgatory then is “unresolved guilt, a suffering which continues to radiate out because of guilt. Purgatory means, then, suffering to the end what one has left behind on earth—in the certainty of being definitively accepted, yet having to bear the infinite burden of the withdrawn presence of the Beloved.”
Here, he argues that purgatory is the continuation of history, even after death—such an idea would make most modern historians squirm in their seats!
Heaven is the final achievement, but it is not a departure, rather a “new mode of presence to the world.” Heaven is when we participate in the “new mode of Christ’s existence.”
Death and Love
Throughout all of Ratzinger’s writings is the emphasis on love. This is revealed in the encyclicals he published as Pope Benedict XVI. The reader finds much of his book Eschatology reflected in these encyclicals. In his first encyclical, Deus Caritas est, “God is Love,” he emphasizes that love is the force that unites life and death, all creatures, the challenges of purgatory and the blessings of heaven. His comment in Eschatology that “Christ brings time to its completion by leading it into the moment of love” is the theme of his encyclical on love. The themes of Eschatology are also found in his second encyclical, Spe Salvi, “In Hope We Are Saved.” As he wrote in Eschatology, “eternal life does not isolate a person, but leads him out of isolation into true unity with his brothers and sisters and the whole of God’s creation.” In his final encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, “Charity in Truth,” we find a theme emphasized in Eschatology, that “I come face to face with my own guilt vis a vis the suffering members of that body as well as the forgiving love which the body derives from Christ its Head.” This involves “love beyond the grave.”
Pope Benedict XVI, Joseph Ratzinger, was a superb scholar, a deep thinker, who at the same time was open to all emotions, all feelings: the wonderful combination of these two different characters is clearly revealed not only in his encyclicals, but in the book Eschatology, as well.
(All quotes are from Joseph Ratzinger, Eschatology: Death and Eternal Life, 2nd ed. (Washington: The Catholic University of America Press, 1988).)