Note: this is a parcellary meditation. It is not meant to be a systematic eschatology, nor to be normative or in any way true. This is an inchoate attempt to make sense of my thoughts on the subject. I am sure there is a danger of heterodoxy and even heresy—rest assured this is due to ignorance and to be repudiated.
God created the Universe with risk at the heart. (Non-probabilistic risk; uncertainty in the Knightian sense, except that the common sense of the word “uncertainty” creates problems when related to God’s nature.)
The Triune God, Father, eternally-begotten Son, and Spirit of light and fire, glorying in itself forever, wants to share its love. But true sharing in love implies freedom, which implies risk and sin. Thus through Man’s Fall the Universe became fallen, tumbling upwards towards its theosis, all while having its fundamental goodness eaten by the cancer of sin. Thus the Son of God had to also be the Son of Man, die, be dead and rise so that through this co-creative act the fabric of the Universe may carry redemption as well as sin and the fatherly order.
God created everything so that it may return to Him, and so at the end of time the Universe will return to full fellowship with God, and this will be a great fire.
The Son will return in His Glory (though in His meekness, He never left) and His Spirit will burn the entire Universe. This flame is not literal, but neither is it metaphorical. Another way to put it is that as the Universe returns in full communion with God, everything in it that is incompatible with that will burn.
All the dead will be raised, and the fire will be a burning sword through every heart. Like water runs downhill, all being must return to God and in so doing our sin will burn.
Another way of putting it is that sin is primarily something we do to ourselves. With every action that turns away from God, we add cancer cells to our bodies. We create ourselves as Fallen men (while the Father created us Redeemable and the Son Redeemed).
Through the mysterious economy of sacrament, prayer and communion of saints (and indulgences heyooooo!), contrition and work, we have through Grace reduced this burden (though only Grace and the Cross are responsible for this burden not to be fatal). Sins absolved through valid confession burn without pain, or perhaps have just left “sin-shaped holes” where the flame merely passes; something similar happens for the baptized for the rotten core of original sin. Still, in all remains chaff; by Divine Grace it burns with a bright, bearable flame, not as sulphur that would blow up everything else.
As we return to the Godhead, the fire burns everything in us that is incompatible, until we become united with God. This is Purgatory.
For some people, I like to think a microscopically small number, there is so much to burn that there is, so to speak, nothing left, or at least too little for union with the Godhead. Perhaps it is also because they actively resist the fire, creating more kindling for it, rather than embracing it, and they are consumed. Perhaps they do not experience or recognize the joy that pours even greater than the fire. They are the damned, but their damnation is nonetheless union with the Godhead, but as partial, unaware beings. If only as memories of love so poured out, they are incorporated in the Godhead but, in a sense, inert. This Hell is more like a limbo or a state of semi-non-being, like a shadow mysteriously incorporated in the stained glass that is being built; but even the damned acquire a measure of theosis, albeit of a different nature.
God created the Universe so that it may fully be reincorporated with it, in a true love of hard-earned freedom and not the false love of a pet.
Heaven is, therefore, not a “place”, and not a different plane, it is rather the current Universe but sanctified and transfigured, with every valley exalted, and every hill made low.
In this Universe, for the justified, where all sin has been burnt away, in the “holes” left behind molten gold has been poured, and we have scars of light. We are bodies, that is to say, we exist as both soul and matter, albeit sanctified matter which now obeys to different “laws” of “physics” (including time!), and these are now completely integrated as opposed to feuding as at present. These heavenly bodies still carry the scars of our fallenness, albeit now transfigured, as the Wounds of our Lord were. Particularly sanctified, then, (“receiving crowns”, in the words of Aquinas) are all the sufferers-not-on-account-of-themselves, particularly the physical sufferers. The lame, the mute, the disfigured, the disformed, the martyred, are especially transfigured into bodies of incomprehensible glory, beauty and freedom. The Crosses borne in the Fallen Universe gives them a particular joy and wholeness-in-theosis.
In this Universe, the fundamental goodness of Creation is borne in full light. Beethoven’s 9th symphony will still exist in the Godhead, as part of Heavenly Creation, except as something we all hear and see and touch and taste and commune with as we commune with all good Creation (that is to say, at that point, all Creation). Every single action and motion of the Fallen Universe exists in the theosis, with the sinfulness burnt away and filled with light and the goodness transfigured. We now see everything through the eyes of God: in every heroic or merely good act we live and glory, and understand it now in a full way, while every sinful thing, like a picture in negative color which reveals something new, paints the portrait of the Glory of the Pierced Pantokrator.
In particular, we see the tapestry of life of God’s action through all Creation. First, there is the background light of the creating love that sustained every single particle, every single atom and every force that made the electrons move in the atom, all through the history of all the Universe. Then, there is the ambient life of Grace, all of the times when God personally yet silently and meekly touched our lives, throughout all of history; particularly there we see the light of prayer, in all life, when we were particularly close to God. Then there are the islands of light of the sacraments: all sacraments, as these privileged moments where grace pours through the breach in a special way. In particular, in some islands of light we see a cathedral: each time a Mass was said, each time the Sacrifice of the Cross was replayed and the Lord became truly present among us, each a different and unique cathedral, from the ones built in dank catacombs in palpable fear to the most glorious spectacles in cathedrals of stone, each with astounding beauty. And all these lights point to the “central” fountain of light, the historical Paschal moment, the true liturgy, when Jesus broke the bread and blessed the wine and washed the feet and was crucified and became death on Holy Saturday and rose on Sunday. All these lights point to this central light and are “moons” to the sun of this central light. This is the way we now experience the Universe, a new way, which is rather the true way and the only way, to which we are currently almost wholly blind.
There is the question of Time in the new Universe, for there is non-time but there is also time. Here, perhaps, my fallen capacities of understanding are most useless. This new Universe is eternal and in a sense timeless, and yet there is some form of something we can only analogize to time because there is movement, just as there is movement within the Holy Trinity, where the three Persons eternally and unceasingly glory in each other. God’s good Creation includes time, and we can think of time in the Fallen Universe as an icon that points to the true, eternal time of God Thrice Holy, which encompasses and transcends all time, incorporating beginnings and ends.
More generally, we see that concepts such as time, physical presence and knowledge (“knowledge” as full, immediate, simple, intuitive encompassing communion) are still present, yet merged and present in a new way. Every single moment of everything that happened in the Universe is there for us to “know”, but of course we’re not simply traveling backwards and forwards through time. We can physically go to, say, St Peter’s Basilica and “experience” every Mass that was said there, but these words mean completely different things. The Eschaton isn’t some sort of Matrix where we conjure up new images and experiences ad infinitum, in a sort of sequential and time-bound and superficial way, and maybe we can even fly around and instantly learn a bunch of things. Our communion with Creation is much deeper and much less bound up in fallen notions of time and even consciousness.
I think here of those .GIFs that show a perpetual zoom through a fractal. This is what I can analogize theosis to, as I see it: falling through a fractal, infinitely the same yet infinitely new; infinitely complex yet infinitely simple. And it is a falling: there is not only movement, but vertigo, an eternal joyous embrace in which we are pulled by a great invisible force. (Although of course it is a “falling” “upward”! Even though there is no “upward” to “fall” to since the “upward” has embraced all of Creation!)
As we zoom through this fractal, as we fall ever in the Father’s embrace, at the “edge” of our “vision” is the whole rational scaffolding of the Universe. From quantum mechanics and cell mitochondria to the depths of human psychology, all of it is absolutely known to us, not only known but obvious and commonsensical and part of us, more obvious even than “2+2=4”, more obvious than knowing to breathe in and breathe out. We not only know these things in a completely obvious and immediate way but we know their meaning: we know not only why God made them but how, say, the old physics point to the “physics” of the new Creation. God is a God of Reason, He is logos, and so the Eschaton will also be logos and incorporate everything of God that belongs to the category of rationality. We glory in this and yet completely and joyfully take it for granted as the means-to-an-end it is.
Closer to the center, there is all of Creation-transfigured, which again we embrace in a totally intuitive and perpetually-falling, always new way. The stars, the galaxies, the infinitely small, the life of the animals, everything good about Creation is still there, albeit transfigured. Here is Notre Dame of Paris, here is Niagara Falls, here is a pulsar, here is the Mona Lisa, here is—why not—the iPod, here is the intricate pattern on the wing of every dragonfly, here is the chemical reaction at the heart of stars, here is the cathedral of the atom and the movement of every electron and proton. Here are all the great meals and great bottles of wine. Here are all the animals, particularly those, such as pets, that also reflect human co-creation (beagles don’t occur in nature without the hand of man). Here is as points of light the tapestry of all history, physical history and the history of grace. Here is not only a star, but a star’s birth, life and death, in all its glory, and here is, plainly readable, the full meaning of this heavenly graffiti. Here is not only a church building, but its building and its life and every sacrament said there and every moment it was touched by grace in a special way. In the stone is etched, perfectly readable in a single glance, the full history of that stone, from its geological history to its quarrying to the hand of the mason that touched it to the design of the architect that willed it to be there. Here are the relics of the saints and the tombs of ancestors, totally transfigured and viewed anew as instruments of Grace.
One “step” “closer” to the “center” here are all the conscious creatures. Through my glorious body I embrace you and at the same time commune with everybody else, since all this happens through the Spirit which now flows everywhere unimpeded. All of the creatures (even, in a mysterious, negative, silent way, the damned) are there. These glorious bodies, which are bodies, bear, as has been said, the glorious golden scars of all our sins, which we now perceive in a new way. We not only understand but experience the way in which all these scars serve to glorify and magnify the Lord and point to His Heavenly Cross. As I said, shine particularly bright the scars of suffering borne without choice, singing loudly the currently-mysterious hymn of justified suffering. In our scars of self-inflicted suffering we infinitely experience in an always renewed way the warm clean-washing of God’s forgiveness. All those scars sing praise through us and with us.
(Through Scripture accounts, we know glorious bodies are physical, or at least have a physical dimension, and bear scars (albeit transformed scars), are “like” and yet completely unlike our own bodies, and have a different relationship to space, matter and probably time. Here I want to recall Fr. François Varillon, SJ’s analogy of mortal bodies to glorious bodies as an acorn to a tree, while relativizing it, because there is definitely a sense in which Jesus’ glorious body, in certain circumstances and certain ways, is immediately and clearly recognizable as His body.)
On our body is also all the points of light, all of the times when we were touched by grace in a special way, with the particular “color” of the times we were touched by grace through deeds, or through prayer, or through sacrament, especially the Eucharist.
We also, in Aquinas’ phrase, wear crowns, crowns that reflect our positive participation in the work of Creation just as the scars of sin point to the negative (albeit transfiguring it). Here is the crown bestowed on all the baptized. Here is the crown of vocations—the crown of the married, the crown of the ordained, the crown of the bishops. The crown of the builder, of the painter, of the writer. The crown of the mother and the crown of the father. The crown of chastity. Symmetric to the scars of unchosen suffering, the Passion crown of unchosen suffering borne in Christ. The particularly luminous crown of martyrdom.
In other words, our bodies are now stories—symphonies—, completely legible and immediately visible. The stories told in the old Universe still exist in the new but totally transfigured, with the bad transformed and pointing to the glory of the Lord, and the good visible and eternally singing to Love with each unique jewel.
I see that time when my friend wronged me, but I now see it from God’s perspective. Instead of sensing the sting, I see the secret shameful reasons why he wronged me and I am moved to full sympathy and full understanding. And through this I see my own sins whose meaning I now understand and I give and receive thanksgiving and sing the joy of salvation and of forgiveness. And through this I experience the fellowship of the Lord, who was always there and is now there with me in the New Creation, whose light carries this sharing. In this sense, we are truly naked as we were in Eden and completely without shame. And our bodies sing symphonies of glory and understanding and joy. There’s a slight “It’s A Wonderful Life” aspect to this: all of our actions and everything we know is part of an infinite chain we don’t understand, and there it will be revealed in all glory.
My metaphor of concentric circle strains here, of course, since the ring of Creation and the ring of the Created are (themselves “fractally”) contained in each other. In the story of our body there is everything we have created, and in the story of every created thing there is the body of its human creator. And in this body of the human creator, in turn, we find the divine Creator (and of the creator, the fractal of Holy Trinity), and in the body of the divine Creator we once again find the whole of Creation. Fractal in fractal in fractal.
In this place are also the angels. O, to know our guardian angel better than we know any friend! To experience ever anew every way in which his fellowship sustained us during our pilgrimage on Earth! Here, humans and angels finally understand each other, in a way that is impossible at present. Here we can fully sing the glory of God and simply radiate in reflection of His Light in the way angels have always known. Here in our glorious bodies the angels see revealed in a plain way the purpose of God’s creation, that heretofore they merely served out of trust. And in the sinews there is the negative presence/non-presence of the fallen angels.
(I have no view on the possible redemption of the fallen angels. Surely if they are redeemable they will sing a particularly beautiful and poignant song.) (This passage on angels is influenced by my gleanings of information on angels heard here and there. I understand them as creatures that exist outside of both matter and time, which God created to serve His Creation (and of course to praise him like the rest of Creation). Because they exist outside of matter and time, despite their incredible spiritual gifts and their proximity to us through God’s grace, we nonetheless remain fundamentally incomprehensible to them. Hence the proud fallen angels who jealously rebel against God’s love for those fallen, broken, meek, slimy, dirty, stupid, rebellious, mortal humans, a love that goes so far that God incorporates our nature into Himself and goes on the Cross. In this reading, the faithful angels have their own fiat: they accept to serve God and His material creation not because they share His designs but precisely out of humble, trusting love (although, like Mary, they understand well enough the cost and transformative character of this love—and why wouldn’t it also have a “cost” for the angels?). My understanding of angels as outside time leads to the idea that they cannot be redeemed, as their choice is made “once and for all”—though of course talk of eternity frustrates our puny minds and nothing is impossible to God, hence my tentativeness on the subject. We must be sure that angels have their own salvation, or at least God-fellowship story, which we of course can scarcely even begin to understand. Surely not one of the minor joys of the Eschaton for both “sides” will be the establishment of true understanding and union between the angelic and human realms.) (Totally heretical digression! What if the Holy Spirit is, to the angels, what Jesus is to us? I.e. a Person of the Godhead that took on the nature of its creature to save it?)
In the Created-beings “ring” of the fractal, shining with a particular light and singing with the loudest voice, are the Holy Innocents. All of the dead children, particularly the suffering, particularly the murdered. How bright and full and complete and full of glorious beauty are their bodies, almost bereft of the scar of sin! How loudly they sing the justification of their suffering and reflect the glory of the Lord in a wholly unique way! How full and unique their communion with the Heavenly Mystery is!, and through them ours!
Here, while fully experiencing the communion with all saints, we, perhaps, experience a special communion with those who were closest to us on Earth. We perpetually and joyfully forgive those who have trespassed against us as we perpetually and joyfully receive forgiveness. We are perpetually Good Father and Prodigal Son to each other. While there is no marriage, we perhaps experience a special or just different kind of fellowship with spouses and children. Certainly our stories of friendship etched in our bodies continually sing a special symphony.
As we fall to the center, we now experience the center of all, the Godhead. Here we can behold in a completely simple and unimpeded way the glorious mystery of the Holy Trinity, for she is there, the One God Thrice Holy. Here perhaps the fractal metaphor is both most useful and most strained. We have personal intimate fellowship and total knowledge with each Person of the Trinity and yet in each Person we fully experience the oneness of the Godhead. Of course, the communion of saints is now fully Trinity (or at least a now-perfected icon of it), as we are all one as we remain persons.
Here in the absolute center of the Godhead is the Cross. Here is the heavenly liturgy whose whole meaning is perpetually clear and whose beauty is complete. Here we touch and live and glory in the full Paschal mystery, including, still there, the bittersweet yet delicious tang of the death of God on Holy Saturday. We truly live it: we smell the smells of 1st century Palestine, we say “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabacchtani!” right there on Golgotha on that historical Friday, and we rise sinless and glorified from the slumber of death, here in this preserved “capsule” of old-Universe within the new Universe. And yet we live it as Jesus experienced it, which is as a moment totally encompassing the Universe and existing beyond and above time even as it was a historical event; we live it in full communion of saints now totally part of New Creation.
Deeper into the total center, beyond the Cross and the Rising is the Table of the Wedding Feast of the Lamb, which is the altar where we perpetually find Eucharist, where, as pieces of bread and cups of wine on this altar we find every single historical instance of the sacrament of the Eucharist, all pointing to the one and true Eucharist, the Cross that stands at the center of the altar. And Eucharist it is as communion with it is ceaseless thanksgiving. Here God has for eternity made history part of Himself as we caress the face of the Lord, running our fingers over his beard and his wounds and perpetually fall into His loving embrace, and through this kiss fall again in the full knowledge of the Trinity.
And again, we are falling through the fractal. We find that what we thought was center expands to contain the whole, that this “central” mystery is actually found in the core of every single aspect of the fractal we have just described.
This is a brief description of my limited understanding of the Eschaton. I have used this metaphor of the fractal to try to grasp the way in which everything is now contained in the whole, and the whole in every thing, while being distinct and not a pseudo-harmonious blob of personless, matterless, Trinity-less, “unity.” I have used this metaphor of perpetual falling to try to describe the sense of movement-in-eternity, and of being able to grasp the one and the whole at the same time, and the one through the whole and vice versa.
I have also tried to give an account, faithful to what I know of Scripture and Tradition, of the most salient parts of my theology and what they tell me about the end of all things: the mystery of the grace that washes all sins, and yet the fact that our actions in this Universe will carry consequences in the Eschaton; our vocations as co-creators who literally change the Universe with our actions, good and bad, and the fact that our sins and our good deeds become (again, in a literal way) part of our very beings; the all-embracing, all-encompassing nature of God, which means that even in the Eschaton sin and the damned will belong albeit in a way that is not only completely different but sings the Heavenly Glory; an inchoate sense that the Eschaton isn’t just sitting on clouds with harps, but must have taste and texture, including a certain awareness of sin, here seen as transfigured memory; that the Eschaton will not be a totally-new Universe, but this Universe (totally transfigured and thus certainly in a real sense new). I have tried to square the mysterious circle of Redemption (and thus failed): how God’s infinite grace washes away all sins, and yet we have the freedom, true freedom (ie even in the Eschaton) of rejecting this grace, a freedom of which we continually avail ourselves. Thus a Judgement which is neither a celestial accounting nor a juridical event but a burning of chaff, whose totality is commensurate with the totality of the Triumph against sin; a Judgement which is at the same time theosis: God created the Universe to return to Him and thus it will and as it does there is a necessity that everything incompatible burns. An account of how not only our sins but our merits (again, seen as creative acts) will remain in the Eschaton, but we are not saved through merit—hence the metaphor of the crowns, which also allows me to give an account of the real role of sacrament and of the Visible Church in salvation despite the fact that they are not, strictly speaking, fully necessary for theosis (since the Church professes, and I believe, that non-believers can be saved). I have tried to reconcile my pro-Universalist tendencies with what Holy Tradition teaches us about the reality of damnation.
I should like to complete my metaphorical palette by highlighting how every good thing in this fallen world is an icon of theosis. The “feeling” of theosis will have something to do with laughter and eros (erotic pleasure as well as erotic intimacy). The multiplicity of the senses gives us an account of the multiplicity of the ways in which we will experience it: it will be sight, and sound, and smell, and taste, and glorious touch. It will be beyond all these things but the multiplicity of senses points to the fact that we will experience it in a multiple, incarnate way, not a merely unified, abstractly “spiritual” sense. It will have an element of intellectual knowledge: in the Eschaton, we will know ”everything” in the way you and I know “2+2=4”, but this form of knowledge will ultimately be a small part of our “consciousness”, merely an enabler for the more intimate and heartfelt forms of knowledge in theosis (though we will certainly glory, perhaps some more than others, in this form of knowledge). The created things also are icons: the Eschaton will be symphony; it will be choir; it will be poetry; it will be moving 3D stained glass in IMAX. In theosis, each of us will retain personality, and uniqueness, and personhood, and individuality, just like God is one in three persons. This idea of the multiplicity of “sensory inputs” in theosis, as well as this business of crowns, lets me account for the universality of saving grace at the same time as the reality of sacramental grace; surely the baptized will experience theosis in a different way than the non-baptized (and the very greatest saints differently than you and me), and yet we must not think of this distinction as setting up some sort of fixed, eternal heavenly hierarchy, for God’s love embraces us all and we will all experience it perfectly in the Eschaton.
This sketch of the Eschaton also voluntarily omits the figure of Mary. Surely Mary “sits” at the very threshold of the Godhead and at the foot of the Cross which is at the center of everything, and surely there is a special character to our communion with her, on a different “level” (though as I’ve said talk of levels is treacherous) than the communion with the Godhead and yet also not like the communion with the other saints (and with Transfigured Creation). I sense that there is much more to be said and yet I don’t know what.
I’ve become an eschatologist (or, rather, crypto-eschatologist) in spite of myself. I’ve never really had much of an interest in eschatology. We can put our trust in God’s grace and we’ll see the moment when it comes. But so many questions point to the Eschaton, in particular the questions of salvation and justification. Moreso, so much of Scripture points to the Eschaton, particularly in this Advent time. The more I think about other issues, the more it paints a picture of the Endtimes. By necessity a very flawed, blurry, picture. This is an early sketch by a bumbling hand of something my eye can’t see at all.