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Lecture IX: Eschatology


If, as has been said, words have uses rather than meanings, our first task is to consider how we are to use the word eschatology. It is derived from the Greek: eschaton, last; to eschaton, the last thing; ta eschata, the last things. Now, as Oliver Quick used to point out,1 the English word ‘last’ is ambiguous. Strictly speaking, the Greek eschaton is a temporal word, denoting what comes at the end of a chronological series. There is another word, telos, which means the end in the sense of the achievement of what has been aimed at. So far as etymology is concerned, eschatological should be contrasted with teleological: the one referring to whatever may come at the end of the time-series, whether or no any fulfilment of purpose is involved, the other implying that the ultimate explanation of the evolutionary process is to be found in terms of purpose.

In theological discussion the matter has become complicated owing to the use of the word eschatology in connection with a different set of contrasted views. The result is a certain amount of confusion which we must try to clear up before we can go any further.

More than once I have called attention to the difference between Hebrew and Greek ways of thinking.2 The Hebrews made their points by the accumulation of images presenting different aspects of the truth rather than through the development of argument by logical steps. Moreover, they thought and spoke in personal, dramatic, religious terms, in which eternity was pictured as the extension of the time series fore and aft. It did not occur to them to raise the awkward philosophical questions which this way of thinking and speaking involves, questions which have led some in the Greek tradition to think of this world of space and time as the mode in which the unchanging eternal reality appears to us, in which the only conceivable conclusion of the present time-process will be the completion of one revolution in an endless series of circular motions.3 In such a scheme the eschaton of one revolution is the proton of the next: there may be processes which express finite purposes and have their own eschata, but the idea of the whole time series can neither be eschatological nor teleological.

For the Hebrews it could be, and was, both. The time-space universe was the expression of God's creative will, and its eschaton would be the fulfilment of His purpose for it. In these lectures we have tried to face some of the questions raised by the Greeks, and on the main issue, in spite of its difficulties, have found ourselves led to the Hebrew position. Like the Hebrews, we seek our ultimate explanations in terms of God's will. Like them we look for the revelation of His will in the structure and history of His creation. We learn from their prophets that to try to five by our judgments of fact and value is the fundamental act of faith in God, and the path along which He will lead us to fuller understanding.4 We have accepted their interpretation of their own history as that of the people chosen by God to be the bearers of His redemptive activity. We have seen the preparatory stage of that activity reach its climax in the coming of Christ, whose messiahship requires a reinterpretation of what it means to be the chosen people. For us the coming of Christ is at once the eschaton of all that went before and the proton of all subsequent history. We are Hebraic in that for us this is not an incident in an endless series of repetitive circles but the decisive moment in the working out of a single purpose which still looks forward to an eschaton that shall be its telos.

We hold this position with our eyes open. We have seen that the questions asked by the Greeks are real questions which must not be ignored, that eternity cannot be thought of simply as the extension of the time series fore and aft. We speak of Creator and creation because to think in these personal terms illuminates, instead of ignoring or explaining away, both the existence of irrational elements in the time series, and the mystery of its relation to the eternal. We acknowledge the antinomy in our thought of God, that He is the unchanging, eternal, perfect One who nevertheless does particular things at particular times and places in His creation.5

We acknowledge the antinomy. I emphasize this because it seems to me that in some quarters to-day there is danger of confusion arising when it is ignored. Living in time and space as finite human beings who look before as well as after, we, like our Hebrew and Jewish ancestors, look for an eschaton-telos in which what is now opaque to our understanding shall become intelligible. But because we believe that the eternal God, who is working out His creative and redemptive purpose, is also giving us in the things and events of space and time the material for growing in understanding of His will, we cannot use the word eschatological as a ‘smother-word’ to excuse us from being troubled by questions that we ought to be asking. We cannot accept the suggestion that our difficulties arise from the fact that we fail to be biblical by not confining ourselves to the eschatological forms of thought used by the biblical writers.

Not long ago I was discussing with a class of students Bishop Nygren's rejection of all attempts at theodicy in connection with the existence of evil. I reproduced from the third lecture of this course my criticism of Nygren's contention.6 One of those present took up the cudgels on his behalf, saying that Nygren was the true interpreter of St. Paul in that his outlook was eschatological: if we adopt the biblical, eschatological point of view we realize that we are living ‘between the times’, that our interim judgments are vitiated by the sinfulness which beclouds our minds, that we must wait for the parousia when God's manifestation of the truth will be His own self-justification. On this I would say two things.

In the third lecture I have given my reasons for holding that on this particular point Nygren misinterprets St. Paul. I would now go further and deny that in general their eschatological outlook landed the biblical writers in such absurdity. They were saved from it by their habit of thinking in images, by not asking the philosophical questions involved in their imagery or seeking to draw conclusions by logical argument. From the philosophical point of view they were in the same dilemma as the absolute idealists. To the obfuscation of mind due to sin corresponds the limitation of understanding due to finitude. For both the logical conclusion would seem to be that since nothing can be known for what it is until God tells the eschatologist how He sees it, or the idealist grasps its function in the context of the whole, those of us who believe in a future life must be prepared to wake up in the world to come and find that we had been wrong to rate unselfishness above selfishness or honesty above deceit. Absolute idealists are for ever wrestling with this difficulty, striving to avoid being impaled on this horn of the dilemma. Although they are in it, the biblical writers ignore the existence of the dilemma. Side by side with passages which, taken by themselves, would imply this conclusion are those which bear witness to God encouraging men to use to the full whatever powers of mind they can exert, revealing Himself through judgments that we can make here and now in all our sinfulness and finitude, stripping off from age to age successive layers of obfuscation which distort our vision.7

We too are in this dilemma. All human thinkers are. We differ from the biblical writers in that we cannot ignore it. The philosophical questions having been asked and come within our ken, we have to take notice of them. The besetting temptation of theologians is to try to solve their problems by reverting to the outlook of an earlier age in which they had not arisen. To suggest that we can evade problems of theodicy by adopting the eschatological outlook of the Bible is as misleading as to say that we can avoid those of the consciousness of Christ incarnate by thinking in terms of the ontological categories of the Fathers and Scholastics.8

The words eschatological and ontological are both being used as smother words when they are used to conceal the existence of problems that need to be brought out into the daylight and faced. A further instance is the description of the coming of Christ as an eschatological event, as though this made good a claim that Christian faith is both rooted in history and immune to historical criticism. As was discovered at Nicaea in A.D. 325, we delude ourselves if we think to play for safety by confining ourselves to the thought-forms and terminology of some earlier age, or of the Bible itself.

Thinking in personal, dramatic terms, the Jews looked forward to an eschaton—the conclusion of the historical time-series—which should also be a telos—the fulfilment of God's will to establish His Kingdom, i.e., to have all creation acknowledging His sovereignty and loyally obedient to His rule. Thinking in terms of temporal successiveness, of eternity as time indefinitely prolonged, they spoke of two ages, or ‘aeons’: the ‘present age’ in which God's rule was disputed by the powers of evil was to be succeeded by the ‘age to come’ in which it would be established. Christianity began as a sect of the Jews. The New Testament Christians shared this outlook, these forms of thought, this use of language. Their conviction that in Jesus Christ God had fulfilled His people's messianic expectations, had intervened in history to take the promised decisive action for the establishment of His kingdom, led them to think and speak of that event as the end of the old age and the beginning of the new. This strain in the apostolic preaching is what theologians refer to as ‘realized eschatology’. But this was not the whole truth. Although the new age had come, the world—and the Church, for the matter of that—was still far from manifesting to the full the kingly rule of God. They looked forward to the parousia, the return of Christ for the final judgment when God should be all in all.9 There was still an ‘age to come’.

So long as we are thinking in purely chronological terms, it would seem simplest to speak not of two but of three ages: the past, the present, and the future. Here, however, another characteristic of Hebrew thought has to be taken into account. Although their imagery presupposed chronological sequence, they distinguished different ‘times’ by their content as much as by their relative successiveness, if not more so.10 In their pre-Christian days the Apostles would have contrasted ‘the present age’, the age of the world's subjection to the powers of darkness, with ‘the age to come’, the age of the messianic establishment of the kingdom of God. They found themselves living in an intermediate age which combined the characteristics of both. Apparently their imagery had not provided them with a category into which to fit this interregnum. Instead of substituting a three-age for a two-age scheme, they thought of themselves as living ‘between the times’, in conditions in which the two ages of their imagery overlapped.

It is right that for scholarly exegesis we should try to determine to what extent different New Testament writers thought and spoke of the ‘new age’ having arrived or being still to come, or of the two ages as overlapping. This provides the material for our further question: what must the truth have been and be if they put it like that? The exegesis reveals the confusion that was inevitable as a result of trying to fit the evidence with which they had to deal into categories inadequate to grasp it. They are not to be blamed for the confusion. Nor is their witness any the less valuable on its account. But to try now to put ourselves back into their frame of mind is not the way to clear thinking.

In his commentary on Romans11 Bishop Nygren brings out the double strain in St. Paul's teaching about the two aeons. On pp. 144, 159 and 265 the second aeon begins at a definite point of time in the history of this world. On pp. 155, 202, 247, 293–6 the two aeons are two contrasted powers or kingdoms, contemporaneous in time since the beginning of the second. On p. 179 Abraham exemplifies the faith-relationship of man to God which was to be one of the fruits of the coming of the second aeon some centuries later. And on p. 340, in commenting on viii. 18–30, Nygren writes: ‘These are mighty affirmations which are closely knit together and stretch from eternitythrough timeto eternity. The concept of the two aeons is here transcended. Before the old aeon stands God's eternal purpose.’

By the use of the words ‘transcended’ and ‘God's eternal purpose’ Bishop Nygren betrays the fact that we cannot now put ourselves back into the frame of mind which thinks of eternity as time indefinitely prolonged. The God whose eternal purpose transcends the time-process in which it finds expression is by such language confessed to be the timeless eternal Being of Greek thought. Once again, as so often throughout both series of these lectures, we are brought up against the fundamental mystery of our existence, the relation of time to eternity. We have had to wrestle with various aspects of the problems it presents. We cannot escape them by what is called ‘adopting an eschatological point of view’.

Why should we want to? I have a suspicion that we Christian theologians are influenced more strongly than we always realize by the depersonalizing tendencies of much contemporary thought, tendencies which I was criticizing in my concluding lecture last year.12 Elsewhere I have shown how his Gifford Lectures reveal their positive influence on the thought of Archbishop William Temple.13 We are now concerned with a negative influence which is at times more subtly difficult to detect. If it be thought that metaphysical inquiry must inevitably issue in the subordination of the personal to the impersonal, in regarding religious language about God as the mythological personification of an impersonal ultimate reality, it is not surprising that those for whom religion means an apparently self-authenticating experience of personal communion with God should dismiss philosophy and philosophers as deluded followers of false and misleading trails. Where this is open and avowed we can easily recognize it for what it is, a frame of mind mistaken but understandable.14 The influence is not so readily detected when it works beneath the surface, when the rejection of philosophy is taken for granted as the unavowed foundation for theological construction, a rejection based itself on a fear of depersonalization which is the hidden underlying motive of the whole.

Here Brunner's criticism of Bultmann is most illuminating. Bultmann had urged that the New Testament must be demythologized in order to make the preaching of the gospel relevant to sinners who think in twentieth-century forms of thought. Brunner assumes that demythologization includes depersonalization and in so far as that is so he will have none of it.15 Whether or no in this he rightly interprets Bultmann may be open to question. My point is his assumption that an attempt to present the Christian gospel in a form relevant to the scientific and philosophical thought of to-day will involve a re-statement of it in impersonal terms that deprive it of its religious value.

In these lectures I have wasted much ink, paper, time and breath if by this time I have not made clear my conviction that this assumption is unfounded, that, taking full account of progress in scientific research, metaphysical inquiry no less than religious faith leads us to find in terms of personal relations our ultimate categories of explanation.

Nor is it true to say that New Testament theology was exclusively eschatological in the sense of being confined to thinking in terms of successive or overlapping ages. The Fourth Gospel is an integral part of the witness to the way in which the New Testament Christians understood their faith. In it there is recognition of the help that can be gained by exploring the philosophical issues implicit in their eschatological beliefs. To quote from Dr. Lightfoot's Introduction to his Commentary:

The life of the Church was to fill something more than a brief pause between the penultimate and the final scene, and its endowment, the Holy Spirit, was something more than a first-fruits or pledge of the expected ‘Presence’ of the Lord.… The growth and experience of the Church had shown that the Lord's life was not only an event in Jewish history, but also in world history. Nor was it to be understood only, or chiefly, as a preparation for a future event; it was itself the manifestation in history of the spiritual Power through which the worlds were made, the power which had always been at work, but unseen hitherto, in the course of events. For the expression of these truths a different tradition from the Jewish was at hand.…

It is probably true that in no book of the New Testament has the fusion of the two chief and very different elements in Christianity, the Jewish and the Greek, been achieved with a surer touch or with greater thoroughness than in St. John's gospel.

We have earlier noticed the fact that to some drinkers the symbolism of space seems to come more naturally, to others the symbolism of time.16 Dr. Lightfoot finds in this the clue to understanding the difference between the Hebrew and the Greek forms of thought.

In the best contemporary teaching, teaching which was mainly that of the later school of Plato, the antithesis, necessary in some form to religion, between that which ought to be and that which is, was not found, as among the Jews, in the contrast of the future with the present, but in the contrast of substance with shadow, of reality with appearance, of mind and spirit with matter, and… if the religious Greek sought to envisage his heaven more concretely, he preferred the image of space to that of time, and spoke of the perfect world as existing ‘yonder’, not ‘here below’.17

We need, then, have no fear that to take full account of the philosophical questions implied in Jewish and Christian beliefs and to think and speak of them in terms proper to such an inquiry, will necessarily deprive them of their religious value. ‘To adopt an eschatological point of view’ is simply to think and speak in the way that is natural to Jews, Christians and other theists who are men and women living in this universe of space and time. To suggest that it refers to something unusual and esoteric, requiring a feat of mental gymnastics by which we assimilate our outlook to that of the biblical writers, is not only untrue but produces in many minds an unnecessary and undesirable sense of mystification. It may sound theologically learned to speak of living ‘between the times’ in ‘overlapping ages’, but if we allow ourselves to conclude from this that we are excused from trying to make sense of things while we wait for the parousia when God will solve our puzzles for us, we abdicate our claim to be serious theologians. That we are living in the period between the time when Christ ‘for us men and for our salvation… was made man’ and the time when He ‘shall come with glory to judge both the quick and the dead’ is not a discovery of modern eschatologists. It is what sensible Christians have always believed. The world between these times is the world of which we are trying to make sense, a world which, as we have seen, presents us with puzzles enough and to spare, with irrationalities which cannot be explained away but tempt us to throw up our hands and say that we are ‘waiting for Godot’.18 If I am right in holding that situations inexplicable as they stand may be pregnant with meaning for action, to adopt this waiting attitude will be to cast away our only chance of bringing sense out of nonsense.

In my previous lectures I have done what I can to show how light can be thrown on our puzzles by seeking to discover from God's revelation of Himself in creation and redemption, the end at which He is aiming. When now I call the subject of this lecture eschatology I use the word in its proper etymological sense. I simply mean that I propose to consider how we may think of the ultimate destiny, the eschaton of the creative process as a whole and of men and women as individual persons.


I have argued that to make sense of the world of our experience leads us to faith in a Creator, and to the thought of creation as a process in which in increasing measure the Creator is communicating fullness and richness of being to His created universe. Further examination of the details of what is going on has led to the faith that His central aim is the production of a community of creatures whose perfection shall be the perfection of genuinely free finite persons. The content of specifically Christian faith is the gospel that at a certain moment in human history the Creator Himself has entered personally into the process to work from within for the achievement of His aim.

In this we have an interpretation of nature and history in terms of their telos, of the end for which they are being created. Can we from the evidence at our disposal learn anything about what is likely to be their eschaton, about the actual course of events through which this end will be arrived at?

We know by now that this is not a question to which we can quickly find an answer by asking what the Bible has to say about it. I have shown elsewhere that as a matter of fact biblical support can be claimed for both of two opposed views, for the view that it is God's will to bring His universe to a state of perfection in space and time, and for the view that He is working towards a final cataclysm, the doom and destruction of much that has remained evil to the end, the rescue out of the perishing world of what is to be preserved for eternity.19

The evidence we have at our disposal is that which we have been seeking to understand all along: God's revelation of Himself through the kind of universe He is creating and through His redemptive activity within it.

We look out on the universe from our position within it as Western European Christians of the twentieth century. In the course of discovering that God's aim is to nourish and perfect our growth in freedom we have found that this growth comes by losing sight of ourselves in devotion to things and causes of value in and for themselves. We have to recognize the paradox that our growth as persons may demand the subordination of our personal interests to the service of such impersonal abstractions as truth or justice or beauty.20 This space-time universe, which is both the matrix and the environment for our existence as persons and our growth in freedom is the sphere in which we find the things and causes that call out our devotion. It provides wildernesses to be turned into gardens, iniquitous customs and institutions to be reformed into just ones, a wealth of undiscovered knowledge waiting to be the illumination of human minds. God wills us to care for these things for themselves. We are not to pursue them because to do so is the way of our own advancement, but because they have a right to our devotion, because they can claim the surrender of ourselves to their service. It seems to me to be arguable that if this be true of us individually, it is also true of us corporately. God's central aim may be the creation of a community of finite persons perfected in their freedom. But to treat the latent and as yet unrealized possibilities of goodness in His universe as having no value for Him beyond what instrumental contribution they may make to the perfecting of this community cuts away from under the feet of each member of it the ground of his devotion to them. We have been led to our understanding of our Creator's central aim by analysing our actual experience of the nature and conditions of our growth in freedom. If we make the central aim the whole aim we destroy part of the evidence for its being the central aim, that drawn from the fact that it is in the things and events of this world that the values we seek to serve must be embodied.

If then, both individually and corporately, we are to grow by devoting ourselves to the embodiment of eternal values in the customs, institutions, things and events of space and time, it is hard to resist the conclusion that the eschaton willed by the Creator is a perfected universe to be the environment of the perfected community of persons. This conclusion, based on last year's study of the nature of the universe in general, would seem to be reinforced by this year's study of the specifically Christian revelation. ‘In His redemptive work God has struck at the heart of the problem (of evil) by action through which men are cleansed from their own sinfulness and won back to share in His interests and to be His agents in the rescue of the rest of His creation. To be sharing in His interest in earthly embodiments of beauty and truth and goodness is to be expressing devotion to Himself. It was to set men free from all that hindered them from this devotion that Christ died and rose again.’21 The last part of my sixth lecture, from which I have been quoting, suggests that God's redemptive activity has been and is aimed at removing obstacles which block the way to this kind of an eschaton, a state of affairs in which everything that exists and happens will be transparent to thought, the consummated union of causal sequence with intelligible purpose.22

But there is also evidence which points the other way, and that of two kinds. The one may be called a priori, intellectual or theoretical, the other empirical, factual or practical.

(i) It is more than difficult, it is impossible, to imagine what the state of affairs would be which is required by this prognosis. However much this universe may lend itself to the embodiment of eternal values in things of space and time—truth in beliefs and statements, goodness in acts, and beauty in sounds and shapes—in no one of these spheres can the history of this world be regarded as progress in chronological sequence towards perfection. The history of the arts is marked by a succession of peaks, which having been attained, we pass on to look for something new. We do not ask our dramatists and musicians to do what Sophocles and Shakespeare, Byrd and Beethoven did and do it better; we ask them to do for our day what those men did for theirs. Is the eschaton of this world to be the simultaneous collocation of all these peaks, as when the entire company in a musical comedy or pantomime is assembled on the stage for the final curtain? If so, what then? But the word ‘then’ has no meaning in connection with the eschaton, unless we are to think of eternity as the infinite prolongation of the present time series in which the company continue to sing the final chorus on a stage on which the curtain never falls.

The fact is that both individually and corporately we are conscious of being made for a perfection which is unattainable in any imaginable conditions of space and time. If both corporately and individually we find our true life in the surrender of our selves to the service of the eternal values, what is true for each is true for all. I cannot better express what is involved than in words quoted from Oliver Quick:

No final or perfect good is attainable in this world at all. For only by the sacrifice which death seals can the work of love be brought to finality. No doubt St. Paul taught that even on this side of physical death the Christian dies spiritually and rises again to newness of life in Christ. Since the resurrection and exaltation of Christ the life of the world to come has begun to be really present and active already. But St. Paul would also have said that the spirit is not the whole man, and the present spiritual resurrection, still imperfect while the spirit is hampered by the mortal and sin-stained flesh of this world, can only give a dim foreshadowing or foretaste of the future glory.

And thus it is that Christianity, alone among the religions and philosophies of the world, succeeds in eliciting from death, i.e., from the actuality of dying, a unique value, so that it is found to make a positive and necessary contribution to the perfection of created life. Other philosophies of immortality suggest cither that death is in some way unreal, or that it constitutes merely a release for the spirit through the dropping off of the material body. Not so Christianity. To it dying is an essential part or moment in that act through which love accomplishes the self-sacrifice which issues in eternal life. And thus physical death, in all its terrible universality, becomes for the Christian a sacrament of the spiritual truth that, because it is love which saves, life must be lost before it be fully won.23

To this I may add from what I have written earlier:

The relation between mankind and the whole physical world is analogous to that between an individual man and his own body. It is difficult to see why what we regard as certain in the case of the one should not be expected as probable in the case of the other. If, as individuals, personally imperfect men yield up their imperfect and sinful bodies and are given a new life in which is fulfilled God's creative and redemptive purpose for them, why should not His cosmic purpose involve the yielding up for destruction of an imperfect and sinful human society?24

(ii) Does the actual state of the world give any clue to the nature of the eschaton towards which it is moving? It seems to me that the evidence is indecisive. There is no denying, on the one hand, that from the time of Constantine onwards Christian principles have exerted increasing power over the minds, customs and institutions of men. We have developed a conscience about war of a kind which is a new thing in human history. In the League of Nations and the United Nations we have attempted to embody a vision of a new kind of world order, an order in which peace is maintained by the co-operation of free peoples instead of by the dominance of an overlord. If it be urged that as yet the vision has only gripped the minds of a minority of the human race, and that our western nations seem likely to be submerged by Afro-Asian peoples as was the Roman Empire by invaders from the North and East, it may be answered that to a robust Christian faith this will imply only a postponement of ultimate triumph. But can we reckon on the time at our disposal being indefinitely prolonged? Even if the ultimate triumph need not mean the inclusion of all men living in the Church militant here on earth, it will require their conversion to the service of ends of eternal value, the members of the Church caring for those ends with a wholeheartedness of which our present prayers give poor evidence.25 Set against this the evidence of our increasing ability to destroy all life on this planet, if not the planet itself, by the misuse of our growing control of natural forces. It is a race against time. Shall we be converted from this misuse in time to give us the opportunity for the further conversion that this idea of the eschaton requires?

The more I try to read the signs of the times, the clearer it becomes that this is a question to which at present no answer can be given. Those who hold that by reason of his faith a Christian preacher or theologian should be in a position to pronounce dogmatically in favour of one view or the other assume the existence of a kind of revelation we may feel we would have given had we been God. But it is not the kind that actually He has thought fit to give, which we must be content to accept.

In our present state we ourselves, and the world we live in, are very far from what God wills us to be, from embodying and making manifest the glory of our Creator. I do not have to know whether I shall live to an old age and die in my bed, or be killed to-morrow in an accident, before I can know my present duty. Nor for the world at large is it necessary to know the nature of its eschaton before we can see what needs to be done in it here and now. Once again, the kind of meaning to be found in things as they are is a meaning for action, for action which must be taken if their teleological significance, through which alone they can be fully understood, is ever to be brought to light. We must work for the telos if we would discover the nature of the eschaton.

There is an interesting textual variant in a familiar verse in the Fourth Gospel. According to the Authorized Version, Jesus says to His disciples: ‘Whither I go ye know, and the way ye know.’ But the better MSS. authority, followed by the Revised Version, simply reads: ‘Whither I go ye know the way’, and when St. Philip asks how they could know the way without knowing whither He was going Jesus replies that to know Him is to know the way, the truth and the life.26

Meanwhile, as we wait for the coming years to disclose the nature of their conclusion, and in each generation seek to find and do God's will in the world as we find it, we come, each one of us, to his or her own particular eschaton.


A year ago I was arguing that, quite apart from Christian faith, the nature of the universe gives us good ground for believing that death is not the destined end for men and women.27 What more do we Christians mean to assert when we say in our creed: ‘I believe in the resurrection of the body’?

By the use of the word ‘resurrection’ we dissociate Christian belief from doctrines of the immortality of the soul. We have here a good instance of the way in which the Christian revelation has had to make its way among ideas already at home in men's minds at the time of its coming. In the Hellenistic world there was the Platonic tradition maintaining the natural immortality of the human soul on the ground of its being a simple substance. Into this world came the Christian Church, preaching the hope of life after death in such terms as those of 1 Corinthians xv, 1 Thessalonians iv. 13–18, and St. John vi. 40. Just as the attempt was made to interpret Christ in terms of the Logos-Creator,28 so was this Christian message of hope accepted as endorsing, or endorsed by, the current arguments for immortality. The identification of the two beliefs sank so deeply into the tradition of the Church's teaching that to-day there are quarters in which the confusion still prevails.29

Confusion it was and is. Doctrines of the natural immortality of the soul imply thinking of man as a composite structure, as a combination of a spiritual soul with a material body from which it is to be set free. In those days this was more in keeping with gnostic dualism than with the Hebrew-Christian doctrine of creation with its thought of man as a unity of embodied soul or ensouled body. It is now impossible for us when we realize how we come into existence as the self-consciousness of particular bodies individualized through their existence in space and time.30 So far as life in this world is concerned, our eschaton is not to be the setting free of our soul from our body, but the dying of the whole man in the hope of rising again.

Why, then, the resurrection ‘of the body’? When the words resurrectio carnis were written into the creed they undoubtedly expressed the belief that at the last day the material particles of bodies buried, drowned, burnt or otherwise disposed of, would be miraculously reassembled and transformed from their previous material into a spiritual mode of existence. Those who rejected gnostic dualism and thought of man as a unity thought of this unity as a unification of matter and spirit, and of the resurrection as the reuniting of elements disunited at death. We can no longer think in this way.31 What, then, do we mean when we repeat this clause of the creed? Can we honestly take its words on our lips?

Once again, as in our consideration of eucharistic doctrine,32 we get nowhere if we try to define what we mean by body by analysis of its constituent elements. For each of us his body is the particular organization of material energy through which he comes into existence as the self-conscious subject of its experiences, is given a content distinct from that of all other men and women, is able to express himself in this world of space and time and to grow into a person of definite character. Through my body I am individualized as a person distinct from all others,33 I am recognizable by my fellows, and I can give expression to my thoughts and intentions. When I speak of having a body in the life to come, and of its being a spiritual body, I mean that I shall have whatever is needed to perform corresponding functions in the conditions of that life. What those conditions will be is to us here unimaginable. We cannot begin to think of what we mean by a ‘spiritual body’ in terms of what it will look like, feel like, or be made of. Nevertheless, when we speak of the resurrection of the body, we say something worth saying, as can be seen by considering beliefs with which it is contrasted.

I was once talking over these matters with a Lancashire weaver whose name I will disguise as Hulme Pendleton. I had been describing to him oriental pantheistic beliefs according to which we are to be merged in a divine oneness in which we shall lose our personal self-consciousness and individuality. He thought for a moment, and then said: ‘That won't do for me. I must be H. P. through all eternity, or not at all.’ Again, the thought of a disembodied spirit suggests a pale, anaemic kind of existence, stripped of the powers of self-expression that in a healthy body make life worth living. It means something to say that life will not be less but more fully vigorous and active than anything we experience here. Thirdly, seeing that in this life the measure of our spiritual character and value is that of the quality of our bodily life,34 it is worth saying that eternally we are destined to be the persons we have become through the way we have lived in our earthly bodies.

In the days when the creeds were being written, these were the positive beliefs which the Fathers were concerned to proclaim in the face of rival doctrines. There were neoplatonists who looked forward to the absorption of personal identity. The Greek Hades and the Hebrew Sheol were peopled by shades whose anaemic existence was a miserable exchange for the full-blooded activity of earthly life. Gnostic teaching about the immortality of the soul, based on the dualistic notion of man as a composite structure of spirit and matter, produced two types of ethic: an exaggerated asceticism exhorting the soul to win freedom from the body by trampling upon it, and a licence to its indulgence on the ground that the behaviour of the body was irrelevant to the true life of the soul. Against the former the Christian Church maintained that the body must have the respect due to it as God's creation; against the latter that it matters eternally how we live in the body here and now.

These, I repeat, are the positive beliefs for which the Christian Church stood then, for which it stands now. We differ from the Fathers in that we no longer express them in terms of an expectation of the reassembly of the body's physical elements after the manner of the reconstitution of dried eggs in wartime. In the ways of thinking of their time that was the only way in which they could express them. They had to say to the Gnostic libertine: ‘It is no good your thinking that when you get out of your body at death you will be done with it. You'll have it turn up again at the Last Day.’ We are saying the same thing when we say: ‘You will be yourself, and able to express yourself, and the self you will be and be able to express will be the whole self that you have grown into through your life here in the flesh.’

Can we trace any more direct connection between the body in which we hope to be and express ourselves in the life to come and our present earthly body? Can we meet the criticism of St. Thomas Aquinas that it is a misuse of language to speak of the resurrection of the body when we mean the exchange of one body for another?35 To answer these questions we must consider how from the point of view of a Christian believer we are to think of the relation between the resurrection of Christ and of ourselves.

According to the traditional account of our Lord's resurrection, His body, unlike that of David, ‘saw no corruption’.36 We know too little of the composition either of matter or of spirit to be able to attach any precise meaning to such phrases as ‘the spiritualization of His material body’ or non reditus sed transitus, if to give them meaning requires an understanding of the process involved. We have to admit our ignorance in this sphere, to be content to say that by such phrases we express the belief that in the case of our Lord His earthly body underwent some process other than is the destiny of our own, a process of which the nature is completely mysterious to us but which resulted in there being a more direct connection between His earthly body and His resurrection body than we can expect for ourselves.

For Christians, belief in the resurrection of Christ is the ground of their own hope of the life to come. In days when men could think of our resurrection as the reassembling of the particles of our earthly bodies, it was possible to express this as the hope that after going through the process of bodily dissolution and re-constitution we shall rise like Him. In 1 Corinthians xv. 12–19 St. Paul argues from the resurrection of Christ to that of others as though they were parallel instances of a single type of event, and this example has been followed in countless writings and sermons. This argument is, I believe, mistaken. The ground of our Christian hope is the belief that we shall rise not like Christ, but in Christ.

Christianity began as the faith of men who believed that through the coming of the Spirit their crucified, risen and ascended Lord was reproducing in them the way of life which had been His as man on earth. They bear witness to this conviction by speaking of themselves as being ‘in Christ’, taken by adoption to share in His sonship, members of His body, branches of Christ the true vine.37 They live as members of His body who, being risen from the dead, dieth no more; He is in them and is their hope of glory, the inward man who shall endure when the outward perishes.38 We come into existence as the self-conscious subjects of the experiences of perishable bodies. What right have we to think that when these bodies fall away we shall be able to continue without them? The Christian faith is that God offers to man through Christ a share in His own immortality. If in this life we are united to Him by the surrender of our bodies in His service, we find in that union our hope of a future life.

The ‘spiritual body’ which is to be the vehicle of our continued personal life in the world to come is the body of the risen Christ into which we are incorporated as members. As each man dies to his natural self by the surrender to Christ of his earthly bodily life, he is ‘born again’ to become in Christ a ‘new man’, and finds his own true self hood as he finds that his true life is to live as a member of the risen Christ. It is the paradox of Christian faith, verified in Christian experience, that the more completely a man surrenders himself to Christ to live as a member of His body, the more fully he finds in that membership a vehicle for his own full, rich, individual, personal life. Thus he can cease to trouble over the fact that his earthly body will perish in the grave. It will live on in the fact that eternally he will be what he has become in and through it; but itself, when considered in terms of the physical elements of which it is composed, it is the ‘outward man’ that perisheth, leaving its work to be carried on by the body of the ‘inward man’ who is a member of the body of the risen Christ, his hope of glory.

Here again the witness of Christian faith dovetails into the conclusions of natural theology. Last year we got so far as to see that in order to make sense of the universe we must postulate the continuance of personal life after death. In Christ God reveals Himself as the God who takes the action which confirms this postulate and makes sense of what would otherwise remain nonsensical. Here again we have a belief of which neither I nor any other Christian believer can give a demonstrative proof. As so often, all we can do is to describe as clearly as we may what it is that we believe, offer it as our understanding of the revelatory significance of the events to which the Bible bears witness, and say to those who listen, ‘Cannot you see it for yourselves?’ For this it must be set in its context in the whole corpus of Christian belief. We think of the incarnation as the entry upon the experience of human life on earth by the eternal Second Person of the Blessed Trinity in order that He may not only win our redemption but also provide the material cause of our bodily resurrection. It is because of this that we believe we have adequate ground for accepting the evidence which ascribes to Him a unique mode both of entering upon and passing beyond His earthly life.39 Of all this we may not be able to give demonstrative proof. But it is in keeping with the understanding of our experience to which we have been brought by our attempt to make sense of it. We have to seek our ultimate explanations in terms of God's personal activity and will. When we interpret the Christian revelation as God becoming incarnate in order to gather us creatures of flesh and blood into personal relations with Himself, and see in this the fulfilment of His aim in the whole creative process, we are not ‘mythologizing’ in the sense of symbolizing some more real interplay of impersonal forces in terms of imaginary personification. If as self-conscious human persons men and women are taken into personal union with God in Christ, through them the material universe makes its contribution to a life which is not lived in a lesser degree of reality but in a higher mode.40

In view of much that I have said in earlier lectures it should not now be necessary to point out that to think in this way of Christ's resurrection as the ground of our hope of life after death does not imply the limitation of the hope of resurrection to those who are conscious believers in Christ or members of the Christian Church.41 I may put it like this.42 That God would take man to share in His eternal life might be, and had been, the pious hope of many. That God has actually initiated such a way of life here on earth, upon which it is now open to men to enter, is the witness of the followers of Christ. With the eyes of their mind illuminated by this ‘inside knowledge’ they look out and see His working in a wider sphere. In so far as any life, in any age, has been given to doing the works of God, it has been moved by the Holy Spirit to be a sharing in the life of Christ. Those who conscientiously oppose the Christian faith, in the honest belief that they are spreading the truth, in their devotion to truth are unconscious champions of Him who is the Lord of all truth. The significance of the Christian way of life is that it reveals the principle of all life. The Christian has the privilege and the responsibility of believing that the life given to God is of eternal quality, and of deepening this faith in the exercise of personal relationship with his Lord. In the light of this assurance he views the lives of others, and often sees God at work in and through them all unknown to themselves. When this is so, their eternal destiny must surely depend on what they actually are, what God knows them to be, rather than on what to themselves they seem to be. For such as these conversion, whether it come in this life or the next, will be the opening of their eyes to acknowledge the Lord whom they have been serving unawares.


We come into existence as the self-conscious subjects of experiences mediated through bodies distinct in space and time.43 It is questionable whether to begin with, the term ‘self-conscious’ is accurate. Each of us may be conscious of being not one but many selves, pulled hither and thither by diverse interests and passions distracting the consciousness of the one physical organism.44 This life is our opportunity of growing into a unified self, a spiritual hypostasis. The psychologist speaks of integrating personality round some dominant purpose. The Christian speaks of bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ, of a man growing into a unified self as he receives his selfhood from Christ. The latter is the Christian interpretation of the former, with the difference that in it the dominant purpose round which the personality is to be integrated must be in accordance with the mind of Christ. There are thus three open possibilities in human life: (a) to fail in unification, to die without having grown into a self which can hold together as a person when the earthly body falls apart; (b) to achieve unity through devotion to some evil end; (c) to be unified, either knowingly or unknowingly, as a member of the body of Christ.

(c) I need say no more about these last. Their hope of the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting is the hope of the beatific vision, of the joy of sharing in the communion of the saints in heaven. How are we to think of the destiny of the others?

(b) The conventional idea of hell as a place or state of eternal torment is inconsistent with God's revelation of Himself in either His creative or His redemptive activity. Through the mechanism of space and time we are individualized into potential citizens of the city of God. Our growth into the kind of selfhood that has more than a space-time mode of reality comes by the exercise of our freedom in devotion to ends of eternal quality. We have seen reason to believe that the history of human thought is the history of God making Himself known to us by stripping off successive layers of misapprehension which miscolour our vision, and that in particular all growth in sensitiveness to moral values is part of God's education of man in knowledge of Himself. If when he comes to the end of his life on earth any one of us has so misused his opportunities that there is left in him nothing of which can be made a citizen of the eternal city, we cannot think of God as keeping him alive, as an individual person, for no other purpose than that of suffering unending torment.

(a) We do not know what kind of further training God may have in store for us when we pass from this life. Here once again we have to resist the temptation to claim as a matter of revelation more than God has seen fit to make known to us. We are rightly sceptical about developments of the doctrine of purgatory which suggest that the Church on earth can plan and make arrangements for the journey of its departed members after the manner of a travel agency making reservations for its clients' continental tours. Of that unknown country we have neither time-tables nor maps. Yet we must not in reaction deny the necessity of further training. It is surely beyond question that even the best of us will need both deeper cleansing from our sinfulness, and fuller conformity to the mind and will of Christ. What this will be like we must be content to wait and see.

Universalism, the belief that ultimately all men will be found in the blessed company of the saints in heaven, whatever may have been the manner of their earthly life, is also inconsistent with what has been revealed. We set out to try to make sense of the universe and of our life within it. To hold that in the last resort it does not matter to us eternally what kind of lives we live here and now evacuates both of whatever meaning in them we have been able to discover.

We have here an instance of the kind of problem where we can give an answer to the question of principle but not to questions of empirical fact. We have to put it in a hypothetical form. If there be anyone in whom at his death there is nothing worth preserving as the germ of a life worth living in the world to come, there is no reason for believing in the continuance of his individual personal life. Whether there be any such man or woman is a question of empirical fact to which God alone knows the answer.

I was once talking to an old priest in the lower west side of New York, one of those true shepherds of Christ's flock in whose love and care for his people was reflected his Master's love and care for mankind. ‘Our cure of souls’, he said, ‘is very like the work of doctors of the body. The aim of a surgeon in an operation is to find what there is of healthy tissue and give it a chance to grow. It is to this end that he cuts away what is infected and poisonous. So when we are seeking to bring counsel, advice and absolution to sinners, as we are wrestling, perhaps, with most degraded specimens of humanity, we have to be asking: “How much of this rotten apple can be saved?”’ About the same time there was a report in the press of an inquest on a negro who had been battered to death in a street brawl somewhere in the west thirties. It appeared from the evidence that he was about as low-down a specimen of humanity as could be imagined: witness after witness testified to the effect that he had been more of a brute than a man, a creature of whom the world was well rid. There was one exception, the voice of a woman he had been living with, who said that he had been good to her and she missed him. Only God knows whether that witnessed to some shred of healthy tissue which could be encouraged to grow in some more hygienic sphere than had been provided by this world.

  • 1.

    E.g., in Doctrines of the Creed (London, 1940), pp. 245 ff.

  • 2.

    E.g., Vol. I, pp. 21, 75.

  • 3.
    Cp. the infiltration of this mode of thinking into the language of Christian devotion:
    ‘For lo! the days are hastening on,

    By prophet-bards foretold,

    When, with the ever-circling years,

    Comes round the age of gold.’


  • 4.

    Vol. I, pp. 106, 109.

  • 5.

    See especially Vol. I, pp. 78, 218–24, and above, pp. 34 ff.

  • 6.

    Above, p. 51.

  • 7.

    Above, p. 63.

  • 8.

    Above, p. 86.

  • 9.

    1 Cor. xv. 20–28.

  • 10.

    On this, see J. Marsh: The Fullness of Time (London, 1952).

  • 11.

    E. Tr., London, 1952.

  • 12.

    Vol. I, pp. 218–24.

  • 13.

    In The Doctrine of the Trinity, pp. 131–4.

  • 14.

    See my Towards a Christian Philosophy, pp. 11–24.

  • 15.

    E. Brunner: Eternal Hope (London, 1954), pp. 114 ff., 186 ff.

  • 16.

    Above, p. 173.

  • 17.

    R. H. Lightfoot: St. John's Gospel, A Commentary (Ed. C. F. Evans, Oxford, 1956), pp. 49, 51.

  • 18.

    S. Beckett: Waiting for Godot (London, 1956).

  • 19.

    The Doctrine of the Atonement, pp. 125 ff.

  • 20.

    Vol. I, pp. 48, 186 ff.

  • 21.

    Above, p. 134.

  • 22.

    Cp. Vol. I, pp. 136 ff.

  • 23.

    O. C. Quick: Doctrines of the Creed (London, 1940), p. 213.

  • 24.

    The Doctrine of the Atonement, p. 132.

  • 25.

    See above, pp. 133 ff., 169.

  • 26.

    St. John xiv. 4–6.

  • 27.

    Vol. I, pp. 234 ff.

  • 28.

    See above, p. 38.

  • 29.

    On this see John Baillie: And the Life Everlasting (Oxford, 1934).

  • 30.

    See above, p. 84.

  • 31.

    See Vol. I, p. 164.

  • 32.

    Above, pp. 153 ff.

  • 33.

    Vol. I, p. 160.

  • 34.

    Vol. I, pp. 224–6.

  • 35.

    S. Th. III, Suppl. 79, i.

  • 36.

    Acts xiii. 36, 37.

  • 37.

    Gal. iii. 28; Rom. viii. 15; xii. 5; 1 Cor. xii. 12–27; St. John xv. 1–8.

  • 38.

    Rom. vi. 9; 2 Cor. xiii. 5; Col. i. 27; 2 Cor. iv. 16.

  • 39.

    Cp. above, p. 91.

  • 40.

    See Vol. I, p. 174.

  • 41.

    E.g., Vol. I, pp. 234 ff. Above, pp. 106 ff., 133 ff.

  • 42.

    In what follows I am largely reproducing what I wrote in the Introduction to God and the World through Christian Eyes, published by the S. C. M. Press in 1933.

  • 43.

    Above, p. 80.

  • 44.

    Vol. I, p. 235. Cp. The Doctrine of the Trinity, pp. 183 ff.