Eschatology is traditionally defined as the study of the four last things: Death, Judgment, Heaven and Hell. Not exactly hot topics of intellectual inquiry on today’s university campuses!
But why not? Since the earliest cave paintings, humans have wondered whether the local, transient lives we lead might somehow be part of something more general and more enduring. Even in our sophisticated post-modern era, characterized by pragmatism, positivism, structuralism and deconstruction, we cannot escape the itch of wonder and the yearning for transcendence.
Why does that wonder not translate into interest in Eschatology? Two reasons, I think. First, the subjects that Eschatology studies (Death, Judgment, Heaven and Hell) are radically and almost universally misunderstood. Second, there is widespread prejudice coming out of the 20th century to the effect that one can only think about that which one can experience.
But this is precisely what makes Eschatology such an engaging area of inquiry! Of all the scientific and philosophical disciplines, only Eschatology is solely concerned with ‘data’ that are entirely beyond the realm of human experience.
Eschatology begins with Death. Now on the surface, death would seem to be very much within the sphere of our experience. After all, we have all known people who have died. We all ‘know’ that we too will die one day. But the death of another is not the same as the death of one’s self; it is an event of an entirely different logical order.
It is often said that the only two certainties in life are death and taxes. But that statement is radically wrong! Besides taxes, the one and only thing we can be sure of in this life is that none of us will ever experience death. The reason is simple: death is synonymous with the absence of experience.
The world in which people die is the world of the ‘third person’. It is a world of spatiotemporal extension, abstract and objective. We do not live in that world; we observe it. We live a world of the ‘first person’, immediate, concrete and subjective. In that world there is no such thing as death.
And yet, Eschatology begins with death. Death is the threshold separating the local and impermanent world of extensive relations that we call “spacetime” from the universal and eternal realm we call “Eschaton”. And like Alice, it only makes sense for us to begin at the beginning, at the threshold of the rabbit hole.
But first, a word about thresholds. Some ‘thresholds’ are regions of overlap between two realms, other ‘thresholds’ are the limits of one or another realm. But death is neither of these. Death is neither part of our spacetime realm, nor is it found in the realm of Eschaton; it separates the two realms but belongs to neither.
Death is not a boundary between two spaces. Rather it is the boundary between two ways of being: one local and temporal, the other universal and eternal. The pre-Socratic philosopher Parmenides similarly distinguished two ways of being: the Way of Truth (Aletheia) and the Way of Appearance (Doxa).
Sadly, these words, truth and appearance, carry with them today a connotation of relative value; but that was not necessarily the case in Parmenides’ world. The Greek words convey a different sense entirely: uncovering and covering. There is no reason to assume that both modes are not equally valid. To know something, we need to know its outside (covering) as well as its inside (uncovering), its ‘truth’ (structure) and its ‘appearance’ (surface).
Contemporary mathematics suggests that the information content of a surface (covering) is the same as the information content of the volume (uncovering) it contains. Applied to Parmenides’ ways of being, we can only conclude that Aletheia and Doxa are two different ways of processing exactly the same data. In the lingo of modern science, Aletheia and Doxa are “complementary”.
In any event, Parmenides’ Way of Truth is spaceless and timeless, without dimension and not subject to change. His Way of Appearance corresponds to the ever changing spatiotemporal world of our everyday experience. According to Eschatology, death is the threshold between the two.
Clearly we are not talking here about some spatiotemporal threshold. We are talking about an epistemological boundary between two mutually exclusive but totally complementary modes of experience.
The second term of our study, Judgment, is usually understood in its legalistic sense as some combination of trial, verdict and sentence. But this betrays a misunderstanding of the fundamental concept of judgment. The Hebrew word for judgment (mishpat) does not necessarily mean approbation or condemnation; it has more the sense of an active process. ‘Judg-ment’ means ‘to make just’.
In the Old Testament Book of Judges, judges are not so much jurists as they are champions. Absent the special powers, these judges are more akin to modern ‘super heroes’ than to jurists, jailers or executioners.
The type of justice that comes from condemnation is a poor sort of justice indeed; it confers cold comfort on the victims of injustice. Who would not prefer a just outcome over revenge? When we refer to judgment in Eschatology, we are not talking about condemnation or execution; we are talking ‘justi-fication’ in the original sense of that word: ‘making just’.
Death marks the limit of the biological process we call life but it marks the threshold of another process, the process of justification. The eternal way of being, Parmenides’ Way of Truth, is a process of reconciliation where conflicting inputs from the Way of Appearance are transmuted into harmonious contrasts. Dissonance in one tonal system becomes harmony in another.
Doxa requires the vast, every expanding expanse of passive spacetime for myriad existents to co-exist in spite of their conflicts. Spacetime is a kind of ‘Pauli Exclusion Principle’ writ large. Aletheia pursues the same goal in a different way. Rather than accommodating the co-existence of conflicting existents, Aletheia reconciles those existents with one another and with the entirety. It has no need of spacetime!
(Note: the process of reconciliation in Aletheia does not contradict the assertion that this way of being is timeless. While we think of processes as necessarily unfolding in time, that is just an artifact of our experience. Process is a broader concept and neither presupposes spacetime nor conflicts with eternity.)
Think of yet another synonym for Judgment, ‘evalutation’. Literally to e-valu-ate means to draw the value out of something. That’s what happens in the Eschaton: the value inherent in each actual existent is ‘drawn out’ and harmonized with values drawn-out from every other actual existent.
And that is how we arrive at Heaven, the perfect eternal harmony of all that is: Shalom, Peace.
Consider this metaphor. Imagine death as a quantum jump. The system we call ‘world’ is instantaneously rotated 90 degrees in an unknown dimension. It does not rotate ‘through’ 90 degrees; it jumps 90 degrees (changes its orientation) instantaneously. In fact, all existents necessarily exist in both orientations: the extensive orientation of Doxa, which is how we experience them, and the eternal orientation of Aletheia, which is now they subsist in God.
No matter what datum comes from the spacetime world of experience, it will be transmuted according to the eternal way of being into Heaven, the eternal and harmonious co-existence in Aletheia of all that ever was, is or ever will be in Doxa.
God is defined as the perfect synthesis of all qualities, each pure and undiluted. Such a synthesis is what we mean by Good. God is essentially Good. Therefore, there is only one possible Heaven; but there are bewilderingly many paths to that Heaven. No one can predict what events will occur in the world of experience (Doxa); but we can say with certainty that those events will be e-valu-ated, subjected to judg-ment, and harmonized with all other events. To be at all is necessarily to be eternal.
And what then of Hell? As in most Western theologies, Hell is the flip side of Heaven but in a different way than is generally imagined. Heaven is absolutely unique. There is only one Heaven and only one possible Heaven. God is the Kingdom of Heaven and therefore the outcome of the ontological process is never in doubt.
However, there are innumerable potential ‘Pathways to Heaven’ (apologies to Led Zeppelin), based on the different values different existents might choose to express and the different ways in which those values might harmonize with one another.
Hell, then, is simply the paths not taken, the symphonies not written. Included in Hell are all the qualities that existents might have contributed…but didn’t. Fortunately for us, Heaven is preeminently real, real in a sense that nothing else is. Hell, on the other hand, is unreal, virtual. It is the underside of Heaven, but not in the sense of a vinyl record or a magic carpet; it is the underside in the sense of unrealized potentiality vs. realized actuality.
Think of Schrödinger’s Equation. It expresses all the potential evolutions of a wave function. But when the wave function collapses (e.g. by observation or measurement), only one solution is actualized; the others remain virtual. But that does not mean that the paths not taken are no longer relevant.
According to Richard Feynman, to understand the real contribution of the wave function, you must add up all its potential actualizations, weighted according to their relative probabilities (“Sum over Histories”). According to Hugh Everett, each potential outcome is actualized…but in a unique world (“Many Worlds Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics”).
Perhaps the paths not taken are not lost after all. While they are not part of our current experience, they may perhaps have at least an indirect relevance in the constitution of Heaven.
We began this essay with a question: Might the local, transient lives we lead somehow be part of something more general and enduring? Eschatology answers that question with a resounding ‘Yes’! To paraphrase Descartes, “Sum ergo semper sum!”
But this is only the beginning; there are many more questions to be answered:
- How does God e-valu-ate actual existents? How does he extract the qualities they offer?
- How do actual existents participate in the eternal synthesis?
- How does God execute his judg-ment? How does he transmute conflicts into contrasts?
- How are the roads “less traveled by”, the paths not taken, recognized in the final synthesis?
Eschatology remains a legitimate area of philosophical inquiry and deserves to be a hot bed of intellectual ferment on campuses…and in society in general.