Already But Not Yet

Christian life and faith are filled with all kinds of paradoxes. The Church Fathers called these “antinomies,” meaning thoughts and ideas that seem contradictory but aren’t. They simply refuse to fit into the usual categories of human reasoning. The most obvious is probably the praise we offer to Mary, the Theotokos: she who bore God in her womb. We celebrate her as the “Virgin Mother,” and “Unwedded Bride” (which sometimes gets deformed into “Virgin Bride” and “Unwedded Mother”—we really need to revise some of our liturgical translations).

Another paradox involves what we call “eschatology,” the doctrine of “last things.” This includes such questions as the relation of soul and body after death, individual and general resurrection, the last judgment, heaven and hell, and the “new creation” of heaven and earth. This field of theology is paradoxical for at least two major reasons. First, because it deals with what is to come rather than with the past or present, which means it requires us to make a clear distinction between what God has revealed about the future and what is merely human conjecture. The future is not “historical,” so it can’t be subject to normal modes of historical analysis. Prophecy tends to move from the present to the future. It is grounded in the immediate experience of God’s people to the point that it concerns judgment upon the present more than prediction about what is to come, even though that judgment is expressed as threat or promise that will only be realized at a future time. What we call eschatology tends rather to move from the future to the present. It focuses on the end-times in order to provide us with data—thoughts, images and concepts—that will shape our journey toward the Kingdom of God. At least this is the way the matter is often presented in theological textbooks.

The most paradoxical aspect of eschatology has to do with its realization: just when and how those future events occur in Christian life and experience. Jesus proclaimed that in His person “the time is fulfilled and the Kingdom of God has drawn near” (Mark 1:15). The Holy Spirit has descended to give birth to the Church, the Body of the risen Lord (Acts 2), and the apostle Paul can declare, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me!” (Gal 2:20). These and a great many other passages, including many of Jesus’ “parables of the Kingdom,” have led theologians to insist that eschatology is essentially “present,” already realized. We live the life in Christ within the Christian community, participating immediately in that life through sacramental communion. Death is behind us, insofar as we have been baptized, and thereby “recreated” or “regenerated” to a new existence that will endure into eternity (Rom 6:4-11; Eph 2:4-6; Tit 3:4-7). Through the Cross and Resurrection of Christ, all is now accomplished, and we have entered into newness of life, having been made “children of God” (John 1:12-13). In a word, following especially the perspective of the Gospel of John, “eternal life is now.”

Yet these same scriptural witnesses speak ceaselessly of resurrection and judgment to come, as a prelude to our being received into “the heavenly mansions” (John 5:28-29; 14:1-4; Rom 6:5; Gal 5:5; Phil 3:20-21; Heb 10:23-31; Rev 20-22; etc.). In this perspective, eschatology is clearly “future,” yet to be realized. The foundation has been laid by the death and resurrection of the Son of God; and all those who dwell in Him, who have received and welcomed the gift of His Spirit, live a renewed life of faith expressed by works of love. The fulfillment, however, will only be known after the resurrection of the dead and the final judgment that leads to condemnation or to eternal life (John 5; Matt 25).

There is no way logically to harmonize the apparent contradictions here, because both are true. “Eschatology” is both “future” and “present.” In the life of the Church, the Kingdom of God is present, yet its fulfillment is still to come. We have died with Christ and emerged from the baptismal waters in “newness of life”; yet the pathway ahead requires ascetic struggle, continual repentance and gestures of self-giving love, in the image of Christ Himself.

To express this tension between present and future, Fr Georges Florovsky and others have spoken of an “inaugurated eschatology.” The “last things” are fully present, fully accessible, insofar as they are required for our salvation. Translating that saving grace into a newly created existence, however, requires growth in the Holy Spirit: acquisition of “love, joy, peace,” and all the “fruits” that the Spirit can inspire within us, to transform us into the “likeness of God.”

There is, then, no such thing as “once saved, always saved,” if by that we mean that a simple, public confession of faith made once and for all is sufficient to guarantee us entry into the Kingdom of God. We tend to fault our Evangelical brothers and sisters for this kind of simplistic approach to the mystery of salvation. But we are susceptible to the temptation of behaving as though it were equally an article of Orthodox faith. This is natural, since we are human. Yet the “natural” is also fallen and in need of redemption.

If we are to take what seems to be a bit of abstruse theological jargon and give it meaning for our day-to-day life, we need to transform “eschatological reflection” into prayer. We need to give ceaseless thanks for the ineffable grace that has already worked out our salvation through the mission of Christ and the outpouring of the Spirit. At the same time, we need to beg God for the fortitude, the wisdom, the humility and the courage to complete, in peace and in unwavering faith, our journey in and toward the “last things.”