Chapter 1: The Traditional Scheme

The 'Last Things’ in a Process Perspective
by Norman Pittenger

Chapter 1: The Traditional Scheme

It is frequently said, in criticisms or comments on the various new movements in Christian theology these days, that the one area to which they give little or no attention is the one that has to do with what are called in text-books of doctrine ‘the last things’. For example, one of the charges against Honest to God, almost as soon as it appeared, was that John Robinson had said nothing in that book about ‘future life’ -- although the critic must have forgotten that not many years before the bishop had written, while still a theological teacher, a treatise entitled In the End God which is a considered and very interesting and suggestive discussion of exactly that subject as well as of the related aspects of ‘the last things’.

Although, in this particular instance, the charge was misdirected, it is true, I think, that the detailed and careful consideration of ‘the last things’ has been infrequent in the ‘new theology’. Much is said about the eschatological perspective, much is written about the way in which the ‘coming Kingdom’ impinges on the present world, and much is asserted about the need to take the eschatology of the Bible seriously. Here, however, eschatology does not signify what the theological text-books include under that phase. The term is used, perhaps more properly, to denote the special Jewish insistence on ‘the end’, ‘the good time coming’, the Kingdom either in its final appearance (with some) or in its ‘anticipated’ or ‘realized’ form (with others).

Whatever may be the case with the new theologians who are influenced by ‘secularization’, by ‘the death of God’, or the existentialist conceptuality provided by Heidegger -- and here John Macquarrie is an exception, since his Principles of Christian Theology does include a consideration of the subject -- not many theologians who prefer to approach the re-conception of Christian theology with the use of ‘process thought’ have published extended studies of ‘the last things’; or, if they have, I have not come across them. Schubert Ogden is the notable exception, in what I regard as his excellent essay on ‘The Hope of Faith’, included in The Reality of God. By and large, though, the subject is not one that appeals to such thinkers.

I should wish to associate myself entirely with the process theologians. And it seems to me a useful enterprise to undertake in these chapters a consideration of ‘the last things’, although in short compass and in the light of my own obvious incompetence I can only open up the discussion and make what may be a few helpful suggestions. Certainly I do not claim that I shall do more than raise questions, suggest a few possible answers, and urge readers to pursue the matter for themselves. But of the importance of the subject I have not the slightest doubt; and as you will see, this is not because I wish to cling in some obscurantist way to something that has been traditionally sacred, but because I am convinced that death, judgement, heaven, and hell -- ‘the four last things’ -- are subjects with which we must concern ourselves, however different from our ancestors may be the way in which we wish to understand what those terms denote.

So much, then, by way of preface to the lectures. I now turn to a fairly straightforward and, I hope, accurate sketch of what the tradition in Christian theology, found in those text-books to which I have referred, does in fact have to say on these matters. Since I myself was taught this scheme, many years ago, I shall outline what I was taught, under the heading used in those days, of ‘Christian Eschatology: Death, Judgement, the Intermediate State, Heaven, and Hell’. You will see that a fifth term has been added here -- ‘the intermediate state’; this is because my own instruction was received in an Anglican theological school of tractarian background and of Anglo-Catholic sympathies. Hence the common Catholic and Orthodox view that ‘something happens between’ death for every man, and arrival in heaven, so to say, was included in the picture. Had I been educated, theologically, in a more Protestant divinity faculty that term would not have been found, of course. But ‘the intermediate state’ was certainly an element in the general picture for most Christians, indeed it still is and increasingly so among Protestants too; hence I shall include it in my outline-sketch.

What were the sources of this teaching? The present study is too brief to permit any proper analysis, but we may say that Christian eschatology, understood in this sense, is the product of a marriage of ideas found in Jewish thought, including the inter-testamental period, and the hellenistic soul-body portrayal of man. The story is exceedingly complicated; it would be a great service if some scholar or group of scholars would investigate it, in the light of our modern knowledge of Jewish and early Christian ideas, as well as with attention to the diversity of the thought about man found in the Graeco-Roman world.

Things are not quite so simple as an earlier generation of historians and theologians took them to be. There are questions like the possible development of a more ‘spiritual’ view of resurrection of the body, among Pharisaic thinkers in the period immediately before and contemporaneous with the beginning of the Christian era; the uncertainty about the supposed fate of the non-Jewish peoples when Judaism began to talk of God’s Kingdom ‘coming on earth’, however transfigured the earth may be, and with this the nature of that Kingdom and the degree to which and the way in which it was coming; exactly how early Christian thinkers brought together the Jewish notion of resurrection and the Hellenistic idea of immortality -- for it is apparent that they resolved the obvious contradictions in a far from simple manner. But, generally speaking, we can say that the doctrine of the last things was gradually worked out from taking with utmost seriousness, and even with a stark literal understanding, much in the later Old Testament documents, as well as what the teaching of Jesus, then of St Paul and St John and the rest of the New Testament, was supposed to have said. Here was a disclosure, in so many words (and I would emphasize that it was thought to be ‘in words’, that is, in propositions stated in or deducible from that teaching), of man’s destiny. Along with this, the philosophical notions about soul, about immortality, about a realm above and beyond the hurly-burly of this world, present in the tradition of Greek philosophy and variations on that philosophy in the early Christian era, had become so much part of the atmosphere of thought that inevitably these two affected Christian thinkers.

The marriage of this Jewish-Christian eschatological picture and the Greek philosophical view was not easily accomplished, nor was that marriage without its difficulties -- it was hardly a quiet and successful relationship. But such as it was, it slowly matured; and the end-product was the sort of thing which finally was worked out in, say, St Thomas Aquinas and other medieval theologians, on the one hand, and in Calvin’s Institution of the Christian Religion, on the other. And so far as the Bible had its unquestioned place in the enterprise, it was used as if the teaching found in it, especially in the gospels and the Johannine-Pauline literature, were a revelation in actual words of what death, judgement, heaven, and hell (and, where this was accepted, purgatory or paradise or the ‘intermediate state’) really were. As in so many places, in Christian theology, the ‘proof-texts’ were found for what the Church wished to say, through its theologians.

It is a nice question, of course, whether a good deal of the teaching was based on these texts, or whether the texts were discovered, after careful searching, to bolster up ideas that had slowly gained acceptance. But this situation is not peculiar to ‘the last things’; it has been found fairly generally in the whole Christian theological enterprise. In any event, so far as the Bible was used, it was used in a way like that followed today by fundamentalists: the words were taken at their face-value, even if that ‘face-value’ seems a little odd and not always obviously what it is assumed to be. When there were contradictions in those materials, a reconciliation was effected, or at least attempted, through the use of the ‘different levels of interpretation’, where the historical meaning, the moral meaning, the theological meaning, and the highly mystical meaning could be distinguished and an appropriate distribution made in the discussion of this or that biblical text.

But what was the resulting teaching?

First of all, that human life in our span of years and so far as man’s history is concerned is, like the created world itself, derivative from a realm of heavenly existence which abides eternal over against the transient, mortal, and uncertain span of our years. Of this fact, death stands as the great sign. Every man dies. This is the inescapable fact which no one can deny. But not all of him dies, for man himself is compounded of soul and body; and while the body dies, the soul cannot die. By its very nature it is immortal.

You must remember that I am not attempting here to make critical comments on the scheme; rather I am trying to present it as it was generally, and commonly, held and taught. If I were to make those critical comments, I should be obliged to say something at this point about the way in which this notion of the soul’s immortality is very doubtfully found in the Scriptures and how it is an importation into Christian thinking from elsewhere. But that is not the point. For the generality of Christian theologians, the soul was taken to be immortal, so that when the human body came to die, the soul was ‘released’ from its bodily dwelling-place and enabled (shall we put it this way?) ‘to go elsewhere’. The Book of Common Prayer, before recent revisions, talked in just this fashion; and, in doing so, it was typical of the common Christian teaching.

Death was the most important thing that happened to man and all of his life before death was to be seen as a preparation for that event. The importance of death was not only in its being the end of this mortal life; it was also in its being the moment when, in a ‘particular judgement’, the future destiny of the one who died was fixed. There was no possibility of repentance after death; as we must note, there was either the definite sending to eternal damnation of the evil man or the preparation of the good man for a final heavenly state (in circles that did not accept some doctrine of an ‘intermediate state’, there was instead a sort of ‘waiting’ until the final consummation) -- but the moment of death, with its judgement of this and that individual, was absolutely final in its determination of the direction that was thereafter to be taken.

But if the soul was immortal, and human destiny determined at that particular judgement by a God who, although he was indeed merciful, was also just and would treat each man according to that man’s merits -- whether simply his own merits or in the light of ‘the merits of Christ’ in which by repentance for sin he took refuge -- what happened to the body? Obviously the body corrupted in the grave. Yet there was the teaching about the resurrection of the body, so somehow this must be included in the final destiny of each man. Hence it was taught that at a later time, when God began to wind things up as we might put it, there would be a resurrection of all bodies. Precisely how this could occur was not known, but in some appropriate fashion these bodies would be raised from their graves, reconstituted in some equally appropriate fashion, re-united with ‘their’ souls -- and then there would be a final judgement, in which the soul-and-body together would face the Grand Assize, to receive the statement of the great Judge as to its eventual fate.

There was a good deal of puzzlement here. How would these bodies be raised? What would they be like? How, in some transformed condition, were they to be permitted to enter into heaven, to be in the presence of God for ever? What about the bodies of those whose destiny had been determined, at their death, to be not heaven but hell? This sort of question was much discussed -- St Augustine, for example, was troubled about the bodies of the very young or the very old or those who had been maimed or crippled. The general picture is clear, however. Bodies would be raised, quite literally. Soul and body would be re-united, as the hymns put it and as art portrayed it. Graves would be opened, bodies would emerge in their reconstituted form, and man as the union of soul and body would face the judgement of God.

Some very few would be, so to say, exempted from at least part of this. In the Catholic theology in which I was brought up, the saints were somehow to be granted the immediate vision of God, at the point of their death. What happened to their bodies was not entirely clear, although in Roman Catholic circles it was believed (and in quite recent times it has been made an indisputable dogma) that the body of the Blessed Mother of our Lord had not in fact died at all but had been received into heaven, thus anticipating the general resurrection which was to be a part of the more general human lot. Those saints, already in heaven, were constantly interceding for men and women on earth. With God himself, they were in bliss; but because they had shared and hence knew our mortal lot, they could be trusted not to forget their human brethren and they continually prayed for those left behind.

On the other hand, the souls which were not thus in heaven already were in a state either of preparation for heaven (among Protestants, this of course was denied -- but exactly ‘where’ those souls might be was left an open question, although some have described the ‘state’ as being a sort of ‘cold freeze’ until the day of final judgement), or, having completed their preparation, were now awaiting the day when they would be reunited with their bodies and so enabled to enjoy the heavenly bliss which was promised them. They could be helped by the prayers of their brethren who were still ‘in the flesh’, we were taught; or at least, I was. Prayers for the dead were an important part of Christian devotion, since through them those who were in the intermediate state would be furthered on their way towards the perfection which God intended for them.

It was, of course, a natural and very human thing to wish to remember, and indeed to demand the right to remember, those whom we ‘have loved long since, and lost awhile’. But it was also an act of piety to do so. In Protestant communions, the practice of prayers for the dead had been given up, along with acceptance of the notion of an intermediate state of some sort. But even there, as recent liturgical forms show, the human desire sooner or later had to be satisfied; and in some fashion, perhaps by comprecation (that is, praying for the departed by associating them with prayers for ourselves), the realization of this ‘communion’ had to be made available. In Catholic circles, especially in the west, such prayers were taken to be a way in which somehow the purification or purgation of the departed soul might be accomplished more effectively, even if the idea of the intermediate state as ‘punishment’ was not held.

Furthermore the most solemn and sacred of all acts of Christian worship, the Eucharist, could be ‘applied’ to those who were dead. How often have I heard, and how often after ordination have I said: ‘Of your charity, pray for the soul of X, that God may grant it a place of light and refreshment and peace.’ Thus the ‘intention’ of the celebration could be for the departed, either one by one or, on All Souls’ Day, for them all.

So far I have spoken of the way in which death and judgement were presented, with, perhaps, too extended a reference to the idea of the intermediate state. Now we come to heaven, the goal or end of those who in that state were being purified and prepared for heavenly joy. Heaven, of course, was said to be the vision of God, so far as ‘immortal mortals’ could see him; it was the place, in a spiritual sense of course, where the blessed dwelt in profound fellowship one with another in God himself. Responsible theological teachers did not take at their face value the pictures of heaven which were found in hymnody, nor did they regard the somewhat extraordinary set of images in Revelation as being an exact representation -- indeed, these images, laden with Jewish eschatological conceptions of the nature of the Kingdom of God when there should be ‘a new heaven and a new earth’ were sometimes felt to be slightly embarrassing. But there was a reality behind all the pictures and images -- and that reality was life in God, with all the saints, where suffering and pain would be no more and where all the anguish of this mortal life would be absent entirely, being replaced by sheer joy such as that of the angels themselves.

Some of the greatest theologians had been prepared to say that one of the joys possessed by the blessed in heaven would be to witness the suffering of the damned in hell. This unpleasant idea was refined in these responsible thinkers to mean that the blessed would rejoice to see God’s justice vindicated, rather than delight in the actual sufferings of those who through their own choice had shown themselves utterly unworthy of heavenly bliss. But hell was a real possibility. In certain of the theologies the fires of hell were taken almost literally, but in most of them the everlasting pains endured there were summed up in phrases like ‘deprivation of God’ -- and hence of abiding happiness -- or the pain of recognizing the evil done in this life with its inevitable consequences. A few more recent writers had interpreted hell in a less terrible fashion; they had even turned it into a kind of purgatory in which the anguish was a necessary means of purification -- for such thinkers hell was not everlasting or eternal (whichever you choose) but temporary; in the end God would win all men to himself. Such universalism was not regarded as orthodox, however, no matter how much more it might seem to be in accordance with the supposedly Christian conviction that God is love.

I quite realize that the sketch which I have just given can be faulted as being too brief and too selective; it can also be called an unfair parody of what was in fact taught. To this I can only reply that this is what I myself was taught, first, as part of instruction given in my parish as a child and later, with many refinements and qualifications, in lectures in theology as an ordinand -- although I should add that my teacher was himself, quite obviously, very ill at ease about the scheme, left it to the very end of his course, and even then touched upon it gingerly. In fact he engaged in a process of gentle ‘de-mythologizing’, although that word had not been invented in that time. Certainly the two or three ‘standard texts’ which we were supposed to master did talk in that way, however, although at least one of them left it open to the reader to make his own interpretation of what the scheme, presented as the orthodox view, set forth in such precise detail.

It is hardly necessary to say that this scheme does not commend itself to most of us today. Obviously there are many who still accept it, or something like it; to deny that would be nonsense. But, by and large, it has been given up in that form or in any close approximation to that form. This has been for various reasons. A new approach to the Bible has been one of them. A view of revelation as found, not in propositions, but in events of history and their meaning has been another. A third has been a conviction that much in the scheme stands in stark contradiction to the belief in God as love -- especially in the bits about hell and endless suffering. Still another has been the feeling that nobody could ever have the knowledge to enable him to draw so exact and precise a map of ‘the future life’, as it has been called. And a fifth reason is that the portrayal of ‘the last things’ in these terms, indeed the emphasis on some destiny for man out of this world which makes what goes on in this world merely preparatory for heaven or a way of avoiding hell, is thought by a great many people to entail a neglect of their duty here and now to live in Christian love and to find in that their deepest satisfaction, whatever may await them when this life is ended.

But however we may analyze the reaction, reaction there has been. Thus in a large number of sermons, in much religious instruction, and in the emphasis found in theological teaching, death, judgement, heaven, and hell have little if any place. I can recall, in recent years, only one sermon that I have heard on death, one on judgement, and none whatever on either heaven or hell. Nor do I think my experience very unusual, for it has included many parish churches, college chapels, and the chapels of theological schools. Furthermore, a glance through the syllabuses of a number of theological colleges has disclosed that they include but the briefest mention of the traditional scheme. And an admittedly hurried examination of several texts intended for use in courses of instruction before confirmation or in ‘religious studies’ in schools for adolescents has made it plain that this whole set of ideas is either entirely absent or is so ‘muted’ (to put it so) that it plays no really significant part in what children or confirmands learn as they are introduced to the Christian faith and its theological implications.

I do not wish to dwell on this, however; surely the change in atmosphere and attitude must be familiar to most of us. ‘What I do wish to say is that we still find in our liturgical forms, even in some (if not all) of the revised ones, the relics of the traditional scheme, and that our hymns still suggest many if not every one of the ideas that I have so briefly, and some will think unfairly, sketched for you. Perhaps this is one reason why there is so often an air of unreality about our worship, when such liturgical forms and such hymns are used, as they must be. For these reflect, however dimly, a scheme which is no longer taught, as part of the faith, or in fact believed.

But what chiefly I wish to suggest is that while I for one welcome the disappearance or ‘muting’ of the traditional teaching about the last things, I also think that they did point to important truths about human life as well as about Christian faith. This does not mean that I desire a return to the former state of affairs; it does mean, on the other hand, that it may very well be incumbent upon us to attend to these matters, to see what ‘values’ -- if I may use that not too happy word -- the old scheme somehow preserved, and then to consider whether or not those values may be stated in some other fashion -- that is, in a fashion which will not be quite so outrageous as I, with many others, think the scheme I was taught really was.

In other words, I have the feeling that we have a job to do. This is why I very much regret that the so-called ‘new theologians’ have not written much, if anything, on the subject, for I believe that they could have helped us considerably and that their failure to do so has left us impoverished. There is a familiar saying about ‘throwing out the baby with the bath-water’. In a way that saying applies here. We certainly do not want the old ‘bath-water’; but maybe the ‘baby’ has something still to say to us. I apologize for this very strained image; but I am confident that you will take my point. What, then, did the older scheme have to say, in terms of enduring values or meaning, which we should not reject when quite rightly we reject the scheme itself?

In the remainder of the book I shall attempt this task, but in a very preliminary and suggestive way. First, however, I must indicate the particular approach which I shall take and the materials and method that I wish to use. That will occupy our attention in the next chapter. Then I shall say something about death, judgement, heaven, hell, and the so-called intermediate state. A later chapter will consider what may be said about the Christian hope in its relationship to ‘personal existence’ after death.

In closing the present chapter, let me say, very briefly, what seem to me some of the obvious values in that older scheme which most of us have by now given up. Such a statement will perhaps provide some preparation for the more detailed discussion in the following pages.

First, then, the fact that death was so stressed in the scheme made it very clear that this event in every human life is of enormous importance. That we shall die is the one inevitable thing to which we must adjust ourselves. But death is not simply the inescapable end of each man’s life; it is also the plain demonstration of his mortality, a mortality which both conditions and characterizes everything that he is and does up to the moment when he is pronounced dead. Doubtless it is absurd to dwell on death as such; it is equally absurd to attempt to deny it, to cover it up, to pretend that it is not there -- one thinks of the pathetic way in which contemporary funeral customs so often try to disguise what as a matter of obvious truth a funeral is all about. Such fashions are pathetic; they are also silly. So is the evasion of the use of the word itself, with the substitution of such phrases as ‘passed on’, ‘has left us’, ‘has gone away’. People die and we should honestly and courageously accept that this happens. And as I have said, this dying stands as the sign over every bit of human life. We are mortal men, who during a certain relatively short period have responsibilities, know joy and sorrow, contribute to the race of which we are part. Anything else that we may wish to say about ourselves cannot be a denial of that mortality.

Again, the stress on judgement in the old scheme made apparent the place of decision in human life and at the same time the responsibility that comes with decision. It faced men with the one-way movement of history, in which what has happened has indeed happened; it cannot be undone, no matter what may be done with it. We are what our decisions have made us, even when we grant that the area in which those decisions were taken may have been restricted. Having made the decisions we have made and having become what we are in consequence of those decisions (although obviously other factors have entered in as well), we cannot evade or avoid appraisal in terms of them. Who appraises is not the issue here; but that there is appraisal is plain enough. The traditional scheme made it impossible to escape from this.

When the scheme included, as it did in my case at least, the intermediate state, this was by way of showing that nobody was good enough, loving enough, faithful enough, to be counted perfect, save (as the scheme claimed) for those few who were called ‘saints’ in a quite special sense of that word -- not the New Testament sense, incidentally. Furthermore, in its own odd way it stressed the love of God, who provided opportunity for ‘growth in his love and service’, as a prayer puts it, and whose justice was therefore mitigated by his mercy. When this belief was coupled with the notion of a last judgement which would not occur until God ‘had accomplished the number of his elect’, in words from still another prayer, it said something about the corporate nature of human life, the equally corporate nature of whatever destiny men have, and the need for patient waiting until our fellowmen have found their capacity for fulfillment along with us. Prayers for the dead again indicated the social nature of human life, our belonging together, and our helping one another as we move on towards our goal, whatever that may be.

Heaven stood for the sheer joy which may be known when men are in such a relationship with God, in company with their fellows, as will mark their own realization or actualization, through the gracious influence of love at work in and even beyond this mortal life. At its best, it did not invite those who believed in it to a selfish satisfaction but spoke of ‘social joys’, in widest sharing, in and under and with God himself.

Hell is the difficult aspect of the scheme, for all too often it succeeded in introducing the element of terror or fear into human existence. ‘The fear of the Lord’ frequently became sheer terror in the face of possible unending pain. Hence there was always the danger, and often the horrible reality, of men and women trying ‘to be good’, as the phrase goes, lest they find themselves in ‘the fires of hell’. That, certainly, was not only a poor way to persuade people to ‘be good’, but was also an invitation not to be good at all, in any genuine sense -- only to be ‘prudent’ in the worst meaning of that word. And yet there was something else. That was the utter horror of lovelessness, the desperate state of life in which no response is made to God’s solicitations and invitations. And there was the stark recognition that evil is evil. A good God might have ways of dealing with evil, but that it was evil could not be denied. So Thomas Hardy’s words were seen to be true:

If way to the better there be

It exacts a full look at the worst.

The reality of death as a fact: the inescapable element of decision and the consequences in searching appraisal: the social or communal nature of human existence, coupled with the honest recognition that no man is in and of himself a perfect agent of the purpose of God and the love of God: the joy of fulfillment with one’s brethren in the imperishable reality of God: and the terrible character of evil -- these were values which the older scheme somehow affirmed and expressed.

This does not mean that we should attempt to resurrect that scheme. It is far too late in the day to do that, I should claim. Nor does it mean that the scheme as it stood was a very satisfactory or even worthy mode of expressing the values which I have noted. On the other hand, it suggests -- if it does nothing more than that -- a necessity on our part to find ways which will provide for an expression, an affirmation, of those values in our own terms and in our own way. If we can achieve something like that, we shall also have maintained a certain continuity with our fathers in the faith. I believe that this last is not unimportant for us; indeed I believe that it is of the highest importance. My reason for believing this is that true radicalism in theology, as elsewhere, consists in penetration to the roots; which is to say, in getting at what utterly unacceptable ideas, as we see them, were attempting to say. It may well be that then we shall feel obliged to reject that which they were trying to say; on the other hand it may be that we shall discover that this which they were trying to say is significant, perhaps even essential, in the total Christian stance of faith. In respect to the impossible and incredible scheme which I learned as a young man, I believe this to be the case. For God’s sake, quite literally; for man’s sake, quite surely, let us give up the scheme -- but let us see to it that we do not lose altogether the insight or intuition which was behind it and which was expressed, sometimes in ghastly and ridiculous fashion, in its several elements.