Eschatology is the systematic reflection on the content of our Christian hope. As corollary to this it also includes reflection on the risk of not attaining what our hope holds out to us. The word eschata in Greek means ends or outcomes, and the discussion of eschatology has traditionally been titled ‘the last things’ (often ‘the four last things’). These were listed as death, judgement, hell, and heaven, though the discussion also included the questions of purgatory and limbo and the end of the world.
In the history of theology one notices two aspects of eschatology which came into existence and which became quite detached: One focusing on the destiny of the individual with graphic accounts of the hereafter in terms of heaven, hell, and purgatory, and the other attending to the collective destiny of the world – natural and human – in terms of the general resurrection of the dead and the dawning of a New Creation. These two eschatologies, individual and collective, must be kept together in any adequate theological treatment of the last things.
In the renewal of the Catholic theology with Vatican II, the Church has come to view Christian eschatology in a different perspective from that taken in the manuals of Catholic dogmatic theology in use between the Council of Trent in the sixteenth century and Vatican II of the mid-twentieth century. A major factor influencing the rediscovery of eschatology today has been the biblical renewal of Christology. Karl Barth points out that, “Christianity that is not entirely and altogether eschatology has entirely nothing to do with Christ.”
In our times the focus of eschatology is on the realization of the promised Kingdom of God in all human experience and in all creation. All aspects of a Christian anthropology are understood in the light of this goal of the fully realised Kingdom of God. So are Christology, and the sacraments, because eschatology is concerned with the core content of the Gospel or the Good News of Jesus Christ. J. Moltmann maintains, “The eschatological is not one element of Christianity, but it is the medium of Christian faith… Hence eschatology cannot really be only a part of Christian doctrine. Rather, the eschatological outlook is characteristic of all Christian proclamation, of every Christina existence and of the whole church.” The Gospel holds promises both for the individual and for the whole community. By focusing on the coming Kingdom of God, contemporary eschatology places strong emphasis on the community dimension our hope. Moreover, this focus on the Kingdom of God also means that eschatology is not solely concerned with what lies beyond death and outside of history, though our Christian hope certainly has a transcendent dimension. This rediscovery of a practical and vital hope for the world in the history in which we are taking part, and for which we all share responsibility, is relatively new and to many devout Christians is still surprising.