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Impressions of “Eschatology: Death and Eternal Life,” by Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI)

In Eschatology, Pope Benedict XVI (writing under his birth name, Joseph Ratzinger) synthesizes ancient, medieval, and contemporary thinking on the afterlife. Throughout, he seeks to emphasize that the thoughts in this book are the best description of the Catholic – and indeed Christian – perspective on the afterlife possible. Ratzinger describes Soul and body, Heaven and hell, Purgatory, and the underworld as being authentically Christian and authentically different from what had come before.

The heart of Ratzinger’s approach is justification by faith, that by Christian faith we are put in a right relationship with God. This faith is not works-based, one cannot save oneself through specific physical (give this many alms), spiritual (spend at least so many hours a week contemplating the Lord), or verbal (repeat this or that formula), or mental (hold this or that belief). Rather, we are faithful by the “daily drama” of preferring the good to the bad, to choosing the Spirit of Love to the spirit of division, to looking to Christ not in work but by our free choice of the free gift of Christ’s grace and love for us:

In the light of this one can reach some understanding of the Christian language of “justification” through baptismal faith. The doctrinal assertion that justification is by faith and not by works means that justification happens through sharing in the death of Christ, that is, by walking in the way of martyrdom, the daily drama by which we prefer what is right and true to the claims of sheer existence, through the spirit of love which faith makes possible. Conversely, to seek justification by works means trying to save oneself through one’s own efforts in isolated concentration on the principle that finds the inevitable fruits of one’s actions in one’s destiny. As worked out in detail in particular cases, this attempt can take very subtle forms, but the basic pattern is always the same. Justification by works means that man wants to construct a little immortality of his own. He wants to make his life a self-sufficient totality. Such an enterprise is always a sheer illusion. This is true no matter on what level it is undertaken, whether in a primitive fashion or with the utmost scientific sophistication in the attempt to overcome death by means of medical research. Such self-assertion is as root a refusal of communication, which issues a misjudgment about reality at large and the truth of man’s existence in particular.
Joseph Ratzinger, Eschatology, pg 98

Justification by faith – and especially what justification (or right relationship) implies about God, neighbor, and ourselves, as we move across time and with reason – is described in several aspects. These are the Church in Salvation History (or the body of believers across time), death and salvation history (whether death, or the Last Day, is experienced as the end of time from the perspective of the faithful), Judgment (how we discover in the end the real status of our relationship with God), the whole of salvation (what will be restored on the Last Day), the salvation of intellectual or mental time (how internal dialogues, whether social or psychological, are redeemed).

The Church in Salvation History

God created history, time with people, as a way of mediating Himself to us for him. Salvation History is not just one inexplicable event after another, but is one of the creatures that God uses to bring His creatures to Himself. As with any of God’s creatures, Salvation History makes a good friend, but a terrible “god”:

The world’s salvation rests on the transcending of the world in its worldly aspect. The risen Christ constitutes the living certainty that this process of the world’s self-transcendence, without which the world remains absurd, does not lead into the void. The Easter Jesus is our certainty that history can be lived in a positive way, and that our finite and feeble rational activity has a meaning. In this perspective, the “antichrist” is the unconditional enclosure of history within its own logic – the supreme antithesis to the Man with the opened side, of whom the author of the Apocalypse wrote.
Joseph Ratzinger, Eschatology, pg 214

Salvation History, like any creature, cannot save itself.

The first, and more obvious, group of signs can be summed up as war, catastrophe, and the persecution of faith by the “world.” Two points here call for special attention. First, what prepared the transition to the End is not some consummate ripeness of the historical process. Paradoxically, it is the inner decadence of history, its incapacity for God and resistance to him, which points to the divine “Yes.” Secondly, even a cursory glance at the actual reality of every century suggests that such “signs” indicate a permanent condition of this world.
Joseph Ratzinger, Eschatology, pg.

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