Greek Philosophy and the Future of Christian Eschatology

Should the first task of implementing Pope Benedict's vision therefore be to revise the Church's eschatology along more biblical lines? One gets this impression from N. T. Wright's Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Chruch. He argues that for centuries Christians have mistakenly depended on "Plato's factory" for their "mental furniture."22 Beginning in the early patristic period, believers developed a "Platonized Christianity (or was it Christianized

Platonism?)" that, in Wright's view, distorted Christian eschatology in an otherworldly direction.23 This position mirrors that of the mid-twentieth-century biblical scholar Oscar Cullmann, who contrasted the biblical doctrine of resurrection with the Greek doctrine of immortality and argued that the latter too often prevails among Christians.24 The philosopher Martin Heidegger, among others, concurred: "Soon after the end of the first centuries the eschatological problem was concealed. Afterward, the original meaning of Christian concepts was not recognized. In contemporary philosophy too, the Christian formations of concepts are concealed behind the Greek attitude."25 We might also think of Tertullian's trenchant remark against the Gnostic and Marcionite heretics: "What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem? . . . Away with all attempts to produce a mottled Christianity of Stoic, Platonic, and dialectic composition!"26

Agreeing with Cullmann and Wright, contemporary theologians often criticize the use of Greek philosophy in Christian eschatology. Singling out Thomas Aquinas, but with the broad sweep of traditional Christian eschatology in view, Jürgen Moltmann articulates this standard criticism: "Thomas did not translate the biblical language into any other language or mode of thought, but basically liquidated it. His 'theology of hope' is in truth not the theology of a biblical 'hope' but the anthropology of the natural desire (appetitus naturalis) of the inner self-transcendence of human beings which finds its answer in the metaphysical theology of the supreme good (summum bonum)."27 Despite his own criticisms of Moltmann's eschatology as overly horizontal, Hans Urs von Balthasar expresses from quite a different perspective a broadly similar concern: "Platonism clearly dominated Western, even Christian, thinking down to the threshold of modern times; we have only to think of the stress laid on the 'immortality of the soul', and how the resurrection was held to be an almost unnecessary 'accidental blessedness' superadded to the substantial blessedness already possessed."28 The philosophical sources of Balthasar's eschatology, like Moltmann's, are generally not Greek but German, especially G. W. F. Hegel and Martin Heidegger. Other major twentieth-century theologians, such as Sergius Bulgakov, Karl Barth, and Karl Rahner, also rely upon German idealism and its existentialist offshoots for philosophical underpinnings in eschatology.29 R. R. Reno's recent commentary on Genesis sums up the concern that the Platonic search for "the sweet nectar of the eternal that will palliate

our vulnerability to decay and death" will lead us away from the divine Son who became incarnate, suffered, and died for us in order to give "us a new future in the flesh, not a new metaphysical location."30

As a young professor, Joseph Ratzinger sought in his own way to develop a "'de-Platonized' eschatology."31 Although his mature eschatology retains many points in common with his German contemporaries, he concludes that Scripture itself does not permit de-Platonization: "the more I dealt with the questions and immersed myself in the sources, the more the antitheses I had set up fell to pieces in my hands and in their place I saw the inner logic of the Church's tradition stand forth."32 In his Eschatology, he argues against portraits of Plato "as an individualistic, dualistic thinker who negates what is earthly and advocates a flight into the beyond."33 In his 2006 Regensburg Lecture as Pope Benedict XVI, he emphasizes that Greek philosophical thought is inscribed within Scripture itself, from "the later wisdom literature" through the New Testament: "biblical faith, in the Hellenistic period, encountered the best of Greek thought at a deep level, resulting in a mutual enrichment."34