Older Catholics may view this as a simple question. Traditionally, the four last things were: death, judgment, heaven, and hell. The concern was for the ultimate destination of the individual soul. It was understood that, at death, a particular judgment determines a person’s immediate fate: Ready for heaven? Need more purification time? A lost cause? The Last Judgment, deserving of its capital letters, is defined as the event after Jesus returns in glory to pronounce the last word on human history and all of its participants. Heaven, or total unity with the God of love, is the logical result of lives that can be summed up by love. Hell, the complete absence of God, is the final result of lives that prefer an existence of indifference to divine love and its ways.
What happens at the end of life and time is technically known as eschatology—Greek for “furthest”. The four things were compiled in the Middle Ages by Hugh of St. Victor, and affirmed by the Councils of Florence (1439) and Trent (1563). The Catechism of the Catholic Church describes them in sections 1020-1050. Twentieth-century theologian Karl Rahner regarded the last things as a way of underscoring the “fundamental option” free beings have to determine their fate. What we become, here and always, is in our hands and nowhere else.
Bible scholars widen the conversation. They trace how biblical faith assumes a “future consciousness.” History can’t be seen as a random series of events; it’s going somewhere. For believers, history seeks its fulfillment in God’s original intentions for it. The Bible is clear on what those intentions are: unity, justice, peace, reconciliation, life in abundance. Biblical eschatology isn’t focused on individual redemptions, yours or mine, but rather the rescue of the world altogether. There’s a kingdom, a mansion, a banquet, a new creation out there!
In the writings of Vatican II, eschatology has shifted away from a preoccupation with personal survival in an otherworldly realm. The church’s mission in the here and now is the proper focus of the believer. As the Council affirms, Jesus sums up the meaning of history: God and humanity are to be united in goal and will. The coming kingdom is not something we can build with our own hands and bring into being, as some contemporary prayers seem to suggest. But a collaboration of faithful human effort and radical divine transformation will bring us to last things that will certainly surprise us all.
Scripture: Isaiah 2:2-4; 19:18-25; 56:6-8; 60:1-22; 65:17-25; Zephaniah 3:8-13; Zechariah 9:1-10; Wisdom 2:1—3:12; Daniel 12:1-3; 2 Maccabees 6:12-17; 7:1-42; 12:38-46; Matthew 5:1-12; 6:19-21; 7:13-14; 13:24-30, 44-50; 21:28-32; 22:1-14, 23-33; 25:1-46; Revelation 20:11—22:21
Books: 101 Questions & Answers on the Last Four Things, by Joseph Kelley (Paulist Press, 2006)