The study of the last things, of the destiny of individual persons, and, more broadly, of society, of the world, and of the universe. In the culture of the pagan Greco-Roman world, concern with the destiny of the individual after death received comparatively little attention outside the mystery religions, but Hellenistic speculation on successive eons of the world and on the return of all things cyclically to some sort of starting point were to have their influence in the elaboration of Christian views of history leading from one age to the next. Eschatology is also concerned with representations of future life, its conditions, the ways in which the dead can be helped by their survivors in this life and can themselves help those survivors, and whether such representations are primarily a matter of popular religious imagery or of a more sophisticated metaphysical theology.
In Judaism, eschatological expectations, usually associated with the advent of the Messiah, were centered on the future of the chosen nation or of a small group faithful to God, and were increasingly expressed in apocalyptic descriptions of radical transformation of the world in an imminent or distant future. In the earliest years of Christianity, a chronological tension arose between an eschatological moment of salvation already realized by the Incarnation and Christ’s saving actions, on the one hand, and a future definitive moment to be realized at the time of Christ’s return in glory, on the other. A view of the time between Christ’s first and second comings as the time of the church became apparent in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, and the resurrection of the dead (1 Cor. 15) became an integral part of Christian theology and hope.
The concept of two eons—one of the eschatological future, though present now as the condition of the heavenly realities of salvation already realized, and the other identified with the world perceptible by the senses—became evident in Christian thought. Thanks to the union of the divine and the human in the Incarnation of the Word of God and to the saving actions of Christ, already available in the church by participation in the mysteries or sacraments, the individual could gain access to the heavenly eon of supernatural realities and thus be saved.
At the same time, that eon remained future; and perfect, definitive access to it was to be had only at the end of the present eon. Metaphysical interest in the last things was mingled with ethical interest, for access to the supernal world of salvation was to be had only after a judgment of the individual on the basis of his or her behavior in this life. Anthropological questions of the respective conditions of body and soul (and personal spirit) after death had to be raised, and they have been answered in different ways.
As official theologies developed, there was by the end of the fourth century relatively little that distinguished the eschatological views of one part of Christendom from those of another, if one discounts ideas rejected as more or less alien to general Christian consensus. Metaphysical minds have continued to stress the vision of God as the ultimate perfection of rational created beings. The Origenist doctrine of apocatastasis, that is, of the ultimate return of all rational beings to their original condition of purity and perfection (itself an extension of the Hellenistic idea of all time and history as cyclic), was rejected as incongruent with the doctrines of definitive judgment and of eternal torment of the damned, although the idea that all may finally share in the grace of salvation was proposed in other ways by CLEMENT OF ALEXANDRIA and GREGORY OF NYSSA, and traces of it have remained in subsequent Christian thought, including that of Coptic Egypt.
In the Coptic church, doctrine on the last things differs little from that of other ancient churches. Specifically Egyptian concepts of judgment and of the condition of the dead are more easily found in popular piety, evident in ancient Christian narratives and in the religious practice of more recent times, with its popular and traditional interpretation. In the acts of Egyptian martyrs, Coptic apocrypha, and popular stories, images of the otherworld from pre- Christian literature, particularly in the Eygptian Book of the Dead, are often found. Amenti, basically the West, but in pharaonic cosmology also the place to which the dead go, became the Coptic word for hell.
The dark roads and the river of fire through which the dead must pass recur in Christian imagery, as do beings with animal heads, ready to devour sinners in the judgment hall of Osiris, which became the judgment hall of Christ. The pharaonic iconographic scene in which the heart of a dead person is weighed on a balance in order to see whether that person’s good deeds or his evil ones weigh more, with Anubis observing Thoth announcing the results, is reflected in Coptic literature, with the pre-Christian gods replaced by Saint Michael.
As in pharaonic Egypt, the activities of the just in the other world tended in popular representations to be envisaged as similar to those of daily social life in this world. In more properly theological literature and its liturgical expressions, however, the condition of the dead is represented in imagery drawn more exclusively from the Bible. Allusions to the story of Lazarus and the rich man (Lk. 16:19-31) and to the bosom of Abraham (and Isaac and Jacob) are frequent, and so are biblical images of waters of refreshment, of a pasture, of saints singing praise with angels. In theological and liturgical texts, transference of earthly society to the world beyond is minimal, and paradise is emphatically the kingdom of heaven.
While the direct vision of God, according to traditional popular literature, is enjoyed only by a few, particularly by the Mother of God, Saint Michael, Saint George, the twenty-four elders, and the four living beings of Revelation (4:4, 6), in theological literature the saints do see Christ in his glorified humanity but, with the exception of the Mother of God, Saint Michael, and perhaps some favored others, they will not perceive the divinity of Christ or the Trinity until after the Last Judgment.
In legends and canonical literature of the early Egyptian church, and also later, the opinion can be found that judgment of the individual does not take place until around forty days after death. Throughout Coptic tradition it is held that the ultimate fate of the individual is sealed only in the Last Judgment, at the end of this world, and that before the Last Judgment there is still hope for deliverance from torment. The Catholic doctrine of purgatory as a place or condition distinct from both heaven and hell, in which the individual is purified from venial sin and from the temporal punishment due to sin, is not accepted by the Coptic church.
In the Coptic tradition, the dead who suffer torment are considered to be in hell. Nevertheless, by the eucharistic offering and by prayer, by good works, almsgiving, and fasting, members of the church on earth can alleviate the torments of those who have suffered for Christ or have shown charity for his sake. The old popular idea that those in hell are freed temporarily between Easter and Pentecost may be related to the fact that a Coptic intercessory prayer for the release of the Orthodox believers suffering in hell is recited on Pentecost. The statement within that prayer that “we have the great hope that all who are in the depths of pain will be freed” may be the remnant of an idea of apocatastasis, of the ultimate salvation of all rational beings. In the theology of the Coptic church generally, however, hell with its torments is everlasting, although those who die with unforgiven sins that are not deadly (1 Jn. 5:16) still have the hope of being freed from their sins and their torment in the final judgment of the world.
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AELRED CODY, O. S. B