Faith and the Expectation of an Imminent End
Hans Urs von Balthasar
Glaube und Naherwartung
Publisher:Saint John Publications
Translator:Nicholas J. Healy
Communio International Catholic Review (Washington, Winter 1999), 687–697
Let us take as established that the Gospel of John is a correct interpretation of synoptic theology. After all, John was there, and his reverence for the Lord and the Church would never have allowed him to present a freehand sketch of the Lord’s teaching. His words, then, should be considered a valid representation or cipher of the event that it reports.
The kingdom is near, preaches the synoptic Jesus; it is imminent (engus), it is in-breaking (en thurais). If Jesus understands the future (Zukunft) as the arrival (Ankunft) of God, he distinguishes himself from the older prophets in that he ties this coming (Kunft) to his own person and existence. None of the prophets had linked the time of the coming kingdom announced by God’s word with his own mortal existence. After them, there can still be other prophets; after Jesus there is only God.
What this means, more precisely, is that the dimensions of an earthly, human, temporal, mortal existence are identified with God’s promise of the coming kingdom. The statements “I, this man” and “God is coming” are identical. Indeed, this is not first expressed in John’s explicit identification, “The Word became flesh” (which means that God’s promise of salvation became identical with the temporal presence of a man), but is already thoroughly synoptic. In Jesus there occurs a decisive step beyond the presence of a prophet who, endowed with God’s word and power, proclaims God’s salvation. In Jesus, the existence (Da-Sein) of this man is the coming, the coming-to-be of the kingdom.
However, a man is himself one who is coming into being, one who at every moment walks into the future, and yet at every moment walks toward death. Thus, if we take for granted the identity noted above, it is necessary to say that the coming of the kingdom occurs in Jesus’ human future, in his walking toward his death. Not simply as though he created it or brought it out of himself at the same time as he progresses forward—in this sense, the formula of Origen that Christ is the autobasileia (the kingdom itself) is a short circuit—rather, one must remain by the open-ended statement: In his going, the kingdom comes.
We shall attempt to understand what this entails (1) for Jesus’ consciousness and (2) for his actions.
The Consciousness of Jesus
Jesus is truly human, and the inalienable nobility of man consists in the fact that he can, and indeed must, freely project his existence into an unknown future. For a believing man, this future toward which he throws (wirft) and projects (entwirft) himself is God in his freedom and incomprehensibility. To remove this opportunity from Jesus by leaving him to walk toward a goal that he already knows beforehand and merely has to work out in time, means, quite simply, to rob him of his human dignity. The word from Mark’s Gospel must be genuine: “No one knows the hour … not even the Son knows” (Mk 13:32).
If Jesus is truly human, then he must accomplish his work in the finitude of a human life. This remains true even if the value of the work is such that its later effects far surpass the finitude that had been assumed. A human being cannot say: “I will complete this part of my mission before my death, but, knowing that I will be resurrected, I can always take care of the rest afterwards.” One who speaks thus may be a heavenly spirit who plays lightly on the earth, but he is certainly not a man who bears the burden and the dignity of temporal finitude.
Thus, if the eternal Word of God, who says of himself, “heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will always remain” (Mk 13:30), has truly become human, this means that, for the consciousness of this man—however paradoxical it sounds—his approach toward death must coincide with the approaching end of heaven and earth. More precisely, the free self-projection of this man in his death toward God must coincide with the survival of the word of God beyond the passing away of heaven and earth.
Jesus is not only a man, he is a Jewish man. He lives within the horizon of prophecy and is clearly himself indwelt by the prophetic spirit. He does not only live in the future opened by the word of God, but he also looks into the future prophetically.
Now, we have to distinguish this prophetic seeing or knowing (which also belongs to Jesus), from a sort of “second sight,” which is perhaps a natural capacity to register events in a purely material or, so to speak, photographic manner. Such a thing is out of the question in this context, for, in its content and measure, biblical prophecy is always bound to the free decisions for salvation or perdition made by human beings existing in the present. Thus, from the perspective of the prophet, prophecy is strictly bound to the message of salvation which comes from God. In this sense, Jesus certainly possessed a prophetic knowledge both of the destruction of the Holy City and her entire economy, as an event immediately tied to his salvific mission, and of the rejection of this mission by Israel.
In similar fashion, prophetic knowing should be distinguished from actual apocalyptic knowing. When it is genuine as with Daniel and John (and not merely a literary imitation), apocalyptic knowing unconditionally presupposes ecstasy—Egenomen en Pneumati says John (Rev 1:10). Only in the state of rapture, which is a special obedience of the prophet to God, is it possible to have a vision of the drama of salvation between heaven and earth. The seer is carried out of his subjective and free involvement in the events of earth, in order to be transported, as though he were held for a moment in a chamber, into an unlocalizable place of pure objective vision. Only in such a state is it possible to have a vision of the drama in coded images that reveal ever new aspects, as if through cross-sections, without being interested in chronology in a worldly and historical sense.
Understood theologically, this apocalyptic vision can function as a help for the prophetic perspective and prophetic existence. In the life and words of Jesus, however, this vision is nowhere visible and need not be presupposed. The (falsely) so-called little apocalypses of the Synoptics (Mk 13 par.) are actually a prophetic seeing and speaking which does not look at events vertically from above, but horizontally toward the dimension of the future of humanity in God and the future of God in humanity. However, while the Old Testament prophets could see and proclaim the event of salvation as something completely beyond their lifetime, this is not possible for the prophet who is the incarnate promise of God in Person. No matter how much chronological time continues to run after his human death, he walks forward toward the kingdom, and in so doing overtakes and surpasses all of the world’s possible futures. Therefore, it is not a confusion of the texts, but rather theologically precise speech, when Jesus sees his end as coinciding with the end of the world, when he, in other words, allows the expectation of his inevitably approaching death to coincide with the so-called imminent expectation of the end of the world. (And this vision need not be disturbed by the continuation of chronological time, which is secondary to Christ’s time in ontic dignity and quality.) Within his walking toward the unknown and approaching “hour” of the Father, he must—in accordance with his mission—be able to bear the whole of created and sinful humanity’s walking toward the coming God. The texts that present difficulties, insofar as they refer to an appointed time (Mk 9:1: “There are some standing here who will not taste death before they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.” Mk 13:30: “This generation will not pass away before all these things take place”) speak from within this aforementioned identification, which is the basis for a theology of the Incarnation.
“Ho logos pachunetai, ho logos brachunetai”: The Word of God was (through becoming flesh) “compressed,” “reduced” into the limits of finitude. These are statements from Gregory Nazianzen and Evagrius, commented upon by Maximus the Confessor. For with the death of Jesus, the judgment of the world is accomplished; and with his Resurrection, the horizon of the world’s resurrection is established.
Therefore, the apostles’ and early Church’s expectation of an imminent end of the world was largely a chronological misunderstanding of the onto-theological imminent expectation of Jesus. It was a partial falling away from the enormous density and infallible truthfulness of Jesus’ statements into a neutral, worldly time dimension, determined not only by faith, hope, and love, but in part by a fear of judgment and in part by a certain eschatological curiosity.
This leads us immediately to the second point, the way Jesus acted in relation to his future, namely, the imminent in-breaking of the kingdom.
Jesus’ active disposition is characterized by the words obedience and fulfillment. Fulfillment (predominantly synoptic) as the making true of every promise; obedience (predominantly Pauline and Johannine) as the ontological reason why Jesus’ action brings fulfillment. As the fulfillment of every attitude that was expected of Israel, Jesus’ action can and must be understood as archetypal faith: as the perfect attitude of the earthly covenant partner vis-à-vis God; as God’s servant’s entrusting of himself to the covenant; as an existence that progresses step by step under the law; as the walking under God’s exclusive leadership—and therewith as the perfect self-offering to God. All of these attitudes are described in the Letter to the Hebrews, which names Jesus the “pioneer and perfecter of faith” (Heb 12:2).1
By his entering into the temporally progressing yet perfect faith, which in itself is absolute hope in God, the kingdom comes ever nearer with each step. It approaches from ahead even as it descends from above. Insofar as Jesus, who as man and servant of God is moving toward his death as toward a boundary, takes upon himself, as the Word of God, the entire truth and reality of the world and the sins of the world, his end must be death in utter darkness. But precisely this collapse in judgment and distance from God, in Sheol and hell, where all the collapses of the Old Testament and the whole of humanity are gathered up, is the dawning of God, the resurrection of humanity. It is here that his name is sanctified, here that the kingdom comes, because it is here that God’s will is done on earth exactly as it is in heaven, here that the Father hands over judgment to the Son who saves.
This fulfilling obedience of the Son is definitively interpreted by John, over and above faith and hope, as love. This is not only the revelation of God’s fatherly goodness through Jesus’ human love for God and humanity (as the Enlightenment or Harnack believed), but the revelation of the Trinitarian love between Father and Son. This love is the inner depth and presupposition of the movement of the synoptic Jesus toward the arriving kingdom of God. If, then, Jesus expects the coming of the kingdom as something imminent—since after him comes no one but God; since, therefore, before him there is no one but God; and since he seeks first the kingdom of God—then everything else that exists—humanity, the cosmos, the worldly mission of Jesus—can have its place only in the walking of the obedient Son toward the ever-coming Father. Not behind him (as though one must first obey God in order then to turn to the world), not next to him (as though one had to make a synthesis between turning to God and turning to the world), but most exclusively in him. By virtue of his obedience, the Son takes the world along with him in his walking toward the Father; he brings the world to its end and beyond its end. By first fulfilling the will of the Father (John), he thereby and as a consequence fulfills the Torah and the prophets (Matthew, all the evangelists), and therein all of God’s laws in the world.
This is why Jesus’ bequest to posterity cannot be a work that he has begun but that remains to be continued, developed, and completed by others, particularly the Church. In this sense, Jesus cannot have a future (as Moltmann, by forcing the texts, attempts to make credible). The bequest can only be the totality belonging to Christ himself, which grants space within itself to walk, to believe, to fulfill, and to obey with him. All human and worldly striving draws its strength from Jesus’ always-already-having-reached-the-end, and, through Jesus, the always-already-having-found-completion of man’s striving (Phil 3:12). Such striving is Christian only in the anticipation of hope and obedience which rises above all inner-worldly anxieties and all cultural-technical planning and construction. Whatever plans for an inner-worldly future we may devise—service of creation or God-defying titanism, or often both together—these plans, if they are Christian, can claim no other place than within Jesus’ walking toward the Father. This is a place of such strict obedience and urgent expectation of the imminent coming of the kingdom, that between Jesus and the Father whose will he does, not a single needle can fall to the ground. The entire event of salvation, from the beginning of the world to its end, occurs within this narrowest of paths, this eye of a needle. It occurs inside the divine intersubjectivity, which opens itself in Jesus Christ in order to allow us to participate in it. It is not first in our human intersubjectivity that God comes to exist (as Feuerbach thought); rather we come to exist nowhere else than in the inner-Trinitarian conversation, in the place of mutual exchange, the Holy Spirit. Without reference to the Trinity, one cannot understand a single sentence of Jesus regarding the historical and temporal horizon of his human existence.
Our Being Taken Along
It remains for us to consider our being taken along the path of Jesus. The Bible makes perfectly clear that this being taken and walking with Jesus carries the name faith. However, this faith is not, in the first instance, faith in an accomplished historical fact (what Buber describes as “faith that” [Daß-Glaube], namely, faith that Jesus died and was resurrected for me). It is irrelevant whether this “faith that” is understood in Protestant fashion as a subsequent recognition that all merit belongs to Jesus, or in Catholic fashion as being itself a sort of virtue which includes a certain merit in itself.
Rather, Jesus is first of all the man, the Jewish man, who believes in God, and who gathers other Jews around himself in order to build a community of faith and obedience to the Father. For the time being, the disciples are not “introduced to faith,” but rather invited into Israel’s movement of faith and following of God. Only with the attempt to correspond to this invitation does it become evident that this is something possible for Jesus and impossible for man: that man must reach out his hand to Jesus in order to believe. Jesus is the older brother who has faith and who can show us how it is done, indeed, who makes it possible for us also to have faith. He also demands, however, that there no longer be any gap between theoretical demands (the law) and the practical carrying out of these demands, between faith and existence, between obedience and personal freedom. In his very act of faith, he shows how these are brought tightly together (Engführung) in the eschaton. And insofar as he does not merely demand and show it in theory, but as the Word-man actually is this faith, he becomes the indispensable mediator for everyone who risks the act of faith. Mediator of the act, not in the first place mediator of the object. Paul, who was not present when the act of faith was first being practiced in common, is inclined to skip over this level and, on the basis of his vision at Damascus of the perfected Christ, to consider faith in Christ immediately in objective terms. He thus sees how space has been left open within this perfected Trinitarian Christ for my faith in him, a faith that he has already accomplished for me in advance: pistis Iesou. However, everything nevertheless depends on the fact that Jesus, the human being and the Jew, has already brought us along, as brothers, on his path of obedience and imminent expectation. “This is why he is not ashamed to call them brethren, saying… here we are, I and the children God has given me” (Heb 2:11-13).
The children go along with Christ for part of the way, as far as human beings and sinners are able. But how should they be able to accompany him to the end of God’s will, to the point where the end of life coincides with the arrival of the kingdom? Here the invitation to go along with him is transformed: “Being taken with” becomes “being carried,” in the same way that a Father takes his child in his arms in order to jump over a gulf that is too wide for the child’s stride. This occurs in two phases: as Eucharist before the Cross, and as substitutive representation on the Cross.
Eucharist means the physical incorporation of the disciples, the Church before the passion, so that they remain with Christ nolens-volens [willy-nilly] (in the mystery of the one flesh) unto the end. Nolens in ourselves, volens in him, in Mary, in John. The communication of spirit in matter makes a genuine communion possible in the eucharistic matter between the disciples’ faltering act of faith and the Son’s unfailing faith.
This physical union provides the assurance of being present with the Son, when, on the Cross, he takes away the sins of the world in infinite suffering: in the impenetrable mystery in which the new Adam alone carries all things through the end (including the Church and also Mary, who was pre-redeemed by virtue of the Cross). And yet he nevertheless takes the woman eucharistically and bodily with him under the Cross, so that the Mater Dolorosa may indeed become co-redemptrix. That this is possible is rooted in the radical and original being-in-communion of Christ, as Christ-man and Christ-child (Christus-Mensch-und-Kind), with every human being (Menschenkind); it is even more deeply rooted in the fact that the servant of Yahweh, from the beginning, is an individual as well as a people; but it is most deeply rooted in the fact that Jesus, who has invited and taken others along this path of faith, does not afterward allow these others to stand just anywhere. Even when they abandon, deny, and betray him, they are carried—beyond their subjective intention, by the strength of the objective logic of a faith that they have fundamentally affirmed, a faith that wills everything that God wills—to the end of sin and across the abyss of hell, where in grace they can and must die with Christ. To be sure, the final step into darkness can be undertaken only by the Son of absolute light: a step that is more for us than with us.
He dies our death of sin and must journey to the underworld for us. This journey is the ultimate obedience, the only real obedience of a corpse or cadaver. For in this obedience he must search for the Father’s kingdom where it can in no way be found: in hell, which is made up of all that God has separated from the sinner in order to condemn it away from him forever. The Father leads the Son into this contradiction, and yet, because it is the will of the Father that leads him there, the final barrier and contradiction, hell itself, is overcome. What thus follows is resurrection, which means the demonstration that even this was always-already contained within the triune identity of the divine mind.
I would like to draw out three further implications:
1. After Christ, Christian history and indeed the history of the world in general has, ontologically and theologically, no other possible place than within the walking of the incarnate Son toward the coming kingdom of the Father. It lies within, not behind it. As the unfolding of the forces at work in man or those in nature that are formed to man (evolution), this entire path stands within the decision of faith. The Omega Day as the Day of the Lord will bring to light whether it has been made from gold and silver or from wood and straw. Insofar as all of the decisions that are chronologically still to come are nevertheless contained within Christ’s walking-with-us, we can say with Origen that Christ is waiting, that the whole of heaven waits and remains incomplete until I, the last sinner, am converted, until all the members of the body of Christ have been resurrected. In this respect (though still in an improper sense), it is possible to speak of the future of Christ himself, of the walking of Christ toward his world-historical fulfillment. However, more central is the idea that we, who are walking along within this path, are moving toward him as our eschaton. This is the only theologically meaningful speech about the second coming of Christ, which precisely coincides with the definitive arrival of the kingdom of the Father: “Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father” (1 Cor 15:24). In faith, in the sacraments, in a life of obedience and the Cross, and in our moving toward death, we are continually—without ever being able to catch up with it—walking toward the horizon of the Christ event. To him we owe our walking, our freedom, and our being human. Our most free self-projections are brought to completion within the most open space of the absolute, divine, Trinitarian freedom, which is forever held open by the obedience of Christ. Here, something bolder and more utopian is given us and made possible for us than anything our own meager imagination might envision of self-transcendence. Christ’s self-projection is not, therefore, a barrier, a horizon that establishes a conclusion from above (as Nietzsche found it to be). Rather, it is a spur that keeps us from resting in any conclusions, a spur to realize through him the form of God—which has been opened in grace and yet remains ungraspable—in the form of man. He himself, however, is this realized form, and it is in him that we are set free for such freedom. Therefore, when he reveals what he is, then will it be revealed what we are, what history is, what the world is. Who can really say what the Eucharist is, what the Cross is, what resurrection is? This is the unsurpassable eschaton, which is an opening into infinity because it is the disclosure of the ever-greater God (Deus semper maior; id quo maius cogitari non potest).
2. Our being set free by Christ in our own lifetime and in our free self-projections occurs in the Holy Spirit who was promised and bestowed. John has the Lord’s promise of the Spirit coincide with his “going” and “returning” to the Father, so much so that the breathing forth of the Spirit becomes the sign by which to recognize that the Son has returned to the Father and the Trinitarian circle has once again closed, also in the economic order (Jn 14:16, 20, 26). In so describing the event, John does not thereby transcend the synoptic horizon of an imminent expectation into a world historical time that lies beyond it. Rather, in that which obedience brings tightly together (Engführung), he shows the infinite breadth of freedom and understanding; he also shows the mediating strength that gathers and concentrates the passing time of the world into christological time. Thus, also for John, the eschatological Anti-Christ can be imminently present. However, by recognizing that the eschatological “compression” (Engführung) is identical with being set free in the Holy Spirit, John transcends the synoptic and early Christian paradox that the Church has both time and no time ahead of herself. The aspect of this situation that causes existential unrest is stilled in John by a deeper knowledge of the time of Christ, which is neither mere worldly time nor timeless super-time, but, in the final analysis, true time, the time in which we are allowed to live, sheltered within the outstretched freedom of the Lord.
3. Walking toward the eschaton in imminent expectation (“seek first the kingdom of God”) always involves taking along the world. Christ himself walked only in communion with others. Otherwise he would have always-already arrived, and he could have spared himself having to endure the course of a human life. Every person belonging to Christ, no matter what state of life he belongs to, is daily called to pray for the coming of the kingdom in an eschatological “compression” (Engführung), and in obedience (on earth as in heaven) to move toward it. The Church does not have a more “eschatological” or a less “eschatological” existence; there are only different ways to live it, in close union with Christ, attempting to follow his step: either by this carrying of one’s brothers and the world in prayer, renunciation, and self-gift, or by persevering in work in the world, with its recalcitrant matter, spending and risking oneself in solidarity with all. Religious state of life—worldly state of life. Today the Church spans the distance between the states by sanctioning a synthesis of the two states in secular institutes. Here there is both a profound nearness to the Lord in the life of the evangelical counsels, and a profound nearness to our brothers in the solidarity of worldly endeavors and risks. Of all the Christian proposals that have arisen in our time, this is perhaps the one that is most pregnant with possibilities for the future; it thus warrants our engagement.2
- See my article, “Fides Christi,” in Explorations in Theology, vol. 2, Spouse of the Word (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1991), and further references therein to G. Ebeling and E. Fuchs.↩
- This essay, “Glaube und Naherwartung,” was first published by Benziger Verlag in Einsiedeln in 1965. It is the text of a talk delivered by Balthasar on November 19, 1965 in Münster on the occasion of his receiving an honorary doctorate from the Catholic theological faculty. The essay was republished, together with another essay, “Bibel und Endzeit,” in a book entitled Zuerst Gottes Reich (Einsiedeln: Benziger, 1966). The present translation is based on the text as reproduced in this volume.↩
Other articles from the same period