The National Catholic Review

The National Book Award winner Carlos Eire, who teaches at Yale University, and John Casey, who teaches at Cambridge University, England, are by their own admission post-modern intellectual historians. As Casey remarks in the epilogue to his book, they find themselves both within and outside the religious and moral tradition in which they were raised as children. They can no longer naïvely accept the images and concepts of traditional Christian belief, but they feel a definite nostalgia for the rock-solid certainties of the worldview inherited from parents and teachers.

Accordingly, their reflections consider eternity as the implicit background for understanding the purpose and significance of life in this world, and on the traditional images and concepts used to describe what comes after this life is finished. Their books should be of interest to Christians who, like the authors, find themselves at times puzzling over what to continue to believe and what to lay aside.

Carlos Eire begins his overview of the concept of eternity with an introductory chapter titled “Big Bang, Big Sleep, Big Problem.” Like the universe itself, every individual human being presumably came forth from nonexistence or nothingness and at death will recede back into a state of nonexistence (at least from the perspective of this world). Eternity, therefore, by definition fully encompasses time, both the lifetime of an individual and the time span of the universe itself. But as Dylan Thomas commented in one of his poems, we humans should not go gently into the night; we should rage against the dying of the light. One way or another we live our lives against the backdrop of eternity, and the felt sense of eternity implicitly shapes the way we live, both individually and collectively.

To argue that point, Eire reviews four stages in the history of the concept of eternity within Western civilization. The first stage, described in Chapter Two, outlines how Jewish monotheism and Greek philosophy were fused in the minds and hearts of early Christians so as to justify belief in a personal God who rewards the just and punishes the unjust—if not in this life, then in the next. The Jewish expectation of a messiah who would restore the temporal fortunes of the Jewish people and punish its enemies was unexpectedly fulfilled in the person of Jesus, who as the risen Christ made clear the final destiny of all humankind, the Last Judgment and the ultimate transition from time to eternity.

In the third chapter Eire makes clear how the notion of eternity permeated medieval life and worship, but not always with edifying consequences. By and large, he points out, the medieval clergy (popes, bishops and pastors of local parishes) stoked the fears of lay people about the possibility of long-term or even eternal punishment in the life to come. They then promised redemption through the offering of multiple Masses for the dead and the granting of indulgences—all at a price.

Chapter Four sketches the rise of Protestantism as a massive protest against the superstitious rituals of medieval Catholicism. Insisting that Christian life is to be lived in the here and now with trust in the mercy of God with respect to the life hereafter, Protestants thereby ruptured the close bond between time and eternity that existed in the Middle Ages and inaugurated the era of secularization within Western culture that endures to this day.

The chapter entitled “From Eternity to Five-Year Plans” explains how the Enlightenment completed the divorce of time and eternity by calling into question the very existence of God and the rational possibility of life after death. A concluding chapter muses on the curious way that post-modern human beings are uncomfortable with both the traditional notion of life without end and the possibility of non-existence, pure nothingness, after death.

John Casey’s book is a tour de force. The author compares images and concepts of heaven, hell and purgatory from the Scriptures of ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, the Bible (both Old and New Testaments), plus innumerable descriptions of the afterlife from ancient and modern literature. He notes, for example, how the ancient Egyptians had a lively and generally positive belief in post-mortem existence—initially for their Pharaohs alone but eventually for the ordinary person. But as the epic of Gilgamesh makes clear, another ancient people effectively gave up the idea of life after death in favor of the sensible enjoyment of the pleasures of this life.

The ancient Israelites with their understanding of Sheol and the classical Greek poets with their images of Hades certainly believed in the existence of the afterlife, but both projected it as a dismal existence compared with life in this world. Plato, to be sure, and the followers of the mystic Orpheus believed in the survival of the soul after the body’s death, which then will be rewarded or punished in the next life as a consequence of the kind of life the individual lived on earth.

Early Christians, given their strong belief in the bodily resurrection of Jesus, projected a happy or unhappy life after death for the individual Christian in basically the same terms—that is, either reward or punishment for one’s conduct in this life, but with the added promise (or threat) that the next life will be everlasting. In the late Middle Ages, Dante with his artful combination of philosophical insight (drawn from the reading of Aquinas and Aristotle) and artistic creativity managed to picture the torments of the damned in hell, the hopefulness of those in purgatory and the bliss of those in heaven in quite vivid terms.

Protestants, to be sure, vehemently rejected belief in purgatory as a contrivance of the Roman clergy to extract money from the laity. But what they failed to realize was that they thereby raised the stakes of life in this world, since there was no longer a possible alternative for repentant sinners to avoid condemnation to hell and go to heaven.

In that sense, argues Casey, purgatory was “Rome’s happiest inspiration,” even though Catholic orators and Jesuit retreat masters in particular did their best to remind the faithful in graphic language of the prospective pains of hell. Casey ends the book with a description of how belief in the existence of hell has faded away in the minds of most modern Christians and has been replaced by an increasingly unrealistic and purely sentimental approach to the joys of heaven.

These two books are entertaining reading even though at times a bit disappointing. The one book might be considered too short to cover its topic, the other perhaps longer than necessary. More important, however, the stance taken by both authors toward what for many people is still a life-and-death issue seems at times almost too detached, a classic example of professional objectivity with more than a little ironic humor about the fancies and foibles of past generations in their notions of the afterlife.

But in the concluding pages of their books, both exhibit misgivings about contemporary forgetfulness of these key concepts within classical Christian belief. Eire, for example, ends with a citation from William Blake to the effect that we should not cling to the transient joys of life but let them go with a “kiss.” He then adds that this is perhaps the only way to experience “eternity’s sunrise.” Casey is even more direct, claiming that we contemporary human beings neglect these traditional images of heaven, purgatory and hell at our own risk. For they indirectly tell us what kind of “inner moral world” we inhabit and what kind of people we, in the end, judge ourselves to be.

Joseph A. Bracken, S.J., is emeritus professor of theology at Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio.