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Eschatology, Not Utopia

Thirty years ago, Cardinal Ratzinger cautioned an audience in Prague, whose two-year-old democracy was teeming with promise and perils, about the difference between eschatology – understanding and belief in the “end,” i.e., eternal life – and utopia. Belief in the latter, which he defined simply as “the hope of a better world in the future,” had taken the place of eternal life among languishing believers across the West.

For modern man, continued Ratzinger, “eternal life is supposedly unreal; it is said to alienate us from real time. But utopia is a real goal toward which we can work with all our powers and abilities.” Man’s hubris “replaces eschatology with self-made utopia” which “intends to fulfill man’s hopes” without reference to God. Constantly allured by newer technocratic abilities, modern man thinks utopia draws closer with each passing day.

In recent years – as Americans have disaffiliated from established religions at an increasing rate – fervency for utopia has reached a boil, as if to fill the void. Three utopian kingdoms will be realized, we are promised, if we halt society’s three most menacing threats: climate change, COVID, and racism. Eliminating these will deliver civilizational salvation.

This salvation remains perpetually out of reach, yet each failed attempt generates greater urgency and greater fear. The wailing and gnashing of teeth grow louder daily in order to convert skeptics. More drilling in search of fossil fuels will cause ice caps to melt and seas to rise over coastlines. One more variant of COVID will cause government officials to lockdown cities and schools again. One more tragic inter-racial conflict will cause more rioting and mayhem in the streets.

Ratzinger compares the utopian to the mythic figure Tantalus, who was condemned to live in neck-high water in Hades. Whenever he reached for fruit or water, they snapped back beyond his reach. It’s no wonder, then, that the utopians we see demonstrating are so angry. They cannot get what they so desperately want. It “tantalizes” them. So, notes Ratzinger, even as they “work with total commitment to strengthen those factors that hold evil at bay in the present,” they censor competing claims and cancel potential rivals that threaten them from their elusive goals.

The widespread insanity that chasing environmental, health, and racial utopia has generated should give those leaving Christian churches pause. Human beings are bound to worship something, and the utopian dogmas of the age bring perpetual angst, not salvation. Christianity is worthy of another look – or, as is the case for so many these days, a look for the first time, one that is freed from deliberate distortions of the Christian creed.


“The real difference between utopia and eschatology,” writes Ratzinger, is that the “present and eternity are not side by side and separated; rather, they are interwoven.” Eternal life is not a phenomenon that begins suddenly after death. It is “a new quality of existence, in which everything flows together into the ‘now’ of love” that is made possible by God’s presence in the universe. “God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him.” (1 John 4:16)

Through the Incarnation of the Son of God, eternal life is now embedded in time. In Christ, Ratzinger teaches, “God has time for us. . . .God is no longer merely a God up there, but God surrounds us from above, from below, and from within: he is all in all, and therefore all in all belongs to us.”

Christ’s touch is most tangible in the Church when He reaches out to us in the Eucharist. As we receive Him in Holy Communion, eternity merges with the present to transform it, to lift it from the horrors of this world with a taste of the glory to come. The present becomes not the staging ground for an unreachable future, but the occasion for meeting the loving God who calls us to Himself.

Only from this perspective can we properly handle the evils that confront us, be they ecological, sanitary, social, or moral. For believers recognize that evil, like the weeds that grow up along with the wheat, will always shadow the good in this life. Even when evil’s shadow seems to envelop the good completely, as in the horrors of war and school shootings, rays of good still break through to provide us hope that God, though seemingly absent, reigns – right here, right now.

Having discarded faith, the utopian cannot process evil in this way. He tries fruitlessly to cut it off, only to grow frustrated and paranoid as it grows back, like the Greek hydra, doubly strong. He appeals to technological advances and governmental actions as his Hercules, but this labor is too much for mortally-generated power. The utopian thus fails mightily as he tries to make heaven a place on earth.

We do better, concludes Ratzinger, when we work in the opposite direction: “Earth becomes heaven, becomes the Kingdom of God, whenever God’s will is done there as in heaven. We pray for this because we know that it does not lie within our power to draw heaven down here. For the Kingdom of God is his kingdom, not our kingdom, not within our sway.”

We believers ought to challenge those who are drifting from Christianity on these grounds. They will never find utopia. But they have eternal life within their grasp, if only they would look again with the eyes of faith.


*Image: Tantalus [1] by an Anonymous follower of Jusepe de Ribera, XVII century [Museo del Prado, Madrid]

You may also enjoy:

Cardinal Gerhard L. Mueller’s On Questions about Rights [2]

Brad Miner’s Utopia Not Dystopia [3]

David G. Bonagura Jr. an adjunct professor at St. Joseph’s Seminary and is the 2023-2024 Cardinal Newman Society Fellow for Eucharistic Education. He is the author of Steadfast in Faith: Catholicism and the Challenges of Secularism and Staying with the Catholic Church, and the translator of Jerome’s Tears: Letters to Friends in Mourning.