Eschatology – the question of what happens after the end (eschatos in Greek) – is one of those topics in theology which doesn’t really interest me. Even in the work of philosophers and theologians to whom I am generally sympathetic (John Hick comes to mind as an example), I find reference to eschatological issues, such as eschatological evidence, a rather weak move. I don’t know what will happen, and furthermore, I’m inclined to think that I can’t know. Speculating might be a fun half-hour once in a while, but I find it hard to take it seriously. Even talk of a realised eschatology, a Kingdom of Heaven here and now, doesn’t seem all that inspiring to me unless it comes with an account of how we would know. What symptoms does a realised eschatology produce? What difference does it make in the world?
That said, questions about eschatology can provide an interesting example – in his Lectures on Religious Belief, Wittgenstein used the example of belief in a Last Judgement as a key example in his exploration. At least, that’s the impression we get; the records of these lectures consist of edited notes taken by students during the sessions, so any claims about what Wittgenstein said in them should be taken with a pinch of salt. So: Wittgenstein is recorded as saying, early on in the lectures,
Suppose that someone believed in the Last Judgement, and I don’t, does this mean that I believe the opposite to him, just that there won’t be such a thing? I would say: “not at all, or not always.” (p53)
If you are asking yourself: what does that even mean? you are in good company. A lot of the literature devoted to this topic is trying to work out what this means. It seems from material later on in the lectures that Wittgenstein isn’t denying the possibility of the opposing position – believing that there will be no Last Judgement is perfectly possible – but rather trying to carve out another possible position, one in which the concept of a Last Judgement is irrelevant or incomprehensible (something stronger than merely not understood).
Why shouldn’t one form of life culminate in an utterance of belief in a Last Judgement? But I couldn’t either say “Yes” or “No” to that statement that there will be such a thing. Nor “Perhaps,” nor “I’m not sure.”
It is a statement which may not allow of any such answer. (p58)
Why is this? Interwoven with these claims in the lecture notes are comments about reason and the role of reason. In as much as there is an argument – Wittgenstein’s writing style, especially in later life, doesn’t go in much for traditional philosophical argument so much as lines of thought, and the fragmentary nature of lecture notes tends to increase these – the argument might be: a key mistake about religious beliefs, like those about the Last Judgement, is trying to make them subject to reason. They arise from the way people are and the way they live – their form of life – and not from thought or philosophy.
What we call believing in a Judgement Day or not believing in a Judgement Day – The expression of belief may play an absolutely minor role. … I haven’t got these thoughts or anything that hangs together with them. (p55)
If this is so, then I’m making a mistake in my opening paragraph when I talk about knowing or ask about evidence for the belief. Indeed, all those questions arise from trying to reason about this topic, and that’s the wrong approach; I need to be looking at the context of these ideas and the forms of life from which they arise. In Wittgenstein’s perspective, belief in the Last Judgement isn’t about reason, and he’s just as critical of believers who make the issue about reason as of non-believers who make the same mistake. Ultimately,
Not only is it not reasonable, but it doesn’t pretend to be. (p58)
Quotations from Lectures and Conversations on Aesthetics, Psychology and Religious Belief, Ludwig Wittgenstein, edited by Cyril Barrett, University of California Press, 1966