John E. Thiel
In Icons of Hope: The “Last Things” in Catholic Imagination, John Thiel, one of the most influential Catholic theologians today, argues that modern theologians have been unduly reticent in their writing about “last things”: death, judgment, heaven, and hell. Beholden to a historical-critical standard of interpretation, they often have been reluctant to engage in eschatological reflection that takes the doctrine of the “last things” seriously as real events that Christians are obliged to imagine meaningfully and to describe with some measure of faithful coherence. Modern theology’s religious pluralism leaves room for a speculative style of interpretation that issues in icons of hope—theological portraits of resurrected life that can inform and inspire the life of faith.
Icons of Hope presents an interpretation of heavenly life, the Last Judgment, and the communion of the saints that is shaped by a view of the activity of the blessed dead consistent with Christian belief in the resurrection of the body, namely, the view that the blessed dead in heaven continue to be eschatologically engaged in the redemptive task of forgiveness. Thiel offers a revision of the traditional Catholic imaginary regarding judgment and life after death that highlights the virtuous actions of all the saints in their heavenly response to the vision of God. These constructive efforts are fostered by Thiel’s conclusions on the disappearance of the concept of purgatory in large segments of contemporary Catholic belief, a disappearance attributable to the emergence of a noncompetitive spirituality in postconciliar Catholicism, which has eclipsed the kinds of religious sensibilities that made belief in purgatory a practice in earlier centuries. This noncompetitive spirituality—one that recovers traditional Pauline sensibilities on the gratuitousness of grace—encourages an eschatological imaginary of mutual, ongoing forgiveness in the communion of the saints in this life and in the life to come.
“This is a deeply felt, intelligent book that dares to argue for a ‘thick’ description of the eschatological future. Read it and understand the power of premodern doctrinal symbols such as purgatory and Last Judgment to unlock new meaning when probed with a postmodern imagination. Forgiveness is the key. Thiel serves up the spirit and practice of forgiveness in compelling ways as central to resurrected life here and hereafter. In its movement from the grand to the most subtle nuances of hope, this is a most important theological work.” — Elizabeth A. Johnson, C.S.J., Distinguished Professor of Theology, Fordham University
“This book is a theological rarity in recent theology: a wonderfully imaginative, well and clearly argued, ‘thick eschatology’ about such ‘last things’ as judgment day, the communion of saints, the Beatific Vision, and particular judgment. Grounded in what Thiel calls a ‘noncompetitive spirituality,’ these reflections on a ‘Pauline sensibility in its Catholic style’ make an important and stimulating ecumenical conversation partner.” — David Kelsey, Luther A. Weigle Professor Emeritus of Theology, Yale University
“Icons of Hope is a bold foray into imagining the ‘last things.’ At once innovative and probative, this latest text from John Thiel argues on pastoral grounds the necessity for imagination to represent the unrepresentable other side of death. Not to imagine is to make an entire swathe of beliefs merely notional and thus effectively put them out of circulation. Among its many contributions, Icons of Hope helps breathe new life into an old topic, and its reimagining of the heavenly life of the blessed dead makes an indelible contribution." — Cyril O’Regan, The Catherine F. Huisking Chair in Theology, University of Notre Dame
“Icons of Hope, John Thiel’s creative effort to explore Christian belief in eternal life, is clearly the work of a major theological thinker. . . . While highly speculative, Thiel’s vision is both imaginative and deeply Catholic. His fascinating analysis of Catholic and Protestant artistic representations of the Last Judgment—by artists like Federico Zuccari, Giotto di Bondone, Michelangelo Buonarroti, Lucas Cranach the Younger and Albrecht Dürer—enriches his narrative." — americamagazine.org
“[Thiel’s] theological writing has always combined poise and a sense of urgency, and this intricately argued treatise on eternal life is no exception. . . . Thiel’s book . . . raises questions about the role of the imagination in theology, and especially in eschatology. His emphasis throughout is on ‘imagining’ the last things. But he ends up proposing ways to ‘think’ or ‘speak’ about these things as often as he proposes ways to imagine them. . . one can only be grateful to Thiel for a book that stirs us from our dogmatic slumbers about the world to come.” — Commonweal
“The theological community owes Thiel a debt of gratitude for bringing eschatology back into our consciousness. His ‘thick’ description of the afterlife will surely provoke a lively discussion. I recommend it to graduate seminars in eschatology and contemporary Catholic theology.” — catholicbooksreview.org
“[Thiel] suggests that the key lies in the theology of forgiveness and that forgiveness is directly related to sanctity, especially to that sanctity to which Vatican II says all are called. He has thus struck theological and spiritual gold: this history of salvation is the history of God’s forgiveness of his people.” — Cistercian Studies
“To read scripture and tradition for they can tell us about the eschaton is to discover models for our own existence. It is this method of correlation that is central to Thiel’s study and what gives Icons of Hope its almost pastoral dimension.” — Journal of Religion
First-place winner in Theology category, Catholic Press Association, 20142014 Alpha Sigma Nu Book Award Winner in Theology