Back from the Future: Wolfhart Pannenberg’s Retroactive-Ontological Eschatology

One of the most intriguing concepts I’ve encountered as a theologian is Wolfhart Pannenberg’s eschatology, which is best understood as retroactive ontology. I know; I know. I just used a lot of big words. Don’t worry; I’m about to explain this all for you!

First things first. Wolfhart Pannenberg was a German Protestant theologian, and he is one of the most important theologians of the 20th century.[1] His 3-volume Systematic Theology is considered by many scholars to be one of the most comprehensive and ambitious systematics ever attempted. His central themes that he is known for are history as revelation, the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus, the public and scientific nature of theology, and retroactive-ontological eschatology (the subject of this post).

So, what do these big-theologiany words mean?

 Eschatology is a tricky word to define. Many students of theology are taught that eschatology is the study of “last things” or “the last days.” This definition, however, is not all that helpful. I prefer to define eschatology as the study of the future Kingdom of God. To be honest, Pannenberg, as well as N. T. Wright, has been a tremendous influence on my understanding and definition of eschatology.

Ontology is the philosophical study, or doctrine, of being. In other words, ontology is the study of what is. It’s the study not of things that exist but of existence itself. Being, however, is concerned with more than existence; it is also concerned with essences and substances. An essence is the essential properties of a thing, and a substance is the basic stuff of a thing. Think of it like this: essences are properties that are essential to the identity of a thing. One of the essential properties of a dog is its being a canine. The substance would be the stuff that a dog is made of, such as matter. Pannenberg concerns himself primarily with essences and existence in his ontological work rather than substances.

Retroactive is a term that essentially means working backwards, but this is an oversimplified definition. The exact meaning of this word will be worked out in examples below. For now, “working backwards” is a sufficient definition.

So, what is a retroactive-ontological eschatology? Again, eschatology is the doctrine of the future Kingdom of God; ontology is the philosophical study of being; and retroactive means to work backwards. A retroactive-ontological eschatology is a doctrine that claims that the future Kingdom of God is what determines/constitutes/defines the essence and meaning of things in the present, as well as the present itself.

I know: this is very complicated. Let me provide an illustration to help wrap your mind around this.

Consider the character Frodo in The Lord of the Rings, i.e. the greatest novel ever written! Who is Frodo? He is the hero of the story. But what determines his identity? What determines who Frodo is? The end of the story, where the one ring is destroyed and the quest comes to completion, determines, constitutes, and defines Frodo as the hero of the story. However, this retroactively determines Frodo as the hero all throughout the story, even before he completes his quest. Not only Frodo, but each moment and event of the story receives its meaning and essence retroactively from the end of the story.

Let’s also consider this illustration from Pannenberg concerning the zinnia flower.

“The decision concerning the being that stands at the end of the process has retroactive power. A zinnia is already a zinnia as a cutting and remains one during the entire process of its growth up to blossoming, even though the flower bears its name on account of its blossom. If there were only a single such flower, we could not determine its nature in advance; and yet over the period of its growth it would still be what it revealed itself to be at the end. It would possess its essence through anticipation, though only at the end of the developmental process would one be able to know that this was its essence.”[2]

The final essence of the zinnia is determined at the end of its growing process. The end of this process, however, reveals that it was a zinnia all along. Had the zinnia never blossomed it would have never come into its full essence. It could never be determined to be a zinnia. The end of the process determines the essence and meaning of the process.

All of creation exists as a process. This is the nature of existing within time. All creation has a past, present, and future. Indeed, universal history itself is a process. The meaning and essence of all particular events and things is determined by the end of the process. History, which functions like a story, receives its meaning and essence from the end of its process. You could say, “The ontology of history is determined and constituted by the end of history.”

According to Pannenberg, the future Kingdom of God, also known as the eschaton, determines the meaning of history, as well as all particular moments, things, and persons within history.[3] The meaning and essence of creation is determined by the end of its process, i.e. the future Kingdom of God. This future Kingdom of God is what also determines the full meaning of Jesus’s death and resurrection. At the eschaton, when God is all-in-all and Jesus is Lord over all, the full meaning, identity, and essence of everything will be determined in totality. The future Kingdom of God retroactively determines, constitutes, and defines both the past and present.

This idea, as radical as it seems, I believe, is correct. The future retroactively determines the essence and meaning of the past and present. In this retroactive determination, the future not only determines the essence of the present, but it reveals this essence. The future both reveals the true nature of the present as well as constitutes it.

Consider the resurrection of Jesus. It was at the resurrection of Jesus that his identity as Israel’s Messiah and God’s Son was fully revealed. Many doubted his identity, or essence, throughout his life up until his death. At his resurrection, however, many no longer doubted but looked upon him with a new certainty. The resurrection revealed that Jesus was the Messiah and Son of God all along. However, the resurrection also constituted and determined him to be these things as well.

Would, or could, Jesus have been the Messiah and Son of God had he never been resurrected? Most certainly not! Had he remained dead, he would have been determined and revealed to have not been either the Messiah or the Son of God. A dead Messiah is a false Messiah. As Paul said, “For if the dead aren’t raided, the Messiah wasn’t raised either; and if the Messiah wasn’t raided, your faith is pointless, and you are still in your sins” (1 Cor 15:16-17).

Though the resurrection revealed Jesus to be the Son of God it also determined him as such as well. The fullness of his essence, or nature, was retroactively determined by his future, namely the resurrection. The end of Jesus’s life both constituted and revealed his true identity. Even more so, the eschaton, the future Kingdom of God, will further reveal and constitute the true nature and identity of Jesus, when he hands over the Kingdom to the Father, who will be all-in-all. Only at the conclusion of history, when the Son returns and establishes the Kingdom of God in its fullness will the full meaning and essence of all creation, persons and non-persons alike, be constituted and revealed.

One more thing. That the future determines the meaning and essence of the present does not implicate that the present lacks any meaning or essence. We, in the present, have our essence and meaning in anticipation. We anticipate our true identity and fullness of meaning. We are who we will be. Not only this, but we have been given a down-payment, or foretaste, of our true identity and meaning in the resurrection of Jesus.

The future has literally broken into the present in the resurrection of Jesus. This is what theologians refer to as a prolepsis. Merriam-Webster defines prolepsis as “the representation or assumption of a future act or development as if presently existing or accomplished.”[4] The resurrection of Jesus is a prolepsis of the future Kingdom of God. In Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection, the future Kingdom of God has broken into the present, giving us a foretaste of the meaning of history and the true nature of creation.

So, the present is not without meaning or a real identity. The resurrection of Jesus has provided a foretaste of the meaning and nature of the past and present, which awaits its full consummation at the eschaton. The resurrection was the appetizer, so to say. The eschaton will be the main course.

Lastly, since we will be resurrected and declared to be in the Messiah at the eschaton, and since the future retroactively determines who we are now, then what might that mean for how we live our lives today?


[1]I’ve written an introduction to Wolfhart Pannenberg at Die Evangelischen Theologen. You can find it here. If you are interested in reading Pannenberg for yourself, you can find my guide to reading Pannenberg here.

[2]Wolfhart Pannenberg, “Concept and Anticipation,” in Metaphysics and the Idea of God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990), p. 105.

[3]Pannenberg develops this thesis in his short book Theology and the Kingdom of God, ed. Richard John Neuhaus (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1969).


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