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Tupananchiskama: An Eschatology of Death


In the Quechua language, there is no word for "goodbye." There is the word "tupananchiskama," which means "until life makes us meet again." Behind this greeting are three concepts central to Andean cosmology, which Swiss philosopher Josef Estermann[1] expounds as three ideas:

1) Life is relation. The necessary autonomy we all try to defend and promote, in order to live a chosen and personal life, is always preceded by a bond that grounds it and makes it possible. It is not we who choose others (contract) but others who welcome us into life freely (gift).

2) Life is unavailable to us and therefore does not belong to us. So, life is the agency, and by “acting” it brings us together beyond strategies and programs that we rightly devise to ensure the presence of others. But these can never imprison life and determine it according to our own arbitrariness. It is not we who give meaning to life but life that gives meaning to us.

3) Life continues after our singular life. Not only because other lives remain but also in the sense that our lives continue in other forms. Life, therefore, is greater than death. And death—even if it hurts us—never has the last word.

Therefore, this Quechua category "tupananchiskama" is not just a circumstantial greeting and goodbye but a particular view of life and death.[2] And as such, it has its strengths and weaknesses, as do all reflections and doctrines on death that humans have created over time. A critical eschatology not only "affirms" what faith says, but more importantly, it "reflects" on the presuppositions and consequences of what is said. This is an effort to avoid short circuits that might distort it through essentially three reflexive mechanisms:

1) It constantly checks that right ideas about death don’t get distorted. Even a revealed idea, therefore good initially, can be warped in its path, in its formulation, in its defense, in its preservation and promotion, and in its contextualization. For example, the legitimate biblical understanding of death as the conclusion of a life has paradoxically led the West to trivialize death, and consequently also life.

2) A critical eschatology succeeds in seeing relevant and valid elements behind misconceptions. They can be contested in their final articulation but not necessarily in the assumptions they introduce. For example, in the pertinent critique of those who believe in the immortality of the soul, we have failed to see that in those slow and spontaneously religious (superstitious?) cultures, the sense of both life and death has remained more humane and healthier than in the Christian West.

3) On some level, there are no right and wrong ideas about death. Conflicting ideas may arise, but they all remain partly relevant. If there are necessarily different and conflicting ideas on the education of children, even within the same families, we cannot claim there is only one right idea and that all others are wrong on an even more complex issue like death. It depends on the level of consideration: denominational, existential, community, psychological, symbolic, social. Even a correct doctrine on death (at the confessional level) often ceases to be adequately correct at other levels.

"Doctrinal" correctness about death thus has a limited legitimacy: only in the confessional sphere. What still happens in theology is what used to happen in medicine, where the "objective" dimension of disease (Disease) was the only element on which they based the diagnosis and prognosis of a case. Byron Good, professor of medical anthropology at Harvard, along with others, reminded us in the 1990s that disease, and therefore health, cannot be described only from an "objective" point of view. Illness must also be told subjectively (Illness), with all the atypical nuances that this fact implies. And there is also a third important factor—social and relational conditioning (Sickness)—that sometimes gives pain and suffering incomprehensible configurations. Likewise, we could say—theologically—that death cannot have only one "objective" (doctrinal) configuration. There are necessarily other components that a critical eschatology must take into consideration.

Finally, let us consider the metaphor of Dante Alighieri's Divina Commedia, a book about death and fate.

1. Literary Structure: Hell, Purgatory, Heaven

The Divine Comedy, a work completed in 1321, has been criticized by Adventists, including recently in the Adult Bible Study Guide, because it is alleged to spread three erroneous doctrines about death. These heresies can be linked to the three parts of the book’s structure: hell, purgatory, and heaven, each with 33 cantos plus an introductory one for a total of 100.

Hell (Book I), the realm of damnation, is depicted as an inverted cone whose base lies below the hemisphere of the landmasses and whose apex reaches to the center of the earth. It is divided into 10 zones: a pre-Hell and nine circles within which souls are punished from the least to the most serious sin. In the flames of Hell, one would find expression of the mistaken image of a vengeful God who takes pleasure in the suffering of the wicked. This imagines a cruel God, and the church would take advantage of this for its own benefit.

Purgatory (Book II), the second realm of the afterlife, is depicted as an emerged mountain in the hemisphere opposite to the landmasses. It is divided into three parts: pre-Purgatory, Purgatory proper (in turn divided into seven frames), and finally, at the top of the mountain, Earthly Paradise. In Purgatory, one would find expression of the heresy that there is additional time and space beyond the natural life in which to purify one's errors. This gives rise to mercantilist and manipulative liturgical and religious initiatives in the believer’s life of faith.

Paradise (Heaven), the last realm of the poem, reflects the Ptolemaic conception of the universe. It is composed of 10 Heavens, each corresponding to a precise discipline. Starting from the planetary sphere closest to earth, we find:

–  the Heaven of the Moon (Grammar)

–  Mercury (Dialectic)

–  Venus (Rhetoric)

–  the Sun (Arithmetic)

–  Mars (Music)

–  Jupiter (Geometry)

–  Saturn (Astrology)

Beyond the Heavens of the seven planets are the Heavens of the fixed stars (Metaphysics) and the Crystalline Heavens (Ethics), that is, the prime mover that imparts motion to all the spheres below. Beyond the Crystalline is placed, motionless, the Heaven of the Empyrean (Theology). In Paradise, one finds affirmation of the immortal soul heresy. This deceives by portraying the identity of the saved as non-corporeal. But more importantly, it deifies the soul by assigning to it the characteristic of immortality, which belongs only to God.

The Divine Comedy certainly contains error, but this does not make it trivial or even a book to shun. There are various historical/cultural errors and theological/religious unilateralisms in Ellen White’s The Great Controversy. But this does not affect its religious relevance. No book, not even the Bible, is a condensation of only virtues and good propositions. Nominally, The Divine Comedy has linguistic and cultural value—it is at the origin of the Italian language and modern Italy. But it also has universal value with respect to the essential questions of anthropology that it pertinently poses (per Jorge Luis Borges) and also those that shape Western culture in its foundations of freedom and efficiency (per Harold Bloom).

2. Anthropo-logical-realism

Dante’s book is a "bottom-up" text and theology that, from human experience, tries to say what death causes in us. In its first verse, we read:

In the middle of the journey of our life,

 I found myself through a dark forest,

 For the straight path was lost.

And in the first line of this introductory sentence, Dante reminds us that death is not just a state, much less just a doctrine. It is a dynamic reality that surprises us, especially when we do not expect it "in the middle of the journey of our life." Death cannot be planned. It always breaks the illusory enchantment of our strategies, for believers and unbelievers alike. It surprises us today, even more than in the past, because it is we moderns, believing or not, who have wanted to create a world that is orderly, predictable, and made only of inferences and projections of a present that we think we control well.

In the second line, Dante reminds us that death is a constellation of objective events and subjective sensations, interlaced and ungovernable like a jungle ("dark forest"). Death is governable, not by will, programs, ideas, doctrines, or hope. The dark jungle today—more internal than external—is not so foreign to our human identity but represents, as Heidegger well put it, the essence of who we are. We cannot avoid death because we are "beings-for-death," and consequently anguish and creativity, fear and planning, appear inseparable.

In the third line, Dante emphasizes the destabilizing significance of death, understood not as a state but as a process. It is not so much death as dying, not the corpse as much as the dying that creates in us a sense of extreme vulnerability. It causes us to lose our bearings, not only with respect to who we are but also with the way forward. Only through difficulty might we manage to build certainties about life, ourselves, and God. And here the presence of death in the midst of life relativizes and unhinges those certainties, making us lose their meaning and leaving us perplexed and helpless in the face of its destabilizing force.

This extremely realistic view of life leads Dante to express, well in advance of our time, the paradoxical and complex character of human life at the personal, community, and political levels. The Divine Comedy is also a great book about the paradoxes of politics and not only of the human soul.

3. Resilience of Love

But Dante does not stop there, because The Divine Comedy is not merely a descriptive book. It is also a purposeful book. A hopeful book. And this fate is embodied in praise of the victory of love. And not just love for Beatrice but love for life and in life. Love is manifested in relationship. No one can walk through life alone. There is no such thing as self-foundation. It is relationship that saves us. In The Divine Comedy, there are three important relationships: Virgil, Beatrice, and St. Bernard.

The first accompanying character is Virgil. Dante's otherworldly journey requires the support of a guide, as the protagonist represents man lost as a result of sin and therefore unable to recover the right path on his own. For the entire journey that takes place across the abyss of Hell, and up the mountain of Purgatory, the chosen guide is Virgil, the ancient Latin poet and author of the Aeneid. Because of the high moral value of his poetry, though pagan, he represents natural wisdom, the reason whose light man needs to redeem himself and make himself able to understand revelation.

The second character is Beatrice, whose allegorical meaning has more than a personal dimension. She also represents the beauty, the unspeakable, and the passion that underlie theology itself. Beatrice explains arduous theological problems to the poet in a learned language, but she makes him soar through the heavens with the power of her smile. That is, with the power of a love that is a reflection of the divine love.

The third character is St. Bernard, who, because of his life dedicated to contemplation, appears singularly suited to support Dante by reminding him that the search for God—or the meaning of life—is earned neither by material goods nor by rational efforts, which at this level always remain insufficient.

Finally, The Divine Comedy ends with a more explicit reference to love as a force, not only ethical, anthropological, and theological but as a cosmic force that overcomes death and the fear of death:

"The love that moves the sun and other stars" (Dante, Paradise XXXIII, v. 145).

Because of the place given to anthropological, political, and cultural complexity, and especially the structurally positive and soberly optimistic emphasis on love as the ultimate human and cosmic destiny, The Divine Comedy appears markedly more noble and grand than The Great Controversy—despite the limitations and errors Dante’s book embodies and the historical context that is no longer our own, even from the eschatological point of view. White’s The Great Controversy appears, notably in the official Adventist reading, as a more one-sided, superficial, and ideologized book. It lacks a sense of the complexity of faith, life, and death. But above all, one struggles to grasp a more positive vision that is not swallowed up by catastrophe, exclusion, and punishment.


Notes and References:

[1] Josef Estermann, Andine Philosophie. Eine interkulturelle Studie zur autochthonen andinen Weisheit, (Berlin: Iko-Verlag, 1999)

[2] The greeting also became a film of the same title, Tupananchiskama ("Hasta que nos volvamos a encontrar"), produced by Netflix and directed by Peruvian director Bruno Ascenzo.


Hanz Gutierrez is a Peruvian theologian, philosopher, and physician. Currently, he is chair of the Systematic Theology Department at the Italian Adventist Theological Faculty of Villa Aurora and director of the CECSUR (Cultural Center for Human and Religious Sciences) in Florence, Italy.

Previous Spectrum columns by Hanz Gutierrez can be found by clicking here.

Photo credit: Mathew MacQuarrie on Unsplash

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