Eschatology: An Overview

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The term eschatology means "the science or teachings concerning the last things." Derived from the Greek eschatos ("last") and eschata ("the last things"), the term does not seem to have been in use in English before the nineteenth century, but since then it has become a major concept, especially in Christian theology.

Most religions entertain ideas, teachings, or mythologies concerning the beginnings of things: the gods, the world, the human race. Parallel to these are accounts of the end of things, which do not necessarily deal with the absolute and final end or with the consummation of all things. The end may be conceived positively, as the kingdom of God, a "new heaven and a new earth," and the like, or negatively, for instance as the "twilight of the gods." Sometimes these accounts refer to events expected to take place in a more or less distant future. There is considerable overlap with messianism, which may, therefore, be considered as one form of eschatology.

An important distinction has to be drawn between individual and general, or cosmic, eschatology. Individual eschatology deals with the fate of the individual person, that is, the fate of the soul after death. This may be seen in terms of the judgment of the dead, the transmigration of the soul to other existences, or an afterlife in some spiritual realm. Cosmic eschatology envisages more general transformations or the end of the present world. The eschatological consummation can be conceived as restorative in character, for example as the Endzeit that restores the lost perfection of a primordial Urzeit, or as more utopian, that is, the transformation and inauguration of a state of perfection the like of which never existed before.

Asian Religions

Cultures that view time as an endless succession of repetitive cycles (as in the Indian notions of yuga and kalpa ) develop only "relative eschatologies," because the concept of an ultimate consummation of history is alien to them. Individual eschatology means liberation from the endless, weary wheel of death and rebirth by escaping into an eternal, or rather timeless, transmundane reality that is referred to as moka in Hinduism and nirvāa in Buddhism. Within the cosmic cycles there are periods of rise and decline. According to Indian perceptions of time, the present age is the kaliyuga, the last of the four great yugas, or world epochs. In various traditions these periods often end in a universal catastrophe, conflagration, or cataclysmic annihilation, to be followed by a new beginning inaugurated by the appearance of a savior figure, such as the avātara (incarnation) of a deity or the manifestation of a new Buddha.

Chinese Buddhism developed the idea of periods of successive, inexorable decline (Chin., mofa; Jpn., mappō), at the end of which the future Buddha Maitreya (Chin., Miluofo; Jpn., Miroku), who is currently biding his time in the Tuita Heaven, will appear and establish a kind of millennial kingdom and inaugurate a new era of bliss and salvation for all. "Messianic" and "millennial" movements in China and Southeast Asia, some of which became social revolts and peasant rebellions, have often been associated with expectations of the coming of Maitreya. Occasionally political agitation and ideologies of rebellion developed without Buddhist influences on the basis of purely Daoist or even Confucian ideas. But in these cases the ideology was "restorative" rather than eschatological in character; it announced the restoration of the lost original "great peace" (Taiping)as, for example, at the end of the Han dynasty or in the fourth-century Maoshan sector propagated the message that the mandate of Heaven had been withdrawn from the reigning dynasty.

Daoism, like Buddhism, entertained notions concerning a postmortem judgment. According to Daoist belief, the judgment took place before a tribunal of judges of the dead who decided the subsequent fate of the soul and assigned it to one of the many hells or heavens that figured in the popular mythologies. Confucianism, however, has no eschatology in the narrow sense of the term; it has no doctrines concerning a day of judgment, a catastrophic end of this world, or a messianic millennium. Other Chinese ideas of individual eschatology were in part drawn from ancient lore and were later amalgamated with Buddhist and Daoist elements. Japanese Shintō has no cosmic eschatology and only vague ideas concerning the state of the dead. It is precisely this vacuum that was filled by Buddhism in the history of Japanese religion.


Individual and universal, or cosmic, eschatology merge when the ultimate fate of the individual is related to that of the world. In such a case the individual is believed to remain in a kind of "provisional state" (which may be heaven or hell, a state of bliss or one of suffering) pending the final denouement of the historical cosmic process. One religion of this eschatological type is Zoroastrianism, a religion in which world history is seen as a cosmic struggle between the forces of light led by Ahura Mazdā (Pahl., Ōhrmazd) and the forces of darkness led by Angra Mainyu (Pahl., Ahriman). This struggle will end with the victory of light, the resurrection of the dead, a general judgment in the form of an ordeal of molten metal (similar to the individual postmortem ordeal when the soul has to cross the Chinvat Bridge), and the final destruction of evil. Some of these Iranian beliefs, especially those concerning the resurrection of the dead, seem to have influenced Jewish and, subsequently, Christian eschatology.

Biblical Religions

In the Hebrew Bible the terms aarit ("end") and aarit yamim ("end of days") originally referred to a more or less distant future and not to the cosmic and final end of days, that is, of history. Nevertheless, in due course eschatological ideas and beliefs developed, especially as a result of disappointment with the moral failings of the Jewish kings, who theoretically were "the Lord's anointed" of the House of David. In addition, a series of misfortunes led to the further development of these ideas: the incursions and devastations by enemy armies; the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple in 587/6 bce; the Babylonian exile; the failure of the "return to Zion" to usher in the expected golden age so rhapsodically prophesied by the "Second Isaiah"; the persecutions (e.g., under the Seleucid rulers and reflected in the Book of Daniel); the disappointments suffered under the Hasmonean kings; Roman rule and oppression; and finally the second destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 ce, which, after the failure of subsequent revolts, initiated a long period of exile, tribulation, and "waiting for redemption."

The predictions of the Old Testament prophets regarding the restoration of a golden age, which could be perceived as the renewal of an idealized past or the inauguration of a utopian future, subsequently merged with Persian and Hellenistic influences and ideas. Prophecy gave way to apocalypse, and eschatological and messianic ideas of diverse kinds developed. As a result, alternative and even mutually exclusive ideas and beliefs existed side by side; only at a much later stage did theologians try to harmonize these in a consistent system. Thus there were hopes and expectations concerning a worldly, glorious, national restoration under a Davidic king or victorious military leader, or through miraculous intervention from above. The ideal redeemer would be either a scion of the House of David or a supernatural celestial being referred to as the "Son of man." Significantly, Jesus, who seems to have avoided the term messiah, possibly because of its political overtones, and preferred the appellation Son of man, nevertheless was subsequently identified by the early church as the Messiah ("the Lord's anointed"; in Greek, christos, hence Christ) and was provided with a genealogy (see Mt. 1) that legitimated this claim through his descent from David.

Redemption could thus mean a better and more peaceful world (the wolf lying down with the lamb) or the utter end and annihilation of this age, the ushering in, amid catastrophe and judgment, of a "new heaven and a new earth," as in the later Christian beliefs concerning a last judgment, Armageddon, and so on. The doctrine of the resurrection of the dead played a major role in the eschatological beliefs held by the Pharisees and was also shared by Jesus. The chaotic welter of these ideas is visible not only in the so-called apocryphal books of the Old Testament, many of which are apocalypses (i.e., compositions recounting the revelations concerning the final events allegedly granted to certain visionaries), but also in the New Testament.


The message and teachings of the "historical Jesus" (as distinct from those of the Christ of the early church) are considered by most historians as beyond recovery. There has been, however, a wide scholarly consensus, especially at the beginning of the twentieth century, that Jesus can be interpreted correctly only in terms of the eschatological beliefs and expectations current in the Judaism of his time. The Qumran sect (also known as the Dead Sea sect) was perhaps one of the most eschatologically radical groups at the time. In other words, he preached and expected the end of this world and age, and its replacement in the immediate future, after judgment, by the "kingdom of God." Early Christianity was thus presented as an eschatological message of judgment and salvation that, after the crucifixion and resurrection, emphasized the expectation of the imminent second coming. The subsequent history of the church was explained by these scholars as a result of the crisis of eschatology caused by the continued delay of the second coming. Some modern theologians have taken up the idea of eschatology as the essence of the Christian message, though interpreting it in a less literal-historical and more spiritual or existential manner. Karl Barth, for example, has portrayed the life of the individual Christian, as well as that of the church, as a series of decisions to be apprehended in an eschatological perspective. C. H. Dodd, in his conception of "realized eschatology," has stressed the present significance of future eschatology. Christian history has been punctuated throughout by movements of a millenarian, chiliastic, and eschatological character. Certain modern movements (e.g., Marxism) are interpreted by some thinkers as secularized versions of traditional utopian eschatologies.


The tradition of Islam absorbed so many Jewish and Christian influences in its formative period that it is usually counted among the biblical (or "biblical type") religions. While the eschatological aspects of these traditions were deemphasized in later Islamic doctrines, they undoubtedly played a major role in the original religious experience of the prophet Muammad, for whom the end of the historical process and God's final judgment were a central concern. The notion of "the hour," that is, the day of judgment and the final catastrophe, the exact time of which was known to God alone, looms large in his message and is vividly portrayed in the Qurʾān (see sūrahs 7:187, 18:50, 36:81, and 78:17ff.). As in the Jewish and Christian traditions on which Muammad drew, God will judge the living and the dead on a day of judgment that will be preceded by a general resurrection (sūrah 75). The agents of the final hour will be Gog and Magog (sūrahs 18:95ff. and 21:96), led, according to some sources, by the antichrist.

There is also a messianic figure, the Mahdi (the "rightly guided one"), and Mahdist, or messianic, movements have not been infrequent in Muslim history. The eschatological Mahdi is more prominent in Shīʿah than in Sunnī Islam. In the latter, belief in the Mahdi is a matter of popular religion rather than official dogma. As regards individual eschatology, Muslim belief in Paradise and Hell, in spite of much variation in detail, is essentially analogous to that of Judaism and Christianity.

Primal Religions

In most primal religions eschatology plays no major role, because they are generally based on the notion of cyclical renewal rather than on a movement toward a final consummation or end. While it is hazardous to generalize on the subject, in such traditions eschatological or messianic beliefs and expectations are often due to direct or indirect Christian or Western influences, whether relayed through missionaries or through more general cultural contact. These influences can precipitate crises that result in so-called crisis cults (many of which are of a markedly messianic character); they can also introduce eschatological notions concerning conceptions of time and history.

For example, according to the ancient Germanic myths recounted in the Eddas and the Vo̜luspá, in the fullness of time all things are doomed to final destruction in a universal cataclysm called Ragnaro̜k, the "doom of the gods." During this cataclysm there will be a succession of terrible winters accompanied by moral disintegration, at the end of which the Fenrisúlfr (Fenriswolf) will swallow the sun and then run wild; the heavens will split, the cosmic tree Yggdrasill will shake, the gods will go forth to their last battle, and finally a fire will consume all things. There are some vague but inconclusive indications that this total doom may be followed by a new beginning. Scholars are at variance on the question of possible Christian influences on Germanic mythology. Of greater methodological relevance to the present considerations is the question as to what extent this mythology was a response to a crisis. In other words, Christianity may have to be considered not as a hypothetical source of "influences" but as the cause of crises within the non-Christian cultures it confronted. Thus the "doom of the gods" mythology may have developed as an expression of the sense of doom that engulfed the original Nordic culture as a result of its disintegration under the impact of triumphant Christianity.

The contemporary sense of crisis and fear aroused by expectations of imminent nuclear catastrophe and cosmic destruction has reawakened an apocalyptic-eschatological mood in many circles. Some Christian groups, especially those in the United States, calling upon their particular interpretations of biblical prophecies, are "waiting for the end"it being understood that the believing elect will somehow be saved from the universal holocaust, possibly by being "rapt up" and transferred to other spheres. This phenomenon is not, however, confined to the Christian West. Some of the so-called new religions in Japan and elsewhere similarly exhibit millenarian and even eschatological characteristics, often related to the figure of Maitreya, the Buddha of the future.

See Also

Afterlife; Cosmogony; Cosmology; Death; Heaven and Hell; Judgment of the Dead; Messianism; Millenarianism; Paradise; Resurrection.


Because Judaism and Christianity possess the most highly developed eschatological doctrines, most of the relevant literature has been produced by theologians and students of these religions. In addition to the works of Albert Schweitzer, Johannes Weiss, and, in the first half of the twentieth century, the Protestant theologians Karl Barth and Emil Brunner, the following should be noted: R. H. Charles's Eschatology, 2d ed. (London, 1913); Hermann Gunkel's Schöpfung und Chaos in Urzeit und Endzeit (Göttingen, 1895); F. Holstrom's Das eschatologische Denken der Gegenwart (1936); Rudolf Bultmann's History and Eschatology (Edinburgh, 1957); C. H. Dodds's "Eschatology and History," in his The Apostolic Preaching and Its Developments, 2d ed. (New York, 1951); W. O. E. Oesterley's The Doctrine of the Last Things: Jewish and Christian (London, 1908); Paul Volz's Die Eschatologie der jüdischen Gemeinde im neutestamentlichen Zeitalter (Tübingen, 1934); Roman Guardini's Die letzten Dinge, 2d ed. (Würzburg, 1949); Norman Perrin's The Kingdom of God in the Teaching of Jesus (Philadelphia, 1963); and Reinhold Niebuhr's The Nature and Destiny of Man, vol. 2, Human Destiny (New York, 1943), pp. 287ff. For a review of the current interest in apocalyptic prophecy, see William Martin's journalistic but instructive report, "Waiting for the End," Atlantic Monthly (June 1982), pp. 3137.

New Sources

Cohn, Norman Rufus Colin. Cosmos, Chaos, and the World to Come: The Ancient Roots of Apocalyptic Faith. New Haven, Conn., 1993.

Evans, Craig A., and Peter W. Flint. Eschatology, Messianism, and the Dead Sea Scrolls. Grand Rapids, Mich., 1997.

Polkinghorne, J. C. The God of Hope and the End of the World. New Haven, Conn., 2002.

R. J. Zwi Werblowsky (1987)

Revised Bibliography