Eschatology (in the Bible)

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Etymologically, eschatology is the study of the "last things." The difficulty experienced in applying the term in biblical theology stems from the fact that the word "last" embodies a more precise concept in modern Western languages than in the categories and thought world of the Bible. "Last," according to Webster's Third New International Dictionary, "designates that which comes at the end of a series; it may imply that no more will follow." The variety of viewpoints within the Bible itself can be classified according to the manner in which this "last in the series" is envisaged.

General Considerations

Some of the ancient Biblical writers expected a decisive point in history that would end Israel's then-current inconclusive condition and give stable historical existence to the promises that it believed God had given it. Thus, "last" for these people meant the complex of events that would mark the end of one historical era and usher in a new one. Some modern scholars refuse to accord the name "eschatology" to this outlook. It is, however, the predominant view of the preexilic tradition and already contains within itself the fundamental principle that stands at the basis of all eschatology: that history is incomplete until the moment when God's plan exists fully in its human dimension.

Another Biblical viewpoint looks forward to a Day on which this whole present mode of historical existence will cease in favor of some other "age" in which God's rule will be uncontested and supreme. Such an event would necessarily have cosmic repercussions of a much greater extent than those envisaged in the historical eschatology of the first viewpoint, since an end of this age would involve an end of this world as it is now known. This second outlook is called "cosmic eschatology" and becomes more prominent in postexilic literature. When the cosmic element is strongly accentuated in a system that tends to stress the dualism between this age and the age to come and to calculate history in terms of periods with the conviction that the "end" is imminent, the result is what is known as "apocalyptic eschatology." This type of thinking about the last things characterized late prophetic writing and the intertestamental period. Since all three tendencies shared a common heritage, were composed of much the same elements, and were communicated to the same audience, it is misleading to categorize them too neatly, either chronologically or theologically, into separate compartments. They all witnessed to a unique factor in revealed religion: the conviction that this world of man's experience is destined in and through man for a goal that has been set for it by God and toward which God is directing it.

Biblical Thought Patterns. It has often been noted that modern Western thought categories, e.g., in regard to time and personality, do not coincide with those of the Biblical author [see time (in the bible)]. Though these authors do not present a completely consistent outlook themselves, they do have in common certain characteristics that will be considered briefly before entering upon the main subject.

The most striking feature of this type of thought is the capacity to consider an individual person or thing as the embodiment of a more universal reality and vice versa. Thus, e.g., Israel is both a man and a people (see israel), and the servant of the Lord is both the people Israel and the personal distillation of Israel's vocation (see suffering servant, songs of the). Fundamentally, this "totality thinking" is based on an ontological insight into the nature of a concrete universal; and the predication of the total reality, wherever a partial realization of it is discovered, is a form of symbolic analogy. But this procedure is part of an undifferentiated thought process that cannot be expected to conform to the modern more reflective norms of accuracy. In the context of eschatology, there is the interesting example of the term day of the lord. This was continually expected to be a definitive event; yet in spite of the fact that many of the aspects of the Day had not been realized, the term was used post eventum of the fall of Jerusalem (Lam 1.21; 2.21; Ez 34.12, etc.) while it continued to be predicated as future (Ezekiel ch. 3839; Jl 2.2832; etc.).

This same type of thinking can be said to characterize the Israelite views of time. Not only can such words as day, hour, etc., be used with a meaning that is not strictly chronological as is the case in any language, but the very terms in Hebrew for beginning, end, eternity, the end of days, etc., have a relative content that reflects a less objective reference to the world as a norm according to which they are to be judged [see world (in the bible)]. It might be observed in relation to this view of time that it is not completely foreign to modern philosophical reflections on time that speak of time as "psychic" or "cosmic" and classify the various depths of time.

Method of Treatment. Modern studies of eschatology usually divide their subject matter into universal or social eschatology and individual eschatology. In the former, they treat of "the last things" as they apply to man and his world in general; in the latter, they consider the end of each individual human life in this world. For a more complete treatment of individual eschatology, see death (in the bible); judgment, divine (in the bible); afterlife; resurrection of the dead.

This study traces the historical development of the Biblical concept of eschatology as it acquired greater precision and consistency until it was concentrated in the person and activity of Jesus Christ. For the OT period it follows the standard historical divisions of: preprophetic origins; prophetic teaching in the early, preexilic, and postexilic periods; and the later writings. For the intertestamental period note is made simply of the tendencies and vocabulary that are necessary to understand the NT. For the NT period consideration is given to: the teaching of Jesus; the various accents given to this teaching in the Gospel traditions; Pauline eschatology; and other NT teaching.

In the Old Testament

It seems as though Israel's irrepressible expectation of a future completely ruled by God flows from a consciousness of its own election. This is reflected in Israel's earliest literature.

Preprophetic Origins. The two groups of oracles that are recorded in Genesis ch. 49 (Jacob's Oracles) and Numbers ch. 2324 (the Oracles of balaam) date, in their present form, from the period of the early monarchy and reflect the popular conviction that the promises made to the people by God were then being fulfilled in David and his descendants. The editors who included the poems in the Pentateuch prefaced them by the statement that what is contained therein is to take place "at the end of days." This expression, which is literally "at the rear of days," may reflect a later judgment, that the glories described have yet to be realized. The term is characteristic of later prophetic usage (cf. Is 2.2; Ez 38.16); yet most often it can mean hardly more than "in times to come" (cf. Dt 4.30; 31.39). An earlier poem (Judges ch. 5), from the 11th or 12th century b.c., is a victory song celebrating the might of Yahweh and making reference to "the just deeds of Yahweh" (Jgs 5.11). Although the term implies some act of judgment on behalf of Israel, such an act could be described as "just" only in the context of a covenant relation: a saving act of God is in keeping with the promises made by Him to the people He had chosen (cf. 1 Sm 12.7; Mi 6.5).

The yahwist traced the source of this election to God's call of Abraham (Gn 12.13) and consistently linked the promise of the land to this mysterious destiny to be a "blessing" in his progeny for "all the tribes of the earth" (Gn 15.5, 18; 26.3; 28.13). These two factors of land and blessing formed the basis of the Israelites' consciousness of election and provided the foundation for their expectancy of some definitive act of God. In the words of J. Lindblom: "The historical eschatology originates in the belief in the election of Israel and is unique for the Israelite religion" [cited by T. Vriezen, Vetus Testamentum Supplement 1 (1953) 220, n.1].

Early Prophetic Teaching. Amos, the first prophet whose message has been preserved in writing (see amos, book of), built his indictment of the chosen people precisely on the fact of their election (cf. Am 3.2 with Gn 12.13). After Amos was convinced that there was no "turning back" the doom that threatened not only Israel's enemies but Israel itself (cf. ch. 78 with ch. 12), he took up the popular expectation of the Day of the Lord and used it to convince his people that they would find themselves among the objects of God's wrath on that Day of Judgment (Am 5.1820). Perhaps the impact of his discovery led Amos to insist that the decisive event that was to bring about a new historical era would be primarily one of punishment and destruction. Yet even here, the awareness of God's fidelity to his promises forced Amos to hold out a hope that "it may be" that a remnant would be rescued (5.46, 1415; and especially 9.1115, if it is original).

Israel's ingratitude and dullness in the presence of God's loving choice formed the basis for Hosea's conviction of an imminent day of punishment and restoration (see hosea, book of). His message to the Northern Kingdom contains a series of threats of unmatched vehemence (Hos 5.14; 10.1415; 13.78; etc.). Yet he sensed the ambiguity of the situation in which a just and angered God cannot act "reasonably" because of His love (11.89), and thus Hosea's eschatology, like that of Amos, has two aspects. Descriptions of the exact historical consequences of the coming destruction (3.4; 9.4) are found side by side with scathing denunciations of a more general sort (4.46; 13.12), and both are balanced against tender promises of restoration (14.29) and look to a renewal of the ideal age of the desert wandering and the covenant (2.16), as well as to a redundance of this peace into the realm of nature itself (2.2325). An era is envisaged in which God's spontaneous choice of Israel will be ratified (14.59).

Preexilic Prophets. isaiah, who saw the fall of the Northern Kingdom, blended in his outlook a realistic, historical actuality with a transcendent sense of divine activity (see isaiah, book of). He saw this activity as part of a plan (see especially Is 5.19; 6.910; 14.2427) that necessarily included other nations (since they had to act in regard to Israel), who also would be punished for the same crimes that were bringing about Israel's downfall (2.522). This universal outlook was adumbrated by Amos (ch. 23), but it became an explicit factor in Isaiah's conviction that, whereas God's judgment on Samaria would be repeated on Jerusalem (Is 28.129.6), the whole world stood condemned (14.2627) and would be restored only through the reinstatement of Jerusalem itself (2.14). Isaiah's teaching regarding both aspects of the coming judgment is well typified in the large place he gave to the concept of the Remnant of Israel. This term contained both a threat that some catastrophe was imminent and the assurance that God would be faithful to His promises (1.9). Even granting the antiquity of Gn 49.112 and Am 9.1115, one must still see in Isaiah's connection between the house of David and the light that would shine out of the coming darkness a new note in the prophetic description of God's definitive act in history (Isaiah ch. 7, 9, 11). This conviction was shared by Isaiah's contemporary Micah (Mi 5.13) and became part of the prophetic teaching in succeeding generations.

The work of Zephaniah is dependent on the writings of Isaiah and Amos (see zephaniah, book of); and although there is no new theological contribution in his book, there is in ch. 1 a marked intensity both in the universalism regarding the impending judgment and in Israel's oldest eschatological expectations of a war in which Yahweh would destroy His enemies. In Zephaniah this became the disaster that was about to befall Jerusalem (Zep 1.218). Both this intensity and the imagery it evokes became part of later eschatological writing.

jeremiah could match the vivid imagery of Zephaniah (see jeremiah, book of), and he may indeed have drawn upon the same experience or prophetic tradition in his description of the foe from the north (Jer 4.531). He too looked to some definitive event that by then was assumed to include the chastisement of unfaithful Judah. The rise of Babylonian power gave to the generic threats of destruction with which the work abounds a sense of imminence and historical realism. One may, in fact, speak of a sort of "realized eschatology" in regard to Jeremiah, who applied all the previous prophetic teaching of a decisive event of divine judgment in history to the actual invasion by nebuchadnezzar (11.1517; 15.14;34.822; 37.310; etc.). It is difficult to establish exactly what Jeremiah thought would happen after the era of judgment, though there is no doubt that he expected that the reprieve promised to those already deported (3.12;24.57) would be extended to the victims of the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem (32.114). Like Isaiah, he built the continuity of the people on an ideal Davidic king (23.113, of which at least the core is original); but his own insight consisted in seeing that the reestablishment of Israel would mean the renewal of the covenant in a way that would truly change the hearts of men (31.3134).

Exilic and Postexilic Prophets. Important developments in Israelite eschatology took place during the Babylonian Exile and in the early postexilic period, as can be seen in the writings of Ezekiel [see ezekiel, book of] and the anonymous author of Isaiah ch. 4055, who is known as DeuteroIsaiah.

Ezekiel. Like Jeremiah, Ezekiel prophesied and witnessed the fall of Jerusalem and saw in it the decisive act of condemnation. Yet one can trace in those writings of Ezekiel that were composed in exile a greater sense of imminence, not only in regard to the traditionally expected judgment on other nations (ch. 2532), but also in regard to the restoration of Israel that had formed part of the eschatological drama since the teaching of Amos. There is mention of a Davidic "shepherd"; who would lead the restored people (Ez 34.1724; 37.2425) and the insistence that restoration would mean an interior conversion (36.2627; see also 11.1920). The accent, however, was placed more on the Temple as the center of the people's life (ch. 4046), from which there would flow a life-giving stream to all the world (47.112). Israel would thus become the ruler of a chastened world (36.18, 3638), and the promise made to the fathers would at last become a reality (47.1323).

Though the dramatic vision of the resurrection of the dry bones (ch. 37) ought not to be understood in an individual sense, still the problem of individual responsibility was posed by Ezekiel (18.132) at about the same time as by Jeremiah (Jer 31.29), and the problem was treated more completely by Ezekiel. There was not yet any direct eschatological application of this individualistic view, though the experience of some men of prayer in Israel had already prepared the way for a different notion of the state of God's friends in the afterlife [Ps 15 (16).10; 72 (73).2526]; and the Book of job, written in the experience of the exile, challenged the accepted view of retribution.

Deutero-Isaiah. This inspired prophet, who wrote at the end of the Exile, seems to have been convinced that the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile constituted the decisive act of judgment foreseen by Jeremiah and Ezekiel. Just as Babylon's growing ascendancy had been the sign of God's impending wrath, so the rise to power of Cyrus and his Persian armies gave historical content to the predictions of a consolation soon to follow.

Deutero-Isaiah was the first to appeal, not only to a plan of God, but also to a notion of time that saw it as having a beginning and an end (Is 41.2223, 26; 43.13; 46.9; etc.). This plan included the salvation of all the nations and would be brought about by the servant of the Lord, whose mission it was to be a light to the Gentiles and proclaim God's justice to the ends of the earth and whose mysterious suffering and exaltation would bring peace to the many. Jeremiah had seen the land reverting to a state of primeval chaos (Jer 4.23) and had considered that the covenant relation had been severed (31.3132). Deutero-Isaiah saw the era of restoration as a new creation of both the world and the people (Is 41.1720; 42.5;43.1; 45.8; etc.). A restoration of the world was first adumbrated in Hos 2.23 and Is 11.69, while the concept of God creating His people by the covenant seems already implied in the use of qānâ in Ex 15.16; Dt 32.6. Yet in Deutero-Isaiah there seems to be a concretization of concepts that were previously left undetermined. What, then, is the meaning of this insistence on a cosmic participation in the restoration of the people? It seems that one must apply here the notion of totality thinking mentioned previously, as well as the fact of what can, perhaps, be best termed "a sliding time scale." The cosmic imagery, whether invoked in terms of destruction or renewal, contains within itself the notion that the definitive events in history are effected by a causality that transcends the world of man's control. Yet this thinking clings fast to the ancient conviction that man's inner life has, for good or ill, cosmic repercussions (cf. Gn 3.819). It may be granted that Deutero-Isaiah was here writing poetry and using a traditional imagery repeated for its power to evoke an atmosphere rather than propound a dogma; yet it would be false to empty the imagery of all content. Something transcendent is being mediated and certain historical events deserve to be called by its name. Only time can decide whether or not the event that is imminent or even present is in fact the definitive act of God. Not all of what Amos or Hosea or Zephaniah had foretold came to pass; and though the historical nucleus of what Isaiah and Jeremiah expected had in fact transpired, what was described by them as universal (Is 2.25) and indeed cosmic (Jer 4.2326) had not been realized. As men became progressively convinced of the human unattainability of restoration, they looked forward to an event more transcendent than ever.

The sense of actuality that Deutero-Isaiah had initiated primarily in regard to the restoration of Israel was continued and applied more specifically to the expected punishment of the nations. Oracles against the nations had been part of prophetic eschatological preachings since Amos. Yet as the conviction grew that Israel had undergone its judgment and was about to be reinstated, the expectation of a more widespread catastrophe became vivid. Whereas in Isaiah ch. 13 (postexilic) the notion of the holy war and the Day of the Lord is applied to Babylon and in Abdia the same concept is applied to Edom (Abd 15), in both of these writings the aid of cosmic imagery is enlisted, most probably for the reasons mentioned above.

Postexilic Writings. After the Exile, prophecy continued, both in its own right and in the editing and glossing of the older prophetic writings. The disappointment that accompanied the return from Exile forced men to reconsider the full implication of what these older books had taught. Babylon had indeed fallen, and the people had indeed returned to Jerusalem. But there was no miraculous exodus, no universal destruction of the sinful nations who were Israel's enemies, and no worldwide recognition of the might of Yahweh with pilgrimages to a glorious Jerusalem.

Early Postexilic Writers. Haggai and Zechariah [see haggai, book of; zechariah, book of] continued to expect the rebuilding of Jerusalem and to look for an anointed ruler (Hg 2.2023; Zec 6.914). Besides, Zechariah introduced a type of symbolism in ch. 12 that was later taken up by Daniel and became standard in apocalyptic writing. Joel continued to apply the term "Day of the Lord" to judgments against the chosen people (ch. 12), while he expected the spiritual renewal spoken of by Jeremiah and Ezekiel and the great judgment of the nations (ch. 34). Both of these events were to reveal their transcendent nature by the effects they would have on the cosmos.

Later Postexilic Writers. Trito-Isaiah (the anonymous author of Isaiah ch. 5666) took these concepts to their limit by "objectifying" their cosmic elements and describing a new heaven and a new earth (Isaiah ch.6566). Deutero-Zechariah (the anonymous author of Zechariah ch. 914) developed the mythical elements in Ezekiel ch. 3839 and applied them to his contemporaries' experience (Za 14.121). The collection of oracles known as Malachi [see malachi, book of] included more teaching regarding the judgment soon to overtake the nations surrounding Jerusalem, and it inaugurated the notion (Mal 3.23) that the great and terrible Day of the Lord would be preceded by the return of Elijah [see elijah (second coming of)].

The postexilic author of Isaiah ch. 2427 (the so-called Apocalypse of Isaiah) elevated "Babylon" and "Moab" to the status of symbols, much as Ezekiel and Zechariah had done for Jeremiah's "foe from the north," and again the cosmic imagery is in evidence.

Within a long poetic piece that probably derives from the liturgy (Isaiah ch. 26), there occurs what is perhaps the first statement regarding the resurrection of the just in an eschatological context (Is 26.19). As the tension of waiting increased, the problem of the future of those who died without seeing the consolation of Israel finally forced its way into men's consciousness; and the solution, perhaps already stated by the author of Job (Jb 19.25) in the context of personal retribution, was adopted in this larger context.

Writers of the Late OT Period. This solution was repeated in the Book of daniel (Dn 12.13), with the addition that the incomplete retribution made to both just and unjust in this life, specifically in relation to the expectation of the "last things," would be made good by a resurrection of some of them from the dead. A different solution of this problem in an individual context, not immediately linked with the future of the nation, was adopted by some adherents of the Alexandrian Judaic tradition (such as the author of the Book of wisdom) that made use of the Greek concept of an imperishable soul to extend the Hebrew notion of nepeš, so that the future of a man after death was differentiated according to the deeds he performed on the earth (Wis 3.19; 15.3; etc.). The individualizing tendency in the wisdom tradition seems to have applied terms previously restricted to the events of national history to the life of the individual as the Psalms had already done before them [note the "time of distress," the "day of wrath," etc., in Ps 19(20).2; 49(50).15; Jb 15.23; 21.30; Prv 11.4; Wis 3.18; Sir 11.26; etc.]. This outlook provided the basis for a more developed individual eschatology in the intertestamental period.

In the Book of Daniel there is also a certain stable pattern into which traditional elements of prophetic eschatology were fitted in such a way that a new literary genre was created, which developed and became standardized as the normative presentation of this teaching during the two centuries before Christ. Cosmic imagery and a concept of plan were now combined with a greater emphasis on the transcendent nature of the event that would be definitive for all history. Thus, even the vocation of Israel was now concentrated not in a king or a servant, but in a son of man whose exaltation would have consequences for "all peoples, nations, and tongues" (Dn 7.14). The result was an imaginative literature fraught with the conviction, based on careful calculation, that "the end is near." Daniel, one of the earliest apocalyptic writings, already contained the complex imagery and periodic divisions of history. These were not so much the product of a mind taking refuge in fantasy as an effort of faith to adhere to the promises of God and to render them intelligible and actual to an Israel already painfully aware of its true historical dimensions but not less aware of its special vocation within the universalist demands of God's covenant and of the ultimate truth of its confidence in God's justice.

In the Intertestamental Period

Though prophecy had disappeared in the last centuries of pre-Christian Jewish history (1 Mc 4.46), people still awaited the fulfillment of what Deutero-Isaiah had promised. They looked forward to a glorious Jerusalem, the source of salvation for those nations that were left after God's terrible judgment had punished them for their wickedness, especially for their oppression of the Jews. It has been frequently remarked that what Pharisaic zeal effected in relation to the Law, codifying, standardizing, and materializing it, apocalypticism did for prophecy.

The influence of Persian thought has often been assumed for the purpose of explaining a certain dualism that now characterized eschatological thinking. No doubt there was a real and objective content to the distinction between "this age" and "the age to come" that capitalized on the "newness" of the era of restoration as described by the prophets, and this type of objective thinking was apparently injected into the Jewish view of the cosmos by some outside influence. Yet it should be observed that this factor and others that were manifestly dependent for their form on Persian theories (developed angelology, pronounced forensic elements in the judgment, etc.) were well integrated into the Jewish thought system.

Messianic Expectations. The decisive event was now most frequently called "the end," and it was thought of as preceded by a series of woes and calamities (Dn 12.1; Assumption of Moses 10.5; Enoch 80.45; Sibylline Oracles 3.806). According to some writings, the final judgment would be presided over by a messiah, and the wars and cosmic convulsions in which he would assert the kingdom of God were called the "birthpangs" of the Messiah (cf. Hos 13.13; Is 26.1619). Sometimes his efforts would be directed specifically against a figure whose traits were derived from the prophetic development of Gog in Ezekiel ch. 3839 (see also Dn 7.814) and perhaps also from Ahriman (Angra Mainyu), the opponent of Ahura Mazda in the Zoroastrian system [see ahura mazda (ohrmazd) and ahriman], as in the Testament of Issachar 6.1; Enoch 13.158; Sibylline Oracles3.6365; IQM 1.117 (see dead sea scrolls). The time of this end was calculated on the basis of a reinterpretation of the prophetic writings (cf. Jer 25.11; 29.10 with Dn 9.2, 2427), which in turn needed to be reinterpreted when the Day failed to appear (cf. Daniel ch. 7 with 4 Esdras 12.1114; Dn 12.1113). The restoration of Israel was most often described in terms of a kingdom, though notions about the nature and function of the king differed considerably. In some systems he was easily recognizable as the Davidic ruler described by the prophets, and he now bore the technical designation Messiah, while in still other systems, God Himself was the king without any intermediary. The writings that stressed the other-worldly aspect of the coming new age tended to clothe this figure with heavenly power and give to him a universal dominion. These two figures, the Messiah and the Son of Man, tended to blend into one; and according to some theories, the messianic kingdom on this earth would be succeeded by another that would mark the final entrance of "the end" and initiate the age in which God with or without the Messiah would rule forever. Along with this concept of a heavenly man, mention is made of a heavenly Jerusalem, heavenly Sion, etc., which apparently reflected the notion that present earthly realities were only images of their true types, which in the final age would themselves assume human dimensions (Enoch 10.1619; Psalms of Solomon 17.25; 2 Baruch 4.26; 4 Esdras 10.26). This may be but one more aspect of the very realistic, even material expectation of a new heaven and a new earth (Is ch. 66) in which the reign of Satan over the cosmos would be broken and this world would be destroyed.

Retribution in the Hereafter. The awareness of individual eschatology that can already be found in some of the late prophetic and wisdom literatures now received a great deal more attention, though little systematization. The fundamental experiences that, as was shown, forced the problem of individual immortality to consciousness were: the experience of union with God expressed by the Psalmists [e.g., Ps 72(73).25], the experience of the inconclusive nature of retribution in this life (e.g., in Daniel and Job), and the desire that all should share in the realization of the promises (Is 26.19). These, combined with an extra-Biblical anthropology in the late wisdom literature, provided the basis for some integration of the speculations proposed during the period. Again, thinking centered on the concept of judgment, and thus it maintained an intimate link with the events connected with the coming of the kingdom. According to David S. Russell, (357366), there were four characteristics that marked the change of climate effected during this period. First, the dead were conceived as having individual and conscious existence. Second, they were distinguished on the basis of moral criteria, and the state in which they found themselves as a result of their moral activity in this life was considered by most as irrevocable (Enoch 62.2; 2 Baruch 85.12; Pirke Avoth 4.16; Sifra Leviticus 85; Enoch 71.1416). Third, in keeping with the changed views regarding the souls of the dead, sheol was now regarded as an intermediate state in which men waited for the final judgment. According to most of these writers, the final judgment could not take place until the resurrection, which was usually conceived of as being universal in its proportions but of differing results depending on a man's moral status. According to the systems that envisaged a messianic interregnum, there were sometimes two judgments and even two resurrections, first of some of the just and then of all the dead. Other works, notably the Book of Jubilees (23.31), seem to have dispensed with the notion of resurrection and consequently of a period of waiting. Sheol then became the place of torment for the wicked (Jubilees 7.29; 22.22). The fourth characteristic of these writings followed from the fact of a moral distinction in the hereafter: Sheol was now depicted as having compartments corresponding to the moral and spiritual condition of the souls that went there. The description of these different parts of Sheol drew upon and embellished prophetic imagery and became the source of Christian apocryphal writings and of centuries of subsequent Christian speculation.

In the New Testament

The eschatological concepts of the NT, whether traditional or newly forged, are all dominated by and center on the fact of Christ. The NT asserts unequivocally that the definitive act of judgment, both salvation and condemnation, has been realized in the Passion and Resurrection of Jesus, and yet it looks forward to a Day when this reality will be made fully manifest in each individual and in the whole cosmos. The synthesis of this twofold assertion into some coherent statement that respects the other aspects of revelation is one of the most difficult and, at the same time, most pressing problems of modern Biblical theology.

Confronted with passages that seem alternately to assert and deny the definitive nature of the Christ fact, its present all-sufficiency and its need for future fulfillment, some scholars have been tempted to achieve some sort of consistency by assigning chronological priority to one series and explaining the other series as later additions to the original teaching of Jesus. For the liberals of the 19th century, Jesus was an ethical teacher of unique stature whose subsequent death was given an eschatological interpretation by His disciples. According to Albert Schweitzer and others, Jesus was a "consistent eschatologist," a successor to the apocalyptic theorists, who believed Himself to be the Son of Man and the inaugurator of God's reign on earth. When even His death failed to bring this about, His disciples reinterpreted His message. Charles Dodd, on the other hand, considers that the eschatological imagery is Jesus' own, and He intended by it to assert that its real meaning was being fulfilled in Himself. His followers, who were expecting a more mundane and perhaps a more dramatic manifestation of the Day of the Lord, were led to the conclusion that it would take place in the immediate future; and then, as time wore on, they either continued in their expectations or finally grasped the original meaning of Jesus' message. Rudolf Bultmann, too, maintains that the eschatological imagery originated with Jesus and was continued by His disciples. But Bultmann is convinced that such imagery was the only conceptual equipment available to Jesus at that time through which God's transcendent message could be understood and mediated. Consequently, it is the role of the interpreter today to free this message of its ancient and mythical garb in order to allow it to confront man and elicit from him faith and submission (see demythologizing). The analyses of Dodd and Bultmann have shed much light on the nature of many passages in the Gospels and have shown how necessary it is to account for the creative activity of the early community and of the Evangelists themselves in any understanding of the message they have passed on. But there is a danger that the desire to achieve a unified view of the Gospel revelation may result in an oversimplification. In order to respect the nature of the Gospel material, one must recognize that in the original teaching of Jesus there is both a realized and a futurist eschatology and that this tension is preserved by the NT authors who developed their own theologies with the aid of concepts traditional in their culture.

Teaching of Jesus. The general tenor of John the Baptist's preaching centered on the theme of restoration and consolation that Deutero-Isaiah had proclaimed on the eve of the return from Babylon and the notion of an impending messianic judgment spoken of in the Book of Malachi (Mk 1.18; Mt 3.112; Lk 3.18; Jn 1.1934). St. Mark gives the gist of Jesus' early preaching as "The kingdom of God has come near" (Mk 1.15; see also Lk4.18; 7.22; Mt 4.23). This theme was calculated to evoke in the minds of Jesus' hearers the notion of an imminent fulfillment of the prophetic expectations as they were preserved in the thought of His day.

Imminence of the Kingdom. Early in His public life Jesus pointed to His power over demons as proof of the presence of the kingdom (Lk 11.20; Mt 12.28; see also Mk 3.27). He declared those blessed who beheld Him (Mt 13.16; Lk 10.23); He applied the words of Deutero-Isaiah to Himself (Mt 11.26; Lk 7.1823); and He claimed that one greater than Solomon stood before His audience (Mt 12.4142; Lk 11.3132). At His entry into Jerusalem, He consciously acted out the fulfillment of Zec 9.9, a passage that was considered messianic by the rabbis; and He appealed to the eschatological universalism of Is 56.7 as well as to Jer 7.11 to establish His right to cleanse the Temple (Mk 11.15 and parallels; see, however, Jn2.1317). When Jesus assumed for Himself the prerogative of reinterpreting the Law (e.g., Mt 5.22), He was aware that such a function was expected of the Messiah (Targum Jonathan on Is 12.3; 1QpHab 10.13; CD 1.11; etc.); and when He likened the kingdom of God to His own activity of sowing the word (Mk 4.19 and parallels), foreseeing a slow, mysterious growth of that kingdom (Mk 4.3032), He was undoubtedly claiming to make it present here and now (see also Lk 17.21).

The most predominant feature of Our Lord's preaching, however, seems to have been His stress on the imminent coming of the kingdom of God. Besides being the theme of His early preaching, there are parables from different times of Jesus' life that echo this preoccupation. Among the more outstanding there are: the parable of the Two Men on the Way to Court (Mt 5.2526; Lk 12.5759), the Great Feast (Mt 22.113; Lk 14.1624), the Ten Virgins (Mt 25.112), and the Vineyard (Mk 12.112 and parallels). The parable of the Vineyard was probably propounded during Jesus' last days in Jerusalem. He looked forward to a crucial day in the near future when the "Bridegroom" would be taken away from the Disciples (Mk 2.1820 and parallels). In Mk 9.1 there is recorded a promise of Jesus to His hearers that some of them would see the kingdom of God come in power, and this is most probably an allusion to His forthcoming Passion and Resurrection. Such is undoubtedly the meaning of the symbolic parable that Jesus enacted at the supper the "night he was betrayed." The meal both initiated and foreshadowed the messianic banquet (Lk 22.16), while drawing its meaning from the Passion and Resurrection, which it symbolized. This theme had already sounded in Our Lord's instruction of His disciples. His predictions of imminent suffering for the Son of Man are described in terms of the vocation of the Servant whose sacrifice of Himself as a sin offering (Is 53.10) brings about His own exaltation and the fulfillment of Israel's mission to proclaim God's justice to the ends of the earth (Mk 10.45; see also the "Passion predictions" in Mk 8.31; 9.31;10.3234; and parallels). At His trial Jesus asserted that men would soon see this exaltation of the Son of Man as Daniel had described Him (Mk 14.62; see also the interpretations in Mt 26.64; Lk 22.69).

Intervening Period. In addition to some other more enigmatic passages that stress the imminence of the kingdom (e.g., Mt 10.23), there is a whole series of passages that reflect Jesus' awareness that there would be a period of time between His death and the final realization of some aspects of the traditional prophetic and apocalyptic teaching. He called about Him a group of disciples, gave them instructions, taught them to pray for the coming of the kingdom (Mt 6.1), and gave them a commission to proclaim His message and suffer for adherence to Him. Jesus endorsed the prevailing view of a general resurrection (Mt 12.41; see also Lk 14.14) and described some of its features (Mk 12.1827 and parallels). He often spoke of a day of judgment (Mt 10.15; 11.22, 24; etc.) and described the punishments of the wicked in traditional terms (Mt 5.29; Mk 9.4547; etc.), while also teaching a judgment that follows immediately after death (Lk 16.1931; see also 12.20). In all of the statements there is a conformity to the common vocabulary of the time; yet there is also a difference. For not only does Jesus assign to Himself the messianic role of judge (Mt 7.22; Lk6.26; Mt 25.3146); but more important, as the passages cited imply, a man's future judgment will depend on his present attitude to Jesus. This is stated explicitly in Mk8.38 (see also parallels and Lk 17.2426), and it becomes a standard theme in John (Jn 12.48; 5.24; 3.1821). Moral rectitude is, of course, necessary for entrance into the kingdom (Mt 5.20); yet the newness of Jesus' eschatological preaching lies precisely in His insistence that the future is determined already in the stand one takes now in regard to Him.

It is practically certain that Jesus predicted the fall of Jerusalem (Lk 19.4244), and it is very probable that the same event forms the frame of reference for the famous "eschatological discourse" found in Mark ch. 13 and parallels. The interpretation of this passage is still debated, but it seems to be a good example of the totality thinking and "sliding time scale" mentioned previously. The judgment against Jerusalem is described in terms of the Day of the Lord as the Prophets had often done before, and in this same tradition all the imagery reserved for the definitive event of history is applied to this partial realization of it. Thus St. Matthew already transposes the discourse to the "parousia and the consummation of the age" (Mt 24.3).

Theology of the Early Church. In one of the speeches of Peter recorded in Acts, Joel's description of the Day of the Lord (Jl 2.2832) is applied to the coming of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2.1436). Peter stated also that Jesus is the source of this gift of the Spirit (Acts 2.33), that He is the future judge of the living and the dead (Acts 10.42; see also 17.31), and that He will be sent from heaven at the time of the restoration of the universe (Acts 3.1921, a difficult passage).

The tradition first represented in St. Mark's Gospel combines the predictions of the Passion with a description of the vocation of the disciples (Mk 8.3437; 9.35;10.39) and continues this assimilation by describing the future suffering of the disciples (13.913) in terms reminiscent of the Passion narrative (14.5365; 15.45, 15; etc.). This mystery of the eschatological sufferings of the Son of Man that are continued in the Church is touched on also by St. Paul (2 Cor 4.10; Col 1.24; see also Jn 15.2021). St. Matthew has a tendency to transpose the sense of imminence in Our Lord's preaching to the expectation of the Parousia (only he among the Evangelists uses the term). Moreover, he employs many words common to the intertestamental apocalyptic tradition ("regeneration," Mt 19.28; "age to come," 12.32; see also 13.40, 49). St. Luke capitalizes on some features of Jesus' teaching to insist that the period between the Passion and the consummation of all things is part of God's eschatological plan: it is the era of the Spirit and the Church (cf. Mk 4.17 with Lk 8.13, and cf. Mk 9.1 with Lk 9.27). This same tendency can be seen in the characteristic way Luke records phrases that are in an eschatological context (cf., e.g., Lk 21.20 with Mk 13.14).

St. John actualizes the theme of judgment, as has been seen (see also Jn 16.811), and likewise makes the possession of eternal life a present reality (Jn 6.47, 51;17.2021; etc.). While he foresees a future "last day" of resurrection (6.3940, 44; 11.24), he also records Jesus as describing Himself as the resurrection and the life (11.25). John alone alludes to the coming sufferings of the disciples as the "birth pangs" of the Messiah (16.21), and he applies the term, it seems, both to the definitive hour of the Passion (cf. 19.2830) and to the future vocation of the disciples. Even the coming of Christ, which John no doubt expected on the last day, is portrayed as an actual reality for the Christian who lives by Christian love (14.3, 19, 21; 16.1622). Thus, it seems certain that as the actual time of the Parousia was postponed, Christians began to reflect on the full import of Christ's declarations regarding the presence of the kingdom in His own person and activity and to see this reality continued in the Church by the action of the Spirit.

Pauline Eschatology. This same process of penetration can be seen in the writings of St. Paul, who, though he brought to the problem a mind already enriched by the speculations of the rabbis, still required many years to achieve a synthesis.

Individual Eschatology. Paul's strong accent on individual eschatology can be seen in his first answer to the problem of those Christians who die without witnessing the Parousia. Those who die "through Jesus" are not only partakers of the "age to come" as the rabbis taught; they are now "with Jesus" (1 Thes 4.14; see also Phil1.23). The same preoccupation can be seen in the discussion of the resurrection body in 1 Corinthians ch. 15. The doctrine regarding some kind of identity between the body "sown" and that "reaped" can also be found in 2 Baruch 49.3; 50.34; Sibylline Oracles 4.181; etc.; but the insistence on the unique causality of the risen Lord is at the core of what is peculiar to Christian eschatology. Alongside these early assurances regarding the future of those who "are asleep," i.e., dead, there is a complete scenario of the Day of the Lord that depends on the same tradition as the eschatological discourse in the Synoptics (cf. 1 Thes 5.2 with Mt 24.43) and shares with it the same sense of imminence. In this early period Paul already laid the foundations of his view that the reality of Christ's Resurrection, as imparted now to the believer, conferred on the latter's life an eschatological dimension. It is because "Jesus died and rose" that Christians will be brought together with Him (1 Thes 4.14), a togetherness shared also by those who are still "awake" (1 Thes5.910). Indeed the power of His Resurrection is at work in those who share the fellowship of His sufferings (Phil3.1011), and this power will eventually enable Christ to subject the universe to Himself (Phil 3.2021).

Future Day of Christ. These three factors of individual union with Christ, cosmic redemption, and actualized eschatology are already being synthesized around the reality of the risen Christ in the letters of the central period of Paul's life. There is still a future day of Christ (1 Cor1.8; 5.5; 2 Cor 1.14; etc.), which will be a day of judgment (Rom 2.5, 16), a day on which Christ will be revealed (1 Cor 1.7). The events of that day are sketched in 1 Corinthians ch. 15, and in the same letter Paul speaks of the vision that awaits him when the "now" of this life gives way to the "then" of full maturity (1 Cor 13.12; see also 1 Jn 3.23). The power of the risen Christ is stressed again in 2 Cor 3.18 (see also 4.1718), and there for the first time occurs the apocalyptic hope of a new creation applied to the individual believer (2 Cor 5.17). In the Epistle to the Romans (1.4) the Resurrection, by which Christ was constituted son of god, is linked to the same Spirit that Christians now possess as a pledge and are thereby already made sons of God. Because Christians possess the Spirit, they are attuned to the groaning of the whole cosmos as it longs to be free of the corruption imposed on it by the folly of man (8.1824). And it is the presence of the same Spirit deep within Christians that will one day bring their share in the risen life of Christ into a full and definitive human existence, thus transforming the cosmos by conforming them to the image of the Risen One and fulfilling the eternal plan of God.

The same notions are brought to their final synthesis in the Epistles to the Ephesians and the Colossians. The Church is the "fullness of Christ" (Eph 1.23; 3.19; 4.13), within which He is now at work subjecting the cosmos and all its demonic forces to Himself (Eph 3.10; 6.12; Col1.15; 2.815; etc.). The beginning and the end of the divine plan, already spoken of by Deutero-Isaiah and sketched in Rom 8.2830, is now seen to have existed in Christ "before the creation of the world" (Eph 1.4; see also 3.9; Col 1.15). The consummation of this plan means the summing up of all things in Christ (Eph 1.10) and the power that achieves this consummation in His Resurrection (Col 1.18; 2.1213), which is communicated to the believer (Eph 2.6). The pastoral epistles, apart from an individualizing tendency in their use of the term Day of Christ (2 Tm 1.12, 18; etc.) and a polemic against some overenthusiastic proponents of "realized eschatology" (2 Tm 2.1718), add nothing to Paul's eschatological teaching. In the Pauline tradition, the Epistle to the Hebrews speaks of the revelation, in these last days, of God in His Son (Heb 1.1), whose death and Resurrection is the definitive act of God on man's behalf (10.12). Christ has not only entered the heavenly realities described by the apocalyptic writers (9.2324); He has given man access to these same realities (10.1925). And though this act was performed "once for all" (9.26), He is coming again (9.28) on a Day that is drawing near (10.25).

Other New Testament Teaching. In most of the other letters in the NT there seems to be a less dynamic synthesis of the elements that compose the teaching on eschatology. The prevailing terminology is employed, but its full consequences are not investigated. The thought of the glory to come (1 Pt 5.4) or of the punishment reserved for the wicked (2 Pt 2.910; Jude 15) is used in a context of moral exhortation. In Jas 5.4 the traditional threat of fire on the "last days" is used for the sake of persuading the rich to part with some of their wealth, and in 2 Pt 3.513 the same imagery is employed in the unique NT reference to a total destruction of the cosmos by fire.

The Revelation of St. John makes no claim to be counted among the intertestamental writings that are called apocalypses, though it does share much of their imagery in its presentation of the Christian message. The cosmic dimensions of the Christ fact are presented more dramatically in the Revelation than in Paul (Rv 6.12;16.1821; 20.11; 21.1), but there is a like insistence on the fact that in Christ God's plan has been definitively realized (Rv 5.914; 12.1012; etc.). Yet Christ is still to come (Rv 1.7; 22.6), and Christians are taught to pray for His coming (Rv 22.17, 20; etc.), even though the lord's supper is already a coming of Jesus (3.20). The heavenly Jerusalem, already mentioned by Paul (Gal 4.26), assumes a human dimension (Rv 21.2, 927); and enlightened by the Lamb (Rv 8.16), it will be forever the meeting place of God and man. Other images, such as the two stages of the messianic kingdom (e.g., 20.115), are not as easy to understand, but they seem to refer to the realized and yet to be realized aspects of Christ's work. (see millenarianism.)

Conclusion. The "last things" in Biblical theology are not so much last as ultimate, and their chronological sequence does not correspond to their degree of definitiveness. When the world will have been transformed, then time, as it is now experienced, will cease. There will be such a point in history or rather metahistory, though there are no words that can describe it, and the Scriptures content themselves with clothing it in imagery that insists on its transcendent nature.

The consciousness of being chosen forced Israel to look forward to a Day when God would give them peace and somehow make of them a blessing for the nations. Man's opposition to God's plan was first experienced in the hostility with which the nations resisted Israel's effort at self-realization; they would certainly be punished. Time and failure revealed that the opposition to God was deep within Israel itself, and this brought with it a conviction that God's justice demanded a judgment that would both condemn and save. As one calamity after another befell the chosen people, they became aware of participating in a universal rebellion whose cosmic echoes forced themselves in on man's world; yet they still clung to their vocation and their faith in the promises of God. When even the restoration of Jerusalem failed to end their inconclusive state of existence, men began to look beyond history for a solution. In their overwhelming sense of sin and inadequacy, they mistook God's transcendence for His absence, though they never ceased hoping to see His salvation. Thus, what had begun as a time-bound nationalistic hope now inclined to despair altogether of ever experiencing God's activity within human confines.

The Resurrection of Jesus Christ revealed to man that the transcendence of God's power is at work deep within man's proper dimension. God's judgment has condemned sin in the flesh of His Son, and, in reconciling the world to Himself, He has made good His promise to Abraham. The cosmic dimension of this definitive act can be seen even now in the glory of God on the face of Christ Jesus and can be felt even now in the water and wine and bread that allow man to touch Him. And yet man is saved in hope. The Last Thing is present; yet it does not fully exist. How is it that, though man no longer looks forward to a more decisive divine act, man still groans within himself as he awaits his redemption? Perhaps the best explanation that can be given is that given by Jesus Himself in His description of the tiny mustard seed that must fall into the ground and reveal its promise by dying and transforming all things into itself in the power of its own inner dynamism. What man awaits is not the Christ Himself, but His full manifestation within each man, within the Church, and within the cosmos. "For you have died, and your life now lies hidden with Christ in God. But when Christ, our life, appears, then you shall appear with him in glory" (Col 3.34).

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[f. martin]