Eschatology refers to a set of beliefs about the last things or the end-times. Derived from the Greek words eschatos (“last”) and logos (“word”), a Latin form of the word (eschatologia) was first used by Abraham Calovius in the 1600s. The word appeared in German in the early 1800s and in English in 1845. Since then, it has been considered an important (and usually the last) component of Christian theology, but it can be applied more generally to any view concerning future events.
Eschatology is divided into two subject areas. Individual eschatology focuses on the fate of the person after death. Cosmic eschatology focuses on future events related to the end of the world. People who adhere to religions based on a linear view of history generally believe that certain events will precede the end of history and that a new, eternal age will replace the current, temporary age. Such would be the views of those who follow Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The new age is described in these religions either as the restoration of the world to its previous state of perfection or as the replacement of the world by a better, more glorious one.
Religions based on a cyclical view of history— such as Taoism, Confucianism, and Shinto–ism— generally do not teach any kind of cosmic eschatology. Asian religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism, however, teach that certain events will happen in the future to usher in the next cycle of history. Chinese Buddhists, for example, view current history as a period of decline at the end of which a messianic figure called Maitreya will establish a new age of bliss and salvation.
In the ancient Near East, eschatological schemes often depicted the arrival of an eternal political order ruled by an ideal king. In some versions, history is divided into four successive kingdoms followed by the fifth and final one. A shift away from this kind of this-worldly eschatology occurred in Zoroastrianism, whose proponents viewed history as a cosmic struggle between the forces of light led by Ahura Mazda (or Ormuzd) and the forces of darkness led by Angra Mainyu (or Ahriman). The end will come with the victory of light, the resurrection of the dead, judgment of individuals, and destruction of evil.
Earlier conceptions of eschatology in the Hebrew Bible were this-worldly in orientation. They envisioned Yahweh’s deliverance and judgment as occurring within history to end poverty and injustice. Beginning in the 8th century BCE, the prophetic writings depict Yahweh as coming to Earth on the “Day of Yahweh” to subdue the enemies of Israel and establish his reign with Jerusalem as the center of the world. After the Babylonian exile, writings such as Isaiah 60-66 and the Book of Daniel began to present an otherworldly, apocalyptic eschatology in which a new heaven and new earth would replace the current world. These biblical depictions of the future often adapted the imagery of the ancient Near Eastern myth of combat between God and the chaos-monster.
Apocalyptic literature, which flourished from 200 BCE to 200 CE among Jews and Christians, recorded autobiographical narratives of visionary experiences during which the seer received insight into either the structure of the cosmos or the events of the end-times. The futuristic apocalypses envisioned a future intervention of God into the flow of history to inaugurate a new, more glorious age. Some apocalypses depicted the future in earthly terms, others described it as more transcendental than worldly, and others combined the two. The Dead Sea Scrolls also reveal the central role that eschatology played in the belief system of the Jews who lived at Qumran.
Greek writers such as Hesiod and Plato described history as the cycle of one epoch or kingdom replacing another. The Stoics envisioned the periodic purification of the cosmos in a future conflagration. Other thinkers such as Cicero and Philo posited that the world may be eternal.
During the Intertestamental period, Jewish writings associated the Day of the Lord with the coming of the Messiah and the resurrection of the dead. The Day of the Lord would be preceded by a period of intense suffering, often referred to as “the messianic woes.” During the 1st century CE, Jewish writings referred to “this age” as dominated by sin and death and “the age to come” as the period of bliss inaugurated when the Messiah (or God) would come to earth.
Modern Theology and Scholarship
Since the late 1800s, New Testament scholars have debated the role of this Jewish eschatology in the teachings of Jesus and Paul. Theologians such as Albrecht Ritschl and Adolf von Harnack ignored the eschatological teachings of Jesus and focused instead on his moral teachings. In opposition, Johannes Weiss interpreted Jesus as teaching that the kingdom of God was a cataclysmic event of the near future in which God would intervene in history. Albert Schweitzer, building on the work of Weiss, also stressed Jesus’s expectation of the imminent coming of the kingdom. Jesus surrendered himself to death so that history might end and God’s kingdom would come. However, the end did not come as he expected, and he died as a failed prophet. Early Christians struggled with the fact that Jesus did not return and establish the kingdom. Paul responded to this “delay of the Parousia” by developing his concept of “Christ mysticism.” The elect have entered into the resurrection mode of existence in the here and now and enjoy bodily union with Christ. Schweitzer’s view is called “consistent” or “thoroughgoing” eschatology.
Throughout the 20th century, theologians struggled with Schweitzer’s interpretations of Jesus and Paul. Scholars such as Karl Barth and Rudolf Bultmann accepted the centrality of eschatology in the teachings of Jesus and Paul but denied its continuing validity for contemporary Christians. For Barth, eschatology did not focus so much on a time beyond this one as on the eternal, uncontrollable action of God from above to below. Bultmann attempted to “demythologize” the eschatology of the New Testament by reinterpreting the apocalyptic imagery in existentialist terms as a radical call to authentic existence in the present. This project was continued in the “new hermeneutics” of his students Ernst Fuchs and Gerhard Ebeling. However, another of his students, Ernst Kasemann, stressed the central role of future eschatology in the teachings of Jesus and Paul.
- Dodd (following Rudolf Otto) took an approach that differed from the approaches of Barth and Bultmann. He emphasized the “realized eschatology” of Jesus and Paul: The kingdom of God arrived in the ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus and is now present and available. The coming of Christ will not be a future event in history but occurs beyond space and time whenever people believe that the Lord is near. His student John A. T. Robinson denied that Jesus expected an immediate and supernatural return from heaven after his death.
Oscar Cullmann developed the view known as “inaugurated” or “proleptic” eschatology, a mediating position between Bultmann and Dodd. Both Jesus and Paul adopted the Jewish dualistic framework of history, but they held the paradoxical view that the age to come has already broken into the present. The kingdom of God is both present and future. This view has also been developed by Joachim Jeremias, Werner Georg Kümmel, George Eldon Ladd, and Anthony Hoekema, and it has become the dominant view of New Testament theology, especially among evangelical Christians. In this view, the “already” and the “not yet” of the kingdom of God are held in tension. The followers of Jesus believed that the promises and predictions of the Hebrew Bible concerning the messianic age and the kingdom of God were fulfilled in Jesus and that his death and resurrection resulted in the turning of the ages. The age to come has broken into the present age so that Christians now live in “the last days” (Acts 2:17; Heb 1:2). Christians have tasted “the powers of the age to come” (Heb 6:5) and are those “on whom the ends of the ages have come” (1 Cor 10:11).
These interpreters argue that the references to the future consummation of the kingdom cannot simply be dismissed as the invention of the church. The New Testament writers awaited the consummation on “the last day” or “the day of the Lord Jesus Christ” when Jesus would return, raise the dead, judge all people, and replace this corrupted world with a new heaven and new earth (1 Thes 4:13-18; 1 Cor 15). Christians now live in the overlapping of the ages and await the culmination of the victory that Jesus won on the cross.
More recently, Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan have argued that eschatology was not central to the teaching of Jesus. In their view, Jesus was not an apocalyptic prophet but a Cynic sage whose teaching focused on proverbial wisdom. In contrast to this growing trend, other scholars, such as E. P. Sanders, John P. Meier, and Dalíe C. Allison, Jr., have argued that Jesus was an eschatological prophet who looked forward to the restoration of the Twelve Tribes of Israel. The debate over the role of eschatology in Jesus’s mission and ministry continues to dominate research into the historical Jesus.
In systematic theology, the centrality and futurity of eschatology have been promoted by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Jürgen Moltmann, Wolfhart Pannenberg, and liberation theologians. For Teilhard, evolution will lead toward greater human progress until Christ descends in his Parousia and permeates the whole cosmos. In opposition to Bultmann, Moltmann emphasized that hope for the future was central to faith in the God of the Bible. The resurrection of Jesus offered the promise of a better future for the world that cannot be reduced to a timeless, historical encounter between God and the individual. Pannenberg stressed that the full meaning of history as God’s history will be revealed only at the end. The resurrection of Jesus anticipates the future end of the world but also allows the power of the future to work in the present. Liberation theologians proposed that a better future can be actualized through political struggle for justice and equality in the here and now.
Christian theology eventually developed four different systems of eschatology, each of which contains numerous variations. The focus of their differences is Revelation 20:1-10, which contains the only reference to the 1,000-year reign of Christ in the New Testament. The earliest view is known as “historic premillennialism” or “chiliasm.” This view was held by many church fathers, including Papias, Irenaeus, Justin Martyr, Tertullian, Victorinus, and Lactantius. According to this schema, the Antichrist will persecute the church during 3 1/2 years of tribulation. Christ will return, raise the dead saints in new bodies, and transform the living saints into their eternal bodies. Christ will judge the nations, imprison Satan in the abyss, and reign on Earth with his saints for 1,000 years (the millennium). Then Satan will be released to draw the nations into one last rebellion. Christ will throw him into the lake of fire, raise all people from the dead, and carry out the last judgment, which will determine the eternal fate of all individuals. The unredeemed will be thrown into the lake of fire, or Gehenna, and the redeemed will enjoy eternity in a renewed heaven and earth. Throughout the history of Christianity, millenar- ian ideas have been promulgated by numerous theologians and Christian sects, including Montanism, Joachim of Fiore, Thomas Müntzer, Seventh-Day Adventists, and Jehovah’s Witnesses. “Historic premillennialism” is still defended by some evangelical Christian theologians such as George Eldon Ladd, George Beasley-Murray, Robert Mounce, Robert Gundry, and Grant R. Osborne.
Several factors led to the decline of chiliasm: (a) its association with Montanism, an early heretical movement; (b) the diminishing expectation of Jesus’s imminent return (“the delay of the Parousia”); (c) the cessation of official persecutions of the church; and (d) the influence of allegorical interpreters such as Origen, Ambrose, Eusebius, Tyconius, Jerome, and Saint Augustine of Hippo. These theologians interpreted the 1,000-year reign as a spiritual reign of Christ through his church in the present age. Although they retained belief in a literal Antichrist, their teachings eventually resulted in the system of “amillennialism,” which traditionally has denied a literal tribulation period, Antichrist, and millennium. The Council of Ephesus in 431 CE condemned as superstition the belief in a literal, 1,000-year reign of Christ on Earth. Amillennialism became the official doctrine of Roman Catholicism and is accepted by most mainline Protestant denominations.
In the 1700s, the system of “postmillennialism” was developed by Daniel Whitby and others and was held by Jonathan Edwards and Alexander Campbell. According to this view, the eventual acceptance of the gospel by all the nations will usher in a golden age of prosperity and peace. After the 1,000 years of bliss, Christ will return to raise the dead, carry out the last judgment, and usher in the eternal age. This view resonated with the optimistic views of progress promoted by the Enlightenment and Darwinism, but the tragedies of World War I caused it to fall into disfavor. Most postmillennialists adopted amillennialism, but some Presbyterian theologians have continued to promote it.
“Dispensational premillennialism” originated among the Irvingites and Plymouth Brethren in Great Britain in 1830 and was disseminated to the United States through the efforts of J. N. Darby. The Scofield Reference Bible popularized this view among fundamentalist Christians, and popular writings in America since the 1970s have increased its acceptance among evangelicals and Pentecostals. This view differs from historic premillennialism by teaching that Christ will come secretly before the 7-year tribulation to “rapture” living Christians from the earth. This view also places more emphasis on God’s future plans for Israelites, who are still his chosen people. Because this system incorporates numerous passages from the Old Testament as well as the New Testament, it offers the most complicated and detailed of the four systems of eschatology.
Islamic and Secular Eschatology
Islam also offers various versions of eschatology. The central theme of Muhammad’s eschatology was “the hour,” the Day of Judgment and final catastrophe. After resurrecting both body and soul, Allah will reward individuals who acted justly by assigning them to paradise (Janna) and will punish other individuals by assigning them to hell (Jahannam). Near the last hour, Gog and Magog will devastate the earth, assault heaven, and be destroyed by Allah. In later versions, Gog and Magog will be led by the Antichrist (al-Dajjal). Some versions, especially among Shi‘ites, also teach that a messianic imam called al-Mahdi (the “guided one”) will return to establish a just society on Earth. The Antichrist, al-Dajjal, will usurp his reign until he is destroyed by ‘Isa (Jesus) or by al-Mahdi. Then will come the final judgment.
Secular versions of eschatology have also been proposed. Charles Darwin viewed natural selection as an ineluctable progress toward perfection. Karl Marx envisioned the future overthrow of the ruling capitalist class by the proletariat, resulting in a utopian, classless, and nonreligious society. Ernst Bloch argued that hope for a better future is a universal characteristic not only of humanity but of the whole universe. In contrast to the Christian view of eschatology, these secular versions propose a better future that is not dependent on the action of God. They criticize Christian eschatology for encouraging political passivity by denying the possibility of a better future within this age brought about by human efforts.
Gregory L. Linton
See also Afterlife; Apocalypse; Bible and Time; Christianity; Ecclesiastes, Book of; End-Time, Beliefs in; Evil and Time; History, End of; Islam; Judaism; Last Judgment; Parousia; Revelation, Book of; Religions and Time; Satan and Time; Teilhard de Chardin, Pierre; Teleology; Time, End of
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