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Eschatology is derived from the combination of the Greek eschatos, meaning “last,” and logos, meaning “word” or “significance.” Refers to the biblical doctrine of last things. The doctrine of last things normally focuses on a discussion of the return of Christ at the end of the age, the coming judgments, various expressions of the kingdom of heaven and the kingdom of God, the nature of the glorified body, and the prospects for eternal destiny. Generally, eschatology sets itself apart as a theology of the future and in juxtaposition to both history and the present age.
This general consensus about the nature of eschatology was challenged by C. H. Dodd and others in the early part of the 20th century. In a 1935 publication entitled The Parables of the Kingdom, Dodd noted NT passages in which Jesus and others seemed to speak of the kingdom of heaven as if it were already present. John the Baptist spoke of the kingdom of God as being “at hand” (Matt. 3:2), and Jesus Himself seems to have employed that same terminology (Matt. 10:7). Even more specifically Jesus declared, “If I drive out demons by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God has come to you” (Matt. 12:28 HCSB). In Luke 17:20 and following, Jesus again seems to insist that the kingdom of God is in the midst of the disciples. Dodd concluded that Jesus believed He was bringing the kingdom in His own person. Dodd reinterpreted passages that had always been given a futuristic cast in light of his theory, which became known as realized eschatology, meaning that the fulfillment of all endtime anticipation was secured in Christ.
Dodd’s critics, however, responded by pointing to his failure to deal adequately with texts such as Matt. 6:10 where Jesus Himself taught His disciples to pray, “Your kingdom come. Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (HCSB). Again Jesus said that the gospel of the kingdom will be preached to all the earth as a witness to all the nations “and then the end will come” (Matt. 24:14 HCSB). Jesus seemed also to allude to a future time when He spoke of people coming from the east and west and north and south to “recline at the table in the kingdom of God” (Luke 13:28–29 HCSB). Paul seems to be speaking of a future act when he says, “Then comes the end, when He hands over the kingdom to God the Father, when He abolishes all rule and all authority and power. For He must reign until He puts all His enemies under His feet” (1 Cor. 15:24–25 HCSB).
This debate, which at first seems to be merely another scholarly discussion, is important because it gave rise to a new emphasis on the eschatology of the NT as being an eschatology of “already—and not yet.” In other words, Jesus does seem to indicate that in some meaningful sense the kingdom of God came with the advent of the Messiah. Still there are other respects in which the kingdom does not arrive in its ultimate expression until the end times. Consequently, one may conclude that the study of last things begins with the incarnation of Christ and does not end until the events associated with His return.
In this regard, to speak of the return or coming again of Christ is more technically accurate than to refer to the second coming. There are two reasons for this. First, in only one text does the Bible approximate the language of “second coming.” The author of Hebrews says that “the Messiah … will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for Him” (Heb. 9:28 HCSB). The other references in the NT simply speak of His coming or His presence among us. The second reason for caution at this point is the fact that there do seem to be theophanies or more precisely Christophanies (appearances of Christ) in the OT. If this is the case, then to speak of His incarnation would be the proper terminology for the beginning of the eschatos and to speak of His return the best way to think of the final fulfillment of all prophecy.
Eschatological Material in the Old Testament The OT, not just the NT, is intensely eschatological in its nature. If eschatology does indeed begin with the coming of the Christ, then all messianic prophecies fall in the category of eschatological material. For example, Isa. 9:6–7, a passage about the birth of Christ, becomes eschatological because not only does it speak of a child (a son) being given but also that “the government will be upon His shoulders” and that “of the increase of His government and peace there will be no end.” Other books of the OT have large segments of material that are clearly eschatological, having to do with the end time. For example, Dan. 9 records the famous seventieth week prophecy of Daniel. A portion of the prophecy seems to have been fulfilled at the time of the death of the one to whom the passage refers as “the Prince.” Clearly, the “Prince” is used as a synonym for the Messiah (Dan. 9:25). But again the prophecy also speaks of the 70 weeks being apportioned not only “to make an atonement for iniquity” but also “to bring in everlasting righteousness” and “to seal up vision and prophecy” (Dan. 9:24 NASB). Once again, the events seem to indicate a continuum beginning at the incarnation and atonement of Christ and culminating in the fulfillment of all prophecy and the bringing of everlasting righteousness.
The Prophet Ezekiel boasts many eschatological passages but from chapters 36 to 48 there can be little question but that the end times are in view. These chapters include a magnificent view of an eschatological temple, salient information on God’s plan for the restoration of the Jewish nation, and in chapter 36 an explanation of God’s again dealing with the Jewish people after their recalcitrance (Ezek. 36:19–24). Meantime Zechariah sees a day coming when there will be a fountain open for the house of David and for the house of Jerusalem “for sin and for impurity” (Zech. 13:1). The marvelous prophecies of Isaiah contain significant and far-reaching prophecies of the end times. For example, the days will come, predicted Isaiah, “in the last days” when all nations will “hammer their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks” and learn of war no more (Isa. 2:2, 4 NASB). The same prophet sees a return to domesticity on the part of the animals—a day when “the wolf will dwell with the lamb, and the leopard will lie down with the kid” (Isa. 11:6). He further anticipates a day when the original fruitfulness of the earth will be restored and the desert “will rejoice and blossom” (Isa. 35:1).
Eschatological Material in the New Testament The NT takes up where the OT ended. Jesus Himself spoke frequently about the eschatos. His remarks are enshrined in what is known as the Olivet Discourse in Matt. 24–25, a discourse provided in succinct form in what is called the Little Apocalypse in Mark 13. In those passages Jesus spoke specifically of cataclysmic upheavals belonging to the end times and such devastation during the period known as the Great Tribulation that “unless those days were cut short, no one would survive” (Matt. 24:22 HCSB). Jesus announced that men would see Him coming in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory (Matt. 24:30) but that no one would know the day nor the hour of these events, only His Father in heaven (Matt. 24:36). He spoke of two who would be in the field—one of whom would be taken and another left (Matt. 24:40). He illustrated the whole theme of His return with the parable of the wise and foolish virgins (Matt. 25:1–13), which culminated in a warning concerning watchfulness. Jesus concluded this discourse with the gathering of all nations and God’s final judgment for them (Matt. 25:31–46).
Paul frequently visited eschatological themes as in 1 Cor. 15, where he explicated carefully the nature of the glorified body that the saints will receive at the coming of the Lord. In Rom. 9–11, Paul picked up the question of God’s program with the Jewish people, which he sees them as continuing and flourishing again in the last days. He speaks of an olive tree whose original branches (the Jews) were taken away and of the branches of a wild olive tree (the Gentiles), which were grafted in. However, he anticipates a time coming when the original branches will be grafted in again (Rom. 11:17–26). Finally, he speaks of “a partial hardening” that “has come to Israel until the full number of the Gentiles has come in” and then anticipates “all Israel will be saved” (Rom. 11:25–26 HCSB).
In addition to all of these passages, the Apocalypse of John (the book of Revelation) is a book that is eschatological almost from the outset. A vision of the glorified Christ in chapter one is followed by messages to seven historical churches in Asia Minor in chapters two and three. But beginning with the throne room scene of heaven in chapter four, the remainder of the book seems to be futurist in its orientation, dealing principally with the unfolding of the catastrophic events during the Great Tribulation and concluding with the anticipation of the final judgment (Rev. 20:11–15) and the unveiling of the new heavens and new earth in chapters 21 and 22.
Systems of Thought about the Eschatos At no point in biblical interpretation is a hermeneutical presupposition more compelling than in the study of the end times. In approaching eschatological materials that often make use of highly symbolic language, the questions arise: “To what degree are the subjects broached in the text to be taken literally?” and “To what degree should they be taken in a figurative fashion?” As an example of the problem, the passages in Isaiah that foretell a wolf lying down with a lamb might be interpreted to belong to an actual kingdom age in which all animals live at peace with other animals and with their human neighbors. On the other hand, some interpreters insist that this be understood figuratively. In this case, the passage would not anticipate a literal fulfillment but depicts the peace of God that exists in the heart of the believer and, for that matter, in the cosmos when Christ is honored as King. The discussion comes ultimately to a head in Rev. 20:1–10, a section in which a period of “a thousand years” is mentioned no less than six times in seven verses. This thousand years, which is spoken of in theological literature as the millennium (from Latin mil meaning one thousand and annum meaning years) is a period in which Satan is not allowed to deceive the nations for a thousand years and in which the saints of God live and reign with Christ for a thousand years. If one approaches these verses with a hermeneutical decision that they are to be understood in a straightforward way, then he would anticipate a thousand-year reign of Christ on the earth at the end of the age. If, on the other hand, the material is to be treated as merely “Jewish apocalyptic genre” that should be understood spiritually instead of literally, then the passage becomes simply another way of speaking of the ultimate sovereignty of God and His reign over all things. The basic decision one makes about this will then determine in which of the following ways he understands the eschatology of the Bible.
Amillennialism The amillennialists (the alpha negative prefix has the sense of “no”) is the position of those who believe that most of the eschatological materials in the Bible referring to the end of the age should not be understood in a strictly literal fashion. They anticipate no kingdom age on this earth and understand the kingdom solely in the terms of its eternal expression.
Postmillennialism On the other hand, postmillennialists (so called because the word post means “after”) believe that there will be a kingdom age of sorts on the earth that will be consummated by the coming of Christ. Hence, the coming of Christ is “post” (after) the millennium. This view, which was more popular in church history prior to World War II, sees the church and its missionary movement as being wonderfully prolific and successful. Consequently, at some point the reign of Christ through the church is experienced on the earth, the culmination of which is the coming of Christ at the end of the millennium.
Premillennialism Another popular view that attempts to understand the Scriptures generally in a more literal fashion sees Christ returning to the earth before the millennium (hence, the prefix “pre”). According to this view, the kingdom age on earth cannot begin without the King in residence. Hence, Christ returns to the earth, subdues all of His enemies, and establishes a kingdom of righteousness for a thousand years.
The Tribulation As indicated earlier, Jesus spoke of a coming time of trouble on the earth such as has never been duplicated in all the history of the world. This message seems also to be the clear teaching of the seventieth week of Daniel, the book of Revelation, and other texts. One of the questions that theologians have debated, particularly in recent years, has been the relationship of the church to the tribulation. This debate is one in which neither amillennialists nor postmillennialists, but only premillennialists, have a stake. Among premillennial scholars there are three primary positions and a number of subsidiary positions. The three major positions are designated pretribulationism, midtribulationism, and posttribulationism.
Pretribulationists believe that Christ will be revealed at the outset of the tribulation period of seven years. The dead in Christ will rise, and every true believer will be caught up to be with the Lord in the air. A period of seven years of the outpouring of the wrath of God upon the earth, which will conclude with the return of Christ to establish His millennial kingdom, will follow. Hence, Christ comes for the church prior to the tribulation and prior to the millennium to establish His kingdom.
Midtribulationism, on the other hand, notes that the Apocalypse divides the tribulation into two periods of three and one-half years each. Midtribulationists suggest that Christ will return for the church after the first half of the tribulation. The church, therefore, will have to experience the first forty-two months of the tribulation period but will be rescued from the most debilitating portion of it.
Posttribulationism (referred to as historic premillennialism by its advocates), however, argues that the church endures the Great Tribulation but is not the object of God’s wrath poured out on the wicked. They see only one return of Christ in Scripture, in opposition to the two posited by either pretribulationism or midtribulationism. Therefore, Christ comes at the end of the tribulation to receive the church to Himself and then returns immediately to the earth to establish the kingdom age.
Other views that have been advocated by a few include partial rapturism (the view arguing that only the watching church will be taken) and pre-wrath-rapturism (a view that simply moves the time of the rapture later in the tribulation than midtribulationists maintain). The view, however, is still essentially a midtribulationist view.
Other Eschatological Issues Other issues that are debated among those studying eschatology include (as indicated above) the coming of Christ. The issue here is whether or not one may discern the return of Christ to happen in two segments—one for the church and one to establish His kingdom—or whether there is but one return of Christ to establish the kingdom age.
Still another question revolves around the nature and number of the judgments. At least three passages of Scripture address the question of end-time judgments. First Corinthians 3:11–15 seems to envision a judgment of believers that is also mentioned in Rom. 14:10 and 2 Cor. 5:10, referred to as the “judgment seat of Christ” in the latter reference. Matthew 25:31–46 recalls the words of Jesus regarding the “sheep and goat judgment.” Revelation 20:11–15 has been called the “Great White Throne Judgment” and seems to focus on the judgment of the lost. Amillennialists and some premillennialists tend to believe that all these judgments are simply varying pictures of the final judgment of all men. On the other hand, other premillennialists argue that they are three separate judgments—the judgment seat of Christ representing a judgment that will take place immediately following the rapture of the church prior to the tribulation. It is a judgment for believers only and has to do with the bequeathal of rewards. The sheep and goat judgment in Matt. 25, on the other hand, is a determination of who enters the millennial era or the kingdom age by the Lord at the conclusion of the tribulation. Sheep enter; goats are excluded. The Great White Throne Judgment, however, is a judgment at the end of all time in which only unbelievers are judged.
A final question relates to eternal destiny. The Bible makes it reasonably clear that those who are not found written in the Book of Life are turned aside into the lake of fire or into hell. The righteous, on the other hand, are admitted into heaven. Few evangelical Christians question either the existence of heaven or the eternal longevity of it. However, the possibility of a place of punishment that provides suffering for eternity has proved an intolerable conception for some theologians in the present era. Theologians as prominent as John Stott and Clark Pinnock, therefore, have argued that the lost are turned aside into hell where after a period of suffering for their sins they are annihilated. Annihilationism is viewed by most evangelical scholars as radically inconsistent with the testimony of the biblical narrative. Those who agree point out that if the words used to describe hell are not to be taken literally, then it is difficult to imagine that the same words used to describe heaven should be taken in a different way.
Conclusion Eschatology has too often become a battlefield of contention rather than an oasis of hope in the desert of life. Attitudes toward the study of eschatology range from preoccupation with such matters alone to the desire to avoid the subject altogether as one that has caused too much contention and that is too difficult. Both approaches seem less than wholesome. The object of the information given in the Bible concerning eschatology seems to be not so much to provide every detail but rather to create hope and anticipation as the church looks for “the blessed hope and glorious appearing of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:13).
by Paige Patterson