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Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible

Eschatology

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ESCHATOLOGY is that department of theology which is concerned with the ‘last things,’ that is, with the state of individuals after death, and with the course of human history when the present order of things has been brought to a close. It includes such matters as the consummation of the age, the day of judgment, the second coming of Christ, the resurrection, the millennium, and the fixing of the conditions of eternity.

1. Eschatology of the OT . In the OT the future life is not greatly emphasized. In fact, so silent is the Hebrew literature on the subject, that some have held that personal immortality was not included among the beliefs of the Hebrews. Such an opinion, however, is hardly based on all the facts at our disposal. It is true that future rewards and punishments after death do not play any particular rôle in either the codes or the prophetic thought. Punishment was generally considered as being meted out in the present age in the shape of loss or misfortune or sickness, while righteousness was expected to bring the corresponding temporal blessings. At the same time, however, it is to be borne in mind that the Hebrews, together with other Semitic people, had a belief in the existence of souls after death. Such beliefs were unquestionably the survivals of that primitive Animism which was the first representative of both psychology and a developed belief in personal immortality. Man was to the Hebrew a dichotomy composed of body and soul, or a trichotomy of body, soul, and spirit. In either case the body perished at death, and the other element, whether soul or spirit, went to the abode of disembodied personalities. The precise relation of the ‘soul’ to the ‘spirit’ was not set forth by the Hebrew writers, but it is likely that, as their empirical psychology developed, the spirit rather than the soul was regarded as surviving death. In any case, the disembodied dead were not believed to be immaterial, but of the nature of ghosts or shades ( rephaim ).

The universe was so constructed that the earth lay between heaven above, where Jehovah was, and the great pit or cavern beneath, Sheol , to which the shades of the dead departed. The Hebrew Scriptures do not give us any considerable material for elaborating a theory as to life in Sheol, but from the warnings against necromancers, as well as from the story of Saul and the witch of Endor ( 1 Samuel 28:3-18 ), it is clear that, alongside of the Jehovistic religion as found in the literature of the Hebrews, there was a popular belief in continued existence and conscious life of the spirits of men after death, as well as in the possibility of recalling such spirits from Sheol by some form of incantation. The legislation against necromancy is a further testimony to the same fact ( Deuteronomy 18:11 ). Early Hebrew thought also dealt but indistinctly with the occupations and conditions of the dead in Sheol. Apparently they were regarded as in a state resembling sleep.

There is no thought of resurrection of the body in the OT, the clause in Job 19:26 generally used to prove such a point being more properly translated ‘apart from my flesh.’ The resurrection expected was not individual, but national. The nation, or at least its pious remnant, was to be restored. This was the great evangel of the prophets. In the midst of this prophetic thought there was occasionally a reference to individual immortality, but such a belief was not utilized for the purpose of inculcating right conduct. Yet the new and higher conception of the worth of the individual and his relation with Jehovah paved the way to a clearer estimate of his immortality.

The later books of the Canon (Psalms 49:1-20 ; Psalms 73:18-25 ) refer more frequently to immortality, both of good and of evil men, but continue to deny activity to the dead in Sheol ( Job 14:21 ; Job 26:6 , Psalms 88:12 ; Psalms 94:17 ; Psalms 115:17 , Ecclesiastes 9:10 ), and less distinctly ( Isaiah 26:19 ) refer to a resurrection, although with just what content it is not possible to state. It can hardly have been much more than the emergence of shades from Sheol into the light and life of the upper heavens. It would be unwarranted to say that this new life included anything like the reconstruction of the body, which was conceived of as having returned to dust. In these passages there are possibly references to post-mortem retribution and rewards, but if so they are exceptional. OT ethics was not concerned with immortality.

In the Hebrew period, however, there were elements which were subsequently to be utilized in the development of the eschatology of the Pharisees and of Christianity. Chief among these was the Day of Jehovah . At the first this was conceived of as the day in which Jehovah should punish the enemies of His nation Israel. In the course of time, however, and with the enlarged moral horizon of prophecy, the import of this day with its punishments was extended to the Hebrews as well. At its coming the Hebrew nation was to be given all sorts of political and social blessings by Jehovah, but certain of its members were to share in the punishment reserved for the enemies of Jehovah. Such an expectation as this was the natural outcome of the monarchical concept of religion. Jehovah as a great king had given His laws to His chosen people, and would establish a great assize at which all men, including the Hebrews, would be judged. Except in the Hagiographa, however, the punishments and rewards of this great judgment are not elaborated, and even in Daniel the treatment is but rudimentary.

A second element of importance was the belief in the rehabilitation of the Hebrew nation, i.e . in a national resurrection . This carried within it the germs of many of the eschatological expectations of later days. In fact, without the prophetic insistence upon the distinction between the period of national suffering and that of national glory, it is hard to see how the later doctrine of the ‘two ages,’ mentioned below, could have gained its importance.

2. Eschatology of Judaism . A new period is to be seen in the OT Apocrypha and the pseudepigraphic apocalypses of Judaism. Doubtless much of this new phase in the development of the thought was due to the influence of the Captivity. The Jews came under the influence of the great Babylonian myth-cycles, in which the struggle between right and wrong was expressed as one between God and various supernatural enemies such as dragons and giants. To this period must be attributed also the development of the idea of Sheol, until it included places for the punishment of evil spirits and evil men.

This development was accelerated by the rise of the new type of literature, the apocalypse , the beginnings of which are already to be seen in Isaiah and Zechariah. The various influences which helped to develop this type of literature, with its emphasis upon eschatology, are hard to locate. The influence of the Babylonian mythcycles was great, but there is also to be seen the influence of the Greek impulse to pictorial expression. No nation ever came into close contact with Greek thought and life without sharing in their incentive to æsthetic expression. In the case of the Hebrews this was limited by religion. The Hebrew could not make graven images, but he could utilize art in literary pictures. The method particularly suited the presentation of the Day of Jehovah, with its punishment of Israel’s enemies. As a result we have the very extensive apocalyptic literature which, beginning with the Book of Daniel, was the prevailing mode of expression of a sort of bastard prophecy during the two centuries preceding and the century following Christ. Here, however, the central motif of the Day of Jehovah is greatly expanded. Rewards and punishments become largely transcendental, or show a tendency towards transcendental representation. In this representation we see the Day of Judgment, the Jewish equivalent of the Day of Jehovah, closing one era and opening another. The first was the present age, which is full of wickedness and under the control of Satan, and the second is the coming age, when God’s Kingdom is to be supreme and all enemies of the Law are to be punished. It was these elements that were embodied in the Messianic programme of Judaism, and passed over into Christianity (see Messiah).

The idea of individual immortality is also highly developed in the apocalypses. The condition of men after death is made a motive for right conduct in the present age, though this ethical use of the doctrine is less prominent than the unsystematized portrayal of the various states of good and evil men. The Pharisees believed in immortality and the entrance of the souls of the righteous into ‘new bodies’ (Jos. [Note: Josephus.] Ant . XVIII. i. 3), a view that appears in the later apocalypses as well (Eth. Enoch 37 60, cf. 2Ma 7:11 ; 2Ma 14:46 ). This body was not necessarily to be physical, but like the angels (Apoc. [Note: Apocalypse, Apocalyptic.] of Baruch and 2 Esdras, though these writings undoubtedly show the influence of Christian thought). There is also a tendency to regard the resurrection as wholly of the spirit (Eth. Enoch 91:18, 92:3, 103:3f.). Sheol is sometimes treated as an intermediate abode from which the righteous go to heaven. There is no clear expectation of either the resurrection or the annihilation of the wicked. Resurrection was limited to the righteous, or sometimes to Israel. At the same time there is a strongly marked tendency to regard the expected Messianic kingdom which begins with the Day of Judgment as super-mundane and temporary, and personal immortality in heaven becomes the highest good. It should be remembered, however, that each writer has his own peculiar beliefs, and that there was no authoritative eschatological dogma among the Jews. The Sadducees disbelieved in any immortality whatsoever.

3. Eschatology of the NT . This is the development of the eschatology of Judaism, modified by the fact of Jesus’ resurrection.

( a ) In the teaching of Jesus we find eschatology prominently represented. The Kingdom of God , as He conceived of it, is formally eschatological. Its members were being gathered by Jesus, but it was to come suddenly with the return of the Christ, and would be ushered in by a general judgment. Jesus, however, does not elaborate the idea of the Kingdom in itself, but rather makes it a point of contact with the Jews for His exposition of eternal life, that is to say, the life that characterizes the coming age and may be begun in the present evil age. The supreme good in Jesus’ teaching is this eternal life which characterizes membership in the Kingdom. Nothing but a highly subjective criticism can eliminate from His teaching this eschatological element, which appears as strongly in the Fourth Gospel as in the Synoptic writings, and furnishes material for the appeal of His Apostles. It should be added, however, that the eschatology of Jesus, once it is viewed from His own point of view, carries with it no crude theory of rewards and punishments, but rather serves as a vehicle for expressing His fundamental moral and religious concepts. To all intents and purposes it is in form and vocabulary like that of current Judaism. It includes the two ages, the non-physical resurrection of the dead, the Judgment with its sentences, and the establishment of eternal states.

( b ) In the teaching of primitive Christians eschatology is a ruling concept, and is thoroughly embedded in the Messianic evangel. Our lack of literary sources, however, forbids any detailed presentation of the content of their expectation beyond a reference to the central position given to the coming day of the Christ’s Judgment.

( c ) Eschatology was also a controlling element in the teaching of St. Paul. Under its influence the Apostle held himself aloof from social reform and revolution. In his opinion Christians were living in the ‘last days’ of the present evil age. The Christ was soon to appear to establish His Judgment, and to usher in the new period when the wicked were to suffer and the righteous were to share in the joys of the resurrection and the Messianic Kingdom. Eschatology alone forms the proper point of approach to the Pauline doctrines of justification and salvation, as well as his teachings as to the resurrection. But here again eschatology, though a controlling factor in the Apostle’s thought, was, as in the case of Jesus, a medium for the exposition of a genuine spiritual life, which did not rise and fall with any particular forecast as to the future. The elements of the Pauline eschatology are those of Judaism, but corrected and to a considerable extent given distinctiveness by his knowledge of the resurrection of Jesus. He gives no apocalyptic description of the coming age beyond his teaching as to the body of the resurrection, which is doubtless based upon his belief as to that of the risen Jesus. His description of the Judgment is couched in the conventional language of Pharisaic eschatology; but, hasing his teaching upon ‘the word of the Lord’ ( 1 Thessalonians 4:15 ), he develops the doctrine that the Judgment extends both over the living, who are to be caught up into the air, and also over the dead. His teaching is lacking in the specific elements of the apocalypses, and there is no reference to the establishment of a millennium. Opinions differ as to whether St. Paul held that the believer received the resurrection body at death or at the Parousia of Christ. On the whole the former view seems possibly more in accord with his general position as to the work of the Spirit in the believer. The appearance ( Parousia ) of the Christ to inaugurate the new era St. Paul believed to be close at hand ( 1 Thessalonians 4:15 ; 1 Thessalonians 4:17 ), but that it would be preceded by the appearance of an Antichrist ( 2 Thessalonians 2:1 f.). The doctrine of the Antichrist, however, does not play any large rôle in Paulinism. While St. Paul’s point of view is eschatological, his fundamental thought is really the new life of the believer, through the Spirit, which is made possible by the acceptance of Jesus as the Christ. With St. Paul, as with Jesus, this new life with its God-like love and its certainty of still larger self-realization through the resurrection is the supreme good.

( d ) The tendencies of later canonical thought are obviously eschatological. The Johannine Apocalypse discloses a complete eschatological programme. In the latter work we see all the elements of Jewish apocalyptic eschatology utilized in the interest of Christian faith. The two ages, the Judgment and the Resurrection, and the final conquest of God are distinctively described, and the programme of the future is elaborated by the addition of the promise of a first resurrection of the saints; by a millennium (probably derived from Judaism; cf. Slav. Enoch 32, 33) in which Satan is bound; by a great period of conflict in which Satan and his hosts are finally defeated and cast into the lake of fire; and by a general resurrection including the wicked for the purpose of judgment. It is not clear that in this general resurrection there is intended anything more than the summoning of souls from Sheol, for a distinction should probably be made between the resurrection and the giving of the body of the resurrection. This resurrection of the wicked seems inconsistent with the general doctrine of the Pauline literature (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:1-58 ), but appears in St. Paul’s address before Felix ( Acts 24:15 ), and in a single Johannine formula ( John 5:29 ). The doctrine of the ‘sleep of the dead’ finds no justification in the Apocalypse or the NT as a whole.

4. Eschatology and Modern Theology . The history of Christian theology until within the last few years has been dominated by eschatological concepts, and, though not in the sense alleged by its detractors, has been otherworldly. The rewards and punishments of immortality have been utilized as motives for morality. This tendency has always met with severe criticism at the hands of philosophy, and of late years has to a considerable extent been minimized or neglected by theologians. The doctrine of the eternity of punishment has been denied in the interest of so-called second or continued probation, restorationism, and conditional immortality. The tendency, however, has resulted in a disposition to reduce Christian theology to general morality based upon religion, and has been to a large extent buttressed by that scepticism or agnosticism regarding individual immortality which marks modern thought. Such a situation has proved injurious to the spread of Christianity as more than a general ethical or religious system, and it is to be hoped that the new interest which is now felt in the historical study of the NT will reinstate eschatology in its true place.

Such a reinstatement will include two fundamental doctrines: (1) that of individual immortality as a new phase in the great process of development of the Individual which is to be observed in life and guaranteed by the resurrection of Jesus. Distinctions can easily be drawn between the figurative media of NT thought and the great reality of eternal life taught and exemplified by Jesus. (2) The doctrine of a ‘Kingdom of God.’ This expectation, since it involves the elements of a loving personality like that of a God of love, involves a belief in a new humanity that will live a genuinely social life on the earth, although the conditions of such a life must be left undefined. In a word, therefore, the modern equivalent of Jewish eschatology for practical purposes is that of personal (though truly social) immortality and a completion of the development of society. Utterly to ignore the essential elements of NT eschatology is in so far to re-establish the non-Christian concept of material goods as a supreme motive, and to destroy all confidence in the ultimate triumph of social righteousness.

Shailer Mathews.


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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Eschatology'. Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/hdb/e/eschatology.html. 1909.

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