It is now time to bring this extensive (and rather lengthy) series to a close. In drawing together the strands of our study, we may begin with the three components of the early Christian eschatological chronology—the major events/divisions which mark the end-time:
- The period of distress (qli/yi$) for humankind, a time of intense suffering and increasing wickedness, which includes the targeted persecution of believers in Christ. At the climax of this period, an especially wicked foreign ruler will arise (this detail is attested in the New Testament only in a limited way).
- The appearance of the Messiah (Jesus) who will deliver God’s people (i.e. the righteous, believers) and bring about the great Judgment; this relates to the royal (Davidic) Messiah, as well as the heavenly-deliverer figure-type (“Son of Man”, in the sayings of Jesus).
- The onset of the great, final Judgment, which marks the end of the current Age.
Early Christians inherited this basic chronology from the Jewish eschatology of the period, clearly expressed in a number of apocalyptic writings from the first centuries B.C./A.D. (cf. Part 2 of the study “The Antichrist Tradition”). Among the early Christian writings and traditions, the Eschatological Discourse of Jesus, as presented in the Synoptic Gospels, is perhaps the earliest attempt at a systematic framework for this eschatology—a point that is all the more likely if the Synoptic Discourse represents an editorial and literary assemblage of eschatological statements by Jesus, originally uttered on different occasions. Cf. my four-part study on the Discourse, earlier in this series, for a detailed analysis. Using the Markan version, here is the basic outline as it relates to the chronology noted above:
- The end-time period of distress (qli/yi$, v. 19), which is described according to three specific aspects or points of emphasis:
- The coming of the Son of Man (i.e. the Messiah, the return of Jesus, vv. 24-27)
- [The final Judgment is alluded to in vv. 24-25, and also the warnings in vv. 32-37; cp. the parable additions in Matthew 25, esp. vv. 31-46]
Several important points should be reiterated regarding the early Christian eschatology:
- It is tied specifically to a belief in Jesus as the Messiah, which encompasses several distinct Messianic figure-types; both his first coming and his second (return) were understood as eschatological—i.e. end-time events. For more on eschatology and Messianism, cf. the earlier article in this series.
- The New Age began, for believers, with the death and resurrection of Jesus, and is marked by the presence of the Holy Spirit; thus believers are experiencing the Age to Come, at least in part (through the Spirit), in the present, prior to the actual end of the current Age. This is what is commonly referred to as “realized” eschatology, and represents an important aspect of the overall eschatology.
- The early Christian understanding of salvation was also primarily eschatological—that is, in terms of being saved/rescued from the coming end-time Judgment.
- The coming of the end was imminent—believers were already living in the “last days / last hour”, and experiencing the period of distress, and that the return of Jesus (and the great Judgment) would come very soon, presumably within the lifetime of most believers (Mark 13:30 par, etc). For more on this, cf. below.
- In spite of this sense of imminence, it was understood that there was at least a brief period during which Jesus’ disciples (believers) would engage in missionary work throughout the Roman Empire (the known world), bringing the Gospel and message of salvation to the nations.
Of all the Old Testament prophetic passages, it was the visions in the book of Daniel which exerted the most influence on early Christian eschatology, as indeed it did on much of Jewish eschatology in this period. The idea of the period of distress, phrased as it was often by the Greek word qli/yi$, seems to have been inspired directly by Daniel 12:1 LXX; indeed, chapter 12 was quite influential on the shaping of the eschatological worldview. We also have the important development of the “wicked tyrant” motif (cf. Part 1 of “The Antichrist Tradition”), realized in the figure of Antiochus IV Epiphanes, who would serve as a type-pattern for the wicked ruler of the end-time. This pattern would be fulfilled, in the first-century B.C./A.D., by a number of Roman rulers—Pompey, Gaius (Caligula), Nero—which further shaped the early Christian expectation. It was especially the historical tradition of the desecration of the Temple sanctuary, etc, in 9:27 (also 11:31; 12:11) which influenced the Christian portrait of the end-time wicked ruler, and played an enormous role in the subsequent development of the Antichrist Tradition (cf. Part 3 of the aforementioned study). Dan 9:27 is alluded to clearly in the Eschatological Discourse (Mark 13:14 par), and Paul seems to be drawing upon the same line of tradition in 2 Thess 2:3-12 (cf. the study on that passage). The book of Revelation regularly draws upon the visions of Daniel—especially on the chapter 7 vision, of the ‘beast’ that comes up out of the Sea, in Rev 13ff. The opposition to God and His people, and the attack on true religion, by the wicked ruler, was interpreted almost entirely in terms of the persecution of believers in Christ; during the end-time period of distress, and its climax under the wicked (‘antichrist’) ruler, this persecution would be at its most intense and widespread.
Final Note on the Imminent Eschatology of early Christians
I have repeatedly noted—and documented extensively—in this series the imminent eschatology of early Christians which is expressed throughout the New Testament. On this, cf. especially the two-part study devoted to the subject, with the accompanying note on some of the key (and most controversial) Gospel passages. While this aspect of New Testament eschatology is clear enough, it creates considerable difficulty for believers today, especially those with a strong belief in the unique and divine inspiration of the Scriptures. Could the inspired authors have been mistaken about how soon the end would come? So acute is this problem, that many commentators are unwilling or reluctant to admit the rather obvious language of imminence in the eschatological passages, or attempt to soften and generalize its significance in various ways (cf. below).
To be sure, this is one of the most difficult aspects of interpretation today, at least for those who are willing to admit and face it head on. There is no easy solution to the problem. I have touched on the matter, both in the introduction to this series, and in Part 2 on the aforementioned study, presenting a number of possible avenues for approaching the problem. Here are four approaches which I have outlined previously:
- The New Testament authors, like many today, truly believed that the end of the Age was close at hand, presumably to occur during their lifetime. God made use of that belief (common among many Jews and others at the time) for a greater purpose. While the inspired authors could, technically, be seen as having been mistaken on this point, it does not affect the truth of the message which they are communicating to us. [Approach #1]
- In interpreting these passages, our emphasis should not be on individual statements (regarding the end being near, etc), but, rather, upon the overall worldview of which they are a part. This relates, in particular, to the unique way in which early Christians adapted traditional eschatological language. Conceivably, early Christians could also speak of the end being “near”, even though they realized it might not become manifest on earth in the way that traditional eschatology imagined. [Approach #2]
- In speaking of the end as being “near”, this language is really expressing the idea that it could take place at any moment, since no one (not even Jesus [the Son], cf. Mark 13:32 par) knows exactly when the end will occur. [Approach #3]
- The use of this language of imminence is primary rhetorical, rather than literal. It is meant to exhort believers to live and act a certain way, as well as offering hope in difficult times. This view, in part, draws upon a distinction between descriptive and prescriptive language—i.e., how things are (or will be) vs. how things ought to be. [Approach #4]
Approach #3 is probably the most popular approach to the problem adopted by Christians today. It basically holds that the language of imminence means, not that the end will come soon, but that it may come soon. It is certainly a convenient solution, in that it very handily allows for an intervening 1,900+ years of history. Indeed, some commentators and theologians simply define imminence (in eschatology) this way, thereby effectively circumventing the entire chronological problem. You can read my critique of this approach (along with comments on all four), in Part 2 of the study on Imminent Eschatology.
I am much more inclined toward Approaches #1 and 2 above, and especially toward the first of these (#1). As previously noted, this approach essentially involves the principle of accommodation. In terms of the doctrine of inspiration (of Scripture), accommodation theory posits that the inspired authors/speakers may have accepted or adopted views commonly held by people of the time, but which, technically speaking, from our vantage point today, could be deemed erroneous, inaccurate, or incomplete. Put another way, believers at the time may have been mistaken with regard to how soon the end would come, but that this does not fundamentally affect the inspired message communicated through them. In my view, a correct interpretation of early Christian eschatology virtually requires some measure of accommodation. Even if we accept this, the solution to the problem is by no means as simple as it may seem. It is not merely a question of understanding (and accepting) the imminence of early Christian eschatology, but also of how the matter relates to the specific end-time events that make up the eschatology—how and when they will occur.
I outlined above the basic eschatological framework of early Christians. According to the imminence of their eschatology (cf. above), it was believed (and expected) that these end-time events would occur soon, within the very lifetime of those believers. Fair enough; but how, indeed, does this relate to the 1900+ years that have passed? and how should we understand them from our vantage point as Christians today? As I have discussed, much of what Jesus predicts in the Synoptic Eschatological Discourse was fulfilled, more or less accurately, during the first century A.D.—centered around the Jewish War and destruction of the Temple (70 A.D.)—quite within the time-frame indicated in Mk 13:30 par. The glaring exception is, of course, that the event(s) described in vv. 24-27 par did not occur—and, it would seem, have not yet occurred, even after nearly 2000 years. Much the same may be said, for example, of the visions in the book of Revelation. The end-time period of distress, especially for believers, could be understood as having been fulfilled, in varying degrees, during the first and early-second centuries—i.e., the persecutions of believers, the influence of the Roman imperial cult, etc. However, again, the return of Jesus and the great end-time Judgment, depicted so graphically in the vision-cycles, have not yet taken place.
For Christians today, the difficulty involves the best and most correct way to bridge this divide, establishing a way of interpreting the inspired text that both duly recognizes the meaning it had for believers in the first-century, and allows for a true and complete fulfillment, according to God’s purpose. Here are several ways the divide may be bridged—I will discuss each of them briefly before offering my own (tentative) conclusion:
- The “last days / last hour” as a period of indeterminate length
- Dispensational “gap” theory—an intervening period of 1900+ years
- Dual-fulfillment approach—present (first-century) and future (today?)
- “Realized” eschatology, and a deeper meaning that is centered around the Spirit
1. The first option was expressed at least as early as Augustine, commenting on 1 John 2:18 in his homilies on the letter (Homily 3.3), when he states of the “last hour” that “this same last hour is long, yet it is the last (hour)”. Many commentators have followed this basic approach; it is virtually required, if one is to maintain that Christians in the late-first century A.D. were living in the “last hour”, and that we also are today, some 1900+ years later. A theological basis for this approach may be found in the famous dictum stated in 2 Peter 3:8, clearly indicating that God, in His eternity, measures time quite differently than human beings do, and that a period of long duration could still be referred to as a single “day” or “hour”.
2. The second option is similar to the first, but emphasizes a concentration and punctuation of end-time events—once in the 1st century A.D., and then again at some point in the more distant future (i.e. our time today, or thereafter). The basis for this “gap” lies in the central idea of the mission to the surrounding nations, whereby the Gospel is proclaimed to people around the world prior to the events finally coming to pass (cf. Mark 13:10 par). The extent and duration of this missionary activity depends on one’s understanding of the geographical extent of the inhabited world. For nearly all first-century Christians, their geographical understanding of the known world would have been more or less limited to the extent of the Roman Empire; by contrast, for later generations of believers, the extent of the world is far more vast, including many more peoples and nations. The New Testament clearly envisions at least a brief period of time when this missionary activity would occur; however, occasionally, we find the idea of a more extensive mission, which might take longer to complete. The developed forms of the Eschatological Discourse, for example, in Matthew and Luke seem to allow for a somewhat more extensive mission (cf. Matt 24:14; Luke 21:24-26). Even so, I am quite certain that the idea of a period of hundreds of years—even two thousand or more—would not even have remotely occurred to the New Testament authors. For dispensationalist commentators, this “gap” in time, this period of missionary activity, might be referred to specifically as the “Church Age”.
3. A somewhat different solution reflects a common interpretive approach adopted (or applied) by Christians with regard to Old Testament prophecy. This is based upon a recognition that the common early Christian (and New Testament) understanding of many prophecies, viewing them as relating specifically to the person of Jesus (his birth, life, and death, etc), represents a secondary application of those prophecies (and not their original or primary meaning), it is possible to speak of them as being fulfilled on two different levels:
- The original historical context, in the history of Israel, and
- The inspired (but secondary) application to Jesus and his followers (believers)
On this basis, the prophecies can still be fulfilled for later believers (centered around Jesus as the Messiah, etc), without losing their original meaning and significance for people (Israelites/Jews) at the time. The same sort of phenomenon would then occur for the prophecy and eschatology in the New Testament—there is an original fulfillment (with meaning and significance) for first-century Christians, as well as a secondary (future/final) application that would relate to believers today. I discuss this approach a bit further in my conclusion to the notes on the book of Revelation.
4. The final approach outlined above recognizes more clearly the cultural (and scientific, etc) limitations of people in the first-century A.D. Their worldview, along with various inherited religious and cultural traditions—including eschatological and Messianic traditions—greatly shaped the manner in which the New Testament message is expressed. These traditions include the use of apocalyptic symbolism and a related mode of expression, which, if taken in an overly literal or concrete manner, could give a misleading impression of the underlying message. For example, even among early Christians, there was a profound “realized” eschatology—fulfilled in the present, through the Spirit—alongside the more traditional imminent/future eschatology of Jewish apocalyptic. An argument can be made that this “realized” aspect becomes more dominant in the later writings of the New Testament (c. 70-100 A.D.), including those with a more developed theology (and Christology)—the later (and/or deutero-) Pauline writings, the letter to the Hebrews, and, especially, the Gospel and letters of John. This may reflect a measure of “progressive revelation”—a gradual, but deeper understanding of the true nature and character of the inspired message, centered primarily on the presence and work of the Spirit. While this does not eliminate the imminent future eschatology of early Christians—far from it!—it may change how we look at the way it is expressed in many passages, in light of the overall Gospel message. The end-time events—distress for believers, Judgment on the world, the coming of Jesus to us—are realized spiritually, in the present, as much they will be manifest, in more traditional terms, in the future.
There is merit in each of the four approaches discussed above; indeed, I am inclined to adopt and include elements or aspects of each. I would do this here, in closing, by way of a theological summation, making the following points:
- Ultimately the “end time” is not as much a matter of a specific moment (kairo/$) or durative period (xro/no$) of time, as it is of the character of what we, as believers, experience in time.
- Primarily, this is to be understood by the character of Jesus as the Messiah—that is to say, his very person, presence, and work is eschatological, and marks the end of the current Age.
- As believers, united with him through the Spirit, we experience this New Age now, in the present. This extends to all of the traditional end-time and afterlife events—resurrection, passing through the Judgment, eternal life, the vision of God, etc. There is no better guide to this “realized” aspect of eschatology, for believers, than the Discourses of Jesus in the Gospel of John.
- A central point of eschatology is the establishment of the Kingdom of God on earth—the essential New Testament message in this regard is that God’s Kingdom is realized in a two-fold manner: (1) through the presence of the Spirit (cf. the previous point), and (2) by the proclamation of the Gospel.
- This centrality of the proclamation of the Gospel means that it may properly be understood as the central end-time event. While early Christians had a much more limited and smaller-scale knowledge of the extent of the inhabited world, the reality of this (known to us today) may rightly require a longer period of time (unknown to believers then).
- The visible return of Jesus (from heaven) to earth was (and remains) a fundamental tenet of Christian belief. While it is possible to interpret (or re-interpret) this in various ways, it must remain central to any proper eschatological understanding. There is a metaphysical aspect to our union with Christ—hence the importance of resurrection, in addition to our union through the Spirit, in the New Testament. The return of Jesus to us is part of this same idea (see esp. 1 Thess 4:13-18 and Col 3:1-4).
- The final Judgment, however it may best be understood—and there are many different ways of depicting/describing it—is at the heart of the Gospel message of salvation, and cannot be avoided. Here, it is helpful to consult the “realized” eschatology in the Gospel of John (and its references to the Judgment), to avoid relying too heavily on traditional (and colorful) apocalyptic depictions of the Judgment.
With regard to the imminent eschatology in the New Testament—while early Christians (and the New Testament authors) may have been mistaken (in some sense) in their expectation of how soon the end would come, the message of imminence was quite correct in at least several respects:
- Believers were (and are), indeed, living at the moment of the end of the current Age (of sin and wickedness), and in the beginning of the New Age (in Christ)
- Believers then (and now) do experience many of the events and characteristics of the end-time, as described in the eschatological passages—most notably, the conflict with the surrounding world of darkness and evil, that is characteristic of the period of distress.
- The sense that the end—certainly of a person’s life, but also in a wider sense—can and will come soon, and suddenly, in a moment, is important to keep in mind. The brevity and transitory nature of human life, while part of more general wisdom tradition, is often expressed in the New Testament in eschatological terms. This transitory mortal existence is in direct contrast to the eternal life we experience—in the New Testament, the very idiom is eschatological: “life of the Age(s), life of the Age (to Come)”.
- Finally, the language of imminence serves to enhance the promise to us—that Jesus will come to us, that we will be united with him (body and soul), that we will experience a transforming vision of God, that the forces of evil will be defeated and eradicated, etc. This promise is surely more significant that the language (of imminence) used to express it.