Special Study: Imminent Eschatology in the New Testament (Pt 2)

A reminder of the outline for this study:

    1. Evidence that the New Testament authors/speakers believed that Jesus would return and the end would come very soon—i.e. during their own time, in the 1st century A.D., roughly speaking. In so doing, it is important to determine whether this was the dominant view—that is, what, if any evidence is there to the contrary?
    2. An attempt to explain this eschatological expectation, from several aspects:
      1. The phenomenology of religion
      2. Eschatological and apocalyptic views common at the time, and
      3. New Testament theology and the doctrine of inspiration (of the New Testament writings)

The New Testament evidence was examined in Part 1; here, in the second Part, we will explore interpretive approaches to the question.

2. Explanations for the imminent eschatology in the New Testament

a. Phenomenology of Religion. It would seem to be a generally observable phenomenon that, where there is a strong eschatological component to the religious thought and belief of particular individuals or groups, this eschatology is almost always imminent. That is to say, there is present the belief that the current time is the “end time” and that people at the moment are living in the “last days”, the period just before the end. This is quite understandable from the standpoint of religious psychology—what is the urgency of a message about the end, if it does not relate directly to the life situation of those being addressed? Even adherents of religious traditions which have a broader conception of cyclical time—cycles of Ages—tend to envision that they are living at the end of a cycle, and/or at the end of the current Age. It would be difficult to find many examples where this is not the case.

Built into this idea is also the tendency to conceive of the current Age—and, in particular, the moment in which people are living—as especially corrupt, in comparison to prior periods, and becoming increasingly so. Eschatological thought serves, in part, to offer hope for a better future, an ideal time—of peace, prosperity, justice and righteousness, etc—that is a stark contrast with the present. From the theological standpoint, the expectation is strong that God will eventually correct the apparent evils in the current order of things, punishing the wicked and rewarding the righteous, removing the causes of suffering in the world, and so forth. The natural hope, of course, is that this might happen soon, in the very lifetimes of those living at present, that they might live to see a new and transformed world, with the power and justice of God more clearly manifest in the created order.

b. Eschatology and Apocalyptic in the first centuries B.C./A.D. Of the many eschatological and apocalyptic traditions and movements roughly contemporary with the New Testament, i.e. in the first centuries B.C./A.D., those most relevant to early Christianity, and about which we are best informed, are associated with the Community of the Qumran texts (the Dead Sea Scrolls from Qumran). Like the early Christians, the Qumran Community believed they were living in the “last days”, and that God was about to act to bring Judgment upon the wicked/nations and to deliver the faithful ones among His people (i.e. the Community).

One way we see this expressed is in the use of the idiom <ym!Y`h^ tyr!j&a^ (°aµ¦rî¾ hayy¹mîm), “(the time) after the days”. Originally, this expression simply meant “in the time to come, in the future”, but its use in the later Prophets (Jer 23:20; 30:24; 31:33; 48:47; 49:39; Ezek 38:16; Daniel 10:14; cf. also Hos 3:5; Mic 4:1), as well as in two key passages which came to be understood as Messianic (Gen 49:1; Num 24:14), gave it a definite eschatological significance (often translated “end of [the] days”) by the 2nd-1st century B.C. It occurs some 30 times in the Qumran texts, and in at least two places there is the clear indication that the author/audience believed that this “end-time” was their own time:

    • In the so-called “Halakhic Letter” (4QMMT [4Q394-399]) section C 13-15ff, Deuteronomy 30:1ff is cited (“and it will be when all these things come upon you…”), framing the coming Judgment in terms of the covenant blessings and curses, and declaring that these have been (and are being fulfilled) in the present: “and this is the (time) after the days, when they will return in Israel to the Law…” (C 21). The members of the Community are those who faithfully observe the Law, and, as the end comes nearer, it is expected that more in Israel will turn and join them.
    • In the document 1QSa, a kind of supplement to the Community Rule text (1QS), it is declared in the opening words, “And this is the rule of all the congregation of Israel in the (time) after the days…”.

The expression also occurs a number of times in the interpretive (midrashic) works, such as the 4QFlorilegium [4Q174] and 4QCatena [4Q177], in which different Scripture passages are brought together, being interpreted in a Messianic (and eschatological) sense and applied to the time and life-setting of the Community (cf. also 1QpHab 2:5-6; 4QpNah 3-4 ii. 2; Collins, p. 79). There is also the similar expression /wrjah Jq, “the end (coming) after”, i.e. the final age, etc, which occurs, for example, in the commentary [pesher] on Habakkuk (7:5-6, on Hab 2:3); cf. also in the Damascus Document (CD 1:12). In the commentary on Hab 2:3, we can detect an awareness of a ‘delay’ in the coming of the expected end. According to the Damascus Document (CD/QD), the Community made use of Daniel’s Seventy Weeks prophecy (Dan 9:24-27, cf. the earlier article on this passage)—70 weeks of years, i.e. 490 years—which coincides with the Jubilee period framework (i.e. 10 x 49 years), to determine a general time for the coming of the end, one which coordinated with a period of 40 years after the death of the “unique Teacher” (CD 20:14). This leading figure is probably to be identified with the “Teacher of Righteousness” (or “Righteous Teacher”, cf. Part 4 of the series “Yeshua the Anointed”). The end-time of God’s Judgment will begin around 40 years after this person’s death. Quite possibly, 1QpHab 7:5-6 indicates that this benchmark date has come and gone, and that some explanation for the delay is required. This sort of thing occurs quite frequently in eschatological belief. As time passes, imminent expectation of the end must be re-interpreted and explained; and yet, there is no evidence for any ‘trauma’ within the Qumran Community due to this apparent delay. Eschatological thought tends to be rather flexible in this regard.

c. New Testament Theology. There a number of important areas of early Christian thought, as expressed in the New Testament, that are directly related to an imminent eschatology, and which help to explain the importance of this eschatological aspect. In no small measure, early Christian theology is based on an imminent expectation of the end. All of these areas for consideration have been, and will be, discussed in the various notes and articles of this series. Here I wish to delineate the most relevant strands of thought, touching upon each of the following:

    1. Belief in Jesus as the Anointed One (Messiah)
    2. The early Christian understanding of salvation
    3. The Christian religious worldview as ‘dispensational’
    4. Christian identity and the early mission-work
    5. The early Christian movement as the fulfillment of Prophecy
    6. Theodicy and the future hope

(1) Belief in Jesus as the Anointed One (Messiah)

As I have discussed in considerable detail throughout the series “Yeshua the Anointed”, Jesus was identified with all of the Messianic figure-types present in Jewish thought during the first centuries B.C./A.D. Messianic belief and expectation was fundamentally eschatological—the appearance of these Anointed figures corresponded with the end of the current Age, and, with it, God’s end-time Judgment on the wicked/nations and the deliverance of God’s people (the faithful ones). Thus, to say that a person (such as Jesus) was, in fact, the Messiah—whether of the Davidic Ruler tradition or another figure-type—meant that the current moment, in which that person was alive and present on earth, was the “end time”, the “last days”, etc. In other words, the very belief in Jesus as the Anointed One (Messiah) necessitated a belief among the first Christians that the end was near. In all likelihood, such an eschatological view preceded their belief in Jesus, being part of the wider Jewish eschatology (and Messianism) of the time (cf. on the Qumran Community, above). I have discussed this in more detail in an earlier article of this series.

What is unique with regard to the Christian view of the Messiah, in relation to the end-time, is that Jesus departed earth, being exalted and ascending to Heaven, before fulfilling entirely the Messianic role expected of him. This entails a period of some length before his return to earth, at which point the Messianic eschatological expectation will be realized. However, as we have seen—in Part 1 of this article and throughout this series—this is quite compatible with an imminent eschatology, with the general understanding that this intervening period was to be relatively brief, i.e. with the lifetime of most believers.

(2) The early Christian understanding of salvation

It is possible to isolate two main ways salvation is expressed—typically using the verbs sw|/zw (with the noun swthri/a) and r(u/omai—from a religious/metaphysical standpoint, in the New Testament and early Christian tradition:

    • Salvation from sin—either: (a) from the effect of personal sins, or (b) from the power and control of sin
    • Salvation from the end-time Judgment by God, often described in terms of being saved from the anger/wrath of God which is about to come upon humankind

Interestingly, the aspect of salvation which is probably most commonly in mind with people today—that of the individual’s personal salvation following death (i.e. from the punishment [of Hell])—is not emphasized particularly in the New Testament. This, of course, was a popular way of thinking even in ancient times, usually depicted in some manner as the person standing before a divine/heavenly tribunal after death to be judged according to his/her deeds and actions while alive. The background of this idea is retained in early Christian thought, as for example, in the Beatitude form (Matt 5:3-12 / Lk 6:20-26) and the image of entering/inheriting the Kingdom (i.e. of the heavenly/eternal life), cf. Mk 9:47; 10:23ff; Matt 5:20; 7:21; 25:34; Jn 3:5; Acts 14:22; 1 Cor 6:9-10; Gal 5:21, etc. However, specific references to the traditional (afterlife) scene of Judgment are somewhat rare in the New Testament (cf. 2 Cor 5:10; Rom 2:6ff; 14:10-12; also Matt 10:32-33; 12:41-42 par; 25:31-46). This is largely due to the fact that the eschatological emphasis has shifted to the (imminent) coming of the end—that is, the coming of God’s Judgment upon the earth, expected to occur soon, within the lifetime of most people. Early Christians widely shared this expectation, along with many Jews of the period; the distinctly Christian component was the role of Jesus as the Anointed One (Christ) of God and heavenly “Son of Man” whose coming (back) to earth from Heaven would usher in the Judgment. Thus the idea of salvation meant being saved from the Judgment (the anger/wrath of God) about to be visited upon sinful, wicked humanity (cf. the “day of YHWH” motif in the Old Testament Prophets). Christ, as the divine representative of YHWH, oversees the Judgment, but also acts as savior and deliverer of the Elect—that is, of God’s faithful people, the believers. This eschatological context for salvation is found all throughout the New Testament; of the many passages, I would note the following:

A similar (generalized) sense of eschatological salvation is found widely in early Christian thought—e.g., Luke 3:6 [Isa 40:5]; John 3:17; 5:34; 10:9; 12:47; Romans 10:9; 11:14, 26; 1 Cor 1:8; 3:15; 9:22; 10:33; 15:2; Phil 1:6, 9-10; 2:16; 1 Thess 5:23-24; 2 Thess 2:10; 2 Tim 2:4, 10, (15); 4:16; James 1:21; 2:14; 4:12; 5:20; 1 Pet 1:5, 9-10; 4:18? [Prov 11:31]; (2 Pet 2:9); (Jude 23); Heb 1:14; (7:25); 9:28. Virtually the entire book of Revelation deals with this theme.

What is the significance of this? It means that the whole of the early Gospel message tends to be eschatological in character, even apart from its central aspect identifying Jesus as the (end-time) Messiah (cf. above). For more on this, see the discussion in the two-part article on Eschatology in the book of Acts, as well as the upcoming articles on Paul’s eschatology.

(3) The Christian religious worldview as ‘dispensational’

By “dispensational” I simply mean the recognition of a clear demarcation between two different Ages—this Age, and “the Age to Come”. The earliest Christian communities were marked by certain religious phenomena which indicated that a “New Age” was being ushered in. This is expressed most clearly in the book of Acts, with the descriptions of the coming of the Holy Spirit upon believers in Christ, with accompanying phenomena—miraculous speaking in foreign languages (“tongues”), the ability to prophesy, the working of healing miracles, etc. Peter, in his great Pentecost speech, citing Joel 2:28-32, declares that this manifestation of the Spirit is a fulfillment of prophecy and shows that the early believers are living in the “last days” (vv. 16ff); for more on this, cf. Part 1 of “Eschatology in the book of Acts” and Parts 23 of the series “The Speeches of Acts”.

Much the same may be said of the other episodes in the book of Acts, involving the manifestation of the Spirit in the mission work of Paul and the other Apostles. The early Christian communities continued this “charismatic” tradition, experiencing similar spiritual phenomena and “gifts”, to judge from the New Testament evidence (esp. in 1 Corinthians). There is every reason to think that this was understood as a foretaste, an initial ushering in, of the Age to Come, during the (brief) period before the return of Jesus. Paul, it would seem, expresses this rather clearly in 1 Cor 13:8-12 (cf. my earlier note on this passage). Thus, even if early believers were to doubt that they were living in the “last days”, and even if a belief in Jesus as the Messiah did not necessitate it, the spiritual phenomena they experienced provided proof that the end was near and a New Age was about to begin.

(4) Christian identity and the early mission-work

If we accept the authenticity of the tradition in Acts 1:6-8, Jesus, in instructing and commissioning his disciples prior to his departure from earth (vv. 9-11), declared that their missionary work, proclaiming the Gospel to the surrounding peoples, was eschatological in nature (cf. Part 1 of the “Eschatology in the book of Acts”). This same point was made in the Synoptic “Eschatological Discourse” of Jesus, fitting the early apostolic mission into a framework for the coming of the end (Mark 13:9-13 par). Moreover, this, along with the other aspects of early Christian thinking mentioned above, helped to inform the self-identity of believers in Christ as the end-time people of God—those faithful ones, living in the “last days”, who will be rescued from the coming Judgment. In this regard, the early Christian communities had much in common with the Qumran Community (cf. above).

The reality of their (daily) life and existence shaped the way this eschatological expectation was expressed, and vice versa. This took place in all kinds of small ways—see, for example, the eschatological dimension of Paul’s instruction on marriage in 1 Cor 7:25-31 (to be discussed). Or, consider how the imminent expectation of the end caused concern for the Thessalonian believers with regard to relatives and other believers who had already died (1 Thess 4:13-18, study upcoming), and how Paul addresses this. At other times, it might involved more complex and detailed patterns of thought, such as in Paul’s famous discussion in Romans 9-11 (also to be studied in this series).

What is most important to keep in mind is that the religious identity of early Christians was, in a very real sense, fundamentally eschatological. Perhaps nowhere is this seen so clearly and vividly than in Romans 8, especially the line of argument in vv. 18-25. The author of 1 John expresses something similar in 2:28-3:3 (esp. vv. 1-2), stating that our identity as God’s offspring now is only a reflection of what is about to be fulfilled for us at the appearance of God (in the person of Jesus Christ) at the end. The two aspects of the identity of believers—present and future—are closely connected, and, for early believers, close in time as well, expected to be realized within their lifetime.

(5) The early Christian movement as the fulfillment of Prophecy

Early Christians, like the Qumran Community, viewed themselves at the center of the fulfillment of Scriptural Prophecy. This began with their belief in Jesus as the Messiah (cf. above), and the various passages which were understood in a Messianic (and eschatological) sense and applied to Jesus. It was only natural that, by extension, other Messianic/eschatological prophecies would be interpreted in relation to Jesus’ followers, the first believers. This was especially necessary in light of the uniquely Christian aspect of this eschatology—of an intervening period, before Jesus’ return to earth, when his disciples (believers) would continue his end-time work (on this, cf. above). Numerous Scripture passages could be—and, indeed, were—interpreted on this basis. The two most notable are Joel 2:28-32 (in Peter’s Pentecost speech [Acts 2:16ff], already mentioned) and Amos 9:11-12 (in James’ speech at the Jerusalem Council [Acts 15:15-17]); also worthy of mention in the book of Acts is Paul’s use of Isaiah 49:6 (his speech at Antioch [13:47ff]; cf. also Lk 2:29-32). These passages are all discussed in the article on the Eschatology in the book of Acts, as well as in the series “The Speeches of Acts”. The force of this prophetic self-understanding, in connection with other aspects of early Christian thought (cf. above), always served to keep an imminent eschatological awareness in full view.

(6) Theodicy and future hope

One final area worth noting falls under the heading of theodicy—that is, an attempt to explain how a just God could allow so much injustice in the world, allowing wickedness and evil to go unpunished (in the present). Central to Jewish and Christian eschatology at the time was the belief that God would soon act to judge the world, bringing a decisive Judgment upon humankind, punishing the wicked and rescuing/rewarding the righteous. For early Christians, in terms of religious psychology, affirmation of this coming Judgment was all the more urgent since, during his time on earth, Jesus did not fulfill the traditional Messianic role of ushering in the end-time Judgment. Surely this had to occur soon, and so we see this expectation expressed all throughout the early Christian preaching in the book of Acts, in Paul’s letters, and in the remainder of the New Testament. Paul’s warning, in his famous Athens speech, captures this expectation most precisely (17:30-31).

The future hope for believers in Christ is tied to this idea of the coming Judgment, at which time the people of God (believers) will be rescued from the wickedness of the current Age, and will join with Jesus in the blessed heavenly/eternal life, in God’s own presence.

Paths of Interpretation for Believers today

It goes without saying that the imminent eschatology expressed in the New Testament poses significant problems for Christians today. How are we to reconcile the clear belief that the end was imminent with the reality, so it would seem, of more than 1,900 years (and counting) before the great Judgment and the return of Jesus comes? In the Introduction to this series, I outlined four possible approaches or ways of handling this question, which, for convenience (and not necessarily indicating any preference), I number #1-4:

    • 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]

I will here make a number of brief comments regarding each of these, leaving a more definitive solution, on my part, to wait until the conclusion of this series.

Approach #1. 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. This frequently relates to various kinds of scientific information—ancient cosmology, history, anthropology, biology, metaphysics, view of the afterlife, etc. As a simple example, in the parable of Lk 16:19-31, Jesus might be seen as simply drawing upon traditional imagery (for the purposes of the illustration), without intending to give a scientifically accurate portrait of the afterlife. Other examples could be much more controversial. Some traditional-conservative commentators and theologians are reluctant to admit any such occurrences of accommodation in Scripture, while others are willing to accept it in varying degrees. Much depends on the particular passage, and circumstances, involved.

The question of possible limitations (of knowledge) on the part of Jesus, as a human being on earth, is especially controversial and much debated. However, as it happens, there is at least one passage in the Gospel tradition where Jesus appears to admit such a limitation for himself—the saying in Mark 13:32 par, which is part of the Synoptic “Eschatological Discourse”, and happens to involve the matter of precisely when the end will occur. Due to the sensitive nature of this passage, I will be discussing it in more detail as we approach the conclusion of this series. It would, however, naturally follow that, if Jesus himself did not know exactly when the end would come, the New Testament authors would not have known either. Accommodation theory would allow that the writers simply were expressing a general belief (regarding the end being imminent), common to Jews and Christians of the time, without necessarily stating it as an absolute fact.

Certainly, a number of the eschatological references (cf. Part 1 of this article, and throughout this series), could be viewed in this way and, as such, be incorporated within a sound doctrine of inspiration. Yet there are other passages where this approach becomes much more difficult to maintain. For example, in 1 Peter 4:7, it is declared bluntly to readers (living in the 1st century A.D.) that “the end of all (thing)s has come near”. This seems to go beyond a general belief, to the point of a positive (and absolute) declaration. Another example is in the Synoptic “Eschatological Discourse” (Mark 13 par). In spite of the qualifying statement in 13:32 par, the entire chronological framework of the Discourse is centered on the key event of the destruction of the Temple, with the accompanying end-time events, apparently, set within the general bounds of the lifetime of the first disciples (13:28-30 par). For more on this, cf. Part 4 of the Eschatological Discourse study and the separate note to this article.

Approach #2. This view is similar in certain respects to approach #1 (above), but formulates more precisely the idea that New Testament authors (and speakers) are regularly making use of traditional eschatological language and imagery, without necessarily affirming concrete eschatological beliefs. For example, various apocalyptic images from the Old Testament Prophets, related to the “Day of YHWH” theme, might be used to express the idea of God’s coming Judgment, without literally meaning that the moon will turn to blood or that the stars will actually “fall out of heaven” (Mk 13:24-25 par; Acts 2:19-20, etc). That is to say, much eschatological language is figurative, as evidenced, in a highly developed way, by the symbolism in the book of Revelation (discussed in the current series of daily notes). How might this relate to the expressions of imminent eschatology in the New Testament? It could be viewed as part of the traditional idiom—i.e., the end is always understood as coming soon, being near; this is simply part of any eschatological mode of expression (cf. the first section of this article, above).

The problem with this approach is that it tends to ignore the fundamental way the aspect of imminence is fundamentally tied to the early Christian worldview and religious identity (discussed above). Far from being a colorful detail on the eschatological/apocalyptic dramatic stage, the message that the Judgment and return of Jesus will soon take place is essential to the early proclamation of the Gospel (cf. the articles on the Eschatological sayings of Jesus and on the Eschatology in the book of Acts). Early Christian belief in Jesus as the Messiah, and of salvation in terms of rescue from the coming Judgment (on both points, cf. above), are shorn of their true significance without a concrete belief that the end was imminent.

Approach #3. The is by far 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. However, I consider this approach to be fatally flawed in the way that it seemingly ignores the straightforward language used by the New Testament authors. A careful study of the evidence in Part 1 of this article, as well as in the other articles of this series (and the daily notes on the book of Revelation), demonstrates, I think rather decisively, that early Christians in the 1st century (including the New Testament authors), believed that the end would come soon, probably within their own lifetime.

A variation of approach #1 (principle of accommodation) would handle this a slightly different way. While the New Testament authors believed, and declared, that the end would come soon, this expression of imminence was used, by God, for the greater purpose of conveying to all believers, in all times, that the end may come soon. As a result, every generation of believers, in responding to the message in the Scriptures, effectively responds just as the first generation did—believing that the end might well come in their lifetime. I find this version of approach #3 to be much more acceptable (and plausible) in relation to the tenets of orthodox Christian doctrine.

Approach #4. This approach looks more to the practical effects of the rhetoric and literary style used by the New Testament authors. In other words, what is the context of these eschatological references? What does the author intend to accomplish by introducing them where and when he does? For example, the eschatological references by Paul in 1 Cor 7:25-31 are part of his wider instruction on marriage (and marital relations) in chapter 7, and really ought not to be examined outside of this context (i.e. as independent eschatological pronouncements). More to the point, references to imminent eschatology could be meant primarily to exhort and comfort believers in various ways, rather than being intended to establish a chronological framework.

Some commentators would extend this approach to include a distinction between descriptive and prescriptive language—i.e., how things are (or will be) vs. how things ought to be. As applied to eschatology, the very notion of the coming Judgment and a New Age, generally reflects, in part at least, an idealized vision of how things should be, how many people wish they soon would be. Eschatological language and imagery naturally fits the mode of exhortation, and, in the New Testament, is frequently found in such a setting. In light of the coming Judgment, etc, we ought to live and act a certain way, not simply for fear of what is to come, but with the idea of God coming near to us, visiting humankind—the promise of His Presence, in both terrifying and comforting aspects, Judgment and Salvation.

There is something to be said for each of these approaches, in their various forms, while admitting, at the same time, that none of them offers a truly satisfactory solution to the problem. However, as possible paths of interpretation, we should keep them in mind, as we continue through the remaining articles of this series. I hope to bring together the strands at the conclusion, at which point I will attempt to offer my own humble solution.