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.

Special Study: Imminent Eschatology in the New Testament (Pt 1)

As I have mentioned a number of times in this series, the imminent eschatology of early Christians, as reflected in the New Testament, is one of the most difficult problems of New Testament interpretation today, especially for believers who hold a strong belief in the divinely-inspired character of the Scriptures. The problem may be summarized as follows:

Many, if not most, of the earliest Christians appear to have believed and expected the end of the current Age to come very soon, presumably within their own lifetimes. In this, the 1st-century Christians were hardly unique. Many Jews at the time held a similar expectation (on this, cf. further below); in particular, the Community of the Qumran texts—a sectarian fellowship which had many characteristics in common with the early Christian Community—believed that the end-time Judgment and Messianic period was at hand, and that they represented the faithful people of God who would be delivered in the Judgment. The Christian outlook differed primarily in the unique position of Jesus: the end-time Judgment and deliverance of God’s people (believers) would be ushered in with his return to earth. To the extent that the authors and speakers in the New Testament affirm this imminent expectation of Jesus’ return—that it was about to occur very soon (in the 1st century A.D.)—does this not mean that they were, in a real sense, mistaken?

For many devout believers the implications are, or would be, troubling. Some traditional-conservative commentators seek to avoid the problem, for the most part, by downplaying (or even denying) that the inspired authors and speakers proclaimed an imminent return of Jesus and end of the current Age. Due to the sensitivity of this issue, I felt it was worth devoting a special article to the imminent eschatology in the New Testament. I divide the article into two parts:

    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)

Finally, the article will close with some comments regarding interpretive approaches to the question.

1. The New Testament evidence

If one reads the New Testament writings carefully, it is not hard to find many verses and statements, etc, which evince an imminent eschatology. To avoid any preconceptions, it will be useful to examine the specific language—that is, certain key Greek terms—which will give, I think, a clear and objective demonstration. I have isolated four words (or word groups) which are used to express the idea that the end is imminent.

a. e)ggu/$ and the verb e)ggi/zw

The adverb e)ggu/$ means “close, near”, with the relative verb e)ggi/zw meaning either “bring near” (transitive) or “come near” (intransitive). In a temporal sense, this would indicate that an event would soon take place (i.e. it was near/close to happening). The verb was used by Jesus in the proclamation which begins his public ministry in the Synoptic tradition (Mk 1:15 par):

“The time [kairo/$] has been fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near [h&ggiken]! Change your mind(set) [i.e. repent] and trust in the good message.”

This same declaration is repeated, or alluded to, a number of times in the (Synoptic) Gospel record of Jesus’ ministry. That it fundamentally has an eschatological significance has been discussed and demonstrated in the recent article (part 1) on the Sayings of Jesus. However, Jesus’ use of the expression “kingdom of God”, and the Kingdom-concept, is complex, and, as we have seen, cannot be reduced to a simplistic eschatological formula.

In James 5:8, Jesus’ declaration is re-stated, in a more distinctly Christian form:

“…make firm your hearts, (in) that [i.e. because] the Lord’s being alongside [parousi/a] has come near [h&ggiken]”

Already among early believers (in the New Testament), the word parousi/a (lit. being [present] alongside) had developed into a technical term (parousia) for the end-time return of Jesus, though the underlying eschatological idea had to do with the appearance/manifestation of God (the Lord) at the end time, to deliver His people and bring the Judgment. In early Christian thought, Jesus (as the Anointed One and Son of God) would serve as God’s representative in the time of the Judgment. This eschatological aspect, unquestionably imminent, is clear here from verse 9; the author (“Jacob/James”) tells his readers that “See! The Judge (now) stands before the door!” Like the call to faith and repentance in Mk 1:15 par, the thrust of James 5:8-9 is an exhortation (for believers) to live and act with greater faithfulness and devotion.

A similar exhortation is found in Hebrews 10:25, which serves as a climax to the call to devotion and perseverance in the faith in vv. 19-25; the second half of the verse gives emphasis to this call:

“…and this (much) more as you see the day coming near [e)ggi/zousan]”

The “day” must be understood as the end-time day of Judgment, as the following vv. 26-31 make abundantly clear. The author is telling believers, sometime in the second half of the 1st century A.D., that they should expect to see the Day of Judgment coming near.

The declaration in 1 Peter 4:7 is even more blunt and absolute: “The completion [te/lo$] of all (thing)s has come near [h&ggiken]”. It is again given in the context of an exhortation to greater love and devotion, since the end of the current Age would soon be taking place. For more on the eschatological use of the world te/lo$, see below.

Romans 13:11-12 is not as explicit, but the eschatological significance of the verb (along with the adverb e)ggu/$) in context does seem clear enough:

“And this, seeing the time [kairo/$], that (it is) now the hour for you to be raised out of sleep; for now our salvation is nearer [e)ggu/teron] than when we trusted [i.e. came to faith]. The night (has) cut (its way) forward [i.e. advanced], and the day has come near [h&ggiken].”

The same verb occurs three times (Lk 21:8, 20, 28) in the Lukan version of the “Eschatological Discourse” of Jesus. In v. 28, Jesus tells his disciples (in the mid-1st century) that they would see the events of the coming end, culminating with the appearance of the Son of Man and the realization that “your loosing from (bondage) [i.e. redemption] comes near [e)ggi/zei]”. These references are discussed in more detail in the article(s) on the Eschatological Discourse. On the implications of verse 8, cf. also below. In the Markan (and Matthean) version of the Discourse, it is the adverb e)ggu/$ which is used, in the context of the fig-tree illustration (Mk 13:28-29 par). The statement which follows in v. 30 would seem to indicate that the end would occur during the lifetime of Jesus’ disciples; for more on this problematic aspect of Jesus’ eschatology, cf. below and the separate note on imminent eschatology in Jesus’ teaching.

There are several other important occurrences of the adverb e)ggu/$ which must be noted, especially those in the book of Revelation, where there can no doubt regarding the eschatological meaning:

    • Rev 1:3—”Happy the one (mak)ing (this) known again (through the reading of it), and (also) the ones hearing the words of the foretellings [i.e. prophecies], and keeping watch over the (thing)s written in it [i.e. the book]—for the time (is) near [o( ga\r kairo\$ e)ggu/$]”
    • Rev 22:10—”…do not seal the words of the foretellings [i.e. prophecies] of this paper-roll [i.e. scroll/book]—for the time (is) near [o( ga\r kairo\$ e)ggu/$]”

Both of these revelatory statements, at the beginning and end of the book, respectively, clearly indicate that the end-time events described in the visions and prophecies will soon take place. Another example is Philippians 4:5, where the reference would seem to be to the end-time return of Jesus; its brevity is almost exactly parallel to the declarations in Revelation above: “The Lord (is) near [o( ku/rio$ e)ggu/$]” (cf. also on James 5:8, above). Hebrews 8:13 should also be mentioned, though a precise eschatological reference is not entirely certain: “…and the (thing) worn and growing old (is) near [e)ggu/$] (to being) without shining [i.e. without visible appearance, vanishing]”. On the adverb in Luke 19:11, see further below.

b. taxu/($), esp. the prepositional e)n ta/xei

The adjective/adverb taxu/($), which means “quick(ly), speedily, with speed” expresses imminence in a slightly different way, emphasizing that something will occur quickly—i.e. “soon”, though sometimes it is the idea of suddenness which is in view. There are six occurrences in the book of Revelation, along with two where the prepositional phrase “in/with speed” (e)n ta/xei) is used.

    • Rev 1:1—”An uncovering [i.e. revelation] of Yeshua (the) Anointed, which God gave to him, to show to his slaves [i.e. servants] the (thing)s which are necessary to come to be [i.e. must come to pass] in (all) speed [e)n ta/xei]…”
      Rev 22:6 essentially repeats this statement, the last words are verbatim
    • Rev 2:16—”Then change your mind(set) [i.e. repent]; but if not, I come to you quickly [taxu/] and will make war with them in [i.e. with] the sword of my mouth!” On the background of this eschatological (and Messianic) motif, cf. Isa 11:1-4, and note its use in 2 Thess 2:8.
    • Rev 3:11—”I come quickly [taxu/]! Grab firm(ly) to what you hold, (so) that no one may take your crown.”
    • Rev 11:14—”The second woe (has) gone away; see, the third woe comes quickly [taxu/]”
    • Rev 22:7—”And see! I come quickly [taxu/]! Happy the one keeping watch over the words of the foretellings [i.e. prophecies] of this paper-roll [i.e. scroll/book]” (cf. 1:3; 22:10, above)
    • Rev 22:12—”See, I come quickly [taxu/], and my wage [i.e. reward] is with me, to give from (it) to each (person) as his work is (deserving).”
    • Rev 22:20—”The one witnessing these (thing)s says, ‘Yes, I come quickly [taxu/]!'”

There are two other noteworthy occurrences of the expression e)n ta/xei in the New Testament:

    • Luke 18:8—”…he [i.e. God] will work out justice for them in (all) speed [e)n ta/xei]!” The point of the parable is to exhort the disciples to persevere and continue in prayer. Note the allusion to the Judgment, and the reference to the (end-time) coming of the Son of Man in v. 8b.
    • Romans 16:20—”And the God of peace will crush together the Satan under your feet in (all) speed [e)n ta/xei]!”
c. The verb me/llw

This verb tends to be used in an auxiliary or modal sense, indicating that something is about to occur. It also may connote the certainty that something will occur, and also one’s perception of it (i.e. thinking or realizing that something will [soon] take place). While this does not always denote imminence, it is often the natural way that the context, where the verb is used, should be understood. This can be easily obscured, especially in the use of the participle, which is often translated blandly as “coming”, rather than more precisely as “(be)ing about (to come)” (i.e. “which is about to come”). The imminent eschatology in the New Testament is perhaps most commonly expressed through this verb. I cite here the most relevant passages:

    • Matt 3:7 par—(John the Baptist speaking) “…who showed you under (a sign warning you) to flee the anger (of God) (be)ing about (to come)?”
    • Matt 11:14—”And, if you are willing to receive (it), he [i.e. John the Baptist] is Eliyyah, the (one who is) about to come.”
    • Mark 13:4—(The disciples to Jesus) “…when will these (thing)s be, and what is the sign when all these (thing)s are about to be completed together?” This important question is discussed in more detail in the study on the Eschatological discourse.
    • Luke 21:36—”Be without sleep [i.e. watchful] in every time [i.e. moment], requesting [i.e. praying] that you may bring down strength (enough) to flee out of [i.e. escape] all these (thing)s th(at are) about to come to be…”. The suffering and travail described in the Eschatological Discourse is characterized as something which is “about to come to pass”. Note the obvious connection to God’s end-time Judgment in Matt 3:7 above.
    • Acts 17:31—(Paul in his Athens speech) “…he [i.e. God] set a day in which he is about to judge the inhabited (earth) in justice, in [i.e. through] a man whom he marked out [i.e. Jesus]…”. For a similar declaration, see 2 Timothy 4:1.
    • Romans 8:18—”For I count that the sufferings of th(is) time [kairo/$] now are not brought (in balance) toward [i.e. are not equal to] the honor/splendor (be)ing about (to come) (which is) to be uncovered unto us.” Note the clear contrast between the present Age and the coming Age (cf. below), as well as the sufferings associated with (the end of) the present Age, which Paul and his fellow believers at the time are understood to be experiencing.
    • 1 Peter 5:1—”I call alongside the elders among you, (I) the elder together with (you) and a witness of the sufferings of the Anointed (One), and (also) one having a common (share with you) of the honor/splendor (be)ing about (to come) (which is) to be uncovered…”. Note the similar wording to Paul’s usage in Rom 8:18.
    • 2 Peter 2:6—Sodom and Gomorrah, etc, are cited as an example God has set to show “(the thing)s being about (to come) to the (one)s without reverence (toward God) [i.e. the impious/ungodly]”. The Flood and destruction of Sodom prefigure the end-time Judgment by God; this is a common motif in early Christian eschatology, discussed in the study on Jesus’ Eschatological Discourse.
    • Hebrews 10:27—”…but a fearful expectation of judgment and a fire of (burn)ing heat being about to consume (the one)s (who are) over and against [i.e. opponents of] (God)”. Cf. on verse 25 above.
    • Hebrews 13:14—”for we do not hold [i.e. have] here an abiding city, but we seek upon [i.e. seek after] the (one) being about (to come)“. The author of Hebrews seems to draw upon a tradition similar to the eschatological “New Jerusalem” motif famous from Revelation 21-22, etc.
    • Revelation 1:19—”Therefore you must write the (thing)s which you saw, and the (thing)s which are, and the (thing)s which are about to come to be after these (thing)s.”
    • Revelation 3:10—”…I will keep you out of the hour of testing th(at is) being about to come upon the whole inhabited (earth).” An absolutely clear declaration of the imminence of the end-time Judgment, as well as the intense suffering/travail which will accompany (and precede) it.
    • Revelation 12:5—”and she produced a son, a male (child), who is about to shepherd the nations with an iron staff…”

Other verses worth noting are: Matt 16:27; 24:6 par; Luke 19:11; Acts 24:15; Rom 4:24; James 2:12; Rev 2:10; 3:16; 6:11; 8:13; 10:7; 17:8. If there were any doubt remaining as to the eschatological significance of the verb me/llw, one only needs to recognize its use in the expression “the coming Age”, i.e. the Age which is about to come. The eschatological imminence implied by this idiom, in most instances, is unmistakable. For example, see Matt 12:32; Eph 1:21; Heb 2:5; 6:5, and note also Rom 8:38; 1 Cor 3:22; 1 Tim 4:8; 6:19.

d. Use of the word te/lo$

This word fundamentally means “completion”, and, used in a temporal sense, can indicate the end of a particular period of time. From the standpoint of imminent eschatology in the New Testament, the most important references are:

    • 1 Corinthians 10:11—”But these (thing)s…were written toward our setting (them) in mind, unto (us) whom the completions [pl. te/lh] of the Ages have come down against [i.e. reached].” The end of the current Age (and with it all previous Ages) is understood as occurring in the time of Paul and the early Christian community.
    • 1 Peter 4:7—”The completion [te/lo$] of all (thing)s has come near.” Cited above; cf. also verse 17.

Other passages to note: Mark 13:7, 13 par; 1 Cor 1:8; 15:24; 1 Thess 2:16(?); Rev 2:26.

Other evidence for an imminent eschatology in the New Testament

(1) Jesus and the Gospels

A number of sayings need to be considered, some of which have been discussed in the recent articles. However, there are several particularly problematic sayings, where Jesus seems to indicate that the end will occur very soon, even within the lifetime of his disciples. These can be listed out here as:

Other verses could be added to supplement the idea of an imminent eschatological expectation, but these are the most specific and controversial. Due to the special sensitivity of these references, as sayings/traditions coming from Jesus himself, they will be examined in a separate study.

(2) The Preaching in the Book of Acts and the Letters of Paul

For the book of Acts, I have already mentioned the statement (by Paul) in 17:31, above. Two other references are worth pointing out:

    • Acts 2:16-17ff—The prophecy from Joel 2:28-32, understood as referring to the “last days”—i.e. “in the last days [e)n tai=$ e)sxa/tai$ h(me/rai$]”—is applied by Peter to his own time, to the coming of the Spirit upon the first believers in Jerusalem. This clearly evinces the belief of the earliest Christians that they were living in the “last days”, at the end of the current Age.
    • Acts 3:20-21—In this sermon-speech, Peter is even more explicit, communicating the need for repentance and conversion in light of the impending “new Age” and the return of Jesus:
      “…so that the times of cooling again [i.e. refreshing/renewal] might come from the face of the Lord, and he might send forth the (one) appointed beforehand to you, the Anointed (One) Yeshua, whom it is necessary for heaven to receive until the times of setting (back) down all (thing)s from (where they were before)…”
      Here the eschatological expectation is very much expressed in traditional Messianic terms, as would be typical of the earliest (Jewish) believers in Jerusalem.

The Pauline evidence will be examined in the articles on Paul’s eschatology as a whole. One may, however, point to a couple of passages from the earlier letters (1 & 2 Thessalonians):

    • 1 Thess 4:15ff—”For we relate this to you in [i.e. through] a word/account of the Lord, that we the (one)s living, the (one)s left about unto [i.e. until] the Lord’s being (present) alongside [parousi/a] (us), we should (certainly) not precede the (one)s sleeping…”
      While it is possible to generalize Paul’s statement, the wording indicates an expectation that the return of Jesus would take place during the lifetime of at least some of the believers still alive at the time of writing.
    • 2 Thess 1:7-10—”…and to you the (one)s (hard-)pressed, a letting up [i.e. relief], (along) with us, in the uncovering of the Lord Yeshua from heaven with his powerful Messengers…”
      Again, this expresses an immediate expectation for the return of Jesus in his heavenly glory.

One might also mention 2 Timothy 3:1ff, which effectively identifies the time frame of the letter’s writing (mid-late 1st century A.D.) as “the last days” (cf. on Acts 2:16-17ff above).

(3) The remainder of the New Testament

In addition to the references already cited (above), I would point out the following:

    • 1 Peter 1:4-5ff—”…unto a lot portioned (out) [i.e. inheritance], without decay and without stain and without fading, having been watched (over) in heaven (to be given) unto you, the (one)s being guarded in the power of God, through trust, unto the salvation ready to be uncovered in the last time…”
    • 1 Peter 2:12—”…they might give honor to God in the day of (His) (com)ing to look upon [e)piskoph/] (us)”
      The word e)piskoph/ came to be a technical term for the end-time appearance (‘visitation’) of God (or his representative), sometimes emphasizing his care and deliverance of his people at the time of Judgment.
    • 1 Peter 4:5—”…who will give from (themselves) an account to the (One) holding readiness [i.e. who is ready] to judge the living and the dead” (on v. 7 cf. above)
    • 1 Peter 4:17—”(It is) that the time (is now) for the beginning of the judgment, from the house of God…”
    • Hebrews 9:26ff—”…but now he [i.e. Jesus] has been made to shine forth [i.e. appear] once (for all) upon the completion together of the Ages, unto a setting aside of sin through his (own ritual) slaughtering [i.e. sacrifice].”
      Jesus’ sacrificial death is set at the completion (te/lo$, cf. above) of the current Age (and all the previous Ages together).
    • 1 John 2:18—”(My) little children, it is the last hour…”
      cp. 1 Cor 7:29 (to be discussed)—”…the time is drawn/pressed together [i.e. compressed/shortened]”
Contrary Evidence

What evidence is there that the New Testament authors/speakers did not expect an imminent return of Jesus and end to the current Age? We begin with the Gospel tradition and sayings of Jesus. In this regard, the most significant evidence comes from the Eschatological Discourse, including the following verses: Mark 13:7-8 par; Matt 24:14, 48ff; Luke 21:8ff, 24(?). The illustration and saying of Jesus in Mark 13:28-29 par, depending on how one interprets it, could also be read in support of a (significant?) gap in time. All of these verses are dealt with in the article(s) on the Eschatological Discourse (Parts 1, 2, 3), and are touched on again in the supplemental study on imminent eschatology in Jesus’ sayings.

A noteworthy point related to these references (and others mentioned below), is the idea that any delay, or extension of time before the end, involves the (early Christian) mission into the surrounding (Gentile) nations. This is perhaps most clearly expressed in Acts 1:6-8, where the disciples ask Jesus if, after his resurrection, he is now going to fulfill his Messianic role and restore the kingdom to Israel:

“In this time are you set(ting) down the kingdom to Yisrael from (where it was before)?”

This reflects a traditional eschatological (and Messianic) understanding, which Jesus, while not rejecting or denying outright, certainly redirects or reinterprets for them in a most significant way:

“It is not for you to know the (period)s of time or (point)s of time which the Father (has) set in his own authority, but (rather) you will receive (the) power of the holy Spirit coming upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Yerushlaim {Jerusalem} and [in] all Yehudah {Judea} and Shimron {Samaria}, and (even) unto the last (part)s of the earth.”

Clearly the emphasis is on the mission to the nations—beginning with Jews and Samaritans, and extending out to the other (Gentile) nations, even to the furthest points of the Greco-Roman world (i.e. the inhabited earth as known at the time). The “Great Commission” of Jesus at the conclusion of the Gospel of Matthew makes much the same point:

“Therefore, traveling (forth) you must make learners [i.e. disciples] of all the nations… and, see, I am with you all the days until the completion together of the Age(s).” (28:19-20)

The parallel of “all the nations” with “all the days” certainly implies a distinct, significant period of time during which the mission to the Gentiles would take place (though how long a period is by no means clear).

This raises the interesting (critical) question as to the relationship between the teaching of the historical Jesus and the understanding of the Gospel writers, especially in the case of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, which are typically seen has having been composed, in their present form, in the period c. 70-80 A.D. At this point, the first generation of believers would have begun to die off, and thoughtful Christians at the time would have been increasingly aware of a “delay of the Parousia”—i.e., a ‘delay’ in the return of Jesus and, with it, the end of the current Age. According to many critical commentators, the Gospel writers (and/or the traditions they inherited) tried to account for this by adapting or (re)interpreting Jesus’ own sayings/teachings which otherwise may have indicated an imminent eschatology. Such a view is a bit hard to maintain, especially when one considers the many sayings, reflecting imminent eschatology, which are preserved in the Gospel tradition, with little or no apparent modification (e.g., the references noted above and in the supplemental study). Perhaps the clearest such evidence comes from the Gospel of Luke, which would not be entirely surprising, in light of Acts 1:6-8, etc (cf. above). The author’s hand would seem to be present in the shaping of 19:11ff (discussed in the recent article on the Parables); others indications the author was aware of a ‘delay’ in Jesus’ return might be seen in 12:35-46; 17:20-22ff; 18:1-8, and some of the uniquely Lukan details in the Eschatological Discourse (21:7-8ff, 12, 20-24, etc).

On the whole, however, it would seem that early Christians were perfectly capable of envisioning a period of time for preaching the Gospel to the surrounding peoples/nations, while still maintaining the idea that the end-time return of Jesus, etc, would take place quite soon. This would allow, at the very least, for a relatively short period (a generation or two?) of world evangelization, if perhaps not the 2,000+ years which we must grapple with today. Indeed, this aspect (i.e. a period of time for the Gentile mission), while rare in Paul’s letters, is expressed unmistakably in the letter to the Romans (see esp. 11:25ff), which I will be discussing in an upcoming article.

Christians today, eager to fit a period of 2,000+ years into the eschatological outlook of the New Testament, must be careful not to exaggerate or misread certain passages which suggest a ‘delay’. For example, the main point of Luke 19:11ff is that the end-time Kingdom would not be ushered in immediately at Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, but must wait until a future appearance (following his death, resurrection and exaltation to heaven); it says nothing about how far into the future this might occur, and likely still would agree with the imminent eschatology of early Christians (i.e. Jesus’ return would occur very soon). Similarly, Paul’s instruction in 2 Thess 2 is meant to indicate that certain events must take place before the Day of the Lord (the return of Jesus and the end-time Judgment) is realized; yet, there is no indication that the author (Paul) does not think that this will (or may) happen very soon.

A delay is also suggested in Hebrews 10:13, but considering the clear imminent expectation in vv. 25ff, this must be read in context. Somewhat more certain as a sign that the author expects a significant period of time before the end is 1 Timothy 6:14-15. The passage which expresses such a view most directly, even allowing for a lengthy period of time (1,000+), is 2 Peter 3:3-10ff (also v. 15), including the famous principle (which should not be pressed too far) that

“a single day alongside the Lord is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as a single day”

Having examined the extensive evidence in the New Testament for an imminent eschatology among early Christians, it remains (in the second part of this study) to consider possible explanations for such a view, as well has how it might be interpreted by believers today.