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.

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