The Remaining Pauline Letters
Having examined the key passages in the five Pauline letters where eschatology features most prominently—1 and 2 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Corinthians, and Romans—it now remains to survey the eschatological references in the remaining letters. I begin with the two letters where Paul’s authorship is undisputed—Galatians and Philippians (Philemon contains no relevant references).
Galatians is not so replete with eschatological passages as are the other major Pauline letters. The primary reason for this surely is the single-minded attention Paul gives to the theological and religious-cultural questions surrounding the relationship of believers to the Torah and the Old Covenant. Even so, there is certainly an eschatological aspect to this area of Paul’s thought, as can be glimpsed by a brief survey of the most relevant passages.
The central tenet of Paul’s soteriology was that the sacrificial death of Jesus freed humankind from bondage under the enslaving power of sin. According to this basic view, the world, in the present Age, is under the control of sin and evil. Paul expresses this clearly here when he states that Jesus gave himself “over our sins, so that he might take us out of th(is) evil Age”. Traditional Jewish eschatology drew a dividing line (conceptually) between “this Age” (o( ai)w\n ou!to$) and “the Age (that is) coming” (o( ai)w\n me/llwn). Paul frequently uses the expression “this Age” (Rom 12:2; 1 Cor 1:20; 2:6, 8; 3:18-19; 2 Cor 4:4; also Eph 2:1-2), with the implication that this current Age is especially corrupt and dominated by evil. The Johannine writings express much the same idea, though with different terminology (1 John 5:19, etc). It is a fundamental tenet in eschatological thought that the time in which people are living, being close to the end of the Age (or cycle of Ages), is more widely corrupt and wicked than the times past—indeed, such wickedness is a sign that the end is near.
In parallel with the idea that humankind, in the present Age, is in bondage to sin, Paul also teaches that people are also in bondage under the Law. This juxtaposition of the Law and sin is one of the most controversial aspects of Paul’s thought (discussed at length in the articles on “Paul’s View of the Law”); and yet he expresses the association clearly enough both in Romans and here throughout Galatians. It is stated most precisely as part of the line of argument in chapter 3 (vv. 22ff). The binding power of the Torah is part of the Old Covenant, which is rooted in the present Age, dominated as it is by sin and evil. The coming of Jesus, with his sacrificial, atoning work, ushers in a New Covenant and the beginning of a New Age (i.e. the “Age to come”). But this is a “realized” eschatology—the New Age is experienced now, in the present, only by believers in Christ, and only through the presence of the Spirit, as Paul describes, especially, in 4:5-6ff. The bondage under the “Law” is not limited to Israelites and Jews, but applies universally to all humankind (cf. how Paul presents this in 4:8-11).
Several other references with eschatological significance may be noted:
We may note first the references to the “day of (Jesus) Christ” in Phil 1:6, 10, and 2:16; this is a Christian development of the Old Testament motif of the “day of YHWH”, when He will appear to bring Judgment on a particular nation or people. By the first-century A.D., the idea was thoroughly and profoundly eschatological—i.e. the end-time Judgment on the nations—with God’s presence in the Judgment filled by his Anointed (Messianic) representative. Thus, for early Christians, it was Jesus Christ who will act as Judge, overseeing the Judgment (Acts 17:31, etc); this will take place upon his return to earth at the end-time. For Paul’s use of this idiom (“the day [of Christ]”) elsewhere, cf. 1 Thess 5:2-5; 2 Thess 1:10; 2:2-3; 1 Cor 1:8; 3:13; 5:5; 2 Cor 1:14; Rom 2:16, etc. It is typically coupled with the idea of believers being able to present themselves with confidence before Christ at his coming, and so here in the three references in Philippians. The climactic lines of the “Christ-hymn” (2:10-11) similarly allude to the role of the exalted Christ as ruler and judge over all.
The Judgment itself (i.e. the judgment on the wicked) is alluded to in 1:28 and 3:19, emphasizing again how the idea of salvation, for early Christians, was primarily eschatological—that is, we are saved from the coming Judgment. Moreover, for believers, salvation also involves entering (and inheriting) the Kingdom of God (cf. above), which entails the idea of receiving a heavenly reward. Paul’s repeated references to this reward that awaits the faithful believer, is very much reflective of the early Christian eschatology—cf. 3:8ff, 14. A more direct promise and eschatological declaration is found in 2:15 (with echoes of Dan 12:3):
“…that you should come to be without fault and without ‘horns’, offspring [i.e. children] of God without (any) flaw, in the middle of a twisted (Age) of coming-to-be and (those) having been turned throughout, among whom you will shine forth as lights in the world!”
The future resurrection of believers is specifically emphasized in 3:10-11, drawing upon the familiar Pauline motif of believers’ participation in the death and resurrection of Jesus (‘dying and rising with Christ’). The eschatological orientation continues in verses 17-21, warning again of the impending Judgment (v. 19) and the heavenly reward that awaits for those believers who remain faithful (vv. 20-21). This promise of final/future reward is expressed primarily in terms of the resurrection, along with the motif of the ‘heavenly city’ (cf. on Gal 4:26, above):
“For our citizenship [poli/teuma] begins under [i.e. has its existence] in the heavenly (place)s, out of which also we look to receive from (God) a savior—(our) Lord Yeshua (the) Anointed—who will change the shape of the body of our lowliness, (to be) formed together in the body of his honor/splendor [do/ca], according to the (power) working in (him) th(at makes) him to be able even to set all (thing)s in order under him.” (vv. 20-21)
The end-time appearance, or return, of Jesus is clearly indicated here, which will coincide with the resurrection/transformation of our bodies (1 Thess 4:4-17; 1 Cor 15:23ff); it is also alluded to in the short declaration in 4:5b: “The Lord is near [e)ggu/$]”. To be sure, this is another reference to the imminent eschatology of Paul, which he shared with most believers of the time, as I have noted repeatedly; on the use of adverb e)ggu/$ (“near”) to signify this, cf. the earlier article in this series on the imminent eschatology of early Christians.
Colossians and Ephesians
Many critical commentators view both Colossians and Ephesians as pseudonymous. For my part, I accept Colossians as authentically Pauline (on objective grounds), with no real reservations. However, the situation with Ephesians is a bit more complicated, with more questions that could legitimately be raised in terms of the vocabulary, style, etc, of the letter. Even so, the eschatology of Ephesians does not appear to differ markedly from either Colossians or the other undisputed letters. Therefore, all other critical questions (regarding authorship) aside, it is proper to examine the eschatological passages of Ephesians here together with those of Colossians.
The exordium and opening section(s) of Colossians (1:3-29) are full of eschatological references and allusions which reflect other key passages (already discussed) elsewhere in Paul’s letters. As we have seen, the thanksgiving aspect of the exordium allows Paul the opportunity to encourage believers to remain faithful, in light of the promise of the heavenly reward that awaits them. This is emphasized here in 1:5, 12:
“…through the hope th(at is) being stretched out (waiting) for you in the heavenly (place)s” (v. 5)
“…giving (thanks) to the Father for (His) good favor, to the (One) (hav)ing made us fit unto the portion of the lot [klh=ro$, i.e. inheritance] of the holy (one)s in the light” (v. 12)
The end-time (and afterlife) Judgment scene, along with the role of the Anointed Jesus as Judge (cf. above), is likewise alluded to in 1:18, 22:
“…and he [i.e. Jesus] is the head of the body of the (ones) called out [e)kklhsi/a], the (one) who is (himself the) beginning, (the one) produced first [prwto/toko$] out of the dead, (so) that he should come to be (the one) being [i.e. who is] first in all (things).” (v. 18)
“…and now he (has) made (things) different (for you) from (what they were before) [vb a)pokatalla/ssw], in the body of his flesh, through (his) death, to make you (to) stand alongside (him) in his sight, holy and without fault and without (any reason) to call (you) in (to judgment) [a)ne/gklhto$].” (v. 22)
Even though Colossians 1-2 indicates a belief in the pre-existent deity of Jesus, here his position as (heavenly) ruler and judge is expressed more traditionally, in terms of his resurrection and exaltation. Moreover, it is his sacrificial death which enables believers to stand before him in holiness (at the Judgment). These are familiar Pauline themes, as is the idea in 1:26f, of the Gospel of Jesus Christ as a secret (musth/rion) that has been kept hidden throughout the Ages, until the present time—cf. Rom 16:25; 1 Cor 2:1, 7; and, similarly, with special emphasis, in Eph 3:3-6, 9. This idea is strongly eschatological, i.e. that believers are living at the onset of a New Age, with the implication that the current Age, with all that has gone before, is coming to an end.
The most prominent eschatological passage in Colossians is 3:1-4. As in the exordium, Paul ties his exhortation for believers—that they should live in holiness and faithful devotion—to the promise of Jesus’ end-time return. He makes use of the traditional concept of believers being gathered to Jesus, at his return (1 Thess 4:14-18; cp. Mark 13:26-27 par, etc), but deepens the imagery through the theological (and Christological) motif of beliefs being united with Jesus (“in Christ”). Note how this added dimension gives to the traditional eschatology a profound new meaning:
“So, if you were raised together with Yeshua, you must seek the (thing)s above, the (place at) which the Anointed (One) is sitting on (the) giving [i.e. right] (hand) of God—you must set (your) mind (on) the (thing)s above, not (on) the (thing)s upon the earth. For you died away, and your life has been hidden with the Anointed, in God; (and) when the Anointed should shine forth, (he who is) our life, then you also will shine forth with him in honor/splendor.”
It is beautiful indeed how Paul weaves into the idea of Jesus’ return the (baptismal) imagery of believers participating in the death and resurrection of Jesus (Rom 6:3-4 etc, and earlier here in Col 2:11-13, 20). To use the familiar Pauline language, believers are “in Christ”, which means that, in a real sense, we are with him where he is now—at the right hand of God the Father in heaven. So, too, we will be with him when he appears on earth at the end-time. We might even say that we will be meeting ourselves, not in a concrete metaphysical sense, but in terms of a full realization, and fulfillment, of what we are in Christ (for a similar idea, expressed rather differently, cf. 1 John 2:28-3:3).
Additional References in Ephesians
As noted above, Ephesians restates many of the same ideas and points of emphasis in Colossians, and this is also true in terms of the eschatology of the letters. For example, Eph 1:8 more or less says the same as Col 1:5, 12 (cf. above), bringing together the idea of the “hope” (e)lpi/$) that waits for believers in heaven, along with the heavenly reward that we will inherit (as our “lot”, klh=ro$, klhronomi/a). This also is part of the exordium (and thanksgiving) in Ephesians, which resembles that of Colossians in some of its wording and theological expression, such as the emphasis on Christ’s position as ruler and head over all things (1:20-23), including his role in the Judgment at the end of this Age (v. 21, cp. Col 1:18, 22, above). A different sort of emphasis is found in 1:10-12ff, which blends together “realized” and future eschatology, drawing upon the (baptismal) imagery of being “sealed” with the Spirit; this is expressed in unquestionably Pauline terms:
- In Christ (“in him”) we have already (i.e. now, in the present) obtained our inheritance (vb klhro/w)—v. 11, “realized” eschatology
- Yet in Christ (“in him”) we still hope for what is to come (v. 12), our “seal” of the Spirit being a promise (and guarantee) of our full inheritance (klhronomi/a)—v. 14, future eschatology
(cf. also 4:30 where the Spirit-seal is said to be specifically for “the day of loosing from [bondage]”, i.e. the day of Christ and his return)
We may also see an echo of Col 3:1-4 (cf. above) in Eph 2:6-7, where we find the same basic idea of believers being present (now) with Jesus in the heavenly places, with the promise that we will experience this more fully “in the coming Ages”. Admittedly, the eschatological sense of this is not as strong in Ephesians as in Colossians, but it is still clearly discernable. A different way of expressing the (future) realization of our identity in Christ is found in Eph 4:13, with wording that is more distinctive of Ephesians:
“…until we all should meet down (together) into the unity of the trust and the knowledge (we have) about the Son of God, (and so) into (being) a complete man—into the measure of (the) stature of the fullness of the Anointed”
Another image of this completeness of believers in Christ, only to be realized at the end-time, and in the Ages to come, is that of the bride presented to her husband in perfect holiness and purity (5:27, cf. 2 Cor 11:2, and compare Rev 19:7ff).
Two other passages in Ephesians have an eschatological emphasis; both are part of a traditional mode of ethical instruction and exhortation, urging believers to continued faithfulness:
- 5:5, 8-14—The use of light vs. darkness imagery, along with much of the wording, is quite similar to Paul’s instruction in 1 Thess 5:1-11 (cf. the earlier article on this passage), though perhaps with somewhat less eschatological urgency
- 6:12-13ff—The characterization of the present Age as evil and wicked, and that it is all the more so as the end draws closer, is common theme in Jewish and Christian eschatology of the period; the urgency of the instruction here implies that believers are about to enter into an especially intense period of distress and persecution (cf. Mark 13:5-13ff par, and throughout the book of Revelation, etc)
2 Timothy (and the Pastoral Letters)
As with Colossians and Ephesians, there are many questions (and doubts) among scholars regarding the authorship of the Pastoral Letters; many critical commentators consider all three letters to be pseudonymous. I am inclined (on entirely objective grounds) to accept 2 Timothy as authentically Pauline; in my view, the style, wording, points of emphasis, not to mention the personal details, all seem to conform fairly closely with what we find in the other (undisputed) letters. By contrast, 1 Timothy contains many words and phrases, etc, which are atypical of Paul, and so the questions regarding authorship are considerably more significant; the situation with the letter to Titus is harder to judge, due to its relative brevity. As it happens, there are many more eschatological references and allusions in 2 Timothy than there are in 1 Timothy or Titus—a fact which would tend to confirm the authenticity of 2 Timothy, and, perhaps, support the idea that 1 Timothy (and Titus) were written later, and/or by someone other than Paul.
Indeed, as I read 2 Timothy closely, I can find little (if anything) to distinguish the eschatology of the letter as being in any way different from that of Paul’s other letters. The language is generally similar, including the expression “that day”, referring to “the day of Christ”, when the exalted Jesus will appear and God will judge the world through him (cf. above). The specific expression “that day”, also found in 2 Thess 1:10 (cp. “the day” in 1 Thess 5:4; Rom 2:16), occurs here in 2 Tim 1:12, 18 and 4:8.
Also thoroughly Pauline is the idea of the Gospel of Jesus Christ as a secret hidden away throughout the Ages, but only revealed (to believers) in the present time—2 Tim 1:9-10, and cf. on Col 1:26f above. The language and wording is quite consistent with Paul’s usage elsewhere, as are the references to the future resurrection and the heavenly reward that awaits believers (2 Tim 2:10, 18). The eschatological dimension to the idea of salvation (2:10) is typical of the earliest Christian period, and tends not to be as prominent in later writings. As for the reference to the resurrection in 2:18, the fact that some might say that it “had already come to be” —that is, it had, somehow, already taken place—demonstrates the prevalence of the same imminent eschatology we see elsewhere in Paul’s letters (and throughout most the New Testament); by contrast, toward the end of the first century A.D. (and thereafter), this sort of imminent expectation begins to disappear from early Christianity (cf. below).
The most extensive eschatological passages in 2 Timothy are the sections of (ethical) instruction in 3:1-9ff and 4:1-5. This parallels similar paraenetic passages in the other letters of Paul, only here the instruction is aimed at the minister (Timothy, in the letter), warning him that, as bad as things might be (in the world) at the moment, they will become even worse as the end draws closer (cf. above on Eph 6:12-13ff). Here is how the instruction begins in 3:1:
“And you must know this: that in (the) last days, moments (when things sink) lower will (soon) stand in (on us)…”
The increasing wickedness and lack of faith in the population at large—including among those claiming to be believers—serves as a clear sign that these are the “last days” and that the end-time is near. The description in vv. 2-5 echoes traditional Jewish and early Christian eschatological narratives (cf. Mark 13:5-13 par), which include the presence of divisions and incursions of false teaching among believers. As an instruction for ministers, this warning against false prophets and teachers is especially appropriate (vv. 6-9). So intense will this be, in the time that is soon coming (4:3f), that many in the congregations may no longer wish to listen to sound and reliable teaching, instead turning away to more superficially attractive or exciting words. In these sorts of warnings, with their eschatological context, the idea of the coming Judgment is never far away (4:1).
By comparison with 2 Timothy, there are few eschatological references in 1 Timothy and Titus, and, in those which do occur, there does not seem to be the same sense of urgency or imminence surrounding them. Compare, for example, 1 Timothy 4:1ff, which, on the surface, resembles 2 Tim 3:1ff—describing a time of increasing corruption and wickedness in the world. 2 Tim 3:1 begins “in the last days…”, implying that believers currently are living in the “last days”; in 1 Tim 4:1 the wording is different, referring to things that will happen “in (the) following moments”, i.e. later, sometime after the present moment. This gives to the instruction a somewhat different context; it is more generalized, relating to things the minister must deal with (false/deceptive teaching, etc), but without a specific eschatological context.
There are references to the end-time return of Jesus, in 1 Tim 6:14-15 and Titus 2:13; however, one may detect in both these passages a greater emphasis on believers living in the present Age, with a corresponding lack of emphasis on an imminent expectation of the end. Consider the way this is phrased in Tit 2:12-13:
“…(how) we should live in th(is) Age now, (while) (look)ing toward receiving the happy hope and the shining forth upon (earth) of the splendor of our great God and Savior Yeshua (the) Anointed”
Even more pronounced is the apparent lack of imminence in 1 Tim 6:14-15ff, especially in verses 17-19, which could be taken as implying that our life in the current Age will likely continue for some time. Even the specific reference to Jesus’ return seems to be located more generally at some unspecified future time:
“…you are to keep watch (over) th(is) duty placed on (you) to complete…until the shining forth upon (earth) of our Lord Yeshua (the) Anointed, which (God) will show in (his) own moments/times (to come)…”
As in Titus 2:12-13, verse 17 has the same emphasis on “th(is) Age now”, i.e. present Age (and how we live in it), rather than on the Age to come. The promise of future reward (in heaven) is preserved (v. 19), but without the eschatological immediacy and urgency we find in similar passages elsewhere in the Pauline letters.