Introduction to eschatology (Doctrine of the End Times)
Introduction to Eschatology (Doctrine of the End Times)
Our embarrassment with the subject
- Writing this paper (especially dealing with the Signs of the End) makes me feel slightly vulnerable to charges of being a nutcase! I can see it now: Tony Higton walking along the main street holding a placard stating: “Prepare to meet thy doom!” or putting on the back of the car the bumper sticker: “If you hear the last trump, watch out, this driver is saved” (i.e. if the end times trumpet sounds the driver will be ‘raptured’ up to heaven without warning!).
- The fact that I feel this way illustrates an important spiritual lesson. Eschatology, the doctrine of the End Times, is a very important aspect of biblical teaching. One ninth of the New Testament is about eschatology, yet many British and European Christians are embarrassed into silence about it because of the extremists who have a field day in the subject. This is surely a spiritual deceit.
- We might feel free to teach about the Four Last Things: Death, Judgment, Heaven and (perhaps) Hell. We might also speak of Jesus’ return in general. But when it comes to other matters such as interpreting the NT about the Great Tribulation, the Antichrist, the Battle of Armageddon and the Millennium, etc., we hide behind our uncertainties.
- Even worse, we are threatened by discerning the Signs of the Times – the signs pointing towards the End – and we avoid the subject, in particular because of all those who have sought to match current events to prophecy but proved to be mistaken.
- “Surely the Sovereign Lord does nothing without revealing his plan to his servants the prophets ... The Sovereign Lord has spoken – who can but prophesy?” This is an important biblical principle. It means that God, as a God of revelation, wishes to reveals his purposes to his people. It is quite clear in the New Testament that God wants his people to be aware of what is going to happen in the future (even though not in detail). Speaking of the great Day of the Lord, when Jesus returns, Paul says “But you, brothers and sisters, are not in darkness so that this day should surprise you like a thief. You are all children of the light and children of the day. We do not belong to the night or to the darkness. So then, let us not be like others, who are asleep, but let us be awake and sober.”
- It is noteworthy, however, that there was an increase of interest in eschatology amongst scholars during the 20th century, although we may not find some of their views helpful.
- Jürgen Moltmann wrote: “From first to last, and not merely in the epilogue, Christianity is eschatology, is hope, forward looking and forward moving, and therefore also revolutionizing and transforming the present. The eschatological is not one element of Christianity, but it is the medium of Christian faith as such, the key in which everything in it is set, the glow that suffuses everything here in the dawn of an expected new day. … Hence eschatology cannot really be only a part of Christian doctrine. Rather, the eschatological outlook is characteristic of all Christian proclamation, of every Christian existence and of the whole Church. There is therefore only one real problem in Christian theology … : the problem of the future.”
- The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia states: “The eschatological interest of early believers was no mere fringe to their religious experience, but the very heart of its inspiration. It expressed and embodied the profound supernaturalism and soteriological character of the New Testament faith. The coming world was not to be the product of natural development but of a Divine interposition arresting the process of history.”
- God’s purpose in revealing his plans through the prophets is not, as some Christians seem to think, so we can spend all our time speculating (and arguing) about exactly what is going to happen. Peter writes: “You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming.” Eschatology, the doctrine of the End Times is a strong motive for holy living. A lack of eschatological perspective is one of the causes of ineffective Christian witness.
- “We prefer to forget the future.” This was the title of a newspaper article about the world economy. But it seemed an appropriate description of the attitude of many Christians. Some are afraid of thinking about the future. Others are put off by the unbalanced views put over by people who do think about the future.
- However, it is clear from the New Testament that we shouldn’t forget about the future. Rather we should think seriously and frequently about it. History is not recurring cycle or an endless series of events which is not going anywhere. It is the outworking of divine purpose leading to a climax in the Return of Christ and ultimately a new heavens and a new earth. It can be understood from the teaching of Scripture.
- I recently read through the New Testament to see again what it said on the End Times (Eschatology). Although I know the NT very well I was surprised by the amount of teaching on this subject. Here are a few brief points which show the importance of our thinking about the future.
- There are two aspects to the Kingdom. One is the present rule (or “kingdom”) of God in the lives of Christians and in the world. This is very important. But the other is the future manifestation of the Kingdom when Jesus returns. The concept of the Kingdom includes a very definite eschatological message. This is the “age to come” when God’s royal rule will be fully revealed, transforming the whole of creation.
This is, of course, contained in the “Lord’s Prayer”: “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” So in the great pattern prayer Jesus taught us we pray for this eschatological Kingdom to come so that it may be heaven on earth. Clearly, therefore, Jesus intends us not only to be frequently thinking about the return of Christ but praying for it to happen. One of the prayers of the early church was “Maranatha” “Come, Lord” (see 1 Cor 16:22).
Paul wrote: “Whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” So Communion is looking forward to the return of Christ as well as looking back at his death and resurrection.
I counted 118 passages on eschatology in the NT excluding the Book of Revelation. This includes eight major passages (whole chapters, give or take), plus, of course, almost a whole book - Revelation. In terms of the teaching of Jesus in the Gospels I noted that there are 46 passages in 33 chapters.
- I listed the eschatological subjects referred to in these passages throughout the NT in order of emphasis (the figures are the number of passages I counted): heaven/eternal life (42); judgment (42); the Return of Christ (40); the wrath of God/Hell (22); looking for signs of the times (11); resurrection (9); the restoration/transformation of all things (5); the eschatological aspect of Communion(4); the antichrist (4);the future of Israel (2). Again, these figures do not include the Book of Revelation.
- It is true that Jesus says “do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own” (Matt 6:34). But he is talking about worrying. He is not saying we should not think about the future or live in the light of it. We are to live as committed disciples in the present, furthering the mission of God to the world.
- However, it is clear that Jesus intended us to think frequently about eschatology. He told the Parable of the 10 Virgins (Matt 25:1-13) to encourage us “keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour” [of his coming]. He also teaches us about the signs of his coming (Matt 24:1-31) and urges us to “keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come” (v 42) and to “be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him” (v 44).
- Paul teaches about the Second Coming in 1 Thess 4 and says “Therefore encourage one another with these words” (v 18). He urges us to “be awake and sober” about Jesus’ return (1 Thess 5:6). He teaches more about the second coming etc., in 2 Thess 1 & 2 so obviously he wants Christians to know about it and think about it. He also writes that we are “to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope – the appearing of the glory of our great God and Saviour, Jesus Christ”(Titus 2:12-13).
- Peter writes: “The end of all things is near. Therefore be alert and of sober mind so that you may pray” (1 Peter 4:7).
- The Holy Spirit inspired John to write the Book of Revelation to teach us about the End Times, including the difficulties and suffering involved.
- So it is also clear that Jesus and the apostles thought about it regularly and taught the church accordingly. But many of us do not do so. Eschatology needs to be reinstated in the church and in the thinking of the individual Christian. It is perhaps helpful to realize that this is in line with the creeds and liturgies of the church, as the Appendix makes clear.
- One of the greatest failings of the modern church is to soft-pedal or ignore the fear of God. This is one of the main reasons for a neglect of eschatology (the doctrine of the End Times). If we really thought we are going to stand before God individually to answer for our behaviour we would live accordingly. But, as Paul said in Romans 3:18 “There is no fear of God before their eyes.” As a result, he says, people don’t seek God, and they fall into sin.
- Of course, some people don’t believe in God. The rather pathetic atheist bus advert campaign stated: “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” “Probably”? What if there is, and he holds us accountable? It’s got to be incredibly unwise to take the risk of relying on thinking there “probably” is “no God.”
- It’s the same with the popular word “yolo” which means “you only live once” and it is an excuse to live irresponsibly. As someone said, it should stand for “you oughta look out!” Jesus rebuked people whose philosophy was “Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry” (Luke 12:19-20) and called them foolish.
- It doesn’t do any good to “roast people over Hell.” But if people are going to face God’s judgement and we don’t warn them about it, as helpfully as possible, we are deeply lacking in love. That is why I think the modern church is lacking in love. We have bought into the relativism of modern society. Anyone can believe anything. Your truth is as valid as my truth even if the two truths contradict one another. Similarly I am free to choose how I shall behave within reason. Modern thinking confuses the equality of all human beings with the equality of all human behaviour. That is a serious fallacy. I believe firmly in the former but not in the latter.
- The question is: has God revealed what we should believe and how we should behave? Surely the personal, loving God of Christianity can be expected to have done so. And does he require us to obey him? If that is the case we are very unwise not to find out what he has said and to put it into practice.
- It profoundly concerns me that people don’t realise they are accountable to God – and, frankly, that applies to some Christians as well, judging by their behaviour. I believe God is love as much as anybody. But he is also a holy judge before whom we each must stand one day.
- Little wonder the Bible states: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”
- It is important not to be over-dogmatic about the details of the End Times. Just imagine someone sitting down about 100 years before Jesus was born to write a book on End Times, taking all the relevant OT teaching into account. I’m quite sure he would not have got the Christmas-Good Friday-Easter-Ascension-Pentecost-Second Coming story straight. We can do so (at least up to Pentecost and we know Jesus will return a second time) because we have the benefit of hindsight, reading the NT history and explicit teaching on a second coming. Just as this writer wouldn’t have got it all sorted out in detail, we won’t get the whole story of the Tribulation, Second Coming, Judgment, etc., straight and we need to have the humility to accept that. To some extent – perhaps a large extent - it will turn out differently from what we expect.
- God doesn’t reveal everything in detail and if we think he does it will lead us into speculation, dogmatism, argument and division. The devil doesn’t miss a trick: if he can’t stop us thinking seriously about this important subject, he’ll get us to fall out over it and so hinder God’s work.
- We must concentrate on primary matters: the return of Jesus, judgment, heaven and hell. We can make suggestions and offer opinions, but we’ll have to live with unanswered questions and things which don’t tie up.
We should also be careful how we interpret Scripture. I work on the following principles:
- 1. Understand Scripture as literal unless there are very good reasons for thinking it is symbolical.
- 2. Understand Scripture in a way which harmonizes with the surrounding passages.
- 3. Understand Scripture in a way which harmonizes with the teaching of the whole Bible, comparing Scripture with Scripture.
- 4. Understand Scripture in its historical context, rather than imposing modern thinking on it.
- 5. Understand prophetic Scripture in the light of the fact of multiple fulfilment rather than limiting it to either historical or future fulfilment.
- Obviously, it is helpful to read what different scholars have to say about a passage or, if that is not practical, to read a summary of such views, rather than only to read those who agree with our preconceived ideas.
- We can take the easy way out and regard everything as symbolical with a general application to whatever you like. Then we could look down on the literalists. (The slight problem is that we probably wouldn’t have taken some OT prophecies literally, had we been living in OT times, but now we know many were literal).
- On the other hand, we could be hardline literalists holding some fanciful interpretations and being very dogmatic about them. We could then look down on the “liberals who don’t take Scripture seriously” (i.e. they don’t accept our fanciful interpretations and speculations).
- As so often, the truth lies between these two extremes. Of course there is symbolism (some of it in highly-coloured language). But there is also literal prediction (even if sometimes conveyed in symbolical language).
- It is important to note that language can be symbolical but can still be referring to literal things or events. So John describes the guests at the “wedding supper of the Lamb” as wearing white linen then adds “Fine linen stands for the righteous acts of God’s holy people” (Rev 19:8). Similarly, the fact that Wormwood is a symbolical name doesn’t in itself mean that no heavenly body (e.g. an asteroid) will ever literally collide with earth. Then there are the numbers in the Book of Revelation which may be symbolical but refer to literal things: There aren’t four corners to the earth (20:8) but that doesn’t mean there is no earth. The symbol of seven spirits of God doesn’t mean there is no Holy Spirit. There is not a literal lamb on the throne in heaven but that doesn’t mean that Jesus, the Lamb of God, isn’t on the throne. 144,000 may not be literal but that doesn’t mean there aren’t a lot of people. One third of the earth and sea etc., being destroyed doesn’t in itself mean that there won’t ever be extensive literal destruction or plague. The symbolical number of 42months of the Gentiles trampling on Jerusalem doesn’t mean they won’t (and haven’t). The symbolic number 42 months of the beast blaspheming doesn’t mean the Antichrist won’t literally blaspheme for a limited period of time. The fact that monthly crops of fruit (22:2) sounds symbolical doesn’t mean the new earth won’t be literally exceptionally fertile.
- Another widespread source of disagreement is whether the Book of Revelation and other relevant passages refer only to the NT generation, or only to the (future) End Times or to the whole of history. When I am asked if the Book of Revelation refers to the NT generation, or to the (future) End Times or to the whole of history I answer ‘Yes’! It is meant to encourage Christians to persevere in hope throughout the ages. Some of it can be applied to the Roman Empire and to godless authorities in other ages and to the final revelation of the evils of the Antichrist. So the NT says there have been, and will be, many antichrists but there will be one future ultimate Antichrist. The important thing is that there is an ultimate (still future) fulfilment for many NT (and a few OT) prophecies.
 Amos 3:7-8
 1 Thess 5:4-6
 Albert Schweitzer thought eschatology dominated Jesus’ thinking but he [Jesus] was mistaken about an imminent Parousia and disillusioned. This led to the neglect of eschatology by the church over the centuries.
C H Dodd disagreed with Schweizer and stressed “realised eschatology” i.e. that the kingdom and the age to come have in fact already arrived. He said the eschatological parables were not originally eschatology but the church had added the eschatological aspect to explain the fact that Jesus had not returned.
Oscar Cullman believed in the two overlapping ages and he reaffirmed future eschatology. God has revealed himself redemptively in history and there will be a future consummation of the Kingdom.
Karl Barth saw all theology as in an eschatological context. He stressed a timeless eschatology i.e. what mattered was not chronology (a horizontal timeline) but an existential awareness that we are standing on the brink of eternity now (a vertical connection with the eternal).
Rudolph Bultmann sought to “demythologise” the NT. The parousia, day of judgment, heaven and hell are all myths. The time factor doesn’t matter. What matters is that we are open to God’s future now, which means deciding on a new way of living.
Jurgen Moltmann stressed that Christianity is eschatological. Christians should be waiting for the kingdom of God which is only future. God is essentially living in the future and all his revelation is partial, a promise of wonderful things in the future – a new creation. The parousia is not some future event of a departed Jesus but an imminent arrival we look for.
 Jurgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope, Harper and Row, New York 1965, p. 16
 The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Eschatology of the New Testament. See http://www.biblestudytools.com/encyclopedias/isbe/eschatology-of-the-new-testament-i-v.html
 2 Peter 3:11-12
 1. The creeds show church tradition regards eschatology as important
- The creeds contain important sections on eschatology:
- “he will come to judge the living and the dead. I believe in .... the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.”
- “He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end. .... We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.
2. The Anglican Church (for example) includes eschatology in its liturgy
- Following on from the previous point it is helpful to note the incidence of references to eschatology in one mainstream church. The various eucharistic prayers in the Communion service include the following words:
- · Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord (which is an eschatological statement)
- · we look for the coming of your kingdom,
- · looking for his coming in glory
- · he instituted, and in his holy gospel commanded us to continue, a perpetual memory of his precious death until he comes again.
- · May we and all who share this food offer ourselves to live for you and be welcomed at your feast in heaven where all creation worships you
- · we proclaim his death and resurrection until he comes in glory.
- · help us to work together for that day when your kingdom comes and justice and mercy will be seen in all the earth. Look with favour on your people, gather us in your loving arms and bring us with ... all the saints to feast at your table in heaven.
- · we long for his coming in glory.
Gather your people from the ends of the earth to feast with
.... all your saints at the table in your kingdom,
where the new creation is brought to perfection in Jesus Christ our Lord;
- · Bring us at the last with [N and] all the saints to the vision of that eternal splendour for which you have created us;
- The various Acclamations in the Communion service include the words:
- · Christ will come again.
- · Lord Jesus, come in glory.
- · When we eat this bread and drink this cup, we proclaim your death, we proclaim your death, Lord Jesus, until you come in glory.
- · Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.
- · Every time we eat this bread and drink this cup, we proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.
- This is good as it indicates that eschatology is not a fringe issue officially. However the issue is that in very many churches these liturgical references are not associated with the clergy teaching with any regularity (or at all) about eschatology or the congregations thinking about it.
© Tony Higton: see conditions for copying on the Home Page