Eschatology (Greek εσχατος or eschatos the last and λογος or logos a word) is the study of the last things that the Bible or other religious texts predict will happen to the world and mankind.
Eschatology is the study of the last things: death, judgment, the afterlife, and the end of the world. Through centuries of Christian thought--from the early Church fathers through the Middle Ages and the Reformation--these issues were central importance to theologians. After the Enlightenment of the 18th century, however, many religious thinkers began to downplay the importance of eschatology which, in light of rationalism, came to be seen as something of an embarrassment. The twentieth century, however, saw the rise of Fundamentalism that placed eschatology back at the forefront of religious thought. Furthermore there has been a proliferation of apocalyptic new religious movements.
see End Times
Does the world have an end?
Jesus Christ made repeated reference to a sorting-out of saved and lost people at "the end of the world." Moreover, most of the prophets whose writings survive today made some reference to prophecies that would not be fulfilled within the time frame of the Bible--including many that, many commentators suggest, remain unfulfilled to this day.
Different schools of thought
Eschatology is one of the most difficult and vexing questions for Christians today. At least three different disputes have surfaced over the centuries since the last words of the Bible were written.
- see End Times
The Economy of the God-and-man Relationship
- Covenant theology holds that God has had only one covenant with mankind, despite the plethora of apparent covenantal decrees throughout the Old Testament. Before the coming of Jesus, God's covenant was with national Israel, this theory states; now that Jesus has come and gone and will come again, the blessings initially provided to Israel now apply strictly to the church--defined in this context as the body of believers in Jesus as the looked-for Christ (literally, "Annointed One," transliterated Messiah from Hebrew). Detractors of this school of thought often call it "replacement theology," the notion being that the Christian church somehow "replaces" the Jews in God's favor.
- Dispensationalism, however, holds that God's relationship with mankind has undergone a number of changes from one dispensation to the next. Most dispensational theorists identify seven of these dispensations, of which mankind is now in the sixth--and the seventh remains for mankind to experience. No replacement of the Jews is expressed or implied--because God will physically remove the present membership of the church and concentrate all His Attention on the Jews.
A Thousand Years of Peace
The Book of Revelation makes prominent reference to an era lasting for a thousand years--a "millennium"--during which God will physically confine Satan, and after which Satan will be released for one last period. But Jesus says, in the New Testament, that He will return to earth again after ascending into heaven The obvious question arises: when will Jesus return, in relationship to this thousand-year period of peace?
1. Premillennialism holds that Christ will return to earth before the thousand years begin, and that during that thousand years He will rule the world and mankind directly from the city of Jerusalem, which He will use as His capital city.
2. Postmillennialism holds that Jesus will wait to return after the thousand years have passed--and that the thousand years have either already passed or are passing right now.
3. Amillennialism holds that no such thousand-year period of peace has occurred or will occur. The "thousand years" mentioned in Revelation, adherents say, are merely a metaphor for a long period of promulgation of the Gospel to the world.
Certain prophecies that the author of Revelation and other prophets (including Daniel, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Zechariah, and Malachi) wrote down, did not come to pass within the time frame of the Bible. Some say that they still have not come to pass, and herein lies perhaps the most bitter of the disputes among prophecy students:
1. Futurism holds that these prophecies have not yet come to pass, and still remain to come to pass. Futurists closely follow current events for signs that these prophecies are about to come to pass in the present day. A key concern of futurists is the baleful prophecy that in the last seven years before Jesus' return to earth, a totalitarian dictatorship will arise that will exceed by several orders of magnitude the power, the scope, and the atrocity of Nazi Germany during World War II. This concern has led many of them to express great fear that the United Nations, or alternatively a possible reinvention of the Baghdad Caliphate, will be that dictatorship, or its progenitor.
2. Historicism holds that the specific prophecies mentioned in Revelation chapters 6 through 16 actually reflect world history as it has unfolded since the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem in 70 AD. Historicists fear no future dictatorship because any such dictatorship has already risen and fallen.
3. Preterism holds that everything mentioned in Revelation, took place long ago and culminated in that same destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple mentioned above. The dictatorship mentioned in Revelation chapter 13 is identified as Imperial Rome under the emperorship of Nero. The key support for this theory is the assertion, which not all prophecy students or Biblical scholars accept, that Revelation was written during the Principate of Claudius I and not, as futurists insist, during the Principate of Domitian.
4. Idealism (also called Spiritualism, but not to be confused with the popular "faith" in communion with the dead) holds that the prophecies of Revelation and elsewhere, rich as they are in the symbolic language of Hebrew poetry, are just that: symbols of non-literal truths. No literal dictatorship producing "trouble not equaled before and never to be equaled again" actually exists or existed.
A Synoptic Representation
Different schools of thought in any one subject area mentioned above tend to be consistent with particular schools of thought in other areas. This table gives a brief summary:
|Covenant theology||Postmillennialism||Preterism, Historicism|
Debate between and among holders of different eschatological doctrines is often highly contentious. Non-futurists often accuse their futuristic co-religionists of "newspaper exegesis," or what they see as a wrongful attempt to interpret the Bible from the pages of a daily newspaper or similar current-events organ. Futurists, for their part, often accuse preterists of "triumphalism," or inferring that frail human beings will actually accomplish victory in a war that, they say, Jesus alone can and will fight and win. Secular critics accuse it of woo-peddling, primarily due to it's unprovability using scientific methods, and because of it's tendency to draw in the gullible.
- Sandeen, The Roots of Fundamentalism: British and American Millenarianism, 1800-1930 (1970), the standard scholarly history
- Walls, Jerry, ed. The Oxford Handbook of Eschatology (2007), 744pp; excerpt and text search, comprehensive scholarly guide