Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament
I. The Earliest Christian Eschatology.
2. The Jewish background of ideas.
3. The new Christian message.
4. The chief doctrines of the Last Things.
5. Extent and importance of the apocalyptic element.
6. Relation to the teaching of our Lord.
7. Decline of the earliest type of Christian eschatology.
II. The Christian Apocalyptic Literature.
1. Revelation of St. John.
2. Non-canonical Christian apocalypses.
III. The Johannine Type of Early Christian Eschatology.
1. ‘Spirituality’ of the teaching.
2. The place of the sacraments.
3. Later history of this type of eschatology.
IV. The Pauline type of early Christian eschatology.
1. Eschatology of St. Paul.
2. Eschatology of early Gentile-Christian churches.
Scope of the article.-Our subject is the eschatology of the Apostolic Church down to a.d. 100. By ‘eschatology’ we understand (1) the doctrine of a certain series of events associated with the end of this world-era and the beginning of another; and (2) the destiny of the individual human soul after death. We shall deal first with the earliest type of Christian eschatology, as it was taught by the first disciples of our Lord, in the primitive Judaeo-Christian communities; and then we shall endeavour to trace the various lines along which this primitive teaching was developed and modified.
I. The Earliest Christian eschatology.
1. The sources.-In studying the characteristics of the earliest Christian doctrine of the Last Things, it seems not unreasonable (in view of the trend of recent scholarship) to base our conclusions with some confidence upon the Acts of the Apostles, as a history ‘which in most points, and those essential points, stands the test of reliability’ (Harnack, The Acts of the Apostles, Eng. translation , 1909, p. 303). The evidence from the speeches must, perhaps, be used with a little more reserve, but even here there appears to be a growing tendency to recognize a real historical value. Evidence supplementing that of Acts may be drawn from the Epistles of the NT, particularly James, Hebrews, and 1 Peter, all of which belong to a Judaeo-Christian type of thought, though somewhat later in date than the earliest preaching recorded in Acts (see articles on James, Ep. of; Hebrews, Ep. to; Peter, Ep. of). From these NT writings it is possible to gain a fairly clear and definite conception of the earliest Christian eschatology.
2. The Jewish ‘background of ideas.’-The type of thought reflected in these early Christian writings is thoroughly and distinctively Jewish. Especially is this the case in the earlier chapters of Acts, where the ideas of Jewish apocalyptic form the ‘background’ of the preaching-a background so familiar that it never needs to be explained or expounded in detail, but yet never allows itself to be altogether forgotten. The men who preached the earliest Christian doctrine of the Last Things had for the most part been brought up in a religious atmosphere impregnated with eschatological ideas. The Judaism in which they were living was the Judaism which produced apocalyptic writings such as the Book of Jubilees, the Assumption of Moses, the Apocalypse of Baruch , 4 Ezra, etc.; and they were accustomed to think and speak of their religious hopes in the terms of Jewish apocalyptic. Now, although the details of apocalyptic eschatology vary from book to book (see e.g. R. H. Charles in Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible (5 vols) i. 741-749), yet a few fixed points stand out in every ease, arranged according to a scheme which had become almost stereotyped in the apocalypses, and which is accepted as axiomatic in the apostolic preaching. This scheme is as follows: (1) the signs foreshadowing the end, (2) the Coming of the Messiah, (3) the resurrection of the dead, (4) the Last Judgment, (5) the inauguration of the Kingdom of God, The NT passages in which this ‘eschatological scheme’ is implied are too numerous to be cited; for typical examples, see Acts 2:17-36; Acts 3:20 f.; Acts 4:2; Acts 10:42; Acts 15:15-16; Acts 17:31, James 5:3-9, Hebrews 1, 2, 1 Peter 4:5; 1 Peter 4:7; 1 Peter 4:17, 1 Thessalonians 4, 5, 2 Thessalonians 2:1-12, etc.
The comparative uniformity with which these ‘fixed points’ recur in the Jewish apocalyptic eschatology may be traced in part to the Jewish idea of predestination. The events were conceived of as already fixed in the mind of God, and (in a sense) already pre-existent in heaven; so that the progress of history may be regarded as an ‘apocalypse’ or unveiling of the Divine plan which is even now ‘ready to be revealed in the last times.’ It is necessary to realize this if we would understand the force of the Judaeo-Christian appeal to the Old Testament. Modern writers generally hold that the value of prophecy consists primarily in its insight into spiritual truths, and only indirectly in its foresight into the future; but to the Jew, a coincidence between a prophetic prediction and a subsequent event was a signal proof of Divine inspiration, for it showed that God had ‘unveiled’ before the vision of His prophet some detail of that future which was already predestined and lying spread out before His all-seeing eyes (cf. Acts 1:16 ff; Acts 2:17-34; Acts 3:18-22; Acts 4:25-28; Acts 11:28; Acts 13:32-41; Acts 17:3; Acts 17:11; Acts 18:28; Acts 26:22 f. etc., Hebrews 4:3; Hebrews 9:23, and esp. 1 Peter 1:1-5).
But, while emphasizing the background of ideas common to primitive Christianity and Jewish apocalyptic, we must not ignore the distinctiveness of the former; and this now claims our attention.
3. The new Christian message
(1) The Messiah has come, in the Person of Jesus.-The belief that Jesus of Nazareth was and is the Christ, and that His life fulfilled the Scriptural prophecies, is the central truth of the apostolic preaching (Acts 2:36; Acts 3:22; Acts 5:42; Acts 17:2 f., James 2:1, Hebrews 1, 1 Peter 3:22; 1 Peter 4:5, etc). In the Jewish apocalypses, two Messianic ideals are manifested. On the one hand, there was the old prophetic expectation of a warrior-king of David’s line, raised up from among God’s people to rule them in righteousness and truth (Pss.-Sol. 17:23-31, etc). On the other hand, there was the purely apocalyptic conception of a heavenly Being descending, like Daniel’s Son of Man, from the clouds of heaven, endowed with supernatural powers, and presiding as God’s viceroy at the Great Judgment. It is to be noticed that the NT conception of our Lord’s Messiahship, while higher than any previously set forth, is much more nearly related to the Danielic ‘Son of Man’ than to the political type of Messiah (Acts 3:21, 1 Thessalonians 4:16, 2 Thessalonians 1:7, etc.). Now, if Jesus was the Messiah, then, since He had actually come, and had been rejected by His people, several consequences seemed (to Jewish minds) to follow inevitably, viz.:
(2) The Last Days are now in progress.-In Jewish apocalyptic, the coming of the Messiah is invariably associated with the end of this world and the beginning of the New Era. So, when the apostles proclaimed that the Messiah had come, they thereby conveyed to their Jewish hearers the impression that the Last Days had also come-not merely that they were at hand, but that they had actually begun and were in progress. And in fact this belief is implied in many NT passages, the full meaning of which often escapes the notice of the casual reader, who is full of modern ideas. But if once this eschatological outlook is realized, the early narratives of Acts are filled with new meaning. In particular, it will be noticed that the ‘appeals to prophecy,’ which occur as frequently in Acts, are often connected with the desire to prove that the Last Days have at length come; e.g. the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost is hailed by St. Peter as the fulfilment of Joel’s prophecy, which expressly referred to ‘the Last Days’ (Acts 2:16-33; cf. Joel 2:28-32). His argument is that, since the prophecy has been fulfilled, it follows that the ‘Last Days’ foretold therein must have come. Similarly, the charismata, and the gifts of healing and of tongues, which were prevalent in the early Church, lent themselves readily to the view that they were a part of the miraculous ‘signs of the end’ foretold by prophets and apocalyptists (Acts 2:18; Acts 2:33; Acts 2:43; Acts 4:30 ff; Acts 5:12-16; Acts 16:18; Acts 19:6; Acts 21:9). Again, the Death, Resurrection, and Ascension of our Lord were proclaimed by the apostles, not merely as interesting historical events, but as part of the miraculous portents which were to form the ‘birth-pangs of the Kingdom of God’ (Acts 2:24-36; Acts 3:14-26; Acts 26:8). All these things combined to deepen in the minds of the first disciples of our Lord the conviction that ‘it was the last hour.’
(3) The Messiah is immediately to return as Judge.-Jesus, the Messiah, has been rejected by His people, but there remains yet another act in the great drama of the Last Things. His life on earth has fulfilled some of the Messianic prophecies; but others (e.g. Daniel’s vision of the Son of Man) are still awaiting fulfilment. So the Messiah is about to come again immediately in glory on the clouds of heaven to judge all mankind (Acts 1:11; Acts 10:42; Acts 17:31; Acts 24:25, James 5:8-9; 1 Peter 4:5) and to destroy the apostate city of Jerusalem and the inhabitants thereof (Acts 6:14). Thus the apostolic preaching was in part a stern denunciation and a warning of judgment to come. But it did not end here.
(4) God is granting one more opportunity.-Herein lay the ‘good tidings’ of the apostolic preaching. Although the Jews had incurred the severest penalties of the Divine judgment by crucifying the Messiah (Acts 3:14 f.), yet another opportunity is being offered, by which all men may escape ‘the wrath to come,’ and receive the Divine forgiveness. The only conditions demanded by God are (a) belief in Jesus as Lord and Messiah (Acts 16:30 f.; cf. Acts 2:37 ff., etc.), and (b) repentance (Acts 2:38; Acts 3:19; Acts 20:21). Those who ‘believe’ and ‘repent’ will be saved in the Judgment from the condemnation which is impending over all the world (Acts 2:40; Acts 3:19; Acts 3:23-26), and will be forgiven by the Lord Jesus, who, as Messianic Judge, alone has the authority to grant such pardon (Acts 5:31; Acts 10:43). Thus it will be seen that ‘salvation’ and ‘forgiveness,’ as terms of Christian theology, are in their origin eschatological, though they have been found capable of development along non-eschatological lines (see below). And it was just because of this eschatological background that the apostolic ‘gospel’ was so intensely fervent and urgent; for there was not a moment to spare; ‘the Judge was standing before the doors’ (James 5:9; cf. 1 Peter 4:5; 1 Peter 4:7; 1 Peter 4:17), and every convert was indeed a brand plucked from the burning (Acts 2:38-40; Acts 2:47; Acts 3:19-26). So the apostolic preaching was transformed from a denunciation and a warning of impending judgment into an evangel of salvation and forgiveness.
(5) The free gifts of God.-To describe the apostolic gospel simply as a promise of escape from the wrath to come would be inadequate; it was a promise rich with new gifts and blessings-e.g. the outflowing of the Divine Spirit (Acts 2:33; Acts 2:38 f.; Acts 5:32), and the ‘seasons of refreshing,’ which would sustain the elect until the return of the Messiah and the ‘restoration of all things’ (Acts 3:19-21; see below, I. 4 (5)). And these blessings were not to be laboriously earned, but were freely offered to all who would ‘repent’ and ‘believe.’
4. The application of the apostolic message to the chief doctrines of the Last Things.-The ideas underlying the most primitive Christian eschatology, as we have outlined it above, are so unfamiliar to us that their bearing upon the great problems of the future life is not at first sight evident, and requires a brief consideration.
1 The Second Coming of our Lord.-Most early Christians doubtless conceived of this in the traditional dramatic form, in accordance with the teaching of Enoch and other Jewish apocalypses. On the other hand, it should be remembered that (a) the ‘unearthly’ conception of the Messiah set forth in the Enochic ‘Son of Man’ would be modified by the recollection of the historical human personality of Jesus the Messiah; and (b) the apocalyptic idea of Messiahship, though one-sided, and therefore inadequate for a satisfactory Christology, was yet a high and transcendent ideal-one which needed to be supplemented and enlarged, rather than corrected. It formed a good foundation, upon which Christian thought and experience were able to build a fuller and truer doctrine of our Lord’s Person and Second Coming.
2 The Last Judgment.-This also was, in primitive Christian thought, closely linked with the Person of our Lord as Messianic Judge. It was thought of as limited in time to a date in the near future, and probably localized at some place on the earth (perhaps Jerusalem; cf. Acts 6:14, 1 Peter 4:17). Such ideas, however crude, were capable of being ‘spiritualized’ in course of time, without any breach in the continuity of Christian teaching. A more serious problem is raised by the difficulty of reconciling the doctrine of a universal Judgment (Acts 17:31, 1 Peter 4:5) with the doctrine of forgiveness, by which some men are ‘acquitted’ beforehand in anticipation of the Judgment. This is a hard, perhaps an insoluble, problem; but it is not peculiar to eschatology; for it confronts us wherever the ideas of forgiveness and justice are placed side by side.
3 The Intermediate State.-So long as the Return of the Lord was expected to occur immediately, there was little room for any speculations with regard to the state of those who had ‘fallen asleep in Christ.’ The ‘waiting-time’ seemed so brief that it did not invite much consideration. To expect to find in the NT authoritative statements either for or against prayers for the dead, or formal distinctions between an intermediate state of purgation and a final state of bliss, is to forget the peculiar eschatological outlook of primitive Christianity, and to look for an anachronism. The beginnings of Christian speculation concerning the Intermediate State come before us at quite an early stage (e.g. in 1 Thess.); but they do not belong to the earliest stage of all.
The case was somewhat different with regard to the faithful who had died before Christ came. Christians naturally wished to know how these would be enabled to hear the ‘good tidings,’ and share in the forgiveness and salvation now offered by Christ. Two well-known passages in 1 Peter bear upon this point: the ‘preaching to the spirits in prison’ (1 Peter 3:19), and the ‘preaching to the dead’ (1 Peter 4:5). A detailed discussion is impossible here; see the Commentaries ad loc. In the present writer’s Primitive Christian Eschatology, p. 254ff., it is contended that the passages should be interpreted in accordance with the methods of Jewish apocalyptic; and that their main purpose is to teach that the ‘good tidings’ have been proclaimed by Christ to those who had died before His Coming, so that at His Return they may have the same opportunities of repentance as those who are alive at the time. Broadly, too, we may see in these passages Scriptural warrant for the view that there may be opportunities for repentance after death.
4 The Resurrection.-Questionings with regard to the nature and manner of the resurrection are scarcely seen at all in the earliest eschatology as reflected in Acts and the Judaeo-Christian Epistles (see Lake, The Earlier Epistles of St. Paul, p. 91f.). Generally the references apply to our Lord’s Resurrection, and even where the general resurrection is implied (Acts 23:6-8; Acts 24:15; Acts 26:6-8) no details as to the manner thereof are forthcoming. In Acts 24:15 its universal scope (‘both of the just and unjust’) is asserted; and in Hebrews 6:1-2 ἀνάστασις νεκρῶν is included among ‘the principles of Christ’ which are too well known to need a detailed exposition. But we find nothing corresponding to the Pauline discussion as to the nature of the resurrection-body. In the Jewish apocalypses, the doctrine fluctuates from an extremely material conception to one which is purely spiritual; and probably the early Christians inherited various views on this point. The idea that our Lord’s Resurrection was a ‘first-fruits’ of the general resurrection is implied in Acts 26:23, and this was destined in time to influence the Christian doctrine of the resurrection.
5 Final destinies.-Here again, no detailed scheme of doctrine is yet put forward. Broadly, it is implied that supreme joy will be the reward of the ‘believers,’ and that a dreadful fate awaits unbelievers (Acts 3:23). The phrase ‘restoration of all things’ (Acts 3:21) might be taken to imply a ‘universalistic’ view of future destinies, or even some idea of ‘world-cycles’ by which the eras that are past are brought back in course of time; but a similar phrase is found in Malachi 4:5 (Septuagint ), and may be no more than a general term for the perfection of the Messianic Kingdom.
5. The extent and importance of the apocalyptic element in the earliest Christian eschatology.-Until recent years, the apocalyptic element in the NT received but scant notice; but of late a new theory as to the teaching and ‘tone’ of apostolic Christianity has been put forward (see e.g. Lake, The Earlier Epistles of St. Paul, or Schweitzer, Paul and his Interpreters). It is contended that the ‘gospel’ of primitive Christianity was exclusively an eschatological message, foretelling, in terms of current Jewish apocalyptic, the approaching end of this world-era and the beginning of the next. If the interpretation given above be correct, there is a measure of truth in this ‘Consistent Eschatological’ view of apostolic eschatology; for the new faith did not at once sweep away the old methods of thought, and we should miss the force and full significance of NT eschatology unless we interpreted it in the light of Jewish apocalyptic.
On the other hand, the ‘Consistent Eschatologists’ do not appear to give sufficient place to other factors: e.g. (1) the ‘political’ type of Jewish thought, in which the Messiah is conceived of as an earthly Monarch, and the Kingdom of God as an extensive Jewish Empire. Some such political ideas were clearly in the minds of the apostles at the first (Acts 1:6), and they may well have existed in the primitive Church side by side with the purely apocalyptic eschatology. And (2) the ‘Consistent Eschatologists’ under-rate the importance of the new and distinctively Christian element in the apostolic eschatology. Also (3) a study of the NT shows that, from the very first, moral teaching held a place second to none in the apostolic preaching. In view of these facts, it would appear to be an exaggeration to speak of the primitive apostolic ‘gospel’ as though it were exclusively, or even predominantly, an eschatological message.
6. The relation of the primitive apostolic eschatology to the teaching of our Lord.-It was from the teaching and work of our Lord that the apostolic preaching derived its primary inspiration, and hence it is evident that the apostolic doctrine of the Last Things was intended to be founded upon His. And since recent study of the NT seems to have shown that eschatology held an important place in our Lord’s teaching, we may not regard the eschatological ‘tone’ of the primitive apostolic message as an element foreign to the mind of Christ, or one invented by the apostles merely to satisfy their own predilections. It does not follow, however, that the apostolic teaching coincided precisely with that of our Lord. It was only natural that the apostles should tend to emphasize those aspects of His teaching which were most full of meaning to themselves, and to lay but little stress upon whatever appeared to them unfamiliar or incomprehensible. And so the proportions of the message undergo some modification: for instance, in the apostolic preaching, the expectation of the Second Coming is set forth more definitely than in the words of the Master Himself.
But in one point the community of spirit between the eschatology of Christ and His followers is most noteworthy: the close link between the eschatology and practical morality. From the first, the call to repentance always accompanies the eschatological message (Acts 2:38, etc.); and the ‘repentance’ of the primitive Christians involved a very real change of life. Herein, from the very first, lay a difference between Jewish and Christian eschatology: the former was often only a comfortable theory, to give encouragement in times of trouble; the latter was always an inspiring call to a new life of faith and love. This was an essential element of the apostolic eschatology, destined to survive when the forms and phrases of Jewish apocalyptic gave way under the trials of the long delay in the Master’s Return.
7. The decline of the earliest type of Christian eschatology.-The form of the earliest Christian doctrine of the Last Things, as we have estimated it above, was congenial only to Jewish surroundings, and it soon began to undergo some modification. Some of these lines of development may be traced to the influence of Gentile thought, as reflected, e.g., in St. Paul’s Epistles; to the deepening of the spiritual ideas underlying the dramatic eschatology, as we see in the Johannine writings; and to the rise of the Christian apocalyptic literature, with its close resemblance to Jewish apocalyptic. For the present, our consideration of these may best be deferred. But in certain quarters the primitive Judaeo-Christian eschatology appears to have been but little modified by external influences; only it shows a steady decline and a gradual loss of its original vitality and power. The beginnings of this decline may be seen even in the NT writings which we have already been considering, viz. Acts, James, Hebrews, 1 Peter; its later stages are reflected chiefly in Jude, 2 Peter, the Didache (if the early date be accepted), and some of the Apostolic Fathers. The Johannine and Pauline writings also indirectly throw light upon this subject.
(1) Causes of the decline
(a) The recollection of our Lard’s teaching.-If, as we have contended, the eschatology of our Lord was wider and deeper than the apostolic interpretation of it, it was natural that some of the half-understood sayings of the Master-particularly the parting commissions, Matthew 28:20, Acts 1:7-8, which are so notably non-eschatological-should remain in the memory of the apostles, and that in course of time a fuller meaning should dawn upon their minds. So it would come to pass that the moral and spiritual aspects of the gospel, and the world-wide scope of its mission, would claim an increasing pre-eminence in the apostolic preaching. (For the influence of our Lord’s teaching on St. Paul, see Kennedy, St. Paul’s Conceptions of the Last Things, pp. 96-101.)
(b) A keen sense of moral values.-‘Practical morality’ was from the first held in the highest esteem in the Judaeo-Christian communities (see, e.g., the Epistle of James), and this tended to draw the centre of Christian interest away from eschatology to morality. It is difficult to illustrate this by detailed quotations; perhaps the best proof may be obtained by a rapid perusal of Acts, by means of which the steady diminution of the eschatological expectation as the narrative proceeds is readily noticed. In the later speeches of St. Paul, at Miletus (Acts 20:18-35) or at Jerusalem (Acts 22), eschatology is almost ignored; and St. Paul before Felix reasons of ‘righteousness and temperance’ as well as of ‘judgment to come’ (Acts 24:25). Also the teaching of 1 Peter, and most of all of James, suggests that moral and spiritual values are far more esteemed than eschatological problems.
(c) The charismata.-The spiritual gifts, e.g. of healing or of tongues, while originally regarded by Jewish Christians as ‘signs of the end’ (see above, I. 3 (2)), soon began to acquire an intrinsic value of their own in the eyes of the Christian community. Men knew, as a fact of Christian experience, that they had been freed from the power of sin and from the sense of guilt before God; and so they began to use the terms ‘salvation,’ ‘justification,’ etc., to describe their own spiritual experiences rather than purely eschatological hopes. (In Acts 16:31, e.g., ‘salvation’ scarcely seems eschatological; and in Acts 10:38 our Lord is described simply as ‘one who went about doing good and healing.)
It will be noticed that the influences we have been considering tended to alter the proportions of Christian teaching by emphasizing non-eschatological factors at the expense of eschatology. But there were also other influences at work, directly tending to break up the primitive doctrine of the Last Things.
(d) The delay in the Return.-This was the most potent of all the factors which changed the ‘tone’ of Christian eschatology. As the days and months passed, and the Son of Man did not appear on the clouds of heaven, it was impossible to repeat with the same assurance the old message: ‘The time is at hand.’ Yet the old hope persisted long in Judaeo-Christian circles, not only in the earlier writings, e.g. James 5:9; 1 Peter 4:7, but until the close of the 1st cent., e.g. 1 John 2:18, Didache 16, and even in the Apology of Aristides.
But we see the change of ‘tone’ in St. Paul’s charge to the Ephesian elders (Acts 20:28-32), which, so far from anticipating an immediate Return of the Lord, looks forward to a period of apostasy, and to an extended ministry in the Church. We see it even more plainly in 2 Peter 3:4 ff., where the mocking question, ‘Where is the promise of His coming?’ is met by the old answer of Jewish apocalyptists: ‘One day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day’ (2 Peter 3:8; cf. Slavonic Enoch, § 32). Such an argument virtually implies that the primitive confidence in an immediate Return had been surrendered. The gradual weakening of that confidence will come before us again in St. Paul’s Epistles [see below]. In Didache, 16, the Return, though near, is to be preceded by the rule of Antichrist; and the rise of ‘Chiliasm’ in the 2nd cent. thrust the final consummation still further into the future.
(e) The problem of sin in the Christian community.-This, though not at first sight an eschatological question, indirectly helped to modify the primitive doctrine of the Last Things. The early Christian conception of final destinies was simple and consistent: those who believed and repented would be saved; those who believed not would be condemned. This view assumed that Christian practice would always be in complete accord with Christian profession; and, so long as this was the case, it was not open to objection. But in practice it was soon found that professing Christians were not always consistent in their lives (James 3:1; James 4:1-2; cf. Acts 20:30). So the simple two-fold division of mankind into ‘saved’ and ‘not-saved’ became unsatisfactory to man’s sense of justice, for it did not correspond to the facts of experience; and similarly the two-fold division of final destinies into ‘eternal bliss’ and ‘eternal woe’ became open to the charge that it imputed to God a line of action not wholly just.
This difficulty was met in two ways. (α) The stricter minds insisted that post-baptismal sin forfeited the right to salvation, and incurred condemnation (Hebrews 6:4-6). By this means all Christians guilty of sin were classed among the ‘not-saved,’ and the two-fold division of retribution could logically be maintained. (β) A more lenient view admitted the possibility of a second repentance after post-baptismal sin, at least if the sin were atoned for by penance. Soon after the year a.d. 100 we find this view prevalent (2 Clem. 7; Shepherd of Hermas: Vis. iii., Sim. vi., etc.). This view, while rich in charity, surrendered the ideal of a consistent Christian life, and is far removed from the logical simplicity of primitive Christian eschatology. A further application of the idea of ‘penance’ to the future life resulted in the doctrine purgatory, whereby the primitive two-fold division of the other world becomes three-fold. (For the beginnings of the doctrine of purgatory, see Shepherd of Hermas: Vis. iii. 7; Clem. Alex. Strom. vi. 14; and some of the Christian apocalypses.)
(f) The influence of Jewish apocalyptic.-We have already referred in general terms to this influence under ‘the Jewish background of ideas’ (see above, I. 2), and its full results will come before us at a later stage, under II. At this point, however, it is worth noting that a deliberate imitation of the Jewish apocalypses in writings not themselves apocalyptic marks the decline of the Judaeo-Christian type of eschatology. Jude and 2 Peter are the most notable instances in the NT. Although the language is at first sight that of primitive Christianity, there is a real difference. Instead of the bold outlines of the good tidings concerning Jesus the Messiah, we find a mass of detailed revelations about angels, and fallen stars, and cosmic convulsions (Judges 1:6-16, 2 Peter 2:4-11; 2 Peter 3:5-13), such as the Jewish apocalyptists delighted to describe, but which had ceased to attract the first generation of Christians, because of the all-absorbing interest of the ‘good tidings.’ The general tone of these Epistles is also far more pessimistic than that of the earliest Christian preaching, and reflects the position of men conscious of a reaction after a great spiritual revival (Judges 1:3 f, Judges 1:7 f., 2 Peter 2:1 f.; 2 Peter 3:1-3). This again agrees with the normal characteristics of Jewish apocalyptic. It should be noted also that Judges 1:14 f. is a direct quotation from Enoch i. 9.
A still later stage in the decline of the primitive Judaeo-Christian eschatology under apocalyptic influence is seen in Papias, where the apocalyptic details have become simply puerile, and the old virility and strong moral associations of eschatology have practically vanished (see, e.g., the quotation from Papias in Iren. adv. Hœr, v. xxxiii. 3f.).
(2) Results of the decline.-A number of causes, some of which we have briefly considered above, slowly but surely modified the primitive doctrine of the Last Things, as preached in Judaeo-Christian circles. The expectation of an immediate Return of the Messiah, which had been its main inspiration, died away; and nothing replaced it. The result was that this type of eschatology ceased to be a living force in the Christian Church. Where it was elaborated by apocalyptic details, it continued for a time (as we shall see in the case of the Christian apocalypses) to enjoy some measure of popular favour; or again, where it was interpreted and re-stated by master-minds, such as St. Paul and St. John, its abiding value was revealed, and has never ceased to be recognized by thoughtful minds. But in its original form it was not fitted to survive, and so, unless it was transformed, it slowly expired.
II. The Christian Apocalyptic Literature
So far, we have been considering what appears to have been the ‘normal’ type of early Christian eschatology; and we have seen that the ideas and phraseology of the Jewish apocalypses often occur in Christian literature which is not properly ‘apocalyptic’ in its literary form (e.g. Acts, 2 Peter, etc.). In these cases the apocalyptic influence may be called indirect or incidental. But there are other Christian writings in which the literary form of Jewish apocalyptic is deliberately imitated in detail; and in these writings-especially those of later date-we see a distinct modification of the earliest type of Christian eschatology, such as we have considered above.
1. The Revelation of St. John
(1) General scheme of the book.-This, the greatest, and perhaps the earliest, of the Christian apocalypses, contains such a wealth of material bearing upon eschatology that a detailed treatment is here impossible. If (as the majority of scholars hold) the book belongs to the times of Nero, Vespasian, or Domitian (circa, about a.d. 65-70, or 95), it is an extremely important witness to the history of early Christian eschatology, whatever be the final decision with regard to its authorship.
Various attempts have been made to dissect the book into strata of different dates; but, viewed as a whole, the book conveys a strong impression of literary unity. In particular, with regard to the eschatology, the various parts resemble each other in tone far more nearly than they resemble any other known apocalypse. Also, the book, if regarded as a whole, offers an intelligible scheme: (a) the Introduction (John 1:1-8); (b) the letters to the Seven Churches (John 1:9 to John 3:22), which show the immediate purpose for which the author wrote the book; (c) the vision of the opening of the Sealed Book (John 4:1 to John 11:19), which enforces the general message that ‘the end is at hand’ (see below); (d) the vision of the Fall of Rome (John 12:1 to John 18:24), which sets forth in detail the particular element of the last great crisis which for the moment seemed the most important; (e) the vision of the Last Judgment (John 19:1 to John 20:15); and (f) the vision of the new City of God. These may be regarded as component parts of one great apocalypse. It will be seen that they form, broadly, an intelligible and progressive narrative, on the lines of normal Jewish apocalyptic; and though it may be that in parts the visions are ‘concurrent rather than successive’ (Mac-Culloch in Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics v. 387), there seems no sufficient reason to postulate a ‘literary patchwork.’
2 The book as a type of apocalyptic literature-The writer is steeped in apocalyptic thought and language, to a greater extent than any other NT writer. To the average modern reader the book appears strange and unintelligible; but to those familiar with Jewish apocalyptic there is scarcely a phrase altogether new or without parallel. From this, two important consequences follow. (a) The interpretation of the details should accord with the methods of interpretation applied to apocalyptic literature in general. It should be remembered, e.g., that the apocalyptists were in the habit of ‘heaping up’ details in their description of the Messianic woes and the last catastrophe, rather with a view to creating a vivid picture of chaos and terror than with the intention of depicting some definite event by each separate illustration. So it is probable that many of the details of the NT Apocalypse are not intended to bear a too careful analysis or interpretation. (b) If the author of the Apocalypse be identified with the author of the Fourth Gospel and the Johannine Epistles, it is clear that the primitive Christians were able to ‘put aside’ their apocalyptic language and ideas at will, and to see behind the dramatic imagery to the underlying spiritual truths thus symbolized. And, conversely, in early Christian writings which are apparently non-apocalyptic, it is likely that eschatological ideas are never far absent from the mind of the writer, and may appear incidentally at any point.
(3) The writer’s hope of an immediate Return of the Lord.-The writer begins by claiming to reveal ‘the things which shall shortly come to pass’ (Revelation 1:1), and closes with the Divine promise: ‘I come quickly’ (Revelation 22:20). Clearly, then, the hope of the Second Coming in the near future had not yet faded from his mind. Indeed, the main purpose of the book is similar to that of all apocalypses-viz. to encourage the faithful in times of trouble with the assurance that the hour of deliverance is at hand. In particular, this may be seen in the vision of the opening of the Sealed Book (chs. 4-11). We read that the opening of the first five seals is followed by victory (Revelation 6:1-2), war (Revelation 6:3-4), famine (Revelation 6:5-6), death (Revelation 6:7-8), and the cry of martyred saints (Revelation 6:9-11). So far, the vision may well be taken as describing the position of the Church at the close of the 1st cent. a.d., when Rome’s victories had brought famine, war, death, and persecution in their train. But when we pass to the opening of the sixth and seventh seals, we are at once confronted with cosmic convulsions and miraculous portents, which form the ‘birth-pangs’ of the New Era (Revelation 6:12-17; Revelation 8, 9). If we interpret this vision as we interpret other apocalypses, we shall conclude that the writer was living in the times of the breaking of the fifth seal, so that the vision up to that point is an apocalyptic retrospect of history, and after that point is an apocalyptic prediction of the ‘Messianic woes,’ which were about to begin immediately. This leads on to the vision of the two witnesses, their destruction by the Beast, their resurrection (Revelation 11:1-13; probably a picture of the last great struggle with Antichrist), and the inauguration of the Kingdom of God (Revelation 11:15-19). In other words, the gist of these chapters is a message of encouragement, assuring the persecuted Christians that the time of their redemption has come.
(4) The political element in the eschatology.-The Roman Empire was, to the mind of the writer, the greatest enemy of Christ-almost, indeed, the Antichrist himself. So he devotes seven chapters (12-18) to a vision of the Fall of Rome, which forms a kind of supplement to the vision of the opening of the Sealed Book, and deals with the political aspect of the Last Things. The details offer many difficult problems for solution; we find a medley of ideas, mainly from Jewish apocalyptic, blended perhaps with the popular expectation that ‘Nero’ would return once more as a great world-ruler (Revelation 13:11-18; see Swete’s Apocalypse, Introduction, ch. vii.). The political outlook of these chapters, with their intense hostility to the Roman Empire, is widely different from that of most NT writers (e.g. St. Paul in 2 Thessalonians 2:6 f. or Romans 13:1-2). In so far as the spirit of opposition to Christ was at that time bound up with the policy of the Empire, the vision is true to deep principles of Christian eschatology; but some of the passages have lent themselves to political or ecclesiastical bias and party-spirit.
5 The doctrine of the Millennium.-The vision of the Last Judgment in chs. 19 and 20 contains a doctrine of the Millennium. There is to be a first resurrection of the faithful dead, who will ‘reign with Christ a thousand years,’ during which time ‘the rest of the dead live not till the thousand years are finished’ (Revelation 20:4-5). Then follows a second resurrection, and a second judgment of all mankind, when the assignment of final destinies is made to each soul (Revelation 20:11-15).
The idea of a Millennial reign of the Messiah on earth is found in Jewish apocalypses (e.g. cf. 4 Ezra 7:28-28; Slav. Enoch, 33); but there is no authority for it in the teaching of our Lord. It seems difficult to attach to it any meaning of permanent spiritual value; moreover, in its materialistic forms it has been a source of weakness rather than of strength to Christian eschatology. For the later history of Chiliasm, see Didache, 16 (closely based on Revelation 19, 20); Papias (quoted Iren. adv. Hœr. v. xxxiii.); Ap. Bar. xxxix. 5; Ep. Barnabas, 15; Justin, c. Tryph, 80; Iren. adv. Hœr. v. xxxiv. f., etc. Justin, while holding strongly to a belief in the Millennium on earth, admits that the belief was not held ‘ubique et ab omnibus’ in the Church.
6 The distinctiveness of the Johannine Apocalypse.-The resemblance between the NT Apocalypse and other apocalypses is, as we have seen, striking; but not less striking are the distinctive features of the former.
(a) Alone of all the apocalypses, Jewish or Christian, it is given under the name of the writer, and not under an assumed name of some great hero of the past. This is most significant; for it shows the prophetic character of apostolic eschatology. Unlike apocalyptists in general, the writer did not shelter himself under the authority of the past; but he dared to speak boldly in his own name, under a strong conviction that he had a new message from God to deliver.
(b) The central position given to the Person of Jesus the Messiah is also of importance. The writer seems to feel that no language is too lofty to describe the Person of our Lord. At the very outset, the Danielic vision of the Almighty is applied to our Lord without the least hesitancy; and throughout the book the Chtistology, though apocalyptic in form, implies the most exalted conception of Messiahship (Revelation 1:5-7; Revelation 1:17 f.; Revelation 5:5; Revelation 5:9-14; Revelation 19:11-16, etc.). This is the more noteworthy when we remember that in many of the Jewish apocalypses, especially those contemporary with primitive Christianity (e.g. 4 Ezra and Apocalypse of Baruch), the figure of the Messiah plays but an insignificant part.
(c) The lofty spirituality of the book is another distinctive feature. No book of the NT has given more noble expression to the highest aspirations of man for the future life than the Apocalypse of St. John. Certainly no other apocalypse offers anything to rival its masterly word-pictures of the Kingdom of God (see, e.g., Revelation 7; Revelation 21:1-7; Revelation 21:22 to Revelation 22:7). Such passages show us the heights to which the apocalyptic type of Christian eschatology could attain in the mind of an inspired master-thinker.
2. The non-canonical Christian apocalypses
1 The chief writings of this type.-The Apocalypse of St. John stands as the only representative of Christian apocalyptic in the NT; but one or two other Christian apocalypses appear to belong-at least in part-to the 1st cent. a.d. The determination of their dates is, however, a difficult matter, and by no means established beyond doubt. Such are:
(a) Parts of the Sibylline Oracles (e.g. the Proœmium, bk. iv. and bk. viii. 217-429; see Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible (5 vols) v. 68).
(b) Parts of the Ascension of Isaiah. Charles (Introd. to Asc. Is.) assigns chs. iii-v. and vi-xi. to the close of the 1st. cent. a.d.; but Armitage Robinson (Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible (5 vols) ii. 500b) assigns the Christian element in Asc. Is. to the middle of the 2nd cant. a.d.
(c) The Epistle of Barnabas, though not strictly an apocalypse in form, is apocalyptic in tone, and has been assigned to the times of Vespasian (so Lightfoot), Nerva, or Hadrian. There are also several Christian apocalypses which probably contain elements belonging to the 2nd. cent. a.d.-e.g. the Apocalypse of peter, the Testament of Abraham, the Testament of Isaac, the Vision of Paul, etc. These help us to realize more clearly the distinctive features of the Christian apocalyptic literature, as developed in later times.
2 The eschatology of these writings.-The Christian apocalypses, like most of the Jewish apocalypses, were probably designed for circulation among the less educated sections of the community. The average tone is puerile and petty; we find a mass of trivial details and crude dramatic colouring, but an entire absence of deep or illuminating thoughts. Nearly all these books bear the marks of Egyptian or Alexandrian origin; and it would seem that the religious atmosphere of these parts was favourable to the growth of ‘apocalyptic’ (cf. many of the Jewish apocalypses-Slav. Enoch, parts of Sib. Or., etc.). The most noteworthy features of the eschatology are:
(a) The profusion of detailed ‘revelations.’-While the normal Jewish scheme of eschatology is retained, the broad outlines are almost obscured by the mass of detailed description and prophecy; and the result is a type of eschatology very far removed from that of our Lord, or of the majority of NT books. In Asc. Is. we find graphic descriptions of the Seven Heavens (Asc. Is. iii. and iv.) and of the manner of the resurrection, which is apparently to be bodiless (iv. 14f.). In the later apocalypses these details become more and more profuse: the conditions of the Intermediate State, the punishments of the wicked, the geography of the other world, are expounded with minute precision. But a full discussion of these does not properly belong to ‘apostolic eschatology.’
(b) The prevalence of foreign ideas.-In these apocalypses Babylonian, Egyptian, and Zoroastrian legends are found strangely mingled with Christian ideas, just as they were doubtless mingled in the minds of the cosmopolitan populace of Alexandria.
(c) The coming of Antichrist.-This is a feature far more prominent in these apocalypses than in any other known group of writings. The idea seems derived from various sources: e.g. the Jewish expectation of a last leader of the hosts of evil (Ezekiel 38, 39, Daniel 11:36, Apoc. Bar. xxxix., 4 Ezra 5:6, Pss. -Sol. 2:33, etc.); the Zoroastrian ‘Satan,’ chief of the evil spirits (of. Asc. Is. ii.); the Babylonian Dragon-myth (see Bousset, Antichrist Legend, 1896); and, in particular, the expectation of Nero’s return to resume the sovereignty of the world (see Lake, The Earlier Epistles of St. Paul, p. 78ff.). This dread of Nero’s return seems to have been an outstanding feature of Christian eschatology as reflected in these apocalypses-see, e.g., Asc. Is. iii. and iv., Sib. Or. iv. 117-122, 137ff., v. 138-141, 413-422, viii. 88-90, 169-213, etc. For other early Christian conceptions of Antichrist cf. 2 Thessalonians 2:3-4 (see below, and article Man of Sin), 1 John 4:3; 2 John 1:7 (see below); Didache, 16 (where he is to appear ‘as Son of God,’ i.e. as a pseudo-Messiah); Ep. Barn. 4. The conception (like the corresponding one of the Messiah) varies from that of a human monarch to that of a supernatural being, sometimes closely akin to ‘Satan.’ Various titles are used-e.g. ‘Beliar’ (Asc. Is.), ‘the World’s Deceiver’ (Didache), ‘the Black One’ (Ep. Barn.), ‘the Man of Sin’ (2 Thess.); but in all cases the destruction of Antichrist is set forth as one of the last and greatest acts of the true Messiah. The idea of a coming reign of Antichrist tended to ‘throw back’ the Second Coming of the true Messiah into a somewhat less immediate future than it occupies in the earliest Christian message.
(d) The allegorical interpretation of Scripture.-By allegorizing the narratives of Scripture, some of the Christian apocalyptists were able to find prophecies of the Last Things in unpromising fields of study. In Ep. Barn. 15, e.g., we find Genesis 1 interpreted as an ‘apocalypse’ of the world’s history, in a manner that reminds us of both the Alexandrian-Jewish apocalypses (e.g. Slav. Enoch) and the Christian Fathers of Alexandria.
3 Value of the Christian apocalypses.-These Christian writings are valuable, because they show us one of the lines along which the primitive Judaeo-Christian eschatology developed and decayed. The primitive enthusiasm for the few great truths of the gospel faded away, and it was replaced by a dilettante curiosity about the things of the other world, which ran riot in extravagant superstition, and eventually died-as it deserved to die. In these writings we may also see the beginnings of doctrines absent from primitive Christian eschatology, but prevalent in later ages of the Church, e.g. purgatory (Vis. Pauli, 22), or prayers for the dead (Test. Abr. 14). But these, again, scarcely fall within our present scope.
III. The Johannine Type Of Early Christian Eschatology.-The Gospel and Epistles traditionally ascribed to St. John so far resemble each other in their eschatological outlook that for our purpose it seems best to consider them together, as expressing a distinctive type of eschatology (see A. E. Brooke, The Johannine Epistles [International Critical Commentary , 1912], Introd., p. xxi). As illustrations of the history of Christian doctrine, the Johannine Epistles are easier to interpret than the Gospel, because in the latter it is often exceedingly difficult to differentiate between the purely historical element, based upon the teaching of our Lord Himself, and the ‘Johannine’ element, due to the Evangelist. But since the eschatology in both Gospel and Epistles partakes of the same ‘tone,’ which is not found (to the same extent) elsewhere in the NT, it seems reasonable to attribute this distinctive element to the writer in both cases, although not therefore denying the likelihood that it may be indirectly due to our Lord’s own teaching and influence. The chief points to note are:
1. The ‘spirituality’ of the teaching.-‘Spirituality’ is perhaps the best word to describe the distinctive characteristic of the Johannine eschatology. It bears the impress of a mind retentive of traditional forms of belief, but not content with the surface-meaning of current teaching. The old phraseology is not rejected; but it is regarded as a parable, half concealing and half revealing the deep spiritual truths over which the writer had pondered in the hours of meditation. The signs of foreign influence in the Johannine writings are very slight; the signs of the inner working of the writer’s mind are very marked indeed. Hence we find the following characteristics:
(a) The Jewish phraseology retained.-The ‘dramatic setting’ of Jewish eschatology is as vividly displayed in the Johannine writings as in any part of the NT. Our Lord is portrayed as the Messianic ‘Son of Man,’ who has ‘descended out of heaven’ (John 3:13; John 6:38; John 6:42;
Copyright Statement Bibliography Information
These files are public domain.
Text Courtesy of BibleSupport.com. Used by Permission.
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Eschatology'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/hdn/e/eschatology.html. 1906-1918.