New Testament Eschatology: Part 1 of 7 Contextual Background

In order to begin a study on New Testament eschatology, one must understand that the first Christians were Jewish, and so they would have been influenced by Jewish eschatology. Furthermore, the first Christians also lived within the predominant Greco-Roman World, and so the eschatological views of the contextualized Greco-Roman culture should also be explored.

Jewish Thought

The first Christians were rooted in the Old Testament (I prefer to say First Testament) and Second Temple Judaism and most of the eschatological themes found in the First Testament are also found in Second Temple Jewish literature. At that time, eschatological views were fixed on a series of events in which God would intervene by ending the oppression of Israel and by establishing his rule.[1] The First Testament and Jewish literature often refer to the “latter days” as a time marked by tribulation, persecution, apostasy and exile, which is followed by the culmination of history due to the final arrival of a conquering leader (Messiah) from Israel who would permanently deliver the Israelites and exercise judgment over their enemies.[2] At this time, God would raise from the dead the saints of Israel while establishing a kingdom on earth and entering into a new covenant with Israel. Moreover, some of Israel’s enemies (Gentiles) would experience mercy and deliverance by God.[3] Thus, the “latter days” ultimately meant that there would be a future period defined by an irreversible, permanent and extreme change from the preceding period.[4]

For the Israelites, there was a hope of a future greater people, greater covenant, greater land, and greater king. In other words, during the “age to come,” there would be a spiritual people who would be the inheritors of the faith, a new covenant that would be written on the hearts of God’s people and would supersede the covenant mediated by Moses, a land described as the new heaven and the new earth and a king who would rule and reign through his defeat of evil and of Satan.[5] In Jewish thought, the strong and prevailing conviction was that in the future God would act in a powerful and transformative way on behalf of his people.[6]

The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS) at Wadi Qumran in 1947 has contributed to the understanding of eschatological thought within Judaism from about 250 BCE to the first century CE. Discovered in the DSS were copies (QNJ collection) of an unknown writing which describes an apocalyptic vision of the renewed heavenly Jerusalem in the eschatological age. This text appears to have relied heavily upon Ezekiel 40-48.[7]

Moreover, the Qumran War Scroll (1QM) depicts a final battle on earth between the redeemed of God or the “Sons of Light,” led by the warrior angels Melchizedek and Michael, and the forces of evil or the “Sons of Darkness.” The “Sons of Light” defeat the “Sons of Darkness.” However, the text is more theological in nature than a military composition, and it appears to have been influenced by Daniel 7-9, Isaiah 24-27, Zechariah 12-14 and 1 Enoch.[8]

Greco-Roman Thought

The ancient Greek religions and philosophies had numerous views on life after death or on last states of the cosmos. The tales of Homer portrayed the idea of an underworld where dreary souls wandered after death;[9] by contrast, Plato believed that the soul is the divine self that exists eternally and is preferred over the physical body. In fact, in his view, the physical body incarcerates the soul after a fall from the eternal realm. Therefore, the soul needs a liberation from the body followed by a series of reincarnations in order to return to the eternal realm with the One.[10] According to Plato, only noble souls would survive the death-reincarnation cycle and arrive at a state of perfect and ascending knowledge.[11]

Other Greek philosophers believed that upon death people would transform into a star in the galaxy or undergo a reincarnation of some sorts. The Epicureans advocated for an absolute non-existence or complete extinction after death.[12] Epicurus writes, “Death is nothing to us; for the body, when it has been resolved into its elements, has no feeling, and that which has no feeling is nothing for us.”[13] Another ancient belief of the afterlife is that the deceased continued to live a peaceful, soulish life in the tomb. This is supported by archaeological discoveries of ancient tombs that had openings so that gifts, food and drinks could be delivered.[14]

The Stoic philosophers believed in an endless, repeating cycle of the cosmos. When one cosmic cycle completed, another cycle began repeating the same ordered history. Thus, upon death, a soul would be temporarily extinct until the current cosmic cycle ended and then restarted. Chrysippus sums up this view by writing, “Socrates and Plato will exist again and every man with his friends and his fellow citizens; he will suffer the same and do the same and do the same. Every city, every village and field will grow again. And this restoration will not happen once, but the same will return without limit and end.”[15]

In view of all these ancient Greco-Roman beliefs, Hubbard explains that Greek philosophers were united on one point: “their denial of a bodily resurrection.”[16] This point is in sharp contrast with Jewish eschatology and as we will see with New Testament eschatology.

New Testament Eschatology

As mentioned earlier, the first Christians were Jewish, and so they were influenced by the First Testament and by Jewish eschatology; therefore, it should not be surprising that the Christian New Testament writers followed the First Testament’s use of the phrase “latter days.” While the New Testament’s use of “latter days” has the same overall meaning as in the First Testament, the New Testament uniquely views the “latter days” as beginning their fulfillment in the life and ministry of Jesus and as continuing until Jesus’ final return.[17] G.K. Beale writes,

The OT expectations of the great tribulation, God’s domination of the Gentiles, deliverance of Israel from oppressors, Israel’s resurrection, the new covenant, the new creation and the establishment of God’s kingdom have been set in motion by Christ’s death and resurrection and in the emergence of the Christian church.[18]

[1] T.A. Noble, “Eschatology,” in New Dictionary of Theology (NDT): Historical and Systematic, edited by Martin Davie et al. 2nd ed. (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Academic, 2016), EPUB edition. [2] G.K. Beale, “Eschatology,” in Dictionary of the Later New Testament and Its Developments (DLNT), edited by R. P. Martin and P. H. Davids (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1997), 330-331. [3] Beale, “Eschatology,” in DLNT, 330-331. [4] G.K. Beale, A New Testament Biblical Theology: The Unfolding of the Old Testament in the New (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011), 114. [5] Bruce K. Waltke and Charles Yu. An Old Testament Theology: An Exegetical, Canonical, and Thematic Approach (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2007), 169. [6] K.E. Brower, “Eschatology,” in New Dictionary of Biblical Theology (NDBT), edited by T. Desmond Alexander, et al. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 461. [7] L.D. Hurst, “Qumran,” in Dictionary of the Later New Testament and Its Developments (DLNT), edited by R. P. Martin and P. H. Davids (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1997), 997. [8] Hurst, “Qumran,” in DLNT, 997. [9] Moyer V. Hubbard, “Greek Religion” in The World of the New Testament: Cultural, Social and Historical Contexts eds. Joel Green and Lee Martin McDonald (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2017), 121. [10] Horton, The Christian Faith, EPUB edition, pt. 6, ch. 27, “Dualism and the Myth of the Exiled Soul. [11] Hubbard, “Greek Religion,” 121. [12] Hubbard, “Greek Religion,” 121. [13] Epicurus, Principal Doctrines 2 in Diogenes Laertius, Lives 10.139 LCL quoted by Hubbard, “Greek Religion,” 121. [14] Hubbard, “Greek Religion,” 121. [15] Stoicorum veterum fragmenta ed. H.v. Arnim, II, 190, 16 ss. quoted by Rudolf Bultmann, History and Eschatology: The Presence of Eternity (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1957), 24. [16] Hubbard, “Greek Religion,” 121. [17] Beale, “Eschatology,” in DLNT, 331. [18] Beale, “Eschatology,” in DLNT, 331.

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