Reformation Eschatology: Martin Luther and John Calvin

During the reformation period, there was an emphasis on the historical perspective of biblical eschatology which views the last days as already coming upon humanity and the church. There was an anticipation of the new heavens and the new earth, “an ultimate end in which the fulness of the creation is maintained unimpaired in union with a heavenly consummation.”[1]

For Martin Luther, eschatology involved the tension between having and not- having which was formed from his thoughts on simul justus et peccator meaning “both righteous and a sinner.”[2] Luther believed that Christians “have begun to be justified through faith” while receiving “the first-fruits of the Spirit” and experiencing the beginning of the “mortification of the flesh,” but they are “not perfectly righteous.”[3] Thus, Luther states, “We possess Christ by faith and in the midst of our afflictions through hope we wait for the that righteousness which we possess already by faith.”[4]

John Calvin emphasized the resurrection, renewal and union with Christ “which raises [Christians] upwards, and casts its anchor in heaven, so that instead of subjecting Christ to the interventions of our reason, we seek Him above in his glory.”[5] This is where Calvin’s eschatological mood of hope and joy becomes central in the Christian life. When Christians understand that they participate in the victory won by Christ through his death, resurrection and ascension, they can live with a glorious eschatological vision and mission in the world.

Luther and Calvin affirmed the historic eschatological views of Christ’s return, a general bodily resurrection, the last judgment, eternal punishment and the new heavens and the new earth with each event following the other with no interval of time between.[6]In connection to Christ’s return, Luther and Calvin believed that there would first be an end times antichrist, and they identified the Pope or the papacy as the end times antichrist. Martin Luther, in a letter to Staupitz and others, wrote that the “Papacy is the seat of the real and true antichrist.”[7] Calvin called the Roman Pontiff antichrist and explained by writing, “Seeing then it is certain that the Roman Pontiff has impudently transferred to himself the most peculiar properties of God and Christ, there cannot be a doubt that he is the leader and standard-bearer of an impious and abominable kingdom.”[8] With this view of the antichrist, many reformers believed that the second coming of Christ would happen within their lifetime. They upheld the amillennialism view of Augustine and of the Medieval Church and rejected the premillennialism view that was being posited by the Anabaptists.                                                                                                

In his 95 Theses, Martin Luther rejected the medieval church’s teaching on the purchasing of indulgences to release souls from purgatory. He wrote, “Ignorant and wicked are the doings of those priests who, in the case of the dying, reserve canonical penances for purgatory. This changing of the canonical penalty to the penalty of purgatory is quite evidently one of the tares that were sown while the bishops slept.”[9]  Moreover, he writes, “those preachers of indulgences are in error, who say that by the pope’s indulgences a man is freed from every penalty, and saved.”[10] A few years later, Luther rejected the doctrine of purgatory all together. Thus, instead of three final states for humans, as believed by the Medieval Church, Luther posited two final states—heaven and hell.

With the rejection of purgatory and the belief in heaven and hell as the two final states for humans, Luther and Calvin affirmed the eschatological doctrines of final judgement and eternal punishment. Luther wrote:

The fiery oven is ignited merely by the unbearable appearance of God and endures eternally. For the Day of Judgment will not last for a moment only but will stand throughout eternity and will thereafter never come to an end. Constantly the damned will be judged, constantly they will suffer pain, and constantly they will be a fiery oven—that is, they will be tortured within by supreme distress and tribulation.[11]

While maintaining the central aspects of a final judgement and literal physical eternal punishment, Luther appears to be adding his own vision of the fiery oven based on Psalms 21:9, Malachi 4:1 and Revelation 9:2.

Calvin described the last judgement by writing:

He will separate the sheep from the goats and the elect from the reprobate, and when not one individual either of the living or the dead shall escape his judgment. From the extremities of the universe shall be heard the clang of the trumpet summoning all to his tribunal; both those whom that day shall find alive, and those whom death shall previously have removed from the society of the living.[12]

With this statement, Calvin is echoing Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 25:31-33 and Paul’s teaching in 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17.  

When referring to the eternal punishment of unbelievers, Calvin commented:

Unhappy consciences find no rest, but are vexed and driven about by a dire whirlwind, feeling as if torn by an angry God, pierced through with deadly darts, terrified by his thunderbolts and crushed by the weight of his hand; so that it were easier to plunge into abysses and whirlpools than endure these terrors for a moment. How fearful, then, must it be to be thus beset throughout eternity![13]

Much like the Scriptures’ use of metaphors when describing eternal punishment, Calvin also uses metaphors in this statement to describe the anguish that unbelievers will feel from being separated from the Almighty God.

Luther and Calvin did not add much to the historic doctrines of the new heavens and the new earth other than giving commentary on certain passages of scripture (i.e. Isa 65:17; Rom 8:21; 2 Peter 3:6-17). Calvin summarizes, “For though we are truly told that the kingdom of God will be full of light, and gladness, and felicity, and glory, yet the things meant by these words remain most remote from sense, and as it were involved in enigma, until the day arrive on which he will manifest his glory to us face to face.”[14]


[1] Thomas F. Torrance, Kingdom and Church (Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1956), 3. [2] Torrance, Kingdom, 15. [3] Torrance, Kingdom, 15. [4] Martin Luther in Weimarer Ausgabe of Luther’s Work, Wein ar, 1883-, 40/2, p.30 quoted in Torrance, Kingdom, 15. [5] Torrance, Kingdom, 103 [6] Allison, Historical Theology, EPUB edition, pt.7, ch. 31, “Eschatological Beliefs in the Reformation and Post Reformation.” [7]Martin Luther, quoted by Le Roy Edwin Froom, The Prophetic Faith of Our Fathers: the Historical Development of Prophetic Interpretation, v. 2 (Washington: Review and Herald, 1950), 56 cited by  Earle E. Cairns, “Eschatology and Church History (Part II).” Bibliotheca Sacra 115, no. 459 (1958), 230. [8]John Calvin, Institutes of Christian Religion, trans.Henry Beveridge, bk 4, ch.7, section 25, http://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/institutes.v.xxvi.html. [9] Martin Luther, “Disputation of Doctor Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences” in  Works of Martin Luther, trans. & eds. Adolph Spaeth, L.D. Reed, Henry Eyster Jacobs, et Al., (Philadelphia: A. J. Holman Company, 1915), Vol. 1, pp. 29-38, ar. 10-11. http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/ epub/274/pg274.html. [10]Luther, “Disputation of Doctor Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences” in Works of Martin Luther, ar. 21. http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/ epub/274/pg274.html. [11] Martin Luther, What Luther Says, ed. Ewald M. Plass, 3 vols. in 1 (St. Louis: Concordia, 1959), 3:1154 [12] Calvin, Institutes, bk 2, ch.16, section 17, http://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/institutes.iv.xvii.html. [13] Calvin, Institutes, bk 3, ch.25, section 12, http://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/institutes.v.xxvi.html.[14] Calvin, Institutes, bk 3, ch.25, section 10, http://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/institutes.v.xxvi.html.