Modern Eschatology (1800-Present)

During the early nineteenth century, a group of conservative and non-conformist Christians gathered in Dublin, Ireland and later formed a church congregation in Plymouth, England. Thus, they became known as the Plymouth Brethren and were a reactionary movement against the established Church of England. They emphasized the authority of Scripture, preaching of the gospel to unbelievers, sacrificial devotion, simple and unstructured worship, and non-ordained clergy.[1] John Nelson Darby was the founder and the most influential teacher of the movement, and his views regarding dispensationalism and dispensational premillennialism challenged the historical premillennialism view.

According to Darby, God interacts with humanity through a series of dispensations (or well-defined time periods), and he reveals a specific purpose to be achieved during each period.[2] With this view of dispensations, Darby made a strong distinction between the Church and Israel. Each are located in their distinct dispensation with their own history and future, and so he posited that the Church has not replaced Israel and that God interacts separately with the Church and Israel.[3]

When his dispensational views were applied to the end of the age, Darby believed that the Old Testament prophesied that a Jewish remnant will go through a time of great tribulation before experiencing the blessings of the promised land, but since the Church was not present in the Old Testament and since the Church is separate from Israel, the Church will experience the rapture or removal from the world before the great tribulation. Also, Darby referred to Revelation 3:10 and 12:10-12 to support his view of the Church’s exemption from the great tribulation.[4] Revelation 3:10 states, “Since you have kept my command to endure patiently, I will also keep you from the hour of trial that is going to come on the whole world to test the inhabitants of the earth.” Revelation 12:10-12 describes the devil being hurled down to earth to cause fury on the earth, and then it states, “Therefore rejoice, you heavens and you who dwell in them! But woe to the earth and the sea, because the devil has gone down to you!”

Therefore, Darby believed that the Church will only experience heavenly blessings which will come through the rapture, and for rapture support, he referred to 1 Thessalonians 4:17 which states, “we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air.” From this perspective, Christ’s second return will come in two stages. The first stage consists of his pretribulation return to meet raptured believers in the air, and the second stage consists of his full return to the earth, after the seven-year tribulation, where he will begin his literal thousand year reign. This pretribulation premillennialism (or dispensational premillennialism) view is different than the historic premillennialism view which posits only one final premillennial return of Christ.

The dispensational movement and its implications on eschatology became popular in the United States through the works of Cyrus Ingerson Scofield (1843-1921 CE). His creation of the Scofield Reference Bible includesseveral study notes from a dispensational perspective, and his book entitled, Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth, expounds on the seven dispensations of history. These seven dispensations (or time periods) include: 1) Innocence-from the time of creation to the fall of Adam and Eve and their expulsion from Eden. 2) Conscience-from the expulsion from Eden to the flood. 3) Human government-from the flood to Abraham and his call. 4) Promise-from the promises to Abraham to the bondage in Egypt. 5) Law-from Moses and the law to the coming of Christ and his death. 6) The Church-from the resurrection of Christ to the present. 7) The millennium-consisting of the last battle, final judgment and the new heaven and new earth.[5]

The Scofield Reference Bible was very influential in forming the dispensational theology and eschatology in the United States because it taught many American Evangelicals to read the Scriptures with a dispensational mindset which informed their dispensational premillennialism eschatology. Thus, throughout the twentieth century, dispensational theology and eschatology was commonplace among many American Evangelical scholars and church laity.

Furthermore, dispensationalism was advanced through the founding of Dallas Theological Seminary (DTS) by dispensationalist Lewis Sperry Chafer in 1924, and his multi-volume Systematic Theology became the standard theological text at DTS. Also, beginning in the 1970s, dispensationalism and pretribulation premillennialism was promoted through popular literature specifically in the book entitled The Late Great Planet Earth by Hal Lindsey and the Left Behind series of novels by Tim Lahaye and Jerry Jenkins.[6] These writings set out to present eschatological prophecies in relation to current events from a pretribulation premillennialism perspective. The Late Great Planet Earth gives a thorough systematic account of perceived eschatological current events and then predicts that the rapture would occur during the 1980s. The Left Behind series tells a contemporary fictional story based on end times prophecies. The story tells of the pretribulation rapture of Christians which leaves the rest of the world seeking answers and stability. Both works were developed into movies which introduced dispensational premillennialism to an even larger American audience.

Another aspect of eschatology that was emphasized during the late nineteenth and twentieth century was the apocalyptic character of Jesus’ teaching especially in his proclamation of the “imminent coming of the eschatological kingdom of God.”[7] This was the view of Johannes Weiss who argued that Jesus was a “wild apocalyptic visionary proclaiming the end of the world.”[8] Albert Schweitzer argued that Jesus “was a deluded fanatic who futilely threw his life away in blind devotion to a mad apocalyptic dream which was never realized and…never could be realized.”[9] Thus, according to Schweitzer, Jesus sacrificed his life due to a misunderstanding that God would deliver him from the cross while ushering in the new age of the divine kingdom.[10] 

In response to Weiss and Schweitzer, Charles H. Dodd posited a “realized” eschatological view of Jesus’ preaching meaning that the kingdom of God had already been realized or happened through the coming of Jesus. Dodd argued that the future last days events prophesied by the Old Testament prophets have been fulfilled in the life and ministry of Jesus. Dodd submits that Jesus declared that the “kingdom of God was at hand” (Mark 1:15) and that it had already come upon the people (Matthew 12:28), and so it was not something that was to come in the future.

Dodd’s ‘realized eschatology’ was challenged by several New Testament scholars including W.G. Kümmel, Oscar Cullmann and George Eldon Ladd. They argued that the eschatology of Jesus and the New Testament was paradoxical meaning that “[i]n one sense the kingdom of God had already arrived with the presence of Jesus, but in another sense it had not yet come.”[11] This paradoxical view has been called ‘inaugurated eschatology’ which emphasizes that the “kingdom of God has begun to exercise its influence within human history, although its full realization and fulfillment lie in the future.”[12] Inaugurated eschatology became the most widely accepted view by New Testament scholars during the second half of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first century.


[1] H.H. Rowdon, “Darby, John Nelson (1800-82)” 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] H.H. Rowdon, “Dispensational Theology,” 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. [3] Gregg R. Allison, Historical Theology : An Introduction to Christian Doctrine : A Companion to Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011) EPUB edition, pt. 7, ch.31, “Eschatological Beliefs in the Modern Period Period.” [4] Allison, Historical Theology, EPUB edition, pt. 7, ch.31, “Eschatological Beliefs in the Modern Period Period.” [5] This paragraph is indebted to both Allison, Historical Theology, EPUB edition, pt. 7, ch.31, “Eschatological Beliefs in the Modern Period Period” and Alister E. McGrath, Christian Theology: An Introduction, 5th ed. (West Sussex, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011),EPUB edition, pt.3, ch. 18, “Dispensationalism: The Structures of Eschatology.” [6] Allison, Historical Theology, EPUB edition, pt. 7, ch.31, “Eschatological Beliefs in the Modern Period Period” [7] McGrath, Christian Theology, EPUB edition, pt.3, ch. 18, “The Twentieth Century: The Rediscovery of Eschatology.” [8] Noble, “Eschatology” in NDT, EPUB edition.[9] George Eldon Ladd, The Presence of the Future: The Eschatology of Biblical Realism (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Pub., 1974), 5. [10] Noble, “Eschatology” in NDT, EPUB edition. [11] Noble, “Eschatology” in NDT, EPUB edition. [12] McGrath, Christian Theology, EPUB edition, pt.3, ch. 18, “The Twentieth Century: The Rediscovery of Eschatology.”

Sunday Prayers

Holy and everliving God, by your power we are created and by your love we are redeemed; guide and strengthen us by your Spirit, that we may give ourselves to your service and live this day in love to one another and to you; through Jesus Christ our Saviour. Amen. (A New Zealand Prayer Book)

Lord God, when the hungry are fed, the sick healed, the lonely made family, the outcast brought in, the sinner forgiven, the tyrant transformed, and the enemy reconciled, we know your work by the fruit it produces. May our lives bear fruit worthy of your name. Amen. (Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals)

Thank you God that we are never alone because you are always immanent. We praise you for your loving presence that gives us peace and transforms our hearts and minds. Help us to practice the ministry of loving presence to whomever we meet and to show sympathy and empathy to those experiencing trials of various kinds. Amen. (My Sunday Prayer)

Sunday Prayers

O God our King, by the resurrection of your Son Jesus Christ on the first day of the week, you conquered sin, put death to flight, and gave us the hope of everlasting life: Redeem all our days by this victory; forgive our sins, banish our fears, make us bold to praise you and to do your will; and steel us to wait for the consummation of your kingdom on the last great Day; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (Sunday Morning Prayer in 2019 ACNA Book of Common Prayer)

O Lord God, you led your ancient people through the wilderness and brought them to the promised land. Guide now your people of your Church, that, following our savior, we may walk through the wilderness of this world toward the glory of the world to come; through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen. (First Sunday in Lent in Lutheran Book of Worship)

O most holy and blessed Trinity, you have taught us that when we fast, we give up comfort and conventions to make room in our lives for experiencing more deeply your divine love and togetherness. We starve the flesh to partake of your greatness, to hunger and thirst for you in earnest prayer and to stand in solidarity with and intercede for the poor and needy throughout the world. Help us view fasting not as a burden but as a joyous practice which evermore moves us to depend on you and to become like you in and to the world. Amen. (My Sunday Prayer)