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.”

Anabaptist and Post-Reformation Eschatology

During the Protestant Reformation period, the Anabaptists believed that at Christ’s second coming, he would destroy evil and establish his literal millennial kingdom. This view led some Anabaptist leaders to stir up apocalyptic rebellions and wars with the goal of ushering in the millennial golden age. Eventually, the Anabaptist settled on the idea that the New Jerusalem would be established in the city of Münster, and so they took over the city. They expelled Catholics and Moderate Protestants from the city and destroyed everything connected with traditional belief and worship. When some inhabitants of the city became tired of the excesses of the leaders, they opened the gate to the bishop and his joint Catholic-Protestant army which resulted in the end of revolution at Münster.[1] The Anabaptist revolutionary movement in Münster led to a strong negative view of premillennialism. In fact, Luther and Calvin emphatically rejected and were critical of Anabaptist premillennialism.[2] Concerning the Anabaptists’ view of the thousand-year reign of Christ on the earth, Calvin wrote that this was “a fiction too puerile to need or to deserve refutation.”[3]     

Post-Reformation Eschatology (C.E. 1600-1800)

The post-reformers followed the traditional eschatological views of Christ’s return, a general bodily resurrection, the last judgment, eternal punishment and the new heavens and the new earth with a few differences from that of the reformers. During the post-reformation era, there was a move away from the amillennialism posited during the medieval period and by Luther and Calvin. There was a renewed interest in premillennialism because of theologian Johann Heinrich Alsted’s defense of  premillennialism in his book entitled, The Beloved City. Also, the Puritan scholar and writer named Joseph Mede followed Alsted’s premillennialism views and popularized them in his book entitled, The Key of the Revelation. Thus, the thought and works of Alsted and Mede sparked a return to the premillennial position of the early church.[4]

Moreover, the idea of millennialism was prevalent during the English Civil War (1638-49) particularly among the “Fifth Monarchy Men,” which was a group in London who declared that the millennium was near when Christ would return as king to rule over the earth. With the recent Thirty Years War and the present English Civil War, they believed that they were involved in the wars of the last days, and so it was incumbent upon them to usher in this new and fifth[5] monarchy in order to change the social order by promoting justice and equality.[6] They believed that “the immediate duty of the saints was to prepare for the kingdom, by making the existing government accord as closely as possible with the rule of Christ. To this end none but godly men should sit in the seats of the mighty, tithes should be abolished, and the existing laws replaced by the law of God.”[7]

Puritans Thomas Bright-man, John Cotton and John Owen posited a doctrine of the “latter-glory” which was a preface to what has been described as a postmillennialism view. They believed at the end of history there will be a time marked by the power of the Kingdom of God when many people will convert to Christianity and the church will be pure in all aspects while experiencing support from governments worldwide. After this period of expansion, peace and prosperity, Christ will return. This view became unsustainable during the political turmoil in England during the seventeenth and eighteenth century; however, it was adopted and developed in New England by Daniel Whitby and Jonathan Edwards.[8]

Whitby and Edwards believed that Christ will return after the millennium, which was characterized by the radical spread of the gospel and the conversion of scores of people throughout the world. During this time, the Jews will be restored to the Holy Land and there will be universal peace and blessing. According to Whitby and Edwards, the reformation had set in motion many events that would lead to the demise of the papacy, which was identified as the Antichrist, and the ushering in of the millennium. They believed that the outpouring of revival during their time was a sign of the approaching thousand-year golden age.[9]

Furthermore, many post-reformers addressed the eschatological doctrines of final judgement and eternal punishment. While acknowledging the “two results of judgment—the blessings of eternal life and the torment of eternal punishment,” John Andrew Quenstedt expounded on both by using the terms “privative” and “positive.” As for the blessings of eternal life, “privative” blessings involve the removal of weakness and evil from the Christian experience, and “positive” blessings involve internal and external enrichment of the Christian experience. Turning to the torment of eternal punishment, “privative” torments involve the forfeiture of the beatific vision of God and separation and exclusion from all that is good, joyous and heavenly, and “positive” torments involve internal anguish and torture of the soul and external punishment that is “most painful and burning without being consumed.”[10]

Jonathan Edwards addressed the eschatological doctrines of final judgement and eternal punishment often through his sermons. Referring to the final judgment, Edwards states, “When that day comes, all mankind that have died from off the face of the earth shall arise; not only the righteous, but also the wicked.”[11] Then he describes the final judgement of the wicked by stating,

When Christ comes in the clouds of heaven to judgment, the news of it will fill both earth and hell with mourning and bitter crying. We read that all the kindreds of the earth shall wail because of him, and so shall all the inhabitants of hell; and then must the souls of the wicked come up to be united to their bodies, and stand before the Judge.[12]

At this point the wicked, “with all its guilt, and in all its filthiness, a vile, loathsome, abominable creature, an enemy to God, a rebel against him, with the guilt of all its rebellion and disregard of God’s commands, and contempt of his authority, and slight of the glorious gospel,”[13] will enter into eternal punishment.

Edwards affirmed the traditional eschatological doctrine of eternal punishment in his most famous sermon entitled, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. He writes,

There will be no end to this exquisite horrible misery. When you look forward, you shall see a long forever, a boundless duration before you, which will swallow up your thoughts, and amaze your soul; and you will absolutely despair of ever having any deliverance, any end, any mitigation, any rest at all… your punishment will indeed be infinite.[14]

Thus, according to Edwards, there is no hope for the wicked in hell because they will be unable to defeat or appease God that they might break free or be delivered. They will have no friends or advocates who will help them or pity them, and there is nothing that will ever relieve them of their extreme torment.[15]

As for the righteous, Edwards explains that they will be in heavenly glory with the triune God forever, where they will experience him without hindrance or obstacle. In heaven, the righteous will bask in God’s fountain of love. Edwards writes,

There this glorious God is manifested, and shines forth, in full glory, in beams of love. And there this glorious fountain forever flows forth in streams, yea, in rivers of love and delight, and these rivers swell, as it were, to an ocean of love, in which the souls of the ransomed may bathe with the sweetest enjoyment, and their hearts, as it were, be deluged with love![16]

Moreover, Edwards explains that the saints will be perfected in love, holiness and peace. The heavenly community will be in harmony with God and with one another. Edwards writes,

Every saint in heaven is as a flower in that garden of God, and holy love is the fragrance and sweet odor that they all send forth, and with which they fill the bowers of that paradise above. Every soul there, is as a note in some concert of delightful music, that sweetly harmonizes with every other note, and all together blend in the most rapturous strains in praising God and the Lamb forever. And so all help each other, to their utmost, to express the love of the whole society to its glorious Father and Head, and to pour back love into the great fountain of love whence they are supplied and filled with love, and blessedness, and glory.[17]

The Post-Reformers affirmed the eschatological doctrines of the new heavens and the new earth, but like previous eras there was some disagreement regarding the process. Theologians David Hollaz, Quenstedt, and Edwards held an annihilation perspective arguing that the entire fabric of the heavens and the earth will be conflagrated to nothing, and at this point, God will create and establish the new heavens and the new earth. In opposition, theologians William Ames and Francis Turretin opted for a transformative perspective arguing that the present heavens and earth undergo alteration or change orchestrated by God into the new heavens and new earth.[18]


[1] Justo L.González, The Story of Christianity: Vol.2 Reformation to the Present Day, Rev. and Updated, 2nd ed. (New York: HarperOne, 2010), EPUB edition, pt.1, ch. 6, “The Revolutionary Anabaptists.” [2]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 Reformation and Post Reformation.” [3] Calvin, Institutes, bk 3, ch.25, section 5, http://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/institutes.v.xxvi.html.[4] Allison, Historical Theology, EPUB edition, pt. 7, ch. 31, “Eschatological Beliefs in the Reformation and Post Reformation.”[5] “Fifth” because it came after the great four monarchies of history, the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks and the Romans.[6] González, The Story, EPUB edition, pt.2, ch. 18, “Civil War.” [7] Louise Fargo Brown, The Political Activities of the Baptists and the Fifth Monarchy Men in England During the Interregnum (London: Oxford University Press, 1912), 25. [8] Allison, Historical Theology, EPUB edition, pt. 7, ch. 31, “Eschatological Beliefs in the Modern Period.” [9] Allison, Historical Theology, EPUB edition, pt. 7, ch. 31, “Eschatological Beliefs in the Modern Period.” [10] Allison, Historical Theology, EPUB edition, pt. 7, ch. 32, “Judgment and Punishment in the Reformation and Post-Reformation.” [11] Jonathan Edwards, “The Portion of the Wicked” in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, 2:885, http://www.ccel.org/ccel/edwards/works2.xv.vii.html. [12] Edwards, “The Portion of the Wicked,” 2:885.[13] Edwards,“The Portion of the Wicked,” 2:880.[14] Jonathan Edwards, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, 2:11, http://www.ccel.org/ccel/edwards/works2.ii.iii.html.[15] Jonathan Edwards, “The Future Punishment of the Wicked: Unavoidable and Intolerable,” in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, 2:80, http://www.ccel.org/ccel/edwards/works2.iv.x.html.[16] Jonathan Edwards, Heaven a World of Love, http://www.chapellibrary.org/files/4113/9930/ 8433/hawo.pdf [17] Edwards, Heaven, http://www.chapellibrary.org/files/4113/9930/ 8433/hawo.pdf [18] Allison, Historical Theology, EPUB edition, pt. 7, ch. 33, “The Idea of the Eternal State in the Reformation and Post-Reformation.”

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.

Medieval Eschatology

During the Medieval Period, eschatology began to take on a new emphasis from that of the earlier church ages. Islam was expanding and had conquered Jerusalem which led the church to believe that Islam was the antichrist of the end times. Moreover, natural disasters, famines and the bubonic plague throughout Europe were viewed as precursors to the end of the world.[1]

One of the ways that the church responded to these circumstances is by organizing military crusades. An example of the eschatological thought behind the crusades is seen in the views of Bernard of Clairvaux who led and inspired the Second Crusade.

Bernard developed a four-age theory for Christian eschatology which was linked to the four trials in Psalms 91:5-6, “You will not fear the terror of the night, nor the arrow that flies by day, nor the pestilence that stalks in darkness, nor the destruction that wastes at noonday.” These four trials described the four time periods of the age of martyrs, the age of heretics, the age of corruption, and the age of the antichrist.[2] With Bernard’s theory many believed that they were either in the latter stages of the age of corruption or in the beginning stages of the age of the antichrist. Regardless of which age people viewed as the present, they believed that participating in the crusades would contribute to the fulfillment of eschatological prophecies and the second coming of Christ. This anticipation of the last days caused Bernard to lead the Second Crusade which was going against everything he had stood for as a Cistercian monk.[3]

Another popular eschatological view during the Medieval Period was developed by Joachim of Fiore. According to Joachim, history was based on three ages in connection with the doctrine of the Trinity. Thus, the age of the Father, corresponding with the period of the Old Testament; the age of the Son, corresponding with the Jesus movement and the church; the age of Spirit, corresponding to a renewal of the church and the final state of unity and peace on earth.[4] Joachim argued that each age “consisted of 42 generations of 30 years each. As a result, the age of the Son was due to end in 1260 to be followed immediately by the radical new ‘age of the spirit’.”[5] According to Joachim, the end of second age was drawing near resulting in an antichrist led tribulation against the church. In order to guide the church through this time, Joachim believed that God would establish two new orders of monks[6] corresponding to the two witnesses of Revelation 11:3-12. One order was described as the preachers and another as the hermits and despite the witness of the preachers and the prayers of the hermits, the antichrist would prevail over the church and turn it towards evil. However, the return of Christ would end this dreadful state ushering in the third age defined by spiritual renewal, peace and blessing.[7] Joachim’s views challenged the amillennial views of the medieval church, but his views were condemned by the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215.[8]

The eschatological views of Thomas Aquinas were the most influential during the Medieval Period . Aquinas upheld Augustine’s amillennialism and the historic doctrines of the return of Christ, the last judgment, eternal punishment and the new heaven and new earth.[9] A significant amount of Aquinas’ writings concerning eschatology was focused on responding to those who denied eternal punishment of the wicked. Aquinas pointed to Jesus’ teaching about eternal punishment in Matthew 25:46 which states, “And these [the unrighteous] will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”[10] Aquinas expounded on eternal punishment by referring to the “pain of loss” and the “pain of sense.”[11] In the “pain of loss”, those who are against God lose the “beatific vision of God”[12] and are “punished by their exclusion from perpetual happiness.”[13] In the “pain of sense,” the wicked experience the sense of painful torment of body and the soul.[14]

As far as his views on the doctrine of the new heavens and new earth, Aquinas emphasised the renewal of the heavens and earth rather than annihilation before the creation of the new. He cited Isaiah 65:17 which states, “Behold I create new heavens and a new earth, and the former things shall not be in remembrance” and Revelation 21:1 which states, “I saw a new heaven and a new earth. For the first heaven and the first earth was gone.”[15] Moreover, he reasoned that “the dwelling should befit the dweller. But the world was made to be man’s dwelling. Therefore, it should befit man. Now man will be renewed. Therefore, the world will be likewise.”[16]

Lastly, a discussion on medieval eschatology would be incomplete without a mention of the idea of purgatory, which was an ancient idea that was further developed with new emphasis during the Medieval Period.[17] Thus, the medieval idea posited that “the ‘eternal punishment’ due to sin is waived, but there remains a ‘temporal punishment’ to pay.”[18] When people die without having paid off the temporal punishment debt, they enter purgatory where the debt is paid off by “penal and expiatory suffering.”[19] This suffering was believed to be lessened through the offering of mass for the departed, and the offering of indulgences was viewed as releasing people from purgatory.[20]

The medieval period was a time of shifting eschatological thought for the church due to external political, military and natural challenges. The church responded to these challenges with an apocalyptic zeal or with a scholastic biblical outlook. During this period, purgatory became the central eschatological focus which was one of the many factors leading to the Protestant Reformation.    


[1] Allison, Historical Theology, EPUB edition, pt.7, ch. 31, “Eschatological Beliefs in the Middle Ages.” [2] Maria L. Ruby Wagner, “The Impact of the Second Crusade on the Angelology and Eschatology of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux,” Journal of Religious History 37, no. 3 (2013), 326. [3] Wagner, “The Impact of the Second Crusade on the Angelology and Eschatology of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux,” 328. [4] McGrath, Christian Theology, EPUB edition, pt.3, ch. 18, “Joachim of Fiore: three ages.” [5] McGrath, Christian Theology, EPUB edition, pt.3, ch. 18, “Joachim of Fiore: three ages.” [6] These two new orders of monks were identified as the Franciscan order and the Dominican order. For an example of how Joachim’s views influenced these orders of monks, see Ray C. Petry “Medieval Eschatology and St. Francis of Assisi.” Church History 9, no. 1 (1940): 54-69.  [7] Allison, Historical Theology, EPUB edition, pt.7, ch. 31, “Eschatological Beliefs in the Middle Ages.” [8] McGrath, Christian Theology, EPUB edition, pt.3, ch. 18, “Joachim of Fiore: three ages.” [9] Allison, Historical Theology, EPUB edition, pt.7,  ch. 31, “Eschatological Beliefs in the Middle Ages.” [10] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, pt. 3, sup., q. 99, art. 1 http://www.ccel.org/ccel/ aquinas/summa.XP_Q99_A1.html. [11] Allison, Historical Theology, EPUB edition, pt.7, ch. 32, “Judgment and Punishment in the Middle Ages.” [12] Allison, Historical Theology, EPUB edition, pt.7, ch. 32, “Judgment and Punishment in the Middle Ages.” [13] Thomas Aquinas, On the Truth of the Catholic Faith, 218, quoted in Robert A. Peterson, Hell on Trial: The Case for Eternal Punishment (Phillipsburg, N.J. : P&R, 1995), 109, cited by Allison, Historical Theology, EPUB edition, pt.7,  ch. 32, “Judgment and Punishment in the Middle Ages.” [14] Allison, Historical Theology, EPUB edition, pt.7, ch. 32, “Judgment and Punishment in the Middle Ages.” [15] Aquinas, Summa, pt. 3, sup., q. 91, art. 1  http://www.ccel.org/ccel/aquinas/summa.XP_Q91 _A1.html. [16] Aquinas, Summa, pt. 3, sup., q. 91, art. 1 http://www.ccel.org/ccel/aquinas/summa.XP_Q91 _A1.html. [17] A.N.S Lane, “Purgatory” 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. [18] Lane, “Purgatory” in NDT, EPUB edition.[19] Lane, “Purgatory,” in NDT, EPUB edition. [20] Lane, “Purgatory,” in NDT, EPUB edition.

Eschatology of the Imperial Church Period (c. 306-500 C.E.)

During the time of the Imperial Church, changes in eschatological views began to shift, specifically on the millennium. The Alexandrian allegorical interpretation espoused by Origen and others had a lasting impact in the area of eschatology. Tyconius wrote Book of Rules where he presented his interpretive method for the scriptures. He taught that the prophecies of scripture will be fulfilled spiritually, not literally as the Early Church had imagined. According to his interpretation of Revelation 20:1-6, the one thousand years is a spiritual reign with Christ and corresponds to the current church age. Thus, due to the rejection of a literal millennium, Tyconius’ view has been called “amillennialism.”[1]   

Tyconius influenced Augustine who further explained the amillennial view by linking the bondage of Satan for a thousand years in Revelation 20:2-3 with Jesus’ casting out demons as a result Satan being bound (Mark 3:27) and by referring to Luke 10:18 where Jesus states, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven.” According to Augustine, when the church began to extend throughout the nations, this revealed that Satan’s power had been restrained and crippled. It is only when Satan is subdued that people experience the “first resurrection” spiritually, and then reign with Christ spiritually until he comes a second time at the end of the world.[2] While Augustine taught that there was no literal future millennium, he did posit that there was a future eternal millennium that symbolically rounded out “the seven millenniums from Adam which he held comprised the history of man.”[3]

On a more superficial level, Augustine may have avoided the literal interpretation of the millennium due to a popular view that the millennium emphasized “luxurious material blessings”[4] or that it was “a time of carnal enjoyment.”[5] This view may have formed within the context of the new changes between church and state under Constantine’s prioritizing of Christianity.[6] Regardless of Augustine’s exact reasoning for his rejection of the literal millennium, his “amillennial interpretation of Revelation 20 superseded the premillennial understanding so prevalent in the early church. With this development, amillennialism became the dominant eschatological belief for well over the next millennium.”[7]

Beyond his amillennial views, Augustine developed his eschatology into a philosophy of history in his treatise entitled City of God. In this work, he describes two cities—the city of God and the city of the world. These two cities battle throughout the ages, but God and His city prevail in the end.[8] The story of these two cities presents a strong Christian eschatology where the church is exiled in the present secular world during the time between Christ’s incarnation and his glorious return. There is an eschatological tension experienced by those of the city of God as they live out the Christian faith surrounded by unbelief while at the same time looking to the future hope where they will finally be delivered and be with God in his glory for eternity.[9]       

In the City of God, Augustine presents his views on final judgement and eternal punishment. He followed the NT writers and the Early Church Fathers on these views in the face of several opponents. There was the continued influence of Origen’s allegorical theology that posited that God would ultimately restore and save every fallen being, and so punishment was viewed as rehabilitative and not eternal. Some argued that eternal punishment was impossible seeing that continued punishment would eventually destroy embodied human beings. Others suggested that there were no sins that one could commit which would warrant eternal punishment or that God, due to his compassionate character, would eventually cease punishment.[10] In response to these arguments, Augustine, referring to Matthew 25:46, wrote,

If both destinies are “eternal,” then we must either understand both as long continued but at last terminating, or both endless. For they are correlated: On the one hand, punishment eternal; on the other hand, life eternal. And to say in one and the same sense ”life eternal will be endless, punishment eternal will come to an end,” is the height of absurdity. Therefore, as the eternal life of the saints will be endless, so too the eternal punishment of those who are doomed to it will have no end.[11]


[1] Allison, Historical Theology, EPUB edition, pt.7, ch. 31, “Eschatological Beliefs in the Early Church.” [2] Allison, Historical Theology, EPUB edition, pt.7, ch. 31, “Eschatological Beliefs in the Early Church.” [3] John F. Walvoord, “Amillennialism From Augustine to Modern Times” Bibliotheca Sacra 106, no. 424 (1949), 423. [4] Allison, Historical Theology, EPUB edition, pt.7, ch. 31, “Eschatological Beliefs in the Early Church.” [5] Walvoord, “Amillennialism From Augustine to Modern Times,” 423. [6] Allison, Historical Theology, EPUB edition, pt.7, ch. 31, “Eschatological Beliefs in the Early Church.” [7] Allison, Historical Theology, EPUB edition, pt.7, ch. 31, “Eschatological Beliefs in the Early Church.” [8] Noble, “Eschatology,” in NDT, EPUB edition. [9] McGrath, Christian Theology, EPUB edition, pt.3, ch. 18, “Augustine: the two cities.” [10] Allison, Historical Theology, EPUB edition, pt.7, ch. 31, “Eschatological Beliefs in the Early Church.” [11] Augustine, City of God, 21.3, in NPNF, 2:453-54 quoted by Allison, Historical Theology, EPUB edition, pt.7, ch. 31, “Eschatological Beliefs in the Early Church.”

New Testament Eschatology: Part 7 of 7 Johannine Writings

Johannine Epistles

The Johannine Epistles reference the presence of the last days by repeatedly mentioning the presence of the antichrist. 1 John 2:18 states, “Dear children, this is the last hour; and as you have heard that the antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have come. This is how we know it is the last hour.” Also, 1 John 2:28 mentions Christ’s future second coming which may happen at any moment, and so Christians should persevere until his coming so that at Christ’s coming they may be confident that they “shall be like him, for [they] shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2).

Revelation

The book of Revelation opens by explaining that Christ through his resurrection has taken the position of “ruler of the kings of the earth” (1:5) and has in his possession the “keys of death and Hades” (Rev 1:18). Christ is the eschatological messianic king, and he has established his messianic kingdom. Christ is the “firstborn from among the dead,” (1:5) and so his resurrection has inaugurated the fulfillment of the resurrection of the saints who will rule with him in his kingdom. Revelation expects the imminent return of Christ where he will judge the ungodly (6:12-17) and reward and bless his people (11:18). Christ will establish his kingdom in its final, complete, and eternal form (11:15-17).

New Testament Eschatology: Part 6 of 7 General Epistles

Hebrews

In the first few verses of the book of Hebrews, the writer explains that God “in these last days” (Gr. ἐπ’ ἐσχάτου τῶν ἡμερῶν τούτων) has spoken to us by his son whom he appointed heir of all things” (Heb 1:2). This refers to the eschatological messianic kingship that started its fulfillment in the first advent of God-the Son, Jesus. Moreover, the writer of Hebrews exhorts the Jewish Christians to preserve “until the end” (Gr. μέχρι τέλους) (3:14), where they will receive full salvation (9:28) and the promised reward (10:35) and inheritance (6:11-12). The author of Hebrews explains that the Israelites failed at entering the “rest” of the promised land after its wilderness sojourn, but the Jewish Christians “are exhorted to preserve in their earthly sojourn so that they will enter the “rest” of the antitypical “heavenly country”…. Only then will the intended Sabbath rest of the new creation be enjoyed.”[1] Lastly, the book of Hebrews mentions the coming judgment of unbelievers and apostates at the end of the age (6:2, 9:27); therefore, the writer explains that the readers should not be lax and should take all the exhortations seriously because “the Day is approaching” (Gr. ἐγγίζουσαν τὴν ἡμέραν) (10:25).[2]

James, 1-2 Peter, Jude

The epistle of James rebukes its readers for living ungodly lives and neglecting to do acts of righteousness “in the last days” (Gr. ἐν ἐσχάταις ἡμέραις) (5:3). Also, James encourages Christians to “be patient and stand firm, because the Lord’s coming is near” (5:8).

1 Peter explains that Christ’s first coming and his resurrection took place “in these last times” (Gr. ἐπ’ ἐσχάτου τῶν χρόνων) (1:20-21), and Christians participate in Christ’s resurrection, and so they have a living hope of future resurrection (1:3).

2 Peter and Jude address false teachers that have infiltrated the Christian community, and these false teachers are identified as those whom Jesus foretold would come “in the last days” (Gr. ἐπ’ ἐσχάτων τῶν ἡμερῶν) (2 Pet 3:3 cf. Jude 18). Thus, Peter and Jude explain that the expected latter-day tribulation of apostate teaching has begun.[3] Final judgement is mentioned in 2 Peter 2:3,9 and Jude 6, 14-15, and Peter states that at the time of this judgement, “The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything done in it will be laid bare” (2 Pet 3:10).[4]


[1] G.K. Beale, A New Testament Biblical Theology: The Unfolding of the Old Testament in the New (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011), 144. [2] Beale, A New Testament, 145. [3] Beale, A New Testament, 146 [4] Beale, A New Testament, 146.