New Testament Eschatology: Part 2 of 7 Synoptic Gospels

Throughout the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke) there is an implied emphasis on Jesus inaugurating the “latter days” as described in the First Testament. This is seen throughout the narratives where the writers refer to lineage, to messianic titles, to prophetic fulfillment, to miraculous signs, and to the arrival of the kingdom of God.[1] As for specific instances of eschatological language throughout the synoptic gospels, there is not much to draw from; however, when it does appear in the writings, the focus is on the future final “age” (Gr. αίων) that is on the horizon.

Matthew uses the phrase the “end of the age” (Gr. συντελείᾳ τοῦ αἰῶνος) to refer to a future coming final judgement and to refer to Christ’s ongoing presence with his people until he comes again (Matt 13:39-40; 24:3; 28:20). Mark 10:30 and Luke 18:30 refer to the saints who will receive “in the age to come, eternal life” (Gr. ἐν τῷ αἰῶνι τῷ ἐρχομένῳ ζωὴν αἰώνιον) which is linked with the phrase in Luke 20:34-35 “of that age to attain and in the resurrection from the dead” (Gr. τοῦ αἰῶνος ἐκείνου τυχεῖν καὶ τῆς ἀναστάσεως τῆς ἐκ νεκρῶν).[2]

Moreover, Luke 1:33 refers to Jesus’ messianic reign lasting “into the ages” (Gr. εἰς τοὺς αἰῶνας) and “of his kingdom there will be no end” (Gr. τῆς βασιλείας αὐτοῦ οὐκ ἔσται τέλος). Lastly, the synoptic gospels refer to the coming signs and events that precede the “end” (Gr. τέλος).[3] Matthew 24:6 states, “You will hear of wars and rumors of wars but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come” (cf. Mark 13:7; Luke 21:9). Matthew 24:13-14 states, “but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved. And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.”


[1] 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. [2] G.K. Beale, A New Testament Biblical Theology: The Unfolding of the Old Testament in the New (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011), 130[3] Beale, A New Testament, 130.

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.

Early Church Eschatology

Similar to the New Testament writers (a post for another day), the Early Church understood that they were living in the last days. For example, Ignatius wrote “these last times” (Gr. έσχατοι καιροί, Ign. Eph. 11.1) and that Jesus Christ “at the end appeared” (Gr. ἐν τέλει ἐφάνη, Ign. Magn. 6.1). Clement and Barnabas describe their present moment as “the last days” (Gr. ἐσχάτων τῶν ἡμέρῶν, 2 Clem 14:2; Barn. 12:9; 16:5) and that Christians through Jesus have been given the firstfruits of the taste of things future (Gr. τῶν μελλόντων δοuς  ἀπαρχaς ἡμῖν γεύσεως, Barn. 1.7). Thus, the Apostolic Fathers followed the NT writers in the inaugurated aspect of the end times. In fact, some writers had such a heightened notion of inaugurated eschatology that they compared their present Christian experience to the blessings of the Garden of Eden (Diogn. 12), and possibly with this view, the “seer” in the Shepherd of Hermas even asks the question of whether “the consummation had already arrived” (Herm. Vis. 3.8.9).[1]

Also following the NT writers, the Early Church connected the latter-day new creation theme with their present Christian experience. Ignatius explained that Christ introduced “the newness of eternal life” (Ign. Eph. 19.3) by himself becoming a “new man” (Ign. Eph. 20.1) as a result of his resurrection.[2] According to the Early Church, resurrection occurs first spiritually in the present and is the means by which people enter into the new creation. This inaugurated resurrection of Christians is due to their participation with Christ’s resurrection (Ign. Magn. 9; Ign. Trall. 9.2. Cf. 1 Clem. 24.1; Pol. Phil. 2.2; Barn. 5.6-7).[3]

Furthermore, the Early Church had similar views as the NT writers regarding their present tribulation as a sign of the inaugurated last days. Barnabas refers to “the deception of the present age” (Gr. τnν πλάνην τοῦ νῦν καιροῦ, Barn. 4.1) and understands that the present vantage point is that people are living “in the age of lawlessness” (Gr. ἐν τῷ ἀνόμῳ καιρῷ, Barn, 4.9). The Shepherd of Hermas mentions that “great tribulations” (Gr. μεγάλας θλίψεις, Herm. Vis. 2.7.1) have already been endured which apparently prepares Christians to “endure the coming great tribulation” (Gr. ὑπομένετε τnν θλῖψιν τnν ἐρχομένην τnν μεγάλην, Herm. Vis. 2.7.1).[4]

While believing in the present inaugurated latter days, early christian writers believed in the “age to come” (Gr. o αἰων o ἐπερχόμεός, Herm. Vis. 4.3.5).[5] Early Christian writers and teachers such as Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, and Tertullian followed the NT writers in their belief of the future consummated resurrection of the body when Christ’s returns in his resurrected body.[6] Similar to the NT writers, early Christian writers believed that other events (i.e. great tribulation, appearance of the antichrist, judgement) would be linked with Christ’s return. Hippolytus wrote, “When he [antichrist] makes war against the saints, and persecutes them, then we may expect the manifestation of the Lord from heaven.”[7] Justin Martyr wrote, “He [Jesus] shall come from heaven with glory, when the man of apostasy, who speaks strange things against the most High, shall venture to do unlawful deeds on the earth against Christians.”[8] Thus, the Early Church mostly agreed that the return of Christ would come after the period of great tribulation and would involve the resurrection of believers.[9]

The Early Church emphasized the literal interpretation of Revelation 20:1-6 which describes the reign of Christ upon the earth for one thousand years (millennium). Papias wrote, “there will be a period of a thousand years after the resurrection from the dead when the kingdom of Christ will be set up in material form on this earth.”[10] Justin Martyr wrote, “I and others who are right-minded Christians on all points, are assured that there will be a resurrection of the dead and a thousand years in Jerusalem, which will then be built, adorned and enlarged.”[11] Irenaeus and Tertullian held similar views concerning the millennium; thus, suffice it to say, many influential Early Church writers held to what has been called the “historic premillennialism” view—Christ returns, Christians bodily resurrected, Christians reign with Christ on earth for one thousand years.[12]

Like the NT writers, the Early Church believed in a future final judgement after Christ’s return. The Athanasian Creed summarized this belief by explaining that Christ “will come to judge the living and the dead. At his coming all people will rise again with their bodies and will give account for their own works. Those who have done good will go into eternal life, and those who have done evil will go into eternal fire.”[13] Athenagoras and Hippolytus further explained that the “eternal fire” for those who have done evil does not equate to annihilationism—that people would cease to exist, but rather the final state for them is that of a conscious eternal punishment.[14]

Lastly, the Early Church followed the NT writers hope of the new heavens and the new earth in the future. However, there was some disagreement within the Early Church about how this would take place. Irenaeus believed that a divine renewal of the existing heavens and earth would occur, whereas, Tertullian and Melito of Sardis believed in a total annihilation of the current heavens and earth before the creation of the new.[15] Therefore, along with their “historic premillennialism” views, the Early Church believed that unbelievers will be resurrected after the one thousand year reign, followed by final judgment and then God establishes the eternal state of heaven and hell.[16]


[1] 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), 341. [2] Beale, “Eschatology,” in DLNT, 341. [3] Beale, “Eschatology,” in DLNT, 341. [4] Beale, “Eschatology,” in DLNT, 342. [5] Beale, “Eschatology,” in DLNT, 342 [6] 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[7] Hippolytus, Fragments from Commentaries: Daniel, 2.7, in ANF, 5:179 quoted by 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 Early Church.” [8] Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, 110, in ANF, 1:253-54 quoted by Allison, Historical Theology, EPUB edition, pt.7, ch. 31, “Eschatological Beliefs in the Early Church.” [9] Allison, Historical Theology, EPUB edition, pt.7, ch. 31, “Eschatological Beliefs in the Early Church.” [10] Fragments of Papias 3.12 quoted by Allison, Historical Theology, EPUB edition, pt.7, ch. 31, “Eschatological Beliefs in the Early Church.” [11] Justin Martyr, Diaologue with Trypho, 80, in ANF, 1:239 quoted by Allison, Historical Theology, EPUB edition, pt.7, ch. 31, “Eschatological Beliefs in the Early Church.” [12] Allison, Historical Theology, EPUB edition, pt.7, ch. 31, “Eschatological Beliefs in the Early Church” citing Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 5.32-36, in ANF, 1:561-67. [13] Athanasian Creed, 40-43, in Schaff, 2:69-70 cited by Allison, Historical Theology, EPUB edition, pt.7, ch. 32 “Judgment and Punishment in the Early Church.” [14]Allison, Historical Theology, EPUB edition, pt.7, ch. 32 “Judgment and Punishment in the Early Church.” [15]Allison, Historical Theology, EPUB edition, pt.7, ch. 33, “The Idea of the Eternal State in the Early Church.” [16] Allison, Historical Theology, EPUB edition, pt.7, ch. 31, “Eschatological Beliefs in the Early Church” citing Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 5.32-36, in ANF, 1:561-67.