What is Eschatology?
(And why are we so attracted to it?)
LeAnn Snow Flesher
Dr. Flesher, Ph.D., is Vice President of Academics and Dean of the Faculty at Berkeley School of Theology.
People of faith continue to feel persecuted for their beliefs and traditions and often understand themselves to be oppressed.
What is eschatology? The word itself means “the study of last things.” The encyclopedia Britannica defines eschatology as “the doctrine of the last things. It was originally a Western term, referring to Jewish, Christian and Muslim beliefs about the end of history, the resurrection of the dead, the last judgment, the messianic era, and the problem of theodicy (the vindication of God’s justice).”
Theoretically, eschatology can refer to the study of the end of an individual life, the end of an age or the end of the world as we know it. This article will focus on the last of these possibilities, the end of the world as we know it. There are many in our world, especially in religious/theological circles that believe they know and or can predict what will come at the end. They base this on interpretations of biblical books like Ezekiel, Daniel, portions of Zechariah, 1 Thessalonians and the biblical book of Revelation.
In the mid-nineteenth century John Nelson Darby (1800-1882) developed a theological system that has come to be known as Dispensationalism. Through this system Darby interpreted the events depicted in the Bible as falling into particular dispensations (time periods) in which God responded to humanity, mainly the Jews and Christians, in unique and distinct ways. Darby, originally from England, travelled the United States promoting this system of belief, which was eventually taken up by C. I. Scofield and recorded in the first study notes to ever appear in a printed Bible (KJV) in 1909.
Premillennial Dispensationalism adds to Darby’s dispensational system an emphasis on the rapture, the idea that Jesus will come to gather his church before the great tribulation (there are variations on this theme), and is the system often taught by contemporary “prophecy teachers” in the US today. In fact, Darby’s system of dispensationalism has been the basis for nearly two centuries of theological speculation about the end of the world as we know it.
Why is this historical overview important? These are the moments/movements from which our contemporary eschatological conversations flow. First, we have two apocalypses in the Christian canon – the books of Daniel and Revelation. In addition, we find numerous apocalyptic influences throughout the Bible some of which appear in the books of Zacharia and 1 Thessalonians.
These apocalypses and apocalyptic nuances appeared as words of hope for those living as persecuted Jews after Israel was no longer self-ruling and was forced to live under the rule of foreign nations. Given their commitments to the sovereignty of YHWH as God along with their distinct cultural and liturgical traditions the Jews experienced much oppression and were at times martyred for their commitments (cf., Daniel 12:1-3). The realities of these Jewish oppressions are outlined in the apocalypses of Daniel & Revelation as well as many other apocalypses found in the apocrypha and the pseudepigrapha (extra-biblical inter-testamental writings).
The biblical apocalypses found in the Christian canon are historical apocalypses, which means they use metaphorical images and language to track actual historical events. In order to understand what the apocalypses are addressing one needs to also study the history of the time period. A good study Bible, like the Oxford NRSV study Bible, will track the historical moments being described metaphorically in the study notes found at the bottom of the page.
In the past two centuries, religious leaders in the U.S., using Scofield’s re-iteration of Darby’s system of dispensationalism, have tended to re-interpret the metaphors found in the apocalyptic sections of the Bible as referring to our own time. For example, in 1970 Hal Lindsey’s book The Late Great Planet Earth was popularized as the interpretation of the biblical apocalypses that tell us the end is near. One of the major conclusions in the book was that the European Economic Community, created by the Treaty of Rome in 1957, was predicted by John of Patmos in the book of Revelation and depicted by the Beast from the sea described in chapter 13:1.
However, it is more likely the beast from the sea (Rev 13:1) combines the powers of the four beasts of Daniel chapter 7 and represents the Roman Empire during John’s time. A close reading of the two texts, Daniel 7:1-14 and Revelation 13:1-10, will reveal the correspondences between them. To interpret the imagery of the biblical apocalypses as predicting events in our own day, is to flatten the biblical text historically.
Biblical apocalypses are unique from the biblical prophetic books in significant ways: first, the prophets preached a message of reform and warned the people of impending disaster. Apocalypses are more pessimistic. The message of the apocalypse evidences loss of hope that reform will come and petition God to bring a supernatural reversal of the current social order.
Second, the prophets were quoting oracles understood to come directly from God; but the apocalypses are enigmatic and mediated through another worldly being (e.g., Gabriel interprets Daniel’s visions for him).
Third, the message of the prophets harks back to the traditions of the monarchical time as well as the covenant; the apocalypses were future oriented looking for new revelation and for God to break into the realm of history to bring judgment against those that persecute and justice to the oppressed, i.e., the great reversal.
These unique distinctions of biblical apocalypses answer our second question “why are we so attracted to eschatology?” Why? Because people of faith continue to feel persecuted for their beliefs and traditions and often understand themselves to be oppressed. The apocalypses, as in the times they were written, provide a word of hope that a great day of reckoning will come when the persecutors will be judged, and the oppressed will experience justice.
However, today the U.S. Christian church is experiencing a huge schism because we do not agree on the fundamentals of Christianity. Which of us is the oppressed? And, whom among us are the persecutors? How will we decide?