Eschatology (Gk. ta eschata) is the doctrine of the last things. In theology this signifies those events occurring after death which immediately concern man. Without detailed treatment the purpose here is to sketch only the principal lines of the subject.
1. Primitive Views. Belief in some sort of existence after death appears to be a universal characteristic of the human race, though neither the earliest form nor the precise cause of this belief among prehistoric peoples is known. It may have originated in dreams, or have expressed itself in animism, or have been a prolongation of the instinct of self preservation (see COMPARATIVE RELIGION, VI., 1, §2). From 4000 B.C. the daily life of the Egyptians was saturated with this expectation (cf. the " Book of the Dead "). That the belief was widespread from 1500 to 1000 B.C. is evinced in the great literary religious documents which have come down to us. The Homeric Hades is a gloomy underworld to which all the dead go, there to exist as wretched shades beyond the reach of divine help. The Babylonians knew of "a land of no return" ("Lay of Istar's Descent to Hades," see BABYLONIA, VII., 3, §5) . The later Zoroastrian literature pictures the destinies of the dead with terrible severity (see ZOROASTER, ZOROASTRIANISM). Plato (d. 347 B.C.) elaborated his splendid argument for immortality ("Phædo")--a hope repudiated by the Epicureans, and only in part reaffirmed by the Stoic doctrine of a limited survival after death (see IMMORTALITY).
2. Old Testament Doctrine. According to the Old Testament all the dead go to Sheol (see HADES) . Thus in some sort immortality was affirmed; but this belief did not until the fourth century B.C. emphasize individual immortality, in the sense of personal moral development. This appears the more strange when one considers the profound belief of the Hebrews in Yahweh, who alone had power to make alive (Deut. xxxii. 29; Sam. ii. 6). This hope centered in national rather than in individual blessedness, which is to be explained by the fact that their evolution had not proceeded far enough for them to draw the consequences of separating the individual from the collective unit of the nation (cf. Ezek. xxxiii.). The Messianic kingdom was to be ushered in by the Day of Yahweh (see DAY OF THE LORD) a day of judgment directed against all evildoers. This kingdom was destined primarily for the righteous who might then be living on the earth; the relation of the Gentiles to this kingdom was variously conceived (Hos. vi. 2; Isa. xxv. 8; Ezek. xxxvii.). For the pious Hebrews who had died, participation in it was possible only through resurrection, which is clearly presented in two passages (Isa. xxvi. 19; Dan. xii. 2). In the first, communion with God is uninterrupted between death and the advent of the Messianic kingdom; in the second, resurrection of the righteous and the wicked is by an omnipotent act of God. In the Old Testament, however, one looks in vain for anything like a completed doctrine of resurrection (cf. the frequent laments of the Psalms concerning death). The entire eschatological hope reflects the progressive stages of culture attained by the Hebrews, as affected by their developing ethical consciousness and by the spiritual disclosure of God in their history. Growing out of this advancing idea of God as absolute Creator and Lord of all, to whom at length no region of life or of the unseen was closed, was the notion of the worth of those to whom he had given life: they must ultimately share in his blessedness. The strength of this hope, embodied in a crass supernaturalism indeed, was disclosed in the many apocalypses which sprang up from 200 B.C. to 100 A.D. A special development of this hope arose among the Pharisees as they looked forward to a restoration of the theocracy (II Macc.), or as they were influenced by Greek philosophy (Wisdom).
3. New Testament Teaching. The synoptic teaching deals with the Messianic kingdom. For Jesus the central point of interest certainly lay in this kingdom as essentially supernatural and essentially future. Just what was the precise relation between these two aspects in his own consciousness is hard to ascertain. He at any rate never surrendered himself to the enthusiastic extravagances of contemporary apocalyptic hope; he laid sovereign stress on the ethical and spiritual principles of his kingdom. His teaching concerning the kingdom centers in the parusia, the resurrection, and the judgment. In the parusia, in which naturally his own resurrection is presupposed, his advent was to be sudden and unexpected, although no one knew the exact hour, not even the Son, but the Father alone. At one time he appears to look for his return shortly, again only after long delay. Then follows the resurrection through which the righteous enter the Messianic kingdom. The resurrection of the wicked is given as a part of the teaching of Jesus, but in only two passages (Luke xx. 27-40; John v. 28, 29). The judgment is pictured now according to the program of the Day of Yahweh (see DAY OF THE LORD) in the Old Testament (see JUDGMENT, DIVINE), now as present and continuous; the principle of it is the light one has received, and one's humane or inhumane treatment of others in whom Christ is immanent. Eternal felicity and communion with God are assured to his followers in the future kingdom. Paul's doctrine of the future, which bears many traces of his former Pharisaic beliefs, with reminders of the Book of Daniel (chap. vii.), centers in the second advent of Christ (I Thess. iv. 13-18; II Thess. i. 7, 8). The Lord, accompanied by angels in flaming power, shall make a glorious and terrible descent from heaven, when the dead in Christ shall rise first, the living be transformed, and all together be rapt into the air to meet the Lord, ever thereafter to be with him. The other New Testament writers share the apostle's expectation of the impending advent. Later Paul appears to have experienced a change of view both as to its outer and inner character and as to the time of its occurrence. Before the advent, however, the apostle anticipated three events. (1) The culmination of the power of evil which should be disclosed and overthrown. This included an apostasy, the unveiling of the "man of sin," "the son of perdition," the "lawless one " (II Thess. ii. 3, 4, 8; cf. Satan or Beliar, II Cor. vi. 15, and Antichrist, I John ii. 18, 22), and the removal of that which now hindered the full development of the godless one either Elijah or the existing Roman authority. (2) The Gentiles and finally the Jews are to be converted (Rom. xi. 13-27) . (3) Believers must suffer violent persecution. With the advent occurs the resurrection of believers, of which the resurrection of Christ was the pledge; all will then be raised, or if only believers, then later perhaps the wicked also (cf. I Cor. xv. 23, 24). The Revelation decides for a double resurrection (chap. xx. 4-6). Concerning the condition of the dead before the resurrection, we discern an earlier and a later view: according to the first, believers were to be after death as if asleep; according to the second, death ushered them at once into a fuller communion with their glorified Lord. When Christ comes, his followers shall stand before his judgment seat, the wicked be destroyed, external nature already redeemed shall be glorified, and he who was the Redeemer surrender his Lordship to the Father, that God may be all things in all men (II Cor. v. 10; II Thess. ii. 7-10; Rom. viii. 19-22; I Cor. xv. 24-28).
4. Significance of Eschatology. Eschatological hopes have profoundly affected the Christian Church in nearly all periods of her history. As Schleiermacher pointed out, these hopes are a witness to the principle of teleology implanted in the nature of man; the influence of this has been to bind men to an ultimately spiritual interpretation of human life and of the world as subordinate to it. Immanent in the Christian hope itself is the indestructible pledge of its complete realization. The Scriptures had emphasized one point of greatest significance: the essential unity of the possession and the fulfilment of redemption. So far as the ethical content of redemption was progressively apprehended, the necessity that it be ethically (historically) rather than apocalyptically (magically) realized compelled a new point of view for the whole subject. And if now one still uses the apocalyptic phraseology of the Scriptures, it will be permitted only when one has replaced its external cosmological reference with an ethical and spiritual content. In no case may form and content be identified. That this principle has been violated, the history of the belief will show. In Christian belief, the chief eschatological events are: the second coming, the resurrection, and the final judgment.
5. The Second Coming. The second coming has been conceived of under two general forms: either a visible, glorious appearing of Christ at a moment fixed in the divine purpose, or a silent, gradual penetration of all social forces by his spirit, to be either perpetual or continued until the consummation. There will thus be such a disclosure of Christ as will render the divinity of his kingdom unmistakable; this will meet with either a completely sympathetic or partly hostile reception. Preceding or associated with the advent have been several distinctive features. (l) The millennium (see MILLENNIUM, MILLENARIANISM ). The Chiliastic hopes of the early Christians, based on Rev. xx. 4-6, colored by Jewish apocalyptic fancies, are rejected by the Alexandrian Fathers. The millennium was ascribed by Augustine to the church militant. At the Reformation the earlier fancies were revived by the Anabaptists, receiving a vehement condemnation in the Augsburg Confession (Art. xvii.). Of the dogmatists who held that the second coming, general resurrection last judgment, and end of the world would occur at the same time, some placed the 1,000 years and the binding of Satan at about 300-1300 A.D. More recently Bengel has had many followers in a refined form of the millennial idea. The pre- and post-millennialists are distinguished according as the advent is placed before or after the 1,000 years. The "Antichrist" has received many interpretations, having been identified in the early church with Nero, among the Reformers with the Papacy, later with successive forces of evil as opposed to God, again with systems of belief or with a social order subversive of the Church, or finally with an embodied evil principle in conflict with the Gospel. Here is without doubt an echo of the Babylonian creation-story of the conflict of Light with Tiamat or chaos, the later Jewish thought of Satan (q.v.), and the fierce struggle of the Jewish religious people under Judas Maccabeus against Antiochus Epiphanes (see HASMONEANS ). (3) The intermediate state. The teaching of the Roman Catholic Church concerning this includes the doctrine of Purgatory and the Limbus of the Fathers. Purgatory is for those who departing this life in faith are liable to punitive sufferings for venial sins or for the vestiges of mortal sins and who must, before their entrance into heaven, be purified--to be the sooner effected by the suffrages (prayers and good works) of the faithful, but principally by the acceptable sacrifice of the altar (Council of Trent, sess. xxv.). This is not to be confused with a continued or a second probation. The Limbus of the Fathers was the abode of the Old Testament saints to whom Christ after his death and before his ascension appeared for their liberation when he took them with himself in his ascent to heaven (Ps. xvi. 10; I Pet. iii. 19; see DESCENT of CHRIST INTO HELL). This doctrine rests upon the Jewish notion of the dead as in a condition of privation awaiting the appearance of the Messiah to raise their bodies from the ground and call their disembodied spirits from the shades of the under-world, thus through union of soul and body introducing the risen Israel to a more than earthly prosperity and blessedness. In the Protestant Church the doctrine of an intermediate state has been either rejected or variously conceived. The earlier Protestant writers held that the righteous and the wicked went at once to a place of happiness or misery the souls of believers being made perfect in holiness (cf. the Shorter Catechism, Ques. 37; also W. G. T. Shedd, Dogmatic Theology, ii. 353, iii. 453, New York, 1889); on the other hand, those who die in their sins were thought of as entering a region where they should behold in God their "perfect and irreconcilable enemy" (cf. J. Edwards, Works, vi. 123, New York, 1830). In their respective conditions both classes remain until the second coming, all waiting for the "Great Assize," at which the earthly deeds of the wicked and possibly of the good shall be made manifest and judged. Associated with the intermediate state have been several doctrines. (a) The sleep of souls (psychopannychy; cf. I Thess. iv. 13-15; I Cor. xv. 6, 18, 20, 51; Acts vii. 60, xiii. 36). Between death and the second coming the condition of the soul will be that of a dreamless sleep (cf. R. Whately, Concerning a Future State, London, 1829) . (b) A nucleus of the personality of the unsaved is preserved during the middle state until the judgment, when by a creative act God will reunite soul and body, after which they will be gradually annihilated (cf. Edward White, Life in Christ, London, 1875; see ANNIHILATIONISM). (c) The soul being bodiless during the intermediate state is in a condition of "involution," "progressive development" (Martensen, Christian Dogmatics, Edinburgh, 1865), "deepest retirement" (Van Oosterzee, Christian Dogmatics, 2 parts, New York, 1872), "spiritual seclusion" (I. A. Dorner, System of Christian Doctrine, 4 vols., Edinburgh, 1880 sqq). (d) In the intermediate state, to those who have not in this life definitely rejected Christ--the heathen and others to whom knowledge of Christ was impossible--a probation will be open. This is based on the absolute universality of the Gospel, the indispensableness of faith in Christ as historically revealed for salvation, an unvarying unity of the moral order; finally, if universal salvation is to be affirmed, the offer of grace must be effectually continued in another world (see PROBATION, FUTURE; and UNIVERSALISTS).
According to Schleiermacher, since Christianity is a historical religion and its progress is historically conditioned, those who die without having been reached by the divine call, will, in a future existence, become subjects of a divine influence which will create for them the possibility of entering the society of the redeemed.
6. The Resurrection. Most of the early Christians held to a resurrection of the same bodies that died "the flesh," "this flesh" in every respect identical with the earthly body. Origen sought to give the doctrine an idealistic interpretation; others would relieve it of its grosser features; while the Gnostics, following the Greek conception of matter in relation to spirit, denied the physical resurrection. The early Protestant view was that the same body laid down at death shall be raised, with the same form as the earthly body and reunited to the soul, so as to be glorious, powerful, spiritual, celestial the same body but of different quality. Two other conceptions of the resurrection have been suggested. One, that this occurs for each one at death when he enters at once into another sphere of life; the other, that it is a resurrection from the dead, that it therefore stands for the ethical completion of life in union with Christ, uninterrupted by death, and after death carried to perfection. (See HEAVEN.)
7. The Judgment. In the early Church judgment was presented in many forms. The Son or the Father was the judge. Some souls--those, e.g., of martyrs--went at once to the felicity of heaven (Tertullian and Gregory Nazianzen); the Gnostics affirmed this only of the most spiritual persons. The judgment was to be accompanied by alarming physical signs together with a conflagration, in which the world shall be destroyed. The punishment of hell was depicted in bold and sensuous imagery--some regarding the fire as material (Lactantius, De Spectaculis). Others conceived of punishment as a sense of separation from God. Restorationism was advocated by Origen, but was overcome until long afterward, the opposite view being general--the eternal duration of punishment. By the scholastics heaven was divided into the firmament of the visible heaven, the spiritual heaven as the abode of saints and angels, and the intellectual heaven as the sphere of the beatific vision. Hell was also partitioned off: the place of devils and the damned; and the various subterranean regions, as Purgatory, Limbus Infantum, and Limbus Patrum. Here and there a voice was heard in favor of Origen's view, but the prevailing doctrine was that of unrelieved eternity of penalty for those dying in mortal sin (cf. Dante's inscription over the gate of hell, "Leave all hope, all who enter," Inferno, canto iii., v. 9). Origen's conception woke to life again in John Scotus Erigena. In the sixteenth century the question suggested by some of the Fathers (Justin, Tatian), whether the soul was naturally mortal or immortal, was once more raised in connection with the doctrine of punishment. Protestant writers, especially those of mystical temperament, pictured the joys of heaven and the pains of the lost with elaborate and either glowing or harrowing particulars of time and place and inner experience, addressed to the feverish imagination and appealing to hope or fear. In more recent times the entire question of eschatology has entered upon a further development. In addition to the doctrine of the endless punishment of those who die impenitent, there are offered two other solutions of this problem which take their rise in the Scriptures, having already appeared in both ancient and modern thought--universal restoration (see UNIVERSALISTS) and conditional immortality (see ANNIHILATIONISM). The theory of evolution has set all former questions in a new light and demanded a reconsideration of them in the light of its principle. In addition to this, the doctrine of universal restoration grounds its hope on the absoluteness of God, the indefeasible continuity of grace, and the indestructible confidence that finally the better self in every man will yield to the divine persuasion and God will succeed in his eternal purpose of redemption. Conditional immortality argues either from an annihilating fiat of God at the judgment or from the well-known biological law that function determines organism. Since already many living forms which once flourished on the earth, having gradually ceased to adapt themselves to their environment, have perished, the same fate will overtake all souls who refuse response to the ethical and spiritual environment of life. Thus man is "immortable" (S. D. McConnell, Evolution of Immortality, New York, 1901).
C. A. BECKWITH.