The teaching concerning last things, such as the resurrection of the dead, the Last Judgment, the end of this world, and the creation of a new one. A fully formed eschatology with all of these features emerged only late in the development of biblical traditions.
During the period of the Israelite monarchy (tenth to sixth centuries BCE), some hoped that a descendant of David would one day conquer all of Israel's enemies (Pss. 2; 110). They envisioned a righteous king in David's line governing a continually expanding kingdom of righteousness and peace (Isa. 9.1–7; 11.1–9; see Messiah). No Israelite king attained this messianic ideal.
The eighth‐century prophet Amos predicted the fall of the northern kingdom of Israel, utilizing the image of the day of the Lord. This had been understood as a time when God defeated Israel's enemies, but Amos transformed the motif into one of judgment against Israel itself (Amos 5.18–20). The Lord indeed had a day when he would defeat his enemy, but the enemy was now his own wayward people (Amos 8.2–14). The book of Amos ends with a promise of a new era of salvation after the time of judgment (Amos 9.11–15). Amos, then, is an example of prophetic eschatology; he looked for an end—not the end of the world as in later apocalyptic literature, but the end of Israel. Beyond this end, there would be not a new world but a new period of blessing.
In 722 BCE the Assyrians crushed the northern kingdom, and in 587/586 BCE the Babylonians destroyed the southern kingdom of Judah. In the subsequent exilic period new prophetic voices arose. An anonymous prophet, known as Second Isaiah (Isa. 40–55), promised a glorious return of the Jews to the land (Isa. 43.18–21; 48.20–21; 51.9–11). Ezekiel also looked to a time when the Jews would return home (Ezek. 34.11–16). A supernatural river would flow from the rebuilt Temple eastward into the saline waters of the Dead Sea, making it a freshwater lake where healing trees would grow (Ezek. 47). Ezekiel foretold the transformation of ruined Judah into a new Eden (Ezek 36.35) and an eschatological battle in which the nations would gather against Israel and be defeated by God (Ezek. 38–39).
Toward the end of the sixth century the Jews were released from captivity. But in the Israel to which they returned conditions were far from paradisiacal. Yet they held on to the prophetic visions. During the postexilic period the prophets Haggai and Zechariah encouraged the rebuilding of the Temple. They also stimulated messianic hope by putting their confidence in Zerubbabel, a Davidic descendant, whom they apparently expected to rule with the imminent arrival of God's kingdom (Hag. 2.6–9; 2.23; Zech. 3.8; 4.6–14; 6.9–15). But the nations were not overthrown, the kingdom of God did not materialize, and Zerubbabel was not crowned king. Messianic hope had to be deferred.
As time went on, some persecuted members of the Jewish community became pessimistic about an earthly kingdom of God and looked for salvation from above through direct intervention from God. This led to the development of apocalyptic eschatology, found in the Isaianic apocalypse (Isa. 24–27) and Third Isaiah (Isa. 56–66). These chapters list the following end‐time events: a great cataclysm (Isa. 24.1–13); a judgment accompanied by heavenly portents (Isa. 24.21–23); the Lord's arrival as king on Mount Zion (Isa. 24.23); an eschatological banquet (Isa. 25.6); the abolition of death and sorrow (Isa. 25.8); the resurrection of the dead (Isa. 26.19); the destruction of Leviathan, the chaos monster (Isa. 27.1); the creation of a new heaven and a new earth (Isa. 65.17; 66.22); a return to paradise (Isa. 65.25); and eternal punishment for God's enemies (Isa. 66.15–16, 24).
The prophet Joel's vision of the day of the Lord is likewise filled with destruction. The sun, moon, and stars will cease shining (Joel 2.10; 2.31; 3.15), and there will be a great battle involving all the nations who gather against Jerusalem (Joel 3.9–11), but the Lord will come down with his warriors to judge them (Joel 3.12). On the positive side, God's spirit will be given to all (Joel 2.28–29).
The book of Daniel was written to encourage the oppressed Jews in the second century BCE. God's kingdom would soon appear, resulting in the deliverance of the saints and the destruction of the evil kingdoms of the world. In a vision Daniel saw “one like a son of man” coming in the clouds (Dan. 7.13). Daniel speaks of an abomination that makes desolate, a time of great tribulation, a resurrection of the dead, and a Last Judgment (Dan. 12.1–3). But once again, the kingdom of God did not arrive (Dan. 12.5–13).
Like the prophets, apocalyptists expected an end followed by a new era of God's saving activity. But the apocalyptists saw the end as complete. The judgment would be not only on Israel but on all nations. There would be not just a restoration of Israel in the land but a resurrection from the dead and the creation of a new heaven and a new earth, not just the defeat of earthly foes but destruction of the cosmic forces of evil. Many of these elements can be found in New Testament eschatology as well.
To understand Jesus, some scholars have argued for “consistent eschatology,” meaning that Jesus' eschatological teaching as presented in the Gospels refers only to what will happen at the end of the world. By contrast, “realized eschatology” holds that Jesus understood the kingdom of God to have arrived with himself. Perhaps the best viewpoint is what has been called “inaugurated eschatology.” Jesus brought the dawning of the kingdom of God (Matt. 12.22–28; Luke 17.20–21). Some aspects of God's reign were present in him, but other elements of the kingdom would not appear until the very end (Matt. 26.29; Mark 14.25).
Jesus is described as announcing the near arrival of the kingdom of God (Matt. 4.17). By casting out demons, Jesus manifested his power over Satan and showed that the kingdom had begun (Matt. 12.22–28; Luke 11.20; 17.20–21). Yet there would also be a future arrival of the kingdom in all its fullness. In the eschatological discourse found in Matthew 24–25 (par.; also called the synoptic apocalypse), the signs of the end are given: false prophets and false messiahs (24.5, 11, 23–26), wars (24.6–7), famines and earthquakes (24.8), intense persecution of Jesus' followers (24.9), apostasy (24.10), and the worldwide preaching of the gospel of the kingdom (24.14). Daniel's predictions of the abomination that makes desolate (24.15; Dan. 11.31) and the period of great tribulation (24.21; Dan. 12.1) will be fulfilled. Joel's vision of the failure of sun, moon, and stars will also come to pass (24.29; Joel 2.10, 30–31). These signs will be followed by the appearance of the Son of man in heaven (understood as Jesus himself) coming in the clouds with great power and glory accompanied by the gathering together of his chosen ones out of all the earth (24.30–31). According to the Gospels, Jesus' eschatological teaching also included a resurrection of the dead (Luke 20.34–40; Mark 12.18–27) and a final judgment resulting in eternal life for the righteous but eternal punishment for the unrighteous (Matt. 25.31–46).
Paul's eschatology emphasizes the resurrection. As Jesus first rose from the dead, so his followers will be raised when he comes again (1 Cor. 15.20–28; 1 Thess. 4.15–17). As a guarantee of the coming resurrection, God has given the Holy Spirit (Rom. 8.23; Eph. 1.14; 2 Cor. 1.22; 5.5; cf. Acts 2.1–21).
The book of Revelation is the main eschatological work of the New Testament. From Daniel it utilizes the great tribulation (Rev. 7.9–14), the coming of the Son of man (Rev. 14.14), and the resurrection and final judgment (Rev. 20.11–15). Like Joel it contains signs of the sun, moon, and stars (Rev. 8.10–12). Third Isaiah's influence can be seen in the new heaven and new earth (Rev. 21.1). The living waters (Rev. 22.1) and the return to paradise with the tree of life (Rev. 22.2) of Ezekiel are alluded to. The eschatological battle (Rev. 20.7–10) is from the books of Ezekiel and Joel. The prophetic day of the Lord becomes “the great day of God the Almighty” (Rev. 16.14). Revelation also draws on messianic tradition, identifying Jesus as the son of David, a conquering king (Rev. 5.5; 11.15; 17.14; 19.11–16).
For the writers of the New Testament, Jesus' followers are situated between the inauguration of the kingdom of God and its consummation. In the meantime they are to be busy preaching the gospel, doing good works, and purifying themselves (Matt. 24.36–25.46; 1 John 3.1–3).
William B. Nelson, Jr.