Introductory Chapter

A. ESCHATOLOGY IN PHILOSOPHY AND RELIGION.

1. THE QUESTION OF ESCHATOLOGY A NATURAL ONE. A doctrine of the last things is not something that is peculiar to the Christian religion. Wherever people have seriously reflected on human life, whether in the individual or in the race, they have not merely asked, whence did it spring, and how did it come to be what it is, but also, whither is it bound? They raised the question, What is the end or final destiny of the individual; and what is the goal towards which the human race is moving? Does man perish at death, or does he enter upon another state of existence, either of bliss or of woe? Will the generations of men come and go in endless succession and finally sink into oblivion, or is the race of the children of men and the whole creation moving on to some divine telos, an end designed for it by God. And if the human race is moving on to some final, some ideal, condition perhaps, will the generations that have come and gone participate in this in any way, and if so, how; or did they merely serve as a thoroughfare leading up to the grand climax? Naturally, only those who believe that, as the history of the world had a beginning, it will also have an end, can speak of a consummation and have a doctrine of eschatology.

2. THE QUESTION OF ESCHATOLOGY IN PHILOSOPHY. The question of the final destiny of the individual and of the race occupied an important place even in the speculations of the philosophers. Plato taught the immortality of the soul, that is, its continued existence after death, and this doctrine remained an important tenet in philosophy up to the present time. Spinoza had no place for it in his pantheistic system, but Wolff and Leibnitz defended it with all kinds of arguments. Kant stressed the untenableness of these arguments, but nevertheless retained the doctrine of immortality as a postulate of practical reason. The idealistic philosophy of the nineteenth century ruled it out. In fact, as Haering says, “Pantheism of all sorts is limited to a definite mode of contemplation, and does not lead to any ‘ultimate’.” Not only did the philosophers reflect on the future of the individual; they also thought deeply on the future of the world. The Stoics spoke of successive world-cycles, and the Buddhists, of world-ages, in each of which a new world appears and again disappears. Even Kant speculated on the birth and death of worlds.

3. THE QUESTION OF ESCHATOLOGY IN RELIGION. It is especially in religion, however, that we meet with eschatological conceptions. Even false religions, the more primitive as well as the more advanced, have their eschatology. Buddhism has its Nirvana, Mohammedanism, its sensual paradise, and the Indians, their happy hunting-grounds. Belief in the continued existence of the soul appears everywhere and in various forms. Says J. T. Addison: “The belief that the soul of man survives his death is so nearly universal that we have no reliable record of a tribe or nation or religion in which it does not prevail.”[Life Beyond Death, p. 3.] It may manifest itself in the conviction that the dead are still hovering around and near at hand, in ancestor worship, in seeking intercourse with the dead, in the conception of an underworld peopled with the dead, or in the idea of the transmigration of souls; but it is always present in some form or other. But in these religions all is vague and uncertain. It is only in the Christian religion that the doctrine of the last things receives greater precision and carries with it an assurance that is divine. Naturally, they who are not content to rest their faith exclusively on the Word of God, but make it contingent on experience and on the deliverances of the Christian consciousness, are at a great disadvantage here. While they may experience spiritual awakening, divine illumination, repentance and conversion, and may observe the fruits of the operations of divine grace in their lives, they cannot experience nor see the realities of the future world. They shall have to accept the testimony of God respecting these, or continue to grope about in the dark. If they do not wish to build the house of their hope on vague and indeterminate longings, they shall have to turn to the firm ground of the Word of God.

B. ESCHATOLOGY IN THE HISTORY OF THE CHRISTIAN CHURCH.

Speaking generally, it may be said that Christianity never forgot the glorious predictions respecting its future and the future of the individual Christian. Neither the individual Christian nor the Church could avoid thinking about these and finding comfort in them. Sometimes, however, the Church, borne down with the cares of life, or entangled in its pleasures, thought little of the future. Moreover, it happened repeatedly that at one time it would think more of this, and at another time, more of that particular element of its future hope. In days of defection the Christian hope sometimes grew dim and uncertain, but it never died out altogether. At the same time it must be said that there has never been a period in the history of the Christian Church, in which eschatology was the center of Christian thought. The other loci of Dogmatics have each had their time of special development, but this cannot be said of eschatology. Three periods can be distinguished in the history of eschatological thought.

1. FROM THE APOSTOLIC AGE TO THE BEGINNING OF THE FIFTH CENTURY. In the very first period the Church was perfectly conscious of the separate elements of the Christian hope, as, for instance, that physical death is not yet eternal death, that the souls of the dead live on, that Christ is coming again, that there will be a blessed resurrection of the people of God, that this will be followed by a general judgment, in which eternal doom will be pronounced upon the wicked but the pious will be rewarded with the everlasting glories of heaven. But these elements were simply seen as so many separate parts of the future hope, and were not yet dogmatically construed. Though the various elements were quite well understood, their interrelation was not yet clearly seen. At first it seemed as if eschatology was in a fair way to become the center of the construction of Christian doctrine, for in the first two centuries Chiliasm was rather prominent, though not as prominent as some would have us believe. As it turned out, however, eschatology was not developed in this period.

2. FROM THE BEGINNING OF THE FIFTH CENTURY TO THE REFORMATION. Under the guidance of the Holy Spirit the attention of the Church was directed from the future to the present, and Chiliasm was gradually forgotten. Especially under the influence of Origen and Augustine, anti-chiliastic views became dominant in the Church. But though these were regarded as orthodox, they were not thought through and systematically developed. There was a general belief in a life after death, in the return of the Lord, in the resurrection of the dead, in the final judgment, and in a kingdom of glory, but very little reflection on the manner of these. The thought of a material and temporal kingdom made way for that of eternal life and the future salvation. In course of time the Church was placed in the center of attention, and the hierarchical Church was identified with the Kingdom of God. The idea gained ground that outside of this Church there was no salvation, and that the Church determined the proper pedagogical training for the future. A great deal of attention was paid to the intermediate state, and particularly to the doctrine of purgatory. In connection with this the mediation of the Church was brought to the foreground, the doctrine of the mass, of prayers for the dead, and of indulgences. As a protest against this ecclesiasticism, Chiliasm again made its appearance in several sects This was in part a reaction of a pietistic nature against the externalism and worldliness of the Church.

3. FROM THE REFORMATION UP TO THE PRESENT DAY. The thought of the Reformation centered primarily about the idea of the application and appropriation of salvation, and sought to develop eschatology mainly from this point of view. Many of the old Reformed theologians treat it merely as an adjunct to soteriology, dealing with the glorification of believers. Consequently, only a part of eschatology was studied and brought to further development. The Reformation adopted what the early Church taught respecting the return of Christ, the resurrection, the final judgment, and eternal life, and brushed aside the crass form of Chiliasm which appeared in the Anabaptist sects. In its opposition to Rome, it also reflected a good deal on the intermediate state and rejected the various tenets developed by the Roman Catholic Church. It can hardly be said that the Churches of the Reformation did much for the development of eschatology. In Pietism Chiliasm again made its appearance. The Rationalism of the eighteenth century retained of eschatology merely the bare idea of a colourless immortality, of the mere survival of the soul after death. Under the influence of the philosophy of evolution with its idea of an endless progress, it became, if not obsolete, at least obsolescent. Liberal theology entirely ignored the eschatological teachings of Jesus and placed all the emphasis on His ethical precepts. As a result it has no eschatology worthy of the name. Other - worldliness made way for this - worldliness; the blessed hope of eternal life was replaced by the social hope of a kingdom of God exclusively of this world; and the former assurance respecting the resurrection of the dead and future glory was supplanted by the vague trust that God may have even better things in store for man than the blessings which he now enjoys. Says Gerald Birney Smith: “In no realm are the changes of thinking more marked than in the portion of theology which deals with the future life. Where theologians used to speak to us in detail concerning ‘last things,’ they now set forth in somewhat general terms the reasonable basis for optimistic confidence in the continuance of life beyond physical death.”[A Guide to the Study of the Christian Religion, p. 538.] At the present time, however, there are some signs of a change for the better. A new wave of Premillennialism appeared, which is not limited to the sects, but has also found entrance in some of the Churches of our day, and its advocates suggest a Christian philosophy of history, based particularly on the study of Daniel and Revelation, and help to fix the attention once more on the end of the ages. Weiss and Schweitzer called attention to the fact that the eschatological teachings of Jesus were far more important in His scheme of thought than His ethical precepts, which after all represent only an “Interimsethik.” And Karl Barth also stresses the eschatological element in divine revelation.

C. THE RELATION OF ESCHATOLOGY TO THE REST OF DOGMATICS.

1. WRONG CONCEPTIONS WHICH OBSCURE THIS RELATION. When Kliefoth wrote his Eschatologie, he complained about the fact that there had never yet appeared a comprehensive and adequate treatise on eschatology as a whole; and further calls attention to the fact that in dogmatical works it often appears, not as a main division uniform with the others, but merely as a fragmentary and neglected appendix, while some of its questions are discussed in other loci. There were good reasons for his complaints. In general it may be said that eschatology is even now the least developed of all the loci of dogmatics. Moreover, it was often given a very subordinate place in the systematic treatment of theology. It was a mistake of Coccejus that he arranged the whole of dogmatics according to the scheme of the covenants, and thus treated it as a historical study rather than a systematic presentation of all the truths of the Christian religion. In such a scheme eschatology could only appear as the finale of history, and not at all as one of the constitutive elements of a system of truth. A historical discussion of the last things may form a part of the historia revelationis, but cannot as such be introduced as an integral part of dogmatics. Dogmatics is not a descriptive, but a normative science, in which we aim at absolute, rather than at mere historical, truth. Reformed theologians on the whole saw this point very clearly, and therefore discussed the last things in a systematic way. However, they did not always do justice to it as one of the main divisions of dogmatics, but gave it a subordinate place in one of the other loci. Several of them conceived of it merely as dealing with the glorification of the saints or the consummation of the rule of Christ, and introduced it at the conclusion of their discussion of objective and subjective soteriology. The result was that some parts of eschatology received due emphasis, while other parts were all but neglected. In some cases the subject-matter of eschatology was divided among different loci. Another mistake, sometimes made, was to lose sight of the theological character of eschatology. We cannot subscribe to the following statement of Pohle (Roman Catholic) in his work on Eschatology, or the Catholic Doctrine of the Last Things: “Eschatology is anthropological and cosmological rather than theological; for, though it deals with God as the Consummator and Universal Judge, strictly speaking, its subject is the created universe, i.e. man and the cosmos.”[p. 1] If eschatology is not theology it has no proper place in dogmatics.

2. THE PROPER CONCEPTION OF THIS RELATION. Strange to say, the same Catholic author says: “Eschatology is the crown and capstone of dogmatic theology,” which is perfectly correct. It is the one locus of theology, in which all the other loci must come to a head, to a final conclusion. Dr. Kuyper correctly points out that every other locus left some question unanswered, to which eschatology should supply the answer. In theology it is the question, how God is finally perfectly glorified in the work of His hands, and how the counsel of God is fully realized; in anthropology, the question, how the disrupting influence of sin is completely overcome; in christology, the question, how the work of Christ is crowned with perfect victory; in soteriology, the question, how the work of the Holy Spirit at last issues in the complete redemption and glorification of the people of God; and in ecclesiology, the question of the final apotheosis of the Church. All these questions must find their answer in the last locus of dogmatics, making it the real capstone of dogmatic theology. Haering testifies to the same fact when he says: “As a matter of fact it (eschatology) does shed a clear light upon every single section of doctrine. Is the universality of God’s saving plan, is personal communion with a personal God asserted without reserve, is the permanent significance of the Redeemer upheld, is forgiveness of sin conceived as one with victory over the power of sin — on these points the eschatology must remove all doubt, even when indefinite statements which have been made in the preceding parts could not at once be recognized as such. Nor is it difficult to discover the reason of this. In the doctrine of the last things, the communion between God and man is set forth as completed, and therefore the idea of our religion, the Christian principle, is presented in its purity; not, however, as a mere idea in the sense of an ideal which is never completely realized, but as perfect reality — and it is clear what difficulties are implied in that. It must therefore appear at last, in the presentment of eschatology, if not sooner, whether the reality of this communion with God has received its unrestricted due.”[The Christian Faith, p. 831.]

D. THE NAME “ESCHATOLOGY.”

Various names have been applied to the last locus of dogmatics, of which de Novissimis or Eschatology is the most common. Kuyper uses the term Consummatione Saeculi. The name “eschatology” is based on those passages of Scripture that speak of “the last days (eschatai hemerai), Is. 2:2; Mic. 4:1, “the last time “ (eschatos ton chronon), I Pet. 1:20, and “the last hour,” (eschate hora), I John 2:18. It is true that these expressions sometimes refer to the whole New Testament dispensation, but even so they embody an eschatological idea. Old Testament prophecy distinguishes only two periods, namely, “this age” (olam hazzeh, Gr. aion houtos), and “the coming age” (ollam habba’, Gr. aion mellon). Since the prophets represent the coming of the Messiah and the end of the world as coinciding, the “last days” are the days immediately preceding both the coming of the Messiah and the end of the world. They nowhere draw a clear line of distinction between a first and a second coming of the Messiah. In the New Testament, however, it becomes perfectly evident, that the coming of the Messiah is twofold, and that the Messianic age includes two stages, the present Messianic age and the future consummation. Consequently, the New Testament dispensation may be regarded under two different aspects. If the attention is fixed on the future coming of the Lord, and all that precedes it is considered as belonging to “this age,” then New Testament believers are regarded as living on the eve of that important event, the Lord’s return in glory and the final consummation. If, on the other hand, the attention is centered on the first coming of Christ, it is natural to consider the believers of this dispensation as already, though only in principle, living in the future age. This representation of their condition is not uncommon in the New Testament. The Kingdom of God is already present, eternal life is realized in principle, the Spirit is the earnest of the heavenly inheritance, and believers are already seated with Christ in heavenly places. But while some of the eschatological realities are thus projected into the present, they are not fully realized until the time of the future consummation. And when we speak of “eschatology,” we have in mind more particularly the facts and events that are connected with the second coming of Christ, and that will mark the end of the present dispensation and will usher in the eternal glories of the future.

E. THE CONTENTS OF ESCHATOLOGY: GENERAL AND INDIVIDUAL ESCHATOLOGY.

1. GENERAL ESCHATOLOGY. The name “eschatology” calls attention to the fact that the history of the world and of the human race will finally reach its consummation. It is not an indefinite and endless process, but a real history moving on to a divinely appointed end. According to Scripture that end will come as a mighty crisis, and the facts and events associated with this crisis form the contents of eschatology. Strictly speaking, they also determine its limits. But because other elements may be included under the general head, it is customary to speak of the series of events that is connected with the return of Jesus Christ and the end of the world as constituting general eschatology, — an eschatology in which all men are concerned. The subjects that call for consideration in this division, are the return of Christ, the general resurrection, the last judgment, the consummation of the Kingdom, and the final condition of both the pious and the wicked.

2. INDIVIDUAL ESCHATOLOGY. Besides this general, there is also an individual, eschatology that must be taken into consideration. The events named may constitute the whole of eschatology in the strict sense of the word, yet we cannot do justice to this without showing how the generations who have died will participate in the final events. For the individual the end of the present existence comes with death, which transfers him completely from the present into the future age. In so far as he is removed from the present age with its historical development, he is introduced into the future age, which is eternity. In the same measure in which there is a change in locality, there is also a change of æon. The things touching the condition of the individual between his death and the general resurrection, belong to personal or individual eschatology. Physical death, the immortality of the soul, and the intermediate condition call for discussion here. The study of these subjects will serve the purpose of connecting up the condition of those who die before the parousia with the final consummation.