(Reprinted from Systematic Theology, Vol. 2 [Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books, 1994], 785-788.
A brief dictionary definition of eschatology is, “The branch (of theology) that treats of death, resurrection, immorality, the end of the world, final judgment, and the future state” (Funk & Wagnalls). This is the usual popular understanding also. For premillennials, eschatology has to do with the aspects of last things cited above, with the emphasis on the rapture and the millennium. Amillennialists would differ in that they see no millennium and only a deepening growth of evil until judgment. Postmillennialists would stress a growth into a glorious millennial era.
The word eschatology comes from the Greek eschatos, meaning extreme, last, or least: eschaton is the nominative form of the word.
Because man is a religious creature, his being is purposive, goal-directed, and meaning-oriented. The meaning and the solution to a mathematical problem lie in the answer, the conclusion. We do not want problems without answers, nor stories with no ending. As a result, we tend to place great emphasis on the end, the last things. This is a very healthy demand, to a degree, but it can, beyond a point, warp our perspective. Martin Selbrede has called attention, after B. B. Warfield, to the way we read the parables in terms of the final end too often, rather than present realities, and we thereby miss the meaning of much of Scripture. We cannot read the Bible too heavily in terms of the end of all things, for to do so is to depreciate or negate the meaning of history. At times, in terms of a purely end-time evaluation, some have negated the meaning of marriage and sexuality, because neither has any place in the world to come (Mt. 22:30); such a conclusion is contrary to the plain meaning of Scripture. The reality of time is not negated by eternity, and the present is important because it is the matrix and the foundation of the last.
Moreover, the word eschatos, according to [Hans-Georg] Link, in the Greek designated “the end-point of a continuously conceived succession of circumstances.”1 Link does not speak of the end-time but the end-point, a very important distinction. The end-point can come with the death of a man, or the judgment of a family, an institution, or a people. In this sense, history is continuously witnessing to end-points or eschatons.
This is the original Greek meaning; is it the meaning in the New Testament? Both Testaments speak of “the day of the Lord,” and the day of the Lord, His judgment, has been a continuous and constant factor in history; it will culminate in the final and great day of the Lord, the final judgment. In the Bible, the eschaton is both an end-point which is repeatedly and constantly an historical fact, and also the end-time. We cannot limit to the one meaning only the Biblical eschaton.
There is another factor in Biblical eschatology. The prophetic announcements of the eschaton are usually a preface to the declaration of God’s salvation, so that to limit the eschaton to the last is to limit salvation to the end-time also, as some cults have done. Link noted, “Eschatological time will be stamped by Yahweh’s saving activity.”2
Thus the coming of John the Baptist was an eschaton in this sense. John proclaimed both a culminating judgment and salvation, declaring:
And now also the axe is laid unto the root of the trees; therefore every tree which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire. I indeed baptize you with water unto repentance: but he that cometh after me is mightier than I, whose shoes I am not worthy to bear: he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost, and with fire; Whose fan is in his hand, and he will thoroughly purge his floor, and gather his wheat into his garner; but he shall burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire. (Mt. 3:10-12)
This is an announcement of an eschaton; so too is Paul’s declaration in Romans 6:23, “For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” Both John and Paul stress an eschaton in time, and both stress the judgment-end and the salvation-end.
It should now be apparent that we cannot have a sound eschatology if we limit the eschatos to the end-time aspects only. Very emphatically, “death, resurrection, immorality, the end of the world, final judgment, and the future state” are important matters, and eschatological concerns, but if we limit eschatology to these things we warp Scripture.
To understand eschatology in the fullest sense of the term, let us begin therefore with the Bible’s first eschatological statements. We cannot be exhaustive, because page after page the eschatology of Scripture is set before us, but it is helpful to begin at the beginning and then to consider a sampling of relevant texts later:
And God said, let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.
So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them. And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth. (Gen. 1:26-28)
And the LORD God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to dress it and to keep it. And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, Of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat; But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die. (Gen. 2:15-17)
These are eschatological words: they set forth God’s purpose and goal for man, as well as the end for disobedience. First, because man is created in God’s image, man has a different end than the rest of creation. Man’s eschaton is dominion under God over all the earth, and over all the creatures thereof. It is precisely because man is created in God’s image that such an end is possible for him.
Second, we see a fact generally neglected, namely, that God’s first eschatological word for man includes marriage, sex, and procreation: “Be fruitful, and multiply.” While there is neither marrying or giving in marriage in eternity, there is obviously much in eschatology which concerns itself with them. Add to this God’s statement, “It is not good that the man should be alone” (Gen. 2:18), and we must recognize man’s unity in marriage in God’s calling is an essential part of eschatology. William Buckley has a facetious love of words, and for a time liked to use the phrase, “immanentize the eschaton.” We can apply the term to God’s purpose, to immanentize the eschaton, to work in terms of a calling and to find fellowship therein, to procreate towards creating the citizen-workers of God’s Kingdom, and to unite with others in the Lord to exercise godly dominion. Not only is marriage basic to God’s temporal eschatology, but it provides, in the typology of the Bride of Christ, a type of the historical and eternal eschatology.
Third, God pronounces a blessing upon realized eschatology, upon faithfulness to God’s calling and end-point. We do not labor for the Lord in a vacuum but under God and in His total universe of law and government. No more than we can step outside of this world at will can we step out of the realm of God’s blessings and curses (Dt. 28:1, 15). We live in an eschatological universe, God’s creation, and there is no escaping that fact.
Fourth, a fact we have already cited, God’s curses are a part of eschatology. Death is pronounced by God as the sentence for sin. The contrast between the realms of blessing and cursing is very pronounced. As sinners, we tend to see the whole world as full of “thou shalt nots,” because for us the world of reality is the world of sin, of rebellion, anger, and questioning. Hence, the forbidden looms very large for us, and the permitted and blessed is small and uninteresting. The contrast is between “every tree of the garden” that may be freely eaten and the one tree which man must not touch. As God presents the two ways in Eden, the choice given to man for blessedness is clearly the broad and easy way. Our Lord, however, tells a fallen world that the way to the Lord, i.e., the Lord’s way of faithfulness, of obedience, is “the straight gate” (Mt. 7:13-14). The word translated as straight is in the Greek stenos, from a root meaning to groan. We have the word in English as “stenographer,” literally, narrow writing, with a narrow time limit, and hence, figuratively, with groaning. What for Adam was a broad way has become in a fallen world a groaning way, and God drags us sometimes kicking and screaming into the way of righteousness. The fact that we depreciate both blessings and curses is an eschatological fact.
Fifth, we are told, “the LORD God commanded the man.” Because God is the Lord and creator, He commands men. God’s law is thus another eschatological fact. It sets the terms for our eschatological functioning. We cannot separate God’s law from eschatology without doing violence to Scripture. All the prophetic declarations concerning the Day of the Lord are in terms of God’s law. We cannot limit the scope of eschatology without limiting God.
1. Hans-Georg Link, “Eschatos,” in Colin Brown, ed., The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, Vol. 2 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1976), 55.
2. Ibid., 56.