||The doctrine of eschatology, â€˜last thingsâ€™ (Greek, eschaton, â€˜the endâ€™), in Christianity, is now recognized as being central to the teaching of Jesus and the message of the New Testament. The fact that the word itself was not invented until 1844 indicates that its significance had long been ignored or discounted. Until then, Jesus\' teaching about the imminent arrival of the Kingdom of Godâ€”or even the picture of the Son of Man coming in judgementâ€”was interpreted as something that would happen at the end of history, in God\'s good time. (Luther had believed that the world would end in 1535, but after him apocalyptic beliefs became the monopoly of fringe dissidents.) Alternatively, Jesus\' parables and sayings were considered to have been fulfilled by events in church history. There was no appreciation of the eschatological tension in Paul\'s letters nor of the way that belief that Jesus would return within a few years governed the liturgy, ethics and expectations of the first Christians. This meant that scholars also missed the crisis caused by the delay of the parousia (â€˜comingâ€™) of Jesus. History was simply progressing smoothly from creation (soon to be questioned by Darwinism) to salvation, with a paradigm shift caused by the death and resurrection in the middle.
Three things happened to revolutionize this perspective: the Evangelical revivals, with their ardent longing for the end and a consummation of the personal relationship with Jesus, hit the educated classes through the YMCA and the Student Volunteer Movement; the demolition of belief in Jesus\' omniscience by critical scholarship demanded a radical reassessment of his teaching; finally, the horror of World War I, an experience that seemed like the end of the world, or at least the end of â€˜civilizedâ€™ society. The old liberal theology appeared destroyed for ever. Modern warfare replaced Roman occupation as the catalyst for eschatology.
Early attempts at reinterpretation spiritualized the concept of the Kingdom of God, saying that teaching about this ideal â€˜last ageâ€™ of God\'s direct rule on Earth (found also in the Old Testament, they noted) related to the spiritual condition of those who surrendered their lives to Jesus and was the product of the Early Church. It did not emanate from the historical Jesus. Although it was Rudolf Bultmann who most directly confronted the question that Jesus was mistaken in his expectations of an imminent end, it was Albert Schweitzer (later to sacrifice an academic career to work as a doctor in Congo) whose books, published from 1902 to 1904, initiated the modern appreciation of eschatology as the key to the life and teaching of Jesus. Schweitzer believed that Jesus tried to precipitate a crisis which would inaugurate the Kingdom of God first by sending out his disciples to preach the Gospel and then by entering Jerusalem on a donkey and submitting to crucifixion to fulfil the prophecies. Schweitzer was also the first to appreciate the impossibility of disentangling the early church belief in eschatology from the beliefs in the historical Jesus. Schweitzer\'s Jesus is a Promethean figure who threw himself against the wheel of history and was crushed, but he effectively rehabilitated eschatology even if he made mistakes in his assessment of the context of Jewish apocalyptic literature.
In the debate that has raged since then, three broad positions have emerged in British theology, slow as it was to absorb the full impact of Karl Barth\'s theology. First, there is the strictly futuristic view that in the near or distant future, cataclysmic events will occur, natural disasters, wars, famines and plagues will smite the Earth, and the church will be fearfully persecuted. Then the Lord will appear, judge the living and the resurrected dead and the righteous will enter his Kingdom. In a variation found from the 2nd century onwards (for example, in the writings of Papias and Irenaeus) Christ and his saints would first reign for a thousand years before the end (millenarianism). This, in general, is the position adopted by conservative Evangelicals. Then there is the realized eschatology of C.H. Dodd, whose work has had almost as much impact as Schweitzer\'s. He noted the transformation of the Kingdom of God of the Synoptic Gospels into â€˜eternal lifeâ€™ in John\'s Gospel, and advanced the theory of â€˜realized eschatologyâ€™. Emphasizing the â€˜nowâ€™ in Jesus\' teaching and the way in which the Kingdom is a present force in Pauline epistles, he concluded that the essential kingdom was already present, constituted in this life by Jesus\' life, death and resurrection. Life has already been transformed by Jesus, it is only a question of entering into it. Between these two poles are those who believe that in Jesus\' life and death a process was begun which will be completed on the last day. The Kingdom has been inaugurated but not completed. The early church thus lived in a hiatus between resurrection and return, sustained by the Spirit (see pneumatology). There are a number of variations and refinements of this crude statement. R.H. Fuller has argued strongly for what might be called â€˜inauguratedâ€™ eschatology, in which Jesus is considered to have believed that the progress of the kingdom was connected to his ministry, but would not be finally established until after his death and return.
It will be perceived that eschatological beliefs of whatever kind depend on a linear view of historyâ€”eschatology as an imminent reality is impossible in Buddhism and Hinduismâ€”and on one\'s view of who Jesus of Nazareth was, or at least who he thought he was.
In Judaism, since the 8th century Â BCE and the prophecies of Amos and Micah, there has been a strong belief in â€˜The Day of the Lordâ€™ when judgement, not necessarily a vindication, would be meted out on Israel and the nations. The Essene communities and the community at Qumran retired to the wilderness to await the Messiah, but were disappointed when the revolutionary Bar Kochba (â€˜Son of the Starâ€™) was captured and executed by the Romans (135 Â BCE). There have been many disappointments since then, but hope has never been extinguished. It has been fuelled by the modern restoration of the state of Israel (see Zionism). EMJ
Further reading A. Schweitzer, The Quest of the Historical Jesus (1910); The Mystery of the Kingdom of God (1925); , C.H. Dodd, The Parables of the Kingdom (1935); The Apostolic Preaching and its Development (1936); , O. Cullmann, The Christology of the New Testament; , J. Moltmann, The Theology of Hope; , Joachim Jeremias, The Parables of Jesus.