What does eschatology mean? The word “eschatology” comes from a combination of Greek words meaning “the study of last things,” or the study of the end times.
In the article “Eschatology” in the Lexham Bible Dictionary (LBD) Page Brooks writes that eschatology includes death, the intermediate state, the afterlife, judgment, the millennium, heaven, and hell, but it also refers to the time of Jesus’ second coming.
Eschatology in the Old Testament
Eschatological ideas develop progressively throughout the Bible. In the Old Testament, the word לוְֹאשׁ (she’ol) refers to the Underworld, the place where human souls go after death (e.g., Psa 6:4–5). The word ᾅδης (hadēs) is used in the Septuagint, which was translated around 200 BC. The New Testament uses ᾅδης (hadēs), which is often rendered “Hades” or “the grave” in English translations.
Eschatology in the Old Testament may be said to begin with the garden of Eden, where God is in full presence with Adam and Eve. After the fall, humanity fell out of relationship with God. The remainder of the Old Testament and New Testament tells the story of God’s plan to restore his holiness among a holy people. For example, in Exodus 25:8, he commands the Israelites to build a sanctuary so that his presence may rest with them wherever they go. In the last chapter of Revelation, John the Apostle illustrates God walking once again with his people in holiness at the end of the age.
The Old Testament idea of the afterlife has two distinct periods of development:
Preexilic Hebrew literature—particularly the Psalms—that speaks about life, death, and the afterlife.
Postexilic literature, which presents a greater understanding of the eschaton. The concept of לוְֹאשׁ (she’ol) is central to the preexilic idea of eschatology. It is the earliest conception of afterlife found in the Old Testament and describes a general place where all the dead go regardless of their choices in life. For example, Job 7:9 speaks of the place where persons go and never return as they dissipate like a cloud or vapor. Psalm 6:4–5 asks who in לוְֹאשׁ (she’ol) can give God praise.
The Old Testament also depicts God rescuing individuals from לוְֹאשׁ (she’ol). For example, in Jonah 2:2, Jonah states that God heard his crying out of the depths of לוְֹאשׁ (she’ol). In Psalm 86:13, the psalmist records how God’s love rescued him out of the depths of לוְֹאשׁ (she’ol). Such Scriptures suggest that God provides a place outside of לוְֹאשׁ (she’ol), which may be termed “heaven” or the place of the presence of God.
Postexilic Old Testament literature presents a more developed view of the afterlife, an abstract idea of resurrection and the afterlife in the presence of God. The prophets envisioned a close communion with God after death, and some alluded to resurrection but were uncertain as to its importance or extent. Such allusions to resurrection and [an] afterlife may be seen in various references in the books of Isaiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, and parts of the Psalms.
Eschatology in the New Testament
The New Testament writers examined both personal and corporate eschatology that centered on God’s people being reconciled into God’s presence in the New Jerusalem, thereby symbolically returning to the garden of Eden.
The eschatology in the Gospels centers on the breaking in of the kingdom of God. Opposition to God’s kingdom builds in the Passion Narratives, and Jesus foretells the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem and the “end of the age” in his Olivet Discourse (Matt 24:3–25:46; Mark 13:3–37; Luke 21:5–36). This continues the temple analogy started in the Old Testament as a symbol of God’s presence with his people. Since God’s judgment was pronounced on the temple system, the fate of the temple in Jesus’ time was sealed. The judgment on the temple was not “the end” by any means. Rather, it was the beginning of God’s purposes now being centered upon Jesus and the Church.
In the Gospels, more words are used for the description of לוְֹאשׁ (she’ol) and heaven. The word γέεννα (geenna) (Matt 5:22, 29; 10:28; 18:9, for example) originally denoted a valley near Jerusalem, the “Valley of [the sons of] Hinnom,” which was associated with idolatry and child sacrifice (2 Chr 28:3; 33:6; Jer 19:5–6; 32:35). However, in New Testament passages, it is used to describe separation from God’s presence. Those who are separated from the presence of God are described as experiencing a punishing fire (Matt 5:22; 18:9; Mark 9:43).
Paul’s Letters develop personal and corporate eschatology even further. He uses phrases such as “fallen asleep” to describe believers who have died but still await the return of Christ (1 Cor 15:18). At the same time, he speaks about the imminent return of Christ. Paul develops the theme that the kingdom of God is here now, but that Christ still is yet to come (1 Cor 15:24). Believers live within the tension and wait anxiously for the return of Christ. Paul encourages Christians to be ready for the day of Christ’s return, though they do not know the exact day or hour (1 Thess 4:13–18). Until the time of Christ’s return, the temple is no longer in Jerusalem but rather in the heart of the believer (Eph 2:22).
The book of Revelation culminates in chapters 21 and 22, where John speaks of his vision of the new Jerusalem. The description of the new Jerusalem echoes the garden of Eden in its statement of God’s dwelling among people (Rev 21:3) and its inclusion of the tree of life (Rev 22:2; compare Gen 2:9).
A clearer picture of both personal and corporate eschatology appears by the end of the New Testament. The concept of the Old Testament לוְֹאשׁ (she’ol) is broadened and deepened to include a vivid description of the eternal destinies of believers and nonbelievers. The coming of the kingdom of God [that began] with the ministry of Jesus finds its fulfillment in the restoration of God’s people, who live in God’s presence at the end of the age.
What are the 4 views of the end times?
For 2,000 years, Christians have tried to piece together what the Bible says about the end. A wide swath of orthodox interpretations are possible, and it’s easy to get confused by the different terms people use.
There are four main eschatological views, and each proposes a different take on three key aspects of the end of the world: the millennium, the binding of Satan, and the relationship between Israel and the Church: Amillennialism Postmillennialism Historic Premillennialism Dispensationalism.
In the excerpt below, adapted from Jesus Wins, Dayton Hartman makes sense of each one.
Amillennialism’s name is a clear giveaway to its defining mark: “a- millennialism” literally means there is no literal, open, visible, 1,000-year reign of Christ on earth. Instead, the reign of Christ is understood in a fundamentally different way.
Amillennialism does not have a specific antichrist as advocated in something like the Left Behind series. However, there may be a man of sin (2 Thess 2:1– 12), who could fit some kind of antichrist definition or archetype in the modern understanding of the term.
The Reign of Christ
Amillennial thinkers note rightly that the 1,000-year language describing the millennial period in Revelation 20 can be taken figuratively. So, the thousand- year period isn’t a specific thousand-year cycle on an actual calendar. Instead, with his resurrection and ascension, Christ began his reign. He presently rules on Earth (the millennial age) through his people. And he will return physically, at any moment, to usher in heaven on earth.
The Role of Satan
Satan’s influence has been diminished because he has been bound by Christ. Satan himself is not presently exerting influence over the world.
Israel and the Church
There is not a stark contrast between Israel and the Church. Rather, the Church is spiritual Israel, because Christ is true Israel. This does not mean that the Church has replaced Israel but instead that the Church is the fulfillment of God’s promises to Abraham that his offspring (Jesus) would bless all nations (people groups).
Key Passages: John 5:28–29; Romans 8:17–23; 2 Peter 3:3–14; 2 Thessalonians
Notable Representatives: Augustine of Hippo, Martin Luther, John Calvin, Louis Berkhof, C. S. Lewis, R. C. Sproul.
You have very likely never met a committed proponent of postmillennialism. That was not always the case. Early in American history, postmillennialism was, in some sense, an American eschatology. Now it’s a theological peculiarity to hear someone speak of postmillennial ideas. In part, that’s because postmillennialism is a difficult system to quantify. Not only is it a minority position, but postmillennial thinkers tend to disagree about the details. We will take a look at the broad points of agreement here.
The Reign of Christ
Postmillennialists differ as to whether the reign of Christ is 1,000 years or simply a long period of time. At its core, the distinctive of postmillennial thought is the ever-expanding progress of the gospel until the world becomes markedly Christian. Then, Christ returns. The millennial age is ushered in by the unrelenting advance of the gospel.
The Role of Satan
There is no definitive position on the role of Satan within postmillennial thought. Some postmillennial theologians argue that Satan was bound by Jesus (similar to amillennialism), while others would argue it remains a future event (in agreement with premillennialism).
Israel and the Church
The postmillennial position agrees with amillennialism: the Church is the fulfillment of Israel. The Church is spiritual Israel.
Key Passages: Psalm 2; Isaiah 2:2–4; Matthew 13; 28; John 12.
Notable Representatives: Jonathan Edwards, B. B. Warfield, Greg Bahnsen, Loraine Boettner, Kenneth Gentry, Peter Leithart.5
Premillennialism is often assumed to be the default view of Christians in America. This is understandable—it is presently the most common view of eschatology held by American evangelicals. While evangelicals are most familiar with the primary framework of premillennial thought, many are unaware that premillennialism has two major divisions: historic premillennialism (the traditional form, often called simply “premillennialism”) and dispensational premillennialism (usually called “dispensationalism”).
The Reign of Christ
Christ will return physically and visibly in order to usher in the millennial reign—but historic premillennialists disagree whether the reign of Christ will be a literal thousand years or just a long period of time.
The Role of Satan
Satan is currently at work in the world, influencing affairs and deceiving the nations. At the return of Christ, Satan will be bound for the duration of the millennial age.
Israel and the Church
Historic premillennialism proposes that the Church is the spiritual fulfillment of Israel in a manner that is very similar to amillennialism and postmillennialism.
Key Passages: This position shares many of the same key passages as amillennialism and postmillennialism. The distinction between the systems has to do with interpretation. Premillennialism places a heavier emphasis on rigidly literal interpretations of key passages than either amillennialism or postmillennialism does.
Notable Representatives: Irenaeus, Wayne Grudem, Robert Gundry, Ben Witherington III, Craig Blomberg.
The Reign of Christ
For most dispensationalists, the millennial reign of Christ will begin after his return, at the end of a distinct seven-year period known as the tribulation. The millennial reign of Christ begins at the third coming of Christ. Dispensationalists propose a secret rapture concept in which Christ returns (prior to or midway through the tribulation period) to remove the Church from the earth.
The Role of Satan
Like historic premillennialism, dispensationalism argues that Satan is actively at work to resist the Church and undermine God’s people. He will be bound for the duration of the millennium and only released for a final confrontation following his thousand-year captivity.
Summary of the 4 views of the end times
Key Passages: While dispensationalism also shares premillennialism’s more literal approach to the key passages, dispensationalism holds Daniel 9 (on the 70 weeks) as a key passage for interpreting the arc of history. Additionally, classic dispensationalism proposes that the content of the Bible is divided along seven dispensations (or eras). While different schools of dispensationalism categorize these eras differently, one common structure is innocence, conscience, human government, promise, law, grace, and the millennium. Key passages are interpreted through this dispensational framework.
Notable Representatives: Lewis S. Chafer, John Walvoord, Charles Ryrie, Hal Lindsey, John MacArthur.
There’s actually quite a bit of agreement among the various eschatological views. Regarding the reign of Christ: Amillennialists (and some Postmillennialists) understand the number 1,000 in Revelation as a symbol and the character of Christ’s reign as spiritual; premillennialists (and some postmillennialists) take the number 1,000 literally and understand the character of Christ’s reign to be visible. Everyone agrees that Satan is bound during the millennium.
Postmillennialists stick out a bit here since they disagree over what constitutes the beginning of the millennium. Amillennialists, historic premillennialists, and postmillennialists agree that the Church is the fulfillment of Israel. Dispensationalists sharply distinguish Israel and the Church.
Complicating any effort to distinguish between each of these views is the fact that they share key passages but interpret them differently. History helps clarify areas of agreement and points of departure.
A common hope
The great tradition of the Church puts a different emphasis on eschatology than many modern Christians do. Early Church historian Ronald Heine says this well:
No one ever seems to have been pronounced heretical solely on the basis of his or her understanding of Revelation 20. We should learn from that toleration of diverse views in the early Church and let that example guide us in our thinking about the millennial question.
It’s tempting to identify the oldest Christian position on the end times as the correct position. But we need to examine a position’s faithfulness to the Bible, not how old it is or how many people hold it. If the oldest Christian stance is the right one on every issue, we’re in trouble! During the time between Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection, all of the disciples denied the resurrection of the dead. And surely the majority doesn’t determine right doctrine—otherwise, the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15) would have decreed that all gentiles must be circumcised and follow the letter of the Torah.
Yes, we can rank the four approaches to eschatology according to their popularity throughout the Church’s life.
We can also emphasize their areas of disagreement. Despite differences [about] the millennial age, the events leading up to the return of Christ, and the relationship between Israel and the Church, these eschatologies agree [on] more than they disagree. None of these deny the basic eschatology of the Apostles’ Creed: “He will come to judge the living and the dead.” (More on the Apostles’ Creed below.)
We share one central hope in Jesus’ victory. We should discuss which system(s) most faithfully and consistently interpret the Bible, but we must do so knowing that our hope is a shared hope. Our hero is the same. Jesus returns, and Jesus wins.
Why study eschatology?
Though people are divided regarding end times views, that does not mean we should avoid studying eschatology. On the contrary, it’s a large part of the narrative of the Bible, and Scripture calls us to heed the whole counsel of God—not just the parts that are easy to read and digest. That includes eschatological events and themes, like coming judgment for those who don’t believe in Jesus but a new heaven and new earth for those who do (1 Pet 3:13).
Paul says we are to “rightly [handle] the word of truth” (2 Tim 2:15) and that the things “written in former days” were for our instruction, that “through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (Rom 15:4). We are called to dig deep and comb through all of the Bible—Old Testament and New. And that includes reading and learning about the end times.
Studying eschatology offers the believer proof that God is in control and that we can have hope in what’s to come while living in this broken world. Bible passages about the end times demonstrate God’s sovereignty and control over sin and, as Jerod Gilcher writes, “are our spiritual collateral that all of God’s promises are sure.”
Ultimately, studying the end times points us to Jesus and gives us a well- balanced theology.
Why is there so much disagreement about end times prophecy? Most of us have probably gone through a period in our Christian lives (or are still there) when we thought about little else than what the Bible says about end times prophecy.
Below, Dr. Michael Heiser offers his thoughts on why (and where) Christians often differ on the topic of biblical eschatology.
I recall how, shortly after I became a Christian as a high school student, the timetable for the tribulation period and the rapture became an obsession. To date myself, it was right around the time when Hal Lindsey’s Late Great Planet Earth was made into a movie. While I know some people who came to the Lord because of that film and its end times trajectory, my path toward becoming a biblical scholar showed me that discerning exact end times details wasn’t a fruitful use of my time.
Now having taught eschatology at a Bible college many times, I know that not only was Jesus unsure of precisely when he would return (Matt 24:36), but we aren’t going to figure that out any time soon either. No end times scheme is self-evident (or “biblical” as adherents like to say). There are intentional ambiguities in the biblical text when it comes to prophecy. And by intentional, I mean that prophecy is deliberately cryptic. There were good reasons why, even after the resurrection, the disciples had a hard time understanding what was going on (Luke 24:44–45).
Why is end times prophecy so unclear?
I wrote about why prophecy regarding the Messiah’s first incarnation was intentionally obscure in my best-selling book, The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible. Similarly, messianic prophecy surrounding the second arrival is also hard to determine with any certainty; but I didn’t lay out that case in my book. Instead, I saved that discussion for a Mobile Ed course, Problems in Bible Interpretation: Why Do Christians Disagree about the End Times? In this course, I work through several examples of why every position on end times has significant uncertainties and, more importantly, why that ought to compel us to be gracious and charitable toward believers with whom we disagree.
The idea that the Bible’s teaching about end times is not self-evident—that you can’t just study the Bible and get a clear, beyond-any-reasonable-doubt answer to what’s going to happen—may be new to some readers. If so, you need only to spend some time studying other views of end times besides your own. Don’t fear such an enterprise; it’s good for you. You’ll discover that biblical passages related to eschatology really can be read in more than one way. The fact is that all of the end times systems look beautiful and elegant— until their assumptions are challenged by other systems. All end times reconstructions cheat where they have to in order to take care of “problems” (i.e., passages that raise the possibility the system could be wrong). That’s just the way things are. And in my view, God intended that to be the case.
Illustrating the ambiguities
It’s not difficult to demonstrate from Scripture that beliefs about the end times lack certainty. Let’s take the question of the nature of the kingdom of God. Many Christians default to a future earthly millennial reign when they see or hear that phrase. But Paul viewed Christians as already having been put into the kingdom (Col 1:13). The apostles regularly linked the gospel with the kingdom of God (Acts 8:12; 28:30–31). The kingdom is an already-present reality in the book of Revelation (Rev 1:6; 5:10) before one ever gets to the “millennium” passage in Revelation 20:1–6.
The reason a literal millennial kingdom is expected by so many is because of the land promise given to Abraham (Gen 12:1-3; 15:17–20). Since a specific land was promised to the people of God—the children of Abraham—and those promises were unconditional, then, so the reasoning goes, the future kingdom promises are tied to the physical land of Israel and ethnic Jews.
But were the promises of Abraham unconditional? Not according to Genesis 17, where inheritance of the land is promised with a condition—faithfulness to Yahweh of Israel:
When Abram was ninety-nine years old the LORD appeared to Abram and said to him, “I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless, that I may make my covenant between me and you, and may multiply you greatly… And I will give to you and to your offspring after you the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession, and I will be their God.” (vv. 1–2, 8)
Genesis 22 echoes the same idea:
And the angel of the LORD called to Abraham a second time from heaven and said, “By myself I have sworn, declares the LORD, because you have done
this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of his enemies . . . and in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice.” (vv. 15–18)
In addition, the land described by God to Abraham (Gen 15:18-19; Exod 23:31) aligns very closely to the land brought under the dominion of Israel at the time of Solomon (1 Kings 4:21). The implication would be that the land promise to Israel was fulfilled in Solomon’s day—so there’s no need to expect a future fulfillment.
But on the other side of the issue, there are relevant rebuttal questions. First, while the Abrahamic covenant had conditions, does that mean that it was also unconditional?
Paradoxically, yes. Parsing the covenant exegetically leaves one with the realization that it was indeed unconditional (God would have a people and a kingdom—including an earthly one—because that’s what he wants), but how that unconditional purpose was accomplished, and what people participated in those purposes, depended on loyalty to Yahweh. One could not worship another god—or no god at all—and expect to be part of God’s family and kingdom at any time, including the future.
Second, while the land boundaries align well with Solomon’s kingdom, there are actually differing boundary descriptions of the “promised land” in the Old Testament (i.e., they aren’t consistently the same). Some of these do not conform to Solomon’s dominion. Does that matter for the kingdom promise? It may well, but we cannot know for sure.
Consider a different example: the rapture. When you study all the possible references to what has to describe the return of the Messiah (given Jesus’ identification as Messiah) the descriptions do not match in all details. In some, Jesus touches down on earth (Zech 14:4) and comes as a warrior (Rev 19:11–16). But in others, Jesus is said to return “in the air” to take believers, living and dead, with him (1 Thess 4:16–18). While the content of all the passages is closely related (Jesus’ return), if the Bible student makes the decision to keep these descriptions separated, two returns of Jesus emerge, one of which has been described as the rapture, and the other the second coming. But is this the way we handle divergent wordings elsewhere in the Bible?
Rarely. When two closely related incidents or conversations in the Gospels disagree, Christians nearly universally say the solution is to harmonize the passages. Adopting that common strategy when it comes to passages about a messianic return systematically eliminates a rapture since the decision to harmonize produces only one return. So, the question becomes, are you a splitter, or a joiner? The Bible contains no instruction manual for helping us make this choice—we are left with ambiguity on the issue.