New Testament and Eschatology

The eschatological hopes and aspirations of the Old Testament make up the atmosphere in which the mission and ministry of Jesus is to be understood. The over-riding horizon of the life of Jesus is the announcement of the Kingdom of God: “Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of God, and saying, ‘the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand, repent and believe in the gospel’” (Mk 1: 14; Lk 4: 43). The parables and the miracles of Jesus are about the coming Kingdom of God into our world.
On the one hand the Kingdom of God is “at hand” (Mk 1: 14-15) and “in the midst of you” (Lk 17: 21) according to Jesus. The signs of this presence of the Kingdom of God are healings and exorcisms: the blind see, the lame walk, the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the good news preached to them (Cf. Mt 11: 4-5; Lk 4: 18-19). On the other hand, the Kingdom of God is also something straining to be fully realised in the future: Jesus prays “thy kingdom come” (Lk 12: 2-4); Jesus intimates a future Kingdom of God in the parables of growth (Mt 13: 18-33); Jesus looks to a time of final judgement and consummation (Mt 25: 1-46). Throughout the preaching of Jesus there is a tension between the present and the future, between the visible and the invisible, between the prophetic and the apocalyptic element of the Kingdom of God. Thus of all the categories used to sum up the life of Jesus, the one most acceptable and agreeable among commentators is that of Jesus as eschatological prophet (R. Bultmann, K. Rahner, and E. Schillebeeckx). Jesus is the prophet pointing towards the end: proclaiming the imminence of the Kingdom of God and the dawning of God’s salvation. Further, it is as eschatological prophet announcing the Kingdom of God that Jesus is put to death. This nearness of the Kingdom of God proclaimed in word and deed becomes a threat to the political and religious leaders of the day. It is this threat that provokes the death of Jesus on the cross. For the disciples of Jesus, his death on the cross is the moment of eschatological crisis. Everything that Jesus had said and done, especially in terms of the coming of the Kingdom of God, is called into question.
This crisis of the cross is not annulled by subsequent experiences. Instead, the eschatological crisis of the cross is interpreted apocalyptic ally as the turning point of history. This can be seen in Matthew’s apocalyptic interpretation of the death of Jesus: “And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom; the earth shook and the rocks were split; the tombs were also opened and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many” (Mt 27: 51-53). Equally, Mark’s association of darkness with the cross and his reference to the tearing of the curtain in the temple from top to bottom also have apocalyptic connotations (Mk 15: 33-39).
At the same time, it must be acknowledged that it was the new experiences after the death of Jesus that brought out the full force of the eschatological significance of the life and destiny of Jesus. Something new, in terms of presence, peace, reconciliation, power, and the Spirit is now experienced by the disciples from the other side of the cross. This new and transforming experience is interpreted in a variety of different images: exaltation, glorification, living with God, resurrection, ascension, and Pentecost. Among these different interpretations of one and the same experience of the living Jesus in a new form after Calvary, the image of resurrection predominates. The image of resurrection takes over from the other images because of its eschatological and soteriological significance. Within Judaism, resurrection from the dead was one of the important signs of the end of time and the dawning of salvation.
It is Paul who spells out explicitly the eschatological significance of the death and resurrection of Jesus. Paul’s eschatology is an explicitly Christ-centred eschatology, beginning with the historical Paul in First Thessalonians which emphasizes the resurrection of Christ and the second coming and then moving to the Deutro-Pauline writing of Colossians, Ephesians, and the Pastoral Epistles. In broad terms Paul argues that the death and resurrection of Jesus inaugurates a new era in history. Something new has been set in motion through the resurrection and the outpouring of the Spirit. Humanity and the world have entered into the final stages and are now moving together towards the end. The general framework of Paul’s eschatology is that of the difference between the first and second coming of Christ. The language of this framework is one of contrast between the two ages. The horizon is the permanent tension that exists between what has already taken place historically in Christ and that which is not yet fully realised.
This eschatology of Paul is closely bound up with his Christology and the one cannot be understood without the other. For Paul, Christ is “the fullness of time” (Gal 4: 4; Eph 1: 10), so that “if anyone is in Christ, he is a New Creation, the old has passed away and the new has come” (2 Cor 5: 17). Further, Christ is “the revelation of the mystery which was kept a secret for long ages but is now disclosed” (Rom 16: 25-26; Col 1: 26; Eph 1: 9-10; 3: 4-5; 1 Cor 2: 7). Thus the appearances of our Saviour Christ Jesus “abolished death, brought life and immortality to light” (2 Tim 1: 10). In virtue of this we are now living in “the end of ages” (1 Cor 10: 11) and in the “later times” (1 Tim 4: 1) so that we are encouraged “to put away the old man, and to put on the new man” (Eph 4: 22; Col 3: 9). Above all, the glorified and risen Christ is “the first born among many” (Rom 8: 29; Col 1: 18), “the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Cor 15: 20). A new ontological unity and solidarity has been established between Christ and humanity in and through the resurrection. To highlight this Paul draws a parallel between Adam and Christ: “For as by one man came death, by one man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all shall be made alive” (1 Cor 15: 21-22).
It is impossible to develop a wholly consistent and systematic account of eschatology from the Pauline writings. The strength of Paul’s eschatology is that it resists any easy categorization: moving as it does from dialectic (the already into the not-yet) to paradox (dying and rising in Christ) to mysterious (being ‘in Christ’). Yet what is clear is that something new has been introduced into our world by the Christ-Event. This something new, effected through the resurrection and the Spirit of Christ, affects the direction of humanity, history and the cosmos which are now moving together towards the time of fulfilment. Sin and death have been overcome by the cross and replaced by grace and new life in Christ.
We can make a few conclusions regarding the systematic understanding of eschatology from the New Testament. First, the central factor in the New Testament understanding of human life and destiny is the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is from the perspective of this mystery that the Christian community reinterprets the tradition of Judaism in the creation of the Christian scriptures. The unity of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus is the point of departure for the distinctively Christian revelation. The analysis of this point of departure makes it clear that Christian eschatology must embrace the questions about human destiny both at the individual and at the collective level. It must deal with the question of human hopes in relation to all that makes up human life in its spiritual and corporal dimensions.
Second, New Testament eschatology from the beginning, has been characterised by a tension between the present and the future. The experience of faith and grace in the present is already an experience of eschatological reality. But the mystery of grace is not completely realised in any historical experience. There remains a future fulfilment, which is the object of hope. This tension between the present experience of grace and the future fulfilment of grace in the Kingdom must remain as a dimension of New Testament eschatological awareness throughout history.
Third, the Christ-mystery, taken in its fullness, is the basis for the New Testament vision of a future that transcends historical experience. The future, which awaits humanity, lies ultimately in the hands of God. This vision of transcendent future, which has historical roots in Jewish apocalyptic but is determined decisively by the resurrection of Jesus, can be distinguished from apocalypticism with its tendency to speculate on the details of the end-events of history. New Testament eschatology lives from the conviction that the history of the world can reach its fulfilment only in communion with God and that it will be brought to this fulfilment by its incorporation into Christ who embodies God’s promise to the human race.
We can conclude with the thoughts of D. Senior, “The biblical view of history is, in the final analysis, decisively optimistic. The final word is life, not death. The final action is gathering and fulfilment, not dispersal and frustration. This view of history, as apocalyptic literature made clear, is not naïve. The march to the end-time involves bitter suffering and cataclysmic transformation. But the end is without doubt salvific, because God will have the last word.”

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