New Testament and Suffering – Part II

7. The Cross of Christ:

a) St. Paul: Paul brings out the significance of the Cross of Christ which is a scandal, a folly, the weakness of God and the foolishness of God, yet is stronger and wiser than men (1 Cor 1: 17 – 2: 16). Further, in the Philippians hymn (Phil 2: 6-11) the obedience of the Cross is the reason for Christians to follow the same (Phil 2: 1-5). For Paul, Christ’s Cross and resurrection provide the norm for Christian existence by creating a new existence.

b) Mark: The Cross is the culmination of Jesus’ whole life and revelation. The structure of the Gospel is as follows: The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, gives us two titles. We then have the healings, exorcisms, conquest and challenges, confrontations. Then we come to the core of the Gospel, which is the Confession of Peter (Mk 8: 29) immediately followed by the Passion announcements and the failure of the disciples to understand the suffering predicted. This is followed by the passion, which as account of His suffering, which includes rejection by the people, betrayed, forsaken by all, calumniated, maltreated, and died alone (Mk 15: 34 “My God, my God…”). The key moment is the acclamation of the centurion, “Truly this man was the Son of God.” This is a final acknowledgement and decision on the Cross.
Therefore, the revelation of God in historical humanity marked the point of decision. The Cross for those called to abandon their own attempts at self-justification and self-preservation in order to follow Christ.

c) Luke: The stress is on a meek and merciful condescension of God in Christ who has come to heal, forgive and bring peace. Therefore, the Cross is not a rupture but the ultimate confirmation of Jesus’ love for all and for the Father. In the midst of His own suffering Jesus showed constant CONCERN for others: avoiding violence (Lk 22: 51); forgiving Peter (Lk 22: 11); consoling the women of Jerusalem (Lk 23: 28-31); praying for pardon (Lk 22: 34); the promise of paradise to the thief (Lk 23: 43); joining relations between Herod and Pilate (Lk 23: 12). His end, was a union with the Father, a perfect prayer (Lk 23: 46). Christ commissioned this disciples to ‘preach repentance and forgiveness in His name to all (Lk 24: 47).
There are certain common aspects in Mark and Luke: The tension between weakness and omnipresence, between humility and judgement. There are also differences: In Mark, there is the opposition – decision – abandonment of Jesus and suffering. In Luke, the picture is more of a gentle Jesus.

d) Matthew: For Matthew, the Cross is the historical point of judgment dividing the old from the new Israel. The Son of God went his way to the Cross with full awareness and authority but he did this in complete agreement with his Father’s Will, so that the Scriptures may be fulfilled (Mt 26: 39, 42, 54, 56). The Son of God predicts his future rejection (Mt 21: 33-44); he is more than the son of David (Mt 22: 41-45); and the rejection of the Son of God is self-rejection for the Jews (Mt 21: 41-44). He is the King of the Jews. These are the two titles that occur in his passion (Mt 26: 63, 68; 27: 11, 17, 22, 29, 37, 42). The Jews call innocent blood on themselves (Mt 26: 21-25; 27: 3-10). The silence of Jesus before the high priest regarding him being the Christ and the Son of God (Mt 26: 63ff) is in comparison of Psalm 22. At his death the old order is shaken; the temple veil, the earthquake, the tombs of the dead, all these anticipate the general resurrection, which is the new order.
The Cross is not the final catastrophe, but only a necessary way-station willed by God in Jesus’ authoritative progress through time. The rejection of the Jews is contrasted with the acceptance of the new People of God, the Church (Mt 21: 41-43; 8: 11ff). Peter is the rock (Mt 16: 17-19; 21: 42) is the symbol of the new authority, not the temple any more. The return of the Son of Man (Mt 16: 13-16) is to punish or reward, the rejection or the acceptance of Christ and his Church (Mt 10: 32ff; 18: 15-17; 24: 29-31; 25: 3-46).

e) John: The Cross is God’s eternal love for the world. It is the moment of judgment and for Christians it is the event of redemption.
One notes a complex theology: There is the hatred of the Jews because of his healings on the Sabbath, blasphemy of calling God Father (Jn 18: 29; 19: 12-16). In great freedom Jesus confronts his death: He predicts his betrayal, and almost urges Judas to go (Jn 13: 21-27). In the garden he confronts the soldiers (Jn 18: 3-11). He is the ‘I Am’. Behind his self-assurance stood his Father (Jn 18: 11), his unity of love ad obedience (Jn 3: 34; 5: 18; 6: 38; 8: 28; 14: 10), an ontological unity with the Father (Jn 10: 17).
As the grain dies in order to bear fruit (Jn 12: 24-27), the crucifixion is the hour of Christ’s glorification.
The lifting up and elevation of the Son of Man, which is the crucifixion, resurrection, ascension and enthronement all take place in the one moment, on the Cross (Jn 14: 13; 15: 8; 17: 1-4, 24). The church founding too takes place at the same moment in the accomplishment on the Cross …“I thirst… it is consummated” (Jn 19: 25-30).
The same love of God that motivated the sending of the Son even to the Cross, that event which manifested the greatness of love (Jn 3: 16ff; 13: 1ff; 15: 13) continues in the believers who have become God’s children by faith in Christ (Jn 1: 12ff; 13: 34ff; 15: 12, 17).
The supreme manifestation of love also functions as judgement. Even as Jesus went willingly to the Cross, hatred and sin drove him to it. Therefore, through Jesus’ acceptance of the ignominy of the Cross, the ruler of this world and all his followers were condemned for preferring darkness to light (Jn 3: 18ff; 19: 39ff; 12: 31; 16: 8-11).

8. Suffering and the Mystery of God’s Presence:

Love motivates us to a concrete decision (Jn 3: 18). God sends his son, in love. The presence of Emmanuel in history is proof of this love (Mt 12: 1-6). Christ’s presence is public, for all to see and hear it is the mystery of God breaking through the crucified humanity of Christ.
Job experienced God as the mysterious, creative power dominating good and evil. Yet, the extend of God’s mastery over suffering and evil remained beyond Job. In taking flesh, Christ hid the effulgence of the Father’s glory that HE is (Mk 9: 1-8; Heb 1: 3).
Mark 15: 33-37 – The total abandonment on the cross shows God’s horror of sin which Jesus carried, he who was utterly sinless and spent his whole life doing good in full obedience to the Father’s will (Heb 4: 15; Acts 2: 22; 10: 38), experienced in his innocence an abandonment more heart rending than Job’s and more than that of the inspired author of the suffering servant songs in Deutro-Isaiah.
In a starting paradox, out of solidarity with sinful humanity, Jesus took upon himself the utmost consequence of sin, total alienation and abandonment, in order that by his unjust condemnation to death others might receive the justice of God, his very life, the life of the one who is justice (1 Cor 1: 30), and so become partakers of the divine nature (Rom 3: 22; Jn 3: 15ff). At the same time Christ reconciled the world to God, he brought peace and reconciliation to us by destroying the walls of division that the sin of Adam and Eve had originally created (Eph 2: 11-22; Gal 3: 28).
Ultimately, the divine mystery consists in love’s overflowing plenitude rendered on the cross o touch the hearts of all in order that when “Christ dwells in your hearts through faith …” (Eph 3: 17-21).
It is not a mystery of unlimited force that conquered sin and death and before which the Christian is to be humbled and silenced (as Job and Quoleth were). Rather, the mystery of self-giving love that reveals the open heart of God forces man to surrender the posture of sapiential observer and judge (1 Cor 1: 18 – 2: 16).
By loving Christ, the believer has entered the very heart of love and there in silent words before the mystery of mysteries – he understands its dimensions as those of infinite love – for God’s love – and his silence melts into grateful praise and joyful ardour of the God too vast for the human head and heart – who became man.

9. The ultimate meaning of Christian Suffering:

Through the cross of Christ, for the believer, suffering becomes an invitation to share in Christ’s redemptive love, the very life of God himself, and by offering themselves in sacrifice for God and their fellow Christians, to grow in love and contribute to the growth of the whole body of Christ.
Luke 9: 23 – This is an everyday task (Eph 2: 22ff; 4: 16; Col 2: 19).
Christians find comfort from Christ in their affliction (2 Cor 1: 3-7).
Christians rejoice after punishment for having being found worthy to suffer dishonour (Acts 5: 41).
Christians desire to share Christ’s suffering, a grace to suffer for Christ (Phil 1: 29; 3: 8-10).
Christians rejoice in the midst of tribulations (Rom 5: 3; 2 Cor 6: 8-10; Jam 1: 2-4).
This is madness in the eyes of the world. Yet, Matthew 5: 3-12, the beatitudes are being realised. The final day, sorrow will be comforted (Rev 7: 16f). In the meantime, in the joy of suffering Christians, a valid testimony to the eschatology character of Christ’s message is given and the Kingdom of God is realised anticipated already upon earth. Therefore, suffering, both Christ’s and the Christian’s have become the means of ‘manifesting God’s work’ and ‘glorifying the Son and the Father’ (Jn 9: 3; 11: 4; 12: 27b).

In conclusion, in the New Testament, suffering reflects God’s punishment only as long as we remain under his wrath by rejecting his profound mercy in Christ (Rom 1: 18 – 2: 11; Col 3: 5-17; Eph 1: 1-10). His mercy is admittedly free, for it is the burning of a love that forces us to abandon self-justification, to confess our sins and to accept salvation as a pure gift, letting him become all in us and we receive all in him.
The sufferings that come our way are revealed as invitations to love.

New Testament and Suffering – Part I

We can say the following about the notion of suffering in the New Testament.

  1. Eternal Life as reward for suffering sustained faithfully: We see this theme in John 6: 20-22: Eternal Life leads them to discount present tribulations. 2 Corinthians 4: 16-18: Suffering sustained by comparison with what was to come (Rom 8: 18). John 17: 3: With new life suffering acquires a new meaning already in the world as a result of Christ’s cross.
  2. Medicinal suffering: Suffering can bring faith to those who do not believe (The example of healing, Jn 6: 29; 9: 3, 35-38) and suffering recalls to themselves those who do believe but not act accordingly (Rev 2: 21-23; 1 Cor 11: 23-33).
  3. Suffering as a Test: Behind all suffering stands God’s infinite merciful love (Rom 2: 4; 9: 22-24). Therefore, testing was not such a dominant theme, however, in Matthew 10: 34-38, to believe meant a test. The abandonment of earthly goods in favour of Jesus (Mk 10: 17-27; Mt 19: 29). The testing of people’s hearts was meant to bring an immense reward (Mt 16: 25; 10: 39; Mk 8: 35; Lk 9: 24; Jn 12: 25).
  4. Suffering as Purification: We notice this theme in: –

Jn 15: 2, 8: Believers bearing fruit, require the pruning.

2 Cor 7: 1: Purification from every defilement, to bring holiness.

2Thess 1: 5: Christians undergo suffering to be made worthy of the Kingdom of God.

Gal 6: 12: Paul carried in his own body Christ’s wounds.

1 Cor 7: 5: Sexual abstinence to obtain freedom to pray – virginity for the Kingdom of God.

  1. Vicarious, Redemptive suffering: We notice this theme in: –

Acts 20: 23; 21: 10-14: Paul willingly took on suffering for the sake of the Gospel.

Mt 5: 10ff: Suffering persecution for His name (Lk 9: 23: carry one’s cross and follow me; Jn 15: 18-21: Suffering persecution for Him).

Rom 8: 17: To suffer with Him.

Phil 2: 5-11: To put on the mind of Christ, that is, obedience unto the Cross.

1 Cor 12: 26: What each member of Christ’s body accomplishes and suffers effects all other members.

Just as God’s being super-abounds in letting us be, finite alongside the infinite, and God’s omnipotence does not obliterate but rather creates our freedom, so also the plenitude of Christ’s redemptive suffering does not suppress the need for the suffering of Christians, but gives them a new value.

  1. Jesus’ Suffering: The purpose of His life was to give life and this involved suffering (Mt 10: 34ff; Mk 2: 17; 10: 45; Lk 19: 10). He experiences the sufferings of human life: hunger, thirst, fatigue (Mt 4: 2; 8: 24; Jn 4: 6-8; 19: 28).

He shows compassion to those in suffering (Lk 7: 15: the widow of Naim).

He shows compassion for the crowds that are hungry (Mk 6: 34; 8: 21).

He wept for Lazarus (Jn 11: 35).

He wept over the destruction of Jerusalem (Lk 19: 41-44).

The letter to the Hebrews sums up the life of Christ, as one who embraced suffering (Heb 2: 9-15; 5: 7-10).

At the temptations His obedience was tested (Mt 4: 1-11).

At the garden of Gethsemane, we witness His suffering, and His obedient love of the Father wins (Mk 14: 32-42).

Despite inner resistance (Jn 12: 27) He was determined to complete the Will of the Father.

Old Testament and Suffering

The key concept in the Old Testament is the notion of the Covenant. God makes a covenant with his people. He intervenes in history to form a people. He is their God and they are His people. He is the One God and Lord of All. The people sing His praise as the God of Creation and the Lord of History (Ps 8). The Covenant calls for an understanding of the relationship of God with His people, the relationship of the people with each other and with all of creation. This relationship is based on Justice, which is an attribute of God. The covenant involves a choice that the people need to make. They have to choose fidelity and therefore life, or infidelity and therefore death. In spite of their choice, God is a Just God and His forgiveness and mercy always prevail.

The people of Israel experience God not as an arbitrary God. This is a notion alien to the people of Israel. God’s justice involves His compassionate intervention to relieve them of their suffering (Gen 21: 17; Ex 2: 24; Ps 22: 24). But, His justice also involves the curse resulting from the people’s infidelity (Is 45: 7); responsibility for evil (Amos 3: 6); and the punishment for sinners (Jer 18: 11).

However, deeper than the mystery of iniquity and evil is the mystery of ELECTION & COVENANT.

Old Testament explanations of Suffering: –
  1. The Good are rewarded and the Evil are punished: This is the theme of the Deuteronomic history. The covenant theme is emphasised all through. Following the covenant results in blessing for the good, and rejecting the covenant results in punishment for the evil (Cf. Judges; Kings and Chronicles). The pattern is as follows: The people display infidelity, they are punished, God intervenes, the people once again return to their evil ways … it is a circle.

This is also the theme of the Prophets (Cf. Jer 31: 23-24; Ezek 18).

The same theme in the Psalm (Ps 1; 7: 10; 23: 1ff; Prov 22: 4).

The theme is as expressed as follows: Virtue is rewarded, the trespass punished.

Therefore, suffering results from SIN.

  1. The Good are rewarded and the Evil punished in the future: The simple laws of justice with immediate retribution could not hold in the presence of the prosperity of the evil and the exploitation of the poor. Therefore, the fulfilment of justice is predicted to the future. God will intervene to save His people, to vindicate justice (Cf. Ps 10; 13; 16; 26; 37). The question does remain: But when? How long must they wait?

[Evil is a certain lack, limitation or destruction of good. Human being suffer because of a good they do not share; of which they are cut off or deprived off themselves].

  1. The experienced presence of God: An answer to suffering was found in the Temple. The temple expressed the presence of God. Being in the temple was being in God’s presence. This was a cure for suffering a relief from suffering. Faith in the presence of God in the temple was a relief (Cf. Ps 13; 16: 5-11; 27: 1, 4-10; 63; 84). However, even this was not a sufficient answer. The stark reality of pain, suffering and cruelty needed better answers.
  1. Medicinal Suffering: Suffering seen here as a punishment for sin because of a loving God. Suffering is medicinal. Medicine is bitter but it cures. Suffering is good for people as God wished to cure His people from their sin and so gave them suffering so that they could turn back to Him. This is seen especially in the prophets (Cf. Amos 4: 12’ Hosea 1 – 3; 11: 8ff; Jer 31: 20; Is 63: 9ff). The sinner is chastised so that he or she returns back to God. Suffering, therefore, reveals the kindness of God calling His people to fidelity, desiring their good. But, the question emerges, what about the good receiving unmerited suffering?
  1. Suffering as Testing: The theme of Genesis 22: 1, God tested Abraham. God’s intention in testing was to do good to those tested. Challenge moulds the mettle of a person, an outcome for which one can be grateful. Lovers show their love by suffering for the beloved. God tested Israel’s fidelity to Him and His laws (Cf. Ex 16: 4; 20: 20; Deut 8: 2; Judg 2: 22). Israel too is tested in the desert but God’s testing preceded a saving intervention and however fearsome always ended with a blessing (Cf. Deut 8: 16; Ex 16: 4). Blessings were the final cause of the testing (Ps 17: 1-3; 26: 2; 139: 23). God tested so that he would save and bless. Therefore, as gold is tested in fire … Trust in the Lord (Sir 2: 1-6; Prov 17: 3). God delivers and rewards those tested (Wis 11: 9f).
  1. Purification Suffering: The image is that of the gold and silver in the furnace (Jer 6: 27-30; Ezek 22: 17-22; Zech 13: 8). The goodness of Israel is refined to God’s glory (Is 48: 10ff; Mal 3: 2ff). Generally, Purificatory suffering is linked to testing and education. But in Psalm 38, one notes that suffering at God’s hands is due to a past in that has been confessed.
  1. Job and the Mystery of God: God can write straight through crooked lines. This is the story of Joseph and his brothers. Therefore, the Jews trusted in God. The answer to Job: The presence of God on the one hand and the vast abyss between human being’s limited knowledge and strength and the supreme majesty of God. No explanation is possible. Therefore, what is called for is faith in the mystery of God. Like Job, Quoleth too in the presence of suffering of the innocent ends with faith in the mystery of God (Cf. Eccl 1: 8, 12-18; 2: 12-26; 3: 16-22; 5: 13-17; 8: 14 – 9: 4, 11).
  1. Vicarious Suffering: The notion of ‘Corporate Personality’ where an individual is a representative as well as a constitutive member of a group. Corporate Personality means: an extension beyond the present into the past and future (The Patriarch lives on in his progeny, Cf. Amos 3: 1; Deut 29: 13). This is not merely a personification, a metaphor but a reality which furthers relations, juridical or otherwise (E.g., Levirate marriage in Deut 25: 5-10). There is also a fluid transition from the individual to the group and back again (Hos 11: 11ff; Num 20: 14-21).

The issue is thus explained as follows: If all can suffer for the sins of one, therefore, all can profit from the accomplishment of one (Jer 5: 1; Gen 18: 22-23). David over Goliath gave victory to the Jews (1 Sam 17: 8ff). Jeremiah’s suffering is part and parcel of his mission: A prophet who continued to pray and protect his people.

Victorious suffering is seen clearly in Deutro-Isaiah in the suffering servant theme (Is 42: 1-4; 49: 1-6; 50: 4-20; 52: 13 – 53: 12). Here, there is a flexible oscillation between the people and the person in Deutro-Isaiah’s suffering servant.

In Zechariah 12: 10 – 13: 1, we have an example of vicarious suffering. Here, the innocent freely take on the suffering.

In 2 Maccabees 7: 32ff, we note that the martyrs, the just men are called to propitiate the wrath of God. Their reward is in the next life.

  1. Life after Death: The unrequited suffering and death of the just cry out for ‘something more’ (Is 53: 10ff). Justice and a demand for it extended beyond the grave (Wis 1 – 5). There is a bodily resurrection presupposed in Daniel 12: 2ff. In 2 Maccabees, the Jewish belief in after life is for the first time expressed. The offerings for the dead could be efficacious in freeing them from sin (2 Macc 12: 39-45).

The end of the Old Testament expresses the fidelity to God’s justice. There is importance of the individual’s destiny before God which leads to an affirmation of life after death.

In conclusion, the three themes of the Old Testament on the issue of suffering are: The Good are rewarded and the Evil are punished; Suffering can be good, medicinal and healing; and the mysterious presence of God in Suffering. The final theme will take flesh in Emmanuel, ‘God with us,’ in our suffering as Christ in His coming would save the beings of this world and the next by bestowing an eschatological and supernatural profundity upon everyday joys and sufferings.

Suffering: Meaning and Definition

Mary Ann Fatula defines suffering as, “the disruption of inner human harmony caused by physical, mental, spiritual and emotional forces experienced as isolating and threatening our very existence.”[1]

Richard Sparks presents suffering as, “one’s consciousness of life’s dark side, the human experience that all is not peaceful and harmonious in our bodies, in our souls, in our relationships, in the cosmos.”[2]

Dorothy Soelle emphasises that all suffering must have the three dimensions of physical, psychological and social affliction if it is to be suffering at all.[3]

Most commentators express the view that suffering is linked inevitably in the problem of evil (Theodicy). There is no single explanation of the origin and purpose of evil, nor is there any unanimous agreement as to the appropriate response to the suffering it entails. However, as Christians we must assert that suffering and evil are not caused by God, the author of all good, but suffering and evil are inherent in the universe and its natural processes and in the uniqueness of human freedom, in the misuse of free will that is the moral evil of sin. The reasons for and the meaning of suffering apparently inseparable from human life have been the subject of question all through history till this day.

[1] Mary Ann Fatula, “Suffering” in New Theological Dictionary, (Dublin, 1987), 990-992 at 990.

[2] Richard Sparks, “Suffering” in New Dictionary of Catholic Spirituality, (Collegeville, 1986), 950-953 at 950.

[3] Dorothy Soelle, Suffering, (Philadelphis, 1975), 15.


Why, Oh why? This is a cry we often hear from a person suffering, or of one who encounters suffering in some form. It is the cry perhaps of a mother whose five year old son is shot dead, or the cry of a young man dying of cancer, the cry of a young wife whose husband dies in a car crash, or the cry of thousands dying of starvation in the third world countries, or the cry of girls and women abused and made to feel less than human. It is the cry of every human person, man, woman, and child, the cry of the theologian, philosopher, scientist, or lay person, the cry of an atheist or believer. Suffering seems to force an instant cry, Why Oh Why?
For us Christians, we naturally turn to God. God is a God of love and tenderness, of justice and compassion, yet, what is His role in our suffering? We know from revelation that God is not the cause of suffering. But then, is He concerned at all? Is He a bystander watching uninterestedly, or is He a sadist enjoying watching us suffer? These questions are our attempt to find a meaning to suffering.
It is our endeavour in this study to search for a meaning to suffering and a way of coping with suffering. We thus present a brief definition of suffering, then glance at some length at the way suffering is understood in the Old Testament and then the New Testament. We then briefly look at the understanding of suffering in the tradition of the Church and in recent magisterial teaching. We the briefly look at certain contemporary theologians and how they understand and present a theology of suffering. We finally present Christ and his cross as the locus for any meaning and way of coping with suffering.
We must admit that in the final analysis suffering leaves us mystified and seems to transcend any rational answer we could possibly offer.

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.”

Old Testament and Eschatology

The Old Testament is an appropriate point of departure for any understanding of Eschatology, not simply because it helps us to understand the New Testament better, which it certainly does, but also because it introduces us into a world of symbol, myth, and metaphor which is primary language of eschatology. Further, many of the concerns of Old Testament eschatology overlap with the concerns of twentieth century eschatology.
One notices different forms of eschatology in the Old Testament. On the one hand there is a strongly prophetic eschatology. The future promised by the prophets is a future about life in this world: an end to poverty and injustice among the chosen people, the creation of peace on earth among nations, and the introduction of a new harmony between people and nature. On the other hand there is within late Judaism the gradual emergence of an apocalyptic eschatology, an eschatology that is primarily otherworldly in its concerns. Within apocalyptic eschatology there is an emphasis on the transformation of this world into a new reality.
From the eight century onward the prophets begin to point towards a time in the future when Yahweh will judge Israel and the rest of the world. This time is known as the ‘day of the Lord’, a time of upheaval and destruction as well as a time of renewal and return to the ways of Yahweh. One way of describing this imminent future is to employ the ancient myth of a struggle between god and evil, between the God of life and the black monster from the deep. This myth is used in the biblical account of creation and in the eschatology of the prophets. In both instances God overcomes the forces of evil and darkness. One of the prophets in Isaiah predicts: “In that day the Lord with his hand and great and strong word will punish Leviathan, the fleeting serpent… and he will slay the dragon that is in the sea” (Is 27: 1). At the same time: “On the mountain the Lord of Hosts will make for all peoples a feast of fat things, a feast of wine…” (Is 25: 6-8).
It is this victory of Yahweh over the forces of evil that is the basis of the promise of a new creation in this life. The theme of a new creation, developed after the Babylonian exile, is a statement of dissatisfaction about the world as it is and an expression of hope that this world will be changed by Yahweh: “For behold, I create a new heavens and a new earth,… the cry of distress” (Is 65: 19). Clearly, the eschatology of the prophets, which is a major part of the Old Testament eschatology, is this-worldly, with little or reference to what we today would call the next life. Hope is centered in what will be done in this life by the way of divine intervention on behalf of the people of Israel. This action of Yahweh will bring about the restoration of Israel to its former position of power and glory among the nations.
Within this vision length of days is interpreted as a blessing of Yahweh and short life as a curse to be overcome in the future. For the prophets, Yahweh is at the centre of this-worldly eschatology; Yahweh is the one who will in the future change our world into a better place to live. It is Yahweh alone who can make good a world that has gone astray through the failure of people to be faithful. In addition, the prophets focus their eschatology on the future of the people as a whole rather than simply on the individual.
This prophetic eschatology of the Old Testament is taken up in the second century B.C.E. and changed into a new movement called apocalypticism. The word apocalypse means a special kind of revelation, usually given is symbolic and dramatic language, which requires the interpretation of an angel. The main example of apocalypse in the Old Testament is given in the Book of Daniel, which was written during the Maccabean crisis. During that time, the Jews were persecuted under the reign of Antiochus IV Epiphanes; Jewish laws and practices were suppressed; many were put to death as martyrs for practicing their religion. Within this context the author of the Book of Daniel raises the question of a reward for the righteous. For the first time in Judaism the possibility of life beyond death is explicitly affirmed: “And many of those who sleep in the dust… like the stars forever” (Dan 12: 2-3).
What is significant here in the late emergence of apocalyptic thought within Judaism is the explicit hope for some form of existence beyond this world. This new dimension of Jewish faith points beyond life in this world, implicitly critiquing a purely prophetic, this-worldly form of hope. Once again the victory of Yahweh over the beast and the conquest of evil by the forces of good are affirmed – but now in a manner that goes beyond life in this world. This new faith and hope in some kind of life after death develops in subsequent centuries. By the time of Jesus there is an emerging faith and hope among different Jewish groups in some form of resurrection.
These hopes, both prophetic and apocalyptic, generate a keen expectation that the Lord will come and reign as King among his people; initiating an era of peace and justice, restoring the fortunes of Israel, and bringing about a new alliance between people and nature. The details of this expectation are extremely varied in late Judaism. Yet they come together into an expectation summed up in the powerful symbol of the coming Reign (Kingdom) Kingdom of God.
We can make two points by way of theological significance of the Old Testament understanding of Eschatology: First, while the Old Testament does not offer any clear teaching about the topics which hand-book theology usually treated in the tract called ‘eschatology’, there is a sense in which it is possible to speak of eschatology even in the early levels of the Spiritual tradition. This is largely a question of the definition of terms. If eschatology is thought of solely as doctrine about death, judgement, heaven, and hell, the terms can hardly be applied to most of the per-Christian, biblical tradition. If, however, the term is taken to refer to the conviction that this world of human experience is destined for a goal set for it by God, towards which God is leading it, then there is good reason for speaking of the emergence of eschatology in the history of the future-consciousness in the Old Testament. In this sense, eschatology involves a theology of history. History is fundamentally incomplete until that time when God’s eternal plan is actualized fully in human reality. Ultimately our future, wherever and however it comes about, is the gift of God to creation. An eschatological sense of history emerges out of the development of future-consciousness, which is present already in the Abraham-tradition and is developed more throughout the centuries of Jewish history that follows.
Second, the development of eschatological awareness arises from two poles. Om the one hand, Israel lives from faith in the God of the promise. On the other hand, Israel’s concrete experience never lives up the measure of the divine promise. When, where, how will Israel experience fulfillment, which corresponds in depth and richness to a promise, which is of God? Each attempt to pin down an answer to the question is frustrated. From the destiny of one man and his family, the Scriptures lead us to reflect on a destiny that is universal and cosmic in scope. What will be the final condition of the world that God has created, and of the human race, which God has placed in this world to be the responsible steward of the gift of creation? This is the true eschatological question.