Eschatology in Church History
by Michael J Vlach
Eschatology has traditionally been understood as the doctrine of the ‘last things.’ The study of eschatology has often been divided into two categories–‘individual’ eschatology and ‘end-times’ eschatology. Individual eschatology primarily addresses the fate of a person after he or she dies. It usually includes topics such as heaven, hell, judgment, and rewards. End-times eschatology, though, usually deals with issues related to the end of the present world order such as the return of Jesus Christ, the rise of Anti-Christ, the tribulation period, and the millennium. End-times eschatology is the primary subject of this present document.
Below is a bullet-point summary of the doctrine of end-times eschatology in church history. It covers eschatology in the Patristic, Medieval, Reformation, and Modern Eras:
PATRISTIC ERA (A.D. 100-430)
–The earliest Christians looked for three things: (1) the return of Jesus Christ; (2) a cataclysmic end to the present age; and (3) a bodily resurrection.
–The early church for the first three centuries held mostly to premillennialism. The one thousand year reign of Christ mentioned in Revelation 20:1-6 was viewed eschatologically and futuristically. There was a common expectation that Christ would reign upon the earth for one thousand years.
–Notable premillennialists in the early church were Papias (60-130), Irenaeus (130-200), Justin Martyr (100-165), and Tertullian (160-225).
–Apocalyptic expectations were common until the time of the Roman emperor Constantine (early fourth century) when persecution of the church happened frequently. However, once Constantine began his reign and Christianity became accepted in the Roman Empire, apocalyptic expectations decreased significantly.
–Origen (185-254) popularized the allegorical approach to interpreting Scripture, and in doing so, laid a hermeneutical basis for the view that the promised kingdom of Christ was spiritual and not earthly in nature.
–Eusebius (270-340), an associate of the emperor Constantine, viewed Constantine‘s reign as the Messianic banquet and held to anti-premillennial views.
–Tyconius, an African Donatist of the fourth century, was one of the earliest theologians to challenge premillennialism. He rejected the eschatological and futuristic view of Revelation 20. Instead, he said that the millennium was being fulfilled in the present age and that the thousand years mentioned was not a literal thousand years. Tyconius also viewed the first resurrection of Revelation 20:4 as a spiritual resurrection, i.e. the new birth.
–Augustine (354-430), who is often referred to as ‘the father of amillennialism,’ popularized the views of Tyconius. Augustine abandoned premillennialism because of what he considered to be the excesses and carnalities of this view. He also interpreted Mark 3:27 to be a present binding of Satan.
–Augustine was the first to identify the Catholic Church in its visible, empirical form with the kingdom of God. For him, the millennial rule of Christ was taking place in and through the church, including its sacraments and offices.
–Augustine’s book, City of God, was significant in the promotion and acceptance of amillennialism.
–Augustine’s amillennialism quickly became the accepted view of the church. Amillennialism became so accepted that the Council of Ephesus (431) condemned the premillennial view as superstitious.
–To summarize, the first three hundred years of church history were characterized by premillennialism and strong expectations concerning the soon coming of the Lord. After the time of Eusebius and Augustine, though, premillennialism became less accepted and apocalyptic speculations began to wane. Although an unbroken line of apocalypticism and premillennialism has existed throughout church history, the church for the next one thousand years was characterized by a non-apocalyptic amillennialism.
MEDIEVAL ERA (430-1500)
–Augustinian amillennialism was the accepted view of the church during this period. Apocalyptic and eschatological beliefs, however, did continue with such heretical groups as the Albigensians, Waldensians, and Joachimites. These groups offered vivid descriptions of heaven, hell, purgatory, the second coming, and the end of the world.
–Joachim of Fiore (1132-1202) divided history into different eras: (1) the age of the Father (the Old Testament dispensation); (2) the age of the Son (the New Testament dispensation including the church); and (3) the age of the Spirit (the final establishment of peace and unity on the earth).
–Dante (1265-1321) gave an artistic medieval view of hell, heaven, and purgatory.
–A surge of apocalyptic expectations occurred in Europe during the fifteenth century.
REFORMATION ERA (1500-1650)
–The primary reformers, including Martin Luther (1483-1546) and John Calvin (1509-1564), accepted the commonly held view of amillennialism.
–Luther was a historicist, holding that the end-times prophecies of the Bible were being fulfilled in his day. The early Luther expected a mass conversion of the Jews. He also held that the pope was the anti-Christ.
–The sixteenth century was a time of fervent apocalyptic ideas and expectations. During this time, large numbers of people in Europe, both educated and uneducated, believed that they were living in the last days before God’s dramatic intervention in history.
–Like others of this era, the Anabaptists of the sixteenth century participated in apocalyptic speculations. In fact, every strand of sixteenth-century Anabaptism emphasized apocalypticism. Even the most cautious Anabaptist writers frequently referred to ‘these last days’ and were on the lookout for signs of the antichrist.
MODERN ERA (1650-Present)
–In the wake of the Enlightenment, liberal Christianity viewed the traditional views of eschatology with disdain. This included the traditional view of a bodily return of Christ to reign over the earth.
–In liberal Christianity, the kingdom of God came to be understood mostly in terms of social equality and justice. It was not viewed as a future event but something being realized by humans now in the social realm. The kingdom comes as a result of human activity and moral and social progress.
–Postmillennialism became popular in the eighteenth century. The beginnings of modern postmillennialism are usually associated with the works of Daniel Whitby (1638-1726). (Postmillennialism is the view that the millennium begins in the present age between the two advents of Christ. Postmillennialism holds that the progress of the Gospel will bring in a glorious age of righteousness before Christ returns.)
–Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) was a postmillennialist who viewed the First Great Awakening as the beginning of the millennium.
–The system known as dispensationalism arose in the middle of the nineteenth century. John Nelson Darby (1800-82) is known as the “father of dispensationalism.” He: (1) systematized dispensationalism by dividing history into dispensations; (2) taught two phases to Christ’s coming–a secret rapture and a visible coming; and (3) believed in a future literal fulfillment of Old Testament promises with Israel.
–Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965), in his book, The Quest of the Historical Jesus (1906), shattered the liberal idea that the kingdom Jesus preached was only ethical and moral. Schweitzer argued that Jesus believed in an apocalyptic kingdom that would bring the present age to a crashing end.
–C. H. Dodd (1884-1973) popularized the “already/not yet” concept in regard to eschatology. The kingdom of God, according to Dodd, was inaugurated with the first coming of Christ. There is, however, a future aspect of the kingdom that awaits a future consummation. Thus, the kingdom is both “already” and “not yet.”
–In the twentieth century, dispensationalism became the most popular eschatological perspective in the United States. With dispensationalism came the popular belief of a pretribulational rapture. Key dispensational teachers included C. I. Scofield, Lewis Sperry Chafer, John Walvoord, J. Dwight Pentecost, Alva J. McClain, and Charles Ryrie.
–Rudolf Bultmann (1884-1976) promoted a form of existential eschatology. Bultmann did not accept the idea of a literal, apocalyptic kingdom of God upon the earth. For him, such eschatological language should not be taken literally. Instead, eschatological language in the Bible should be interpreted existentially with the emphasis being on the practical implications for the reader in the present. Thus, for Bultmann, the key question is not, “What does the eschatological language teach about the end times?” Instead, the correct question is, “How does this language apply to me and my situation in the here and now?”
–Jürgen Moltmann (b. 1926) popularized a view of eschatology known as the ‘theology of Hope.’ He viewed eschatology as the whole of theology. For Moltmann, eschatology is a spirit, an outlook, and a framework in which all theology should be conducted. He also believed the church needs a political theology that seeks to transform the world. For Moltmann, the kingdom of God does not lie in readiness until the passage of time; instead, Christians must work to bring the Kingdom into being. As we move toward the future, the future moves toward us. Moltmann, thus, closely tied the concepts of the future and ethics.
–In the last one hundred years, eschatology has been studied and argued more than at any other time period in church history. Among conservative Christians, the major areas of study and debate include: (1) the timing of Bible prophecy (futurism, preterism, and idealism); (2) the timing of the millennium (premillennialism, postmillennialism, and amillennialism); (3) and the timing of the rapture (pretribulationism, midtribulationism, posttribulationism).