A Brief History of the End of the World

A  Brief History of the End of the World

The end of the world has been of hot debate for several thousand years. It was on the mind of the John the Baptist (Mat 3), the Apostles (Acts 1:6), the early church fathers, the medieval Church, and the modern era. Nevertheless, old ideas crop up every generation peddled as new and exciting. There is nothing new under the sun, eschatological views included. Most eschatological ideas are very ancient, yet are rediscovered by well intentioned but uninformed thinkers every age. These ideas are thus revived and given fresh zest for deception.

The issue at hand is that many do not understand the theological tradition in which their eschatological views stand. Respective traditions frame the issues and thus interpret the Biblical data in line with that framing. However, most who learn in the pew, and speak from the pulpit, are unaware of these ways of framing the issues. This historical analysis is thus for the purpose of defining some basic schools of thought, and engage them at their theological foundation. The result will, then, be to discern an eschatological view compatible with Biblical orthodox theology.

This will fall into three general sections:

  • Eschatological Schools through History
  • Theological Foundations of those Schools
  • Critique of the Foundations (and thereby the applications)

1. Eschatological Schools in History

There are two main kinds of eschatology to which we will compare the biblical view (inaugurated eschatology), millenarianism, and three-age theory.  Let us begin with definitions of these terms, and looking at the basic proponent throughout history.

  1. a.      Three Agers

The simplest ways to understand this is salvation working itself out in history. It is based in the Greek view of the universe which sees god and nature as two parts (matter and spirit) of the same coin. Matter is the evil lower manifestation of the better spiritual non-physical reality. As far as eschatology goes, they are panentheistic. This means that “all is in God.” All reality is part of God’s being, and is thus fallen into this state of matter and needs to get back to being spiritual. Think of it as a sewage treatment plant. The crappy matter goes in and comes out as clean water on the other side. History is the plant, and the universe is the refuse. The universe is in need of purification from impurity from its physicality.  The fall is not a sin against a holy God in this system, rather it is a fall from spirituality into matter.

Further, they see this happening in three stages. First if the age of the Father, by which they mean the immaterial power which cause the spiritual to turn into matter in the first place. He rule in the old covenant by strict justice and fleshy sacrifice and circumcision.  The second age is the age of the Son. They believe that Jesus was part of the upper world of spirit who came to liberate men from the fleshy nature and regain spirituality. This is the antithesis of the former age of the father. Thirdly, there is the age yet to come which is the age of the Spirit. This is when all physicality will end and reunification with the spiritual realm will come about.

Marcion: He was an early Christian heretic who separated the Old Testament from the New Testament because the Old Testament was the evil God who caused us all to be flesh in the first place. He predicted the coming age of a spiritual reality in the future.

Cathars: these were a French Medieval (12th c ad) mystical group who believed in the three ages of Marcion. They believed however that the age of the spirit was soon coming and thus began living as if they were already in it. They believed that the great need of man was to be cleansed of the material, which is what Catharsis means in Greek, cleansing. They believed that there would be a future with no societal hierarchies and that the world was moving into a state of preparation for the coming age of spirit. Thus they denied oaths and contracts of all kinds. The forbade marriage, owning private property, military engagement, oaths to nations, the church, or social contracts. They were against capital-punishment and eating meat also.

Joachim de Fiore: A 13th c ad mystic who wrote extensively on the prophetic passages of scripture. He was substantially the same as the Cathars in his views and practices. However he set a date for the coming of the age of the Spirit, 1260 ad (based on Rev 11:3). His theology was widely held by the Franciscan order and was later appropriated by the Anabaptists.[1]     

Anabaptists/Pietists: These were a pre-reformation group who sought a moral reform based on Joachim de Fiore’s three age theory of the coming time of the Spirit. This age of the spirit resulted in either extreme monastic asceticism, or in extreme liberty to sin on the basis of the futility of the fleshly matter.  It is simply an extension of the Franciscan views of the coming age of the Spirit. This later became known as Pietism.

Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel: A German Lutheran Theologian/philosopher (1770-1831). He peddled the three ages under the terminology of Thesis, antithesis, synthesis. Essentially this is the three ages of the Father, Son, and Spirit. The goal is the same, ontological reunion with the Spirit in a greater synthesis. He interpreted all history as moving from theses, to antitheses, to greater syntheses. This is modernity in a nutshell. He was succeeded by many later movements which hold to his eschatology.

Marxism: One of Hegel’s train of followers, Karl Marx held that Capitalism was the greater synthesis between the ancient feudalism and medieval monarchy. However Marx saw the need for another greater synthesis in the future. The lower class would rise up to equalize the hierarchies of society and make all have that which they needed. This capitalism was needed for communism, as the antithesis to monarchy, but would inevitably give way to the greater age of the communistic sharing of property. This would come about by a cataclysmic revolution.  The three ages are less pronounced, but the theory is generally the same (ontological fall, and panentheistic history working itself out)

 Jurgen Moltmann: the father of liberation theology, uses the three age theory to set his view of a coming equalization of all oppressed and oppressors. It will come about inevitably (it is an eschatology after all), and thus all will one day be equal.

  1. b.      Millenarians/Chiliasts

Their basic view is that the church age is a “Parenthesis” between the previous Kingdom of the Jews, and the future kingdom of the Jews.  Basically there is a delay of the Kingdom, because there is a future for ethnic Israel. That Future for Israel will be the kingdom of Christ set up on earth for one thousand years (millennium) and will come after this age. This is not new, but has been held by many in church history. Most notably is the modern dispensational view of eschatology.

Ebionites: An early Jewish sect of Christianity believed in the coming of the Kingdom in the future as a reestablished physical Kingdom of Christ on earth in the land and legal legislation of Palestine. They saw the Church age as a parenthesis between the 69th and seventieth week of Daniel 9.  There were more or less orthodox views within the early church on this point.

Irenaeus: Was a second century bishop in Gaul. He was a third generation Christian. His view of the millennium included the prediction of a soon coming Kingdom (after 6,000 years of world history/apostasy after the fall). This Kingdom would be the millennial reign of Christ on earth, preceded by the rapture of the Church (“being caught up before the tribulation”) and final antichrist and tribulation period of 7 years. [2]

John Nelson Darby: born in 1801, in the Anglican Church. He was the founder of what is known as Dispensationalism. He taught the basic tenets of pre-millennialism. Thought his view is somewhat different than what is often called “classic pre-millennialism” the substantial issue that we are challenging is the delay of the kingdom, thus we do not need to make a distinction between darby and other pre-millennialists. They all deny the presence of the Kingdom as inaugurated and waiting for a final consummation as the restoration of full peace and glory between God and men in the Covenant of Grace. 

Classic Dispensationalism: This would be the views taught by Charles Ryrie, Cyrus Scofield (which must be one of the coolest names in Church history, by the way), Lewis Sperry Chafer, and the early Robert Saucy, and Darrel Bock at Dallas Seminary.

  1. c.       Inaugurated Eschatology

The Redemption of the Kingdom of God is not cleansing an ontological fall, but a legal one. God rules and created men to rule over the earth with him.  Men sinned against God in Adam, and incurred legal judgment from God (not ontological). Thus God seeks to justify and restore men to a state of legal peace and thereby dominion over the earth by the Gospel of Jesus Christ. This has been the Gospel (atonement) and Law (dominion mandate) of the Old Covenant and continued into the New heavens and the New Earth. The Old Testament and New Testament are thus not two separate Gods, thesis and antithesis, or separate dispensations, but a single Covenant of Grace which placed man back into communion with a holy God.

This Kingdom/dominion has never ceased to be incumbent on men, so pagans remain condemned, and so it is still the work to be undertaken by the people of God. There is thus one law and Gospel in both the New and Old Testaments (contra delay of kingdom), and there is one God separate from creation who rules by Covenant law (contra panentheism).

Augustine (354–430) Augustine set the tone for the church as the main proponent of the view that the kingdom had already been inaugurated. This view was later held by the reformation and current proponents of Inaugurated Eschatology.

Augustine’s view was based on a critique of pre-millennialism’s method of interpretation. First, the idea of a kingdom delay, after the second Advent of Christ, does not read the New Testament rightly. Because, when Jesus returns, there will be no more apostasy. Further, he shows by exposition of Revelation 20-21 that the Devil will deceive the nations at the end of the Millennial Reign (Rev 20:7). He thus says that there are two ways to understand this passage about the Millennium. The Millennium in Revelation20 should be taken as this current age, which will last for a long time, and will end with a tribulation (Rev 20:7), and then the resurrection, Second Advent/ Great white throne, and renewal of the Heavens and the earth. Both of these views comport with the text, and hold the basic notion that at the return of Christ there will be a resurrection, final judgment, and renewal of all things (in that order).[3]

The Kingdom has come, and will consummate at the end. There is no real distinction in the substance of the kingdom, only degree to which God’s rule takes place between the already and not yet.

John Calvin: (1509-1564) was the magisterial reformer of Geneva Switzerland. He held to the Augustinian view of the legal redemption and a coming judgment of the living and the dead. Jesus is already ruling, and will rule in the future consummation of the Kingdom. Between now and that time the church is against the world system (contra mundum) and sin and seeks to do God’s will as pilgrims who are both sinner yet just. The saint is thus seeking that final day when faith will become sight. They will no longer be both sinner and saint, but simple saint.

Herman Ridderbos: While fully embracing the similarity between the old and new Covenants in both their law and gospel, the Dutch theologians further elaborated the nature of the New Testament church as the fulfillment of the Old Covenant. This tension was further elaborated by the contemporary inaugurated eschatology view of the Dutch Reformed churches. The Kingdom has already been inaugurated in the coming of Christ, and will one day be complete. Thus the Church is both sinner and saint at the same time, awaiting that final reality. Nevertheless, he is already a saint and must therefore live like one in light of the already inaugurated kingdom.

2. Theological Foundations

All of the schools of eschatology, from Ebionite millennarialism, to Darbyist Futurism, to Marxist communism, to contemporary political pragmatist eschatology, have in common a single argument method. They are typically unaware of the method, but they all rely upon it. That Argument is the strong a priori that since we know what is coming in the future, therefore we know what we ought to be doing presently.

We agree with this kind of thinking, but just want to make it clear.[4] The issue at hand however, is that the theology upon which the threeage eschatological systems are based is basically anti-Christian. They are pantheistic, or panentheistic. We also deny the dispensational/chiliastic view of the delay of the Kingdom because it bifurcates the law from the gospel into separate dispensations.

The Reformed Christian faith on the other hand sees the future of the kingdom coming, and the dominion of the Lord coming to its Zenith in the consummation. This Kingdom was already inaugurated in the incarnation of Christ, and the coronation at the ascension leads to the beginning of the fulfillment of the prayer “Thy kingdom come.” However, since we know that this future is coming and is present now, we also know what we should be doing now.  

The pre-millennial view of the kingdom separates the Law and the Gospel unnecessarily. There is a general homogeneity between the Kingdom which did come with Jesus and the Old Testament faith. The moral law remains the same, though the legislative specificities for the land of Israel have expired with the nation itself.  Thus the Law is organically the same and the moral law of Israel. The Gospel promises are also the same. The Old Testament pointed forward to Christ, in the same way the Bread and Wine of Commuion, and the Water of Baptism point back to the work of Christ. All sacraments, whether bloody or not, point to Christ’s legal substitutionary atonement. Thus the Gospel has been preached since that day when God rent those animals in order to make clothes of skin for Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.  The gospel of legal substitutionary atonement has always been the gospel promise to be accepted by faith.

Further, the signs of the Old Testament signified the future coming of the Christ in the flesh to make this atonement (John 1:14). The implication here is that the signs, once the reality has come, become obsolete. Nevertheless, though they are obsolete, we must retain their witness to the legal substitutionary atonement to which they pointed as examples for us (1 Cor 10). And, if the final reality has already been inaugurated, then there is no need for a future re-institution of those same works in a physical temple, which would come about in a future millennial reign of Christ on earth.  

3. Critique of Views

Unlike the Marxist, who sees the future as an inevitable step into the flat equality of all people, and thus seeks to overturn society in order to speed it along, the Biblical view of the coming of the kingdom requires us to build the kingdom now. We are strictly anti-revolutionary. Instead, the Christian faith is constructive and brings to bear God’s will on earth as it is performed in heaven.  Thus we bring about transformation, but not revolution. Certainly we will not bring about utopia; because, though we may transform this world by bringing to bear God’s will (already), it will, nonetheless, be mixed with sin and evil until the consummation (the not yet). 

Further, this three-age view is based on a panentheistic ontology. God is substantially the same as the world, and thus he is working himself out in history. Therefore, to them, the fall was not a legal offense against a Holy God, which could be legally redeemed. The “Fall” was a fall from being in the ontological spiritual world into the lesser world of matter. This world cannot be redeemed, but rather must be purged of its earthiness.

We deny this on the basis of the holiness of god and the earthiness of man. God is holy separate from the creation. Further the creation was created “very good” in Genesis. Man is thus meant to rule over the creation as God’s Covenantal Vicegerent. If matter is evil, it destroys all humanness of man, and all God-ness of God and thus makes a universe which is simply god working himself out and purging himself from the evil of matter.

Also, unlike the millenialists/chiliasts, who believe that the salvation of souls is the only legitimate work of the church (corporate and individual) due to their a priori view of kingdom-delay, we believe in the present need to bring all spheres of life into line with God’s will now. Because of the bifurcation made between the law and the gospel dispensations, there is a tendency to allow the Jews to continue their practice of ceremonial law. This was true for the Ebionites, and is true for contemporary Post Missionary Messianic Judaism. Both see themselves as a parallel body of the Christian church, but not the same church, as they claim to be the ecclesia circumcision.

We deny this notion on the basis of the general homogeneity of the law of God and the Gospel promises preached in the Old and New Covenants. The church is, as Augustine argued, a continuation of the same religion as the Old Testament. Nevertheless, Jesus replaced the Aaronic priestly system as the fulfillment to which those types and shadows pointed. Though the husk disappears, the Old Covenant witness to God’s moral law and the justification of men by penal substitutionary atonement continue to speak to the Christian church.

Conclusion:

Is it necessary to have a right eschatology? Should the Christian church let things so speculative sit to the side? Especially since there are so much more important things to think about? We deny this! First, it is not right to pretend that there are no distinctions where distinctions lie. That is neither right nor honest! Secondly, the law and Gospel are at stake. The way one lives in this world and is justified or not before God is directly effected by the way one understands the teleological end of all things. Thirdly, if one does not understand eschatology then he may hold to two or more contradictory views simultaneously. This is self delusion at worst, and simple ignorance at best.

In any case, to us, it seems better to know these things, and to know them well. Many of the ideas continue to crop up as new and interesting, not because they are novel, but because they are accepted and taught by those ignorant of the past. It is thus absolutely necessary to both know the Biblical view of the end purpose and events which God has given us, and their non-Biblical alternatives.


[1] A very helpful article can be found here. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/10307a.htm

[2] Irenaeus, Against Heresies 5:29:1, see http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0103529.htm

[3] Augustine, Civitas Dei 20:7

[4] Not in the fallacy of a strong a priori, but this is a legitimate argument if one considers that the God is sovereign over history. If God has determined the end (teleological and terminal ends) of the world, and has revealed how man ought to prepare for it, then what else would we do but live in light of that.

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