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The world religions that are based on the Bible- Judaism, Christianity, and Islam-hold that the world had a definite beginning. Genesis describes that beginning as God bringing order out of chaos. Over time, when the world seemed to be reverting back to chaos, thinkers from these religions have speculated about the end (in Greek, eschaton) of God's creation.
Eschatology is, then, a term coined by scholars to refer to speculating about the end of time. Central to all forms of eschatology is dissatisfaction with life in the present world. Eschatology calls for change and an end to the problems faced by the community. This change requires action from believers-whether by altering their own behavior, remaining steadfast in their faith, or working actively to reform their society. In most cases, however, God is taken to be the principal actor and the one who will transform this imperfect world into something better.
Though it is common to think that the eschaton always refers to a cataclysmic destruction of the world, eschatology takes several forms, most of which do not imagine the end this way. Scholars have subdivided eschatology into several subcategories.
Developmentally, the earliest of these is prophetic eschatology. The pre-exilic Hebrew prophets writing in the eighth to seventh century B.C.E.-particularly, Amos, Isaiah, and Zephaniah-criticized the Jews of Israel and Judah for failing to live up to their covenant with Yahweh (God). The people of Israel began celebrating a new holiday: the Day of the Lord, a New Year's festal day anticipating the great Day of Yahweh when the promises of the covenant would be fulfilled and Israel would be crowned with glory. But the prophets said such celebration was hypocritical, for the people were not following the moral and ethical demands of the covenant. So, the Day of Yahweh would be, in reality, a day of judgment, when the enemies of Israel and Judah would triumph and only the truly righteous would be saved from destruction. Soon after, these enemies did triumph, dispersing the northern tribes of Israel (in 721 B.C.E.) and sending the southern tribes of Judah into exile in Babylon (587-538 B.C.E.).
The situation of the Jews in Babylon led to a new form of eschatology, namely, restoration eschatology. Prophets in the time of the exile-particularly Ezekiel and Second Isaiah-wished to offer their people hope for a renewed Israel. They wrote of an end to Yahweh's punishment, an end to Israel's oppression by its enemies, and the beginning of a return to glory. Just as Yahweh once brought destruction in the form of invading armies, now he would bring salvation by gathering the dispersed Israelites like a shepherd rescuing lost sheep (as in Ezekiel) or by restoring the exiles to their land through raising up a righteous foreign ruler (for example, Cyrus, the Persian king who allowed the Judahite exiles to return to their homeland and who Second Isaiah called the Messiah).
Eschatology took another form in Hellenistic times when the conquests of Alexander the Great (356-323 B.C.E.) left many Judeans feeling anxious about their place in the cosmos. Yahweh now seemed more remote, apparently caring little about his people on earth.
When a Syrian prince attempted to force Hellenistic (Greek) culture on Jerusalem, apocalyptic eschatology was born-i.e., the belief that Yahweh's intervention in world events would take the form of a cosmic battle of good versus evil leading to the creation of a heaven on earth where the righteous would be rewarded for their steadfast faith. Apocalyptic eschatology can be observed in the canonical book of Daniel and in a variety of noncanonical Jewish literature, including the Enoch texts, Jubilees, and the Dead Sea Scrolls.
The chaos that came with Alexander's conquests led also to criticism of earthly forms of government. Jewish thinkers of the time wrote of an idealized "kingdom of God" that was free of the corruption and injustices of earthly kingdoms (Daniel 7:14; Psalm of Solomon 17:3; Testament of Moses 10:1; and 4Q246 and 4Q521 from the Dead Sea Scrolls). One day, they hoped, the kingdom of God would be realized upon earth.
The concept of the kingdom of God was used to great effect in the first century by John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth. Using the language of his apocalyptic predecessors, John proclaimed, "Repent, for the kingdom of God has come near" (Matt. 3:2 or Luke 3:3) and warned of a "wrath to come" (Matt. 3:7 or Luke 3:7). Jesus also spoke of a kingdom of God, but scholars are divided over whether Jesus was truly an apocalyptic prophet. John D. Crossan, a prominent historical Jesus scholar, characterizes the teaching of Jesus as eschatological but not apocalyptic. Defining eschatology more broadly as world negation, Crossan identifies several forms that eschatology may take: apocalyptic eschatology (which sees the world as overtaken by evil and in need of rescue by God), ascetical eschatology (withdrawal from the world through denial of luxuries such as rich food, sex, ostentatious clothing, property, and an occupation), and ethical eschatology (actively but nonviolently protesting against a system judged to be evil, unjust, or violent). While many scholars see continuity between the eschatological views of John the Baptist and Jesus, Crossan believes that John's eschatology was apocalyptic and Jesus' was ethical.
Whatever Jesus' particular views of the end time, the Christian movement that emerged after his death embraced a variety of eschatologies. Seeking to ingratiate itself with the Roman authorities who persecuted it, orthodox Christianity, distanced itself from apocalyptic eschatology as it made Christianity appear to be too subversive. Orthodox texts, particularly the Gospels of Luke and John, instead represent realized eschatology-the end of the evil powers' rule of the earth has begun with Jesus' ministry. This idea is expressed in a more spiritual way by Jesus in the Gospel of John: "Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life" (3:36)-eternal life here and now, not later.
Gnostic Christians embraced ascetical eschatology, believing that if they refused to have children, creation would, in effect, roll back. For Gnostics, the end was the beginning. Other Christians, such as the author of the book of Revelation, remained apocalyptic in their outlook.
Revelation's graphic description of the cataclysmic battle between good and evil was unsettling to many early Christians, and though the text was accepted as scripture, Christian leaders discouraged literal readings of the text. They said some day Jesus would return to usher in a new age, but not in the way described in the book of Revelation and not anytime soon.
In Islam, several forms of eschatology include the concept of the Day of Judgment. Muhammad, the founder of Islam, believed himself to be the last of a long line of prophets that stretched back through Christianity and into ancient Jewish history. Like the Hebrew prophets of old, Muhammad criticized his people for failing to follow established moral principles, which in this case meant the principles of muruwwah (manliness). He warned listeners of an impending doom, an apocalyptic day of destruction, when the deeds of every person would be weighed. On that day, the good would enter paradise, and the wicked would be condemned to hell. Islamic eschatology is, therefore, prophetic, and for the most part, it is apocalyptic though without being motivated by the threat of persecution.
The one major exception has been Shi'i Islam. As a result of discrimination from the majority Sunni, apocalyptic eschatology is more pronounced in Shi'i Islam. Shi'i Islam has evolved a doctrine that the true leader of Islam will one day come out of hiding, vindicate his followers, and establish just rule on earth.
In sum, biblically inspired eschatology has served as an important expression of dissatisfaction with the present and hope for the future. By our understanding the various forms that eschatology takes, we better understand world views and spiritual motives that serve as powerful forces of change. The subject of eschatology is, then, a subject to be taken seriously as it provides one key to understanding human behavior, historical change, and the spiritual lives of many.