III: The Understanding of History from the Standpoint of Eschatology
Cosmic and Historical Eschatology. History and Eschatology in Judaism. History and Eschatology in Primitive Christianity.
(1) Eschatology is the doctrine of the ‘last things’ or more accurately of the occurrences with which our known world comes to its end. It is the doctrine of the end of the world of its destruction.
Myths about the end of the world are found among many peoples—of the destruction of the world by water or fire or by some other catastrophe. It may be left undecided whether all these myths spring from the same kind of thinking and whether natural catastrophes created in primitive peoples the impression of the end of the world. The eschatology which had decisive importance for the history of the West developed from the concept of the periodicity of the course of worldly events. This idea is undoubtedly reached by conceiving the course of the world on the analogy of the annual periodicity of nature: as the seasons of the year follow each other so do the corresponding periods in the course of the world comprising the so-called ‘year of the world’ or ‘the great world-year’. Probably this transference by analogy arises out of the astronomical discovery that the place of the sunrise alters from year to year until having rounded the ecliptic it returns to its original position. When this round is finished the end of the great world-year is reached. But just as a new year follows upon the old as the seasons go round so a new world-year will follow and all the events of the old year will return again. The course of time is not a constant progression but is cyclical.1
The idea of the return of all things which grew out of oriental astronomy was developed in Greek Philosophy especially by the Stoic thinkers. They evolved the doctrine of universal conflagration (ἐκπύρωσις) which leads the world back into Zeus out of whom it radiates again as a new world. Chrysippus says: ‘Socrates and Plato will exist again and every man with his friends and his fellow citizens; he will suffer the same and do the same. Every city every village and field will grow again. And this restoration will not happen once but the same will return without limit and end’.2
According to these philosophers states Augustine ‘the same periods and events in time are repeated: as if the philosopher Plato for instance having taught in the school of Athens which is called the Academy so numberless ages before at long but definite intervals this same Plato and the same school and the same disciples existed and will also exist repeatedly during the countless cycles that are yet to be’ (de civitate Dei XII 13).
This cosmic mythology was rationalised by Greek science. The Stoic doctrine of universal conflagration was founded on a theory of the essence of the elements of which the world consists and of their mutual interaction. Those Stoic thinkers retained the traditional view about the periods of the world; but Heraclitus seems to have rationalised it in a more radical manner. For instead of dividing the course of the world into periods following each other in time he conceived the world-process as a rhythm of coming to be and passing away in accordance with fixed laws; that is as a constant flux which goes on all the time.3
This cosmic mythology was also historicised.
The course of the world-year was originally conceived as a purely natural process in which the periods followed each other like the seasons. But later the periods were distinguished by the character of the human generations living in them. The idea of the withering and passing away of every natural growth was transmuted into the idea of degeneration of the permanent deterioration of humanity pictured in the well-known form of the successive eras—golden silver bronze and iron.4 This characterisation in terms of metals originates in the Babylonian tradition according to which each era is ruled by an astral deity who is combined with a metal. On this idea depends the allegorical picture of the empires in the statue which Nebuchadnezzar sees in his dream: the head is golden the body and the arms are silver the abdomen and the hips are brazen the shanks are iron the feet of iron and clay (Daniel ii). Here the historicising process is carried out still more radically in that the periods are not periods of a mythical past but empires in history: the kingdoms of the Babylonians the Medes the Persians and the Greeks (or the Diadochi). The historicising in Daniel vii goes still further for not only are the four empires pictured as four beasts but the story of the last empire that of the Seleucids with its kings from Alexander to Seleucus IV or Antiochus is sketched. In Iranian mythology on the other hand the historicising remains on the same level as that of Hesiod. Ahuramazda shows to Zarathustra the root of a tree which has four branches one of gold one of silver one of steel and one of a mixture of steel and iron and he explains these as the four degenerating periods of the next millennium.
Still greater importance must be ascribed to another modification of the myth which is also a historicising of it. This variation abandons the idea of the eternal cyclical movement of world-years but retains the idea of the periodicity of the course of time. The new beginning which is to follow the end of the old world-era is understood as the beginning of a time of unending welfare. Here the cosmic world-year is reduced to the history of the world.
A sign of this is the usage of the Greek word ἀποκατάστασις (restoration). In astrological literature it refers to the periodical return of a star to its starting-point and consequently the Stoic philosophers use the word for the return of the Cosmos at the end of a world-year to the origin from which a new world-year starts. But in the Acts of the Apostles (iii. 21) and in later Christian language following Origen ἀποκατάστασις became a technical term of eschatology.5
This historicising had already taken place in Iranian speculation. Here the doctrine of periods was taken over from the Babylonians but the idea of the cyclical course of time was abandoned. At the end of the course of the periods there begins the time of unending welfare. Here we may speak of eschatology in the real sense for here indeed the ‘last things’ happen with the end of the present world and the beginning of the new and endless world.
Whereas in Hesiod there is no expectation of the last things in Virgil they are the content of the prediction in the famous Fourth Eclogue: Now the last period of the course of the old world is present the rule of Apollo. The change of eras is at hand. Now the golden era will return bringing with it peace and welfare with the birth of the child who will initiate a new human generation.
Similarly in Daniel: Both the stone which according to Daniel ii destroys the statue and also the ‘Man’ whose reign according to Daniel vii will follow the kingdoms of the four beasts are the ‘kingdom of the Saints of the most High’ the people of Israel in the coming time of salvation. Now—and this is of the greatest importance—over against the time of salvation the whole previous history of the world is seen as a unity. In spite of its periods it is undifferentiated in that it is all a time of evil. So two times or two epochs of the world are opposed to each other as the two ‘Aeons’ the present Aeon and the coming Aeon. This dualism is developed in Jewish apocalyptic thought.
We must remember that apart from Daniel Old Testament prophecy had not yet arrived at this idea. It is true that some scholars speak of an Old Testament eschatology. But in the Old Testament there is no eschatology in the true sense of a doctrine of the end of the world and a succeeding time of salvation. Indeed this dualistic conception is contradictory to the Old Testament idea of God as creator. It is true that Old Testament prophecy contains predictions of salvation and of doom but they are related to Israel or to its enemies. It is also true that Old Testament prophecy announces a divine judgment but not a judgment of the whole world. It is a judgment within history. Admittedly this judgment is often depicted with mythological features such as cosmic catastrophes earthquakes conflagrations and so on. But these are only ornamental and are indeed evidence of the historicising of cosmology. The conception of God as creator prevented the idea of the cyclic movement of world-ages from being accepted by Israel although the imagery of this mythology was to some extent adopted.
This imagery appears in such themes as the prophetic portrayals of the tribulations which precede the change in Israel's fortunes tribulations which later in the apocalyptic writings are signs of the coming end the ‘birth-pangs of the Messiah’. It may be that such imagery is derived from that of the last period of the world-year. But the thought is historicised in that the time of tribulation is the time of warfare which Israel has to suffer and also a punishment on the sinful nation. The pictures of the time of salvation may also be influenced by the mythological idea of the returning golden era e.g. the picture of peace between men and beasts (Is. xi. 6 f.) the change of the desert into a paradise the new heaven and the new earth. But these pictures are also historicised for they describe the welfare of the people of Israel. The messianic hope in particular may have its origin in the cosmic mythology according to which every world-period is ruled by a new ruler i.e. a new star. But clearly the hope is historicised for the ruler expected for the time of salvation is to be a king of the house of David.
The poetry of the Psalms has also taken over some themes from this cosmology. This appears to be so in the case of the New Year Festival as the festival of God's accession to the throne. And indeed this originally cosmological festival was already historicised in Babylon in that the renewal of the world and the beginning of the world were both celebrated as the king's accession to the throne.
(2) In later Judaism cosmology was historicised by substituting the destiny of humanity for that of the world. The end of the old world is to be brought about by the divine judgment. The idea of the two Aeons has replaced the conception of cyclical periods and with this a real eschatology is established. But now conversely history is understood from the point of view of eschatology which is a decisive change from the Old Testament conception.
The divine judgment which brings the old Aeon to an end is no longer understood as an historical crisis brought about by God but as a purely supranatural event realised by a cosmic catastrophe. The cosmic subjects which were only ornamental in Old Testament prophecy now became important in themselves. All signs of degeneration formerly characteristics of the last world-period are now signs of the definite end of the world. The apocalyptic literature expects such signs and interprets frightening events in nature as well as war famine and epidemics as signs of the end. The original character of the events of the end as events in nature reappears and with the picture of disordered nature is combined that of the moral degeneration of man.6 This end is the time of the ‘birth-pangs of the Messiah’ and culminates in the advent of the Antichrist who was originally a mythological figure the Dragon in which chaos is personified and is now interpreted as a pseudo-prophet or pseudo-Messiah or as a king like Antiochus IV and later by the Christians as a Roman emperor.
The change occurs when God or his delegate the Messiah or the ‘Man’ (‘Son of Man’) appears for now the ‘figure of the Saviour is also mythologised. The figure of the Davidic king is replaced by the mythological figure of the ‘Man’ who will come in the clouds from heaven. Then will take place the resurrection of the dead and the last judgment. This is a forensic act a judgment over the whole world in face of which everyone must give account for his deeds.7
The cosmological and historical points of view are combined in the Jewish eschatology. The predominance of the cosmological is shown by the fact that the end is really the end of the world and its history. This end of history no longer belongs to history as such. Therefore it cannot be called the goal of history towards which the course of history moves by steps. The end is not the completion of history but its breaking-off it is so to speak the death of the world due to its age.8 The old world will be replaced by a new creation and there is no continuity between the two Aeons. The very memory of the past will disappear and with that history vanishes. In the new Aeon vanity is passed away and times and years will be annihilated and months and days and hours will be no more.9
In the Israelite conception of history a goal for history is promised but the realisation of the promise is conditional on the obedience of the people. This idea remained in the rabbinic literature. The Rabbis thought that God would realise the promised salvation if the people would only strictly observe the sabbath twice. But in the apocalyptic view the end comes of necessity at the time determined by God.
According to the Old Testament hope salvation comprises the welfare of the people. Therefore the responsibility of the individual coincides with the responsibility of the whole people. In the apocalyptic view the individual is responsible for himself only because the end will bring welfare and judgment at the same time and the individual's future will be decided according to his works. And this judgment is a judgment over the whole world. Certainly the welfare to come is also the welfare of the community but the community is the community of the elect the saints and therefore not a community of a people or nation but a community of individuals. Admittedly we do not always find this idea fully and consistently expressed. Sometimes the old and the new hopes are combined as for instance in the so-called Psalms of Solomon.
(3) In the New Testament both the Old Testament view of history and the apocalyptic view are preserved but in such a way that the apocalyptic view prevails.
Today it is commonly accepted that the reign of God which Jesus proclaimed is the eschatological reign. The only point in dispute is whether Jesus thought that the reign of God was immediately imminent indeed already dawning in his exorcisms or whether he thought that it was already present in his person—what today is called ‘realised eschatology’. ‘With this is connected the question of what he thought about his own person. But it is not disputed that Jesus understood his time as the time of decision and that he thought that men's attitude to himself and his message was decisive for them. The time has now arrived in which the old promises and hopes will be fulfilled:
Blessed are the eyes which see what you see!
For I tell you:
Many prophets and kings desired to see what you see and did not see it
And to hear what you hear and did not hear it. (Luke x. 23 f.)
This is no time to mourn and fast. It is a time of joy like that of a wedding (Mark ii. 18). Satan's reign is now collapsing (Luke x. 18) and so on.
Jesus speaks of the ‘Man’ (‘Son of Man’) that is not of a historical but of a heavenly Saviour who will sit in judgment. He does not refer to the history of the people as the sphere in which the justice of God appears in punishing and rewarding. According to him the judgment is wholly concentrated in the last judgment before which everyone is responsible for his works. True his preaching is addressed to the people but in such a manner that it is individuals who are called to follow him. The present people as a whole is an adulterous and sinful generation (Mark viii. 38 cf. viii. 12; Matt. xii. 45). He holds out no prospect for the future of the people and gives no promises like Isaiah and Deutero-Isaiah about the splendid future of Israel and the restoration of the house of David.
The preaching of Jesus differs from the apocalypses in so far as he does not give any picture of the coming welfare except to say that it is life (Mark ix. 43 45 etc.) and that the dead shall be raised from death to this life (Mark xii. 18–27). Symbolically salvation can be described as a great banquet (Matt. viii. 11). But the quality of life will no more be an earthly one but like that of the angels in heaven (Mark xii. 25).
The early Christian community carried on the eschatological preaching of Jesus and enriched it by taking over some themes from the Jewish apocalyptic. For instance a little Jewish apocalyptic tract (or pamphlet) seems to be woven into Mark xiii undergoing revision in the process from a Christian standpoint. At the end of it it is stated: ‘But in those days after that tribulation the sun will be darkened and the moon will not give its light and the stars will fall from heaven and the powers in the heaven will be shaken. And then they will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. And then he will send out the angels and gather his elect from the four winds from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven.’ Then the dead will be awakened and the judgment will take place. The righteous will enter into life and the wicked will be handed over to eternal tribulation.
This is also the doctrine of Paul: ‘For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command with the archangel's call and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first; then we who are alive who are left shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air; and so we shall always be with the Lord’ (1 Thess. iv. 16 f). Lo! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep but we shall all be changed in a moment in the twinkling of an eye at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound and the dead will be raised imperishable and we shall be changed. (1 Cor. xv. 51 f.) For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ so that each one may receive good or evil according to what he has done in the body. (2 Cor. v. 10.)
Likewise the author of the Acts of the Apostles makes Paul say on the Areopagus at the end of his speech: ‘The times of ignorance God overlooked but now he commands all men everywhere to repent because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed and of this he has given assurances to all men by raising him from the dead’ (Acts xvii. 30 f.).
This message of the coming end of the world runs through most of the New Testament and for a time the conviction is retained and maintained in the face of doubts that the end is at hand in the immediate future. As Paul writes to the Romans: the night is far spent the day is at hand (xiii. 12). Likewise the author of 1 Peter writes: ‘The end of all things is at hand’ (iv. 7) and the author of Revelation: ‘The time is near’ (i. 3; xxii. 10; cf. Heb. x. 25; James v. 8).
It is true that themes from the Old Testament view of history are combined with the apocalyptic eschatology. For the Christian community took over the Old Testament from the Jews and understood itself as the ‘Israel of God’ (Gal. vi. 16) as the ‘chosen race’ as ‘God's own people’ (1 Peter ii. 9) as the ‘Twelve tribes in dispersion’ (James i. 1). Abraham is held to be the father of believers (Rom. iv. 1–12 etc.; James ii. 21; 1 Clem. xxxi. 2; Barn. xiii. 7 etc.). The Christian community understands itself as the goal and consummation of the history of salvation and therefore looks back into the history of Israel which has now reached its goal. The speech of Stephen reviews the history of Israel from Abraham to Solomon using the old traditional pattern of the conflict between the divine leading and the people's reluctance. The sermon of Paul in Pisidian Antioch also gives a survey of Israelite history seen as the story of divine guidance from the elected Fathers until David with whom the goal of history is connected in the sending of Jesus. This view of history also underlies the enumeration of Old Testament examples as models of faith (Heb. xi.). Unity with Israel's history is very clearly expressed in the idea of the ‘New Covenant’. Jeremiah had promised the New Covenant for the time of the end and it is now realised by the death of Christ as the sacrifice of expiation (1 Cor. xi. 25; 2 Cor. iii. 6 ff.; Gal. iv. 24; Heb. viii. 8 ff. etc.).
But we must not be misled by such sayings into supposing that the early Christian community understood itself as a real phenomenon of history or that the relation to the Israelite people was understood as real historical continuity. There is no genealogical connection between the new people of God and the old or so far as there is it is in principle irrelevant. For Abraham is the father of all believers Gentiles as well as Jews. The continuity is not a continuity growing out of history but is one created by God. He has called a new people as his own people and for this new people all the promises of the Old Testament will be fulfilled indeed they were originally given precisely for this new people. The Old Testament was read in the first place not as a historical document but as a book of revelations as a book of the promises now fulfilled. It is now possible for the first time to know the meaning of Israel's history and of the words of the Old Testament. For now for the first time the divine counsel which was hitherto concealed is unveiled. It does not consist in the divine guidance of Israel's history as the Deuteronomic historiography understood it in the sense that the justice of God could be known from the changing events of history. The content of the divine counsel is the eschatological events which have begun to happen with the incarnation of Christ with his crucifixion resurrection and glorification and which continue to happen with the conversion of the Gentiles and the constitution of the Church as the body of Christ and which will reach their end in the expected last things.
The New Covenant is not grounded on an event of the history of the people as was the Old Covenant For the death of Christ on which it is founded is not a ‘historical event’ to which one may look back as one may to the story of Moses. The new people of God has no real history for it is the community of the end-time an eschatological phenomenon. How could it have a history now when the world-time is finished and the end is imminent! The consciousness of being the eschatological community is at the same time the consciousness of being taken out of the still existing world. The world is the sphere of uncleanness and sin it is a foreign country for the Christians whose commonwealth is in heaven (Phil. iii. 20). Therefore neither the Christian community nor the individuals within it have any responsibility for the present world and its orders for the tasks of society and the state. On the contrary the believers must keep themselves pure from the world that they may be ‘blameless and innocent children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation among whom you shine as lights in the world’ (Phil. ii. 15).
Therefore no social programme can be developed but only negative ethics of abstinence and sanctification. In this sense the Old Testament commands remain in force along with additional commands of Stoic philosophy. Even the Christian command of love is negative in so far as it demands unselfishness but does not set concrete goals of acting. Obviously the ideal of asceticism enters here and there into the Christian ethic quite early.
To sum up. All this means that in early Christianity history is swallowed up in eschatology. The early Christian community understands itself not as a historical but as an eschatological phenomenon. It is conscious that it belongs no longer to the present world but to the new Aeon which is at the door. The question then is how long this consciousness can remain vivid how long the expectation of the imminent end of the world can remain unshaken.
Obviously the fact that the expected coming of Christ failed to take place gave rise to disappointment and doubt. Therefore the admonitions and warnings to be vigilant and not to grow weary increased. The struggle against doubt became important—the doubt which says: ‘Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep all things have continued as they were from the beginning of creation’ (2 Peter iii. 4). The answer is that God reckons with other times than men for ‘with the Lord one day is as a thousand years and a thousand years as one day’. And furthermore we must consider the forbearance of God who does not wish ‘that any should perish but that all should reach repentance’. Elsewhere it is simply said that the counsel of God is hidden: ‘of that day or that hour no one knows not even the angels in heaven nor the Son but only the Father’ (Mark xiii. 32). But such answers could not provide a solution of the problem for any length of time.