“THE last things” is not a biblical phrase, though “the last days” is, as the programmatic statement on the Day of Pentecost in Acts 2.17 reminds us. The New Testament, in one way or another, is about “the last days” throughout. At the heart of the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples (in its familiar form from Matthew), are the words “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as in heaven.” That summarises what the New Testament is all about: the coming of both the Messiah and God’s Kingdom on earth.
The message picks up ideas deeply rooted in the Jewish tradition, about the coming of a new age (Isaiah 11) and the tribulations of “the last days” that would precede it (Daniel 12.1; Romans 8.22).
The most significant insight of modern New Testament scholarship has been the realisation that, without grasping the centrality of eschatology, we shall not understand the New Testament. The dramatic words in Mark 1.15 summarise it: “the time is fulfilled; the Kingdom of God has drawn near.” It is the clarion call that echoes throughout the rest of the New Testament, and gives the nascent Christian movement (to which the New Testament bears witness) its distinctive contours among the contemporary texts of the Judaism of the first century CE. It is not just a hope for the future, but an expectation in the process of realisation, which attempts to offer glimpses of the New Age in everyday life.
The tension between culture and society — “the world as it is” — and the hope for the Kingdom of God on earth, and expectation of it, also pervades the Pauline letters. For Paul, the present had become a time of fulfilment: “Behold, now is the acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation” (2 Corinthians 6.2). Paul sought to enable groups to maintain their identity and cohesion as they strove to live out the eschatological gospel in their contexts.
Even in the Letter to the Romans (the nearest Paul gets to a systematic treatise), the recipients are treated to an extended apologia of Paul’s understanding of the practical consequences of the impact of his messianic convictions, and how he bore witness to a vision of a different kind of community.
What Paul’s letters reveal is his patient, often painful, struggle to work out what it means in practice to embody that witness to the messianic age, here and now.
THE distinguished New Testament scholar Ernst Käsemann wrote: “For the New Testament scholar, apocalyptic is a basic phenomenon of the discipline. Without it, the history of early Christianity cannot be understood” (On Being a Disciple of the Crucified Nazarene: Unpublished lectures and sermons; Eerdmans, 2010).
Käsemann rightly put his finger on something that is fundamental to the origins of Christian biblical theology. In many ways, the New Testament apocalypse — the Book of Revelation — is the epitome of early Christian belief and practice. Not only does its vision look forward to heaven on earth, when sorrow and sighing will flee away, but it reveals that the way things are organised in the present do not serve the benefit of humanity, nor indeed of creation as a whole.
The opening word, “apocalypse”, introduces a writing that elsewhere is described as a book of prophecy. It offers a pungent perspective, which, together with the language of hope, evokes another way of being, one that is not just to be hoped for but worked for as well. The genius of early Christianity was to begin to explore what the “still more excellent way” (1 Corinthians 12.31) might mean in practice.
Generations have tried to decode its images, to write a map of the future; but it is the effect of this text that is all-important.
Apocalypse is about vision: it is about offering a different perspective on things, throwing into sharp relief the shortcomings of present arrangements, and beckoning those who can catch a glimpse of this to work for something different.
It stirs us to begin to think differently about ourselves and the world. Hope for the future, glimpsed through an apocalyptic vision, offers a critical perspective on the world as it is; a glimpse of how it might be different; and a stimulus to begin to live a life inspired by its values.
THE problem for groups believing that they lived in the last days is the disappointment of hopes unfulfilled. It is widely assumed that this was a problem for the first Christians, too.
However, while there is some evidence of this, in 2 Peter (2 Peter 3. 3-7), it is not as evident as is often assumed. What the apocalyptic perspective of Revelation offered was a growing emphasis on setting one’s eyes on heaven, where Christ was enthroned at the right hand of God.
As future consummation waned, texts such as John’s vision in Revelation 4 pointed to the present relationship of believers with the exalted Christ in heaven. For example, in Ephesians, believers are seated with Christ now in the heavenly places (Ephesians 1.20; 2.6; 3.10; 6.12). The same is true in Hebrews. Christ has gone into the heavens, behind the veil, and is there, a sure anchor of hope for those who follow him (Hebrews 6.19-20).
Texts from the Dead Sea Scrolls have shown us how writers saw the common life of the holy community as a place where the saints shared the lot of the angels and the hope laid up in heaven — in the present. Such a focus suggests how circumstances might influence the ways in which an apocalyptic perspective could change; that the eschatological hope has not been abandoned, but has mutated.
The fact that God’s Kingdom already exists with God in heaven, before it is realised on earth, means that to participate in it now means to enjoy the bliss of heaven, even if in due course it will also be manifest on earth.
THE history of Christian theology is, in large part, the history of eschatology. Augustine’s classic exposition of the relationship between the earthly city and the city of God owed much to a reading of the Book of Revelation. His understanding of the last things, and the way to read biblical apocalyptic and eschatological imagery, has been very influential.
It took the extraordinary influence of the 12th-century writer Joachim of Fiore to revive an eschatological vision in the Middle Ages; to return to that eschatological hope for heaven on earth which was so characteristic of the earliest decades of Christian theology, and to which the New Testament bears witness.
That influence continued to be felt in succeeding centuries, as others followed Joachim’s lead, and, in their own way and for their own time, sought to capture in belief and practice the early Christian vision.
The Revd Christopher Rowland was Dean Ireland Professor of the Exegesis of Holy Scripture at the University of Oxford, 1991-2014, and is the author of Christian Origins: An account of the setting and character of the most important messianic sect of Judaism (SPCK, 2002, revised edition).