Eschatology

The term “eschatology” does not exist in the Old Testament. It comes from two Greek words to mean eschaton (“last things”) and logos (“word/doctrine”); hence, eschatology designates “the word/doctrine concerning the last things”.

Since antiquity, the Jewish community had conceived of the best situation in which they would want to be. Jewish eschatology deals primarily with the destiny of Israel and the world, and secondarily with the future of the individual. Its contents concern Israel as Yahweh’s people, the victory of His truth and justice on earth, and the expectation of the greater things to come.

Eschatology points to the future, when newness is expected and divine intervention into human affairs is no longer necessary. It can refer to the imminent restoration from exile or to the establishment of the perfect kingdom in the distant future. It provides continuity to the story of Yahweh and His people; sometimes, a biblical myth (story retold for many generations) may be used. It also exhibits discontinuity because it endeavours to stop a present crisis situation.

Prophets refer to traditions (creation, Abrahamic covenant, election, Sinai covenant, David, Zion, etc.) to assess the contemporary events, aiming for Israel’s transformation and ultimate salvation. In doing so, they help Israel under foreign rule regain her relationship with Yahweh and live responsibly as His elect. Some scholars divide eschatology into two sub-categories: prophetic eschatology and apocalyptic eschatology. The former is believed to have arisen from within Israel and transitioned into the latter. However, a minor group of scholars support the idea that eschatology received foreign influence, while others treat only apocalyptic eschatology as a foreign import.

Eschatology is formulated to respond to historical realities. The expectation of the Messiah, as a type of eschatology, signifies Israel’s desire for an end to the exile (Isaiah 11). The idea of the kingdom of God can be found in prophetic eschatology and the psalms.

Eschatology can use battle language to describe divine judgment of enemies, who may be internal (the wicked in Israel) or external (the nations; Zechariah 14).

Before the belief in resurrection developed in the 2nd century BCE (Daniel 12:2), the belief was that all the dead led a shadowy existence in the underworld (sheol in Hebrew: see, e.g., Isaiah 14). However, this belief changed when the concept of individual retribution after death developed in Judaism, that the wicked will be tormented in Sheol’s lower levels, but the good will have joy in the eschatological Garden of Eden or Paradise. Thus eschatology acquired an individual level in addition to the older national level.

Further reading

Hartman, Louis F. “Eschatology.” Pages 859-79 in vol. 6 of Encyclopaedia Judaica. 16 vols. Edited by Cecil Roth. Jerusalem: Keter Publishing House, 1971-1972.
Kohler, K. “Eschatology.” Pages 209-18 in vol. 5 of The Jewish Encyclopedia. 12 vols. Edited by I. Singer. New York: Funk and Wagnalls Co., 1925.
Mowinckel, Sigmund. He That Cometh. Translated by G. W. Anderson. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1956.
Petersen, D. L. “Eschatology (OT).” Pages 575-79 in vol. 2 of The Anchor Bible Dictionary. 6 vols. Edited by David Noel Freedman. New York: Doubleday, 1992.
Rad, Gerhard von. Old Testament Theology. 2 vols. Translated by D. M. G. Stalker. New York: Harper and Row, 1962, 1965.