Notes on Revelation Part 2 – On Eschatology

In part 1 of my notes on Revelation, I highlighted that eschatology, while featuring in apocalyptic literature, need not occupy a central space in order for the literature to be considered apocalyptic. More crucial to the genre is the divine revelation and disclosure of hidden mysteries to human beings. In this post, I want to very briefly consider what is meant by eschatology.

According to The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, eschatology is “the doctrine of the last things, that is the ultimate destiny both of the individual soul and the whole created order.”[1] I suppose this broad definition is probably one that is also most familiar to us. However, personally I find this definition quite unhelpful. It is unhelpful for two reasons. Firstly, it does not address the mistaken but often-held impression that eschatology always refers to an end of the world scenario. Secondly, related to the first point, it seems to imply that eschatology always refers to something extremely distant or far down the road.  

But if eschatology does not always refer to an end of the world scenario and neither does it always refer to something extremely distant, what then does it refer to?

The well-known Old Testament and Dead Sea Scrolls scholar John J Collins, commenting on apocalyptic eschatology, argues that within Jewish or Christian texts, the reference to an end of the world situation while present, isn’t central. Instead what appears to be of greater importance is the sense of a future hope.[2] Against another view that sees apocalyptic eschatology as an end of history, Collins considers this classification to be highly ambiguous. He argues that the only non-ambiguous way of understanding eschatology as an end of history would be in reference to the final destruction of human life. However, such a view “is never the case, in any of the Jewish or Christian texts.”[3] Therefore, should we want to hold to eschatology as an end of history, it must only be done with an understanding how it refers to a transition from one period to another.[4] Eschatology then, must be understood as the beginning of a new period and hope in some future.

Collins’ analysis is insightful to me as it matches the way eschatological visions or promises are given in scripture. This comes across clearest when we consider how an eschatological vision of salvation is given in both the Old and New Testament.  As an example, in Isaiah 35 while the eschatological vision provides details as to what will take place, the highlight of this vision is seen as the start of a new period where Israel will return to Zion (Isa 35:10).[5] Similarly in Luke 2:9, when the angel appears to the shepherd, the message concerning eschatological salvation is that what was previously to come has in fact arrived through the birth of the one who is the messiah. In both accounts, eschatology highlights the end of a period and the start of another. Interestingly, in the case of the New Testament, eschatology, and in particular eschatological salvation, need not refer to something purely futuristic but it can also include the present. The message of Jesus Christ is that the promise of an eschatological salvation has in fact been inaugurated. It is here and now but also will be.

Effectively what this means is that understanding eschatology as always referring to the end, and by extension something that is always very far away, is not always be true at least within the biblical framework. Applying this to an apocalyptic book like Revelation, we may need to be more cautious in trying not to read Revelation as being preoccupied with the end. As Collins rightly cautions:

If the apocalyptic books were written, as it is widely believed, to give hope to the faithful in times of oppression, it would be indeed extraordinary if they were primarily concerned with “the end” and not with what lies beyond it.[6]

To add on, we need to be equally cautious in interpreting the symbols, signs, and events in Revelation as something that is always far away or in a manner foreign to the community that John has in mind. Failure to do so ignores the nature of eschatology to be something highly relevant and relatable to the people living there and then despite often being orientated towards the future. This means that any reading of eschatological signs that only makes sense to people living in the 21st century is likely going to be severely inadequate. The reason for this is that even though eschatological visions or signs may be future oriented, they are nevertheless signs that the original recipients would have understood. This must be all the more true when we consider that the genre of the Revelation is not only apocalyptic eschatology, it is also epistolary.

[1] F. L. Cross and Elizabeth A. Livingstone, eds., The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 563.

[2] John J. Collins, “Apocalyptic Eschatology as the Transcendence of Death,” CBQ 36, no. 1 (January 1, 1974): 26.

[3] Collins, “Apocalyptic Eschatology as the Transcendence of Death,” 26.

[4] Collins, “Apocalyptic Eschatology as the Transcendence of Death,” 26.

[5] John N. Oswalt, The Book of Isaiah, Chapters 1–39, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1986), 626.

[6] Collins, “Apocalyptic Eschatology as the Transcendence of Death,” 27.

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