How does eschatology influence how we live? This series seeks to show how eschatology appreciably influences much of what we think and do. In this issue, we will look at how eschatology roots Christianity in history. Christianity is an historical religion, and if its ties to history are cut, it becomes a vague, mystical religion with no ability to deliver man from his bondage to sin and death.
THE DEMISE OF JEWISH CHRISTENDOM
Most of Paul’s letters were written urging Jews to accept Gentiles as equal members in the family of God. When Paul wrote Ephesians, in about 64 AD, Gentile Christendom was barely ten years old, and at this stage of its development, Paul had every reason to believe that the church would remain predominantly a Jewish-Christian movement, irrespective of the proportion of Jews to Gentiles.
He had won the debate at the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15, and although it was an uneasy acquiescence on the part of James and Peter, the Gentile church was on the ascendance. Still, the leadership was almost universally Jewish Christian, and with it the ethos of the movement. As Paul says in Ephesians, it was the Gentiles who had been “brought near” to the Jews, not vice versa.
All of this was short-lived, however. In the decade to follow, the great Jewish Christian leaders of the Apostolic generation were martyred. By now Jewish converts must have recognized that they were associating with a predominantly Gentile community facing sever persecution. Although opposition touched both Jews and Gentiles, the greatest toll was taken in the Jewish segment of the church, for they had to face not only the wrath of Rome, but also of their own people who considered them apostate.
Josephus reports that the High Priest Ananus procured the death of James, the brother of the Lord, from the Roman Procurator, on charges of violating the Mosaic Law. The fact that this was done by a sentence of the Sanhedrin indicates an official determination to rid the Jewish community of their fellow Jews who had abandoned the faith of their fathers to follow Jesus. As already noted, the Jewish Christian remnant got smaller and smaller, finally disappearing altogether.
Because Jewish believers were considered by fellow Jews as traitors to the Jewish faith, their number, as a percentage of the church, rapidly declined. By the end of the first century, they constituted a struggling minority, culturally adrift, not comfortable with either Judaism or a predominantly Gentile church. The union of Jew and Gentile in the Body of Christ, so fervently sought by Paul, was irreparably destroyed. Gentile believers saw themselves as the true people of God, the New Israel. Once the persecution subsided, the church began to work towards fulfilling the failed mission of Old Testament Israel, creating the Theocratic Kingdom.
A millennial hope, so important to the church during its persecution, served no useful purpose as the church prospered, gaining recognition, and finally equality with Rome.
INFLUENCE OF GREEK MYSTERY CULTS ON CHRISTIANITY
The demise of chiliasm, combined with Christianity’s exposure to Greek mystery cults, began to sever Christianity from history. Christianity, with its essential tie to history and eschatology (eschatology is by definition historical), discovered that, when it assimilated the Greek mystery cult, the effect was the transmuting of eschatology into timeless mysticism.
This is important to note, for the depreciation of eschatology cut the historical moorings of Christianity, leaving it adrift in a Hindu influenced culture. One of the reasons Augustine became revered in the church was due to his understanding this propensity and his creating an eschatological system that checked it.
Jerome (c. 342-420) was a contemporary of Augustine. He is probably best known for his translation of the Bible from the original languages into Latin. We look at him in this context because he exemplifies the wild directions eschatology took between the time of chiliasm’s demise and Augustine’s City of God.
For Jerome, Chiliasm and Judaism are identical. To destroy the foundation of chiliasm, he spiritualized John’s Revelation. But this was not enough; Jerome re-edited the commentary of Vicotrinus, expunging his chiliastic conclusion, replacing it with a new and independent exposition.
“I do not believe that the millennium is an earthly kingdom, for, if it were, they would cease to reign when the 1000 years have passed. But as far as I can understand it, the 10 represents the decalogue and the 100 the crown of virginity. If a man maintains his virginity, and faithfully observes the commandments, and keeps himself from impure habits…. he is a true priest of Christ, and we may believe that as he has fulfilled the whole 1000 he will reign with Christ and that the devil is really bound before him. But if a man is led astray by blasphemies and heresies, in him the devil is loosed.”
In this we see that although Jerome spiritualized Scripture, embracing the same hermeneutic as Augustine, it was an altogether different interpretation from that of Augustine in the City of God. Those who have read a-millennial commentaries on Revelation know that even within the confines of Augustine’s understanding of eschatology, a multiplicity of theories abound.
OLD TESTAMENT ESCHATOLOGY
The Old Testament emphasizes a cosmic re-creation, as seen in passages such as Isaiah 2, while giving only a cursory look at individual re-creation, as seen in passages such as Job 19:26.
The New Testament is the opposite, with an emphasis on individual re-creation. The anti-Jewish emphasis of men like Jerome fed the Gnostic tendency to view the world and the flesh as evil, and the spiritual world as good. But the New Testament emphasis on the physical resurrection left unanswered the question of how to view our present world, especially in light of the New Testament casting a negative shadow on the two words for “world,” aeon and cosmos.
Pre-millennialism saw the solution in a material re-creation. The world was not to be loved, not because the physical is evil and the spiritual good, as taught the Gnostics, but because of the depravity of man that has negatively influenced all of creation, an influence corrected with a material re-creation. (A-millennialism had no answer for this perplexing question until years later with their introduction of the cultural mandate). The hope in a material re-creation was deeply rooted in the sub-apostolic church.
“The wildest beam, which lights up the whole doctrinal scene and enables us to see the evidence more simply arranged, is cast by the presence in the church of the Apostolic Fathers of two quite distinguishable thought-tendencies on the last things, and specifically on the final function of this material creation. For want of more accurate names we call the one Jewish Hellenistic and the other Greek Hellenistic. The clash between these two had begun well before Christian times and no Father is free from either one’s influence, but, viewing these two attitudes as theoretical extremes, we find that some Fathers take up a position favouring one extreme very much at the expense of the other.
“….in view of the Apostolic Fathers’ widely differing origins, backgrounds and literary forms, coupled with their lack of interdependence, belief in a material re-creation of the world was widespread during the sub-apostolic age.”
It was the Hellenistic influence, with its emphasis on timeless mysticism, that caused the Jewish hope of a re-created earth to wane in the church, especially as persecution ceased and their hope became temporal.
We will explore more fully in the next issue the subject of Gnosticism. It was an attractive world view simply because it seemed to explain the pain, tribulation, and opposition that all experience in this life. Paul says that tribulation is designed by God to purify our hope and prepare us for heaven. Gnosticism says that tribulation is the fruit of living in a material world that is evil.
If the material world is evil, as Gnosticism taught, then obviously God would not recreate a material world in the millennium; the material world is a prison from which the soul longs for freedom. This dualism, that the material world is evil and the spiritual world is good, found fertile soil in Christianity, precisely because it appears reasonable. Thus, New Testament writers spend considerable effort arresting Gnostic thought.
Paul, in Romans 8:18-23, discusses the travail creation is currently experiencing because of sin. In this passage he says that part of the blessed hope is the material re-creation of this world which “waits for the manifestation of the sons of God,” and eagerly anticipates deliverance “from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God.”
A premillennial world view, with its heavy emphasis on an earthly re-creation, was a potent factor in keeping Gnosticism at bay. The church, anti-Jewish as she was, and seeing herself as the New Israel, took over the national hope of Israel. “And in the very place where it was said to them, ‘You are not my people,’ they will be called ‘sons of the living God,’” says Paul in Romans 9:26. As the New Israel, the early church saw Israel’s national hope in terms of a material re-creation after the return of Christ. The writings of John’s Revelation formed the rationale for their thinking.
The Patristics interpreted John’s Revelation and the Old Testament passages pertaining to a future material re-creation literally, while spiritualizing the Old Testament promises to Israel, applying them to the church. When the church jettisoned the pre-millennialism embraced by the Patristics, Revelation and all Old Testament passages pertaining to the future were interpreted figuratively. It is easy to see why, at this point, the church was vulnerable to a Hindu world-view. But more of this next issue.
Hoping for His imminent return,
 cf. Ephesians 2:11-18, esp. v. 13.
 Josephus, The Jewish War, Cornfeld, Gaalya, General editor, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 1982, page 169.
 op.cit. Dix, Jew and Greek – A Study in the Primitive Church, pages 61-63.
 op.cit., A quote of Jerome’s exposition of Rev. 20, In Isaiam, proph. lib. XVIII, prooem.
 In this remarkable confession of faith, Job believes in a physical re-creation or resurrection.
 cf., e.g., I Cor 15, Rom 8:18-23.
 cf., e.g., I John 2:15-16.
 cf. Rom 8:18-23.
 op.cit., O’Hagan, Material Re-creation in the Apostolic Fathers, pages 139f.
 cf., Romans 5:1-12.
 John, in particular, in his epistles, combats Gnosticism.