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Jewish Roots

Christian eschatology emerges from Jewish apocalypticism. The early Jewish apocalypses, such as those in the biblical book of Daniel, were written in the Hellenist period, when the Ptolemaic, the Seleucid, and later the Roman empires ruled Palestine. A growing number of Jews no longer believed in the coming of a messiah who would renew the glorious kingdom of David. Having seen one empire follow another, they believed the Jewish people had successively lost the ability to establish an independent kingdom. The gap between their consciousness of being God's elected people and political reality led to a deep crisis of the Jewish self-understanding (best described in the apocryphal Fourth Book of Ezra). The crisis was solved by the discovery of the Beyond. Modern historians of religion emphasize that Persian, Egyptian, Greek, and other historical influences played a role in this intellectual process, but the apocalyptic authors themselves describe the paradigm shift as a revelation (apokalypsis), gained in visionary experiences. They often give detailed accounts about the journeys they made into the Beyond.

The basic ideas of Jewish apocalypticism live on in Christian eschatology, in orthodox doctrine as well as in the preaching of sects and heretical groups. Mankind and the world are in a pathological state, for they are corrupted by original sin—a hereditary disease that cannot be cured. Therefore God will destroy this world and create a new one. But he will save the just believers and transfer them into the perfect order of the Beyond. Since the apocalyptics had lost all faith in national messianism, the decisive question is no longer whether a believer belongs to the elected people of Israel. The Jews might have a certain prerogative, but no guarantee of salvation. God is no longer the God of Israel but the ruler of the universe; the structure of world history is predetermined by his unchangeable plan. All the empires and political orders, the tyrants and the warlords are tools in the hand of God used to test the believers. The just ones must not partake in the political and military struggles of the corrupted world but must stay strong in their faith and wait for the annihilation of all evil and the beginning of God's kingdom.

All features of Christian eschatology that differ from Jewish apocalypticism are related to the experience of Christ. Although there is a variety of sometimes contradictory meanings of the word "Christ" already to be found in the New Testament, they all agree on one point: the presence of Christ among sinful mankind moderates the sharp distinction between this world and the Beyond. Christ answers the Pharisees, a Jewish group of apocalyptic intellectuals, who were waiting for dawn of the new eon: "The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed; nor will they say, 'Lo, here it is!' or 'There!' for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you" (Luke 17:20–21).

According to Christian experience, the presence of the Savior introduces an anticipation of the Beyond; it signifies a breakthrough of the future into the present. The eschata, the resurrection of the dead, the last judgment, and the creation of the new world, are therefore the completion of a process already started by Christ in this world.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Ephemeris to Evolution - Historical BackgroundEschatology - Jewish Roots, Pauline And Augustinian Contributions, The Joachimite Turn, Bibliography