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Survey of Theology 10. Last Things: The Christian Hope

PDF (Adobe Portable Document Format) and .doc files (Microsoft Word format) of the overheads used in this presentation are available from the Survey of Theology Page or the Download page



1. Introduction


2. Tradition to the 18th Century


3. A Modern Consensus

3.1. Introduction

3.2. History

3.3. Death

3.4. The Kingdom of God

3.5. The Parousia = The Second Coming of Christ

3.6. The General Resurrection of the Body

3.7. The General Judgment

3.8. Heaven

3.9. Hell


4. Some Historical and Contemporary Views on Topics in Eschatology

4.1. The Kingdom of God. Now and Not Yet

4.2. The Millennium

4.3. The Two Cities of Augustine

4.4. Joachim's Ages of History

4.5. Dante's Hell

4.6. Dispensationalism

4.7. Jurgen Moltmann's Theology of Hope

4.8. Hell

4.8.1. Introduction

4.8.2. Criticisms of the Idea of an Eternal, Static Hell

4.8.3. Universalism

4.8.4. Particular Redemption, Conditional Immortality

4.9. Purgatory

4.9.1. Introduction

4.9.2. History of the Concept of Purgatory

4.9.3. Modern Status of Purgatory or an "Intermediate State" after Death

4.10. Heaven

4.10.1. Introduction

4.10.2. The Communal Nature of Heaven

4.10.3. The Resurrected Body and The New Creation

4.10.4. The Beatific Vision and the Essential Happiness of Heaven





1. Introduction

Eschata: Greek for "ends" or "outcomes."

Eschatology is the theological term for the study of the last things. It is:

  • a reflection on the Christian hope for the future -- including reflection on the risk of not attaining that hope

  • includes consideration of:

    • the end of history

    • the fate of the created universe

    • death

    • judgment

    • heaven and hell


Eschatology can be broadly divided in two parts:

  • General Eschatology. Considers the fate and ultimate purpose of:

    • creation and the physical universe; the cosmos.

    • humankind and human society, encompassing all generations; history.

  • Individual Eschatology. Considers the fate and ultimate purpose of each individual.



2. Tradition to the 18th Century

The Traditional Roman Catholic and Protestant Orthodox Teaching to the 18th century was as follows:

  • At death, a person's immortal soul separates from their body.

  • A Particular Judgment occurs in which the soul understands its fate.

  • The soul proceeds to hell or to a state of waiting (and perhaps the souls of some martyrs and saints get to go directly to heaven).

  • At the end of history, Christ comes again in power and glory (the Second Coming or Parousia).

  • There is then a General Resurrection of all bodies, which are reunited with their souls.

  • There is then a Final Judgment.

    • The eternal fate of all proclaimed (presumably confirming the Particular Judgment).

    • The saved proceed to heaven; the damned to hell.

  • The fate of the universe was unclear in the orthodox scenario.

    • Some Lutheran theologians suggested God would annihilate it.



3. A Modern Consensus

3.1. Introduction

The theology of the "last things" today is not a well-defined dogma, but rather an area of theology where there remain many questions whose answers we can only speculate about.

In this section, we consider some general summary statements about the theology of the "last things" that most mainstream theologians today would agree to.



3.2. History

Human history has a beginning, an end, and a purpose. It is not cyclic.



3.3. Death

Each human being's life on this earth has a beginning and an end. Death is certain; its time is unpredictable.

The fact of death, and its unpredictability, requires us to acknowledge our dependence and contingency at all times, in all projects and relationships. Failure to do so is to live inauthentically.



3.4. The Kingdom of God

God is the source, the end and goal of all. The reign of God has already begun; and will be fully expressed at end of history. God's purposes for creation will be fulfilled.


What is ultimately real will be ultimately realized. . .

- A. T. Robinson


The eschatological affirmations of the Christian faith are primarily assertions about God, who is the Lord of the end as well as of the beginning of the world, and secondarily assertions about the future.

- Thomas & Wondra, Intro. to Theology, p. 246



3.5. The Parousia = The Second Coming of Christ

The doctrine of the Parousia is an affirmation that the Kingdom of God will be fully expressed at the end of history. God's purpose will be fulfilled, and this will consist in the reign of God as revealed to us in Jesus



3.6. The General Resurrection of the Body

The stories of a General Resurrection of the Body after Jesus' Second Coming suggests:

  • the whole person dies, the whole person participates in the fulfillment of God's purpose

    • the Christian hope is not an escape from the "physical" aspects of existence

  • the body cannot be separated from the natural world; suggesting that the cosmos will also be fulfilled

  • the life to come will be a fulfilled continuation of community and social life, because

    • the body is the basis of interpersonal communications  

    • the resurrection is general -- the image is the resurrection of human beings from all of history at the same time -- clearly a communal event



3.7. The General Judgment

A General Judgment before all generations suggests

  • an essential interrelatedness and communal destiny of all human persons at all times and places

  • that human history will be assessed and judged in the light of our communal responsibility for the destinies of each other

  • that the ambiguities of good and evil in history will be overcome



3.8. Heaven

"Heaven" is the assertion that "the destiny intended by the creator for every human person is to find ultimate happiness and the final resolution for the quest of life in intimate and essentially indescribably personal communion with God, and in God with all creation." (Monika K. Hellwig)



3.9. Hell

"Hell" is the assertion that human freedom can be used for a painful self-damnation and self-destruction, which may involve a final concluding reality beyond death. (from Monika K. Hellwig)



4. Some Historical and Contemporary Views on Topics in Eschatology

4.1. The Kingdom of God. Now and Not Yet

The New Testament is filled with the sense that something new and significant has happened in history through the life and death of Jesus -- the coming of the Kingdom of God

  • The Kingdom of God is a dominant theme in Jesus' teaching (it appears 70 times in the Synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke).

    • note the meaning of "Kingdom" here is that of "kingship" or "rule"

  • Paul writes that the coming of Christ inaugurates a new era or age, a "new creation" (2 Cor. 5:17), which has yet to be fulfilled. There is thus a "tension" between the "Now" and "Not Yet" of the Kingdom:

    • "Now:" Jesus has inaugurated the Kingdom (planted the mustard seed)

    • "Not Yet:" Kingdom not yet fulfilled (mustard seed has not grown fully)


The concept of the Kingdom of God as "Now" and "Not Yet" is referred to as:

  • Inaugurated Eschatology: The Kingdom has been inaugurated, but is not yet fulfilled. This is the most widespread view among theologians today. Competing views of Eschatology, proposed by a minority of theologians are:

    • Realized Eschatology: Kingdom fully realized in the coming of Jesus

    • Futurist Eschatology: Kingdom remains in the future and will disrupt history



4.2. The Millennium

The term "Millennium:" refers to the belief that at the Parousia (the Second Coming of Christ), Jesus will reign for 1000 years before the final fulfillment (based on Rev 20:4-6)

Belief in a future "Millennium" was widespread in the early centuries of the church. This belief however faded by the 3rd Century.



4.3. The Two Cities of Augustine

In his book The City of God, Augustine (354-430) introduced the idea of two "cities:" The City of God and the City of the World. He also suggested that we are already in the "Millennium:"

  • The Church is the "City of God" in exile within the "City of the World"

    • The "City of God" is in the world, yet not of the world

    • The "City of God" must somehow maintain its ethos while surrounded by the unbelief of "City of the World"

  • The "Millenium" refers simply to the period between Jesus' death and his Second Coming. It is the period of the "City of God" in exile



4.4. Joachim's Ages of History

Joachim of Fiore (1132-1202) was a monk in the Benedictine monastery of Corazzo. He was elected Abbott in 1177.


Joachim proposed that history could be divided in three ages:

  • 1. Age of the Father (Old Testament dispensation). Adam to Christ. The age of:

    • the law

    • the married

    • God the Father

  • 2. Age of the Son (New Testament dispensation). Christ to 1260. The age of:

    • a mixture of law and gospel

    • the clergy

    • God the Son

  • 3. Age of the Spirit: The beginning of a new "Spiritual Church." The age of:

    • love and liberty

    • the monks

    • the Holy Spirit


He suggested that each age lasted for 42 generations of thirty years, and then calculated that the Age of Spirit would start in 1260.

His views were condemned by Fourth Lateran Council of 1215. Thomas Aquinas (1224-1274) suggested they were "conjectural."

The idea that the history of salvation was dynamic with successive stages or "dispensations" would however show up again, the most current example being Dispensationalism, described below.



4.5. Dante's Hell

In the Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri (1265-1321), the poet is guided through the:

  • Inferno ("Hell")

  • Purgatorio ("Purgatory")

  • Paradiso ("Paradise")


The description of hell in the Divine Comedy is of particular interest as a speculative elaboration of medieval ideas of hell, and continues to have significance today in its depiction of hell as an eternal, static place.


Dante's Hell consists of 9 concentric spheres:

  • Upper Hell (no fire)

    • level 1: Limbo (no torment; illuminated by the light of human reason). This is where the righteous philosophers of ancient times dwelt.

    • level 2: the Lustful

    • level 3: the Gluttonous

    • level 4: the Avaricious (the miserly)

    • level 5: the Wrathful

  • River Styx

  • Lower Hell (fire)

    • level 6: Heretics

    • level 7: the Violent

    • level 8: the Fraudulent

    • level 9: the Treacherous (traitors)



4.6. Dispensationalism

Dispensationalism is a movement within 20th century conservative evangelical Christianity. It began with John Nelson Darby (1800-82) and was popularized by the Scofield Reference Bible of C. I. Scofield (1843-1921)


Dispensationalist posit a series of 9 "dispensations" in the history of salvation:

  • 1. Innocence, Creation to the Fall

  • 2. Conscious, Fall to Noah

  • 3. Human Government. Flood to Abraham

  • 4. Promise. Abraham to Moses

  • 5. Law. Moses to death of Christ

  • 6. the Church. Resurrection to the present

  • 7. the Millennium. Still to come


Two characteristic notions in Dispensationalism is belief in:

  • 1. The Rapture: believers will be "caught up in the clouds" to meet Christ at the second coming (1 Thess. 4:15-17)

  • 2. The Tribulation. 7-year period of divine judgment upon the world (Daniel 9:24-27)


The concepts of The Rapture and The Tribulation have gained widespread popular hearing despite the highly speculative biblical interpretation that lies behind them.


There is no consensus among Dispensationalist whether the rapture is Pre-tribulational or Post-Tribulational



4.7. Jurgen Moltmann's Theology of Hope

In his book Philosophy of Hope, Ernst Bloch proposed that human culture is moved by a passionate hope for the future that transcends the present's alienation.


As a prisoner of war in a British camp during World War II, Jurgen Moltmann observed that his fellow prisoners who had hope fared the best. After the war, it seemed to him Christianity was ignoring the hope its promise of a future life offered -- a hope whose importance even secularists such as Bloch recognized.


In Moltmann's book Theology of Hope he proposed that:

  • the Christian hope, should be the central motivating factor in the life and thought of the church and of each Christian

    • The whole creation longs for the renewal by the "God of Hope"

  • Empowered by hope, the Christian's response should involve:

    • 1. mission of the church to all nations

    • 2. the hunger for righteous in the world

    • 3. love for the true life of the imperiled  and impaired creation


"The Christian mission... aims at reconciliation with God... but also at the realization of the eschatological hope of justice, and humanizing of man, the socializing of humanity, peace for all creation."

- Jurgen Moltmann



4.8. Hell

4.8.1. Introduction

Interest in hell was particularly strong in the Middle Ages (for example, Dante's hell of 9 concentric spheres). The view was that of a static, eternal place -- a view that continues to have influence in modern times.


The threat of an eternal, static and unending hell was often used to motivate listeners to turn from their sinful ways:


"It would be dreadful to suffer this fierceness and wrath of Almighty God for one moment, but you must suffer it for all eternity. There will be no end to this exquisite horrible misery...  You will know that you must wear out long ages, millions of millions of ages, in wrestling and conflicting with this almighty merciless vengence"

- Jonathan Edwards' sermon "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," preached July 8, 1741



4.8.2. Criticisms of the Idea of an Eternal, Static Hell

Criticisms of the idea of an eternal, static hell are:

  • Its existence seems a contradiction to belief that in the end, God will reign over all. Instead, it implies God will never fully triumph over evil.

  • An eternal vindictive punishment of sinners for a finite number of offenses (even if these offenses are ultimately against an "infinite" God, as some theologians have pointed out in an effort to justify it) seems "un-Christian," impossible to reconcile with a loving God.


Two "answers" to these criticisms are the ideas of:

  • Universalism

  • Particular Redemption = Conditional Immortality



4.8.3. Universalism

The early church father Origen (185-254) wrote that:

  • The idea that God and Satan would rule over respective kingdoms for all eternity a flawed dualism

  • The final redeemed version of creation cannot include a hell or kingdom of Satan. In the end, all of creation must be restored to God

    • The view that someday, all will be saved is termed Universalism.


John A. T. Robinson (radical English theologian 1960’s) is a modern proponent of Universalism, writing:

  • “May we not imagine a love so strong that ultimately no one will be able to retrain himself from free and grateful surrender?”

  • “In a universe of love there can be no heaven which tolerates a chamber of horrors."



"So this issue comes down to whether we are to give more weight to human freedom to turn away from God's love, or to the power of God's love to win all people freely to God. Any victory of God that violates human freedom is not a victory of love but of coercion. But it is possible to conceive of a love so powerful that ultimately no one will be able to resist free and grateful surrender."

- Thomas and Wondra



4.8.4. Particular Redemption, Conditional Immortality

Particular Redemption or Conditional Immortality is a proposal popular among some conservative, Evangelical Christians since the 1980's. It proposes:

  • Human beings have the potential for immortality. Salvation is the actualization of that potential.

  • Those who respond to the gospel have that potential actualized.

  • Those who do not respond to the gospel do not, and cease to exist at death

  • There is thus no separation into two kingdom's (one Christ's, one the devils) at the end of time, and hell is unnecessary


The primary criticism of this idea is that it has no scriptural basis or foundation in tradition.



4.9. Purgatory

4.9.1. Introduction

Purgatory is part of traditional Roman Catholic theology. It refers to an intermediate stage where those who die in a state of grace purge themselves of the guilt of their sins before entering heaven. 

The scriptural basis cited is 2 Maccabees 12:39-45 (part of the Apocrypha, canonical in Roman Catholicism, non-canonical among Protestants, and of ambiguous authority in Anglicanism)



4.9.2. History of the Concept of Purgatory

The concept of Purgatory or an intermediate state after death for the purpose of purification developed early in the history of the Church:

  • Clement of Alexandria (150-215) and Origen (185-254) both taught those who had died without time for penance would be "purified by fire" in the next life

  • The practice of praying for the dead was widespread in Eastern Church by the Fourth Century: this liturgical practice drove theology to explain what purpose such prayers served

  • Augustine (354-430) also suggested purification for the sins was necessary before entering joys of the next life.

  • Pope Gregory I (Gregory the Great) in 593 or 594 suggested from Matt. 12:32 that there are sins that are forgiven in an "age to come." he suggested a "purifying fire" (purgatorius ignis)

  • Catherine of Genoa, in her Treatise on Purgatory of 1490 most fully developed the idea of Purgatory as a fire that purifies rather than a fire that punishes.


The Doctrine of Purgatory was rejected by Protestant Reformers because it:


The Reformers then stopped the ancient practice of praying for the dead.



4.9.3. Modern Status of Purgatory or an "Intermediate State" after Death

Today, Roman Catholics, Orthodox and Anglicans pray for the dead (thus implying belief in an intermediate stage where prayers can help)


Article XXII in the Book of Common Prayer condemns "Romish doctrine of purgatory" but "may be interpreted not to rule out other doctrines of purgatory" (Thomas and Wondra).


If all die imperfect, and fulfillment involves perfection of all persons ("sanctification"), then the alternatives are:

  • sudden transformation at death

  • a process of moral growth after death involving purgation from sin -- that is, some version of Purgatory



4.10. Heaven

4.10.1. Introduction

In affirming Heaven, we are affirming the ultimate fulfillment of the Kingdom of God:

  • the ultimate realization of the presence and power of God

  • the final elimination of sin

  • the consummation of salvation


We here consider some speculations on three aspects of the nature of that ultimate fulfillment of the Kingdom of God:

  • the communal nature of heaven

  • the significance of the doctrine of the resurrected body

  • the beatific vision and the nature of happiness in heaven



4.10.2. The Communal Nature of Heaven

New Testament parables give strongly communal descriptions of heaven:

  • a banquet

  • a wedding feast

  • a city (the New Jerusalem)


The Doctrine of God as Trinity also argues for the communal nature of heaven


"Eternal life is thus not a projection of an individual human existence, but is rather to be seen as sharing, with the redeemed community as a whole, in the community of a loving God."

- McGrath



4.10.3. The Resurrected Body and The New Creation

The doctrine of the Resurrection of the Body suggests "a fulfillment of creaturehood, individuality, ... physical embodiment, and temporality, and not to the denial or transcending of these aspects of human and cosmic history." (Thomas & Wondra)


It also invites speculation on the renewal or re-creation of the cosmos:

  • a new creation? (creatio ex nihilo)

  • a transformation of the present creation? (creatio ex vetere)


The old creation has the character which is appropriate to an evolutionary universe, endowed with the ability through the shuffling explorations of its happenstance to ‘make itself’.


The new creation represents the transformation of that [the old] universe when it enters freely into a new and closer relationship with its Creator, so that it becomes a totally sacramental world, suffused with the divine presence.

- John Polkinghorne



4.10.4. The Beatific Vision and the Essential Happiness of Heaven

"Heaven" is the assertion that "the destiny intended by the creator for every human person is to find ultimate happiness and the final resolution for the quest of life in intimate and essentially indescribably personal communion with God, and in God with all creation." (Monika K. Hellwig)

What is the nature of the communion that provides such ultimate happiness? What is the essential happiness of heaven?


Thomas Aquinas (1224-1274) suggested essential happiness of heaven was the "beatific vision:"

  • the full vision of God, previously known only incompletely

  • "the love that moves the sun and the other stars" (Dante)


The essential happiness of heaven may involve fulfillment and happiness beyond that which we can today recognize as our unfulfilled needs and longings:


"when we speculate about the nature of happiness of heaven we are projecting what we know about our own humanity and its needs and longings. . . there must be fulfillment and happiness beyond what we can see, particularly for those whose lives among us never escape from oppression, persecution, humiliation, or simple grinding poverty and pain."  

- Monika K. Hellwig








Survey of Theology


1. The Doctrine of God

2. The Doctrine of the Trinity

3. The Doctrine of the Person of Jesus, Part 1. Classic Christology

4. The Doctrine of the Person of Jesus, Part 2. Modern Views and Concerns

5. The Doctrine of Salvation in Christ

6. The Doctrines of Human Nature, Sin, and Grace

7. The Doctrine of the Church

8. The Doctrine of the Sacraments

9. Christianity and the World Religions

10. Last Things: The Christian Hope