Eschatology – Part 19

Eschatology – Part 19

Dear Co-laborer,

As you read this you are in preparation for the Thanksgiving and Christmas holiday. Leette and I pray that it will be a special family time of remembering and rejoicing.

In the last issue we briefly looked at the importance of understanding Christianity being rooted in history, and the part eschatology plays in that. You don’t have to read deeply in the Old Testament to discover that the physical world plays an important part in God’s program for Israel. God gave them the land in perpetuity, promising that in the future He will return the Jews to Israel.

The Patristics maintained this view of an eschatology rooted in the promise of a physically restored land. Because they divorced God’s promises regarding the future physical restoration from the Jews, the Patristics tended to create extra-biblical visions of the millennial kingdom. This, in turn, created a back-lash against chiliasm.

Many believe that John’s Revelation, from which we get the word millennium[1], was the path by which belief in a physical restoration of the world entered the church. This is not true; every Jewish convert carried something of his former beliefs with him when he entered this community of Christ’s followers.

Jesus and the Apostles, as noted in part 2 of this series, saw no distinction between Israel and the church. They were the true Israel. Later, with the Jews’ rejection of Christ, the Patristics saw the church as the true Israel and concluded that the Old Testament references to the contrary were figurative.

The early church had to face not only the hostility of Jewish rejection and persecution, but also the hostility of Hellenism which sought to absorb Christianity as another mystery religion. Gnosticism, an endeavor to do just that, was a pervasive problem as early as the writings of John. Because it played a strategic role in shaping the doctrinal debate in Christianity, let’s take a brief look at it.


Derived from the Greek word know, Gnosticism purported to offer knowledge of the otherwise hidden truth of total reality as the key to salvation. It was a syncretistic religion, based primarily on a Hindu world-view, that incorporated Jewish, Iranian, Babylonian, Egyptian, and other Oriental traditions – all blended with Christianity.

All of these divergent religions were merged in a dualism between man and the world and the world and God. Man and the world mirrors on the plane of experience the primordial oneness of God and the world. Man and God belong in essence together against the world, but are in fact separated by the world.

Gnosticism taught that the God of the Old Testament was the Demiurge, who believed himself to be the only God, and engaged in creations designed to satisfy his ambition, vanity, and lust for dominion.

The Spirit is in a state of exile from His innerworldly existence, as the result of a primeval tragedy, and is immersed in the soul and body of man. The process of conveying the saving knowledge to the world-imprisoned hostage of Light begins with Adam and runs through history.

The Scriptural account of Adam is reversed; the serpent, as the original messenger of knowledge in defiance of the Creator’s mandate of ignorance, becomes the symbol of the spiritual principle that awakens captive man.

There is an eternal Messenger who moves through history in ever new incarnations, Buddha, Zoraster, Jesus, Mani, to name but a few manifestations of him. The anti-Jewish interpretation of Genesis is confirmed by the absence of Moses from this list of incarnations.

Marcion, a proponent of this philosophy, rejected the whole body of Hebrew Scripture. The main battle was fought between the church and the Gnostics on the issues of their irreverent exegesis and rejection of the Old Testament, along with their refusal to identify the God of Moses with the Father of Jesus Christ.

The material universe is like a vast prison whose innermost dungeon is the earth, the abode of man. The tyrannical Demiurge, with His threat of retribution, aims at the enslavement of man. Man is composed of flesh, soul, and spirit. Both the body and soul are products of the cosmic powers, who shaped the body in the image of the divine Primal Man and animated it with the appetites and passions of natural man.

Enclosed in the soul is the Spirit, a portion of the divine substance. Only this innermost Spirit is the true man, and he is not of this world. The transcendent God (as opposed to the Old Testament God) is as alien to this world as the Spirit in the midst of man. The goal of Gnostic striving is the release of the inner man from the bonds of the world and his return to his native realm of light.

To do this, he must know about the transcendent God, about himself, and about the nature of the world that created his problem. Thus ignorance is the essence of mundane existence. Since the transcendent God is unknown to the world and cannot be discovered by it, revelation is necessary.

The goal of this revelation or knowledge is freedom from the mundane world and union with the divine substance. The individual’s ascent is part of the restoration of the deity’s own wholeness. The end comes when the deity retrieves his own and they become one. With the completion of this ingathering, the cosmos, deprived of its elements of light, comes to an end.[2]


Early Christianity fought gnosticism most successfully with millenarism. Irenaeus and others did this by reasoning that both an individual and corporate eschatology must be preached.

In the Old Testament judgment of both the individual and the nation runs parallel. Individually, we note that God judged Adam and Eve, Cain, Achan, Saul, and David, to mention but a few. Corporately, God judged the world through Noah, Egypt through the Exodus, Babylon, Edom, and of course Israel, as well as many others.

Although in the New Testament, the preponderance of evidence is in the direction of individual judgment,[3] nations are included in passages such as Matt 25:31-46.

For the a-millennialist, there can be no final judgment of nations; a material re-creation is necessary for such a judgment. There can be no corporate accountability in the end time (eschaton) without a material re-creation of some kind.

O’Hagan notes that Gnosticism with its dualism, was rejected by the church. A-millennialism emphasized the importance of the corporate, mystical church, while pre-millennialism that of the individual and the physical church, in the re-creation of Revelation 20. For the a-millennial, Rev 20 was spiritual; for the pre-millennialism it was physical. In this, pre-millennialism had a stronger defense against Gnosticism. The Bible teaches that the world is good; God will re-create it. Gnosticism teaches that the world is bad; man is to escape from it.

Many years later, a-millennialism corrected this with its emphasis on the cultural mandate.[4] In the Old Testament the Greek words for “world”[5] (aeon and cosmos) are consistently good – i.e., the world is good. In the New Testament the world is consistently evil.[6] Pre-millennialism teaches that this evil world will become good in the material re-creation of the millennial kingdom of Christ. A-millennialism eventually defended itself against Gnosticism by teaching that the present world is good, but that there will be no material re-creation in the eschaton.

Patristic anti-Jewishness fed the Gnostic tendency as well in that the Patristics taught that God had rejected His Old Testament people, and Gnosticism taught that the Jews, along with Abel, Jacob, Moses, et. al were evil. To the degree that the church allegorized the Old Testament, they had difficulty refuting the Gnostics.

Ignatius of Antioch refuted Gnosticism by stressing a literal, physical resurrection in Revelation 20, while those who opposed chiliasm believed Revelation 20 to be spiritual.[7]

In the Jewish view of Scripture, the fulcrum of history is the Day of the Lord when Messiah sits on David’s Throne. According to Revelation 20, judgment occurs after the millennium. The a-millennialists saw Christ’s first advent as the fulcrum of history and the second advent only as a time of judgment and consummation; for them there is no material re-creation of the earth. For the Patristics, who were historic pre-millennialists, because they divorced the material re-creation of the earth in the eschaton from a Jewish hope, the earth played a relative unimportant role. Thus, when there was an abatement in persecution, they had no compelling reason to hold it.


From this we learn two important lessons: First, we again see the subtle, but strategic role culture plays in the life of the church. Culture can and must be resisted, but still it has its way. Its influence may not be perceptible to the present generation, but glaring to those who look in retrospect and evaluate.

Second, because the Bible is written by God and is a unified whole, what we believe about one aspect of biblical truth appreciably influences the whole. We may divide the truth of Scripture into various components we call doctrine, but each doctrine is intertwined with all others; modify one doctrine, and you modify them all. Your view on eschatology will influence your understanding, not only of the timetable of God, but more importantly, your understanding of God Himself.

The view of the early church on eschatology and God’s commitment to Israel, influenced its ability to withstand the attack of Gnosticism. Israel is God’s illustration of Sovereign Grace and Election. If you conclude that the Jews flunked the test of God’s grace, where does that leave you?

His….Your Servant,

[1] Cf. Rev 20:1-7 where the phrase “thouand years” appears six times. Millennium is latin for “thousand;’ chiliasm is greek for “thousand.”

[2] Edwards, Paul, editor in Chief, The Encyclopeaia of Philosophy, Macmilllan Publishing Co, New York, 1967, Vol III, Gnosticism, pp. 336-341.

[3] cf., e.g., I Cor 3:10-15, II Cor 5:10, II Thess 1:8-9.

[4] Taken from Gen 1:28, the Cultural Mandate (sometimes called the Dominion Covenant) teaches that God’s command to Adam is perpetual, and thus, in part, constitutes the mission of the church. The “mandate” was never repeated after the Fall, with the exception of Gen 9:1 (where the words “subdue” and “dominion” are missing), and there is no reference to it in the New Testament.

[5] The Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament is called the Septuagint (LXX). Jewish tradition attributes its origin to Ptolemy Philadelphus of Alexandria about 285-246 B.C.

[6] cf., e.g., Mark 4:19 (“…and the cares of the aeon choke the Word…”) and I John 2:15-16 (“Love not the cosmos….”).

[7] op.cit., O’Hagan, Material Re-Creation in the Apostolic Fathers, page 107.