Eschatology is an ancient branch of study in Christian theology, with study of the "last things" and the Second Coming of Christ first touched on by Ignatius of Antioch (c. 35–107 AD), then given more consideration by the Christian apologist, Justin Martyr (c. 100–165). Treatment of eschatology continued in the West in the teachings of Tertullian (c. 160–225), and was given fuller reflection and speculation soon after by Origen (c. 185–254). It was increasingly recognized as a formal division of theological study during the twentieth century.
Eschatological passages, sometimes called "apocalyptic" writings, are found throughout the Bible, in both the Old Testament (Hebrew scriptures) and the New Testament, although they are concentrated in the prophetic books. There are various short, but important, eschatological passages in the gospels and the epistles. There are also many extrabiblical examples of eschatological prophecy, as well as church traditions that have been added to the scriptures over the years.
The second coming of Christ is the central event in Christian eschatology. Most Christians believe that death and suffering will continue to exist until Christ's return. Others believe that suffering will gradually be eliminated prior to his coming, and that the elimination of injustice is our part in preparing for that event. There are a variety of viewpoints concerning the order and significance of eschatological events.
Approaches to prophetic interpretation
The following approaches are applied by interpreters specifically to the book of Revelation, but Revelation occupies such a central place in Christian eschatology that it is worth mentioning them in this, more general, overview. Parallel approaches can also be used in the interpretation of other prophetic passages. These approaches are by no means mutually exclusive and are usually combined to form a more complete and coherent interpretation. Nevertheless, it is helpful to have a conceptual understanding of them.
- The Preterist approach (from the Latin praeteritus meaning gone by) seeks parallels between Revelation and the events of the first century, such as Herod's attempt to kill the infant Christ, the struggle of Christianity to survive the persecutions of Judaism and the Roman Empire, the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD, the desecration of the temple in the same year, and the growth of Christianity from a sect within Judaism to an independent religion.
- The Historicist method takes a broader historical approach and seeks parallels between Revelation and the major people and events of history, especially those that directly affected Israel and the Church.
- The Futurist method approaches Revelation as chiefly referring to events that have not come to pass, but that will take place at the end of this age and at the end of the world. The main focus is the return of Christ. This is the approach that most applies to eschatological studies.
- The Idealist model, also known as Spiritualist or Symbolic, approaches the images of Revelation as symbols that represent larger themes and concepts, rather than actual people and events. It sees in Revelation an allegorical representation of the ongoing struggle of the forces of light and darkness, and the ultimate triumph of good over evil. An advantage of this approach for some is that it does not require belief in divine inspiration or the supernatural prediction of future events. But this fact also limits its application to eschatology, unless used in combination with the other approaches.
In regard to interpretation, it must be noted that, from the biblical perspective, eschatological passages are based on certain presuppositions: a) God exists; b) God knows the future; c) God has spoken through chosen individuals to reveal the destiny of his people, and of the world as a whole; and d) these revelations have been faithfully recorded and preserved in scripture. Without these presuppositions, the eschatological building collapses, and eschatological passages are at best, allegory; at worst, deceit.
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