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Flight to Egypt


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Nicolas Poussin



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Part XXI


The church and its history » Eschatology » Expectations of the Kingdom of God in early Christianity
In early Christianity’s expectation of the Kingdom of God, two types were inherited from Judaism. The first was the expectation of a messianic Kingdom in this world, with its centre in Jerusalem, which was to be established by an earthly Messiah from the house of David. The second expectation was that of a heavenly Kingdom, which was to be inaugurated by the heavenly Messiah, Son of man, and in which the elected comrades of the Kingdom from all times would share in the state of the resurrection.

The two types of eschatological expectation did not remain neatly separated in the early church but rather intersected in manifold ways. Under the influence of the persecutions, a combination of the end-time expectations was established. In Paul’s letters and in the Revelation to John, the notion emerged that faithful Christians will first reign together with their returning Lord for some time in this world. Those Christians who are still alive at his return will take part in the reign without dying (1 Thessalonians 4:17). Christians who have already died will rise again and, as resurrected ones, share in the Kingdom upon Earth. Only after completion of this first act of the events of the end time will there then follow the general resurrection of all the dead and the Last Judgment, in which the elect will participate as co-judges (1 Corinthians 6:2).

In the Revelation to John this expectation is condensed into the concept of the 1,000-year (millennial) kingdom. The dragon (Satan) is to be chained up and thrown into the abyss, where he will remain for 1,000 years. In John’s vision, Christians, the first resurrected, “came to life and reigned with Christ a thousand years” (Revelation 20:4). Only later does the resurrection of all the dead take place, as well as the general judgment, creation of the new heaven and the new Earth, and the descent of the new Jerusalem. According to the Revelation to John, this 1,000-year Kingdom is composed of the saints and martyrs and all who stood the test in times of persecution; it is a Kingdom of the privileged elect.

This promise has exerted revolutionary effects in the course of church history. In the early church the expectation of the millennium was viewed as a social and political utopia, a state in which the chosen Christians would rule and judge with their Lord in this world. Such chiliastic (or millennial) expectations provided the impetus for ecclesiastical, political, and social reformations and revolutions in the course of church history. The establishment of a 1,000-year kingdom in which the elect, with Christ, will reign has fascinated religious expectations as well as political and social imagination far more than the second part of the eschatological expectation, the “Last Judgment.”

The delay of the Parousia resulted in a weakening of the imminent expectation in the early church. In this process of “de-eschatologizing,” the institutional church increasingly replaced the expected Kingdom of God. The formation of the church as a hierarchical institution is directly connected with the declining of the imminent expectation. The theology of Augustine constitutes the conclusion of this development in the West. He de-emphasized the original imminent expectation by declaring that the Kingdom of God has already begun in this world with the institution of the church, which is the historical representative of the Kingdom of God on Earth. The first resurrection, according to Augustine, occurs constantly within the church in the sacrament of baptism, through which the faithful are introduced into the Kingdom of God. The expectation of the coming Kingdom of God, the resurrection of the faithful, and the Last Judgment have become a doctrine of the “last things” because the gifts of salvation of the coming Kingdom of God are interpreted as being already present in the sacraments of the church.

The church and its history » Eschatology » Expectations of the Kingdom of God in the medieval and Reformation periods
Despite Augustine’s teachings to the contrary, the original imminent expectation has spontaneously and constantly reemerged in the history of Christianity. It was a powerful undercurrent throughout much of the Middle Ages, shaping numerous movements in that period. Charlemagne and his advisors may have been motivated by eschatological concerns, including those associated with the legend of the “Last Emperor,” to accept imperial coronation on Christmas Day, 800. Indeed, several medieval rulers, including Otto III, were inspired by the legend in which the Last Emperor struggles against the Antichrist in preparation for the Second Coming. About the year 1000, eschatological expectations influenced the Peace of God movement (a social and religious reform movement that emerged in southern and central France), and numerous apparent signs and miracles suggested the imminence of Christ’s return. The knights of the First Crusade (1095–99), especially those involved in massacres of Jews in Germany, were most likely influenced by apocalyptic expectations. Joachim of Fiore developed a millennialist theology and philosophy of history that influenced the Spiritual Franciscans in the 13th century. In the 14th century peasant revolts in France and England were shaped by eschatological as well as economic concerns, and the Taborites, extremist followers of Jan Hus, sought to bring about the Kingdom of God by force. In the medieval church new outbreaks of an imminent expectation also occurred in connection with great historical catastrophes, such as epidemics of the plague, Islamic invasions, schisms, and wars.

Luther’s Reformation also was sustained by an imminent expectation. For the Reformers, the starting point for their eschatological interpretation of contemporary history was that the “internal Antichrist,” the pope, had established himself in the temple at the Holy Place and that through persecution by the “external Antichrist,” the Turk, the church had entered into the travails of the end time. The Reformation churches, however, soon became institutional territorial churches, which in turn repressed the end-time expectation, and thus doctrine of the “last things” became an appendix to dogmatics.

Although heightened apocalyptic fervour was quickly drained from the movements of the magisterial reformers (who received support from the civil powers or magistrates and who stressed the authority of teachers [Latin: magister]), the so-called radical reformers were often intensely eschatological, and some even advocated violence to usher in the Second Coming. Thomas Müntzer, inspired as much by the apocalyptic books of the Bible as by Luther, identified the poor as God’s special elect who were charged with overthrowing their earthly rulers to bring about God’s kingdom. His preaching was one of the inspirations of the German Peasants’ War of 1524–25. The sect led by Jan of Leiden at Munster was also radically and violently apocalyptic, and many Anabaptist groups expressed an imminent eschatology. In England, several groups were apocalyptic, even millenarian, in nature. The Fifth Monarchy Men believed that the fifth monarchy (i.e., the reign of Christ)—to follow the biblical Assyrian, Babylonian, Greek, and Roman kingdoms—was at hand. Independents, Diggers, and other groups expressed belief in the imminent Second Coming, but many of them were suppressed by Oliver Cromwell.

The church and its history » Eschatology » Expectations of the Kingdom of God in the post-Reformation period
In the post-Reformation period, the imminent expectation appeared in individual groups on the margin of the institutional Reformation churches; such groups generally made the imminent expectation itself the object of their sect formation. This has been the result of the fact that, since the Reformation, the Roman Catholic Church has been virtually immune to eschatological movements. The Lutheran Church has been less immune; a series of eschatological groups whose activity in the church was determined by their expectation of the imminent return of Christ appeared in Pietism. Among the congregational and evangelical churches of England and America, the formation of new eschatological groups has been a frequent occurrence, especially during revival movements, including that of William Miller, which laid the foundation for the Adventist church in the 19th century. Such groups shared significantly in the renewal and expansion of Christianity in domestic and foreign missions. Indeed, by late in the 20th century much of the Christian missionary outreach had passed into the hands of millennial-minded groups.

The church and its history » Eschatology » The role of imminent expectation in missions and emigrations
The great missionary activities of Christian history in most cases have been based upon a reawakened imminent expectation, which creates a characteristic tension. The tension between the universal mission of the church and the hitherto omitted missionary duties, as well as the idea that the colossal task must be accomplished in the shortest time possible, renders comprehensible the astonishing physical and spiritual achievements of the great Christian missionaries. After the inundation of Christian areas of Africa and Asia by Islam, Franciscan missionaries in the 13th and 14th centuries, enduring incredible hardships, went by land and by sea to India, China, and Mongolia to preach the gospel. In a similar way, the missionary movement of the 18th and 19th centuries also proceeded from such eschatological groups within Protestantism.

The expectation of the Kingdom of God, in the form of the imminent expectation, plays a strong role in emigration movements. Great masses of European Christians again and again set out for Palestine with a sense of finding there the land of their salvation and being present when Christ returns there to establish his Kingdom. Mass pilgrimages to Jerusalem took place in 1033 and again in 1064–65, and the Crusades can be seen as a form of pilgrimage whose participants held eschatological concerns. The peasants of the so-called “People’s Crusade” and the knights of the First Crusade were clearly motivated by apocalyptic anxieties, and Count Emicho of Flonheim, who led the massacres of the Jews in Germany, may have seen himself in the role of the Last Emperor. The eschatological strain of the Crusades can also be noted in the Crusade sermons of Bernard of Clairvaux in 1147, who kindled enthusiasm to liberate Jerusalem with reference to the pressing terminal dates of the end time.

A great number of the attempts undertaken to found radical Christian communities in North America may be viewed as anticipations of the coming Jerusalem. The emigration movement toward America was influenced by beliefs in eschatologically fixed dates (e.g., Columbus). Puritans who traveled to America in the 17th century and Quakers, Baptists, and Methodists in the 18th century believed that America was the “wilderness” promised in the Revelation to John. William Penn gave the name Philadelphia to the capital of the woodland areas ceded to him (1681) because he took up the idea of establishing the true church of the end time, represented by the Philadelphia community of the Revelation to John. The same influence holds true for the emigration of German revivalists of the 18th and early 19th centuries to Russia and Palestine. The “Friends of the Temple”—Swabians who went with Christoph Hoffmann to Palestine in 1866—and the Swabians, Franks, Hessians, and Bavarians, who after the Napoleonic Wars followed the call of Tsar Alexander I to Bessarabia, were all dominated by the idea of living in the end time and preparing themselves for the coming Kingdom of God. In Tsar Alexander I they saw the “eagle…as it flew in midheaven” (Revelation 8:13), which prepared the “recovery spot” for them in the East upon which Christ will descend.

As had occurred earlier in Christian history, eschatological expectations in the modern age sometimes turned violent. The intensely apocalyptical ideas of David Koresh, for example, led him and other Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas, to a tragic end.

The church and its history » Eschatology » Eschatological expectations and secularization
In the eyes of some theologians, the very process of secularization, which progressively rules out transcendent explanations of natural and historical conditions, has been a working out of a form of eschatological expectation. Of course, the substance is quite different in the cases where people work in expectation of the Kingdom of God and in the other cases where they become “futurologists.” But the impulse to prepare oneself for such futures has analogues and origins, it is contended, in old Christian ideas of penance and preparation for the coming Kingdom.

In the Gospels the attitude toward the coming Kingdom of God led, over and beyond the expectation of nullifying sin and death, to certain worldly conclusions of an organizational kind. The disciples of Jesus knew that there will be “first ones” in the Kingdom of Heaven; they pressed for the administrative posts in the coming Kingdom of God (e.g., the apostles James and John). The promise, too, that they are to take part as judges at the Last Judgment (Luke 22:30) sparked definite conceptions of rank. Jesus castigated them in their disputes over rank with the words, “If any one would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all” (Mark 9:35).

Despite this warning, the imminent expectation of the coming Kingdom of God awakened concrete, substantial ideas that led ever closer to social utopias. With the 18th-century German Lutheran mystic and Pietist F.C. Oetinger, the end-time expectation generated definite social and political demands—e.g., dissolution of the state, abolition of property, and elimination of class differences. Some of the aspects of the end-time expectation of Pietism were revived in the French Revolution’s political and social programs. The transition from the end-time expectation to the social utopia, however, had already been achieved in writings from the 16th and early 17th centuries—e.g., the English humanist and saint Thomas More’s …de optimo reipublicae statu deque nova Insula Utopia (1516; “On the Highest State of a Republic and on the New Island Utopia”), the German theologian Johann Valentin Andrea’s Reipublicae Christianopolitanae Descriptio (1619; “A Description of the Christian Republic”), the English philosopher Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis (1627), and the English bishop Francis Godwin’s Man in the Moone (1638). It is also found in early socialism of the 19th century—e.g., the French social reformer Henri de Saint-Simon’s Nouveau Christianisme (1825; “The New Christianity”) and the French Socialist Étienne Cabet’s Voyage en Icarie (1840; “Voyage to Icaria”).

What distinguishes the Christian social utopia from the earlier kind of eschatology is the stronger emphasis upon social responsibility for the preparation of the Kingdom of God and a considerable preponderance of various techniques in the establishment of the utopian society. (In general, the end-time expectation has also inspired technical fantasy and science fiction.) Also characteristic is the basic attitude that people themselves must prepare the future perfect society in a formative and organizing manner and that “hoping” and “awaiting” are replaced by human initiative. A graduated transition from a social utopia still consciously Christian to a purely Socialist one can be observed in the writings and activities of the French Socialists Charles Fourier, Saint-Simon, and Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, the English Socialist Robert Owen, and the German Socialist Wilhelm Weitling. Secularized remnants of a glowing Christian end-time expectation are still found even in the Marxist view of the social utopia.

Modern planning and projection of alternative futures is a secularization of the end-time expectations previously envisioned in Christian terms. The future is thus manipulated through planning (i.e., “horizontal eschatology”) in place of eschatological “hoping” and “waiting for” fulfillment. “Horizontal eschatology” is thus taken out of the sphere of the unexpected and numinous (spiritual); it is made the subject not only of a detailed prognosis based upon statistics but also of a detailed programming undertaken on the basis of this prognosis. An eschatological remainder is found only in an ideological image of man, upon which programming and planning are based.

The church and its history » Eschatology » Concepts of life after death
The Christian end-time expectation is directed not only at the future of the church but also at the future of the individual believer. It includes definite conceptions of the personal continuance of life after death. Many baptized early Christians were convinced they would not die at all but would still experience the advent of Christ in their lifetimes and would go directly into the Kingdom of God without death. Others were convinced they would go through the air to meet Christ returning upon the clouds of the sky: “Then we who are alive, who are left, shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air; and so we shall always be with the Lord” (1 Thessalonians 4:17). In the early imminent expectation, the period between death and the coming of the Kingdom still constituted no object of concern. An expectation that one enters into bliss or perdition immediately after death is also found in the words of Jesus on the cross: “Today you will be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43).

In the Nicene Creed the life of the Christian is characterized as “eternal life.” In the Gospels and in the apostolic letters, “eternal” is first of all a temporal designation: in contrast to life of this world, eternal life has a deathless duration. In its essence, however, it is life according to God’s kind of eternity—i.e., perfect, sharing in his glory and bliss (Romans 2:7, 10). “Eternal life” in the Christian sense is thus not identical with “immortality of the soul”; rather, it is only to be understood in connection with the expectation of the resurrection. “Continuance” is neutral vis-à-vis the opposition of salvation and disaster, but the raising from the dead leads to judgment, and its decision can also mean eternal punishment (Matthew 25:46). The antithesis to eternal life is not earthly life but eternal death.

Eternal life is personal life, and precisely therein is fulfilled the essence of man who is created according to the image of God. Within eternal life there are differences. In the present life there are variations in talent, duty, responsibility, and breadth and height of life, just as there are also distinctions in “wages” according to the measure of the occupation, the sacrifice of suffering, and the trial (1 Corinthians 3:8). Correspondingly, the resurrected are also distinguished in eternal life according to their “glory”:

There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; for star differs from star in glory. So it is with the resurrection of the dead (1 Corinthians 15:41–42).

This expectation has had a great influence upon the Christian conception of marriage and friendship. The idea of a continuation of marriage and friendship after death has contributed very much to the deepening of the view of marriage, as is shown by the strong influence of the 17th–18th-century Swedish mystic, philosopher, and scientist Emanuel Swedenborg’s ideas upon the romantic philosophy of religion and its interpretation of marriage and friendship in the thought of the German scholars Friedrich Schelling and Friedrich Schleiermacher. The Western concept of personality was thus deepened through the Christian view of its eternal value.

The delay of the imminent expectation brought about the question of the fate of the dead person in the period between the death of the individual Christian and the resurrection. Two basic views were developed. One view is that of an individual judgment, which takes place immediately after death and brings the individual to an interim state, from which he enters into the realm of bliss or that of perdition. The idea of an individual judgment, however, cannot be readily harmonized with the concept of the general Last Judgment on the day of the general resurrection of the dead. It anticipates the decision of the general judgment and thus deprives of its significance the notion of the Last Judgment. A second view, therefore, also prevailed: the sleep of the soul—i.e., the soul of the dead person enters into a sleeping state that continues until the Last Judgment, which will occur after the general resurrection. At the Last Judgment the resurrected will be assigned either to eternal life or eternal damnation. This conception, accepted in many churches, contains many discrepancies, especially the abandonment of the fundamental idea of the continuity of personal life.

Both views contain an inhuman consequence. The first leaves to people no further opportunity to improve the mistakes of their lives and to expiate their guilt. The second preserves the personality in an intermediate state for an indefinite period so as to later punish it for sins or reward it for good deeds from a time prior to entrance into the sleep of the soul. The belief in purgatory (an interim state in which a correction of a dead person’s evil condition is still possible) of the Roman Catholic Church gives the deceased opportunities for repentance and penance to ameliorate their situation.

The presupposition of the doctrine of purgatory is that there is a special judgment for each individual at once after death. Hence, the logical conclusion is that purgatory ceases with the Last Judgment. The stay in purgatory can be shortened through intercession, alms, indulgences, and benefits of the sacrifice of the mass. The Eastern Orthodox Church has no doctrine of purgatory but does practice an intercession for the dead. It assumes that, on the basis of the connection between the church of the living and that of the dead, an exertion of influence upon the fate of the dead through intercession is possible before the time of the Last Judgment.

The idea of the Last Judgment has often become incomprehensible to the modern world. At the most, people apparently are still open to the concept of judgment of the guilt and innocence of the individual. The idea decisive for the early church’s expectation of the Judgment, however, was that the Last Judgment will be a public one. This corresponds to the fundamental Christian idea that human beings—both the living and the dead—are bound together in an indissoluble communion; it presupposes the conception of the church as the body of Christ. All of humanity is as one person. Humans sin with one another, and their evil is connected together in the “realm of sin” in a manifold way, unrecognizable in the individual. Each person is responsible for the other and is guilty with the other. The judgment upon each person, therefore, concerns all. Judgment upon the individual is thus at the same time judgment upon the whole, and vice versa. The Judgment is also public in regard to the positive side—the praise and reward of God for that which is done rightly and practiced in the common life, often without knowing it.

For the most part, the churches of the early part of the 21st century no longer have the courage to uphold the Christian teaching of life after death. The church has long neglected teachings about the entire area of the last things. The New Testament responses presuppose the imminent expectation and thus leave many questions unanswered that arose because of the delay of the Parousia. The doctrine of the sleep of the soul, on the other hand, contains many consequences that question the fundamental idea of the Christian view of the personality of the imago Dei (“image of God”). The beginnings of a further development of the Christian view of life after death, as are found in Swedenborg, have never been recognized positively by the church. For this reason, since the period of Romanticism and idealism, ideas of the transmigration of souls and reincarnation, taken over from Hinduism and Buddhism, have gained a footing in Christian views of the end-time expectation. Some important impulses toward a new understanding of the view of life after death are found in Christian theosophy, such as the idea of a further development of the human personality upon other celestial bodies after death.

Ernst Wilhelm Benz
Martin E. Marty



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