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Eschatology and Apocalypses

Roman Palestine
1011 Lecture 10
Original Date
July 5, 2010

Eschatology, or “the doctrine of last things,” is today often employed as a comprehensive term for all religious ideas of the afterlife. In the following, however, we shall employ the concept Eschatology in its original sense: eschatology describes and explains the goal and ultimate destiny of human history. Eschatology thus presupposes a unique linear flow of history from the beginning to the end of temporal history. 


There are myths among many peoples of the collapse of the world, sometimes also of a time of redemption to be expected upon the ending of the world; and in these, of course, Christian influences are often present. The eschatological beliefs of Western as well as of Islamic cultural history are rooted in post-exilic (Babylonian Exile) Jewish apocalyptics in which the historical perspectives of the Hebrew Bible are fused with aspects of Iranian eschatology.

Zoroastrian (Parsi – Iranian) eschatology

Zoroastrianism eschatology is the oldest eschatology in recorded history. By 500 BC, Zoroastrians had fully developed a concept of the end of the world through a divine devouring in fire.

According to Zoroastrian philosophy, redacted in the Zand-i Vohuman Yasht, “at the end of thy tenth hundredth winter…the sun is more unseen and more spotted; the year, month, and day are shorter; and the earth is more barren; and the crop will not yield the seed; and men … become more deceitful and more given to vile practices. They have no gratitude.”

Honorable wealth will all proceed to those of perverted faith…and a dark cloud makes the whole sky night… and it will rain more noxious creatures than winter.”

Saoshyant, the Man of Peace, battles the forces of evil. A resurrection will then occur, and the righteous will live in peace for eternity while evil will be condemned to an eternal existence within molten metal. The righteous will, “wade through the metal as if warm milk,” while the evil are scalded.

At the end of the Battle between the righteous and wicked, a Final Judgement of all souls will commence. Sinners will be punished 3 days, but are then forgiven. The world will reach perfection as poverty, old age, disease, thirst, hunger and death are halted.

Zoroastrian concepts penetrated the Judaic thought, during the Jewish exile and throughout some of the Hebrew Bible books and tremendous literary corpus into Christianity, and after that into Islam and consolidate the actual  eschatological beliefs of the western world.

Iranian eschatology and the Judaic Thought

Generally speaking, the idea was widespread in antiquity that time proceeds cyclically, just as nature does: history returns, after the expiration of a cosmic year—or aeon —to its beginning; events repeat themselves in perpetual reiteration. In Iran, on the other hand, the notion of a circular pattern was abandoned quite early. History was viewed as a straight line. The content of world events is the battle for men between the good god and the evil spirit. At the end of the world the dead are awakened and judged, the evil spirit is destroyed by the hosts of the good god, and there begins an eternally blessed existence on an earth freed from all evil. This blissful period heralds the finale, the eschaton of history; nothing is said of a repetition of the battle between light and darkness, even if the thought is borrowed from the cyclical view that the eschaton corresponds to the felicitous beginnings of the world.

This Iranian belief concerning the end of time encountered Hebrew Bible piety and was thereby introduced into Jewish thought. This was all the more readily possible because the cyclical view of history had been alien to the Hebrew Bible from time immemorial. God, the Creator of the world, guides the history of His chosen people along a straight line of historical development toward specific goals: He furnishes the Promised Land; He leads them through the catastrophe of exile into a new period of redemption; He promises the people a powerful Prince of Peace out of the House of David, etc. But these ideas were not eschatological to the extent that they were not connected with the idea of the final end of all history. Under the influence of Iranian eschatology this Hebrew Bible view of history was developed in time into an apocalyptic eschatology, the oldest documents of which still made their way into the Hebrew Bible canon (Daniel; Isaiah 24-26).

This apocalyptic view now includes not only the history of the children of Israel, but the whole of world history with all its people. Simultaneously, in place of the fluctuating this worldly ideas of the goals of Israelite history, it substitutes the expectation of a cosmic catastrophe that leads to the end of the old aeon and of its master, the Devil, and passing through an eschatological period of redemption yields to a new world of absolute and perfect salvation.

 The depiction of the old aeon can in consequence borrow its coloration from the cyclical view of history, and the history of the expiring world can be seen as a process of decline from a Golden Age. But the apocalyptic conflagration of the world at the end of the old epoch does not introduce any repetition of events but, in accordance with dualistic thought, leads into an ahistorical new aeon. The subjects of history are no longer primarily peoples, but individual persons who, if they have already died, are consequently to be raised to judgment at the end of the old aeon.

 The time and manner of the eschatological turning point are decided by God alone as the master of history, but to some scattered prophetic figures the course of history to its end, as well as the eschatological outcome, has been revealed by God himself in advance (hence apocalypse, from the Greek apokalyptein, “to reveal”). Thus the process of history unfolds inalterably in accordance with a plan laid down by God.

Not infrequently a balance is struck between the historically immanent Hebrew Bible hope and the transcendental apocalyptic expectation such that the apocalyptic end of history is preceded by a final messianic reign within history; hence an interregnum between the old and the new aeons in which the elect rule together with the Messiah. Texts such as Revelation 20 of the Christian Bible (New Testament) have perceptibly influenced the history of the West in expecting a thousand-year interregnum (chiliasm ); for although the eschatological interregnum is conceived as historically immanent, revolutionary movements have often been fired in anticipation of it.

20:1 And I saw an angel come down from heaven, having the key of the bottomless pit and a great chain in his hand. 20:2 And he laid hold on the dragon, that old serpent, which is the Devil, and Satan, and bound him a thousand years, 20:3 And cast him into the bottomless pit, and shut him up, and set a seal upon him, that he should deceive the nations no more, till the thousand years should be fulfilled: and after that he must be loosed a little season. 20:4 And I saw thrones, and they sat upon them, and judgment was given unto them: and I saw the souls of them that were beheaded for the witness of Jesus, and for the word of God, and which had not worshipped the beast, neither his image, neither had received his mark upon their foreheads, or in their hands; and they lived and reigned with Christ a thousand years. 20:5 But the rest of the dead lived not again until the thousand years were finished. This is the first resurrection. 20:6 Blessed and holy is he that hath part in the first resurrection: on such the second death hath no power, but they shall be priests of God and of Christ, and shall reign with him a thousand years. 20:7 And when the thousand years are expired, Satan shall be loosed out of his prison, 20:8 And shall go out to deceive the nations which are in the four quarters of the earth, Gog, and Magog, to gather them together to battle: the number of whom is as the sand of the sea. 20:9 And they went up on the breadth of the earth, and compassed the camp of the saints about, and the beloved city: and fire came down from God out of heaven, and devoured them. 20:10 And the devil that deceived them was cast into the lake of fire and brimstone, where the beast and the false prophet are, and shall be tormented day and night for ever and ever. 20:11 And I saw a great white throne, and him that sat on it, from whose face the earth and the heaven fled away; and there was found no place for them. 20:12 And I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God; and the books were opened: and another book was opened, which is the book of life: and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works. 20:13 And the sea gave up the dead which were in it; and death and hell delivered up the dead which were in them: and they were judged every man according to their works. 20:14 And death and hell were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death. 20:15 And whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire.  NT-Revelation 20

Jewish eschatology – The Messiah

Jewish eschatology is concerned with the Jewish Messiah (Mashiach), the continuation of the Davidic line, and Olam Haba, (Hebrew for “the world to come”; i.e. the afterlife). Jewish eschatology is not as important in daily worship as Christian eschatology is to Christians.

The Hebrew word Mashiach means anointed one, and refers to a human being who will usher in a messianic era of peace and prosperity for both the living and the deceased. Traditional Judaism interprets the Hebrew Bible as having many references to a coming Messiah, some include:

1. and in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed; because thou hast hearkened to My voice.‘ Genesis 22:18
2. Hs-Shem swore unto David in truth; He will not turn back from it: ‘Of the fruit of thy body will I set upon thy throne. Psalm 132:11 (see also Jeremiah 23:5)
3. Therefore the L-rd Himself shall give you a sign: behold, the young woman shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. Isaiah 7:14
4. But thou, Beth-lehem Ephrathah, which art little to be among the thousands of Judah, out of thee shall one come forth unto Me that is to be ruler in Israel; whose goings forth are from of old, from ancient days. Micah 5:1
5. I will raise them up a prophet from among their brethren, like unto thee; and I will put My words in his mouth, and he shall speak unto them all that I shall command him. Deuteronomy 18:18 (Moses is believed to have written this book, see also verse 15)
6. That the government may be increased, and of peace there be no end, upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom, to establish it, and to uphold it through justice and through righteousness from henceforth even for ever. The zeal of Hs-Shem of hosts doth perform this. Isaiah 9:6
7. Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion, shout, O daughter of Jerusalem; behold, thy king cometh unto thee, he is triumphant, and victorious, lowly, and riding upon an ass, even upon a colt the foal of an ass. Zechariah 9:9
8. But he was wounded because of our transgressions, he was crushed because of our iniquities: the chastisement of our welfare was upon him, and with his stripes we were healed. All we like sheep did go astray, we turned every one to his own way; and Ha-Shem hath made to light on him the iniquity of us all. Isaiah 53:5-6 (see all of Isaiah 53)
9. Seventy weeks are decreed upon thy people and upon thy holy city, to finish the transgression, and to make an end of sin, and to forgive iniquity, and to bring in everlasting righteousness, and to seal vision and prophet, and to anoint the most holy place. Know therefore and discern, that from the going forth of the word to restore and to build Jerusalem unto one anointed, a prince, shall be seven weeks; and for threescore and two weeks, it shall be built again, with broad place and moat, but in troublous times. And after the threescore and two weeks shall an anointed one be cut off, and be no more; and the people of a prince that shall come shall destroy the city and the sanctuary; but his end shall be with a flood; and unto the end of the war desolations are determined. Daniel 9:24-26
10. For Thou wilt not abandon my soul to the nether-world; neither wilt Thou suffer Thy godly one to see the pit. Psalm 16:10
11. A Psalm of David. Hs-Shem saith unto my lord: ‘Sit thou at My right hand, until I make thine enemies thy footstool.’ Psalm 110:1
12. I saw in the night visions, and, behold, there came with the clouds of heaven one like unto a son of man, and he came even to the Ancient of days, and he was brought near before Him. And there was given him dominion, and glory, and a kingdom, that all the peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom that which shall not be destroyed. Daniel 7:13-14
13. And His feet shall stand in that day upon the mount of Olives, which is before Jerusalem on the east, and the mount of Olives shall cleft in the midst thereof toward the east and toward the west, so that there shall be a very great valley; and half of the mountain shall remove toward the north, and half of it toward the south. Zechariah 13:4
14. See also: Zechariah 9:10; 12:2,3,8,9; 14:1-5,9,16-21; Psalm 2:6-8; 89:3,4; Jeremiah 23:5; and Isaiah 9:6,7; 11:1,10-13.

The Babylonian Talmud Tractate Sanhedrin contains a long discussion of the events leading to the coming of the Messiah, for example:

R. Johanan said: When you see a generation ever dwindling, hope for him [the Messiah], as it is written, And the afflicted people thou wilt save. R. Johanan said: When thou seest a generation overwhelmed by many troubles as by a river, await him, as it is written, when the enemy shall come in like a flood, the Spirit of the Lord shall lift up a standard against him; which is followed by, And the Redeemer shall come to Zion.

R. Johanan also said: The son of David will come only in a generation that is either altogether righteous or altogether wicked. ‘in a generation that is altogether righteous,’ — as it is written, Thy people also shall be all righteous: they shall inherit the land for ever. ‘Or altogether wicked,’ — as it is written, And he saw that there was no man, and wondered that there was no intercessor;31 and it is [elsewhere] written, For mine own sake, even for mine own sake, will I do it. Talmud Sanhedrin 98a

Throughout Jewish history, Jews have compared these passages (and others) to contemporary events in search of signs of the Messiah’s imminent arrival, continuing into present times. For example, the Chabad-Lubavitch movement of Hassidic Judaism has suggested that the devastation among Jews wrought by the Holocaust may represent a sign of hope for the Messiah’s present imminent arrival.

The Talmud tells many stories about the Messiah, some of which represent famous Talmudic rabbis as receiving personal visitations from Elijah the Prophet and the Messiah. For example:

R. Joshua b. Levi met Elijah standing by the entrance of R. Simeon b. Yohai’s tomb. He asked him: ‘Have I a portion in the world to come?’ He replied, ‘if this Master desires it.’ R. Joshua b. Levi said, ‘I saw two, but heard the voice of a third.’ He then asked him, ‘When will the Messiah come?’ — ‘Go and ask him himself,’ was his reply. ‘Where is he sitting?’ — ‘At the entrance.’ And by what sign may I recognise him?’ — ‘He is sitting among the poor lepers: all of them untie [them] all at once, and rebandage them together, whereas he unties and rebandages each separately, [before treating the next], thinking, should I be wanted, [it being time for my appearance as the Messiah] I must not be delayed [through having to bandage a number of sores].’ So he went to him and greeted him, saying, ‘peace upon thee, Master and Teacher.’ ‘peace upon thee, O son of Levi,’ he replied. ‘When wilt thou come Master?’ asked he, ‘To-day’, was his answer. On his returning to Elijah, the latter enquired, ‘What did he say to thee?’ — ‘peace Upon thee, O son of Levi,’ he answered. Thereupon he [Elijah] observed, ‘He thereby assured thee and thy father of [a portion in] the world to come.’ ‘He spoke falsely to me,’ he rejoined, ‘stating that he would come to-day, but has not.’ He [Elijah] answered him, ‘This is what he said to thee, To-day, if ye will hear his voice.’ Sanhedrin 98a

The Medieval rabbinic figure Maimonides (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon), also known as the Rambam, notable for efforts to synthesize classical Jewish tradition with Aristotelian rationalism and the scientific beliefs of his age, wrote a commentary to tractate Sanhedrin stressing a relatively naturalistic interpretation of the Messiah and de-emphasizing miraculous elements. His commentary became widely (although not universally) accepted in the non- or less- mystical branches of Orthodox Judaism:

The Messianic age is when the Jews will regain their independence and all return to the land of Israel. The Messiah will be a very great king, he will achieve great fame, and his reputation among the gentile nations will be even greater than that of King Solomon. His great righteousness and the wonders that he will bring about will cause all peoples to make peace with him and all lands to serve him…. Nothing will change in the Messianic age, however, except that Jews will regain their independence. Rich and poor, strong and weak, will still exist. However it will be very easy for people to make a living, and with very little effort they will be able to accomplish very much…. it will be a time when the number of wise men will increase…. war shall not exist, and nation shall no longer lift up sword against nation…. The Messianic age will be highlighted by a community of the righteous and dominated by goodness and wisdom. It will be ruled by the Messiah, a righteous and honest king, outstanding in wisdom, and close to God. Do not think that the ways of the world or the laws of nature will change, this is not true. The world will continue as it is. The prophet Isaiah predicted “The wolf shall live with the sheep, the leopard shall lie down with the kid.” This, however, is merely allegory, meaning that the Jews will live safely, even with the formerly wicked nations. All nations will return to the true religion and will no longer steal or oppress. Note that all prophecies regarding the Messiah are allegorical – Only in the Messianic age will we know the meaning of each allegory and what it comes to teach us. Our sages and prophets did not long for the Messianic age in order that they might rule the world and dominate the gentiles, the only thing they wanted was to be free for Jews to involve themselves with the Torah and its wisdom.

Jewish eschatology – The afterlife and olam ha-ba (the “world to come”)

Although Judaism concentrates on the importance of the Earthly world, all of classical Judaism posits an afterlife. Jewish tradition affirms that the human soul is immortal and thus survives the physical death of the body. The Hereafter is known as Olam ha-ba (the “world to come”), Gan Eden (the Heavenly “Garden of Eden”, or Paradise) and Gehinom (“Purgatory”).

The Mishnah lists belief in an afterlife as one of three essential beliefs necessary for a Jew to participate in it:

All Israel have a portion in the world to come, for it is written: Thy people are all righteous; they shall inherit the land forever, the branch of my planting, the work of my hands, that I may be glorified.’ But the following have no portion therein: one who maintains that ressurrection is not a biblical doctrine, the Torah was not divinely revealed, and an Apikoros . Mishnah Sanhedrin 9:1, Talmud Sanhedrin 90a.

While all classic rabbinic sources discuss afterlife, the classic Medieval scholars dispute the nature of existence in the “End of Days” after the messianic period. While Maimonides describes an entirely spiritual existence for souls, which he calls “disembodied intellects,” Nahmanides discusses an intensely spiritual existence on Earth, where spirituality and physicality are merged. Both agree that life after death is as Maimonidies describes the “End of Days.” This existence entails an extremely heightened understanding of and connection to the Divine Presence. This view is shared by all classic rabbinic scholars.

There is much rabbinic material on what happens to the soul of the deceased after death, what it experiences, and where it goes. At various points in the afterlife journey, the soul may encounter: Hibbut ha-kever, the pains of the grave; Dumah, the angel of silence; Satan as the angel of death; the Kaf ha-Kela, the catapult of the soul; Gehinom (purgatory); and Gan Eden (heaven or paradise). All classic rabbinic scholars agree that these concepts are beyond typical human understanding. Therefore, these ideas are expressed throughout rabbinic literature through many varied parables and analogies.

Gehinom is fairly well defined in rabbinic literature. It is sometimes translated as “hell”, but one should note that the Christian view of hell differs from the Jewish view. In Judaism, Gehinom – while certainly a terribly unpleasant place – is not hell. The overwhelming majority of rabbinic thought maintains that people are not tortured in Gehinom forever; the longest that one can be there is said to be twelve months, with extremely rare exception. This is the reason that even when in mourning for near relatives, Jews will not recite mourner’s kaddish for longer than an eleven month period. Some consider Gehinom a spiritual forge where the soul is purified for its eventual ascent to Gan Eden (“Garden of Eden”).

Jewish eschatology – Reincarnation – Gilgul Neshamoth

The notion of reincarnation, while believed as a mystical belief by some, is not an essential or required tenant of traditional Judaism. It is not mentioned in traditional classical sources such as Hebrew Bible, the classical rabbinic works (Midrash, Mishnah and Talmud), the writings of the Geonim, most of the Rishonim, or Maimonides’ 13 Principles of Faith

However, books of Kabbalah – Jewish mysticism – teach a belief in gilgul, transmigration of souls, and hence the belief is found in Hassidic Judaism, which generally regards the Kabbalah as canonical sacred texts.

Rabbis who accepted the idea of reincarnation include the founder of Chassidism, the Baal Shem Tov, Levi ibn Habib (the Ralbah), Nahmanides (the Ramban), Rabbenu Bahya ben Asher, Rabbi Shelomoh Alkabez and Rabbi Hayyim Vital. Among well known Rabbis who rejected the idea of reincarnation are the Saadia Gaon, Hasdai Crescas, Yedayah Bedershi (early 14th century), Joseph Albo, Abraham ibn Daud and Leon de Modena. The idea of reincarnation, called gilgul, became popular in folk belief, and is found in much Yiddish literature among Ashkenazi Jews.

Jesus – The Ultimate Apocalyptic Jew

Jesus was an apocalyptic. He was not indeed interested in elaborating the depiction of the final apocalyptic drama, but he anticipated the beginning of last events in the imminent future. His exorcisms announced the end of the old aeon. Even to the impious, provided they were repentant, his preaching opened the way at the last minute to salvation under God’s reign, which very soon, without human participation, would appear throughout the earth as a bolt of lightning from God’s hand.


When the Crucified One appeared to His disciples after His death, they interpreted Jesus’ resurrection as the beginning of the universal resurrection of the dead, i.e., as the onset of last events. Jesus is the first of all the dead to be resurrected (I Corinthians 15:20). It is true that the consummation of apocalyptic last things did not follow; nonetheless early Christianity continued to understand the events surrounding Christ as God’s eschatological redemptive act, themselves as a community of the redeemed, and their age as a time of eschatological redemption In other words: “The primitive Christian community did not understand itself as an historical, but as an eschatological, phenomenon. It already no longer belongs to this world, but to the future ahistorical era that is dawning ”

Out of this consciousness, and in view of the subsequent course of history, the problem arose how the eschatological community of the redeemed should live in history, and how historical time should be denominated from an eschatological point of view. As a solution of this problem there emerged the extraordinary dialectic of the primitive Christian concept of time, characterized as it is by the conflict of “It is here now” and “Not yet” when speaking of eschatological redemption. Paul and John dwelt with particular intensity on this problem and each gave it expression after his own manner.