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Eschatalogy is the branch of systematic theology that deals with the doctrines of the last things (ta eschata). Although the Greek title is a comparatively recent introduction, it has largely supplanted its Latin equivalent De Novissimis in modern usage.

As a first step, a distinction may be made between the eschatology of the individual and that of the race and the universe at large. The former, setting out from the doctrine of personal immortality, or at least of survival in some form after death, seeks to ascertain the temporary or eternal fate or condition of individual souls, and the extent of the present life’s influence on the future life. The latter deals with events like the Resurrection and final judgment, and with the signs and portents in the moral and physical orders that are to precede and accompany those events. Both aspects belong to the usual concept of eschatology.

Belief in afterlife in non-Islamic societies

The universality of religious beliefs, including some kind of existence after death, is generally admitted by modern anthropologists. Some exceptions have been claimed to exist; but on closer scrutiny the provided evidence breaks down in so many cases that we can say that there are no exceptions. Among ancient peoples, the truth and purity of eschatological beliefs vary with the purity of the idea of God and prevailing moral standards. Some early peoples seem to limit existence after death to the good (with extinction for the wicked), as the Nicaraguas, or to men of rank, as the Tongas; while the various peoples of Greenland, New Guinea, and others seem to hold the possibility of a second death in the other world or on the way to it.

For the Aztecs, Determining factors for a person’s destiny in the next existence were social position and the circumstances of death. We do not hear of any retribution after death based on one’s conduct during this life. This might have been expected, since the confession of sins and penance, for example in the form of asceticism or temple service, were common. Perhaps they were important only for happiness and success in this world.

According to Landa’s research, the Mayans had a paradise with its delights, including an abundance of food and drink in the shadow of the holy tree. They also had Mitnal, a subterranean hell for the wicked and evil where hunger, cold, and sorrow torment the unfortunate inhabitants. The “death god” Hunhau presides over this gloomy world. Little is known about the ruler of the paradise.

The Incas believed that if sinners did not make a full confession, they fared badly. Not only would they be stricken with the wrath of the powers in this life but after death, they also would starve and freeze in a place deep in the Earth’s interior where their only food would be stories. Those who led virtuous lives and confessed their sins, if any, would lead a happy existence with an abundance of food and drink in the sun god’s heaven. Members of the aristocracy, intended for a higher world, ended up there regardless of how they lived.

Now, coming to the more advanced societies, we shall glance briefly at the eschatologies of Babylonia and Assyria, Egypt, India, Persia, Greece, and of Judaism and Christianity.

Babylonia and Assyria. In the ancient Babylonian religion, with which the Assyrian is substantially identical, retribution seems to be mostly confined to the present life. Virtue is rewarded by the Divine bestowal of strength, prosperity, long life, numerous offspring, and the like, and wickedness is punished by temporal calamities. As for the afterlife, it was believed that a kind of semi-material ghost, shade, or double survived physical death. When the body was buried (or, less commonly, cremated), the ghost descended to the underworld to join the departed.

This ancient religion suggests a brighter hope in the form of a resurrection, which some infer from the belief in the “waters of life” and from references to Marduk (or Merodach) as “one who brings the dead to life.”

Egypt. Ancient Egyptian religion has a highly developed and comparatively elevated eschatology. Leaving aside some conflicting elements, we will refer to what is most prominent in its eschatology taken at its highest and best. Pious Egyptians looked forward to life in its fullness, unending life with the sun god Osiris (who journeys daily through the underworld), and even identification with him and the subsequent right to be called by his name, as the ultimate goal after death. The departed are habitually called the “living,” the coffin is the “chest of the living,” and the tomb is the “lord of life.”

It is not merely the disembodied spirit that continues to live, but the soul with certain bodily organs and functions suited to the new life’s conditions. In the elaborate anthropology underlying Egyptian eschatology, several constituents of the individual are distinguished. The most important is the ka, a kind of semi-material double. Those who pass the judgment after death have the use of these several constituents, separated by death, restored.

Egyptians believed that every person was composed of three essential elements: body, ba (the sum total of all non-physical things that make a person unique) and ka (life-force).

At death, the ba and ka became separated from the body, although they did not die. In the New Kingdom (post-1570 B.C.) period and after, this separation was effected through the Opening of the Mouth ritual, in which the ba and ka are released to go to the next world.

Egyptians believed that death was the end of physical life in this world. But, it also was through death that one could be renewed and live an eternal life free of such physical limitations as age or poverty, just as the once-mortal god Osiris had. One’s renewal didn’t come about here, though, but in “Nun,” the mysterious underworld of primeval waters that was separate from this world. One could not see it or get to it by normal means; the only ways were through imagination and knowledge of the sun’s path.

India. In the Vedas, the earliest historical form of Indian religion, eschatological belief is simpler and purer than in the Brahministic and Buddhist forms that succeeded it. Individual immortality is clearly taught. There is a kingdom of the dead ruled by Yama, with distinct realms for the good and the wicked. The good dwell in a realm of light and share in the gods’ feasts; the wicked are banished to a place of “nethermost darkness.”

In Brahminism, retribution gains in prominence and severity. However, it becomes hopelessly involved in transmigration, and is made more dependent either on sacrificial observances or theosophical knowledge. Though there are numerous heavens and hells for the reward and punishment of every degree of merit and demerit, these are not final states, but only preludes to further rebirths in higher or lower forms.

Buddhism. Buddhism (Sanskrit: “enlightened one”) was founded in India by Siddharta Gautama Buddha (ca. 563-ca. 483 B.C.) Under the Bodhi tree (the tree of enlightenment), Prince Gautama became enlightened about the four basic truths:

  • Human existence is pain

  • The cause of pain is desire

  • Pain ceases with the emancipation from desire

  • The cessation of pain may be attained through the eightfold way of deliverance.

This way involves right knowledge of these four truths, right intention, right speech, right action, right occupation, right effort, right control of sensations and ideas, and right concentration. This way promises to end suffering (which feeds on desire) and lead to Nirvana (Sanskrit: “being extinguished”) or a complete state of peace. The Buddhist scriptures exist in Pali (Sri Lanka) and Sanskrit (India).

Two basic doctrines are karma (Sanskrit: “action, faith”), the belief that old deeds are rewarded or punished in this or subsequent lives, and rebirth or the transmigration of souls. Mahayana Buddhism, which arose around the time of Christ, teaches that individuals can attain Nirvana and also can become Buddhas in order to save others. Buddhism, which includes the worship of gods and various syncretistic features, has two forms: Hinayana (Sanskrit: “little vehicle”) or Theravada (Pali: “old doctrine”) Buddhism (found in Burma, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and elsewhere), and Mahayana (Sanskrit: “great vehicle”) Buddhism (found in China, Japan, Korea, Mongolia, Tibet, and elsewhere). Mahayana Buddhists believe that the right path of a follower will lead to the redemption of all human beings. Hinayana Buddhists believe that each person is responsible for his or her own fate. Along with these doctrines, there are other Buddhist beliefs like Zen Buddhism (Japan) and the Hindu Tantric Buddhism (Tibet). Zen Buddhism is a mixture of Buddhism as it arrived from India and original Japanese beliefs. Hindu Tantric Buddhism is a mixture of Indian Buddhism and original pre-Buddhist Tibetan beliefs such as magic, ghosts and tantras (mystical sentences).

Hinduism. Dr. Arnold J. Toynbee points out in A Study of History that the principal civilizations placed different degrees of emphasis on specific lines of activity. Greek civilization, for instance, displays a manifest tendency toward a prominently aesthetic outlook on life as a whole. Indian civilization, on the other hand, shows an equally manifest tendency toward a predominantly religious outlook. Toynbee’s remark sums up what has been observed by many other scholars. Indeed, the study of Hinduism has to be, in large measure, a study of the general Hindu outlook on life.

With respect to life, death, and life after death, the inseparable unity of the material and spiritual worlds forms the foundation of Indian culture and determines the whole character of Indian social ideals. Every individual life, whether mineral, vegetable, animal, or human, has a beginning and an end. This creation and destruction, appearance and disappearance, are of the essence of the world process and equally originate in the past, present, and future. According to this view, then, every individual ego (jivatman) or separate expression of the general will to life (icchatrsna) must be regarded as having reached a certain stage of its own cycle.

The Upanisads, the most famous and widely accepted Hindu texts, recognize intuition rather than reason as a path to ultimate truth. They are supposed to be 108 or more in number. Twelve are generally recognized as the principal units. The Isa Upanisad begins with the statement that whatever exists in this world is enveloped by the Supreme. The soul is saved by renunciation and the absence of possessiveness.

The Bhagavad Gita, a main source of Hindu belief and philosophy, contains the essence of Hindu teaching about the duties of life as well as of spiritual obligations. Everyone has their allotted duties. Sin arises not from the nature of the work itself, but from the disposition with which the work is performed. When it is performed without attachment to the result, it cannot tarnish the soul and impede its quest. True Yoga consists in acquiring experience and passing through life in harmony with the ultimate laws of equanimity, non-attachment to the fruits of action, and faith in the Supreme Spirit’s pervasiveness. As absorption in that Spirit can be attained along several paths, no path is to be exclusively preferred or disdained. These doctrines have been interpreted as marking a Protestant movement that stresses the personality of God and His accessibility to devotion. While following the Hindu ideal of the Asramas the Gita emphasizes the importance of knowledge, charity, penance, and worship, and does not decry life as evil.

Persia. Zoroastrianism, the indigenous religion of pre-Islamic Persia, was founded by Prophet Zarathushtra (d. 551 BC), known to the Greeks as Zoroaster. Zoroastrianism was the dominant regional religion during the Persian empires (559 BC to 651 CE), and was thus the most powerful religion at the time of Jesus. It had a major influence on other religions, and is still practiced today, especially in Iran and India.

According to Mary Boyce, Zoroaster believed that God had entrusted him with a message for humanity. He preached in plain words to ordinary people. His teachings were handed down orally from generation to generation, and were committed to writing under the Sassanids, rulers of the third Iranian empire (c.224 CE-c.640 CE). The language of that time was Middle Persian, also called Pahlavi. The Pahlavi books provide valuable keys for interpreting the obscurities of the Gathas or the hymns of Zarathustra themselves.

A journeying to Heaven and Hell. Arda Viraf was an important scholar of Zoroastrianism. His book, contained in The Sacred Books and Early Literature of the East, Volume VII: Ancient Persia, narrates a vision of Heaven and Hell that he claimed to have seen in an inspired dream or vision. The entire vision is truly Dantesque. We do not know its age, but we can say confidently that it is several centuries older than the work of Dante.

Greece. Greek eschatology, as reflected in the Homeric poems, remains at a low level. Life on Earth, for all its shortcomings, is the highest good for people, and death the worst evil. Yet death is not extinction. The psyche survives, not the purely spiritual soul of later Greek and Christian thought, but an attenuated, semi-material ghost, shade, or image, of the earthly person. The life of this shade in the underworld is a dull, impoverished, almost functionless existence.

In later Greek thought on the future life, there are notable advances beyond the Homeric state, but it is doubtful whether the average popular faith ever reached a much higher level. Among early philosophers Anaxagoras (d. c.428 BC) contributes to the notion of a purely spiritual soul. A more directly religious contribution is made by the Eleusinian and Orphic mysteries, to the influence of which in brightening and moralizing the hope of a future life we have the concurrent witness of philosophers, poets, and historians. With the Orphic, the divine origin and pre-existence of the soul, for which the body is but a temporary prison, and the doctrine of a retributive transmigration are more or less closely associated. It is hard to see how far the common belief of the people was influenced by these mysteries, but in poetical and philosophical literature their influence is unmistakable. This is seen especially in Pindar (d. c.438 BC) among the poets, and in Plato (d. 348 or 347 BC) among the philosophers.

Pindar has a definite promise of a future life of bliss for the good or the initiated-not merely for a few, but for all. Even the wicked who descend to Hades have hope. Having purged their wickedness they obtain rebirth on earth, and if, during three successive lives they prove themselves worthy of the boon, they will finally attain happiness in the Isles of the Blest. In Plato’s teaching, the divine dignity, spirituality, and essential immortality of the soul being established, issues of the future for every soul are made clearly dependent on its moral conduct in the present life. There is a divine judgment after death, a heaven, a hell, and an intermediate state for penance and purification. Rewards and punishments are graduated according to the merits and demerits of each. The incurably wicked are condemned to everlasting punishment in Tartarus; the less wicked or indifferent also go to Tartarus or to the Acherusian Lake, but only for a time. Those eminent for goodness go to a happy home, the highest reward of all being for those who have purified themselves by philosophy.

Judaism and Christianity

As for the Judaic and Christian traditions, without going into details, it will be sufficient to mention the basic features of Old Testament eschatology:

Old Testament eschatology, even in its earliest form, shares in the distinctive character of Old Testament religion generally. First, there are none of the erroneous ideas and tendencies that have a large place in ethnic religions. There is no pantheism, dualism, metempsychosis, or trace of Egyptian religious ideas or practices. It also stands apart from ethnic religions in its doctrine of God and of humanity in relation to God. Its doctrine of God is pure and uncompromising monotheism. The universe is ruled by the Wisdom, Justice, and Omnipotence of the one, true God. And humanity is created by God in His own image and likeness, and destined for relations of friendship and fellowship with Him.

The Old Testament contains a national eschatology centered on the hope of establishing a theocratic and Messianic kingdom on Earth. However spiritually this idea may be expressed in the prophecies, the Jews mostly clung to a material and political interpretation of the kingdom, coupling their own domination with the triumph of God and the worldwide establishment of His rule. There is much, indeed, to account for this in the obscurity of the prophecies themselves. However, the Messiah as a distinct person is not always mentioned in connection with the kingdom’s inauguration. This leaves room for the expectation of a theophany of Yahweh (Jehovah) in the character of judge and ruler. Even when the Messiah’s person and place are distinctly foreshadowed, the fusion together in prophecy of what we have learned to distinguish as his first and his second coming tends to give an eschatological character to the whole picture of the Messianic kingdom, when in reality it belongs only to its final stage. It is in such a way that the resurrection of the dead is introduced in Isaiah 26:19: “But your dead will live; their bodies will rise. You who dwell in the dust, wake up and shout for joy. Your dew is the like of the dew of the morning; the earth will give birth to her dead,” and Daniel 12:2: “Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt.”

In the Psalms and the Book of Job, we find a clear expression of hope or assurance that just people will attain a life of blessedness after death. Here is voiced, under Divine inspiration, the innate craving of the righteous soul for everlasting fellowship with God, the protest of a strong and vivid faith against the popular conception of Sheol. Omitting doubtful passages, it is enough to refer to Psalms 16, 17, 49, 50, and 73, which are clear enough to see that the good and pious will be eternally rewarded in another life, while the wicked and unjust be punished.

The same faith emerges in the Book of Job, first as a somewhat questionably expressed hope, and then as an assured conviction: “If only You would hide me in the grave and conceal me till Your anger has passed! If only You would set me a time and then remember me! If a man dies, will he live again? All the days of my hard service I will wait for my renewal to come. You will call and I will answer You; You will long for the creature Your hands have made” (14:13-14). The hope gradually becomes more absolute and, in 19:23-27, it takes the form of a definite certainty that he will see God, his Redeemer: “I know that my Redeemer lives and that in the end He will stand upon the earth [dust]. And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God; I myself will see Him with my own eyes-I, and not another. How my heart yearns within me!” As can be explicitly seen from all these quoted verses, the doctrine of Resurrection finds definite expression in subsequent revelations. It is clearly a personal resurrection that is taught.

Jewish apocryphal literature of the second and first centuries BC contains new eschatological developments, mainly concerned with a more definite doctrine of retribution after death. The word Sheol is still most commonly understood as the general abode of the departed awaiting the resurrection, an abode having different divisions for the reward of the righteous and the punishment of the wicked. In reference to the latter, Sheol is sometimes simply equivalent to Hell. The word Gehenna is usually applied to the final place of punishment of the wicked after the last judgment, or even immediately after death; paradise is often used to designate the intermediate abode of the souls of the just, and heaven their home of final blessedness. Christ’s use of these terms shows that the Jews of his day were sufficiently familiar with their New Testament meanings.

Eschatology in the New Testament.

A particular judgment of each soul takes place at death is implied in many New Testament passages (Luke 16:22 sqq., 23:43; Acts 1:25; etc.), and in the teaching of the Council of Florence regarding the speedy entry of each soul into heaven, purgatory, or hell.

Heaven: Heaven is the abode of the blessed, where (after the resurrection with glorified bodies) they will enjoy, in the company of Christ and the angels, the immediate vision of God face to face, being supernaturally elevated by the light of glory to experience such a vision. There are infinite degrees of glory corresponding to degrees of merit, but all are unspeakably happy in the eternal possession of God.

Purgatory: Purgatory is the intermediate state of unknown duration in which those who die imperfect, but not unrepentant of mortal sin, undergo purification to qualify for admission into heaven. They share in the communion of saints and are benefited by our prayers and good works.

Hell: In Catholic teaching, Hell designates the place or state of human beings (and angels) who, because of sin, are excluded forever from the Beatific Vision. Beyond affirming the existence of such a state, with varying degrees of punishment corresponding to degrees of guilt and its eternal duration, Catholic doctrine does not go. It is a terrible and mysterious truth, but it is clearly and emphatically taught by Christ and the Apostles. Rationalists may deny its eternity, despite the authority of Christ, and those professing Christians unwilling to admit it may try to explain away Christ’s words. However, according to Catholic teaching, it remains the Divinely revealed solution to the problem of moral evil. The restitutionist view, which in its Origenist form was condemned at the Council of Constantinople in 543 and later at the Fifth General Council, is the cardinal dogma of modern Universalism and is favored more or less by liberal Protestants and Anglicans. Annihilationists, on the other hand, believe that the finally impenitent will be annihilated or cease to exist.

The Resurrection of the body: Catholic teaching states that all the dead who are to be judged will rise with the bodies they had in this life. But nothing is defined as to what is required to constitute this identity of the risen and transformed with the present body. Though not formally defined, it is sufficiently certain that there is to be only one general resurrection, simultaneous for the good and the bad.

The consummation of all things: There is mention also of the physical universe sharing in the general consummation (II Peter 3:13; Romans 8:19 sqq). The present Heaven and Earth will be destroyed, and a new Heaven and Earth take their place. But what precisely this process will involve, or what purpose the renovated world will serve, are not revealed.

Recommended Reading:
The Quran's arguments for the resurrection

Last Updated on October 03, 2000

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