Is Eschatology Important?
Eschatology is the study of last things (εσχατολογία). Most often it refers to the end of the world, particularly Jesus’ prediction that within the lifetime of some of his disciples he would return to usher in the end times. The prediction is found in Olivet discourse, referring to the Mount of Olives where Jesus delivered his prediction in Matthew and Mark. It is found in all three synoptic gospels in similar form (Matthew 24, Mark 13, Luke 21).
At that time people will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. . . . Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away. (Mark 13: 26,30-31)
Jesus was wrong. He didn’t return within the lifetime of some of his followers. He hasn’t returned yet, and doesn’t seem likely to. His return is unlikely because we live in a different world, in which the magical reappearance of the Lord is unbelievable.
A great deal of energy and ink has been spent justifying Jesus’ claim. Rudolf Bultmann states the problem clearly. Modern man no longer believes, and can no longer believe, in the cosmology of the biblical world, the world of myth, magic, and wonder, where heaven is above and hell below. The return of Jesus on clouds of glory only makes sense in that world. In today’s world, the hope that someday Christ will return is impossible even for many who want to believe. What is a deeply religious man like Bultmann going to do? What are the rest of us who long to believe going to do?