Eshatology — The First Period


The church of God and of our Lord Jesus Christ, during its New Testament infancy, probably looked upon the second advent or coming of Christ as near at hand. We must not misunderstand the expression, “during its New Testament infancy.” This expression does not refer to the infancy of the church as during the early years of the New Dispensation. We must bear in mind that the church of God has been in existence throughout all the ages, from the beginning of time. This is also the position of our confessions, as expressed, e.g., in our Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 21. In answer to the question, “What believest thou concerning the ‘holy catholic church’ of Christ?”, we read: “That the Son of God from the beginning to the end of the world, gathers, defends, and preserves to Himself by His Spirit and word, out of the whole human race, a church chosen to everlasting life, agreeing in true faith; and that I am and for ever shall remain, a living member thereof.” So, in this answer we read that the church of God exists from the beginning of the world. When, then, we speak of the New Testament infancy of the church, we refer, of course, to its infancy as during the New Dispensation, the infancy or early years of the New Testament. We have already called attention to this expectation of our Lord’s early return as very common in the church of God during these early years. This expectation of an early return of Christ undoubtedly was fed and received impetus from the fierce persecutions which raged against the church of Christ during these early centuries. I suppose that the people of God assumed that Christ could not permit these fierce attacks upon His flock to continue very long. 

From the notes of the late Rev. H. Hoeksema on the History of Dogma, we now quote the following from what he writes concerning this first period, 80 – 250 A.D.:

From some parts of the New Testament it is evident that even at the time of the apostles there was a rather general expectation of an early second advent of the Lord. This expectation was kept alive and continued in the early church during the period under discussion. This was especially true in the first part of this period and under the pressure of more or less severe persecutions which the church had to endure. It may also be said that there was a strong tendency toward a chiliastic conception of Christ’s advent, although it cannot be maintained that millennialism was generally accepted by the church. Some of the fathers do not speak of a millennium at all; others oppose the idea. Nevertheless the chiliastic conception was found not only by some Judaizing sects, as the Ebionites but also by such fathers as Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, and Tertullian. And they often picture the millennium as a kingdom of peace in very strong and realistic colors. The teaching of the glorious resurrection of the body was general in this period. It was generally accepted that the same body that was buried would be raised in the last day. The resurrection of the body is not a new creation. Several rather speculative questions were raised even at this time in connection with the resurrection of the body. These questions concerned especially the form of the resurrection body, and more particularly those members for which there will be no place and no function in glory, as for instance, the digestive organs. As far as the latter was concerned, Irenaeus uses the rather less appealing illustration of the mule. Origen makes an attempt to eliminate from the conception of the resurrection all these elements to which reason might object and in that way of rationalism sometimes almost loses the reality of the resurrection. As might be expected the Gnostics denied the resurrection of the body entirely. Closely connected with the resurrection in this first period was the doctrine of the last judgment. Both the righteous and the unrighteous would be called out of the graves and appear before the judgment seat of God. With some of the fathers the idea is found that the Father Himself would appear in judgment. Others, however, teach that all judgment is delivered to the Son. However, this may have been a mere difference of emphasis. 

Since the end of all things and the perfection of salvation were waiting for that final judgment, the question arose even in this period concerning the condition of the souls before the resurrection. The answer which the Apostolic Fathers gave to this question was rather vague. About the place of the souls between death and resurrection they speak very little. Justin Martyr speaks of a better place for believers and a worse place for the ungodly. As to their condition, they do not teach definitely that the souls of believers immediately after death go to heaven. They do have indeed a certain presentiment of their eternal destination and wait for the resurrection of the body. Only the martyrs are received up into Paradise immediately after death, but even this Paradise must be distinguished from heaven. This was the conception of Irenaeus, and Tertullian approximately agrees with him. The place of the dead he conceives as being in the heart of the earth. It was divided into two apartments, separated from each other by a deep ravine. On the one side of this ravine was the place for the believing souls. On the other side was the fire which cannot be quenched. Far above both these two parts of the Sheol is Paradise. Thither went Christ after His death. There are Enoch and Elijah, and there also the martyrs find their place until the resurrection. 

Gnostics taught that the souls of the perfect elite who are even now risen with Christ and attained to the perfect knowledge (gnosis), after death enter immediately into the fullness of glory. Others who did not reach that height of perfection in this life must pass through various stages after death until they reach that same fullness of glory. This might seem to be the beginning of the Romish doctrine of Purgatory. In fact Clement of Alexandria and Origen do speak of a certain purifying fire through which the souls of believers enter into glory. However it would be an error to find with them the beginning of the doctrine of Purgatory. It is evident from their writings that, by this purifying fire they mean something quite different, a mystical process whereby the souls are cleansed from the defilement of sin. Origen even refers to this fire in connection with the final destruction of the world. Of the doctrine of Purgatory, however, there is no trace in this period.

According to Hagenbach, there were premillenarian tendencies in this early period of the church of God in the New Dispensation. The book of Revelation (which many ascribed to the apostle John, while others denied this, and even contested its canonicity), in its twentieth chapter, gave currency to the idea of a millennial kingdom, together with that of a second resurrection, also found in the same book; and the imagination of those who dwelt fondly upon sensuous impressions, delineated these millennial hopes in the most glowing terms. 

This was the case with the Judaizing Ebionites, and now we again quote from Hagenback’s History of Doctrines, Vol. I, page 214:

Jerome, in his Comment on

Isaiah 66:20

(which reads as follows, quoted by the undersigned: And they shall bring all your brethren for an offering unto the Lord out of all nations upon horses, and in chariots and in litters, and upon mules, and upon swift beasts, to my holy mountain Jerusalem, saith the Lord, as the children of Israel, bring an offering in a clean vessel into the house of the Lord.), observes that the Ebionites understand the passage, “And they shall bring all your brethren for an offering unto the Lord out of all nations upon horses, and in chariots, and in litters, and upon mules, and upon swift beasts,” in its literal sense, and apply it to chariots drawn by four horses and conveyances of every description. They believe that at the last day, when Christ shall reign at Jerusalem, and the temple be rebuilt, the Israelites will be gathered together from all the ends of the earth. They will have no wings to fly, but they will come in wagons of Gaul; in covered chariots of war, and on horses of Spain and Capadocia; their wives will be carried in litters, and ride upon mules of Numidia instead of horses. Those who hold offices, dignitaries, and princes, will come in coaches from Britain, Spain, Gaul, and the regions where the river Rhine is divided into two arms; the subdued nations will hasten to meet them. But the Clementine Homilies and the Gnostic Ebionites, far from adopting such gross notions, even oppose them.

But this was also true of several orthodox Fathers, such as Papias of Hierapolis, Justin, Irenaeus, and Tertullian. Eusebius accuses Papias of having spread millennialism because of a misunderstanding of the apostles. Justin, however, writing at the time of Papias, says that it was the general faith of all orthodox Christians, and that only the Gnostics did not share in it. 

According to Gieseler, Text Book of Church History:

In all the works of this period (the first two centuries) millenarianism is so prominent, that we can not hesitate to consider it as universal in an age, when such sensuous motives were certainly not unnecessary to animate men to suffer for Christianity.

However, comparing the writings of Clement of Rome, Ignatius, Polycarp, Tatian, Athenagoras and Theophilus of Antioch, we find that in none of them millenarian notions are propounded. 

Let us now examine some of the writings of the Apostolic Fathers. These leaders in the church lived immediately after the time of the apostles, and were called Apostolic Fathers because they are said to have been taught personally by the apostles. They lived in the first half of the second century. Hagenbach names, first of all, Papias of Hierapolis. 

Papias has the credit of association with Polycarp, in the friendship of St. John himself, and of “others who had seen the Lord.” He is said to have been bishop of Hierapolis, in Phrygia, and to have died about the same time that Polycarp suffered; but even this is questioned. So little do we know of one whose lost books, could they be recovered, might reverse the received judgment, and establish his claim to the disputed tribute which makes him, like Apollos, “an eloquent man, and mighty in the Scriptures.” He was a hearer of the Apostle John, and was on terms of intimate intercourse with many who had known the Lord and His apostles. Eusebius speaks of Papias as a man most learned in all things, and well acquainted with the Scriptures. But in another passage he describes him as of small capacity. The fragments of Papias are translated from the text given in Routh’sReliquiae Sacrae, vol. 1.