Eschatology and Time

What is the concept of time in the Old and New Testament?

EARLE HILGERT, Instructor in Bible and Systematic Theology, SDA Theological Seminary

A British writer recently remarked that "the curtain of darkness which at present divides Europe, and darkens the world, is woven of metaphysical thread." Just as this is true in the world of political ideologies, so it is often true of the differences that divide the religious world, and perhaps nowhere more strikingly than in the discussions over escha­tology that are so popular at the present time. Current theological writers say much of the second coming of Christ, the end of the world, the judgment, and the resurrection. Yet much of this is quite unintelligible to many who read it, because, even though they may not realize it, they do not share the writer's basic philo­sophical presuppositions. This problem of understanding lies not only in definitions, but also in some of the much deeper, elemental problems of the universe.

Perhaps no metaphysical problem is of more importance to the question of eschatology than that of the nature of time, for eschatology has to do with the "last things," and the word "last" implies an involvement with time. It is the purpose of this article to trace those concepts of time in the ancient world that bear particularly on Christian eschatology.

The Concept of Time in the Old Testament

The sense of history in the Old Testament is keen. There is a vivid consciousness that it has a beginning, that its course is measured by time, and that there will be a time of the end. Thus the creation story opens with the words, "In the beginning" (Gen. 1:1), and the ensuing process of creation is recognized to have had a temporal structure in seven successive days. Following this the patriarchs are listed genealogically, with specific lengths of life given for each one. This sense of time consciousness continues through­out the historical books, where an elaborate chronological pattern is maintained. As the Hebrew prophets turned their eyes to the future, they presented it also many times in terms of a temporal structure. Thus the proph­ecies of Jeremiah and Daniel especially unveil the future as a definite, continuous chronologi­cal pattern. In foretelling the Babylonian captivity, Jeremiah declared that it would last for 70 years (Jer. 29:10). Daniel's time periods --the 1260 days, the 70 weeks, and others—presuppose a concept of history in which time is an essential factor.

This consciousness of time among the He­brews is even more striking when Old Testa­ment eschatology is taken into consideration. Repeatedly in speaking of conditions in the distant future, the prophets employed specific time expressions: "in those days, and in that time" (Jer. 50:4, 20), "in the latter days" (Jer. 49:39), "in that day" (Zech. 13:1), "the day of the Lord" (Zech. 14:1), "the time of the end" (Dan. 12:4).

From the foregoing it appears that the He­brews conceived of time as having a beginning (or at least the world as having a beginning at a point in time), they saw themselves at a further point in time, and they anticipated their escha­tological expectations to occur at a certain point within the limits of time. Consequently, the Hebrew concept of time may be represented by a straight line. It was a linear concept of time.

The Greek Concept of Time

The idea of the nature of time that was held by the Greek intellectual world stands in striking contrast to that of the Hebrews. The Greek philosophers generally held that matter existed before the creation of the world. Thus Anaxi­mander (c. 611-c. 547 B.c.) taught that the basic stuff of the universe is eternal, and that from this a succession of worlds are formed one after another ad infinitum. Plato held that creation was only a formulation of matter by a demiurge, a world architect, rather than a creation from nothing. For him, indeed, creation could hardly be spoken of as having occurred at a point of time: it was an eternal fact—the impact of timeless reality upon matter.'

In this view, time can have no beginning and no end. If we attempt to portray it graphically, instead of a straight line, as with the Hebrew concept, we must draw a circle—an endless line. As the Greeks observed nature, they found much to suggest to them this concept of time. The sun rose and set each day, the planets traveled through their cyclical courses in the heavens, the seasons followed each other in succession and regularly returned; even the gen­erations of mankind repeated themselves unceas­ingly in birth, youth, maturity, old age, and death. All this led the Greco-Roman world to the cyclical concept of history and of time. Thus the poet Lucretius (c. 98-55 n.c.) could write:

"No single thing abides, but all things flow.

Fragment to fragment clings; the things thus grow

Until we know and name them. By degrees

They melt, and are no more the things we know.

"Globed from the atoms, falling slow or swift

I see the suns, I see the systems lift

Their forms; and even the systems and their suns

Shall go back slowly to the eternal drift.

"Thou too, O Earth—thine empires, lands and seas—

Least, with thy stars, of all the galaxies,

Globed from the drift like these, like these thou too

Shalt go. Thou art going, hour by hour, like these.

"Nothing abides. Thy seas in delicate haze

Go off; those mooned sands forsake their place;

And where they are shall other seas in turn

Mow with their scythes of whiteness other bays." 4

Such a concept of time posed the question of what is beyond. If a man believes that time is linear, the "beyond" is farther down the line of time; but if he conceives time as cyclical, to be truly "beyond" it must be outside the circle of time, and so outside and beyond time itself.

Plato provided an answer for this problem with his concept of aion, a state of infinite time­lessness. Previously, in the Greek language, aion had meant a period of time, relative to that to which it was applied. Among many Greek thinkers it continued to be used in this way, but among others it was used in the Pla­tonic sense of "timelessness." Consequently at the time of the writing of the New Testament and during the period of the early Greek-speaking church, aion had both meanings—that of a long, indeterminate period of time (an aeon), and that of timelessness, a state of ex­istence unlimited by the categories of past, present, and future, an existence in an eternal "now."

The Concept of Time in the New Testament

This raises the question as to which of these time concepts was that implicit in the thinking of the writers of the New Testament. The New Testament does not cover a long historical period. Nevertheless it shows clear indications of a linear concept of time, as Oscar Cullmann has shown." Thus John, like Genesis, knows a -beginning" (ch. 1:1); his creator is not a Greek demiurge, but a true Creator without whom "was not anything made that was made" (verse 3). Thus there is a temporal beginning. What is even more, God's dealings with men in the past and His intentions for their future are also portrayed in terms of time. "When the fulness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son" (Gal. 4:4). In the past God spoke through the prophets, but "in these last days" He has "spoken unto us by his Son" (Heb. 1:2).

Particularly significant in this regard is the word kairos, indicating a specific season, a particularly auspicious time. Repeatedly in the New Testament this word emphasizes the fact that God has dealt with men at successive points of time. Examples of this are Paul's declaration that God "bath in due times manifested his word" (Titus 1:3) and that Christ "gave himself a ransom for all, to be testified in due time" (1 Tim. 2:6). Jesus warned His disciples, "It is not for you to know the times or the seasons, which the Father bath put in his own power" (Acts 1:7; cf. 1 Peter 1:11), and the Revelation declares, "The time is at hand" (Rev. 1:3). All this indicates that the concept of time in the New Testament, like that in the Old, is linear rather than cyclical.

This fact is illustrated further by the use of the word akin in the New Testament. As noted above, in apostolic times this word had two very different meanings: a long period of time, and a state of timelessness. Which of these meanings did the New Testament writers attach to it?

Repeatedly the New Testament writers use aiOn in a temporal, historical sense. In fact, the KJV translates it "world" thirty-two times, in the sense that this world is a long period of time, an aeon. Thus Paul could speak of "this world" (aiOn) and "that which is to come" (Eph. 1:21). Similarly it may be translated "age," as in Paul's reference to the mystery "which in other ages was not made known unto the sons of men, as it is now revealed" (Eph. 3:5; cf. Col. 1:26). This same meaning was extended into the future, as in Paul's doxology, "Unto him be glory . . . throughout all ages" (Eph. 3:21)—a reference to eternity within, as well as be­yond, time. Even the phrase "forever and ever" (see pdf version for Gree text), in which aion is used doubly and in the plural, refers not to timelessness, but to a vast extent of time reaching interminately into the future. It is safe to say that there is no clear evidence of the Platonic concept of aion in the New Testament.

These conclusions, that the New Testament view of time is linear rather than cyclical, and that the term aiOn is basically temporal rather than timeless, have an essential significance for eschatology. For in this view the things that are "beyond"—the second coming, the judgment, the punishment of the wicked and the reward of the righteous—are all to take place, not "beyond history" in a timeless eternity, but at future points of time.

Although the Hebrew and apostolic Christian views of time were essentially linear, a tradi­tional Christian view of eschatology has been nontemporal—that is, it has held that the second coming, the judgment, and ultimate re­wards and punishments are "beyond history," outside the limits of time, in a timeless, spirit­ual eternity, and so cannot be expected actually to occur as events on this earth, or in any material place. Such a view, popular for many centuries in many quarters of Christianity, ap­pears to be traceable to the fact that in the second and third centuries A.D. the Greek cyclical concept of time became popular in the church.

This un-Biblical idea, derived ultimately from Greek thought, has dominated much of Christian thinking in regard to the last things, and is a basis of the division that exists in religious thought today regarding eschatology. Christian theologians who speak of the Second Advent, the judgment, and the future life frequently find themselves using the same terms, but with very different connotations precisely because their concepts regarding time are so basically different--one group, whether they realize it or not, holding to the Greek cyclical concept and so expecting the realization of their hopes "beyond history"; the other, on the basis of the Biblical linear view of time, anticipating the last things to occur within time as part of the sequence of world history.

Insight into this problem of the nature of time can help one to understand his fellow Christian who may hold a different view of the future. It also gives the Seventh-day Adventist assurance of the firm Scriptural basis of his belief that the second coming of Christ and subsequent events will take place in the temporal history of humanity.


1 K. B. Smellie, Why We Read History (London, 1947), p. 71.

2 Frank Thilly and Ledger Wood, A History of Philosophy (New York, 1951), pp. 24-26.

3 Ibid., pp. 83-85.

4 Paraphrase by Mallock: Lucretius on Life and Death, pp. 15, 16, quoted in Will Durant, The Story of Philosophy (New York, 1951), pp. 77, 78.

5 Oscar Cullmann, Christ and Time (London. 1951), pp. 37-68. This contains an outstanding discussion of many of the points raised in the present article.

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EARLE HILGERT, Instructor in Bible and Systematic Theology, SDA Theological Seminary

June 1956

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