The Eschatology of Paul.

By Professor Samuel MacComb, D.D.,

Queen's University, Kingston, Canada.


Other-Worldliness was the prevailing note of the primitive church. Believing, as it did, that the extraordinary events of the time betokened a speedy end of the world, it rose above the visible order, and threw forward its intensest interest and most passionate hope upon the approaching glory of the crucified Messiah. Hence the doctrine of last things is very prominent in the Pauline letters. Yet it must be said that as on other points, so here, the apostle does not give a systematic and logically wrought-out presentation of this theme. No formal reconciliation is attempted between the idea of final judgment in which every man will receive according to his deeds, and the idea that his deeds are absolutely devoid of all merit, and therefore cannot form a ground of judgment. Nor, again, has he cleared up the meaning of the spiritual body or how it is connected with our present material frames. Still, his main ideas can be disentangled and the central current of his thought can be traced. Much of the interpreter's perplexity will disappear if he keeps in mind the just remark of Dr. R. H. Charles:" St. Paul began with an expectation of the future that he had inherited largely from Judaism; but under the influence of Greek formative conceptions he parted gradually from this, and entered on a process of development in the course of which the heterogeneous elements were for the most part silently dropped."1

And first, as to his notion of an intermediate state. How does he conceive the state of dead believers? In one passage he describes them as "asleep in Jesus,"2 and yet, as we learn from a later epistle, he is Conscious that departure from the body leads to enjoyment of Christ's presence.3 How are these two thoughts to be reconciled? One alluring interpretation makes the apostle mean that the blessed dead sleep, so far as activity is concerned, and wake in yearning for a fuller fruition of their hopes. As the poetic language of the Old Testament puts it:" I sleep but my heart waketh."4 But the truth is, the two ideas, if equally predicated of the invisible state, are essentially contradictory. "Sleep" is simply a metaphorical description of the outward, physical phenomena, and must not be carried over to the condition of the disembodied spirit. The apostle would soothe the anxious fears of his Thessalonian converts by the reflection that the believer in dying is laid to rest by Jesus, just as a mother puts her child to sleep. "To be with Christ which is far better " implies the enjoyment of full personal fellowship, which means a state of vivid and intense consciousness.

In the second place, How are we to conceive of Christ's victory over death and the final triumph of life? Paul casts his doctrine in a Jewish mold. He conceives of the close of the world's history as an eschatological drama in which may be distinguished four acts leading up to and culminating in a grand dénouement: (1) The Parousia, or Second Coming of the Messiah; (2) The Resurrection; (3) The Final Judgment; (4) The Resignation of the Mediatorial Kingdom into the Hands of the Father, that God may be All in All.

1 The Parousia. Paul shared the belief of the early disciples that Christ would visibly return in form and glory in the near future. He himself expected to be alive when his Lord returned.5 This expectation seems to have fallen into the background, as the apostle's horizon widened, and the growing interests of the divine kingdom engrossed his attention; still, that Christ should appear in glory during his own lifetime remained for Paul a possibility up to near his end.6 On the other hand, the second advent of the Messiah was not to be unheralded. The apostle accepts the current Jewish apocalyptic conception of the "Messiah's travail-pangs," and teaches that these woes shall find a climax in the appearance of the Man of Sin, the anti-Messiah, probably a dread incarnation of anti-Christian Judaism. The picture of this monster of evil is drawn partly from the prophecy of the little horn in the book of Daniel, descriptive of Antiochus Epiphanes.7 Before the false Messiah could make his appearance, the Roman empire, which acted as a restraining force, must be dissolved and disappear.8 In all this, Paul is speaking in the manner of Old Testament prophecy; he is constructing the visions of the future out of materials taken from his experience in the present.

2. The Resurrection. Christ's second advent is to be the signal for a momentous change in the state of the living and the dead. Those that are alive will be clothed with a celestial vesture at whose touch this mortal body will vanish away;9 and the dead shall rise, not with their old fleshly bodies, but with bodies spiritual, holy, powerful, and immortal.10 St. Paul does not describe the nature of the spiritual body; he is debarred from doing so by the very fact that it transcends all earthly experience. It is clear, however, that it does not consist of flesh and blood, for these cannot inherit the kingdom of God.11 It The relation of the present to the future body is compared to that of a seed or plant. To the vital germ in the seed God gives a new form of existence; so also he will transform our present mode of existence to one suited to a higher realm of being. But the precise connection of the two modes Paul has nowhere defined. Theologians since his day have, however, not been so modest. They tell us of an immortal yet material germ lying in the grave from which the new body at the last day will be developed! Nay more, they have analyzed the substance of the spiritual body and it turns out to be "a non-atomic enswathement of the soul, ethereal, intangible, invisible," which is being gradually woven even now by the soul, so that when the body falls away at death, this other body takes its place as the organ of expression for the personality. These are speculations which go beyond Paul's thinking. It is enough for him that in the other world he will not lead a bodiless or phantom life without reality or warmth, but will wear a corporeity suited to the needs and capacities of the spirit. On one point, however, he speaks clearly. The spiritual body becomes ours at death. This is the view in which he finally rests, whatever may have been his earlier idea. "We know,'' he says, "that if the earthly house of our tabernacle be dissolved, we have (not "shall have") a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens."12 Therefore in his view there is a sense in which we may say the resurrection is at death. The thought of passing into the other world a " naked " or disembodied ghost, without substantiality, as it were a pale, vapory phantom, appears repellent and impossible to the apostle's mind. No, it cannot be. God will give him a body which at least will have this connection with the earthly one, that they are both alike expressions of one and the same person.

It is to be noted that the doctrine of the resurrection is developed only in connection with those who are in Christ and who possess, therefore, an immanent principle of life which is also a principle of resurrection.13 As proof that St. Paul taught the doctrine of a universal resurrection, Principal Salmond adduces a passage from the apostle's speech before Felix:' Having hope toward God which these also themselves look for, that there shall be a resurrection of the just and the unjust."14 If we could be sure that we had here the exact language of St. Paul, the point in dispute would be at once settled. But in the present state of critical opinion it would be hazardous to accept the speeches in the Acts as verbatim shorthand reports, especially touching points not corroborated by the teaching of unquestionably genuine Pauline documents. And we have seen that the resurrection is viewed by Paul as the peculiar privilege of those within whom now the spirit of God operates. It is alleged, indeed, that as admittedly the apostle teaches the fact of a universal judgment,15 he must have held the idea of a universal resurrection.16 But this argument is seriously weakened by the consideration that for the apostle the judgment was near at hand, and, therefore, most probably he conceived it as taking effect upon unbelievers who should be alive at the last day. Our conclusion, then, is that Paul asserts the resurrection-life only of those who here and now undergo an ethereal death and resurrection through union with Christ. If he held to a general resurrection, then he must have done so on grounds which he has not stated.

3. The Final Judgment. The second coming is coincident with a sifting and testing of character, a separation between the good and the bad, and an exclusion of all that is sinful from the messianic kingdom. The "Day of Yahweh" of the Old Testament prophets has now become the Day of Jesus the Messiah, b! whom God shall judge the secrets of men.17 The terrors of that day are always before his eyes: under its shadow rests the inner world of thought and emotion. Before its near approach all merely human interests are eclipsed, become as things of naught. The apostle knows nothing of the strange conceit of some modern religious sects that believers will escape the judgment, and that only unbelievers will be called to account. His words are explicit:" For we must all be made manifest before the judgment-seat of Christ; that each one may receive the things done in the body, according to what he hath done, whether it be good or bad."18 It is here that a Pauline antinomy, already referred to, comes to the surface. If salvation is to depend on the quality of our works, what becomes of justification by faith? Perhaps Paul would have answered: "The works which meet the divine requirements in the judgment-day are not external acts of obedience uninspired by faith and love, but are the fruits of the working of the indwelling spirit." Moreover, a distinction is drawn between the beginning and the end of the Christian's career. The beginning is marked by God's justifying act conditioned on faith; the end receives a divine judgment which is passed upon the total spiritual outcome of the life taken as a whole.

4. The Resignation of the Kingdom into the Hands of the Father. After the judgment, the final act of the drama takes place; the Messiah, having conquered all his enemies, delivers up the kingdom into the hands of God that he may be all in all.19 It is well known that this language has given rise to the belief that Paul held that ultimately the entire universe of spiritual intelligence would be reconciled to God. But in the context he is speaking of an "abolition of all rule and all authority, and all power" opposed to the divine will, and of the subjection of "all things" under the Messiah. The "all" over whom God is to reign as sole king is coincident with the "all" subjected to the Messiah. That this latter " all " cannot include all spiritual beings is clear from the fact that the judgment makes a moral distinction and separates between those who are loyal adherents of the Messiah, and those who are his enemies. The idea of a universal restoration cannot be reconciled with the distinctively Pauline doctrines of justification, of judgment, and of union with Christ. For Paul there is a dualism in the moral universe which refuses to be resolved by the utmost efforts of his thought and imagination.

The question arises: How much of Paul's eschatological doctrine appeals as spiritually valid to the modern Christian conscience? When we strip it of the Jewish dramatic schema in which it is envisaged, and pierce to its spiritual and eternal essence, we may sum up the result in the words of Ritschl 20 "The form of expectation has not maintained itself in the church. The hope of the church gives up the expectation that this earth will be the scene of Christ's dominion, while it holds fast the practical truths of the divine judgment, and of the separation of the blessed and the lost as well as the final attainment of the highest good by the former. . . . . The important point is not to have our curiosity satisfied, but to be assured that no one is blessed except in union with all the blessed in the kingdom of God."



1) JOWETT, Lectures. p. 379

2) I Thess. 4:14 (διὶτοῦΙησοῦ)

3) Phil. 1:23.

4) Song of Songs, 5:2.

5) I Thess. 4:15; 2 Thess. 19:23.

6) Phil. 4:5.

7) Dan. 11:37-9.

8) 2 Thess. 2:6, 7.

9) 2 Cor. 5:2-4. 

10) I Cor. 15:42-44

11) I Cor. 15:50.

12) 2 Cor. 5:1 .

13) Rom. 8:11.

14) Acts 24:15; cf. SALMOND, Christian Doctrine of Immortality, p. 560.

15) Rom. 2:6.

16) SALMOND, op. cit., ibid.

17) Rom. 2:16.

18) 2 Cor. 5:10

19) I Cor. 15:24-8.

20) Unterricht in der christlichen Religion, Vol. III, sec. 77.