[K:NWTS 6/3 (Dec 1991) 19-26]

Structural Strands in New Testament Eschatology

John Murray

There are three distinct strands in the structure of New Testament eschatology: (1) the strand represented by "the last days"; (2) the strand expressed in the contrast between "this age" and "the age to come"; and (3) the strand intimated in such expressions as "our citizenship is in heaven" (Phil. 3:20) and "we have been raised up together and made to sit together in the heavenlies in Christ Jesus" (Eph. 2:6; cf. Col. 3:1-3). We might speak of these three strands respectively as anticipated eschatology, prospective eschatology and projective eschatology. It might appear that there is incoherence or incompatibility here. If eschatology is anticipated or realized, how can it be prospective; and if it is projective and we are now conceived of as projected into the realm of the heavenly, how can there be any place for hope—in other words, for the prospective? "Hope that is seen is not hope: for what a man sees, why does he still hope for?" (Rom. 8:24). That the New Testament is not conscious of any incompatibility is quite apparent from the fact that in the Pauline teaching, for example, where the prospective and the projective are conspicuously in evidence, both are uttered in the same breath. Paul says "our citizenship is in heaven"—that is the projective. But he immediately adds "from which also we look for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ"—that is definitely prospective. The one did not displace the other nor did the one make the other superfluous. Again, after having referred to Christ's location at the right hand of God, he says, "Your life is hid with Christ in God" but adds immediately, "When Christ, our life, will be manifested, then we also shall be made manifest with him in glory" (Col. 3:4). It is superficial understanding, to say the least, that cannot perceive the congruity of these two perspectives. It is an impoverished faith indeed that does not contain them both.


The structure represented by "the last days" is to the effect that "the last days" are now running their course and began to run their course with the first advent of Christ, at least not later than his public ministry. There is good reason to believe that New Testament believers recognized in the messianic advent the fulfillment of the glory, blessing and peace associated with the last days in Old Testament prophecy. There is then a distinctively retrospective factor in this concept—it is the fact of Christ's past advent that gives warrant for this perspective and for the conviction that the last days have begun to run their course. In other words, it is the eschatological significance of the past advent that gives to these days the eschatological character that belongs to them as the last days. This segment of history is "the consummation of the ages" (Heb. 9:26) and "the ends of the ages" (1 Cor. 10:11) because Christ has appeared to put away sin, to accomplish redemption.

But while there is this distinctly retrospective aspect to this concept, there is also a prospective. In the very concept, there is the intimation of terminus—it would hardly be feasible to regard the last days as continuing for ever and identify them with the age to come. It is the idea of segment that is conveyed and therefore a period of time with not only a beginning but also an end; it is the last segment of the days. Hence the eschatological terminus is intimated as well as the eschatological inception. "The last days" are charged, therefore, with eschatological realization by reason of the eschatological significance of that event from which they take their inception and they are charged with eschatological expectation because they announce the eschatological terminus. History has begun to wind up its lines, but it has not yet wound them up. The eschatological drama has begun, but it has not been consummated. The fact that it has begun plus the fact that it will be consummated charges the present with eschatological imminence. These days are looking for and hastening the advent of the Lord in glory. They fill the present with hope for believers and warning for unbelievers.

While this prospective significance of the last days must be fully appreciated, yet, by way of distinctiveness, it is the retrospective that is most in evidence. The concept attaches itself very largely to the first coming of Christ and to the eschatological significance of that event. These are the last days because Christ has come in the flesh. This retrospective emphasis is complementary to the realized eschatology which it intimates.


The second strand in the structure of New Testament eschatology is the antithetic—the contrast between this age and the age to come. It can hardly be questioned but it is the prospective, the hope of the future, that is most prominent in this perspective—in a word, the expectation of the age to come. It is quite consonant with this perspective that the present age has a distinctly depreciatory complexion—it is an evil age and Satan is the God of this age (Gal. 1:4; 2 Cor. 4:4). Because it is evil, the rulers of this age did not know the Lord of Glory (1 Cor. 2:6-8). This depreciation of the present age arises to a considerable extent from the contrast with the age to come. The age to come is the age of consummation, of consummated righteousness and bliss and therefore bears a distinctly favorable complexion. So much is this the case that it can be equated with the reward of the righteous and therefore represented as unqualifiedly good (Lk. 20:35). The forces of the kingdom of God, the powers operative in the dispensation of the gospel, powers which have broken into this world's history for the salvation of men, are the powers of the age to come (Heb. 6:5). It is the age associated with and introduced by the appearing of the glory of the great God and our Savior Jesus Christ. For this reason it is no wonder that it should not only be coordinated with but practically identified with the eschatological hope. 

These two strands of New Testament eschatology are on the horizontal line of vision. Because this is the case they have to be related to each other on the horizontal line of history. It is not difficult to make this correlation. We cannot indeed equate this age with the last days. In the Old Testament perspective, the last days were future; in the New Testament, they are present. From the standpoint of the New Testament writers, they must have recently begun to run their course. And we can say with good reason that they were conceived to have begun to run their course with the first advent of Christ. We cannot say this of the present age. We have no evidence by which to relate its inception to the advent of Christ. And the presumption is that the present age was conceived of as the whole of temporal history up to the second advent of the Lord. All we can say, therefore, is that the present age comprises the last days and the latter is the final segment of the present age. These two are therefore coincident to this extent—that the last days are the last lap of this present age. This explains a common characteristic of both. This age is evil, the last days are characterized by many evils. In them scoffers abound and perilous times come.


The third strand of the structure is the projective. How is it related to the other two strands? There is a marked difference of perspective. The perspective of the last days and of the two ages is horizontal. The last days has a retrospective perspective as well as a prospective. The contrast of the two ages has a markedly prospective perspective. The third strand has a vertical perspective—it looks to the heavenlies in Christ Jesus and to the life hid with Christ in God.

There is one fact that may be noted in respect of historical relationship, namely, that it is in the period of the last days and of the present age that believers living upon this earth entertain this upward-looking perspective. It could not have relevance except as they live in this world. There will be no need for the projective when they are taken to be with the Lord, either at death or at his advent. The projective faith is, therefore, coincident with the last days and this age. But obviously there is a marked difference in perspective. It is the difference between the backward and forward, on the one hand, and the upward, on the other.

When we examine this question more closely, we find that this upward perspective is indispensable to the retrospective and the prospective and that the retrospective and the prospective are indispensable to the projective. The upward perspective is a necessary element of faith because of the position which Christ occupies during the interadventual period. Christ is in the heavenlies at the right hand of God and he as the exalted Redeemer and Lord is the center of the believer's faith. Believers indeed have faith in Christ's first advent and in the eschatological drama of temporal history which that advent inaugurated. They have faith and hope in the second advent and in the age of consummated righteousness and bliss which the second advent will inaugurate. Believing interest is focused upon past and future and upon past and future as epitomized in the first and second advents of the Lord. But they are also interested in the present and, because so, they are supremely interested in the risen and ascended Lord. Faith of the present is focused in the risen Lord. Faith is concerned not only with a Christ who came and with a Christ who will come again, but with the Christ who now is and now is as the one exalted far above all principality and power and might and dominion and every name that is named, not only in this age but in the one to come. Hence the upward perspective that binds past, present and future together within the compass of faith, because it is the present position, office and function of the Redeemer that unite the past of our Lord's revelation and the future of his manifestation in relevant relationship. 

We have not, however, given a proper account of the projective strand if we construe it simply in terms of the upward look or vertical perspective. It is not, strictly speaking, an upward look. The essence of this projective aspect is that believers, redeemed by the first advent and waiting for the consummation of redemption in the adoption of the second, are conceived of as raised up together and made to sit together with Christ in the heavenlies. Their life is projected into the heavenlies—it is projection into the supernal and heavenly realm and not merely the upward look of faith to him who is exalted as Lord in the heavenlies. Hence they may be conceived of as viewing the history of the past and the consummative events of the future from the vantage point of the heavenlies in Christ Jesus. As we think of this projective aspect and relate it to the other two strands, we are almost constrained to say, what an impossible combination of perspectives! And we might well be tempted to think that it is impossible to fuse these perspectives and regard them as coexisting in the faith of New Testament believers. 

If our thinking is conditioned by the New Testament frame of thought, we do not have to go far to find the reason for this apparently unrealistic perspective and for its coexistence with the other perspectives. It is the great truth of union and communion with Christ. Christ is not only the object of faith and his glorious appearing the pole star of hope, but he is also united to believers now in the bonds of mystic union. And they are united to him. Because Christ is united to believers, he is in them in the life they now live upon earth—he is formed in them the hope of glory. And because believers are now united with Christ, they are in him in the glory of his exalted state—their life is hid with Christ in God. Christ is with them where they are; they are with him where he is. A great mystery, beyond doubt. But this is what is true of Christ and his church.

There is, however, a concreteness to this projective aspect of the believer's life which preserves it from the dangers and distortions of sentimental mysticism. The projective must be attached to the historical perspectives of the last days and the two ages. For the projective has no meaning or relevance except in the realism and concreteness of experience within the interadventual period. And the Christ who is the dwelling place of the projective is the Christ whose identity is defined by historical manifestation in the past and manifestation again in the future at the end of history. It is not etherealized mysticism we have here, but mysticism whose orbit is defined by the historical accomplishment of the past, the exaltation of Christ in the present, and the certainty of the appearing of his glory in the future. The projective never divorces the communion in which it consists from the particularities which identify the Savior into whose fellowship the believer is projected. The projective is thus seen not as an adjustment or accommodation necessitated by the disappointment of the early church at delay in the appearing of Christ's glory. It is not something injected into New Testament faith to fill the vacuum created by disappointed expectation. The projective is an indispensable element of faith arising from the exaltation of Christ. 

We have, therefore, a synthesis which shows not only the compatibility of these perspectives, but their indispensability if all the facts which come within the compass of faith are duly assessed and properly related to one another—the facts of the first advent, the exaltation, the second advent and the union of the believer with Christ—union with him in the redemptive accomplishments of the first advent, in the power of Christ's exaltation and in the hope of his consummated glory. Believers have communion with him at all stages in the progressive realization of the redemptive purpose. This redemptive plan had its inception in election in Christ before the foundation of the world, and it moves to its finale in the liberty of the glory of the children of God. It is impoverished insight, to say the least, that does not appreciate the congruity with all that has been, is and will be true on the plane of world history of that projective perspective signalized by Paul's word that our life is hid with Christ in God. And it is an impoverished faith that would regard the fellowship thereby intimated as in any respect dispensable or superfluous. It is into the fellowship of Christ we are called, and it must even now be a fellowship that has an upreach no lower than the heavenlies where Christ sits.

Westminster Theological Seminary
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania