Throughout early history, the religions of the world shared a common theme: time moves in endless cycles. The goal of human existence was to understand and conform to those cycles. With rise of Judaism 3,000 years ago all that changed.
The Jews introduced the idea of linear time. The Jews did not abandon the idea of cyclical time but they introduced of the world moving from creation to completion of some sort. Most cultures had creation stories but they were usually fantastic stories clearly intended as metaphors for seeing patterns in life. The creation story in Genesis 1 opens saying that there was a beginning and created all that is. Without denying the theological primacy of the story it is important to recognize how non-metaphorical the presentation of creation is. The world had a beginning and God created it. (For more on the concept of cyclical time see my post History Doesn’t Repeat itself, But it Rhymes.)
If Judaism introduced linear time, Christianity introduced the idea of progression on the continuum of time. The Jewish view has been that a messiah is coming who will restore Israel but there is no sense of history “improving” until the messiah comes. Christianity has always had within it the idea of the “Kingdom of God” spreading throughout the world until a day when Christ ushers in his kingdom. The “wheat and the tares” will grow until the coming “harvest.”
Scripture mentions the idea of a millennium when Christ will reign. Some have believed that the Kingdom would spread, Christ would return, and a 1,000 year reign would begin. Others have believed that the Kingdom would spread, eventually fill the earth, ushering in a millennium of peace and prosperity, at the end of which Christ would physically return. Still others have seen the millennium as a metaphorical construct to convey theological truths.
During the first centuries of the church there was great persecution. Christian’s had a pre-millennial view of Christ’s return, believing the world would deteriorate until Christ returned (in the near future) and establish the millennium. With the conversion of Constantine and the Christianization of Rome, many began to believe that the Kingdom of God would expand throughout the world, redeeming creation and humanity, until Christ returned.
Throughout most of the Christian era there has been a belief in the linear time combined with progress until Christ’s return. There have been eras where a pessimistic pre-millennialism has dominated for time. These were usually in eras of rapid change and great uncertainty. The era just before 1,000 C.E. was one era. The last decades of the Twentieth Century have been another. Nevertheless, the ideas of linear time and progress are unique to Christianity.
What has this to do with ideas justice, theology, work or any of a host of other issues that confront our daily lives? I will get to that shortly but first I want summarize the dominant eschatological perspectives in my next post.