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Eschatology: The doctrine of the 'last things'

Louis Jacobs, The Jewish Religion: A Companion
"In the modern period, the whole picture tended to become even more opaque. Reform Jews abandoned the whole doctrine of a personal Messiah and thought instead of the emergence of a Messianic age, often identified with the creation of a just society in which all men will be able to realize their full potential. On this view the only eschatological doctrine that endures is that of the immortality of the individual soul. Even the Orthodox accept, in the main, the idea that the establishment of the State of Israel has introduced a new dimension into the Messianic vision; only they usually qualify this by suggesting that the Jewish State is the 'beginning of the redemption', that is, it is paving the way for the advent of the Messiah. Moreover, historical research has succeeded in demonstrating that all the eschatological doctrines have developed gradually over long periods in response to particular challenges and concerns at different periods in Jewish history. The result has been that even among some believing Jews an attitude of religious agnosticism has become dominant. This attitude is one of patient resignation to the will of God, to whom the future and its mysteries belong."

"Eschatology: The doctrine of the 'last things'.

The actual term eschatology is found only in Christian theology but the themes embraced by the term-the doctrine of the Messiah, the resurrection of the dead, the immortality of the soul, and World to Come, heaven and hell-are discussed in detail in the classical Jewish sources, albeit in a non-systematic way. Throughout the ages Jewish thinkers have reflected on what is to happen in the world of the future but much of this reflection is more in nature of speculation than dogmatic formulation. It is, therefore, hazardous to speak of an official Jewish eschatological scheme. What one can do is describe what came to be the conventional view in the Middle Ages, after various tendencies, often contradicting one another, had come together in the believing mind.

According to the commonly held view, at a time in the not too distant future there will be a series of wars and catastrophes, 'the birth pangs of the Messiah', after which Elijah will come to herald the advent of the Messiah. The Messiah will succeed in rebuilding Jerusalem and the Temple, where the sacrificial system will be re-established. Warfare, hatred, and enmity will cease and a new era will be ushered in during which all mankind will acknowledge that God is the sole Ruler and the Jewish people will study the Torah and observe its precepts in a spirit of total dedication. Human beings in the Messianic age will live for a very long time but, eventually, all will return to the dust to await the resurrection of the dead. The resurrected dead will be judged in a great Day of Judgment after which those declared righteous will live on in a new earth and will enjoy the unimaginable bliss of the nearness of God. In the language of the rabbis they will 'bask in the radiance of the Shekinah'. The souls of those who have died before the advent of the Messiah as well as the souls of those who died afterwards will enjoy the nearness of God in heaven but the less righteous will first be punished in hell. All souls will await the resurrection when they will be reunited with the bodies they formerly occupied.

The amalgam of various eschatological notions is, naturally, far too simplistic to provide anything more than a vague picture. Even in the medieval period, Jewish thinkers such as Maimonides felt themselves obliged to introduce various qualifications and there were considerable debates around some of the details. Will the Messiah and his associates rebuild the Temple themselves or will the Third Temple drop ready-made from heaven? Will the resurrected dead live for ever on the new earth or will they, too, eventually die, their souls alone enjoying immortality? Will the Messiah establish his claim to be such by performing miracles or will his success in bringing about the new age be itself guarantee that he is the true Messiah? What precisely is the role of Elijah in the process, and what of the idea that before the advent of the Messiah son of David, a forerunner, the Messiah son of Joseph, will appear but will be murdered? If one can speak of a general tendency in these matters, it is that the details must be left in God's hands.

In the modern period, the whole picture tended to become even more opaque. Reform Jews abandoned the whole doctrine of a personal Messiah and thought instead of the emergence of a Messianic age, often identified with the creation of a just society in which all men will be able to realize their full potential. On this view the only eschatological doctrine that endures is that of the immortality of the individual soul. Even the Orthodox accept, in the main, the idea that the establishment of the State of Israel has introduced a new dimension into the Messianic vision; only they usually qualify this by suggesting that the Jewish State is the 'beginning of the redemption', that is, it is paving the way for the advent of the Messiah. Moreover, historical research has succeeded in demonstrating that all the eschatological doctrines have developed gradually over long periods in response to particular challenges and concerns at different periods in Jewish history. The result has been that even among some believing Jews an attitude of religious agnosticism has become dominant. This attitude is one of patient resignation to the will of God, to whom the future and its mysteries belong."

Abraham Cohen, Everyman's Talmud (London, 1949), 346-89.
C. G. Montefore and H. Loewe, A rabbinic Anthology (London, 1938), 580-608


Louis Jacobs, The Jewish Religion: A Companion
Oxford University Press 2003, p. 149-50




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