Chapter 21: Eschatology And Messianic Hope
This final chapter contains texts prophesying the coming of what is variously called the Last Days, End of the World, or Days of the Messiah. Most religions contain teachings that anticipate a time, beyond the present era of suffering and injustice, when human history will be consummated by a decisive act of God. Evil will be destroyed and goodness will triumph. Typically, the course of events includes three phases: a time of tribulation and confusion when evil and suffering grow more and more rampant; the Last Judgment when God intervenes decisively to destroy all evil; and the coming of a new age of bliss, often called the Kingdom of Heaven. Furthermore, this decisive transformation is often said to require a great leader, a Messiah, who will wield divine authority to destroy evil, establish the saints, and found a new age of unlimited happiness.
Teachings about eschatology are found in most religions, though they are most characteristic of the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic scriptures. Judaism anticipates the coming of the Messiah who will inaugurate an age of peace and justice on earth. Christianity teaches broadly that Christ, the Messiah, has already come to offer salvation, and he will come again to judge the world. Yet there are a variety of opinions within the Christian family about the details: For some, Christ will return to bring judgment (Premillennialism); for some he will come after the progressive decline of evil to consummate the Kingdom of Heaven (Postmillennialism); still others reject millennialism altogether and interpret scriptural passages about a last judgment as concerning the spiritual fate of the individual soul. In Islam the Last Judgment is a cardinal doctrine. While it is sometimes understood as a spiritual judgment of the individual soul after death, many passages in the Qur'an clearly describe it as a world-transforming event to occur at the end of time, when the earth will be destroyed and all people will see their just reward as they are sorted into groups bound either for Paradise or hell.
Hinduism, Buddhism, and Zoroastrianism contain teachings that the world is going through a cosmic cycle in which morals and religion have gradually decayed and have reached a state of dire corruption in this present age, identified as the Kali Yuga or Age of Degeneration of the Dharma. This Kali age will give way to a renovation of faith as the cycle turns and the earth enters a new golden age, the Krita age. Some texts predict that this cosmic change will be initiated by the advent of the new Avatar (Hinduism), the Maitreya Buddha, or the Saoshyant (Zoroastrianism).
Millenarian beliefs are a minor part of the teaching of most religions. Yet they blossom from time to time in sectarian movements, and they sometimes produce religious or political innovation. A number of bloody political revolts, from the Bar Kochba rebellion in Israel against Roman rule to the T'ai Ping rebellion in China against British rule, were fueled by messianic fervor. More significant are the new religions which began with a fervent belief that the last days had drawn nigh: Christianity itself began as a messianic sect of Judaism; Muhammad preached Islam, believing that the Last Judgment was imminent; and the Baha'i Faith began as a messianic movement within Islam, to cite three examples. Millenarian movements among the oppressed indigenous peoples of Africa and the Americas have been significant forces which have fostered self-respect and encouraged economic and political independence. Considering the unprecedented pace of social change in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and the unparalleled social dislocations and cultural challenges which have resulted from the world wars, liberation movements, industrialization and technological change, the atomic bomb, the environmental crisis, and the shrinking Global Village, it is not surprising that a large number of new religions and new sects of old religions have arisen which believe that the present is the time of tribulations preceding the appearance of the Messiah, and that their leader is either a forerunner of or is himself the long-awaited Avatar or Messiah who will destroy the evil world-system, establish true religion, and inaugurate a new age.