Eschatology is a set of religious doctrines about the end of human life and the end of the world. The word basically means the “study of the last things.” Religiously, the “last things” can be seen as either gloomy, the “twilight of the gods” or descent into an underworld like the Greek Hades or the Hebrew Sheol, or glorious, the resurrection of the body and the new HEAVEN and earth. Individual eschatology includes beliefs about death, judgment, heaven, HELL, or REINCARNATION. World eschatology involves the destiny of the world as a whole: the future coming of MESSIAHS or saviors, the last judgment, the divine destruction and perhaps recreation of Earth as a new paradise.
Idea of world eschatology as we know it probably did not begin until people started to think in terms of historical time, not the cyclical time in which the world just repeated itself year after year and age after age. This realization broadly coincides with the invention of writing and the emergence of world religions in which GOD or ultimate reality is seen as doing something of immense importance within historical time: giving the law to MOSES, saving the world in JESUS, showing supreme enlightenment in the BUDDHA, delivering the QUR’AN to MUHAMMAD. If God can act to save the world within history, can there not also be a supreme consummation of history in which its meaning is fulﬁ lled and revealed, justice is done, and perhaps a new and better age begun? World eschatology comes from seeing the course of a world as a line, not a circle, commencing with creation and ending in a last judgment or supreme revelation that sums it all up and makes it meaningful. This would be the end of history.
This style of world eschatology may well have begun with the ancient Iranian prophet Z ARATHUSTRA and his religion ZOROASTRIANISM. He taught that the world is a battleground between Ahura Mazda, the Lord of Light, and the principle of EVIL, the Lord of the Lie, Ahriman. As Ahura Mazda would defeat Ahriman, the prophet Zarathustra would return, all those who had died would be raised in a general resurrection, and God would create for them a new and perfect earth. Ideas highly reminiscent of these, perhaps inﬂ uenced by Zoroastrianism, are found in the three great Western monotheistic religions, JUDAISM, CHRISTIANITY, and ISLAM. In their traditional forms, they emphasize a divine judgment of the world on the Last Day; Christianity says the judgment will be by Jesus CHRIST, who will then come in glory to judge the living and the dead.
HINDUISM AND BUDDHISM
In the Eastern religions of HINDUISM and BUDDHISM, individual eschatology is seen more in terms of KARMA, though its popular scenarios may include personal judgment by the lord of the underworld, Yama or Yenlo, and possible perdition to the hells or the realm of GHOSTS, or reward in one of the heavens, as well as human or animal reincarnation—all for as long as it takes to expend one’s bad or good karma. World eschatology may be ultimately within the context of cycles, but may more immediately include the coming of Kalki, the ﬁ nal avatar or divine appearance, or in Buddhism of Maitreya, the future Buddha. In popular lore Maitreya’s coming realm is often seen as a paradisal age. New religious movements both East and West frequently have a highly eschatological cast.