The word eschatology is not in the Bible, but it is used to talk about the Bible a lot. I have heard it all my life, but still have trouble keeping it’s meaning in my head because, I think, it has no practical purpose other than sounding fancy. However, I occasionally look it up again so that I can more completely understand what someone is saying, only to find myself once again wondering why they insist on using it.
It comes from the Greek root escahtos, which means “the furthest out”; and the Greek suffix -logos, literally translated “word,” but extrapolated to mean “the science, doctrine, or theory of.” This is more commonly simplified as saying it means “the study of” something. So, eschatology is defined as “doctrine of the furthest out” or “the study of the last things,” whether it be death, immortality, resurrection, or the end of the world. This could be applied to any religious system. For those following what is shown in the Bible, eschatology is generally used to mean “what is believed about the end of the world.”
I have to be suspicious that the word is used to the degree it is because it is taught as an academic course in seminaries. When the young people come forth with their diplomas lauding them as religious authorities, there is great temptation to use the fancy vocabulary they learned, even if they have to use more standard vocabulary every time to explain it for the sake of most listeners. If it isn’t used in the Bible, it if isn’t used anywhere else in real life, and it is not even in any Jane Austen or Charles Dickens novels for the sake of expanded passages of vivid imagery, why does it have to be used in religious talks so regularly. The Bible was recorded for the benefit of the common man, in the common language. Let’s not complicate it!
The challenge about the -ologies (theology, eschatology, ecclesiology, demonology, Christology… ) is to make sure the ideas being thus cataloged are not treated as cerebral. By this I mean two things: 1) don’t make others feel like they couldn’t understand them (the doctrines of the Bible are presented to all men), and 2) don’t be lulled into thinking that they are so ethereal that they are of no earthly use (the truths of the Bible are of potential benefit to all on the earth).
I decided to think about how the word study is thought of in our society, and if the word study is used in the New Testament. It seems that, especially for these “religious” topics, people tend to think of study as being a collecting of knowledge with little practical purpose. This is not how the truths of the Bible are presented. The message of the Bible is to practically free us from sin and bring us joy, to encourage us in loving God and people in practical ways. So, again, it seems the use of these -ology words runs the risk of obscuring the real life application of believers living with new life, by God’s grace.
As for New Testament examples of study, I found only a few. In John 5:39, all the study of the scriptures by the Pharisees (NIV translation) has not meant they recognize who Jesus is/was. In Acts 26:24 (NLT), Festus says too much study must have driven Paul crazy. It is unclear what studying he is talking about. Does he know of Paul’s life as a Pharisee? In I Thessalonians and 2 Timothy 2:15 (KJV), the usage is meaning “aim” or “strive for,” so is definitely action oriented. (see Vines’ Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words)
I hope that after doing all of this research, I can remember what eschatology means next time someone flaunts it my way. But, if not, I think I’ll just read the Bible. I think there is a lot of good, basic information in there.