What Is Paul’s Eschatology?

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from 40 Questions About the Apostle Paul
by Miguel G. Echevarría & Benjamin P. Laird

Paul’s eschatology centers on the arrival of the eschatological age. This is the age that prophets like Isaiah and Ezekiel envisioned, when God would abolish the old age and make all things new. While discussions about the expectation of a millennium are important, they are more relevant to the book of Revelation. Paul is more concerned about the advent of the new age. In his view, this age has “already” arrived but has “not yet” been consummated. This chapter will provide an overview of Paul’s “already–not yet” eschatology.[1] After discussing this concept, we will then transition to more practical concerns. We will consider if Paul believed Jesus would return during his lifetime, and how his eschatology influenced his mission.

The Two Ages

Paul’s eschatology is in keeping with the Jewish distinction between the present age and the age to come.[2] A couple of exemplary Jewish texts include 4 Ezra and 2 Baruch. The former claims that “the Most High has not made one age but two” (7:49). The present age is characterized by ungodliness, while the coming age is characterized by righteousness (4 Ezra 8:1).[3] Second Baruch presents a similar distinction between two ages, claiming that the righteous “will leave this world without fear and are confident of the world” which the Lord “has promised to them with a full expectation of joy” (14:13).[4] The present world is difficult and temporary and the future world is the eternal home of the righteous (2 Bar. 16:1; 44:2–9, 12–13; 51:3; 84:2). We also see the distinction between two ages in Isaiah 65–66, which anticipates a transition from the present age of sin to the new heavens and earth.

Similarly, we may observe Paul’s distinction between two ages in the following passages. With regard to the present age, Paul exhorts his readers to “not be conformed to this age” in Romans 12:2, and in 1 Corinthians 2:6 he affirms that “we do not impart wisdom of this age” (also 1 Cor. 1:29; 2 Cor. 4:4). He describes the current age as “evil” in texts such as Galatians 1:4 and Ephesians 5:16 (cf. Phil. 2:15) and hints at the transitory nature of the present world in 1 Corinthians 2:6–9 and Ephesians 2:1–3. In Ephesians 1:21, Paul contrasts “this age” with “the one to come.” In Romans 8:18, he even compares “the present time” with the “glory that is to be revealed.” The coming time is not a spiritualized existence devoid of matter, what is often called “heaven.” Rather, it is the age in which creation is freed from its bondage to the curse of sin, which is better described as a new creation (Rom. 8:18–23). This is in line with Isaiah’s vision of a new heavens and earth and the ideal world of 4 Ezra and 2 Baruch. In short, the Jewish expectation of two ages is the foundational distinction for Paul’s eschatology, the former age understood as wicked and temporary and the one to come as glorious and eternal.

Yet, Paul envisions an overlap in the two ages, which is a development his forefathers, and many of his Jewish contemporaries, did not foresee. For Paul, the old age is in the process of passing away while the new one is now breaking in (2 Cor. 5:17; cf. Gal. 4:4; 2 Cor. 6:2). God’s people therefore live “between the times,” awaiting the day when the old age of sin and death will completely give way to the renewed world.[5] This overlap corresponds to an “already–not yet” eschatology.

Signs of the New Age (Already)

The prophets associate the resurrection and the Spirit’s arrival with the eschatological age. These are the very same signs Paul associates with the onset of the eschaton.


Paul’s eschatology is in keeping with the expectation of Daniel 12 and Ezekiel 36–37, that the resurrection signals the arrival of the new age. Still, there are significant developments in his thinking. First, whereas Daniel 12 and Ezekiel 36–37 envision the new age ensuing with a corporate resurrection, Paul narrows the arrival of the eschaton to the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Second, Paul envisions the resurrection occurring in two stages. The initial one is linked to the resurrection of Jesus, who is the “firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Cor. 15:20–23). Through the lens of his resurrection, Paul retrospectively understands that Jesus bore the curse of sin and death (Gal. 3:1–14) and triumphed over the principalities and powers that ruled over the fallen world (Col. 2:14–15).[6] The subsequent stage is when all the dead will “be made alive” (1 Cor. 15:22). This is the time when death will be eradicated, and the new age will arrive in all its fullness. Paul’s vision of a two-stage resurrection therefore encompasses the initial resurrection of Christ, which initiates the new age that will triumph over the old, and a subsequent resurrection associated with the fulfillment of the eschatological age.

The Arrival of the Spirit

The prophets anticipated that the coming age would be marked by the arrival of the Spirit (Ezek. 11:19; 36:25–27; Isa. 44:3; Joel 2:28).[7] In keeping with the prophets, Paul envisions that the manifestation of the Spirit is another mark of the “firstfruits” of the new age, in anticipation of one day enjoying full deliverance from the present cursed age (Rom. 8:23). So strong is Paul’s connection between the Spirit and the new age that he reminds his readers that the Spirit empowers and works miracles (Gal. 3:1–5; 1 Cor. 12:4–11). Paul also speaks of the Spirit as the guarantee that believers will one day dwell in the inheritance promised to God’s people (Eph. 1:14).[8] Thus, for Paul the Spirit also signals the arrival of the new age.

Sign of the Consummation of the New Age (Not Yet)

The resurrection of the Messiah and the presence of the Spirit do not on their own indicate that the new age has arrived in all its fullness. There are certain eschatological expectations associated with the final resurrection that have “not yet” been fulfilled, among which include notable events such as the second coming of Christ, the restoration of creation, and the final judgment.[9]

Second Coming of Christ

Following his resurrection, Christ ascended into the heavens, leaving believers to anticipate the day when he would return to raise the dead and make all things new. Paul demonstrates his anticipation of Christ’s return when he prays in 1 Corinthians 16:22: “Our Lord, come!” For Paul, Christ’s return will be physical: “For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God” (1 Thess. 4:16). Paul sometimes refers to the Lord’s “coming” as a shorthand way of describing the second coming of Christ (1 Cor. 15:23; cf. 1 Thess. 2:19; 3:13; 4:15).[10] Other times, he describes this event with phrases such as the “day of the Lord” (1 Thess. 5:2; 2 Thess. 2:2), the “day of the Lord Jesus” (1 Cor. 5:5), or the “day of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1:6). There are also occasions in which he uses the word parousia to express his expectation of Jesus’s future coming (1 Cor. 15:23; 2 Thess. 2:1, 8–9).[11] When Jesus returns, the age will be consummated, and God will be “all in all” (1 Cor. 15:28).

Final Judgment

When Jesus returns to consummate the age, humanity will give an account before him (Rom. 2:1–11; 14:10–12; 2 Cor. 5:10). In view of this event, Paul encourages believers to live in holiness, knowing that they will appear before the judgment seat of Jesus Christ (1 Thess. 3:13). He also explains that the future judgment will reveal the quality of one’s work (1 Cor. 3:12–15). Paul even speaks of his own aspiration to hold onto “the word of life,” so that in the “day of Christ” his efforts will not have been in vain (Phil. 2:16). It is important to note that Paul does not envision the final judgment resulting in the believer’s condemnation, but rather their vindication as sons and daughters of God (Rom 5:16; 8:1, 23). On the other hand, the final judgment will mean condemnation for Satan and hostile powers (Rom. 8:38–39; 16:20; 1 Cor. 5:5; 7:5; 2 Cor. 2:11; Eph. 6:12; Col. 2:8, 20). They are the ones who should fear the wrath associated with the judgment (Rom. 1:18; Eph. 5:6; Col. 3:6).

Restoration of Creation

For Paul, the restoration of creation includes the resurrection of human beings and the renewal of the created order. Since both humans and the creation were cursed because of Adam and Eve’s sin (Gen. 3), both anticipate the day when they will be delivered from bondage, marking the consummation of the age. We see this in Romans 8:12–25, where Paul affirms that creation eagerly awaits “the revelation of the sons of God,” which is another way to speak of the resurrection (v. 19). Then, he sums up the entire creation’s eschatological hope for release from bondage: “For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Rom. 8:20–21; cf. Ezek. 36–37). Philippians 3:20–21 also ties the return of Jesus Christ to the time when Jesus “will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.” We should note that the “transformation of our lowly body” and the “subjection of all things” will take place at the return of Jesus Christ. The latter is when Jesus delivers creation from its bondage to sin and subjects it to his liberating rule (also Col. 1:15–20; Eph. 1:10). All in all, Paul envisions the consummation of the eschaton when Jesus returns to renew humanity and the created order, at which time he will also initiate the final judgment.

The Timing of Christ’s Return

It is reasonable to wonder whether Paul believed that Jesus would return during his lifetime to bring judgment and restore the created order.[12] Those who argue that Paul anticipated the second coming of Jesus in his lifetime often point to 1 Thessalonians 4:15–17, where the apostle affirms that “we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep” (v. 15). They also point to 1 Corinthians 15:51–52, where Paul contends that “We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed. . . . For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed.” In both of these passages, Paul may be including himself along with those who expect the return of Jesus Christ before their death. But it is unnecessary to read the passages this way. We could argue that Paul is simply reassuring his readers of the physical return of Christ, at which time there will be people alive on the earth.[13]

Obviously, Jesus never actually returned during Paul’s lifetime. So, at some point Paul had to come to grips with a delay in the arrival of Christ (2 Cor. 5:1–10; Phil. 1:20–24).[14] Whatever stance we take on Paul’s expectation of the return of Jesus Christ, we should note that he never argues for the timing of the parousia. Paul emphasizes the certainty of the event (1 Cor. 7:29; Phil. 4:5) without elaborating on its precise timing (1 Thess. 5:1–2). So, we are on safer ground to argue that Paul held to the imminent return of Christ, without speculating on his understanding of the timing of the event.

Eschatologically Driven Mission

Since the consummation of the eschatological age was imminent, Paul was on mission to gather the nations into the people of God. Paul saw himself living out the eschatological vision of Isaiah 49:6: “I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth,” which itself is grounded in the Abrahamic covenant promises: that all the peoples of the earth would be blessed (Gen. 12, 15, 17, 18). These salvific promises extended to the nations through the true descendent of Abraham, Jesus Christ (Gal. 3:15–29). Armed with this conviction, Paul sought to fulfill his call as an apostle and minister to the Gentiles (Gal. 2:9; Rom. 15:15–16), so that they would also become sons and daughters of Abraham who would inherit the eschatological world (Rom. 4:13; Gal. 3:15–18; Eph. 3:6).[15] Though Paul is zealous for his work, he knows that Christ is the one working through him “to bring the Gentiles to obedience, in word and in deed, through signs and wonders, in the power of the Spirit of God” (Rom. 15:18–19).

Although he senses a distinct call to the Gentiles, Paul desires for his fellow Jews to trust in Jesus as the Messiah, making them recipients of the promises (Rom. 9–11).[16] We see this in how he organizes his argument in Romans 4–8 and 9–11. In the former, he contends that those who have the faith of Abraham Jew or Gentile—inherit the promises that belong to God’s people (Rom. 4:13; 8:18–30). Then, in Romans 9–11 he further reveals the fulfillment of the promises to the Gentiles in hopes of a future gathering of Israelites who will receive the promises to their ancestors. With that, the arrival of the eschatological age and its imminent fulfillment are what motivate Paul’s mission to fulfill Isaiah’s vision of gathering Gentiles into the community of God’s saving promises, while maintaining hope that his Jewish kin will ultimately trust in Jesus.


Paul’s eschatology follows a Jewish, dualistic understanding of two ages. Yet, his thought also develops beyond this basic schema—for he holds to an overlap between the old age, which is in the process of passing away, and the new age, which has not fully arrived. In other words, we may conclude that he holds to an “already–not yet” eschatology. Furthermore, for Paul the resurrection of Jesus Christ and the arrival of the Spirit indicate that the new age has arrived. When Jesus returns, he will judge humankind and restore the creation. Though he is not privy to the timing of Jesus Christ’s return, Paul believes his arrival is imminent. His mission is therefore to take the message of Jesus to the Gentiles so that they would become recipients of the saving promises to Abraham, while holding out hope that his Jewish kindred would trust in the Messiah before the consummation of the eschaton.

[1] For fuller discussions of Paul’s eschatology, see Constantine R. Campbell, Paul and the Hope of Glory: An Exegetical and Theological Study (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2020); Geerhardus Vos, The Pauline Eschatology (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1994).

[2] See Brant Pitre, Michael P. Barber, John A. Kincaid, Paul, A New Covenant Jew: Rethinking Pauline Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2019), 69–73; James D. G. Dunn, Unity and Diversity in the New Testament: An Inquiry into the Character of Earliest Christianity (London: SCM Press, 2006), 337–71.

[3] See the brief discussion in George W. E. Nicklesburg, Jewish Literature between the Bible and the Mishnah: A Historical and Literary Introduction, 2nd ed. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005), 271–72.

[4] See the discussion of 4 Ezra and 2 Baruch in Miguel G. Echevarría, The Future Inheritance of Land in the Pauline Epistles (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2019), 90–95. See also the relevant work of Liv Ingeborg Lied, The Other Lands of Israel: Imaginations of the Land in 2 Baruch (Leiden: Brill, 2008).

[5] Craig G. Bartholomew and Michael W. Goheen, The Drama of Scripture: Finding Our Place in the Biblical Story (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2014), 204–07.

[6] Our thought on this matter has been influenced by Bartholomew and Goheen, Drama of Scripture, 206.

[7] James D. G. Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 416–19.

[8] See the discussion in Echevarría, Future Inheritance, 176–78.

[9] See Larry J. Kreitzer, “Eschatology,” in DPL, 253–65.

[10] In response to those who argue for a spiritualized parousia, Thomas R. Schreiner notes that in the New Testament the “word coming always has the idea of physical presence (cf. 2 Cor. 10:10; Phil. 1:26, 2:12), confirming the notion of a physical return of Christ” (Paul, Apostle of God’s Glory in Christ: A Pauline Theology, 2nd ed. [Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2020], 505).

[11] Kreitzer, “Eschatology,” 259.

[12] See Udo Schnelle, Theology of the New Testament, trans. M. Eugene Boring (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009), 345–49.

[13] See Roy E. Ciampa and Brian S. Rosner, The First Letter to the Corinthians, PNTC (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010), 829.

[14] Schnelle, Theology of the New Testament, 347–48.

[15] Romans 4:13 clearly shows that the content of the inheritance of Abraham’s children is the cosmos.

[16] See Question 40 for the relevant discussion on Romans 11:26 (“all Israel will be saved”).

This post is adapted from 40 Questions About the Apostle Paul by Miguel G. Echevarría & Benjamin P. Laird.  This title is scheduled to be released on October 24, 2023. If you are interested in adopting this book for a college or seminary course, please request a faculty examination copy. We will also consider requests for your blog or media outlets.

What can we know about the apostle Paul, and what difference does it make?

Paul of Tarsus was an undeniably forceful presence in the early Christian church, instructing fledgling congregations of believers throughout the Mediterranean in person and by letter and authoring about half of the New Testament in the process. But who was this powerful personality? And how can students most benefit from the extensive studies on Paul available today?

New Testament scholars Miguel Echevarria and Benjamin Laird provide an invaluable foundation for students beginning their investigations into the apostle Paul, Paul’s theology, and Pauline studies, addressing orienting questions such as these:

            • What do we know about Paul’s family?
            • How did Paul’s companions assist in the composition and distribution of his letters?
            • Did Paul think his letters were authoritative Scripture?
            • Is there a center to Paul’s theology?
            • What is Paul’s Christology?
            • What are the strengths and weaknesses of the New Perspective on Paul?
            • Does Paul address slavery and racial division?

Through its question-and-answer format, 40 Questions about the Apostle Paul provides a succinct introduction and entryway to more advanced study of Paul and the Pauline letter corpus. 


About Author

Miguel G. Echevarría (PhD in New Testament from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) serves as Associate Professor of New Testament and Greek at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and is the author of The Future Inheritance of Land in the Pauline Epistles. --- Benjamin P. Laird (PhD, University of Aberdeen) serves as Associate Professor of Biblical Studies at the John W. Rawlings School of Divinity, Liberty University. He is the author of the volume Creating the Canon: Composition, Controversy and the Authority of the New Testament.

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