Though radical apocalyptic movements arose in the late Middle Ages, they were rare exceptions. Since Augustine, most theologians believed the Millennium of Revelation 20 referred to the present age of the church. The focal point of eschatology was not the consummation of history but the future status of individuals before God.

Beginning with Martin Luther's 95 Theses, the major Reformers challenged many medieval church doctrines, but with eschatology, they seemed mostly satisfied with this traditional emphasis and teaching.

Hidden future

Martin Luther taught that where there is forgiveness of sins, there is also life and salvation. Thus individual salvation is a present reality.

However, Christians will continue to struggle with a contradiction: "We do not wait for forgiveness and all graces as though we would not receive them until the life to come; rather, they are now present for us in faith—even though they are hidden and will be revealed only in the life to come." To be a Christian involves living out the tension between the already and the not yet.

A.D. 1520
Martin Luther intensifies his attacks on the papacy, calling it the Antichrist.

"In the life to come, we shall no more have need of faith," he wrote. "For then we shall not see dark through a glass (as we do now) but we shall see face to face." For Luther this hope is a fundamental and indispensable component of the Christian life.

Luther applies this individual eschatology also to the church. Like the medieval church before him, Luther rejected a future millennial reign and interpreted Revelation 20 as a description of the historical church rather than the end of history. In the present age, the church must continue to endure the hostility of both the world and Satan until the lordship of Christ is made clear at the end.

Still, Luther departed from aspects of medieval amillennialism. While Catholic theologians emphasized the glory of the historical church, Luther didn't: "It is not possible that there should be greater falsehood, more heinous error, more dreadful blindness, and more obdurate blasphemy than have ruled in the church."

In fact, Luther believed the Anti-christ had emerged within the church through the office of the papacy: "The pope is the real Anti-christ who has raised himself over and set himself against Christ, for the pope will not permit Christians to be saved except by his own power. … This is actually what St. Paul calls exalting oneself over and against God."

Consequently, as there is a hidden side to individual salvation, there is also a hidden side to the church, a side that will be revealed at the end of the age. In fact, the corruption of the church and presence of the Antichrist within it emboldened Luther. He believed it signaled the nearness of the end: "The pomp of the papacy is falling away and the world is cracking on all sides almost as if it would break and fall apart entirely."

Unlike those in the medieval church who tended to fear the Lord's coming as a day of wrath, Luther desired it. He called it "the most happy Last Day" in which God's glorious intentions for both individual human beings and all of creation will be realized: "God has reserved unto the last day the displaying of his greatness and majesty, his glory and effulgence."

For Luther, both individuals and the church will be transformed from their sorrowful and wretched condition into their final form by God. But as to the precise nature of this renewed existence, Luther is reported to have said: "We know no more about eternal life than children in the womb of their mother know about the world they are about to enter."

Don't limit Christ

Like Luther, John Calvin rejected the position of millennialists: "Their fiction is too childish either to need or to be worth a refutation. And the Apocalypse [Revelation], from which they undoubtedly drew pretext for their error, does not support them. For the number 'one thousand' [Rev. 20:4] does not apply to the eternal blessedness of the church but only to the various disturbances that awaited the church while toiling on earth."

Calvin believed the idea of the Millennium imposes a limit on the reign of Christ. Those who "assign the children of God a thousand years in which to enjoy the inheritance of the life to come do not realize how much reproach they are casting upon Christ and his kingdom. For if they do not put on immortality, then Christ himself, to whose glory they shall be transformed, has not been received into undying glory."

For the most part, Calvin's eschatology also focused on the future of individuals. For example, in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, he discusses the "final resurrection" in the context of a larger section on how individuals receive the grace of Christ. He did this, he said, "that my readers may learn, when they have received Christ, the Author of perfect salvation, to rise up higher, and may know that he is clothed in heavenly immortality and glory so that the whole body may be conformed to the Head." Thus, those who have received Christ in the present age will share in his life in the age to come.

Calvin admitted it is "difficult to believe that bodies, when consumed with rottenness, will at length be raised up in their season." But Calvin points his readers to Scripture, which he argued provides two helps. In it we look to the example of Christ, "who so completed the course of the mortal life that now, having obtained immortality, he is the pledge of our coming resurrection"; and to the power of God: "No one is truly persuaded of the coming resurrection unless he is seized with wonder, and ascribes to the power of God its due glory."

Practical eschatology

For Calvin, eschatology had practical significance. Indeed, he regarded meditation on the future life as an essential element of the Christian life. In the midst of all life's difficulties, Calvin reminded his readers, "We must ever look to this end: to accustom ourselves to contempt for the present life and to be aroused thereby to meditate upon the future life."

In this life, God permits his people to be "troubled and plagued either with wars or tumults, or robberies, or other injuries" and sets before them "how unstable and fleeting are all the goods that are subject to mortality."Only then, he argues, will we be prepared to properly contemplate life in the age to come. Such contemplation transforms us and helps God's people live according to the teachings of Christ—as strangers and pilgrims on earth who seek the joy and peace of God's future Kingdom. In turn, contemplation of the Kingdom provides comfort in the midst of the trials, which must be endured for the sake of the Gospel.

Concerning the exact nature of future life, Calvin, like Luther, exercised caution and restraint, attempting not to exceed the statements of Scripture: "Though we very truly hear that the Kingdom of God will be filled with splendor, joy, happiness, and glory, yet when these things are spoken of, they remain utterly remote from our perception, and, as it were, wrapped in obscurities, until that day comes when he will reveal to us his glory, that we may behold it face to face."

John Franke is professor of historical and systematic theology at Biblical Theological Seminary in Hatfield, Pennsylvania. He is editor of Old Testament (vol. 4) in the forthcoming Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture (InterVarsity).