Question: "What is realized eschatology?"
Answer: Realized eschatology is a theory holding that the prophetic passages in the New Testament do not refer to the future; rather, they refer to the ministry of Jesus and His lasting “legacy” in the church. According to realized eschatology, all the Bible’s prophecies about the kingdom were fulfilled during Jesus’ lifetime. When Jesus said, “The time has come. . . . The kingdom of God has come near” (Mark 1:15), He meant that we should understand the kingdom as a present, experiential reality rather than a distant, future event. Realized eschatology was introduced by liberal theologian C. H. Dodd in his 1935 book, The Parables of the Kingdom and popularized through his later writings.
Realized eschatology says that the “future” events prophesied in the Bible are not future at all anymore; they were all fulfilled by Jesus or they are being fulfilled in the church. The Bible says the Messiah would come—and He did, when Jesus was born in Bethlehem. The Bible says that God will judge the sins of the world—and He did, when Jesus died on the cross. The Bible says the dead will rise—and they did, when Jesus raised Lazarus and others from the grave. What about the Bible’s prophecies of the second coming, rule, and glorification of Jesus? Realized eschatology has that covered, too—all of that was fulfilled in Jesus’ resurrection and ascension. The eschatology has been realized.
According to realized eschatology, the study of eschatology does not involve the end of the world but the world’s “rebirth” as Jesus set the standard and His followers continue to live out His timeless principles. Proponents of realized eschatology do not look forward to a rapture, a second coming, or a worldwide judgment. Instead, they try to focus on what Jesus said and did; everything else is irrelevant.
In some ways, realized eschatology is related to full preterism, the teaching that the end-times prophecies in the Bible have all been fulfilled; and to “Kingdom Now” theology, which says that we are already living in the kingdom of God and can tap into the promises associated with the kingdom any time we want.
The fact that realized eschatology was formulated by a liberal theologian—and continues to be a pet doctrine in liberal circles—should be enough to cause us caution. But more important than that is comparing the doctrine of realized eschatology to what the Bible says and what we know to be true of world events. Of course, there are some aspects of eschatology that have been “realized” or fulfilled. But not everything. Jesus Himself spoke of “this age, and . . . the age to come” (Luke 18:30), giving His disciples hope of a future age different from the current one. When Jesus ascended into heaven, the angels told the disciples, “This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11). The angels’ words clearly point to a yet-future event in eschatology, giving the disciples something to look forward to (see Titus 2:13).
When Jesus said, “The kingdom of God has come near” (Mark 1:15), He was not saying that He was at that time fulfilling all the prophecies. Instead, Jesus was pointing to the proofs that He was the Messiah. Whenever Jesus spoke and acted in the power of God, the kingdom was in a sense “present”; every time Jesus healed a lame person or cast out a demon, heaven was touching earth. Jesus was giving a foretaste of the wonderful things to come in the kingdom of God. Immanuel had indeed come to ransom captive Israel.
There were some promises associated with Jesus’ coming that did not take place at His first advent. The Lord Himself confirms this in Luke 4. When Jesus stands to read from Isaiah in the synagogue of Nazareth, He claims to be the fulfillment of several messianic prophecies: He proclaims good news to the poor, offers freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, sets the oppressed free, and pronounces the year of the Lord’s favor (Luke 4:18–19; cf. Isaiah 61:1–2). But then Jesus stops reading mid-sentence and hands the scroll back to the attendant. “Today,” Jesus says, “this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21). Jesus had not read the whole of that Scripture. There were other parts of Isaiah’s eschatology that were not realized on that day, namely, “the day of vengeance of our God” (Isaiah 61:2). Something more had been promised, something that Jesus left to be fulfilled on another day. In other words, Jesus taught an “unrealized” eschatology.
There are many things prophesied in the Bible that have not yet occurred. We await their fulfillment in the secure hope that God is faithful and cannot lie. Trying to construe biblical prophecy as non-literal, which is what realized eschatology must do, goes against the principles of good biblical interpretation.