by James D. Tabor
There is no simple and single response to the question of what the Bible really says about the future. What one finds is just what one would expect in any book composed of documents from many times, places, circumstances, and authors–variety and development. There are a lot of both, although by "development" I mean here simply change. My treatment presupposes no particular valuation of the various dreams and schemes regarding the future. My approach in this chapter will be mainly chronological, tracing the topic through various periods of history; from ancient Israelite down to the Roman period, when the final parts of the New Testament were written. I have also roughly divided the topic into two subtopics: what the Bible says about the future of the world; and what it says about the future of the individual, that is, the afterlife. The two are always interrelated and they often overlap.
THE EARLY HEBREW BIBLE
In the earlier parts of the Old Testament, or Hebrew Bible, one finds fairly uniform views of both the future of the individual human person and that of the world or society. I have in mind here texts and traditions dating from the second millennium B.C.E. down through the time of the Exile of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah by the Assyrians and the Babylonians (8th-6th B.C.E.).
To understand this somewhat singular view of the future one needs to get a general grasp of ancient cosmology. Cosmology is the theory and lore of how the world or universe is structured. A kind of map or picture of the cosmos, cosmology is a way of naming things and putting them in their proper places.
The ancient Hebrews pictured the universe divided into three parts or realms, as did other civilizations of the period. First, there was the upper realm of the Firmament (Sky) or Heavens, the dwelling place of God and his divine angelic court, as well as the place of the sun, moon, planets, and stars. Here no mortal belonged. Then there was the realm...