Matter, Earth, and Eschaton in Hebrews

Some scholars (e.g., Eisele, Thompson, Schenck), argue that Hebrews, under platonic influence, envisions the eschatological destruction of matter. God promises a final shakedown where the shakeable, tangible, created world is removed, so that the unshakeable, intangible, uncreated heavens can remain (12:27).

My aim is to problematize this interpretation on comparative and exegetical grounds, and to demonstrate that Hebrews implies a material, likely earthly, “world to come.” For comparative evidence, I offer a brief survey of pagan, Jewish, and Christian views from the first century and prior on the future of matter and the earth on a spectrum from continuity to discontinuity: the world is everlasting (Plato, Aristotle, Middle Platonists, Philo, Wisdom of Solomon), a mild transition ushers in the eschatological age (Jubilees), the world undergoes some level of cosmic destruction and recreation (most Jewish and Christian texts, with varying degrees of continuity and discontinuity), the world is completely consumed and turned to fire and then recreated (Stoics, some Jewish and Christian texts), or worlds are destroyed by natural processes back into atoms which then go on to form new worlds (Epicureans).

Although some texts are ambiguous (2 Enoch, Sibylline Oracle 5), the view that matter itself is eschatologically annihilated into non-existence is virtually unprecedented in the first century and prior, only being affirmed in later gnostic works (On the Origin of the World, The Concept of Our Great Power). Conversely, the platonists are consistently opposed to the destruction of the world: Plato says such would be “the deed of a wicked one” (Timaeus 41B), and Celsus, Porphyry, and Plotinus would ridicule the view that the world will be destroyed.

In light of the comparative evidence, the exegetical case that Hebrews describes the eschatological annihilation of matter is rather slim. Instead, Hebrews’s descriptions of the Son’s eschatological inheritance and the resurrection of the dead point in the direction of a material future. I argue that Hebrews’s two eschatological cosmic destruction texts (1:10–12; 12:26–27) imply an eschatological future for matter, and likely for the earth as well.

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