Mark K. Olson, “Major Themes in John Wesley’s Eschatology”

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Abstract: This fourth installment of a six-part series highlights the central themes in Wesley’s eschatology. First, he believed the Evangelical Revival was preparing the way for the millennial reign of Christ through the conversion of the world. Regarding the nature of Christ’s reign, Wesley drew a distinction between the present kingdom of grace and the future kingdom of glory. Then there was the concept of the Chain of Being, which influenced his understanding of the new creation and its structure. Wesley’s eschatology was also influenced by salvation history, current political events, the materiality of the eternal states, and the active role of departed humans in the affairs of this life.

Part One: Millennial Aspirations and the Problem of Religious Nominalism 
Part Two: The Revival and Methodist Self-Understanding
Part Three: From Heaven Above to New Creation Below
Part Five: John Wesley’s Order of Eschatological Events

[To view footnotes on this page, scroll down to the bottom of the page. Clicking on hyperlinked footnotes will take you off site to the note in the original article location.]


John Wesley’s evangelical eschatology should be understood against the backdrop of events in the eighteenth century. For the most part, English Protestants were sensitive to Rome’s political clout and the advances made by the Catholic-Reformation in the recent past. The outcome of the Thirty Years War (1618-48) and the epochal events of the seventeenth century in England were not forgotten considering repeated Jacobite threats to Hanoverian rule. The Seven Years War between Protestant Britain and Catholic France and their allies from 1756-1763 only heightened these fears. When we add the powerful earthquakes that struck London and Lisbon in 1750 and 1755; the widespread crop failures, unusual weather patterns, and severe cattle plague in the mid-1750s, and Edmond Halley’s prediction of possible apocalyptic destruction due to cometary collision withthe earth in 1757, there is little wonder that many people, including Methodists, believed the “signs” were at hand.[1] This explains the rise of interest in end-times among Methodists in the eighteenth century.

The Evangelical Revival

Besides these signs, early evangelicals, like Wesley, understood the Revival to be a new Pentecost, a prelude to Christ’s millennial reign, and God’s final antidote to religious nominalism. The leitmotif of real versus nominal Christianity not only pervaded Wesley’s ministry, it runs as a thread through every aspect of his eschatology.[2]Every tract, sermon, letter, and commentary note on the subject was driven by the same evangelical heartbeat that pulsated through the rest of his ministry.This partially explains Wesley’s attraction to postmillennialism. Of the three basic millennial paradigms, the postmillennial vision best captured the core message of the Revival. This message appealed primarily to the “almost Christian,” that person who lacked a dynamic life-changing faith in Christ.[3] A good example of how the theme of real versus nominal Christianity informed Wesley’s eschatology is found in his commentary on Revelation. The great conflict between real versus nominal Christianity serves as the sub-plot for the entire commentary, including his discussion of the seven churches, the throne room, the seals and trumpets, the great conflict between the papal beast and “real, inward Christians” (note at 13:15), and in his vision of the new heavens and new earth.[4] Wesley continually used the adjectives “true” and “real” to distinguish between those who are authentic and those who are “dead, unholy Christians” (note at 8:7).Though the great villain in Revelation is the Papacy, in the sermons The Mystery of Iniquity and The General Spread of the Gospel Wesley diagnoses Protestantism to have caught the same fatal disease. He saw religious nominalism as the great apostasy predicted by the Apostle Paul (2 Th. 2:3).

The Kingdom of God

Wesley’s hope rests on the kingdom of God. This kingdom is the one rule of God that unfolds in two phases. In his commentary on the kingdom parables (Matt. 13), Wesley distinguished between these two phases and defined their purpose. The kingdom of grace is Christ reigning in the heart. It encompasses both “inward religion” (v. 24), which is the “life of Christ in the soul” (v. 32), and the “gospel dispensation” (v. 24), aimed to“leaven the world, and grace the Christian” (v. 33).[5] Here,Wesley conjoined his postmillennialism to his doctrine of Christian perfection.On a structural level, Wesley did not sever his soteriology from his theology of holiness, for both deeply informed his eschatology. This is equally true of the future kingdom of glory.At times Wesley referred to this dimension of the kingdom as the immediate reign of the Father, to distinguish it from the mediate reign of the Son (1 Cor. 15:24). This phase of the kingdom comes after Satan, sin,and death are vanquished and God makes all things new (1 Cor. 15:26; Rev.21:5). Then, the Three-One God will be all in all (1 Cor. 15:28) when all creation enjoys “a deep, an intimate, an uninterrupted union with God” in an“unmixed state of holiness and happiness far superior to that which Adam enjoyed in paradise.”[6]For Wesley, God’s reign is salvific and transformative, reaching from the first creation to the new creation, revealing his love and holiness in all his works.

Salvation History

The plan of God to fulfill his kingdom purposes is the subject of salvation history. As was addressed in the first article (Millennial Aspirations…), most Protestants in Wesley’s day believed the Book of Revelation to map out in detail the church age from the first century to the end of the age. Wesley endorsed this historical school of interpretation and asserted that biblical prophecy consists of “one complete chain” (Rev. 1:3), reaching back through the church age (Revelation) to the prophecies of Christ concerning the Jewish state (Gospels), to the five kingdoms outlined in Daniel. In other words, the prophecies in these books present one continuous narrative of salvation history that weaves through second temple Judaism to the destruction of Jerusalem (AD 70), followed by the church age and the millennial reign of Christ. Most significant about this history was what it implied about God’s kingdom rule: the past is the key to the future.[7] In other words, how God worked in the past reveals how he will work in the future.This explains Wesley’s confidence that Christ’s millennial reign will build on his present reign of grace. The lasting power of the Revival convinced Wesley that the kingdom of grace would reach the “remotest parts, not only of Europe, but of Asia, Africa, and America.”[8]Therefore, Wesley’s postmillennialism was grounded on his understanding of salvation history.

Another implication of Wesley’s historicism was his outright rejection of Calvinism,with its emphasis on God’s absolute sovereignty. Instead, Wesley’s eschatology reflects the same Arminian concepts that characterize his soteriology. It is interesting to see how he weaves eschatological themes, which tend to stress God’s sovereign action, with exhortations for authentic human agency in the fulfillment of God’s end-time purposes. Since God in the past accomplished his redemptive purposes by working in and through human agency, with real people exercising authentic human freedom, then surely the same principle applies in the fulfillment of future prophecy. Consequently, Wesley stated on more than one occasion the transition from this present age to the millennial kingdom will not be recognized on earth. The reason is that in both eras the synergism of human freedom and divine sovereignty function in the same manner. Only at the second coming of Christ, which includes the conflagration, final judgment, and reconstitution of the new creation, will God’s sovereign action temporarily set aside the kind of synergism that has operated throughout salvation history under the kingdom of grace. In the kingdom of glory a new synergism will emerge when the redeemed actively worship and commune with the Three-One God and enjoy eternal peace and harmony with every other link on the Great Chain of Being.[9]

The Chain of Being

Wesley’s eschatology was influenced by his natural philosophy (science). In the third article (“From Heaven Above…”) we learned that one of the implications of the Chain of Being was that matter will not be ultimately destroyed. Wesley believed the present heavens and earth will one day be dissolved down to their atomic level, to be recreated to form a new heavens and a new earth, far better than the one Adam enjoyed in the garden. No link in the great chain will be lost. The kingdom of glory will be the reconstitution of the present physical cosmos, with a real material heavens and earth. In this new order, all creation, at least all sentient beings, will be lifted higher on the chain to enjoy even more the richness of God’s grace. Humanity will be lifted to the level of the angels,the animal kingdom to the level of humanity. The order, plenitude, and perfection of the chain remain intact. But this means that Wesley’s eschatology leaves no room for any kind of annihilationism. Early on Wesley taught the resurrection body will be recreated out of the very same atoms that composed the earthly mortal body.[10]

The Chain of Being reached into other aspects of Wesley’s eschatology.The concept of humanity as a channel of divine blessing or judgment to lower links on the chain fits into Wesley’s views of humanity ruling over the creation (i.e. the political image) and of God’s intention to recreate the material cosmos and give the animal kingdom a share in the general resurrection.[11] Since the idea of plenitude meant that God created every link on the chain at the original creation, Wesley refused to believe that stars were older than the earth, as some in his day began to expostulate,[12]and he read Genesis 1 in a straightforward manner—a recent creation in six literal days.[13] In keeping with the Chain, Wesley understood the four elements of fire, air,water, and earth to be the constituent parts of the present creation.[14]These elements will constitute the basic building blocks of the new creation[15]and will remain untouched by the conflagration.[16]The four elements feature in Wesley’s eschatology at points not expected, like in his description of the signs immediately preceding the second coming: tumultuous earthquakes (earth), giant tsunamis (water), tempest storms from pole to pole (air), along with stars and heavenly bodies “thrown out of their orbits” (fire).[17]


How close did Wesley believe the end to be? In prior articles we saw that he did see Methodism as an eschatological movement, called to prepare the way for the latter-day glory.[18]He further asserted the Roman beast to be in political decline.[19]Following Bengel, Wesley made a distinction between the beast rising out of the sea and the beast rising out of the abyss. The first beast is the “Papacy of many ages,” the second the eschatological Pope.[20]It was this last personage that Wesley stated in 1755 will be destroyed “soon”by the Lord’s power (2 Th. 2:8). Moving to Revelation, he made numerous comments that reflect his belief the end was imminent. When the Apostle John encouraged his audience to hear and keep the words of this prophecy, Wesley responded, “Especially at this time, when so considerable a part of them is on the point of being fulfilled” (Rev.1:3 note). To John’s phrase, “the time is near,” Wesley added, “Even when St. John wrote. How much nearer to us is even the full accomplishment of this weighty prophecy!” He then followed up that chapters 15-19 are to be “fulfilled shortly” (4:1 note). When we consider his other comments, we can conclude that Wesley did believe he was living close to the end of Antichrist’s rule (see Rev. 12:12; 13:1; 17:10; 19:7; 20:3 notes). It should be remembered what the demise of the Antichrist meant to Wesley. What he anticipated was not necessarily the demise of the Roman Catholic Church, but the end of the Pope’s political power.[21]From the vantage point where he stood, Wesley expected the Catholic Reformation to dissipate further, opening an opportunity for the Revival to spread throughout Christendom until real, authentic Christianity rules over the nations,leading to a golden era of universal peace and holiness in the world.

The Millennium

After reading the first three articles, the reader should be aware that Wesley’s notes on Revelation 20 are an abridgment of Bengel’s concept of a dual millennium. Apart from the commentary, we have no record of Wesley ever espousing this idea. His one sermon that deals with the subject at length never mentions a second thousand years. Nevertheless, the main point of The General Spread of the Gospel is to proclaim the hope that the Revival will usher in the (first) millennium. Apart from his commentary, written in the mid-fifties, Wesley has not left us any sermon or tract dealing with Revelation 20:7-10. We simply do not know his later position on these verses. Bengel and Wesley were correct that vv. 7-10 follow the (first) thousand years. Whether we assign a thousand years to these verses or a shorter period, the narrative does place the final apostasy after the thousand years are completed.So, the basic idea Bengel and Wesley propose is not as far-fetched as some might assume. Another question concerns the armies of Gog and Magog, the second coming, and the conflagration. All three events are chronologically connected by Wesley in Revelation 20:9-11, with each involving the element of fire. It is possible that Wesley believed the fire, which devours the armies of Gog and Magog, will be the same fire that marks the return of Christ and dissolves the cosmos.[22]

The Second Coming

Wesley’s depiction of the events surrounding the Lord’s coming is cosmic,cataclysmic, eschatological, and graphic: the earth reels with horrific earthquakes; giant tsunamis wash over its face; “ten thousand” lightning storms terrify from “pole to pole;” planets and stars are “thrown out of their orbits.” Then the angels give a loud shout, as the graves are opened and the elect are gathered from the four corners of the earth. The Lord personally descends on the clouds. After these things, the final judgment is set as the material cosmos dissolves in the flames. Wesley did envision living saints being “raptured” (to use a contemporary term), but he would not have had any concept of a pre-, mid- or post- scenario since these ideas did not come into vogue until the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In 1755 he simply states living believers will be“absolved” (1 Th 4:17) at the Lord’s coming and the resurrection body will be“so changed in its properties as we cannot now conceive.”[23]Given his new creation eschatology, Wesley did look for real material bodies in the resurrection, but bodies no longer bound by the remains of the Adamic curse.

The Eternal States

The new creation will be recreated from of the same atoms that constituted the old creation. Wesley’s depiction emphasizes the materiality  of the restored cosmos, minus the defects caused by Adam’s fall. He assumes the earth will be roughly the same size, with everything restored to its pristine purity and order. His speculations are fascinating and reflect the level of scientific knowledge available in the eighteenth century.  To offer one example, Wesley states there will be no comets in the new creation. The common assumption in the eighteenth century was that comets were “blazing stars,” potentially destructive to the earth. Dr. Halley had warned that if the fiery tail of the “great comet”brushed the earth “it will set the earth on fire, and burn it to a coal.”[24]Today we know comets to be comprised of rock, dust, ice, and frozen gas. They are not “blazing stars.” A comet’s tail would certainly not cause the earth’s surface to burn.

Drawing on the scholastic distinction between poena damni (punishment of loss) and poena sensus(punishment of the senses), Wesley describes the final state of the damned as conscious and unredeemable. Once again, Wesley emphasizes the materiality of the place of punishment. The fire will be physical and the suffering both physical and mental, in proportion to the guilt each person bears before the great tribunal.[25] To the argument that a physical fire cannot burn forever, Wesley responds that at the great renovation, present physical laws no longer apply. Under the new constitution, a physical fire will burn forever since material existence endures forever. Therefore, Wesley did anticipate the unredeemed to be physically raised at the general resurrection.

The Intermediate State

When Wesley addresses the intermediate state, he moves from the material to the ethereal. Hades is located in the “invisible world,” where disembodied immortal spirits of good and evil dwell. He leans heavily on the story of the rich man and Lazarus (Lk. 16:19-31) to decipher what transpires in this state.[26]He rejects outright any notion of a purgatory, which offers a second chance to the deceased. The unholy dead cannot cross over to the paradise of the righteous. The righteous experience bliss while the unholy suffer loss and pain. But the inhabitants of Hades are not idle. The unholy dead serve alongside demons by inflicting evil and harm on this world, including storms,earthquakes, disease, and mental illness. The righteous spirits are active in withstanding these evils by “preventing our being hurt by men, or beasts, or inanimate creatures.”[27]So Wesley definitely believed in guardian angels or spirits, both good and bad,and speculated that departed humans remain engaged in the affairs of this present age. The disembodied “traverse the whole universe” at the speed of thought and experience dramatic increase in knowledge, but only the righteous will “advance in holiness, in the whole image of God wherein they were created.”[28]Therefore, Wesley envisioned the deceased to be still engaged in the great eschatological struggle between good and evil, with the field of battle located on this plane.

[1] See John Wesley’s tract “Serious Thoughts Occasioned by the Late Earthquake at Lisbon,” Works (Jackson), 11:1-12.

[2]Kenneth Collins has contributed much to highlight this theme in Wesley’s theology. For example, see his John Wesley: A Theological Journey. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2003, 243-47.

[3] This excellent point was made by Ronald Knox, Enthusiasm: A Chapter in the History of Religion. New York: Oxford University Press, 438.

[4] On the surface, the plot is to expose Rome as the great enemy of God (heathen and papal). A closer reading reveals a deeper sub-plot, real vs. nominal religion and the identification of Methodists and other evangelicals as God’s elect.

[5] This phrase is an obvious allusion to devotional classic The Life of God in the Soul of Man by Henry Scougal. Wesley read Scougal while at Oxford. This book led to George Whitefield’s evangelical conversion in 1735.

[6] “The New Creation” §18.

[7] To see how this principle guides Wesley’s argument, see “The General Spread of the Gospel.”

[8] “The General Spread of the Gospel” §18.

[9] See “The New Creation” §18.

[10] See “On the Resurrection of the Dead” (1732), Works (Jackson) 7:474-85. See Outler’s remarks on this sermon by Benjamin Calamy that Wesley transcribed and preached, Works 4:528-530.

[11] “The General Deliverance;” Notes Gen.1:26-28.

[12] See Notes 2 Peter 3:11.

[13] Creation in six literal days, see “God’s Approbation of His Works”I.7-11, Works 2:391-395; creation six thousand years ago, see “On the Fall of Man” II.4, Works 2:407.

[14] “God’s Approbation of His Works”I.1-6, Works 2:388-91. E.M. W. Tillyard explains, “Now just as God, source of all existence, to the medieval mind was first of all one and after was divided in this way or that; so matter was one, and the elements far from being ultimate and different indivisibles were primarily certain qualities attributable to all matter” (The Elizabethan World Picture. New York: Vintage Books, 1959, 61).

[15] “The New Creation” §10-13.

[16] Notes 2 Peter 3:10.

[17] “The Great Assize” I.1.

[18] See chapter two.

[19] Telford, 6:291 (12/8/77).

[20] Revelation 11:7; 13:1, Obs. 16; 17:8.

[21] On this point the reader needs to examine Wesley’s notes on Revelation 13 and 17. Wesley also looked for the destruction of the city of Rome (Rev. 18). The nineteenth century did witness the eroding loss of political power by the Pope that culminated under Pius IX (1846-78) in 1870.

[22] Consider Notes 2 Peter 3:10-11, Revelation 20:7-11; “The Great Assize.”

[23] “The Great Assize” I.1.

[24] The quotations are from Wesley, but he is summarizing Halley’s views. See Wesley’s “Serious Thoughts Occasioned by the Late Earthquake at Lisbon,” Works (Jackson) 11:9. This tract is a good example how Wesley played on the fears of the populace for evangelistic purposes.

[25] The general resurrection includes both the righteous and the unrighteous. So, the inhabitants of hell will have bodies by which to experience real pain.

[26] See Wesley’s sermon on this story, “Dives and Lazarus” (1788), Works 4:5-18.

[27] “On Faith” (Heb. 11:1) §12, Works 4:197. Compare with Wesley’s early sermon “On Guardian Angels” (1726), Works 4:225-35, and his 1783 sermons “Of Good Angels” and “Of Evil Angels,” Works 3:3-29.

[28] “On Faith” (Heb. 11:1) §11, Works 4:196.

[This article was taken with permission from Mark K. Olson’s website where the original version can be found.]