I have been involved in an interesting conversation (much of which is in German) at peregrinatio regarding the meaning of Paul’s statement in 1 Thessalonians 1:9-10 that the believers would be delivered “from the wrath to come”. My view is that this verse has reference to a second eschatological horizon in the New Testament—a complex of events consisting of “the deliverance of the persecuted saints from their enemies…, their public vindication, the overthrow of the pagan imperial aggressor (“Babylon the great”), and the acknowledgment that Israel’s God has made Jesus King of kings and Lord of lords”. This argument was challenged, as is only fair, on the grounds that it does not make sense to say that the Thessalonian Christians were saved from the defeat of Rome by their belief in Jesus. So the question is: What sort of event could legitimately be regarded as the fulfilment of the expectation of the Thessalonian believers that Jesus would deliver them from the coming wrath?
To begin with there are some hermeneutical considerations to highlight. To my mind, the main issue in this whole debate about eschatology in the New Testament has to do not so much with how prophecy is fulfilled but with how prophecy arises. What motivates it? Where does the language come from? Under what constraints of perspective is prophecy generated?
A first question to consider is to what extent we expect Paul to address the actual circumstances and needs of the community to which he writes. How seriously should we take the sense of urgency and imminence that we find in his letters, not least when he writes in an apocalyptic idiom (cf. Rom. 13:11)? It seems to me that there is an important distinction to be made, when it comes to reading prophetic or apocalyptic language, between a foreseeable horizon of interpretation and an unforeseeable horizon of interpretation. The foreseeable horizon would have direct historical relevance to the reading community; prophecy that is still not fulfilled, say, two thousand years later has no such direct relevance. I think it is hermeneutically appropriate—in fact, I regard it as a matter of plain common sense—to give priority to readings that work within a foreseeable horizon of fulfilment.
Secondly, we always have to keep in mind that Paul did not have the benefit of our hindsight. Prophetic and apocalyptic language is essentially poetic, for the simple reason that it an attempt to give expression to what is unknown—it is a work of the imagination; it is not the pre-recording of history. The extravagant imagery serves a number of purposes, but one of the most important is to generate a degree of referential latitude. Indeed, the point of apocalyptic language may not be to pre-describe future events so much as to construct a symbolic narrative that will give meaning to future events.
Thirdly, I think it is a sound hermeneutical practice to assume—unless there are strong reasons to think otherwise—that when Paul uses the language and imagery of the Old Testament to speak of future events, he does so on the basis of a sense of historical analogy. If in the Old Testament “wrath” always refers to major historical events by means of which God “judges” either Israel or the nations, we should at least start from position that Paul has recourse to this language because he has in view similar historical events.
What these three considerations amount to is a presumption of historical realism: as much through his apocalyptic arguments as through his practical pastoral teaching Paul is addressing the concrete, pressing and realistic needs of the communities to which he writes, under the foreseeable circumstances of the expansion of the Jesus movement across the pagan world, from Jerusalem, through Illyricum, to Rome, and on to Spain (cf. Rom. 15:18-24).
The righteous and the wrath of God
I would suggest that there are two ways to approach the question about the fulfilment of this expectation that Jesus would deliver the Thessalonians from the coming wrath.
First, in Romans 1:18 Paul says that “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men”. The way the argument is worked out in Romans 1-2 suggests that he is thinking of a two-part “judgment”—directly analogous to the situation that Habakkuk describes—first on the Jew, then on the Greek, which will come at some point in the foreseeable future. I presume that this is the same “wrath” that he speaks of in 1 Thessalonians 1:9-10. The Thessalonians have abandoned the worship of idols because they are persuaded that the wrath of God is coming on the pagan world. That is, they are delivered from the wrath to come on the Greek by the same means that Paul has been delivered from the wrath to come on the Jew—by their faith in Jesus. How he imagined these two events of divine judgment would actually come about is another question. I suggested in this post that while Israel was subjected to a literal sword, Rome was to be overcome with the metaphorical sword of the word of God.
Secondly, the Old Testament background narratives show how the “righteous” are not exempt from suffering when conditions of divine wrath prevail.
In Habbakuk, for example, wrath against scandalously unrighteous Israel by means of the invading Chaldean army is to be followed by wrath against the even more unrighteous Chaldeans. In the midst of this turmoil of divine judgment the prophet asks how the righteous will survive (Hab. 1:13). The answer—or revelation—that he receives from God is that they will live by “faith” or “faithfulness” (Hab. 2:4). The reason why Habakkuk asks is that he knows that the Babylonians will not discriminate between the righteous and the unrighteous in Israel. When wrath comes on Israel and on the enemies of Israel, the righteous will also need to be delivered. This provides an important background theme for Paul’s Letter to the Romans.
Similarly, in Daniel 7-12, during the “eschatological” crisis of Antiochus’ Epiphanes’ assault on Judaism, those Jews who remained faithful to the covenant were persecuted by the blasphemous pagan ruler. Given the broader symbolic and rather complex development of this narrative in the New Testament, I would argue that 1 Thessalonians 1:9-10 presupposes the motif of the inclusion of the churches persecuted by blasphemous Rome in the vindication of the Son of Man, when he comes to deliver them from their enemies (cf. 2 Thess. 1:7-8; 2:8).
The contextual relevance of this in the Letter is apparent. The Thessalonians became imitators both of Paul and of Jesus in that they received the word in much affliction (1:6). Their “faithfulness” under these circumstances—in effect, the “faithfulness” by which, according to Habakkuk, the righteous would survive the day of wrath—has been proclaimed in Macedonia and Achaia, along with the word of the Lord. For this reason Paul characterizes their response to the gospel in terms of waiting to be delivered from the wrath to come. We find a similar argument in Philippians 1:27-30, though here Paul speaks not of the future “deliverance” (ruomenon) of the persecuted community but of its “salvation” (sōtērias).
So there are, I think, two ways in which we may make good historical sense of 1 Thessalonians 1:9-10. On the one hand, these believers are saved from an obsolescent civilization in the same way that Paul has been saved from an obsolescent second temple Judaism. The Thessalonian Christians will not be swept away in the coming wrath of God against the ancient world; they will not become merely collateral damage; they will survive to be part of the life of the age to come. On the other, they will be delivered from the suffering that the righteous will inevitably face in the course of the coming eschatological upheaval—that is, they will be saved from persecution. I imagine that both lines of interpretation are relevant.
Of course, deliverance from the coming wrath does not mean quite the same thing for the individual as it does for the community. Many individuals did not “survive” persecution, which is why the martyrological aspect to the theme of resurrection in the New Testament is so important (on this point see “Today you will be with be with me in paradise”). For the communities, however, deliverance would mean the ending of persecution—and the historical transformation that would bring that about.