I recently outlined what I see as the apocalyptic Christology of Acts and suggested that most of what is said about the post-Easter Jesus in the New Testament needs to be interpreted within this narrative framework: Jesus was unjustly killed by the rulers of Israel and the Gentiles; he was raised from the dead and given authority to rule as king at the right hand of YHWH; and the historical outworking of this would be judgment first against the Jews, who had rejected the prophets and finally the Son, then judgment against the idolatrous Greek-Roman oikoumenē, the pagan world.
Part of this story is the belief that Jesus is the one “appointed by God to be judge of the living and the dead” (cf. Acts 10:42; 1 Pet. 4:5). We would normally understand this as a reference to a final judgment at the end of the world as we know it, but it seems to me that the language of judgment in the New Testament is too closely tied up with the vindication of the early persecuted churches and the overthrow of Rome for us to think that it can be indefinitely deferred. In the 1 Peter passage he writes that the “end of all things is at hand” (1 Pet. 4:7). There is a clear and consistent expectation that this day of judgment was coming soon.
Since the idea that Jesus was “destined to judge the living and the dead” is also found in The Epistle of Barnabas, The Letter of Polycarp to the Philippians, and 2 Clement, I thought I’d have a go at reconstructing the apocalyptic Christologies—and the surrounding narrative—of these texts. They probably date from around AD 100-110. They are not the only texts in the Apostolic Fathers that speak of a future judgment, though they may be the most important. If you’re not interested in the details, you can skip to the end for a quick summary.
The Epistle of Barnabas
Barnabas believes himself to be writing at the end of an evil age, when the “the one working [evil] has authority” (Barn. 2:1), and looks forward to an “age (kairos) to come” (4:1). This time is not far off. “The day is near when everything will perish together with the Evil One. The Lord, and his reward, is near” (21:3). Indeed, they are already seeing things coming to pass as Jesus predicted, notably the destruction of the temple (1:7-8; 16:1-5):
Again, it was revealed that the city and the temple and the people of Israel were destined to be handed over. For the scripture says: “And it will happen in the last days that the Lord will hand over the sheep of the pasture and the sheepfold and their watchtower to destruction.” And it happened just as the Lord said. (16:5)
He warns his readers that the “last stumbling block is at hand”, by which he means a time of persecution (4:3, 9); but the Lord has shortened the time so that “his beloved might make haste and come into his inheritance” (4:3). This has something to do with Daniel’s vision of the little horn on the head of the beast of the dominant empire (4:4-5; cf. Dan. 7:7-8, 24). The exact point is unclear, but presumably, as in Daniel 7, the “Son” inherits the nations following the destruction of the hostile empire.
Believers need to be on their guard in these last days; it is imperative that they resist the coming stumbling blocks and do not withdraw “as though you were already justified” (4:9-10). The only way for the followers of Jesus to gain the kingdom is “through affliction and suffering”—a saying attributed to Jesus, perhaps received through the Spirit (7:11; cf. Acts 14:22).
At the end of the period of suffering the Lord will judge the world without partiality, and each will “receive according to what he has done” (4:12); he will judge the living and the dead (7:2). Jesus submitted to suffer “in order that he might destroy death and demonstrate the reality of the resurrection of the dead”, but also to prove that “after he has brought about the resurrection he will execute judgment” (5:6-7).
Those who keep the commandments of the Lord “will be glorified in the kingdom of God”; those who choose the opposite path will perish. “This is why there is a resurrection, this is why there is recompense” (21:1). If they become complacent and let Satan get the better of them, they are likely to be thrust out of the coming kingdom.
God has “made a second creation in the last days”; the believers have been brought into a new land, in which they will soon be given authority to “rule over (katakurieuontes) the earth”, which will demonstrate to the world that the one giving authority is really in control (6:13-19). In other words, Jesus will be seen really to be Lord when his followers are no longer a small persecuted minority but have authority to rule.
After six thousand years of creation everything will be brought to an end. The Son will come, “he will destroy the time of the lawless one and will judge the ungodly and will change the sun and the moon and the stars, and then he will truly rest on the seventh day” (15:4-5). Then God will “create the beginning of an eighth day, which is the beginning of another world”. “This is why we spend the eighth day in celebration, the day on which Jesus both arose from the dead and, after appearing again, ascended into heaven” (15:9).
Polycarp to the Philippians
Christ “bore our sins in his own body upon the tree”, enduring all things “for our sakes” (Pol. Phil. 8:1). God raised him from the dead; he gave him glory and a throne at his right hand; all things in heaven and earth have been subjected to him; and he will come ‘as “Judge of the living and the dead,” for whose blood God will hold responsible those who disobey him’ (2:1). If Christians keep his commandments and please him in the present age, they will receive the age to come, “inasmuch as he promised that he will raise us from the dead and that if we prove to be citizens worthy of him, we will also reign with him” (5:2). All believers will have to give an account of themselves before the “judgment seat of Christ”. They should “maintain an irreproachable standard of conduct among the Gentiles”… because the “saints will judge the world” (11:2).
The address opens: “Brothers and sisters, we ought to think of Jesus Christ as we do of God, as judge of the living and the dead” (2 Clem. 1:1).
The end of the present age is characterized by persecution. Believers are like “lambs among wolves”. They should be willing to depart this world. They have the assurance that they will have relief from persecution in the coming kingdom and “life of the age” (5:5). So a heavenly “contest” of persecution is at hand, and if they compete successfully—that is, if they achieve martyrdom—they will be crowned with resurrection (7:1-6; cf. 19:3; 20:2). “And if we cannot all be crowned, let us at least come close to it” (7:3). If they patiently endure the suffering to come, they will enter the kingdom of God (11:7). They should be ready at all times, since they “do not know the day of God’s appearing” (12:1). The account of the martyrdom of Polycarp vividly illustrates this conviction (cf. Mart. Pol. 18:3).
The day of judgment “is already coming as a blazing furnace”, when the works of all people will be revealed (16:3). The Lord is coming “to gather together all the nations, tribes, and languages”; he will redeem those who believe, “each according to his deeds”. The unbelievers will see his glory and will be shocked to discover that “the kingdom of the world belongs to Jesus” (17:5). Those among the believers “who lived ungodly lives and perverted the commandments of Jesus Christ” will be exposed. But the righteous, having “done well and endured torments and hated the pleasures of the soul”, will give glory to God because “There will be hope for the one who has served God fully from the heart” (17:6-7).
The overriding concern in these apocalyptic texts is that the churches will have the faith and obedience to survive the persecution—the birth pains—that will accompany the transition from the present age ruled by Satan to the age to come, over which Christ will reign along with the resurrected martyrs. We are between the first horizon of judgment on Israel and the second horizon of the victory over pagan imperialism, which will constitute, as in Revelation 18-20, the beginning of the reign of God, the inheritance of the world by the descendants of Abraham according to the promise. The assumption is that the eschatological climax is fast approaching.
The usual interpretive strategy is to take the judgment as final and make excuses for the early church’s sense of imminence. I would take the sense of imminence as a matter of historical urgency and understand the judgment, despite its apocalyptic overtones, as temporal. What pressed upon these writers was not the theological abstraction of a final judgment but the historical circumstance of persecution and pagan opposition to Christ and his followers.
They have rather more to say, however, about the judgment of believers on the coming day than about the judgment of the nations. The coming persecution will be itself a testing of the churches, and only those who endure to the end, who remain faithful, will reign with Christ over the nations which he has gathered together. The unfaithful will be excluded. The judgment of the living and the dead is important because the martyrs deserve to be rewarded. When the nations finally confess Jesus as Lord, those Christians who are alive will acknowledged publicly for their faithfulness, but the dead are not to miss out (cf. 1 Thess. 4:14-17).