Apocalyptic realism and deliverance from the coming wrath

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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?

Hermeneutical considerations

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.

peter wilkinson | Tue, 04/05/2011 - 16:05 | Permalink

Sounds plausible, Andrew, but I'm puzzled over the details.

If the second of the two judgements was on Rome and by a metaphorical sword, the word of God, is that really a judgement? I'd have thought it was the opposite. An OT parallel might be the preaching of Jonah of judgement on Nineveh, but Nineveh's repentant response brought mercy, not judgement and wrath. The following verses (2 Thessalonians 2:9-12) seem to imply condemnation and destruction, not the good news of the gospel, although I appreciate you interpret evangelion in quite a different way from forgiveness and mercy.

If Babylon in Revelation is ancient Rome, its destruction (Revelation 14:8; Revelation 18) sounds still less like this peaceful transition to faith. We also hear of a "sharp sword" which comes "out of his (Jesus's) mouth, with which to strike down the nations" in Revelation 19:15 - but the result is not faith from those against whom it is directed.

Although you haven't said so here, I don't think "the breath of his mouth and the splendour of his coming" in 2 Thessalonians 2:8 can be the preaching of the gospel, the sword of the word of God, which is what the word of God normally means in the NT.

It just seems very odd to me, that one kind of "wrath" is wholesale destruction, which attended the reconquest of Israel and destruction of Jerusalem, while another kind of "wrath" is the conversion of the Roman Empire to Christianity. Can "wrath" mean diametrically opposing things in the same useage, in passages such as Romans 1:18, 2:5? What happened to the "trouble and distress" for the Gentile as well as the Jew in Romans 2:9?

This is a big part of the clarification I've been waiting for regarding your historical realism.  The last paragraph seems to me to be vitally important for those trying to understand what "deliverance" or "salvation" actually means in this realist apocalyptic scheme, because (I think) individualism so bound up with the traditional spiritualist scheme of interpretation you are challenging.  

But, your very last sentence seems to apply the "community" interpretation to the second sense (the "on the other hand" part). Does it also apply to the not being swept away as collateral damage as well?  I would assume there were individual Christians who were collateral damage.  

Also, is the resurrection aspect not a third way to make equally historical (and, in Paul's mind, probably equally foreseeable) sense on an individual basis?  I'm not trying to add in another sense of "the wrath to come" by the back door here.  I'm actually more interested in what deliverance looks like martyrologically in light of Jesus' resurrection.  Just as he was not ultimately subject to the violent clash generated in the process of God rendering judgement, neither will the Thessalonians be.  Even assuming the wrath was much more immediate, might we take a longer (though, again, not less historically realist given the nature of resurrection) view of the deliverance?  


Greg, that last paragraph was too short to be of much use, I’m afraid, but you’re quite right about its importance.

The crucial “salvation” issue was that the people of God, under Christ, renewed through the Spirit, should survive the clash with paganism—and indeed triumph over paganism.

Presumably not all actual local communities or churches survived intact. The letters to the seven churches in Revelation suggest that some communities might be “rejected” by Christ because of their lack of integrity.

The resurrection gave the churches the assurance that no enemy would finally overcome them, not even death. That is what Romans 8:18-39 is all about—and Jesus’ saying about the “gates of Hades” not overcoming the church.

Paul expected some individuals to live to see the vindication of the suffering churches. There is an issue of timing here. He had some hope, at least, that it would happen within his own lifetime.

But then, as you say, for those who lost their lives out of loyalty to Jesus and to the gospel, for the martyrs, there was the assurance that they would be raised—that they would share in the vindication through resurrection. Possibly in Paul’s mind this would have included those who died other than by martyrdom. This seems to me to be the point of 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18. The argument is quite explicit in Revelation 20:4-6. The important point to note is that this is not a final resurrection. It is a limited resurrection of the martyrs, in the course of history, as part of realistic narrative of vindication and victory over paganism.

@James Mercer:

James, it’s not a pedantic question because it gets to the heart of the historical reality to which the language points.

The first observation to make is that the Christian community did survive the “wrath” of God against Jerusalem, first, and then against pagan Rome—and not only survived but flourished. We’re here to prove it. This new religion, with its intolerant and subversive monotheism, could easily have been suppressed by Rome. Or pehaps simply have gone out of fashion like numerous other invasive oriental cults.

As to how…. Well, not because the Romans discriminated one group of Jews from another. My argument in The Future of the People of God is that Paul found in Habakkuk 2:4 his basic doctrine of salvation or survival on the day of God’s wrath: the righteous person will live by faithfulness, trust (Rom. 1:17), grounded in the conviction that God had raised his Son from the dead and had appointed him as judge of the empire (cf. Acts 17:31).

The community was eventually vindicated because it held firm to that conviction, even when threatened with death. Those who died were vindicated on the day when Jesus was revealed to the nations of the pagan world and confessed as Lord by being raised and seated with Christ in heaven, to reign with him throughout the coming ages.


You always leave my brain hurting! Very interesting thoughts. I'd have to think on it a while, but as always, you push me to think. 

Andrew, Great post, good clarity and a helpful follow up to a previous post, "The Canaanite genocide and the so-called gospel of love"; especially concerning the idea of Rome being put to a "metaphorical" sword. Excellent.

Samuel | Mon, 05/20/2013 - 14:18 | Permalink

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…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 tofuture events.

I think there is a lot of value in the hermenutic you argue for, but the above statement is deeply flawed. Obviously there is some imagery at work in some apocalyptic passages, but there is also a consistent storyline in prophetic and apocalyptic passages and there is nothing within those passages, the prophet’s understanding of what they said, and the communities historical understanding of those passages that takes them as anything other than a pre-description of future events.

The whole glory of prophecy is that the God of Israel both knows and directs the future. I think the hermenutical framework you advocate for especially militates against prophecy being a “work of the imagination.” The precise point of the apocalyptic nature of both the Old Testament and the New Testament is that God has predicted specific judgments for Israel and the nations and the wise are to repent in advance of those specific judgments that they might be saved in the day of wrath.

I’m not sure if you’re taking that position because of a bias towards preterism because even partial preterism requires a loose hermenutic on many prophetic passages, but to place divine prediction in the realm of the prophet’s imagination is not only very dangerous biblically, I find it actually at odds with the hermenutic that you argue for.

I don’t mean to sound negative because I enjoy a lot of what you write, it’s just that applying that view to the prophetic Scripture has a profound affect on how the rest of Scripture is interepreted.


Samuel, I didn’t make myself clear enough. The issue is not whether prophecy and apocalyptic are genuinely predictive—I believe they are, in both the Old Testament and the New Testament. The issue in that paragraph is what degree of clarity or historical precision should we expect from this sort of language. Prophecy is sometimes quite precise, quite literal, in its prediction of future events, but much of it is symbolic, its purpose being not so much to describe what will literally happen as to give foreseen events meaning. So Jesus’ Olivet discourse genuinely predicts the coming war against Rome and the destruction of the temple. The first part does so more or less literally or realistically, the second part (“the sun will be darkened…”, etc.) uses Old Testament symbolism to add theological meaning to the historical event.