Daniel Kirk wrote a piece recently about Christians “being greater than angels”, looking at Paul’s enigmatic remarks in 1 Corinthians 6:1-3 about the saints judging not only the world but also angels. It’s a short piece, and the focus is mainly anthropological: an “idealized humanity” will judge the world; a “redeemed humanity occupies a higher place in the cosmic order than angels”. But what about the eschatology of this passage? What about the when?
I reckon—following Conzelmann, Strobel, Fee, Thiselton, and others—that the statement “the saints will judge the world” has its background in (the other) Daniel’s vision of a judgment that is given in favour of the persecuted saints of the Most High following the destruction of the fourth pagan empire (Dan. 7:22 LXX), when they will also receive authority to rule over the nations:
And the kingdom and the dominion and the greatness of the kingdoms under the whole heaven shall be given to the people of the saints of the Most High; his kingdom shall be an everlasting kingdom, and all dominions shall serve and obey him. (Dan. 7:27)
The same thought is found in Wisdom 3:7-8, which is also clearly dependent on (the other) Daniel (cf. Dan. 12:3-4). The righteous who are persecuted by the impious, who suffer as a “sacrificial whole burnt offering” (3:6), will be preserved by God and vindicated:
And in the time of their visitation they will shine out, and as sparks through the stubble, they will run about. They will judge nations and rule over peoples, and the Lord will be king over them for ever.
Similarly, in the Qumran writings: at a time of eschatological crisis unrighteous Israel will be punished by Rome; the righteous elect will suffer, but they will be given the “power to pass judgment on the Gentiles”:
This passage (Hab. 1:12-13a) means that God will not exterminate his people through the Gentiles; on the contrary, He will give the power to pass judgment on the Gentiles to his chosen, and it is at their rebuke that all the wicked of His people shall be condemned. The chosen are those who have observed His commandments in the time of their distress, for that is what it means when it says, “eyes too pure to see evil”…. (1QpHab 5.3-7)
This is the apocalyptic narrative on which Paul draws. The people of God are threatened by the Gentiles, notably Rome. Unrighteous Israel will be punished by the Gentiles. In the course of this eschatological crisis the “saints”—a righteous elect—will suffer, but Jesus will come and deliver them and they will be given authority to judge and rule over the nations with him.
Historically speaking, I think it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the saints of the Most High, who suffered and were vindicated in Christ, came to rule over the nations at the conversion of the empire. Eusebius will later record the words of Bishop Dionysius, who spoke of the divine martyrs who are seated with Christ, who are “sharers in his kingdom, partakers of his judgment and judges with him” (Eusebius, Church History, 6.42.5).
The NETS translation of Daniel 7:21-22 LXX sums it up rather well:
And I was observing that horn preparing for war against the holy ones and routing them until the ancient of days came, and he gave the verdict for the holy ones of the Most High, and the time was given, and the holy ones gained possession of the seat of empire.
The thought that the saints will judge angels is much more difficult to pin down, lacking any real parallel in the Old Testament, in Jewish literature of the second temple period, or in the New Testament (the closest we get is 2 Pet. 2:4; Jude 6). But there is no reason to think that it does not belong to the same eschatological judgment of the nations. 1 Enoch 69:26-29 places the judgment of the angels that have misled humanity in the context of the enthronement of the Son of Man. My guess is that Paul is thinking of angelic powers that deceived the nations into opposing YHWH and his people. They are naturally judged along with the aggressive pagan empire.