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Judge of the living and the dead

In a comment Peter asks about Acts 10:42: “So it seems you would say that Jesus’ role as judge of the living and the dead… already happened at the parousia (70 AD). Is this correct? If so, in what way did he judge the dead?” The main texts have to do with Peter—confusing, I know (Acts 10:42; 1 Pet. 4:5); but we can also bring Paul into the picture (Acts 17:30-31; Rom. 14:9-12; 2 Tim. 4:1). My contention is that this is not the language of a transcendent final judgment. The arguments have historical developments in view, though not just the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in AD 70.

Peter explains to Cornelius that God sent Jesus to Israel in the power of the Holy Spirit to preach “good news of peace” (Acts 10:36-38). He was put to death, but God raised him from the dead; then Jesus commanded his disciples “to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one appointed (hōrismenos) by God to be judge of the living and the dead”.

There is probably a two-part reference to Daniel here. 1) The figure like a son of man is given authority to judge and rule at the climax to a period of historical crisis (Dan. 7:13-14); cf. John 5:27: “he has given him authority to execute judgment, because he is the Son of Man”. 2) Following a great crisis from which Israel will be delivered (“everyone whose name shall be found written in the book”), “many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt” (Dan. 12:2). Here we have a “judgment” of Israel, if you like, that involves both those who are currently living and some who have been raised from the dead (either to suffer everlasting shame or to be celebrated for their righteousness in Israel’s new future).

Later, writing probably to Jewish-Christians, Peter says that Gentiles who are “living in sensuality, passions, drunkenness, orgies, drinking parties, and lawless idolatry” will “give account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead” (1 Pet. 4:5). The judgment will take place “when his glory is revealed”—that is, at the parousia, which Peter expects to happen fairly soon, though they must first face a “fiery trial” of persecution (4:7, 12-13).

Peter then explains the reference to the “living and the dead”:

For this is why the gospel was preached even to those who are dead, that though judged in the flesh the way people are, they might live in the spirit the way God does.” (1 Pet. 4:6)

The point is clear enough. Believers were dying (“judged in the flesh”) before the parousia—so what was the point of them having believed? They had suffered for nothing. They missing out on the party. The solution goes back to Daniel 12:2-3. At the revelation of the glory of Jesus to the ancient world, the righteous who had died would be raised (cf. 1 Thess. 4:15-17) and would share in the public vindication of the righteous living.

But Peter’s horizon is now wider than it was in Acts 10 and includes the pagan world. When Jesus comes, or is revealed—when it becomes obvious to the nations that God has made him King of kings and Lord of lords—not only would those who believed in this new future be vindicated, but also the whole idolatrous and corrupt pagan system would be “judged”.

Between Peter speaking to Cornelius and Peter writing to the “elect exiles of the dispersion” in Asia Minor we have Paul’s audacious announcement in Athens that the one, true and living God is no longer willing to overlook pagan dominance and has “fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed (hōrisen); and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:30-31). Perhaps this was implicit in Peter’s earlier statement, but now it is made clear that Jesus has been “appointed” judge not of Israel only but also of the pagan oikoumenē.

A similar thought is found in Paul’s letters. In Romans he writes: “For to this end Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living”; and then goes on to say that all will “stand before the judgment seat of God” (Rom. 14:9-12). He quotes Isaiah 45:23, which is an affirmation that when YHWH acts to rescue and establish his people, the idolatrous nations will bow the knee to the Lord and confess the God of Israel (cf. Phil. 2:9-11). So when God judges the nations, believers will also be held accountable for how they treated one another (“why do you despise your brother?”), whether or not they are alive at the time.

Finally, Paul charges Timothy to preach the word “in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom” (2 Tim. 4:1). The same scenario is in view. In the not-too-distant future Jesus will be made manifest to the pagan world, he will come as its new king or emperor, and will bring to an end the long-standing, idolatrous political-religious system. This will be a judgment of living Gentiles and a vindication of the churches which have held fast to their conviction despite persecution and deception. But also the dead in Christ will be raised and will share in his reign over the nations, seated at the right hand of God (cf. Rev. 20:4). The fact that they will reign in heaven rather than be part of the vindicated people on earth is, arguably, a mark of the realism of the vision—in contrast, say, to Matthew’s story of the resurrection of the saints from their tombs a the time of the resurrection.