The resurrection of the just and the unjust in Daniel 12:2, and the horizons of New Testament eschatology

Read time: 10 minutes

I think that the best way to understand New Testament eschatology is to organise the material according to three future horizons: i) a disastrous war against Rome, which would result in the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple; ii) the overthrow of classical Greek-Roman paganism and the confession of Jesus as Lord by the nations; and iii) in a very hazy distance, the final destruction of sin and death and the renewal of heaven and earth.

I have also argued that what Jesus’ resurrection anticipated, as an act of divine vindication, was not, in the first place, the final resurrection of all the dead but the resurrection of the martyrs, in conjunction with the figurative “resurrection” of the people of God, at the parousia. This seems to me to be required, not least, by John’s distinction between a first resurrection of those who had been “beheaded for the testimony of Jesus and for the word of God” and a second resurrection of all the dead at the end of the thousand years (Rev. 20:4-6, 12-13). It points to the fact that the overriding practical challenge facing the disciples of Jesus, the apostles and the churches was to remain true to their calling in the face of persecution until they were finally vindicated in the eyes of Israel and the nations for their beliefs regarding Jesus.

Jeff in Sydney got in touch to say that he is almost persuaded by this argument: “My conversion to your 3-horizon view from the more traditional partial preterist amillennialism is nearly complete.” The stumbling block is Daniel 12:2. “If it is true that the first resurrection is of both the righteous and the wicked, I am failing to see how this is compatible with your first horizon of the resurrection of the martyrs alone.”

Perhaps he has a point. Then again, perhaps not.

The historical crisis behind Daniel 12:2

And 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)

The “resurrection” described in Daniel 12:2 comes as the climax to the “prophecy” about Antiochus Epiphanes’ assault on Jerusalem in the early second century BC. In collaboration with apostate Jews in Jerusalem, Antiochus would send his forces to profane the temple, remove the regular burnt offering, and “set up the abomination that makes desolate”. During this period the “wise” (the maskilim) among the Jews, who knew their God, would suffer persecution but would be refined and would stand firm until the time of the end (Dan. 11:30-35). These were the people of the saints of the Most High, against whom the little horn on the head of the fourth beast made war in the beasts vision of Daniel 7. They are represented, probably symbolically, by the figure “like a son of man” who comes with the clouds of heaven.

Antiochus would “exalt himself and magnify himself above every god, and… speak astonishing things against the God of gods” (Dan. 11:36). But at the time of the end, despite having defeated the Ptolemaic king of the south, he would be abruptly killed in a battle against eastern forces (Dan. 11:40-45).

”At that time…” there would be a period of unprecedented trouble for Israel, when the angelic prince Michael would arise to deliver the righteous among his people—“everyone whose name shall be found written in the book” (Dan. 12:1). This is not a new event, a further crisis; it is another way of talking about the brutal imposition of Hellenistic cultural and religious practices on the Jews.

Many are raised from the dead

In conjunction with the salvation of the righteous and the restoration of national Israel, it is said that some dead Jews would awake to “everlasting life” or the “life of the future age”, others to “shame and everlasting abhorrence” or the “shame and abhorrence of the future age”.

Also, the maskilim or “wise” would “shine like the brightness of the sky above; and those who turn many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever” (Dan. 12:2-3). It is not said that this group has been raised from the dead. The reference could be to the “wise” who survived the conflict, who would be honoured in the age to come because, during this very difficult time, they turned many to righteousness. Or it may include the resurrected maskilim. There seems no reason to limit it to those who lost their lives in the troubles.

So what we have here is a limited “resurrection” of some Jews (“many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth”) as part of the resolution of the historical crisis triggered by Hellenising apostasy in the early second century BC and the aggressive intervention of Antiochus Epiphanes. Whether Daniel had in mind a literal resurrection is unclear; it may only have been a figurative way of talking about the vindication of the martyrs and the disgrace of apostate Israel. It seems likely, in any case, that he has extended the vision of Isaiah 26:19, which also has reference to the restoration of Judah and Jerusalem:

Your dead shall live; their bodies shall rise. You who dwell in the dust, awake and sing for joy! For your dew is a dew of light, and the earth will give birth to the dead. (Is 26:19)

Added to this is the thought that the section of the population which remained faithful during the crisis, and indeed which actively turned many to righteousness, would receive vindication and great honour in the age to come.

Application of the template

My suggestion would then be that the apocalyptic template of Daniel 12:1-3 is loosely applied to both the first and the second horizons of New Testament eschatology—both to the disaster of the Jewish war against Rome and to clash between the churches and Greek-Roman paganism that resulted eventually in the victory of Christ over the nations of the oikoumenē.

In his explanation of the parable of the weeds, Jesus says that at the close of the age the Son of Man, having been given the authority to act as judge of Israel, will send out his angels to separate the righteous from the law-breakers. The law-breakers will perish in the catastrophe of the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, but the righteous will “shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father” (Matt. 13:43). This looks like an allusion to Daniel 12:3. Nothing is said here about a resurrection either of the just or of the unjust, but the “righteous”, the “sons of the kingdom”, correspond to the maskilim who will “shine like the brightness of the sky above”.

In his account of the build-up to the destruction of Jerusalem, Jesus says that there will be “great tribulation (thlipsis), such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be” (Matt. 24:21; cf. Mk. 13:19). This is an unmistakable allusion to Daniel’s “day of affliction (thlipseōs), which will be such as has not occurred since they were born until that day” (Dan. 12:1 LXX). Josephus speaks about the war against Rome in similar terms:

Accordingly it appears to me, that the misfortunes of all men, from the beginning of the world, if they be compared to these of the Jews, are not so considerable as they were… (War 1:12)

Accordingly the multitude of those that therein perished exceeded all the destructions that either men or God ever brought upon the world… (War 6:429)

I assume, also, that the curious resurrection of “many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep” at the time of Jesus’ death serves as a dramatic, and probably fictitious, foreshadowing of the “resurrection” of righteous Jews in the context of the coming tribulation and the restoration of God’s people (Matt. 27:52).

The only place in the Gospels where we find reference to a resurrection of both the just and the unjust is in John 5:29. Jesus says that the Son has been given “authority to execute judgment, because he is the Son of Man”, and that the hour is coming when “all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment” (John 5:27–29). In John’s disembodied narrative it is harder to connect this with the coming historical judgment on Jerusalem, and it may not amount to a direct allusion to Daniel 12:2.

The belief that Jesus would be “judge of the living and the dead” (Acts 10:42; cf. Rom. 14:9; 2 Tim. 4:1; 1 Pet. 4:5) may presuppose the distinction in Daniel 12:2-3 between the dead who are raised for judgment and the “wise” and others who survive the crisis.

Paul’s insistence—“by a word from the Lord”—that the dead in Christ would not miss out on the parousia also conforms to the apocalyptic template of Daniel 12:2-3. Just as some of the righteous dead would rise to enjoy the life of the age to come with the surviving maskilim and any others whose names were written in the book, so at the parousia the dead in Christ would rise first to join the living in the reunion (eis apantēsin) with the glorified first martyr Jesus (1 Thess. 4:14-17).

So where does this leave us?

Daniel imagined a limited resurrection of both the righteous and the wicked at the time of the deliverance of Israel from internal and external pressures that threatened to destroy the covenant. How realistically he thought of it is hard to say, but in any case, it served a purpose integral to the resolution of the crisis. Those who had died in this period would not escape judgment for their actions, whether for better or for worse. Notice that a judgment of the dead in some sort of afterlife is not contemplated: the dead have to be raised to new life in the course of history in order to be judged.

With the exception of John 5:29, we do not have an explicit resurrection of both the righteous and the unrighteous until we get to the final resurrection, when not only God’s people but all humanity is raised for judgment (Rev. 20:12-13). The separation of the sheep from the goats at the parousia, like the other parables of judgment in Matthew, is a judgment not of the dead but of the living—this time of the nations, according to how they treated Jesus’ disciples (Matt. 25:31-46).

So with respect to the first two horizons, we have a resurrection of the righteous dead, who have lost their lives because of their witness to Christ’s future reign over the nations, but we do not have a resurrection of the unrighteous dead.

Can we explain this? I think we can

Antiochus Epiphanes set out to suppress traditional conservative Judaism, to convert Jerusalem into a pagan city, not to destroy it. So although many Jews who remained loyal to the ancestral traditions were killed, the crisis as Daniel describes it did not entail the punishment of apostate Jews. The resurrection of some of the dead to shame and everlasting contempt, therefore, introduced at least a limited judgment apostate Jews who would otherwise appear to have got away with it.

The situation is different in the Gospels. Here there is no need for the unjust to be raised for judgment because the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple by Rome would itself be God’s judgment on unrighteous, rebellious, disobedient Israel. The same was also effectively true with regard to the subsequent judgment against Rome, the second horizon, though this was not envisaged so clearly as an act of literal destruction.

So that just leaves the righteous martyrs—the apostles who were sent to proclaim the coming of YHWH’s rule to Israel and the nations, and the communities that would be persecuted on account of their declaration of allegiance to Jesus. The prospect of the resurrection of the dead in Christ, the martyrs, therefore, constituted a critical part of the hope of the early church, for which Daniel 12:2 provided a primitive template.

I think the 3-horizon view makes good sense (although I see the 2nd horizon as a bit more involved than you do). And I also see the Gospel of John as an outlier since it appears to only anticipate the final resurrection.

Andrew, I think the answer to…

In John’s disembodied narrative it is harder to connect this with the coming historical judgment on Jerusalem, and it may not amount to a direct allusion to Daniel 12:2.

…is in this…

Daniel imagined a limited resurrection of both the righteous and the wicked at the time of the deliverance of Israel from internal and external pressures that threatened to destroy the covenant. … Notice that a judgment of the dead in some sort of afterlife is not contemplated: the dead have to be raised to new life in the course of history in order to be judged.

IOW… the John 5 account was fully pertinent to that AD30-70 era where Israel’s covenant renewal, i.e., resurrection, was occurring. The wise grasping and running with it were, for the most part, delivered and yet others having grasped it, would in reversion, would fall away to destruction (Gal 2:18; 3:1; 5:4; 2Pet 2:20-22; Heb 10:39 et al).

This then tallies with…

Dan 12:2 OG And many of those who sleep in the flat of the earth will arise, some to everlasting life but others to shame and others to dispersion [and contempt] everlasting.


Yes, it can be argued that John 5 is fully pertinent to the period leading up to the war, but it seems to me in that case that we have supplied the historical setting. Does the Jesus of the Gospel of John say anything that shows he had in mind such a concrete historical outcome? There is no apocalyptic discourse in John. Perhaps this is why the incident in the temple is moved to the beginning of the story—it is the only passage that suggests a historical orientation for the language of judgment?