Did Paul proclaim an imminent “final cosmic judgment”?

Generative AI summary:

The article discusses the misunderstanding of Jewish apocalyptic thought in relation to Paul’s belief in an imminent “final cosmic judgment.” It argues that the belief was focused on a political-religious transformation rather than a complete cosmic disintegration. The article also explores the concept of two “ends” in Jewish apocalyptic thought—a political or kingdom end and a final creational end.

Read time: 8 minutes

I won’t have time to write anything else this week, so here I’ve written up what started as a response to some further comments made by Edward Babinski regarding Paul’s supposed belief in an imminent “final cosmic judgment.”

Babinski argues that the belief was prevalent in second temple Judaism (Daniel, the War Scroll, Testament of Moses, 2 Esdras) and is to be found in the earliest New Testament writings, notably in 1 Corinthians. And they all got it badly wrong.

I contend that this modern criticism fails to grasp the real thrust of Jewish apocalyptic thought, which was oriented in the first place towards large scale, geo-political realignment, not cosmic disintegration.

There is no question that Paul expected something big to happen within decades, say—but what, exactly? I think that he shared the quite widespread view that the God of Israel would transform Israel’s “world” in political-religious terms, long in advance of anything that might be described as a “final cosmic judgment.”

The failure to grasp this point is at the root of much of the confusion that people experience regarding New Testament eschatology—including Babinski’s view that Jesus and Paul were false prophets because they wrongly predicted the end of the world within a lifetime.

The two “ends” of Jewish apocalyptic thought

Jewish apocalyptic thought in the first century had two “ends” in view—a political or kingdom end and a final creational end. YHWH was both ruler of the nations in history and the creator of all things, so first he could be expected to bring about a new righteous, political-religious order centred on Jerusalem rather than on Rome; then some time later—and somewhat as an afterthought—he would remake the creational order. John’s thousand year period between the overthrow of pagan Rome and the renewal of creation is typical of much Jewish apocalyptic thought.

Schweitzer recognised the importance of this bifocal eschatology, though I disagree with his exposition and application of it:

This eschatology recognises therefore two blessednesses (the Messianic and the eternal); and two Judgments (the judgment of the Messiah at the beginning of the Messianic Kingdom upon the survivors of the last generation of mankind, and the final judgment of God upon the whole of risen humanity after the Messianic Kingdom); and two Kingdoms (the temporary Messianic and the eternal theocracy). (A. Schweitzer, The Mysticism of the Apostle Paul, 1953, 88).

So there is wrath against the Greek, as Paul puts it in Romans (Rom. 1:18; 2:5-10), or a judgment of the idolatrous civilisation that has Athens at its centre, as Luke sees it (Acts 17:30-31), but what John depicts after the thousand year period is a judgment of all the dead, dragged up from the sea and Hades (Rev. 20:12-13). God judges particular nations and cultures as part of the renewal of human history; he judges all humanity, regardless of culture and nationhood, as part of the renewal of creation.

I wouldn’t use the terms “kingdom” or “theocracy,” however, for the final cosmic or creational restoration. Kingdoms come and go in history. The final event is the end of history and, therefore, the end of kingdom. But Schweitzer is right to differentiate between the messianic kingdom and the subsequent action of God in remaking all things.

The first “blessedness” is the rule of Jesus as the “root of Jesse” over the nations (Rom. 15:8). This is the “authority” that has been devolved to him until the last enemy of all life has been destroyed and the “kingdom” may be given back to God the Father, so that God as creator “may be all in all” (1 Cor. 15:24-28). Kingdoms are necessary as a societal provision only where there is sin and death: a king judges his people, he defends them against their enemies. Kingdoms are redundant in a new creation from which sin, Satan, and death have been expunged.

The Jewish texts

Having established that distinction, I would correlate the events of Daniel 12 with the narrower hope of political-religious transformation: the pagan ruler from Europe (Greek or Roman) is defeated, Israel is restored with many of Israel’s dead being raised either to share in the new régime (cf. the resurrection of the dead in Matt. 27:52-53) or suffer humiliation. Like Daniel, both Jesus and Josephus spoke of the war against Rome as a time of unprecedented distress for Israel (Matt. 24:21; Mk. 13:19; Josephus, War 1:12; 6:429). Neither of them thought it meant the end of the world, merely the end of the world of second temple Judaism.

This is what Jesus has in mind when he speaks of a harvest at the end of the age (of second temple Judaism), when all causes of sin and Lawlessness will be thrown into the fiery furnace of war and destruction, but “the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father” (Matt. 13:39-43).

The language of Daniel 12:1-3 is also echoed in the passage from the War Scroll which Babinski quotes. But clearly what is depicted here is the decisive military victory of the Congregation over the forces of the Kittim or Rome. There is no “cosmic” aspect to this achievement, other than the participation of heavenly figures in the war.

Testament of Moses 10 likewise describes the establishment of a new kingdom or government within creation. God will go out to fight against the nations which have opposed Israel, attended by dramatic signs in the heavens. He will bring to an end the idolatrous civilisation of the Greeks and Romans and give Israel rule over a new pious and righteous civilisation. Paul shared this vision, including the belief that the righteous would be raised to a heavenly position (T. Moses 10:9; cf. Eph. 2:6), disagreeing only concerning the means by which it would be accomplished.

The passage that quoted from 2 Esdras also describes a transformation of Israel within the current historical conditions. Disorder in the heavens will be a sign, with many other omens, that there will be disorder and transformation on earth (2 Esdr. 5:4-5), but the outcome will be the entirely mundane judgment and restoration of Israel:

And it shall be that everyone who will be saved and will be able to escape on account of his works, or on account of the faith by which he has believed, will survive the dangers that have been predicted, and will see my salvation in my land and within my borders, which I have sanctified for myself from the beginning. Then those who have now abused my ways shall be amazed, and those who have rejected them with contempt shall dwell in torments. For as many as did not acknowledge me in their lifetime, although they received my benefits, and as many as scorned my Law while they still had freedom, and did not understand but despised it while an opportunity of repentance was still open to them, these must in torment acknowledge it after death. Therefore, do not continue to be curious as to how the ungodly will be punished; but inquire how the righteous will be saved, those to whom the age belongs and for whose sake the age was made.” (2 Esdr. 9:7-13 = 4 Ezra 9:7-13)

The form of this world is passing away

Paul’s assertion that the “rulers of this age” are passing away (katargoumenōn) also does not sound like a reference to the end of the world (1 Cor. 2:6). These rulers are specifically those who had crucified Jesus according to a misguided “wisdom.” Paul is saying only that the “present evil age” (cf. Gal. 1:4) in which sinful Israel struggles in vain to preserve its identity under pagan occupation—for example, by seeking to crush the Jesus movement or by preparing for war against the Kittim—is coming to a cataclysmic end.

The reason given for not marrying is not that some sort of cosmic disintegration is imminent but only that the community faces a “present” or “impending” distress (enestōsan anagkēn) (1 Cor. 7:26). The measured pragmatism of Paul’s advice belies any attempt to reframe this as a final or end-of-history scenario.

Paul does not say that this world is passing away but that the “outward appearance” (schēma) of this world is passing away (1 Cor. 7:31). In other words, the world will look different in the future but it will be the same world.

What Paul expected to happen soon or soonish was a period of tribulation that would accompany wrath against the Jew and wrath against the Greek, and which would have a disruptive and harmful impact on the churches. In the end, however, believers in Jesus would be vindicated for their faithfulness, including those who had lost their lives as martyrs, and a new political-religious order would emerge.

The more detailed account of the parousia that we have in the Thessalonian correspondence is an apocalyptic elaboration that may or may not have been intended literally. But the historical frame of reference must be retained: it describes the moment when the Satanically inspired, blasphemous, hubristic pagan king is supplanted by the Lord Jesus and his followers are delivered from their sufferings (1 Thess. 4:15-17; 2 Thess. 1:5-10; 2:3-10).

I think you are missing that it is not the strictly otherworldly nature of the final judgment, but the finality of the worldwide judgment, that is being predicted in every case. And such predictions have proven false. 

Yes, prophets envisioned divine intervention instituting earthly changes, though in some cases a complete recreation of the earth was envisioned.  Also, in some cases Paul apparently viewed some souls winding up in heaven rather than on earth per Philo’s view. (I doubt Paul was theologically consistent throughout his writings.) The point however is the soon coming finality, when the righteous would rule rather than the unrighteous. And such predictions appear throughout the NT and have proven false. It is the last hour. We know it is the last hour because [not one but] many anti-Christs have arisen, etc. Jesus would have been needed to have been sacrificed multiple times, but now [only] once since it is the consummation, a very little while he who is coming will come. Salvation is nearer than when we first believed. God will crush Satan beneath your feet. The night is nearly gone, the day is at hand. Repent for the kingdom of God is at hand. Many have crept in among you, deceivers… about these Enoch, the seventh from Adam, predicted God would come with his angels in judgment. I am coming quickly. Stay awake. It is you  who have remained faithful, over whom I will rejoice when he comes. We shall not all sleep but shall be transformed and rise up after the dead to meet our Lord in the air.