In the popular Christian mind any reference to the “day of the Lord” or the “day of judgment” is likely to be conceived in final terms, as a transcendent event at the end of history. So when Paul says to the men of Athens that God has “fixed a day on which he will judge the world” (Acts 17:31), it is usually assumed, despite the narrative context, that he has in mind a judgment of all humanity, not just of the Greek-Roman civilisation that is so visible in Luke’s account. Let’s have a look, then, at the use of the phrase “day of the Lord” and a few related expressions in scripture.
Great and awesome days of the Lord in the Old Testament
In the oracle of Isaiah 13 the “day of the Lord” is a day when YHWH will bring the armies of the Medes against Babylon to destroy the whole land (Is. 13:6, 9). On this day of military conquest “the stars of the heavens and their constellations will not give their light; the sun will be dark at its rising, and the moon will not shed its light” (Is. 13:10). The heavens and earth will be shaken. This is symbolic language, though the burning of a city would certainly darken the skies, and perhaps Isaiah imagined a real disruption of the heavenly order. People will fall by the sword, infants will be dashed in pieces, young men will be slaughtered (cf. Ps. 137:8-9). Babylon, the “glory of kingdoms,” will become like Sodom and Gomorrah, a desolation, haunted by wild animals (Is. 13:11-22).
Expansionist Egypt is opposed and defeated on a “day of the Lord,” which will be “a day of vengeance, to avenge himself on his foes,” when the “sword shall devour and be sated and drink its fill of their blood” (Jer. 46:10).
The walls of ruined Jerusalem need to be rebuilt so that the house of Israel “might stand in battle in the day of the LORD” (Ezek. 13:5). Walls will be of little use at the end of the history
Ezekiel is told to prophesy that the day of the Lord is near: “a day of clouds, a time of doom for the nations. A sword shall come upon Egypt, and anguish shall be in Cush, when the slain fall in Egypt, and her wealth is carried away, and her foundations are torn down” (Ezek. 30:3–4).
In Joel a locust swarm is a sign that the day of the Lord is near, “as destruction comes from the Almighty it comes.” Israel will escape devastation if the people repent; otherwise they will become a byword among the nations (Joel 1:15; 2:1, 11-17).
The Spirit of prophecy will be poured out on Israelites, and in their visions they will see “wonders in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke. The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes” (Joel 2:30–31). All who call on the name of the Lord in Judah and Jerusalem will be saved, but YHWH will enter into judgment with the nations because of the harm that they have done to Israel (Joel 3:1-3). All solidly historical.
The people of Israel are foolish to desire a day of the Lord. A day of the Lord is “darkness and not light,” when there will be wailing in the streets and vineyards (Amos 5:16-20).
On a day of the Lord Edom will be punished for the harm that it did to Israel (Obad. 15-16).
The royal court in Jerusalem will be punished on a day of the Lord; the city will be plundered and ruined (Zeph. 1:7-16).
Before a great and dreadful day of the Lord comes, YHWH will send Elijah to “turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction” (Mal. 4:6).
In every case, it appears, a “day of the Lord” is a day of God’s judgment against arrogant and violent nations, or against his own unrighteous people, often in the form of military attack, resulting in death and destruction. Chaos in the heavens matches the chaos on earth, but this is not the end of the world. In the Old Testament a day of the Lord (the phrase is more often than not indefinite) is never a final judgment. It is always an event in history, when God steps in to “judge” a bad situation.
The day of God’s wrath against Jerusalem
We should assume that the Jewish followers of Jesus understood the terminology more or less as it is used in the Old Testament unless there is clear evidence that they gave it a different sense. I take this to be a fundamental principle of New Testament interpretation. They are thinking as first century Jews and share the presuppositions of first century Judaism—admittedly not a monolithic category—unless they say otherwise.
There is no “day of the Lord” in the Gospels, but Jesus speaks of a “day of judgment” specifically against Israel that will be like the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (Matt. 10:15; 11:22-24; 12:36; Lk. 10:12; 17:28-30). His point is that Jerusalem will suffer a far greater catastrophe during the war than the “land of Sodom and Gomorrah,” despite the biblical notoriety of these two cities. Josephus makes similar use of the analogy:
I suppose, that had the Romans made any longer delay in coming against these villains, the city would either have been swallowed up by the ground opening upon them, or been overflowed by water, or else been destroyed by such thunder as the country of Sodom perished by, for it had brought forth a generation of men much more atheistical than were those that suffered such punishments; for by their madness it was that all the people came to be destroyed. (War 5:566)
The day will come upon Jerusalem and Judea suddenly, in the same way that the flood came upon people in the time of Noah, in the thick of life, as they were eating and drinking and marrying (Matt. 24:36-39; Lk. 17:26-27). Jesus compares it to the unexpected return of the master to punish the wicked servant who beats his fellow servants and hangs out with drunkards. The master will cut the man in pieces and “put him with the hypocrites. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matt. 24:48-51; Lk. 12:46)—the reference, clearly, is to the punishment of the hypocritical leadership of Israel before the current generation passes away (Matt. 24:34). The day will come upon the whole land “suddenly like a trap” before this generation passes away (Lk. 21:32, 35).
Peter quotes the passage from Joel in his Pentecost sermon (Acts 1:17-21). The Spirit of prophecy has been poured out on this group of disciples, who will therefore see visions of a great and manifest day of the Lord (again indefinite), when “the sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood” (Acts 2:20). If the “men of Jerusalem” wish to be saved from the destruction that is coming upon this “crooked generation” of Jews, they must call upon the name of the Lord seated at the right hand of God, who has been give the authority to judge and rule over his people (Acts 2:34-41).
Nothing here suggests that Luke has expanded on Joel’s field of reference. This is a day of the Lord, a day of destruction, from which the generation of Jews addressed by Peter need to be saved.
The revelation of Jesus to the nations
Those who have faithfully borne witness to the exalted status of Jesus and his coming rule over the nations will be found guiltless on the day of the Lord or of the Lord Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 1:7-8; cf. 5:5; 2 Cor. 1:14; Phil. 1:5, 10; 2:16; 2 Tim. 1:12, 18; 4:8). On that day he will be glorified in the midst of his persecuted saints, and those who have believed the apostolic testimony will marvel at him.
What Paul envisages here is the decisive revelation of Jesus to the world as he knew it—the oikoumenē whose centre was Rome—when these pagan nations, as nations, would abandon the worship of idols and their intense opposition to the God of Israel and confess Jesus as Lord (cf. Phil. 2:11; Is. 45:20-25).
A bigger horizon has come into view, beyond the field of vision of Jesus and the disciples in Jerusalem. But it is still a historical horizon.
If the advent of the day of the Lord could plausibly be communicated by letter (2 Thess. 2:2), clearly we are not talking about a final judgment. Presumably, the idea is that the Thessalonians might have heard rumours of events in Jerusalem. When the day of the Lord does come, Paul says, it will be as part of a sequence of historical events: perhaps a Jewish revolt, and the appearance of a pagan king in the mould of Antiochus Epiphanes, who “opposes and exalts himself against every so-called god or object of worship” (2 Th. 2:3-4; cf. Dan. 11:36).
Whereas in Athens Paul spoke quite generally of a day when God would judge the Greek-Roman world by the agency of Jesus (Acts 17:30-31; cf. Rom. 2:16), here a more “violent” and targeted narrative emerges in reaction to the persecution of the believers (2 Thess. 1:4-7). On that day, the Lord Jesus will be “revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus,” and he will kill the man of lawlessness “with the breath of his mouth” (2 Th. 1:7–8; 2:8).
But this simply reflects the two sides of the Jewish and Jewish-Christian encounter with Greek-Roman paganism—with the pervasive polytheistic and idolatrous culture, on the one hand; and with an aggressive pagan ruler cult on the other.
Many people will be taken by surprise, as by a thief in the night, but the Thessalonian believers are “children of the light” and will be ready for this day of the Lord when it comes (1 Thess. 5:2-7). A coming day of persecution or wrath will disclose the quality of apostolic workmanship (1 Cor. 3:13). Shifting the metaphor slightly, the “day is at hand” when the believers in Rome will have to put on the “armour of light” to face persecution (Rom. 13:11-14; cf. Eph. 6:13).
Peter urges the “elect exiles of the dispersion” in Asia Minor to conduct themselves honourably among the nations so that “when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation (en hēmerai episkopēs)” (1 Pet. 2:12). This looks like an allusion to Isaiah 10:1-4 LXX. Those who “write evil” against the “needy among my people,” denying justice to the poor and exploiting the widow and orphan, will suffer “affliction… from far away” (ie., military invasion) “on the day of visitation” (en tēi hēmerai tēs episkopēs). Context and language point to a “day” of putting things right in history.
In the heightened apocalyptic outlook of 2 Peter, the day of the Lord will also come like a thief in the night, even if it takes rather longer than they had originally expected (2 Pet. 3:8-10). But we read further that “the heavens will pass away with a great noise, elements are burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works done in it will not be found” (2 Pet. 3:10, my translation). There will be a “day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly,” followed by the appearance of “new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells” (2 Pet. 3:7, 11-13).
Did Peter intend this to be understood literally? Are we in the same linguistic territory as the Old Testament and the rest of the New Testament? Has the author been influenced by a more intense strand of Jewish apocalyptic (cf. Sib. Or. 2:202-205; 3:53, 77-92)?
Difficult to say, but if he has in mind a final judgment and destruction of all wickedness, there is no reason to read this back into the other New Testament texts.
The story told by Jesus, his followers in Jerusalem, and Paul in Asia and Greece is in direct continuity with the Old Testament: there are momentous “days” in history when the God of history steps in to put things right—to punish arrogance and injustice, to restore his priestly people, to vindicate his name among the nations.
The destruction of Jerusalem and the temple by the armies of Vespasian and Titus will be one of those days. The revelation of Jesus to the Greek-Roman world, the vindication of his followers, the defeat of their persecutors, and the wholesale overthrow of classical paganism will be another one of those days.
Finally, the author of Revelation foresees a day of God’s wrath against the rich and powerful that will culminate in the overthrow of corrupt pagan imperial Rome (Rev. 6:17; 16:14; 18:8). In this vision, when the final judgment comes, at the end of the thousand years, it is not a “day of the Lord,” and there is no revelation of Jesus to the nations. That all happened a long time back.
So a “day of the Lord” is a day of putting things right, redressing injustices, punishing the wicked, vindicating the righteous, overthrowing kingdoms, empires, and civilisations, in the course of history. In some passages this is patently the case, in others it is implicit—the assumed narrative frame for the theology and mission of the early churches.
I am inclined to think that the coming climate emergency will be a “day of the Lord”—a day of redress, a day of visitation, when the creator God will be vindicated and avenged against profligate humanity.