Day of the Lord - Day of Wrath: Judgement in history or final judgement?
This contribution arose out of the thread on ‘Reading Romans eschatologically’ - which itself is part of a broader scheme introduced by Andrew to locate the events of the life and death of Jesus within a strictly 1st century historical context, and hence, by corollary, day of wrath in Romans 2:5 within a historically contextualised interpretation of Romans as a whole.
The challenge to me was to ask whether day of wrath and day of the Lord as used in the OT (and therefore, it is said, by Paul, and elsewhere in the NT) simply refer to localised, historical acts of God’s judgement, and not to some climactic, future event. A brief response to a comment ended up in an exploration of a rabbit hole which proved much longer and more difficult to extricate myself from than I had expected. Oh well!
As far as I can see, there are very few uses of the phrase day of wrath in the OT. In Ezekiel (7:19), it refers to the destruction of Jerusalem - c. 586 BC. In Zephaniah, day of the Lord (1:14) and day of wrath (1:15, 18) seem to be synonymous, and using imagery which naturally transfers to the same destruction of Jerusalem and the temple.
In the NT, Paul describes the wrath of God (Rom. 1:18) as something demonstrated by God throughout history, and day of God’s wrath (Rom. 2:5) as a culminating, climactic event - which it would have been in history when it occurred, or at the end of time, to which it could equally apply (given that there is no evidence of a climactic judgement in history on the Graeco-Roman world, but its representatives would stand before God at the end of time, as if time had never elapsed).
In Revelation 6:17 (the great day of their wrath), the picture is of a more general, worldwide judgement - even allowing for metaphoric hyperbole.
Day of the Lord occurs more frequently in the OT, with the same effect as day of wrath, sometimes referring to events which were imminent in history, and sometimes referring to judgement which would come on the whole earth, eg Isaiah 2:12; Ezekiel 30:3; Joel 3:14; Obadiah 15.
In the NT, Day of the Lord in Acts 2:20 quotes Joel 2:31; in 2 Thessalonians 2:2 it suggests a climactic gathering of the entire Christian community worldwide to a returning Jesus; 2 Peter 3:10 has the same day as Thessalonians in mind, since it repeats the coming of this day as being like a thief in the night (1 Thessalonians 5:3), which also echoes Matthew 24:43.
At this point, we are into a debating ground as to whether these passages have an end-of-time focus, or refer simply to the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. Most commentators take the overall reference to be to the end of time, especially since the circumstances surrounding the siege of Jerusalem do not correspond to the description in the passages - it did not come like a thief in the night, nor at a time when people were engaging in the normal activities of life (Matthew 24:38) saying "Peace and safety" (1 Thessalonians 5:3).
In the OT, Israel’s expectation of an intervention of YHWH to defeat her enemies and vindicate her before the world provides the broader context in which day of wrath and day of the Lord must be understood. This was to be a climactic occasion, greatly modified by, but the essential background to, the NT understanding of a day of judgement which would mark the end of time. Amos’s warnings to Israel in the face of defeat by Assyria (5:18-27) could have held good for Israel in AD 70.
The coming of Jesus changed the eschatological landscape. The future was not to be a continuation of the world as it had been, with Israel victorious and vindicated. A final judgment of this earth was to be followed by a recreated earth, with that judgement beginning with Jesus’s (first) coming: Matthew 3:11-12. It is in this sense that the end has already come with Jesus, even though there must be delay in its completion. The end is also understood with the outpouring of the Spirit, in which mercy and judgement are two sides of the same coin - Acts 2:17-21.
With the coming of Jesus, it is no longer possible to see God’s judgements in the same historical paradigm as before. Creation will be renewed; the end of the old was signified in the death of Jesus; the coming (and necessity) of the new was signified in his resurrection - hence 2 Corinthians 5:17. Judgements that take place in history are now always a sign of final judgement to come - hence the collapsing of the two - judgement in history and judgement to come - in the synoptic prophecies of the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70.
With Jesus, the true nature of judgement (the day of the Lord, the day of wrath), was finally revealed. In his coming, everything changed. He was the omega; the last Adam - 1 Corinthians 15:45; the second man from heaven - 1 Corinthians 15:47; a life-giving spirit as opposed simply to a living being -1 Corinthians 15:45; spiritual as opposed to natural - 1 Corinthians 15:46 - but only in the sense that Jesus’s resurrection body was matter renewed by and infused with the Spirit - not spiritual as opposed to material.
With Jesus, ultimate judgement came in a person - his person - as well as ultimate life. Both came as the future invading the present. Jesus’s coming as judgement meant that whatever subsequent historical judgements were to come, they were simply instalments or aspects of ultimate judgement. In that sense, they would echo the judgements of the OT (as depicted by the prophets in their apocalyptic language), but with shocking adjustments as to what that final judgement would entail in terms of Israel’s nationalistic expectations, the identity of the righteous, and the means of their vindication before God.
This is beginning to sound like an ideologically vetted contribution to the IVP Bible Dictionary. Oh dear.
My conclusion? It is not really valid to limit day of wrath or day of the Lord to localised, historical occurrences, on the grounds of their useage in OT and NT, the background context of Jewish hopes and expectations, and the decisive effect of the coming of Jesus, in which the end was drawn into history ahead of time.