Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'It’s the end of the world as we know it: Paul’s apocalyptic worldview (NT 2.6),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified February 11, 2023, https://philipharland.com/Blog/?p=184.
This past week we’ve been reading Paul’s first letter to the Christians living in Thessalonica (1 Thessalonians), which happens to be the earliest writing regarding followers of Jesus in the Roman world (dating sometime in the 40s or around 50 CE). In other words, it is our earliest glimpse into this Jewish Jesus-movement as it made its way into a Greco-Roman world. This letter from Paul to a group of Jesus-followers in the Greek city of Thessalonica in Macedonia is very important for several reasons, a couple of which I’d like to mention here.
First of all, it is in this letter that we first see evidence of what a Jew like Paul taught his listeners when he travelled to a particular city. In the first chapter Paul speaks of the great reputation of the followers of Jesus at Thessalonica, pointing out how other Jesus-followers in Macedonia and elsewhere respected those Thessalonians highly. This rhetoric of praise (epideictic or demonstrative rhetoric) continues throughout the letter, by the way. In the process, Paul provides a glimpse into the core of his teaching to the Greeks:
For they themselves report concerning us what a welcome we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come (1 Thessalonians 1:9-10 [RSV]).
This short passage is jam-packed with important information regarding the earliest “good message” (gospel) as taught by Paul. (1) Paul taught that the Jewish God was the only God (Jewish monotheism), (2) that the one Jewish God had a Son that had been raised from the dead, and (3) that there is a coming wrath and the Son, Jesus, would save the Thessalonian Jesus-followers from that wrath of God.
This third point regarding a coming wrath is part of what scholars call the apocalyptic worldview, and Paul expands upon it when he is faced with the worries of some Thessalonians whose friends and family have died before the arrival of the Son. You can read about that for yourself in 1 Thessalonians chapters 4 and 5 (especially 4:13-5:10).
Basically, one can outline the apocalyptic worldview or perspective in a simplified manner as follows:
- We are living in an evil world dominated by evil forces. There is a constant struggle between these evil forces and the forces of good, and evil seems to have the upper hand. Humans are part of this ongoing dualistic struggle and take sides as either the righteous (e.g. sons of light) or the wicked (e.g. sons of darkness). But God has a plan to end that ongoing struggle.
- God will intervene in a cataclysmic way and the final massive battle between good and evil will end in the triumph of good over evil. This will happen very soon. Through God’s wrath, evil forces, under the leadership of Satan (or Belial, or some other name for evil personified) will be either obliterated or tortured forever. Some important figure (or figures) sent by God, such as an anointed priest or prophet or king or warrior or all of the above, will play a key role in the final triumph of God.
- God or his messenger will judge and separate the righteous people from the wicked people. There may be a resurrection of the dead who will also face such categorization. The righteous will go on to live forever in bliss with God in his new creation or kingdom or paradisical world. The fate of the wicked will be the same as the evil forces, such as Satan, who will face the wrath.
This basic perspective as outlined here holds true for the members of the Jewish Dead Sea sect (perhaps Essenes) and for Paul, as well as for some other Jews. Not all Jews in the second-temple period were apocalyptic, I should add, but both Paul and the Dead Sea sect (and most likely Jesus too) were. This worldview has also been important for many Christians throughout Western history. There are differences in the details from one apocalyptic thinker to the next, but basically the overall components of the worldview are the same.
If you are interested in reading further posts on this subject, click on my category for apocalypticism or on my category for the history of Satan (who plays a key role in the apocalyptic worldview). I also have a specific post which deals with Zoroastrian apocalypticism, which is an important factor in understanding the emergence of the apocalyptic worldview within Judaism and Christianity. In Zoroastrianism, the ongoing battle is between Ahura Mazda (Lord Wisdom) and Angra Mainyu, head of the evil forces.
You can read far more about apocalypticism in early Judaism and Christianity, as well as throughout history at the fine Apocalypse! site connected with the PBS Frontline documentary. Felix Just also supplies a number of useful links on the topic.
P.S. How long can I maintain references to song titles in my post titles?