Justice and Apocalypse: Part II of II

Bust of Antiochus IV Epiphanes
Bust of Antiochus IV Epiphanes | Source

Post-exilic Jewish Justice

In 586 BC, the Temple of Solomon was destroyed by the Babylonians and the Jews were exiled, lacking a place to practice the authentic Judaism that revolved around the temple. Furthermore, despite the brief Maccabean period in the second century, the Jews would not have their own, unoccupied, country until 1948. From Babylon, Persia, the Greece, and the Rome, the people of Israel endured centuries of persecution, tyranny, and injustice that was not remedied in their lifetimes, even for those faithful Jews that kept the covenant. It was this seemingly paradoxical occurrence--that a faithful Jew should be denied justice--which sparked the apocalyptic questions that developed into the current day Christian justice. The main question was, if God is truly all-good and all-just, how can good people suffer without being rewarded with justice in this life. The answer came to focus on an eschatological spiritual justice, which was a near-radical shift from the worldly social justice of pre-exilic Judaism.

Perhaps the greatest persecution of the Jews occurred during the reign of Antiochus IV Epiphanes, the Seleucid emperor who reigned from 175-164 BC. In 167, Antiochus declared that all Jews must worship him and declared worship of YHWH to be illegal. It was under the rule of this emperor that the earliest apocalyptic literature (1 Enoch and Daniel) arose to give hope to those in the crisis of injustice, but also to define the new doctrine of Justice. 1 Enoch, commonly held to be the earliest apocalypse, will be the subject of the next exegesis.

[i] Isaac, E. 1 (Ethiopic Apocalypse of) Enoch: A New Translation and Introduction, 7

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Collins, 45 (cf. Gen 5:18-24).

The Ascension of Enoch
The Ascension of Enoch

1 Enoch

1 Enoch is the earliest composition of apocalyptic writings, and is commonly split into five different sections, based off the dates and authorship.[i] The earliest writing, the Apocalypse of Weeks, dates back to the pre-Maccabean period (early 2nd century BC), while the latest fragment, the Similitudes, has been dated as late as 64 BC.[ii] The authorship is varied, as the book as a whole was composed by various authors over the course of two centuries.[iii] Additionally, like all Jewish apocalypses, it is psuedepigraphically attributed to the character of Enoch, 7th in line from Adam who “walked with God” and was taken body and soul into heaven.[iv] This attribution to Enoch gives the literature credibility as being from a righteous figure, as well as being able to claim the prophecies as “ex eventu”.

The Book of Similitudes is the best example of Justice within this composition, and thus shall be the focus of our exegesis. Comprising of chapters 37-71, it is one of the largest books in 1 Enoch.

The most important aspect of justice in Similitudes is the contrast between the wicked and their rewards, and the righteous and what they receive. Less important is what it actually means to be “righteous” (and just) for all one can really say on the matter is to be opposite of the wicked. Some general examples of what it means to be wicked are given (corrupted power), but more important to our argument is how and when the righteous are rewarded and the wicked are punished.

Chapter 38 is where we first glimpse what awaits the wicked. Verse 3 states “and the wicked shall be driven from the presence of the righteous and elect”, and verse 4, “they shall not be able to behold the faces of the holy ones”. This is possibly the first reference where the just and unjust will be separated at the period of judgment. This happens when the “Righteous One” appears, which is a common term for the Messiah. In Christian terms, we can equate this with the second coming. Conversely it is said of the righteous “There (underneath his wings) I wanted to dwell… already my portion is there; for thus has it been reserved for me before [the Lord]” (39:8).

In these two chapters alone it is apparent that the author is talking about an eschatological event, the coming of the messiah in which all are judged as being either wicked or righteous. Not only are they judged, but also they shall be separated accordingly, the righteous dwelling with God and the wicked are left “wishing they had never been born” (38:2).

Chapter 45 is also a key passage in understanding Enochan justice. Of the wicked we hear that “neither shall they ascend into heaven” (v2) but that “by judgment [God] will destroy them before the face of the earth” (v6). Concerning the righteous however, “I shall cause my Elect One to dwell among them. I shall transform heaven and make it a blessing of light forever” (v4). These are truly eschatological terms—no longer is the persecuted one offered double what was taken from him. Rather, his reward is in the coming of the messiah, where the righteous ones will dwell in the presence of God forever. Death now is only to be feared by the wicked, who, it seems according to Enoch, would be better off if they did not even exist.

So far it seems that the wicked will be wiped from earth and that “not a place shall be found for them” (48:10) and the “unrepentant in his sight shall parish” (50:5). Thus, it appears that the wicked will simply cease to be. However, is this really justice? Alternatively, must some punishment actually be inflicted upon them after the judgment? Furthermore, it seems as though not only will the elect and righteous dwell in heaven, but they shall inhabit the earth as well (51:5). Where then do the wicked go, and what do they suffer besides death?

Chapter 53 seems to be the first glimpse of real suffering for the wicked:

“They shall fulfill the criminal deeds of their hands and eat all the produce of crime which the sinners toil for. Sinners shall be destroyed from before he face of the Lord of the Spirits—they shall perish eternally, standing before the face of his earth…. ‘They are preparing these for the kings and potentates of this earth that they may be destroyed thereby” (53:2-3, 5-6).

The phrase “perish eternally, standing before the face of his earth” seems paradoxical in that one can only perish once. It appears that “standing before the face of his earth” does, in effect, provide a precise place for where this perishing occurs, and thus perhaps it is an eternal kind of death that is continual rather than instantaneous—their bodies die while their spirit live on.

When chapter 54 is taken into account, this would seem an adequate assumption:

“Then I looked and turned to another face of the earth and saw there a valley, deep and burning with fire. And they were bringing kings and potentates and were throwing them into this deep valley… And he said unto me, “These are being prepared for the armies of Azaz’el, in order that they may take them and cast them into the abyss of completely condemnation... Then [the Archangels] themselves shall seize them on that great day of judgment and cast them into the furnace (of fire) that is burning that day…” (54: 1,2,5,6).

In the Christian mindset, this passage can be equated with Hell, for though the wicked perish in the judgment of God, they are still cast into a “furnace of fire” in which they shall burn eternally for the oppression they afflicted upon the righteous.


Our study of 1 Enoch has shown the key elements concerning apocalyptic justice. First, it is Eschatological in nature—though justice cannot come now, there will be a time of future judgment when are all sanctioned according to the work they have done on earth. Secondly, there is separation of the wicked and the righteous, and third, both groups shall receive eternal retribution—the righteous shall be praised and dwell in what appears to be a “heavenly earth” in union with God, while the wicked shall be “eternally perished” and thrown in to a “furnace of fire”. These three elements—eschatological judgment, separation, and eternal retribution, are the three basic building blocks for what Christians consider divine justice.

[i] See St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica: II-II.q 58.a 1-3

Christian Justice

First, we must define what is meant by “Christian Justice”. According to St. Thomas Aquinas, justice as a virtue is a natural human power that concerns giving other human persons, and God, what they are due.[i] Though this is reminiscent of the social justice found in ancient Judaism, this is not the fullness of justice. This, in fact, is more akin to what is meant by “righteousness”. Rather, here we are concerned with divine justice, the justice that deals with God’s response to us concerning how righteous we are.

If our purpose in life is to be united fully with God at the eschaton, then all of our actions on earth should be oriented towards receiving that reward at the end of time. As responsible Christians therefore, we live in a present that is ordered primarily towards the final eschatological reality of judgment. This is why God’s justice must be intrinsically eschatological in nature—we are not rewarded with salvation in the here and now, but only upon our death, when the sum of our righteousness and our sins are weighed in the justice and mercy of God to determine our final resting place—heaven or hell. Thus, the three elements of divine justice must be, as stated before, eschatological judgment, separation, and eternal retribution.

Mathew 25:31-46, though not strictly a Christian apocalypse, is characteristically apocalyptic and is an excellent example of this tripartite paradigm of divine justice. In this passage the sheep are the righteous and the goats are the wicked, and the judgment happens by virtue of the separation, making them almost impossible to distinguish. And indeed, the wicked and righteous are separated not only at the throne of God but in their eternal retribution. However, it is important to realize that the judgment is based upon the earthly works/social justice/righteousness of the individual person. This is perhaps the unchanged thread between ancient Judaism and our common understanding of divine justice, our moral actions on earth effect our eternal judgment. Finally, concerning eternal retribution, the righteous “Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (v34), whereas the wicked depart “into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (v41). This is true Christian (divine) justice as we have come to know it.


1) Aquinas, St. Thomas, Summa Theologica: Secunda Secundae Pars.

2) Buttrick, George Arther, ed., The Interpreters Bible, Vol 3. New York: Abingdon, 1954.

3) Collins, John J. The Apocalyptic Imagination, 2 ed., Grand Rapids: Wm B Eerdmans, 1998.

4) Coogan, Michael D. ed. The New Oxford Annoted Bible: Augmented Third Edition, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.

5) Freedman, David Noel, ed. The Anchor Bible Dictionary. Vol 3. New York: Doubleday, 1992

6) Isaac, E. 1 (Ethiopic Apocalypse of) Enoch: A New Translation and Introduction

7) Vanhoozer, Kevin J., ed. Dictionary for Theological Interpretation of the Bible, Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009


This paper aimed to show that Jewish apocalyptic literature was a primary source in developing the Christian idea of divine justice. As shown by the exegesis of Job, pre-exilic Judaism believed in a divine justice where the righteous were rewarded during their life by worldly blessings such as wealth and long life. They were shown to be righteous by adherence to the covenant and obedience to the social-justice-like will of God in preference for the poor, oppressed, widowed, and fatherless.

With the fall of the Israel, and thus the temple, the Jews entered into nearly two and a half millennia of exile, oppression, and occupation. It was during this time that righteous Jews suffered in this life without reward, and thus apocalyptic theodicy developed to correct the paradox of God’s divine justice and goodness, and the suffering of a righteous people God promised to deliver. Thus the development of Justice transformed from an imminent and worldly retribution to one that was eschatological in nature.

The Jewish apocalyptic literature, such as 1 Enoch, as well as Christian Apocalypse and pseudo-apocalypses (passages in the synoptic gospels) are evidence of this shift, as well as provide evidence for the three basic characteristics of Christian divine justice-- eschatological judgment, separation, and eternal retribution.

© 2012 rdlang05

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Comments 6 comments

Dave Mathews profile image

Dave Mathews 4 years ago from NORTH YORK,ONTARIO,CANADA

The Hebrew peoples you refer to continuously turned their back to God and ignored His laws and His teachings time and time again. They continued pagan idol worship though it was forbidden. Therefore God permitted their flagrant denial of His laws to be punished by the various nations who would dominate the Hebrews.

Even today, the Jews refuse and fail to acknowledge Jesus as the "Son of God" the foretold Messiah, so to deny this is to turn their backs again against God.

rdlang05 profile image

rdlang05 4 years ago from Minnesota Author


Agreed--as a collective people the Jews deserved persecution. However, there were individuals who were righteous Jews... it is these that are the example of the righteous for this paper.


Ian 4 years ago

I believe your exegesis to be in error.

Interpret the obscure in light of the clear not the clear in light of a possible reading of the obscure.

Throughout Enoch describes the "destruction" or, in less ambiguous modern terminology, annihilation of the wicked with no qualifiers or ambiguous adjectives. You however take a single case in a particular translation where the word "eternally" buts up against "destroyed" (the other English translations by the way are also rather muddled) and use that to qualify all the other unambiguous descriptions of destruction throughout the text. Of course without knowing the original language its difficult to construct what this would look like, but understanding this to mean "destroyed forever" (in the sense of the definitive nature of the act) seems an equally legitimate reading which doesn't require us to reconstruct the other references to final judgement.

"However, is this really justice?"

Don't allow your Roman Catholic perception of justice to guide your reading of an ancient Jewish text. For many in the ancient world the answer would be yes... final destruction would be just.

I have more to say but I'll keep it to myself for the moment. Thanks for posting your writing... I hope you don't mind a little criticism.


rdlang05 profile image

rdlang05 4 years ago from Minnesota Author

When it all comes down to it, I fulfilled the criteria of the paper and got a good grade. You can read this as opinion rather than fact if that would help :p

Ian NElson 4 years ago

I think I'd like to retract my critique in light of 10:14-15. The verses on destruction are typically qualified with "off the earth" and are, I think referring to the wrath of the parousia.

rdlang05 profile image

rdlang05 4 years ago from Minnesota Author

Sweet, Good to know. It's always hard when there's various different translations out, and when one of the "original" languages that its commonly read in is ethiopian...

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