Judgment and the Hidden God of Apocalyptic Literature

A common image of God in the West is one of a loving and forgiving God, a caring but stern father. Looking at apocalyptic literature we see a different side of God. God’s darker side is often seen when passing judgment and what greater judgment is there than the judgment of the end times. While this darker side of God is seen more often in the Hebrew Bible, over time this side of God has been pulled out of non-apocalyptic texts and formed into separate evils, such as Satan, Baal, or others (Tremmel 56). But this separation does not appear in apocalyptic literature. The authors have found it necessary to keep the darker side of God present to destroy the evils of the world. To take a look at this vastly different God we need to first take a look at how God commands his followers to judge others. Next we look at God’s actions of judgment. Then we examine the differing characterizations of God between the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. Finally we look at how apocalyptic texts we have found it necessary to keep the darker side of God in apocalyptic literature for the final judgment.

In the Hebrew Bible, God calls for an immediate judgment when his commandments are broken. When the commandments are broken judgment does not come directly from God, instead the judgment comes from the community of believers. In a roundabout way these judgments are coming from God because he is dictating which judgments should be carried out for breaking certain laws.

One of the more horrible is the judgment of death. Yet God expects the community to carry out the judgment of death against those who his commandments. Examples of crimes that are punishable by death include speaking blasphemy against God (The New Oxford Annotated Bible, Lev. 24.16), not keeping the Sabbath, and several others (Ex. 19.13; 21.12; 21.14-17; 21.29; 22.19; Lev. 20.9-16; Num. 1.51; 3.10; 3.38; 25.5; Deut. 13.5). These judgments are not rash though. God demands more than one person’s testimony for conviction. He demands the testimony of at least two or three witness to pass the judgment of death (Num. 35.30; Deut. 17.6). But that does not eliminate the horror of executing someone. The purpose of these judgments is to “purge the evil” from the community (Deut. 22.22). The immediate nature is meant to deal with the physical presence of evil among the community. These evils are something that can be dealt with physically and God commands these evils be purged when detected.

The New Testament God, in stark contrast with the God of the Hebrew Bible, does not expect humans to be his instruments of justice. There is an emphasis on not passing judgment on others (Mt. 7.1; Lk. 6.37). Evil is not dealt with in the same way as it is in the Hebrew Bible (Matthew 5.39-41; 44-45). It is not something human beings can accomplish. There are two reasons why humans cannot carry out a judgment to get rid of evil. One is that evil comes from within humans (Mk. 7.21) and two everyone one is guilty of something (Matthew 7.1-5; John 8.7). Because of these flaws human beings are not good candidates to act as judges when it comes to God’s commandments. God wants people to forgive each other instead of judge one another (Mt. 18.21-22). Compared to the Hebrew Bible there are no instructions for physically dealing with evil in the community. Instead there is a call for forgiveness between fellow human beings (Mt. 6.15; 18.21-22; Mk. 11.25; Lk. 17.3; Jn. 20.23). Humans are not meant to be judges in spiritual matters.

The God of the Hebrew Bible is a much more active God than the God of the New Testament. The belief was that “God protected and punished immediately” (Tremmel 44). As long as the people of Israel followed his commandments and worshiped him God would provide his protection. But if they did not keep his commandments his protection would be withdrawn (Tremmel 44). In the Hebrew Bible God was much more proactive, he interacted with the physical world. The earliest example of God’s judgment can be found in Genesis. Adam and Eve are kicked out of the Garden of Eden for defying God (Gen. 3.8-24). The next major judgment is the flood (Gen. 6.11-13). God causes the flood because he judges the world to be corrupt. God is swift with his judgment. When he sees corruption he deals with it. One of the greatest examples of God’s judgment in the Hebrew Bible is the plagues of Egypt (Ex. 7.8-12.50). God brings his judgment against those who oppress his people. Anyone who defies him or his commandments are dealt with quickly (Num. 16.27-35; 21.4-6), even his own people (2 Kings 17.14-20). God is more involved with history in the Hebrew Bible and his judgments are swift when he sees corruption.

In the New Testament God does not act immediately. Jesus performs miracles through the power of God but these are not acts of judgment. In fact one of the major teachings of the New Testament is to not judge others (Mt. 7.1; Lk. 6.37). This is not a lasting command for God himself though. God reserves his judgment for the “end of this age. ” At that time there will be a separation of the good and the bad (Mt. 13.49). Those that are found to be worthy are ushered into the glory of Heaven, the unworthy are left out in the cold (Mt. 8.11-12; 13.41-42; Lk. 13.28). While the judgments of God are not a part of the physical present in the New Testament there is the promise that he will carry out his final judgment.

In the Hebrew Bible “good” and “evil” are not defined or separated. God caused both the bad and good things in the world. If one obeyed God and his commands one was rewarded but disobedience brought judgment (Tremmel 18). God gives and takes. As long as the people of Israel follow the laws of God they will be protected but if they turn away from him God gives power to their enemies and allows them to conquer Israel (2 Kings 17.14-20). This idea of God in the Hebrew Bible causing both the good and the bad in the world would be a problem in the future for those who believe in a loving God who protects his people.

By the time of the New Testament, God is no longer responsible for the evils of the world. Instead Satan is responsible. The dark side of God we glimpsed in earlier texts is now weeded out and personified as a separate being. He is the enemy of God (Tremmel 69). He was an angel who was thrown out of Heaven for his pride and disobedience (Tremmel 71-72). Satan is responsible for inflicting pain onto people and for tempting people to do bad things (Tremmel 70). He is ruler of this world (Tremmel 72-73) and the one who introduced sin into it (Tremmel 70). God is no longer responsible for the negative things, Satan is.

But why the transition? Why did the idea of God as the sole actor in history change to God and Satan as the movers of history? In his judgments we saw a darker side of God. In the Hebrew Bible God is more active so we see this side of him more often. This creates a problem. Believers in a loving God did not want to think about him being responsible for the bad in the world (Capetz 18). To help deny this dark side of God authors removed things which showed us that side of him. But sooner or later someone would have to deal with the evils of the world. Humans are inadequate in this respect. Only God can deal with it but the only way to destroy evil is to “fight fire with fire. “

One of the most defining characteristics of apocalyptic literature is the final judgment. But the entire process is usually drawn out. Apocalyptic texts describe the suffering of believers then move on to describe the evils of God’s enemies. Finally there is a battle between good and evil. Those who are evil lose and are punished while those who are good win and are rewarded. The darker side of God we saw in non-apocalyptic texts of the Hebrew Bible is now thrown full force into our faces to deal with the evils of the world.

In early apocalyptic literature those who are punished are not truly evil, at least not in the way we would think of evil. It is about wiping out those who are different and oppressing the followers of God. Early Jewish apocalyptic literature views almost all gentiles as unworthy and that they should be punished by God (Capetz 15). Because they do not worship the God of Israel they should be wiped out. In Daniel the people of Israel should hold fast to the Lord while they wait for him to come punish their enemies (Dan. 12.1-13). The War Scroll from the collection of the Dead Sea Scrolls depicts the community of believers as the only righteous while everyone else is unworthy (1QM1). There is no personified evil force acting in the world. God’s judgment comes down on those who oppress his people (Tremmel 44-46). The final judgment of God is a bloody battle which ultimately leads to the defeat of God’s enemies. God wins through war. In the final judgment the ends always justifies the means. The enemies of God must be eradicated.

The main apocalyptic text of the New Testament is the Apocalypse of John also known as Revelation. By this time the idea of a personified evil has formed, Satan. This personified evil is responsible for all the woes in the world not God but God still allows them to happen (Tremmel 67-76). Some compare the horrific imagery displayed in Revelation grotesque horror movies such as Psycho or the Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Pippin 83). The actions of God in Revelation are ethically lacking (Hedley 66). For God anything goes. He is responsible for several natural disasters that shake the world (Rev. 8.5-12). In the end the unworthy are thrown into a lake of fire and left out in the darkness, separated from the rest of existence (Rev. 20.10; 20.14-15). We clearly see God’s darker side in this text and his willingness to do anything to destroy his enemies.

The major problem with a monotheistic faith is how much is God responsible for? If you believe that God is the ultimate mover of history and you are one of his followers what conclusion do you come to when nothing but bad happens to you? There are two possibilities. Either God is causing your misfortune or there is a separate force acting in the universe. There may have not been a clear definition of good and evil in the Hebrew Bible early on but there certainly was a sense of it. God acted as the bringer of both good and evil. Though at times he did seem like a loving and protecting God, when it came to his judgments he would commit atrocities that were required to wipe out the evils of the world. This did not change with the God of the New Testament. His judgments may not be quick but instead he bottles up the horrors for the final judgment. The ultimate judgment presented in apocalyptic literature is a compilation of the horrors of the darker side of God. It is impossible to eliminate evil without turning unsavory methods. As long as it is for the greater good it is okay (Reichenbach 7). The God of apocalyptic literature is our divine Mr. Hyde. We see glimpses of him outside of apocalyptic literature but nowhere else is this side of him needed more than in apocalyptic literature to rid the world of its evil.

Works Cited

  • Capetz, Paul E. God: A Brief History. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003. Print.
  • George, Hedley P. “Apocalyptic: Wrong and Right.” Journal of the National Association of Biblical Instructors, 2.2 (1934) 66-68. Print. Pippin, Tina. Apocalyptic Bodies. New York: Routledge, 1999. Print.
  • Reichenbach, Bruce. Evil and a Good God. New York: Fordham University Press, 1982. Print.
  • The New Oxford Annotated Bible: With the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books, New Revised Standard Version. Michael D. Coogan, editor. New York: Oxford UP, 2007. Print.
  • Tremmel, William C. Dark Side: The Satan Story. St. Louis: CBP Press, 1987. Print.