The “last day,” the end of the present world, when God or his agent will preside over a final, universal judgment of the living and the resurrected dead. A definitive assessment of human actions will be made, and each person rewarded or punished accordingly.
Neither the phrase “day of judgment” nor the full‐blown apocalyptic eschatology supporting it is found in the Hebrew Bible. But the cluster of ideas and images surrounding the day of the Lord contribute significantly to its eventual development: the forensic character of “that day” when God will judge his enemies (Joel 3.2, 1, 14); its universal perspective, with judgment directed against both Israel's enemies, “the nations,” and Israel herself, or at least the enemies of God in her midst (Isa. 2.6–19); and the opposing imagery of light and darkness (Amos 5.18–20), with far greater emphasis placed on the latter (Zeph. 1.14–16; the somber medieval hymn Dies irae draws its opening line from the Vulgate rendering of v. 15).
The factors that lead eventually to the emergence of the idea of a final day of judgment in particular are as disputed as those that lead to apocalyptic eschatology in general. Some degree of foreign influence (Persian, Egyptian, and/or Hellenistic) is plausible, but difficult to prove. What is clear is that both the phrase “day of judgment” and its substance appear in a wide variety of Jewish texts of the Greco‐Roman period, along with the first undisputed reference to the resurrection of the dead (Dan. 12.2; see Afterlife and Immortality, article on Second Temple Judaism and Early Christianity). In Daniel the link between resurrection (12.2) and judgment (7.9–27) is implicit. In becomes explicit in 1 Enoch, where the angel Raphael shows Enoch the places appointed for all human souls “until the day of their judgment” (22.4); this is “the great judgment” (22.5), “the great day of judgment and punishment and torment” (22.11) that will affect even the rebel angels (10.6; cf. 90.24–27). In these earlier strata of 1 Enoch, judgment will apparently come from God himself (91.7); in the later Similitudes, however, God's “chosen one” is repeatedly named as judge (45–55).
The apocryphal book of 2 Esdras (4 Ezra) contains the most coherent account of the day of judgment. Judgment day will be preceded by a temporary messianic kingdom (7.28–29), a week of “primeval silence” (7.30), and the resurrection of the dead (7.32). Only then will the Most High sit in judgment; both righteous and unrighteous deeds shall stand forth clear and unchangeable, and paradise and hell be disclosed (7.33–36). Without sun, moon, or stars, noon or night, this “day” will in fact last “as though for a week of years” (7.43). During it, God will judge all nations, the few righteous and the many ungodly (7.51). This “day of judgment” will be definitive because it marks “the end of this age and the beginning of the immortal age to come” (7.43 ).
Other early Jewish texts that speak of a day of judgment include the Septuagint of Isaiah 34.8 (rendering the Hebrew for “day of vengeance”); Judith 16.17 (against the nations); Jubilees 5.10–14 (the great day of judgment that awaits the generation of the giants and all creation) and 22.21 (against Canaan and all his descendants); Testament of Lev. 3.2–3 (the second and third heavens prepared to punish unrighteous humans and spirits at the day of judgment); and Pseudo‐Philo's Biblical Antiquities 3.10 (following a pattern similar to that of 2 Esdras 7.30–33, 43 ).
The New Testament references to the day of judgment are rooted in contemporary Jewish apocalyptic thought. This is evident from such texts as 2 Peter and Jude, in both of which the fate of the rebel angel Azazel (1 Enoch 10.4–6) is extended to his fellow rebels. In Jude 6, these angels are enchained “in deepest darkness for the judgment of the great Day”; in 2 Peter 2.4, the rebels are to be kept in hellish pits “until the judgment” (expanded in 2.9 to “until the day of judgment”). And, as in 1 Enoch 22 and other texts, that same day of judgment will signal the “destruction of the godless.”
In two noticeable respects, however, early Christian views of the last judgment tend to distance themselves from traditional Jewish apocalyptic. Judgment is now seen almost exclusively in individual rather than national terms (Matt. 10.15 is something of an exception), and the judge is increasingly identified as Jesus, returned to serve as God's agent (Rom. 2.16; see Second Coming of Christ), rather than God himself. Both of these features are present in Matthew 25.31–46, where it is the Son of man who sits on the throne of judgment, and where the nations are judged not communally but individually, based on their treatment of the needy. The second development leads also to an expansion in terminology particularly noticeable in Pauline literature. Alongside “the day” (Rom. 2.16; 1 Cor. 3.13), “that day” (2 Tim. 1.12; 4.8; cf. 4.1), and “the day of wrath” (Rom. 2.5), we find “the day of Christ” (Phil. 1.10; 2.16), “the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1.6), the “day of the Lord” (1 Thess. 5.2; 2 Thess. 2.2), “the day of the Lord Jesus” (1 Cor. 5.5; 2 Cor. 1.14), and “the day of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 1.8). The forensic role of Jesus on the day of judgment becomes central in later Christian tradition. In the Apostles' and Nicene Creeds, Jesus “will come again (in glory) to judge the living and the dead”; and artists from Giotto and Michelangelo to William Blake have placed him at the center of their depictions of the Last Judgment.
Paul G. Mosca