Through Paul’s seven undisputedly authentic letters we glimpse Paul’s deepest convictions. Chief among these was his belief that the god of Israel, through the agency of his son, the risen and returning Messiah, was about to end history, raise the dead, defeat evil, and establish his everlasting kingdom (1Cor 15, Rom 11, Rom 15).
Paul seems to have first encountered the new Jesus movement through a synagogue community in Damascus. His initial response was hostile: he “persecuted” these other Jewish apostles, though he does not say why or how (Gal 1:13, Phil 3:6). But, at some point shortly thereafter, Paul himself had a vision of the risen Christ. This event turned Paul from persecutor to apostle (Gal 1:14-16, 1Cor 15:8-10), convincing him that the kingdom of God was at hand.
Jewish apocalyptic traditions had long enunciated such a belief—namely, that when the kingdom (and/or the Messiah) came, the dead would be raised. This is the context within which Paul interprets Jesus’ resurrection: It signified that the general resurrection would shortly come (1Cor 15:16, 1Cor 15:20). Christ’s resurrection indicated and initiated the turning of the ages; his return in power would trigger these final apocalyptic events.
But when would this larger resurrection come? Christ first had to return. Thereafter, defeating all the hostile cosmic powers ranged against God (including “the last enemy,” death, per 1Cor 15:26), Christ would hand over the kingdom to his divine father (1Cor 15:23-26). It was as part of these dramatic end-time events—the final revelation of the Messiah, the defeat of death, of evil, and of false gods—that the dead would be raised and the living transformed (1Cor 15:44-50). These events, Paul everywhere insists, would occur before long (1Thess 1:9-10, 1Thess 4:13-17, Rom 13:11-12, 1Cor 7:26-29).
Paul’s letters are so early—from the middle years of the first century—that it is easy for us to overlook an odd fact: by the time that Paul wrote them, the kingdom was late. How had Paul maintained his apocalyptic convictions in the face of the kingdom’s (and the returning Messiah’s) ever-lengthening delay?
The way that Paul understood his witness to the risen Christ gives us our answer. God, revealing his son to (or in) Paul, he says, had thereby “called” him to “proclaim him [Christ] among the “pagans” (or “Gentiles”: the word is the same in Greek; Gal 1:14-16). Paul absolutely demanded that baptized pagans had to cease sacrificing to their native gods and instead make an exclusive commitment to the god of Israel (for example, 1Cor 8:5-6, 1Thess 1:9-10). Once Christ returned to establish his father’s kingdom, the “full number” of pagans would be swept up together with “all Israel” in the final redemption long before promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (Rom 11:26-28; see also Rom 15:7-9).
The pagan destruction of idols, the final turning of the Gentiles and even of their gods (Ps 97:7; Phil 2:10) to Israel’s god, was yet another strong apocalyptic motif, expressed in the classical prophets and in many other Jewish extrabiblical writings. This expectation informs Paul’s gospel. His success (and that of others) in turning pagans away from cosmic gods and toward the god of Israel was further proof, for Paul, that he lived and worked in history’s final hour. Accordingly, with undimmed conviction, Paul could proclaim even in what may be his final letter that “salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed,” (Rom 13:11 RSV). Marana tha: “Our Lord, come!” (1Cor 16:22).