Many of us are probably familiar with the saying, “there is nothing more certain than death and taxes.” Not only does this saying reveal an almost universal distaste for paying taxes, but it also reveals a grudging recognition that life, at least life in this body, eventually comes to an end. Though people are adept at finding ways to avoid the reality of death in the United States, the industry dedicated to keeping people looking young takes in billions every year no one can ultimately deny its certainty. Though taxes can be avoided by legal or illegal means, death cannot be! The evidence for this truth is compelling, inescapable and universal.
However, there is another reality no less certain than death. And that is the reality of the final judgment. The writer of Hebrews, speaking of the second coming of Christ remarks:
And inasmuch as it is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment. so Christ also, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, shall appear a second time for salvation without reference to sin, to those who eagerly wait Him (9:27, emphasis mine).
The final judgment is, like the resurrection of the body, an end-time event which will accompany the return of Christ at the close of this present period of history. Consequently, when Christians affirm their faith in the Apostles Creed, they speak not only of the resurrection of the body but also of the return of Christ from heaven “to judge the living and the dead.”
Now that we have considered the first concomitant of Christ’s second advent, the resurrection of the body, I would like in this article to take up a number of questions that relate to the Bible’s teaching about the final judgment. In a subsequent article, I will address myself directly to a question that is often disputed, namely, whether this judgment will include the granting of differing rewards to the righteous, depending upon their good works.
THE TIMING AND NUMBER OF FINAL JUDGMENT(S)
Among the first questions that arise regarding the final judgment are the questions of its time and the number of judgments that will occur. Historic and dispensational premillennialists speak of several judgments which are distinguishable according to their time, place and subjects. Though there is a great deal of diversity of opinion among representatives of these views, the most common dispensationalist position speaks of four distinct judgments: the judgment of believers at the rapture; the judgment of Israel at the close of the seven year period of tribulation; the judgment of the nations; and the “great white throne judgment” at the close of the millennial age (Rev. 20:11–15). The first three of these judgments precede, and the last follows, the millennium. These distinct judgments are a necessary part of the pre-millennialist conception of the future. For instance, because pre-millennialism distinguishes between the resurrection of believers before the millennium and the resurrection of unbelievers after the millennium, at least two distinct (in time and in subjects) judgments are necessary.
A complete answer to these questions would require a review of a number of points that I have made in preceding articles. In those articles, I have given a variety of arguments against the pre-millennialist position, whether in its historic or dispensational expression. Once it is admitted that the return of Christ will occur at the end of the age and after the millennium of Revelation 20, no occasion or need remains for claiming that there will be more than one judgement. Furthermore, once it is acknowledged that the final judgment will occur after the resurrection of the body and in close association with it, then it seems quite clear that the final judgment will be a single event in which all are judged, believer and unbeliever alike, Jew as well as Gentile. Just as we have seen that the resurrection will be an event at the end of the age which embraces believer and unbeliever alike (John 5:25–29), so the final judgment will include all. As the apostle Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:10, “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may be recompensed for his deeds in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad” (emphasis mine). When Christ describes the final judgment in Matthew 25, all the nations and peoples are said to be judged together and a separation is pronounced between the “sheep” and the “goats” (Matt. 25:31–46).2
Though it is evident that the final judgment will occur as a single event after the resurrection, it is not as clear from Scripture whether it will precede or follow the transformation of the creation at the end of the age. Some passages seem to suggest that the judgment will take place before the recreation of the heavens and earth (e.g., 2 Pet. 3:7). However, in other passages the final judgment is simply linked with the end of the present age ((e.g.: Matt. 13:40–43; Matt. 25:31–32; 2 Thess. 1:7–10). but without any indication that it will occur prior to the renewal of all things. In Revelation 20:12, it is suggested that the judgment will immediately follow the general resurrection:
And I saw the dead, the great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened; and another book was opened, which is the book of life; and the dead were judged from the things which were written in the books, according to their deeds.
In the sequence of visions in Revelation 20, the great white throne judgment is followed by a series of visions which describe the new heavens and earth. Admittedly, as we have had occasion to see before, the visions of Revelation are not arranged in a neat chronological order. The placement of the visions of the new heavens and earth after that of the great white throne judgment, however, does suggest that this may be the sequence of events to be expected at the end of the age: first. the resurrection, second, the final judgment. and third, the transformation of the creation.3
A question that sometimes surfaces in this connection, one to which the Scriptures do not give a direct answer, has to do with the duration of the final judgment. Will the final judgment be a quick and relatively short event, or will it take place over a more extended period of time?4 On several occasions, the Bible speaks of the final judgment as a day of judgment (compare Matt. 7:22; 11:22; 2 Thess. 1:10; 2 Tim. 1:12; Rom. 5). This language, however, should not be pressed to mean a literal period of one day. It may only be a way of referring to the peculiar period which will be marked off for the purpose of judgment. Just as the Scriptures speak of this as the “day” of salvation (compare Heb. 3:7–19), a day is coming when all will be judged for what they have done in the body whether good or bad.
THE JUDGMENT’S NECESSITY AND PURPOSE
One question regarding the final judgment is prompted by our consideration earlier of what we termed the “intermediate state.” Since the intermediate state involves a provisional circumstance of blessedness for believers and of distress for unbelievers, it would seem that the final judgment serves no useful purpose for those who have died prior to Christ’s return. Though it may be necessary for those who are living at Christ’s return that they be judged and pronouncement of weal or woe be made regarding them. this is not the case for those who have already entered by way of death into a provisional state that anticipates what the judgment will declare concerning them. What necessity for or purpose is served by the final judgment of those who have already been determined to be saved or lost?
The problem with this question is that it treats the final judgment too much in terms of our ordinary understanding of what takes place in a human trial court with its process of reaching and pronouncing a verdict. However. the final judgment is a work of God, particularly, as we shall see, a work of Christ who has been appointed as Judge. As a work of God, it cannot be understood as a process so much of investigation to determine the guilt or innocence of those judged, as an occasion to pronounce and execute with divine authority the sentence that God alone can pass with perfect justice upon all who are judged. Since God knows all those who are His — indeed, He knows them from eternity (compare Eph. 1:4; Rom. 8:29) — He is not discovering them by means of this final judgment. Rather, He is revealing His power and glory as the One who alone has the prerogative to judge His creatures and to declare their final destiny. In pronouncing and executing this judgment. God not only declares openly the final state of every person but dispenses His judgment and reward in a way that confirms His righteousness.
The descriptions of the final judgment found in Scripture and the confessions confirm this to be its purpose and necessity. A good example of this emphasis upon the final judgment as the occasion for God to manifest His glory in His work of judgment is found in the Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter XXXIII, ii:
The end of God’s appointing this day is for the manifestation of the glory of his mercy, in the eternal salvation of the elect; and of his justice, in the damnation of the reprobate, who are wicked and disobedient. For then shall the righteous go into everlasting life, and receive that fullness of joy and refreshing, which shall come from the presence of the Lord; but the wicked who know not God, and obey not the gospel of Jesus Christ. shall be cast into eternal torments, and be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of his power.
WHO WILL BE THE JUDGE?
One prominent and clear teaching of Scripture respecting the final judgment is that Christ will be the Judge. Among those prerogatives that characterize the exaltation and rule of Christ at the right hand of the Father is the prerogative to carry out the final judgment. In keeping with this biblical emphasis, the Apostles’ Creed speaks of the return of Christ as a coming “to judge the living and the dead.” The great work in which Christ will be engaged at His coming is the work of judgment, vindicating His people and the cause of the gospel, condemning all their and His enemies.
It belongs to Christ’s glory and office as King that He is granted the authority to carry out the final judgment (compare Matt. 28:18; Phil. 2:9, 10). In John 5:22–23, we read, “For not even the Father judges anyone, but He has given all judgment to the Son, in order that all may honor the Son, even as they honor the Father.” Later, in the same chapter, Christ closely associates the resurrection of the just and the unjust with His “authority to execute judgment” (v. 27). At the close of his sermon on Mars hill, the apostle Paul declares that God “has fixed a day in which he will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead” (Acts 17:31). The apostle Paul also speaks of the day of judgment as one on which all must appear “before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may be recompensed for his deeds in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad” (2 Cor. 5:10). Similarly, in the familiar description of the final judgment given in Matthew 25, the Lord Jesus Christ speaks of the time “when the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him” to sit on “His glorious throne” (v. 31 ; compare 2 Thess. 1:7–10). In these and other passages, it is unmistakably clear that the One who will judge and sit upon the throne of judgment is Christ Himself.
The significance of this truth is captured well in the Heidelberg Catechism’s answer to the question, “What comfort is it to you that Christ shall come to judge the living and the dead?” “That in all my sorrows and persecutions, with uplifted head I look for the very same Person who before has offered Himself for my sake to the tribunal of God, and has removed all curse from me, to come as Judge from heaven; who shall cast all His and my enemies into everlasting condemnation, but shall take me with all His chosen ones to Himself into heavenly joy and glory.”5
Though the coming of Christ in glory and power to judge the living and the dead is a fearful prospect for the wicked and unbelieving, it is an unspeakable comfort to those who have believed in Him and devoted themselves to His service. In the day of Christ’s coming and judgment, the unbelieving and impenitent will be condemned. But the people of God will receive from the judge, who is also their Savior who was previously judged in their place, their vindication and rest.
Before taking up the next question regarding the final judgment, there is a wrinkle on the question of who will be the Judge that invites comment. In some of the biblical descriptions of the final judgment, it is suggested that believers and even the angels who serve the Lord will have a role to play in it. In 1 Corinthians 6:2–3, the apostle Paul in the context of his rebuke to the Corinthians not to take fellow believers to court, reminds them that “the saints will judge the world” (v. 2). The vision of Revelation 20 also speaks of the “judgment” that is given to those who reign with Christ during the millennium (v. 4). Similar descriptions of believers sharing in the work of judgment are found in other passages as well (compare Ps. 145:5–9; Matt. 19:28). What are we to make of these passages? What role do the saints and the angels play in Christ’s work of judgment?
It is difficult to say exactly what the nature of the saints’ participation in the final judgment will be. Certainly, because Christ is the Mediator and Head of His people, they share fully in whatever honor or glory belongs to Him. On the principle that believers are co-heirs with Christ of all things (1 Cor. 3:21–23), it follows that they have some part in His work of judgment. What that part might be exactly remains unclear. Nothing that they do could be done independently of the work of Christ. Nor could it be said to add something otherwise lacking in the work of Christ. Perhaps it is best, therefore, to note simply that they share in the victory and glory that belong to Christ in His activity as the Judge at His coming. As to the involvement of the angels, it is best to restrict it to the kinds of things often mentioned in the biblical descriptions of the final judgment: their ministry is auxiliary and subordinate to that of Christ. To the angels is assigned the work of gathering the peoples together for the judgment and executing the judgment that is pronounced (compare e.g., Matt. 13:41–2; 24:31; 25:31; 2 Thess. 1:7).
1. The New Scofield Study Bible (New York: Oxford University Press, 1967), notes on Matt. 25:32 and Rev. 20:12.
2. The confessions of the Reformation typically speak of the final judgment as a single event at the close of the age which includes all people who have ever lived See Belgic Confession, Article XXXVII; Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 19; Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter XXXIII; and Westminster Larger Catechism, Questions 88–90.
3. However, the sequence given in the Belgic Confession, Article XXXVII. seems to be that the final judgment will follow the transformation or renewal of all things.
4. The Jehovah’s Witnesses’ publication, Let God Be True (New York: Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, 1952), p. 286, teaches that the final judgment will encompass the first one thousand years of the new world. There is no biblical basis for this teaching. Neither is there any basis for a related Jehovah’s Witnesses’ teaching that the final judgment will be based only upon those works done during the millennium.
5. It is interesting that this language, echoing the teaching of Scripture, affirms the fulfillment of what is expressed in the so-called “imprecatory” Psalms. These Psalms include prayers that the enemies of the Lord and His people be vanquished and punished for their sins (e.g. Psalm 137). Though some object to these psalms and their prayers for the punishment of God’s enemies — even suggesting that they an “Old Testament” spirit allegedly at odds with the spirit of the New Testament it is evident that what they plead for from the Lord will be fulfilled in the context of the final judgment.
Dr. Venema teaches Doctrinal Studies at Mid-America Reformed Seminary in Dyer, IN.