WHO AND WHAT WILL BE JUDGED?
The fact that believers need not fear the final judgment because it will vindicate their faith and service to the Lord, does not mean that the final judgment will only be of those who are unbelieving and impenitent. The Scriptures teach that all will be judged, the just and the unjust. No one will be spared or excluded from this judgment when the books are opened and the verdict is pronounced.
In a number of Scripture passages, reference is made to a judgment that will include all people who have ever lived. Some of these passages have been noted already in the preceding. For example, in Revelation 20:11–15 general references are made to “the dead” (vv. 12,13). Furthermore, the language used in this passage to describe the outcome of the judgment suggests that these dead include both believers and others who, because their names were not written “in the book of life” (v. 15), are thrown into the lake of fire. According to the teaching of Romans 2:5–6, in the day of the “revelation of the righteous judgment of God,” every man will receive according to his works. The well-known description of the final judgment in Matthew 25 describes “all the nations” as being gathered before the throne of the Son of Man. These passages do not limit those who will be judged in any way. The language used confirms that no one will be exempt from being subject to judgment.
This includes all believers who, the Scriptures teach, will also be subject to judgment. Though this judgment is not one that believers need to fear, it is a genuine judgment for them nonetheless. When in 2 Corinthians 5:10 the apostle Paul speaks of “we all” who must appear before the judgment seat of Christ, he is referring specifically and primarily to believers. Hebrews 10:30 states that “the Lord will judge His people.” Writing to believers in Rome, the apostle Paul admonishes them for judging their brothers, noting that “we shall all stand before the judgment seat of God.” James 3:1 speaks of a more severe judgment that will be applied to those among believers who become teachers. And in 1 Peter 4:17, believers are even warned that judgment will “begin with the household of God”!
This liability to judgment, however, does not contradict the clear biblical teaching that believers have already passed out of death into life (John 5:24). Nor does it conflict with the confidence expressed in Romans 8:1, that there is “now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1). It simply means that in the day of judgment a verdict and pronouncement will be made regarding all people who have ever lived, including believers.
One question that has arisen at this point has to do with whether all angels will also be subject to judgment. Some Scripture passages suggest that the disobedient or fallen angels will be liable to judgment (2 Pet. 2:4; Jude 6). These passages omit any reference to a corresponding judgment of the obedient angels, an omission that has led some to conclude that they are exempted from the judgment. However, there is in one passage, 1 Corinthians 6:2, an intriguing reference to the judgment of angels. This passage does not specify whether these angels are obedient or disobedient. On the basis of this passage, it seems possible that all angels, obedient as well as disobedient, will be liable to the final judgment. That all angels should be subject to judgment seems to be consistent with the general teaching of Scripture regarding the purpose of this judgment. In this way, the justice of God’s verdicts regarding all of His creatures will be clearly revealed for all to acknowledge. If all will be judged — believers and unbelievers, (obedient and) disobedient angels — the question that naturally arises is, what will be judged? This question is especially pressing with respect to believers because, if they are to be judged for sins that are already forgiven, does this not suggest a kind of double jeopardy? Why should the sins of believers, washed and blotted out through the blood of Christ, be brought forward at the final judgment in order to play a role in the pronouncement of God’s judgment upon them?
To start with the first part of this question, the Scriptures are quite vigorous in their teaching that all will be judged for whatever they have done. This includes not only all thoughts, words and deeds, but also the hidden things that may otherwise be unknown. To return to a passage we have cited several times before, 2 Corinthians 5:10 speaks very broadly of the “deeds in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad.” This excludes nothing. Matthew 25:35–40 specifically speaks of those things done to “the least of these my brethren,” whether they be favorable or unfavorable. Revelation 20:12 speaks of the dead being judged “from the things which were written in the undeniable books, according to their deeds” (compare 1 Cor. 3:8; 1 Pet. 1:17; Rev. 22:12). God will not overlook in the day of judgment those works which were done in accord with His will (Eph. 6:8; Heb. 6:10). Nor will He overlook the “idle words” (Matt 12:36) that have been spoken, or teaching of Scripture is that believers will be judged according to all that they have done in the body, whether good or bad, “the deeds which are “now hidden in darkness” (1 Cor. 4:5). Just as all are judged, so all that they have done will be subject to judgment.
The more difficult form of this question relates to the propriety of a judgment of the works of believers. If believers are not liable any longer to condemnation, and if they are not fearful of the prospect of a final judgment, then it seems implausible that all of their works should be revealed on the day of judgment. Wouldn’t the judgment of these works risk bringing shame and embarrassment to believers whose sins are wholly covered and forgiven for the sake of Christ? And wouldn’t such shame and embarrassment be inconsistent with the believer’s present confidence that his sins have been removed as far as east is from west (compare Psalm 103:12)?
In my next article, I will return to one part of the Scriptural answer to this question the reward for good works that will be granted in connection with the final judgment. Clearly, if there is such a thing as a greater or lesser reward for works done by believers while in the body — as a passage like 1 Corinthians 3:10–15 seems to suggest — then the recognition of sinful and imperfect works, of greater and lesser obedience, will play a role in the final judgment of believers. To be sure, the final judgment will not be an occasion for undoing the confidence that believers now enjoy that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. But that the works of believers will be judged is undeniable and may even serve as a legitimate motive for diligence and conscientiousness in fighting against sin in this life. Often in the Scriptures the prospect of the recognition and reward for work done for the Lordis an encouragement to faithfulness (compare Heb. 10:25; Jude 24; 2 Tim. 4:1; 1 Pet. 5:4).
Though this judgment of the works of believers should not be understood to conflict with the Scriptural teaching of salvation by grace alone through faith alone, and though it should not be taught in such a way as to rob the believer of that confidence that is born from the gospel promise of the forgiveness of sinsthe undeniable teaching of Scripture is that believers will be judged according to all that they have done in the body, whether good or bad. Not only will this be an occasion for believers to rejoice in the salvation which is theirs in Christ. but it will also be an occasion for God’s judgment respecting them to be confirmed as altogether righteous.
THE STANDARD OF JUDGMENT
When the final judgment takes place, one critical aspect of this judgment is the standard that will be used to confirm the justice of the verdict pronounced. This standard will be the law and Word of God so far as these have been revealed to those who are judged. The standard will be the same for everyone: what has been revealed or made known to them concerning God’s will. However, because there is an important difference in the extent and fulness of what has been revealed, the principle that will apply is that greater privilege brings greater responsibility.
Those to whom much has been given, from them much will rightly be required. Whereas those to whom little has been given, from them less will be required.
The principle of greater or lesser responsibility is set forth strikingly in Matthew 11:20–22. Rebuking the cities in which He had done many of His miracles, Jesus declared severely:
Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles had occurred in Tyre and Sidon which occurred in you, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. Nevertheless, I say to you, it shall be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon in the day of judgment, than for you. And you, Capernaum, will not be exalted to heaven, will you? You shall descend to Hades; for if the miracles had occurred in Sodom which occurred in you, it would have remained to this day. Nevertheless I say to you that it shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment, than for you.
These words should not be taken to mean that those to whom less have been given bear little or no responsibility for their unbelief and disobedience. The principle is one of how much more. All bear the weight of responsibility, the full responsibility, to answer to what God has given to them. Some, however, because they have enjoyed a richer privilege and disclosure of God’s words and works are weighted with a greater responsibility. This principle is one of the principal themes of the book of Hebrews. Because of the greater richness and blessing of the new covenant, disobedience and unfaithfulness in the new covenant situation becomes even more deadly than in the old covenant situation (compare Heb. 2:1–3; 12:25–29).
Often times this raises the question, what about those who have not had the opportunity to hear the gospel or be taught from the Word of God? Is it fair that they should be judged according to a standard that is unknown to them?
To answer this question, I would reiterate the language used above: The standard of judgment will be the law and will of God so far as these have been revealed. In Romans 1:18–23 and 2:11–16, we are taught that all people, Jews and Gentiles alike, have been given some knowledge of God through the things He has made and the law whose work is written upon their hearts. No one can be excused before God on the basis of a plea of ignorance. To the extent that God has revealed Himself to all, to that extent all are responsible and without excuse before Him. Speaking to the question, is it fair that God should judge those who do not have the full light of His Word and gospel? Carl F.H. Henry gives the following, wise answer: God’s fairness is demonstrated because he condemns sinners not in the absence of light but because of their rebellious response. His mercy is demonstrated because he provides fallen humans with a privileged call to redemption not extended to fallen angels. He continues to extend that call worldwide even while some rebel humans spurn it as unloving and unjust and prefer to die in their sins. All are judged by what they do with the light they have, and none is without light2 (emphasis mine).
Rather than attempt to draw together all the aspects of the final judgment considered in the preceding, I would like to close this article with an extensive citation from the Belgic Confession, Article 37. (To the last part of this confession — the reference to the reward awaiting the righteous for their good works — I will turn in my next article.) This article wonderfully summarizes the biblical teaching regarding the final judgment as follows:
Finally, we believe, according to the Word of God, when the time appointed by the Lord (which is unknown to all creatures)vis come and the number of the elect complete, that our Lord Jesus Christ will come from heaven, corporally and visibly, as He ascended, with great glory and majesty to declare Himself Judge of the living and the dead, burning this world with fire and flame to cleanse it. Then all men will personally appear before this great Judge, both men and women and children, that have been from the beginning of the world to the end thereof, being summoned by the voice of the archangel, and by the sound of the trump of God…Then the books (that is to say, the consciences) shall be opened, and the dead judged according to what they shall have done in this world, whether it be good or evil. Nay, all men shall give account of every idle word they have spoken, which the world only counts amusement and jest; and then the secrets and hypocrisy of men shall be disclosed and laid open before all. And therefore the consideration of this judgment is justly terrible and dreadful to the wicked and ungodly, but most desirable and comfortable to the righteous and elect; because then their full deliverance shall be perfected, and there they shall receive the fruits of their labor and trouble which they have borne.
1. The Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter XXXIlI,i, seems to take the position that only disobedient or reprobate angels will be judged “In which day, not only apostate angels shall be judged, but likewise all persons that have lived upon earth shall appear before the tribunal of Christ…” Cf Westminster Larger Catechism, Question 90. The Belgic Confession, Article XXXVII. does not say anything about the judgment of angels, whether obedient or disobedient.
2. “Is It Fair?,” in Through No Fault of Their Own: The Fate of Those Who Have Never Heard (ed. by William V. Crockett and James G. Sigountos; Grand Rapids: Baker, 1991), p 255.
Dr. Venema teaches Doctrinal Studies at Mid-America Seminary in Dyer, IN.