The Final Judgment
There are few less popular emphases in Christianity today than that of judgment. The church, the Bible—even God himself—seem given to a policy of discrimination against those who might not even share a common standard of conduct. Nowhere is Christianity’s “judgmentalism” seen more sharply than in the doctrine of final judgment. To many, the conclusion of one of Jesus’ final parables is obnoxious: the wicked “will go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into eternal life” (Matt. 25:46).
At first glance any notion of judgment seems very unwelcome; we want to believe and behave without censure or consequence. Judgment is unwelcome . . . until we need our day in court. When a district attorney pledges to bring a serial rapist to justice, nobody says, “Don’t judge.” The quest of every person to be vindicated; our desire for vengeance when we’ve been wronged and our pleas for leniency when we’ve been wrong testify to a grander scheme of morality. Our inner delight in justice—though often fueled by selfishness and betraying gross inconsistency—is irrepressible.
Christians naturally accept Christ’s prerogative to judge the world. For two millennia believers have expressed this biblical truth: Christ is coming again to judge the living and the dead. But non-Christians too can easily reason that if there is a God “who made the world and everything in it,” including “every nation of men,” and if he has determined that “they should seek the Lord . . . and
find Him,” then he has every right to appoint a day on which to “judge the world in righteousness by the Man whom He has ordained” (Acts 17:24–31). This is exactly Paul’s message to a non-Christian audience in Athens. Paul could have added that if this God wanted to assure his creatures that he was fully capable of judging the human condition it would make sense for him to walk this earth in human flesh, experiencing first-hand unkindness, oppression, and injustice. To fully appreciate
inequity it would be good for him to be arraigned by jealous prosecutors using fallacious evidence, condemned by a dishonest judge, and publicly executed for crimes he didn’t commit. Such was the experience of Jesus. Paul does say this: God “has given assurance of this to all by raising Him from the dead” (v. 31).1
The Bible’s Program for Final Judgment
Scripture communicates a very simple program for the conquest of justice. Under God’s superintendence a “shadow” of justice operates now. God often uses human instruments “to execute wrath on him who practices evil” (Rom. 13:4). At the end of this present age, “justice” will “run down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream” (Amos 5:24). On “that day” not everyone shall enter the kingdom of heaven. The Father has given authority to the Son to “execute judgment . . . for the hour is coming in which all who are in the graves will hear His voice and come forth” (John 5:27–29). Those who did justly, loved mercy, and walked humbly with their God (Mic. 6:8) will be raised to life and hear him say, “Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (Matt. 25:34). On the same day, those who have done evil, “ungodly men,” will taste the “resurrection of condemnation” and enter into “perdition” (2 Pet. 3:7, John 5:27–29). Those who had practiced lawlessness will be sent away from God’s good presence (Matt. 7:21–23).
On that day even the heavens and earth will be judged and given over to purifying fire (2 Pet. 3:7). The heavens and earth will be remade into a dwelling place for God’s redeemed people while the rest remain “outside” (Rev. 22:15).2
The Reason for Final Judgment
The Day of Judgment Will Glorify Christ
The day of judgment is rightly called the day of the Lord (Acts 2:20, 1 Thess. 5:10) because on that day as never before God will be all in all (1 Cor. 15:28). The judgment is committed to Christ “as one of the crowning honors of his kingship.”3 He will judge—finally and fully—every power that has challenged his majesty including fallen angels and the devil and his demons. The final judgment is a vindication of God which will display before “all rational creatures the declarative glory of God in a formal, forensic act, which magnifies on the one hand His holiness and righteousness, and on the other hand His grace and mercy.”4 On that day “every knee shall bow . . . and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:10–11). Thomas Watson wrote that at the final judgment “Sinners will be so clearly convicted that they shall hold up their hand at the bar and cry ‘guilty’ . . . the sinner himself shall clear God of injustice.”5 Every sin of believers will be publicly pardoned for the sake of Jesus. Christ’s reward to believers (Matt. 25:34; 2 John 1:8) will unquestionably testify of God’s amazing, unmerited favor. As Matthew Henry wrote, the reward for the works of believers “will be far above the merit of all their services and sufferings.”6
The Day of Judgment Warns Unbelievers
Pending judgment is a threat to the guilty. Jesus often described the day of judgment as a warning against religious people who reject his invitation to enter his kingdom (Matt. 10:5–15), ignore his mighty works (Matt. 11:20–24), and fail to bear good fruit (Matt. 12:33–37). The day of judgment is “especially” for the “unjust . . . who walk according to the flesh in the lust of uncleanness and despise authority. They are presumptuous, self-willed” (2 Pet. 2:9–10). Paul warns those who have hard and impenitent hearts: “You are treasuring up for yourself wrath in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God, who ‘will render to each one according to his deeds’: . . . to those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness—indignation and wrath, tribulation and anguish, on every soul of man who does evil” (Rom. 2:5–9). Jesus commanded the apostles “to preach to the people, and to testify that it is He who was ordained by God to be Judge of the living and the dead” (Acts 10:34–43). Those who “destroy the earth” shall be destroyed by the anger of God in the judgment (Rev. 11:18).
Coupled with this warning is an invitation: “Cast away from you all the transgressions which you have committed, and get yourselves a new heart and a new spirit. For why should you die?” (Ezek. 18:31). The age leading up to the final judgment is a time of grace in which God refrains from judgment, showcasing his “goodness, forbearance, and longsuffering” so that people would repent and be saved from the coming wrath (Rom. 2:4).
Pending Judgment Is a Comfort to the Pardoned
Even an innocent person might feel anxious about going to court and standing before a judge. So too, Christians might fear to stand before God’s “great white throne” and him who sits on it, “from whose face the earth and the heaven” fly away (Rev. 20:11). To assuage our fears John Calvin asks the following pastoral questions: “How could a most merciful prince destroy his own people? How could the head disperse its own members? How could the advocate condemn his clients?”7 The judge of believers is the “very One who has already stood trial in [their] place before God and so has removed the whole curse from [them].”8 Because there is “no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1), to those among whom “love has been perfected,” believers “may have boldness in the day of judgment; because as He is, so are we in this world” (1 John 4:17). By faith in the Son of God, believers have “already, under the soteriological regime of grace, received absolute, eternal acquittal in justification.”9 To “those who have loved His appearing” Christ, the “righteous Judge,” will certainly give a “crown of righteousness” (2 Tim. 4:8). God can disapprove of some of the works of his children (1 Cor. 3:15) and still judge them kindly on the basis of the merits of Jesus’ faithfulness.
The Westminster Confession of Faith ends on this urgent note: “As Christ would have us to be certainly persuaded that there shall be a day of judgment, both to deter all men from sin; and for the greater consolation of the godly in their adversity (2 Peter 3:11, 14; 2 Cor. 5:10–11; 2 Thess. 1:5–7; Luke 21:7, 28; Rom. 8:23–25): so will He have that day unknown to men, that they may shake off all carnal security, and be always watchful, because they know not at what hour the Lord will come; and may be ever prepared to say, Come Lord Jesus, come quickly. Amen (Matt. 24:36, 42–44; Mark 13:35–37; Luke 12:35–36; Rev. 22:20).”10
The Cosmic Implications of Final Judgment
The earth was cursed because of the sin of man (Gen. 3:17–19). In the same way, the earth’s hope for renewal is tied to the renewal of its keepers, God’s people. Like men, “heaven and earth will pass away” (Luke 21:33). But as with God’s judgment against people, the judgment against the world is not an annihilation of the world.11 Peter, writing to correct those who scoff that “all things continue as they were from the beginning of creation,” compares the deluge of the ancient world (Gen. 7) with the burning of the present world at the last day (2 Pet. 3:6–13). According to Peter “the world that then existed perished, being flooded with water” (v. 6), that is, “the continuity of nature, was broken up by the flood.”12 “The world that perished is said to be a different world from that which rose out of the flood, not by a reduction to nothing, but by a [purging].”13 The fires of the last judgment “cleanse” this “old world.”14 So it will be at the last day.
We often impulsively imagine that fire is only destructive, especially when the Bible uses it to describe a judgment. But fire is also a means of renewal; one of the best ways to rid a property of unusable bramble and to prepare the earth for new growth is a controlled burn. Scripture elsewhere describes the “destruction” of this earth as “regeneration” (Matt. 19:28) and a “restoration” (Acts 3:21). The “whole creation groans and labors,” says Paul, not to be annihilated but to give birth to something new. So creation will be “delivered from the bondage of corruption into . . . glorious liberty” (Rom. 8:22, 21). The psalmist wrote that God will change the heavens and earth like a garment that has grown old; they will not be destroyed but “they will be changed” (Ps. 102:25–26). Luther put it this way: today “the heavens have their work-day clothes on; hereafter they will have on their Sunday garments.”15 When God re-forms16 the new heavens and a new earth, they will be so superior to the old that “the former shall not be remembered or come to mind” (Isa. 65:17).
To illustrate this thorough transformation Scripture uses the eschatological category of “new heavens” and “new earth” (2 Pet. 3:13) as if it were a single new creation mirroring the God-indwelt world of Genesis 1. The phrase portrays the coming together of the special sphere of men and the special sphere of God in answer to the words Jesus taught his people to pray: “Your kingdom come. Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10). That these two spheres should become one, though still called by two names, is perfectly consistent with the fact that the restored dwelling place of God has many names: the New Jerusalem (Rev. 21:2), Mount Zion (Rev. 14:1), the heavenly Jerusalem (Heb. 12:22), the city of God (Ps. 46:4; 87:3). When God makes all things new (Rev. 21:5), the “New Jerusalem” will come “down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.” John heard a voice speaking about that day: “‘Behold the tabernacle of God is with men, and He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people. God Himself will be with them and be their God’” (Rev. 21:2–3).
Appropriate Reactions to Final Judgment
Trust God to Do What Is Right
The great existential problem many people face in reflecting on the final judgment is that it necessarily leaves some people out. “For all those who appear in judgment entrance into, or exclusion from, heaven, will depend on the question, whether they are clothed with the righteousness of Jesus Christ.”17 And Paul bluntly observes, “Not all have faith” (2 Thess. 3:2). But the Bible does not insist that explicit, self-conscious faith in Christ is necessary to endure the judgment.18 Precisely how God will judge those who did not live long enough to believe, or who lacked the capacity for conscious faith, or who lacked any access to the gospel is not told us. “Whatever God might choose to do in any given case, he has promised to save all of those—and only those—who call on the name of his Son.” Still, “It is precisely because God is sovereign and free in his grace that he can have mercy on whomever he chooses.”19 He who knows the bitterness of false judgment can be trusted to judge fairly. Indeed, the Judge of all the earth shall do right (Gen. 18:25). The avenger of the poor and the persecuted (Ps. 109:31; cf. Deut. 15:11) will not err on the great day.
Exercise Modesty in Judging Others
God’s abeyance of the judgment until the last day (Matt. 13:37–43) should caution believers about judging others hastily (1 Cor. 4:5). Paul says that believers will judge the world (1 Cor. 6:2; Ps. 49:14), but only after the dimness is removed from our eyes and we will know with a perception now unfathomed (1 Cor. 13:12). In the meantime, in light of the fact that “we shall all stand before the judgment seat of Christ . . . let us not judge one another anymore, but rather resolve this, not to put a stumbling block or a cause to fall in our brother’s way” (Rom. 14:10–13).20 The final judgment helps us especially resist the judgment of vengeance. “If we have known real evil, we will want a divine judge who will take up the sword, so that we can refrain from doing so.”21 If we truly understand the dreadfulness of falling into the hands of the living God (Heb. 10:31) we will not avenge ourselves but rather give place to the wrath of God (Rom. 12:17–19). Today is the day, not for praying spiteful curses against those who curse us, but “the time of prayer for our enemies and bringing the good news to the ends of the earth” (Matt. 5:43–44).22
Believers are forever free from the condemnation of God (John 3:18). This profound reality promotes a careful piety, a commitment to walk in the light that our “deeds may be clearly seen, that they have been done in God” (John 3:21). To the redeemed believer every deed matters, even our pre-deeds matter; God discerns even the secret “thoughts and intents of the hearts” (Heb. 4:12). Believers recognize that they will stand in the judgment individually, not based on family connections or the orthodoxy of the church they had attended. “Each of us shall give account of himself to God” (Rom. 14:12). The careful piety of the final-judgment-conscious believer does not, however, degrade his concept of God’s love. In fact, it is the very opposite! It was expressly during the Reformation, under the ministry of the gospel, that Christian people were delivered from a pervasive, even oppressive, sense that God is only a judge, or a judge without feeling, without love. Because God loves his children with a never-ending, sacrificial affection the final judgment can deepen our trust in him, helping the believer to say, “In all my sorrows and persecutions, I, with uplifted head look for the very One, who offered Himself for me to the judgment of God, and removed all curse from me, to come as Judge from heaven (Luke 21:28; Rom. 8:23–24; Phil. 3:20–21; Titus 2:13), who shall cast all His and my enemies into everlasting condemnation (2 Thess. 1:6, 10; 1 Thess. 4:16–18; Matt. 25:41), but shall take me with all His chosen ones to Himself into heavenly joy and glory.”23
Do you sense that the final judgment is one of the least “appealing” traits of Christianity? Why or why not?
If only conceptually, what about the final judgment could be appealing even for non-Christians?
How do the following texts ground the final judgment in the moral lives of people: Matthew 25:31–46, 2 Peter 3:7, John 5:27–29?
How does the final judgment glorify Christ?
Jesus often directs the day of judgment as a warning against insincere religious people (see Matt. 10:5–15; 11:20–24; 12:33–37). What application can we glean from this fact?
How should believers face the prospect of being judged by Jesus?
How does the restoration of heaven and earth challenge your previous notions about the new heaven and earth? What is appealing about a restoration (rather than an annihilation) of this present earth?
Reflect on some appropriate responses to the final judgment (e.g., trust God, be careful about judging others, live carefully before God’s face).
1. Interestingly, the “judgment” part of Paul’s speech seemed to resonate with the law-conscious Romans. It was the resurrection for which they had no category (cf. v. 32).
2. On the “outside-ness” of hell C. S. Lewis observes that “We know much more about heaven than hell, for heaven is the home of humanity and therefore contains all that is implied in a glorified human life: but hell was not made for men. It is in no sense parallel to heaven: it is ‘the darkness outside,’ the outer rim where being fades away into nonentity.” C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, in The C. S. Lewis Signature Classics (New York: HarperCollins, 2017), 626.
3. Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1939), 732.
4. Ibid., 731. Cf. The Westminster Confession of Faith, 33.2.
5. The Duty of Self-Denial: And Ten Other Sermons (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 1997), 173. See also Jude 14–15: “Behold, the Lord comes . . . to execute judgment on all, to convict all who are ungodly among them of all their ungodly deeds.”
6. Commentary on the Whole Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1961), on Revelation 14:13.
7. Institutes of the Christian Religion (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1962), 2.16.18.
8. Heidelberg Catechism, Q/A 52.
9. Geerhardus Vos, Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation: The Shorter Writings of Geerhardus Vos, ed. Richard B. Gaffin Jr. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1980), 52.
10. Westminster Confession of Faith, 33.3.
11. “We maintain that there will be a change of the world and a change by which the creature will be delivered from the bondage of corruption and which assuredly will not be an annihilation, but rather a restoration . . . and renewal.” Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 1997), 596. Turretin admits, however, that “this question is problematical and of the number of those in which it is lawful to hold ourselves back . . . and to differ (truth and charity being preserved),” 590.
12. Michael Green, The Second Epistle General of Peter and the General Epistle of Jude: An Introductory Commentary, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 142.
13. Turretin, Institutes, 591.
14. Belgic Confession, art. 37.
15. Quoted in Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975), vol. 3, 853.
16. Isaiah’s verb bara can mean “to create out of nothing” or “to fashion from existing materials,” as was the case when God created Adam from the dust of the earth (Gen. 1:27; cf. Gen. 2:7).
17. Berkhof, Systematic Theology, 733.
18. Michael Horton, The Christian Faith (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), 983.
19. Ibid., 983.
20. These cautions do not contradict Scripture’s command that believers judge “with righteous judgment,” or that church leaders exercise careful judgment in matters of church discipline (Matt. 16:19; 18:17–18), and in lieu of civil litigation between brothers (1 Cor. 6:1–6). They do, however, urge us to follow Jesus’ example in committing ourselves to him who judges righteously (1 Pet. 2:21–23).
21. Timothy Keller, The Songs of Jesus: A Year of Daily Devotionals in the Psalms (New York: Viking, 2015), 124. Cf. Timothy Keller, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism (New York: Riverhead Books, 2008), 76–78.
22. Michael Horton, “Should Christians Pray for God to Judge Their Enemies?,” Core Christianity, November 17, 2017, https://corechristianity.com/resource-library/articles/should-christians-pray-for-god-to-judge-their-enemies. Accessed December 5, 2017.
23. Heidleberg Catechism, Q/A 52.
Rev. William Boekestein happily serves Immanuel Fellowship Church in Kalamazoo, MI. He has written several books, including Why Christ Came: 31 Meditations on the Incarnation (with Joel Beeke).