The Last Judgment
The Judgment is coming! The Judgment is coming! Repent now or you will go to hell."
You may have heard some itinerant street "evangelist" shouting these words, trying to scare people into making a commitment to Christ. Or, you may have seen such a wild-eyed person satirized in movies.
Perhaps that is not so far from the picture of "eternal judgment" believed by many Christians down through the ages, especially in Medieval times. You can see sculptures and paintings depicting the righteous being wafted up into the sky to meet Christ and the evil and unrighteous being dragged into hell by ferocious demons.
These images of the Last Judgment, the judgment on eternal destiny, are derived from statements about the Judgment made in the New Testament. The Last Judgment is part of the doctrine of "last things" — the future return of Jesus Christ, the resurrection of the just and wicked, the end of the present evil world, which will be replaced by the glorious kingdom of God.
The Bible explains that the Judgment is a serious event for all human beings who have lived, as Jesus’ words declare: "I tell you that men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned" (Matthew 12:36-37).
The Greek word for "judgment" used in such New Testament passages is krisis, from which we get our English word "crisis." Krisis refers to a time or situation when a decision is executed for or against someone. In that sense, it is a crisis point in the life of an individual or of the world. Most specifically, krisis refers to the activity of God or the Messiah as judge of the world on what is called the Last Day or Day of Judgment, or we might say the beginning of "eternal judgment."
Jesus summarized the Judgment to come in terms of the fate of the righteous and the wicked: "Do not be amazed at this, for a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and come out — those who have done good will rise to live, and those who have done evil will rise to be condemned" (John 5:28-20).
Jesus also described the essence of the last Judgment in symbolic form — as sheep being separated from goats:
When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right hand and the goats on his left (Matthew 25:31-33).
The sheep on his right hand are told of their blessedness and told to "take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world" (verse 34). The goats on the left are informed of their fate as well: "Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels" (verse 41).
This two-group scenario gives confidence to the righteous and thrusts the wicked into a time of singular crisis: "The Lord knows how to rescue godly men from trials and to hold the unrighteous for the day of judgment" (2 Peter 2:9).
Paul also speaks of this two-fold day of Judgment, referring to it as "the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed" (Romans 2:5). He says, "God will give to each person according to what he has done. To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life. But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger" (verses 6-8).
Such biblical passages define in stark terms the doctrine of eternal or last Judgment. It’s an either-or situation; there are the saved in Christ and the unregenerate wicked who are lost. A number of other passages in the New Testament speak of the "last Judgment" as a time and situation that no person can escape. Perhaps the best way to get the flavor of this future time is to quote some of the passages that mention it.
Hebrews speaks of the Judgment as a crisis situation that every human will face. Those who are in Christ, saved by his redemptive work, will find their reward: "Just as man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment, so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many people; he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him" (Hebrews 9:27).
The saved people, made righteous by his redemptive work, do not need to fear the Last Judgment. John assures his readers: "Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him. In this way, love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment" (1 John 4:17). Those who belong to Christ will receive their eternal reward. The ungodly will go to their fearful fate: "The present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men" (2 Peter 3:7).
God makes gracious and just provision for everyone, even for those who at death appear not to have believed the gospel." We do not know exactly how God makes such provision, except that whatever it is, such provision is made possible through Christ’s redemptive work, just as it is for those now in a saved condition.
Jesus himself indicated in several places during his earthly ministry that provision is made for the unevangelized dead to receive the opportunity to be saved. He did this by explaining that the people of a number of ancient cities would find favor in the Judgment, especially in relationship to cities of Judea, where he preached:
Woe to you, Korazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida!... it will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon at the judgment than for you (Luke 10:13-14).
The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it… The Queen of the South [who came to listen to Solomon] will rise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it (Matthew 12:41-42).
Here are people of ancient cities — Tyre, Sidon, Nineveh — who obviously did not have opportunity to hear the gospel or know of Christ’s redemptive work. But they find the Judgment bearable, and simply by standing in front of their Savior, they send a condemnatory message to those who rejected him in this life.
Jesus also makes the shocking statement that the ancient towns of Sodom and Gomorrah — bywords for every gross immorality — would find the Judgment more bearable than certain towns of Judea in which Jesus taught.
To put into context just how startling Jesus’ statement is, let’s see how Jude pictures the sin of these two towns and the consequences they received in this life for their actions:
And the angels who did not keep their positions of authority but abandoned their own home — these he has kept in darkness, bound with everlasting chains for judgment on the great day. In a similar way, Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding towns gave themselves up to sexual immorality and perversion. They serve as an example of those who suffer the punishment of eternal fire. (Jude 6)
But Jesus says of the towns in the future Judgment: "It will be more bearable for Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town [that is, the town that didn’t welcome the disciples]" (Matthew 10:15).
Perhaps, then, this suggests that the events of the last or eternal Judgment are not quite what many Christians have assumed them to be. The late Reformed theologian, Shirley C. Guthrie, suggested we perhaps would do well to reorient our thinking about this crisis event:
The first thought that comes to Christians when they think about the end of history ought not be anxious or vindictive speculation about who will be "in" and go "up," and who will be "out" and go "down." It ought to be the thankful and joyful thought that we may confidently look forward to the time when the will of the world’s Creator, Reconciler, Savior, and Renewer will prevail once and for all — when justice will triumph over injustice, love over hatred and greed, peace over hostility, humanity over inhumanity, the kingdom of God over the powers of darkness. The last judgment will come not against but for the good of the world… That is good news not just for Christians but for everyone!
Indeed, that is what the last things — including the last or eternal Judgment — are all about: the triumph of the God of love over all that stands in the way of his eternal grace. So the apostle Paul says: "Then the end will come, when he [Christ] hands over the kingdom to God the father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death" (1 Corinthians 15:24-26).
The One who is to be the Judge in the last Judgment of those made righteous by Christ and those who are yet sinners is none other than Jesus Christ, who gave his life as a ransom for everyone. "The Father judges no one," said Jesus, "but has entrusted all judgment to the Son" (John 5:22).
The One who judges the righteous, the unevangelized and even the wicked is he who gave his life so that others might live eternally. Jesus Christ has already taken the judgment of sin and sinfulness upon himself. That is not to say that those who reject Christ avoid suffering the fate that their own decision brings on them. What the picture of the merciful Judge, Jesus Christ, does tell us is that he wishes that all would receive eternal life — and he will provide it for those who put their faith in him.
Those who are the called-in-Christ—made the "elect" through Christ’s election — can look to the Judgment with confidence and joy, knowing that their salvation is sure in him. The unevangelized — those who have not had opportunity to hear the gospel and put their faith in Christ — will also find that the Lord has made provision for them. The Judgment should be a time of joy for everyone as it will usher in the glory of the everlasting kingdom of God where nothing but goodness will exist throughout eternity.