The Last Judgment

What should God do about evil? Many people have mixed feelings about what God should do. On one hand, they want him to punish evildoers, so people will stop doing evil. On the other hand, they want him to be “nice,” to be lenient, quick to forgive, because no one is perfect. Sometimes they want exceptions for themselves, but not for everyone else.

The Bible says that there will be a “last judgment” when Jesus returns, and he will assess what people have done. Some people will be given immortality and eternal life with God; others will not. What will this judgment be like?

We could start with verses that mention the judgment, but it will be more helpful to begin with the larger context – with God, and with what he wants for and from the human beings he has created.

God’s purpose for humanity

God and his purpose are exceedingly large topics, so we will have to summarize a great deal. The story begins before creation. God is Father, Son, and Spirit in eternal relationships of love and giving. The Bible also tells us that Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God, was “slain from the creation of the world” (Revelation 13:8). Even before God created humanity, he knew that the Son of God would have to die for us. Our sin did not catch him by surprise. He knew in advance that we would fail, yet he created us anyway, because he already had anticipated a solution for the problem.

God created humanity “in his own image” (Genesis 1:26-27). We were made a little bit like God – we were created to have relationships of love that reflect the love that God has within the Trinity. God wants us to interact with each other in love, and to have a love relationship with God as well. The vision at the end of the Bible is that God will live with his people (Revelation 21:3). God created us because he wanted to share eternal love with us.

The problem is that humans did not live in love, either for one another or for God. “All have sinned and fall short” of what God wants for us (Romans 3:23). So the Son of God, the Creator of humanity, became a human so that he could live and die for his people. “There is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all people” (1 Timothy 2:5-6). Jesus enters the story again at the end of the age, when he returns to earth and becomes the judge at the last judgment (John 5:22).

Will Jesus be angry because people have not lived up to his purpose for them? He knew that would happen even before he started, and he already carried out the plan to pay whatever price was necessary to atone for our sins and restore us to right relationship with God. He submitted to God’s righteous judgment on evil and experienced the consequences of our sins leading to death. He poured out his life that we might have life in him. “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them” (2 Corinthians 5:19). We have already been judged, found guilty, forgiven, and given new life through Jesus Christ. Jesus was judged in our place, on our behalf, taking our sin and death upon himself and giving us in exchange his life, his right relationship with God, that we might live in eternal fellowship and communion of holy love with him.

This does not necessarily mean that everyone will appreciate what Christ has done for them. Some people will resist the new situation, rejecting the right of Christ to be their judge. Don’t they have the right to choose and decide for themselves? Some people will resist the verdict of guilty. Were their sins really that bad? And some will resist the payment. Can’t I just work off my debt, without being eternally indebted to Jesus? Some will reject God’s purpose for them, because they do not want to live in love with their Creator. Their attitudes and response to the grace of God will be revealed (if they were not already displayed) at the last judgment.

In effect, people will judge themselves by their response to the Judge, Jesus Christ. Will they choose the way of love, humility, grace and kindness, or will they prefer self-seeking, self-importance, and self-determination? Will they want to live with God on his terms, or somewhere else on their own terms? Will they accept his definition of good and evil, or will they insist on their own definition? Will they insist on their “right” to do things that he says are evil? In this judgment, failure is not due to God rejecting them, but in them rejecting God, and his judgment of grace in Jesus Christ.

A day of decision

With this overview, we can now examine verses about the judgment. It is a serious event for all human beings: “Everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken. For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matthew 12:36-37).

Jesus summarized the Judgment to come in terms of the fate of the righteous and the wicked: “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). This verse must be understood in the light of another biblical truth: everyone has done evil. The judgment includes not just what people have done, but also what Jesus has done for them. He has already paid for their sins.

Jesus also described the judgment in a parable — 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 are the ones who helped the needy (verses 35-36). They are told to “take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world” (verse 34). The others are told: “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (verse 41). Although a novice reader might think that this parable gives us details about courtroom procedure in the judgment, it cannot be taken in that way. There is no mention of forgiveness, for example, or of faith (the sheep were unaware that Jesus was involved in what they were doing – verse 37). Helping the needy is a good thing, but it is not the only thing that is involved in the final judgment.

The Jews already believed in a day of judgment; Jesus used their belief as the setting for his parable. The parable taught two new points: that the Judge was the Son of Man, Jesus himself, and that he wants people to help (rather than despise) the needy since God does not despise us but gives us his grace, especially the grace of forgiveness. Compassion and kindness toward those who need mercy and grace will be rewarded in the future with God’s own feely given grace towards them.

Paul also refers to the 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).

Again, this cannot be taken as a complete description of the judgment, for it makes no mention of grace or faith – concepts that Paul says are essential. He says that we are justified (a courtroom term, meaning acquitted on the day of judgment) not by our works, but by faith (Galatians 2:16). Good behavior is good, but it cannot save us. We are counted as righteous not on the basis of our own actions, but because we receive and thereby share in the righteousness of Christ (1 Corinthians 1:30).

Most of the verses about the last judgment say nothing about the grace that is a central part of the Christian gospel. This fact should warn us not to place too much weight on these partial descriptions. We should not isolate them from their context. That is why we need to start with the larger context – God’s purpose for humanity – rather than specific verses that can, at best, give only a partial picture. When thinking about the judgment, we always need to remember that God created us for a purpose, that he wants us to succeed in that purpose, that he sent Jesus to make the realization of that purpose possible, and that Jesus is the Judge. The Judge is the Gracious One who has acted in our place and on our behalf in our favor. He has already done everything necessary for us to be forgiven and renewed in our very natures so we might share in God’s own eternal life as his beloved children. He was the Judge who was judged in our place and who perfectly submitted to God’s No to all sin and evil.

Every human will face the judgment. Those who are in Christ will find their reward: “Just as people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment, so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him” (Hebrews 9:27-28).

Those trusting in him and made righteous by his redemptive work do not need to fear the 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 be rewarded; unbelievers who refuse to repent and admit their need for Christ’s mercy and grace, and the right of God to judge that which is evil, are the ungodly, and they will receive a different result: “The present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly” (2 Peter 3:7). “The Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials and to hold the unrighteous for punishment on the day of judgment” (2 Peter 2:9).

God will do something about evil – but in forgiving us, he does not just brush our evil deeds under the carpet, as if they did not matter. No, he has paid the price on our behalf to bring an end to evil and to rescue us from its power. He has suffered the consequences of our evil and overcome them. In a figure of speech, we might say that he has earned the right to forgive us. He takes evil seriously, and he knows how to remove it from us.

A day of salvation

A time will come when good and bad will be separated and evil will be no more. For some, it such a time will be when they are exposed as self-seeking, rebellious, and evil. For others, it will be a time of salvation, when they will be rescued from the evildoers, and rescued from the evil that lies within each person. “Judgment” does not necessarily mean “condemnation”! It means that the good and evil are sorted out, clearly distinguished from one another. The good is identified and separated from the evil. The evil is identified and separated from the good. The good is preserved and the evil is destroyed. Those who submit to Christ’s judgment will allow themselves to be separated from the evil within and receive new life from Christ. The evil will be sent away and condemned. So the day of judgment is also a time of salvation:

  • “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him” (John 3:17).
  • God “wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4).
  • “He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9).

God judges in Christ so that no one has to be condemned along with their sin and evil. This does not mean that everyone will come to repentance and accept God’s judgment in Christ on their behalf. Some may reject God’s judgment in Christ and his forgiveness, and they will experience condemnation along with the sin and evil they needlessly cling to, refusing to receive all the benefits of Christ’s atoning and judging death in their place and on their behalf. But repentance and salvation is God’s desire for the people he has created. He did not create them for destruction, but for living forever in love, peace, and joy. Although humans took a wrong turn into self-seeking and wickedness, God’s desire is to rescue us from our foolishness. He sent Jesus into the world to save us, not to condemn us. The last judgment is good news, not bad, since it means evil has no future.

If God did not intervene, humanity would be self-condemned to a life of wickedness, selfishness, and mutually inflicted pain. The day of judgment does not alter the outcome of what we have chosen, but rather reveals more clearly the painful results of rejecting God’s judgment and provision in Christ. The day of judgment shows good and evil diverge and those two pathways lead to eternally opposite outcomes. One leads to eternal death and the other to eternal life. For all who accept what Christ has procured for us through his submission to judgment, for us and for many others, it is a day of salvation rather than a day of condemnation. It is God’s desire that people enjoy the salvation he has provided for them in Jesus and not enter into condemnation.

In terms of legal requirements, every human being has fallen short. The law reveals nothing but condemnation for us. We were dead in our trespasses and sins, says Paul in Ephesians 2:1. But the gospel reveals life out of death—resurrection into a new and eternal life with God. This is what we were made for, and the day of judgment will be the time when our salvation is revealed and experienced in its fullness. It is good news, hope-filled news.

But there will be some surprises. God is in the business of saving sinners, of saving ungodly people out of their ungodliness (Romans 5:6-10). Jesus told the Pharisees that there would be some surprises. Citizens of several ancient cities would find more favor in the judgment than people who thought they had no need of repentance:

[Jesus] began to upbraid the cities in which most of his mighty works had been done, because they did not repent: “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works which were done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago…. It will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon in the day of judgment than for you.” (Matthew 11:20-22)

The men of Nineveh [Assyria] 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)

If the mighty works which were done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. But I say to you that it shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment than for you. (Matthew 10:15)

Jesus did not say that the people in those cities will necessarily receive their salvation.  But he did not condemn them, either. They will come out of the judgment looking better than some of the Jews of Jesus’ day. If the day of judgment has only two categories – sheep or goats – they would be among the sheep.

They would have repented if Jesus had ministered among them. Will Jesus condemn them for their failure to be born in the right time and place? This does not sound like the God who sent Jesus into the world to save it rather than condemn it. Indeed, it sounds as though Jesus has already declared them to be the sort of people who are willing to repent, rather than those who resist. They have been judged – and found acceptable. Although they did not know Jesus, his death saved them.

We do not know exactly how this works with the people of ancient Nineveh, or for the people of 15th-century Australia, or babies in Mongolia. But we trust that God will take care of them in a way that is true to his nature, true to the way that he has revealed himself to be in Jesus Christ. We see in Jesus a God who desires to save, and a God who is always fair.

We conclude that he will give everyone an opportunity to understand the gospel and to repent, and hence to enjoy salvation. When and where and how is up to him. Perhaps judgment has already been pronounced for people of the past, and the day of judgment will simply reveal what is already true about them. Perhaps there will be time for them to see the beauty of what Jesus has done for them, and for them to respond.

The Bible does not give us the details on that – it just presents God’s desire, and what Jesus did to achieve what God wants. It promises an ultimate separation of good and evil. Those who accept God’s gift get what they want, and those who do not want God’s gift will not be forced to accept it, since it cannot be forced.

We do not need to worry about people, like those in Nineveh/Assyria, who didn’t seem to have a fair chance since they had no opportunity to see what Jesus did and taught. Nor do we need to worry about people in the modern age who don’t seem to have a chance. We can trust that God will be fair working in ways we cannot imagine that exceed the boundaries of time and space by which we are naturally bound. We can be sure that the accidents of history (where and when a person was born, for example) do not thwart God’s purpose for the people he created.

Nor do we need to worry that our clumsy attempts at preaching the gospel will cause someone to be lost, who would have otherwise been saved. Our flat tire, our fear, even our failure, is not going to thwart what God wants to do. Just as we are not saved by the good things that we do, no one is going to lose out on salvation because of our weakness. Even our faithlessness cannot prevent God from being faithful.

This does not take away our responsibility to respond to what we know about what Jesus did and said, and it does not take away our responsibility to respond to Jesus’ command to go and make disciples throughout the world. God is the Savior, and we are not. We can trust him to do his work, but the question before us – our decision and our judgment – is how we respond to him. It is an opportunity to experience and participate in his working out his salvation.

The Judge in the last Judgment is Jesus Christ, who died for the people he will judge. “The Father judges no one,” said Jesus, “but has entrusted all judgment to the Son” (John 5:22). He has paid the penalty of sin for them all and has made things right. The One who judges the righteous, the unevangelized, and even the wicked, is the One who gave his life so that others might live eternally. Jesus Christ has already taken the judgment of sin and sinfulness upon himself. The picture of the merciful Judge, Jesus Christ, tells us that he wishes that all would receive eternal life — and he has provided it for all who are willing to trust him.

Those who know what Jesus has done 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 learn that the Lord has already provided 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. Those who want to live with Christ in this goodness will be able to; those who do not want to live with him, and who reject his forgiveness, grace and mercy will not be forced to.

Theologian S.C. Guthrie suggested a helpful way to think about this:

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!

This is what prophecy — including the last or eternal Judgment — is all about: the triumph of the God of love over everything that opposes his love and grace. 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’s limitless love and mercy will work in every situation, in every individual’s existence. But we do know that provision is made possible through Christ’s redemptive work, just as it is now for those who believe. If some manage to eternally reject God’s judgment and mercy in Christ and fall under the condemnation that evil brings, we know it will not be because there is a limit or fault in the mercy and grace of Jesus Christ.

 

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