IV. The Final Judgment

Another one of the important concomitants of the return of Christ is the last judgment, which will be of & general nature. The Lord is coming again for the very purpose of judging the living and consigning each individual to his eternal destiny.

A. THE DOCTRINE OF THE LAST JUDGMENT IN HISTORY.

The doctrine of a final general judgment was from the very earliest times of the Christian era connected with that of the resurrection of the dead. The general opinion was that the dead would be raised up, in order to be judged according to the deeds done in the body. As a solemn warning the certainty of this judgment was stressed. This doctrine is already contained in the Apostolic Confession: “From thence He shall come to judge the living and the dead.” The prevailing idea was that this judgment would be accompanied with the destruction of the world. On the whole the early Church Fathers did not speculate much about the nature of the final judgment, though Tertullian forms an exception. Augustine sought to interpret some of the figurative statements of Scripture respecting the judgment. In the Middle Ages the Scholastics discussed the matter in greater detail. They, too, believed that the resurrection of the dead would be followed immediately by the general judgment, and that this would mark the end of time for man. It will be general in the sense that all rational creatures will appear in it, and that it will bring a general revelation of each one’s deeds, both good and evil. Christ will be the Judge, while others will be associated with Him in the judgment; not, however, as judges in the strict sense of the word. Immediately after the judgment there will be a universal conflagration. We leave out of consideration some of the other particulars here. The Reformers shared this view in general, but added little or nothing to the prevailing view. The same view is found in all the Protestant Confessions, which explicitly affirm that there will be a day of judgment at the end of the world, but do not enter into details. It has been the official view of the Churches up to the present time. This does not mean that no other views found expression. Kant inferred from the categorical imperative the existence of a supreme Judge who would right all wrongs in some future life. Schelling in his famous dictum, “The history of the world is the judgment of the world,” evidently regarded the judgment merely as a present immanent process. Some were not inclined to grant the moral constitution of the universe, did not believe that history was moving on to some moral termination, and thus denied the future judgment. This idea was given a philosophical construction by Von Hartmann. In modern liberal theology, with its emphasis on the fact that God is immanent in all the processes of history, there is a strong tendency to regard the judgment primarily, if not exclusively, as a present immanent process. Says Beckwith: “In his (God’s) dealing with men there is no holding in abeyance, no suspension of any attribute of his being. The judgment is, therefore, no more truly future than it is present. So far as God is the author of it, it is as constant and perpetual as his action in human life. To postpone the judgment to a future public hour is to misconceive of justice, as if it were dormant or suspended, wholly bound up with outward conditions. On the contrary the sphere of justice must be sought not first without but within, in the inner life, in the world of consciousness.”[Realities of Christian Theology, pp. 362 f.] Dispensationalists believe whole-heartedly in the future judgment, but speak of judgments in the plural. According to them there will be one judgment at the parousia, another at the revelation of Christ, and still another at the end of the world.

B. THE NATURE OF THE FINAL JUDGMENT.

The final judgment of which the Bible speaks may not be regarded as a spiritual, invisible and endless process, which is identical with God’s providence in history. This is not equivalent to a denial of the fact that there is a providential judgment of God in the vicissitudes of individuals and nations, though it may not always be recognized as such. The Bible clearly teaches us that God even in the present life visits evil with punishment and rewards the good with blessings, and these punishments and rewards are in some cases positive, but in other instances appear as the natural providential results of the evil committed or of the good done, Deut. 9:5; Ps. 9:16; 37:28; 59:13; Prov. 11:5; 14:11; Isa. 32:16,17; Lam. 5:7. The human conscience also testifies to this fact. But it is also manifest from Scripture that the judgments of God in the present are not final. The evil sometimes continues without due punishment, and the good is not always rewarded with the promised blessings in this life. The wicked in the days of Malachi were emboldened to cry out, “Where is the God of judgment?” Mal. 2:17. The complaint was heard in those days: “It is vain to serve God; and what profit is it that we have kept His charge, and that we have walked mournfully before Jehovah of Hosts? And now we call the proud happy; yea, they that work wickedness are built up; yea, they tempt God and escape,” Mal. 3:14,15. Job and his friends were wrestling with the problem of the sufferings of the righteous, and so was Asaph in the 73rd Psalm. The Bible teaches us to look forward to a final judgment as the decisive answer of God to all such questions, as the solution of all such problems, and as the removal of all the apparent discrepancies of the present, Matt. 25:31-46; John 5:27-29; Acts 25:24; Rom. 2:5-11; Heb. 9:27; 10:27; II Pet. 3:7; Rev. 20:11-15. These passages do not refer to a process, but to a very definite event at the end of time. It is represented as accompanied by other historical events, such as the coming of Jesus Christ, the resurrection of the dead, and the renewal of heaven and earth.

C. ERRONEOUS VIEWS RESPECTING THE JUDGMENT.

1. THE JUDGMENT PURELY METAPHORICAL. According to Schleiermacher and many other German scholars the Biblical descriptions of the last judgment are to be understood as symbolical indications of the fact that the world and the Church will finally be separated. This explanation serves to evaporate the whole idea of a forensic judgment for the public determination of the final state of man. It is an explanation which surely does not do justice to the strong statements of Scripture respecting the future judgment as a formal, public, and final declaration.

2. THE JUDGMENT EXCLUSIVELY IMMANENT. Schelling’s dictum that “the history of the world is the judgment of the world” undoubtedly contains an element of truth. There are, as was pointed out in the preceding, manifestations of the retributive justice of God in the history of nations and individuals. The rewards or punishments may be of a positive character, or may be the natural result of the good or evil done. But when many liberal scholars claim that the divine judgment is wholly immanent and is determined entirely by the moral order of the world, they certainly fail to do justice to the representations of Scripture. Their view of the judgment as “self-acting” makes God an otiose God, who merely looks on and approves of the distribution of rewards and punishments. It completely destroys the idea of the judgment as an outward and visible event, which will occur at some definite time in the future. Moreover, it cannot satisfy the longings of the human heart for perfect justice. Historical judgments are always only partial and sometimes impress men as a travesty on justice. There always has been and still is occasion for the perplexity of Job and Asaph.

3. THE JUDGMENT NOT A SINGLE EVENT. Present day Premillenarians speak of three different future judgments. They distinguish: (a) A judgment of the risen and living saints at the parousia or the coming of the Lord, which serves the purpose of vindicating the saints publicly, rewarding each one according to his works, and assigning to them their respective places in the coming millennial kingdom. (b) A judgment at the revelation of Christ (the day of the Lord), immediately after the great tribulation, in which, according to the prevailing view, the Gentile nations are judged as nations, according to the attitude they have assumed to the evangelizing remnant of Israel (the least of the brethren of the Lord). The entrance of these nations into the kingdom depends on the outcome. This is the judgment mentioned in Matt. 25:31-46. It is separated from the earlier judgment by a period of seven years. (c) A judgment of the wicked dead before the great white throne, described in Rev. 20:11-15. The dead are judged according to their works, and these determine the degree of punishment which they will receive. This judgment will be more than a thousand years later than the preceding one. It should be noted, however, that the Bible always speaks of the future judgment as a single event. It teaches us to look forward, not to days, but to the day of judgment, John 5:28,29; Acts 17:31; II Pet. 3:7, also called “that day,” Matt. 7:22; II Tim. 4:8, and “the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God,” Rom. 2:5. Premillenarians feel the force of this argument, for they reply that it may be a day of a thousand years. Moreover, there are passages of Scripture from which it is abundantly evident that the righteous and the wicked appear in judgment together for a final separation, Matt. 7:22,23; 25:31-46 Rom. 2:5-7; Rev. 11:18; 20:11-15. Furthermore, it should be noted that the judgment of the wicked is represented as a concomitant of the parousia and also of the revelation, II Thess. 1:7-10; II Pet. 3:4-7. And, finally, it should be borne in mind that God does not judge the nations as nations where eternal issues are at stake, but only individuals; and that a final separation of the righteous and the wicked cannot possibly be made until the end of the world. It is hard to see how anyone can give a tolerable and self-consistent interpretation of Matt. 25:31-46, except on the supposition that the judgment referred to is the universal judgment of all men, and that they are judged, not as nations, but as individuals. Even Meyer and Alford who are themselves Premillenarians consider this to be the only tenable exposition.

4. THE FINAL JUDGMENT UNNECESSARY. Some regard the final judgment as entirely unnecessary, because each man’s destiny is determined at the time of his death. If a man fell asleep in Jesus, he is saved; and if he died in his sins, he is lost. Since the matter is settled, no further judicial inquiry is necessary, and therefore such a final judgment is quite superfluous. But the certainty of the future judgment does not depend on our conception of its necessity. God clearly teaches us in His Word that there will be a final judgment, and that settles the matter for all those who recognize the Bible as the final standard of faith. Moreover, the underlying assumption on which this argument proceeds, namely, that the final judgment is for the purpose of ascertaining what should be the future state of man, is entirely erroneous. It will serve the purpose rather of displaying 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. Moreover, it should be borne in mind that the judgment at the last day will differ from that at the death of each individual in more than one respect. It will not be secret, but public; it will not pertain to the soul only, but also to the body; it will not have reference to a single individual, but to all men.

D. THE JUDGE AND HIS ASSISTANTS.

Naturally, the final judgment, like all God’s opera ad extra, is a work of the triune God, but Scripture ascribes it particularly to Christ. Christ in His mediatorial capacity will be the future Judge, Matt. 25:31,32; John 5:27; Acts 10:42; 17:31; Phil. 2:10; II Tim. 4:1. Such passages as Matt. 28:18; John 5:27; Phil. 2:9,10, make it abundantly evident that the honor of judging the living and the dead was conferred on Christ as Mediator in reward for His atoning work and as a part of His exaltation. This may be regarded as one of the crowning honors of His kingship. In His capacity as Judge, too, Christ is saving His people to the uttermost: He completes their redemption, justifies them publicly, and removes the last consequences of sin. From such passages as Matt. 13:41,42; 24:31; 25:31, it may be inferred that the angels will assist Him in this great work. Evidently, the saints will in some sense sit and judge with Christ, Ps. 149:5-9; I Cor. 6:2,3; Rev. 20:4. It is hard to say just what this will involve. It has been interpreted to mean that the saints will condemn the world by their faith, just as the Ninevites would have condemned the unbelieving cities of Jesus’ day; or that they will merely concur in the judgment of Christ. But the argument of Paul in I Cor. 6:2,3 would seem to require something more than this, for neither of the two suggested interpretations would prove that the Corinthians were capable of judging the matters that arose in the Church. Though the saints cannot be expected to know all those who appear in judgment and to apportion the penalties, yet they will have some real active share in the judgment of Christ, though it is impossible to say just what this will be.

E. THE PARTIES THAT WILL BE JUDGED.

Scripture contains clear indications of at least two parties that will be judged. It is quite evident that the fallen angels will stand before the tribunal of God, Matt. 8:29; I Cor. 6:3; II Pet. 2:4; Jude 6. Satan and his demons will meet their final doom in the day of judgment. It is also perfectly clear that every individual of the human race will have to appear before the judgment seat, Eccl. 12:14; Ps. 50:4-6; Matt. 12:36,37; 25:32; Rom. 14:10; II Cor. 5:10; Rev. 20:12. These passages certainly leave no room for the view of the Pelagians and of those who follow in their wake, that the final judgment will be limited to those who have enjoyed the privileges of the gospel. Neither do they favor the idea of those sectarians who hold that the righteous will not be called into judgment. When Jesus says in John 5:24, “Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that heareth my word and believeth Him that sent me, hath everlasting life, and cometh not into judgment, but hath passed out of death into life,” he clearly means in view of the context, that the believer cometh not into condemnatory judgment. But it is sometimes objected that the sins of believers, which are pardoned, certainly will not be published at that time; but Scripture leads us to expect that they will be, though they will, of course, be revealed as pardoned sins. Men will be judged for “every idle word,” Matt. 12:36, and for “every secret thing,” Rom. 2:16; I Cor. 4:5, and there is no indication whatsoever that this will be limited to the wicked. Moreover, it is perfectly evident from such passages as Matt. 13:30,40-43,49; 25:14-23,34-40,46, that the righteous will appear before the judgment seat of Christ. It is more difficult to determine, whether the good angels will be subject to the final judgment in any sense of the word. Dr. Bavinck is inclined to infer from I Cor. 6:3 that they will be; but this passage does not prove the point. It might do this, if the word aggelous were preceded by the article, which is not the case. We simply read, “Know ye not that we shall judge angels?” Because of the uncertainty connected with this matter, it is better to be silent. The more so, since the angels are clearly represented only as ministers of Christ in connection with the work of judgment, Matt. 13:30,41; 25:31; II Thess. 1:7,8.

F. THE TIME OF THE JUDGMENT.

Though the time of the future judgment cannot be determined absolutely, it can be fixed relatively, that is, relative to other eschatological events. It will clearly be at the end of the present world, for it will be a judgment passed on the whole life of every man, Matt. 13:40-43; II Pet. 3:7. Moreover, it will be a concomitant of the coming (parousia) of Jesus Christ, Matt. 25:19-46; II Thess. 1:7-10; II Pet. 3:9,10, and will follow immediately after the resurrection of the dead, Dan. 12:2; John 5:28,29; Rev. 20:12,13. The question whether it will immediately precede, be coincident with, or immediately follow, the renewal of heaven and earth, cannot be settled conclusively on the basis of Scripture. Rev. 20:11 would seem to indicate that the transformation of the universe will take place when the judgment begins; II Pet. 3:7, that the two will synchronize; and Rev. 21:1, that the renewal of heaven and earth will follow the judgment. We can only speak of them in a general way as concomitants. It is equally impossible to determine the exact duration of the judgment. Scripture speaks of “the day of judgment,” Matt. 11:22; 12:36, “that day,” Matt. 7:22; II Thess. 1:10; II Tim. 1:12, and “the day of wrath,” Rom. 2:5; Rev. 11:8. We need not infer from these and similar passages that it will be a day of exactly twenty-four hours, since the word “day” is also used in a more indefinite sense in Scripture. On the other hand, however, the interpretation of some of the Premillenarians, that it is a designation of the whole millennial period, cannot be regarded as a plausible one. When the word “day” is used to denote a period, it is a period which is, as a whole, characterized by some special characteristic, usually indicated by the genitive that follows the word. Thus “the day of trouble” is the period that is characterized throughout by trouble, and “the day of salvation” is the period which is in its entirety noted for its outstanding display of God’s favour or grace. And it certainly cannot be said that the millennial period of the Premillenarians, while beginning and ending with a judgment, is throughout a period of judgment. It is rather a period of joy, of righteousness and of peace. The outstanding characteristic of it is certainly not that of judgment.

G. THE STANDARD OF JUDGMENT.

The standard by which saints and sinners are judged will evidently be the revealed will of God. This is not the same for all. Some have been privileged above others, and this naturally adds to their responsibility, Matt. 11:21-24: Rom. 2:12-16. This does not mean that there will be different conditions of salvation for different classes of people. 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. But there will be different degrees, both of the bliss of heaven and of the punishment of hell. And these degrees will be determined by what is done in the flesh, Matt. 11:22,24; Luke 12:47,48; 20:47; Dan. 12:3; II Cor. 9-6. The Gentiles will be judged by the law of nature, inscribed in their hearts, the Israelites of the old dispensation by the Old Testament revelation and by that only, and those who have enjoyed, besides the light of nature and the revelation of the Old Testament, the light of the gospel, will be judged according to the greater light which they have received. God will give to every man his due.

H. THE DIFFERENT PARTS OF THE JUDGMENT.

Here we should distinguish:

1. THE COGNITIO CAUSAE. God will take cognizance of the state of affairs, of the whole past life of man, including even the thoughts and secret intents of the heart. This is symbolically represented in Scripture as the opening of the books, Dan. 7:10; Rev. 20:12. The pious of the days of Malachi spoke of a book of remembrance written before God, Mal. 3:16. It is a figurative description which is added to complete the idea of the judgment. A judge usually has the book of the law and the record of those who appear before him. In all probability the figure in this case simply refers to the omniscience of God. Some speak of the book of God’s Word as the statute book, and of the book of remembrance as the book of predestination, God’s private record. But it is very doubtful whether we should particularize in that fashion.

2. THE SENTENTIAE PROMULGATIO. There will be promulgation of the sentence. The day of judgment is the day of wrath, and of the revelation of the righteous judgment of God, Rom. 2:5. All must be revealed before the tribunal of the supreme Judge, II Cor. 5:10. The sense of justice demands this. The sentence pronounced upon each person will not be secret, will not be known to that person only, but will be publicly proclaimed, so that at least those in any way concerned will know. Thus the righteousness and grace of God will shine out in all their splendor.

3. THE SENTENTIAE EXECUTIO. The sentence of the righteous will convey everlasting blessedness, and that of the wicked everlasting misery. The Judge will divide mankind into two parts, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, Matt. 25:32 ff. In view of what will be said of their final state in the following chapter, nothing more need be added here.