The last judgment determines, and therefore naturally leads on to, the final state of those who appear before the judgment seat. Their final state is either one of everlasting misery or one of eternal blessedness.
A. THE FINAL STATE OF THE WICKED.
There are especially three points that call for consideration here:
1. THE PLACE TO WHICH THE WICKED ARE CONSIGNED. In present day theology there is an evident tendency in some circles to rule out the idea of eternal punishment. The Annihilationists, which are still represented in such sects as Adventism and Millennial Dawnism, and the advocates of conditional immortality, deny the continued existence of the wicked, and thereby render a place of eternal punishment unnecessary. In modern liberal theology the word “hell” is generally regarded as a figurative designation of a purely subjective condition, in which men may find themselves even while on earth, and which may become permanent in the future. But these interpretations certainly do not do justice to the data of Scripture. There can be no reasonable doubt as to the fact that the Bible teaches the continued existence of the wicked, Matt. 24:5; 25:30,46; Luke 16:19-31. Moreover, in connection with the subject of “hell” the Bible certainly uses local terms right along. It calls the place of torment gehenna, a name derived from the Hebrew ge (land, or valley) and hinnom or beney hinnom, that is, Hinnom or sons of Hinnom. This name was originally applied to a valley southwest of Jerusalem. It was the place where wicked idolators sacrificed their children to Moloch by causing them to pass through the fire. Hence it was considered impure and was called in later days “the valley of tophet (spittle), as an utterly despised region. Fires were constantly burning there to consume the offal of Jerusalem. As a result it became a symbol of the place of eternal torment. Matt. 18:9 speaks of ten geennan tou puros, the gehenna of fire, and this strong expression is used synonymously with to pur to aionion, the eternal fire, in the previous verse. The Bible also speaks of a “furnace of fire,” Matt. 13:42, and of a “lake of fire,” Rev. 20:14,15, which forms a contrast with the “sea of glass like unto crystal,” Rev. 4:6. The terms “prison,” I Pet. 3:19, “abyss,” Luke 8:31, and “tartarus,” II Pet. 2:4 are also used. From the fact that the preceding terms are all local designations, we may infer that hell is a place. Moreover, local expressions are generally used in connection with it. Scripture speaks of those who are excluded from heaven as being “outside,” and as being “cast into hell.” The description in Luke 16:19-31 is certainly altogether local.
2. THE STATE IN WHICH THEY WILL CONTINUE THEIR EXISTENCE. It is impossible to determine precisely what will constitute the eternal punishment of the wicked, and it behooves us to speak very cautiously on the subject. Positively, it may be said to consist in (a) a total absence of the favor of God; (b) an endless disturbance of life as a result of the complete domination of sin; (c) positive pains and sufferings in body and soul; and (d) such subjective punishments as pangs of conscience, anguish, despair, weeping, and gnashing of teeth, Matt. 8:12; 13:50; Mark 9:43,44,47,48; Luke 16:23,28; Rev. 14:10; 21:8. Evidently, there will be degrees in the punishment of the wicked. This follows from such passages as Matt. 11:22,24; Luke 12:47,48; 20:17. Their punishment will be commensurate with their sinning against the light which they had received. But it will, nevertheless, be eternal punishment for all of them. This is plainly stated in Scripture, Matt. 18:8; II Thess. 1:9; Rev. 14:11; 20:10. Some deny that there will be a literal fire, because this could not affect spirits like Satan and his demons. But how do we know this? Our body certainly works on our soul in some mysterious way. There will be some positive punishment corresponding to our bodies. It is undoubtedly true, however, that a great deal of the language concerning heaven and hell must be understood figuratively.
3. THE DURATION OF THEIR PUNISHMENT. The question of the eternity of the future punishment deserves more special consideration, however, because it is frequently denied. It is said that the words used in Scripture for “everlasting” and “eternal” may simply denote an “age” or a “dispensation,” or any other long period of time. Now it cannot be doubted that they are so used in some passages, but this does not prove that they always have that limited meaning. It is not the literal meaning of these terms. Whenever they are so used, they are used figuratively, and in such cases their figurative use is generally quite evident from the connection. Moreover, there are positive reasons for thinking that these words do not have that limited meaning in the passages to which we referred. (a) In Matt. 25:46 the same word describes the duration of both, the bliss of the saints and the penalty of the wicked. If the latter is not, properly speaking, unending, neither is the former; and yet many of those who doubt eternal punishment, do not doubt everlasting bliss. (b) Other expressions are used which cannot be set aside by the consideration mentioned in the preceding. The fire of hell is called an “unquenchable fire,” Mark 9:43; and it is said of the wicked that “their worm dieth not,” Mark 9:48. Moreover, the gulf that will separate saints and sinners in the future is said to be fixed and impassable, Luke 16:26.
B. THE FINAL STATE OF THE RIGHTEOUS.
1. THE NEW CREATION. The final state of believers will be preceded by the passing of the present world and the appearance of a new creation. Matt. 19:28 speaks of “the regeneration,” and Acts 3:21, of “the restoration of all things.” In Heb. 12:27 we read: “And this word, Yet once more signifieth the removing of those things that are shaken (heaven and earth), as of things that are made, that those things which are not shaken (the kingdom of God) may remain.” Peter says: “But according to His promise, we look for new heavens and a new earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness,” II Pet. 3:13, cf. vs. 12; and John saw this new creation in a vision, Rev. 21:1. It is only after the new creation has been established, that the new Jerusalem descends out of heaven from God, that the tabernacle of God is pitched among men, and that the righteous enter upon their eternal joy. The question is often raised, whether this will be an entirely new creation, or a renewal of the present creation. Lutheran theologians strongly favor the former position with an appeal to II Pet. 3:7-13; Rev. 20:11; and 21:1; while Reformed theologians prefer the latter idea, and find support for it in Ps. 102:26,27; (Heb. 1:10-12); and Heb. 12:26-28.
2. THE ETERNAL ABODE OF THE RIGHTEOUS. Many conceive of heaven also as a subjective condition, which men may enjoy in the present and which in the way of righteousness will naturally become permanent in the future. But here, too, it must be said that Scripture clearly presents heaven as a place. Christ ascended to heaven, which can only mean that He went from one place to another. It is described as the house of our Father with many mansions, John 14:1, and this description would hardly fit a condition. Moreover, believers are said to be within, while unbelievers are without, Matt. 22:12,13; 25:10-12. Scripture gives us reasons to believe that the righteous will not only inherit heaven, but the entire new creation, Matt. 5:5; Rev. 21:1-3.
3. THE NATURE OF THEIR REWARD. The reward of the righteous is described as eternal life, that is, not merely an endless life, but life in all its fulness, without any of the imperfections and disturbances of the present, Matt. 25:46; Rom. 2:7. The fulness of this life is enjoyed in communion with God, which is really the essence of eternal life, Rev. 21:3. They will see God in Jesus Christ face to face, will find full satisfaction in Him, will rejoice in Him, and will glorify Him. We should not think of the joys of heaven, however, as exclusively spiritual. There will be something corresponding to the body. There will be recognition and social intercourse on an elevated plane. It is also evident from Scripture that there will be degrees in the bliss of heaven, Dan. 12:3; II Cor. 9:6. Our good works will be the measure of our gracious reward, though they do not merit it. Notwithstanding this, however, the joy of each individual will be perfect and full.
QUESTIONS FOR FURTHER STUDY: Why does the moral sense of mankind demand a future judgment? To what historical precursors of the final judgment does Scripture refer? Where will the final judgment take place? What encouragement is there for believers in the fact that Christ will be the Judge? Does not the expression that he who believes on the Son “shall not come into condemnation,” John 5:24, prove that believers will not be judged? What works will come into consideration in the final judgment according to Scripture? If all believers inherit eternal life, in what sense is their reward determined by their works? Does the judgment serve the purpose of acquainting God better with men? What purpose does it serve? Will men be finally lost only for the sin of consciously rejecting Christ?
LITERATURE: Bavinck, Geref. Dogm. IV, pp. 777-815; Kuyper, Dict. Dogm., De Consummatione Saeculi, pp. 280-327; Vos, Geref. Dogm., Eschatologie pp. 32-50; Hodge. Syst. Theol. III, pp. 844-880; Shedd, Dogm. Theol. II, pp. 659-754; ibid., Doctrine of Endless Punishment; Dabney, Syst. and Polem. Theol., pp. 842-862; Litton, Introd. to Dogm. Theol., pp. 581-595; Beckwith, Realities of Chr. Theol., pp. 361-382; Drummond, Studies in Chr. Doct., pp. 505-514; Macintosh, Theol. as an Empirical Science, pp. 205-215; Dahle, Life After Death, pp. 418-455; Mackintosh, Immortality and the Future, pp. 180-194; 229-244; King, Future Retribution; Hovey, Biblical Eschatology, pp. 145-175; Von Huegel, Eternal Life; Alger, History of the Doctrine of a Future Life, pp. 394-449, 508-549, 567-724; Schilder. Wat is de Hemel; Vos, The Pauline Eschatology, pp. 261-316; Kliefoth, Eschatologie, pp. 275-351.