God’s judgment scares people, and in a sense they are right. Reverential awe and fear are appropriate. But there is a solution for them to escape a negative judgment. Ten questions and answers.
Let’s use the Question and Answer and the Outline format for clarity and conciseness.
I.. What are the different names of the final judgment?
A.. Day of Judgment
2 Pet. 2:9-10 instructs us that the Lord knows how to recue the godly from trials and to hold the unrighteous for punishment on the day of judgment, particularly those who follow the corrupt desire of the flesh and despise authority. The last clause indicates a degree of punishment for the worst offenders. The word for punishment in Greek is kolazō (pronounced koh-lah-zoh) which is used only twice in the NT (here and Acts 4:21), and it can mean “to curtail, coerce, to chastise and punish.” In any case, the name is the “day of judgment,” which speaks of finality and abruptness, not twenty-four hours (see also Matt. 12:36).
B.. Day of the Lord
1 Thess. 5:1-2 says that Paul does not need to write them about the seasons and dates because the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night. These are two great verses about not “sign-watching.” Certainly we should not obsess over signs.
C.. Day of God’s Wrath
Rom. 2:5-6 warns us that stubborn and unrepentant hearts will store up against us on the day of God’s wrath. In another post about God’s attributes, (Do I Really Know God? He Shows Wrath) God’s wrath is judicial, not malicious or vengeful or erratic. It is judicial because it is based on law. God agrees to a covenant and establishes law, whether moral law around the globe or the law of Moses for a small group of people. If people continually violate it, they will be caught and punished. That is called “wrath.”
D.. Great Day
Jude 6 that angels who did not keep their positions of authority but abandoned their dwelling or spiritual realm will be bound with chains for judgment on the “great Day.”
E.. The Day
1 Cor 3:13 teaches us in the context of believers doing good works or useless works that will be judged on “the Day.” All believers in Jesus will be saved, but those who do useless works will have those works burned off like wood, straw and stubble in the fire.
F.. That Day
2 Tim. 4:8 connects the last judgment with the phrase “that day” of Christ’s return.
II.. Who are the judges?
Ps. 96:10-13 says in the context of the LORD making heaven and earth, and how his highest creation—humankind—should worship him and the entire earth should tremble before him, the LORD will judge the people with equity. Then v. 13 says all creation should rejoice before the LORD, for he comes to judge the world in righteousness and the people in his faithfulness. God has standards (righteousness) and he is true to his covenant (faithfulness), both with humanity and the small group of Israelites who are a part of humanity and have a special covenant with him.
In Eccl. 3:17, in the context of Solomon’s discouragement, possibly because of his questionable life, he realizes that God will bring judgment on both the righteous and wicked. Every activity and deed will be judged. In the Old Covenant, righteousness will receive a better judgment. This is called relative righteousness, not perfect and flawless righteousness. It is righteousness relative to neighbors who may or may not be righteous. Think of Noah who walked before the Lord blamelessly among the people of his time and faithfully before God (Gen. 6:9). So there is such a thing of a narrow range of righteousness, depending on how people obeyed or disobeyed moral law. No one can achieve moral perfection, but they can behave righteously towards their neighbors.
1 Cor. 5:13 says that God will judge those outside the church, implying that he is doing that right now. Somehow God communicates to the open-hearted unbeliever that they should repent. The main method he uses is through believers to preach repentance.
Heb. 10:30, 12:23, and 13:4 say God will judge his people, and it is a fearful thing to fall into his hands of judgment. God will judge the adulterer and sexually immoral. The good news: everyone has the opportunity to repent, and God is quick to forgive and restore.
B.. Christ will be God’s instrument and administrator at judgment.
John 5:22 teaches that God has entrusted all judgment to the Son.
And John 5:27 repeats the theme. The Father has granted the Son authority to judge because he is the Son of Man. In Daniel 7:13-14, the Son of Man is described as coming in authority, glory and sovereign power, and his dominion will be everlasting and will not pass away. He approached the Ancient of Days (God) and was ushered into his presence. Clearly the role of the Son of Man is to have authority to judge.
Rom. 2:16 says that through Christ God will judge the secrets of people’s heart.
In Acts 10:42, in Peter’s sermon before the Gentile centurion, Cornelius, and his household, the apostle proclaimed that God appointed him to be the Messiah to the judge.
C.. Mature believers will judge the world and angels.
In 1 Cor. 6:1-4, though it is difficult to believe, Paul says we will judge the world and angels. This belief comes in the context of court cases, and God’s people should not take their lawsuits to unbelieving judges. But one basis for his order is that we will judge the world and angels in the future. Future? We don’t judge angels now in our earth-bound existence, so it has to be during the future judgment. Presumably God will use mature believers who served the Lord and whose work in the church consisted of gold and silver and precious stones, not immature believers, whose useless works had to be burned off, like wood, hay, and straw (1 Cor. 3:13-15).
Jude 6 says that angels who did not hold their own jurisdiction of authority now sit chained up in the gloom of darkness awaiting final judgment on the last day. Maybe mature believers will judge those angels.
To sum up this section, I don’t know how God will sort out the final judgment, through his Son, and with his church, but we can trust him to work it out justly.
III.. Is there more than one judgment?
A.. According to dispensationalists, there will be three judgements:
1.. Judgment of nations to decide on who will enter the millennium, based on how the nations treated Israel: “my brothers,” Jesus said (Matt. 25:31-46);
2.. The judgment of believers’ works, also called the bema seat judgment (named after the seat in the larger Greek world, where a judge or governor sat to render a verdict); believers will receive degrees of rewards. Apparently this bema seat judgment will happen in heaven for the seven years between the rapture of the church and the second coming of Christ, while humanity is going through the Great Tribulation on earth;
3.. The great white throne judgment at the end of the millennium to declare the punishments for the unredeemed (Rev. 20:11-15).
B.. According to other Bible interpreters, all three judgments are just different descriptions for one judgment.
1.. For example, in the judgment of the nations in Matt. 25:31-46, unbelieving nations can have believers in them. Individual unbelievers in each nation will go to eternal punishment and fire, prepared for the devil and his angels, while individual believers will go to eternal life (vv. 34, 41, 46). Jesus’s brothers in that passage are not Israel, but the least, the lost and the least, with whom he identifies. So these data show that Matt. 25:31-46 just refers to one judgment with the other passages, and not separate ones.
C.. My take is that dispensationalists have worked out an interesting and detailed program, but I believe there will be two judgments at the second coming:
1.. One judgment will be for the unredeemed who will be judged based on various criteria, like rejecting God’s Son and their doing good or bad works (no. 5), and then they will receive degrees of punishments;
2.. The other judgment will be for the believers who will receive rewards for good works, and the bad or fruitless works will be burned off of them in an instant (see below for the Scriptures, like nos. IV and VII).
3.. Both judgments will happen at the same final judgment, but in different venues, so to speak.
IV.. Who are to be judged?
A.. The living and the dead
In Peter’s sermon in Acts 10:42, God through Christ will judge “the living and the dead.” This means that the dead who exist in the spirit-soul (or just soul), whether in hell or heaven, will be reunited with their decomposed bodies at the second coming and face final judgment. In other words, everyone human who lived around the globe, even though the NT authors did not know about people in Australia and North or South America, will be judged. God knew about them.
In Matt. 25:31-33, Christ the Son of Man will come in his glory and sit on his glorious throne, and all the nations will be gathered before him. He will separate the people, like a shepherd separates sheep from the goats. Some teachers today tell us that they will be judged on how they treat Israel, even the least of his brothers and sisters, in other words Israelites, who were his brothers and sisters in the flesh (v. 40). However, the context teaches that anyone who is sick and in prison and without clothes are the least of his brothers and sisters; he identifies with the down-and-outers and does not limit the scope only to the nation of Israel or only to the down-and-outers in that nation. In any case, the nations will be judged, in the sense of every single individual by national identity. God is the one who marked out their times for existence in history and borders (Acts 17:26), so it is suitable that they should meet by that natural arrangement before the glorious throne.
2 Cor. 5:10 says that “we” must “all” appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one will receive what they have done while in the body, good or bad. So it looks like both believers will give an account of their actions. But they will not be eternally condemned, but they will receive rewards—not punishments.
Heb. 9:27 says that after people die, they face judgment. Incidentally, they will not be reincarnated.
In Rev. 20:11-15 is a powerful passage. John saw the great white throne and him who was seated on it—Jesus. Earth and heaven fled away from his presence—apocalyptic language that reveals intense drama. Then John saw the great and small standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, the book of life. Then the dead were judged by what they had done as recorded in the books. The sea gave up its dead, and death and Hades gave up the dead, and each person was judged by what they had done. Then Hades and death were thrown into the lake of fire, and so was everyone whose name was not written in the book of life.
V.. What are the bases or criteria of the final judgment?
A.. Faith in Jesus
John 3:16-18 teaches great concepts. God loves the world, and anyone who believes in his Son is not condemned. God did not send him into the world to condemn the world, but to save it through him. And whoever believes in him is not condemned, but anyone does not believe in him, then stands already condemned. Bottom line: In Christ is salvation; outside Christ is condemnation.
John 5:24-26 says that if we believe in the one who sent Jesus (the Father), then we have eternal life and will not be judged, but have crossed over from death to life. Then the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear shall live. The Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son to have life in himself.
B.. Personal knowledge of Jesus and doing his Father’s will
In Matt. 7:21-23, Jesus teaches a sobering truth. People can say, “Lord, Lord,” and do signs and wonders, like casting out demons and performing miracles in his name, but they cannot enter the kingdom because they were not doing his Father’s will, nor did they have a personal relationship with Jesus. “I never knew!” Jesus will tell these people.
C.. Caring for the needy
In Matt. 25:31-46, Jesus teaches that the righteous (the sheep) will take care of the sick, the hungry and thirsty, the deficiently clothed, the needy stranger, and the prisoner. They will enter the Father’s kingdom and their inheritance. Then the unrighteous (the goats) will be sent to eternal punishment because they did not do those good acts.
D.. Names written in the book of life
Rev. 20:15 says that those whose names were not written in the book of life would be cast into the lake of fire. Yet in the same passage, various books were opened, and people were judged by good and bad works. So it is unclear what the book of life is, in relation to the other books of works. But one way is certain for your name to be written in the book of life: know Jesus personally and do his will by the power of the Spirit.
E.. Obedience to the law
Rom. 2:12-16 offers us the insight that if people sin apart from the law (of Moses), they will perish. If they sin inside the law of Moses, they will likewise perish. It is not hearers of the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but those who obey will be declared righteous. Then Paul discusses Gentiles who do not have the law of Moses, but do by nature the things required by the law. The requirements of the law are written on their hearts. And their thoughts will either accuse them or defend them on the day when God will judge everyone’s secrets. God will judge Gentiles (non-Jews) by their obedience or disobedience to moral law, and he will judge Jews by their obedience to the law of Moses.
James 2:12-13 teaches us that we must act and speak as people who will be judged by the law that gives freedom. If we judge people mercilessly, we will not be shown mercy at judgment. But mercy triumphs over judgment.
F.. What is done with God’s calling
In the parable of the wise and faithful manager, the manager assigns servants tasks and responsibilities. If one servant miscalculates the time of his manager’s return, he might mistreat people. If so, he will be punished when the manager returns. Everyone who has been given much shall be demanded and required to demonstrate productive results (Luke 12:42-48).
G.. Good or bad actions
Eccl. 12:14 says straightforwardly: “For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil.” You can’t clearer than that.
1 Cor. 3:10-14 teaches the church about works that are gold, silver and precious stones and works that are wood, hay and stubble. The metal and stones will survive the fire, but the other material will not. The ones who produce good works will receive rewards, while the ones who do useless works will be saved, but the combustible material will have to be burned off.
As noted, 2 Cor. 5:10 says that everyone shall appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one will receive what they have done while in the body, good or bad.
1 Cor. 4:5 teaches that no one should judge before the right time. Let’s wait until the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and expose the motives of the heart. At judgment we will receive praise from God.
H.. Spoken (or written) words
Jesus taught in Matt. 12:36-37 that everyone would give an account on the day of judgment for every empty word people have spoken. By our words we will be acquitted or condemned.
James 3:1-12 teaches us about our tongue and words. If we can control our mouths and tongues, we will be perfect or mature. Then the tongue is compared to a bit in a horse or a rudder in a ship or a spark that starts a big fire. Can we tame the tongue as we tame animals? It is a restless evil, full of poison. How can our tongue justly praise God and curse humans? Can salt water and fresh water come out of the same spring? Can fruit trees and vines produce different fruit? We need to channel our speech in one way with one focus: good things and blessings.
I.. Inner thoughts
As noted, Rom. 2:16 says that the requirements of the law are written on the Gentiles’ hearts. And their thoughts will either accuse them or defend them on the day when God will judge everyone’s secrets.
As noted, 1 Cor. 4:5 teaches that the Lord will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and expose the motives of the heart. At judgment we will receive praise from God.
VI.. What about those who never heard the gospel?
A.. These are people who lived long before the gospel came or far outside its range.
B.. Gen. 18:22-25 answers this concern clearly:
22 The men turned away and went toward Sodom, but Abraham remained standing before the Lord.[d] 23 Then Abraham approached him and said: “Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked? 24 What if there are fifty righteous people in the city? Will you really sweep it away and not spare[e] the place for the sake of the fifty righteous people in it? 25 Far be it from you to do such a thing—to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike. Far be it from you! Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Gen. 18:22-25, NIV)
God distinguishes between those who are righteous relative to their own times, though not achieving moral perfection, like Lot and his family living in Sodom, and those who are wicked, like the people of Sodom and Gomorrah. Verse 25 is key. Yes, the God of all the earth shall do what is just.
Here is my long study on this topic:
VII.. What will be the results of the final judgment?
A.. Unbelievers will be punished
Rom. 2:5-11 teaches us that if we remain in our stubborn and unrepentant heart, we are storing up God’s wrath, which is judicial, when his righteous judgment is revealed. God will repay everyone according to their works. If people persistently seek glory, honor and immortality, he will grant eternal life. But those who are self-seeking and reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger and trouble and distress—once again for everyone who does evil, both for Jews and Gentiles. No favoritism.
1 Thess. 1:8-9 says God will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of the Lord Jesus. They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of God, when Jesus comes in glory for all the world to see.
As noted, Rev. 20:11-15 teaches that if your name is not written in the book of life and you have done wicked deeds that damage society, you will be thrown into the lake of fire.
1.. Punishing: it is called eternal, conscious torment. The unredeemed eternally and relentlessly experience conscious torment in the fires of hell. That is, Hitler and your kind and generous but unredeemed grandmother will bob up and down forever in the lake of hell, next to each other. This is the traditional view.
2.. Annihilating or extinguishing: the unredeemed, after they have been sufficiently punished in the fires of hell, will be annihilated or evaporated or caused to no longer exist. This theory is also called terminalism or conditionalism; the eternality of the soul depends only on God or is conditional only on God. The soul is not automatically eternal by virtue of being a soul. People are punished in hell for a time suitable to their good or bad deeds, but then they pass out of existence or their soul is destroyed. The ending may not be a happy one, but this theory eliminates the eternal torment. This view is gaining momentum.
3.. Restoring or saving: the unredeemed, after they have been sufficiently punished in the fires of hell for a duration suitable to their good or bad deeds, are brought into God’s presence and restored and reconciled to him. This view is also gaining momentum.
The issue of the afterlife and hell is more complicated than standard preachers believe. If you believe in eternal conscious torment, then do not call the people who believe in the other two options heretics or unorthodox. There is plenty of Scriptural support for the other two theories.
Please click on the three-part series for more information:
Yes, the second two options really have plenty of Scriptural support. (I was surprised by the Scriptures and their reasonable and logical interpretations, and I was equally surprised by how few Scripture support the first theory).
Therefore, tell people to whom you witness and who object to the first option as awful and unjust for a loving God that there are other biblical options about hell, but we must prepare for the worst-case scenario (the first one).
Better still, tell them that maybe God in his providence has not made the hellish afterlife perfectly clear in its details, as evidenced by the fact that reasonable interpreters can disagree on it, but God did make it clear how to get there—faith in Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior.
I consider the topic of hell and punishment to be a secondary issue. I like this wise statement: “in essentials, unity. in nonessentials, liberty, in all things, charity (love).”
Don’t call someone heterodox or a heretic for believing in the latter two theories.
B.. Believers will receive eternal life
John 3:16-17 says that when we believe in Jesus, we will not perish but receive eternal life.
John repeats his thesis (1 John 5:11-12). God has given us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. Whoever has the Son; whoever does not have the Son does not have life.
C.. Believers will receive ultimate salvation
Rom. 13:11 says that we need to wake up from our slumber because the hour has come, because our salvation is nearer than when we first believed. In this case salvation is the eternal state, after we shuffle off this mortal coil (body) and live in our spirits and reunite with our resurrected bodies.
As noted, Heb. 9:27-28 teaches us that after we die, we face judgment (not go through reincarnation). Then he will reappear a second time, “not to bear sin but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him.” Once again, this salvation at his second coming is a rescue mission from this evil world.
D.. Believers will receive ultimate redemption
Luke 21:28 says that when fearful signs appear, we have to look up, knowing that our redemption draws near. This too is the rescue mission from this present evil age. Then we will have perfect bodies and mental states and perfect love.
Eph. 4:30 instructs us not to grieve the Spirit, by whom we have been sealed for the day of redemption. This is the same idea here as in the previous verse. Redemption is in process now and will climax and finalize when Jesus returns.
E.. Believers will receive a crown of righteousness
Paul wrote in 2 Tim. 4:8 that he is about to end his life, which “the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.”
F.. Believers will receive rewards (1 Cor. 3:10-15).
As noted, if they have built on the foundation that the apostles laid, with gold, silver and precious stones, they will receive rewards. But if they built with wood, hay and straw, then their flammable works will be burned off, but they themselves will be saved.
VIII.. How will the rewards be distributed to the redeemed, and yet all of them will still be happy, without regrets?
We don’t know for sure, but here are some guesses.
A.. One analogy from theologians:
The final judgment and distribution of rewards could be like high school graduation. Everyone knows that some students got better grades than others, particularly the Valedictorian, but everyone will be so happy to be in heaven that the lower-grade students will not feel badly. “We made it!” They will even celebrate the ones who advanced farther than they did.
B.. Another analogy
Professional musicians appreciate music more deeply than unmusical people (think of Mozart or Beethoven against you and me!), but unmusical listeners can still appreciate it. Likewise, those who receive rewards because of their good works and devotion to the Lord down here on earth will appreciate heaven more deeply than others who had to get the combustible material burned off (1 Cor. 3:10-15). But everyone will have some level of appreciation, and we may never know who the deeper ones will be.
C.. Tears that are turned to joy
Still other teachers say that there will be tears in heaven at judgment, and the immature believers who wasted their efforts will shed some tears during the burning off process (1 Cor. 3:10-15), and then God will wipe away tears.
D.. Consider the martyrs
I imagine that in heaven the recipients of high rewards will be visible to all, just like the Valedictorian at a high school graduation will stand in front and be honored, and so do those who make an honored list for receiving extra-high Grade Point Averages (GPA’s). Think of the martyrs who remained faithful, even to the point of death. They seem to make up an honored group in heaven (Rev. 6:9-11). We will admire them without jealousy. “They deserve their special honor,” we will say.
And so it will be when we look on those who have done awesome works for the Lord, like a grandmother who spent her life caring and sharing and praying for people, without recognition while she was alive or missionaries who spent fifty years out on the field with little to no earthly or ecclesiastic honors.
I like the idea that we will be so grateful to be there that we will want to honor those who receive rewards, and our regrets will either be minimal or nonexistent.
IX.. What should our attitude be before judgment?
A.. We must stand firm
Mark 11:13 says we must stand firm during trials, and then we shall be saved (Matt. 24:13; Luke 21:19)
B.. Believers must be on their guard
Mark 13:23 and 33 says it plainly: be watchful because we do not know the day or hour when he comes. Then Jesus tells a short parable about a man going away. He assigns his servants in charge, each with their assigned task and tells the one who watches the door to keep watch. Therefore we must keep watch because we don’t know when the homeowner shall return: evening, midnight or when the rooster crows or at dawn. Don’t slumber or sleep. “Watch!”
In 1 Thess. 5:5-6 repeats the same theme of sleeping and keeping alert and sober. Those who sleep and get drunk do so at night, but not us. We must remain sober and alert.
C.. We must keep alert
Matt. 25:13 is clear: “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or hour” of Christ’s return, when he will judge the whole planet.
X.. When will the day of judgment come?
A.. It is unknown
Matt. 24:26-42 says that the Son of Man’s coming will be like a flash of lightning visible from the east and west, and the Son of Man will come on the clouds of glory, sending angels with a loud trumpet call, to gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the earth to the other. We need to keep watch because no one knows the time of his coming, but he will come as a thief in the night. He will come at an hour when we don’t expect him.
Luke 12:40 teaches us the same thing. The Son of Man will come at a time we least expect him.
As noted, 1 Thess. 5:1-3 says Paul does not need to write about the signs that happen before the Lord’s second coming because no one knows when it is.
In those verses, we learn that the day of judgment is linked to Christ’s second coming, and we don’t know when that day or hour is. So watch!
So how does this post help me grow in my knowledge of Christ?
We don’t know when the day or hour of his return and judgment will happen. And somehow good and bad works must be factored into God’s righteous judgment. We are not saved by works, but we will receive rewards for good ones. The best guarantee is to be sure your name is written in the book of life by following Jesus, who will lead you to do his works, which are always good and needed and appears in the right context. As Martin Luther said: “God does not need my good works. My neighbor does.” But seek the Lord for his specific works that he calls you to do. If we perform miracles in his name but do not do the will of the Father and have a personal relationship with Jesus, he will tell us that he never knew us (Matt. 7:21-23).
God wants a personal relationship with us. He offers it to us.
Let’s talk about the scary word “wrath.” It is judicial and logical. It is not malicious or spiteful or vengeful or irrational. It is logical and reasonable because it is based on law. God’s wrath is legal. When people consistently break the law through crime and sin, they must be caught and punished. This punishment is called “wrath.”
Let’s end with these images of God’s judgment and wrath, one inaccurate, the other accurate:
God’s judgment is not like this:
But like this:
This picture of an English judge in full regalia is an (imperfect) representation of God in judgment, showing his protective wrath and love over his people.
At that link, look for NIV Study Bible