One day the Lord Jesus will return with the clouds of heaven. He will take place on his throne and all people, both those who are alive at the time and those who have passed away, will be brought before him. He will judge them, declaring the innocence of some and condemning others to eternal condemnation, that is, to hell. This is the Christian understanding of the final judgement. This judgement will be the great event that finishes this stage of history. We confess it in the Apostles’ Creed as the final great work of our Lord Jesus Christ. He is—
The gracious Judge
1. He will judge the world
2. He will condemn the wicked
3. He will comfort his people
He will judge the world
Why must there be a final judgement? Because there is wickedness in the world, and our holy God will not allow that to go on forever. True peace and happiness can only fill the earth if everything is the way it should be, that is, good; and when everything that is wrong, evil, and wicked is removed. Human beings are moral agents; in other words, we have the responsibility to deliberately do good or evil. In the end, we must all face the question: are you and your actions in line with God’s good purpose for the world? If so, you may live in God’s beautiful, new world forever in peace and perfection. But if not, then you cannot stay, but you must be removed along with everything else that is wrong.
The Bible teaches this clearly. When Adam and Eve sinned and were banished from God’s presence, that was a judgement, although not the final judgement. In Noah’s time, almost all people were killed in the flood because of their wickedness; and the Bible repeatedly mentions this flood as a picture of what has to come yet. (Mat. 24:37f; 2 Pet. 2:5) The same is true for the fiery destruction of Sodom. (Is. 49:18; Luke 10:12; 2 Pet. 2:6) When the Israelites entered the Promised Land, the Lord told them to kill the Canaanites because they were such terrible sinners; this holy war could be called a “type” of the final judgement. The prophets warned God’s people for centuries that their rebellion against God invited judgement, and the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile that followed were serious examples of that judgement. When John the Baptist came to preach the arrival of the Kingdom of God, he spoke in pictures of fire and an axe at the foot of a tree, ready to chop it down. (Luke 3:7-9)
What about Jesus? He said that he had not come to condemn the world—at least, not yet. (John 3:17) He did not call fire down from heaven, even not when he was unjustly nailed to a cross. But Jesus did announce that the judgement would come. He told several parables that make this point. In one story, he talked about grain and weeds growing up together; but in the end, the grain will be harvested and the weeds will be burned: a clear picture of the judgement at the end of time. (Mat. 13:24-30) Another story talked about servants that must take care of their master’s home and business while he is on a journey. When the master comes home, he rewards the faithful servants but punishes the lazy one. (Mat. 25:14-30)
Jesus’ most explicit teaching about the final judgement is found in Mat. 25:31-46. “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goat.” All people of the world belong to either one group or another, and the Judge expertly tells them apart; there are many who must be thrown out because of their wickedness, but others will be given access to everlasting glory.
Another description of this final judgement can be found in Revelation 20:11ff. “Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. […] And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done.”
This judgement will mark the end of the history of this fallen world, and bring the Kingdom of God in all its glory. The Apostles’ Creed (and therefore the catechism) will speak about this “life everlasting” later; now the focus is on the judgement itself, and on the judge.
Who will be the judge? Often we think of God the Father as the one who judges. But the Apostles’ Creed says about Jesus Christ that he will come to judge the living and the dead. Indeed, Jesus talks in Mat. 25 about “the Son of Man” coming in glory. The judgement is also the work of God the Son, as we read in John 5:27ff: “[The Father] has given him authority to execute the judgement, because he is the Son of Man. Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgement.”
That is what we expect for the future, what we look forward to: we eagerly await Jesus Christ as judge from heaven, says the catechism. Why eagerly? Because if there is one thing the world needs, it is the removal of all that is evil, a deep-cleaning, so that all the damage done by the hostility of Satan and the sins of mankind will be undone. In fact, you might say (as Paul does in Rom. 8:19f) that the whole “creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God,” and for the lifting of the curse. That is what Jesus Christ will come to do when he returns. That is when the whole world will see what has been true all along: that he is the King of Heaven, with authority in heaven and earth, and that he decides what is right and what is wrong.
He will condemn the wicked
When we hear about “the final judgement” we tend to focus on the negative aspect: condemning wicked people for what is wrong. This is certainly an important part. Several of Jesus’ parables end with the exclusion of the unfaithful, who will be thrown out into the outer darkness or into the lake of fire. As a result of the judgement some will go to hell.
This is not a popular idea; many Christians, even famous theologians, like to downplay or simply deny this. How can you fit the condemnation of people to hell with the love and mercy of God? Doesn’t it make people fearful, rather than joyful? But it is hard to deny that the Bible teaches this. Even the New Testament insists that “it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” (Heb. 10:31)
But the condemnation of the wicked is good news. We would realise that more clearly if we were persecuted, treated badly because of our faith, bullied by the wicked world. In that kind of situation, people feel keenly that something must be done about this injustice. Someone must right this wrong! God’s promise is that justice will be served; he will deal with the persecutors and mockers and bullies, and give them their due punishment. Better yet, he will remove them completely from the world, so that we will be forever free from all this suffering.
That is why in the catechism (q&a 52), the believer says triumphantly: He will cast all his and my enemies into everlasting condemnation.
When faced with this teaching, people tend to ask two questions: Is it fair? And: Should I worry? The catechism says specifically that the Lord Jesus will condemn his enemies. He will remove those who oppose God’s rule, destroy his good creation, and deny the Kingship of Jesus. The final judgement removes the hostility and restores everything to holiness and goodness. There is nothing unfair about that.
The sad truth is that we, human beings, have become God’s enemies. Rebellion comes to us naturally; we violate the wholeness of God’s creation, sometimes unwittingly, sometimes even deliberately. We often do the bidding of God’s enemy. As long as that is the case, we ourselves are enemies of Judge Jesus, and we deserve that condemnation; we deserve hell. That is fair…
Should you worry about this? You definitely should take it seriously. Being a pretty decent person may get you somewhere in human society, but God’s standards are higher. The parable of the sheep and the goats (Mat. 25) shows the standard: if you ever fail to be loving and caring to someone in need, it is as if you mistreated the Lord Jesus himself.
In fact, as sons or daughters of Adam, rebellion to God comes so naturally to us that we should be very worried—as long as we rely on our own good behaviour. “If [God] were to mark iniquities, o Lord, who could stand?” (Ps. 130:3) If the Lord would condemn all people in the world because of their sin against his holiness, that would be fair. But—to quote John McArthur—”You don’t want fair. You want mercy.”
He will comfort his people
The great news is that the Judge is not a cold arbiter of right and wrong, but that he is no other than Jesus Christ, our Saviour and our Advocate. The catechism says it this way: he is the very same person who before has submitted himself to the judgement of God for my sake, and has removed all the curse from me.
The final judgement will not only be fair, but it will highlight the grace of God. It will show the great value of the sacrifice Jesus brought. On the cross Jesus submitted to God’s judgement, and received the condemnation that our sins deserve. If I believe in Jesus and am united with him, the guilt and curse of my sin are no longer there; he has taken them away. Jesus’ perfect righteousness is imputed to us. In the final judgement, Jesus’ innocence and obedience counts as ours. That is why believers need not be afraid of the judgement; we will be acquitted because of what Jesus did for us.
This is great comfort for all Christians. We can feel guilty over past rebellion, struggle with sinful inclinations even now; but we know that we will be judged by the Lord Jesus, who takes away the guilt. In John 5:24, Jesus goes so far as saying that people who believe in him do not even come into judgement but have passed from death to life. Whatever sin remains in us cannot stand in the way of joining Christ in heavenly joy and glory.
We have this comfort, says the catechism, in all my sorrow and persecution. I may feel terrible about my sins, how much I rebelled against God, how poorly I treated others; but with Jesus on the throne, I know that he will not hold these things against me. The world may insult, accuse, and assault me, but I know that in the end, Christ the Judge will proclaim my innocence, while my attackers will be condemned. That is why, as the catechism says, I lift up my head: not cowed, not ashamed, not afraid, but confident and happy in the knowledge that God is on my side.
As a Christian you may be certain that in the final judgement, God’s love will carry the day—God’s deep love shown in the coming of the Son Jesus Christ and his work on the cross. In spite of your imperfections and struggles you may join the glorious crowd that worships the Lord in unending happiness.
That doesn’t mean that you can be content with your imperfections. The Lord will renew the earth and remove all evil from it. We cannot expect to remain unchanged when this happens. The Lord has given us the beginning of a new life of the Spirit, and we must live it more and more, until all our thoughts and words and deeds are in line with God’s good purpose. You see that, too, in the story of Mat. 25. When Judge Jesus declares to the “sheep” that they are worthy of a place in the Kingdom of his father, they ask him: But why? What did we do? Jesus points them to acts of love that the Spirit produces in their lives, small acts of love that reflect the love of God they have received. “As you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.” (Mat. 25:40)
In the end, these attitudes of love will replace all our sinful inclinations. That is the new life the Holy Spirit gives us. It is the life that belongs and fits on the renewed earth. If that is the life you desire, then follow Jesus in faith and receive his Spirit, starting to live that new life now, in the certainty that the Judge will mercifully and lovingly give you entrance into his Kingdom.
The final judgement is necessary, because our good and holy God will not leave the earth broken the way it is now. For those who are God’s enemies and love their sinful life, it will be a terrible judgement; be warned that Judge Jesus’ uses the standards of God’s holiness and perfection. But for those who love the Lord and sincerely follow Jesus, there will really be no judgement at all. They will be given access to heavenly glory, and the Spirit of Christ will give them the perfect life of the new earth.