The third time he said to him, "Simon son of John, do you love me?"
Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, "Do you love me?" He said, "Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you."
Jesus said, "Feed my sheep."
March 31, 2007
The Question of the Last Judgment
It's interesting. When you work in the church, people think you actually know some things about Christianity, and they come to you with their questions about God. Some of the time I am able to speak to a topic off the top of my head. But other times, a question is so deep, so important to life, and so seldom asked that I pause. My “I don't want to preach heresy” alarm goes off. And so before I answer, I take some time to think about the question myself. I go back to the books I bought in seminary and see what the consensus is before I engage the question—and more importantly the person and life situation behind it.
Such was the case recently when someone asked me about the Last Judgment—that big “Day of the Lord” at the end of time when everything as we know it comes to an end and the new heaven and earth are ushered in.
They wanted to know, was everyone judged, or did Christians somehow escape judgment because of their relationship with Christ? And if so, what about those verses that assure us we will all be judged according to our deeds?
I'd never really sorted out the “how it worked “ before. I'd always taken the personal position that I had placed my faith in Christ, I'd tried to live my best for him, and in the end, those two things would get me through the final judgment. I was completely dependent on Jesus both for the fairness of the judging and the covering of grace he had given me.
But now, here was this question. I realized that what was adequate for me as a devout follower of Christ, this trust that I was totally on board with Jesus and that Jesus also had my back, might not wash with someone who perhaps was not yet a believer. Or who was, but had not really traded their will for Jesus' will. Or someone who had friends or relatives who didn't know Christ. The possibilities were many, and I wanted to sort out the “mechanics” of the last judgment so I could speak to others.
What follows is the best of what I've gleaned from The People Who Think about These Things for a Living—biblical theologians. My sources are the excellent InterVarsity Press references, Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, and Dictionary of the Later New Testament.
What did Jesus say?
Jesus speaks of a judgment of all people on the “day” when the Son of man comes to establish his kingdom in its fullness (Mt 7:22; Lk 17:30-35). God is the judge (Mt 10:28). Jesus' own role at the judgment is sometimes that of witness for or against the person judged (Mt 10:32-33), but sometimes he also is the judge (Mt 7:21-23; 16:27).
The judgment involves a division between two kinds of people –“sons of the kingdom” and “sons of the evil one” (Mt 13:38), “wise” and “foolish” (Mt 7:24-27), “sheep” and “goats” (Mt 25:31-46), those who “enter into life” and those who are “thrown into hell” (Mk 9:42-48).
Jesus maintains the Jewish emphasis on judgment according to works (Mt 7:21-23; 12:36-37; 25:31-46). He provides examples of particular kinds of deeds which will seal a person's condemnation–e.g., causing “little ones” to sin (Mk 9:42), lack of care for the poor (Lk 16:19-31; Mt 25:31-46), failure to forgive (Mt 18:21-35), being judgmental toward others (Mt 7:1-2). In some judgment sayings, works are bound up with relationship or response to Jesus. In Matthew 25:31-46 care for the needy (or lack of it) is taken as evidence of people's reaction to Jesus. Other sayings declare that reaction to Jesus will be the key criterion at the judgment. (Lk 12:8-9; cf. Mk 8:38; Lk 10:8-16; 11:29-32).
The outcome of judgment will be expressed in terms of relationship to Jesus or to God. It will involve acceptance into fellowship with God or rejection from that fellowship. Those who do not know him–who are not in genuine, obedient relationship to him–now, will not know him then. Those excluded from God's kingdom will “weep and gnash their teeth” (Mt 13:42, 50; Lk 13:28). The relationship chosen by people when confronted by the message of God's kingdom will be confirmed at the final judgment. When the language of judgment according to works is used, the character of the works is understood as evidence of a person's relationship to God, or as showing whether the basic direction of one's life is toward him or away from him. Human destinies are not rewards or punishments imposed from outside, but the inherent outcome of the choices people make (Mt 7:13-14). The verdict of the last judgment is a ratification of the life or death which people already experience because of their reaction to Christ.
What does the rest of the New Testament teach?
The coming day of judgment is integral to the gospel, and to the comfort, warning and call to perseverance which proceeds from it. Christ himself shall judge each one according to his or her deeds. The eternal destiny of each person shall be determined in this judgment.
The expectation of a final judgment not only motivated the apostolic mission and witness of the earliest church but is basic to all instruction, exhortation and comfort in the New Testament. The expectation of a final judgment alone does not adequately describe the NT writings. They bear as their central message the conviction that God through Christ has provided forgiveness and salvation at the final judgment (e.g., Acts 20:32; Heb 7:23–28; Jas 1:18; 1 Jn 4:17–21).
The NT writers regularly depict final punishment as corresponding to deeds done in this life, underscoring the manifest justice of the final divine verdict. The NT describes reward as intrinsically related to God and Christ, the object of hope and trust. Those who love Christ and consequently serve him now will be rewarded by seeing him in his glory. Moreover, such reward always paradoxically issues in glory to Christ, who has worked the believer's salvation. Nevertheless the NT writers do not regard retribution as mere divine confirmation of human decision. Punishment and reward are actively imposed by God from without upon the human being (Heb 10:26–31; Jas 5:1; 2 Pet 2:6).
Why are Christians judged?
Believers will appear before the judgment seat of Christ (Matt. 25:14–30; Luke 19:12–27; 1 Cor. 3:12–15; 2 Cor. 5:10; cf. Rom. 14:10; 1 Pet. 1:7; Rev. 20:12). The same Paul who says that at this judgment seat salvation is not in doubt (1 Cor. 3:15) himself anticipated it with terror (2 Cor. 5:10–11).
Where saving realities are present they manifest themselves in persevering faith and obedience, which secure the believer in the final judgment (e.g., Heb 10:39; 1 Jn 2:29–3:3; Rev 1:9). If professing Christians persistently did evil rather than good they would show themselves not to be Christians and to be in danger of condemnation at the final judgment. Christians are not exempt from that judgment precisely because its function is to show, by the evidence of people's deeds, whether they are in relationship to Christ or not (2 Cor 5:10).
For Christian believers justification by grace means that through faith in Christ they have been accepted into relationship with God and are expected to bear the fruit of this relationship in their lives. At the final judgment the evidence of their deeds will confirm the reality of this relationship, which will then find its eternal fulfillment in God's presence.
A New Testament doctrine of the final Judgment
1. All people will be judged, both ‘the living and the dead' (Acts 10:42), both Christian and non-Christian (Rom. 14:10–12). This future judgment is associated with Christ's final coming (Mk. 8:38; 1 Cor. 4:5; 2 Thes. 1:5–10; and see Eschatology).
2. Judgment will be ‘according to works' (Mt. 16:27; Rom. 2:6; Rev. 22:12). This does not conflict with justification by grace through faith. Although justification is a gift of God's free grace, it involves the obligation to work out our new status in practice. Thus, at the final judgment, a person's works will be the evidence of whether a living faith is present in him or not. It is not a question of earning salvation by good works: works are the evidence of the reality of the faith through which we are saved.
3. The final judgment will be a moment of division between those who are revealed truly to belong to Christ and those who do not. The verdict of the final judgment will underline and make known the self-judgment which men and women have chosen during the present life. There is a real sense in which, by the choices people make, by the way they respond when confronted by Christ and his gospel, they bring judgment on themselves
4. Salvation and condemnation are best understood in terms of relationship or nonrelationship to God. The criterion by which people's destinies will be determined is a double one—their failure to worship and serve the God revealed in the created order (Rom. 1:18–20), and their attitude to Christ—their relationship to him, of which their deeds give evidence (Jn. 3:36). The destinies themselves consist in being either in God's presence or excluded from that presence (cf. 2 Thes. 1:8–10).
That's what the experts tell us. Perhaps I was not so off the mark in my personal understanding. If you do place your faith in Christ and then try to live your best for him, in the end, those two things seem to be what does get you through the final judgment. We are completely dependent on him both for the judging and the covering of grace he gives us.
I think I know now why God has placed within me such a desire to see people find their gifts and their ministries as followers of Christ. There is work to do—good work—both within the church and in the world outside. It is work that matters not only today to those we reach, but also work that brings us closer to the heart of Christ. It grows us in our faith. It marks us as true followers of Jesus. And in the end, what we do here and now—our deeds—does matter to us at the final judgment.
May each of us examine our lives in this light.
Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.
Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’
Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’