JUDGMENT OF THE RIGHTEOUS
We now come to the third of the primary end-time events. Following the return of Christ and the physical resurrection of the faithful, God will pass judgment. But on what criteria will we be judged?
Will God’s assessment boil down to “justified” or “damned” in a pass/fail sense? Or will he judge all our works individually, adjusting our eternal reward or penalty based on the degree of our faithfulness?
According to the Bible, both types of judgment will occur, presenting us with yet another paradox. And once again this paradox is based on the fact that God’s nature includes both the law and grace. Due to his grace and the righteousness of Christ, he will find us justified. But to uphold his law, he will also grade our works.
Why do some verses state that we will not be judged, while other verses that state we will be judged? The law-and-grace paradox reconciles this contradiction. Note that the judgment follows the resurrection. We will receive eternal life without being judged since Christ is willing to cover us with his righteousness. But our works will be judged following the resurrection to determine our eternal rewards within the kingdom.
Scripture says we will be rewarded in proportion to our humility; the more thoroughly we reject our selfish desires and ambitions, the greater our eternal reward. The Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:3–12) speaks to this concept in the beatitudes where Christ summarizes the prophetic blessings of the Old Testament.[footnote]Also see James 2:5.[/footnote]
To enter eternal life with God, we the accused need to be perfect. We need to keep the law to perfection, to show selfless love in literally every circumstance. God will not allow any amount of sin to tarnish the eternal kingdom. Nobody but Christ has accomplished a sinless life, so it is only under his covering and advocacy that we can humbly approach God and receive grace without being condemned by the law.
The Bible states we can enter eternity with God only through the sacrifice of Christ’s life. He gave up his will, and through his perfect obedience he was justified by the law.[footnote]See Philippians 2:5–8.[/footnote] After sacrificing his life on the cross, Christ was then glorified in his resurrection, enabling him to mediate justice. He invites us to share in his inheritance and receive new glorified bodies of our own. God’s plan for redemption included this “once and for all” sacrifice to save all people via the same means of grace and perfect fulfillment of the law.[footnote]See Romans 5:8; 6:10; Hebrews 10:10.[/footnote]
According to the biblical plan of redemption, we can only pass or fail. Either Christ stamps “paid in full” on our entry ticket, or we reject God’s offer of grace. No other options are available for any person. Scripture mentions two distinct categories of people: those who are saved and those who are lost. We see no biblical examples of a person who is “borderline” saved.
“Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.”
—1 Corinthians 6:19–20
Anyone not sealed by the Spirit is still under the bondage of slavery to death, but Christ paid for us all and offers us a different destiny. Instead of perishing, we can live forever with him.
Through God’s plan of salvation, he predestined us all to escape the curse of death. Unfortunately, not everyone accepts this change of destiny. God initiated his plan in Genesis 3:15 and carried it out all the way through the Bible. This plan was fully established through the new covenant, which Christ sealed with his own blood. From the start, God intended to base salvation on unconditional grace. He included a conditional plan through which Israel would receive a special blessing within the overarching salvation of humanity. Ultimately, Israel broke the terms of this conditional law-based covenant, so Christ fulfilled the law instead. If we reject the gospel, we will remain under the penalty of death that is our human destiny, based upon the curse of death that afflicts our nature.
God graciously delivered his message of salvation (Genesis 3:15) before implementing the curse of death (Genesis 3:19, repeated in Hebrews 9:27). Yet another paradox is that we are destined to die under the law, yet destined to receive eternal life through God’s grace. One destiny is unconditional (we will all die) and one is conditional (if we do not reject the Spirit, we will be resurrected). Though we are mortal beings, we have received a conditional gift of immortality.
By default, our human destiny is to die and remain dead. We don’t need to do anything to achieve this destiny. But God has established for us an alternate destiny of eternal life; it is conditional in that we must believe God’s Word, receive God’s Spirit, and act obediently in faith.
God’s Word, his Spirit, and our faith are all gifts we receive from God. We do not produce the works that seal our new destiny. We must simply believe God and remain in him. Many people try to add to the gospel by prescribing some amount of works to achieve salvation, or they try to change the gospel by promoting inherent immortality. These are dangerous beliefs. Literal renderings of Scripture contradict both concepts.
We were under the power of the devil, destined to sin against God and die. Now we have been called out of darkness into the light (1 Peter 2:9). God called us; we did not call him. Numerous passages speak to the conflict between darkness and light. For example, immediately after Jesus mentions grace in John 3:16, he compares light and darkness, good and sinful works—and ties it all back to his grace.
“And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.”
The wicked reject Christ (“the light”) and stay in the darkness of sinful human nature. In John 3:16, Jesus states we need to “believe in him.” If we trust in him, we will be able to stand with him in confidence. We are first introduced to God’s light at the baptism of the Holy Spirit. Once we receive God’s Word and believe in his truth, we will not stray far from his light, preferring to remain in him. A literal translation of John 3:21 states that our good works are “wrought”, “done,” or “performed” in God (not of our self).
The first epistle of John expands upon this a little further. The message of grace within the gospel always comes first, just as in John 3:16. Once the light is revealed, then we can keep God’s law and remain in the light.
“This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light [truth, life, righteousness], and in him is no darkness at all. If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.”
—1 John 1:5–10
If we reject God (“the light”), we stay in the darkness of sin and death. If we believe in the message of the gospel, God will reveal to us his truth and life. If we remain in God’s light, then we will keep his law.
The key to understanding this passage and many like it is to understand conditional statements (for example, he will cleanse us if we confess). Conditions are based on the law, but we are no longer under the law once we first believe in God. We believe that he cleanses us by giving us his Spirit to replace our unclean heart; he does not directly clean the heart itself. Faith and immortality are both conditional gifts we receive as part of salvation. We look outward to God to receive faith and immortality; we are not intrinsically immortal, nor do we have the ability to summon faith from within our old nature.
Cleansing is a part of sanctification, the ongoing process God uses to give us righteousness over time. We need to understand that God is cleansing neither an immortal soul nor our old heart. Cleansing is different from the single act of justification that forgives past, present, and future sins and covers us with the righteousness of Christ. Justification is conditional upon faith; we must trust in Christ’s once-for-all work while we deny our nature’s ability to do works of any merit. Sanctification is similar to justification but is based on the ongoing work of God’s Spirit.
Justification and sanctification are each connected to both grace and law. Christ fulfilled the law to justify us, and we receive his justification as a gift of grace. The gift arrives before we can do good works or be made clean. Sanctification is the process by which we keep the law through the Holy Spirit working in our new heart, which we received by grace. Both justification and sanctification are gifts from God, as we cannot keep the law on our own. A way to understand sanctification and justification is through the use of verb tenses.
· Past-tense verbs (we have been justified, marked, preserved): Christ justified everyone throughout all time with his one-time sacrifice.[footnote]See Romans 5:8, 6:10; Hebrews 10:10.[/footnote] We were individually justified when we received the Holy Spirit. We began the sanctification process of being set apart from the world when we were first justified. We were marked, sealed, saved, kept, and preserved at that time.
· Present-tense verbs (we believe, obey, are being sanctified): We are continually sanctified and justified today through the work of the Holy Spirit. We are sealed today (justified) if we “hold on” to the gospel through belief. We are cleansed today (sanctified) so we can be used for God’s purposes. We obey the law by loving others, giving generously, and doing other good works, taking care not to be conformed to the world.
· Future (we will be resurrected, glorified): The completion of justification and sanctification happens when we are resurrected to eternal life.
When Christ returns, we may hope to be included among those resurrected and judged. Don’t let the traditional names for these events—the “judgment of the righteous” and the “resurrection of the just”—intimidate you. Although we are not righteous or just on our own merit, Christ justified us to inherit eternal life.
Remember, inheritance is not earned. Children do not “deserve” inheritance. They receive it on the basis of who they belong to. An inheritance is only conditional in the sense that a person can be disinherited if he rejects his parent’s wishes. Just as children are born into an earthly inheritance, we become co-heirs with Christ when we are reborn in the Spirit.
Peter opens his first epistle by describing salvation as an inheritance. Later in chapter 5, he relates the second coming to the gift that we will receive at the resurrection. The “crown of glory that never fades” is eternal life.
“Then when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that never fades away. In the same way, you who are younger, be subject to the elders. And all of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble. And God will exalt you in due time, if you humble yourselves under his mighty hand by casting all your cares on him because he cares for you.”
—1 Peter 5:4–7, NET Bible
Peter states that we will receive the crown of eternal life at the second coming, which agrees with all other biblical teaching on the matter. Notice that God “will exalt” us “in due time,” meaning that we do not have the full extent of our gifts today.
Remember that Christ did not receive his exaltation until after his resurrection. The Transfiguration event merely offered a glimpse or preview of the glorified, resurrected Christ. When Christ was baptized, a heavenly voice spoke and a dove descended upon him, but this was not his exaltation either. His exaltation had to wait until after he accepted the cup of wrath, fulfilled the law, and sealed the new covenant with his blood. Christ had to humble himself and submit in obedience. Only then could he be resurrected and exalted.
Notice Peter’s reference to Proverbs 3:34 (also see James 4:6), which says that God resists the proud. The proud are those who reject God and trust in their own understanding. God gives grace to the humble—those who trust in him alone. God offers grace to the whole world, but only those who are humble like a child and believe in the gift of faith will receive grace.
When considering the Big Three end-time events, notice that Christ will bring rewards and justice with him upon his return (1 Peter 5:4). We will be paid back for what we have done on earth (Revelation 22:12).
Scripture is clear: Christ will settle all accounts when he returns to earth.[footnote]See Isaiah 35:4; 40:10; 59:17–20; and 62:11.[/footnote] But what is this payment for if we did not contribute anything towards salvation? Indeed, Christ already paid for our salvation at the cross. So this new, final payment must be something different.
After we receive our new resurrected bodies, Christ will pay us an eternal reward. We will be redeemed first, then immediately rewarded. But what is this reward for? How can we be rewarded if Christ did all the work? We’ll look at the answer shortly.
Many second-advent passages describe God “awarding” judgment. He is prophesied to distribute rewards, crowns, and other gifts after Christ’s appearing:
Christ will share the inheritance with us when he returns.
“In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.”
When we look at the preceding verses, the context of this passage is clear. God’s plan will be carried out in the “fullness of time.” God will unite the earthly and heavenly realms at the end of the age when the inheritance is granted. We are sealed as inheritors now. We will obtain possession at the end of this age.
“In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will, so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory.”
This process is similar to how we use a will to determine the recipients of an inheritance after a death.[footnote]See Hebrews 9:15–17.[/footnote] Christ claimed his inheritance already. The Holy Spirit who dwells inside us guarantees that we will be able to claim our portion in the fullness of time. Christ called the Holy Spirit the “Comforter” because he dwells with us while we wait to inherit the kingdom as promised.
Peter has more to say about our future inheritance.
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.”
—1 Peter 1:3–5
Notice that our inheritance is “kept in heaven.” We have a claim to it now, but we don’t have it in hand yet. Kept, sealed, preserved—these are saving terms. As jam kept in a jar in the cellar, we need to be preserved by the Spirit as we wait for the ultimate fulfillment of God’s promise.
We have a lot of preconceived notions about Judgment Day, the last of the Big Three end-time events. We are familiar with the concept of going before a judge to try to get a fine thrown out or reduced. Or in a positive sense, we think about judges awarding a prize in a sporting event or baking contest.
This chapter specifically focuses upon the judgment of the righteous, not the judgment of the unrighteous. Because the judgment follows the resurrection, the only people around for God to judge at this time are those who have already been granted eternal life. No punishment looms because Christ has presented his righteousness on our behalf. The only matter at hand is the extent to which we will be rewarded.
Scripture says the unrighteous will be judged separately.[footnote]These judgments of the wicked will be discussed in Volume II.[/footnote]
“And he has given him authority to execute judgment, 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 judgment.”
According to this teaching of Christ, there will be separate resurrection and judgment events for “those who have done good” and “those who have done evil.”
Christ says we will hear his voice (other passages describe a shout at the second coming) and then be resurrected. Note that Christ warned of judgment for the unrighteous but did not mention judgment for the righteous; the righteous only receive the reward of eternal life for having passed their test of faith.
Paul also differentiates between types of resurrections. The “resurrection of the righteous” calls said people out from among the dead (Philippians 3:11), leaving the rest of the dead to remain until the “resurrection of the unrighteous.” The righteous will be raised first.
“But this I confess to you, that according to the Way, which they call a sect, I worship the God of our fathers, believing everything laid down by the Law and written in the Prophets, having a hope in God, which these men themselves accept, that there will be a resurrection of both the just and the unjust.”
In the Old Testament, Daniel prophesied of two separate types of resurrection:
“At that time shall arise Michael, the great prince who has charge of your people. And there shall be a time of trouble, such as never has been since there was a nation till that time. But at that time your people shall be delivered, everyone whose name shall be found written in the book. And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. And those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky above; and those who turn many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever.”
Here Daniel doesn’t explicitly separate those being resurrected into “just” and “unjust” categories, but taken in context with other prophetic passages, we can safely infer judgment is taking place. We should note that “many” people were raised, but not all. Only some are raised right away at the second advent.
Christ also described a separate resurrection of the just in this parable about charity.
“[Y]ou will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.”
The judgment of the just comes after Christ’s second coming and our bodily resurrection. Rewards will be granted as we enter the kingdom of eternal life.
“I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: …
“I have competed well; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith! Finally the crown of righteousness is reserved for me. The Lord, the righteous Judge, will award it to me in that day—and not to me only, but also to all who have set their affection on his appearing.”
—2 Timothy 4:1, 7–8
“Just as people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment, so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him.”
Christ doesn’t complete our salvation until the second advent. This is the salvation event we have all been waiting for. The Bible frequently groups two or three of the Big Three events together in the same passage. But we never see a sequence where a rapture or resurrection event leads into a long tribulation delay, with judgment to follow.
Passages on the tribulation period will be discussed in more detail in Volume II, but we’ll take a brief look here.
Tribulation and Wrath
Will Christians and/or the Jewish people go through the tribulation period? We know we are not destined for the wrath of God, so a comparison of pre-wrath and post-tribulation raptures should be made. We know Noah went through tribulation but did not receive wrath. He was saved (kept) through it. This is the model we should refer to as we read apocalyptic prophecies.
Scripture only presents us with one more coming of Christ. He will not come a third time, nor appear privately to a select group. Indeed, even the Old Testament end-time prophecies align with what we read in Revelation—both in terms of the time of tribulation and the clustering of the Big Three events.
A pre-tribulation rapture is inspired by the Greek mythological model of souls or spirit-bodies ascending to the heavens. This concept is nowhere to be found in the Bible. Not one verse justifies a belief in a resurrected afterlife in the heavenly realm. Nor can we find a passage to suggest that the saints will hide in heaven to avoid the tribulation.
Wrath and tribulation are two different terms altogether. Although we must endure tribulation, the just are not destined to face God’s wrath.[footnote]See 1 Thessalonians 1:10; 5:9.[/footnote]
It’s difficult to imagine the world turning to the Bible during the tribulation—much less seeking out literal interpretations. They will be drowning in thousands of opinions as to why horrible events are happening. Should they read a biblical prophecy about an event clearly in progress, the devil will offer them a worldly explanation or “signs and wonders” of his own. Deceived, they will continue to reject God and his Word. This is what the Bible says will happen, and it lines up perfectly with what we know about human nature and our modern culture.
We already know people can’t see the obvious. We’re too distracted by our selfish pursuits and obsessions. God through his Word wants us to know what is imminent and to prepare ourselves accordingly. The beginning of the Great Tribulation may be a surprise to all, but according to the apocalyptic passages, there will be signs to warn us of what is coming. While the rest of the world argues over why such disastrous events are occurring, Christians should be able to calmly point to Scripture. But since we believers cannot seem to agree on a single gospel, how can we ever agree on how to interpret more complex prophecies?
God will continue to offer salvation to the whole world until the very end. “Wheat and tares” will live together. Hearts will continue to harden through the continual rejection of the gospel. Instead of considering the signs of the times, people will jeer, “Where is the promise of his coming?” (2 Peter 3:4). The second coming of Christ will always seem unlikely to the wicked, whether today or in the turbulent future.
“And none of the wicked shall understand, but those who are wise shall understand.”
Only those with the mind of Christ will understand end-time events. More on the judgment of the wicked later; now for some good news.
“He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.”
—2 Corinthians 5:21, NASB
We are born without any inherent righteousness, and we cannot become righteous in and of ourselves. We can only become righteous through Christ. He gives us 100 percent perfection.
“He who believes in Him is not judged [or condemned]; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.”
Remember that belief includes obedience; we can’t simply say we believe in God while deliberately continuing in sin.
“There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”
God will determine our reward upon our resurrection. We will not be condemned at this judgment; no entrance exam stands in the way between us and the crown of eternal life.
“Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears My word, and believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life, and does not come into judgment, but has passed out of death into life.”
—John 5:24, NASB
Eternal Life and Second Death
We in our flesh are destined to die. This is very clear throughout Scripture. But will this be a physical death only, or will it include a spiritual death? If we believe we have an immortal soul, we must also believe in the specter of spiritual death to follow the death of our body. Physical death has no real consequences if we have an immortal soul. Unconditional immortality forces nonsensical interpretations onto passages like John 5. Immortal life in the heavenly realm draws from Greek mythology, not God’s Word.
Hell may mean one thing if we’re only expecting physical death, but something else entirely in the context of spiritual death. Hell in this context is marked by eternal death and fire—the “second death” presented in Revelation 20:14 and 21:8.[footnote]We will explore these passages, along with the “second death” generally, in more detail in Volume II.[/footnote]
We’ve already seen in John 5:25–29 how we receive a spiritual salvation today and a physical salvation at the resurrection. We will receive life if we hear God’s Word and believe in him. Today we can be spiritually alive in Christ or spiritually dead in our flesh. In either case, physical death will follow. Then we will receive either a second physical life or a second physical death.
The realms merge in the next age. There will be just one eternal realm: the kingdom of heaven on earth. Eternal death means being trapped outside the “gates.”[footnote]See Revelation 21:27; 22:14–15.[/footnote] We have already looked at numerous passages describing the resurrection to immortal life. But there is also a physical resurrection to judgment and eternal death.
The gifts we receive today as part of our spiritual salvation will preserve us until the time of the physical resurrection; here we will receive eternal life, be spared the punishment reserved for the people included in the judgment of the unrighteous. Instead of using the term “saved” in the past tense, we should use ongoing verbs such as “being kept, preserved, marked, or sealed” to clarify our state.