In the course of the history of dogma, various notions were developed and propounded with respect to the idea of the final judgment.
That the course of this world would be finally closed by a judgment of God was taught in the Church from the very beginning of the new dispensation. But different conceptions were formed of this revelation of the righteous judgment of God. Already in the middle ages one meets with the notion that the judgment will take place only in the consciousness of those that shall be judged, that is, all the moral creatures. It will be wholly subjective. Others, however, offered a rather objective description of the scene of this final judgment and expressed, moreover, the idea that God’s people would participate in the judgment actively, especially the monks! Still others insisted that there would be no universal and public judgment at the close of the world’s history: the only judgment that will ever take place is the one to which every man shall be subjected immediately after death: it is appointed for man once to die, and after that the judgment.
As is evident also from our confessions, at the time of the Reformation, the idea of the final judgment was developed rather clearly. The judgment was inseparably connected with the second coming of the Lord, Christ will be the judge, all men, the righteous and the wicked will appear before His judgment seat, they will be judged according to their works, and the books that will be opened are the consciences of men.
In modern times, especially under the influence of German theology, the idea of a distinct, final judgment, that will terminate this age and the history of the world, has been rather generally denied. There will be no final judgment as a distinct and separate event in the end of time. Nor is such a judgment necessary. The world is always in judgment, and God executes His judgment constantly. History itself is judgment, and every man always receives according to his work. And God inscribes His judgment in the consciences of men.
There is, in this modern conception of the judgment of God, though it errs in denying the truth of a final judgment at the close of history, an element of truth that dare not be denied or overlooked with impunity.
It is to be feared that many believers look upon the last judgment as an isolated event, a momentary act of God by which He will, for the first time and forever, judge the affairs of men, and set straight whatever was permitted to be crooked in the history of the world. The only judgment is that which is to come at the end. In the course of the present history of the world God does not appear as the judge of heaven and earth. He judges, to be sure, all the moral acts of men and of nations, in the sense that He evaluates them as to their ethical worth, and writes them all in His book. And, occasionally, He reminds the world of His wrath and just judgment, by sending special catastrophes, such as world-wars, earthquakes, famines, and pestilences on the earth. But for the rest, He does not, in the present dispensation execute a righteous judgment. Every man is not rewarded according to his work in this world. Many things are left crooked. For God is tolerant, forbearing, longsuffering. In fact, in the affairs of the world, it appears as if force rather than justice prevails and has the victory. The wicked prosper, especially if, as they generally have, they have the power; and the righteous suffer and are oppressed. And it seems as if there is no judge in heaven, and no knowledge in the Most High. But God remembers. He writes all these things in His book. And although, for the present, He permits injustice to prevail and to triumph, He has appointed Christ to judge the world, and in His day, God will open the books, and execute a righteous judgment. Although, in this world, iniquity is often victorious, and the wicked are in power, in the day of Christ the righteous shall be justified, and the wicked shall be condemned forever.
The last judgment is the only and final act of God whereby He will rectify and set straight whatever was unjust in the present government of the world.
Such is the conception of many.
In fact, it is because of some such conception of God as the judge, in respect to the affairs of the present world, that many find room for the notion that the prosperity of the wicked must be considered a token of God’s gracious disposition and attitude toward them. The wicked hate God, and blaspheme His name; they commit iniquity, and oppress the righteous, yet God blesses them in that He bestows upon them all the bounties of this present life: Fie sends rain upon the evil and upon the good, and causes His sun to shine upon the righteous and the unrighteous. In the end, it is true, God will execute a righteous judgment upon them, and they shall be damned forever in the pool that burneth with fire and sulpher; but, for the present, He is gracious to them as well as to the righteous. Thus the present is separated from the future, the temporal from the eternal, and the final judgment of God is an isolated act by which the Most High will really change His attitude toward the righteous and the wicked!
This view of the last judgment, in its relation to the present government of God, must be rejected.
It is false, first of all, because it implies an erroneous conception of God as the judge of heaven and earth.
God always judges, and He always executes a righteous judgment. He is righteous and just. And He is the unchangeable One. Moreover, always He is the Governor of the whole universe. It is not thus, that during the present history of the world, He permits the affairs of men to run their own course, carefully noting them in His book, in order, at the end of the world, to ascend His throne of judgment. Always He sits on the throne. From moment to moment He rules. Never do the reins of government slip from His hands. Constantly He judges, and all His moral creatures stand before Him in judgment. Nor does He simply remember their acts, in order to express His verdict and execute His judgment in the end of time. On the contrary, all the works of God are perfect, and all His judgments are just. Even though the final and everlasting reward of the righteous in glory, and retribution of the wicked in hell, cannot be realized in this present time, with both God deals according to strictest justice.
It is true that we cannot discern this righteous judgment of God in detail. To us God’s dealings with the righteous and the wicked often appear to be contrary to justice. It is often the complaint of the people of God that He seems to favor the wicked, and to turn His face against the righteous. Asaph speaks of this in the seventy-third psalm. He saw the wicked prosper, and the righteous suffer. Their eyes were standing out with fatness, while his own punishment was awaiting him every morning. In vain it seemed that he could wash his hands in innocency. The book of Job deals with the same problem. The philosophy of the three friends, who insisted that the temporal suffering of man was indicative of some special sin, did not fit the case of Job, and their speech was painful to him.
But this appearance of things is due only to our limited understanding, and to the fact that we often fail to discern the meaning of the present for man’s eternal state. God’s ways are higher than our ways. His ways are deep and mysterious. We consider only that which we see at the moment. The relation between all things we cannot discern. If, however, it were possible for us to comprehend the work of God, to understand His government of His moral creatures in detail, we would, no doubt, also clearly discern that God always judges righteously, and that He executes a righteous judgment upon men. Never would we complain anymore, in that case, that He favors the wicked, and that His face is against the righteous. Always God rewards the good with good. Never does the sinner advance one step on the way of iniquity that is not visited with evil on the spot.
In the light of Scripture, we can, even now, see a little of this just government of God in the present world.
Thus, according to Scripture, it is the righteous judgment of God that the prosperity of the wicked is to them a slippery path on the which he hastens to destruction. Thus Asaph saw God’s dealings with the workers of iniquity, when he entered into the sanctuary of God, and took cognizance of the end of the ungodly. Thus we are taught in the ninety-second psalm, where the author is inspired to extol the marvelous works and the deep thoughts of God, with regard to the workers of iniquity. They flourish, and grow as the grass, in order that they may be destroyed forever. Thus it is plainly revealed in that dreadful first chapter of the epistle to the Romans. The wrath of God is revealed from heaven over all the ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness. They know God, and they are aware that He is to be thanked and glorified. But they refuse to acknowledge Him. And God executes a righteous judgment upon them. He makes them foolish. He causes them to grope in the darkness of idolatry, so that they, foolishly, bow before four-footed beasts and creeping things. He punishes sin with sin. He casts them into the mire of sin, so that they become more corrupt all the time, and thus hasten to their own destruction.
It is evident, then, that also in this world the judge of heaven and earth executes a righteous judgment.
All things are made to work together for good to them that love God.
And it is equally true that all things work together for evil to them that hate Him.
God is the Lord.
He cannot be mocked, not even for a moment.
And not only does God deal with His moral creatures righteously in this world, and does He execute judgment constantly, both upon the righteous and upon the wicked; but He also inscribes His righteous judgment in the conscience of every man. Man’s conscience is his awareness of God’s just judgment of his every act. It is because of this judging act of God that men have the work of the law inscribed in their hearts, and that their conscience witnesses with the testimony of God’s law, so that they accuse or excuse themselves and one another.
In this sense, man’s conscience is indeed a book, filled with the handwriting of God, expressing His just judgment of every act he ever accomplished, and of every thought and desire that ever arose in his heart.
Besides, it is also plain from Scripture that there is an individual, preliminary judgment immediately after death, that will be executed in the damnation of the wicked, and in the intermediate glory of the saints with Christ.
Yet, in distinction from God’s present just government of the world, and from that preliminary judgment that will be passed upon every soul that departs from this present life, the Church, on the basis of Holy Writ, confesses that she looks for a final judgment, when Christ shall come again “to judge the quick and the dead.”
The main idea of this final judgment is that of the theodicy, the justification of God in the consciousness of all His moral creatures. It will be “the revelation of the righteous judgment of God.” As has been said, in this world, too, God’s government is characterized by strictest justice. But the justice of God’s judgments is not clearly revealed. For, first of all, many things are hid. We judge only according to that which is apparent. The hidden things of the heart, the reasons and motives that lie behind the outward deed, we cannot judge. Moreover, there are many things done in secret, words that are spoken in secret, secret counsels that are never revealed, secret abominations that are committed in darkness. Besides, we do not clearly discern the dealings of God with men in relation to their moral deeds. But in that day, all will be revealed. And then it will be revealed, not only that God will finally reward every man according to His deeds, but also that He always did execute a righteous judgment in His government of the world. It will be the revelation of the righteous judgment also in this respect, that He will be clearly revealed as the judge, so that the moral creature can no longer deny Him. Here the fool saith in his heart that there is no God. The ungodly ascribe the righteous judgments of God, especially when they become manifest in great upheavals and special calamities, to the inevitable “laws of nature”, or to fate, or to man’s own folly and weakness. He sets himself against God, and vows that he will overcome Him in judgment. He will still make a good world out of it all, and establish peace and prosperity without God and His Christ. But in that day, God will so reveal Himself, that all must acknowledge that He is the Lord of the universe, and that He is the righteous judge of heaven and earth.
The last judgment will be revelation of God as the righteous judge.
Its idea is the theodicy.
History, as a human record, and the expression of a human judgment upon the affairs of men and humanity, of individuals and nations, will be rewritten in the light of God’s perfect judgment.
This implies that it will be a public judgment, in the sense that the righteousness of God’s judgment will be clearly revealed to all the moral creatures. It will not be individualistic, so that each one will be convinced of the justice of his own sentence, but it will be given unto all, in that day, to behold the whole of the works of God, of His righteous government, and (His just judgment with regard to all His moral creatures. Christ and His cause shall be publicly justified, and His saints shall share in this public justification, so that even the wicked that here condemned and persecuted them, will have to acknowledge that they are the rightful heirs of all things. And, on the other hand, they shall behold the retribution of the wicked, and acknowledge that the Lord of all is just in consigning them to eternal desolation.
And, lastly, the idea of this judgment, in distinction from the current judgment of God in the history of the world, as also from the preliminary judgment of each individual after death, is that it is final. The history of this world will be terminated by it. The ethical fruit of the moral creature will be ripe. This final judgment will be the everlasting separation of the chaff from the wheat, of the wicked from the righteous, of the reprobate from the elect. And all will receive their final, their everlasting reward.
Quite in harmony with this idea of the last judgment is the truth that Christ shall appear as judge. That this is the teaching of Holy Writ we have already shown. We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ. He will come quickly, and His reward is with Him, to give to every man according as His work shall be. The Father delivered all judgment unto Him. And He gave Him power to execute judgment also.
This means that the Son of God will appear in His glorified human nature as the visible representative of the invisible God, and that, too, in such a way that all the moral world will recognize Him as the revelation of the Lord of all, and receive His judgment as the revelation of the righteous judgment of God. Exactly because this last judgment must be the revelation of the righteous judgment of God, and because God in Himself is the invisible one, and because Christ is the image of the invisible God, His highest revelation, Christ will appear as the representative of God as judge in the visible world. And every knee shall bow before Him, and every tongue shall confess that Christ is the Lord-judge, to the glory of God the Father. And all things will be naked and open before Him whose eyes are like a flame of fire, whose feet are like burnished brass, and out of whose mouth proceedeth a sharp two-edged sword.
Besides, it is but proper that the judgment of the whole world be delivered to Christ, first of all, because He is appointed the High Priest and head over the whole house of God. Of that house He is the builder. That house was manifested, in its mixed and imperfect state, in this world. From that house judgment must begin, and the (head and builder of that house of God’s everlasting covenant is also its proper judge. He shall cast out from it all that do and love iniquity, all the ungodly and hypocrites, and gather (His own into the everlasting tabernacle of God with men. And not only this, but by Him was accomplished the judgment of the world, when He was sojourning among us in the likeness of sinful flesh. He was the perfect servant of the Lord, whose meat it is to do the will of the Father. And the world judged Him, rejected Him, killed Him. Yet, He committed His cause to God even to the end, and announced to all the world that their judgment of Him was the condemnation of the powers of darkness. How proper, then, that in the day of the revelation of the righteous judgment of God, this servant of Jehovah will appear as the judge of all, representing the Father in the glory of that day, even as He was His faithful witness in the days of His deep humiliation!