The Final Judgment
Final Judgment primarily refers to the eschatological judgment that will take place when Jesus returns to judge the living and the dead, and the recompense (reward or retribution) that day will bring.
This article explores the biblical expectation of eschatological judgment, the significance of faith and works on that final day, and the result of God’s judgment for both the righteous and the wicked. The discussion addresses relevant contemporary debate on justification, the exclusivity of “heaven,” and the enduring nature of eschatological punishment, demonstrating that the biblical evidence supports a conservative evangelical perspective.
The timing of Christ’s return remains unknown to us (Matt 24:36), but attendant events of that final day are plainly disclosed in Scripture: the dead will be raised (John 5:28–29; Acts 24:15) and all humanity — along with rebellious angels (2Pet 2:4; Jude 6) — will be divinely judged (Rom 2:5–16; 2Cor 5:10a; Rev 20:11–13); consequently, everyone will receive the appropriate reward or punishment (2Cor 5:10b; Rev 20:14–21:8). These basic facts are clear, but there is considerable debate over the finer details, such as the significance of final judgment for Christians, how their final destiny should be understood, and the enduring nature of eschatological punishment.
The Biblical Expectation of Eschatological Judgment
While the Old Testament portrays God as the righteous judge of all the earth (cf. Gen 18:25; 1Sam 2:10; 1Chr 16:33) who holds both individuals and nations accountable for their actions (e.g., Deut 32:41; Psa 110:6; Job 19:29; Eccl 3:17; 11:9; Ezek 33:20; Jer 25:31; Joel 3:2), such divine judgment — often referred to as “the day of the LORD” or simply “that day” — is usually confined to the historical realm (i.e., military overthrow, physical curse and/or death); seldom, if ever, does it refer to a final, eschatological or eternal judgment. Some texts may arguably allude to such (e.g., Psa 1:5; Eccl 3:17; 11:9; 12:14), but the closest we get to a final assize in the Old Testament is the scene in Daniel 7, where the Ancient of Days presides over a heavenly court at which books are opened, the terrifying fourth beast is destroyed in blazing fire, and the eternal kingdom is given to God’s holy people. Arguably the same scenario is portrayed somewhat differently in Daniel 12, where those sleeping in the dust of the earth awake — some to glory and everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt. In any case, there is little doubt that both these texts inform the New Testament’s portrayal of the ultimate Day of the Lord and the final judgment.
Such a climactic “day of judgment,” culminating in eternal reward or punishment, is much more prominent in the New Testament, as with most Jewish apocalyptic literature around the first century. The prospect of a final judgment is very clear in the teaching of Jesus, especially in the First Gospel (e.g., Matt 7:21–23; 10:15; 11:22, 24; 12:36, 41–42; 13:40–43, 49–50; 16:27; 18:35; 19:28–29; 25:31–46), and the rest of the New Testament reflects a similar emphasis (e.g., Acts 10:42; 17:31; 24:25; Rom 2:5, 16; 14:10; 1Cor 4:5; 2Cor 5:10; 2Tim 4:1, 8; Heb 6:2; 2Pet 3:7; Rev 11:18; 20:11–15).
Even though Jesus has fully borne God’s wrath for those who believe (1Thess 1:10), Christians are not exempt from this final assize (cf. 2Cor 5:10; Rom 14:10–11; Heb 10:30; Jas 3:1l; 1Pet 4:5). However, they can anticipate this day confidently (1John 4:17; cf. Rom 8:1), knowing that they will not “come into judgment” in the sense of eternal condemnation (John 5:24). Even so, it is clear that on this day Jesus as Judge will distinguish between genuine believers and those who have merely claimed to be his followers and servants (Matt 7:21–23; Luke 12:46). As these and other biblical texts underline, a righteous verdict at the final judgment requires more than just mental assent or verbal commitment to Christ as king. This raises one of the controversial issues in contemporary discussion; namely, the significance of works for a righteous verdict on the last day.
The Role of Faith and Works in Eschatological Judgment
While the relationship between faith and works has been debated from apostolic times (cf. Rom 3–4; Gal 3; Jas 2:14–26), more recently it has become a bone of contention among evangelicals. This is chiefly due to “new perspective” approaches which challenge the Reformation idea of justification by faith alone. Some now distinguish between “first” or “present” justification (being declared righteous by faith) and “second” or “final” justification (being declared righteous by works), seeing these as two distinct stages of salvation rather than as two sides of a single coin. According to traditional Reformed thinking, Christian “good works” are simply evidence of the faith through which God has already declared us righteous — an irrevocable verdict that will simply be confirmed by the divine Judge on the last day. Critics of this traditional Protestant viewpoint understand such works as a crucial factor in an ongoing process — confusing justification with sanctification — and perceive works to play an indispensable and, for some, an instrumental role in securing a righteous verdict on the last day.
It is clear from the New Testament that God justifies us by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone (Rom 5:1–2; Eph 2:8–9). However, it is equally clear that on the last day God will judge us according to works (Rom 14:10–12; 2Cor 5:10). Both these truths must therefore be held in tension, rather than emphasizing one at the expense of the other. God declares us righteous by faith, but it is crucial to understand what genuine faith entails: such faith not only trusts in God, but is given concrete expression through love (e.g., Gal 5:6; 1Jn 4:16–17) and perseverance in doing good (e.g., Matt 5:16; Eph 2:10; Titus 2:14). Accordingly, with the Reformers we can embrace both the scriptural assurances of justification by faith alone and the scriptural exhortations to produce good works as testimony to God’s transforming grace. It would be mistaken to think that such “good works,” imperfect as they are, could ever justify us before God. But it would be equally presumptuous to assume, without such evidence of genuine faith (cf. Phil 2:12), that our names are recorded in the all-important book of life (cf. Rev 20:12; 21:27).
The Eschatological Reward of the Righteous
Popularly referred to simply as “heaven,” the eternal destiny of the righteous is more accurately understood in terms of the kingdom of God, eternal life, and new creation — each of which is experienced in part now, but most fully in the age to come. Despite what several Christian hymns suggest, the final state for Christians will not be in some metaphysical or distant realm, but rather in God’s renovated and perfected creation, “in which righteousness dwells” (2Pet 3:13). Depictions of such eschatological bliss in the Old Testament (e.g., Isa 11:6–9; 65:17–25; 66:18) are very much in keeping with this; rather than a heavenly scenario set in the wild blue yonder, it is a very earthly portrayal, albeit one that is markedly different from the situation in the present world. Such transformation in the New Testament’s portrayal of the new heaven and the new earth is even more striking, for even death itself has been eradicated (Rev 21:4), but once again the dominant picture is of bliss on earth rather than some kind of other-worldly existence in heaven. Thus the eschatological hope for Christians is to enjoy God’s presence and reign on the perfected earth (Rev 21:2–3; 22:3–5) — an earth that is “new” in quality rather than in time (Rev 21:5). It is in this sense of radical transformation that John speaks of the first earth having “passed away” (Rev 21:1), and that Peter speaks of cosmic dissolution (2Pet 3:1–11). Everything that would ruin or corrupt this perfected creation will be eradicated.
However, this wonderful picture of final bliss is one of the things that has led some to question the traditional understanding of final judgment. Until fairly recently, nearly all evangelicals — whether conservative or progressive — would have considered God’s verdict on the last day to be final, and thus the fate of the wicked to be irreversible. In recent decades, however, a small but increasing number have maintained that this is not the case, suggesting that the punishment meted out to the wicked in hell is not simply retributive, but has a restorative purpose. Thus understood, those condemned to hell may still repent of their sin and call on the Lord to be saved; and when they do so — however long that may take — they will join the rest of the redeemed in eternal bliss. However, one of the major problems with such “evangelical universalism” is the fact that Scripture explicitly rejects the possibility of post-mortem repentance or an exit from hell (Luke 13:24–28; 14:24; cf. 16:26), and insists that none can enter the holy city, the new Jerusalem, except for “those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life” (Rev 21:27; cf. 20:15) — something determined before creation (Rev 17:8). Given the serious deficiencies with their theological and exegetical assumptions, universalism is unlikely to gain widespread acceptance among evangelicals.
The Eschatological Punishment of the Wicked
The eschatological fate of the reprobate is never explicitly addressed in the Old Testament. Sheol and related terminology refers to the anticipated post-mortem “afterlife” or underworld, rather than to the final punishment of the wicked in hell. However, the latter is clearly foreshadowed in cataclysmic judgments such as befell Sodom and Gomorrah (cf. 2Pet 2:6; Jude 7; cf. Luke 17:26–30). But the closest the Old Testament explicitly gets to everlasting punishment is in Isaiah 66:24 and Daniel 12:2, where the focus is on the ignominious fate of the wicked and the revulsion or contempt it arouses. However, while both these texts inform subsequent portrayals of hell, unlike the latter, they say little to imply eternal conscious torment.
The final destiny of the wicked is variously portrayed in the New Testament. Drawing from the Old Testament, Jesus most often describes it as Hell/Gehenna (Matt 23:33) — a fate worse than extreme physical loss (Matt 5:29–30) or death (Matt 10:28; Luke 12:4–5), and explicitly associated with unquenchable or eternal fire (Matt 5:22; 18:8; cf. 13:39–40; Jas 3:6). It is difficult to see the necessity of the latter unless the punishment itself is construed as unending. Moreover, the fact that it will induce “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matt 13:42, 50; cf. 8:12; 22:13; 24:51; 25:30; Luke 13:28) suggests conscious punishment or torment (cf. Luke 16:23–25; Matt 8:29; Rev 20:10).
Paul never uses the word “Hell/Gehenna” to describe the fate of the wicked; rather, he employs a range of overlapping ideas such as wrath, condemnation, death, perishing, destruction, and being cursed — prompting some to conclude that he had annihilation primarily in mind. However, this is not necessarily what Paul intended, and is difficult to square with his most detailed discussion of God’s coming wrath (2Thess 1:6–9). Here he speaks in terms of “repaying with affliction,” “flaming fire,” “inflicting vengeance,” and “eternal destruction” — a qualification quite unnecessary if “destruction” just means being annihilated. The same applies to the following phrase (“away from the presence of the Lord …”), which is equally redundant unless there is more to such destruction than simply being consumed by fire. Accordingly, Paul’s thinking seems more aligned with the traditional concept of hell than some have inferred.
The same is true of the General Epistles and Revelation. For example, the author of Hebrews understands the final destruction of the wicked as “much worse punishment” than death — the penalty meted out under the old covenant (Heb 10:29). In a similar vein Peter portrays hell in terms of Tartarus, a mythological subterranean realm where the wicked experienced punishment and torment (2Pet 2:4). But by far the most graphic depictions of hell are recorded in Revelation, where chapters 14 and 19–20 stand out especially. Chapter 14:10–11 speaks of the wicked being “tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb,” “the smoke of their torment” ascending forever, and the having “no rest, day or night” (vv.10–11) — imagery that most obviously suggests unending agony. Likewise, chapters 19 and 20 depict the beast, the false prophet, and the devil being thrown into a fiery lake of burning sulphur (19:20; 20:10), where they too “will be tormented day and night forever and ever” (20:10b). Significantly, this same fate awaits the ungodly (Rev 20:14–15; 21:8; cf. Matt 25:41). Attempts to interpret these texts more palatably — in terms of an unquenchable fire that finally consumes its victims — are far from convincing; the wicked are not depicted in the closing chapters of this book as eradicated, but excluded (cf. Rev 21:27; 22:15, 19). Accordingly, while some biblical texts can be used to support the idea of terminal punishment (i.e., annihilationism), others stubbornly resist such interpretation.
In relation to Biblical Theology
- John Coulson
- Anthony Hoekema
- Paul Helm
- The Last Things: Death, Judgment, Heaven and Hell
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In relation to contemporary debates on the role of works in the final judgment
- Alan Stanley
- Did Jesus Teach Salvation By Works? The Role of Works in Salvation in the Synoptic Gospels
- Alan Stanley (ed.)
- Paul R. Williamson
In relation to contemporary debates on heaven and hell
- Richard Middleton
- Christopher Morgan and Robert A. Peterson (eds)
- Preston Sprinkle (ed.)
- Paul R. Williamson
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