“And as he reasoned of righteousness, temperance, and judgment to come, Felix trembled…” (Acts 24:25).
Judgment to come is stated in Scripture to be one of the first “principles” of its doctrine (Heb. 6:1,2). We live in a day, however, when this fact is held in general disregard and often made light of. Few men tremble, as Felix did, at the thought of judgment to come, probably because few men preach it as Paul did.
Even believers, failing to understand Paul’s great message of grace, too often think of God only as a Being of infinite love, who gave His Son to die for man, forgetting that it was His very justice that demanded so terrible a price for sin and that the flames of the Lake of Fire are but the expression of His righteous indignation at man’s rejection of His love and grace. Believers are also prone to put the mildest possible construction upon those passages which deal with the coming judgment of their conduct as Christians, as though it were nothing more than a joyous handing out of rewards at the close of life’s race.
GOD THE SUPREME JUDGE
That God is, among other things, the great Judge of all and acts in that capacity is the consistent testimony of Scripture.
In Genesis 18:25 He is called “the Judge of all the earth,” in Judges 11:27, “the Lord, the Judge” and in Psalm 9:7 we read: “He hath prepared His throne for judgment.” Paul, by inspiration, calls Him, “the Lord, the righteous Judge” and “God, the Judge of all” (II Tim. 4:8; Heb. 12:23). And in this connection he warns that “it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb. 10:31).
DIRECT JUDGMENT COMMITTED TO THE SON
It is not God the Father, however, but God the Son, who will have direct charge of the future judgment of mankind. The Apostle John, by the Spirit, records our Lord’s own words as to this:
“For the Father judgeth no man, but hath committed all judgment unto the Son” (John 5:22).
“And hath given Him authority to execute judgment also, because He is the[ref]The definite article does not appear in the original.[/ref]Son of man” (John 5:27).
This is reasonable, for as Son of God and Son of man, our Lord has both the right and the qualifications to judge men.
Thus Peter declared to Cornelius and his household that it is Christ who was “ordained of God to be the Judge of quick and dead” (Acts 10:42). And Paul adds his confirmation to this, declaring that God “hath appointed a day, in the which He will judge the world in righteousness by that Man whom He hath ordained” (Acts 17:31). Again in II Timothy 4:1, he refers to “the Lord Jesus Christ, who shall judge the quick and the dead.” Even the judgment at which the service and conduct of believers will be dealt with, he twice calls “the judgment seat of Christ” (Rom. 14:10; II Cor. 5:10).
THE COMING “DAY OF JUDGMENT”
There are various judgments to be distinguished from that “judgment to come” of which Paul reasoned with Felix. There is, for example, the judgment of the world at Calvary—God laying the sins of the world upon Christ (John 12:31). There is also the judgment of the believer’s old nature in his death with Christ (Rom. 6:2,3), the believer’s judgment of himself (I Cor. 11:31), etc. Then too, there will be a future judgment on earth of Israel and the living nations (Matt. 24:27-25:46). But beyond all these,[ref]We do not believe that the sentence of Matthew 25:41 constitutes the final judgment of the enemies of Israel.[/ref]there still lies a judgment for sins which will take place after the present life is over, except for those whose sins have already been dealt with by grace through the vicarious death of Christ.
It is of mankind in general that the Apostle Paul declares:
“It is appointed unto men once to die, but AFTER THIS THE JUDGMENT” (Heb. 9:27).
Thus our Lord referred to “the day of judgment” as something beyond His premillennial judgment of the living nations, for “in that day,” He said, it will be more tolerable for the people of the land of Sodom (who had long since died) than for His rejectors (Matt. 10:15).
Again, He evidently referred to the same judgment when He said: “But I say unto you, That every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in THE DAY OF JUDGMENT” (Matt. 12:36).
Peter also declares that God will “reserve the unjust unto THE DAY OF JUDGMENT to be punished” and refers further to “THE DAY OF JUDGMENT and perdition of ungodly men” (II Pet. 2:9; 3:7).
NONE CAN ESCAPE GOD’S JUDGMENT
In Genesis 18:25, God is called “the Judge of all the earth” and in Hebrews 12:23, “the Judge of all.” Again, in Romans 3:6, Paul states that God will “judge the world.” The fact that believers have already been judged in Christ only emphasizes the fact that none who have not thus been judged will escape the judgment to come—that all are subject to God’s righteous judgment.
Some Annihilationists deny that there will be a resurrection of the unsaved dead, and argue that therefore they cannot by judged. Other Annihilationists, if they carried their arguments for the “destruction” of the unsaved to their logical conclusions, would have to say the same. But if the Scriptures are clear on anything, it is the fact that there will be a resurrection of the “unjust” as well as of the “just” (Acts 24:15). Indeed, our Lord distinctly stated that “they that have done evil” will “come forth” in “the resurrection of damnation [Lit., judgment]” (John 5:29).
Our Lord is repeatedly called “the Judge of the quick [living] and the dead” (Acts 10:42; II Tim. 4:1; I Pet. 4:5) and, as we have seen, “the judgment” appointed for mankind, apart from Christ, is to take place after death (Heb. 9:27).
Let no man, therefore, entertain the unfounded hope that he can reject the Savior and yet escape being judged for his sins. If God could save even one soul on the grounds of His compassion alone, apart from the death of Christ, He could save all on the same grounds, and the death of Christ would then prove to have been the greatest blunder, yea, the greatest crime ever committed.
Let self-righteous Christ-rejectors, then, ponder soberly over the words of the Spirit through Paul: “Thinkest thou…that thou shalt escape the judgment of God?” (Rom. 2:3).
BELIEVERS ALREADY JUDGED FOR THEIR SINS
As we have intimated, all true believers will escape this judgment for sins, since their sins have already been dealt with on the Cross and they now stand before God “justified from all things” (Acts 13:39), “accepted in the Beloved” (Eph. 1:6), and “complete in Him” (Col. 2:10).
It is true that “it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment,” but this passage in its entirety has an encouraging message for the believer:
“And as it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment;
“So Christ was once offered to bear the sins of many; and unto them that look for Him shall He appear the second time without sin[ref]Lit., “apart from sin,” i.e., apart from the sin question.[/ref]unto salvation” (Heb. 9:27,28).
Hence we read in John 3:18 that “He that believeth on Him is not condemned [judged]” and in John 5:24: “He that heareth My word, and believeth on Him that sent Me, hath everlasting life, and shall not come into condemnation [judgment] but is passed from death unto life” and again in Romans 8:1: “There is therefore now no condemnation [judgment] to them which are in Christ Jesus.”[ref]The rest of the verse in A.V. is an interpolation. It belongs at the end of Verse 4, where it also appears.[/ref]
THE GREAT WHITE THRONE
“And I saw a great white throne, and Him that sat on it, from whose face the earth and the heaven fled away; and there was found no place for them.
“And I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God; and the books were opened: and another book was opened, which is the book of life: and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works.
“And the sea gave up the dead which were in it; and death and hell delivered up the dead which were in them: and they were judged every man according to their works.
“And death and hell were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death.
“And whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire” (Rev. 20:11-15).
This judgment, which we have already referred to, stands between the passing of the present heaven and earth and the appearance of the new heaven and earth. It is the judgment at which all the remaining dead—all the unsaved dead—will stand before God the Son to answer for their sins.
Terrible as it is to contemplate, it is the final judgment of the ages. In the words of Dr. Lewis Sperry Chafer, it is “the last word of a holy God respecting sin and all unrighteousness” (Systematic Theology, Vol. IV, P. 412).
NOT A GENERAL JUDGMENT OF ALL
Those who believe that the judgment at the great white throne is to be a “general judgment” of all men have confused it with the judgment of the living nations described by our Lord in Matthew 25:31-46. But these two judgments cannot possibly be the same. In our Lord’s description of the judgment of the living nations, sheep, goats and brethren are referred to, the judgment is held on earth and treatment of the Jew is the issue, while, by comparison, the judgment at the great white throne concerns only the unsaved, the earth will have fled away, and all sinful works will be dealt with. Further, there could be no resurrection at the judgment of the living nations, while men are raised from the dead to stand before the great white throne.
Nor does the idea of a general resurrection and judgment stand the Berean test any better in the light of other related Scriptures.
It is true that we read in Daniel 12:2 that “some” shall awake “to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt,” and in Acts 24:15 that “there shall be a resurrection of the dead, both of the just and unjust,” but neither of these passages say that the resurrection and judgment of the saved and of the unsaved will occur at the same time. They merely state that both will be raised and judged.
Isaiah 61:2,3 contains a prediction concerning “the acceptable year of the Lord and the day of vengeance of our God” in one sentence, but by closing the book after reading only the former phrase, in Nazareth’s synagogue, our Lord made it abundantly clear that these were not to occur simultaneously. The former phrase concerned the day in which He spoke, but the latter concerned a future day. Indeed, we now know that “the day of vengeance” did not even follow immediately after “the acceptable year of the Lord.”[ref]See the author’s booklet, Now is the Time.[/ref] So it is with the two passages above referred to. They merely say that both the just and the unjust will be raised and judged, but other Scriptures must be consulted for further light as to details of time, etc.
Our Lord’s words in John 5:28,29 already indicate that only “they that have done evil” will arise in “the resurrection of damnation” and that this is thus to be distinguished from “the resurrection of life.”
Should it be objected that our Lord spoke of an “hour” in this connection (Ver. 28), we reply that in Verse 25 He also spoke of an “hour” both coming and then present—an hour which has already lasted more than nineteen hundred years. The language is clearly idiomatic in both cases.
Furthermore, how could there be a general resurrection and judgment when I Corinthians 15:22-24 gives us a definite order of successive resurrections, when I Thessalonians 4:16-18 speaks of a resurrection in which only “the dead in Christ” shall have part, and when Revelation 20:5 speaks of a “first [Lit., former] resurrection” to take place before the millennium and states that “the rest of the dead lived not again until the thousand years were finished”?
THE FINAL JUDGMENT OF THE UNSAVED DEAD
The great white throne is clearly the final judgment of the unsaved dead. Its purpose, however, is not to determine the guilt of those who stand before it—this was established long before—but rather to manifest sin and deal with it finally, for the fire of the lake of fire has already been kindled in hades. Thus the rich man in hades spoke of being “tormented in this flame” and sought to save his brothers from “this place of torment.” This also explains in what sense “death and [hades]” will be cast into the lake of fire.
Indeed, while “gehenna” is spoken of as synonymous with the lake of fire, our Lord frequently speaks as though His hearers will, if rebellious, be cast into its flames at death—this, simply because the fire has already been kindled. Hence His warnings regarding “gehenna” (Matt. 5:29,30; 10:28; etc.), “everlasting fire” (Matt. 25:41), and “the fire that never shall be quenched” (Mark 9:43-49).
The Scene Described
What could be more terrible to contemplate than the final judgment of the ungodly, where the Son of God, who loved men enough to die in shame and disgrace for their sins, must deal righteously with those who have refused to call upon His name; where sinners will be made to appear before the august majesty of Him who occupies the great white throne where their long-hidden sins will be exposed to the white light of His holiness!
The Throne, Its Occupant and Those Who Stand Before It
The throne is called “great” evidently because of the vastness of its jurisdiction. There the billions of earth’s unsaved will be gathered, from every age of history and every nation of the world.
It is called a “white” throne because its dazzling brilliance will not, like human courts, be sullied by partiality, dishonesty or cruelty. It will be a throne of perfect and absolute justice.
But if the throne is great and dazzling, more so its Occupant. He is not described. He cannot be, for He appears in the infinite glory of His eternal Godhead and, from His face, the earth and heaven flee away and no place is found for them. If only the multitudes before Him could also flee away, but they cannot. He holds the central place and claims the undivided attention of all. Here, at last, sinners will find themselves exposed to the searching gaze of Him who is “of purer eyes than to behold evil” and who “canst not look on iniquity.” Here, finally, their sins will be manifested in their true light as utterly accursed and worthy only of the most dreadful retribution. At first it may appear that there are no witnesses. But the Great Witness is on the throne. A second is in every man’s heart, a third in every neighbor’s face, and all the evidence is in the “books.”
The throne of Revelation 4:2-6 and its Occupant are surrounded by a rainbow of promise, but not so here, for here there will no longer be any hope—only condemnation and doom.
“And I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God” (20:12).
There they stand, the highest, who once presumed that their riches or learning or worldly prestige placed them in a position of special privilege—and the lowest, who confused sin with misfortune and supposed that God would not hold such as them accountable. There they stand, the small and the great, now all on the same level, to answer to Him who is no respecter of persons.
The Books and the Book
“And the books were opened… and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works” (Ver. 12).
This can mean but one thing: Complete records have been kept of man’s works. How? Of what sort? For one thing, modern science has discovered that nothing in nature is lost, whether sound or light or motion. Throw a stone into a pond and its ripples travel out to the edge and back endlessly, smaller as they go, but also faster, and leaving their impact upon all that with which they come into contact. Light and sound also keep traveling endlessly into space and are woven into the very texture of things. Whether we like it or not, the words we say are recorded and the proper instruments could pick them up. Edison learned this and Joshua was doubtless more scientifically correct than he knew when he said to the children of Israel:
“Behold, this stone shall be a witness unto us, for it hath heard all the words of the Lord which He spake unto us: it shall be therefore a witness unto you, lest ye deny your God” (Josh. 24:27).
Let mechanical sound and photo recordings perish, but God will still have a journal of every man’s career in the imperishable record of nature, and also a record, of whatever kind, of the hidden thoughts and motives. The sinner’s biography will be exact and complete, with abundant and overwhelming proof of his guilt.
At the great white throne, the vast library will be opened to scrutiny, to memory, to conscience, and the wicked will be judged according to its perfect record.
The Basis of the Judgment
“The day when God shall judge the secrets of men by Jesus Christ according to my gospel” (Rom. 2:16).
How just are the judgments of God!
Referring here, evidently, to the judgment of the unbelieving at the great white throne, the Apostle Paul points out the reasonableness and righteousness of that judgment. Let us consider this passage carefully.
“God shall judge the secrets of men.” In human courts there are frequently miscarriages of justice because all the facts are not brought to light. At the great white throne this will not be so. On the throne will be the One before whom no secret can remain hidden.
“Neither is there any creature that is not manifest in His sight, but all things are naked and opened unto the eyes of Him with whom we have to do” (Heb. 4:13).
“God shall judge the secrets of men by Jesus Christ.” This too has been done so that the judgment might by wholly just. Were the Judge God alone, and not also man, it might be objected that such judgment could hardly be fair, but, as it is, men will be judged at the great white throne by One who loved them enough to become one of them that He might understand them, help them, yea, and die for their sins to save them.
“…according to my gospel.” But how, it may be asked, can it be just to judge men of bygone ages on the basis of a message which they have never heard? If it is true that Paul’s gospel was “kept secret since the world began” (Rom. 16:25) until made known to him by the glorified Lord, how can it be just to judge men of all ages according to his gospel?
The answer is that in the Pauline revelation we have the very “[secret] of the gospel” (Eph. 6:19)—that is, the secret of all God’s good news down through the ages. It has now been revealed how—on what basis—Abel, Noah, David and other Old Testament saints were saved; that, because Christ was to die, they could be saved by approaching God by faith in the way that He then prescribed. Thus when mere professors of the Mosaic dispensation, for example, appear before the great white throne, they will not be judged for imperfections in the sacrifices they offered, or technicalities in the Mosaic law which they failed to observe. They will be judged because their sacrifices and religious works were not offered to God in faith. The works for which men are to be judged at that great day will merely be the fruit and evidence of their unbelief, whether “good” works or bad works.
Suppose God, at that day, should judge men on the basis of the law of Moses rather than on the basis of the gospel of the grace of God. No one but Christ has ever been able to keep the law of Moses. How then would it be just to hold men accountable for that which they cannot possibly attain to? The only sense in which the law will enter into the judgment of the unsaved who lived from Moses to Christ is that man’s response to the revealed will of God is ever the evidence of his faith or unbelief, obedience or rebellion (Rom. 2:11-15).
This is why the judgment of the great white throne will proceed on the basis of the good news proclaimed by Paul, that, because of the death of Christ for sin, salvation is, and always has been, essentially by grace, through faith—that never in any age has salvation been denied to one single person who has taken God at His Word and approached Him in His way.
Among the unsaved, of course, there are still degrees of wickedness. Thus, while the phrase “every man” of Revelation 20:13 indicates that there will be no respect of persons at the great white throne, the phrase “according to his works” indicates that the sentence will not be an arbitrary one; that the penalty will be graded to transgression and responsibility. This would agree with such passages as Matthew 11:20-24 and Luke 12:47,48. Indeed, the books will be opened so that each man may see for himself what he did and acknowledge the judgment to be just.