For God has enclosed all in disobedience, so that he might have mercy on all. Oh, the depth of God’s riches and wisdom and knowledge! How unsearchable his judgments and inscrutable his ways!
Dear People of God,
The end of the year always comes with a torrent of judgments.
Some are trivial, like the many “Best of 2021” lists for music or movies. Some are important, like evaluations of a president’s first year in office. Some are personal, like when we take stock of successes and struggles in the year that was. Whether serious or silly, political or personal, judgments abound especially at the end of each year. It is only natural, after all, for only when something has come to completion can comprehensive judgments truly be made.
And yet every act of judgment, no matter how provisional, evokes something of the final judgment at the end of all things. Every sign of progress and successful resolution, no matter how small, becomes a source of hope and confidence. On the other hand, every unmet goal and unfulfilled ambition, no matter how mundane, carries an echo of finality; there are no do-overs.
Maybe this is why our society continues to be captivated by scenes of judgment even in our age of religious disaffiliation. While some of these portrayals of the end can be quite serious, involving world-ending disasters or zombie apocalypses, others can be quite trivial. In fact, hardly a week goes by that I don’t see at least one newspaper comic using the imagery of the last judgment to mock some facet of modern life.
You’ve undoubtedly seen them. One of the common formats portrays the judgment as some ethereal TSA line, where the newly deceased wait single-file to stand before Saint Peter’s podium and learn whether Heaven will let them in. Another pictures Hell as a fiery cave with bored pitchfork-wielding devils orienting new arrivals for their stay.
Of course, these sorts of pop-culture portrayals of judgment are nothing new. In 1320, Dante Alighieri completed The Divine Comedy, the first section of which (Inferno) describes an icy Hell divided into nine regions, each of which are dedicated to creatively punishing a particular sin. Some three centuries later, John Milton wrote Paradise Lost, which portrays Satan as a fallen angel who rules over the demons in Hell before escaping to corrupt the first humans.
Even for those who are not religious, these accounts of the last judgment are part of our collective consciousness, and they come to mind anytime we hear about Heaven or Hell or judgment. But despite their familiarity, these descriptions are pure fantasy, bearing little to no resemblance to what we find in scripture.
Let’s read the description of the last judgment in Revelation 20:
I saw a great white throne and the one seated upon it, from whose face earth and heaven fled, though no place was found for them. And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. (Also, another book was opened, which is the Book of Life.) And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to their works. And the Sea gave up the dead that were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and they were each judged according to their works. (Revelation 20:11-13)
In this symbolic description of the end, there is no waiting in line, nor are there demonic tour guides or even Saint Peter. Instead, there is only God seated on the throne as judge, and all of creation is laid bare before God’s inescapable gaze. When the primordial powers of Sea, Death, and Hades have given up their dead, all are judged according to their works as revealed in “the books” of the Law.
This should be the end: the Law has had its say and all accounts have been settled. But incredibly, after the judgment of the Law is complete, there is yet another judgment, according to an entirely different word!
Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire! This is the second death, the lake of fire; and if someone was not found written in the Book of Life, they were thrown into the lake of fire. (Revelation 20:14-15)
First, Death and Hades are done away with, cast to their destruction in the lake of fire; they have no place in God’s new creation. Once this is done, the second judgment is carried out by reading the names written in the Book of Life. This Book of Life is not a record of those who did more good than bad, instead it is the book in which Jesus (called the Son of Man and the Lamb Who Was Slain) has written the names of his people (Revelation 3:5, 13:8). This second judgment, in which Jesus calls his people by name, is the true final judgment, and it is not a judgment according to works, but only according to the promise of Jesus. To put it another way, while there is indeed a judgment according to the Law, it is the Gospel alone that has the last word.
See how different this is from the popular portrayals of judgment and salvation! While the natural assumption is that Heaven and Hell are rewarded on the balance of a person’s good and bad works, scripture tells a very different story. No one is justified before God by the works of the Law, (Romans 3:20) therefore the result of judgment according to works is universal condemnation. And so God speaks a second judgment, this time not on the basis of works but given as a radically free promise: “You are my child, my chosen beloved, and in you I delight.” While this does not undo the Law’s judgment, it does put that judgment in its place. Rather than determining your eternal future, the Law and its judgment become tools in God’s hands to enclose you in disobedience in preparation for God’s mercy.
And so, beloved, as you look back on 2021 and forward to 2022, and as your judgments and the judgments of the world swirl about you, be strengthened in this promise: Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd who seeks and saves the lost, has again sought you out. He has pierced through the shroud of judgments surrounding you with a judgment of his own: “You are a sheep of my fold, a lamb of my flock, a sinner of my redeeming. I have written your name in my Book of Life, and nothing will take you out of my hand.” With this promise, your future is secured, and your final judgment is come. You are now entirely free.
Your Brother in Christ,