This article discusses the events that will be concurrent with the return of Christ. It focuses particularly on the final judgment., discussing the timing, necessity, and purpose of the final judgment.

Source: The Outlook, 1998. 7 pages.

Concomitants of the Second Advent: The Final Judgment

Many of us are probably familiar with the saying, "there is nothing more cer­tain than death and taxes." Not only does this saying reveal an almost universal distaste for paying taxes, but it also reveals a grudging recog­nition that life, at least life in this body, eventually comes to an end. Though people are adept at finding ways to avoid the reality of death — in the United States, the industry dedicated to keeping people looking young takes in billions every year — no one can ultimately deny its cer­tainty. Though taxes can be avoided by legal or illegal means, death can­not be! The evidence for this truth is compelling, inescapable and uni­versal.

However, there is another reality no less certain than death. And that is the reality of the final judgment. The writer of Hebrews, speaking of the second coming of Christ, remarks:

And inasmuch as it is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment, so Christ also, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, shall appear a second time for salvation with­out reference to sin, to those who eagerly wait Him.

9:27, em­phasis mine

The final judgment is, like the res­urrection of the body, an end-time event which will accompany the re­turn of Christ at the close of this present period of history. Consequently, when Christians affirm their faith in the Apostles' Creed, they speak not only of the resurrection of the body but also of the return of Christ from heaven "to judge the living and the dead."

Now that we have considered the first concomitant of Christ's second advent, the resurrection of the body, I would like in this article to take up a number of questions that relate to the Bible's teaching about the final judgment. After this I will address myself directly to a question that is often disputed, namely, whether this judgment will include the granting of differing re­wards to the righteous, depending upon their good works.

The Timing and Number of Final Judgment(s)🔗

Among the first questions that arise regarding the final judgment are the ques­tions of its time and the number of judgments that will occur. Historic and dispensational pre­-millennialists speak of several judgments which are distinguishable ac­cording to their time, place and subjects. Though there is a great deal of diversity of opinion among representatives of these views, the most common dispensa­tionalist position speaks of four dis­tinct judgments: the judgment of believers at the rapture; the judg­ment of Israel at the close of the seven year period of tribulation; the judgment of the nations; and the "great white throne judgment" at the close of the millennial age (Revelation 20:11-15).1 TThe first three of these judgments precede, and the last fol­lows, the millennium. These distinct judgments are a necessary part of the pre-millennialist conception of the future. For instance, because pre-millennialism distinguishes be­tween the resurrection of believers before the millennium and the res­urrection of unbelievers after the millennium, at least two distinct (in time and in subjects) judgments are necessary.

A complete answer to these questions would require a review of a number of points that I have made in preceding articles. In those articles, I have given a variety of arguments against the pre-millennialist position, whether in its historic or dispensational expression. Once it is admitted that the return of Christ will occur at the end of the age and after the millennium of Revelation 20, no occasion or need remains for claiming that there will be more than one judgment. Furthermore, once it is acknowledged that the final judgment will occur after the resurrection of the body and in close association with it, then it seems quite clear that the final judgment will be a single event in which all are judged, believer and unbeliever alike, Jew as well as Gentile. Just as we have seen that the resurrection will be an event at the end of the age which embraces believer and unbeliever alike (John 5:25-29), so the final judgment will include all. As the apostle Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:10, "For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may be recompensed for his deeds in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad" (emphasis mine). When Christ describes the final judgment in Matthew 25, all the nations and peoples are said to be judged together and a separation is pronounced between the "sheep" and the "goats" (Matthew 25:31-46).2

Though it is evident that the final judgment will occur as a single event after the resurrection, it is not as clear from Scripture whether it will precede or follow the transformation of the creation at the end of the age. Some passages seem to suggest that the judgment will take place before the recreation of the heavens and earth (e.g., 2 Peter 3:7). However, in other passages the final judgment is simply linked with the end of the present age (e.g.: Matthew 13:40-43; Matthew 25:31-32; 2 Thessalonians 1:7-10), but without any in­dication that it will occur prior to the renewal of all things. In Revelation 20:12, it is suggested that the judg­ment will immediately follow the general resurrection:

And I saw the dead, the great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened; and another book was opened, which is the book of life; and the dead were judged from the things which were written in the books, according to their deeds.

In the sequence of visions in Rev­elation 20, the great white throne judgment is followed by a series of visions which describe the new heav­ens and earth. Admittedly, as we have had occasion to see before, the visions of Revelation are not ar­ranged in a neat chronological or­der. The placement of the visions of the new heavens and earth after that of the great white throne judgment, however, does suggest that this may be the sequence of events to be ex­pected at the end of the age: first, the resurrection, second, the final judgment, and third, the transforma­tion of the creation.3

A question that sometimes sur­faces in this connection, one to which the Scriptures do not give a direct answer, has to do with the duration of the final judgment. Will the final judgment be a quick and relatively short event, or will it take place over a more extended period of time?4  On several occasions, the Bible speaks of the final judgment as a day of judgment (compare Matthew 7:22; 11:22; 2 Thessalonians 1:10; 2 Timothy 1:12; Romans 5). This language, however, should not be pressed to mean a literal period of one day. It may only be a way of referring to the peculiar period which will be marked off for the purpose of judgment. Just as the Scriptures speak of this as the "day" of salvation (compare Hebrews 3:7-19), a day is coming when all will be judged for what they have done in the body, whether good or bad.

The Judgment's Necessity and Purpose🔗

One question regarding the final judgment is prompted by our con­sideration earlier of what we termed the "intermediate state." Since the intermediate state involves a provisional circumstance of blessedness for believers and of distress for un­believers, it would seem that the fi­nal judgment serves no useful pur­pose for those who have died prior to Christ's return. Though it may be necessary for those who are living at Christ's return that they be judged and pronouncement of weal or woe be made regarding them, this is not the case for those who have already entered by way of death into a pro­visional state that anticipates what the judgment will declare concern­ing them. What necessity for or pur­pose is served by the final judgment of those who have already been de­termined to be saved or lost?

The problem with this question is that it treats the final judgment too much in terms of our ordinary un­derstanding of what takes place in a human trial court with its process of reaching and pronouncing a verdict. However, the final judgment is a work of God, particularly, as we shall see, a work of Christ who has been appointed as Judge. As a work of God, it cannot be understood as a process so much of investigation to determine the guilt or innocence of those judged, as an occasion to pro­nounce and execute with divine authority the sentence that God alone can pass with perfect justice upon all who are judged. Since God knows all those who are His — indeed, He knows them from eternity (compare Ephesians 1:4; Romans 8:29) — He is not dis­covering them by means of this fi­nal judgment. Rather, He is reveal­ing His power and glory as the One who alone has the prerogative to judge His creatures and to declare their final destiny. In pronouncing and executing this judgment, God not only declares openly the final state of every person but dispenses His judgment and reward in a way that confirms His righteousness.

The descriptions of the final judg­ment found in Scripture and the con­fessions confirm this to be its pur­pose and necessity. A good example of this emphasis upon the final judgment as the occasion for God to manifest His glory in His work of judgment is found in the Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter XXIII, ii:

The end of God's appointing this day is for the manifestation of the glory of his mercy, in the eter­nal salvation of the elect; and of his justice, in the damnation of the reprobate, who are wicked and disobedient. For then shall the righteous go into everlasting life, and receive that fullness of joy and refreshing, which shall come from the presence of the Lord; but the wicked who know not God, and obey not the gos­pel of Jesus Christ, shall be cast into eternal torments, and be punished with everlasting de­struction from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of his power.

Who Will Be the Judge?🔗

One prominent and clear teaching of Scripture respecting the final judgment is that Christ will be the Judge. Among those prerogatives that characterize the exaltation and rule of Christ at the right hand of the Father is the prerogative to carry out the final judgment. In keeping with this biblical emphasis, the Apostles' Creed speaks of the return of Christ as a coming "to judge the living and the dead." The great work in which Christ will be engaged at His com­ing is the work of judgment, vindi­cating His people and the cause of the gospel, condemning all their and His enemies.

It belongs to Christ's glory and of­fice as King that He is granted the authority to carry out the final judg­ment (compare Matthew 28:18; Philippians 2:9, 10). In John 5:22-23, we read, "For not even the Father judges anyone, but He has given all judgment to the Son, in order that all may honor the Son, even as they honor the Father." Later, in the same chapter, Christ closely associates the resurrection of the just and the unjust with His "authority to execute judgment" (v. 27). At the close of his sermon on Mars hill, the apostle Paul declares that God "has fixed a day in which he will judge the world in righteous­ness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead" (Acts 17:31). The apostle Paul also speaks of the day of judgment as one on which all must appear "be­fore the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may be recompensed for his deeds in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad" (2 Corinthians 5:10). Similarly, in the familiar description of the final judg­ment given in Matthew 25, the Lord Jesus Christ speaks of the time "when the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him" to sit on "His glorious throne" (v. 31; compare 2 Thessalonians 1:7-10). In these and other passages, it is unmistak­ably clear that the One who will judge and sit upon the throne of judgment is Christ Himself.

The significance of this truth is captured well in the Heidelberg Catechism's answer to the question,

What comfort is it to you that Christ shall come to judge the living and the dead?

That in all my sorrows and perse­cutions, with uplifted head I look for the very same Person who before has offered Himself for my sake to the tribunal of God, and has removed all curse from me, to come as Judge from heaven; who shall cast all His and my enemies into everlasting condemnation, but shall take me with all His chosen ones to Himself into heavenly joy and glory.5

Though the coming of Christ in glory and power to judge the living and the dead is a fearful prospect for the wicked and unbelieving, it is an unspeakable comfort to those who have believed in Him and devoted themselves to His service. In the day of Christ's coming and judgment, the unbelieving and impenitent will be condemned. But the people of God will receive from the Judge, who is also their Savior who was previously judged in their place, their vindication and rest.

Before taking up the next question regarding the final judgment, there is a wrinkle on the question of who will be the Judge that invites comment. In some of the biblical descriptions of the final judgment, it is suggested that believers and even the angels who serve the Lord will have a role to play in it. In 1 Corinthians 6:2-3, the apostle Paul, in the context of his rebuke to the Corinthians not to take fellow believ­ers to court, reminds them that "the saints will judge the world" (v. 2). The vision of Revelation 20 also speaks of the "judgment" that is given to those who reign with Christ during the millennium (v. 4). Simi­lar descriptions of believers sharing in the work of judgment are found in other passages as well (compare Psalm 145:5-9; Matthew 19:28). What are we to make of these passages? What role do the saints and the angels play in Christ's work of judgment?

It is difficult to say exactly what the nature of the saints' participation in the final judgment will be. Certainly, because Christ is the Mediator and Head of His people, they share fully in whatever honor or glory belongs to Him. On the principle that be­lievers are co-heirs with Christ of all things (1 Corinthians 3:21-23), it follows that they have some part in His work of judgment. What that part might be exactly remains unclear. Nothing that they do could be done indepen­dently of the work of Christ. Nor could it be said to add something otherwise lacking in the work of Christ. Perhaps it is best, therefore, to note simply that they share in the victory and glory that belong to Christ in His activity as the Judge at His coming. As to the involvement of the angels, it is best to restrict it to the kinds of things often mentioned in the biblical descriptions of the final judgment: their ministry is auxiliary and subordinate to that of Christ. To the angels is assigned the work of gathering the peoples together for the judgment and executing the judgment that is pronounced (compare e.g.: Matthew 13:41-2; 24:31; 25:31; 2 Thessalonians 1:7).

Who and What Will Be Judged?🔗

The fact that believers need not fear the final judgment because it will vindicate their faith and service to the Lord, does not mean that the final judgment will only be of those who are unbelieving and impenitent. The Scriptures teach that all will be judged, the just and the unjust. No one will be spared or excluded from this judgment when the books are opened and the verdict is pro­nounced.

In a number of Scripture passages, reference is made to a judgment that will include all people who have ever lived. Some of these passages have been noted already in the preceding. For example, in Revelation 20:11-15 general references are made to "the dead" (vv. 12, 13). Furthermore, the language used in this passage to de­scribe the outcome of the judgment suggests that these dead include both believers and others who, be­cause their names were not written "in the book of life" (v. 15), are thrown into the lake of fire. According to the teaching of Romans 2:5-6, in the day of the "revelation of the righ­teous judgment of God," every man will receive according to his works. The well-known description of the final judgment in Matthew 25 de­scribes "all the nations" as being gathered before the throne of the Son of Man. These passages do not limit those who will be judged in any way. The language used confirms that no one will be exempt from be­ing subject to judgment.

This includes all believers who, the Scriptures teach, will also be subject to judgment. Though this judgment is not one that believers need to fear, it is a genuine judgment for them nonetheless. When in 2 Corinthians 5:10 the apostle Paul speaks of "we all" who must appear before the judgment seat of Christ, he is refer­ring specifically and primarily to be­lievers. Hebrews 10:30 states that "the Lord will judge His people." Writing to believers in Rome, the apostle Paul admonishes them for judging their brothers, noting that "we shall all stand before the judg­ment seat of God." James 3:1 speaks of a more severe judgment that will be applied to those among believ­ers who become teachers. And in 1 Peter 4:17, believers are even warned that judgment will "begin with the household of God"!

This liability to judg­ment, however, does not contradict the clear bibli­cal teaching that believers have already passed out of death into life (John 5:24). Nor does it conflict with the confidence expressed in Ro­mans 8:1, that there is "now no con­demnation for those who are in Christ Jesus." It simply means that in the day of judgment a verdict and pronouncement will be made regarding all people who have ever lived, including believers.

One question that has arisen at this point has to do with whether all an­gels will also be subject to judgment. Some Scripture passages suggest that the disobedient or fallen angels will be liable to judgment (2 Peter 2:4; Jude 6) These passages omit any reference to a corresponding judgment of the obedient angels, an omission that has led some to conclude that they are exempted from the judgment. However, there is in one passage, 1 Corinthians 6:2, an intriguing refer­ence to the judgment of angels. This passage does not specify whether these angels are obedient or disobedient. On the basis of this passage, it seems possible that all angels, obe­dient as well as disobedient, will be liable to the final judgment.6  That all angels should be subject to judgment seems to be consistent with the gen­eral teaching of Scripture regarding the purpose of this judgment. In this way, the justice of God's verdicts re­garding all of His creatures will be clearly revealed for all to acknowledge.

If all will be judged — believers and unbelievers, (obedi­ent and) disobedient angels — the question that naturally arises is, what will be judged? This question is especially pressing with respect to believers because, if they are to be judged for sins that are already forgiven, does this not suggest a kind of double jeop­ardy? Why should the sins of believ­ers, washed and blotted out through the blood of Christ, be brought for­ward at the final judgment in order to play a role in the pronouncement of God's judgment upon them?

To start with the first part of this question, the Scriptures are quite vigorous in their teaching that all will be judged for whatever they have done. This includes not only all thoughts, words and deeds, but also the hidden things that may other­wise be unknown. To return to a passage we have cited several times before, 2 Corinthians 5:10 speaks very broadly of the "deeds in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad." This excludes nothing. Matthew 25:35-40 specifi­cally speaks of those things done to "the least of these my brethren," whether they be favorable or unfavorable. Revelation 20:12 speaks of the dead being judged "from the things which were written in the books, according to their deeds" (compare 1 Corinthians 3:8; 1 Peter 1:17; Revelation 22:12). God will not overlook in the day of judgment those works which were done in ac­cord with His will (Ephesians 6:8; Hebrews 6:10). Nor will He overlook the "idle words" (Matthew 12:36) that have been spoken, or the deeds which are "now hidden in darkness" (1 Corinthians 4:5). Just as all are judged, so all that they have done will be subject to judgment.

The more difficult form of this question relates to the propriety of a judgment of the works of believers. If believers are not liable any longer to condemnation, and if they are not fearful of the prospect of a final judgment, then it seems im­plausible that all of their works should be revealed on the day of judgment. Wouldn't the judgment of these works risk bringing shame and embarrassment to believers whose sins are wholly covered and forgiven for the sake of Christ? And wouldn't such shame and embar­rassment be inconsistent with the believer's present confidence that his sins have been removed as far as east is from west (compare Psalm 103:12)?

I will return to one part of the Scriptural answer to this question: the reward for good works that will be granted in connec­tion with the final judgment. Clearly, if there is such a thing as a greater or lesser reward for works done by believers while in the body — as a passage like 1 Corinthians 3:10-15 seems to suggest — then the recognition of sinful and imperfect works, of greater and lesser obedience, will play a role in the final judgment of believers. To be sure, the final judg­ment will not be an occasion for undoing the confidence that believ­ers now enjoy that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. But that the works of believers will be judged is undeniable and may even serve as a legiti­mate motive for diligence and conscientiousness in fighting against sin in this life. Often in the Scrip­tures the prospect of the recognition and reward for work done for the Lord is an encouragement to faithfulness (compare Hebrews 10:25; Jude 24; 2 Timothy 4:1; 1 Peter 5:4).

Though this judgment of the works of believers should not be under­stood to conflict with the Scriptural teaching of salvation by grace alone through faith alone, and though it should not be taught in such a way as to rob the believer of that confi­dence that is born from the gospel promise of the forgiveness of sins — the undeniable teaching of Scripture is that believers will be judged ac­cording to all that they have done in the body, whether good or bad. Not only will this be an occasion for be­lievers to rejoice in the salvation which is theirs in Christ, but it will also be an occasion for God's judg­ment respecting them to be con­firmed as altogether righteous.

The Standard of Judgment🔗

When the final judgment takes place, one critical aspect of this judgment is the standard that will be used to confirm the justice of the verdict pronounced. This standard will be the law and Word of God so far as these have been revealed to those who are judged. The standard will be the same for everyone: what has been revealed or made known to them concerning God's will. How­ever, because there is an important difference in the extent and fulness of what has been revealed, the prin­ciple that will apply is that greater privilege brings greater responsibility. Those to whom much has been given, from them much will rightly be required. Whereas those to whom little has been given, from them less will be required.

The principle of greater or lesser responsibility is set forth strikingly in Matthew 11:20-22. Rebuking the cities in which He had done many of His miracles, Jesus declared se­verely:

Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles had occurred in Tyre and Sidon which occurred in you, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. Nevertheless, I say to you, it shall be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon in the day of judgment, than for you. And you, Capernaum, will not be exalted to heaven, will you? You shall descend to Hades; for if the miracles had occurred in Sodom which occurred in you, it would have remained to this day. Nev­ertheless I say to you that it shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judg­ment, than for you.

These words should not be taken to mean that those to whom less have been given bear little or no respon­sibility for their unbelief and disobe­dience. The principle is one of how much more. All bear the weight of re­sponsibility, the full responsibility, to answer to what God has given to them. Some, however, because they have enjoyed a richer privilege and disclosure of God's words and works are weighted with a greater respon­sibility. This principle is one of the principal themes of the book of He­brews. Because of the greater rich­ness and blessing of the new cov­enant, disobedience and unfaithful­ness in the new covenant situation becomes even more deadly than in the old covenant situation (compare Hebrews 2:1-3; 12:25-29).

Oftentimes this raises the ques­tion, what about those who have not had the opportunity to hear the gos­pel or be taught from the Word of God? Is it fair that they should be judged according to a standard that is unknown to them?

To answer this question, I would reiterate the language used above: The standard of judgment will be the law and will of God so far as these have been revealed. In Romans 1:18-23 and 2:11-16, we are taught that all people, Jews and Gentiles alike, have been given some knowledge of God through the things He has made and the law whose work is written upon their hearts. No one can be excused before God on the basis of a plea of ignorance. To the extent that God has revealed Himself to all, to that extent all are responsible and with­out excuse before Him. Speaking to the question, is it fair that God should judge those who do not have the full light of His Word and gospel? Carl F. H. Henry gives the follow­ing, wise answer:

God's fairness is dem­onstrated because he condemns sinners not in the absence of light but because of their rebel­lious response. His mercy is demonstrated because he provides fallen humans with a privi­leged call to redemption not ex­tended to fallen angels. He continues to extend that call worldwide even while some rebel hu­mans spurn it as unloving and unjust and prefer to die in their sins. All are judged by what they do with the light they have, and none is without light7  (emphasis mine).


Rather than attempt to draw to­gether all the aspects of the final judgment considered in the preced­ing, I would like to close this article with an extensive citation from the Belgic Confession, Article 37. This article wonderfully summarizes the biblical teaching regarding the final judgment as follows:

Finally, we believe, according to the Word of God, when the time appointed by the Lord (which is unknown to all creatures) is come and the number of the elect complete, that our Lord Jesus Christ will come from heaven, corporally and visibly, as He ascended, with great glory and majesty to declare Himself Judge of the living and the dead, burning this world with fire and flame to cleanse it. Then all men will personally appear before this great Judge, both men and women and children, that have been from the beginning of the world to the end thereof, being summoned by the voice of the archangel, and by the sound of the trump of God... Then the books (that is to say, the consciences) shall be opened, and the dead judged according to what they shall have done in this world, whether it be good or evil. Nay, all men shall give account of every idle word they have spoken, which the world only counts amusement and jest; and then the secrets and hypocrisy of men shall be dis­closed and laid open before all. And therefore the consideration of this judgment is justly terrible and dreadful to the wicked and ungodly, but most desirable and comfortable to the righteous and elect; because then their full deliverance shall be perfected, and there they shall receive the fruits of their labor and trouble which they have borne.


  1. ^ The New Scofield Study Bible (New York: Oxford University Press, 1967), notes on Matthew 25:32 and Revelation 20:12. 
  2. ^ The confessions of the Reformation typically speak of the final judgment as a single event at the close of the age which includes all people who have ever lived. See: Belgic Confes­sion, Article XXXVII; Heidelberg Catechism, Lord's Day 19; Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter XXXIII; and Westminster Larger Catechism, Ques­tions 88-90.
  3. ^ However, the sequence given in the Belgic Con­fession, Article XXXVII, seems to be that the fi­nal judgment will follow the transformation or renewal of all things.
  4. ^ The Jehovah's Witnesses' publication, Let God Be True (New York: Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, 1952), p. 286, teaches that the final judgment will encompass the first one thou­sand years of the new world. There is no bibli­cal basis for this teaching. Neither is there any basis for a related Jehovah's Witnesses' teach­ing that the final judgment will be based only upon those works done during the millennium.
  5. ^ It is interesting that this language, echoing the teaching of Scripture, affirms the fulfillment of what is expressed in the so-called "impreca­tory" Psalms. These Psalms include prayers that the enemies of the Lord and His people be vanquished and punished for their sins (e.g. Psalm 137). Though some object to these psalms and their prayers for the punishment of God's enemies — even suggesting that they express an "Old Testament" spirit allegedly at odds with the spirit of the New Testament — it is evident that what they plead for from the Lord will be fulfilled in the context of the final judgment.
  6. ^ The Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter XXXIII, i, seems to take the position that only disobedient or reprobate angels will be judged: "In which day, not only apostate angels shall be judged, but likewise all persons that have lived upon earth shall appear before the tribu­nal of Christ...." Cf. Westminster Larger Catechism, Question 90. The Belgic Confession, Article XXXVII, does not say anything about the judg­ment of angels, whether obedient or disobe­dient.
  7. ^ "Is It Fair?," in Through No Fault of Their Own?: The Fate of Those Who Have Never Heard (ed. by Will­iam V. Crockett and James G. Sigountos; Grand Rapids: Baker, 1991), p. 255.

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