"From thence He shall come to judge the living and the dead"
And they also said, 'Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into the sky? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in just the same way as you have watched Him go into heaven.Acts 2:11
For after all it is only just for God to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to give relief to you who are afflicted and to us as well when the Lord Jesus shall be revealed from heaven with His mighty angels in flaming fire, dealing out retribution to those who do not know God and to those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.2 Thessalonians 1:6-8
Most of us have probably heard or used some form of the cliché that "there is nothing more certain in life than death and taxes." Those who employ this expression do so to underscore the certainty, the inevitability, even the inescapability, of these two realities. Everything else in life is, by contrast, able to be escaped or avoided. But not so these two!
It is interesting, however, to observe that the Scriptures emphasize another certainty which we are often tempted to minimize or overlook. And that is the certainty of God's judgment upon our lives. Often the Word of God even links the certainty of death and of God's judgment closely together. In Hebrews 9:27-28 we read, "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 await Him." Similarly, the apostle Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 5:10, in the context of describing the death of the believer, "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."
Perhaps the chief reason this certainty is neglected or minimized by many is that it suggests something foreboding and disquieting. After all who wants to contemplate the prospect of standing before God's judgment seat, to be examined and judged according to what we have done in this life?! How different this view of God is from the picture so many want to have of Him today! If God is conceived of as a kindly, gentle, almost "grandfatherly" figure who winks at sin and easily embraces the sinner, surely He will not be found in the business of subjecting His creatures at the final judgment to careful example, to everlasting punishment — would He? It is not difficult, in other words, to determine why this is an aspect of our confession which is so often bypassed.
The Apostles' Creed, however, includes it in its description of Christ's person and work; Christ has been appointed to judge the living and the dead when He comes again. The last article and the only one to speak of the future work of Christ declares, "from thence He shall come to judge the living and the dead." After Christ's ascension to heaven and at the conclusion of His session at the Father's right hand, He will come again to carry out God's judgment of all.
The certainty of Christ's coming again
The first thing to notice about this confession concerning our Lord is that it speaks of a certain future. All of the previous articles of the Apostles' Creed use either the past tense or the present tense to describe Christ's person and work. This article, however, speaks of the future; it speaks of something which the Christian believer expects or anticipates because it is promised in the Word of God.
This immediately underscores for us that Christ's present reign at the Father's right hand is one which is moving toward its God-appointed goal. The history of redemption under the present lordship of Jesus Christ, a history in which the Son is by His Spirit and Word gathering, defending and preserving His church, is moving unfailingly toward its consummation. Christ is coming! He is coming indeed!
The Christian believer lives, accordingly, out of the certain conviction that Christ who returned to the Father and sits at His right hand will come in the same way in which He went to the Father. In the New Testament Christ's coming again is frequently emphasized and several terms are used to describe its nature. Sometimes it is referred to as His "coming" or His "being present" (compare Matthew 24:3, 27, 37, 39; 1 Corinthians 15:23; 1 Thessalonians 2:19; 3:13; 4:15; 5:23; 2 Thessalonians 2:1; James 5:7, 8; 2 Peter 1:7, 13: 4:13); sometimes it is referred to as His "appearing" (compare 2 Thessalonians 2:8; 1 Timothy 6:14; Titus 2:13); other times it is referred to as His "revelation" (compare Thessalonians 2 2:1; James 5:7, 8; 2 Peter 3:4). Common to all of these references is the teaching that Christ will return visibly and bodily, and that His return will reveal or unveil for all to see, the glory and power which are now His at the Father's right hand.
Unfortunately, this certainty and lively expectation of Christ's coming again has declined within the contemporary Christian church, particularly in the West. Sometimes this decline expresses an unbelieving denial of God's Word; many "liberal" churches and theologians simply deny the biblical teaching that Christ will come again even as He ascended to heaven. Sometimes it is due to an excessive curiosity on the part of some Christians who try to determine the "time" of Christ's coming and the events which are thought to precede it. Who of us has not met someone who thought they knew the "day or the hour" of Christ's return? Because many of these attempts are fanciful and contrary to the biblical warnings against "dating" Christ's return, there has often been a failure to cultivate a keen awareness of Christ's return to judge the living and the dead. The Scriptural exhortation to be prepared for Christ's return has lost its edge for many. The inclusion of this article in the Creed, however, reminds us that this is an indispensable component of our confession of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.
The consummating act of Christ's exaltation
It should also be noted that this article emphasizes that the Christian expectation for the future focuses, not upon some general event or ill-defined final judgement but upon the return of Christ, the exalted Lord and Head of the church. Our hope as believers is that the same Lord who became incarnate, who suffered and died in our place, who was raised again on the third day and ascended to heaven, who sits at the Father's right hand — is the One who is coming again to execute God's judgment!
Thus, this article of the Creed echoes the biblical teaching that Christ's return is the consummating act of His heavenly session and exaltation. The coming again of our Lord marks the culmination and final step in His exaltation. He has been given, by virtue of His exaltation, not only the right to gather His church and exercise His authority over all things, but also to judge all men on behalf of the Father. The distinctive work of our Lord which is always associated with His return is this work of judgment.
In the Scriptures this work of judgment is a special prerogative granted to Christ as Savior or Mediator. In the gospel of John, Christ Himself is recorded to have declared,
For not even the Father judges anyone, but He has given all judgment to the Son, even as they honor the Father.
The apostle Peter likewise describes the gospel the apostles were commissioned to preach as including this work of judgment on the part of the exalted Christ: "And He ordered us to preach to the people, and solemnly to testify that this is the One who has been appointed by God as Judge of the living and the dead" (Acts 10:42; compare Acts 17:31; Matthew 19:28; 25:31-34; Luke 3:17; Romans 2:16; 14:9; 2 Corinthians 5:10; 2 Timothy 4:1; James 5:9). Therefore, the Christian expectation is quite different from the general and often sub-Christian view that there will be a "final reckoning of sorts" or that all will undergo some kind of judgment by God in the end.
From the biblical descriptions of Christ's work of judgment we can confidently confess that it will be a judgment of all men without exception, the living and the dead, believer and unbeliever alike. Moreover, all will be judged by the standard or measure of God's Word, particularly by what they have done with the gospel of Jesus Christ (John 5:22-27; 2 Thessalonians 1:5-10). Even those who have not heard the gospel preached will be justly judged and condemned by the standard of what God had revealed to them concerning Himself whether by the creation itself or by the witness of the conscience (Romans 1:18-2:16). This work of judgment will not be carried out in order to discover who will be saved or condemned. Rather, it will be carried out in order to reveal and to vindicate God's justice in the salvation of His people and the condemnation of the wicked and unbelieving. It will be a work in which "God will judge the secrets of men through Christ Jesus" (Romans 2:16) and provide a demonstration of the rightness of His final judgment or verdict upon the believer and unbeliever.
An encouragement for Christ's church
Because the Christian expectation of the final judgment focuses upon the return of Christ in glory and power to judge the living and the dead, it is an expectation which is deeply encouraging for Christ's church. The Christian confession of Christ's coming again is a key component of the gospel, the "good news" of our salvation through Christ. Even though for many the prospect of a final judgment generates fear and anxiety, for the Christian believer the confession of Christ's return to judge the living and the dead is a great comfort and joy!
In the passage from 1 Thessalonians I cited above, the apostle Paul reminds the church in Thessalonica of Christ's certain coming again (His "revelation from heaven") in order to encourage the believers in the midst of their present suffering and distress. Christ's "revelation" or coming will conclude their present pilgrimage as believers and bring to an end their suffering for the sake of the gospel, a suffering which included persecution by those who opposed the gospel and painful struggle with the remaining power of sin and darkness. Paul assures them that Christ's coming means that they will be granted the long-awaited Sabbath rest of God's people which the gospel promises. This is literally the word of encouragement in verse 7, where we read that God will "give relief to you who are afflicted and to us as well when the Lord Jesus shall be revealed from heaven with His mighty angels in flaming fire." Christ's revelation will bring rest and shalom to the people of God; it will mark the final step in Christ's exaltation, the completion of His saving work on His people's behalf. Consequently, the apostle adds strikingly that at His coming Christ will "be glorified in His saints" and "marveled at among all who have believed"!
This note of joy in anticipation of Christ, the bridegroom's, coming to receive the church, His bride, is a keynote in New Testament descriptions of Christ's return. Thus, Christ's return, far from being an occasion from which to shrink back in fear, is something for which the church prays — "Maranatha!" — and which she eagerly anticipates. For this coming will mark the beginning of the marriage feast of the Lamb and His bride (Revelation 19:7); it will mark the day of Christ's glorification in His people, in the completion of the work He has begun in them by His Spirit and Word. It is the day when the whole church will marvel at Christ when He is revealed; for this day will reveal the hitherto veiled glory and power of the bridegroom whom the church loved and for whom she eagerly waited (compare 1 Peter 1:7-8).
The Heidelberg Catechism underscores this joy when it describes the "comfort" of this article in the Creed concerning Christ's coming again:
How does Christ's return 'to judge the living and the dead' comfort you? In all my distress and persecution I turn my eyes to the heavens and confidently await as judge the very One who has already stood trial in my place before God and so has removed the whole curse from me. All his enemies and mine he will condemn to everlasting punishment: but me and all his chosen ones he will take alone with him into the joy and the glory of heaven.
Question and Answer 52
As believers we may rejoice at the prospect of Christ's coming to judge the living and the dead, for we know and believe that the judge who comes has already been judged in our place. The judge who comes is also our Savior, Redeemer and Friend!
A frightening prospect for the unbelieving
Nevertheless, there is good reason that for many the thought of a final judgment, which concludes history and which issues in the fullness of salvation for some and the reality of eternal punishment for others, is frightening. This should not be surprising, since Christ's work of judgment will involve, to employ the language of the Catechism just cited, a condemnation of "all His enemies and mine to everlasting punishment."
Admittedly, this is not the kind of language commonly heard today, not even in the church! But it is the language of our confession which in turn echoes the language of the Scriptures. It is impossible to avoid, moreover, for invariably the Scriptures speak of Christ's coming again as a day of darkness and not light for the unbelieving and the impenitent. Furthermore, this is language which is found not only on the pages of the Old Testament; it is also found frequently on the pages of the New Testament.
For example, in the passage cited earlier from 2 Thessalonians 1, the Word of God uses strong and clear language to describe the fearful consequence of Christ's coming for the unbelieving, those who are enemies of Christ and of His church. Rather than paraphrasing this description, listen to what it says:
For after all it is only just for God to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to give relief to you who are afflicted and to us as well when the Lord Jesus shall be revealed from heaven with His mighty angels in flaming fire, dealing out retribution to those who do not know God and to those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. And these will pay the penalty of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power, when He comes to be glorified in His saints on that day, and to be marveled at among all who have believed.
Similar language is frequently found in the Scriptures, so that the language of the Catechism is clearly consistent with the teaching of the written Word.
This demands our notice, not because this is a subject upon which the believer wishes perversely to dwell, but because it is a biblical emphasis notably lacking in contemporary preaching and teaching within the church. Various forms of "universalism" which endeavor to deny or minimize the reality of the condemnation of the unbelieving are increasingly popular, even among "evangelicals." The biblical teaching that Christ's coming will mean condemnation and eternal punishment for the unbelieving is often avoided like the plague, though it is an inescapable feature of the apostolic preaching of the gospel. To emphasize and teach, however, only half of the truth resident in this article of Creed is not to preach the truth at all. Here, as is true elsewhere, a partial truth proves to be a falsehood.
This article in the Creed, therefore, presses home to each one of us the inescapable questions — do we practice as believers a lively expectation of Christ's coming again to judge the living and the dead? Does the prospect of His certain return evoke in us joyful anticipation, or a fearful prospect of judgment? These are the questions, of course, of a preacher who has been called to preach the gospel. But I am a preacher, and these are the questions with which the gospel inescapably confronts us all!
The biblical view of Christ's work of judgment leaves no place for what in Seventh Day Adventism is called Christ's "investigative judgment." In Seventh Day Adventism this work of judgment includes a "discovery" of who will be saved and condemned, and this discovery is based upon a doctrine of salvation according to works of obedience done according to the requirements of the law. Not only is this contrary to Scripture but it is incompatible with the biblical teaching that already in the "intermediate state," believers and unbelievers enter into a provisional and anticipatory enjoyment of salvation and condemnation. It is also appropriate to note here that this biblical view of the finality of Christ's judgment is flatly contrary to any notion of a "reincarnation" or a second probation after death. We are judged according to those works "done in the body" (2 Corinthians 5:10).