A friend recently asked the question, “If, in Christ, our sins are forgiven (no longer remembered), why will we all stand in judgment?”
This is a surprisingly difficult question. The end of time is pictured different ways in the scriptures.
(And I apologize for being so long-winded in my answer. But that’s what happens when I have to do original research to answer what you’d think would be an easy question. That is, I had fun answering this one.)For example, near the end of his ministry, Matthew records Jesus as saying,
(Mat 25:31-33 ESV) “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left.”
This is Judgment Day in its most traditional envisioning.
(Mat 19:28 ESV) 28 Jesus said to them, “Truly, I say to you, in the new world, when the Son of Man will sit on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.”
Jesus also pictures the Apostles as judging Israel. But Paul pictures the church as judging the world —
(1Co 6:2-3 ESV) 2 Or do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world is to be judged by you, are you incompetent to try trivial cases? 3 Do you not know that we are to judge angels? How much more, then, matters pertaining to this life!
In Revelation, John pictures Jesus as inviting the saved to sit with him on his throne of judgment —
(Rev 3:21 ESV) 21 The one who conquers, I will grant him to sit with me on my throne, as I also conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne.
Paul paints a similar picture in Ephesians —
(Eph 2:5-7 ESV) 5 even when we were dead in our trespasses, [God] made us alive together with Christ — by grace you have been saved — 6 and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7 so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.
And we will “reign” with Jesus —
(2Ti 2:11-13 ESV) 11 The saying is trustworthy, for: If we have died with him, we will also live with him; 12 if we endure, we will also reign with him; if we deny him, he also will deny us; 13 if we are faithless, he remains faithful– for he cannot deny himself.
Remember that in the ancient world, the king — the one who reigns — also sat as the highest court of the land. To “reign” includes acting as judge.
Likely the most important OT passage is —
(Dan 12:1-3 ESV) “At that time shall arise Michael, the great prince who has charge of your people. And there shall be a time of trouble, such as never has been since there was a nation till that time. But at that time your people shall be delivered, everyone whose name shall be found written in the book. 2 And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. 3 And those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky above; and those who turn many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever.”
Daniel has a vision of the general resurrection. The saved and lost are separated because they have separate fates, but insofar as Daniel addresses the question, people are resurrected and then whisked away to either salvation or damnation.
The passage that has likely most fired the imaginations of revival preachers over the centuries, other than Matt 25:31 ff is —
(Rom 2:15-16 ESV) 15 They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them 16 on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.
Similar are —
(1Co 4:5 ESV) Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive his commendation from God.
(2Co 5:10 ESV) 10 For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.
(Ecc 12:14 ESV) For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.
Now, the texts are in agreement that on Judgment Day, Jesus will distinguish between the saved and damned. Secrets will be revealed, but it’s likely that these are only the secrets of the damned. If the saved have their sins forgiven, then they have no unforgiven hidden things to be revealed. And so, I take the “secrets of men” and “the things hidden in darkness” and “every secret thing” to refer to secret sins of the damned only.
On the other hand, good deeds done in secret will become manifest as to the saved, so that God’s judgment will be shown to be just.
So how do we reconcile the separation of good and evil passages from the passages promising that the saved will judge the damned? Well, God can’t separate the saved from the damned without knowing who is who before Judgment is pronounced.
That is,it seems to me that the saved are resurrected to eternal glory, and then they sit in judgment over the damned — sharing the throne of Christ as the saved are a part of his body. Theosis (the unification of man with God) happens as the saved in Christ are joined with him on his throne.
The secrets of those left — the damned — are revealed and judgment is rendered. To this extent, the images we’re given are the same. They differ primarily in terms of who does the judging. The NT is clear that, although God is our judge, he has delegated judgment to Jesus. Moreover, the church is the body of Christ and, at times, is pictured as sharing Christ’s throne. This is no contradiction; just a difference in the level of detail provided.
But what about Matthew 25?
The only arguable contradiction would be Matt 25’s account of Judgment Day, as it appears there that the saved are subjected to judgment. However, the interpretation of this passage is subject to considerable controversy — particularly in terms of who “the least of these” are. Who are the hungry, thirsty, naked (or poorly clothed; the Greek could be read either way), and sick?
Andy Horvath argues in a recent Christianity Today article that these are in fact missionaries —
So who else in Matthew went hungry, thirsty, homeless, naked, sick, and imprisoned? We find such a group in Matthew 10:1–42, where Jesus sends out the 12 disciples to preach about the kingdom.
Parallels abound between Jesus’ words in Matthew 10 and the description of “the least of these” in chapter 25. In chapter 10, the disciples had no money, bag for food, or drink (vv. 9–10; compare to the hungry and thirsty in ch. 25). They had no extra clothing (v. 10; the naked in ch. 25), and they had no home to stay in (vv. 11–14; the strangers in ch. 25). Jesus said they would often be arrested (vv. 17–20; the prisoners in ch. 25). Even the order of these circumstances is a near match. Also recurring is the idea that one’s response to Jesus’ representatives is a response to Jesus himself: “Whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me” (10:40). And the rewards language in chapter 10 is conspicuously similar, “And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones because he is my disciple, I tell you the truth, he will certainly not lose his reward” (v. 42).
The parallels between the two passages are no accident and make a strong case that the same group is in mind. The “least of these my brothers” are the disciples, followers of Jesus who carry his message. Jesus’ “brothers” in the Gospel of Matthew are always his disciples (12:48–50; 28:10). That specific language is used of no one else.
That “the least of these” are the disciples is perhaps less obvious upon a casual reading, but according to New Testament scholar Craig Keener, it “is the majority view in church history and among contemporary New Testament scholars.”
So if that’s the case, Jesus is saying that people will be judged based on whether they’ve accepted his missionaries — by providing for their needs as they teach the gospel. The point of Jesus’ teaching is not to describe the particulars of Judgment Day but the reward that will be received by those who support Jesus’ missionaries.
Tom Wright offers a different but also helpful perspective —
But when is Jesus seated on his throne, with all his angels in attendance? We have already glimpsed this scene, in 16:27. And I have suggested that the vindication of the son of man spoken of in 24:30 refers, not to his future second coming, but (as Jesus there insists) to the events which were to take place within a generation. According to the rest of the New Testament, not least St Paul, Jesus is already ruling the world as its rightful lord (e.g. 1 Corinthians 15:25–28). Should we not say, then, that this scene of judgment, though in this picture it is spoken of as a one-off, future and final event, may actually refer to what is happening throughout human history, from the time of Jesus’ resurrection and ascension to the present? Could it be that the final judgment, in some sense, comes forward to meet us?
Tom Wright, Matthew for Everyone, Part 2: Chapters 16-28 (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2004), 142–143 (boldfaced emphasis mine).
So here’s how I see it.
* God exists outside of time. We know this because modern physics has shown time to be part of the fabric of the universe — which is a created thing. Augustine reached the same conclusion over 1,500 years ago.
* Judgment occurs where/when God is, not here/now.
* Therefore, when we die, we do not pass Go, do not collect $200, but rather go straight to Judgment Day and the general resurrection, which exists outside of our time. There we meet our great-grandparents and great-grandchildren. And we are sorted lost and saved immediately by Christ, who knows all our secrets.
* The saved join with God and Jesus in the new heavens and new earth and enjoy a unity with the Holy Trinity that is indescribable. The word is theosis. But just what that will be like, we do not know. Words aren’t up to the task of describing such a thing.
* In theotic unity with Jesus, we will reign over the new heaven and new earth. Perhaps the timelessness of the new age will carry us back in heavenly time so that we are part of the judgment of the damned. Or perhaps the fact that we are saved by our relationship with Jesus justifies the damnation of those who are unsaved, and so we judge them in that sense. Or perhaps those who die in Christ earlier than certain damned people sit in judgment over the damned who die later. I just don’t know and am not inclined to argue about it.
Clearly, events that happen in a different realm, independent of earth-time and the laws of physics as we know them are not easily explained in words. The seeming confusion is the natural result of word pictures being used to explain the unexplainable. Just as it makes no sense to speak of transparent gold paving the streets of heaven, the time ordering and causal relationships at Judgment aren’t easily sorted through, nor need they be.
The bottom line is that grace will indeed save those in Christ. And we will be “judged” in the sense that we’ll be found worthy of the new heavens and new earth, but we will not be judged in the sense of being measured by our merits — because by our merits, we will be damned.
On the other hand, there are plenty of passages, some quoted above, that refer to people being judged by their works. This throws everyone into a tizzy, but the truth is that saved people will be led by the Spirit to do good works. The good works will not be enough to merit salvation, but for the fact that they are fruit of the Spirit and evidence the presence of the Spirit — and the presence of the Spirit marks us as saved. Hence, the saved will be marked as such by the fruit of the Spirit — and this will be evident at Judgment Day.