Where Do We Go To Shape Our Thoughts On Eternal Judgment?

When we talk about life after death, we encounter some of the worst examples of folk theology. Likewise, funerals are one of the worst places to hear good theology on the afterlife. Hopefully, not the funerals that I give, but I also dance around the subject a little at funerals because I don't feel that it is my place at a funeral to give a theological treatise attacking the false beliefs of those who are mourning the passing of a loved one. But I also attempt to avoid affirming the prominent false beliefs of our times.

You'll hear certain phrases if you listen to people talk about death in our society. And maybe you have uttered these. I mean no attack if you have. It's probably expected that you have because our society is inundated with wrong beliefs on this subject because we go to wrong places for our beliefs. But we have to allow the Bible to influence our beliefs more than we allow movies, popular books, or folk thinking. So you may have heard...

"He was a good person." As if that gives someone eternal life.
"She's got her angel wings now." Hearkening back to the great theological treatise of It's A Wonderful Life.
"He's in heaven now" or "She's in a better place."
"They're playing golf (or insert their favorite activity) right now."
"God needed them more than we do."

We are so quick to adopt these bad theologies, yet the things that the Bible teaches we disregard. Or maybe we haven't even opened our Bible in a while to see what it says. We wallow in biblical illiteracy.

The idea that we will be judged is frowned upon. The idea that not all are saved is even more frowned on. Nobody goes to hell in a funeral message (and rightfully so). Yet we have allowed these funeral messages where the pastor is just being nice and helping the family grieve while sharing the gospel message --where they don't preach someone into heaven or hell -- we have allowed these funeral messages to shape our views. Or maybe that is too generous. Maybe our views are shaped by pagan ideas, entertainment, and just casual conversations around campfires and watercoolers. The issue here is more serious than just the theological topic at hand. At the heart of this is where we go for our beliefs concerning God. I propose that we should go to the Scriptures for those beliefs.

So if there is an eternal judgment, what will we be judged on? Because when we talk about the idea of eternal judgment, that should be the question we ask. What is this judgment that will have eternal consequences based on?

The gist is this - If you say you follow Jesus, you claim it, yet your life doesn't show fruit, you should be scared of eternal judgment. It's not so much that we do works to earn salvation. We do works because of our salvation that has already taken place. Yet works are part of a saved life.

Here is just a glimpse of some of the passages:

Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice  and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment (John 5:28-29 ESV).

So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit.  A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit.  Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.  Thus you will recognize them by their fruits (Matthew 7:17-20 ESV).

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.  On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’  And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’ (Matthew 7:21-23 ESV).

For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?  For the Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay each person according to what he has done. (Matthew 16:26-27 ESV).

But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed.  He will render to each one according to his works:  to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life;  but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury (Romans 2:5-8 ESV).

Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality,  nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God (1 Corinthians 6:9-10 ESV).

The writers of the New Testament go on and on regarding this subject. (See 2 Corinthians 5:10-11, Galatians 6:7, Ephesians 5:5-6, 2 Thessalonians 2:12, 1 John 2:1-6, Revelation 20:12-13, Revelation 22:12 for further examples.)

When I started writing this and studied for it, I thought I was going to write that we are just saved by grace. But then Scripture got in the way, which is a good thing, and changed this piece.

I wished I had it all figured out, but I don't. These verses, if I was going to be honest with them, threw a wrench into my original idea. Like with the issue of baptism where there are passages that link it to salvation while there are other passages that show the Spirit, which is the seal of salvation, coming down on people who aren't baptized or after their baptism, the issue of salvation seems to show works linked with our judgment day.

We have this strong desire for a consistent system, yet that isn't what God has provided. He didn't give us the Roman Road, a four spiritual laws pamphlet, or the plan of salvation that I had to memorize as a kid. He gave us a messy story filled with humans starting at all sorts of different places, facing a variety of struggles, trying to serve the Lord as best as they can.

I feel like a heretic even mentioning that our works play a role in our salvation. Something in Christian culture has shaped the conversation to be against that idea, yet Scripture links works to salvation at various places. I would have to discard all those verses that we just read and more to say that it doesn't. But proper Bible reading isn't about trying to cram the verses that are difficult into a system that we already hold prior to coming to Scripture. It isn't about having a system where we discard the difficult passages. Proper Bible study allows Scripture to transform the beliefs that we have.

So when we go to Scripture, we have these verses that link our judgment to our works, while we have, on the other hand, these verses. 

And Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.  Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.  Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.  If anyone serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there will my servant be also. If anyone serves me, the Father will honor him (John 12:23-26 ESV).

If we have given our life over to Jesus, we will have life. Even here though, this life is linked with the work of serving.

And my favorite verse that brings me comfort when I stumble.

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.  For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. (Romans 8:1-2 ESV).

No condemnation. When you mess up, we are not condemned despite deserving condemnation. The mistakes that we make have already had their penalty paid for on the cross.

Now, to make the Bible say more than it says on the issue of eternal judgment, which is what gets people in a lot of trouble in Bible study on any subject, is dangerous. We need to just let the Bible say what it says and leave it at that. So the Bible says that some will be punished eternally. It also says that those in Jesus won't be. It states that God will look at our works when we are judged. It also says that we are saved by grace. That's it. We could then turn around and develop some crazy end times theology or afterlife experience, write a book and/or make a movie regarding the subject and make a lot of money. But that isn't the purpose of any of these the Bible teaching on the afterlife and end times. The Bible addresses those issues to encourage us to live the life that Jesus wants us to live, right here and right now.

When it comes to theses subjects, I don't want to learn a bunch of theology about end times and eternal judgment for the sake of learning theology, being educated, and feeling smart. The reason we, as followers of Jesus, learn is so that we have a solid foundation to love from. Learning is important but love is more important. We learn theology so that we can be firmly rooted when tough times come. And when those times come - because they most assuredly will - we can get right back up and continue living for and loving others for Jesus.

With that said, we should always judge an afterlife, end times, and eternal judgment views by how they make us live now.

This is honestly why I don't like the idea of the rapture, as popularized by Left Behind. You can hold to the view of the rapture and still be a great Christian. I won't make disbelief in the raputre a test of fellowship. We don't divide over nonessentials, and one's end times view is definitely not an essential. Although developed separately, the rapture fits nicely with the false teaching in American churches regarding the health and wealth gospel. The idea then morphs into a view that insinuates a Christian won't suffer. And this isn't true. The Bible actually teaches the opposite is true. Just because we are a Christian, we will suffer. The big difference should be how we react to suffering. With the Rapture, some Christians have developed this nice, comfortable pseudo-faith where followers of Jesus will be safe from the suffering of the world and be pulled into heaven before things get really bad. Yet we shouldn't let ourselves be controlled by fear. We must prepare ourselves to be faithful even when things are going bad. Because they will. We should expect suffering. We should work on nurturing a faith that will withstand suffering.

So instead of having an escapist end times view, we should believe that we are the salt of the earth and the light of the world. We are here to stop things from getting really bad. We're here to bring love into situations of hate. We're here to bring hope into despair.

We need an end times view that reflects that, not an escapist rapture view. We need an end times view that spurs us on toward bringing God's kingdom into the here and now as much as we possibly can. This doesn't have to be full-blown post-millenialism. It can just be an inconsistent non-system developed from the key Scriptures.

What we really matters is that we live in a way that we are prepared for judgment.

Live today with the end in mind.

That's the difference between the successful people and the unsuccessful people in life. Unsuccessful people live with only the immediate consequences and pleasures in mind. They gratify every desire. They seek after fleeting pleasures.

Successful people live with long-term thinking. They put off the pleasures of today for a better tomorrow. Being a long-term thinker is tough in America. But to be spiritually successful when life throws us curves and storms, we must live with the eternal perspective - a long-term view - in  mind.

The Apostle Paul shows us this. In his second letter to Timothy, he was facing dark times. He was in prison in Rome and appeared to have lost hope for his earthly prospects. He knows his days are numbered and that he is going to die. (And he was right.) He was being deserted by some of the people he converted (2 Timothy 1:15) because who wants to associate with one who the State is going to execute. At his first defense, nobody even stood by his side to support him (4:16). It's from that place of loneliness, of seeing his candle burning down and being abandoned, that he wrote this in his letter to his protege, Timothy.

For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come.  I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.  Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing (2 Timothy 4:6-8 ESV). 

This is the hope we have. When the world crumbles around us. When friends betray us. When earthly hope seems fleeting. This is the hope: We know that we have a reward stored up for us that is eternal. We keep faithful and endure to the end.

For those of us in Jesus - despite our faults - God sees Christ in us. And that is enough.

I don't want to write a piece that makes us want to follow Jesus because we are scared of hell. I want us to follow Jesus because we want to live for him.

So if we, followers of Jesus, aren't going to be judged with the possibility of going to hell, then why is eternal judgment one of the elementary teachings that the writer of Hebrews addresses in Hebrews chapter six?

When we see God face to face and face judgment, we need to discard the idea that it is about us going to heaven or hell. We're Christians. That's not what our judgment is about. Our judgment, as Christians, is about us facing the one we love. When we do that, we won't want to look back at a life that is disappointing to him. We want to run the race to completion. We want to live a life that is pleasing to Him. He loves us and we love Him. We want Him to say, "Well done. Good and faithful servant."

It's always dangerous when teaching grace that it will just be abused. But real grace, when it is experienced is never abused. Real grace is lifechanging. It transforms us into people who then reflect His grace toward others.

Despite the teachings of the pop self-esteem culture we live in, God does not think we're perfect. None of us are. We can't do enough works to be perfect. That wouldn't be that good of news. We would have to be scared of losing our perfection every moment of every day.

Instead, the good news is that while we were imperfect we were still loved. Jesus died for imperfect people like you and me. Our eternal judgment is given to us in grace that should spur us on toward good works.

We may not be perfect, but we are loved. And that is the good news. And because of that love, the idea that we are going to stand in front of the one who loves us and give an account for our life will change the way we live.

So let the idea of eternal judgment motivate us to be the church today, worship our great God with the fellow imperfect, and learn to live life together. The imperfect loved by the Perfect.