The teaching of judgment and eternal condemnation for sinners troubles many believers. It also disgusts many unbelievers. They are appalled that the God in whom they refuse to believe would subject people like them to eternal torment away from his presence. They disregard the fact that one of the chief joys of heaven is living in the full presence of God. If they reject God today, why would they want to be with him forever? God is being kind to them by honoring their choice, saying that if they want no relationship with him, they will not have to spend eternity with him.
The real tragedy of judgment is not that unbelievers will be rejected. The real tragedy is that people who think they are believers will also be rejected. Anyone who thinks he or she is good enough for heaven is wrong. Anyone who invites God to judge him or her by his or her own life is making a terrible mistake. Only those clothed in the righteousness of Christ can enter the new creation. To those who show their own lives to the Judge, he will respond, “Go away; I never knew you.”
Jesus does not want to say those words to anyone. He went to great lengths to avoid the need to say those words. In the parable of Judgment Day, Jesus welcomes believers to “the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (Matthew 25:34). He sends unbelievers to “the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matthew 25:41). God does not desire the death of the wicked. The fire is not for humans, it is for fallen angels. God wants all to hear his promises, repent of their sins, receive his forgiveness, and become citizens of the kingdom of God, prepared for eternal life in his new creation.
Looking at that parable, another important point stands out. Those welcomed into their inheritance, a place in the new creation, are surprised to hear themselves credited with good works. They were not keeping score. They knew that God’s approval depended on the righteousness of Christ and his sacrifice, not by the things they did. Being forgiven through Christ, they were also in the process of being transformed into Christ’s image. As a result, they did perform acts of love and service. In the end, though, those good deeds shine not by their own value, but because the stain of sin had been washed away by the work of Christ, so nothing but good could be seen by the Judge when he looked at their lives.
Those sent away in Judgment were also surprised. They were keeping score. They thought they had done enough good deeds to earn God’s approval. Because they did not trust in Christ for redemption, none of their sins had been removed. As a tiny prick from a pin or needle pops an entire balloon, so even the smallest sin separated them from the God who made them, who loves them, and who wanted them to enjoy eternity with him in his new creation.
Fire and brimstone preachers have, perhaps, made a mistake by focusing on the tortures of eternal condemnation. Jesus does speak of the unending fire, but he has other images also for that condemnation. He speaks of the “outer darkness.” Heaven, he says, will be like a wedding reception, a party with food and drink and music and dancing and family and friends and joy. Heaven will be rejoicing in the presence of God. Those locked outside of the new creation will be like people in the parking lot outside the reception hall. They have nothing to do. They have no reason to celebrate. They are left outside because they disqualified themselves from a place in the celebration. Rather than picturing the flames of hell, we might think of the endless boredom of hell, like an afternoon alone at home with nothing to do and no reason to try to do anything.
Because Jesus did not want to send people away on the Day of the Lord—because he wanted to welcome all people into his new creation—Jesus did the work of redemption to save people from their sins. He became human, as human as we are, being born into the world. He placed himself under the Law and obeyed all the commandments he wants us to obey. He said no to every temptation. He lived a life of pure and perfect righteousness. Then, to give each of us credit for his righteousness, he sacrificed that life. He suffered the penalty of sin so no punishment would be left for us to endure.
The prophets said that on the Day of the Lord the sun would turn to darkness. As Jesus was on the cross, there was darkness; for three hours the sun failed to shine. The prophets said that on the Day of the Lord the earth would shake. When Jesus gave his life, there was an earthquake, and the curtain in the Temple—representing the separation between God and sinners—was torn top to bottom. The prophets said that on the Day of the Lord the moon would turn to blood. If (as many scholars believe) Jesus was crucified on April 3, A.D. 33, the full moon was eclipsed by the shadow of the earth, making it a “blood moon” before sunrise in Jerusalem. (That date is one of three that fits the description in the Bible: Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and the beginning of the Passover celebration fell on the night of a Sabbath day.)
Jesus has already gone through the Day of the Lord to rescue sinners. God’s Judgment fell on him so we could be spared Judgment. On the Day of the Lord our sins will not be displayed, for God has already removed our sins from as “as far as the east is from the west” (Psalm 103:12). An inheritance belongs to us, because Jesus died to provide the inheritance he earned by his righteousness.
What then will life be like after the Day of the Lord, when we live in his new creation? That remains to be described in one further post. J.