By Stephen J. Wellum
It is safe to say that the theme of "Godís judgment" is not popular in any day, but especially that is true of our own day and age. Today, for the most part, any talk of divine judgment has been eclipsed. Thus, for example, outside of evangelicalism, due to a rampant pluralism, fueled by what has been dubbed "postmodernism," discussion of any one religion being the truth is not allowed. All religions are basically valid, one of many paths to God. Now in such a situation, often the prevailing view of God that underlies such a perspective is the view that God is a God of love and nothing but love. And thus, any talk of Godís judgment is viewed as unacceptable, even intolerant, simply a leftover of religious talk of a by-gone era.
Unfortunately, it is not only outside of evangelicalism that we see an eclipse of talk of divine judgment, it is also within evangelicalism as well. No doubt, most evangelicals would not deny the reality of Godís judgment, but talk of it is strangely absent. I do not know when I have last heard a pastor preach on the wrath of God or the awful realities of hell, even though I am sure some have done so. However, I have heard many a sermon on the love of God, or the work of Christ that saves us from our poor self-esteem, or the power to change that will give us peace and joy in life and make us happy. But there is a strange and disturbing absence of any discussion of Godís blazing holiness, wrath, and punishment, let alone Christís substitutionary atonement that satisfies the very wrath and justice of God on our behalf. It seems that the article in Christianity Today now nine years old is true (see "Evangelical Megashift," Feb. 19, 1990, pp. 12-17). There has been a "megashift" in evangelical theology Ė a shift from concepts of holiness, justice, and the "law court" to that of the family, that is, an emphasis on relationships, self-fulfillment, and love.
And so, given such a state in which we live, we need to ask ourselves: Is talk of "Coram Deo: In Judgment" passť? I want to submit to you that the answer to that question is an unambiguous "No!" To be sure, judgment is not all that can be said of God. Scripture speaks long and hard about Godís grace, love, and mercy and we must do the same. We must revel in the amazing and mind-boggling grace of God. But to remove the concept of divine judgment from Scripture is, in the end, to deny the very story of Scripture itself. For how do we remain faithful to Scripture and not speak of divine judgment? How do we make sense of Genesis 3? The flood? The exile? Revelation 20? How do we make sense of the unapproachable holiness and blazing wrath of God as displayed time and time again in Scripture? How do we make sense of the book of Leviticus? Indeed, how should we understand the cross? For without divine judgment, the meaning of the story of Scripture begins to crumble in our hands. And ultimately to diminish divine judgment means that we will ultimately underestimate and misunderstand the very doctrine we want to uphold Ė the love of God! For it is only when we see the blazing holiness and wrath of God for what it is, that we begin to understand Godís amazing love and grace found in the gospel of Jesus Christ for what it truly is.
How am I going to approach this subject of "Coram Deo: In Judgment"? I am going to do so in three steps. First, I want to address the subject of the glad necessity of divine judgment. My aim is to put the subject of "Godís judgment" within the larger categories of Scripture and to see why judgment is something that we must affirm not only out of necessity but also gladly. Second, I want to address the state of the unbeliever before God in judgment. Third, I want to conclude by looking at the state of the believer before God in judgment.
The Glad Necessity of Divine Judgment
I emphasize the two words Ė necessity and glad Ė very deliberately. First, let us think for a moment about the necessity of divine judgment. Scripture affirms that if God does not judge He is not God, at least the God of the Bible. Why? Because the God of the Bible is holy. This is what people often forget. Yes, God is love, but the love of God is never affirmed at the expense of his holiness. Does not Scripture emphasize this over and over again (see Isaiah 6, Revelation 4). And because we are sinners there is a problem since our sin and Godís holiness are incompatible with each other. Now what this necessitates, then, is if God is to be God, He must deal with our sin. He cannot overlook it or grade on the curve, otherwise He would not be consistent with His own character and perfection. Judgment is very much necessary.
But there is also a glad necessity to divine judgment. What do I mean by this? How can judgment be glad? On the surface, "gladness" and "judgment" do not seem to cohere with one another? Or do they? I think Scripture says they do. For in the larger framework of Scripture, if God does not judge, if He does not uphold His perfect standards, which ultimately reflects His own moral character and glory, then there is a major implication: any notion of a personal-moral God is gone, and along with it any concept of justice, righteousness, and a moral universe. For what happens to morality if God does not judge? What happens to justice if the books are not ultimately balanced by a standard of righteousness that does not change? What happens to a moral universe, if God does not judge immorality in a holy and pure way? In the end, it evaporates and disappears. Ultimately, it means very little indeed.
Is this important to grasp and understand? I think it is. For when we look out at the world and see all the evil, sin, degradation Ė people killing people, lust, and greed. When we see the wicked not being punished for their evil actions, do we not cry from the heart: Will the books ever be balanced? Is there justice in this world? Or even closer to home: when we stand at the graveside of a loved one and see them placed six feet under, does not everything cry from within Ė why? Why do we have to die? Will death ever be overcome? And then we see the connection between sin and death in Scripture, and the penny drops Ė unless God judges our sin there is no hope of overcoming sin, death, and evil.
But let us not leave it even here. If we are honest and we look inside ourselves and see our own depravity, do we not have to acknowledge that if God let us get away with our sin, what kind of God would He be? Oh we might like the thought of God overlooking our sin, but in reality this is a horrendous notion, is it not? For it ultimately means that if God lets me get away with my sin and does not judge me by a perfect standard, then He Himself is unjust and impure. And if justice and morality are to be more than a charade, then God must judge. And that is why I say there is a glad necessity to Godís judgment.
I think the only reason we often do not view it this way is due to the fact that we do not look at this world from Godís perspective. We are so concerned with ourselves that we care very little for the glory, honor, and name of God. But if God does not judge, then He simply is not the glorious God of Scripture and even more, He would not be worthy of our worship or trust.
Can we not think of the glad necessity of judgment, even at the human level? For example, take the case of the Oklahoma City bombing. It was a crime of incredible proportions. If morality and justice were to mean anything at all, Timothy McVey had to be judged. There was a necessity to it. But there was also a glad necessity to it. When the verdict of the court was finally rendered, do you remember the response of the courtroom and especially the response of the families of the victims? They rejoiced Ė and rightly so Ė because the verdict of judgment was right and good. But if this is the case at a human level, then how much more so from a divine perspective? We have not just sinned against one another, awful as that is, but we have sinned against the majestic and holy God of the universe, the God of infinite value and worth. Judgment will not only be necessary, it will also be right and good.
Now even though we know this to be true, the obvious question is, what hope is there for us? We are sinners. God has every right to judge us. In fact, He must judge us and it is right and good for Him to judge us. But where then is hope? Of course the good news of Scripture is that there is hope found in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Look, for example, at the classic gospel text found in Romans 3:21-26:
But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the law and the prophets testify. This righteousness from comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented him as a propitiation through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forebearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished Ė he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.
The context of this text is Paulís extended argument that all Ė Jew and Gentile Ė are under the judgment and wrath of God. Paul concludes his argument, which he began in Romans 1:18 with this statement in 3:9: "What shall we conclude then? Ö We have already made the charge that Jews and Gentiles alike are all under sin." But then the good news is announced in v 21ff. "But nowÖ" Ė in the major turning point in redemptive-history that which the law (Torah) and the prophets anticipated and foreshadowed Ė God has sent His Son into the world in order to accomplish a just and righteous redemption.
This is a crucial point to stress. The salvation that we receive in Jesus Christ is not an arbitrary salvation, that is, contrary to justice. Rather it is a just salvation in which Godís own holy character is upheld and simultaneously we are forgiven of our sin. This is clearly emphasized in vv. 25-26. As Paul points out, given the OT context, one might have been able to question the justice of God because in His forbearance He had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished. For the OT believer, God had postponed the full penalty due to sin in old covenant. He had allowed sinners to stand before Him without their having provided an adequate satisfaction of the demands of His holy justice. But now, in the unfolding of redemptive-history, Jesus Christ has come. And in the cross, Godís righteous and just character are fully displayed, for in the cross, the justice of God is perfectly met while at the same time, we are declared justified through faith in Jesus. Thus, as Paul states, God is just even in justifying us. In the cross-work of Jesus Christ, God remains God and we, by grace through faith, are set free!
Now this is good news indeed. God has found a way to uphold His justice while simultaneously forgiving us of our sin. In redemption, found in Jesus Christ alone, there is no compromise of Godís holy and just character. But we also discover the full expression of the grace and love of God. But, of course, one important entailment of the gospel is that it is exclusive. If we as sinful human beings are going to be redeemed at all and escape the judgment of God upon our own sin, then we must be found in Jesus Christ alone. We must be united with Him who has borne our sin and who has paid our price. No doubt, this does not sit well with many people who have imbibed the Zeitgeist of religious pluralism or inclusivism, but it is a crucial implication of the gospel. That is why Scripture is very clear that those who are outside of Jesus Christ have no hope of redemption; they necessarily are under the judgment of God due to their sin. That is why the gospel message is one of utmost urgency, and that is why the status of those who are outside of Jesus Christ is so serious. And it is to this status of the unbeliever coram deo that we now turn.
The State of the Unbeliever before God in Judgment
The state of the unbeliever before God in judgment is certainly not a subject I revel in, but it is of critical importance if we are to take the theme of Godís judgment seriously. What is the state of the unbeliever as they stand before the face of God? Scripture is unambiguous in asserting that it is a state of condemnation that results in eternal, conscious punishment.
In this regard, think of how Scripture teaches both the fact and certainty of final judgment (see Rom 2:5-12, 16; 2 Thess 1:6-10; Rev 20:11-15). Or, think of how Scripture describes the awful reality of hell and judgment, most of the descriptions, interestingly enough, from the teaching of Jesus Himself. Hell is described as a place where "their worm does not die, the fire is not quenched" (Mk 9:48), a place of outer darkness, characterized by "weeping and gnashing of teeth" (Mt 8:12). In addition, Scripture reminds us that there is no escape from hell; there is a great, fixed chasm (Lk 16:26), the door is shut (Mt 25:10-12), and the condemned are in "dungeons" and bound by "everlasting chains" (2 Pet 2:4; Jude 6). Probably one of the most awful scenes of hell and judgment comes from Revelation 14:14-20. At the appointed hour the wicked are harvested like bunches of grapes, thrown into the "the great winepress of Godís wrath" where they are trampled down until the blood that flows from the vat is as high as a horseís bridle for one hundred and eighty miles.
However we are to understand these diverse descriptions of final judgment, together they suggest an awful reality: unbelievers are excluded from the presence of God for all eternity and there is actual conscious punishment. No doubt, these realities are not easy to deal with or talk about, but they do reflect the fact, as stated above, that our God is a consuming fire (Heb 12:29) and that sin must and thankfully be dealt with if God is to be God.
But before I draw some application as to how this great and awful reality should affect us as believers, I can not leave this subject without mentioning the recent and growing debate within evangelicalism over the destiny of the lost. The debate that I am referring to is the debate over whether unbelievers will experience eternal conscious punishment or whether they simply will be annihilated or destroyed. No doubt, there are a variety of views on this subject Ė bound up with other theological issues Ė e.g. the fate of those who have not heard the gospel, the possibility of post-mortem salvation, and so on. But in my remarks I will limit my comments to the view of annihilationism in the broad sense.
Historically, Seventh Day Adventists and other fringe groups have held to what has become known as "annihilationism" or "conditional immortality." Recently, a number of evangelicals have supported this view ranging on the theological spectrum from Clark Pinnock to John Stott. What exactly is "annihilationism?" It is the view that unbelievers, either immediately upon death or else after suffering for a period of time, will simply cease to exist. God will "annihilate" them or better, as the term "conditional immortality" suggests, God will not grant them "immortality." Immortality is not natural to us; we only become immortal under certain conditions, namely faith in the redemptive work of Jesus Christ. Thus, immortality is conditioned on our receiving Christ as our Lord and Savior. If we remain in a state of unbelief, we will not experience immortality Ė we will be destroyed.
Although the idea initially sounds attractive to us and it seems to avoid the emotional difficulty connected with affirming eternal conscious punishment, such an idea is not biblical. Let us look at four main arguments given for the position and then three reflections in response.
(1) Biblical references to the "destruction" of the wicked implies that they will no longer exist after they are destroyed (see Phil 3:19; 1 Thess 5:3; 2 Thess 1:9; 2 Pet 3:7). The same can be said of the biblical imagery of "fire." Fire does not suggest that it burns forever, rather it connotes that whatever is being burned is eventually devoured and utterly destroyed.
How are we to evaluate these arguments? I give three reflections.
(1) In regard to the linguistic evidence, we must be very careful that we do not drive certain words in such a way as to lose the overall context and teaching of Scripture on the nature of the final judgment of unbelievers. Let me give you some examples. "Destruction" texts (e.g. Phil 3:19; 1 Thess 5:3; 2 Thess 1:9; 2 Pet 3:7) in the hands of annihilationists imply cessation of existence. But this is hardly the case. No doubt the word group that undergirds the term "destroy" or "destruction" (ajpwleia) has a range of meaning. But this only points to the fact that the context of any text is crucial in determining the wordís actual meaning. That is why sometimes, in a given context, the word may mean "destroy" in terms of cessation of existence, but in other cases, e.g. Mt 9:17 and 26:8, the same word does not imply cessation of existence at all. Context is all-important in order to interpret these words correctly.
The same may be said about "forever" language. To be sure, the word-group may simply mean "age." But it must also be stressed that the "age" in question may also be eternal, as it clearly is in the new heavens and the new earth. Once again, context is crucial in determining the actual meaning of the word in any given text. That is why the parallelism found in some verses such as Matthew 25:46 is decisive Ė "Then [the goats] will go away to eternal (aijwnion) punishment, but the righteous to eternal life (aijwnion)." The parallelism, in other words, defines the duration of the time of the "age," which is nothing less than eternal.
Or, think of the "fire" language of Scripture. One must be very careful how one appeals to such language. In the hands of those who favor annihilationism, the meaning of "fire" is that it will eventually burn things up. But is this a valid conclusion? Everyone admits that there is a substantial metaphorical element in the Bibleís description of hell. In fact, we even have competing metaphors Ė e.g. lake of fire (brightness) coexisting with darkness. Inevitably we need to interpret metaphors and when we take all of the texts together (see Mt 25:41-46; Rev 14:10-11; 20:10-15), it is hard to conclude anything less than hell being both eternal and conscious. The evidence of the annihilationist simply will not stand up under close scrutiny.
(2) Will a continuing hell forever mar the glories of heaven? This is hard to conclude. No doubt, while evil remains unpunished it takes away from the glory of God. But certainly we must acknowledge that when God punishes evil and triumphs over it, the glory of his justice, righteousness, and power to triumph over all opposition will be seen. At the same time, the depth of the riches of Godís mercy will also be revealed. And as sanctified and glorified believers, we will be like God in character, loving what He loves and delighting in His glory, including the execution of His justice. J. I. Packer states it well when he writes:
It is said that the joy of heaven will be marred by knowledge that some continue under merited retribution. But this cannot be said of God, as if the expressing of his holiness in retribution hurts him more than it hurts the offenders; and since in heaven Christians will be like God in character, loving what he loves and taking joy in all his self-manifestation, including his justice, there is no reason to think that their joy will be impaired in this way ["The Problem of Eternal Punishment," Evangel 10:2 (Summer, 1992), 18].
(3) What, then, about the issue of justice and fairness? Is eternal conscious punishment unjust? There are a number of things that could be said here, but I will only mention one. In order to evaluate the justice or fairness of eternal punishment judgment must not only be viewed as retributive, which it is in Scripture, it must also be viewed in light of the person against whom we have sinned. And who is that? Of course, the answer that thunders forth from Scripture is that we have sinned against the majestic and glorious God of heaven and earth, the God of infinite worth and value. Our sin is not just against each other on a merely horizontal plane Ė that would be bad enough. But we have sinned first and foremost against the great and glorious God of Scripture! Why then is hell eternal? Simply, because we have sinned against God and an eternal hell is nothing less than what we rightly deserve. Sin falls short of the glory of God, and if the punishment of our sin is to be just at all and fitting with what we deserve, it must, in the end, be eternal.
Do we not have to see all of this in light of the cross? If we look at the flip-side of divine judgment, that is, the remedy to our sin, we discover that salvation is only accomplished in nothing less than the enfleshment of God the Son and His going to a cross and laying down His life for the likes of us! And when we hear from Golgotha the cry of the Lord of Glory Ė "My God, my God why have you forsaken me?" Ė do we not have to ask ourselves: if my salvation was only possible at such great cost, then why should I doubt that outside of this cross and this Christ that my punishment will be eternal?
These are difficult issues no doubt. When we think about divine judgment, hell, and the state of the unbeliever, these are not pleasant realities. Even though I disagree with John Stott over these issues I think he is right when he writes: "I long that we could in some small way stand in the tearful tradition of Jeremiah, Jesus, and Paul. I want to see more tears among us. I think we need to repent of our nonchalance, our hard-heartedness" [David Edwards and John Stott, Essentials: A Liberal-Evangelical Dialogue (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1988), 313].
What then should our attitude be to these issues? In our Lord and Paul we discover the answer to our question. When our Lord looks over Jerusalem (see Lk 19:41-44) His response is that of sadness. When Paul thinks of the destiny of his fellow Jews who have rejected the long awaited Messiah, he cries with "great sorrow" and "unceasing anguish" (Rom 9:2-3; 10:1). Even more, it leads Paul to prayer and evangelism (see Rom 10:1-21). Should this not also be true of us as well? When we reflect on the state of the unbeliever before God in judgment, it is not something that we ultimately delight in. Rather it is something that must fill us with a sense of urgency and make us more eager to preach the gospel because it is only in the gospel that we find a just, righteous, and holy salvation.
The State of the Believer before God in Judgment
No doubt, reflections on the state of the believer before God in judgment is certainly a more pleasant subject since Scripture is clear that the state of the believer coram deo is that of no condemnation (Rom 8:1). It is a state of security (Rom 8:28ff). For in Jesus Christ, the end time verdict has already been rendered. We do not need to wait to stand before God in order to know what the Judge will say to us. We can know now, by faith in Jesus Christ, that we are now declared justified and that, on the basis of the imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ to us, we are righteous in the sight of the Judge of heaven and earth. Our names are written in the Lambís book of life, and our hope for the future is sure, as we await the consummation and the ushering in of the new heavens and the new earth.
One of the most breathtaking visions of the future state of the believer is found in Revelation 21-22. There we are presented with an incredible vision of the new heavens and new earth. We are told that Eden will be restored in an even greater way, and that we, as the people of God, will dwelling forever in the presence of the Lord God and the Lamb. This is evidenced by the news that there will be no need for a temple in that place because "the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple" (Rev 21:22). All that the temple symbolized and foreshadowed has been fulfilled in Jesus Christ, the true temple of God, and in the new heavens and earth, the full, consummated reality of dwelling in the immediate presence of God is made a reality once again.
But in addition to these glorious promises and realities, Scripture also teaches that as believers stand before the throne of God, there will be a judgment of our actions as well. In this context, it seems that the fruit of our lives will be evaluated and a verdict will be rendered in regard to degrees of rewards. Our Lord makes mention of this in the parable of the talents (see Mt 25:14-30). Paul also hints at this in Romans 14:10-12 where he states, "You, then, why do you judge your brother? Or why do you look down on your brother? For we will all stand before Godís judgment seat. It is written: ĎAs surely as I live,í says the Lord, Ďevery knee will bow before me; every tongue will confess to God.í So then, each of us will give account of himself to God." Or elsewhere Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 5:9-10, "So we make it our goal to please him, whether we are at home in the body or away from it. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad."
Thus, in light of our standing before the judgment seat of Christ, is clear that our present attitude and life should be greatly affected by this reality. As Paul stated in 2 Corinthians 5:9-10, it is precisely because we know that we will stand before the face of God in judgment that we make it our goal to please our Master in all that we do. Or think of the letter to the Hebrews. The author after unfolding the work of Jesus Christ as our great High Priest in chapters 7-10, then begins to draw out the implications of it for our daily lives in 10:19-25. In light of the work of Christ on our behalf and, furthermore, in light in the coming judgment (see 10:25), we are to do three things: we are to draw near to God (v 22), we are to hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for He who promised is faithful (v 23), and we are to spur one another on toward love and good deeds (v 24). Or, in a similar vein, think of the final words of Peter. In 2 Peter 3, Peter unfolds the implications that the second coming of Jesus Christ should have for believers in their present lives. Peter states in 3:1-18:
Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming? That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat. But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness. So then, dear friends, since you are looking forward to this, make every effort to be found spotless, blameless and at peace with him. Bear in mind that our Lordís patience means salvation, just as our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him. He writes the same way in all of his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction. Therefore, dear friends, since you already know this, be on your guard so that you may not be carried away by the error of lawless men and fall from your secure position. But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be glory both now and forever! Amen.
In other words, in light of the past work of Christ and the future judgment, we must live differently and carefully in the world. Even though we have received the verdict of justification by virtue of our union with Christ by faith, what we do with our lives does matter as we anticipate the day when we will stand face to face before our Lord and Master. I wonder if we take this seriously? Are we living our lives, as believers, coram deo and are we living our lives in light of the coming judgment? Are we ready to stand before God today, found in Jesus Christ alone? And if so, are we now making every effort today to be pleasing to Him?
My theme has been Coram Deo: In Judgment. I have sought to argue that it is not passť. Even though talk of divine judgment has been largely eclipsed even inside the church, for those who want to be faithful to the gospel, the theme of divine judgment must be recaptured afresh. We must not only understand these great realities and proclaim them from the rooftops, but we must also live in light of them for the praise of Godís glorious grace, until we all meet at Jesusí feet lost in wonder, love, and praise.
This address by Dr. Wellum was delivered at the Ligonier Ministries of Canada Conference on February 27, 1999 at the Port Coquitlam Assembly in British Columbia, Canada.
Dr. Stephen J. Wellum (B.A., Roberts Wesleyan College; M.Div., Ph.D., Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) is assistant professor of theology at Northwest Baptist Theological College and the Associated Theological Schools of Trinity Western University, Langley, B.C. Before teaching, he was a pastor in South Dakota.
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