The Next Life and Its Implications

Two Judgments

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Introduction

Briefly review series topic. We will look at one of the most pervasive themes in the biblical view of the afterlife—the final judgment of God.

This is a theme that directly collides with the mindset of 1990's American culture. We have been influenced by decades of existentialist thinking, which rejects the existence/importance of the next life. Whether stated with philosophical sophistication[1], or with crass commercialism,[2] the message is the same: We have only this life, and we are ultimately accountable to no one but our own selves for how we spend it.

Over against this, the Bible teaches that this life is not all there is—but rather a brief time to prepare for the next life. It teaches that we are accountable to God for how we live this life, that he will render a verdict on how we lived this life, and that that verdict will determine our eternal destiny. Therefore, scripture says that to live wisely is to "Prepare to meet your God" (Amos 4:12).

If you embrace this view, it radically changes the whole way you approach this life. Consider Daniel Webster's reflection: "The greatest thought that has ever entered my mind is that one day I will . . . stand before a holy God and give an account of my life."[3] Reflect on John Wesley's statement: I desire to have both heaven and hell ever in my eye, while I stand on this ithsmus of life, between these two boundless oceans; and I (truly) think the daily consideration of both highly becomes all men of reason and religion."[4]

As we study the Bible, we discover that it speaks of two distinct judgments and that all of us will render an account to God at one of these judgments. Let's look at two different passages that describe these two judgments . . . 

The Great White Throne

The most detailed account of this judgment is found in Rev. 20:11-15 (read). Notice three things about this judgment:

WHO: The "dead" evidently refers not to all humanity, but only to those condemned by God. There is no mention of anyone present at this judgment entering into God's eternal kingdom (compare to 20:6), and the picture is one of a judge pronouncing a guilty verdict at a criminal trial. Some have been powerful by human assessment, while others have been weak—but all of them will stand before God as their Judge to receive his verdict.

OUTCOME: The "first death" is physical death. The "second death" is the execution of the sentence of this judgment—the "lake of fire" or "hell." The various descriptions of hell in the New Testament are symbolic and figurative, but they convey a literal reality—the anguish of eternal separation from God and experience of his condemnation.

EMOTIONAL: "Gnashing of teeth" probably refers (like wailing) to the grunt of frustration when we blow it on something important (EXAM; MEAL; SPORTS PLAY). Here, there are always other chances, but there is only everlasting regret at having permanently blown the opportunity to receive God's forgiveness.

PHYSICAL: "Lake of fire," "Gehenna" (Jerusalem burning dump), and "the smoke of their torment" probably refer to the anguish of physical torment. Just as the saved receive new bodies suitable for experiencing God's infinite kindness, so the damned receive new bodies suitable for experiencing God's infinite wrath.

RELATIONAL: "Outer darkness" and "bottomless pit" probably refer to the terrible isolation from God and other love relationships that will characterize hell. There will be no intervention or limitation of Satan's hatred. The damned will plunge ever deeper into the abyss of their own depravity.

BASIS: "What terrible crime must a person commit to warrant such a punishment?" A recent survey shows that 82 percent of Americans believe in an afterlife that includes both heaven and hell, but only 4 percent of those people believe that they will go to hell.[5] Evidently, most believe that only those who have committed murder, etc. will go to hell. But this is not the biblical view.

The first "books" (20:12) evidently contain the record of each person's deeds. Each person will have his deeds examined in the light of God's perfect righteousness and be found guilty. Those who violate it most flagrantly will receive greater condemnation (Matt. 23:14)—but everyone guilty of violations will sentenced (Matt. 5:22-30). All sin is (above all else) cosmic treason, a rejection of God's moral authority—and deserving of his wrath.

There is another, more tragic reason why these people are condemned. Their names are not recorded in "the book of life" (20:15). This is the record of those who have received God's offer of salvation through Jesus Christ (3:5; 1 Jn. 5:5). The amazing thing is not that God condemns us, but that he offers to pardon us, and that he has paid for this pardon with the price of his own Son's blood. Jesus came to live the life of perfect obedience that you and I owe God, and to face on the cross the judgment that you and I deserve from God for our disobedience. God has graciously extended this offer to you, sent his people to share it with you, and convicted you of your need for Christ's forgiveness. All you have to do is acknowledge your guilt and humbly entrust yourself to Jesus, and you pass forever out of God's judgment and into eternal life (Jn. 5:24). If you willfully reject this offer, don't say God sends you to hell—you send yourself to hell by rejecting his merciful provision!

You may be asking, "But what about the people who never heard of this offer—the infants, those with developmental disabilities, the people without the Bible?" Suffice it to say that God will deal with them fairly and mercifully. But you have heard and understood his offer, and you are responsible!

If you have not received this offer, I beg you to receive it now. Get this issue settled! Admit your guilt before God, and ask Christ to give you God's forgiveness and love. He will cleanse you, change your life, and save you eternally!

If you have received Christ's offer, rejoice that your name is recorded permanently in the book of life! In your lowest moments in this life, remember that you've been spared from eternal condemnation and guaranteed eternal life. But while we will never face God's condemnation, we will face his judgment in a different but still important way . . . 

The "BEMA"

The most detailed account of this judgment is found in 1 Cor. 3:10-15 (read). Notice the contrasts between it and the Great White Throne judgment.

WHO: Whereas in the GWT only non-Christians are judged, in this judgment only Christians are judged (vs 16,23).

OUTCOME: Whereas the outcome of the GWT judgment is God's condemnation, the outcome of this judgment is God's reward.

According to 3:14,15, the issue here is not salvation or no salvation—but rather reward or loss of reward, and greater or lesser reward.

This is also made clear by the term Paul uses elsewhere to describe this judgment (BEMA: 2 Cor. 5:10; Rom. 14:10). The "judgment seat" was the seat on which the judges of the Grecian Games sat. After the contestants finished their event, they all appeared before the "judgment seat." The judges then gave out rewards for the top contestants; they did not execute the ones who lost!![6]

What is the reward? It is clearly something beyond the gift of eternal life with God, which is the gift given to all who trust Christ. Scripture indicates two main features of this reward . . . 

One aspect will be praise from God for pleasing him. Read 1 Cor. 4:5, which is part of this same passage. See also Mt. 25:21,23 - "Well done, good and faithful servant . . . enter into the joy of your master." This is staggering grace—that the God of the universe, the One to whom praise is rightfully due, will not only allow us to spend eternity in his presence, but will also praise us![7]

Another aspect will be roles of authority in the kingdom of God. God's eternal kingdom will not be a stagnant state. It will be free from all imperfection and sadness, but there will be purpose, progress, accomplishment and responsibility. Each Christian will have a role in this kingdom, and the roles we will have then are determined on the basis of our faithfulness to God's purposes in this life. Read Lk. 19:17 (" . . . because you have been trustworthy in a very small matter, take charge of ten cities.").

BASIS: Whereas the basis for condemnation at the GWT is sin and unrepentance, the basis for reward at this judgment is "the quality of each person's work" for Christ in this life.

The metaphor here and other passages make it clear that the issue is what we do with our lives in this life once we come to Christ. Building with "wood, hay and straw" signifies activities and accomplishments that do not advance Christ's purposes and are therefore of no enduring quality and will not be rewarded. Building with "gold, silver and precious stones" signifies activities and accomplishments that do advance Christ's purposes and are therefore enduring in quality and will be rewarded. See also 2 Tim. 4:7,8. NEXT WEEK, we will look more closely at objections to this judgment, and how to obtain this reward.

Conclusion

Bertrand Russel and the Valvoline commercial couldn’t be more wrong! Every one of us is headed to one of these judgments, and all of us are helping others to one of these two eternal destinies. "It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or the other of these destinations."[8]

Footnotes

[1] "No fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life from the grave . . . (Therefore) it remains only to cherish, ere yet the blow falls, the lofty thoughts that ennoble his little day." Bertrand Russel

[2] Valvoline commercial: "You're born, you die—in between, you work on cars."

[3] Cited in J. Oswald Sanders, Heaven: Better By Far (Grand Rapids: Discovery Press, 1993).

[4] Letters, Vol. II, p. 98. Cited in A. Skevington Wood, The Burning Heart (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1978), p. 275.

[5] James Patterson and Peter Kim, The Day America Told the Truth (New York: Prentiss Hall Press, 1991), p. 204.

[6] J. Dwight Pentecost, Things to Come (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1964), p. 220.

[7] "Nothing is so obvious in a child . . . as its great and undisguised pleasure in being praised (by his parents or teacher) . . . (to have) the satisfaction of having pleased those whom he has rightly loved and (respected) . . . And that is enough to raise our thoughts to what may happen when (we), beyond all hope and nearly beyond belief, at last learn that (we have) pleased him whom (we were) created to please. (We) will be free from the miserable illusion that it was (our) doing. With no taint of . . . (prideful) self-approval (we) will most innocently rejoice in the thing that God has made (us) to be . . . (This) moment will forever drown (both our) inferiority complex (and our) pride . . . If God is satisfied with the work, the work may be satisfied with itself . . . To please God . . . to be a real ingredient in the divine happiness . . . to be loved by God, not merely pitied, but delighted in as an artist delights in his work or a father in a son - it seems impossible, a weight of glory which our thoughts can barely sustain. But so it is." C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 1974), pp. 9,10.

[8] C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1974), pp. 14,15.