The standard Protestant understanding of God's final judgment pictures God in a divine court of law hearing the case of each person one by one and finally pronouncing his verdict and sentence:
I reject this quaint metaphor.
The view I outlined above has several contradictions and inconsistencies:
This metaphor contains no mention of Jesus uniting his divine nature with human nature, of his becoming truly human forever, and of humans now sharing in the divinity of God.
I certainly agree with the teaching of the Old Testament regarding the need for sacrifice for redemption. But note that these sacrifices are not performed in a court, but, rather, in the temple. The metaphor for judgment should be based on worship, not on Roman-style courts of law.
Those who are damned to hell at judgment choose this fate; it is not imposed upon them unwillingly without their consent. What is imposed on them is that there are only two possible outcomes. But each person makes a free will choice which they prefer.
But after thy hardness and impenitent heart treasurest up unto thyself wrath against the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God; Who will render to every man according to his deeds: To them who by patient continuance in well doing seek for glory and honour and immortality, eternal life: But unto them that are contentious, and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, indignation and wrath. (Romans 2:5-8)
We are judged by our deeds. Those who are damned are judged based on their rejection of the truth. Rejecting God's law carries with it judgment. Sin has natural consequences.
Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again. (Matthew 7:1,2)
God's judgment is like a mirror; it reflects back upon us what we have chosen.
In my view the main characteristic of God's judgment is his discernment:
For the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any twoedged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart. (Hebrews 4:12)
He sees the true condition of our hearts and reveals it to us so that we become aware of it ourselves. Once we perceive the truth about our inward motivations, desires, and longings, we choose to either accept God's forgiveness or to reject it.
Those who choose to live a life of habitual sin condition their souls to love wickedness and to reject God's righteous law of holiness, love, and purity. On judgment day (at death),God reveals their hearts and they either choose God's mercy and forgiveness for their wicked deeds, or they reject God's offer and run from him. Those who spent their lives acknowledging their sinfulness and repenting of their sinful deeds have trained their souls to say yes to God's offer of mercy; these run into God's loving arms of forgiveness. Thus, life is a training field for judgment day; we train our souls to respond properly on judgment day.
In the remainder of this article I provide many quotes from the Bible and comment on them. There are three phases of judgment:
This is really the true "day of judgment." At this time the verdict is given; the decision is made; their fate is sealed. After this the redeemed and the damned are merely moved from one location to another.
This is sometimes called "judgment day," and so it is.
And as it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment. (Hebrews 9:27)
We are judged after death.
Some men's sins are open beforehand, going before to judgment; and some men they follow after. Likewise also the good works of some are manifest beforehand; and they that are otherwise cannot be hid. (1 Timothy 5:24,25)
Some men's sins are clearly visible by others when they are alive; some men hide them — but God sees them. God judges the hidden sins as well as the public sins.
Saying with a loud voice, Fear God, and give glory to him; for the hour of his judgment is come: and worship him that made heaven, and earth, and the sea, and the fountains of waters. (Revelation 14:7)
The proper response when judgment is at hand is to worship God. Those who have lived wickedly or who have not spend their days worshipping God will not think to do this on judgment day.
Herein is our love made perfect, that we may have boldness in the day of judgment: because as he is, so are we in this world. (1 John 4:17)
At death, those who love God will be bold and will cling to his mercy. This verse doesn't match the standard Protestant metaphor I presented at the beginning of this article; in that metaphor the redeemed play no role in their salvation, they are mere onlookers. However, in this verse these participate by action in their judgment. They are judged as worthy of redemption because they accept God's offer of forgiveness by running to his arms for mercy much as a child runs to his parents in love.
The Lord knoweth how to deliver the godly out of temptations, and to reserve the unjust unto the day of judgment to be punished. (2 Peter 2:9)
Lot was delivered from the punishment which God inflicted upon the wicked inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah. The unjust referred to in this verse were judged at their death while Lot was spared because he resisted the temptations to sin that were present when he lived with these ungodly people.
And through covetousness shall they with feigned words make merchandise of you: whose judgment now of a long time lingereth not, and their damnation slumbereth not. (2 Peter 2:3)
The wicked are allowed to live on this earth and vex even the righteous.
For the time is come that judgment must begin at the house of God: and if it first begin at us, what shall the end be of them that obey not the gospel of God? (1 Peter 4:17)
Judgment day occurred even during the time when Peter wrote this letter. In fact, judgment day occurs at all time periods since people die in all time periods. For each person the day of their death is judgment day.
For he shall have judgment without mercy, that hath showed no mercy; and mercy rejoiceth against judgment. What doth it profit, my brethren, though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? can faith save him? (James 2:13,14)
Faith without works doesn't save because judgment involves working — choosing God's redemption is a work. If while alive someone doesn't choose to reject sin and to obey God's moral law, they will likely not choose to accept God's redemption at death during judgment. Works are needed for salvation because the habit of righteousness inclines the soul to choose salvation during judgment.
There is an intermediate period after death in which the souls of both the redeemed and the damned wait for the final judgment after which they receive a physical resurrected body.
And the angels which kept not their first estate, but left their own habitation, he hath reserved in everlasting chains under darkness unto the judgment of the great day. (Jude 6)
Just as the wicked angels are kept locked-up until the day of final judgment, so likewise are the wicked humans who have died kept locked-up. The judgment has already occurred for both these; what remains is for the final eternal condition to be revealed; this is when these are cast into the lake of fire. Note that they were judged long before this final day: the wicked angels when they sinned; the wicked humans when they died and were judged.
For if God spared not the angels that sinned, but cast them down to hell, and delivered them into chains of darkness, to be reserved unto judgment. (2 Peter 2:4)
Note the three phases: (1) the angels sinned and were judged (this occurs at death for humans); (2) they await their final fate, and (3) at the day of judgment they are cast into the lake of fire.
This is sometimes called "judgment day" but it is really merely the final fulfillment of the judgment given perviously. The redeemed and the damned are both given eternal resurrection bodies; until this time both groups were living in the spiritual realm as disembodied spirits. At the final judgment the redeemed enter the new heavens and new earth and the damned are cast into the lake of fire, into hell.
Therefore leaving the principles of the doctrine of Christ, let us go on unto perfection; not laying again the foundation of repentance from dead works, and of faith toward God, Of the doctrine of baptisms, and of laying on of hands, and of resurrection of the dead, and of eternal judgment. (Hebrews 6:1,2)
The doctrines of the resurrection and of eternal judgment are foundational doctrines of the Christian faith. We are not judged eternally but, rather, we enjoy the benefits of redemption for all eternity.
There are many Old Testament and New Testament verses in which the word "judgment" means "rulership."
And David reigned over all Israel; and David executed judgment and justice unto all his people. (2 Samuel 8:15)
I doubt if David spent much time presiding in a Roman-style court of law.
But ye have despised the poor. Do not rich men oppress you, and draw you before the judgment seats? (James 2:6)
Rulers can be righteous or unrighteous. Unrighteous rulers oppress the people. Notice that these poor people who are being oppressed are not being judged in a courtroom; rather, these unrighteous rulers are making decisions to exploit those who are weak.
The Bible clearly teaches that all are judged by their works.
But I say unto you, That whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment: and whosoever shall say to his brother, Raca, shall be in danger of the council: but whosoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire. (Matthew 5:22)
The act of speaking disrespectfully is a work.
Who knowing the judgment of God, that they which commit such things are worthy of death, not only do the same, but have pleasure in them that do them. (Romans 1:32)
Committing bad deeds results in judgment.
Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching. For if we sin wilfully after that we have received the knowledge of the truth, there remaineth no more sacrifice for sins, But a certain fearful looking for of judgment and fiery indignation, which shall devour the adversaries. (Hebrews 10:25-27)
Sinning leads to judgment.
For if the blood of bulls and of goats, and the ashes of an heifer sprinkling the unclean, sanctifieth to the purifying of the flesh: How much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without spot to God, purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living God? (Hebrews 9:13,14)
It is the dead works which God sees.
I have confidence in you through the Lord, that ye will be none otherwise minded: but he that troubleth you shall bear his judgment, whosoever he be. (Galatians 5:10)
People are judged for persecuting Christians.
So that we ourselves glory in you in the churches of God for your patience and faith in all your persecutions and tribulations that ye endure: Which is a manifest token of the righteous judgment of God, that ye may be counted worthy of the kingdom of God, for which ye also suffer. (2 Thessalonians 1:4,5)
Their work of enduring persecution for the faith was a work which ensured their redemption.
The Bema-seat judgment is the Protestant doctrine held by some that claims that Christians are not judged by their works for redemption. However, they are judged by the works to determine what rewards they will receive in heaven. I reject this doctrine.
We are confident, I say, and willing rather to be absent from the body, and to be present with the Lord. Wherefore we labour, that, whether present or absent, we may be accepted of him. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ; that every one may receive the things done in his body, according to that he hath done, whether it be good or bad. (2 Corinthians 5:8-10)
This passage is used by some to support the doctrine of the "bema-seat judgment" — that the judgment of Christians is solely for the purpose of giving them rewards in heaven; some get more rewards, some less. However, as I have shown, there are many verses that indicate that Christians are judged based on their works just as non-Christians are.
But why dost thou judge thy brother? or why dost thou set at nought thy brother? for we shall all stand before the judgment seat of Christ. For it is written, As I live, saith the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall confess to God. So then every one of us shall give account of himself to God. (Romans 14:10-12)
Here is a clear passage that Christians are judged. Notice that there is no mention of being judged merely for rewards.
Certainly there are examples in the Old Testament and New Testament of judgment by rulers.
When they have a matter, they come unto me [Moses]; and I judge between one and another, and I do make them know the statutes of God, and his laws. (Exodus 18:16)
Moses hears the cases of the people and judges. Notice that this passage has nothing to do with judgment for redemption but merely for the proper functioning of an orderly and holy society.
But if it be a question of words and names, and of your law, look ye to it; for I will be no judge of such matters. And he drave them from the judgment seat. (Acts 18:15,16)
An example of a Roman ruler judging. Notice that this is not a courtroom.
And I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God; and the books were opened: and another book was opened, which is the book of life: and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works. And the sea gave up the dead which were in it; and death and hell delivered up the dead which were in them: and they were judged every man according to their works. (Revelation 20:12,13)
This is the only court scene in the book of Revelation. Notice that this judgment is not the judgment at death since there is not any mention of Christ's sacrifice being applied to believers.