My wife and I were returning from a back-packing vacation in the Sierra mountains near Lake Tahoe. We were supposed to work the next day. Knowing that, we played at a stream as long as possible. No. Longer than possible.
We had no choice but to attempt packing out to our car before dark. Pumped by adrenaline, we made it up several thousand feet to the top of Elephant Back Mountain before we lost the trail in the total blackness of night. There were cliffs all around. To go on would be suicide.
There was no shelter at 9,000 feet elevation and the wind was ferocious. It came sweeping up out of the ravines sounding like a freight train: whoossssH!
We somehow managed to crawl into our sleeping bags, but Connie couldn't sleep. She was terrified. It was not the wind, but rather a small rustling sound close to us on the mountain. She was sure it was a mountain lion. She could have found out what it was in a moment, by turning on her flashlight. But she was so paralyzed by fear that she could not even pick up the flashlight.
When Connie told me about her fear, I pointed my flashlight at the sound, and we looked into the beady eyes of a tiny mouse. She was terribly relieved. Connie, that is.
After Connie saw the mouse, its rustling sounds comforted her. She knew that as long as she could hear the mouse, there was no large predator in the vicinity. So the same sound that had given her fear now gave her peace. The difference was that some light was shed on the source of the fear.
Does God's judgment give you peace and confidence? Or does fear paralyze you?
It is easy to be afraid of the judgment. If you are judged, your life is examined and assessed. People on the threshold of the twenty-first century tend to resent assessment as an invasion of privacy. Saul Bellow expresses well the current feeling: "Socrates said, 'The unexamined life is not worth living.' My revision is, 'But the examined life makes you wish you were dead.'" (New York Times, quoted in Time magazine [June 9, 1997], p. 15).
Consider the picture that the judgment conjures up in the minds of some Christians. Our ghostly legal souls file in somnolent obsequiousness (sleepy submissiveness) before the King of Kings. Our entire lives are naked before the onlooking universe. Our fate is conferred upon us in heaven, in absentia. We don't even have a chance to speak up for ourselves. There's no magna cum laude or even A-. It's just saved or damned.
While this scenario may reflect some biblical truth, its decontextualized, impersonal form has about as much appeal as the fires of hell. It can scare a person right into the churchor out of the church.
There are several factors that have contributed to fear and tend to make the judgment a negative topic for many Christians. First, it is true that we are judged by our works. Some say that if this is true, our salvation must be dependent upon our works. Salvation based on works is legalism, which contradicts the good news of salvation by grace through faith (Eph 2:8).
It is true that the forgiveness we have received can be undone if we are not found faithful in the judgment. Some find that this leads to discouraging uncertainty as to whether or not they are forgiven and saved.
Some Christians believe that we vindicate God by the good works that we perform. To others, this sounds arrogant, as if God is dependent on our help to save His reputation.
It is true that the judgment takes place in heaven, so we don't know when we are being judged. If we had an appointment of which we were aware, we could at least be on our best behavior at the right time to make a decent impression.
For some, the end of the judgment is even worse than its investigative phase. When investigation is finished, all cases will have been decided. God will no longer forgive sins after this point. So His people will need to live for a time before Christ's Second Coming without sinning at all. The thought of not sinning at all is almost as foreign and frightening as the idea of not breathing.
We need godly fear in the sense of awesome respect for God. Abraham feared God (Gen 22:12) and at the same time he was God's friend (Jas 2:23). But if we fear God as an arbitrary tyrant who makes us run the gauntlet of the judgment without giving us a fair chance, fear of God will drive out love for Him.
If we fear God in the negative way just described, we have three basic options. We can be paralyzed by legalism and paranoia, condemning ourselves and everyone else, hating God but hiding under a pharisaic cloak of self-righteousness. We can retreat to the safety of a state of denial, thinking and talking about other aspects of God and His plan of salvation, but avoiding the judgment and ignoring Bible passages that tell about it. Another option is to investigate the judgment in the Bible in order to gain a balanced and realistic understanding of it within the context of God's plan of salvation.
Compare these three approaches with ways in which you deal with a powerful or intimidating person. You can be prejudiced and despise the person but be nice to his/her face. You can be prejudiced, but go away and ignore the person. Or you can get acquainted with the person, thereby overcoming your prejudice or initial impressions and gaining valid reasons whether to pursue friendship or not.
I prefer the third option because it is honest, open-minded, realistic, and it works. It works with people: I have made some of my best friends this way. It also works with situations such as the judgment. Because I learn more does not guarantee that I will have a positive view. But by looking into things, I can base my opinions on information and experience rather than on ignorance.
Through Bible study, my fears of the judgment have been answered by a more realistic view of the factors that are involved. First, we are judged by our works, but works are only evidence of the faith through which we are saved. There is no room for legalism here because it is God who empowers our works through faith.
Forgiveness that we have received is undone in the judgment only if we sever our new covenant connection with God, refusing to allow Him to give us the change that goes with forgiveness. As long as we continue to accept His transforming power, we have complete assurance that our sins are forgiven.
We do not vindicate God by the good works that we produce. God vindicates Himself by what He does for us, in us, and through us. He cleanses His own sanctuary/reputation by His High Priest and He makes us clean. For people who are truly converted, the only works relevant to the outcome of the judgment are works that follow conversion, which are empowered by God. The outcome for such people is positive because of what they have allowed God to do.
The judgment takes place in heaven, so we don't know exactly when our names come up in the judgment. Apparently this is because God is interested in genuine, ongoing commitment by faith rather than hypocritical show that lasts just long enough for a person to squeeze through the pearly gates. But God clearly tells us when the judgment as a whole begins and He lets us know what He expects His people to do during this time: "keep the commandments of God and hold fast to the faith of Jesus" (Rev 14:12).
For those who continue to accept God's transforming power, the end of the judgment is a relief. God matures them to the point that they have outgrown sinning and their commitment will have passed the point of no return. This does not mean that they cannot experience further moral growth. Such growth will continue throughout eternity as they learn more of the depths of God's love.
For those who reject the Christ who came to "save his people from their sins" (Matt 1:21) and who have no desire to give up sin, the judgment holds no prospect but total terror:
For if we willfully persist in sin after having received the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful prospect of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries... It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God (Heb 10:26-27, 31).
Since the judgment is double-edged, condemning those who are disloyal while delivering those who are loyal, it is not in danger of losing its awesomeness in order to become "user friendly." But our fear can become less than paralyzing if we fully take into account the concept that for God's true people, the judgment is about mercy and its results for us and for our divine King and Judge, who is also our Father. When we enter the judgment cherishing the forgiveness that we have already received, the judgment sets our confidence in concrete.
During the judgment we can have at least five kinds of confidence: confidence that God is fair, confidence of our access to God, confidence that we are in a covenant relationship with God, confidence in the imminence of Christ's Second Coming, and confidence in deliverance from oppression.
Confidence that God is fair
Our world is chaotic, but God is in charge. He has all the power necessary to take care of us. As our King, God has the kingly role of Judge. This is good for us because He is honest and fair, unlike some human rulers and judges.
Psalm 96 celebrates salvation and just judgment by God in His sanctuary as Creator, King, and Judge. The end of the Psalm bursts with joy at the prospect of the Lord's judgment:
Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice;
Let the sea roar, and all it contains;
Let the field exult, and all that is in it.
Then all the trees of the forest will sing for joy
Before the Lord, for He is coming;
For He is coming to judge the earth.
He will judge the world in righteousness,
And the peoples in His faithfulness (verses 11-13; NASB).
While the judgment is solemn and awesome, it also gives joy because we have confidence that our Lord will take care of us in and through His judgment.
Confidence of our access to God
It is true that we do not have physical access to the place of judgment. This is also true with regard to the place where Christ has been interceding on our behalf since He ascended to heaven. But we can enter by faith to the throne of grace now (Heb 4:14-16), just as we can accept by faith the cross event that we cannot see because it is in the past. We can pray to God as our Father and know that He hears us. "And this is the confidence which we have before Him, that, if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us. And if we know that He hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests which we have asked from Him" (1 Jn 5:14-15; NASB).
Confidence that we are in a covenant relationship with God
Like the ancient Day of Atonement, the end-time restoration of the heavenly sanctuary identifies God's loyal, covenant people and vindicates His justice in saving them. Compare Psalm 50:3-6:
Our God comes and does not keep silence, before him is a devouring fire, and a mighty tempest all around him. He calls to the heavens above and to the earth, that he may judge his people: "Gather to me my faithful ones, who made a covenant with me by sacrifice!" The heavens declare his righteousness, for God himself is judge.
God's faithful ones, who have made a new covenant with Him by accepting Christ's sacrifice, have nothing to fear in the judgment. "The Lord redeems the life of his servants; none of those who take refuge in him will be condemned" (Ps 34:22). Rather than removing the assurance of God's people, the judgment reaffirms it.
In the ancient sanctuary, when the high priest enacted the judgment on the Day of Atonement, he didn't cleanse the sanctuary by wiping off the bloodstains that had been applied for sins during the year. No, he put more blood in several of the same places (Lev 16:14-19; compare 4:6-7, 17-18, 25, 30, 34), reaffirming the forgiveness that had already been given.
Whose blood did that represent? Christ's blood! Christ's sacrifice is so great that it not only purchases our forgiveness, it pays the cost of mercy after forgiveness, thereby reaffirming our atonement, our reconciliation with God. Let's hear it again for the blood of Christ!
Christ's blood applied to you in the judgment says: You are really forgiven and finally cleansed from any impediments to your covenant relationship with God. You belong to God, not to Satan.
For God's faithful ones, Christ's work of judgment involves a special kind of mediation in a special phase of representing them before God. Just as the Israelite high priest mediated for his people during the year and mediated for them again by applying blood to the sanctuary on their behalf on the Day of Atonement, Christ mediates to give us forgiveness and then He represents us again so that we can receive cleansing in the judgment.
The promise of Revelation 3:5 has special application for the time of judgment: "If you conquer, you will be clothed like them in white robes, and I will not blot your name out of the book of life; I will confess your name before my Father and before his angels." In the book of Revelation, those who conquer and are clothed with "white robes" are people who are faithful to the end (Rev 6:11; 7:9, 13). So Christ promises to acknowledge those who are faithful to the end in order that their names will not be blotted out of the book of life. This sounds like the time of the judgment, when God's people are shown to be faithful.
Rather than having their names blotted out of the book of life, God's people have their sins blotted/wiped out. There is a sense in which God wipes out sins when He forgives (Isa 44:22), but in the judgment before Christ returns to earth, He wipes them out in the ultimate sense that they are eternally and irrevocably irrelevant. Acts 3:19-21 appears to cover both phases of wiping out sin:
Repent therefore, and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out, so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Messiah appointed for you, that is, Jesus, who must remain in heaven until the time of universal restoration that God announced long ago through his holy prophets.
As a result of the judgment, Satan is shown to be a malicious, false witness (compare Deut 19:16-19) because he lies when he says that we are not really forgiven. It is Satan, not God, who is trying to take away our assurance. The judgment is bad for us only if we are not on God's side.
The judgment puts the finishing touches on the process of atonement. If we are in Christ, the judgment makes us more saved. It does not devalue the forgiveness that we have already received; it reaffirms that forgiveness. It does not deny the blood of Christ; it applies that blood again. It does not confirm the accusations of Satan; it answers them. It does not take away our assurance; it sets our assurance in concrete. Let's say with the Psalmist: "Judge me, O Lord my God...!" (Ps 35:24; NASB), that is, "Vindicate me...!" (compare 26:1; 43:1).
If we truly believe in Christ, we have eternal life: "I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life" (1 Jn 5:13). We can have confidence that we are in a covenant relationship with God.
Confidence in the imminence of Christ's Second Coming
The judgment is the last phase of Christ's saving activity before He comes again. Since we are already in the period of the judgment, we are about to meet Christ! The fact that the judgment began in 1844, over a century and a half ago, does not mean that Christ is coming later now than He was in 1844. It may mean that He is waiting in order to give people an opportunity to be saved, just as He kept the Israelites waiting for their land for hundreds of years while He gave the inhabitants of Canaan an opportunity to turn from evil (Gen 15:13-16). But God's mercy is not tardiness. "The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance" (2 Pet 3:9; NASB).
We are closer than ever to the end. "For there is still a vision for the appointed time; it speaks of the end, and does not lie. If it seems to tarry, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay" (Hab 2:3). Therefore, "prepare to meet your God" (Amos 4:12)!
Confidence in deliverance from oppression
In Daniel 7, God's judgment condemns evil power that oppresses God's people and brings about their deliverance from oppression. While the results of the judgment may not be immediately apparent, deliverance will come. God's judgment is like a D-Day invasion against evil that is absolutely certain to bring a V-Day of liberation and peace.
While we humble ourselves during the time of the judgment, we can rejoice even if we are persecuted (Matt 5:11-12), looking forward to a great victory celebration:
And I saw what appeared to be a sea of glass mixed with fire, and those who had conquered the beast and its image and the number of its name, standing beside the sea of glass with harps of God in their hands. And they sing the song of Moses, the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb: "Great and amazing are your deeds, Lord God the Almighty! Just and true are your ways, King of the nations! Lord, who will not fear and glorify your name? For you alone are holy. All nations will come and worship before you, for your judgments have been revealed" (Rev 15:2-4; compare Ps 9:1-4).
Fear of the judgment can paralyze our faith. But by learning more about it from the Bible, we find that what seemed like a mountain lion can give us confidence, especially when we know that Christ, "the Lion of the tribe of Judah" (Rev 5:5), is on our side!