Question 52 of the Heidelberg Catechism asks: ‘How Does Christ’s Return “To Judge the Living and the Dead’ Comfort You?” It is an interesting way of the Final Judgment, isn’t it? But for believers in Jesus Christ, his return is to be a comfort. We will come around to why this is so at the end, and why for Christians, it is indeed the “blessed hope” (Titus 2:13).
First, though, what does the Bible have to say with regard to the Final Judgment? Revelation 20 gives us a picture of aspects of what is to come in that great and terrifying event.
Revelation 20:11-15: “Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. From his presence earth and sky fled away, and no place was found for them. And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done. And the sea gave up the dead who were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done. Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.”
The passage focuses our attention on four successive scenes, each of which tells us something about what will happen after Jesus comes back.
The Great White Throne
God’s great throne is an image that should comfort and caution us. It comforts us because it promises that everything and everyone will answer to God. It comforts us because it promises that everything and everyone will answer to God. It our world, people get away with terrible evils. Genocide, war, slavery, corruption, and the list goes on and on. In the face of this, we cry with the Psalmist, “How Long O Lord” (Psalm 13). But, God is on his throne. And in the end, justice and righteousness will prevail and every single offense will be accounted for.
Here is Croatian theologian Miroslav Volf’s reflections on this truth:
I used to think that wrath was unworthy of God. Isn’t God love? Shouldn’t divine love be beyond wrath? God is love, and God loves every person and every creature. That’s exactly why God is wrathful against some of them.
My last resistance to the idea of God’s wrath was a casualty of the war in the former Yugoslavia, the region from which I come. According to some estimates, 200,000 people were killed and over 3,000,000 were displaced. My villages and cities were destroyed, my people shelled day in and day out, some of them brutalized beyond imagination, and I could not imagine God not being angry. Or think of Rwanda in the last decade of the past century, where 800,000 people were hacked to death in one hundred days! How did God react to the carnage? By doting on the perpetrators in a grandfatherly fashion? By refusing to condemn the bloodbath but instead affirming the perpetrators’ basic goodness? Wasn’t God fiercely angry with them?
Though I used to complain about the indecency of the idea of God’s wrath, I came to think that I would have to rebel against a God who wasn’t wrathful at the sight of the world’s evil. God isn’t wrathful in spite of being love. God is wrathful because God is love.”
The Standing Dead
“And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne” (v. 12). Death, Hades and the sea will all cough up their dead (v. 13). Everyone will be present. We won’t be able to hide from him who sits on the throne. Not even the grave can conceal us. “The earth and sky will flee from God’s presence” (v. 11), but we won’t have that option.
This vision of the dead standing before God reminds us that there will be a great resurrection of all people after Jesus comes back, though not all will be resurrected for the same destiny. We will all appear before the throne. Daniel prophesied: “And many of those who sleep shall in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt” (Daniel 12:2). And Jesus said: “Do not be amazed at this, for a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and come out – those who have done what is good will rise to live, and those who have done what is evil will rise to be condemned” (John 5:28-29).
There will be a final resurrection when all humanity from all the ages will stand before the throne where their eternal destiny will be determined.
Books and the Book
“Books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life” (Revelation 20:12). What exactly are these two pieces of evidence, theses “books” and “the book of life?”
The “books” appear to be a record of each person’s deeds, and serve as the basis of God’s judgment: “The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books” (v. 12). According to the Bible, we are all guilty, because we have all broken God’s commands (Romans 3:23). Our only hope is if our name is found written in the book of life.
What is the book of life? It is the record of those who have been saved from the guilt of their sin by trusting in the person and work of Jesus Christ. Elsewhere in Revelation, this book is called “the Lamb’s book of life, the Lamb who was slain” (Revelation 13:8). The book catalogues the people God has rescued from the penalty of their sins through the sacrifice of Jesus. Daniel predicted: “But at that time your people – everyone whose name is found written in the book – will be delivered” (Daniel 12:1).
The Lake of Fire
Those not found in the Lamb’s book of life will face the lake of fire, the ‘Second death” (Revelation 20:14). Simply put, the lake of fire is the most terrifying, horrific, awful place ever. It is hell, the final destiny of all those who oppose God and his laws, and who reject Jesus. Just a few verse earlier, we find this dreadful description of the lake of fire:
“And the devil who had deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever” (Revelation 20:10).
Notice three things about the lake of fire:
- The lake of fire is the final judgment for God’s enemies, including Satan and his followers, as well as death and Hades.
- The lake of fire is a place of conscious torment, not obliteration or annihilation. It is final separation from God’s saving presence.
- The torment of the lake of fire is eternal, lasting “for ever and ever.”
On the last day “every mouth” will be “stopped,” and the whole world will be “held accountable to God” (Romans 3:19). As Revelation 19:2 says, “Salvation and glory and power belong to our God, for his judgments are true and just.”
The New Heaven and New Earth
Revelation 21:1-4: “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”
The end of this world is not the end of the story. After this current universe has passed away, after humanity has been sifted and sorted before God’s throne, after all God’s foes have been cast into the lake of fire, God will do something unimaginably wonderful. God will make a new heaven and a new earth.
At the center of this new creation will be Christ. God himself will be present with his people (Revelation 22:4; Psalm 16:11; 73:25, 26). And while there will never again be the experience of sin, mourning, pain, or death.
As C.S. Lewis allegorizes it: “Now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on for ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.” Amen.