The judgment of God is the greatest demonstration of His justice in the universe—the other side of the coin bearing the image of the Cross. In God, love and faithfulness meet together; righteousness and peace kiss each other (Psalm 85:10).
“For the Lord is our judge, the Lord is our lawgiver, the Lord is our king; it is He who will save us” (Isaiah 33:22).
God the Creator, essentially, is love (John 3:16; 1 John 4:8,16). Justice is not the dark or unfavourable side to His being, but is the most consistent perspective on His love. God’s grace, on the other hand, is an extension of His love, transcending justice without abolishing it. The Last Judgment reflects this extraordinary image of God’s loving, just, and gracious character.
The purpose of God’s judgment
God treats people as responsible beings and, in this manner, He manifests His respect for the creatures made in His own image. Because God is just, but we are unjust and live in an unjust world, God’s Judgment is a necessity.
Throughout history, there have been righteous interventions by God, who has punished individuals, nations, or the entire world, as an example to His children (Genesis 8:11-13; 19:24), or rewarded some people in the same exemplary way (Job 42:10; 2 Samuel 6:11-12).
These judgments were partial, incomplete, simple warnings, or promises, by which justice does not seem to have been fully satisfied (Psalm 73:2-14; 94: 3).
Not even the atoning judgment made by God through Christ on the Cross (John 12:31-33), ensuring the final victory of righteousness and grace in the universe, has brought an end to evil yet. This will only happen at the Last Judgment, when the Cross—the altar of Christ—will “take vengeance” (Hebrews 10:29; Revelation 16:7), bringing God’s wrath to the unrepentant, and final redemption to the repentant (Romans 8:23; Hebrews 9:28).
Judgment is promised in Scripture in the most solemn way: “Judgment will again be founded on righteousness, and all the upright in heart will follow it” (Psalm 94:15); “For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil” (Ecclesiastes 12:14; cf. Acts 17:31).
When we talk about judgment, we usually think of a trial involving prosecutors, lawyers, clerks, judges, and defendants. It is a long process that includes gathering evidence, examining it, prosecuting, defending, deliberating, pronouncing, and enforcing a sentence.
However, when we think of God, we have a prejudice—namely, that God’s judgment would be without actual judgment: a simple reference to punishment. This prejudice is also favoured by the fact that, in biblical languages, the term judgment has multiple meanings, some of them being ‘trial’, ‘punishment’, or the pronouncement of a verdict, be it sentencing, acquittal, or compensation.
God knows everything even before it happens, so He does not need evidence for clarification, or time to think before taking a decision (Job 34:23-24). However, the Bible shows that God does not make this judgment for Himself, but for the whole universe of intelligent beings. Heavenly beings learn about God’s grace and righteousness from the way God treats us (1 Corinthians 4:9; Ephesians 3:10). When Adam and Eve sinned, God examined the case as if He knew nothing (Genesis 3:8-13). He did the same in the presence of the angels when He examined the masons of Babylon (Genesis 11:5), Abraham and Lot (Genesis 18:1-2, 20-21), and others.
Evil has its origin in heaven, where the first doubts and accusations towards God’s righteousness appeared (2 Peter 2:4; Revelation 12:7-8). Therefore, the final judgment must take into account all beings involved in this cosmic conflict. God does not rule as an enlightened despot. He is a constitutional monarch (Isaiah 42:4; James 2:8, 12).
Judge me, Lord!
The question “How long will it take?” (Daniel 8:13; Revelation 6:10) has always been the cry of those who love goodness and justice. Those who are on God’s side see the proclamation of judgment as the triumph of the everlasting gospel, and not as a curse. Only lawbreakers do not love judgment.
In the prophecy of Daniel 7:9-10, God’s judgment appears as a heavenly intervention in the conflict between the “holy people of the Most High” and the horned beast. Following the judgment, the beast is thrown into the fire (Daniel 7:11, 26; Revelation 19:20), and the holy people are given the eternal kingdom and the authority to judge the world (Daniel 7:18, 22). Two defendants, two sentences. In Daniel 8:13-14, the sanctuary of God (which includes His army of servants and the continual sacrifice) is done justice, and the wicked horn is defeated (Daniel 8:25).
The best proof that God’s judgment means true justice and mercy is the fact that the Supreme Judge looks after “the orphans and the widows”. He is called on as a judge precisely because judgment, from God’s perspective and from the plaintiff’s perspective, is a saving act (Psalm 7:8; 35:24; 54:1).
According to ancient Israelite custom, the judge himself was the legitimate defence lawyer. Through his office, he had the duty to defend the accused until defeating the plaintiffs and convicting them of evil intentions, or until he himself was defeated by the evidence of the prosecution witnesses. In the first scenario, the judge pronounced the acquittal (“justification”) of the accused. In the latter scenario, he pronounced the sentence of conviction, according to the Law.
The doctrine that the saved (the true believers of today) will not be judged is not biblical. It is based on a single misinterpreted text that ignores a lot of texts stating that believers are also examined on the day of judgment. “This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus” (1 John 4:17). Moreover, God is in the habit of judging those in His household (1 Peter 4:5-6, 17-18). The parable of the ungrateful slave (Matthew 18:21-35) should be enough for us to understand that, although sin is forgiven completely and wholeheartedly by God, forgiveness is conditional.
It is in the nature of sin to fear the heavenly judgment of Christ. This same fear gripped even Jesus when he asked to escape God’s judgment at Golgotha. The true gospel is good news for the soul which longs for reconciliation with God. But for the sin that dwells in us, the gospel is the worst news.
God is the legitimate Supreme Judge (Hebrews 12:23; 1 Peter 2:23). But as He created us through Christ (Isaiah 9:6; John 1:3, 10; Colossians 1:16; Hebrews 1:2-3) and saved us through Christ (Isaiah 63:8-9, 16; 1 Timothy 1:1; Jude 1:35), He will also judge the world through Christ: “Moreover, the Father judges no one, but has entrusted all judgment to the Son” (John 5:22); God “has set a day when He will judge the world with justice by the man He has appointed” (Acts 17:31, cf. Daniel 7:13-14).
Jesus is the only Judge whom God has appointed, both for His people and for rebellious souls. Only He has the keys to paradise and perdition (Revelation 1:17-18; 3:7-8, Acts 4:11-12). Christ is called “Judge” by God the Father, precisely because He is Man (John 5:27), lived a human life—tempted in all things, but without sin—proving to be a sacrificial and merciful Mediator for people (1 Timothy 2:5; Hebrews 2:17-18).
The heavenly judge collaborated, in court, with the angels’ counsel, delegating to them the authority to control various worldly situations (Daniel 4:17; 7:10; 10:13; 20-21). In such a scenario, one cannot imagine that God could cheat. The remaining two-thirds of the angels would rebel as well (Job 34:17; Revelation 12:4, 7).
In the same way, God incarnate, who has been given all authority, including that of Judge (Matthew 28:18), shares this authority with His friends, integrating them into the full court as associate judges, or assessors. Not only the apostles (Matthew 19:28; Luke 22:30), but also the Christians of Laodicea (Revelation 3:13) and those of Thyatira (Revelation 2:26-27) and Corinth (1 Corinthians 6:2), and those of all the generations who have suffered for God’s cause (Daniel 7:18, 22, 27), as well as the martyrs of the last generation (Revelation 20:4; Obadiah 1:21) and all the saved will receive royal and judicial authority.
The saints will judge not only the world, but also the angels (1 Corinthians 6:3). The apostle uses this general term for all supernatural beings, to clarify that he was not thinking only of demons. If he had referred only to them, he would have called them demons or evil spirits. Indeed, they will have to be judged, in order to pay in full for their wrongdoings. But what if the judgment also has positive verdicts and those who repent are not only forgiven, but also rewarded? Should not the angels who, instead of following the example of their brethren and rebelling, and who put themselves in the service of men and in obedience to God (Matthew 18:10; Hebrews 1:14), also be judged and rewarded?
Judicial measures and criteria
Like it or not, divine judgment is based on the law of retaliation. There is no other measure of justice. The Bible is consistent in this regard: “As you have done, it will be done to you; your deeds will return upon your own head” (Obadiah 15). For better or for worse, “for with the measure you use, it will be measured to you” (Luke 6:37-38).
What matters, both to God and to the angels, is the character of the person and, most importantly, the inner aspects of their character: their faith, their motivations for obedience, the spirit in which they do or do not do something. Without an unshakeable character, no one will have access to heaven. Therefore, without faith, repentance, and rebirth, no one will be able to force divine judgment. The rebellion has finally been overthrown and no seed of rebellion will ever be able to enter heaven again.
The trial will be fair in every possible way. The lost will be judged with the same fairness and mercy as the repentant.
I have often heard it said that “all sins are the same.” It is true that if you do not repent, you will be lost, no matter the size of your sin. But a great sinner who is repentant is innocent, while a small sinner is lost if they do not repent (Ezekiel 18:4-25; 33:11-20). However, not all the lost will suffer the same way: “He repays everyone for what they have done,” both in quality and in measure.
The wages of sin will be different depending on the sinner’s degree of knowledge, freedom and responsibility. The most responsible, either good or bad, will be charged more (Romans 1:16; 2:9-11). Those who knew more will be more accountable to God’s law (Luke 12:47-48). There will be some who, although sinners, will “perish apart from the law” (Romans 2:12a), that is, without being punished by the law, because they have been severely disadvantaged, in addition to suffering enough in life. It will be those who are very much responsible for their own disadvantages and sufferings who will pay for their sins.
Those who did not have a “law” (revelation, education), but manifested a character in harmony with the “royal law” (Romans 2:13-16; James 2:8), which God engraved in the conscience of every man, through the secret work of the Holy Spirit, will not be punished, because they have listened to the voice of conscience and have shown love for others. It is not about natural love; we are talking about the character that comes from the Spirit (Romans 8:9; Galatians 5:22-23). Those who had the opportunity to know the truth, but did not accept it and preferred to err, will be punished according to the occasion. Those who have rejected the gospel will be held accountable for this insult to God (1 Peter 4:17-18; Revelation 14:6-7).
The greatest punishment will not be physical suffering, but moral suffering, at the sight of the eternal happiness of the saved, along with the awareness that paradise was so accessible, but the opportunity is forever gone (Matthew 8:11-12; Luke 13:28-30).
The fate of the lost
The wages of sin is “death” (non-existence), in contrast to eternal life (Romans 6:23). In Revelation, it is called “the second death” (Revelation 2:10-11; 20:6,14), the ultimate disappearance, with no hope for recovery. This punishment is fair, but threatening. It is eternal—not because of the duration of the execution, but because of the duration of the consequences. It is vividly described in a surreal and contradictory language, which intends to impress rather than inform us realistically: eternal fire is the punishment prepared for the devils, but where, unfortunately, other cursed (those who have not done the good they could have done [Matthew 25:41]) end up as well. Eternal fire is metaphorical: just as in paradise there cannot be saved people with mutilated bodies, so the fire of the guilty cannot be eternal (Matthew 18:8). That would mean that they were still receiving God’s ultimate gift—life.
Eternal fire is a metaphor for a curse and an eternal disappearance (Jude 1:7). Fire is also the equivalent of the “darkness outside” (Matthew 8:12; 22:13; 25:30), where there is no light, and no fire. The smoke that rises forever and ever (Revelation 14:1) is an image taken from the poetry of Isaiah, where the land of the enemies is turned into an area of fire and tar (Isaiah 34:9-10), which burns forever; yet the wild beasts of the desert will live there (Isaiah 34:11-15). The smoke of the burning of Babylon is the sign of eternal destruction (Revelation 18:18; 19:3). Where there is smoke, there is burning, not eternity. Only the burning bush at Sinai gave no smoke (Exodus 3:2).
Gehenna (Hebrew: Ghe-Hinnom, “valley of Hinnom”) near Jerusalem was turned into a garbage dump, becoming the symbol of the final punishment of the wicked (2 Kings 23:10; Nehemiah 11:30). Isaiah describes their fate as being burned by fire (66:15-16), then having their dead bodies thrown into the valley of garbage (Isaiah 66:24). “The worms that eat them do not die, and the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:48). Here Jesus adopts the metaphor of Isaiah.
If anyone wants to read this metaphor in a realistic ‘key’, the worms and the fire would be indeed immortal. Jesus made it clear that even the soul disappears in Gehenna (Matthew 10:28; Ezekiel 18:20). The unquenchable fire is an old metaphor for sure destruction (Jeremiah 17:27).
The model of Hades (the Abode of the Dead) as hell is based on Luke 16:19-31, a Pharisaic story that Jesus told, ironically, to the Pharisees, who were greedy for wealth. Jesus uses it as a parable to illustrate the above (vv. 13-15). Only its meaning matters, the rest is merely rhetoric. In Hades, Father Abraham was not a real being (Isaiah 63:16). Even Abraham’s two wives did not fit in well by his side, let alone Lazarus. The burning flames are a later appearance in Judaism, as is being by Abraham’s side. Initially, the biblical Hades (Sheol) was an imaginary underground realm of the dead, a place of silence, darkness, worms, shadows and non-existence, in which there is no conscious life.
However, the Pharisaic Hades, described by Jesus, also has two realms of conscious life, a happy one and an unhappy one. They are neighbouring spaces, but that does not seem to bother those at Abraham’s side. In the flames, however, the immaterial soul of the rich man has a suffering tongue and finger and a throat that feels the need for water. This parody of the rewards teaches us only the fact that fate can no longer be changed. Wouldn’t it be great to be by Abraham’s side? When the true Lazarus rose from the dead, he had nothing to tell, neither about the dungeon nor about the kingdom. But the risen Lazarus became a living message.
As for the lake of fire and brimstone, at the coming of Jesus, the beast and the false prophet, two institutions of evil, will be thrown there (Revelation 19:11-20), and, at the end of the millennial kingdom, their leader, the devil, will be thrown there as well. He is spirit, and does not burn in ordinary fire (Revelation 20:10). This is the raging fire of God’s jealousy or wrath (Deuteronomy 32:22). It is called eternal (Jeremiah 17:4), yet it consumes completely (Zephaniah 1:18; 3:8). The brimstone reminds us of the fate of Sodom (Genesis 19:24-25), whose “eternal fire” (Jude 1:7) was extinguished long ago. The brimstone is the “breath of the Lord” (Isaiah 30:33), not real sulphur, which the devil does not fear.
The ‘lake’ of fire also seems to offer some hope, as it is not called an ocean or a sea, but a much less spacious area.
The phrase “they will be tormented day and night for ever and ever” (Revelation 20:10) can be seen as part of this Pharisaic mythological scenario, used in John’s vision as teaching material, as well as the concept of Tartarus (2 Peter 2:4), taken from the “Book of Enoch”, as well as the river of blood from Revelation 14:20, and many more. However, this “eternity” of torture in the lake of fire is contradicted both by the representations of the fire that consumes the besiegers of the City (Revelation 20:9; Isaiah 33:11; cf. Leviticus 10:2; 2 Kings 1:10) and by the images that follow them.
The lake of fire is a metaphor that means “second death”, that is, eternal death (Revelation 20:14b; 21:8). Hades, which in Pharisaic accounts has become “hell”, is also cast into the fire of hell (Revelation 20:14a); eternal torture is contradicted by the ensuing universal and absolute renewal that follows (Revelation 21:1, 4-5). There will no longer be any curse (Revelation 22:3). If hell is also “thrown into hell”, where will the traces of the suffering be?
Florin Lăiu is a specialist in biblical languages, and a theologian.