In biblical times, those holding trials between people were called judges (Exodus 18: 21-26), just as they are today. Some more prominent judges, in the centuries between Joshua’s death and the establishment of the kingdom of Israel, were noble leaders who led various Jewish tribes in battle against invaders. In this capacity, they were liberators of their people. Any just judge is a deliverer of the innocent.
The concept of judgment in the Bible is more difficult to understand, because the term “judgment” is used both for the process of examining a case (hearing, deliberation) and for the verdict (pronouncing a guilty or not guilty sentence) and, very often, it is used with the meaning of punishment. In some places, “judgment” means bringing truth and justice to light, outside the judicial context.
Moses and Joshua, in their day, were supreme judges, as were the kings of Israel and Jerusalem before their exile. But all this time, the true Supreme Judge was God, because He was Israel’s King. “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). Jesus Himself submitted to the Righteous Judge (1 Peter 2:23). There is a special judgment of God, which is the foundation of the gospel, namely the judgment of the world in Christ: the Innocent One who voluntarily received the punishment instead of us, the guilty. And the accuser, Satan, was exposed and deposed (John 12:31-33; 16:11).
However, the great cosmic controversy did not stop at the Cross. Evil, which has been overthrown, did not in fact yield (Revelation 12:9-17) and, for the time being, prevails, by the fact that the world chooses to submit to the “prince of this world” (John 12:31; 14:30; 16:11), “the god of this age” (2 Corinthians 4:4), the ruler of the cosmocracy of darkness (Ephesians 6:12).
Therefore, God entrusted His Son, Jesus Christ, with the Judgment just as He also entrusted Him, from the beginning, with the work of Creation and the Kingdom. The reason is God’s will is not to condemn the world for its sin, but to save the world from sin. The purpose of judgment is not to inform God, who already knows everything (Job 34:23), but to reveal the righteousness of God’s government (Romans 3:4).
There are various historical “judgments” of God, private or collective, in the sense of sentences of repressive and/or disciplinary punishment. In Genesis 3:9-24, God summons the culprits, Adam and Eve; He acts as if He knows nothing and needs to investigate. After hearing them all, except the serpent, He pronounces the sentence on the serpent, on the woman, and on the man. Next is the judgment of Cain (Genesis 4), the judgment of the flood generation (Genesis 6-7), in which an entire world sank and only eight souls were saved. “When your judgments come upon the earth, the people of the world learn righteousness” (Isaiah 26:9).
The chain of judgments includes various nations of the world. The tribes of the Canaanites received the harshest judgement when their iniquity reached its peak. But God also severely punished His people when appropriate (2 Kings 21:11-16). Describing the scenario of Gog’s coalition, which was to attack Israel soon after they returned from Babylonian exile, God says: “I will execute judgment on him with plague and bloodshed; I will pour down torrents of rain, hailstones, and burning sulphur on him [Gog] and on his troops and on the many nations with him” (Ezekiel 38:22).
Beyond the unfinished historical judgments, there is a final judgment of God, both universal and particular. It has long been foretold that it will also include God’s people, and that it will even begin with “the house of God” (1 Peter 4:5-7, 17-18; Revelation 6:9-11).
This judgment is desired by those who are on God’s side, because it is a judicial trial that will bring about justice for God’s people, rather than a punishment, although it is true that false believers will be rejected at this judgment. Forgiveness is total from now on, for those who have been reconciled to God (1 Thessalonians 1:9-10), but it is conditional: you may be forgiven now and condemned at the judgment. No one can deceive God (Matthew 18:23-35).
God’s people will be judged first, because Jesus, as Supreme Judge, has decided to bring His saved, resurrected followers to justice. They are those who have been wronged and put to death by earthly courts. At the judgment of the world and even that of the angels, the Lord Jesus will surround Himself with His saints, who will partake of God’s decisions, just as the angels have been delegated the honour of judging the mighty of this world.
There is obviously a connection between Christ the Judge and Christ the Defender. It is said that in Israeli antiquity, the only legitimate defence lawyer was the judge himself. Through his office he had a duty to defend the accused, until he succeeded in defeating the accusers and convicting them, or, on the contrary, until he himself was defeated by the evidence of the prosecution’s witnesses. In the first case, the judge pronounced the acquittal (justification) of the accused, and in the second case he pronounced the sentence of conviction, according to the Law.
As Judge, Jesus also spoke about the main Judgment criterion: the law of retaliation (“As you have done, so will it be done onto you”). Judgment will follow the authenticity of the deeds, intentions, and chances to repent (Romans 2:2-6). The judge will give eternal life to those who know themselves to be mortal, but seek immortality through perseverance for good (Romans 2:7), and will punish those whose ambitions are against the truth and who are subjected to injustice (Romans 2:8).
Those who have had more knowledge of God come first, both in reward and in punishment (Romans 2:9-11). By contrast, those who had little knowledge of God as sinners will perish without being punished by the Law (Romans 2:12), as opposed to those who hear the Law but do not obey it, while those who have followed God’s law, even if they have never explicitly heard it, will be justified at the judgment (Romans 2:13-16). How just and at the same time full of grace is God’s judgment in Christ! On closer inspection, the biblical doctrine of judgment is the most beautiful and comprehensive thing. It’s not for nothing that Revelation (14:6-7) calls it “the Eternal Gospel”.