Baker's Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology
Judgment, Day of
Throughout the Bible it is accepted that people are accountable to God. Good deeds are commended and evil deeds are blamed. The day of judgment is the culmination of the whole process. At the end of this world order God will judge all people and all deeds. Nothing will be excepted; every secret thing, good or bad, will be brought into judgment (Ecclesiastes 12:14 ). Sometimes, of course, judgment is seen as a present activity (Ezekiel 7:7-8 ), but there is also strong emphasis on final judgment, the judgment at the end of this world system as we know it, a judgment that ushers in the final state of affairs. This will be a judgment of all the nations and all the people, for the Lord "comes, he comes to judge the earth. He will judge the world in righteousness, and the peoples in his truth" (Psalm 96:13 ). There will be judgment on Israel (Psalm 50:4 ) and there will also be judgment on the whole Gentile world (Psalm 9:8 ; Romans 14:10 ; cf. the magnificent picture of the final judgment in Revelation 20:11-15 ).
Judgment day may be referred to in any one of a number of ways. It may be spoken of strictly as "the day of judgment" (Matthew 10:15 ; 1 John 4:17 ), or with reference to its chronological place as "the last day" (John 6:39 ). Mostly John's references to this day refer to Jesus' raising of people but he also tells us that Jesus said that the word that he spoke would on the last day judge anyone who despised him and refused to hear his words (John 12:48 ). The most common way of referring to it appears to be simply "that day" (Luke 21:34 ); the day of judgment was so outstanding that nothing more was needed to draw attention to it. Indeed, it may be called "the great Day" (Jude 6 ), or simply "the Day" (Hebrews 10:25 ; 2 Peter 1:19 ).
Sometimes the day is characterized by the outcome of it all. Thus it is "the day of redemption" (Ephesians 4:30 ). In one sense redemption is accomplished here and now when the sinner comes to trust Christ, but in another sense the Day of Judgment seals it all. And, of course, for the finally impenitent sinner it is "the great day of his wrath" (Revelation 6:17 ), "the day of God's wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed" (Romans 2:5 ).
There are other ways of putting it; this list is not exhaustive. The point of it all is that the day in question is the decisive day. What happens then is the culmination of the history of the world. A judgment will take place from which there is no appeal.
The Teaching of Jesus . Jesus emphasized the importance of final judgment. He told the Twelve that they were to warn their hearers that it would be "more bearable for Sodom and Gomorrah" on the day of judgment than for them (Matthew 10:15 ). He himself had a similar message for the people of Chorazin and Bethsaida: It will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon on judgment day than for them (Matthew 11:22 ; Luke 10:14 ). On both occasions he warned that the people of Capernaum should not think of heaven as their final destination; that would rather be Hades. "The men of Nineveh" and "The Queen of the South" will stand up and condemn Jesus' hearers at the day of judgment because they responded to the wisdom of Solomon and the preaching of Jonah and those hearers did not (Matthew 12:41-42 ). We should be clear that Jesus unhesitatingly spoke of judgment day and of what would happen on it.
Jesus also related the words uttered by his hearers to what will happen at the day of judgment. It is what goes on in our hearts that determines what we say and thus our words are important; our words reveal what we are. On the day of judgment we will be called on to give account of "every careless word" we have spoken and it is this that will determine our acquittal or our condemnation (Matthew 12:34-37 ).
Faith and Works . When we think of the reality and the seriousness of judgment day we must be on our guard against holding that our final salvation is to be decided on the basis of merit. The New Testament makes it abundantly clear that salvation is not the reward of the good deeds that people do. It is emphasized as strongly as it could possibly be that Christ came to this world to save sinners and that he saved them by laying down his perfect life on Calvary's cross. Salvation comes through what Christ has done and it is applied to the individual by his or her faith. It is not any merit we may have but our faith that is the channel whereby Christ's salvation reaches us. That must be given the strongest emphasis. And that has its consequences. There is "no condemnation for those that are in Christ Jesus" (Romans 8:1 ). To put our trust in Christ is to pass from death to life and among other things to know that we will receive a favorable verdict on judgment day.
But to trust in Christ is to undergo a transformation. Justification leads to sanctification as believers are transformed by the power of God. While believers can look forward to the day of judgment with calm rather than fear they do so because of what God has done in them and not on account of any merit of their own.
The believer and the nonbeliever are both accountable and judgment day is the occasion when that account is rendered. It is not then a question of whether we are saved or not. It is the issuing of a verdict on what we have done; it is the answer to the question of what believers have done with their salvation and what unbelievers have done with their unbelieving lives. All will be required to give account of themselves to God.
There are those who see judgment day as pointing to salvation by works. The verdicts on the sheep and the goats on the basis of what they have done or failed to do to "the least" of Christ's brothers (Matthew 25:31-46 ) are said to mean that the verdict is given for those who have done good works. But this overlooks a number of facts. First whether they are "sheep" or "goats" has already been determined. Then we should notice that the good deeds are done to Christ's "brothers." We are saved not by Acts of kindness but only by Christ (Acts 4:12 ). Good deeds may be done by unbelievers, but this is due to "common grace" at work in our fallen society, not a reason for salvation.
Salvation is by grace alone, but judgment day registers the verdict on what we have done or failed to do with God's grace. Jesus is not saying that there are some people whose good deeds merit salvation, but that there are some whose good deeds are evidence of their salvation. Scripture sees the whole race as under condemnation (Romans 3:22-23 ). Unbelievers are under condemnation even before they hear the gospel for their lives do not measure up; they are sinners. We are not to think that it is only when they explicitly reject the gospel that they are condemned.
Judgment Day Is More than Present Judgment . That there will be a "judgment day" is significant for an understanding of a good deal of Scripture. In these days there are many who are ready to accept the thought of accountability but who reject the idea of judgment day. They see this as no more than a needless piece of imagery and hold that what the Bible really means is that God is constantly at work judging his people. There is, of course, a truth here. God does watch over his people and in the happenings of every day he disciplines them. This is scriptural, but it is not the whole of the teaching of the Bible. In addition to any earlier judgments Scripture looks forward to God's judgment at the end of time.
Paul tells the Romans that what the law says is written on the hearts of the Gentiles and that their response to this will determine what will happen to them on judgment day (Romans 2:15-16 ). It is what God has done in them and not what they have decided for themselves that forms the standard. For an understanding of judgment day it is important to bear in mind that God knows what goes on in the hearts of all people and he knows accordingly whether they are responding as they should to the leading he has given them.
The Judge . Very often the day is related to God or to Christ. Thus it is "the great day of God Almighty" (Revelation 16:14 ); it is "the day of God" (2 Peter 3:12 ). The earliest use of this imagery is when Amos pronounces a woe on "you who long for the day of the Lord" (5:18). Clearly the Israelites expected that day to be a day of deliverance and blessing, but Amos goes on to assure them that "That day will be darkness, not light." "The day he (God visits us" 1 Peter 2:12 ) means of course "the day when God visits" so it belongs here. It reminds us that God's "visitation" on judgment day will be a serious affair. So is it when we read of "the great and glorious day of the Lord" (Acts 2:20 ). This occurs in a quotation from Joel, so "the Lord" is clearly Yahweh.
In other places however "Lord" may refer to the Lord Jesus Christ (e.g.,1 Thessalonians 5:2 ; 2 Peter 3:10 ), and this is beyond doubt when we read of "the day of our Lord Jesus Christ" (1Col 1:8; 5:5). Judgment day is the day of Christ (Philippians 1:10 ) or the day of the Son of Man (Luke 17:24 ). Jesus taught that the Father does not judge people, but that "he has entrusted all judgment to the Son" (John 5:22 ; cf. v. 27 ). This is distinctively Christian teaching, for the Jews do not seem to have thought of the Messiah as the Judge. He would bring deliverance to the people, but it was God the Father who would be the judge.
The point of all such references is that in the end it will be a great divine act, whether we emphasize the Father or the Son, that distinguishes the day of judgment. Paul tells us that on judgment day the Father will judge all people through Christ Jesus (Romans 2:16 ) and this perhaps clears up the references which link either of the two with final judgment.
For many modern theologians the doctrine of final judgment is a relic of the past and they put no emphasis on it. This is curious in view of the facts that in modern times there has been a great upsurge of interest in eschatology and that the final judgment is at the very heart of biblical eschatology. The witness of Scripture in both Old and New Testaments is clear: We are all accountable and at the end of time we will be called on to give account of ourselves before God.
Bibliography . O. Cullmann, Christ and Time ; H. E. Guillebaud, The Righteous Judge ; J. P. Martin, The Last Judgment ; L. Morris, The Biblical Doctrine of Judgment ; idem, The Wages of Sin ; J. A. Motyer, After Death ; J. O. Sanders, What of the Unevangelized? ; C. V. Pilcher, The Hereafter in Jewish and Christian Thought .
Baker's Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology. Edited by Walter A. Elwell
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of Baker Book House Company, PO Box 6287, Grand Rapids, Michigan 49516-6287.
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Elwell, Walter A. Entry for 'Judgment, Day of'. Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology. http://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/bed/j/judgment-day-of.html. 1996.