Episode 48: Judgement Day – should I be afraid?
Paul and Dan investigate the many and varied Biblical images for judgement day. They discuss whether we should think that any of those word-pictures and metaphors describe what will actually happen – or are they designed to teach us something else? If you’ve ever experienced that moment of fear at the thought of trying to explain what you’ve done, listen in, as there are some encouraging messages of comfort hidden away in this topic!
Paul and Dan begin by acknowledging that nearly all Christian traditions have a concept of personal judgement in some way, whether that is appearing before the judgement seat of Christ at his return, or being personally judged at death. (We’ve covered reasons why we believe that the Christian hope is resurrection and inheritance of the earth, rather than heaven, in earlier episodes). It is usually extremely unnerving to think about being judged, reflected well in what the apostle Paul said to the Corinthians; that “we must all appear before the judgement seat of Christ” and that this prompts “the fear of the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5:10-11). On the other hand, 1 John 4:17, among other verses, tells us that we can “have confidence for the day of judgement”. How do we reconcile these two emotions when facing the prospect of being personally judged?
What will judgement day be like?
Musing on sources as diverse as the Sistine Chapel and Whitney Houston(!), Paul and Dan talk about all the different ideas on how the judgement will take place. Will it involve waiting in line for your turn? Will it be in some remote area? Will the Lord ask you what you did with your life? Will you need to explain the things you’ve done?
They note that some of this imagery comes from passages like Revelation 20:11-15 where there is a court room scene described. Whilst the imagery is striking and powerful, it seems like stating the obvious that the symbols used in that setting are metaphors. This includes the idea of Christ consulting books to see who is included in the “book of life”. Dan underscores how important it is to keep that in mind, by using other examples of non-literal metaphors for God’s omniscience (Psalm 56:8).
Many different judgement parables
Paul and Dan continue by recognising the many different parables that Jesus told about the judgement. They each communicate the reality of personal judgement, but they are all diverse in their settings and details. That’s what you would expect for stories that are designed to tell a specific message. They consider parables involving employers, fishermen, a wedding and shepherds. Paul notes how the message of each parable about a future judgement appears to be designed to teach us about how we ought to live and act in the present, and not about how it is exactly going to take place.
Giving an account on judgement day
They then consider two specific passages that appear to teach that anyone who is brought before Jesus on judgement day will need to explain their life and give an account of their choices and actions, (as sung by Whitney Houston!) However, as Paul and Dan chat, it becomes clear that paying attention to the context of each passage is essential. The NRSV captures the first well in its translation, “So then, each one of us will be accountable to God” (Romans 14:12 NRSV). The second, in Matthew 12:36-37, is more about Jesus showing that the state of the heart will bring forth words and actions that reflect it, whether good or bad, just like a good tree produces good fruit and a bad tree produces bad fruit. Neither passages are deliberately trying to communicate how the judgement will be conducted.
Should I be afraid of judgement day?
Some of the terrifying images of judgement are therefore not exactly based on concrete depictions in the Bible. This should make us fear the actual event itself less, and concentrate more on dealing with our lives and actions now in the present. Paul and Dan conclude by considering whether or not they are falling into the trap of just trying to soften the Bible’s message with Western liberal thinking! They consider a few thoughts from Hebrews that show that judgement will indeed be fearful for those who haven’t placed themselves within the saving grace of God. However, for those whose hearts try to generate good work like good fruit on a good tree, there is no fear because God “will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more” (Hebrews 10:17). They consider the opportunity that God has provided as something well worth taking together in communities of people who are like-minded.
In episode 37: How can we know Jesus? we investigated the transforming power that a relationship with Jesus can have on us. We’ve looked at the idea of God’s kingdom on earth, not in heaven, in a few of our conversations, (here and here), and related to the topic of judgement, we considered the terrifying prospect of being sent to hell and what that word really means in episode 34: Where is hell?