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"...The church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth."
I Timothy 3:15

The Last Judgment

Alvah Hovey

From Biblical Eschatology, 1888

There is a sense in which God judges men perpetually. To him "the books" are always open and the account balanced, so that every man is either acquitted or condemned. At every instant and with reference to every person it may be said: "Jehovah is a God of knowledge, and by him actions are weighed" (1 Sam. 2:3). But this does not render "the last day" superfluous, for the object of that day is "the manifestation of the righteous judgment of God," while his perpetual judgment is known only to himself.

Not even to the conscience of the person judged is the mind of God as to the degree of his guilt fully revealed in this life - much less is it revealed to others. Hence the bad are sometimes esteemed good, and the good bad; the hypocrite is reverenced for sanctity, and the upright man suspected of evil. But the veil will be lifted at the last day. "Then God will make judgment the line, and righteousness the plummet" (Isa. 28:17). Misapprehensions will be corrected; for "God will bring every work into judgment, with every hidden thing, whether it be good or whether it be bad" (Eccl. 12:14). In respect to that judgment the following particulars are made known by the word of God:

(1) It will be conducted by the Lord Jesus Christ. This is distinctly affirmed by the Saviour in John 5:22, 23, 27, 29; and in Matt. 25:31-46; not to mention other passages. It is also plainly asserted by Paul in Acts 17:31; 2 Cor. 5:10; 2 Tim. 4:1. Paul declares that God "hath appointed a day in the which he will judge the world in righteousness by the man whom he hath ordained," etc., and the expression, translated "the world," means literally "the inhabited earth," or, by metonymy, "the inhabitants of the earth." And there is no occasion for doubting that he intended by this all mankind.

In the Saviour's words preserved by John a reason why the judgment of men was assigned to him is stated. "He"—the Father—" gave him authority to execute judgment, because he is a Son of man." His genuine humanity rendered it suitable that he should fill this office than which a higher can scarcely he imagined. The Sufferer must be crowned; the Redeemer must be made Head over all. Whether his ability to sympathize with men was also a reason for committing the work of judgment to him is left undecided by the context.

But there is evidence that Jesus Christ will associate with himself as judges those whom he has redeemed. (Matt. 19:28; Luke 22 30; 1 Cor. 6:2, 3) On the first of these passages Dr. Broadus remarks: "It is idle to insist upon the exact number twelve, and ‘judging the twelve tribes of Israel’ certainly does not mean that only Jews will be judged, or that one apostle will judge one tribe."

An Oriental monarch "often had persons seated near him (called by the Romans assessors), to aid him in judging" (Rev. 4:4). To such a position will the Twelve be exalted at the last day. Dr. Bliss, commenting on the second passage, finds the essence of the thought to be this, "that in the day of judgment their testimony concerning the truth of the gospel, and its indispensable power to save, shall condemn the mass of the unbelieving Jews."

But when these passages are compared with the third, it becomes evident that judicial functions are prominent in the Saviour's words, and that the least which they can be supposed to teach is that in the final judgment the Twelve, and indeed "all saints," will be taken into the counsel and called to unite in the decision of the infallible Judge as to the guilt and doom of the wicked, whether angels or men. Not that they will be helpful to the great King in forming his decisions, but that they will be honored as his friends with so full a view of the reasons for every decision, as to make it as truly theirs as his own.

What a pledge is this of the high intelligence and the moral perfection to which the saints will be exalted! It seems almost incredible that sinful men should ever rise by the power of divine grace into this absolute union with their Lord, even when his righteous judgment condemns the unbelieving.

This view of the participation of the redeemed in the judging of angels and men at "the last day" suggests the probability that the word "day" may in this connection denote a longer period of time than is sometimes supposed. It is really an indefinite expression, and one may well bear in mind the language of Peter, that "one day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day" (2 Pet. 3:8). It is vain for us to attempt conjecture, for we have no means of ascertaining, even approximately, the rapidity with which events may pass before the mind in the future life.

But there are other statements of Scripture closely allied in meaning to those which refer to the judicial function of the saints, statements that speak of them as reigning with Christ, or as sharing his glory. (See Matt. 25:21, 23; Luke 19:17-19; Rom. 5: 17; 8:17; 2 Tim. 2:12; Rev. 20:4; 22:5) Some of these may be fulfilled before the last judgment, and some of them after that august event, but beyond all doubt, they assign a regal position to the friends of Christ.

(2) It will be a universal judgment. That is to say, all mankind, from the time of Adam to that of Christ's final appearance, will be subject to it. In proof of this statement, our appeal is to the following passages: Heb. 9:27; Matt. 12:36, 37; 25:32; Acts 17:31; Rom. 14:10; 2 Cor. 5:10; 2 Thess. 1:6-10; Rev. 20:11-15. If there be any exception to the universality of the judgment as related to mankind, it must be of those only who were incapable of moral action during their earthly life.

Apart from these, all will be called to give account of their words and deeds to him who is ready to judge both the living and the dead. (See especially Eccl. 12: 14; Matt. 12:36, 37; Heb. 9:27) As to the comprehension of the words, "all the nations," there is some difference of opinion. Several interpreters maintain the opinion that it refers to non-Christians only: so Keil, Olsh., Greswell. Others believe that it refers to Christians only: as Grotius and Meyer. But neither of these views is satisfactory.

A great majority of interpreters, ancient and modern, are agreed in holding that the expression, "all the nations," is tantamount to "all mankind." Bengel says, in his inimitable manner, "All the angels, all the nations, how vast an assembly!" But while insisting that these words describe the judgment as universal, we do not attach special importance to the form of procedure delineated. The throne, the placing of the good on the right hand, and the bad on the left, and the particular phraseology employed respecting the conduct of the two classes may be regarded as figurative, though it must never be forgotten that these figures stand for realities. Yet their exact import will be considered under the next head.

In calling the last judgment "universal" reference has only been made thus far to mankind. But the question presents itself naturally: Are not angels to be judged at the same time? If the language of Phil. 2:10, 11 is related to that of Rom. 14: 9-12, and refers to the judgment day, must we not include angels among those who are to give an account of their stewardship, and bow before the divine Judge? Paul appears to associate the judging of the world with the judging of angels: "Know ye not that the saints shall judge the world?...Know ye not that we shall judge angels?" (1 Cor. 6:2, 3)

Moreover, it is evident from the whole tenor of the New Testament, that evil spirits or demons, under the leadership of Satan, have always had much to do with the wickedness of mankind. Satan is called the "prince of this world" (John 12:31), whose power was first broken by the crucifixion of Christ; and the unequivocal testimony of the evangelists assures us that he undertook to seduce the Lord Jesus from his appointed course.

Since, then, the relation of sinful angels to mankind has been so intimate and influential, since their life has touched human life at so many invisible points, it would seem almost necessary to connect their judgment and final doom with those of men.

And there is an intimation in Matt. 8:29, "Art thou come to torment us before the time?" that evil spirits look forward to a day that will bring severer punishment than they now suffer; and the language of Jude, verse 6, appears to specify that day: "And angels which kept not their own principality, but left their proper habitation, he hath kept in everlasting bonds under darkness unto the judgment of the great day."

Of the nature of the "bonds" and "darkness" here mentioned, we have no definite knowledge, but they must not be supposed inconsistent with the activity of the angels in tempting men. Moreover, their judgment is assigned to the same King and the same day as is the judgment of mankind. But the words of Jesus in Matt. 13:39, 49; 16:27; 24:31; 25:31, and Mark 8:38, imply that the holy angels will not be then judged, but will attend and serve the holy Judge. In speaking, then, of the last judgment as "universal," we refer to evil angels as well as to the fallen human race.

(3) It will be a righteous judgment. This fact is of the utmost importance, and should never be lost sight of. By the final sentence no one will be wronged—everyone will be sent to his own place. The proceedings of that day will be such as to illuminate the dark features of providence, and vindicate the ways of God to men, so that the good will never more be able to doubt his righteousness. (Acts 17:31)

Three particulars respecting the last judgment are worthy of special consideration:

(a) That every act of life will be brought under review. (Eccl. 11:9; 12:14; Rom. 2:6-11; 14:12; 1 Cor. 4:5 ; 2 Cor. 5:10; Rev. 2:23; 20:12) (Cf. Gal. 6: 7-9) Can anything be fairer than this? The decision will be founded on the whole life. No voluntary movement of the spirit will be overlooked or misinterpreted. Secrets will then be revealed and data for a perfect estimate of character be made manifest. The principle announced by Christ in the words, "by their fruits ye shall know them" (Matt. 7:16), will then be verified as never before; for all the fruits of moral life will be seen, and seen with unbiased mind.

(b) That every circumstance of personal life affecting moral conduct in the slightest degree will be taken into the account. The man who was entrusted with one talent will not be called to answer for the use of ten. (Matt. 25:15 f.; Luke 12:47, 48; 19:13-25; Rom. 2:12 f.) The same truth is implied in the passages which affirm that "God is no respecter of persons" (e. g., Acts 10:34, 35). The unprivileged classes, or those who have but little truth in respect to God and duty put within their reach, will not be held responsible for the use or abuse of much truth. "It standeth to reason, that he who had most light, most conviction, most means of conversion, and that was highest towards heaven, he must needs have the greatest fall, and so sink deepest into the jaws of eternal misery." (Bunyan, II., 128) We need not fear that Christ will deal hardly with any man at the last day. Then "all odds will be made even," and no one will be able to say in truth that he is not treated as well as his neighbor.

(c) That union with Christ will insure forgiveness and justification in that day. Then will be seen, as never before, the infinite graciousness of Christ towards all who are in spirit allied to him, towards all who are conscious of their ill desert, and who appreciate divine mercy. (See Matt. 25:34-40; John 6:29; Rom. 6: 14, 15, 16) And the same day will reveal the morally perverse and self-righteous spirit of those who are out of Christ. (See Matt 7:22; 25:41-45)

But will the record of their past sins confront the saints, and be exposed to the gaze of all the universe? There is reason to believe it will. That day will be one of open vision, and we cannot but suppose that the saints themselves will be unwilling to have it anything else. So deep will be their gratitude and so ardent their love to the Saviour, that they will desire to have the relation of his mercy to their guilt perfectly manifested. And it is difficult to imagine how this can ever be done to finite minds without a full review of the past.

As to the effect of the disclosures of the final day upon the ungodly the Scriptures are for the most part silent. In the parable of the marriage feast Jesus represents the guest without a wedding garment as being "speechless," when asked by the king, "How earnest thou in hither not having a wedding-garment?" (Matt. 22:12) But in the great passage, Matt. 25:31-46, those on the left hand are represented as objecting to the charges made against them: "When saw we thee an hungered, or athirst, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister unto thee." Yet they make no reply to his words, uttered in response to this question: "Inasmuch as ye did it not unto one of these least, ye did it not unto me." To this no answer can be made.