From Thence He Shall Come To Judge The Living And The Dead
John 14:1-3; II Peter 3:3-10
Some may be wondering if it’s too late for anything but the coming judgment when Jesus returns. And that brings us directly to this phrase from the Apostles’ Creed: “I believe … he will come again to judge the living and the dead.” These simple words consist of two complementary truths:
1) Jesus is coming again.
2) Jesus is coming again to judge the living and the dead.
It has been said that the New Testament refers to the second coming of Christ in over 300 verses. That means one of every 13 verses deals with some aspect of our Lord’s return to the earth. It is so central to the New Testament that Christians everywhere have always believed that Jesus will return someday. Though we differ (and argue!) over the details, Those who identify with Christianity unite in believing that Christ himself will return to the earth. Jesus said in John 14:3, “I will come again.” Here are five words that help us understand what that means. His second coming will be …
Personal (It will be Jesus and not some substitute)
Literal (Not a vision or a dream)
Visible (“Every eye will see him”)
Sudden (Not a gradual return)
Unexpected (Like a thief in the night).
Acts 1:11 makes it clear that Jesus himself will one day return to the earth. It will be “this same Jesus” who is coming again. Twice in one verse Luke uses the word “same” to tell us something crucial about the Second Coming. The same Jesus who left will one day return. And he will return the same way that he left. If plain English can have any meaning at all, those words teach us that Jesus is coming back personally, literally, visibly and bodily. We might also add that his coming will be sudden and unexpected. Luke 24:50-52 informs us that as Jesus reached out his hands to bless his disciples, he began to rise from the face of the earth—evidently without any warning whatsoever. We can assume that his return to the earth will be no less astonishing and no less surprising.
This Same Jesus
This is truly an astounding thought. The same Jesus who was born in Bethlehem is coming again. The same Jesus who grew up in Nazareth is coming again. The same Jesus who turned water into wine is coming again. The same Jesus who walked on water is coming again. The same Jesus who healed the nobleman’s son is coming again. The same Jesus who raised Lazarus is coming again. The same Jesus who entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday is coming again. The same Jesus who was betrayed by Judas is coming again. The same Jesus who was whipped, beaten, scourged, mocked, and condemned to death is coming again. The same Jesus who died on Skull Hill is coming again. The same Jesus who rose from the dead on Easter Sunday morning is coming again. The same Jesus who ascended into heaven is coming again.
That’s what we mean when we say that Jesus is coming again. The actual, historical figure that lived 2,000 years ago on the other side of the world is returning to the earth one more time. There awaits in the future an event more marvelous, more startling, more amazing, and more blessed than anything that has happened in the last 2,000 years. I speak of the literal, visible, bodily return of Christ to the earth. No event may seem less likely to modern men and women; no event is more certain in the light of inspired Scripture.
A Word from Saint Peter
But before we sell our houses and move to the mountains to await the Lord’s return, as some misguided souls have done in the past, let us heed the words of II Peter 3:3-10. In this passage Peter addresses a puzzling question—one that bothered believers in the first century and troubles thoughtful people today. Why hasn’t the Lord returned already? What is he waiting for? Does the 2,000-year delay mean that he isn’t coming at all? Should we give up our Christian hope? Listen to Peter’s answer:
“First of all, you must understand that in the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and following their own evil desires. They will say, “Where is this ‘coming’ he promised? Ever since our fathers died, everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation.” But they deliberately forget that long ago by God’s word the heavens existed and the earth was formed out of water and by water. By these waters also the world of that time was deluged and destroyed. By the same word the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men. But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare” (II Peter 3:3-10).
This passage is full of important truth that deserves close consideration. Here are three points to ponder:
1) Despite what the scoffers think, the Second Coming is certain because God promised it.
The scoffers will always be with us. They will say, “Twenty centuries have come and gone and still Jesus has not come. Give it up. He’s not coming back.” To which Peter replies, “Think about Noah’s flood.” Before the flood, men lived in reckless disregard for God. They lived as if tomorrow would never come. They sinned in every way possible. But one day the skies poured forth water and the fountains of the great were opened, and water covered the entire earth. If God could do that once, he could do it again—only this time the coming of Christ will bring a judgment of fire to the earth.
2) The Second Coming will usher in a day of judgment for the ungodly.
Notice the sequence of words: water, destruction, judgment, fire. Just as God destroyed the world once with water, the next time he destroys it with fire. For the ungodly, the Second Coming of Christ will be bad news indeed.
3) The Second Coming is delayed to give people a chance to come to Christ.
Here is the good news. The “delay” the scoffers talk about is actually God’s gift to them. He purposely delays the Lord’s return in order to give men and women more time to repent. Verse 9 reveals God’s tender heart toward the lost. He takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked. He does not enjoy sending people to hell. Contrary to popular opinion, he is not some crazed old man in a white beard, laughing while he hurls lightning bolts to the earth. For 2000 years he has held back the final judgment in order to give rebellious men and women a chance to surrender their arms and yield allegiance to Jesus Christ.
As the Creed says, Christ will eventually judge the living and the dead. All must stand before him and give an account. No one can escape that day.
The Bible teaches a resurrection of the righteous and the wicked. The righteous and the unrighteous are raised at the end of the millennium and you will find that that this resurrection is clearly taught in God’s word. In fact, Jesus refers to this resurrection in John 5:28-29: “For the hour cometh, wherein all that are in the graves shall hear the voice of the Son of God. And they that have done good things, shall come forth unto the resurrection of life; but they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of judgment.”
The resurrection of the just we can understand. They are raised to be given eternal rewards.
But why are the dead raised “to be judged” after they have already suffered in hell? The story in Luke 16 may suggest an answer in that the rich man was somehow able to converse freely across the great divide that separated hell from “Abraham’s bosom.” He evidently hoped to convince Abraham to send someone to ease his torments. He also wanted someone to go back and warn his five brothers. These facts suggest that while hell is a place of torment, those who are there know it is not their final destination. They are conscious not only of their sufferings, but of other places, other people and other possibilities. Is it possible that some in hell resent their sentence and argue that they have been treated unfairly? If so, then it makes sense that they will be raised bodily to face the Lord at the final judgment. At that time, all secrets will be revealed, the books will be opened, and ultimate judgment determined. This is not to suggest that after spending “thousand of years” in hell that the Lord will discover they should have gone to heaven. Nor does it suggest that hell itself is a kind of short-term purgatory preparing people for heaven. Perhaps the case is similar to a man who is arrested, denied bail and kept in jail until his trial, at which time the final sentence is pronounced.
But what is that “final sentence?”
Here we come face to face with the most awful reality in all the Bible. After the unsaved dead are raised, after they face the Lord in the final judgment, they are condemned forever to suffer everlasting conscious punishment away from the presence of the Lord. Note the words of II Thessalonians 1:8-9, “...giving vengeance to them who know not God, and who obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. Who shall suffer eternal punishment in destruction, from the face of the Lord, and from the glory of his power:” The phrase “eternal punishment in destruction” seems like an oxymoron–destruction that never ends, a process that goes on and on and on. It is an apt description of the final fate of those who do not know Jesus Christ. They suffer forever, they are destroyed forever, they are punished forever.
Revelation 20:11-15 describes exactly what happens when the unsaved dead are finally raised to stand before the Lord.
"And I saw a great white throne, and one sitting upon it, from whose face the earth and heaven fled away, and there was no place found for them. And I saw the dead, great and small, standing in the presence of the throne, and the books were opened; and another book was opened, which is the book of life; and the dead were judged by those things which were written in the books, according to their works. And the sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and hell gave up their dead that were in them; and they were judged every one according to their works. And hell and death were cast into the pool of fire. This is the second death. And whosoever was not found written in the book of life, was cast into the pool of fire."
Think of it. An entire pool (better translated lake) filled with waves of burning fire. A lake as vast as an ocean, a lake with no shoreline, only wave after wave of burning sulphur and brimstone. In this lake, unbelievers are cast one by one, screaming, pleading, cursing, their voices drowned by the crackling of the flames as they enter the burning fire. Acrid burning smoke fills the lungs, fire hotter than any earthly fire engulfs the human body, pain unlike any human pain courses through the burning veins. Voices cry out, but no one hears, people sink but do not find the bottom. Fire is everywhere, and smoke, and poisonous fumes. Here and there ghastly hunks of humanity desperately swim through the flames. Although they swim forever, they never reach the shore. No ships ply the lake of fire, no fishermen ever visit, no vacationers ever come this way.
As you stand in the distance, two striking facts come before you. First, there is no sun, only an eerie orange-yellow glow that seems to come from within the lake itself, a hideous, hellish emanation that seems to have come out of the bowels of evil. There is no light, no sun, only darkness and shadows. But then you notice something else. Although the fire is burning across the lake, and although the lake is filled with people, no one is consumed. What kind of fire is it that burns but does not destroy?
This is the lake of fire, the final destiny of the unsaved. If my description be rejected as a lurid literalism, let me ask the reader to consider this: If the lake of fire is not literal, if we are to understand it as a kind of symbol, must it not be true that the reality behind the symbol is even worse than the symbol? I have no objection to those who say the fire in hell is not “literal,” if by that they mean that the fire is not the same as human fire since it burns but does not consume.
If this picture of a lake of fire is not “literal,” that must mean that the reality is so terrible that no human words can describe it. Please do not make the mistake of trying to “humanize” hell by playing down the images. The Bible uses “fire” and “darkness” and “torment” too many times for us to glibly say, “That’s not literal.” It means something and the something it means is so eternally terrible that only these awful words and pictures can remotely begin to convey the ultimate meaning.
Let me clarify that point. I am sure my description of the lake of fire is no closer to reality than was Dante’s Inferno. But of this much I am sure. The reality is much worse than anything I or Dante or anyone else could ever imagine.
This is what we mean by “everlasting conscious punishment.” It is the final destiny of those who do not know Jesus Christ. To make it more personal, it is the final destiny of your friends and neighbors, your loved ones, your parents, your brothers, your sisters, your children, if they die without Jesus Christ.
And, yes, it is your destiny if you die without Jesus Christ. Let that thought linger in your mind. The reality of hell is more than just a theoretical doctrine. There is a place reserved for you in the lake of fire unless you by a conscious choice “Do penance, and are baptized in the name of Jesus Christ, for the remission of your sins:” Acts 2:38.