Therefore leaving the elementary teaching about the Christ, let us press on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, of instruction about washings and laying on of hands, and the resurrection of the dead and eternal judgment.
–Hebrews 6:1-2 (NASB)
As I mentioned in last week’s review of D. Thomas Lancaster’s sermon The Resurrection of the Dead from his Holy Epistle to the Hebrews lectures, the following message “The Eternal Judgment” wasn’t recorded, thus I cannot listen to it and write my review.
However, that material was included in Lancaster’s book Elementary Principles: Six Foundational Principles of Ancient Jewish Christianity, so I’ll review the chapter (Chapter 10) instead.
But some days later Felix arrived with Drusilla, his wife who was a Jewess, and sent for Paul and heard him speak about faith in Christ Jesus. But as he was discussing righteousness, self-control and the judgment to come, Felix became frightened and said, “Go away for the present, and when I find time I will summon you.”
–Acts 24:24-25 (NASB)
Lancaster introduces his chapter by describing the marriage of Felix, the Roman governor over Judea, to the Jewish princess Drusilla, youngest daughter of King Herod Agrippa the first. Supposedly, Felix hired a sorcerer to use occult means to get Drusilla to abandon her husband and marry him. Felix wasn’t a very nice man.
In today’s world, intermarriage between a Jew and a Gentile, at least in Orthodox Judaism, is highly discouraged. How much more embarrassing was it for a Jewish princess to marry, not just any Roman, but the occupying governor over Judea?
But then, although it was (according to Lancaster) Drusilla’s idea to have a private discussion with Paul, it was Felix’s response that was the point of this story. And while resurrection of the dead might seem like a great deal, what about “the judgment to come?”
It is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment.
Associating concepts like “righteousness” and “resurrection” with “self-control” and “judgment” would probably not be comfortable to hear, assuming Felix took Paul seriously, since Felix could hardly be considered a pious individual, even by Roman standards. In fact, if we really gave it some thought and realized that the resurrection and final judgment are in our future as well, how comfortable would we feel about who we are and what we’ve done (or are doing)?
Throw out the worthless slave into the outer darkness; in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. But when the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, then He will sit on His glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before Him; and He will separate them from one another, as the shepherd separates the sheep from the goats; and He will put the sheep on His right, and the goats on the left.
–Matthew 25:30-33 (NASB)
I won’t quote all of the scriptures Lancaster lists to illustrate Jesus and the final judgment, but he does make a convincing case that if God does not exact justice for human wrongdoing in this life, He most certainly will in the next.
In Messianic Judaism, we rehearse for the final judgment every year in the high holiday of Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur (Festival of Trumpets and Day of Atonement). Judaism treats high holidays as an annual dress rehearsal for the final eternal judgment. In anticipation of the holidays, we repent, confess sins, mend relationships, apologize, and try to make peace with both men and God.
-Lancaster, pg 127
This may sound somewhat familiar since I associated the topic of forgiveness with the high holidays in a recent blog post reviewing a chapter in Brad H. Young’s book The Parables: Jewish Tradition and Christian Interpretation. In my review Young’s book, I said that most Christians wouldn’t (but should) automatically associate making amends with another person with how we will be forgiven (or not) by God at the final judgment.
Now Lancaster seems to be saying that the period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur on the Jewish religious calendar has applications for Christians as well, since it is in the apostolic scriptures where we see a final judgment staring at us square in the face.
Except that since we’re “saved by the blood of Jesus,” we (that is, Christians) aren’t particularly worried about being judged. Jesus paid the price for our sins so we’ve got our “fire insurance” covered. No need to “rehearse” anything since we’ve already won, God is on our side, and everything is hunky dory.
Boy, that sounds arrogant.
While Rosh Hashanah, when the books are opened before the Heavenly court, and Yom Kippur, when the final verdicts are issued and the books are closed again, are not the actual final judgment, they prefigure this awesome and august event, and perhaps we shouldn’t play fast and loose with a living and infinite God. God can indeed issue decrees in the present age and in our lives in response to your actions and mine, but there will come that final day, even if we push it off into the back of our minds, when we will all be expected to stand in judgment.
As I looked, thrones were placed, and the Ancient of Days took his seat; his clothing was white as snow, and the hair on his head like pure wool; his throne was fiery flames; its wheels were burning fire. A stream of fire issued and came out from before him; a thousand thousands served him, and ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him; the court sat in judgment, and the books were opened.
Lancaster goes on to describe “one like a son of man” stepping forward in this vision of the final judgment, to deliver the sentencing. He quoted from the apocryphal book Enoch (1 Enoch 69:27-29) and the following to illustrate the judgment seat of Messiah:
For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil. Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade others.
–2 Corinthians 5:10-11
In these words, Paul expressed his motive for evangelism…Paul knew the fear of the LORD. To fear God is to believe that he exists, rewards, and punishes. Paul knew that eventually God will judge the wicked and reward the righteous. He taught that we must all stand before Messiah in the final judgment.
-Lancaster, pg 131
All of us? Won’t Christians just be there to pick up our rewards? We won’t have to give account for everything we’ve done wrong in our lives after becoming believers, will we?
What if we do?
We think that final judgment just means going to Heaven or Hell, but what if it also means we have to have our human lives stripped naked before us and relive everything we’ve done, both good and bad?
Yuck. Kind of makes you want to be more careful about all of those casual thoughts, words, and gestures you’re sure God is going to forgive because you’ve been saved and go to church every Sunday.
But it gets worse.
Generally speaking, the doctrine of the eternal judgment has fallen into disfavor. Perhaps this shift in emphasis from everlasting punishment to a blissful afterlife occurred as a natural swing of the theological pendulum. The medieval and Reformation-era church had an unhealthy fascination with the torments of hell. Evangelicals later demonstrated the same fixation, predicating their appeal for the gospel on the basis of avoiding damnation. The church framed Christianity primarily as an avenue of escape from everlasting fiery tortures and the pitchfork of Satan. We substituted the foundational doctrine of eternal judgment for the doctrine of eternal damnation.
-ibid, pg 132
It seems to be a mistake to trust in any extreme, either a fascination with damnation or an obsession with bliss. The former focuses on God’s judgment as if it were a terrible trap and the later on His mercy as if it is all-encompassing…no matter what we’ve actually done.
The eternal judgment is so basic and fundamental to our faith that the writer of the book of Hebrews considers it to be the milk. It is pretty simple. We believe that every human life has eternal significance — so much so that the deeds committed in this body will have ramifications that completely transcend time. That makes every moment of this life precious. It makes every opportunity to perform a good work (mitzvah) precious. It makes every sin utterly abhorrent. Every righteous deed merits eternal reward, and every sin earns eternal punishment. Ironically, the doctrine of the eternal judgment makes life in this temporary world all the more significant.
-ibid, pg 133
We can only imagine that what terrified (according to Lancaster) Felix so much was being resurrected into a world where an absolutely just God would judge him for all the acts of his life…and condemn him. Not a pleasant thought to be sure. We all want our pleasures and want to skip out (as much as we can get away with) on our responsibilities. Anyone who struggles with the “battle of the bulge” and against all reason and logic still can’t give up their Big Macs and Whoppers knows that self-disciple isn’t easy…even in the face of dire consequences.
What Did I Learn?
Are our names already written in the Book of Life or the Book of Death? Did God makes these decisions, who was to be commended and who was to be damned, before He ever manufactured our universe?
From God’s point of view, His timeless experience, things like “before,” “during,” and “after” most likely have no meaning. The creation of Adam from dust and opening the Book of Life at the final judgment exist in the same micro-second to Him. Who is and isn’t in the Book has been there for all time and won’t be written until the pages are opened at the very end of time. I hope you like paradox, because that’s all I have to offer as far as the mystic visions of final judgment are concerned.
But one thing seems clear. Paul taught that there is a final judgment. So did Jesus. And all humanity stands within it for life or for death.
It isn’t just that one “decision for Christ” that you made once upon a time by answering an altar call or raising your hand at a camp meeting. It’s everything you’ve done since then.
No, you can’t buy your way into Heaven but you can throw it all away. Even the best of the best of us is utterly corrupt when compared to a completely and absolutely Holy God. Who are we to compare?
Rabbi Eleazer taught his disciples to repent every day (See b. Shabb. 153a). The later rabbinic teachings regarding the ten days of awe and the day of Atonement mention three categories of people,the completely righteous, the completely wicked, and the “in-betweens” (See b. Rosh Hash. 16b). The rabbis obviously believed that most people fall into the “in-between” category and need to repent. The house of Shammai taught, “There will be three groups at the Day of Judgment — one thoroughly righteous, and one thoroughly wicked, and of the intermediate” (See b. ibid 16b-17a). Therefore Bailey may be correct when he notes, “Christ’s subtle humor shows through in this verse. The ‘righteous’ who ‘need no repentance’ do not exist” (Kenneth E. Bailey, The Cross and the Prodigal). Most people need to repent and maintain a living relationship with God in their cultivation of personal spirituality.
-Brad H. Young
“Chapter 10: The Search: The Parables of the Lost Sheep and Lost Coin,” pg 195
The Parables: Jewish Tradition and Christian Interpretation
If we believe Christ died for us then we should live like it. We should all live like people who’ve been given a second chance, living on borrowed time or rather time purchased for us when we didn’t deserve it.
If you think you are saved, don’t expect that you can sit on your laurels and gather your rewards before judgment. You, I, and everyone else will be judged on what we have done, what we are doing, and what we haven’t even thought of doing yet.
Since all these things are to be destroyed in this way, what sort of people ought you to be in holy conduct and godliness, looking for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be destroyed by burning, and the elements will melt with intense heat! But according to His promise we are looking for new heavens and a new earth, in which righteousness dwells. Therefore, beloved, since you look for these things, be diligent to be found by Him in peace, spotless and blameless, and regard the patience of our Lord as salvation…
–2 Peter 3:11-15 (NASB)
Maybe observing the high holidays wouldn’t be such a bad idea for Christians. Many of us are so unused to facing the idea of judgment let alone responding to it with fasting, with prayer, with repentance, with fear and trembling, with begging for the forgiveness of those we have harmed, of begging God for mercy, though we are all like grass. At least if you’re an observant Jew, you know you are accountable and that God expects you to take that seriously with your intention and your behavior.
If you see something that is broken, fix it.
If you cannot fix all of it, fix some of it.
But do not say there is nothing you can do. Because, if that were true, why would this broken thing have come into your world?
-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“If It’s Broken”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe, Rabbi M. M. Schneerson
Addendum: I found out (thanks, Alfredo) after I wrote this review that Lancaster re-recorded the content for this topic on audio available on the web: The Final Judgment.