The day of Christ’s return will be the day he will ‘judge the living and the dead’. Christians have confessed this in the words of the Apostles’ Creed for centuries, but, as so often is the case, we can rehearse these words without feeling their weight. More than that, it can be all too easy for those who are already Christians to so gravitate towards the blessing of that day for ourselves, that we do not stop to consider and shudder at what it will mean for those who are outside of Christ.
There is nothing academic about this. It relates the most serious thing any human being will ever have to face. So, we need to be clear about it – not just for our own sake, but also for those around us who are not yet ready for that day.
It has much wider significance as well. A significant amount of research has been done to explore the correlation between societies that believe in a future day of reckoning and levels of crime and antisocial behaviour within them. One such article by Wynne Parry in 2012 declared, ‘A strong belief in fiery punishment is good for a country’s crime rates, indicates a new study that looked at religious belief and crime data from around the world.’ It is hardly surprising, therefore, that there is a connection between the decline of social order in every sphere of life in many Western nations and their widespread rejection of the doctrine of hell.
What, then, does the Bible teach regarding what will happen to those who reject God in this life when they finally face him on Judgment Day? The Westminster Larger Catechism provides a helpful summary of what it will entail.
Q.89. What shall be done to the wicked at the day of judgment?
- At the day of judgment, the wicked shall be set on Christ’s left hand, and, upon clear evidence, and full conviction of their own consciences, shall have the fearful but just sentence of condemnation pronounced against them; and thereupon shall be cast out from the favourable presence of God, and the glorious fellowship with Christ, his saints, and all his holy angels, into hell, to be punished with unspeakable torments, both of body and soul, with the devil and his angels forever.
In the first place it will be a day when they come face-to-face with the risen and exalted Christ. Jesus makes this plain when, speaking of himself, he says, ‘And [the Father] has given him [Jesus] authority to execute judgment, because he is the Son of Man. Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment’ (John 5:27-29). Elsewhere he describes this as a separation of these two groups one to his right-hand side (a metaphor of favour) and the other to his left, signalling the opposite (Matthew 25:33). The same Jesus whom they have ridiculed and rejected in this life will be the One they will meet in-person to determine their fate in the life to come.
Secondly, they will be confronted with the evidence on which Christ’s judgment is based. Paul spells this out as he makes the case for why we need the gospel in Romans. There he says that the conscience of those who persist in their rebellion against God – even if they have never actually read his law – acts as a witness against them in light of ‘that day when… God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.’ (Romans 2:16) The apostle’s point in saying this is to flag up the fact that humans are the only species who have such a faculty – and for good reason.
In the third instance, it will involve those people who are condemned being ‘cast out of the favourable presence of God and the glorious fellowship of Christ, his saints and all his holy angels’ and cast ‘into hell, to be punished with unspeakable torments, both of body and soul, with the devil and his angels forever.’ The fact that these two aspects of their fate are set over against each other only serves to accentuate the torment bound up with hell. The Bible makes it clear that, in this present world, God’s general favour rests on the unrighteous as well as the unrighteous (Matthew 5:45; Acts 14:17). So, bad as this world may be, it is nothing in comparison to the experience of those who reject God in that place where his kindness and mercy are forever withdrawn.
Making it known
Why do we need to know these things and, more than that, have the courage to share this information with those who are not yet Christians? It is that we might take these issues seriously. Even as Christians we can be lulled into complacency towards the danger and the consequences of sin. Only as we appreciate what sin deserves will we truly value what Christ has done to deliver us and why we as his children must hate it with a holy loathing.
There is, however, another reason why these things need to weigh heavily upon us. They provide the ultimate impetus to tell the world – including our family, friends, neighbours and all we meet – the good news of Christ and his salvation. Paul says as much to his young friend Timothy to incentivise him to proclaim God’s truth in full and ‘do the work of an evangelist’ (2 Timothy 4:1-5). If we do not tell those people, who God brings into our lives, how will they ever know?
The hymn, ‘Great God what do I see and hear!’ includes a verse by William B. Collyer that presses home the gravity of what is at stake:
But sinners, filled with guilty fears,
behold his wrath prevailing;
for they shall rise, and find their tears
and sighs are unavailing:
the day of grace is past and gone,
trembling they stand before the throne,
all unprepared to meet him.
How sad it would be if those very people turned to us at that moment and mouthed the words, ‘Why did you never warn me?’