Looking Forward to Judgment Day

In this Advent season, we celebrate both the first coming of Jesus and also his promise to come again. These two events are related: if we receive the Jesus of Bethlehem, then we need have no fear of Jesus the Judge.

The Scots Confession begins its setion on the last judgment affirming:

We do not doubt but that the selfsame body which was born of the virgin, was crucified, dead, and buried, and which did rise again, did ascend into the heavens, for the accomplishment of all things. . . . We believe that the same Lord Jesus shall visibly return for this Last Judgment as he was seen to ascend (chapter 11).

It is the same Jesus who was born in a stable, who died on a cross, who rose from the dead, and who ascended into heaven that we will someday meet face to face in judgment. The one with the authority to accuse and judge us is the same one who has already given himself for our salvation. As an old hymn assures us, Christ is “the Judge our nature wearing” (“Day of Judgment, Day of Wonders”), one who knows us intimately, who has suffered even as we suffer, and who loves us to the point of laying down his life for us.

The image that most of us have of the Last Judgment–if, indeed, we think about that event with enough sustained attention to have any image of it at all–is probably more terrifying than comforting. A passage such as Revelation 19 presents us with a picture of Jesus Christ the wrathful warrior, seeking vengeance with sword in hand. After reading such a passage, the longstanding Christian tradition of preaching about the last judgment in an effort to scare people into conversion makes good sense. After reminding us of all those who will be “cast into the dungeon of utter darkness” at the last judgment, the Scots Confession concludes that the “remembrance of that day” should serve as “a bridle by which our carnal lusts are restrained.” Fear has its place.

And yet, the promise of judgment is primarily intended for our comfort. So the Scots Confession further assures us that after Christ has come again, “the time of refreshing and restitution of all things shall come.” A few sentences later, the Confession says that the promise of judgment is an “inestimable comfort,” encouraging us to remain true to “our Head and only Mediator, Christ Jesus” no matter what other loyalties may tempt us. The promise of judgment should be a comfort to us, first, because moral order will be restored. In our world, the wicked often prosper, and the righteous often suffer.

The promise of judgment is a promise that all such apparent injustice is temporary. At the end of our story is a restitution of the way things ought to be. Anyone who has ever been abused or mistreated by someone else, only to have such behavior glossed over by others, treated as incidental and unimportant, can know that at the last judgment there will be accountability. Those who have been hurt will be vindicated.

The promise of judgment should also be a comfort to us because it is a promise that we ourselves will be made holy and good. Everything that makes us unworthy to stand in God’s presence will be purged from us. At long last, we will become the people we were always meant to be, all guilt gone, with nothing about ourselves that we need to hide, nothing to keep us awake at night, nothing of which we need to be ashamed. We will be able to look Jesus in the face, receiving him with joy.

This doesn’t mean that we should be casual in our anticipation of the last judgment. There is still reason for us to tremble, but the sort of fear that we should feel is not the terror of guilt. Rather, it is the sort of fear that we might feel on our wedding day, or on the day when we are reunited with a much-loved family member whom we haven’t seen in many years, or on the day when we gather the courage to tell another person ‘I love you’ for the first time. We should tremble in anticipation when we think of seeing Christ Jesus face to face, longing for that day to come soon. Maranatha! Come quickly, Lord Jesus!

Laura Smit is Dean of the Chapel and member of the Religion Department at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. This talk was delivered in the Calvin College Chapel on 8 December 2004.