This is the fourth installment in a five-part blog series on how to think carefully and faithfully about what the Bible teaches about the end of the world. Each of the subsequent parts of this series will be released monthly through the end of the year. To read part 3 of this series, click HERE.
Last month we spent some time thinking about the great diversity of thought that exists among Christians on how the end times will play out. That variety should give us all a healthy dose of humility. Christians have been wrestling with these issues for millennia, and, if the Lord delays his coming, we will continue to wrestle. Every Christian should, however, strive to learn what the Bible says about the end. The eschatological material in the Bible gives us such a clear picture of the justice and judgment of God as well as the grace and mercy of Christ and the victory of God. It is essential to understanding Christian doctrine.
The very idea of the judgment of God, however, requires modern Christians to do some careful thinking. In short, for anyone who does not have an ethical category for the judgment of God, the Bible, especially Revelation, will never entirely make sense. I see this with my students all the time. The notion that one day God will bring an end to human history and that a significant part of the end will be an outpouring of God’s judgment on a wicked world, sounds morally absurd to most secularly-minded people. My students, even the Christian ones on occasion, find the extreme, outrageous-sounding descriptions of the wrath of God in Revelation farcical. To them, the punishment doesn’t seem to fit the crime at all.
But according to the Bible, the punishment does fit the crime. Jesus describes the days of the end times as “like the days of Noah.” Because of our rebellion against the Kingdom of God and the goodness of God, we have committed cosmic treason against the very creator himself. And the wages of that sin is death. Just as God was right and just to flood the world and kill every human being except for Noah and his immediate family, in the end God will be right to bring about a fiery end in his righteous judgment. Though that sounds outrageous to modern ears it is the clear teaching of Scripture.
As I engage with my students who are struggling to wrap their minds around the judgment and justice of God, I invite them to consider the alternative. If a world in which God pours out his judgment feels unfair to them, I invite them to contemplate a world that will never end, a world that will go on and on, just as it is with no conclusion. In this world all the bad things that were ever done go unpunished. All of the global wrongs heaped upon this world by sinners are never righted. The most horrible of criminals ultimately get away with it all. And on it goes forever without relief. That is not a world that anyone wants to live in, and it is not a world that is any more just and moral than a world in which God judges sinners with a righteous but terrible judgment.
How should we respond to the impending judgment of God on the world in the end? The Scripture is of two minds on the subject, and we should be also. First, the Scripture rejoices in the final judgment and justice of God in the end times. The Scripture invites us to rejoice in that day as well. It will be a day when evil is punished, wrongs are righted, and righteousness is brought to the world in great power. For example, when Paul encourages a group of persecuted believers in northern Greece, he writes:
“. . . since indeed God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to grant relief to you who are afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, when he comes on that day to be glorified in his saints . . .” (2 Thessalonians 1:5-10)
God is going to save the world from evil. He will do it by redeeming evil people to himself, saving them by his grace, and giving them his righteousness as a gift. And he will do it by destroying the evil in the world, casting it out of his presence (and ours) forever. That is good news. It is terrible, but it is good.
But that is not the only word the Scripture has for us on the judgment of God in the end times. The Bible does not invite us to simply celebrate the destruction of the wicked like blood-thirsty spectators at the arena. The Bible also points us to the compassion and mercy of God. It is because of the coming judgment of God that we take the good news about Christ’s love, the only way to escape the judgment of God, to the whole world. We should rejoice that one day God will remove evil from the world. But we should also weep for those who will be caught up in God’s judgment. We should weep for them, and we should tirelessly proclaim the gospel to them. This was one of Paul’s greatest motivations. Here is how he explains it to the Corinthians:
“Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade others . . . Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Corinthians 5:11-20)
Christ saved us from God’s judgment by his grace, and when we think about the lost around us, we should remember the fear of the Lord in God’s judgment and show them how to escape the coming destruction. Our only salvation is Christ, and they need to know him.
The judgment of God is both wonderful and terrible: wonderful, because evil will finally be eradicated forever, and terrible, because the world is lost and dying. Apart from Christ, we are all without hope of ever escaping God’s judgment. Without an ethical category for the judgment of God, the Bible will never entirely make sense, but the punishment does fit the crime. God is good, and he will not tolerate evil forever. In that we can take great comfort, but we must also love those who are lost with the same love that God has for them, an unconditional, sacrificial love. It is a love that takes the good news to every corner of the earth.