Tuesday, November 15, 2022

What Does Your Proof Text Prove? (21)

Ray Greenley expects to be judged before the great white throne described for us in Revelation 20. He writes:

“All roads ultimately lead to the great white throne judgment, where each of us must stand before Jesus in all of His power and splendor and give account for all of our deeds.”

Greenley is not an outlier in this respect. GotQuestions notes that other Christians believe “the great white throne judgment in Revelation 20:11-15 will be the time that believers and unbelievers alike are judged”.

Personally, I don’t think all roads ultimately lead to the great white throne. It is a common assumption, and it certainly simplifies the judgment question, but it is impossible to make a good case for this from anywhere in scripture, least of all Revelation 20.

When, What and Where

Now, it is certainly true that all men will give account for what they have done in this life. Ray Greenley is not misguided about that. Old Testament and New Testament alike confirm the lives of all mankind will be judged, including believers. These judgments include words, deeds and even thoughts of the heart.

What scripture does not say is that all men are judged together at the same time. The Bible does not speak of a single, final judgment, but rather of a series of judgments. The New Testament tells us about three. There is the judgment of believers at the bēma of Christ, which Paul writes about in Corinthians. He says, “We (Christians) must all appear.” Then in Matthew 25, the Lord describes a judgment of nations at the coming of the Son of Man to earth, sometimes called the judgment of the sheep and goats. Finally, the great white throne of Revelation is a judgment of the resurrected dead. Between these three judgments, all deeds and all men will undergo the scrutiny of Almighty God and receive their reward or punishment, as the case may be.

Problems with a Single, Unified Judgment

Ray Greenley and others believe these are all different ways of referring to the same judgment. But there are solid arguments against that:

The first is the timing of the judgments. The Matthew 25 judgment appears to take place prior to the millennial reign of Christ, while the great white throne judgment occurs “when the thousand years are ended”. The timing of the bēma is not spelled out quite so clearly, but since believers will be tasked with both the judgment of angels and the judgment of this world, it seems highly implausible the Lord would assign us such responsibilities prior to assessing our own deeds. Judgment begins with the household of God, right?

A second problem with conflating the three is the subjects of the various judgments. The Matthew 25 judgment specifically identifies the nations as its subjects and makes no mention of a prior resurrection. The great white throne judgment is of the resurrected dead. The bēma of Christ is a judgment of believers.

A third difficulty is the basis of the various judgments. All assess works, of course, but the Matthew 25 judgment has a very specific subset of men’s works in view: the treatment of the Lord’s “brothers” (“as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me”). If, as it appears, this judgment takes place immediately prior to the millennial reign, then the assessment of these living men and women from the nations is almost surely concerned with their treatment of the remnant of Israel during the great tribulation. The bēma of Christ, on the other hand, is specifically a judgment of how believers built on the foundation Paul laid in his ministry, which is Christ himself. The great white throne judgment appears to be much more comprehensive in scope than either of these, and hinges on whether or not one’s name is found written in the book of life.

A fourth and final difficulty is the outcome of the various judgments. The goats of Matthew 25 go away to eternal punishment, as do the convicted dead of Revelation 20. But when Paul addresses the subject of the judgment of believers in 1 Corinthians 3, there is not even a hint that eternal judgment could be a potential outcome. In fact, the apostle specifically repudiates that notion: the worst-performing subject of this judgment will suffer loss (of reward), but “he himself will be saved”.

The Revelation 20 Problem

But the greatest difficulty I see with making Christians subjects of the great white throne judgment comes right in the context of Revelation 20. While some of the events described in Revelation are distinctly non-linear, there is no question all the events described in chapter 20 are intended to follow one another in a linear sequence. Verse 1, “then”. Verse 4, “then”. Verse 7, “when the thousand years are ended”. Verse 11, “then”. Verse 12, “then”. Verse 14, “then”. The great white throne judgment is the final step in this sequence. Meanwhile, back in verse 4, a full thousand years prior to the great white throne judgment, John sees “thrones, and seated on them were those to whom the authority to judge was committed”.

This obliges us to ask a question or two: Who are these judges? What are their qualifications for these positions? They cannot be angels; human beings will judge angels, not the other way around. This calls us back to Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 6: “Do you not know that the saints will judge the world?” And in order for these saints to act as judges of their own peers, surely their own status as saints (or “holy ones”) must already be established such that no one in all heaven and earth could possibly question it. Would not the “accuser of the brethren” take exception to the appointment of judges whose own sins have not been fully and forever dealt with? And rightly so. Moreover, right after describing the judges, John speaks of a resurrection of great tribulation martyrs who “came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years”. As with judging of the world and judging angels, reigning with Christ is the sort of activity that presupposes an evaluation of merit already completed to God’s satisfaction.

So then, it is not possible Christians of the present era will be subject to the great white throne judgment of Revelation 20. It is almost inevitable we will be present, since the status of believers after meeting Christ in the air is “always with the Lord”. But evaluating the works of believers from this era is not the purpose of that final judgment.

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