A Second Judgment?

At death I believe that Christians, while absent from the body, are present with the Lord (2 Cor. 5:8). At death unbelievers are forever lost. So judgment came at death. So how can there be any judgment at Christ’s second coming (Matt. 25:31–46; 2 Cor. 5:10)?

For all human beings, physical death—which is the penalty for sin (Rom. 6:23)— is “the point of no return,” “life’s last portal” (LSB 797). The opportunity for repentance and faith comes to an end. As the writer to the Hebrews puts it: “It is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment” (Heb. 9:27 ESV).

Those who die believing in Jesus Christ as their Savior will receive the gift of eternal life. To the believers in Smyrna the apostle John wrote: “Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life” (Rev 2:10). At the moment of death, believers can be certain they will be “with Christ” (Phil. 1:23) as they await the resurrection. No such promise is given to those who remain in unbelief until they die. Rather, we hear the sobering words of Jesus: “Whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God” (John 3:18; see 3:36). “When the wicked dies, his hope will perish,” says Proverbs (11:7). Although the New Testament does not use precisely this language, physical death for each individual sets in concrete God’s judgment regarding that person’s eternal destiny.

But the formal, public pronouncement of God’s verdict and sentence will take place in the final judgment when Jesus returns. “He is the one appointed by God to be judge of the living and the dead,” the apostle Peter declared in Caesarea (Acts 10:42). On that final day, following the resurrection of the dead, all people must appear before the judgment seat of Christ (2 Cor. 5:10). To those who have believed in Him—having produced by the Spirit the good works that follow faith—Jesus will say, “Come, you who are blessed by My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (Matt. 25:34). To those who have not believed in Christ and His Gospel (thus failing to do works that please God; cf. Rom. 4:22–23), the Righteous Judge will speak the frightening words, “Depart from Me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matt. 25:41). The door has been forever shut (Matt. 25:10).

The Bible’s breathtaking promise that “He who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and bring us . . . into His presence” (2 Cor. 4:14) brings hope and peace to Christians who face death.

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