Ask most people what they think about God’s judgments(s), and the response will be something like this: “There is coming a time when God will judge every human, and, as a result, some will go to heaven to live forever with God and some will be cast into hell to burn there forever with Satan.” That’s generally how most humans think about God’s judgments upon humanity.
You see, when most humans think about judgment, they think about punishment, imprisonment, suffering for sin, hell, fire and brimstone, and the like. Search your own heart, and see if I’m not correct when I say that. Then, what happens is we take our own views about judgment and superimpose them on God, feeling He regards judgment in the same manner with the same results. That’s called anthropomorphism: ascribing human characteristics to God or to other, non-human beings such as household pets. I just wanted to impress you with that big word. But, it’s true, we have a tendency to ascribe to God’s nature and character our own nature and character; we tend to think He does things like we do.
Judgment = Justice
Would it surprise you to learn that when the Bible refers to God’s judgments, his views about judgment and the way He practices judgment are much different than human judgment? Ironically, the God-as-stern-Judge viewpoint does not present an authentic biblical picture of what divine justice is about, but is a legalistic perspective that comes from human history and culture. Biblically, to “bring justice” does not mean to bring punishment, but to bring healing and reconciliation. In the Bible, justice always means to make all wrong things right!
Unfortunately, one of the first things new believers in Jesus learn about God—often in some sort of church “new believers class”—is that God is a stern Judge seated on a throne in heaven. That is true. God is a Judge (not necessarily stern, however; more about that later). He is seated on a throne in heaven. The issue is who is God judging from his throne in heaven, and what He is judging them about.
Over the course of many years, I’ve asked numerous people—both believers in Jesus and pre-Jesus believers—this question or one similar to it: “Whenever you picture God on his throne, what do you envision Him doing?” The vast majority of people usually respond something like this: “Well, I picture Him sitting on his throne meting out judgment on people . . . punishing people with his terrible judgments . . . pouring out his wrath on people . . . punishing people for their sins . . . sending people to hell . . . causing ‘natural calamities’ such as hurricanes and earthquakes.”
A familiar song we USAmericans sing illustrates my point: “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord. He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored; He hath loosed the fateful lightning of his terrible swift sword . . . “ Yes, most people envision God sitting on his throne wreaking terrible judgments, wrath, and punishment on people. Also, our entire multi-billion dollar insurance industry calls environmental disasters and natural calamities “Acts of God.” For most people, God is perceived as being stern, tyrannical, judgmental, and often downright “mean.” If you’re one of those people who feel that way, I’ve got some good news for you!
“Rule of First Mention”
There is a principle of Bible study known as “The Rule of First Mention,” meaning that whenever a subject is first mentioned or introduced in the Bible, all subsequent biblical references to that subject will generally be consistent with what is first mentioned. In the Bible, the first mention of God as Judge is Genesis 18: 25. In that reference, the ancient patriarch, Abraham, asked a rhetorical question: “Shall not the Judge of all humanity judge in a righteous manner?” The obvious answer to Abraham’s question is, “Yes, God judges in a righteous manner.” But what does that mean? The answer to that question is the subject of this teaching.
The word “throne” occurs 175 times in the Bible. Those 175 times include not only God’s throne, but also other thrones that human rulers sit upon. Not once is God’s throne called (or named) a throne of judgment! On the contrary, God’s throne is called a throne of grace (Hebrews 4: 16), a throne of glory (Jeremiah 14: 21 and Matthew 19: 28), a throne of majesty (Hebrews 8: 1), and a throne of holiness (Psalm 47: 8). The Bible also says that righteousness and justice are the foundations of God’s throne (Psalm 89: 14 and 97: 2).
“So what?” you ask. “So what if it’s called a throne of glory, grace, majesty, and holiness, not of judgment? What difference does that make to anyone . . . to me?” First, what is a throne? By definition it is the “seat of a king, judge, or priest.” In this study, let’s think of it as the seat of God the King. Keep in mind, however, that God is spirit. He is not “composed” of material substance as we are. God does not actually sit on a literal throne in some “throne room” of his palace in a far off heaven. Those are merely limited human attempts to describe God sitting on a throne of judgment.
To write or speak of God’s throne as being literal is untrue; God is everywhere and everywhen in and beyond his creation and is not limited to being in one place at a time as we humans are. He is not seated on a literal throne somewhere in a far-off heaven. It may be true, however, that the glorified King Jesus is “seated” on a literal throne, but that’s another subject I won’t cover in this teaching.
As mentioned previously, the meaning of the word “justice” is to “make wrong things right.” From his throne of grace, glory, holiness, and majesty (the foundations of which are righteousness and justice) God judges with justice and ultimately makes all wrong things right. From his throne, God does not wreak terrible judgments, wrath, and punishment on people.
I hasten to say that, yes, God does correct, chastise, discipline, purge, and cleanse people by his judgment and justice, but that’s only part of the story. Discipline is defined as “training that develops self-control and godly character.” Correction means “punishment to correct faults; to change from wrong to right.” Cleanse means “to remove contamination and impurities.” Chastisement is “punishment in order to correct or cure.” Purge means “to cleanse or rid of impurities or undesirable elements.” Notice each of these definitions has a positive outcome even though there may be some pain involved in order to reach the desired outcomes.
Word Study On Your Own
There are many other aspects of God’s judgment and justice He “dispenses” from his throne. His judgments also involves rebirth, replacement, redemption, restoration, reconciliation, rehabilitation, rectification, refining, revitalization, reformation, reclamation, renewal, recoupment, renovation, refreshing, rekindling, reviving, and restitution. I encourage you to look up the definitions of each of those words both in a good Bible concordance and in a standard dictionary in your native language.
I strongly encourage you to read and study another teaching on this website entitled Restoration.
What does the Bible mean when it mentions God’s wrath? It means He is “intensely angry.” Intensely angry at what or who? We know that God’s basic character trait—the very essence of his nature—is love. Love for human beings He created. God’s wrath is not directed at human beings, per se, but at the sin(s) of human beings—at what they do, not who they are.
Concerning God’s wrath, we also know that his entire wrath against sin was poured out in full upon Jesus when He was crucified. God’s entire wrath that was directed at our sin(s) was, instead, directed at Jesus who bore all our sins when He was crucified. God’s wrath against our sin(s) was totally expended on Jesus—and then dissipated in full. Jesus, the God-Man, became our substitute, bearing full punishment for the sins(s) of all humanity. Thus, never again will any human have to endure God’s wrath against his or her sin.
I want you to envision a fictitious scenario in your imagination—based on 1 John 2: 1-2 in the New Testament. You are summoned to appear before God to have Him judge your sins and pass judgment upon you. An angel opens the book of your life, full of your sin from an early age. There is no question you are guilty of sin and deserve the death sentence. God is just about to render his just judgment and sentence you to death, when Jesus asks, “Your Honor, may I approach the bench?” God summons Him forward.
Jesus says, “Your Honor, it is true—my client is guilty of sin and justly deserves the death penalty. However, I want to remind You, that acting on my client’s behalf I have paid the ultimate penalty for his sin by dying on his behalf. Now, acting as his Defense Attorney, I remind You that You cannot sentence my client to death . . . because I died for him on his behalf. Justice demands my client be set free and his case closed!” That’s the scenario of that reference in 1 John.
It is true, however, that God’s wrath still “abides” upon pre-Jesus believers, but that simply means pre-believers will still have to face their Judge’s discipline, correction, cleansing, chastisement, and purging before having the other aspects of God’s judgment and justice dispensed to them in order to fully restore them into a vital relationship with Him. And, of course, every human ever born still faces the basic penalty of sin: death, the dreadful experience the Bible terms humankind’s greatest enemy. Only those Jesus believers alive at the time of Jesus’ return to earth to establish his Kingdom will not face death as we presently experience it. Otherwise, every human ever born has or will experience death, the penalty of sin.
Throughout all the prophetic books of the Old Testament, justice is always associated with caring for others, as something that is not in conflict with mercy, but rather an expression of it. Divine justice is God’s saving action at work for all that are oppressed, as the following biblical reference demonstrates: “Learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow.” (Isaiah 1:17).
Note what happens when one does right by seeking justice. The oppressed are encouraged and the helpless are helped. “This is what God says: ‘Administer justice every morning; rescue from the hand of his oppressor the one who has been robbed.’” (Jeremiah 21:12). Justice is done when the oppressed are rescued. “This is what God Almighty says: ‘Administer true justice: show mercy and compassion to one another.’” (Zechariah 7:9). How does one administer true justice? By showing mercy and compassion to everybody involved. “Yet God longs to be gracious to you; he rises to show you compassion. For God is a God of justice.” ( Isaiah 30:18).
What is the reason God wants to be gracious to us? Because He is just. If we want to understand the concept of justice as the writers of the Old Testament did, then we must see it as “setting things right again.” There is no conflict between God’s justice and His mercy. They both flow from His love. The justice and righteousness that Jesus ushers in causes God’s love and compassion to be poured out on us. They are about God meeting us in at our points of need and liberating us from sin and oppression. “Setting things right”—that is what biblical justice is about.
There is no dichotomy between a “God of justice” in the Old Testament and a “God of mercy” in the New. There is no split in God’s character. God has always been a compassionate God, a God of love. Jesus reveals who God is and who God has always been. Justice has always come through mercy. God is just in forgiving our sins and giving us His righteous nature because Jesus (the “Last Adam”) has righted the wrong done by the first Adam. The key issue in God’s justice wasn’t necessarily that He merely paid for our sin. His justice was in the fact that He gave back what humankind lost by Adam’s fall. Justice is God’s grace at work in love.
When is Judgment Not Judgment?
There is another aspect of judgment I want to write about—a time of judgment which is not really judgment. This judgment is referred to in 1 Corinthians 3: 9 – 15 and 2 Corinthians 5: 10. It is called “the judgment seat of Jesus.” The word for judgment in the Greek language is “bema.”
Here’s a word picture of the bema judgment. In ancient Greece and Rome when athletic contests were held, there was an award ceremony at the end of the contests, much like we see in modern Olympics. The winning athletes would be called to come forward and present themselves to the contest judges who were seated on the “bema seat” to pass out the awards. The winners would receive various types of awards while the losers would receive nothing; the losers weren’t punished; they simply received no awards.
That’s what the bema judgment of Jesus is. It is a future time after He returns to earth, when Jesus will award some believers for what they have done—their “works” on his behalf. But in this case, while some will receive awards denoted by “gold, silver, and precious stones,” some will “suffer loss” denoted by “wood, hay, and stubble.” Those who suffer loss will not be cast into some sort of forever burning hell; it is simply that their works of wood, hay, and stubble will be burned up. The people themselves will suffer loss, but they will not be burned up . . . only their works.
What are the works “judged” at the bema seat? They are the differences between works done “in the flesh” and works done “in the Spirit,” a theme found throughout the New Testament. When gold, silver, and precious stones are subjected to fire, they are merely made better. When wood, hay, and stubble are subjected to fire, they are burned up. 2 Timothy 2: 20 refers to the same matter.
Gold, silver, and precious stones symbolize God’s nature and character He is working in the lives of his children; it is what the Bible elsewhere calls “the fruit of the Spirit.” (Galatians 5: 22 and 23, as one example). Wood, hay, and stubble symbolize earthly and temporal works people have attempted to do for God by their own religious efforts. Another way of putting it is that at the bema seat believers in Jesus will “reap what we have sown” (Galatians 6: 7). The criteria used by Jesus at the bema judgment will be: were our works done in cooperation with the Holy Spirit who lives within us . . . or, were they done by “fleshly” self-effort? In other words, what will be the source of the works done and who actually produced the works in our lives: Spirit or self?
The Book of Revelation puts this matter of the bema judgment this way. Our labor—our inner works of righteousness—must originate with the Holy Spirit living in our spirits and then produced in our lives by his ability and power, not our own. (John 3: 21) If that is the case, then we will be “clothed with righteous deeds.” (Revelation 19: 8) However, if the “flesh” is the source of our works, then we will produce unfruitful works and be found naked. (Revelation 3: 17; 16: 15) You realize of course that those people in these scenarios are not literally clothed in righteousness or literally naked.
If our works are prompted and empowered by the Holy Spirit who lives in our spirits, those works will withstand the fire at the bema judgment and the believer will be rewarded. (1 Corinthians 3: 14 and Revelation 22: 2). If, however, our works are done with the self-centered, self-absorbed motive of being seen and applauded by others, then that becomes its own reward. There will be no other rewards for such works. (Matthew 6: 1)
There is some indication in the New Testament that “crowns” will be awarded at the bema judgment of Jesus. These are crowns which are symbols or a badge of victory. They are crowns won in public athletic events. They are not crowns which denote royalty. In the New Testament, there are two different Greek words used for the two types of crowns.
There are at least 5 crowns named in the New Testament as symbols of victory in public athletic events and likely awarded at the bema judgment of Jesus:
- The incorruptible crown—also called the victor’s crown—is awarded for self-control and having victory over the flesh. (1 Corinthians 9: 24 – 25)
- The crown of rejoicing is awarded to Jesus believers for fruitful work in the lives of others. (1 Thessalonians 2: 19)
- The crown of life is for those who have persevered, endured trials, even faced death—and yet remained faithful to Jesus. (James 1: 12 and Revelation 2: 10)
- The crown of glory is for those who have shepherded and tended Jesus’ church. (1 Peter 5: 4)
- The crown of righteousness is for those who have displayed, exhibited, or radiated Jesus being exhibited or displayed out through their lives (2 Timothy 4: 8)
Much, much more could be written about the biblical subject of God’s justice and judgment. This teaching is intended to be only an introduction to the subject. We hope we’ve given you food for thought and helped to free you just a little bit if you are concerned about God’s judgment of wrath after you die. His judgment will be just, flowing from his great love for all humanity He has created and is restoring into his image as best seen in Jesus.
Life Enrichment Services, Inc
Revised and Updated October 2020