Thursday, January 13, 2005

1. Intro + Gospels: Final Judgement


This is the first post of what will be a series covering the New Testament picture of Christ's works, atonement, salvation, judgement etc. Over the past month I have read through the New Testament and noted down all the verses that speak of things relevant to Christ's work and man's salvation and have collated and sorted them. Even after superfluous verses were removed the text of the relevant verses is still more than 20 pages worth. I have split these in turn up into three categories: the Gospels (incl. Acts), the Pauline Epistles (incl. Hebrews), the General Epistles (incl. Revelation). Over a series of posts I intend to study the theology of each group of books.

My primary aims are to:
* Present the final steps of my analysis in a concise and readable way.
* Give the reader an accurate idea of what the Bible says on the matter, both generally and specifically
* Construct for myself an exhaustive source which I can use for future reference (as usual, all quotes will be from the NRSV unless indicated otherwise)
* Explore the depth and variety of biblical ideas on the related subjects
* Accurately present the frequency (and by implication, importance) of the occurrences of the ideas.
* To explore any apparent differences which may become evident between the ways the different groups of books understand Jesus / atonement / judgement.

If at any stage in this series I make a claim that a list of verses is “complete”, and readers think I have fail to list a relevant verse, I strongly encourage you to point it out to me.

1. Gospels: Final Judgement

The topic of this first post of the series is the gospels' theology of the nature of what we might call “final judgement”. The following is a complete list of Gospel passages that speak directly of the Gospels' understanding of this concept.

Mat 5:29 If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.

Mat 7:21-23 "Not everyone who says to me, "Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. 22 On that day many will say to me, "Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?' 23 Then I will declare to them, "I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.'

Mat 12:33-37 "Either make the tree good, and its fruit good; or make the tree bad, and its fruit bad; for the tree is known by its fruit. 34 You brood of vipers! How can you speak good things, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. 35 The good person brings good things out of a good treasure, and the evil person brings evil things out of an evil treasure. 36 I tell you, on the day of judgment you will have to give an account for every careless word you utter; 37 for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned."

Mat 19:17 “If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments.”

Mat 25:31-46 "When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33 and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34 Then the king will say to those at his right hand, "Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.' 37 Then the righteous will answer him, "Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?' 40 And the king will answer them, "Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.' 41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, "You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.' 44 Then they also will answer, "Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?' 45 Then he will answer them, "Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.' 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life."

Luke 6:37-38 "Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; 38 give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back."

Luke 12:47-48 That slave who knew what his master wanted, but did not prepare himself or do what was wanted, will receive a severe beating. 48 But the one who did not know and did what deserved a beating will receive a light beating. From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.

Luke 13:27 But he will say, "I do not know where you come from; go away from me, all you evildoers!'

John 3:19-21 And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. 20 For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. 21 But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God."

John 5:28-29 Do not be astonished at this; for the hour is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice 29 and will come out—those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation.

John 3:35-36 Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever disobeys the Son will not see life, but must endure God's wrath.

John 12:25 Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.

John 15:6 Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.

Acts 10:34-35 Then Peter began to speak to them: "I truly understand that God shows no partiality, 35 but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.


It seems quite clear that most of what the gospels depict could be aptly described as “judgement by works”. Those who do evil will be condemned to “hell”, and those who do good will have “life”.

The exception is John who on the one hand depicts a judgement by works (3:19-21; 5:28-29) and on the other hand maintains a judgement connected with following Christ (3:35-36; 15:6). This apparent tension appears to be explained by John most clearly in John 3:19-21 – people's goodness or evilness are their reason for accepting Christ or rejecting him in the first place – those who are good accept and acknowledge Christ when they see him, those who are evil reject Christ. John therefore makes an equation between the followers of Christ and those who do good and thus variously depicts judgement by either criteria with the assumption that the criteria pick out the same groups.

However this raises the questions of to what extent they pick out the same groups, and which is the more exact grouping with regard to the final judgement. The possibilities seem to be fourfold:
1) That the final judgement is by works, and that it is generally the case that those who are good believe in Christ, thus it is an acceptable generalisation to speak of a judgement based on who followed Christ.
2) That the final judgement is by whether or not one follows Christ, and that it is generally the case that those who are good believe in Christ, thus it is an acceptable generalisation to speak of judgement by works.
3) There are two entirely separate judgements, one by works and one by faith.
4) That it is not a generalisation but rather a precise identity, that John is saying that those who are good and those who follow Christ are exactly the same people, and thus both judgement by works and judgement by faith are exactly the same concept.

Of the first two possibilities the first seems more plausible in light of John 3:19-21, which appears to give primacy to the “good vs evil” grouping and derive the Christ-following grouping from that, rather than vice versa.

However it must be admitted that the apparent certainty of the later statements depicting unqualified judgement by belief (John 12:25; 15:6) make the fourth option seemingly more likely that either of the first two, as it appears to indicate that the second grouping is not supposed to be a generalisation but rather an identity.

Regarding the third possibility I see no good reason to think that John imagines there being two judgements. Indeed John 3:19 speaks of one judgement that has to do with relating the two concepts of goodness and faith.

The fourth possibility, though it has the advantage of making the statements about the judgments identical, it raises additional difficulties. Primarily: what of people who have never heard of Christ and thus could not believe in him?

Does John perhaps believe that no one who has never heard of Christ is “good”? John 3:19-21 appears to demolish this idea as John indicates that the reason people come to believe in Christ is because they are good, and there seems no good reason to think that the large group of people who never hear of Christ in their lives contains no good people. Perhaps John's use of the word “faith” does not need the people to ever hear of Christ, perhaps anyone in the world who does good is “in Christ” or “following Christ” or “abiding in Christ”? That seems possible. Alternatively, perhaps there is no one who will not have heard of Christ before the judgement, ie everyone will meet Christ in the afterlife prior to the judgement and will, at that time have a final choice to follow him or not, and those who are good will accept the truth and those who are evil will reject it? That seems plausible too.

So it appears that the most plausible solutions of this problem revolve around the idea that judgement by “good” vs “evil” is the primary idea and that the judgement by faith is either a generalisation, a spiritual interpretation of what it means to be “good”, or a group that in the future will become identical to the “good” group. Hence it appears safe to conclude that the primary idea of judgement in John's theology is one of “good” vs “evil”, which is in good agreement with the remainder of the Gospels' very clear emphasis on a judgement by works.

Interestingly, John's idea is not quite the same thing as judgement by works. We can imagine God putting all our deeds on a giant scale and seeing if the total number and quality of our good deeds outweighed the total number and quality of our evil deeds. That would be judgement by works. But John's idea appears to be a judgement of the inner nature – whether we are “good” or “evil”. This inner nature is the thing out of which good or evil deeds flow (John 3:19-21), but it is the inner nature itself that seems to be what is judged rather than the deeds. To John, both good deeds and faith in Christ seem to be fruit that result from a good inner nature. This is reminiscent of Luke's statement:

Luke 6:43-45 "No good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit; 44 for each tree is known by its own fruit. Figs are not gathered from thorns, nor are grapes picked from a bramble bush. 45 The good person out of the good treasure of the heart produces good, and the evil person out of evil treasure produces evil; for it is out of the abundance of the heart that the mouth speaks.”

So then, even though the vast majority of statements in the gospels refer to judgement by deeds, perhaps we are supposed to understand the judgement as based on whether one's inner nature is more good or evil, rather than the total sum of good or bad deeds we have done? That seems plausible.

Origen discusses this insightfully and argues that:
“By common acknowledgement a good man ought not be punished, nor should an evil one obtain good things. Therefore, if, for instance, someone has done evil at some time, it is certain that he was evil at that time when he was doing evil things. However, suppose he, repenting of his past deeds, reforms his mind toward good things, behaves well, speaks well, thinks well, and turns his will toward the good. Is it not clear to you that he who does these things is a good man who deserves to receive good things? In like manner if someone should convert from good to evil, he shall no longer be judged as the good man he was and is no longer, but as the evil man that he is. You see, deeds pass away, whether good or evil... Accordingly it shall be unjust to punish a good mind for evils committed or to reward an evil mind for good deeds..... How will it be just to condemn a pious soul for ungodliness, or a just soul for injustice, or a soul practising moderation for excess?” (Commentary on Romans 2.1.2-3)

The argument seems plausible, though I can see nothing in the Gospel texts themselves that enable us to arrive at a conclusion on purely biblical grounds.

Conclusion: The Gospels on Final Judgement

It is quite clear that the vast majority of references to final judgement in the gospels depict a works based judgement. People will be judged on their works, on what extent they engaged in good and loving works versus the extent they engaged in evil and selfish works. It seems quite plausible to interpret this as a judgement of natures rather than of works – that God will judge each person as to whether they are good or evil in their heart, rather than merely mathematically adding up their works. The gospel of John complicates the picture by introducing also the concept of judgement by faith, but it appears that this is a secondary concept or a generalisation and that the primary concept for John is one of judgement by nature: the good people versus the evil people.

Edit: Small clarifications and corrections made


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