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‘Jesus Christ as Judge’

in: G.K.A.Bell (ed.),
The Meaning of the Creed, London: S.P.C.K. 1917, 131-146

Jesus Christ as Judge

From thence He shall come to judge the quick and the dead

The world has not seen the last of Jesus Christ our Lord. He ‘was crucified, dead and buried’; but ‘the third day He rose again.’ He ‘ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of God’; but ‘from thence He shall come to judge’ mankind. All human history from the first appearance of man upon the earth until the Incarnation was a preparation for His first coming; all humna history from the Ascension to this day has been a preparation for His Return. In ‘the fulness of the time’ God ‘sent forth His Son, born of a woman.’ When the time is full again, he will send Him forth again in the glory of the Father. ‘We believe that Thou shalt come to be our Judge.’

We speak of two comings of our Lord. There have been, and there are, many comings of the Son of God to the world. We believe that the Eternal Word came forth from the bosom of the Father to create. All things were made through Him, things visible and invisible. The true Light which lighteth every man is ever entering human life. Life, so far as it is progress, is the growing manifestation of His presence. In an especial manner /132/ He came to His own people Israel, guiding and shaping their national life by law and prophecy. That Israel disrregarded His voice, that the world He had made failed to recognise His Presence, does not lessen the wonder of the fact. To the Church, the new Israel, He comes stil by His Spirit, in His Sacraments, in the life of the Body and of each of its true members. But of the many comings of our Lord two stand out pre-eminently, and from the earliest Christian time these have been known as the First and Second Advents: <note 1> the coming in the flesh and the coming in glory. It is the latter of these in which Jesus Christ will be manifested as Judge.

Of a glorious Return our Lord spoke freely and often during the later months of His ministry in Galilee. He began to speak of it as soon as He began to speak of His approaching death — that is, just before the Transfiguration. ‘From that time,’ as we read in St. Mathews (16,21), ‘began Jesus to shew unto his disciples how that He must be killed, and the third day be raised up.’ But He did not stop there. ‘The Son of Man,’ He added, apparently on the samen occasion, ‘shall come in the glory of His Father, with His angels, and then shall He render unto every man according to his deeds.’<note 2> Thenceforth the thought of His Return finds frequent expression in our Lord's utterances, especially in the parables. The Good Samaritan will repay what is spent for him, when he comes back again (Luke 10,35). The disciples /133/ are to be as men who look for their Lord when He shall return from His journey (Luke 12,36); as virgins that go forth to meet the bridegroom; as servants, who when the master comes back will be called to account for their use of the talents entrusted to them (Matt. 25,1-12.14-30). We even have a vivid description of the judgment scene, which represents the Son of Man as sitting on His throne, with all the nations gathered round Him to receive His award of life or death (Matt 25,31-46). St. Matthew places this scene immediately before the history of the Passion, and it is clear from other Synoptic references to the Return that the Lord's mind dwelt increasingly upon it as the time of His death drew near. When the Return should take place, whether it should follow immediately after His departure or be long delayed, it is not clear; the time of the Advent did not lie within His human knowledge (Mark 13,32). But that it should come, sooner or later, He had no doubt; the seconc coming was as certain to Him as the crucifixion and the rising from the dead.

Such sayings may have been little understood at the time by those who heard them, but after the Ascension they were remembered, and their significance was realised. Even as He ascended, a vision of angels turned the thoughts of the Eleven to His coming again. As the days went on, this hope expressed itself in glowing words which sought to describe the secene of the Return. ‘The Lord Himself,’ writes St. Paul in one of his earliest Epistles, ‘shall descend from heaven with a shout, witht the voice of the archangel and with the trump /134/ of God’ (1 Thess. 4,16). ‘Behold,’ exclaims the prophet of the Apocalypse, in the last years of the first century. ‘He cometh with clouds, and every eye shall see Him’ (Rev. 1,7). In the ecstasy of her new life the primitive Church looked for the fulfilment of this great hope within the Apostolic Age. ‘The coming of the Lord,’ she said, ‘is at hand; the Judge standeth before the doors’ (James 5,8.9). ‘We that are alive … are left unto the coming of the Lord’ (1 Thess. 4,15). Her watchword was Maran atha (1 Cor 16,22)— ‘the Lord cometh,’ or perhaps ‘the Lord come.’ ‘Amen, come Lord Jesus,’ is her last word at the end of the New Testament canon (Rev 22,20). This expectation of an imminent Return died with the first century, but the assured hope of a Return lived on, and reflects itself in all the Creeds of Christendom. The first generation enshrined it in a series of Greek words, which it borrowed from the common speech of the time and consecrated to the service of the Faith. The second coming of the Lord was called the ‘Parousia’ or Advent – a word used for the visit of a Roman emperor or high official to the distant part of the Empire; the ‘Epiphany’ or Appearing; the ‘Apocalypse’ or Revelation of Jesus Christ <note 3> Christ, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, was coming to visit the earth. He would manifest Himself to men in the full glory of the Divine Manhood. He would drop the veil, which since the Ascension has hidden Him from the eyes of men, and stand revealed before the world.

To the question: For what purpose will He /135/ come? the Apostolic Church had more than one answer. He is coming to receive His people to Himself, that where He is, in the Father's House, they may be also (John 14,5). He is coming to take Himself His Bride, the Church, that she may share His life with God (Eph. 5,.27; Rev 19,7f; 21,2ff.). He will come to complete the work of redemption by the resurrection of the body and its rehabilitation after the fashion of His own glorified manhood (Rom. 8,23; 1 Cor. 15,42ff.; Phil. 3,21). He will come to restore all things; to regenerate Nature, which is at length to be delivered from the bondage of decay and the frustration of its purpose (Matt. 19,28, Acts 3,21; Rom. 8,19ff.; Rev. 21,5); to receive the subjection of all things to Himself, and so to complete His work as Mediator and bring in the great consummation when God shall be all in all (1 Cor. 15,24-28). All these ends of our Lord's Second Coming went to make up the fullness of the hope which the first age connected with His Return. The Creed, however, which limits itself to a few essential articles of belief, passes them over, and fixes attention upon a purpose of the Advent which for the world in general is the most important and interesting. "He shall come to judge the quick and the dead".

When Jesus Christ was on earth He steadily refused the office of judge. It was then no part of His Messianic work. "Who made Me a judge or a divider over you?" (Luke 12,13) was His answer to one who invited Him to decide a question of property. "Hath no man condemned thee? neither do I condemn thee." He is reported to have /136/ said to an adulteress brought to Him for judgment (John 8,11) - not that He condoned adultery, bur because He had no authority to pronounce sentence. To judge was not the purpose of the First Coming. "God sent not the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world should be saved through Him" (John 3,17). "I judge no man", Jesus said on another occasion, though He could add: "If I judge, My judgment is true" (John 8,15 f.) And again: "If any man hear My sayings and keep them not, I judge him not, for I came not to judge the world, but to save the world" (John 12,47). Yet the Fourth Gospel, which contains these strong disclaimers of judicial authority, contains also our Lord's most distinct claim to be the future Judge of men. "The Father hath given all judgment unto the Son… He gave Him authority to execute judgment, because He is the Son of Man… The hour cometh in which all that are in the tombs shall hear His voice and shall come forth; they that have done good, unto the resurrection of life, and they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of judgment" (John 5,22,27 f.).
In one sense judgment is always going forward in life and in history. The daily conduct of men is an daily judgment, for it automatically divides them by a moral grouping which goes to determine their ultimate place in the Kingdom of God. It forms character and habit, which will supply the basis of final judgment. To this extent the First Advent brought judgment, though its purpose was not to judge but to save; for it revealed the true character of all who came into contact with /137/ the Incarnate Life. "Thoughts out of many hearts" were "revealed" (Luke 2,35) by their attitude towards Jesus Christ. "He that believeth on Him," as St. John writes, "is not judged; he that believeth not hath been judged already, because he hath not believed on the name of the only-begotten Son of God; and this is the judgment, that the Light is come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the Light" (John 3,18 ff.). Thus, notwithstanding His refusal of judicial authority, our Lord could say: "For judgment came I into this world" (John 9,39); and again, when the Crucifixion was at hand: "Now is there a judgment of this world" (John 12,31). Such a judicial process will continue to be a result of the Incarnation and Atonement as long as the world lasts and Christ is preached. Men determine their own spiritual position by the response which they make to the appeal of Christ and His Church.

All this progressive judgment of man will find its consummation at a future day. Of a "Day of Judgment" the Gospel of St. Matthew speaks more than once (Matt.11,15,22,24; 12,36). The phrase, which comes from the Greek Old Testament (Isaiah 34,8), may stand for any time of trial which sifts men or nations and reveals their moral character; but in Christian use it becomes a title for the time of the Second Advent (1 John 4,17; 2 Peter 2,9; 3,7). This is also called the Great Day, the Day of the Lord, the Day of Christ (Jude 6; 1 Peter 3,10; Phil.2,16), in contrast with "man's day" (1 Cor. 4,3), i.e. the present order, in which men and things are judged /138/ according to merely human standards of right and wrong.
Imagination fails to paint the Great Assize of that day, evenwith the help of the symbolical descriptions which the New Testament supplies. Who can realise the gathering of all the generations of mankind before the glorified Christ, the nature of the scrutiny by which the secrets of all hearts shall be laid bare, the unerring justice of the verdict which will determine the result of all lives, the power which will make the sentence effective? The mind is staggered by the effort to grasp conditions to which our present life holds nothing analogous. In human courts of justice each case is heard separately, and the judgment is based on evidence which is elicited often with the greatest difficulty and which, when complete, may leave much to the summing up of the judge and the impression made by counsel on the minds of the jury. But before the Divine Tribunal all mankind will appear, and yet each individual will receive absolute justice. "I saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the Throne, and books were opened; and they were judged every man according to their works"(Rev. 20,12 f.). All the great men of history - kings and conquerors, statesmen and legislators, poets, philosophers, artists, men of letters, men of science - will be there, and with them to vast forgotten majority who "have no memorial", who to their follow-men "are perished as though they had not been" (Ecclus. 44,9).

All are known to God, for "all live unto Him" (Luke 20,38); all will receive equal attention; all will find the precise place for which their previous /139/ lives have fitted them. None are too great to stand before that Tribunal; none too insignificant. "Say not thou, I shall be hidden from the Lord, and who shall remember me from on high? I shall not be knowm among so many people; for what is my soul in an boundless creation?" (Ecclus. 16,17). Alive at the coming of the Lord, or already for thousands of years among the dead, all human beings will appear at the final reckoning and be indiviually tried and sentenced. Jesus Christ is "ordained of God to be the Judge of quick and dead" (Acts 10,42; 2 Tim.4,1). "We shall not all sleep" (i.e. die), "but we shall all be changed" (1 Cor.15,51); the living will undergo a transformation analogous to that which restores the dead to life; so that, living or dead, we may all stand together before the judgment seat of Christ.

One question calls for an answer at this point. The New Testament everywhere represents the Lord's Return as an object of joyful hope for the Church. Yet the prospect of standing before the Supreme Judge is suggestive of awe or terror, rather than of hope and joy. It is then to be supposed that the faithful members of the Church will be exempt from judgment? Will the Church stand looking on while the world is being judged? These are passages in the New testament, which, taken by themselves, may seem to support this view. "He that believed on the Son," St. John writes, "is not being judged" (John 3,18); such an one, our Lord Himself teaches, "cometh not into judgment, but hath passed out of death into life" (John 5, 24). St. Paul even speaks of the members of Christ as His future assessors in /140/ judgment (1 Cor. 6,2 f.). But against the first impression which is created by words such as these we must explicit statements that the judgment will be universal. The Great Master comes to reckon with all His servants, the good and faithful as well as the wicked and slothful; the sheep pass under the eye of the Shepherd as well as the goats. "We shall all stand" (St. Paul writes to the Roman Christians) "before the judgment seat of God; each one of us shall give account of himself to God" (Rom. 14,10 ff.). the Apostle does not hoild himself exempt: "He that judgeth me is the Lord" (1 Cor. 4,4); "we must all be made manifest before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive the thingd done in the body" (2 Cor. 5,10). The faithful servant of Christ does not come into judgment in the sense that he is left in doubt of his acceptance; he comes to receive from the righteous Judge the crown of righteousness, which the Lord will give to those who have loved His appearing (2 Tim.4,8). Nevertheless he will be judged by the same unfailing truth and justice as the rest of mankind; there is no respect of persons with the Judge of all. There is enough of awfulness in the whole prospect to sober life, to induce watchfulness and diligence; but there is nothing in it to cloud the brightness of the hope with which the Church looks for the coming of her Lord.
Belief in a judgement after death is not peculiar to the Church. The doctrine that the actions of men will at some future time pass under review and receive an appropriate recompense, has been, in one form or another, widely held by pre-Christian /141/ and non-Christian peoples. Both conscience and reason assent to it. The Roman procurator, Felix, whose violent and corrupt administration drew upon him the censure of a heathen historian, "was terrified" when his prisoner, Paul, reasoned of the judgement to come (Acts 24,25). His conscience, hardened as it was, bore witness to the truth of the Apostle's words. There is at times in the very heathen, as the same Apostle suggests, something like a rehearsel of the last assize, "their thoughts, one with another, accusing or else excusing them" (Rom.2,15); witnesses within them are already giving evidence, as they will do with overwhelming power when the great Day comes. Reason, too, concurs with conscience, demanding that some great review shall be made of human conduct. Life, as we see, is full of miscarriages of justice. Vice is not always punished, nor is virtue always rewarded while men are here. And looking back over the pages of history we learn that it has always been so; there has never been hitherto any settling of the long account, which nevertheless loudly calles for settlement, if the world is under the governement of a righteous God. No Theist can resist the conclusion that a day of reckoning is yet to come; the unavenged crimes of thousands of years, the forgotten sins of millions of lives, await the coming of a Supreme Judge. The world, or each life that goes to make up the sum of human accountability, must some day be judged in righteousness. When St. Paul preached this doctrine on the Areopagus, it excited, so far as we know, no opposition either from Stoics or Epicureans; they mocked when he spoke of a resurrection, but the thought of a future /142/ judgment excited no ridicule. There was in their deepest convictions something that responded to it, whatever their philosophical creeds might have led them to say. The principle of a Divine Judgement of the world and of individual men has always appealed to the reason as well as to the conscience of the majority of thoughtful men. <note 4>

The expectation of a future judgment, then, belongs to natural religion. But to this expectation Christianity gives definiteness and certainty; it assigns a Day for the Judgment, it names the Judge. Jesus Christ, it says, is the Judge, and He will judge the world in the day of His Second Coming.

Men are to be judged by Man. This is an original feature in the Christian creed, and one which, if it excites interest and hope, also raises not a few difficulties. On the one hand, we feel the appropriateness of One Who is Himself "Son of Man" being entrusted with the work of judging His fellow-men. He will understand their nature; He will be in sympathy with its sinless infirmities; He will know the strenght of its temptations, for He Himself has been tempted in all points like as we are. There is infinite kindness and love towards man shown in the delegation to Jesus Christ of all judgment, on the ground that He is Son of Man. On the other hand, the limitations of human nature seem to render the fulfilment of such a task by man impossible. How can man read the secrets of all hearts? How can a human mind, however gigantic its intellectual strenght, deal with the vast /143/ mass of evidence, the infinite intricacies of life, the complications arising from the influence of life on life, of one generation on another; the immense crowd of circumstances which, even in the case of a single life, go to decide the measure of guilt or of goodness; the maze of calculations necessary to determine the exact award which each case requires? The Incarnation alone can supply any approach to a solution of this problem. Even in the brief records of the earthly life of Jesus Christ, we observe signs that He possessed unique powers of reading character at a glance; from the beginning of His ministry He made it plain to those about Him that "He knew all men, and needed not that any one should bear witness concerning man, for He Himself knew what was in man" (John 2,24f). Of the powers of the glorified Christ, Who sits at the right hand of God, and comes in the glory of the Father, we can form no conception <note 5>. But it may well be believed that, when the world stands before Him to be judged, He will need none to bear witness concerning any of the countless lives with which He has to deal. "I am He," the Ascended Christ has told us, "which searcheth the reins and the heart" (Rev. 2,23). Behind the glorified manhood, and working through it, is the personal Word, Who, even more than the impersonal revelation of God in Scripture and in conscience, "pierces even to the dividing of soul and spirit," and is "quick" beyond all human experience "to discern the thoughts and intents of the heart" (Heb.4,12). /144/

But, it may be said, God is Himself the One Judge of men. So the Old Testament repeatedly teaches (Gen.18,25; Ps.50,6; 75,7; 94,2), and the Apostolic writers recognise this (Rom.14,10ff.; probably, also, Rev.20,11). Judgment, universal and final, is a prerogative of God. There would seem to be no more elementary truth, and yet out Lord distinctlyteaches that "the Father judgeth no man, but He hath given all judgment unto the Son" (John 5,22). "Who can forgive sins but one, even God?" the scribes rightly asked; and yet it is the Son of Man who has power on earth to forgive sins (Mark 2,7,10). So also to the Son of Man is committed the Divine prerogative of jugdment. Since the Incarnation this world is in the hands of a Mediator, and to Him all authority is given so long as the period of mediation lasts. The Judgment is the last act in this devolution of Divine prerogatives to the Incarnate Son; with it the Kingdom of the Mediator ceases, merged in the eternal reign of God. It is God Who will judge the secrets of men, but He will judge them by Jesus Christ (Rom.2,16).

A few words must be added on the sentences which the Judge will pronounce, for these, too, have been revealed to us, although they are not named in the Creed. The Judge Himself ends His description of the judgment scene with the appalling words, "These" (the condemned) "shall go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life." This is not the place to consider the meaning of "eternal" in such a connection, or of "punishment" and "life"; a discussion of these words would lead us too far afield, and carry us /145/ into regions of thought which the human mind, as it is at present constituted, cannot explore. But there is one feature which is common to all the New Testament descriptions of the future judgment, and which challenges out attention. It is the sharp dividing line which is to be drawn by the Judge, on one side of which, or on the other, all human beings must ultimately find themselves. In life, as we know it, there is no such clearly marked line between good and evil, and no tests which we can apply would place one part of mankind on the right hand, and the rest on the left. Most living men seem to be on the border, or on neutral ground, neither wholly good nor wholly bad, or fluctuating from day to day between the two opposite sides. Even when a life is ended, and we read a careful review of it in a published memoir or in history, we often hesitate to pronounce judgment of complete condemnation or complete approval. But the Supreme Judge, as it appears, will not hesitate, will find none to whom justice and truth can assign an intermediate place between the saved and the lost. He possesses a knowledge of the secrets of the heart which is denied to us; tests of character will be at His disposal which we cannot apply. Moreover, the fluctuations of motive and purpose which exist here will have ceased; before the end each man will have definitely taken his side, and the Judge will but confirm the sentence which the soul has, in fact, passed upon itself.

Other difficulties, admitting only of a partial solution, may occur to the mind as it contemplates the Christian doctrine of the judgment to come. But intellectual perplexities will not disturb the /146/ faith of the thoughtful Christian; he recognises them, but they leave his belief unshaken. It would surprise him if an event so remote from all present experience presented no difficulties but such as the limited powers of man's understanding were able to solve. He does not profess to understand all the contents of his Creed, which, resting on a basis of historical facts, runs up into mysteries which are as yet unexplained. He waits for the future to reveal many things which for the present he is content to believe.

Meanwhile, the practical effect of belief in Jesus Christ as Judge is not weakened by the impossibility of realising the scene, or analysing the contents of our faith. Faith in the return of our Lord as the Judge of quick and dead changes the whole tenor of the present life. It lifts up common work and intercourse into the presence of Christ <note 6>. It ennobles all the service of the world by inspiring it with the hope of the Master's approval; it encourages vigilance, thoroughness, faithfulness. For believers the Tribunal of Christ stands at the end of all their ways, and imparts to life a solemn joy which at once chastens and brightens their years on earth. "We make it our aim whether at home or absent," wheter we shall be found among the dead or the living when He comes, "to be wellpleasing unto Him," our Saviour and our Judge. We seek to "abide in Him, that, if He shall be manifested, we may have boldness, and not be ashamed before Him at His coming" (2 Cor.5,9; 1 John 2,28).

Note 1: See Justin's Dialogue, 52

Note 2: This saying is reportes in almost identical words by the three Synoptics (Matt. 16,27; Mark 8,38; Luke 8,26).

Note 3: See Milligan on Thessalonians, p. 145ff.

Note 4: A useful summary of non-Christian opinion on this subject may be seen in Hastings' Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, s.v. Eschatology (5.p.373 ff.).

Note 5: The reader may refer to Bishop Weston's The One Christ, p.287 ff., for some useful remarks on this point.

Note 6: Christians "talk as men who know that the Lord hears them" (Tertullian, Apology, ch.39).