Preparing for a sermon series working through the Apostles Creed once, I started thinking about the close connection between the crucifixion, death, and burial of Christ and the reality of the final judgment. They are really are two parts of the same whole.
What struck me was how the atoning death of Christ is a foreshadowing, or perhaps even a kind of precedent, of the final judgment that is to come. In fact, there is a similarity between the way that Christ’s resurrection is actually a promise of the final, global resurrection and the way that Christ’s death is the same for the final, global judgment.
In fact, we first glimpse the final, global judgment in the death and alienation of Christ. In his death, Christ is the recipient of judgment, but in his second coming, he becomes the arbiter of judgment. Both cases, however, are expressions of divine justice meted out to its full satisfaction.
To go even further, both judgments, the one imputed to Christ and the one meted out on all humanity find the same reference point in the righteous character of God. Both events say the same thing about the kind of justice that God applies to all humanity. In fact, the death of Christ is very hard to talk about apart from the final judgment and the final judgment is very hard to talk about apart from the death of Christ, because both evoke the unbounded desire God has for justice.
All of this means that if we want our gospel ministry to be formed around the reality of Christ-crucified (1 Cor 1:23; 2:2), we must likewise be formed by the reality of final judgment. The death of Christ speaks to us of the final judgment, and it is in this way that the final judgment is ever before us. As Sinclair Ferguson writes, “The first task of the pastor, then, in relationship to hell is to keep watching over himself (Acts 20:28). This means that consciously and deliberately we live before the judgment seat of Christ.”† When we preach the gospel of Jesus’ atoning death, we are at the same time preaching the final judgment to be administered under his authority.
We should never speak blithely, or easily on the topic of eternal judgment (Jesus always spoke of it in sober tones), but we cannot neglect it either, or worse mute its teaching under a false spirit of compassion. It would be no more compassionate to dull our teaching about the final judgment than it would be to neglect to warn a coastal community of the coming tsunami; it would be no more compassionate to smooth over biblical passages about hell than it would be to receive a report of impending disaster, quietly pushes away from one’s desk, walk out the door of one’s office, and make way to one’s personal refuge, all without warning a single other soul.
When we ignore the teaching of the global judgment we denigrate the gospel message and we present to the world a confused understanding of the Christ. We turn the good news into a story with a resolution but no conflict to be resolved, which is really no story at all.
†Sinclair B. Ferguson, “Pastoral Theology: The Preacher and Hell,” in Hell Under Fire (eds. C.W. Morgan; R.A. Peterson; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2004), 221.
Image: Last Judgment Tapestry, Flemish, c. 1505. Worcester Art Museum.