Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Judgment, Works, the Lake of Fire, and Eternity: What's Up with All That?

The Biblical text on which today's Our Daily Bread devotion is based, Revelation 20:11-15, is interesting to consider in light of the recent publicized prediction made by one man that the world would end on May 21. As I pointed out here, only a misguided person or an unbelieving one would make such a prediction. Jesus makes that clear.

But that doesn't alter the fact that Jesus teaches that one day, life in this world will be brought to an end by God's decision.

Nor does it alter the fact that Jesus and the rest of the Bible teaches that some will spend eternity with God and others will not. (Whether some contemporary Christians believe there's a hell or not, Jesus clearly does believe that hell is real and talked about it quite a lot.)

Nor does it alter Jesus' teaching that one day all lives will be judged by God.

Revelation 20:11-15 tells us about the judgment, the only judgment recorded in the strange last book of the New Testament. Here's what it says (remember that the narrator is John, given a vision of the end of all things--and the beginning of new things--by the risen and ascended Jesus):
Then I saw a great white throne and the one who sat on it; the earth and the heaven fled from his presence, and no place was found for them. And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Also another book was opened, the book of life. And the dead were judged according to their works, as recorded in the books. And the sea gave up the dead that were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and all were judged according to what they had done. Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire; and anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire.  
Many Christians, maybe especially Lutheran Christians, will be disturbed by the passage telling us, "the dead were judged according to their works." Doesn't the rest of the Bible tell us that we are saved by our faith in Jesus Christ because of the charitable grace God bears for the human race? Doesn't the rest of the Bible--the whole Bible, from Genesis onward--teach that we aren't saved from sin and death by our works?

Yes, the Bible does teach those things. And this passage doesn't disagree with any of it.

Notice that there are two kinds of books mentioned in the passage. One is the single book of life. It contains the names of all who have entrusted their lives to Jesus Christ.

But, another kind of book contains the records of the deeds of every human being.

These books represent the sober fulfillment of something Jesus said in different ways and times during His earthly ministry. For example, in Luke 12:2-3, Jesus says:
Nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. Therefore whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered behind closed doors will be proclaimed from the housetops. 
At the judgment, our lives will be transparently disclosed for all to see, like on a Jumbotron in a stadium. I cringe at that thought because I am a sinner, though, thank God, a forgiven one who depends on God's amazing grace. But this display of our lives, even what we thought was secret, will happen.

The question to be asked of us at this judgment, whether by those of us who have been saved by grace through faith in Christ or those who have spurned Jesus Christ and will be thrown into the lake of fire (go to hell), will, at this moment, be the same:
What did you do with the earthly life God gave to you?
Jesus, in the Gospel of John, of course, says that those who spurn Him and the new life He freely offers, condemn themselves to hell. He says that in His conversation with Nicodemus:
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God." (John 3: 16-18)
He also says that hell will be the place in which those who have spurned His love will spend eternity regretting their decision.

This is what it means to engage in "gnashing of teeth," as Jesus calls it, to regret forever having blown the opportunity to become the children of God we were made to be:
There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, and you yourselves thrown out. (Luke 13:28)
Those who spurn surrender to Christ will be thrown into the lake of fire, an image of hell reminiscent of the lifeless roiling storms of primordial chaos in Genesis 1.

God is a God of relationship, Whose highest desire us for us to live in relationship with Him and with others. But God also respects our decisions in these matters.

The occupants of hell will regret the disconnection from God and others they chose in this life and live with that choice in eternal isolation.

Having opted for the "kingdom of me," the little fiefdoms we human beings try to establish in order to rationalize walking away from God and violating God's commandments, God will let those who have rejected Christ live in its deathly confines eternally.

For believers in Christ, the judgment described in Revelation 20 will be a moment also marked by regret that we have often fallen short of the glory of God and failed to live the useful lives God's Holy Spirit empowers those who believe in Christ to live. (Underscoring the importance of living the life style of repentance and renewal.)

But it will also be a moment of gratitude that our sins are covered by the blood of Jesus Christ, an appeal to the Father for mercy that will not be ignored.

And it will be a moment when we resolve to use the new lives given to those who believe in the crucified and risen Jesus, to glorify God to the fullest, whatever task God gives us in eternity.

Rather than being intimidated by this scene from Revelation, we need to simply surrender our lives and our days to the Lordship of Christ. A Christ-ward life today is the only certain preparation for a joyous, useful eternity, spent in the company of God and others.

In this passage, death itself is thrown into the lake of fire. So too are those who have spurned Christ. This is why Martin Luther wrote in his Bible next to Revelation 20:11-15:
"Born once - die twice; Born twice - die once."
Those who spurn Christ will die twice, here and at the lake of fire. Those who are born from above in baptism and who trust in Jesus Christ's grace, who die to sin in order to rise to newness of life, will die only once. 

The vision Christ gave to John, recorded in Revelation 20:11-15, isn't meant as a threat to anyone. Nor should Christians or the Church use it that way.

It states a simple fact, one on full display in every revealing encounter God has had with the human race from Genesis 1 until today: God is sovereign.

And this sovereign God wants to give you life forever with Him.

He will not force it on you. You may take it or leave it.

But why, even if we find faith hard to grasp onto, would anyone leave it?

Why would you try to live this life or face the world to come without the God of the universe by your side?

Even if you're a skeptic, you have nothing to lose and everything to gain by telling God right now:
"Lord, I don't understand everything about you and it's hard for me to believe in You. I do understand that my deeds won't always look so good up on that Jumbotron at the judgment. I want to be clean. I want to live on clean motives. I want to enjoy relationships of trust and love with others. And I understand that these are things that You want to give to me. So, in Jesus' Name, I ask you to help me to have faith, to help me to trust in You, and please, start making me new today. I promise to read Your Word, the Bible; to check in with You in prayer each day; and to get involved with a church where I can serve You and share You along with others who, just like me, are imperfect people who want You in their lives. Amen."
Nor will you have anything to lose if you keep praying (and keep meaning) prayers like that every day for the rest of your life.

Live this life to the full and look forward to eternity--and God's new heaven and new earth--with joyful anticipation!

Faith in Christ can take root in your life and both this life and the one to come will be the better for it.

1 comment:

JACKIE said...

Mark-Thank you for sharing the insight God has given you on this subject. It makes me grieve for those who say no to God, and makes me rejoice for those of us who have said yes to his offer of grace and mercy through Jesus.
Not real thrilled about the broadcasting of all my sinful ways, thoughts and deeds. I was kind of hoping the promise of our sins being removed from us as far as the east is from the west, meant they would be forgotten as they have been forgiven. Bummer.
Blessings to you my friend! Hope to see you in July! Jackie