My understanding of the final judgment has changed quite a bit over the years.
As a young Christian, I was taught that we would be judged by God immediately after death, and that the criterion for the judgment was our faith in Jesus. Those who had accepted Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior would spend eternity with God in heaven, while those who had not would spend eternity separated from God, in hell.
While I never bought into this view entirely, it was several years before I would really question it. The more I studied the Bible, though, the more I came to see that this view wasn’t really Scriptural.
Most notably, I learned that the criterion for judgment isn’t so much what we believe about Jesus, but how we have lived our lives.
We are judged according to our works (Rev 20:11-15) – and especially according to how we treat the poor and marginalized, those whom Jesus calls “the least of these who are members of my family” (Matt 25:40).
Over time, I also came to find the idea of an eternal hell untenable – partly because many of the biblical references to hell imply annihilation more than everlasting suffering (Matt 10:28, 2 Thess 1:9, Heb 10:26-27, etc); and also because the God I have come to know in Jesus is a God of mercy, who “makes His sun rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matt 5:45).
My revised understanding of Judgment Day was one where we were judged based on how we had treated the poor and oppressed; and the result was either eternal life or complete annihilation. The one thing that remained the same was that the judge was external – it was God who imposed this judgment on us.
I now understand things quite differently. I have come to see that God doesn’t impose judgment on us from on high; rather, it is the Christ spirit within us that judges. It’s as if we are judging ourselves.
In the words of Orthodox bishop Kallistos Ware, “Christ is the judge; and yet, from another point of view, it is we who pronounce judgment on ourselves. If anyone is in hell, it is not because God has imprisoned him there, but because that is where he himself has chosen to be. The lost in hell are self-condemned, self-enslaved; it has been rightly said that the doors of hell are locked on the inside” (The Orthodox Way, 135).
God, in other words, is love – and only love. God is not looking to punish us; but we punish ourselves when we reject God’s love. And has Ware noted, “the more final the rejection, the more bitter the suffering” (The Orthodox Way, 136).
Though I don’t believe that hell is everlasting (a point on which Ware himself is somewhat ambigious), I find this Orthodox vision of the judgment quite compelling. It is more consistent with the loving Father that Jesus knows and speaks of.
The one point where I disagree with the Orthodox view (and with the views of most Christians through the ages) is that I believe that there is a chance for repentance beyond the grave. There has to be. Otherwise, what would be the point of a judgment?
What good would it do to see the end result of all our choices if there was no further chance for us to make things right? The only possible motive for such a judgment (with no further chance of repentance) would be vengeance; and the God revealed in Jesus is most certainly not a vengeful one.
So yes, I believe there is a judgment after death, based on how we have lived our lives here and now. But I believe that we are the ones who impose this judgment on ourselves – and that with this judgment comes a chance for further growth and healing. This is the only kind of judgment that fits with the God I have come to know.
In other words, Judgment Day is not something that we should fear. It is given to us for our own good. Indeed, there are many who may not be able to be healed and restored any other way!
But we need not wait until death to begin this process. Indeed, every moment gives us the chance to judge ourselves – to look at how we have lived our lives and make the necessary changes. The more we can learn to do this now, the less painful we will find it then.