It must be true! It was on the front of The Times – JUDGMENT DAY. How could we have missed it? Where were the cataclysms, the fire, the floods, the earthquakes, the turmoil? It all seemed strangely quiet. How could the Day of Judgment have come and gone and we didn’t notice? Surely it must be the most unmissable event ever – or have we got it all wrong?
Well, we haven’t. The Judgment Day of The Times had nothing to do with the climax of the history of the present world. The day in question was 7 May, the day of the general Election. The judgment was not the final verdict of the Judge of all the earth, but the judgment of the British electorate, or at least the portion of it that bothered to go to a polling station and register its choice (or send in its postal ballot, before someone points that out!). Whatever we may think of the result, the judgment in question is unlikely to have eternal consequences. Promises will be broken in the customary way, pledges will be forgotten, commitments will be found to be undeliverable in the light of changed circumstances, but in five years the whole process will begin again. I’m sure you can hardly wait.
The idea of an actual Judgment Day that will signal the end of history as we know it is to many people utterly incredible. Biblical language may be borrowed by political commentators who speak of the Ajockalypse (the surge of the Scottish National Party) and of Armacleggon (the demise of Nick Clegg’s leadership of the LibDems), but it’s no more than verbal cleverness that draws on memories of a culture once shaped by Christian truth. If there is no God to call anyone to account, then by definition there can be no Judgment Day. Even if there is a God, the common view indicates that he is a generous, understanding deity, easily satisfied with sincere effort to be a decent human being, not making unreasonable demands that nobody could ever fulfil. How could he ever condemn those who did their best? We wouldn’t – why would God? In the easy-going pluralistic culture in which we live, all roads lead to God, one way is just as good as the rest, and tolerance is the great virtue.
Only it isn’t like that.
As Paul told the philosophers of the Areopagus in Athens, God ‘has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead’ (Acts 17:31). The mockery and incredulity (and misunderstanding) of many in Paul’s audience were probably not so very different from the reaction we encounter today, but the truth remains the truth. There will indeed be a Judgment Day.
Forget the excesses of some Christian art, with demons gleefully torturing the damned. Chief among the condemned will be Satan and his cohorts, the objects of God’s righteous judgment, not the executioners of it. All men and women will appear before the Judge who has all the evidence and who evaluates it according to the standard of his own infinite holiness. There will be no miscarriages of justice, and refusal to recognise this court impossible. All who are still in their natural sinful condition, ‘in Adam’ (1 Corinthians 15:22), will experience eternal death, separation from God and all that is holy, in conscious endurance of the Lord’s righteous wrath. That is what a life lived without regard to the one true God merits. It is curious, and a relic of the image of God, that many recognise there are sins which deserve such consequences (perhaps murder, the violation of children), yet who carefully draw the line before any of their own failings are taken into account. Yet all are guilty of the greatest sin: living without God. There will be no escape.
How could anyone rejoice at the prospect of the Judgment Day? According to Psalm 96 the entire creation rejoices before the Lord ‘for he comes to judge the earth’ (v13). In particular he ‘will judge the world in righteousness, and the peoples in his faithfulness.’ A vital element of God’s judgment will be the vindication of his people and the completion of their salvation. All the blessings purchased by Christ, including the resurrection of the body and the rewarding of faithful service, will be conferred on those who are ‘in Christ’ by God’s grace. Believers are righteous in Christ and the faithful Judge will declare to the entire universe that they indeed are righteous in his sight. All the glory for their salvation will be his and they will be with the Lord for ever in the new creation, ‘where righteousness dwells’ (2 Peter 3:13), a joyful prospect indeed!