The Judgment and Wrath of God in the New Testament
So far we have been looking at examples of judgment in the Old Testament and have seen that they were always purposeful and lasted for a limited duration, eventually resulting in restoration. Does God change his pattern for justice in the New Testament and decide to punish people forever? This is an interesting question, because the Old Testament does not teach a doctrine of everlasting punishment in hell. The only potential support for the idea is in Daniel 12:2, but we have already seen through a brief word study that the word translated “everlasting” (transliterated olam or ovlam) is not translated accurately, and actually refers to limited duration. With this understanding let’s look at some of the passages in the New Testament about judgment.
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil . For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.”
John 3:16-17 is one of the most beloved verses in all of the Bible because it shows the great love of God for us. We are told that Jesus came not to condemn the world, but to save it.
Supporters of the doctrine of eternal punishment, however, say that this message of hope then takes a dark turn. They will say that the condemnation described for unbelievers is eternal hell.
But this interpretation is clearly wrong! We know this because the passage tells us what the condemnation is! Read it again. You should notice a couple of things.
1. Those who don’t believe are condemned already. In other words, they are experiencing their judgment in the present. Are they in a place of eternal torment right now? Obviously not!
2. The judgment is that the “people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil.” In other words, people are condemned to live in darkness until they come to belief in Christ, the light of the world. And many don’t want to come to this light because of their wickedness. So the judgment they experience is that God allows them to remain in it.
This concept of judgment is further elucidated in Romans 1, where Paul says that “the wrath of God is being revealed from heaven.” We see that the wrath of God revealed in the passage is that God “gave them over” to “the sinful desires of their hearts,” to “shameful lusts” and to “a depraved mind” because they refused to acknowledge Him. It also says that they “received in themselves the due penalty for their error.” Notice that the word “received” is in past tense, showing that they have already experienced condemnation. This wrath is not a future hellfire, but a present darkness.
And once again, we see a purpose to God’s wrath and judgment: “For God has consigned all to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all” (Romans 11:32). Prior to belief, we were all condemned to darkness and disobedience. But God is not content to leave us in this state. He allows us to do what we want for a time, so that He can have mercy on us and show us just how great and unfathomable His love really is!
What about Final Judgment?
It is true that there is also a final judgment described in the New Testament. We have seen, however that the passages referencing Gehenna (translated “hell”) may or may not be referring to this final judgment. Instead they may be referencing the literal destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 in which many were cast, unburied into the dump outside of Jerusalem (Gehenna). Whether this is symbolic of the future, final judgment of mankind is debatable, but I think that it is a reasonable inference that Gehenna is meant to be symbolic of the final judgment, as well as literally descriptive of the A.D. 70 destruction of Jerusalem.
This being the case, the best descriptions of the final judgment of humanity can be seen in Revelation’s descriptions of the White Throne judgment and the lake of fire (also called the second death).
We have already looked at some of these passages, showing that the words translated “forever and ever” did not necessarily have this sense in the Greek. It is worthwhile to look at these passages again. They can be found in Revelation 2, 14, 20, and 21. So we see that there is certainly a final judgment that occurs and that people are cast into the lake of fire. As a reminder, we have already discussed the symbolism of fire throughout the Bible and seen that fire is most often used to symbolize purification by God. We have also seen that “everyone will be salted with fire” (Mark 9:49).
But does the book of Revelation end with judgment, fire, brimstone, and hopelessness for the lost? The answer is NO! There are two more chapters that come after the judgment. Let’s examine these now.
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”
And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” And he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give from the spring of the water of life without payment.”
Notice that after judgment, we see a new heaven and a new earth. We see that God is “making all things new,” a complete restoration in process. We see the end of all pain and loss. We see that the New Jerusalem, the bride of Christ has descended to earth. This refers to the church, the true followers of Christ (Ephesians 5, and elsewhere). A beautiful picture of God’s ultimate plan of redemption emerges.
But, advocates of eternal punishment will be quick to point out that the following verses take a dark turn, away from hope for the lost. I will not ignore these verses, as you might have expected. Instead we will examine them carefully and see that hope in fact remains for “His mercy endures forever” (Psalm 136 says so 26 times).
Revelation 21: 7-8
The one who conquers will have this heritage, and I will be his God and he will be my son. But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.”
Hellfire advocates at this point might say “See! I told you all those evil
people will burn!” But let’s remember that we are those evil
people, as Jesus pointed out when he clarified the law as pertaining to the
state of the heart, saying that if we have lusted, we have committed
adultery, and if we have hated, we have committed murder (Matthew 5). God’s
standard is much higher than our own, and we must not be hypocritical and
judge others as inferior “for in the same way you judge others, you will be
judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you” (Matthew
7:2). That should give us pause, but it isn’t the only reason to hold out
hope for those who have been judged. Instead we must read on and
Revelation will give us this beautiful, hopeful picture. Don’t end your
reading here, because this isn’t where the book ends!
Let’s continue our study to see what New Jerusalem (the bride of Christ/ the church) is like.
On no day will its gates ever be shut, for there will be no night there. The glory and honor of the nations will be brought into it. Nothing impure will ever enter it, nor will anyone who does what is shameful or deceitful, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life.
It is important to notice here that the gates of New Jerusalem are never shut. The only reason to leave gates open is to allow passage through them. The text tells us, in fact, that things will pass through, including the “glory and honor of the nations.” Is this just gold, rubies and diamonds? Does the church become a materialistic entity, intent on the accumulation of wealth, but uncaring toward lost souls? Hasn’t this attitude been forcefully condemned throughout Scripture?
What does God really treasure? Doesn’t He love the world so much that He sent Jesus to save it as John 3:16 tells us? Doesn’t He search for the lost with fervor, even if only one is missing? Consider Matthew 18:12-14:
“What do you think? If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off? And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off. In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should perish.
Notice that God is not content to let anyone escape salvation. He will seek us out. He will find us, (100% of us) because that is His will. And there will be great joy! This theme is reiterated again and again. Let’s take a look.
“Or what woman, having ten silver coins, if she loses one coin, does not light a lamp and sweep the house and seek diligently until she finds it? And when she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”
Notice the diligent seeking. We are the coins and God, like the woman in the parable, does not stop pursuing us until we are all found.
And consider the beauty of the parable of the prodigal son. The Father is searching for His son and sees him while he is still far away. Luke 15:20 says “But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him.” Why did the Father see the son from such a far distance? It was because He was looking for him, longingly awaiting his return. And when the rebellious, decadent son, who squandered his inheritance returns, the Father says, “Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found” (Luke 15:22-24).
The only person angry about this is the son who felt as if he was the one who deserved the love of the Father, not his sinful brother. But the Father gently corrects this son, saying “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found” (Luke 15:31-32). If we religiously assume superiority over sinners, we miss the heart of God, who celebrates the return of the “dead” to Him. Why do we assume that the second death is any different? Indeed we will see that Revelation tells us that it is not.
Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. There will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light. And they will reign for ever and ever.
Notice the river of the water of life and the tree of life flowing through the city and that the leaves of the tree “are for the healing of the nations.” If everyone is perfect why are these healing leaves needed? There seems to be a process here. Let’s examine it next.
Blessed are those who wash their robes, that they may have the right to the tree of life and may go through the gates into the city.
This is after the New Jerusalem has already descended to earth. We, the church are the New Jerusalem, the bride of Christ. We are already in the city, we are part of it. Who, then, can wash their robes and enter? It must be those who were unclean and therefore unable to enter before, those who have been cast into the lake of fire. If Gehenna (translated “hell”) is symbolic of this judgment, it must be noted that Gehenna (the Valley of Hinnom) was geographically located right outside of Jerusalem. So, the imagery is that those who are outside, the ones who will be blessed to wash their robes and enter the city, are those who are unrighteous presently, but being purified by God’s consuming fire. Indeed, this is confirmed in the very next verse:
Outside are the dogs, those who practice magic arts, the sexually immoral, the murderers, the idolaters and everyone who loves and practices falsehood.
We are told exactly who has the opportunity to come into the city once they are purified (symbolized by the washing of their robes). These robes must be washed in Jesus’ blood. As we see in Revelation 7:14, the saints have “washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” This very imagery is used here. Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life for all people and nothing can separate us from His love, not even the second death. But we can’t come into the city until we are purified of evil, so we remain outside until we repent and are washed in His blood. Many say this is true of Christians only, but it is true of everyone because everyone will become true Christians eventually.
I mentioned earlier that Revelation does not end with eternal judgment. Let’s see how it actually ends.
“I, Jesus, have sent my angel to give you this testimony for the churches. I am the Root and the Offspring of David, and the bright Morning Star.”
The Spirit and the bride say, “Come!” And let the one who hears say, “Come!” Let the one who is thirsty come; and let the one who wishes take the free gift of the water of life.
I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this scroll: If anyone adds anything to them, God will add to that person the plagues described in this scroll. And if anyone takes words away from this scroll of prophecy, God will take away from that person any share in the tree of life and in the Holy City, which are described in this scroll.
He who testifies to these things says, “Yes, I am coming soon.”
Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.
The grace of the Lord Jesus be with God’s people. Amen.
Remember, this is the very end of the book. It does not say, “they will continue to be tormented forever” because that isn’t the point of the book. Instead it ends with a reminder of who Jesus is, followed by God’s people and God’s Spirit continuing to invite people to “come!” There is a reminder to the thirsty that the gift of the water of life is still free, and always will be, that they can always come to the Father and He will receive them with joy. There is a strict warning to believers that we are not to change the words of Revelation and that the consequences of such sin will result in a loss of our inheritance as good and faithful servants. I believe this is referring to our participation in the first resurrection and being part of the New Jerusalem as it descends to earth. Our inheritance as leaders in God’s kingdom will be lost, but God, like the Good Shepherd, the woman who lost her coin, and the Father who longingly sought his prodigal son, will seek us and purify us, even in the second death. That this death will come to an end is assured to us in 1 Corinthians 15:26, which tells us that "the last enemy to be destroyed is death." Christ will reign until this is accomplished and all are united in Him (as Ephesians 1:10 confirms).
And finally it ends with a benediction: “The grace of the Lord Jesus be with God’s people. Amen.” Notice that it is the grace of Jesus that ends Revelation. This is what we are called to remember as John’s vision ends. Not the fierce judgment of God, but the grace. Grace is unmerited favor. That is indeed what God bestows on the world. Nothing can separate us from His grace, or from his love, not the schemes of the devil, nor our sinfulness, nor even the second death “for I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39).
Now, some will undoubtedly argue that I am taking Romans 8:38-39 out of context because Paul was clearly speaking to believers. And he was, of course, speaking to believers. Specifically, he was speaking to believers in Rome. Does this mean that it does not apply to anyone else? What about future believers in different geographic locations, such as ourselves? Doesn't it also apply to us? Of course it does.
In fact, every single book of the Bible was written to a target audience, but its truths are applied beyond that audience. Otherwise, the Bible would be entirely irrelevant to modern people, but as we know, it is not.
So while this passage is written specifically to the elect of the church in Rome, I believe it has broader applications. Consider that the text is referring to the "love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord." Who does God love? Doesn't John 3:16 tell us that He loves the world? Doesn't Ephesians 2:4-5 tell us that he "loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses"? And doesn't Romans 5:8 tell us that "God shows his love for us in that while we were sinners, Christ died for us"? Indeed they do. Is it then appropriate to limit His love in this passage as exclusively applying to a select few who are already following Him?
I don't believe that it is. And one reason for this belief is the immediate context of Romans 8. Let's take a look.
I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved...
So in Romans 8 itself, we see that God's plan is broader than just saving us who call upon Him in the present. Instead we see the hopeful message of redemption of all of creation, which has been groaning in pain, waiting for the fulfillment of God's plan of redemption. Does the whole of creation only refer to rocks, trees, birds and bees? Does it not also refer to human beings, the pinnacle of His creation, who were made in His image? Of course it does!
And this, I believe, is why Revelation ends with grace. There is nothing about us that deserves God's favor, but He loves all of us in spite of our sinful ways, while we are yet sinners, even before we turn to Him. And for this reason, He does not stop pursuing us, not even in death. He is love and His love never ends! (1 John 4:8, and 1 Corinthians 13:8). It is because of His great love and grace that all people will eventually turn to Him and thus be saved through Christ.
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