|Topical Bible Study||June 1959|
The Bible versus Tradition—Article VI
Judgment Day Favors for Sinners
“Whosoever shall not receive you, nor hear your words, when ye depart out of that house or city, shake off the dust of your feet. Verily I say unto you, It shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrha in the day of judgment than for that city.” —Matthew 10:14,15
THE Bible clearly teaches that there is to be a future judgment day for the world of mankind, but tradition has attached many unreasonable and even repulsive theories to the Bible’s teachings on this subject. In the minds of many it is considered to be a day of doom, when nearly all mankind will be consigned to an eternity of torture, while a favored few will be snatched away to heaven, where, within its pearly gates, they will sing hymns and play harps forever.
From the standpoint of tradition there is actually no good reason why there should be a future day of judgment, for supposedly the eternal destiny of every individual is fixed at death. Believers, tradition says, who are worthy, go immediately to heaven when they die, while unbelievers are consigned to a hell of torment. But tradition cannot entirely ignore the teachings of the Bible, and since the Bible clearly reveals that there is to be a future judgment day, an effort had to be made by the creedmakers to fit it into their theology.
Naturally this makes for confusion. In the first place, the judgment day of the creeds is visualized as being only twenty-four hours in length. In a symbolic judgment-day scene presented in Revelation 20:12 the dead, “small and great,” are shown standing before God. Thus was given a literal interpretation, so tradition saw all the believers who, at death, were judged worthy of going to heaven, brought back from heaven, and all the sinners who had been condemned to hell-fire brought back from hell, to pass before the judgment seat of God in a twenty-four hour period.
Obviously no good purpose could be served by this, for we could not imagine that any mistakes could have been made in the decisions which were reached at death—decisions which, according to tradition, place the dead into one of two classes, consigning them either to heaven or to hell. There is, of course, the Catholic tradition concerning a third group which goes to purgatory. But, then, tradition never is too concerned about reason. Nor is it our obligation to try to harmonize this view with the teachings of the Bible. As with most of the theories which have come down to us through the medium of tradition, this one also is unreasonable, and without actual support in the Bible.
More Than a Sentence
TRADITION is wrong in limiting the meaning of the word judgment to the passing of sentence. Just as a judge in court first hears the evidence for or against the one on trial before passing sentence, so those who are sentenced before the bar of divine justice are first given an opportunity to prove their worthiness or unworthiness of God’s favor.
Our first example of the operation of this principle is the case of Adam. In Romans 5:16 the Apostle Paul speaks of “judgment” coming upon all through Adam—a judgment to condemnation. While the sentence which came upon Adam—“Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return”—was the culmination of his “judgment,” prior to this he was given an opportunity to demonstrate his loyalty to God’s law. Failing in this, he was sentenced to death.—Gen. 3:19
It is important to notice in connection with Adam’s “judgment day” that he was given full information concerning the Lord’s requirements. He was not in ignorance of the issue involved. Here is another important principle which operates in all of God’s dealings with his intelligent creatures. They are never on trial before him without knowing it, and without the necessary information concerning his will for them. No one will fail to receive the grace of God because of ignorance, and no one will attain salvation without the necessary knowledge concerning Jesus Christ, the Redeemer, and the will of God for those who accept this gift of his love.
Ancients Proved Worthy
WHEN Adam sinned and began to die, it meant that all his progeny were imperfect, and therefore under condemnation to death. Nevertheless, from Adam’s day to the first advent of Jesus, there were individuals who demonstrated their faith in God and their loyalty to him and to his cause. The first of these was Abel. The last, of record, was John the Baptist.
In the 11th chapter of Hebrews the Apostle Paul mentions many of these faithful ancients. He points out the difficulties they encountered in proving their devotion to God. Paul explains that they endured the trials which came upon them that they might prove worthy of a “better resurrection.” Paul speaks of their being made “perfect” in the resurrection, meaning, evidently, that when these faithful ones are awakened from the sleep of death they will be perfect human beings, and therefore be fully qualified to conduct the work of God which will then be assigned to them in connection with the messianic kingdom.—Heb. 11:35,39,40
While these ancient worthies were not given a full understanding of the plans and purposes of God for the restoration of the human race to life through Jesus, the Redeemer, God did favor them with sufficient knowledge upon which to decide whether or not they would devote themselves fully to him, regardless of the cost. Even Abel knew of God’s statement that the “seed” of the “woman” would “bruise” the “serpent’s” head. (Gen. 3:15) From this Abel would know that God had some plan for overcoming the havoc which had been wrought in Eden by the Devil, and he wanted to be on God’s side and share in that future triumph of righteousness.
In Jude 14 we read that “Enoch, the seventh from Adam,” prophesied concerning the coming of the Lord to execute judgment. This indicates that Enoch was given enough understanding upon which to base his decision to enable him to take his stand on the Lord’s side. With the passage of time the plan of God unfolded more and more, as one after another of the holy prophets was caused to testify concerning it, giving the ancient worthies a definite basis for their faith and an inspiring incentive to faithfulness.
The Ancient Worthies
WE MIGHT say, therefore, that the entire period from the fall of man in Eden until the first advent of Christ was a “judgment day,” during which those faithful servants of old proved their worthiness of being made “princes in all the earth.” (Ps. 45:16) True, when they are awakened from the sleep of death and given perfect human bodies, as the Scriptures indicate will be the case, they will need to continue their faithfulness in order to attain everlasting life. But so far as their past is concerned, they did receive a good report through faith. They passed their trial successfully.—Heb. 11:39
Beginning with the giving of the Law to Israel by Moses, the nation of Israel entered upon a special day of judgment. Through the Law, as epitomized in the Ten Commandments, the will of God was expressed for the Israelites. If they could keep the Law they were promised life—“He that doeth those things shall live.” (Rom. 10:5; Matt. 19:16,17) For the nation, faithfulness to the Law would have resulted in an honored position among nations as a priestly nation of teachers and blessers. They would have become a kingdom nation.—Exod. 19:3-6
The Lord granted the people of Israel a long period of probation in which to prove their worthiness or unworthiness of the blessings promised under the Law, but they failed. None gained life under the Law. Indeed, it brought upon them an individual condemnation which was not upon the remainder of mankind.
Paul explains: “Death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over them that had not sinned after the similitude of Adam’s transgression.” (Rom. 5:14) Adam’s sin was individual and willful, but his progeny shared in the condemnation regardless of their individual responsibility. But, as Paul indicates, so far as the Israelites were concerned this was changed by their agreeing to obey God’s Law. This placed them in a position of individual responsibility before God, in which they failed.
The promise that if obedient to the Law they would become a kingdom of priests and “an holy nation” was made to the Israelites as a nation. In this also they failed to qualify, and Jesus said to the representative leaders of the nation, that the kingdom would be taken from them and given to a nation “bringing forth the fruits thereof,” or the “fruits” expected. (Matt. 21:43) Later the Apostle Peter identified this new nation to which the “kingdom” was given. He wrote:
“Ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should show forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvelous light; which in time past were not a people, but are now the people of God: … which had not obtained mercy, but now have obtained mercy,”—I Pet. 2:9,10
The Present Judgment Day
THE Scriptures reveal that with the first advent of Christ another judgment day began, Jesus himself being the first one involved. Jesus came into the world to accomplish the divine purpose of redeeming mankind from death and of restoring the willing and obedient to life. But to serve the divine cause in this manner, Jesus had to be tested.
In Psalm 40, verse 7, Jesus is quoted as saying, “Lo, I come: in the volume of the book it is written of me. I delight to do thy will, O my God: yea, thy law is within my heart.” While this translation is not too clear, the thought is, as stated by Jesus, that he had come to do all that had been previously written, or prophesied, concerning him. And this, as Jesus said, he delighted to do, for God’s law was within his heart, a very part of his being.
As prophesied in the Old Testament Scriptures, the divine will for Jesus was that he was to sacrifice his flesh, his humanity, in death for the sins of the world. This he willingly and gladly did, and in doing it he proved his worthiness of the sacred responsibility his Heavenly Father had placed in him. Had he been unfaithful he would have lost all, even life itself.
That Jesus was severely tested is brought to our attention by the incident in which Peter urged him not to go to Jerusalem, where his enemies were lying in wait to arrest him and put him to death. To this Jesus replied, “Get thee behind me, Satan.” To this he added the explanation that anyone who took up his cross to follow him, and then sought to save his life, would lose it. (Mark 8:31-36) Jesus knew that since he had covenanted to lay down his life for the sins of the world, any holding back to save his life, as Peter had suggested, would mean unfaithfulness, and would result in the loss of his own life, in the sense that he would not be raised from the dead.
Of Jesus it is written that he learned obedience by the things which he suffered. (Heb. 5:8) Actually Jesus had always been obedient to his Heavenly Father. In his prehuman existence he had served his Father faithfully, and the Father was delighted with him. But not until he came to earth and encountered the prejudices, the jealousies, the hatreds of the fallen human race, as faithfully he served in the face of opposition engendered by these blighting manifestations of the fallen human nature, did Jesus know, experimentally, what it meant to be obedient in suffering. This was the great lesson which he learned during the three and one-half years of his earthly ministry. And Jesus proved faithful.
Jesus’ Followers Tested
BEGINNING with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, the followers of Jesus have been on probation, the opportunity being theirs of proving worthy not only to live with Christ, but also to reign with him in his thousand-year kingdom. (II Tim. 2:12) As with the people of God in previous ages, these also have been enlightened with respect to the will of God for them. Since they have been invited to prove their worthiness of reigning in the kingdom of Christ, Jesus said that it is given to them to know the mysteries of the kingdom.—Matt. 13:11
Through the acceptance of Jesus as their Redeemer, and upon the basis of faith in his shed blood, these surrender themselves to God and to the doing of his will. The merit of Christ’s shed blood releases them from the original condemnation to death, and they now have the privilege of laying down their lives in acceptable sacrifice. (Rom. 12:1) At the same time they are on trial for life. Paul speaks of their patience in well-doing by which they “seek for glory and honor and immortality, eternal life.”—Rom. 2:7
As in the case of Jesus, the trial of his followers is a difficult, exacting one. Peter wrote, “Think it not strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened unto you: but rejoice, inasmuch as ye are partakers of Christ’s sufferings; that, when his glory shall be revealed, ye may be glad also with exceeding joy.”—I Pet. 4:12,13
The Apostle Peter understood full well that the “fiery trial” experienced by the followers of Jesus is in reality their “judgment” experience, for a few verses further on in this chapter he writes, “The time is come that judgment must begin at the house of God: and if it first begin at us, what shall the end be of them that obey not the Gospel of God? And if the righteous scarcely be saved, where shall the ungodly and the sinner appear?”—I Pet. 4:17,18
“If the righteous scarcely be saved.” This expression denotes the difficulties under which the followers of Jesus in this age, those who are laying down their lives sacrificially as Jesus did, prove their faithfulness. But there is a compensating reward. To these Jesus said, “Be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life.” (Rev. 2:10) And again, “To him that overcometh will I grant to sit with me in my throne, even as I also overcame, and am set down with my Father in his throne.”—Rev. 3:21
The World’s Judgment Day
AS WE have seen, Peter explained that the judgment, or trial, of the Gospel-age “house of God” is a very exacting, difficult one, and he asks, “Where shall the ungodly and the sinner appear?” Those who are willfully ungodly, based upon full enlightenment, will not, of course, appear in any future judgment, for they thus prove themselves unworthy of life. But the unenlightened, sin-cursed, and dying race of mankind will appear in the world’s future judgment, which is a “day,” or period in the divine plan, a thousand years in length.—II Pet. 3:7,8
Peter describes that future day of judgment as one of perdition, or destruction, for ungodly men. This is in contrast with the present time, when all are dying, irrespective of whether they are righteously inclined or otherwise. But Peter also explains that God is “long-suffering …, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.” (II Pet. 3:9) This is why a thousand years has been set aside in the divine plan for the enlightenment of the people, and for giving all a full opportunity to repent, obey, and live upon the basis of that enlightenment.
In Paul’s sermon to the worldly-wise Athenians he spoke of the ignorance of the world, as represented in the many gods worshiped by the Athenians; and he explained that God had “winked” at this ignorance, meaning that he had not held and did not hold responsible those who are unenlightened. “But now,” Paul further explained, “God commandeth all men everywhere to repent: because he hath appointed a day, in the which he will judge the world in righteousness by that man whom he hath ordained; whereof he hath given assurance unto all men, in that he hath raised him from the dead.”—Acts 17:30,31
Paul’s statement that now God commandeth all men everywhere to repent does not imply that this command has as yet actually reached all men. He is merely calling attention to the fact that beginning with the first advent of Jesus the plan of God moved forward, and that through the Gospel, God was now calling individuals to repent and to take up their cross to follow Jesus. This message is not limited to any one nation or race of people; but as Jesus commissioned his disciples, it has been taken by them to all nations.—Matt. 28:19,20; Acts 1:7,8
PAUL speaks of “assurance” in connection with the coming day of judgment. What assurance could possibly come from the tradition that the judgment day is in reality doomsday for the vast majority of the human race? The fact that “all men,” as they learn about the coming judgment day, are “assured” by this knowledge, suggests that it will be a time of blessing, when they will have an opportunity to accept the provisions of life made for them through Christ, obey the laws of his kingdom, and live.
The work of that future judgment day will be based upon enlightenment. The Prophet David wrote, “The Lord … cometh … to judge the earth: he shall judge the world with righteousness, and the people with his truth.” (Ps. 96:13) The Prophet Isaiah wrote, that when the Lord’s judgments are abroad in the earth, “the inhabitants of the world will learn righteousness.”—Isa. 26:9
Jesus explained the source of the information which will reach the world during the future day of judgment. He said, “If any man hear my words, and believe not, I judge him not.” To this Jesus added, “The word that I have spoken, the same shall judge him in the last day.” Jesus explained that the words or commandments he had spoken were not his, that they had been given to him by his Father. And then he said, “I know that his commandment is life everlasting.”—John 12:47-50
Tradition would have us believe that those who hear the teachings of Jesus in this life, and for one reason or another do not accept and obey them, are judged unworthy of heaven, and forthwith consigned to eternal torture. But Jesus did not agree with this tradition. He said that he did not judge unbelievers, but that his word would judge them in the “last day.” This “last day” is simply the final age in God’s great plan of salvation.
The meaning of Jesus’ words is obvious. Those who do not now accept the Gospel are not on trial for life—they are not now being judged. But the truth of God’s will, in the “last day,” will be made available. All the hindrances to belief will be removed, and then the commandments of God will constitute the basis of judgment for all mankind. Those who then accept and obey will, as Jesus explained, receive everlasting life, not in heaven with Jesus, but on earth as humans.
The Opening of the Books
THIS is the reassuring truth that is brought to our attention in Revelation 20:12. It is a beautiful, symbolic lesson revealing God’s purpose to enlighten the people with his truth during the future judgment day of the world. John wrote, “I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God; and the books were opened: and another book was opened, which is the book of life: and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works.”
Tradition tells us that the “books” which are opened in this wonderful text contain the records of the past lives of all humanity. The tradition is that these “books” will be opened to ascertain the worthiness or unworthiness of each individual to spend eternity in heaven, the unworthy being sent to torment. How crude and how cruel tradition can sometimes be!
This tradition is seen at once to be wrong, because the text mentions the “works” of those being judged as separate from the things written in the books—they are judged “out of the things written in the books, according to their works.” Jesus stated that his “word,” which he explained was the “commandment of God,” would judge the people in the “last day,” the judgment day. Since the text says that the people are judged “out of the things written in the books,” then the opening of these books must symbolize the revealment to the people of God’s truth, his commandments, upon the basis of which they are judged.
And this judgment is also according to their works—not their past works, for those who are awakened from death and come up in the world’s judgment are known by God not to have been worthy of everlasting life. Whether it has been in past ages or in the present all, except the elect classes who have proved faithful in the face of great difficulty, have continued under condemnation, the divine intention being to give them their opportunity when awakened from the sleep of death.
Book of Life
THE text speaks of “another book” being opened, “the book of life.” The complete thought set forth in symbol in this text is that when the dead are awakened they will, through Christ, have a standing before God. They will be enlightened, as symbolized by the opening of the “books.” As their works are brought into conformity with the will of God as revealed by the open books, their names will be enrolled in the book of life. They will no longer be subject to adamic condemnation, but upon the basis of their individual acceptance of and obedience to the truth concerning Jesus as made known by the opened books, they will be on the way to eternal life.
During that day of judgment those who do not then prove worthy and have their names enrolled in the “book of life” will be remanded to death, called the second death, and symbolized in this chapter by the “lake of fire”—fire being one of the most destructive elements known to man. The Apostle Peter states this truth plainly, saying, “It shall come to pass that every soul, which will not hear that prophet, shall be destroyed from among the people.”—Acts 3:23
IN OUR beginning text we find Jesus saying that it would be more tolerable for Sodom and Gomorrah in the day of judgment than it would be for those who rejected the Gospel as presented to them by the disciples. The point involved here is the measure of enlightenment. The people of Jesus’ day were more enlightened than those who lived in the ancient cities of Abraham’s day, hence they were more responsible.
We are not to suppose that anyone in this life who lives contrary to what he knows to be right will go unpunished. But the Scriptures do not teach that anyone will be tortured forever for failing to believe and obey the Gospel. The Scriptures do not teach that anyone will fail to have an opportunity in the future judgment, unless in this life his rejection of divine grace has been based upon a comprehensive understanding of the issues involved, and has been wholly willful.
While it will be more “tolerable” for the Sodomites in the day of judgment than for the Israelites who rejected the message given them by Jesus and his disciples, even these are to be wonderfully blessed. The Apostle Paul explained concerning them that “there shall come out of Sion the Deliverer, and shall turn away ungodliness from Jacob.” He stated that this is in keeping with a promise made to the nation of Israel concerning a “new covenant,” in connection with which their sins would be removed.—Rom. 11:26-32; Jer. 31:31-34
The ultimate and full result of this will be, as Paul explained, that “all Israel shall be saved.” Paul says concerning the Israelites that God has counted them all in unbelief; “that he might have mercy upon all.” Yes, there will be mercy for unbelievers in the judgment day!
There will be mercy for the Sodomites because they were ignorant of God and his will. There will be mercy for the Israelites because they lacked full understanding, and were blinded by their prejudices. There will be mercy for all who have died without having had a full opportunity to know and serve God. Then the knowledge of the Lord will fill the earth as the waters cover the sea, and he will judge the people with his truth.—Isa. 11:9; Psalm 96:13