Sara’s sobbing voice sounded on the other end of my phone. “You have to talk to my sister.” Entrapped in a legalistic and abusive cult that forced baptism on her and threatened the fires of Hell for the smallest misdeed, Dolly (not her real name) had succumbed to a deep depression. Distressed at her involvement in the cult, her family took her for a drive through the mountains to help clear her head, but at one stop, Dolly jumped out of the car and threw herself over a cliff. Thankfully, she survived, but her heart and spirit were broken.
Several weeks later, after a stint in a psychiatric ward, Dolly called me. She’d joined the Bahai faith and wanted to know my opinion. “They believe there is no Hell,” she told me. Despite my explanations about why God would mastermind a place of eternal punishment, Dolly was adamant: how could a loving God be so judgmental?
For Dolly, embracing a religious system that promised only the existence of Heaven was convenient, especially for someone who had lived under the thundercloud of a stern God who might penalize her for the least infraction. I wish I’d been better equipped to explain that while God’s justice requires a system of punishment for those who disobey him, belief in Christ frees us from the fear of eternal punishment.
A plan of judgment sounds horribly unfair on the face of it. Isn’t God a loving God?
The problem lies in the average person’s understanding of what God’s judgment entails. Some picture the Final Judgment as an accountant’s balance sheet. One side holds all our indiscretions, bad choices, and immoral thoughts; the other, our good deeds. One deed, good or bad, will tip the scale sending us to either Hell or Heaven. Some crimes might be worse than others but hopefully, the good will outweigh the bad. We won’t know until the very end.
God doesn’t work that way. Any infraction is a blemish on God’s righteousness and holiness, causing us to deserve eternal punishment. God has a better system. He asks that we allow Jesus to suffer the sentence of death in our place. Accepting this gracious gift in all its fullness will ensure us a place in Heaven.
Judgment will consist of a separation of those who have believed in Christ’s saving grace from those who have rejected God’s call to salvation. The Bible says that Christ will come a second time to “bring salvation to those who are waiting for him” (Hebrews 9:28). Christians have nothing to fear at the Final Judgment, for although every person must appear before God’s judgment seat, those who know Christ will hear those sweet words, “This one is mine!”
God makes this simple: Believe in and faithfully follow the Christ who took your punishment for you, and you will be in Heaven. Reject him and receive eternal punishment. Many in the world have a problem with that. Why?
Our world has become jaded by imperfect and corrupt judges known for not handing down fair decisions and reasonable sentences. The human condition wants more than fair. We demand justice rendered against the serial killer, genocidal dictator, and pedophile, yet expect mercy for ourselves and those we love, rationalizing that we aren’t so bad.
At the heart of it, none of us wants to be judged or have our darker side revealed. Acknowledging that I’ve blown it, I’m guilty, and I’m less than acceptable is tough for any of us to admit. It’s a lot easier to believe the humanistic 1969 book title, “I’m Okay, You’re Okay.”
It is true—God is a loving God. He demonstrated that love by allowing his Son to take the punishment we deserve (Romans 5:8). Yet the world chafes at the idea of Jesus being the only access to the Father (John 14:6). Why must faithful obedience to Jesus be the only way to get to Heaven? Why not the way the world has selected for themselves?
It’s a matter of who we want to be in charge. A tolerance for alternate access routes to Heaven allows room for us to play God, for us to be the final judge of who enters Heaven and who deserves Hell. Tailoring the rules to our specifications fails to recognize that God is a far better judge of a person’s heart condition than any human can be.
In a world trigger-happy about the term judgment, how do we communicate the reality of Heaven, Hell, and the Final Judgment? We must first recognize that many people do not buy into the infallibility of Scripture. No amount of quoting Bible verses will convince someone who doesn’t accept God’s Word as the final authority. Logical reasoning is equally ineffective. We live in a society where emotions often trump absolute truth. The thought of eternal separation from a loved one is charged with emotion. We want to be with our loved ones forever, particularly in a beautiful, pain-free Paradise.
Furthermore, some Christians have regrettably insinuated that only one sin, whether attending the wrong church, skipping Communion one Sunday, divorce, or one immoral indiscretion will send a person straight to Hell. We must lovingly show that we have no right to judge; only God does. To do that, we must persistently promote the saving, forgiving work of Christ as part of God’s judgment plan. We communicate that best when we treat others with love and compassion rather than judgment.
When others want to argue with you about the reality of God’s judgment, gain information by asking questions:
• What is your definition of justice?
• What kind of people should receive eternal punishment?
• If you were God, what system would you devise for handling evil?
Like my encounter with Dolly, getting the backstory behind their belief will help you formulate your next response. Resist the urge to prove them wrong; instead, find ways to model the compassionate grace of Christ. That will take an investment of time and hard work, something I wish I had done with Dolly.
Another friend, Audrey, told how one family did that for her. Audrey believed in Jesus but wasn’t living the life Christ wanted her to live. Watching her friends in their daily life—how they prayed and how they lived in the community—gave Audrey the desire to make life changes and draw closer to Christ.
God’s Final Judgment doesn’t have to be scary. One day, hopefully soon, the God of the universe will put everything right. He’ll deal justly with those who used evil to cause suffering. He will welcome those who put their trust in him. The good deeds we’ve done in his name that we’ve labeled as unnoticed or ineffective will come to light on that Day.
Here is the message of hope you can share with those who question the truth about a Final Judgment: At the end of time, God will restore everything to what he intended it to be before the beginning of time. It will be right because he is right. He is the best—the only One—to make it so.
Karen and her husband Jack co-labor in ministry in Western Illinois. A prolific writer, Karen’s website is at www.graceonparade.com.