What Is the Final Judgment?
*Editor’s Note: The following is an excerpt from Gary Johnson’s The End: The Return of King Jesus and the Renewal of All Things.
Many Americans have never been in a courtroom. Only a select few have had to appear in court, whether as a plaintiff, defendant, witness, jurist, or court official. Yet most Americans are familiar with the courtroom setting thanks to television productions. Whether fictional dramas or reality shows, television shows depict how a courtroom works.
But the final judgment is neither fiction nor reality television. The final judgment is absolute. Familiar court images help us understand more clearly the proceedings of the great and final judgment. Court cases always involve a summons, the evidence, the verdict, and the exit.
Every person who has ever lived will be summoned to the final judgment, and not as a witness but as a defendant. Each of us will stand before the great Judge. Paul declares “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). Because every person is a sinner, we will all stand before God’s judgment seat where each of us will give an account of ourselves to God (Romans 14:11–12). In his book Heaven, Randy Alcorn reminds us that believers will face a final judgment of works—works that do not determine our salvation, but our eternal reward. Unbelievers too face such a final judgment.
The apostle John received a vision of this future moment while on the island of Patmos:
Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. The earth and the heavens fled from his presence, and there was no place for them. And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne. (Revelation 20:11–12a)
No one, no matter their rank in life, will be exempt from the final judgment. At the Second Coming, the earth and heavens will be destroyed, and God will judge all people. Imagine the sight as countless individuals “all rise” as our Judge takes his throne.
Describing the final judgment, John writes:
And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books. . . . Each person was judged according to what they had done. (Revelation 20:12–13)
According to John, the accused will be judged according to what they did. While this sounds like a works-based salvation, how does John’s declaration harmonize with other New Testament writers? Take the apostle Paul’s statement, for example: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:8–9).
Clearly, according to this passage, we are saved by what Jesus did and not by what we do. The crucifixion of King Jesus was the atonement of our sin. So how does this comport with John’s statement? And how are we to understand being judged according to “what [we] had done as recorded in the books”?
Think of evidence. During a trial, evidence is used by the judge or jury to reach a verdict.
From witness testimony to exhibits, evidence is essential in a trial. Similarly, God will look for evidence that individuals were sincere followers of King Jesus—or not. We are saved to serve Jesus with our lives.
James, the brother of Jesus, describes the evidence of a faithful life, bringing together the tandem relationship between faith and works:
What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. (James 2:14–17)
The objective evidence of our lives will serve as proof that we were authentic Jesus-followers. Spiritually, we are saved by grace through faith in King Jesus, and such faith is accompanied by works.
From the opening pages of Scripture, God explained why he punished people. Consider how God did this at major moments of indictment throughout biblical history.
When Adam and Eve were cursed and banished from the Garden of Eden, God explained why. God even explained why the serpent was cursed (Genesis 3:14–19). God clearly explained to the Israelites why they were condemned to wander in the wilderness for forty years (Numbers 14:26–35). God plainly described to Moses and Aaron why they would not set foot into the promised land (Numbers 20:12). When David committed adultery with Bathsheba and arranged for her husband to be killed, God succinctly stated why and how David would be punished (2 Samuel 12:9–12).
Just days before his death on a cross, Jesus explained to a crowd why some people will be saved and some condemned by using the metaphor of the sheep and the goats. Jesus started by warning people of the coming judgment upon his return:
All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. (Matthew 25:32–33)
Then, Jesus clearly explained what evidence will be used to reach a verdict. To the saved, Jesus will say:
For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me. (Matthew 25:35–36)
Conversely, Jesus cited the same evidence (or lack thereof) in condemning the lost (vv. 42–43). Both the saved and the lost will be surprised at the verdict and the mention of evidence, asking, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?” (vv. 37–39, see also v. 44). Both groups will be startled at Jesus’ verdict. Which evidence will he cite regarding your life?
When the trial ends with a judge’s verdict, the one on trial exits the courtroom, having been found innocent or guilty. They are either released or led to prison. One verdict brings great relief and joy, whereas another verdict brings defeat and misery. Similarly, when God, the Righteous Judge, declares everyone’s verdict, we exit from the final judgment into an eternal existence—either condemnation (Revelation 20:15) or welcomed “home with the Lord” forever (2 Corinthians 5:8).
A trial produces great stress, which crescendos toward the declaration of the verdict. For a Christian, the final judgment does not need to produce worry or fear because we have a good and just Ruler. Just as a president can pardon those convicted of crime, God will pardon those who are in Christ: “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1).
The prophet declared that Jesus “was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him” (Isaiah 53:5). Every person stands accused for having sinned, yet those who have surrendered their lives to King Jesus are declared “not guilty,” having been saved by the blood of the Lamb! We can rejoice, for Jesus is “able to keep you from stumbling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy” (Jude v. 24).
 Randy Alcorn, Heaven (Carol Stream: Tyndale House Publishers; 2004), 47.
 For more on what biblical faith entails, see Mark E. Moore, Faithful Faith: Reclaiming Faith from Culture and Tradition (Renew.org, 2021).
 For more on condemnation, see Grant R. Osborne, Revelation: Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002), 690–91, 723. For more on the welcoming into glory, see John MacArthur, The Glory of Heaven: The Truth About Heaven, Angels, and Eternal Life (Wheaton: Crossway Books), 69, 71, 77.
Excerpted from Gary Johnson,The End: The Return of King Jesus and the Renewal of All Things (Renew.org, 2021).