Ask the average Christian when God’s judgment of the world will happen, and he or she will probably say that it will take place at Christ’s second coming. After all, haven’t Christians always referred to Christ’s return as “the great Judgment Day”?
There is certainly a sense in which Christ’s return can be thought of as a time of judgment. This is clearly suggested by Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats: “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. 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 25:31–33).
In this parable, the sheep represent God’s people; the goats represent the wicked; and their separation can be thought of as a form of judgment. And that will clearly take place at Christ’s second coming, “when the Son of Man comes in his glory.”
Paul also made a couple of statements that many have taken to refer to the judgment at Christ’s second coming. In Romans 14:10–12, he said, “We will all stand before God’s judgment seat. It is written: ‘As surely as I live,’ says the LORD, ‘every knee will bow before me; every tongue will confess to God.’ So then, each of us will give an account of himself to God.” And in 2 Corinthians 5:10, Paul said, “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.”
Notice, however, that while Paul’s two statements tell us that there will be a judgment, neither of them provides any information about when it will occur. However, there is clear biblical evidence that it will take place before Christ’s return.
The first clue is suggested by Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats. While there are significant suggestions of judgment in this story, the separation of the sheep from the goats suggests that a judgment must take place prior to the separation. Just as the trial in today’s world that determines a criminal’s guilt has to be conducted prior to sentencing, so the separation of the righteous from the wicked can only take place after the judgment that determines which is which.
This same idea is suggested in Revelation 22:12, where Jesus says, “Behold, I am coming soon! My reward is with me, and I will give to everyone according to what he has done.” Jesus said essentially the same thing in Matthew 16:27: “For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what he has done.” Both of these texts say that the rewards of eternal life or eternal condemnation will be given at Christ’s second coming, which means that the decision of who is to receive which reward has to have been made prior to that time.
This, of course, is an argument from logic, which is a reasonable form of biblical interpretation. But the best evidence for or against a particular view is an actual biblical statement one way or the other. And the Bible does provide that.
Daniel’s judgment scene
The ancient prophet Daniel clearly predicted that God’s judgment will occur prior to Christ’s second coming, not at His return.
Daniel 7 is history written in advance. In this chapter, Daniel described a vision in which he saw four great beasts arise from the sea: a lion, a bear, a leopard, and a dragonlike beast (verses 1–8). Many prophetic interpreters have identified these beasts as symbols of ancient Babylon, Media-Persia, Greece, and Rome.
Daniel also said that the dragon had ten horns on its head. So what do they represent?
Between the 300s and the 500s A.D., Rome was invaded by barbarian tribes from Northern Europe. The tribes settled in different parts of the empire and developed their own culture and language. That’s where the nations of Europe that we know today came from, and they are represented in Daniel’s prophecy by the ten horns on the dragon’s head.
Daniel then said that another horn rose up among the ten that would be “different from the earlier ones” (verse 24), especially because it would be religious as well as political. This horn is understood by many students of prophecy to represent medieval Christianity, which was a religious power that also had immense political influence.
However, the political power of medieval Christianity faded during the 1700s and 1800s as a result, among other things, of the scientific revolution and the secular philosophy of the Enlightenment. And it was precisely at this point that Daniel’s vision shifted from events on earth to focus on a heavenly tribunal. Here is how he described it: “Thrones were set in place, and the Ancient of Days took his seat. His clothing was as white as snow; the hair of his head was white like wool. His throne was flaming with fire, and its wheels were all ablaze. A river of fire was flowing, coming out from before him. Thousand thousands attended him; ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him. The court was seated, and the books were opened” (Daniel 7:9, 10).
This is clearly a judgment scene. In fact, the King James Version says, “The judgment was set, and the books were opened” (italics added).
And what was the result of this judgment? Verse 22 tells us that “judgment was pronounced in favor of the saints, and the time came when they possessed the kingdom” (italics added). Notice that the saints will not possess the kingdom until after they have been judged worthy of a part in it.
We see this same order of events in verses 26, 27: “But the court will sit, and his [the little horn’s] power will be taken away and completely destroyed forever. Then the sovereignty, power and greatness of the kingdoms under the whole heaven will be handed over to the saints, the people of the Most High. His kingdom will be an everlasting kingdom.”
Again, the judgment precedes the handing over of the kingdom to God’s people, “the saints.”
So when will God’s people receive “the kingdom”? Jesus answered this question in His parable of the sheep and the goats. Following the separation of the two groups, He “will say to those on his right [the sheep, who represent His people], ‘Come you who are blessed by my father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world’ ” (Matthew 25:34).
Daniel’s prophecy makes it clear that there will be a judgment process in heaven prior to Christ’s return.
Does God need a judgment?
But why does God need a judgment? Doesn’t He know everything? Hasn’t He known from the creation of the world who will be saved and who will be lost? These are reasonable questions. And the answer is that God Himself does not need a judgment in order to decide who is to be saved and who lost. So what’s the purpose of the judgment?
Daniel suggested a good answer to this question. In his description of the Ancient of Days seated on His throne, he said that “thousands upon thousands attended him [the Ancient of Days]; ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him. The court was seated, and the books were opened.”
So does God need books to jog His memory? Of course not. The beings surrounding His throne are angels (Revelation 5:11), and the books are for their benefit, not God’s.
Does this mean that the angels have veto power over God’s decisions? If God says that so-and-so doesn’t deserve a place in His kingdom, can the angels say, “Oh yes, he does”? No! But angels, like humans, are intelligent beings, and God respects that intelligence. He doesn’t demand blind obedience; He seeks informed cooperation. He invites you and me to “come now, let us reason together” (Isaiah 1:18), and I propose that He also wants to “reason together” with the angels. While He does not leave it for them to decide who will be saved and who will be lost, He wants them to understand the reasons for His decisions. That’s why, prior to His return, He will open heaven’s record books and let them see those reasons for themselves.
It’s true that “we will all stand before God’s judgment seat” (Romans 14:10; italics added). The point is that God— Daniel’s “Ancient of Days”—will preside at the judgment. But the angels will also have a role.
The most important question
What we’ve discussed so far is rather technical. But there’s one final question that we need to ask: Which side will you and I be on when the judgment is over?
Fortunately, we can be sure of the answer by accepting Jesus as our Savior today. Then, when Jesus comes, we will be among those who hear Him say, “Come you who are blessed by my father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world” (Matthew 25:34).