Author David Berlinski recounted a story from the Holocaust. The Germans had rounded up Jews from a village in Poland and made them dig their own graves. An old man, a religious Jew, after digging his hole, looked into the face of the soldier about to kill him and said, “God will judge you for this.”
The soldier then shot him in the head, killing him instantly.
God will judge you for this?
Yes, God indeed will judge that murderer, because if there is one theme that appears throughout the Bible it’s that of judgment. God is gracious, good, and compassionate, but He’s also a God of justice and judgment. And if the Bible teaches anything, it teaches that God will bring upon this world the justice and judgment that have been so sorely lacking for all of human history.
Jesus Himself said, “I tell you that men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken” (Matthew 12:36). If everyone is going to have to give an account of every idle word they speak, we can be sure that their deeds will be judged as well. The apostle Paul said as much when he wrote that “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” (2 Corinthians 5:10).
Judgment in heaven
The Bible speaks about many different judgments, from local ones upon wicked nations during the Old Testament period (Genesis 15:14) to a judgment that will come upon the whole world at the end of time.
One of the most important biblical teachings about judgment is that a court scene—a judgment—will take place in heaven prior to the second coming of Jesus. One could even argue that this judgment is what paves the way for His second coming. Because it precedes His return, it has been called the “pre-Advent judgment.”
The most graphic depiction of this judgment and its timing is found in Daniel 7. After describing the rise and fall of great world empires, Daniel pointed to a great judgment scene in God’s throne room in heaven. He said that he saw “a fiery stream [that] issued and came forth from before [God]: thousand thousands ministered unto him, and ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him: the judgment was set, and the books were opened” (Daniel 7:10, KJV).
Judgment is set? Books are opened? Daniel saw a divine judgment unfolding in heaven. Then three verses later he saw “one like a son of man [that’s Jesus], coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence” (verse 13). And for what purpose? The very next verse answers that question: “And there was given him dominion, and glory, and a kingdom, that all people, nations, and languages, should serve him: his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom that which shall not be destroyed” (verse 14, KJV).
There has never been a permanent political structure since human beings first organized themselves into nations. Sooner or later, every nation that ever existed has fallen. However, the kingdom that is turned over to Jesus will last forever. This eternal kingdom happens only after Christ’s second coming. Thus, what we see here is a depiction of a judgment that leads directly to the return of Jesus and the establishment of God’s eternal kingdom.
The sequence of judgment and then the Second Coming is depicted again in the same chapter of Daniel: “But the judgment shall sit, and they shall take away his [Satan’s] dominion, to consume and to destroy it unto the end. And the kingdom and dominion, and the greatness of the kingdom under the whole heaven, shall be given to the people of the saints of the most High, whose kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and all dominions shall serve and obey him” (verses 26, 27, KJV; italics added). Clearly, a judgment will occur in heaven prior to the second coming of Jesus.
Hour of His judgment
Another depiction of the judgment before the second coming of Jesus appears in Revelation 14. This chapter unfolds in the context of the final events in world history that lead up to His return. Early in the chapter, the apostle John wrote that he “saw another angel flying in midair, and he had the eternal gospel to proclaim to those who live on the earth—to every nation, tribe, language and people. He said in a loud voice, ‘Fear God and give him glory, because the hour of his judgment has come. Worship him who made the heavens, the earth, the sea and the springs of water’ ” (verses 6, 7).
Notice carefully what the angel said: the hour of God’s judgment has come. When? Clearly before Jesus has returned, because the angel also commanded the worldwide preaching of the gospel, which is the good news of salvation. Furthermore, the angel’s call for faithfulness to God would make no sense if Jesus had already returned. Instead, it’s a call to be ready for Christ’s return, which is yet future.
Thus, the words “the hour of his judgment has come,” like the judgment scene in Daniel 7, reveal that a judgment will take place in heaven prior to Christ’s return.
Another text that suggests the idea of a judgment prior to Christ’s second coming comes from Jesus Himself as He spoke about His return. He said, “Behold, I am coming soon! My reward is with me, and I will give to everyone according to what he has done” (Revelation 22:12). Notice that Christ’s reward will already be with Him when He returns. This text makes sense only if judgment has already been rendered at the time Jesus returns, because the judgment is what will determine the reward that each person receives—either eternal life in God’s kingdom or eternal damnation outside of His kingdom.
Why this judgment?
Though the Bible teaches about this pre-Advent judgment, a logical question is, Why? God, who knows everything, already knows who is qualified to be saved and who will be lost. Because God knows all our deeds, good and bad, isn’t a judgment like the one the Bible describes superfluous? What’s the purpose?
The answer can be found in the judgment scene in Daniel 7: “A fiery stream issued and came forth from before him: thousand thousands ministered unto him, and ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him: the judgment was set, and the books were opened” (verse 10, KJV; italics added).
Who else besides God did Daniel say will be present during this judgment? The text talks about “thousand thousands” and “ten thousand times ten thousand” standing around God’s throne during the judgment. These phrases are Aramaic idioms (Daniel 7 was written in Aramaic) for immense numbers. Scholars have long concluded that this massive throng of “thousands of thousands” and “ten thousand times ten thousand” are heavenly angels who are witnessing the judgment in heaven.
God knows everything. He knows who will be saved and who will be lost. But nothing in the Bible says that angels know all this. Thus, the purpose of this judgment in heaven is not to inform God of anything or for Him to decide anything. Rather, it’s for His holy angels. He wants them to be fully informed so they can understand His dealings. After all, they’re even more disturbed by all that’s happening in the world than we are.
By involving them in His final judgment, God is letting them see for themselves the goodness, the fairness, and the justice of His judgment—that is, His decisions about the world and the people in it. That’s why God’s loyal followers are depicted in another part of the Bible as saying: “Who shall not fear thee, O Lord, and glorify thy name? For thou only art holy: For all nations shall come and worship before thee; for thy judgments are made manifest” (Revelation 15:4; KJV; italics added).
All through the Bible we are told that God is good, just, fair, and loving. The purpose of the judgment in heaven that occurs prior to Christ’s return is to reveal to all heavenly beings the truth of these claims. God respects the intelligence of the rational beings whom He has created, and this judgment is His way of revealing to them His goodness and fairness in all His dealing with sin and sinners. No wonder, then, that toward the end of the Bible, as all things are wrapping up, the apostle John said that he “heard what sounded like the roar of a great multitude in heaven shouting, ‘Hallelujah! Salvation and glory and power belong to our God, for true and just are his judgments’ ” (Revelation 19:1, 2).