While most systematic treatments of theology take up the topic of final judgment at the end, the Apostles’ Creed interestingly couples it with the other articles we believe concerning the Lord Jesus Christ. I find this decision to be a refreshing alternative to systematic theologies because coupling the final judgment with the person and work of Christ personalizes an otherwise abstract concept.
Moreover, this way of thinking fits with the truth that sin is personal. David reminds us in Psalm 51 that our want of conformity to or transgression of the law of God is first and foremost a personal offense against God. As such, it is only appropriate that the judgment be personalized as well. After all, when God renders his just judgment at the end of this present age, he will not be doing it as a disinterested third party but as the offended party. Better, then, to be reminded that judgment is personal.
That said, this thought will not be refreshing at all unless you appreciate the necessity of a final judgment. For the rest of this reflection, I want to think through the necessity of this doctrine in contrast to other views of the end.
First, every naturalistic materialist will argue for oblivion over final judgment. That is to say, when a man breathes his last and closes his eyes, there is nothing more to that person; he ceases to exist as a person, which means that there is no final judgment. Against oblivion, Letham says, “It is a charter for mass murderers and terrorists, for if nothing awaits us when we die, they will never have to appear before the judgment of God to give account for their enormities…On this theory, the universe is harsh, bleak, and amoral. There can be no objective basis for morality, no way to distinguish between the greatest saint and Adolf Hitler.” To have any meaningful existence, there must be a judge and a judgment.
In response, others would argue that there is a judge, but the only word he knows is, “Innocent!” This is universalism, which argues functionally that death is salvation. Against universalism, consider how offensive it is to Christ the Judge, who suffered and died, seemingly for nothing since salvation is by death and not by Christ according to this theory. But again, there is no happily ever after if the truly evil escape judgment by dying (and hence being “saved”) before any temporal justice could be rendered.
Others might take a slightly different tack and claim that some, most, or all religions are paths to life. This view at least makes judgment a meaningful idea by excluding some from a blessed afterlife, but it is fatal to the Christian religion and an affront to Christ the Judge. “At root, this is a denial of the uniqueness of Christ and so places itself outside of the parameters of the Christian faith.” Moreover, it is an affront to other religions because “it also supposes the identity of the various objects of worship.” It is no longer Christ who is the judge but the one who proposes this view.
Finally, others would argue for inclusivism, which states that Christ is the way of salvation, but not everyone who is saved will be a “Christian” or know Christ in the way that we have been taught. This view is a response to the problem of the tribe on a remote island who never hears the gospel. The problem with this view, however, is that the necessity (and authority) of Scripture is utterly devalued. While we acknowledge that the Spirit moves where he wills, ordinarily a conscious faith in Jesus Christ is required to be acquitted before the judgment seat of God. To say that an ordinary path to justification might be something other than confessing that Jesus is Lord is to explicitly reject Paul’s words that “faith comes from hearing and hearing through the word of Christ.”
Thus, it really is necessary that Christ judge the living and the dead. No other option does justice to true evil in this world or to the authoritative word of God. On a more positive side, no other option offers a meaningful escape from an unfavorable verdict, for no other option has God personally take on the penalty for his people. There is, then, really no more refreshing idea than that Christ is judge.