12. Second Coming and Judgement
from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.
The Creed declares that the risen and ascended Lord will return to judge the world, both the living and the dead. When will this event take place? And what will become of humankind and the world when Christ returns in judgement? The first thing that must be said in regard to the second coming of Christ is that it will take place at the end of history. This means that the world as we know it – this world that is fragmented and torn asunder by corruption and decay – will not last forever. History as we know it – not just human history, but also the history of the physical world – will be brought to an end with the coming again of the resurrected Saviour.
The return of Christ cannot be hastened by what we do; neither can we know, much less determine, when it should take place. Just as the first advent of Christ took place at the fullness of time, so his return will take place at the time that God has appointed. The Church can neither predict nor control when the return of Christ in glory will take place. The Church can only await his return in faith and in hope.
The Nicene Creed goes on to speak of the everlasting kingdom of Christ. The return of Christ does not only signal the end of history but also the transformation of the entire cosmos … The transformation that Christ will bring about will not only affect individual human beings, but the physical earth itself. Nature itself will be transformed as it is delivered from the curse under which it now exists.
The Creed speaks of the one activity that will be performed by Christ at his glorious return. He will ‘judge the living and the dead’. The concept of judgement in the New Testament does not only have a negative connotation. Judgement also denotes the salvation that God will bring through Christ. Scripture everywhere points to the dual nature of the divine judgement that Christ will bring at the close of the age. ‘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’ (Matt 16:27). ‘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 nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats’ (Matt 25:31-32). ‘For we must all appear before the judgement seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due to him for the things done in the body, whether good or bad’ (2 Cor 5:10).
Although it is not explicitly mentioned in the Creed, the dual outcome or destinies of the righteous and the wicked is taught in the Church and perhaps assumed in the Creed. The righteous will be brought into the eternal kingdom of God, where they will enjoy his presence forever. The wicked will be thrown into the ‘outer darkness’ where there will be ‘weeping and the gnashing of teeth’ (Matt 22:13).
Needless to say, the doctrine of hell has fallen out of favour in modern times. In 1985, a survey was conducted among the Roman Catholic population in the Romance language countries in Europe about belief in the afterlife, particularly the Church’s teaching about heaven and hell. Only 38 per cent believed in heaven, while only 26 per cent believed in hell. Even among some evangelical theologians, the doctrine of hell is becoming increasingly unpopular. This is not the place to enter into the various debates regarding the doctrine of hell. It is sufficient to state here that several passages in the New Testament speak of conscious eternal punishment in hell. If the doctrine of hell is debunked, we would be hard-pressed to make sense of these passages.
When we stand before the judgement seat of Christ, all our deeds, our thoughts, motivations and desires will be exposed. There is nothing that we can hide from the penetrating eyes of the Lamb who knows the hearts of men. Before the judgement seat, no mask will be thick enough to camouflage the truth, no disguise clever enough to deceive. All will be laid bare, the deepest secrets will be revealed.
The Nicene Creed goes on to speak of the everlasting kingdom of Christ. The return of Christ does not only signal the end of history but also the transformation of the entire cosmos. With this statement, the Nicene Creed presents a more complete account of what will take place in conjunction with the Second Coming of Christ. The transformation that Christ will bring about will not only affect individual human beings, but the physical earth itself. Nature itself will be transformed as it is delivered from the curse under which it now exists. The Apostle Paul describes the present world as being subjected to futility and the creation as groaning and yearning for its emancipation, healing and release (Rom 8: 20-22). This will take place when Christ returns and brings this world to perfection by transfiguring it in his glory.
With the final judgement the righteousness of God will prevail. Herein lies the Bible’s answer to the problem of evil. Many secular philosophers have maintained that the reality of evil poses a serious challenge to biblical faith. They assert that the Bible does not provide a solution or satisfactory explanation of evil, and that Christian theology is also unable to provide an adequate explanation.
The philosopher David Hume and his disciples would maintain that the existence of evil has made the God of the Bible untenable. The argument goes something like this. If God is good and sovereign, then he would not only want to destroy evil but he would also be able to do so. But because the reality of evil in the world is undeniable, God must be either unable to destroy it, which means that he is not sovereign, or he does not want to destroy it, which means that he is not good.
To be sure, the Bible does not deal with the problem of evil in the terms set forth by philosophers like David Hume. Neither does the Bible explain the origin of evil. The Bible’s solution to the problem of evil is a theological and not an abstract philosophical solution. It posits the final and absolute eradication of evil at the end of time. It declares that at the end of time, God’s righteousness will prevail, evil will be destroyed, and evil men will be punished. In the end, the righteous and the innocent victims of the Hitlers and Idi Amins of the world will be vindicated. All anti-God forces will be defeated and forever destroyed. This victory can be traced all the way back to the Cross and Resurrection of Christ.
The doctrine of the last judgement also challenges us today because this doctrine speaks of a terrible accounting that will take place in the future. When we stand before the judgement seat of Christ, all our deeds, our thoughts, motivations and desires will be exposed. There is nothing that we can hide from the penetrating eyes of the Lamb who knows the hearts of men. Before the judgement seat, no mask will be thick enough to camouflage the truth, no disguise clever enough to deceive. All will be laid bare, the deepest secrets will be revealed. All will have to face the Judge – kings, queens, rich, poor, black, white, ministers and priests.
The truth will be revealed: the priest may be shown to be a hypocrite, the beggar a saint. Those who now command respect may be shown to be unworthy of it. Those now scorned will be elevated. The Magnificat surely has an eschatological ring to it: ‘[God] has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble’ (Luke 1:51-2).
One of the most sobering passages in the Gospels is the warning that Jesus issued at the end of the Sermon on the Mount. ‘Not everyone who calls me Lord, Lord’, Jesus says, ‘will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father’ (Matt 7:21). In other words, religious frauds will be excluded from the kingdom of God, no matter how accomplished their fraudulence. The vision of the exalted and returning Christ will penetrate the masks and the husks of falsehood, reach the heart and inner condition, and expose what is hitherto hidden and cleverly disguised.
The Christian community knows that it exists in the shadow of the wonderful and terrible Day of the Lord. Christian conduct must be shaped by that Day which is both the day of judgement and the day of salvation.
Dr. Roland Chia is Dean of Postgraduate Studies and Lecturer in Historical and Systematic Theology at Trinity Theological College, Singapore.