READ : 2 Thessalonians 1:5-12
If you knew the world was going to end tomorrow, how would you react? What would you do today? If you want some help in knowing how to answer that, listen to the apostle Paul.
In Paul’s correspondence with the Christians in Thessalonica, letters that we have in our New Testament as 1 and 2 Thessalonians, the apostle focuses a great deal of his attention on the end times, on the coming of Christ at the end of the world to bring salvation to all his people and also, Paul goes on to say, to bring judgment to those who oppose him. As we come to 2 Thessalonians, chapter 1, we discover that that is the great theme: the Last Judgment, which will accompany the return of Christ at the end of time.
I don’t think there’s any more difficult subject in all of the Bible than to speak of God’s final judgment and the eternal punishment of sinners. This is the most unpopular topic in the Bible. And in some ways we have to admit that Christians can talk about this inappropriately, almost flippantly, or with a kind of delight or glee as though they’re longing to see people “get it in the neck.” The great evangelist D. L. Moody once said that nobody should ever speak about hell without tears in their voice. And I think he’s right.
There’s a number of reasons why this is so unpopular. Chief among them is the fact that most people want to reject the thought of a final accounting. We live in a very tolerant and permissive age as we all know. And the idea that some people could be eternally condemned and punished by God for their sins is about the most horrible thing I can imagine. Think of the images that the Bible uses for this. Jesus himself spoke about things like outer darkness and gnashing of teeth, and fire, unquenchable fire. Now granted, these are images. They’re metaphors, but they’re intended to convey a reality that’s really far worse, something beyond our ability to imagine. To think that any creature of God, a human being made in his image, intended for his glory and fellowship, should come to such an end, well, it’s almost inconceivable.
And furthermore, people reject the idea of judgment because it seems unfair. After all, why should somebody be punished if they have never heard of Christ? Punished for rejecting him or not accepting him. Furthermore, how could a God, a good God, treat people in ways that none of us would want to? So it’s very difficult, even for Christians, to get our minds around this concept. And yet the Bible speaks of it plainly, and nowhere, I think, more plainly than in 2 Thessalonians chapter 1. Listen to what Paul writes. He speaks of the righteous judgment of God.
. . . when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, when he comes on that day to be glorified in his saints, and to be marveled at among all who have believed, because our testimony to you was believed. (vv. 7-10)
There it is, in black and white. We may not like it, but it’s in the book. So how do we respond? What does Paul tell us here about God’s final judgment? First of all, he tells us why it is inevitable. And the reason is because God is just. Judgment means the coming finally of justice into the world, for all to see and to experience. The righteous judgment of God is what he calls it. The Thessalonians have been demonstrating the genuineness of their Christian faith even in the face of suffering. It isn’t right that they should be so persecuted and mistreated. But God will vindicate them one day when he reveals that all along they have been believing the truth. I think of the question, the ancient question, that Abraham asked God way back in Genesis: “Shall not the judge of all the earth do right?” And the answer is: absolutely. God will and always will be proved to be in the right. And that’s what the judgment means.
Paul then tells us when this will happen: “when the Lord Jesus is revealed,” he says in verse 7. In other words, on the last day, at the last judgment, one of the great last things that will happen along with the resurrection of the dead.
Judgment is part of the great climax of history at the moment of Christ’s return. Now I think it’s true that there’s a kind of preliminary judgment when each of us dies, when people go, as we say, either to heaven or hell, but the real focus of the Bible is on the end times and the final judgment which will happen publicly, universally, once for all in the great day of Christ’s return and the revelation of both the justice and the mercy of God. It will happen, Paul writes, when he comes on that day to be glorified in his saints and to be marveled at among all who have believed.
Third, Paul gives us here the criteria for judgment. He says that the Lord will punish those who don’t know God and don’t obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. That’s not two different groups of people because the only way to truly know God, that is, to know the real God, the living God, is through the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. So once again, we face the issue of unfairness. Does that mean that people who’ve never heard the gospel and so can’t know God through Christ will inevitably be condemned? Well, it’s not quite so simple as that. The apostle says elsewhere that people will be judged according to their own conscience, according to their own works. I don’t think God will ever condemn someone for something they had no chance with. Rather, in that great day, all our defenses will finally be stripped away, and we will be confronted with what we truly are. We’ll see how we’ve consistently failed, not just to live up to his law but even to our own best ideas and feelings. And only those who are found in Christ, clothed in his righteousness, will be forgiven and spared in the day of judgment.
The Bible says that when confronted with God, every mouth will be stopped. No one will be able to complain, “Hey, that’s not fair. I never had a chance.” I don’t know how it’s all going to work, but I know that somehow, in the justice and the mercy of God, everyone will have a chance, and no one will have anyone to blame except themselves if they reject the grace of God.
That brings us to the fourth thing the apostle tells us here. He shows us something of the consequences of judgment, and for those who are lost, the consequences are terrible beyond our imagining. He will come, says the apostle, and those who don’t know God will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might. I don’t know any words that convey the awfulness of that prospect. But some of the words that come closest, I think, were written by the great poet and preacher John Donne.
When we have given to those words by which hell is expressed in the scriptures, when we’ve given them their heaviest significations, when all is done, the hell of hells, the torment of torments, is the everlasting absence of God. And the everlasting impossibility of returning to his presence. To fall out of the hands of the living God is a horror beyond our expression, beyond our imagination. What tophet is not paradise, what brimstone is not amber, what mashing is not a comfort, what gnawing of the worm is not a tickling, what torment is not a marriage bed to this damnation, to be secluded eternally, eternally, eternally from the sight of God?
But here’s the gospel, friend: no one has to face that kind of future. Jesus came to die for us, to save us, and to give us his righteousness, to put us right with God. Even the doctrine of the last judgment is meant to be for our comfort and encouragement. You notice here, Paul is writing all these things to Christians. This is not a hellfire and brimstone sermon, attempting to scare people into the arms of Jesus. It’s meant to be an encouragement for suffering believers. Paul is writing to people who are being persecuted for their faith. When I read a passage like this, I think of friends that I know personally in Iran who are suffering likewise for their faith. For them and for us, the judgment means that finally and forever God is going to vindicate us. He’s going to reward our faith and our obedience. He’s going to display to all, including the tormentors, that the gospel is true, that Jesus is Lord and Savior of all. May they then fall down and worship him. May we all, but meanwhile, this future is certain and sure. So we need to live accordingly.
Not only is this doctrine a comfort for believers in our struggles in the world, in our own personal lives; it’s an incentive to us, to live for the glory of God because that’s what that last day means. Notice how Paul refers again and again to the glory of the Lord Jesus. He will come in the glory of his might. He will be glorified in his saints on that day. All who have believed will marvel at him, will see finally with the eyes of our flesh, and not simply walk by faith. We will see him revealed as he truly is, and his glory will be made clear to all.
“So to this end,” Paul concludes, “we always pray for you that our God may make you worthy of his calling and may fulfill every resolve for good and every work of faith by his power so that, [listen to this] the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him.” That’s the incentive. Let’s live now for his glory so that on the great day of his appearing we may also glory in him.