“This was your life,” it said, and that scared me half to death.
I was a child, and came across a fundamentalist Christian evangelistic tract, drawn in a comic book style. As a hardcore fan of all things superhero, I assumed this little booklet would take me to the same sorts of imaginative places my Superman and Justice League of America and X-Men books did. Instead, it took me to a cartoony version of the Judgment Seat of Christ.
The tract pictured a dead man on Judgment Day standing before the throne of God. As he stood in judgment, a film was shown about the man, in front of the assembled crowd of friends, neighbors, key biblical patriarchs and prophets, and, of course, Jesus. Everyone was watching all the secret sins he had ever committed, great and small. The man would squirm in embarrassment, but he couldn’t deny any of it. “This was your life,” the angel beside the throne said.
What would my parents think when they saw the things I had done? What about my Sunday school teachers? Maybe if I died early enough, I could go through the film before they could get there to see it? But, even so, there would still be Jesus. And I’d be exposed as a fraud. Nothing could be worse, it seemed. I even wondered, briefly, if hell might be even better. At least I could hide from the shame of having to watch that film.
Looking back, I now find that tract had a certain degree of power because it detailed graphically something that I intuitively knew was true about God and about myself, namely that “no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account” (Heb. 4:13). But I also find that it skewed the biblical vision of what the Judgment Seat is for those who are in Christ. As a matter of fact, a reflection on the Judgment Seat of Christ is, it seems to me, precisely what we need in order to find the freedom and joy to follow Jesus in the present. In fact, spending more time looking forward to the Judgment Seat of Christ just might save your life.
How the gospel transforms Judgment Day
Yes, the Scriptures warn the unrepentant of coming judgment. That’s an essential part of the preaching of John the Baptist, of Jesus, of the Apostle Paul. At Mars Hill in Athens, for instance, Paul asserted that, “The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:31). To the governor Felix, Paul “reasoned about righteousness and self-control and the coming judgment,” to the point that Felix was alarmed and changed the subject immediately (Acts 24:25).
That, it turns out, is the universal reaction of unregenerate humanity. God has embedded in the human conscience an awareness of his law and of sin in a way that points people toward “that day when God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus” (Rom. 2:16). Left to ourselves, though, we “suppress the truth” (Rom. 1:18). Instead of an awareness of judgment, we then follow the path of our own inclinations, convincing ourselves otherwise, until all that remains is usually a kind of inchoate angst, a fear of death (Heb. 2:15), and an intuitive “fiery expectation of judgment” (Heb. 10:27).
The gospel changes all of this for us, though.
When we are united to Christ, we are not to cringe before Judgment Day. This is because we have no case to make for our own innocence.
God has already revealed our guilt, at the cross, and we have already agreed with his verdict, in our confession of sin and our ongoing repentance of it. Judgment Day happened for us, in a very real sense, already, at the Place of the Skull outside the gates of Jerusalem 2,000 years ago.
Judgment Day, then, is not some foreboding pending assessment of whether God is for us or against us. As the Spirit has said to us, “Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn?” (Rom. 8:33-34). The good news of the gospel tells us now of our Judgment Day: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1).
As I look back, it was not punishment of my guilt, but exposure of my shame that terrified me. For Christians, the Judgment Seat frees us from such shame. The Judgment Seat reminds us that God sees everything about us, that God knows everything about us. There is nothing hidden that will not be exposed on that day (Luke 8:17; 12:2-3). But there is also nothing that Jesus, our judge, will learn about us on that day that he doesn’t already know, that he hasn’t known since long before he gave himself up for us.
This is the startling truth of the Jesus in the Gospels. Not that he forgives, but that he is not shocked by what they are hiding, for good or ill. Jesus reveals how much he knows about a seeming stranger when he tells the Samaritan woman at the well that he knows about her sin: “You have had five husbands, and the one you now have is not your husband” (John 4:18). Jesus knew this already when he offered her the living water of life.
Freedom from shame
Judgment Day frees us from shame because, through the gospel, we no longer try to hide from God, as our prehistoric ancestors did before us. That voice “Adam, where are you?” that once drove a sinful humanity to hide in the vegetation still goes forth. But Jesus, a faithful and obedient humanity, answers confidently, “Here I am, and the children God has given me” (Heb. 2:13). We are free to confess our sin, boldly, knowing that Jesus forgives us, intercedes for us, and is not one bit shocked by us.
That reality, rightly understood, doesn’t lead to presumption but to accountability. We do not hide our sins and vulnerabilities. Darkness is, in fact, where these evils latch onto us. We shine light on our own darkness, confess our sins to one another and to God, and seek help for others to bear our burdens with us. Knowing this about ourselves helps us then to free ourselves from judgmental attitudes toward the sins and struggles of others.
Paul asked the church at Rome,
Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God; for it is written, “as I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall confess to God.” So then each of us will give an account of himself to God. Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother” (Rom. 14:10-13).
Knowing we will be judged along with everyone else gives us compassion.
Freedom from a sense of meaninglessness
The Judgment Seat also frees us from a sense of meaninglessness. The Judgment Seat not only divides the redeemed from the damned, but also evaluates our lives in light of eternity. The Judgment Seat shows us that what matters is not what seems to matter in this fallen universe obsessed with power and prestige. In Jesus’ teaching on the Judgment Seat, the “sheep” are known not by their visible impressiveness (the “goats” have that), but because they recognized Jesus in the naked, the poor, the imprisoned, the starving: “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these, my brothers, you did it to me” (Matt. 25:40).
Our lives given over to the vulnerable take on a renewed significance precisely because they do not meet the criteria for the “judgment seats” of this present era. Jesus said, “When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or your rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just” (Luke 14:12-14).
The New York Times columnist David Brooks famously distinguished between “resume virtues” (our accomplishments in career or with money or fame) and our “eulogy virtues” (those more important aspects of character that people will remember us by when we die). Jesus would show us that more important than our resumes or our eulogies is a Judgment Seat proclamation: “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Matt. 25:23). Reading backward from that, we can see what in our lives really matters, and what doesn’t.
Freedom from the need for approval
A focus on the Judgment Seat also frees us from our need for the approval of people, and from our fear of their disapproval. The apostle Paul wrote to his critics: “But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court . . . . It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore I do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive his commendation from God” (1 Cor. 4:3-5).
The Judgment Seat reminds us that we are not seeking the approval of man, but of God (Gal. 1:10). Conscience and integrity and holiness are far more important than the commendation of whatever crowd is around us. And, even if we must stand alone sometimes, we do so without fear. Jesus did not flinch at Pontius Pilate’s “judgment seat” (Matt. 27:19; John 19:13) because he knew the real Judgment Seat was yet to come, and that the roles there would be reversed.
Freedom from the fear of death
The Judgment Seat in our prospective vision also frees us from the fear of death. The fear of our own finitude and morality leads to all sorts of immorality and misery in ways that don’t seem to have anything to do with death. Most of the people I’ve known who have destroyed their families with an adulterous affair weren’t looking for the experience of orgasm but rather to reclaim the feeling of being young. The “sneaking around” with a new romance promised to kindle for them the illusion of their days in high school or college, before they had all the responsibilities of spouse or parent or caregiver or breadwinner.
The Judgment Seat is not the end of something, a wrapping up of one’s history back when one was “alive.” Quite the contrary. The Judgment Seat is the beginning of something. Jesus says to his disciples on Judgement Day: “Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master” (Matt. 25:21). As C.S. Lewis put it in The Last Battle: “You need not mourn over Narnia, Lucy. All of the old Narnia that mattered, all the dear creatures, have been drawn into the real Narnia through the Door. And, of course, it is different; as different as a real thing is from a shadow or as waking life is from a dream.”
So, Christian, walk away from the siren song of temptation. Stop checking your approval ratings in the eyes of those around you. Love people the world finds invisible. Stop worrying. Exult in the freedom of the Lord. It’s beginning to look a lot like Judgment Day. And Jesus is the Judge on the seat before us. That means there’s nothing left to fear, nothing left to hide.
This is your life.