Revelation 11:18 “And the nations were enraged, and Your wrath came, and the time came for the dead to be judged, and the time to reward Your bond-servants the prophets and the saints and those who fear Your name, the small and the great, and to destroy those who destroy the earth.”
1 Corinthians 4:5 “Therefore do not go on passing judgment before the time, but wait until the Lord comes who will both bring to light the things hidden in the darkness and disclose the motives of men’s hearts; and then each man’s praise will come to him from God.”
2 Corinthians 5:10 “For all of us must appear before the judgment seat of the Messiah, so that each of us may receive what he deserves for what he has done in his body, whether good or worthless. ”
There are several scriptures in the new testament that speak of a final judgement by God for all the earth. I am no expert in the subject but I know many people who struggle with these verses, so in defense of God’s grace I will share the best of what I know.
It seems all people, both christians and non-christians will be judged by God, however for the christian this judgement is guaranteed to be favorable, not a day of punishment but a day in which we receive “eternal life” and “praise from God.”
Romans 5:9 “Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from the wrath of God through Him.”
1 John 4:17 “By this is love perfected with us, so that we may have confidence for the day of judgment, because as he is so also are we in this world.”
2 Timothy 4:8 “Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day–and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.”
Romans 8:33-34 “Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us.”
John 5:24 “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears My word, and believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life, and does not come into judgment, but has passed out of death into life.”
Destruction of the Temple vs Final Judgement
It’s important to note there are two judgements spoken of in the new testament. There is a final judgement when God redeems all of creation and another judgement culminating in the destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD. When you see language saying it is coming “soon”, “at the door”, or the “time is near” they are referring to the destruction of Jerusalem that the disciples were waiting for. A day when God would avenge his people, the romans and jews especially who had been persecuting God’s children and who had killed Jesus would be repaid. The generation in which Jesus said all the sins from the time of Adam would be punished in this generation. That deserves a study in and of itself.
However I want to focus on the final judgement and what it means for believers.
The final judgement, a day of praise for believers
There are a couple beliefs about the final day of judgement that attempts to reconcile with justification by faith, one that you are not condemned or punished in the day of judgement but are rewarded for those deeds that the Holy Spirit produced in you. The other is that your deeds serve as evidence that you really believed and had the Holy Spirit transform your heart.
In the first interpretation, it’s not clear what these rewards would be for christians. In many scriptures the reward is simply “eternal life”, our inheritance of a redeemed creation.
Romans 2:6-10 “who will render to each person according to his deeds: to those who by perseverance in doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, eternal life; but to those who are selfishly ambitious and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, wrath and indignation“
Gold, stones, straw, and sticks
However 1 Corinthians 4:5 describes it as “praise from God,” and John 12:26 “honor.” In that case it’s not our wrongdoing that is being judged but rather the quality of our work. In hebrews the author describes that the old covenant rituals were worthless to God and would be burned but acts of love inspired by the holy spirit would receive praise from God. In the contexts of Paul’s writings such as when we calls believers to respect each other’s differences in opinions about what was acceptable and unacceptable to God he tells us to withhold judgement because God will judge. In this sense it seems like to God there are some deeds such as following the jewish diets, celebrating jewish feasts, performing cleansing rituals and such that will ultimately be useless to God. And there are other works which are useful to him and receive more praise. We want to avoid putting to much effort into things which ultimately won’t matter.
2 Corinthians 5:10
A point to note in 2 Corinthians 5:10 where he mentions receiving for what was done whether good or bad: that word for bad in the greek is phaulos which is not the normal greek word for evil or morally wicked. Rather a primary meaning of phaulos is “worthless, slight, ordinary, or no account.” This definition makes more sense in the context of Paul’s exposition about works of gold or straw earlier in the letter and that he’s encouraging the believers to stay strong amidst persecution. Also worth noting is the imagery he’s using for the judgement seat is not the word used for a law courtroom but rather an olympic podium after a race. One in which the racers receive medals for 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place. The greek word “bema” brings up this imagery and shows it’s not a place for delving out punishment but rather receiving honor for a well run race.
What kinds of rewards do we receive?
The scripture is not clear about what kind of rewards other than “eternal life”, an “inheritance”, and “praise from God.” I would doubt that the reward is a nicer car or more gold or something material of that nature. In heaven there is no jealousy or envy. We will already own everything and have every blessing. The streets are made of gold. I can’t imagine a scene in which one person has more wealth than someone else for all of eternity.
Ephesians 1:3 “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ.”
Even the idea of some believers earning a higher status and ruling over other believers is suspicious. It’s hard to say for sure, since revelation is an apocalyptic book, but it seems even the reward of ruling with Christ is a blessing given to all believers. The verse is written in poetic language and is not meant to always be taken at face value.
Some people think there are multiple types of crowns that God gives for different accomplishments and I don’t think that’s what’s intended by those verses. It is poetic language and it is one crown that has many levels of meaning.
However, I would think the reward has more to do with “praise from God” and “honor.” When we are all living with God the “cool” thing won’t be how much wealth we have but rather God’s opinion of us. Whenever God speaks of you with the people he’s hanging out with and he tells that story about how you were out of money and still managed to feed that kid who was hungry on the street. Whenever God speaks of you he does it with a sense of pride. When we are saved by God’s grace it puts a passion in us to please God and God will honor and praise us for the resulting effort.
The Holy Spirit produces the good works
It’s worth noting that when you become saved and God gives you his spirit, it changes your heart and puts you on the course to life. This means your works are not from your effort alone but also by God’s spirit in you. This is also a reason why the last judgement will be favorable for you, not just because you believed but because you are set on the course of life, no matter how imperfect the journey.
I do my best to understand the scripture and I haven’t gotten to an understanding on this topic I’m not fully happy with, but I hope my discoveries helps your journey.