The Last Judgment (Blogging the Belgic: Article 37)
We continue our 2017 series examining each of the articles of the Belgic Confession, one of Faith Church’s confessions of faith.
It seems appropriate that the final article of the Belgic Confession, Article 37, describes “Last Judgment,” that is what is going to happen at the end of the world. Details on the second coming of Christ are something else that Christians of different traditions often disagree on, similar to views of the sacraments and structure (church government). Some Christians have very detailed views on what will happen at the end of time with certain things, such as raptures and a seven year tribulation occurring, and will put these details into their doctrinal statements as key things to believe. The Reformed tradition, as set forth in the Belgic Confession, is one that is pretty restrained when it comes to the details of the end of time and the return of Jesus, but it is very clear and confident that it is going to happen and it should affect our lives now! The Reformed tradition emphasizes that Jesus will certainly return at an hour we do not know, his coming will be real, bodily, and visible, the earth will be renewed, all will be judged, and there are different places for the good and the evil .
This article begins by noting that the time of Christ’s return has been set by God but is not known by humans: “Finally we believe, according to God's Word, that when the time appointed by the Lord is come (which is unknown to all creatures) and the number of the elect is complete, our Lord Jesus Christ will come from heaven, bodily and visibly, as he ascended, with great glory and majesty, to declare himself the judge of the living and the dead.” These words speak against a couple of practices that occur sometimes in discussions of Jesus’s return. First, it reminds us that whenever there is someone who tells us that he or she knows the exact day of Jesus’s return, we should not trust them, as the Confession here alludes to Jesus’s statement in Matthew 24:36 that no one (not even Jesus!) knows the day or the hour. This statement also draws attention to Jesus’s words that he will return in just the same way that he left at the Ascension, meaning that this will not be a secret, unseen thing but that it will be a bodily, visible return. Therefore, a second idea that the Confession speaks against is any sort of “secret” or “spiritual” return, something that some groups teach has happened or will happen.
The end will happen when Jesus returns, but what will happen to the world? The Confession states that this will happen: “He will burn this old world, in fire and flame, in order to cleanse it.” Pay careful attention to these words, as they do not say that the earth will be destroyed. They say that the earth will be burned, but this burning is in order to cleanse it. Second Peter 3 talks about the world being burned up, but there is debate about some of the words and their precise meaning. Meanwhile, Romans 8:20-23 speaks about the curse on the earth and the groaning of creation (and our bodies) for redemption. This points to a renewed, restored world rather than the world ceasing to exist. Later in this article, we are reminded of the Christian belief in the resurrection of the body (“For all those who died before that time will be raised from the earth, their spirits being joined and united with their own bodies in which they lived”), which reminds us that this world and our bodies are not bad things that need to be destroyed but rather good things that need to be renewed and redeemed.
The earth will be burned and renewed, but what will happen to humans? The Confession goes on to note that all will be resurrected or transformed and face judgment at this time: “Then all human creatures will appear in person before the great judge—men, women, and children, who have lived from the beginning until the end of the world. They will be summoned there ‘with the archangel's call and with the sound of God's trumpet’ (1 Thessalonians 4:16). For all those who died before that time will be raised from the earth, their spirits being joined and united with their own bodies in which they lived. And as for those who are still alive, they will not die like the others but will be changed ‘in the twinkling of an eye’ (1 Corinthians 15:51-53) from perishable to imperishable. Then the books (that is, the consciences) will be opened, and the dead will be judged according to the things they did in the world (Revelation 20:12), whether good or evil. Indeed, all people will give account of all the idle words they have spoken (Matthew 12:36), which the world regards as only playing games. And then the secrets and hypocrisies of all people will be publicly uncovered in the sight of all.” These words are sobering, as we think about all the idle words that we have spoken; everything we say and do affects our eternal state!
It tells us that there will be judgment, but do we have any sort of grading scale or rubric giving to us to help us approach that day? We do, and because of that we don’t necessarily have to fear judgment but can also find comfort in it, knowing that evil will be punished and also that the righteous (and we read earlier in the Confession that we are righteous through faith in Christ) will be saved and experience glory. “Therefore, with good reason the thought of this judgment is horrible and dreadful to wicked and evil people. But it is very pleasant and a great comfort to the righteous and elect, since their total redemption will then be accomplished. They will then receive the fruits of their labor and of the trouble they have suffered; their innocence will be openly recognized by all; and they will see the terrible vengeance that God will bring on the evil ones who tyrannized, oppressed, and tormented them in this world. The evil ones will be convicted by the witness of their own consciences, and shall be made immortal—but only to be tormented in ‘the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels’ (Matthew 25:41). In contrast, the faithful and elect will be crowned with glory and honor. The Son of God will profess their names (Matthew 10:32) before God his Father and the holy and elect angels; all tears will be wiped from their eyes (Revelation 7:17); and their cause—at present condemned as heretical and evil by many judges and civil officers—will be acknowledged as the cause of the Son of God. And as a gracious reward the Lord will make them possess a glory such as the human heart could never imagine.”
What difference should all of this teaching make? Does it mean that we should simply sit around and wait for Jesus to come, to read newspapers to see if we can find possible fulfillments of prophecies to know if the day is coming soon? No, the goal of all discussions of the end of the world is to affect our lives now, to make us live in a way that looks to eternity. Do we pay attention to our actions knowing that there is a God and judge, looking to His laws and regulations rather than simply doing what we think is right? I can have comfort that if I stumble and break these laws, God will not destroy me if I have faith in Christ. This truth should also lead to a certain zeal for others to know Christ as well. Christians often spend time debating the details about how (and sometimes when) the world will end exactly, which I often find comical since people got so much wrong about the first coming of Jesus, but the goal is not to debate but to live in light of it. What I love about the Reformed tradition’s teaching on the end times, as found in this article, is that it sticks to the basics about the end that we find in Scripture; it is not too precise but focuses on the main things: Jesus is coming back, all will be made right, and we will experience judgment, resulting in either paradise or punishment. As believers, this should give us comfort and hope, with the final words of the Confession reminding us of that: “So we look forward to that great day with longing in order to enjoy fully the promises of God in Christ Jesus, our Lord.”
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