The kingdom’s beginning and end

Revelation 20. The Devil is put away. The saints come to life and reign on earth with Christ. After 1000 years some of the nations rebel. They are defeated, and after that the rest of the dead are raised, and judged in accordance with God’s law.


And I saw an angel coming down from heaven, holding the key to the abyss and a great chain in his hand. And he seized the dragon, the ancient serpent who is the Devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years, and threw him into the abyss, and shut it, and sealed it over him so that he should no more deceive the nations until the thousand years were ended. After that he must be released for a little while.

“How can someone enter a strong man’s house and plunder his goods, unless he first bind the strong man, and then he will plunder his house?” (Matt 12:29) Having been cast out of heaven, the Devil is also barred the earth. He has fallen as far as it is possible to fall. In casting out demons, Jesus was demonstrating what he would do when the kingdom came in its fullness (Luke 11:20). In chapter 9 a fallen angel opened the abyss to release demonic locusts. Another angel – possibly the same one – now shuts the abyss, locking the Devil and his angels in and, we may suppose, locking the demons back in.

Previously, the god of this world blinded the minds of unbelievers so that the gospel was veiled (II Cor 3:14-4:4). With his removal, ‘the veil that is woven over all nations’, including the Jews, will be swallowed up (Isa 25:7). ‘The earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD’ (Isa 11:9).

He deceives believers too, alas. There are three schools of thought regarding the thousand years: pre-millennialism, a-millennialism and post-millennialism. Pre-millennialism holds that Christ will return at the start of the thousand years. As attested by Papias (c. 120), Justin Martyr (c. 150) and Irenaeus (c. 175), pre-millennialism was the earliest understanding of the Church, and is the view accepted here. Later theologians argued against it, among them Origen (c. 220, the first to teach ‘the eternal generation of the Son’), Eusebius (c. 300) and Augustine (c. 400). A-millennialism rejects the idea that Christ will reign on earth in his own person, for whatever length of time. Ostensibly the 4th-century Nicene Creed is a-millennialist, implying that there will be only one resurrection and saying nothing about the kingdom of God except that it will have no end; the so-called Apostles’ Creed does not speak of the kingdom of God at all. Post-millennialism, where it is distinguishable from a-millennialism, holds that Christ reigns on earth through his Church and Christianity will continue to spread until the Church has brought all nations under his rule; only then will he return, and then to judge, not to reign. Naive, and exegetically perverse, the view is contradicted not least by the contemporary world’s increasing hostility to the gospel. That the Devil continues to be a free agent on earth should be evident. Only when he has gone will the nations cease to deceive themselves and be deceived. Darwinism, Mohammedanism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Marxism will all be as chaff that swirls from the threshing floor.

Doubt that his reign on earth will last for a thousand years is doubt that Scripture means what it says, since Revelation, supported by Papias and others, is explicit on the point. Papias must have passed on John’s own understanding, and while John could not have understood everything he saw, he knew when he was being shown symbols and when not and would have corrected his hearers if their understanding had been wrong. The thousand years of Christ’s reign asseverate, as a true number, God’s absolute sovereignty over the timing. So Christ’s ascension to the throne of his father came exactly 1000 years after Solomon, son of David, became king, in 971 BC. God foretells what he brings about, working all things according to the counsel of his will (Isa 46:11, Matt 25:34, Eph 1:11).

With him a thousand years is as a day, and a day as a thousand years (Ps 90:4, II Pet 3:8). Some would infer from this that the days of Creation each represent a thousand years of history. However, Moses is contrasting our brief lifespan with God’s eternity, while Peter is emphasising God’s patience, not making a statement about the age of the Earth, which is certainly much older. Nonetheless, it may not be entirely misguided to think along these lines. Only the first few chapters of the Bible are devoted to the antediluvian world. All the rest relate the story of God’s dealings with man after the Cataclysm. The emergence of dry land on the third day of Creation prefigures that new beginning. Cleansed by the waters of baptism (I Pet 3:21), the earth re-emerged (Gen 1:9, 8:13) – a new volcanic crust, we know from geology, replacing what was destroyed. Later on the third day God planted a garden on the dry earth. Correspondingly, in the second half of the 4th millennium, men began to cultivate a new Eden in Mesopotamia. Then God confused their language and, as they spread abroad, the earth divided into nations.

  Day 1000 yrs Genesis 1 History
  3=1  3rd BC God plants a garden of trees and forms Adam to look after it. The first civilisations of Mesopotamia, Egypt, India, China, Crete.
  4=2  2nd BC He makes the Sun, the Moon and the 12 planets. Jacob, Rachel and their 12 children (Gen 37:9).
  5=3  1st BC He creates marine and flying animals. Gentile nations (Dan 7-8, Hab 1:14, Acts 10:12).
  6=4  1st AD He creates land animals, but they are not a suitable bride for man. He forms woman and gives her to him. The Church called into being from the side of the last Adam (I Cor 15:45, Eph 5:31f).
  7=5  2nd AD He rests the seventh day. The Church established in Europe.
  8=6  3rd AD The man and the woman are given dominion over the animals. Christ and his bride exercise dominion over the nations (Ps 8:6, Heb 2:8).
  9=7 God’s unending sabbath rest (Heb 4:9). The new heaven and earth.

Nations and empires in Scripture are expressly likened to the trees God planted in his garden. As one empire was uprooted, another rose in its stead. First-millennium Assyria was a cedar of once unequalled height and beauty, supplied by ‘many waters’ and giving shelter to all the birds of heaven. But God dried up its waters and cut it down by the hands of the Chaldaeans; it went down to join the other trees in Sheol (Ezek 31). Israel in one place is likened to a terebinth (Isa 6:13), in another to a vine, a seedling grown in the nursery of Egypt. After clearing Canaan of its wild plants, God transplanted Israel there so that it might grow and bear fruit (Ps 80:8, Jer 2:21), but the vine degenerated and became good only for firewood (Isa 5:1-7, Ezek 15). Therefore, Jesus provided another vine, himself, and his disciples were to be its branches; they would bear fruit if they remained connected (John 15). In another simile, God’s kingdom was like a mustard tree. Beginning with the smallest of seeds, it would eventually grow bigger than any other tree, and like empires before it (Ezek 31:6, Dan 4:12), would even shelter birds – nations – in its branches (Mark 4:32). In the growth of Christianity we can see that this came to pass. However, complete fulfilment awaits the millennium (Ezek 17:22-24).

Marine animals were created on the fifth day. The sea and the animals living in the sea also symbolised the Gentile world. Men were like fish (Hab 1:14-17), at the mercy of the potentate who caught them in his net for food; the king of Egypt was like ‘a dragon in the seas’ (Ezek 29:3, 32:2). Terrestrial animals too were occasionally associated with water insofar as they symbolised nations (Ps 68:30, Dan 7:2f). Although the analogy is not perfect (terrestrial animals not being created until the sixth day), the fifth day thereby links with the 1st millennium BC, when Israel came into contact with many Gentile nations: Assyria, Babylonia, Medo-Persia, Greece, as well as its immediate neighbours. A beast was any kingdom that did not acknowledge that Yahweh, God of Israel, was the ultimate ruler (Dan 4:25, 7:4), and although Babylonia, Medo-Persia and Greece were visualised as terrestrial animals, they came up from the sea (Dan 7). At the start of the next millennium, the Church sprang from the side of the second Adam. The apostles were sent out to be fishers of men (Matt 13:47-50); they came to understand that the quadrupeds of the earth, the ‘beasts’, the crawling animals and the winged animals of the air (Acts 11:1-18, echoing the language of Genesis 1 in the Greek) were no longer to be considered unclean, if God had made them clean by his Holy Spirit. Gentiles were to be part of his kingdom.

And I saw thrones, and seated on them those for whom judgement was given, the souls of those who had been beheaded for the testimony of Jesus and for the word of God, and those who did not worship the beast or its image and had not received its mark on their forehead or their hand. And they lived, and reigned with the Christ for a thousand years. The rest of the dead did not live until the thousand years were ended. This is the first resurrection. Blessed and holy is he who has a part in the first resurrection. Over these the second death has no authority, but they will be priests of God and of Christ, and will reign with him for a thousand years.

There are two resurrections: the ‘resurrection of life’ at the end of the age (Luke 14:14, John 5:29), and ‘the resurrection of judgement’ (John 5:29) at the end of the thousand years. The period inbetween is ‘the age to come’ (Matt 12:32, Eph 1:21), by definition a delimited period. ‘Judgement’ can be ambiguous in English. Sometimes it means the process of arriving at a judgement (krisis), i.e. a trial, sometimes ‘verdict’ (krima), sometimes ‘condemnation’ (krisis, krima or katakrima). In John 5:29 the word is krisis.

The soul is the essence of a person. Since God has a perfect memory of who we are, and nothing is impossible for him, he is able to recreate us and clothe us with an incorruptible body. John sees those for whom judgement (krima) is given. The phrase recalls the coming of the Ancient of Days, when judgement was given for the saints after three and a half years of oppression (Dan 7:22). The president of the court (Ps 82:1), God himself, delivered the judgement. John mentions in particular those beheaded because of their witness and those killed because they refused to associate themselves with the beast: the former consisting predominantly of Gentiles, the latter predominantly of Jews. They are the distinguished representatives of all who have died in Christ, throughout the generations (Rev 5:9f); and also of the faithful Israelites who lived before Christ (Matt 8:11). They will minister as priests among the nations. They will repair the cities laid waste and populate them, together with the survivors (Isa 54:3, 61:4-9). They will reign not in some pale ‘metaphorical’ sense but literally, seated on thrones. Whoever accepts death rather than deny his name will gain far more than he loses. The rest of the dead remain unconscious.

This, in its fullness, is the kingdom to which the gospel has always pointed (Matt 7:21-23, 25:34, Luke 22:18). The kingdom of the world becomes the kingdom of the Lord God and of his Christ. Drawn from every part of humanity, the saints take up the positions reserved for them by the elders and serve Christ as his viceroys: blessed (the inaugural beatitudes now realised) and holy (all sin removed). Even the least are greater than those born in this present world (Luke 7:28). All receive the gift of eternal life (Matt 20:1-16) but each is rewarded according to what he has done (Matt 16:27). It is in relation to the differing honours bestowed that, even then, one person can be called ‘greatest’ and another ‘least’. “Well done, good and faithful servant,” they will hear. “You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.” He will set them ‘over all his possessions’. They will judge in the sense of administering justice, priest-kings in charge of cities, resolving disputes (Ex 18:22, Luke 19:17, 22:30, Rev 2:26). Nothing is said about their own judgement, nor about the book of life, for they all have life.

Returning with Christ (Zech 14:5, I Thes 3:13, Jude 14), the saints inherit the earth (Matt 5:5, Rom 4:13, I Cor 3:22). Paul upbraids the church at Corinth: ‘Do you not know that the saints will judge the world?’ (I Cor 6:2). ‘When Christ our life is manifested, then you too will be manifested with him in glory’ (Col 3:4).

Christ comes back to the Mount of Olives in the same way as he departed from it (Acts 1:11). Seated on his throne, he will make the survivors of the nations assemble before him and separate them into two groups (Matt 25:31-46). Those who treated his persecuted brothers kindly will also inherit the kingdom, even though they knew little of him (Matt 10:40f); those who cared only about themselves will be cast into ‘the eternal fire prepared for the Devil and his angels’. The angels that had accepted worship from the peoples of polytheistic religions will join the angels already imprisoned (Isa 24:22). In different terms the parable about the harvest describes the same thing.
Just as the darnel is gathered and burned up with fire, so it will be at the conclusion of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all who live lawlessly, and throw them into the furnace of fire. There, there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. (Matt 13:39-43)

Contour map of ancient JerusalemThe furnace is the lake of fire and sulphur, a smoking lava-filled chasm that the New Testament calls Gehenna. The name derives from the Hebrew Ge Hinnom, or Vale of Hinnom, the name of the valley on the south side of Jerusalem, where the most reprobate offered sacrifices to the fire-god Molech, even burning their sons and daughters as offerings (II Ki 17:17, Jer 7:31, Ezek 23:37). Molech, whose name meant ‘King’, was ruler of the demonic underworld, the equivalent of Abaddon. Judah’s kings Ahaz and Manasseh also burned their sons as offerings in the valley (II Chr 28:3, 33:6).

Often misleadingly translated ‘hell’, Gehenna was almost the first thing that Jesus taught about. It was a place to avoid at all costs, for into it the unrighteous would be cast headlong and their bodies and souls destroyed there (Matt 5:22-30, 10:28). The sentence would be irrevocable: the maggots that destroyed the body would not die; the fire that destroyed the soul would not be quenched (Matt 3:12, Mark 9:44). He himself would be the one pronouncing sentence (Luke 12:5).

The lake does not exist at the present time (Matt 8:29). It will be kindled (Isa 30:33), burning as far as lowest Sheol (Deut 32:22). The ‘mountains will melt under him and the valleys split open, like wax before the fire, like waters poured down a slope’ (Micah 1:4). Christ – ‘whose fire is in Zion and his furnace in Jerusalem’ (Isa 31:9) – will stand on the Mount of Olives as it splits from east to west (Zech 14:4), the fissure destroying the Al-Aqsa Mosque and Dome of the Rock that dominate Mount Zion today, west of the Mount of Olives. The surrounding hills and valleys will be flattened, whereas Mount Zion will become the highest of the mountains (Isa 2:2, 40:4, Zech 14:10). It is here in the midst of Jerusalem that the king of all the earth will set his throne and temple, Gehenna bounding it on the south. Week by week, all humanity will worship him, a continual stream.
“And they will go out and look on the corpses of the men who rebelled against me. For their worm will not die and their fire will not be quenched.”

When Jesus warned about the horrific finality of Gehenna he was alluding to these words of Isaiah’s.

The lake will also be a place of torment and regret. Justice requires that there be some penalty for sins that are not forgiven. In the parable about Lazarus, the rich man who wore fine clothes and ate fine food each day found himself in agony, for Abaddon’s infernal fire had penetrated up to Hades. We ask God, “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those indebted to us.” If we do not, he will not (Matt 6:15). He will deliver us to torment: not for ever, and not necessarily in Gehenna, but until the debt of unforgiveness is paid (Matt 18:34). If we have wronged another and not reached a settlement, the debt will have to be paid to the last penny (Matt 5:26); the same applies if we have wronged God (Luke 12:58-59, I John 1:9f). The pastor who neglects to prepare his flock for the Lord’s coming will receive a beating, light or severe depending on how much the neglect was wilful (Luke 12:42-48); he will be saved ‘as through fire’ (I Cor 3:15). We get a good idea of how God will measure out retribution by considering his law, for the justice exemplified there is unlikely to be different from that administered at the last judgement (Matt 5:17-7:12). Whether finally saved or destroyed, those who are punished will not rise until the second resurrection. Where there is forgiveness, there is no condemnation, no punishment – that is why the gospel needs to be heard. The gospel is about forgiveness of sins.

‘Eternal’ (aiωnios, lit. ‘age-long’) and ‘for ever and ever’ (eis tous aiωnas tωn aiωnωn, lit. ‘to the ages of the ages’) do not necessarily mean ‘time without end’. Moses provided for a slave in certain circumstances to be bound to his master ‘for ever’, not meaning to all eternity but until one of them died (Ex 21:6). Jeremiah warned that a fire would be kindled ‘that will burn for ever’, referring to the day when the Babylonians would destroy Jerusalem’s palaces and temple; the fire would not be quenched (Jer 15:14, 17:27). When the destruction came, Jerusalem was ruined ‘for ever’ (Ps 74:3). Habakkuk spoke of the ‘everlasting mountains’ at the same time as prophesying that they would be shattered and levelled, foreseeing a time when God would shake the nations and the mountains be laid low (Hab 3:6). Christ will reign ‘for ever and ever’ (Rev 11:15), and the saints with him (22:5), until he has put all his enemies under his feet (I Cor 15:25). Jude spoke of the angels being kept in ‘eternal’ chains (v 6), apparently ‘for ever’ (v 13). But they are eternal, age-long, ‘until the judgement of the great day’. Nor was the fire that destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah ‘eternal’ (v 7) – go to the land of Jordan and you won’t see any fire where the cities were (the south-eastern Dead Sea). As an example of what awaits the ungodly, they were turned to ashes (II Pet 2:6). It was the effects of the fire that were perpetual: the cities were never rebuilt.

Everything depends on context. When the context is the everlasting life that comes from God, the meaning is ‘for all eternity’, and we know this because of the assurance that whoever accepts salvation will never die (John 11:26). Where the context is torment in the lake of fire, the meaning is not necessarily ‘for all eternity’. Other scriptures categorically state that the final penalty of sin is destruction (Deut 7:10, Ps 9:5f, Matt 7:13, 10:28, John 3:16, Phil 3:19, II Thes 1:9, II Pet 2:3). Eventually Death itself will be thrown into the lake, not to be tormented obviously, being a personification, but to be destroyed. The Devil also (Heb 2:14).

Man’s soul is not immortal. In the beginning, God formed his body from the dust of the ground. Only after God breathed spirit into his nostrils did he become a living soul. Like every animal, he had a dual nature, physical and spiritual. So with subsequent generations: when an infant grows in the womb, it is God who forms the body and endows it with life, for he realises in time what he preordained (Ps 139, Eccl 11:5). Man was given the opportunity to become immortal, but the serpent deceived Eve, and through her, Adam. In the act of eating what was forbidden, he internalised evil so that he knew what it was from within; his body knew that it was naked, that it was ‘laid bare to the eyes of him who holds us to account’ (Heb 4:13), and immediately he feared his Maker. He was permanently changed. So he was barred from the tree of life, he grew old, and in time his corrupted spirit was taken away; he returned to the dust. Terrible though the penalty was, it was not vengeful. Had everlasting torment been the consequence, it would have been a penalty no substitutionary atonement could have satisfied, ‘for then he would have had to suffer repeatedly since the foundation of the world’ (Heb 9:26). The justice of God would have been a travesty of justice.

The logical opposite of eternal life is permanent extinction, not eternal life in another place (conceived of, somehow, as a state of being destroyed but never attaining destruction). Death occurs when body and spirit are severed, the one returning to the dust from which it came, the other returning to God (Eccl 12:7, Luke 23:46). That is what the word means. Some theologians draw a distinction between ‘physical death’ and ‘spiritual death’, as if the body could live apart from the spirit, but the Bible knows nothing of such a distinction. Pain will be suffered for a time; that is clear from the crucifixion; but ultimately there is only one kind of death: the loss of life.

Revelation speaks of two deaths in the sense that there is an interval between the first and the second, not that they are different in nature. The paradox is that although ‘the payback of sin is death’ and therefore all must die, we do not died as soon as we sin, just as Adam did not die immediately. The judgement that now matters is not the judgement that God pronounced in the garden – on the flesh – but the judgement following death (Heb 9:27), relating to what we do in the years allotted to us in our state of reprieve. Death does not have to be the final sentence.

The gospel brings the judgement (krisis) forward into the here and now so that the punishment for wrongdoing can be anticipated, before it is too late (John 3:18f). The penalty has been paid, so that whoever repents will not be hurt by the second death. Those who reject the offer of eternal life will find the second death merely a confirmation of the first. He will forfeit the life he had on loan.

And when the thousand years are ended, Satan will be released from his prison and go out to deceive the nations at the four corners of the earth, Gog and Magog, to gather them for battle, their number like the sand of the sea. And they went up over the breadth of the earth and surrounded the camp of the saints and the beloved city. And fire came down from heaven and consumed them, and the Devil who deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and sulphur where both the beast and the false prophet were. And they will be tormented day and night, for ever and ever.

‘When the thousand years are ended’ implies, of course, the specific number of years stated. Satan is released from torment in order to draw out the last dregs of evil in one last purge. Gog is the leader of the Magog nation (Gen 10:2), the people of the western and eastern steppes prophesied about in Ezekiel (38:1-39:16). He will assemble a great army, comprising central Asians, Iranians, Sudanese, Libyans and the peoples around the Black Sea (Meschech, Tubal and Gomer, Gen 10:2). He will attack Israel at a time when the land is restored from war (the war of Rev 13:7) and all its people have returned to it (Ezek 38:8). Even though the Great King himself is there and rules with a rod of iron, these nations will conspire to attack the apparently defenceless country and plunder it. They are interested in its silver and gold! But they will be destroyed by a great earthquake, volcanic eruptions, and a hail of stones. It will take seven months to bury the dead. For seven years the people of Israel will use the weapons left behind to make fires.

‘The camp of the saints and the beloved city’ refers to Jerusalem in the midst of the earth (Ezek 38:12). At first, the camp lay at some distance from the Tabernacle (Ex 33:7), and God was unwilling to go up with Israel into the promised land because of the golden calf. After Moses offered to atone for their sin, God changed his mind; he renewed his covenant and the Tabernacle was put in the middle of the camp (Num 2:2). Later the Temple replaced the Tabernacle; a notional camp area centred on the Temple extended beyond the city’s boundary to define what was ‘outside the camp’ (Heb 13:11, 13). ‘Camp’ suggests temporary residence, for only when all enemies have been subdued will there be a new earth. That, finally, will be the promised land.

And I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it, from whose presence the earth and the heaven fled, and no place was found for them. And I saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne of God, and books were opened. And another book was opened, that of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to their works. The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and Death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and they were judged, each according to their works. And Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. If anyone was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.
Paul wrote (I Cor 15:21-26):
For since death came by a man, also resurrection of the dead came by a man. For as in Adam all die, so also in the Christ will all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the first-fruits, then at his arrival those who are of Christ, then the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father, after he has nullified every rule and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be nullified is death.

It will take a thousand years to accomplish the full obedience of the peoples. He will reconcile all things to himself (Col 1:19), and restore all things (Matt 19:28, Acts 3:21), including the earth itself following its devastation. During that time people will still be born and die. At some indeterminate time after the thousand years, sea and land will yield up the souls who died in them and the old earth will pass away. The great throne is that of God himself. But when the dead come before it, the voice they hear, and the face they see, is Jesus Christ, for all judgement has been given to the Son and he sits on the throne (John 5:22, Acts 10:42, 17:31).

The question whether an individual is granted eternal life (here put negatively, ‘thrown into the lake of fire’) is determined according to what he has done. A record has been kept of his life, and it is reviewed (Dan 7:10). There is also one other book, the book of life (Luke 10:20), which humanity has always known about (e.g. Ex 32:32, Dan 12:1). The book is specifically mentioned in relation to the second resurrection. It is not blank, nor is its title now changed to ‘the book of death’. Restored to their bodies, the dead stand before the throne and each person’s life is subjected to a review. Some are appointed to eternal life, some not.

It may come as a surprise to learn that at the general resurrection men will be judged according to their works, and that not all will be condemned. But this is the answer to the familiar question, “What about those who have never heard the gospel?”
“Nothing is beyond your understanding … O God, the great one, the mighty one, whose name is Yahweh of hosts, great in counsel and mighty in action, whose eyes are open to all the ways of the sons of man, to give to each according to his ways and according to the fruit of his deeds.” (Jer 32:19)
This is not to be read as God condemning all humanity before AD 30 to destruction or everlasting torment. The judgement that brought condemnation to all men (Rom 5:16) was death. But there is also a judgement after death, when we rise.
“Though I say to the righteous that he shall surely live, yet if he trusts in his righteousness and does iniquity, none of his righteous acts shall be remembered, but in the injustice that he has done he shall die. Again, though I say to the wicked, ‘You shall surely die,’ yet if he turns from his sin and does what is just and right, if the wicked restores the pledge, gives back what he has stolen and walks in the statutes of life, not doing iniquity, he shall surely live; he shall not die. None of the sins he has committed shall be remembered against him. (Ezek 33:13-16)
“Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” (Matt 25:45f)
“An hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to a resurrection of life, and those who have done bad to a resurrection of judgment” (John 5:29).
[He] will render to each one according to his works: to those who by steadfastly doing good seek glory and honour and immortality, eternal life, but to those who are loyal to party and do not obey the truth but obey unrighteousness, fury and wrath. … For when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, their conscience supporting its witness, and their thoughts privately accusing or also defending them. (Rom 2:6-15)
And if you call on him as Father who judges impartially according to each one’s work, conduct yourselves with fear during the time of your exile. (I Pet 1:17)

The occasion on which all who are in the tombs hear his voice and come out is the second resurrection, not the first. Then those who have done good will rise to eternal life.

Faith and works are not antithetical. Although it is ‘by grace you have been saved, through faith’ (Eph 2:8), ‘we are created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them’ (Eph 2:10). Paul’s commission was to call the Gentiles to ‘repent and turn to God, doing works worthy of repentance’ (Acts 26:20). Although ‘the righteous [person] shall live by his faith’ (Rom 1:17) – will be granted eternal life on account of his faith – righteousness and faith go hand in hand (Heb 11). The individual is righteous because he believes that there is a God who is good and who rewards those who seek him (Heb 11:6), and he walks by that light, even though he stumble (Prov 24:12-16, John 3:21). God justifies him even though he does not know of the Saviour whose sacrifice enables his justification. Abraham’s faith was that God was good and would honour his promise of an heir.
Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was working along with his works, and faith was completed by the works. The scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” And he was called a friend of God. You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. (James 2:21-24)

This was before Christ came into the world, and it applied to all who sought to live by the light God gave them. While in absolute terms ‘no one living is righteous before him’ (Ps 143:2), for ‘all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God’ (Rom 3:23, 5:12), Psalms and Proverbs abound with references to the righteous. Job knew that he had a Redeemer, and that at the last, in his own flesh, he would see God (Job 19:25-27). Zacchaeus was saved because he met Jesus and repented, even though Jesus had not yet paid for his sins. In the case of righteous Simeon, it was enough simply to see him. Those accounted righteous are made perfect at the resurrection (Heb 12:23).

God says, “The soul that sins shall die,” referring to the soul that persistently does what is wrong, and referring to the second death, not the first (Ezek 18). But he remembers mercy in the midst of wrath, for he knows that we are flesh. When Abraham asked God, “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? Shall the Judge of all the earth not do right?” the reply was not that his concept of justice was flawed, or that no one on earth was righteous. God destroyed Sodom because all its population was wicked, except Lot, who was ‘righteous’ (II Pet 2:7f) but far from perfect. On the other hand, he did not destroy every city in the plain, nor the other cities in Canaan, though he would do once their wickedness had come to fruition.

In the Old Testament, God’s saving of a person or family in this life was an indication that he would save them also at the resurrection. Those saved included Rahab the prostitute, Naaman the Syrian and, when Nebuchadrezzar brought God’s wrath on Judah, the daughters of Jonadab and the country’s poorest people (Jer 35:18f, 39:10). When Jonah, a man from an insignificant town in northern Israel, prophesied to Nineveh that it would be overthrown, he performed no sign to testify that he came from God. Yet God considered his message sufficient; and the Ninevites repented. So he reversed his decision, and not only for this life. Jesus told his hearers, “The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgement [krisis] with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah – and see, something greater than Jonah is here” (Matt 12:41). Even many from the land of Sodom and Gomorrah will receive mercy, despite being judged in the flesh (Matt 10:15; Ezek 16:53, I Pet 4:6).

The gospel is good news, because it makes known the truth that God is good, and he has mercy on those who acknowledge their sin and repent. It is only bad news for those who say, “Let us drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die,” who have heard and rejected the word of life, who are materially rich (for though they have more, they give less), who appear to be godly but shun the Holy Spirit, who are defiled by persistent fornication, homosexual relations, dishonouring of parents, occultism, hatred, jealousy, ingratitude, fits of anger, deceit, blasphemy, stealing, covetousness. It is only bad news for those who live by a moral law of their own making, opposed to God’s law. The charge sheet includes most people in the West. Much is expected of those who have been given much. Some say, “Prove to me that God exists and I will believe,” not seeing that even if someone came to them from the dead they would not believe. Or must he raise someone from the dead in every generation in order to answer that challenge? They are under judgement and in no position to make demands. The onus is on them to seek him, not on God to show himself. There has never been an age that had more proof of God.

It is Christ’s death that enables God to judge men according to their works, even though all are guilty. In the light of his holiness sin will be exposed, admitted, and punished. It will not be a matter of good works outweighing bad in a pair of scales, though they may mitigate. He will take all circumstances into account, in accordance with what he has told us about himself, that he is ‘compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, … taking away sin and transgression but unwilling to clear the guilty’ (Ex 34:7) – guilty because they have not asked him to take away their guilt. He does not condemn a soul simply because he was born at the wrong time. Paul told the Athenians, “The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all men everywhere to repent” (Acts 17:30, Rom 3:25). Whoever fears God and does what is right is acceptable to him (Acts 10:35). The crippled, the blind and the lame, and those who care for them, will also inherit. Those who turn their backs on the gospel exclude themselves, whereas those who have no roof above their heads he compels to come in. There are many places at his table, and his house must be filled (Luke 14:23).
Blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob,
     whose hope is in the LORD his God,
the maker of heaven and earth,
     the sea, and all that is in them,
who keeps faith for ever;
     who executes justice for the oppressed,
     who gives food to the hungry.
The LORD releases the prisoners;
     the LORD opens the eyes of the blind;
     the LORD lifts up those who are bowed down.
The LORD loves the righteous;
     the LORD watches over the foreigners.
The widow and the orphan he embraces,
     but the way of the wicked he makes crooked. (Ps 146)

The prisoners are the dead. Who cannot see that this is a psalm about the resurrection? Lazarus was a sinner, like everyone else. But God took no notice of his sin. His life was blighted by hunger and disease, but after death he was comforted. Saif ul-Malook is a Muslim lawyer who risks death by defending Christians in Pakistan accused of blasphemy. God will receive him too.