The beginning and end of the kingdom

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 some years 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) In chapter 9 a fallen angel had opened the abyss to release demonic locusts. Another angel – presumably Jesus himself (Rev 1:18) – now shuts the abyss, locking the Devil and his angels in and, by implication, locking the demons back in. Having been cast out of heaven, the Devil is also barred from earth. He has fallen as far as it is possible to fall.

The god of this world blinded the minds of unbelievers so that the gospel was veiled to them (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 as regards 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 turned 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 through his Church, and Christianity will continue to spread through society 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: all will 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 that he saw, he knew when he was being shown symbols and when being given factual information, 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. His ascension to the throne of his father came exactly 1000 years after Solomon became king of Israel, 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 (II Pet 3:8, Ps 90:4). Some have taken this to imply that the days of Creation each represent a thousand years of history. However, Peter is emphasising God’s patience, not making a statement about the age of the Earth, which is certainly much older. Nonetheless, since Moses’ psalm refers to the Creation and Scripture elsewhere speaks of a future ‘sabbath rest’, it may not be illegitimate to think along these lines. After only a few chapters, the Bible describes God’s work in the new world. The second day of Creation represents that new beginning, when, 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. God first intervened in the affairs of man when he divided the earth into nations, languages and territories, in the second half of the 4th millennium, corresponding to the first day after that new beginning.

  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. Abraham, heir of the world (Gen 12:3. Rom 4:13).
  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 exercise 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. The new heaven and earth.

Nations and empires are likened in Scripture to the trees which God planted in his garden. Empires were repeatedly being uprooted and others planted in their stead. First-millennium Assyria, for example, was a cedar of once unequalled height and beauty, nourished by many waters and giving shelter to all the birds of heaven, yet God dried up its waters and brought it down to the level of the other trees, even down to Sheol (Ezek 31). Israel is likened in one place to a terebinth (Isa 6:13), in another to a vine, a seedling grown in the nursery of Egypt. After clearing the land of 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). In contrast to Israel’s unfruitfulness, Jesus called himself the true vine and his disciples its branches; if they remained connected they would bear fruit, if not, they would be burned (John 15). Similarly, God’s kingdom was like a mustard tree that grew from the smallest of seeds and became greater than any other tree. Like empires before it (Ezek 31:6, Dan 4:12), it would even shelter birds – nations – in its branches (Mark 4:32). This came to pass in part. But complete fulfilment awaits the millennium (Ezek 17:22-24).

‘The many waters … are peoples, multitudes, nations’ (Rev 17:15). The sea and the animals living in it also symbolised the Gentile world. Men were like fish in the sea (Hab 1:14-17), at the mercy of the potentate who caught them as food for his table; the king of Egypt was like ‘a dragon in the seas’ (Ezek 29:3, 32:2). Insofar as they symbolised nations, terrestrial animals were themselves associated with water (Ps 68:30, Dan 7:2f). Although the analogy is not perfect (terrestrial animals were not created until the sixth day) here too is support for linking the fifth day of creation with the 1st millennium BC. Then at the start of the next millennium, the Church sprang from the side of the second Adam and the significance of the animals was transformed: they were no longer regarded as enemies and unclean, but the fishing ground for evangelists working for the kingdom of God (Matt 4:18f, 13:47-50, Acts 11:1-18). The nations would be presented to him as his bride. Again, complete fulfilment awaits Christ’s return (Ezek 47:9-12).

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 the Christ, and will reign with him for a thousand years.

There are two resurrections at the end of the age: the ‘resurrection of life’ – already adumbrated in the harvest (Rev 14:14-16) – and, a thousand years later, ‘the resurrection of judgement’ (John 5:29 refers to both). Unfortunately ‘judgement’ is ambiguous in English, sometimes meaning the process of arriving at a judgement (krisis), sometimes ‘verdict’ (krima), sometimes ‘condemnation’ (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 after a period of oppression judgement was given for the saints (Dan 7:22). The president of the divine court (Ps 82:1), God himself, delivers his judgement in person in favour of his people. John mentions in particular those beheaded because of their witness and those who refused to associate themselves with the beast and were also killed, the former consisting predominantly of Gentiles, the latter predominantly of Jews. Both groups were previously mentioned when the fifth seal was opened (Rev 6:9, 12:17, 13:10), but it is clear from other passages that they are representative of all who have died in Christ, throughout the generations (Rev 5:9f). They will reign with Christ over the nations: literally, not in some pale ‘metaphorical’ sense. Whoever accepts death rather than deny his name will gain far more than he loses. The rest of the dead remain unconscious.

The kingdom of the world becomes the kingdom of the Lord God Almighty. This, in its fullness, is the kingdom to which the gospel has always pointed (Matt 7:21-23, 24:14, 25:34, Luke 22:18, II Tim 4:1). 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). All receive the gift of eternal life (Matt 20:1-16), but each is rewarded according to what he has done (Matt 16:27). “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 people the cities laid waste (Isa 54:3). It is in relation to the different honours bestowed that one person can be called ‘greatest’ and another ‘least’ in the kingdom. Seated on their thrones, they will judge in the sense of administering justice, of governing nations rather than judging souls (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. They are without blemish before him.

The saints inherit the earth (Matt 5:5, I Cor 3:22) and return thither with Christ (Zech 14:5, I Thes 3:13, Jude 14). 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 will 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 for 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, Matt 8:29). 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 called in the New Testament Gehenna, formerly the Vale of Hinnom (Heb. Ge Hinnom). In the 8th century BC Ahaz, king of Judah, offered sacrifices in the valley to the fire-god Molech, even burning his sons as offerings. Molech, whose name meant ‘King’, was ruler of the demonic underworld, the equivalent of Abaddon. Two generations later Manasseh repeated the abomination. Ahaz’s and Manasseh’s subjects did the same (II Chr 28:3, 33:6, II Ki 17:17, Jer 7:31, Ezek 23:37).

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 (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’ (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. Whereas the surrounding hills and valleys will be flattened, Mount Zion will become the highest of the mountains (Isa 2:2, 40:4). It is here in the midst of Jerusalem (Zech 8:3) 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 every 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 forever, 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 (e.g. Ex 21:12-25, 22:1-24), for the justice exemplified there is unlikely to be different from that administered at the last judgement (Matt 5:17-7:12, Luke 12:57). 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 ‘forever’, 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 forever’, 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 ‘forever’ (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, 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 ‘forever’ (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. After God breathed into his nostrils he became a living soul. Like every animal, he had a dual nature, physical and spiritual. So with every generation: when an infant grows in the womb, it is God who forms the body and endows it with life (Ps 139, Eccl 11:5). But although the first man was given an opportunity to become immortal, 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 now 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 that follows 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 (John 3:18f) so that the punishment for wrongdoing can be anticipated, before it is too late. 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 marched 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). When the Israelites lived in the wilderness, their tents formed a camp at some distance from the Tabernacle (Ex 33:7). By contrast, the Temple which later replaced the Tabernacle lay within the city; a notional camp area centred on the Temple therefore extended beyond its boundary to define what was ‘outside the camp’ (Heb 13:11, 13). ‘Camp’ suggests temporary residence, for in a sense the promised land still lies in the future. Once all enemies have been subdued, there will be a new earth. That, finally, will be the promised land.

And I saw a great white throne and him who is 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 which is 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 states (I Cor 15:21-26):
For as by a man came death, also by a man came resurrection of the dead. 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 the 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 will 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 (John 5:22, Acts 10:42, 17:31) and he sits on the throne.

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 viva. Some are appointed to eternal life, some not. Children are treated more leniently because they are less morally responsible.

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 Adam, 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 (krima) that brought condemnation (katakrima) to all men (Rom 5:16) was death. But there is also a judgement after death, when we rise.
Cain was very angry, and his face fell. Yahweh said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen? If you do well, will there not be a raising up?” (Gen 4:7)
“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 [man] shall live by his faith’ (Rom 1:17) – he 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 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 whether or not he knows of the Saviour whose sacrifice enables God to justify him. 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 men 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 the city would be overthrown, he performed no sign to testify that he came from God. Yet God considered his message sufficient; and the Ninevites indeed 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 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 would 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, thieving, 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 they would not believe in him even if someone came to them from the dead. 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. Sin will be 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 forever;
     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.