A Study of the Doctrines of the Church of God


Part Eight: ``... He shall come to judge the living and the dead...''


by Doug Ward

In Acts 1:10-11, we read that immediately after the ascension of Jesus Christ, ``two men dressed in white'' appeared to Jesus' disciples, saying,


``This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.'' (NIV)


These two angels affirmed a promise that Jesus Himself had made during His earthly ministry. On a number of occasions, Jesus described His glorious coming and the events to follow, including the judgment of all who have ever lived (see e.g. Matt. 16:27; 24-25; John 14:3). His disciples looked forward expectantly to that coming, when they would meet Him in the air (I Thes. 4:13-17) and then rule with Him (2 Tim 2:11-12; Rev. 5:10; 20:6). They apparently had a special slogan, the Aramaic phrase Marana tha (``Come, O Lord!''), which expressed their fervent hope in His promise (I Cor. 16:22).

Following the example of those first-century disciples, Christians for nearly two thousand years have continued to wait faithfully for the Messiah's return. The expectation of this wonderful event has always been a comfort to believers in the midst of trials and hardships, right up to the present day.

This portion of the Creed has been particularly embraced in modern times by denominations with roots in the Millerite movement 1, like the Seventh-day Adventists, the Church of God (Seventh Day), and the Worldwide Church of God. These denominations are known as Adventist churches because of their special emphasis on the second advent of Jesus. In the Worldwide Church of God (here designated ``WCG'' for short) and its offshoots, it has been customary to hold a special celebration of Christ's return at the time of the Feast of Trumpets, the festival known in Hebrew as Rosh ha-Shanah. 2

It is probably fair to say that for many members of the WCG, the promise of Christ's return has taken on even greater significance over the past few years. In the tense atmosphere created by WCG's recent upheavals in doctrine and liturgy, the certainty of the second advent is one of the few things about which all factions are in agreement.

The current WCG Statement of Beliefs begins with a ``Summary of our Christian Faith'' patterned after the Apostles' Creed, which says, in part, ``We believe that Jesus Christ will come again to judge the living and the dead and to reign over all things.'' In the more detailed discussion which comes after that brief summary, the following statement appears under the heading ``The Second Coming'':


``Jesus Christ, as he promised, will return to earth to judge and reign over all nations in the kingdom of God. His second coming will be visible, and in power and glory. This event inaugurates the resurrection and reward of the saints.''


In this installment of our series on the Apostles' Creed, I will examine the doctrine of Christ's second coming and His role as Judge of all mankind. Specifically, I will consider the foundation of these truths in the Hebrew scriptures, the New Testament's teaching on how to live in anticipation of Jesus' return, and the nature of Christ's judgment.


Future Work of the Messiah

Our Christian belief that Jesus will return is part of an overall conviction that He is the promised Messiah. As we have seen in previous articles in this series, Jesus' virgin birth, atoning death, and victorious resurrection and ascension were all foretold hundreds of years in advance in the pages of the Hebrew scriptures. Other Messianic prophecies look ahead to His return to judge and rule the earth [3].

Jesus connected Himself with one such prophecy when He called Himself ``the son of man.'' The designation ``son of man'' comes from Daniel 7:13-14, which reports that ``one like a son of man'' would in a future day be seen ``coming with the clouds of heaven'' and would receive ``an everlasting dominion'' from God (``the Ancient of Days''). Jesus more than once used the imagery of this passage to describe His return (Matt. 24:30; Mark 13:26; 14:62; Luke 21:27).

A second prophecy that Jesus associated with Himself is found in Isaiah 61. Early in His public ministry, Jesus read from the first two verses of this chapter in His hometown synagogue and then announced, ``Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing'' (Luke 4:16-21). The portion of Isaiah 61 which He read on that Sabbath day speaks about the Messiah's work of preaching good news and liberation to the poor and downtrodden, a wonderful description of His earthly ministry.

Significantly, Jesus broke off His reading in the middle of verse 2, leaving out the phrase ``and the day of vengeance of our God.'' The remainder of Isaiah 61 speaks of the restoration of Israel and describes a time of great blessing and prosperity for God's people. By omitting this part of the prophecy in His synagogue reading, Jesus seems to imply that its fulfillment would come later. At the time of Jesus' ascension, His disciples asked Him when He would carry out this part of the work of the Messiah (Acts 1:6). He replied that it was not for them to know the time when these things would occur, but that they would have plenty to do in the meantime (vv. 7-8).

Further mention of the ``day of vengeance'' appears two chapters later in Isaiah 63:1-6. Here we find a description of One who is ``robed in splendor'' but whose garments are ``stained crimson'' from trampling the nations in anger. In verse 4, this day of vengeance is also termed ``the year of my redemption,'' indicating that it will be a time of judgment for some and a time of redemption for others.

The imagery of Isaiah 63 is expanded upon and clearly linked with the return of Christ in the vision of the apostle John recorded in Rev. 19:11-21. This prophecy depicts Christ riding on a white horse, crowned with many crowns and armed with a sharp sword. As in Isaiah 63, He is ``dressed in a robe dipped in blood'' (v. 13), and His judging of the nations is compared to one treading a winepress (v. 15). According to v. 11, ``With justice he judges and makes war.''

The book of Isaiah has even more to say about the judgment to be carried out by the Messiah. In Isaiah 11:3-5, we read,


``He will not judge what he sees with his eyes, or decide by what he hears with his ears; but with righteousness he will judge the needy, with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth. He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth; with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked. Righteousness will be his belt and faithfulness the sash around his waist.''



The Day of the Lord

We have seen that a belief in the return of Jesus is an integral part of the Christian assertion that Jesus is the Messiah. More broadly, it is an affirmation that all of the prophecies of the Bible will one day be fulfilled. In particular, the New Testament makes clear that the Second Coming will coincide with the Day of the Lord, the climactic time of God's intervention in human affairs spoken of in a number of prophecies. As William Barclay comments [2, p. 188], ``There is a complete identification of the Old Testament Day of the Lord and the New Testament idea of the Second Coming.''

Several instances of this identification appear in the Olivet prophecy of Matthew 24. Here Jesus refers to passages about the Day of the Lord in describing the events leading up to His return. We have already noted the reference in Matt. 24:30 to Dan. 7:13-14. In addition, Matt. 24:29 quotes Isa. 13:10 and 34:4, two vivid prophecies of the Day of the Lord; Matt. 24:15 mentions ``the abomination that causes desolation'' from Dan. 9:27; 11:31; 12:11; and Matt. 24:21 speaks of an unprecedented time of trouble as in Dan. 12:1.

Further examples can be found in the book of Revelation. Earlier we observed the similarity between Isa. 63:1-6 and Rev. 19:11-21. Yet another allusion to Dan. 7:13 occurs in Rev. 1:7, along with a reference to Zech. 12:10. Moreover, the description of the sixth seal of Rev. 6:9-17 contains elements very similar to Joel 2:31 and Isa. 2:10,21.

These prophecies highlight an important feature of the Judeo-Christian worldview: the idea that history has a great purpose. According to the Hebrew prophets, this present sinful age will eventually end, to be replaced by a lasting age of justice and peace that will be established by powerful divine intervention. In the New Testament, Jesus makes clear that He Himself is the King and Judge who will bring the prophecies to pass and rule forever.

The future reality of the Second Coming can be a great comfort to us in times of trial and tragedy. For example, the recent terrorist attacks on the United States have left many with feelings of anger, frustration, and helplessness; however, the truth of Christ's return assures us that God is in charge and will ultimately bring a new time of peace and safety, justice and prosperity to the world.


How Now Shall We Live?

Christ's return and His role as judge of mankind have been essential parts of the Church's message from the beginning (Acts 3:19-21; 10:42; 17:31). Jesus and the apostles repeatedly cautioned believers to be prepared for these events (e.g., Luke 21:34-36; I Thes. 5:1-11; Rom. 13:11-14). However, history shows that Christians have often had difficulty finding a balance in their anticipation of the Second Coming.

For example, it is easy to become preoccupied with possible scenarios for the fulfillment of prophecy, including speculations about the date of Jesus' return. Even though the Bible makes clear that we cannot know the time of the Second Advent (Matt. 24:36; Acts 1:7), hardly a year goes by without someone making a new prediction. Some, in their certainty that the end of this age is just around the corner, neglect the duties of life or fail to plan ahead in case their wait is longer than they expect. Such problems apparently existed in the first-century congregation in Thessalonica, judging from some of the apostle Paul's admonitions to them (I Thes. 4:11-12; 2 Thes. 3:6-12).

On the other hand, it is hard to maintain a life in ``crisis mode'' for very long. When expected dates for Jesus' return come and go without incident, it is possible to become disillusioned and lose faith in God's promises. The apostle Peter warns against this possibility in 2 Peter 3.

How, then, should Christians approach the reality of the Second Coming? Seventh-day Adventist scholar Samuele Bacchiocchi offers the following suggestions [1]:

1. Living with a forward look, as described by the apostle Paul in Phil. 3:11-14. Here Paul compares himself to a runner straining for the finish line-in this case, the resurrection to occur at Jesus' return (vv. 11, 20-21). Rather than dwelling on past failures (e.g., his previous persecution of Christians) or present trials (his imprisonment referred to in Phil. 1:14), he looks ahead to a glorious future. Paul recommends this approach to all mature believers (v. 15).

Those who live with a forward look think of themselves as pilgrims on the way to a better destination, following in the footsteps of Abraham and other heroes of faith (Heb. 11:8-16). Knowing that the activities and possessions of this life are not an end in themselves, they can keep these things in perspective.

2. Living by the Spirit, which will enable us to lead ``self-controlled, upright and godly lives'' while we await Christ's coming (Titus 2:11-13). The parable of the ten virgins (Matt. 25:1-13) suggests that our own resources will not be sufficient to take us to our goal. Instead, we need God's help through the Holy Spirit, symbolized by the oil in the parable. Today, as we face the challenge of living in a society in which God's ways are not valued, Jesus' parable is at least as relevant as ever.

3. Living a balanced life, following the instruction of Peter in I Peter 4:7: ``The end of all things is near. Therefore be clear-minded and self-controlled so that you can pray.'' Here Peter stresses both physical and mental self-control. Moderation in physical habits can help us to stay focused mentally and thus to pray more effectively. Prayer, in turn, makes us more receptive and responsive to the Holy Spirit.

4. Living lovingly, as Peter goes on to say in I Peter 4:8: ``Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins.'' Bacchiocchi observes that ektenes, the Greek word for ``deeply,'' has the connotation of ``zealous and never failing.'' This type of love was a hallmark of the early church, and it is a key to our present efforts to proclaim the gospel. Jesus cautioned that ``the love of most will grow cold'' in times of great wickedness (Matt. 24:12). In such times, members of Christian communities can strengthen and encourage each other, helping each other to the finish line.

5. Living industriously, making the most of the gifts God has given us. Jesus teaches us this point in the parable of the pounds or talents (Luke 19:11-27; Matt. 25:14-30), showing that it is not good for us to wait idly for His return. Instead, we should plan as if considerable time remains until He comes back, while at the same time expecting that He will arrive soon.


``...to judge the living and the dead....''

An important part of the work of Christ after His Second Coming will be the judging of every person who has ever lived. In Matt. 16:27, Jesus states,


``For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father's glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to the what he has done.''


The apostle Paul also asserts this truth, writing in 2 Cor. 5:10,


``For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.''


In teaching the certainty of a future judgment, Christianity affirms the justice of God. The distribution of rewards and punishments in this life is often not equitable, but the divine judgment carried out by Jesus Christ will be fair and impartial (Col. 3:24-25; Eph. 6:8-9). The truth of a coming judgment is also an important reminder that the privileges of God's offer of salvation are accompanied by responsibilities.

The gospels provide us with extensive teaching about the criteria according to which judgment will be allotted. Barclay [2, pp. 201-206] summarizes that teaching in the following points:

1. Uselessness invites disaster. The one who ``hides his talent'' is condemned (Matt 25:24-30), and a fig tree that ultimately bears no fruit will be cut down (Luke 13:6-9).

2. Reaction to human need is important. Jesus teaches that we serve God by serving others, especially those in need (Matt. 25:31-46).

3. Leading others into sin earns great condemnation-see, e.g., Matt 18:3-7.

4. Profession without practice is condemned-see Matt. 7:21-27.

5. We will be judged according to the quality of our ordinary, everyday lives, as indicated by the mention of casual conversation in Matt. 12:36.

6. We will be judged by our willingness to accept the offer that God makes to us in Jesus Christ. This offer, which demands a response, is compared to an invitation to a wedding banquet in Luke 14:15-24 and Matt. 22:1-10. In these parables, the excuses made by those who turn down the invitation involve important, worthwhile activities; however, commitment to Jesus is even more important.

7. We will be judged by loyalty or disloyalty to Jesus Christ. Jesus will acknowledge before God all who acknowledge Him before men (Matt. 10:32-33; Mark 8:38; Luke 9:26). That a person is His disciple should not be a well-kept secret.

8. Materialism is a trap. For example, the ``rich fool'' in the parable of Luke 12:16-21 was caught up in the accumulation of wealth and in dreams of future ease and luxury, so much so that he neglected to prepare for the world to come.

9. Refusal to repent makes one liable to judgment, as Luke 13:1-5 points out. Repentance results in forgiveness (Ps. 32:5; 51:17), but habitual refusal to repent can lead ultimately to the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit spoken of in Matt. 12:22-32. In this passage, Jesus' accusers attribute to the devil what is actually the work of the Holy Spirit. By doing so, they resist the guidance of the Spirit, which enables one to recognize the truth when it is revealed. If one continually refuses to accept the Spirit's guidance, one eventually loses the ability to distinguish good from evil and thus the capacity to repent and seek forgiveness.

10. A severe judgment is passed on the Pharisees in Matt. 23:13-33. Jesus gives this judgment in sadness rather than in anger. (Barclay [2] points out that the Greek word for ``woe'' has the sense of ``alas.'') He condemns them for setting man-made rules above God's commands, and in general for giving a religious system priority above God. Their religion had tended to became externalized, rather than a matter of the heart, leading to a legalism that shut out love. Such a human tendency toward legalism is not unique to the Pharisees of Jesus' time; it is a common pitfall in every generation.


The Question of Hell

Both the Hebrew scriptures and the New Testament mention the possibility, referred to in the ninth point above, of people defiantly setting themselves against God and refusing to submit to Him (Num. 15:30-31; Matt. 12:32; Heb. 10:26-31). In the apostle John's vision recorded in Rev. 20:14-15, such people are are resurrected and ``thrown into the lake of fire'' one thousand years after Jesus' return.

The exact details of the fate of the incorrigibly wicked have long been a matter of speculation and controversy among Christians. Many hold the ``traditionalist'' position that unrepentant sinners suffer eternal conscious separation from God. Others, including Christians from the Adventist tradition, are ``conditionalists'' who believe that the unrepentant will cease to exist after some period of punishment. 3 (For a recent discussion of this controversy, see [5].)

The Worldwide Church of God, formerly an Adventist denomination that supported the conditionalist view, allows for both positions in the entry on ``Hell'' in its current Statement of Beliefs:


``Hell is the separation and alienation from God chosen by incorrigible sinners.... Hell is characterized by punishment, torment, anguish, weeping and gnashing of teeth, and eternal destruction.... The Bible teaches that unrepentant sinners will suffer the second death in the lake of fire, but it does not make absolutely clear whether this means annihilation or conscious spiritual alienation from God.''


Note that these two positions share important common ground: according to both, the punishment of the incorrigibly wicked involves a separation from God that is permanent. God does not want anyone to choose such a fate (2 Peter 3:9); and Christians, regardless of their particular views about hell, pray for ``everyone to come to repentance.''


Reminders and Lessons about Judgment

Knowing that God judges each of us (Eccl. 12:14; Heb. 9:27; I Peter 4:17-18), we should live each day with an awareness that we are in His presence. However, we do not need to be filled with fear and dread as we contemplate the future. Alister McGrath [4] offers the following insights on how to approach the subject of divine judgment:

1. We are judged by One who knows us totally. God knows each of us inside and out (Ps. 139:1-4; John 1:47-50; 2:23-25; 4:18) and yet loves us. Understanding this, we should be honest about ourselves with God.

2. We are judged by One who is passionately committed to us. The cross shows God's love for us (John 3:16), and Jesus understands the challenges we face as humans, having lived a human life (Heb. 4:14-16).

3. We are judged by someone we know and trust. God, the sole Judge of humankind, places in Jesus the authority to judge (John 3:35-36; Matt. 28:18). We are judged on the basis of our response to Christ, not on some unknown grounds. Christians have been justified (Rom. 5:1) and so know the basic outcome of that judgment.

4. In making our own judgments, we should follow God's example. Jesus' famous statement of Matthew 7:1 (``Judge not, that ye be not judged.'') does not imply that one should never make a judgment. Indeed, this passage (vv. 1-5) gives instruction on how to make judgments.

Mutual criticism is an essential part of life in the Christian community, a means of growth. The previous three points provide guidance on how to give proper and effective criticism. In particular, one should take time to learn about a situation before offering criticism-it is all too easy to be critical of something that one does not understand. God is fully informed about us us; similarly, our criticisms should be well-informed.

In addition, criticism should be based on love and commitment to another person. The cross is a criticism of us, but God does not stop with that criticism. Instead, He stands by us and gives us the means to be forgiven and to grow in grace. Criticism is not an end in itself. God criticizes us in order to save us; similarly, we should not criticize someone unless we are committed to helping that person.

Keeping in mind the points discussed in this article, we can join with the rest of the Christian community in anticipating the return of Jesus Christ with confidence, hope, patience, and joy.



to be continued ....



1.       Samuele Bacchiocchi, The Advent Hope for Human Hopelessness , Biblical Perspectives, Berrien Springs, Michigan, 1985.

2.      William Barclay, The Apostles' Creed for Everyman , Harper & Row, New York, 1967.


3.       Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., The Messiah in the Old Testament, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1995.

4.      Alister McGrath, I Believe: Understanding and Applying the Apostles' Creed, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1991.

5.      Keith W. Stump, ``The Battle over Hell,'' The Plain Truth, Sept./Oct. 2001, pp. 9-15.


1named after William Miller, who predicted Christ would return in 1844.

2For discussion of the connections between the Feast of Trumpets and the first and second advents of Jesus, see Issue 1 of Grace and Knowledge.

3Even the editorial board of Grace and Knowledge is divided on this subject. My wife Sherry and I are conditionalists, while Consulting Editor Jared Olar is a traditionalist. We plan to explore the subject further in future issues.

Issue 9


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