The whole of the New Testament refers or allude to the Last Judgement: of the 27 books, only Paul's letter to Philemon does not mention it. Most of the descriptions of judgement talks about what happens for followers, but few passages describe what the reality of lost souls will be: it sometimes uses frightening but metaphoric pictures of it (that we will try to understand), but what is interesting is that very often the NT contrasts two types of believers: those who make Jesus' words a rule of life, and those who listen to them without taking them seriously. So judgement is often described as a separation between different kinds of believers!
We will begin with Jesus’ view of judgement
The end of John 12 (from v37) is a commentary from the evangelist who wrote the Gospel. This commentary is a transition between the description of the life of Jesus and the description of his last supper. So, it is of high theological significance1: let us read John 12,47-50 a passage in which Jesus sums up his view of judgement:
If anyone hears my words and doesn’t keep them, I do not judge him;
for I did not come to judge the world but to save the world.
The one who rejects me and doesn’t receive my sayings has this as his judge:
The word I have spoken will judge him on the last day.
For I have not spoken on my own, but the Father himself who sent me has given me a command to say everything I have said. I know that his command is eternal life. So the things that I speak, I speak just as the Father has told me.
In this passage judgment consists in rejecting Jesus: this is the ultimate criterion. So it is about us and not about God’s supposed will to punish any one (1Timothy 2,4). According to this passage, rejecting Jesus is the same as not receiving his sayings. It is rooted in the main problem of humanity: "the will to be like God" (Genesis 3,5) and it is precisely from this attitude of almightiness, proven by rejecting Jesus, that Jesus wants to save us. So faith in judgment is the ultimate protection against the human claim to omnipotence!
God’s judgment is not a verdict that we have to await in fear. It is something that comes from us! Following this line, we could even say that it is us who will claim the verdict through our convictions and our way of life (see also Matthew 7,1-5 or Luke 20,47). We find the same kind of idea in the same Gospel in the ever famous chapter 3: John 3,16-21
For God loved the world in this way:
He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.
For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.
Anyone who believes in him is not condemned, but
anyone who does not believe is already condemned,
because he has not believed in the name of the one and only Son of God.
This is the judgement:
The light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than the light because their deeds were evil.
For everyone who does evil hates the light and avoids it, so that his deeds may not be exposed.
But anyone who lives by the truth comes to the light, so that his works may be shown to be accomplished by God.”
The first goal of God is not to command or to juge but provide eternal life. So as christians, we should not be afraid of judgment for three reasons (at least):
1/ Judgement is not about morality but about spirituality (i.e. a relationship with God). It is believing properly (Matthew 25,24-26) which is the key to understand judgement. Believing is: not rejecting Jesus, in the previous passage. It is also receiving his sayings. As says John 5,24
“Truly I tell you, anyone who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not come under judgment but has passed from death to life.
2/ if we understand the evangelist’s way of reasoning, judgment is not a surprise! We know if we have rejected Jesus or not. If we don’t know, this is one of the signs that we have probably not received his sayings properly. This is the kind of rebuke that Matthew 12,38-42 expresses.
3/ at the end: each of us will give an account of himself to God (Romans 14,12) not so much on his works but more on his motivations. Indeed John 3,19 expresses this idea that the problem is not so much evil deeds for themselves, but loving darkness which means loving evil without revealing that we love it. Of course no one will claim that he loves evil. And there is no need to be a murderer to love evil. To live without this awareness that we need help to understand and live life as it was designed by God to be, is to live in darkness from a spiritual perspective.
The theologian Miroslav Volf gives a good definition of judgement according to Jesus in the Gospel of John:
"God will judge, not because God gives people what they deserve, but because some people refuse to receive what no one deserves; if evil doers experience God‘s terror, it will not be because they have done evil, but because they have resisted to the end the powerful lure of the open arms of the crucifying Messiah."2
Judgement is not a violent concept when it is considered from God’s perspective. It is not an action from God: it is not retributive nor is it a verdict but only a consequence of our choices and of actions that follow them.
1 The title given to this passage in the CSB is « A SUMMARY OF JESUS’S MISSION ».
2 Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace, Abington Press, Nashville, 1996, p.298.