Towards a Biblical Theology of Final Judgment – A Quote to Ponder (Jon Isaak)


Recently I interviewed Anabaptist / evangelical theologian, Jon Isaak about his new book, New Testament Theology: Extending the Table.  He has a great quote that is worth pondering as evangelicals seek to discern the essentials and nonessentials regarding hell and judgment.  He states:

All four of these scenarios of the final judgment are interpretations
that emerge from the imagery used by the NT writers. Should they be
reduced to one? Should some be ruled out? Should one be given preference?
This journey through NT theology has emphasized the diversity
of NT voices and images. So at one level, it is impossible to reconcile
these four NT images of the final judgment. Any one scenario effectively
eliminates the other three. However, at another level, each scenario does
illuminate some aspects of the NT writers’ witness to the final judgment.
To eliminate any would be to claim more than we can or should, as all
four derive from NT imagery. Still, there are three things that ought to
be said when constructing a biblical theology of the final judgment.

First, however the concept of the final judgment is imagined, it
must be shaped by the self-disclosure of God in Jesus. It is theologically
inconsistent to say that God will abandon God’s character of agape love
at some point in the future. Jesus is not expected to operate differently in
the end than he did during his ministry; the old-age notion of redemptive
violence does not get reactivated in the end. At the same time, it is
equally inconsistent to imagine that God could “wink” at evil, as if it did
not matter. God’s face is firmly set against evil and will not allow it to
have the final word.

Second, however the final judgment is conceived, it must not let
human cooperation or human freedom be trivialized, manipulated, or
eliminated. Both double predestination and universalism trample on
this fundamental freedom characteristic of God and the humanity created
in God’s image.

Third, however the final judgment is conceptualized, it must keep
the church’s mandate clearly focused on God’s mission to invite all creation
and every individual to authentic life and to unalienated relationship.
The invitation is to return home, to rediscover one’s true and prior
identity as God’s beloved. God’s mission is not about providing “hellfire
insurance,” but about the tremendous opportunities to experience authentic
living from now on. The gospel invitation is to come along now
and begin to experience authentic living; it will only get more difficult to
come along if one persists in rebellion. There is much to miss, even now,
by insisting on choosing the consequences of hell: alienation from God. (p. 343)

I would love to hear your thoughts on this quote and on what you believe are the absolute essentials that must be kept in tact on this issue of hell and judgment.  Or, maybe you believe that it is what we have considered to be ‘essential’ that needs to go, express that as well…

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  • Any view of final judgment which downplays or skirts around Jesus’ numerous warnings of it (wheat/weeds, good fish/bad fish, sheep goats, narrow road/wide road, etc.) and denies the Scriptural notion of the Resurrection and Judgment of both the righteous and the wicked (Dan.12, etc.) cannot be held as Biblically valid, IMO.

    Those who “lose Hell” end up losing the message of the One who preached on it more than anyone else…and the only One with the actual authority to do so definitively.

    • JM.. I dont think we can ‘lose hell’ either although some constructions of it may be a bit off… similar to the pop-theology of heaven we both critique.

      Did you get the idea that the quote downplays it? I didn’t read that?

      • I like that relation to the pop-culture of heaven… heaven is no more sitting around like cherubs in white robes playing harps than hell is a bunch of red-skinned fella’s skewering sinners with pitchforks

    • M.

      And yet, as you read Jesus’ parables about judgement, etc, it seems there is a good deal of uncertainty – those who think they’re in may not be, and those others think are out are actually in. While we should do everything we can to be in, (though not merely for the sake of being ‘in’, mind you, but for the sake of following Jesus…), and to help others do the same, we need to be prepared to be surprised at the last day by God’s sovereignty, grace, wrath, and mercy.

  • Ben Irwin

    Totally resonate w/the idea that love and coercion don’t mix. That’s why “redemptive violence” doesn’t make sense (well, one reason anyway). That’s why predestination (as understood by some) doesn’t make sense to me. And that’s why an absolute, 100% certain universalism (which isn’t actually what Rob Bell advocates) doesn’t make sense either.

    One of the best things about the Anabaptist tradition (as an outsider) is its commitment to a consistently sacrificial love. Not a selectively sacrificial love. And not a temporarily loving God, either.

    That’s why I’m inclined to believe people send themselves to hell, as opposed to God sending them to hell. It’s not God’s love that changes when we reject him; we’re the ones who change, tragically for the worse.

  • Some great thoughts here! The one thing that is not true IMO is that ALL types of universalism trample on human cooperation and freedom. Rob Bell is not saying everyone is going to heaven whether they want to or not. He simply trusts in the power of unending non-coercive love to ultimately overcome our resistance and rebellion. And if Isaiah 45:22-25 and Philippians 2:10-11 are indeed an expression of God’s unchanged way of reaching out in love rather than coercion, there is some solid biblical evidence there that this oath God has sworn will not rest until it has accomplished its universal goal and all eyes will see that nothing is impossible with God.

  • Let me just add that I’m not disregarding the notion of a literal hell…but I’m saying that it’s not as important to me as making sure the Kingdom is lived out in my life and that I represent the Kingdom faithfully to others so that they, too, can enjoy this wonderful Kingdom.

    Whether it’s eternal torment (which I’m not sure about) or annihilation (which I’m leaning towards) or something else is not as critical as making sure that I show godly love to others and, in doing so, spread the Kingdom around a bit…

  • Erik Hadden

    I like the quote from this author very much– very balanced and wise, IMO.

    There is also the idea that if God is Life and true Existence, then disconnection with God is a movement toward non-existence. And hell cannot be a literal place then, but a state (or a place on a continuum toward a state) of non-existence. Life in Christ is connection with God, participation in His Life and therefore movement toward true existence and true humanity– this is salvation, this movement, through God’s grace, more and more into His Life.

    Below is a link to a good treatment of this idea. Here’s a quote: “St. Athanasius in his De Incarnatione, sees sin (and thus hell) as a movement towards ‘non-being.’”

  • Thank you, jshmueller, for this excellent statement:

    “Some great thoughts here! The one thing that is not true IMO is that ALL types of universalism trample on human cooperation and freedom. Rob Bell is not saying everyone is going to heaven
    whether they want to or not. He simply trusts in the power of unending non-coercive love to ultimately overcome our resistance and rebellion. And if Isaiah 45:22-25 and Philippians 2:10-11 are indeed an expression of God’s unchanged way of reaching out in love rather than coercion, there is some solid biblical evidence there that this oath God has sworn will not rest until it has accomplished its universal goal and all eyes will see that nothing is impossible with God.”

    Those are precisely my thoughts. I’m glad I read through the comments before posting mine.

    From my High School years until I was in my late 30s I was a strict “5-Point” Calvinist (Total depravity, Unconditional election, Limited atonement, Irresistible grace, and Perseverance of the saints – TULIP). I remember discussing this with my father when I was probably in my early 20s, and he said he would have to call himself a “3-Point” Calvinist. What??? I knew there were “4-Pointers” who believed in “Unlimited atonement”, but I had never heard of a “3-Pointer”. My father said he denied both “Limited atonement” and “Irresistible grace” even though he believed in “Unconditional” election. How did he reconcile what seemed to me to be contradictory ideas? He couldn’t, except to say that he believed the Bible taught both ‘sovereign election’ and ‘free will’ – so he was duty bound to believe them both. Somehow God’s purposes and desires are infallibly certain to be accomplished, without involving any idea of compulsion. God is able to accomplish his sovereign decrees without violating the free will He gave to men.

    Ironically, I now agree with my father – except that I have come to fully embrace “universalism”. God’s purpose of ‘salvation’ is not for an “elect few”, but for every soul which He created; and this purpose is infallibly certain of accomplishment, but without violating the ‘freedom of choice’ given to humanity. Ultimately, God’s power of persuasion far exceeds humanity’s ability to argue against and resist Him. You might say that God has an overwhelmingly important factor in His favor: we are created in His image and likeness, and that image has only been covered up – not obliterated. God has an “agent within”, fighting on His behalf. With God’s light shining from ‘without’ as well as ‘within’ us, the darkness doesn’t stand a chance of prevailing ultimately! 🙂 God will use the ‘corrective punishment’ of hell both on earth and in the “hereafter”, as well as persuasion, kindness, and encouragement; and all of those things working in cooperation are sure to prevail over our free, but relatively weak (in comparison to God), will.

  • All I know is that a hell of a lot of my non-Christian friends are a lot more Christlike in their attitudes than a lot of the people who call themselves Christ’s followers. That, I think, speaks far more loudly than any of the rhetoric I’ve heard from within the church…

  • Paula Ann

    A Zen proverb reads like this: If you understand, things are just as they are; if you do not understand, things are just as they are.

    I recently heard somewhere …… ?? That knowledge is the enemy of faith. Both of these statements appeal to me in their simplicity and accuracy.

    No matter what I learn, hear, understand or not understand, it comes down to this for me. God is supernatural, my experience of God is supernatural. It doesn’t make sense, I cannot prove God’s existence in the world or my life; but I know God and God knows me. I believe, I trust in God.

    I don’t know (for certain) anything else – and to be honest neither does anyone else. We can’t. ……….. These discussions are just exercises in trying to prove – trying to understand – trying to know (for sure.) What do they achieve? Final judgement? Life after death? For goodness sake, most of us don’t even know how to live in God’s Grace, much less wondering, striving to understand afterwards.


  • Brad Thomas

    Dualism. It is the way our intellects work. Right and wrong, good and evil, black and white. This dualism is a gift from God, but it is not the only gift. In our modern era (now post-modern, I guess) dualism has ruled. This led to materialism (the philosophical kind), which in turn led to if can see it, I can believe it, but as C.S. Lewis points out, it is more accurate really to say that believing is seeing. In his novel Life of Pi, Yann Martel distinguishes this dualism, this materialism, this rational thinking as “dry, yeastless factuality” as opposed to what his main character, Pi (like the equation that produces a number which is irrational and, as far as any really brilliant mathematician can tell is infinite), calls “the better story,” the idea being that everything is a story. It involves some invention by its teller. It is a way of telling the truth. This leads to what some would consider a gruesome ending in the novel (which I will not give away), while others would term it no less a miracle. It reminds me of the gruesome ending of Christ’s life on the cross.
    Within the issue of God’s judgment or heaven and hell (as Rob Bell has recently written about), and all theological debates and discussions, lies the conundrum of dualism as the means by which these issues are approached. The paradoxes of Jesus’ central teachings: nonviolence, loving the poor, loving your enemies, mercy, etc. do not really fit this very dualistic bound system of theological dogma or doctrine, what I would call orthodoxy or biblical or fundamental, which I do not really see as orthodox, biblical, but maybe fundamental. Dualism does play a part in understanding the gospel, but it is only a part.
    The Greeks viewed humanity as three parts: cerebral man, visceral man, which compromised in the heart or chest of man (C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man, Ch.2 Men Without Chests). The intellect and the desires of a man wrestled and came to compromise (magnanimity – mercy) and filled the heart or soul. It is no coincidence, in my opinion that to the Greeks humanity was essentially a three-in-one being (here’s a little theology I suppose). We disciples of Jesus worship a God who is “Father,” “Son,” and “Holy Spirit,” and these three are one. Even the Greeks expressed that they were created in this sort of imaging, this three-in-oneness. The point is that the intellect, where dualism resides, is just one aspect to humanity.
    The recent interview of Rob Bell by an MSNBC anchor was essentially for the anchor an exercise in dualism. For example: “Which is it? God is not all-powerful or God caused the Japan disaster?” Bell appropriately said that is a paradox that no one can really answer except for God. The “world,” as we Christians like to say, particularly the western industrial world (first-world nations) currently primarily functions in a dualism and materialism. Even most evangelical and mainstream denominations function in a dualistic mind-set. It is a mind-set that gives rise to institutional religion where rite and ritual do not change, where specific words must be used as a code, and specific behaviors must be practiced all the while leaving the heart and mind relatively untouched. I would argue that what Jesus really came to teach and what we Christians, after about the first 200 years of the church, practice are for the most part far away from each other. Institutionally we have adopted the world’s ways into our institutions in the name of power, safety, and security, all three of which, as they are defined by nation-states, have no relation to Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.
    Jesus says in Matthew and Mark, “Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand.” Aside from the “world’s” interpretation of this as coming from an angry God who sends ugly, crazy people out on street corners to spew His anger and wrath about the end of the world, Jesus’ words mean something far remote from that misconception, and this gets to the heart of the idea of the last judgment and what the four interpretations imply. The word repent in the Greek is actually metanoia. This word really means “change your mind.” This is not a call for dualism. What Jesus was actually saying was, “Change your mind about the way you see and hear the world and those around you. And how will you do this? Look at me. Watch what I say and do.” When Jesus said “the Kingdom is at hand,” what He was saying was that “judgment and the end of the world are irrelevant to entering my Kingdom. What’s relevant is that Heaven and God have not waited for the world to end before establishing Heaven, that is “the new creation” as Paul puts it. Heaven and God have come down to earth and God has inserted himself into the “world” as the “first of the new creation.” Just as a screwdriver is incredibly helpful in screwing in a screw when it is at hand, the Kingdom is also at hand and must be used. Jesus uses the power of the Kingdom by loving, serving, healing, and teaching with His life, all through what the Father tells him to do, through the power of the Spirit that dwells in Him, the same Spirit (the same God), we believers have access to. We are dead already. We died up front, as Paul says, so that we can live NOW, in the Kingdom, in heaven. In an earthly Kingdom, the King may reside in a castle in the center of the Kingdom, and many subjects may find themselves in the outlying parts, maybe even the territories not yet a part of the kingdom fully. If you want to argue that heaven is not fully realized, then that’s ok with me. However, the idea of the now and not yet is not a part of Jesus’ teaching. He tells the woman at the well that a time is coming and has already come when all will worship in spirit and truth.
    Change your mind. Live in the Kingdom. It sounds to me like judgment has already occurred. I do believe that our choices are an integral part of our relationship with God. Living with intention to be surrendered to God and His will, to be transformed by the renewing of your mind as you live your every day here and now lives with a changed mind, eyes that see and ears that hear is the process of living in the Kingdom and being in heaven right now. When I find myself in those rare moments listening to God and living in obedience to the Spirit, dancing with God and with those around me if you will, life slows down and becomes so full of experience, revelation, and joy in what I’m doing and who I’m relating to in those times that I think time has been eradicated and this day is lasting forever. It’s full. It’s filled. I’m full. I’m filled. I’m fulfilled because I see the world with inward-looking eyes and outward-looking eyes, not one or the other, dualistically, but everything together, all at once. Maybe that is what is meant by “working out your salvation.” But as for judgment and heaven, I dance with God, just as Jesus dances with the Father and the Spirit. They are orbiting one another and delighting in each other, and I’ve been invited into that dance, letting God (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) lead me. Responding to His lead, feeling his nudge, learning and thinking, and physically responding. The Shema reads, “Love the Lord with all your heart, your mind, your soul, and strength.” Why did God give us this prayer in this way? Because He wanted us to see that wholeness is heaven. We can’t just think about God and religion theologically. We can’t just feel our way in this relationship. We can’t just do the “right” things behaviorally. We must do all of these things. We must allow them to be animated by the Spirit, letting them dance with one another by the Spirit that provides the music and the leading through scripture, emotion, intellect, and experience.
    Most of us are comfortable with the intellect part, and we like to sit in seats on the weekend agreeing with the theology, then go home satisfied that our ideas are all lined up, because that is far easier than a mind change that, led by the Spirit, directs us to live every part of our being in the Kingdom. In the film Meet Joe Black, the main character Bill Parrish knows he is going to die on his 65th birthday, and he says, “I don’t really need anything.” The idea is that his life is complete or whole, and he can die because he has, in his estimation, really lived. John Donne’s poetry alludes to the idea that physical death is only a moment. It passes as quickly as it comes, and then we move on. I’d like to suggest for the believer that death does not exist. We may physically stop breathing in these tents we inhabit here on for a time, but as we expel our last breath, we inhale immediately the breath of the Spirit that has already been breathing in us as we walked this physical life we know now in surrender and obedience to God. Maybe the difference is that now we recognize the “breath” of God because it is and always was what was sustaining us from the very beginning. That’s not theology. It’s a story that might help someone. It certainly helps me.
    Heaven is now. The Kingdom is come. Our lives with Christ’s Spirit directing us are showing that Kingdom to those around us. There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. Judgment? I’ve been crucified. Crucified with Christ. Nevertheless I live. Yet not I but Christ lives in me. And the life that I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God who loves me and gives himself for me. Judgment? I’ve been found guilty and my sentence has been commuted. If I stand and accuse others I’ve become the Accuser. That’s what “Satan” means. So I leave the judging to God and I live. I love. Prompted by the Spirit, I love. I’m forgiven – given grace in advance (given before – forgiven). God’s judgment of me has already occurred. He loves me just as I am. So, I accept it. And so, we dance.

  • AmyS

    When we make “getting into heaven” or “staying out of hell” the goal of our faith, we have completely missed the boat.

  • I appreciate this quote. This piece of it is vitally important, IMO: “however the concept of the final judgment is imagined, it must be shaped by the self-disclosure of God in Jesus. It is theologically inconsistent to say that God will abandon God’s character of agape love…” Our tendency, I think, is to agree but then rush on to “yes, buts”… Thanks too for the earlier interview with Jon. I look forward to reading his book.