I was hoping that at least one of the views expressed in Four Views on the Role of Works at the Final Judgment (Counterpoints: Bible and Theology), edited by Alan Stanley, would recognize that the theological problem looks very different—and frankly much less problematic—from a narrative-historical perspective. Sadly not. The four positions can be efficiently summarized using the chapter headings:
- Robert Wilkin: “Christians will be judged according to their works at the rewards judgment, but not at the final judgment.”
- Thomas Schreiner: “Justification apart from and by works: at the final judgment works will confirm justification.”
- James Dunn: “If Paul could believe both in justification by faith and judgment according to works, why should that be a problem for us?’
- Michael Barber: “A Catholic Perspective: our works are meritorious at the final judgment because of our union with Christ.”
Each chapter is followed by critical—and sometimes quite scathing—responses from the other three disputants. In my view the manner in which these four theologians tie themselves in knots trying to rationalize the data is pretty strong confirmation that the traditional paradigm is flawed. What follows is a rough outline, with some exegetical illustration, of how I think the issue might better be approached.
1. All four contributors to the book assume that all statements about judgment or wrath in the New Testament refer to a final judgment of all humanity. By contrast, under the narrative-historical paradigm these judgment texts are mostly understood to refer to temporal events, according to a well established Old Testament pattern: God judges Israel by means of a foreign power, such as the Babylonians, then he judges this enemy of Israel in a similar fashion.
I don’t propose to defend the view in detail here, but in general terms, I see no reason to think that the New Testament fundamentally shifts judgment and salvation from the historical sphere to the supra-historical sphere, from religio-politics to metaphysics. The resurrection of Jesus certainly introduces a cosmic dimension, which must give rise to a new heaven and a new earth, but otherwise the eschatological narrative stays focused on God’s people and the nations. Although the language of New Testament apocalyptic is highly symbolic, it is at almost every point drawn from Old Testament texts (e.g., Dan. 7) which describe the outcome of a foreseen clash between Israel and one or other powerful nation. The premise of New Testament eschatology ought to be that this historical frame remains in place.
2. It is clear that temporal events of this nature affect people not simply as individuals but as members of communities. In my view, it is a basic failing of the book that the contributors attempt to solve the problem of judgment and works without reference to the story of the crisis of first century Israel in relation to pagan empire.
3. Temporal judgment has temporal consequences. When God “judged” Egypt at the time of the exodus (Acts 7:7), the consequence was the suffering caused by the plagues, the defeat of Pharaoh’s army, and the liberation of the Israelites from slavery. The situation in the New Testament is no different. Judgment on first century Israel would be a judgment of gehenna, when the Jews would be forced to throw the bodies of the dead over the walls of Jerusalem into the valleys because there was no place left in the besieged city to bury them. To be cast into outer darkness, where there was weeping and gnashing of teeth, was to be excluded from the future people of God, over which Jesus would rule as YHWH’s anointed king. Paul argues that those who sow to the flesh will reap from the flesh, those who sow to the Spirit will reap the life of the age to come. If they do not give up, if they do not grow weary of doing good, if they walk by the Spirit and do not “gratify the desires of the flesh”, they will reap the corresponding consequences of their behaviour, the future life of the kingdom of God (Gal. 5:16-24; 6:8-9).
4. The argument with respect to faith and works is certainly not that any particular individual can only be saved for eternity by faith and not by good works. But neither is it simply that membership of the covenant community is secured by faith in Jesus rather than by works of the Law. It is, I would argue, that only a community of faith—or better, faithfulness—would fulfil its eschatological purpose. If we delete this “missional” element from our account of judgment, we are left with no practical basis for an emphasis on works.
5. Such eschatological faith was not merely a matter of belief. It was inherently a matter of faithfulness, perseverance, endurance. A person was included in the people of God because he or she believed that Jesus had died for the sins of his people and had been raised from the dead and seated at the right hand of God. But the resurrection of Jesus was also understood to have profound implications for the future of the ancient world. It meant that he would come to judge and rule over, first, his own people and, secondly, the nations.
Faith was, therefore, a matter of participation in the whole eschatological narrative. It was the journey which Jesus’ followers had to make down a narrow and difficult road leading to the new and everlasting life of God’s people following judgment on Israel. It was a journey of faith or trust precisely because it was a controversial and risky departure from Jewish “orthodoxy”. Not every disciple or servant would complete the journey—the love of many would grow cold. Only those who endured to the end would be saved (Matt. 24:13).
Similarly, faith was the existential reorientation that would get the churches of the Greek-Roman world safely through to the parousia, when they would be publicly vindicated for their belief that the future belonged to the God of Israel. Paul commends the community in Thessalonica for their “faith in God”, by which he means that they had turned their backs on the idolatries of their culture to serve the living and true God and to “wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come” (1 Thess. 1:10).
6. The community of Jesus’ disciples and then the early churches of the Greek and Roman world would also be “judged” by these events—in the sense that it would become concretely and publicly apparent whether or not they had remained true to their calling. This is the point of the saying about the Son of Man coming within a generation to “repay each person according to what he has done” (Matt. 16:27) and of the parables in which a master returns and judges his servants.
Luke’s parable of the nobleman who goes into a far country to receive a kingdom ends with the slaughter of those enemies who “did not want me to reign over them” (Lk. 19:11-27). These opponents are the Jews who rejected Jesus as the Christ and Son of the living God. But the servant who feared the severity of the nobleman and failed to invest the mina which had been given to him suffers the disgrace of losing even what he had. In Matthew’s version of the story the “wicked and slothful servant” is cast into the “outer darkness”, where there will be “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matt. 25:30). In other words, he will share in the fate of unrighteous Israel. The same point is made in the earlier parable (24:45-51) where the wicked servant is cut to pieces and put with the hypocrites, where there will be “weeping and gnashing of teeth”.
The day of fire to which Paul refers in 1 Corinthians 3:13 is not—contrary to Dunn (60)—a “day appointed by God for final judgment”, but an impending time of suffering, persecution; it is part of the eschatological crisis of the victory of YHWH over the pagan gods, which, in quite realistic fashion, will test the spiritual quality of the churches. Or as Peter has it: “it is time for judgment to begin at the household of God; and if it begins with us, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God?” (1 Pet. 4:17).
7. Those communities which successfully made the journey through to the eschatological climax—from Jesus’ perspective the fall of Jerusalem to the Romans, from Paul’s the conversion of the empire—would be vindicated and rewarded. For the dead—or at least for the martyrs—this would mean resurrection to share in the coming reign of Christ over the nations. For the living it would mean a much more down-to-earth participation in the future historical existence of the people of God.
8. Because God is an impartial judge, those Gentiles who had in effect done the works of the Law would be “justified”. They would be found to have been in the right for having sought after the creator God, for not having been “given over” to sexual immorality and wickedness (cf. Rom. 2:14-16). They would be found worthy of the coming age, in which Jesus would be confessed as Lord by the nations, to the glory of Israel’s God. They would be justified by their works. Indeed, such righteous Gentiles would put unrighteous diaspora Judaism to shame on the day when God judged the pagan world by his Son, Jesus Christ (cf. Rom. 2:27; Acts 17:31). Jesus makes the same point: at this judgment of the nations, Gentiles who had attended to the material needs of the disciples would be judged worthy of entering his kingdom (Matt. 25:31-40). They would find themselves on the right side of history.
9. Judgment on Israel followed by judgment on the pagan world brings us into the age when Jesus reigns, with the martyrs, from the throne of God, until the last enemy is destroyed. In John’s apocalyptic scheme this is a symbolic period of a thousand years. At a final judgment all the dead are judged “according to what they had done”, and anyone whose name is not written in the book of life is thrown into the lake of fire, which is not hell but a reaffirmation of the fundamental fact that the wages of sin is death. John does not address the question of whether Christians are included in this judgment, and I won’t attempt to second guess him.