Final Judgment in Christian thought

Part I - The Resurrection and the Last Judgment in Christian thought and doctrine

Doctrine has always brought debate, just as truth creates division (1 Corinthians 11:19).

When it comes to the vital doctrines of Christianity, as the church we need to fight to save our understanding of the writings of the authors of our Bible, just as was essential from the early church fathers and onwards. Whether trying to understand the Beginning and God’s knowledge of good and evil, or grappling with the End and God’s final salvation and judgment, today we need to keep challenging one another over what is written. It should not surprise us that internally the church has debated every single one of its doctrines and in doing so has fought to preserve itself over the centuries.

And so it can be help to our debate to draw perspective from historical theology: we can trace how Christians throughout the church’s history have understood what today we have controversy over, and look at what debates have taken place. We need to examine how the present is shaped by the past and how we are reacting in the present to our modern challenges.

In recent times, there may be no doctrine that has brought more controversy to the Evangelical movement than the last Judgment.

The End of Evangelicalism?

Conditionalism teaches that immortality is a gift given only to believers, so that either at death or final judgment, unbelievers simply pass into non-existence.

Annihilationism maintains that while hell itself exists eternally, the punishment of those who are destroyed there eventually ceases to exist.

Universalism has escalated in popularity, claiming that all people will eventually be saved either because no one will actually enter hell or because God will give everybody in hell a second chance to repent, and also ensuring that they all do.

Liberalism has challenged the traditional understanding of the New Testament’s teaching by claiming that descriptions of heaven and hell are figurative, and in fact refer to our subjective experiences in this life.

Aware of these growing challenges to Evangelicalism [and of Evangelicalism?], this article presents a historical survey of the church’s teaching on this doctrine. How has God’s final judgement been understood across the history of Christian thought since the ‘children’ of the Apostles?

The doctrine of Last Judgment is tied very closely to the final resurrection, so we are forced to consider that too in our survey. In this article (Part I), I’ll focus on Resurrection to Final Judgment. In Part II of this article, I’ll focus in particular on the nature of Hell.


Against the early developing Gnosticism and other heresies the Fathers such as Ignatius naturally were forced to defend the ‘bodily’ resurrection, something that was necessary too for Jesus and the Apostles.

Although Ignatius’ The Didache seems to miss the concept of a universal resurrection [including unbelievers], The Epistle of Barnabus includes everybody in an end time judgement of all of humanity by the resurrected Jesus (Barnabus, 5).

Polycarp agreed. But Clement of Rome went one step further in arguing for the ‘reasonableness’ of the final resurrection based upon God’s nature and power as Creator (I Clement 24-26).

Justin Martyr

Against Platonism, the Apologists such as Justin Martyr, Titian and Theophilius, followed Clement oF Rome by focusing on arguing for the reasonableness of the resurrection.

Justin Martyr argued from the doctrine of God that since God is omniscient, the bodily resurrection is achievable (First Apology, 18). And taking another step, he also argues that the resurrection is reasonable from what we know of human biology: since human creation from our seed (semen) would be just as unbelievable as the resurrection unless we ourselves, being after Adam, had already seen it happen in the past (First Apology, 19).

Titian also defended the resurrection on similar grounds against the metaphysical difficulties (To the Greeks, 6). Theophilus argued that the resurrection is as logical as it is reasonable that a seed should ‘rise’ into a plant (To Auto, 1:13). Athenagoras also mounted a defence using logic in On the resurrection from the Dead.

But the Apologists did not only defend the resurrection. They also began to defend the validity of the future judgement. Reacting against a philosophical fatalism of their time, Justin Martyr for example argued that since we were ‘free’ to choose to do either right or wrong, it is only just that we be judged in the future for the decisions we made (First Apology, 57; Second Apology, 7; 9).


By the second and third centuries, against a more developed Gnosticism, the early Western theologians Irenaeus, Tertullian and Hippolytus defended the bodily resurrection against the Gnostic doctrine of resurrection, which denied the bodily resurrection by teaching that the ‘flesh’ could not inherit salvation.

In refuting these ideas, Irenaeus showed that one’s doctrine of God determines how one understandings the resurrection. The resurrection should actually require less power from God than what he had already displayed in creating the world (Against Heresies, V.3.2). He also used logic to argue that the resurrection followed directly from the fact that both righteous and unrighteous deeds are done in the body; thus both reward and punishment for those acts must involve the body (Against Heresies, II.29.2).

Irenaeus also began to use logic in arguing from the nature of God:

For God is superior to nature, and has in himself the disposition [to show kindness], because he is good; and the ability to do so, because he is mighty; and the faculty to fully carry out his purpose, because he is rich and perfect (Against Heresies, II.29.2)


Tertullian also argued that judgment stems from the doctrine of the nature of God. He made the step to reason that the purpose of the resurrection was judgment. God’s judgment arises from his essential being [his fundamental nature], which is both good and just, causing him to reward what is good with good and to punish what is evil with evil.

And here Tertullian adds a significant point. God’s judgment must be ‘complete’ and ‘absolute’; his judgment is final:

Our position is, that the judgment of God must be believed first of all to be plenary [complete], and then absolute, so as to be final, and therefore irrevocable; to be also righteous, not bearing less heavily on any particular part; to be moreover worthy of God, being complete and definite, in keeping with His great patience. (Concerning the Resurrection of the Flesh, 14)

For Tertullian, God does not repent after judgment; the final separation of the righteous from the wicked will be permanent.


Origen redeveloped early Eastern theology on the doctrine of the resurrection and judgment. He leaned towards Platonism, though wanting to defend the Scriptural idea of a bodily resurrection. Aware of the difficulties of what he perceived to be crude literalism in the popular Christian presentation of the doctrine of the resurrection, he sought to find a middle road between the Gnostics spiritualism. Consequently, he argued that the soul existed without a body before sin entered the world, and that the resurrection would transform the body into a spiritual ‘material’/’substratum’, retaining not its original ‘material’ but only it’s ‘form’ (Against Celsus, 7.32)

Similarly on the doctrine of judgment, Origen sought a compromise between the classic popular Christian belief and a new doctrine of universal salvation. For Origen, judgment was the fundamental motive for right living in this life and clear evidence of human free will. Unlike Tertullian and others who went before him, Origen believed that following judgement, after God’s separation of the righteous and wicked, the unrepentant will finally come back to God. Accordingly, he argued for a universalistic understanding of the final restoration (Greek, apokatastasis)


Origen attracted fierce criticism. Eustathius of Antioch and Epiphanius began an anti-Origen movement, popularising the heavy challenges of Methodius of Olympus against Origen’s dualism between body and soul, and other aspects of his modified doctrine of the resurrection (The Discourse on the Resurrection, 3: II-IV).

Jerome, originally a disciple of Origen, became possibly his greatest critic, and succeeded in convincing most of the church against his ideas, arguing that his doctrine was tantamount to a denial of the resurrection. He also agreed with Turtullian that after the resurrection, judgment will bring a permanent separation of some to eternal life, and others to eternal shame:

They who slept in the dust of the earth shall arise, some to life eternal, others to shame and everlasting confusion [Dan. 12:2] (Jerome, Against John of Jerusalem, 33).

Most Fathers after Origen held to a universal and bodily resurrection, albeit a renewed version of our original bodies. Few, like Gregory of Nyssa, followed Origen completely [Gregory was a student], although some others sought to explore further how the resurrection would happen. Cyril of Jerusalem suggested that the resurrected body of the righteous would have different qualities to the wicked, which would burn in hell eternally:

We shall be raised therefore, all with our bodies eternal, but not all with bodies alike: for if a man is righteous, he will receive a heavenly body, that he may be able worthily to hold converse with Angels; but if a man is a sinner, he shall receive an eternal body, fitted to endure the penalties of sins, that he may burn eternally in fire, nor ever be consumed. And righteously will God assign this portion to either company; for we do nothing without the body. We blaspheme with the mouth, and with the mouth we pray. With the body we commit fornication, and with the body we keep chastity. With the hand we rob, and by the hand we bestow alms; and the rest is like manner. Since then the body has been our minister in all things, it shall also share with us in the future the  fruits of the past (Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lectures, 19).


Augustine also believed that both the righteous and the wicked will be resurrected and clothed with immortal and incorruptible bodies, though like Jerome, the wicked will receive a body fit only to suffer eternally.

Thomas Aquinas

During the Medieval Period, Thomas Aquinas agreed with Augustine, Jerome and Turtullian who had gone before him in maintaining that although all people without exception will be raised from the dead, only the righteous will receive bodies that are glorious and incapable of suffering; the wicked will receive ignoble bodies and passible (Summa Contra Gentiles, Ch 96, 1).

John Calvin

Martin Luther seemed to say little about the resurrection and final judgment. However John Calvin had a lot to say. For Calvin the primary purpose of the Second Coming and the Resurrection was the Final Judgment.

The reformers were very cautious to speculate about the nature of the End, having reacted against the errors they perceived in Catholicism’s doctrines of purgatory. Calvin reminds us that the resurrection is a mystery [1 Cor 15:51], and that repeating the speculation and ‘philosophy’ of the past will only send us back into error (Institutes, III.25.8)

Calvin recognised that the doctrine of the resurrection of human flesh was ‘difficult’, and that trusting the philosopher’s theories of the ‘immortality’ of the soul would be much easier. But he based his theology on the doctrine on the resurrection of Jesus and the doctrine of God’s power (Institutes, III.25.3)

Calvin contended that our resurrected bodies will be both the same and different; the same substance but of different quality. Both the righteous and the wicked will be raised [John 5:29; Acts 24:15] (Institutes, III.25.8). And both will face Final Judgment [2 Corinthians 5:10].

But as to why the wicked will raised, only to be condemned eternally, Calvin argued from Scripture that firstly the reason is that God’s grace is ‘universally’ offered and overflows to everyone – to the ungodly too in the resurrection, rendering them with even less excuse for their wickedness (Institutes, III.25.9; Sermon on Daniel 12:2, Translated by Quistorp, 1955, p. 144). But secondly and principally, the wicked will be raised because Jesus is the offended party, who raises his enemies in order to satisfy his justice:

Thus the wicked often experience the beneficence of God, not in ordinary measures, but such as sometimes throw all the blessings of the godly into the shade, though they eventually lead to greater damnation. Should it be objected, that the resurrection is not properly compared to fading and earthly blessings, I again answer, that when the devils were first alienated from God, the fountain of life, they deserved to be utterly destroyed; yet, by the admirable counsel of God, an intermediate state was prepared, where without life they might live in death. It ought not to seem in any respect more absurd that there is to be an adventitious resurrection of the ungodly which will drag them against their will before the tribunal of Christ, whom they now refuse to receive as their master and teacher. To be consumed by death would be a light punishment were they not, in order to the punishment of their rebellion, to be sisted before the Judge whom they have provoked to a vengeance without measure and without end (Institutes, III.25.9)

At the centre of Calvin’s doctrine of judgement is his understanding of God. God is the God of reprobation, and this is seen as part of his restoration. His retributive judgment rectifies God’s moral order in his creation.

Immanuel Kant

Immanuel Kant believed that although ‘pure reason’ left us without any knowledge of God, ‘practical reason’ allows us to believe in a God of retributive justice, because without penal judgment there would be no reason to live morally.

Freidrich Schleiermacher

Freidrich Schleiermacher on the other hand maintained that Christ’s final ‘separation’ of the righteous and the wicked cannot be taken literally because evil still exists within believers, who do live wickedly in life. Rather than a ‘great divorce’, judgment will remove all evil from the consciousness of the church. However Schleiermacher confessed to not knowing what to do with the Last Judgment:

The idea of the Last Judgment, then, we are unable to state in a final form which perfectly satisfies both demands. None the less, in view of its almost universal prevalence in Christendom, we must try to elicit its essential meaning (Schleiermacher, The Christian Faith, 1928, 162.3)

But Schleiermacher despised the notion of retributive justice, as do modern liberals, rejecting the notion that moral order needs to be restored, supposing this teaching springs from the Christian ‘temper’ (The Christian Faith, 162.3). However for Schleiermacher, although the consummation will purge all evil from the church, evil must still exist somewhere. Thus he admits that his judgment brings about no true and final ‘restoration’.

Brian Hebblethwaite

Schleiermacher was followed by John Robinson who wrote the controversial In the End God (1950) and Brian Hebblethwaite, who in The Christian Hope (1984) echoed many of Schleiermacher's ideas and added that the Judgement will occur in some kind of purgatory:

On such an understanding of judgment, we shall do well to play down the picture of God or Christ as Judge. A range of alternative models, the healer, the therapist, the patient lover, the counsellor, all seem more appropriate for bringing out the primary interest of divine judgement, namely the restoration of the creature and the integrity and the winning of his love, despite what he has done or made of himself in the past. (Hebblethwaite, The Christian Hope 1984, p. 215)

Here also appears to be where Rob Bell’s message of Love Wins was originally coined, a motive which comes out also in Gregory MacDonald's [Robin Parry] recent The Evangelical Universalist. Like Schleiermacher, Hebblethwaite cannot tolerate the idea of punitive retribution, and replaces it with a purgatory of restorative correction. It was Hebblethwaite who ahead of recent Universalists taught that the doctrine of retributive punishment is inconsistent with the doctrine of divine forgiveness.

The doctrine of God behind Hebblethwaite’s new purgatory is a God who though concerned about the ongoing wickedness of the wicked who persist in rejecting Christ, is nonetheless resolutely determined to forgive them rather than punish them.

While this may apply of those wicked for whom Christ justifies at the cross, it ignores the side of the gospel that teaches that at the cross Christ also judged those whom reject this sacrifice prior to death; these unbelievers stand condemned already [John 3:18] and will be excluded from his face upon his return [2 Thess. 1:9] for no other sacrifice [or resurrection for that matter] is available [Heb 6:4-6; 10:26].

But for Hebblethwaite, all will be 'well' because the love of God will win over and against his justice, affecting his judgment, which must restore by correction the reprobate to righteousness, or God be not God at all.



These notes have borrowed significantly from the excellent lecture material prepared by Rob Smith, Sydney Missionary Bible College, Eschatology, 2010.

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