Someone recently asked this question on social media: Do believers in Christ still face judgment? Many replied “yes,” but others were not as sure. If we’ve accepted Jesus as Saviour, aren’t our sins forgiven and not counted against us anymore, so what is left to judge?

Others indicated that judgement was favourable as a reward for good work. Is that true? Will some of us get fewer rewards in heaven than others? What does that even look like? I’ll do my best to answer these excellent questions in this blog.

Do Believers in Christ face Judgement?

The short answer is YES, but judgments may be separated, with the New Testament suggesting one for unbelievers and another for believers.

Consider 1 Peter 4, in which the apostle contrasts the lifestyle of “pagans” and Christians. I’m not too fond of the word the NIV uses here. “Pagan” is unwarranted and very “us and them” language. Everywhere else in Scripture, the Greek word (ethnos) is rendered “Gentiles” or “nations.” It refers to groups of people who are not Jewish. In context, Peter is writing about non-Jewish people who live in sensuality, especially in connection with idolatrous temple worship:

They are surprised you do not join them in their reckless, wild living, and they heap abuse on you. But they will have to give account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead. This is why the gospel was preached even to those now dead so that they might be judged according to human standards regarding the body but live according to God regarding the spirit. The end of all things is near. The last statement probably refers to the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in 70 A.D., a few years away. If not, Peter is way off with his prediction!

Preaching to the Dead?

There is disagreement amongst theologians as to precisely what Peter means in 1 Peter 4:6, Which is why the gospel was preached even to those who are now dead. There are several ways this verse is understood:

  1. The gospel was preached to people when they were alive, but they have since died.
  2. The gospel was preached to people when they were dead.
  3. Peter refers to Christians who faced judgment by earthly courts (human standards) and were executed for their faith in Jesus. These persecuted believers would live according to God regarding the spirit.

Whatever the case, the outcome is positive. “They” live according to God regarding the spirit. For more, listen to my podcast, What Jesus Did in Hell.

God’s Judgment Seat

In Romans 14, Paul instructs the church not to judge others over “disputable matters.” The Greek word refers to a person deliberating with themselves, trying to determine right and wrong in matters of conscience. He then gives two examples: what people eat and when people worship. In Romans 14, Paul writes about our interrelatedness with one another and our reliance on the Lord. I encourage you to read and reflect on Romans 14:8-15.

We could summarise this chapter: Don’t judge each other because that’s God’s job, not yours. We belong to the Lord, and we will give an account of ourselves to God. And this is very important because Paul’s judgement is about accountability. Our salvation is not in question here. It is NOT a judgment of condemnation. It’s more like an evaluation of KPIs in which God interviews us about how we lived out the Royal Law, the Golden Rule, and what we’ve done with our resources, time, and talents.

Christ’s Judgment Seat

In 2 Corinthians 5:10, Paul writes, for we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that we may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad. Judgement seat (Gk. Bema [bey-ma] = throne, rostrum, or tribunal).

The website says the Bema appears in classical Greek to identify the judge’s seat in the arena of the Olympic games. The Bema was the seat whereon the judge sat, not to punish contestants, but to present awards to the victors. When Christians stand before the Bema of Christ, it will be for the express purpose of being rewarded according to their works. There is no idea of inflicting punishment.

In 2 Corinthians 5:10, Paul again refers to accountability. A person’s salvation is not in question. It’s not about condemnation, as the context reveals. Read and reflect on verses 1 to 10 of that chapter where Paul writes about our longing to be at home with the Lord. Paul is yearning to be in his new body with Jesus. He is not fearful of seeing God or in trepidation of judgement. He’s not concerned that he might die and not be good enough and be condemned to eternal hell.

There are no threats or coercion in these words. Christians are to rest on the salvation gained through Jesus’ completed work. But we should not use God’s grace as an excuse to lead a sloppy or sinful life. We will be accountable for how we conduct our lives, so we make it our goal to please him.

Whether Good or Bad

The believers’ judgement is not about dragging up sins that have been dealt with by the Cross. This judgment assesses our life’s work and actions. But there does appear to be some accountability for destructive things done: each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad (worthless, wicked, evil and vile).

How do we balance God’s forgiveness of sin with someone who persists in debauched behaviour? For example, Jesus’ statement, “If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.” Consider the numerous cases of Christians who abuse children. There appears to be ultimate justice in Jesus’ words.

And what about a pastor who abuses a member of their congregation, a husband who beats his wife, or a parent who gambles money away instead of supporting their family? Consider Paul’s sobering words to Timothy, “Anyone who does not provide for their relatives, and especially for their own household, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever.” (1 Timothy 5:8).

We need to weigh these things. Our sins are forgiven, and none of us is perfect, but the Scriptures point to ultimate justice for those who maltreat others.

In 2017, McCrindle Research published its Faith and belief in Australia report. It’s enlightening reading for every Christian. Unsurprisingly, judging others, that is, Christians acting self-righteously and pointing out the faults in others and society, is in the top three negative influences for non-Christian people (No. 1 is church abuse). It is seen as hypocrisy for one imperfect human to stand in judgement of another flawed individual.

There appears to be some confusion amongst Christians about the proper place for judging – or not judging. That may be because a casual reading of the New Testament seems to contradict itself on this issue. But the apparent contradictions disappear when you dig deeper and consider the context.

Lots of Meanings

Many words have diverse meanings depending on the context. For example, “tip” can mean “end, rubbish dump, advice, gratuity and spill.” The word “up” has 30 definitions. So, it is with the word judge.

For example, in Matthew 7:1, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged,” Jesus uses the Greek word krino, meaning “to condemn or punish.” In Luke 12:57, he uses the same Greek word, but here it means “to consider” – “Why don’t you judge for yourselves what is right?”

Paul uses krino in 1 Corinthians 5:12, “What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside?” Here “judge” means “evaluate” the behaviour of another Christian – a guy was having sex with his stepmother! Incest was strongly condemned in the first-century world, as it still is today. And rightly so.

In 1 Corinthians 6:5-6, “Is it possible that there is nobody among you wise enough to judge a dispute between believers?” Paul uses a different Greek word (Diakrino), meaning “to decide or discern.” Jesus uses the same word in John 7:24, “Stop judging by mere appearances, and make a right judgment” (or decision);

James, in Acts 15:19, “It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God.” Judgment means “ruling.” In Romans 12:3, Paul writes, “For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment.” Here judgment means “opinion.” Paul teaches Christians to have a clearheaded opinion of themselves.

Back to Matthew 7:1-5

In this section of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, he instructs his followers NOT to judge or condemn others and warns that if we do “in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” That’s worth bearing in mind! He then uses an analogy from his vocation as a carpenter, “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye?” Great questions! Jesus goes on to define this sort of judgment as hypocritical and instructs us to “first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” In other words, sort out your own stuff first!

Jesus’ command not to judge does not mean we should never disagree with someone’s life choices. It doesn’t mean I roll over and agree with everything, so I’m not judgmental. There is a time when it’s appropriate to help a fellow Christian to remove a speck from their eye but make sure you’ve removed your plank first!

How to Remove the Speck

Firstly, ask for the person’s permission. Bringing correction is best done out of a relationship with another. Always have the person’s best interest at heart. Our motivation should be care and a desire for God’s best for them.

Next, be humble, gentle and caring. Christians are to assess things according to Scripture, but we must not condemn people with the Bible. We must learn to express God’s truth without being judgmental and condemning. We can feel strongly about something, but we must not be arrogant or lacking in compassion. Please read Luke 7:36-50 for a classic example of Jesus challenging someone’s harsh, arrogant and compassionless judgment.

It would be healthy for us all to bear James’ words in mind: “Talk and act like a person expecting to be judged by the Rule that sets us free. For if you refuse to act kindly, you can hardly expect to be treated kindly. Kind mercy wins over harsh judgment every time” (2:12-13 MSG; Cf. 4:2).

Make restoration your ultimate goal. Paul coached the Galatian Christians “if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently.” Restore, not annihilate. Did you notice Paul’s words, “live by the Spirit”? Gentleness in restoring others is a hallmark of a spiritual person. Living by the Spirit means leaving room for the Holy Spirit in our interactions with others. The changing process that God is doing in each of us (sanctification) is ultimately his work, not ours. Imagine the Holy Spirit saying to you, “You love them, and I’ll change them.”

Pigs and Pearls

Finally, be discerning. Jesus warned his followers, “Do not give dogs what is sacred; do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do, they may trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces.” (Matthew 7:6). Jesus teaches “don’t bother tutoring those who won’t listen to you.”

Followers of Jesus are not to force their beliefs on those who won’t receive them. Neither are we called to judge or correct people outside of the church. Instead, we must be a compassionate community that corrects but never condemns. We are to discern appropriate and inappropriate behaviour carefully but never bring judgement to another. And we must ensure the focus is very much on ourselves (our plank, our trespasses) rather than someone else’s sawdust.

I have always believed and taught that people can only “get saved” during this lifetime. After all, “People are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment” (Hebrews 9:27). But is it that simple? Well, not really.

Over the past few years, several questions have bugged me:

  • What happens to the souls of people who die before they can attempt to make it right with Jesus?
  • Do they have an opportunity to respond to Jesus Christ after they die but before the day of judgment?
  • What about people who die without ever hearing about Jesus?
  • What about those who had terrible experiences with Christians or the church and dismissed faith, God, and Jesus? Like the victims of child abuse, for example.
  • What about someone who would have got saved but died before they responded? For example, they died at age 18 but would come to Jesus if they’d lived to 22.
  • What about those who cannot understand and embrace the gospel through lack of maturity (kids) or mental capacity?
  • Does anyone have a second chance?
  • Can people respond to Jesus and be forgiven after they die?

The standard answer is NO. But, for those of us who are not satisfied with simple black and white answers, let’s dig deeper. Please note that I am discussing this because we need to talk about it. I’m not saying that there is categorically a second chance concerning salvation after death.

My Story

When I was 19, I was hitchhiking around Australia. I accepted a lift with a truckie in Northern NSW. A couple of hours into the trip, we were involved in a head-on collision with another truck. The two guys in the other truck died. I survived, as did the driver of the truck I was in. I was an atheist. Six weeks later, I accepted Jesus as my saviour. That was the start of my Christian Journey. You can watch the whole story here.

What if I had died in that accident. Many Christians would have suggested I’d have gone to hell. Forever! Was I just “lucky?” What about the guys who died? Unlucky?

The Alternative

As I dug deeper on this topic, I realised that my questions had a name ~ Post-mortem salvation. Believers in this doctrine credit Scripture as teaching that each person’s destiny is NOT fixed at death.

Consider section 847 in the Catechism of the Catholic Church: “Those who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or his Church, but who nevertheless seek God with a sincere heart, and, moved by grace, try in their actions to do his will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience – those too may achieve eternal salvation.”

Does God give second chances?

What does the Bible say?

Micah 7:18 says, “Who is a God like you, who pardons sin and forgives the transgression of the remnant of his inheritance? You do not stay angry forever but delight to show mercy.”

Matthew 12:32, “Whoever says a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven; but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.”

Can certain sins be forgiven in the age to come? Jesus certainly infers that there are.

Paul’s Perception

Ephesians 2:7, “in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus.”

Philippians 2:10–11, “[In] the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

People in the ancient world believed the earth was a flat disc and the atmosphere was a dome. It certainly looks that way to the naked eye and, without the benefit of science, one could quickly come to that conclusion. The heavens were above, and the grave, the place of the departed, was “under the earth.” Paul teaches that IN the name of Jesus, every knee should bow ~ EVERY knee, on earth, above and below it. That is the reconciliation of ALL things (Col. 1:20).

Peter’s Perspective

1 Peter 3:18-20, “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, because they formerly did not obey.”

“Proclaimed” is almost always used as ‘preaching the good news.’ In the days between his death and resurrection, Jesus declared the gospel to ALL people. His descent into hell (as per the Apostles’ Creed) accounts for the problem of God’s justice by providing an opportunity for everyone to hear the message of redemption from Jesus Himself. In other words, people received a second chance.

In the following chapter, Peter states, “For this is why the gospel was preached even to those who are dead, that though judged in the flesh the way people are, they might live in the spirit the way God does” (1 Peter 4:6). About this verse, Martin Luther wrote, “This is a strange text and certainly a more obscure passage than any other passage in the New Testament. I still do not know for sure what the apostle meant.” The inference is that Jesus, while dead, offered salvation to all who had died before his time.

Since the Resurrection?

  1. What about people today that have NEVER heard the gospel? Do THEY get a chance to listen to and respond?

In 1522, Martin Luther wrote a letter to Hans von Reichenberg about the possibility that people could turn to God after death: “It would be a completely different question to ask whether God could grant faith to a few at the moment of their death or after death and thereby save them through faith. Who would doubt that he could do this? But no one can prove that he does do this.”

Some final questions

Is God’s forgiveness limited? When Peter asked Jesus how much he should forgive someone who offended him, he suggested seven times would be a good number. Jesus disagreed and advocated for seventy times seven, a hyperbolic way of teaching unlimited forgiveness. Does Jesus practice what he teaches? How about “love your enemies?” Does Jesus do that too? Does God’s love fail even though “God is love” and “love never fails” (1 John 4:8; 1 Cor. 13:8).

What Revelation reveals

In Revelation 22, we discover a city whose gates never close, and the wicked are outside the gates. The following verse is a marvellous invitation: “The Spirit and the bride say, “Come!” And let the one who hears say, “Come!” Let the one who is thirsty come; and let the one who wishes take the gift of the water of life.” The redeemed don’t need this invitation. They already “have the right to the tree of life and may go through the gates into the city.” Is not the invitation for the unredeemed, those outside the city gates, as a constant offer of forgiveness and life?

Theologian Bradley Jersak puts it this way, “It’s simply that he’ll always love you, with a love that even outlasts and overcomes death (Song of Solomon 8). The Bible at least hints (Rev. 21-22) that the prodigal Father will wait for you, invite you and keep the doors open for you until you’re ready to come home. He’ll wait for you forever.”