The biblical account of the redemption of our fallen race takes many twists and turns throughout the course of redemptive history. But the story comes to a glorious resolution when we come to the final chapter of the story. There is indeed coming a day when all injustices will be made right, all human suffering will cease, and when every tear will be wiped from our eyes. The great hope of the New Testament for the future is that one day our blessed Lord Jesus will suddenly return from heaven to earth to raise the dead, judge all men and women, and renew the heavens and earth by removing every hint and trace of human sin. In Revelation 21:3-4, John reminds us that the Lord’s return is the culmination of God’s gracious covenant promise: “And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, `Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” This is that glorious day for which every believer longs–the day of Christ’s return.
Yet for those who know not Christ, the Lord’s return is a day to be feared. It will be the most terrible day imaginable. In Revelation 6:15-17, John describes this day in terms of the manifestation of God’s wrath: “Then the kings of the earth and the great ones and the generals and the rich and the powerful, and everyone, slave and free, hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains, calling to the mountains and rocks, `Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb, for the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?” Those who are not Christ’s, who are not washed in the blood of the lamb, nor clothed with his righteousness, will face the full fury of God’s wrath on the day of judgment.
The Bible teaches that when Jesus returns at the end of the age, three distinct yet related events occur simultaneously. The first event is the resurrection of the dead (Daniel 12:1-4; Isaiah 25:6-9)–including both those who will live forever blessed in the presence of Christ (1 Thessalonians 4:13-5:11; 1 Corinthians 15:12-58), and those who will enter into eternal judgment (2 Thessalonians 1:6, 8-9; Revelation 20:11-14). The second event is closely related to the resurrection of the dead, and this is the final judgment of believers and unbelievers alike (Matthew 13:36-43; 25:31-46). The third event is the creation of a new heaven and earth (Romans 8:21; 2 Peter 3:10).
The Old Testament prophets foretold that human history would come to an end with a universal resurrection of the dead. In Daniel 12:2, the prophet declares, “many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.” Isaiah speaks of this day in terms of a great messianic feast (Isaiah 25:6-9). God “will swallow up on this mountain the covering that is cast over all peoples, the veil that is spread over all nations. He will swallow up death forever; and the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces, and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth.” With these texts in the background, Paul informs the Corinthians of the nature and the hope of the resurrection of the body (1 Corinthians 15:50-55). “I tell you this, brothers: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: `Death is swallowed up in victory.’ `O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?’”
That the final judgment occurs at the time when Jesus returns is clear from a number of texts. In his second letter to the Thessalonians, Paul writes that “when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, when he comes on that day to be glorified in his saints, and to be marveled at among all who have believed” (2 Thessalonians 1:6-9). In Matthew 13:39b-43, when explaining the parable of the weeds, Jesus declares, “the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. Just as the weeds are gathered and burned with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers, and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.” Judgment occurs when the dead are raised at that time when our Lord returns.
But there is another dramatic event which occurs at this time as well. In 2 Peter 3, we read, “scoffers will come in the last days with scoffing, following their own sinful desires. They will say, `Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things are continuing as they were from the beginning of creation.’ For they deliberately overlook this fact, that the heavens existed long ago, and the earth was formed out of water and through water by the word of God, and that by means of these the world that then existed was deluged with water and perished. But by the same word the heavens and earth that now exist are stored up for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly. But do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed.” According to the apostle Peter, when Jesus returns the natural order will be radically changed, and all traces of the stain of human sin will be purged from the earth. The dead are raised, all are judged, and creation is renewed.
Therefore, when Jesus returns on the last day, he raises the dead, judges the world, and makes all things new–three distinct but related events all of which occur at the same time. This is why the apostolic church comforted one another with this benediction, “Maranatha” (“our Lord come”–1 Corinthians 16:22) as well as with our Lord’s own comforting words of promise to his people, “look up, your redemption is drawing near” (Luke 21:28).