What Happens When a Christian Dies? (3) (2 Cor. 5:9-10)
To this point in our study of what happens when a Christian dies, most everyone is pleased with what Paul has written. So why spoil everything by talking about judgment? I can anticipate what people will say: “I was thrilled when you described the reality of the intermediate state and the assurance of bodily resurrection. I was ecstatic upon hearing that to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord. But judgment? Couldn’t you have conveniently skipped over that one?”
Well, no, I couldn’t. Paul didn’t, so neither can we. Here is what he said:
“So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil” (2 Corinthians 5:9-10).
Let’s be clear about one thing from the start, something that I believe may go a long way in putting to rest your fears about judgment. In one of the most encouraging and liberating texts in the New Testament, Paul wrote: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). In other words, whatever else Paul may have in mind in 2 Corinthians 5, if you are “in Christ Jesus” by faith you need never, ever fear condemnation. That being said and settled, what ought we to expect, following death, at the judgment seat of Christ?
The best way to answer this question is with a series of ten observations that are evoked by Paul’s statement.
First, who is to be judged? Whereas it is possible that all mankind are included here, the broader context in 2 Corinthians 4-5 suggests that believers only are in view. Murray Harris has also pointed out that wherever Paul speaks of the recompense, according to works, of all people (such as in Romans 2:6), “there is found a description of two mutually exclusive categories of people (Rom. 2:7-10), not a delineation of two types of action [such as “whether good or evil” here in v. 10] which may be predicated of all people” (406).
Second, what is the nature or purpose of the judgment? In view of Romans 8:1, as well as John 3:18; 5:24; Romans 5:8-9; and 1 Thessalonians 1:10 (just to mention a few), eternal destiny is not at issue; eternal reward is. This judgment is not designed to determine entrance into the kingdom of God but reward or status or authority within it. More on this below.
Third, when does this judgment occur: At the moment of physical death? During the intermediate state? At the second coming of Christ? Paul doesn’t seem concerned to specify when. The most that we can be sure of is that it happens after death (see Heb. 9:27). Having said that, I’m inclined to think it happens at the second coming of Christ (cf. Matt. 16:27; Rev. 22:12), at the close of human history, most likely in conjunction with that larger assize that will include all unbelievers, known to students of the Bible as the Great White Throne judgment (see Revelation 20:11ff.).
Fourth, we should take note of the inevitability of judgment for everyone (“we must all appear”). This is not a day that can be set aside as irrelevant or unnecessary. It is essential for God to bring to consummation his redemptive purpose and to fully honor the glory of his name among his people.
No one is exempt. Paul himself anticipated standing at this judgment, for it served (at least in part) as the motivation for his grace-energized efforts to “please” the Lord (v. 9).
Fifth, Paul emphasizes its individuality (“each one”). As important as it is to stress the corporate and communal nature of our life as the body of Christ, each person will be judged individually (no doubt, at least in part, concerning how faithful each person was to his or her corporate responsibilities!). Paul said it in similar terms in Romans 14:12 – “So then each of us will give an account of himself to God.”
Sixth, we should observe the mode or manner of this judgment (“we must all appear”). We do not merely “show up” at the judgment seat of Christ but are laid bare before him. As Paul said in 1 Corinthians 4:5, the Lord “will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart.” Murray Harris is right that “not merely an appearance or self-revelation, but, more significantly, a divine scrutiny and disclosure, is the necessary prelude to the receiving of appropriate recompense” (405).
Is it not sobering to think that every random thought, every righteous impulse, every secret prayer, hidden deed, long-forgotten sin or act of compassion will be brought into the open for us to acknowledge and for the Lord to judge? But don’t forget: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1)!
Seventh, this judgment has an identity all its own (it is the “judgment seat of Christ”). Most Christians are by now familiar with the term used here: bema. The use of this word in v. 10 “would have been particularly evocative for Paul and the Corinthians since it was before Gallio’s tribunal in Corinth that Paul had stood some four years previously (in A.D. 52) when the proconsul dismissed the charge that Paul had contravened Roman law (Acts 18:12-17). Archaeologists have identified this Corinthian bema which stands on the south side of the agora” (Harris, 406).
Eighth, the judge himself is clearly identified (it is the “judgment seat of Christ”). This is consistent with what we read in John 5:22 where Jesus said that “the Father judges no one, but has given all judgment to the Son.”
Ninth, of critical importance is the standard of judgment (“what he has done in the body, whether good or evil”). Reference to the “body” indicates that the judgment concerns what we do in this life, not what may or may not be done during the time of the intermediate state itself.
According to the ESV, we receive “what is due”. In other words, and somewhat more literally, we will be judged “in accordance with” or perhaps even “in proportion to” deeds done. The deeds are themselves characterized as either “good” (those which “please” Christ, as in v. 9) or “bad” (those which do not please him).
Tenth, the result of the judgment is not explicitly stated but is certainly implied. All will “receive” whatever their deeds deserve. There is a reward or recompense involved. Paul is slightly more specific in 1 Corinthians 3:14-15. There he writes: “If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.” The “reward” is not defined and the likelihood is that the “loss” suffered is the “reward” that he or she would otherwise have received had they obeyed.
Can anything more definitive be said about the nature of this recompense? Jesus mentions a “great” “reward” in heaven, but doesn’t elaborate (Matt. 5:11-12). In the parable of the talents (Matt. 25; cf. Luke 19:12-27) he alludes to “authority” or dominion of some sort (but over whom or what?). Paul says that “whatever good anyone does, this he will receive back from the Lord” (Eph. 6:8).
According to 1 Corinthians 4:5, following the judgment “each one will receive his commendation from God”. Both Romans 8:17-18 and 2 Corinthians 4:17 refer to a “glory” that is reserved for the saints in heaven. And of course we should consider the many promises in the seven letters to the churches in Revelation 2-3, although it is difficult to know if they are bestowed now, during the intermediate state, or only subsequent to the second coming, and if they are granted in differing degrees depending on service and obedience or are equally distributed among God’s children (see Rev. 2:7, 10, 17, 23; 3:5, 12, 21; cf. also Matt. 18:4; 19:29; Luke 14:11; James 1:12).
Perhaps the differing nature and degree of reward will be manifest in the depths of knowledge and enjoyment of God that each person experiences. People often balk at this notion, but they shouldn’t. Here is how I explained it in my book, One Thing.
“Hardly anything will bring you more joy [in heaven] than to see other saints with greater rewards than you, experiencing greater glory than you, given greater authority than you! There will be no jealousy or pride to fuel your unhealthy competitiveness. There will be no greed to energize your race to get more than everyone else. You will then delight only in delighting in the delight of others. Their achievement will be your greatest joy. Their success will be your highest happiness. You will truly rejoice with those who rejoice. Envy comes from lack. But in heaven there is no lack. Whatever you need, you get. Whatever desires may arise, they are satisfied.
The fact that some are more holy and more happy than others will not diminish the joy of the latter. There will be perfect humility and perfect resignation to God’s will in heaven, hence no resentment or bitterness. Also, those higher in holiness will, precisely because they are holy, be more humble. The essence of holiness is humility! The very vice that might incline them to look condescendingly on those lower than themselves is nowhere present. It is precisely because they are more holy that they are so very humble and thus incapable of arrogance and elitism.
They will not strut or boast or use their higher degrees of glory to humiliate or harm those lower. Those who know more of God will, because of that knowledge, think more lowly and humbly of themselves. They will be more aware of the grace that accounts for their holiness than those who know and experience less of God, hence, they will be more ready to serve and to yield and to go low and to defer.
Some people in heaven will be happier than others. But this is no reason for sadness or anger. In fact, it will serve only to make you happier to see that others are more happy than you! Your happiness will increase when you see that the happiness of others has exceeded your own. Why? Because love dominates in heaven and love is rejoicing in the increase of the happiness of others. To love someone is to desire their greatest joy. As their joy increases, so too does yours in them. If their joy did not increase, neither would yours. We struggle with this because now on earth our thoughts and desires and motives are corrupted by sinful self-seeking, competitiveness, envy, jealousy, and resentment” (180-81).
Two closing comments are in order. First, our deeds do not determine our salvation, but demonstrate it. They are not the root of our standing with God but the fruit of it, a standing already attained by faith alone in Christ alone. The visible evidence of an invisible faith are the “good” deeds that will be made known at the judgment seat of Christ.
Second, don’t be afraid that, with the exposure and evaluation of your deeds, regret and remorse will spoil the bliss of heaven. If there be tears of grief for opportunities squandered, or tears of shame for sins committed, he will wipe them away (Rev. 20:4a). The ineffable joy of forgiving grace will swallow up all sorrow, and the beauty of Christ will blind you to anything other than the splendor of who he is and what he has, by grace, accomplished on your behalf.