The New Creation begins with a climactic event (not cosmic evolution or human progress), the eschatological judgment of all creation. God is directing his actions toward an all-encompassing goal, which is the transformation of the entire cosmos into the glorious eternal community of the New Creation. Creation becomes New Creation only as it is transformed at a day of reckoning or judgment. God calls all people, nations, and creatures to account, even cosmic powers and gods of the nations (Exod 12:12; Num 33:4; Jer 10:14–15), demons and angels (2 Pet 2:4; Jude 6; Matt 25:41; 1 Cor 6:3), and the devil himself (Rev 20:10).
What Scripture tells us about the judgment of humankind is limited. Some components of future judgment, however, are noted. First, the purpose of judgment in the New Creation is twofold: (1) judgment liberates creation from its present situation (Rom 8:20–23) and (2) judgment is God’s means of preparing the physical realm for the fellowship God intends to share with all creation (Rev 21:1–3). Second, divine judgment is both a present reality and a future reality. Paul tells us that the wrath of God is presently being revealed not in dramatic displays of retribution but in the quiet act of “giving people over” to the sinful desires of their hearts (Rom 1:24, 26, 28). The wrath or judgment of God is built within the world and human system. Final judgment, of course, is reserved for the consummation of the ages after the second coming of Jesus Christ, which is unknown even by Jesus himself (see Matt 24; Mark 13; Luke 21; Rev 19).
The basis and criteria for judgment in the New Creation are clearly articulated and somewhat surprising. While all people are called to repentance and faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, all the passages that talk about the basis and criteria for judgment reveal that we will be assessed according to our actions, behaviors, and works. It is noteworthy that no theological or doctrinal test is mentioned, nor do find the standard question, “Did you receive Jesus as your personal savior?” Jeremiah says, “I the Lord search the heart and examine the mind, to reward everyone according to their conduct, according to what their deeds deserve” (17:10) and, “Your eyes are open to the ways of all; you reward everyone according to their conduct and as their deeds deserve” (32:19). Jesus says, “For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward everyone according to what they have done” (Matt 16:27). Paul says, quoting Ps 62:12 and Prov 24:12, “God will repay everyone according to what they have done” (Rom 2:6). With regard to personal behavior, Paul warns: “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that everyone may receive what is due them for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad” (2 Cor 5:10). Even our ministry will be tested according to “the quality of each person’s work” (1 Cor 3:13). In the last chapter of the Bible, Jesus alerts, “Look, I am coming soon! My reward is with me, and I will give to everyone according to what they have done” (Rev 22:12).
Perhaps the clearest passage regarding the specific standards and criteria for final judgment are found in Matt 25:31-46. This is the Parable of the Sheep and Goats. As a professor, I like to tell my students what’s on the exam so they can best prepare. Jesus, in Matt 25, reveals what’s on the final exam: (1) feeding the hungry, (2) giving water to those who thirst (wells in Africa?), (3) welcoming the stranger (immigration?), (4) clothing those in need of clothes, (5) visiting the sick (health care?), and (6) visiting those in prison (prison reform?). How many Christians and churches build their ministry around such concerns? Since Jesus highlighted the exact criteria for our future judgment, shouldn’t we personally and as churches focus on treating people as if they were Jesus more than on our theology, doctrine, or experience?
On a final note, shouldn’t we find it a bit unsettling that according to Jesus’s criteria in the parable those who thought they were “in” were “out” and those who thought that they were “out” were actually “in”? Earlier in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus taught: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only those who do the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophecy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles? Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!” (7:21–23). Sobering thoughts, indeed!