According to the Bible, there are only two kinds of people in the world: living and dead. There was to be a last day where the living and the dead would be judged. What does this involve, and how does this apply to us today?
While there are only two types of people, living and dead, in the physical world, this is also true in the spiritual realm. Having this insight can help us understand these passages where judgment of the living and dead is mentioned.
First, it is clear that the early believers in Messiah Yeshua believed that Yeshua was to be the one pronouncing judgment. In Peter’s speech to Cornelius and those who had come with him to learn from Peter, Peter relates the following:
Acts 10:38-43 NASB – 38 “You know of Jesus of Nazareth, how God anointed Him with the Holy Spirit and with power, and how He went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with Him. 39 “We are witnesses of all the things He did both in the land of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They also put Him to death by hanging Him on a cross. 40 “God raised Him up on the third day and granted that He become visible, 41 not to all the people, but to witnesses who were chosen beforehand by God, that is, to us who ate and drank with Him after He arose from the dead. 42 “And He ordered us to preach to the people, and solemnly to testify that this is the One who has been appointed by God as Judge of the living and the dead. 43 “Of Him all the prophets bear witness that through His name everyone who believes in Him receives forgiveness of sins.”
Secondly, we know there was to be a “day”, a specific time, of judgment:
Acts 17:31 KJV – 31 Because he [God] hath appointed a day, in the which he will judge the world in righteousness by that man whom he hath ordained; whereof he hath given assurance unto all men, in that he hath raised him from the dead.
Romans 2:16 NASB – 16 on the day when, according to my gospel, God will judge the secrets of men through Christ Jesus.
On this process of how God will judge the world through Messiah Yeshua in that day, Yeshua himself reveals the following principal:
John 12:48-50 NASB – 48 “He who rejects Me and does not receive My sayings, has one who judges him; the word I spoke is what will judge him at the last day. 49 “For I did not speak on My own initiative, but the Father Himself who sent Me has given Me a commandment as to what to say and what to speak. 50 “I know that His commandment is eternal life; therefore the things I speak, I speak just as the Father has told Me.”
So we see there is a specific day, the last day, when this judging occurs. We also learn that the Father gave Yeshua the word (logos) to instruct men through speaking his commands. In this way, God the Father was to judge through Messiah Yeshua.
With Yeshua (and his words) as the judge, and a specific day or time called the last day when this judgment was to take place, we still need to know who the living and the dead are, and when this judgment was to take place.
Many times in the Bible, a distinction can be made between believers and non-believers with the metaphor of living (for believers) and dead (for non-believers). In one instance, when a young man who wanted to follow Yeshua asked for permission to bury his recently deceased father before he could follow him, Yeshua replied in a strange way:
Luke 9:59-60 NASB – 59 And He [Yeshua] said to another, “Follow Me.” But he said, “Lord, permit me first to go and bury my father.” 60 But He said to him, “Allow the dead to bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim everywhere the kingdom of God.”
How can a dead person bury another dead person? Clearly, Yeshua was speaking metaphorically of those who had no interest in his kingdom (i.e., the spiritually dead) to be responsible for the cares of this world (burying those who are physically dead). It is this type of figurative language that can cause misunderstandings when passages are taken out of the context and Hebraic background of the biblical writings.
In Paul’s letter to Timothy, he instructs him about the care of widows in the local congregation of believers:
1 Timothy 5:5-6 NASB – 5 Now she who is a widow indeed and who has been left alone, has fixed her hope on God and continues in entreaties and prayers night and day. 6 But she who gives herself to wanton pleasure is dead even while she lives.
Here we again see the metaphor of someone who is dead meaning a non-believer (exhibited by her continued pursuit of wanton pleasures). It further sharpens the clarity by saying she is dead “even while she lives.” Once again, you cannot be physically dead and alive at the same time, so the implication is that the widow is considered spiritually dead, even though she is physically alive.
Paul once again brings out this figurative language in his epistle to the Romans:
Romans 6:11-13 NASB – 11 Even so consider yourselves to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus. 12 Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its lusts, 13 and do not go on presenting the members of your body to sin as instruments of unrighteousness; but present yourselves to God as those alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God.
Paul says believers in Yeshua Messiah are “as those alive from the dead” when we “do not let sin reign” in our bodies by living unrighteously.
If believers are considered alive among the rest of the population of the spiritually dead around us, how does this come to be? The answer lies in one of the most famous passages of the Bible:
John 3:1-8 NASB – 1 Now there was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews; 2 this man came to Jesus by night and said to Him, “Rabbi, we know that You have come from God as a teacher; for no one can do these signs that You do unless God is with him.” 3 Jesus answered and said to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” 4 Nicodemus said to Him, “How can a man be born when he is old? He cannot enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born, can he?” 5 Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. 6 “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7 “Do not be amazed that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ 8 “The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
This key passage explains that in order to pass from the spiritually dead to the spiritually alive, we must be born “again.” This saying puzzled Nicodemus, who incredulously asks how a person could possibly be physically born a second time. Yeshua then instructs him that he is not speaking of physical birth, but being born of the Spirit of God. You cannot be spiritually alive unless you have experienced a spiritual birth through repentance from unrighteous works (i.e., through the water of baptism) and the sovereign act of God through his Spirit.
So those who are spiritually dead are “the dead,” and those who are spiritually alive are “the living.” When does this judgment of the living and the dead take place? Here I must confess I have a differing opinion than most of Christianity, who believe this judgment takes place at the end of the world, or at the return of Yeshua to set up a kingdom on earth for a thousand years.
My belief is that this judgment already happened, and that Yeshua did return, demonstrating his kingdom was indeed firmly established and in place for eternity. This occurred when Yeshua taught upon the earth, when the disciples ministered to the early believers after Yeshua’s resurrection, and when the final measure of judgment was pronounced upon Jerusalem and the temple of God in the year 70 CE. Why do I have this unusual perspective?
At key passages where this judgment is mentioned, there are indications that to the audience of the day (i.e., first-century believers), this judgment of the living and dead is mentioned as being now, near, or ready to take place in their day. Consider the following:
John 3:19 NASB – 19 “This is the judgment, that the Light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil.
The judgment was spoken of by John as having already come into the world through the ministry of Yeshua.
John 5:24-25 NASB – 24 “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears My word, and believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life, and does not come into judgment, but has passed out of death into life. 25 “Truly, truly, I say to you, an hour is coming and now is, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.
Those passing out of death into life were in the process of coming out from under the judgment of God, in that very day and time (i.e., “an hour is coming and now is”).
Matthew 12:39-41 NASB – 39 But He answered and said to them, “An evil and adulterous generation craves for a sign; and yet no sign will be given to it but the sign of Jonah the prophet; 40 for just as JONAH WAS THREE DAYS AND THREE NIGHTS IN THE BELLY OF THE SEA MONSTER, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. 41 “The men of Nineveh will stand up with this generation at the judgment, and will condemn it because they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and behold, something greater than Jonah is here.
Yeshua implies that judgment was upon “this generation” (the generation of Yeshua’s day), and yet they were refusing to repent.
Acts 24:24-25 NASB – 24 But some days later Felix arrived with Drusilla, his wife who was a Jewess, and sent for Paul and heard him speak about faith in Christ Jesus. 25 But as he was discussing righteousness, self-control and the judgment to come, Felix became frightened and said, “Go away for the present, and when I find time I will summon you.”
The Greek underlying the phrase “the judgment to come” literally means the judgment that is “about to” come, implying an impending judgment that is about to occur very soon.
2 Thessalonians 1:3-5 NASB – 3 We ought always to give thanks to God for you, brethren, as is only fitting, because your faith is greatly enlarged, and the love of each one of you toward one another grows ever greater; 4 therefore, we ourselves speak proudly of you among the churches of God for your perseverance and faith in the midst of all your persecutions and afflictions which you endure. 5 This is a plain indication of God’s righteous judgment so that you will be considered worthy of the kingdom of God, for which indeed you are suffering.
Paul relates to the Thessalonian believers how their suffering through tribulation was the indicator of this “righteous judgment” that God was in the process of making between the believers and non-believers, and that their continuance demonstrated their fitness for the kingdom of God.
1 Peter 4:1-7 NASB – 1 Therefore, since Christ has suffered in the flesh, arm yourselves also with the same purpose, because he who has suffered in the flesh has ceased from sin, 2 so as to live the rest of the time in the flesh no longer for the lusts of men, but for the will of God. 3 For the time already past is sufficient for you to have carried out the desire of the Gentiles, having pursued a course of sensuality, lusts, drunkenness, carousing, drinking parties and abominable idolatries. 4 In all this, they are surprised that you do not run with them into the same excesses of dissipation, and they malign you; 5 but they will give account to Him who is ready to judge the living and the dead. 6 For the gospel has for this purpose been preached even to those who are dead, that though they are judged in the flesh as men, they may live in the spirit according to the will of God. 7 The end of all things is near; therefore, be of sound judgment and sober spirit for the purpose of prayer.
Here, Peter says Messiah is ready to judge the living and the dead. This word for ready in v. 5 means “the state of being ready or prepared.” This implies imminence, something that is going to happen in a very short amount of time. In v. 6 it says the gospel was preached to “those who are dead” that “they may live in the spirit according to the will of God” as opposed to their past way of living in sin, carrying out “the desire of the Gentiles.” This is another illustration of the spiritually dead and the spiritually living. And finally, in v. 7, the literal reading is “Of all, the end has drawn near…” Again, this type of language is consistent with the absolute immediacy of everything coming to a conclusion in regards to judgment, hence the admonition to remain pure and “of sound judgment and sober spirit.”
1 Peter 4:17 NASB – 17 For it is time for judgment to begin with the household of God; and if it begins with us first, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God?
Peter provides another indicator that the time of judgment was at hand at that time in the first century.
As for the final measure of judgment in the destruction of Jerusalem, the following passages indicate how this was to come about in apocalyptic language, some of which is quoted from the Tanakh (Old Testament).
2 Thessalonians 1:6-8 NASB – 6 For after all it is only just for God to repay with affliction those who afflict you, 7 and to give relief to you who are afflicted and to us as well when the Lord Jesus will be revealed from heaven with His mighty angels in flaming fire, 8 dealing out retribution to those who do not know God and to those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.
Hebrews 10:26-27 NASB – 26 For if we go on sinning willfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, 27 but a terrifying expectation of judgment and THE FURY OF A FIRE WHICH WILL CONSUME THE ADVERSARIES.
Hebrews 12:25-28 NASB – 25 See to it that you do not refuse Him who is speaking. For if those did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth [that is, Moses], much less will we escape who turn away from Him who warns from heaven [YHVH]. 26 And His voice shook the earth then, but now He has promised, saying, “YET ONCE MORE I WILL SHAKE NOT ONLY THE EARTH, BUT ALSO THE HEAVEN.” 27 This expression, “Yet once more,” denotes the removing of those things which can be shaken [physical Jerusalem and national Israel], as of created things, so that those things which cannot be shaken [the eternal kingdom] may remain. 28 Therefore, since we receive a kingdom which cannot be shaken, let us show gratitude, by which we may offer to God an acceptable service with reverence and awe; 29 for our God is a consuming fire.
This is a poignant warning to that generation that if they refuse to live a life a repentance and belief in the Messiah, they could expect only a fiery judgment. We know historically that this did occur at the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE, as the entire city was set on fire, and the temple was destroyed to where not one stone remained upon another, just as Yeshua had prophesied forty years earlier.
All of these items taken together indicate to me that a judgment of the living (believers) and the dead (non-believers) was in process in the days of Yeshua, during the ministry of his apostles, and culminated in that last day, the day that Jerusalem and its temple was completely destroyed.
However, those of us who are believers in Yeshua Messiah living today face a similar measure of ongoing judgment; not a judgment of fire and destruction, but a judgment evident by our distinction or set-apartness from non-believers, as God continues to draw people to himself, bringing the dead to life, causing them to be born again, and to live forever with him in his eternal kingdom.