The Last Judgment

Markus Mühling

The last judgment is widely understood in Christianity as something which will take place in the eschata or eschaton (sometimes called ‘the end times’), with only marginal significance for everyday life. A closer look reveals this notion to be misguided. Understanding the last judgment as a vivid subject matter negates attempts at abstraction. It may, therefore, be argued there has been too much attention directed toward the outcome of the judgment, which has consequently contributed to its marginalization. The article first analyses a variety of biblical statements about the last judgment as well as different types of the history of doctrine. The most common views will be presented, followed by an analysis of the main problem of affirming grace and freedom simultaneously. Then, contemporary (twentieth- and twenty-first century) solutions are discussed. The article will finally present a solution on the basis of a dynamic and relational trinitarian framework, which conceives the last judgment as a process of the constitution and transformation of created persons in relation. The implicit argument throughout deals with the judging, the judged, and the criteria of the judgment. In conclusion, the last section shows how the judgment enters the present reality of everyday life.

1 The last judgment – abstracted from life?

For many, the concept of the last judgment seems to be abstracted from everyday life. The ‘final’ or ‘last’ judgment refers to the occurrence of a divine judgment at an endpoint in time, most commonly at the second coming of Christ (Parousia). At this point, all good and evil in the world will be revealed, judged, and accounted for, whether in the sense of a person receiving punishment and reward, or through a form of divine intervention and supplication. By and large, the focus throughout Christian reflection on the topic has been on the outcome of the last judgment rather than devoting attentive efforts to the process of the judgment itself. Naturally, the emphasis on the last judgment as an event in the distant future has led to the assumption that it has minimal relevance for a person’s present life, save as a reminder of eternal consequences for temporal actions, behaviours, and beliefs.

Before moving forward, a distinction used throughout this article needs to be clarified. The article employs the term ‘eschatical’ to refer to the object-language of the last things. This term is different from ‘eschatological’, which refers to the meta-language of theological reflection concerning the eschatical. In other words, Christians have an eschatical hope, and theologians reflect eschatologically on this eschatic hope. Before turning to an outline and evaluation of the biblical and theological reflections on the last judgment, a few remarks on the modern relevance are in order. Three main perspectives on the last judgment since modernity will now be sketched.

The first view, referred to here as the liberal approach, consists in a radical demythologization, whereby a final judgment seems to have lost its meaningful content. In this understanding, the last judgment is not a concern of theology and should likewise not be important for religious life. See, for instance, Ernst Troeltsch, who said:

Our opinion is adopted to extra-Christian opinions. Also, in this respect a deepening and psychologizing happens, a shift from transcendence into the present. With respect to the moral feeling, the ideas of reward and punishment become increasingly unbearable. The hereafter consists in nothing but the gradual emergence of the consequences of the higher life, and in a permanently deeper growth into the divine, spiritual realm. A modern theologian says: The eschatological office is mostly closed, today. It is closed, because the ideas, on which it was based, are without their roots. (Troeltsch 1925: 36)

Interestingly, this does not lead Troeltsch to a complete exclusion of the doctrine of the last judgment. He argues for the particularity of salvation, yet in a modified manner:

The particularity of salvation remains, which does not mean to be a simple, hard predestination. Under any circumstances, the Calvinist doctrine of predestination to hell on behalf of the illustration of divine justice and punishment has to be excluded. Similarly, the predestination to salvation can only be conceived as providing the conditions of the possibility of the spiritual, redeemed personal life, but its actualization is a matter of the deed of the will. Therefore, salvation is only one of the ultimate divine ends. Whereas this is known to us, others are unknowable. We only have to say that what is recognizable about God’s aim of the world, is education to a personality, filled with God, and that everyone, who knows that, has to live his life on behalf of this end. (Troeltsch 1925: 385)

The second idea, here called the conservative approach, affirms the importance of the last judgment for both the individual person and society. From this perspective, the final judgment will be the last thing to occur historically, and its epistemic basis lies largely in a literal understanding of scripture. While this claim might fit traditional perspectives, an increase in the evangelical Christian movement in the last twenty years and a shift of attitude in the secular realm, from utopian to dystopian expectations (including various forms of secular apocalypticism), causes problems in regard of the logic of a theology of revelation: A theological understanding of revelation does not imply that a divine entity reveals all possible things, like future states of history, but must be seen strictly as a self-disclosure, such that the subject and content of revelation are identical (Schwöbel 1992: 90–92). This kind of approach often depicts the last judgment as something to fear and is consequently used to produce a preferable type of behaviour. Such an approach may be observed throughout large portions of Christian history. However, it appears incongruent with the origins of Christianity, where the last judgment was something to be desired since it was bound to the Parousia (second coming) of Christ – hence one of the earliest prayers, the maranatha: ‘our Lord, come’ (1 Cor 16:22; cf. Rev 22:20).

The third perspective, referred to as the philosophical approach, is espoused by secular philosophers of modernity. The last judgment is not simply denied but is seen as transcendental. John Locke, for example, understands the final judgment as a necessary concept in order to safeguard an empirical understanding of the human person as a ‘thinking intelligent being that has reason and reflection, and can consider itself as itself, the same thinking thing in different times and places’ (Locke 1824: II, XXVII, §9). Locke believes that human experience and history alone cannot safeguard the identity of a person; therefore a final judgment as a last estimation about the identity of a person must be assumed to exist (Locke 1824: §22. §26).

Immanuel Kant’s understanding has a similar function yet different content. For Kant, it is possible to be moral by purely natural means, since reason gives humans insight into what he calls ‘the categorical imperative’, the moral law from which all obligations and prohibitions come. However, empirically we observe that moral law is not completely fulfilled in society, and that many people have evil attitudes, pursuing wealth and felicity instead of morality. Therefore, in order to make morality work, one has to assume three regulative principles which govern moral reason: the existence of God, the immortal soul, and the freedom of choice. None of the three principles can be reached by purely rational means, but Kant is convinced that we need them because these principles safeguard what Kant considers the highest good: the complete harmony of morality and felicity. These three regulative principles do not have value in themselves but in their function of providing this balance between felicity and morality, not in history, but only as a transcendental condition.

Kant and the conservative approach are not really opposed, since the judgment – although valued in the conservative approach as a future expectation, not merely a transcendent reality as Kant believes – has a very similar function: to harmonize morality and wealth.

None of the three approaches indicates the final judgment playing a significant role in Christian religiosity, with the liberal approach explicitly denying as much. In the philosophical approach, the last judgment is simply an abstraction from life since the last judgment does not denote actual states of affairs, present nor future, but a condition of the possibility of states of affairs (personal identity or morality).

One way to illustrate the present state of thinking about the last judgment is by looking at the history of Christian art and literature. In Christian art, the last judgment is bound to the Parousia. Whereas in Eastern Orthodox icons ‘Jesus as judge’ comes with open hands in order to welcome and embrace the saints, depictions of the last judgment in the Western tradition culminate in Michelangelo’s rendering in the Sistine Chapel, and in Hieronymus Bosch’s triptych of the last judgment. In Michelangelo, Christ appears not with open but with lifted arms, prepared not only to be the judge but also the executor of the judgment. In Bosch, the middle table shows the Parousia and the judgment itself, whereas the left and the right table illustrate the double outcomes of punishment or reward. What is significant in Bosch’s depiction is the middle table, the judgment itself, which is depicted with the same horrific illustrations of violence as the picture of hell, while paradise is depicted as less populous than hell. Furthermore, a closer look reveals that the paradise shown here is not paradise as a place of future joyful contemplation of God, but as a return to the paradise where the story began: Eden. By referring backwards to Eden rather than forwards to the new Jerusalem or new creation, Bosch’s rendition does not truly show the double outcomes of punishment and reward, but focuses primarily on the condemned.

A similar tendency can be observed in the history of Western literature from Dante Alighieri to C. S. Lewis (Lewis 1946). In his Divine Comedy, Dante describes the different stages of hell more vividly than heaven. In the twentieth century, Lewis depicted the horrors of hell using the loneliness of modern urban life, and softened hell by evoking the refrigerium as an excursion from hell to a place in front of heaven. The point for Lewis is nevertheless that the damned condemn themselves, which is congruent with the doctrine of double predestination.

The last judgment has been the focus of much attention throughout history, leading to it being conceived mostly as an object of fear rather than hope. As an object of fear, the last judgment has also been openly used to correct behaviour in conformity with contemporary morality. As such, the liberal demythologization of the last judgment may appear to be a necessary softening. However, whereas the current perspectives regarding the last judgment can be explained with respect to the history of theology (section 2), the theology used to support such positions should have been scrutinized further (section 3). Once we have understood where the theological tradition could have been more consistent, we will be able to give a precise answer to the question whether the last judgment is abstracted from contemporary life and what role it plays in religious life and ethics (section 4).

2 The last judgment in the Bible and the history of theology

2.1 The Old Testament

The Old Testament account of God’s judgment may be understood largely as a presentation of divine distributive justice (or iustitia distributive). There is an element of the schema of reward and punishment in the Old Testament – i.e. things go either well or poorly for humans in the here and now based on their actions. However, this principle – common to the whole ancient Near Eastern way of thinking – does not presuppose that a particular act of judgment will follow a particular transgression, but rests on causality, so that an evil action will result in an evil consequence (Koch 1955: 1–42). The idea that the God of the Old Testament is primarily a guard over iustitia distributive, who brings about compensation for action, is likely rooted in the Greek and Latin translations of the Bible, in connection with various representations found in the visual arts (B. Janowski 2008: 110–111).

In fact, the presentations of judgment in the Old Testament are going beyond this concept of iustitia distributive. Yahweh’s judging action can also be understood as saving action, since shafat in Hebrew can mean both ‘judge’ and ‘save’. Yahweh not only saves after judging, or saves instead of judging, but – especially in the Psalms – judges in saving and saves in judging (B. Janowski 2000: 33–91).

Cases arise, in the prophetic literature in particular, where Yahweh judges by acting in history; one is thus able to understand enemy nations and their leaders to be instruments of God’s judgment, effecting all people collectively (on the prophecies of judgment, see Jeremias 1970). The idea of a final judgment or judgment of the dead, which many religions in history have affirmed (Hjelde 2008: 109–110), is to be found initially in the later writings of the Old Testament and in the extracanonical apocalyptic literature (1 Enoch 91:5; Dan 7:9, 26–27; Isa 24:21; Joel 4:14; etc.). Important for the Christian tradition among these instances is Isa 66:15–24 (cf. Sir 7:17; Mark 9:48; and Rev 20:14; 21:8), which mentions judgment by fire and a second death. This is understood not to refer to actual death but rather consists in the rejected being delivered over for eternity to the fire and the worms.

2.2 The New Testament

In the New Testament, John the Baptist’s message is a prophecy of radical judgment: all those who are called ‘Israel’ from the ancestry of Abraham (Matt 3:9; Luke 3:8), will soon be met with annihilating judgment (Matt 3:7; Luke 3:7) and fire (Matt 3:10; Luke 3:9). Escape from this judgment is only possible on an individual level through John’s baptism and the subsequent rigorous ethical practice of repentance (Matt 3:8; Luke 3:8). On judgment in the NT as a whole, see Brandenburger 1993: 289–338.

Although Jesus may have been educated as one of John’s pupils (Becker 1996: 62), judgment does not stand at the centre of his proclamation. The Kingdom of God, understood to be breaking in through Jesus’ own work and life, is the focus of his teaching. However, the fact that Jesus himself had been baptized by John indicates his basic agreement with John’s proclamation. Careful exegesis of the biblical material (Luke 12:16–20; 13:1–5; and 16:1–7) indicates that Jesus thinks the entirety of Israel has been rejected unless it repents (Becker 1998: 53–58). This repentance, however, takes another form than that preached by John; it centres on the grace of God, who lets the sun shine on the good and evil alike (Becker 1998: 53–58). If texts such as Luke 17:34–36:

I tell you, in that night there will be two in one bed. One will be taken and the other left. There will be two women grinding together. One will be taken and the other left.

and Mark 9:43–48:

And if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life lame than with two feet to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, ‘where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.’

are understood to direct the reader to Jesus, then it is possible to see how Jesus reckoned on a double outcome of the final judgment, one that is again dependent on how one relates to the Kingdom of God breaking in through his person (Becker 1998: 58–60). Jesus shares with John the Baptist the notion that all of those alive in his time are lost, and that there will be a judgment. In distinction to John, however, Jesus assumes that God will forestall this judgment with saving action, which has broken in through Jesus’ preaching the Kingdom of God. Therefore, John the Baptist may be understood as belonging to the traditional order, because he measures human life in terms of behaviour and repercussions from one’s past. Jesus, however, measures life in terms of the future Kingdom of God which is characterized by divine grace and salvific action (Becker 1998: 79).

Likewise, Paul assumes that both Jews and pagans will fall under God’s wrathful judgment at the end of time (Rom 1:18). Paul’s reason for this belief lies in the fact that God’s law is in principle known to both groups (Rom 2:1–3:20), but that sin is of such strength (Rom 3:9) that ethically fulfilling this law is impossible (Gal 3:22; Rom 3:20). Nevertheless, salvation is possible in the final judgment, since Christ has died for humanity on the cross (1 Thess 5:9–10; Rom 3:24–25 etc.). For those who have come to faith in Jesus through the Holy Spirit, there is the possibility of salvation in the judgment, which will test by fire whether or not one’s work is built on the solid ground of Christ (1 Cor 3:11–15).

The notion that there is a final judgment to come, where Christ appears as judge and criterion of the judgment, is developed in the synoptic gospels. In Matt 25:31–46 in particular, the figure of a coming Son of Man as judge is identified with Christ. Faith in the person of Christ as a criterion of the judgment is bound up with an evaluation of a person’s ethical work, and judgment results in either eternal pain or eternal life (Rosenau 1993: 82–103).

Comparatively, in the Johannine literature, one finds a different picture. Here, the dominant idea is that the one who presently believes in Jesus as the eternal Logos and Son has eternal life, whereas the non-believer is already judged, so that a final judgment is expendable (Becker 1991: 288–296; cf. John 3:18–20; 3:36; 5:24; 12:46). For John, the fact that the Logos has become flesh demonstrates that he is the judge (John 9:39).

Finally, within the deutero-Pauline literature (i.e. literature attributed by the majority of NT research not to Paul but to a school of Paul, like Ephesians; Colossians; 2 Thessalonians ; 1 and 2 Timothy; Titus) an understanding of the judgment is presented whereby, through Christ’s redeeming action on the cross, the entire creation without exception is reconciled to God – with the final judgment having the single outcome of salvation for all (Col 1:20; Rosenau 1993: 56–81).

In sum, a range of different conceptions of the last judgment appear in the Bible that are difficult to reconcile with one another. In the Old Testament, one finds the notion of a collective judgment, while John the Baptist emphasizes the notion of only the individual, not the collective group, being saved from the last judgment. Most of the New Testament conceives of this judgment as taking place in the future. The Johannine literature is the exception, in that it assumes a present judgment. Depending on which text is consulted, the criterion by which the judgment will be determined could be human deeds, a person’s position in the Kingdom of God, the law, faith in the person of Christ, or combinations of these elements. Some texts imply the notion of a dual outcome, with eternal pain on the one hand and eternal life on the other; others depict a dual outcome with eternal life and annihilation – a dissolution of the damned person (1 Cor 3:11–15). A single outcome of universal salvation (apokatastasis panton) also appears (Col 1:20). The judge is often the Son of Man, who is generally identified with the person of Christ.

2.3 The last judgment in the history of theology

The divergent conceptions of the judgment in the Bible have demanded theological treatment throughout history. In contrast to many other theological problems, neither a clarification nor a minimization of the problem has emerged. What can be seen in the literature on the topic is rather a diversification, which can be classified through the existential meaning of the last judgment and its outcomes for believers. Since the last judgment and its results were often found to be threatening, and since threats often appear to occupy the human imagination more than nonthreatening realities do, this diversification can be easily accounted for. The task of systematic theology in this case is not simply tracing the diversification, but rather comparing various understandings of the last judgment, analysing over against their theological content and organizing them accordingly. Interestingly, in the history of doctrine, the last judgment itself ceased to be the main focus. Attention shifted to the outcome of the last judgment, and to the description, analysis, and critical examination of it.

In principle at least, more possible outcomes for the last judgment than have actually played a role in the history of theology are conceivable, such as the possibility of total reprobation, or an entirely negative verdict in which all are condemned. These hypothetical outcomes have had no significant role in Christianity, due to its character as a religion centred on the notion of salvation. Additionally, the concept of an appeal – as might be seen in contemporary law courts – is also impossible, due to the ultimate character of the final judgment. The remaining possibilities concerning the outcome of final judgment which have been most significant in the history of theology are: a dual outcome in the form of eternal life and annihilatio (annihilation of the rejected); a dual outcome in the form of eternal life and eternal pain, often arranged hierarchically; and a single, positive outcome. These three possibilities will now be outlined and evaluated.

2.3.1 Eternal life and annihilation

One understanding of the last judgment is that all created persons (humans and angels) have to be judged, and it leads to a dual outcome, where some will be saved and receive eternal life while others will be annihilated. The idea of a total annihilation of those who are not compatible with the eschatic reality rarely arises in the history of Christianity before the twentieth century. It is possible to derive this notion from the biblical witness, since the notion of the fire of judgment in 1 Cor 3:11–15 could be understood as corresponding to the idea that some will be completely annihilated. 2 Macc 7:14 presupposes that only the righteous will rise from the grave, not the unrighteous, making this text an indirect witness to the notion of annihilation. One can also interpret the Johannine notion of present judgment in a similar way, as noted above.

In the history of theology, the idea of annihilation was more likely to be advocated by persons and groups considered to be heretical by the church, particularly the Socinians and the later theology of the Enlightenment over which they exercised influence (J. C. Janowski 2000: 514–518). In the twentieth century, a rare exception within the Protestant mainstream came in the theology of Lutheran Carl Stange (d. 1959), who taught that in the event of death, those who were not in Christ did not endure beyond death (Stange 1930: 158). Those who had been made righteous ‘received confirmation on the last day that they have chosen life, whereas those without God have fallen into death’ (Stange 1930: 193).

Annihilation can be conceived in a variety of different forms (J. C. Janowski 2000: 523–524):

  • Only the righteous experience resurrection, while the unrighteous remain in death and are lost from God’s memory;
  • Everyone is resurrected, but the unrighteous receive the subsequent judgment of annihilation;
  • Everyone is resurrected and the unrighteous first undergo a time of limited punishment before annihilation;
  • Annihilation can be understood as the result of divine judgment, or as self-annihilation based on one’s own choice.

The advantages of this model are clear: the eschatical reality is limited to what is good and good alone. Further, there is no eternal perpetuation of evil. Finally, it appears to satisfy the divine attribute of justice. For a discussion of the advantages and disadvantages of this model, see J. C. Janowski 2000: 524–532.

The disadvantages of this model, which ultimately led to its widespread rejection, are just as clear as its advantages. For example, annihilation can be conceived in two ways: annihilation as sentenced by God, and self-annihilation chosen by the judged person. In the latter case, humans become responsible for their own non-salvation, which is a kind of negative semi-Pelagianism, contradicting the doctrine of justification. Consequently, the redeeming work of Christ and the Spirit would have to be understood differently, ultimately affecting the doctrine of God. The eschatological reality would indeed be good, yet not exclusively dependent on God for redemption, which could only be avoided if one were to teach an antecedent doctrine of double predestination, which will be examined below.

Both cases, annihilation as sentenced by God and self-annihilation, would call into question God’s intentions for creation. On the basis of God’s potentia absoluta, God’s absolute omnipotence to bring about everything God wills, this model would indeed be a conceptual possibility, but one that comes at an extremely high price: God would not be faithful to Godself and God’s own decisions. Given the premise that God is love, and God is faithful to Godself – and accordingly, God’s veracity is a principle of God’s own being – the annihilation of personal creatures created and loved by God would appear to stand in contradiction to God’s own being, and would therefore result in an annihilation of Godself. This logical consequence can be avoided, but only when one understands neither justice, nor love, as being God’s highest attribute, but God’s arbitrariness. Such a notion, however, would be incompatible with the trinitarian self-disclosure. Thus, as Luther claimed, whoever is addressed by the divine word, be it in grace or in wrath, is certainly immortal (Luther 1968: 76).

2.3.2 Eternal life and eternal punishment

Christianity has mostly insisted on the notion of a dual outcome of the judgment, whereby some receive eternal life and others eternal pain. This doctrine has been widespread, extending from Augustine of Hippo (d. 430), who laid the essential groundwork of the doctrine; through Gregory the Great (d. 604), whose work helped to inspire the imaginative depiction of the dual outcome in art and literature; up to Thomas Aquinas (d. 1274), who offered a comprehensive systemization of the doctrine. This form of the doctrine remained unscathed during the Reformation. Through the upheaval of the Enlightenment and the search for an appropriate hermeneutic for biblical texts, descriptions of the dual outcome in modernity gradually receded into the background given their plasticity. The theological problems at stake remained unresolved.

Since Augustine, an understanding has prevailed that those who receive a negative verdict in the last judgment are subject to a second death, which is not annihilation but eternal pain through fire and conscious torment, such as in the form of biting worms. The punishment of hell can therefore be conceived in terms of levels, from which a model of the levels of hell emerges, parallel to that of the intermediate states. Distinctions are made between those who are completely lost and cannot be prayed for, those who are lost but can be prayed for, and those who through the prayer of the living can receive some relief from their punishment. Whereas Augustine assumed that unbaptized children who died would receive the full penalty for sin, the later tradition referred to a neutral place of rest, the limbus infantium (‘Limbo of Infants’). The upper levels of hell, to which the limbus patrorum, the bosom of Abraham, belongs, was the resting place for the righteous of the Old Testament. This place was understood to have been empty given Christ’s harrowing of hell on Holy Saturday (on the diverse individual conceptions of the hierarchical dual outcome in Augustine, Gregory, and Thomas, see Vorgrimler 1993: 117–127, 136–146, 200–207. On the popular presentation of the harrowing of hell as found in Dante’s Divine Comedy, see Vorgrimler 1993: 175–190).

The notion of the dual outcome ultimately only changed in one significant way through the Reformation. For Protestants, the hierarchical structure of hell was abolished so that there were no longer any intermediate levels, effectively putting an end to such speculation in Protestant theology. Philipp Melanchthon (d. 1560) rejected a single positive outcome and retained the dual outcome in the Confessio Augustana:

It is also taught that our Lord Jesus Christ will return on the Last Day to judge, to raise all the dead, to give eternal life and eternal joy to those who believe and are elect, but to condemn the ungodly and the devils to hell and eternal punishment. (The Augsburg Confession, Art. XVII; Kolb 2000: 50)

Not only does Melanchthon retain the dual outcome, but eternal pain is depicted explicitly in the Latin version of the Apology of the Augsburg Confession with words that are hardly to be surpassed in terms of their gruesomeness, that ‘the ungodly will be crucified with the devil without end’ (translation by the current author. For the Latin and German, see Wolf 1967: 310 [§66]: ‘confitemur […] impios vero condemnaturum esse, ut cum diabolo sine fine crucientur’. The English translation in Kolb 2000: 233 softens this translation by omitting ‘To be crucified without end’).

The Christian tradition has maintained a diverse set of responses to the inherent problems of the notion of a dual outcome. One problem is that of those who have been saved to eternal life having compassion for those rejected, based on the rejected people’s capacity to love. This problem has been addressed in various ways, some perhaps astonishing for modern ears. The most radical notion is found in Tertullian (d. c.220), who understood eternal suffering as an experience of never-ending death, more horrible than being murdered, as actually belonging to the peace of eternal life (Daley 1991: 34–37). The medieval answer was more cautious. Compassion for the damned was considered impossible, since according to Thomas Aquinas compassion relates to a condition that could still be changed (Summa Theologiae [ST] III, q.94, a.2; Fathers of the Engelish Dominican Province [EDP]: 2960–2961). Aquinas maintains that the outcome of the final judgment is the definitive end of every possibility for additional change, to avoid contradicting the very notion of a final judgment (ST III, q.98, a.6; EDP: 2993–2994). According to Aquinas, it is not that the blessed will enjoy the torments of the damned in hell as such. Rather, they will rejoice in those torments but to the extent that the blessed see the order of divine justice and their own deliverance manifested in them (ST III, q.94, a.3; EDP: 2961).

Aquinas responds to the theological problem of how eternal punishment could be fitting for temporal sins by answering that eternal punishment is not unjust, because sin is not judged according to the severity of its temporal outcome in this world; rather it is judged according to sin’s nature as a transgression against the law of the eternal God (ST III, q.99, a.1; EDP: 2995–2998). Apart from these traditional arguments there are also a set of basic evaluations of the problems.

The dual outcome theory shares some problems with the model of annihilation, which can also be understood as a variation of the dual outcome theory (Rosenau 1993: 9).

If the dual outcome is the infliction of punishment because of the fact that humans have not attained a specific criterion in their life in the here and now – be it acting justly, having faith or rejecting the gift of the Holy Spirit – then the dual outcome attributes a soteriological relevance to human action that it cannot have according to the Reformation distinction between divine and human action. Grace would not be irresistible – a core feature of John Calvin’s (d. 1564) teaching and subsequent Reformed theology – and a structure far beyond that of semi-Pelagianism would have to be adopted. Ultimately, humans would be pronouncing judgment on themselves, and the final judgment would only be an immortalization of this human judgment rather than being a truly divine action.

The danger of this kind of soteriological self-contradiction was not entirely clear to the Reformation tradition. One example of such a dual outcome, in which God’s pronouncement of judgment is ultimately only the fixing of individual humans’ own self-judgments, can be seen in C. S. Lewis’ (d. 1963) book The Great Divorce, where he has his paragon George McDonald say: ‘There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done”’ (Lewis 1946: 75). Such an approach is a highly cautious relativizing of the notion of the dual outcome: it is not that a form of punishment will be independently imposed on human beings; rather the punishment consists precisely in the fact that human beings receive in eternity what they ask for in this life, without the possibility of changing whatever that might be. With this notion, Lewis had perceived – against the ordinary view that humanity makes its own bed and therefore has to lie in it – that the sinful human will is incapable of any good. In addition, the problem of the contradiction of how a God who is absolutely good can impose an eternal punishment does not arise at this point in the argument. However, it still does not change the fundamental soteriological problem of eschatological semi-Pelagianism, i.e. the view that humans are partially responsible for their fate instead of God alone.

It is certainly possible to work around this fundamental soteriological problem by relying on protology. In this view, before the beginning of creation, God had already decided on the rejection of the reprobate in the form of double predestination, which makes it possible to view the offer of grace through the death of Christ in its universal, biblical sense (John 3:16). It is nonetheless still possible to distinguish the universality of the offer of grace from its realization. This understanding can be seen in Augustine, who can identify the recipients of this grace as all-sufficient, yet limited at the same time:

What does ‘all’ mean? All those of the Gentiles and also all those of the Jews whom he has predestined, called, justified and glorified. He will not spare all men; but none of these will be condemned by him. (City of God 21.24; Augustine 2013: 1090)

This notion of double predestination was taken up by John Calvin (d. 1564) and developed into a broad doctrine, which then culminated in nineteenth-century Scottish ‘federal Calvinism’. This form of Calvinism asserted that the offer of grace – and therefore the death of Christ as a saving event – could not be understood as universal. Christ did not die for the world, but for the ‘church’, meaning the community of the faithful who have also received the gift of perseverance in faith (donum perseverantiae; Mühling 2005: 185–186, 230). The Synod of Dort in 1618 attempted to maintain Calvin’s double predestination against Arminianism. Nevertheless, another problem arose: while grace is great and God is the only agent of salvation, he is also the responsible author of the negative side of condemnation.

However, the problem affecting the dual outcome theory in all of its forms is magnified regardless of whether one understands the dual outcome in a semi-Pelagian manner – in terms of human contribution – or as generated by a double predestination. Sin and evil are made eternal in both cases, even if evil is simply being punished, which ultimately results in an ‘eschatological dualism’. In other words, the eschatical reality is not, in this case, exclusively good. If one accepts the dual outcome on the basis of a doctrine of predestination, the problem is protologically and theologically intensified: now, there is not only an eschatological dualism, but also a protological dualism. Conceiving God as exclusively good becomes the challenge one must overcome to maintain such a dual outcome espoused in many ways throughout the history of Christianity.

2.3.3 Universal salvation

The last remaining option regarding the last judgment is the possibility that all personal creatures, without exception, will experience eschatological salvation. This possibility is an ultimate reconciliation of all things, or ‘universal salvation’ (apokatastasis panton; not to be confused with ‘universal atonement’, meaning Christ died for the whole world, not only for those elected). Similar to the above possibilities, this notion also presents the alternative that humanity is either a participant in this outcome or it is a matter of God’s sole eschatical-soteriological action.

Although universal salvation has been rejected several times by the church as heretical, as in the confessional writings of the Lutheran church (Confessio Augustana Art. XVII; Kolb 2000: 50), the doctrine has nevertheless remained a consistently held belief, even among prominent theologians.

It was Origen (d. 254) who established the standard for a doctrine of universal salvation. He sought to maintain human soteriological freedom and developed an approach (as far as it can be reconstructed) towards which the Fathers of the Eastern Orthodox churches have tended. Origen’s goal was a universal salvation that included the reconciliation of demons while also maintaining their free choice (On First Principles I.VI.1, II.I.2; Origen. 2013: 70, 94–95).

The two principles of universal salvation affects are the goodness or grace of God and the created will. Goodness and grace imply God’s justice. The created will is the freedom of choice, not just for good or evil, but also for the self-constitution of rational creatures such as humans, angels, and demons. It involves no actual doctrine of original sin that presupposes the necessity of human sin after the fall. What is to be overcome is evil, which, as a middle-Platonist, Origen understood as being fully real and not only – as in the neo-Platonic tradition – as a deprivation of the good. Assuming there can be an endless amount of time, then it necessarily follows that at some point in time the wills of all rational creatures will be positively orientated towards God. This point is the moment of universal salvation.

Here, however, Origen assumes that the freedom of the will in created beings is preserved. But the same logic also means that, in an unending course of history, a new ‘fall’ must occur. Origen only wants to accept another fall as a logical possibility, but not the reality of such a second fall. Thus, when later church tradition rejected Origen’s formulation, claiming that he was teaching an ‘eternal return’ rather than a true salvation, the church was correct in principle, even though Origen himself explicitly rejected this idea.

The logical problems present in Origen’s teaching have not yet been resolved. For example, following the line of thought Origen used to introduce universal salvation on the basis of free will, one might also suggest the necessity of everyone turning away from God at some point in the course of history, or some turning to God while others turn away from God; the logic is not airtight. According to the logic of the argument, that the course of history does not break apart at this point – and that there is an eschatical reality of total damnation, universal salvation, or a dual outcome – is purely arbitrary (Rosenau 1993: 113–150).

The core of Origen’s argument represents a departure from Christian tradition. Origen incorporates Christian ideas into his theory at two points: one being the notion of salvation through Christ and the other being the notion of the last judgment.

As understood by Origen, the redemptive work of Christ as doctor or teacher makes it possible for creatures to have their wills rightly oriented (Rosenau 1993: 139–143). However, orientation is not sufficient to merit a person’s salvation but, at most, a necessary condition for salvation (Rosenau 1993: 139–143). The last judgment, however, appears differently. It has a practical rather than eschatical relevance, serving the role of a catalyst that accelerates the process by which creatures orient their wills to God. It is neither punishment nor annihilation, but a catharsis and reversion that erases only a false orientation of will (Rosenau 1993: 139–143). Origen tries to conceive the last judgment as an expression of the grace-filled action of God’s goodness. Without the element of judgment, the eschatic outcome would not occur. According to Origen, without judgment the eschatic outcome would also not be a matter of cooperation between divine grace and human action, but exclusively an accomplishment of human will. Without the last judgment, personal creatures would be self-sufficient and self-ruling.

A similar notion about human participation can also be found in the early Christian concept of the refrigerium, which was bound to the notion of a Sabbath from hell, an idea stemming from the early Rabbinic tradition. Tertullian (d. 220) seems to have first used the term in the Christian context, using it to refer to the ‘bosom of Abraham’ – i.e. the limbus patrorum (see above) – as a place between heaven and Earth (Finé 1957). Prudentius Aurelius Clemens (d. c. 413) developed the notion of a place of refreshment or cooling, to where the occupants of hell could go permanently or take rest in regular intervals from their torments (Stuiber 1957; de Labriolle 1912: 214–219; Parrot 1937). In the twentieth century, C. S. Lewis adopted the notion of the refrigerium and understood it to be cyclically recurring, an intermediate state offering the occupants of hell the opportunity to make their own decision about heaven (Lewis 1946: 67–68). Lewis thus approximates Origen’s version of the eternal coexistence of human and divine freedom. He did not, however, develop a doctrine of apokatastasis panton (universal salvation), but the payoff is rather a form of dual outcome: the damned are only damned in so far as they permanently damn themselves by not choosing salvation in the refrigerium.

Universal salvation can also be understood to occur without human participation. Early stages of this form of the doctrine can be found in the theology of Schleiermacher (d. 1834). According to Schleiermacher, human beings are absolutely dependent on God. Therefore, in their relationships with one another, humans are understood as being absolutely passive whereas God is absolutely active – which is nothing other than a description of the omnipotence of God. Schleiermacher’s starting point has the advantage of largely being able to exclude synergistic, semi-Pelagian tendencies from the outset, leaving only the alternatives of either double predestination or universal salvation. For Schleiermacher, double predestination, however, would contradict the simplicity of God, because God cannot be thought of as being divided into contradictory attributes (e.g. damning some and saving others). Similarly for Schleiermacher, a dual outcome in the judgment is thus tantamount to a dualistic understanding of reality. Double predestination or a dual outcome would further contradict the organic unity of all of humanity, since salvation consists in the fact that through the spirit the redeemed have a uniform consciousness of fidelity. If humanity forms an organic whole, then the possibility that some are eschatologically redeemed and some are not is excluded, given ‘the compassion for those who have been definitively excluded from blessedness would diminish the blessedness of the blessed and ultimately overrule it’ (Rosenau 1993: 183–184). Thus, the only outcome remaining is that of universal salvation, which Schleiermacher himself describes as follows:

If we consider the contrast between the Kingdom of God and the world at this point to be temporary, so that everyone who is now outside of the church will at some point be within it, then this discrepancy between both elements of self-consciousness is instantly removed. (Schleiermacher 1984: 169)

H. Rosenau has expanded and tightened this argument by means of modal logic and reflections on the relationship between actio dei and actio hominum, between human and divine action (Rosenau 1993: 402–427).

Given the premises with which he starts, Schleiermacher is correct, yet it cannot be adopted as compatible for a theory of universal salvation. It is not a soteriological theory about an eschatical universal salvation, but only a meta-theory about material theories of the eschatic outcome of the judgment, or concretely, of the dual outcome. Schleiermacher does not ultimately give an account of how universal salvation is accomplished or in what way it would unfold. He merely demonstrates with high acuity that the notions of annihilation and the dual outcome are not compatible with Christian thinking and are even irreligious (Rosenau 1993: 189). Schleiermacher’s arguments draw on the principle of the excluded middle (i.e. the logical principle that there is no third between a statement ‘A' and ‘non-A’) to negate the possibility of a dual outcome, so that only the simple outcome remains: a dual outcome and universal salvation constitute an alternative. Even if the premise were valid, it does not lose its status as a meta-theory. Schleiermacher does not show, how universal salvation is conceivable, he only shows that the dual outcome is not appropriate. It is possible to ask further about the possibilities along two different pathways:

  • Are there indications in Schleiermacher’s work that clarify in what way universal salvation is possible?
  • Does the choice between a dual outcome and universal salvation constitute a complete disjunction, excluding other possibilities?

A positive answer to the first question would provide support for the notion of universal salvation. Counter to this is the fact that there are humans who, at the time of their death, have not come to faith. Rosenau indicates that, for Schleiermacher, human development does not come to an end even after the death of the person (Rosenau 1993: 179). At the very least, this assertion would be a necessary condition of such a theory’s compatibility with the notion of universal salvation, and would be similar to an idea suggested by Thomas Erskine of Linlathen (d. 1870). Erskine believed that death is not an eschatical matter at all, necessitating the adoption of the belief that humans experience a post-mortal but pre-eschatic life (Mühling 2015: 295). However, such a view devalues the eschatical relevance of the here and now, similar to the idea of the intermediate states discussed in section 2.3.2.

The second question of whether there are ways beyond the disjunction of the dual outcome (to which the notion of annihilation also necessarily belongs) and universal salvation has been variously answered in the affirmative by the Christian theological tradition.

2.3.4 A step beyond the alternative: election and selective judgment

Karl Barth’s (d. 1968) approach is a suitable place to begin the search for alternatives to the single or dual outcome of the final judgment. His position is difficult to characterize. Some theologians believe he represents a third way out of the dilemma, whereas others do not. Some see him as presenting a doctrine of universal salvation, whereas others strongly dispute this claim. A third way can also be seen in Otto Weber (1951: 9–36, 12). Rosenau (1993: 191–222, 200) rejects Otto’s formulation and attributes a doctrine of universal salvation to Barth (see also Etzelmüller 2001: 316–317, 326–327, who rejects Rosenau’s claim about Barth).

Barth’s starting point is the doctrine of election, resembling the classical Calvinist form of the doctrine with regard to the linguistic forms Barth employs. According to Barth, the eternal decision about election (referred to in Reformed orthodoxy as the decretum absolutum) has the disadvantage of leaving open the actual extent of divine election: the classic version of the doctrine is unclear about who is and who is not elected. In order to solve the problems, reference had to be made to particular, concrete persons (by naming them, showing them, etc). Barth is claiming to do exactly this in his doctrine of the decretum concretum, understood as God’s concrete decision about election bearing upon the particular person of Jesus Christ as true God and true human. It is in Jesus Christ that the electing God and the elected human are concretely united; indeed, to the extent that the human being in Jesus Christ is elect, God chooses rejection for Godself in the same particular person of Christ. (Church Dogmatics II/2; Barth 2004: 94). Although Barth does not explicitly derive a doctrine of universal salvation from this claim (Church Dogmatics II/2; Barth 2004: 417–418), some theologians view such a universalism as deriving from Barth’s treatment of election (Brunner 1949: 346–352; Zahrnt 1966: 137; Rosenau 1993: 194). The election of the ‘multitude’ ensues from the election of the human being to salvation in Jesus Christ. Salvation remains open, but does not leave any room for individually lost humans because – in the unity of the electing God and the elected human – humanity is only elected to salvation, not to damnation. Here, the doctrine of universal salvation Barth perhaps intended cannot be arrived at by deduction from the notion of election in reference to Christ, since it opens up the possibility of the damnation of some humans and therefore a dual outcome (Rosenau 1993: 194–195, 199–202). But is it really Barth’s intention to claim universal salvation? The subject matter of Barth’s doctrine of election is Christ and humanity, not the number of the elect, which makes it clear that Barth is no longer focusing on the sum of elect human individuals and that his approach can be regarded as a step beyond the alternative. For Barth, it is important that nothingness (das Nichtige), i.e. evil, has to be eliminated. But nothingness for Barth is not simply the classical non-being, as in the neo-Platonic tradition. It has a pseudo-actuality, and it is the backside of election. The consequence for the outcome of the last judgment is that for Barth there has to be conceptually the set of a negative outcome, whereas in regard to the extension of this set the question has to remain open: It is not excluded that this set of the condemned might be an empty set. Barth was initially convinced that there really is a hell, but that it is probably not inhabited. Later, however, he dreamed that hell is not empty (Schildmann 2006: 234).

Barth’s point, that everything not compatible with the Kingdom of God has to be excluded from a post-judgment reality, is the legitimate interest of all defenders of the doctrine of the double outcome. This interest can be realized in different ways. The traditional way conceived the last judgment as a judgment of the individual human. Barth’s solution changes this focus by placing the true human person – Jesus Christ – in that place. Another possibility would be to conceive of human persons not as having a life-story, but as being a story themselves. ‘Human being’, ‘person’, and similar expressions then do not refer to a hidden substances or subjects, which have all that can be told of them as a set of predicates, but the story is identical with the person itself. In that case, a story, including its sequences, would be the object of judgment. Such a conception is the selective judgment regarding life-stories. Parts of this model can be found in Barth’s thought, as well as in other twentieth-century theologians such as Tillich (d. 1965; Tillich 1967: 398–401, 415–419) or Pannenberg (d. 2014; Pannenberg 1998: 608–630). For these thinkers, individual humans will not be saved or annihilated in the last judgment. Instead, according to the image of the fire used in 1 Cor 3:11–15, every sequence not compatible with the Kingdom of God in the life-story will be annihilated, while everything else will remain. As a result, the last judgment is always painful, but it also offers the possibility of continued existence equally to all particular humans, in that what was formerly evil has been separated out. In its various forms, this model can be called the model of selective judgment over personal biography, yet certain questions remain.

First, does this model imply that various things of eschatical value remain from the personal biographies of individual human beings, qualitative as well as quantitative? In borderline cases, would it mean that only the infancy and youth of a particular person would be of eschatical significance, whereas in another case, an adult human renders an eschatically enduring contribution?

Second, does this model not erase the fact that negative and harmful sequences also belong to human identity in the here and now? Could these things, which at present appear negatively, somehow appear positive within the context of the judgment?

Third, although this model sees human beings more as human becomings and constitutively as stories, it nevertheless conceives of them individualistically and not relationally. If one assumes a relational understanding of humans, the model runs into difficulties. For example, if some negative aspect of Person A is involved in a situation that contributes something positively to Person B, what would it mean for both persons if the negative aspect of Person A were to be removed?

Fourth, does this model of an atomistic individual enclosed within itself not negate personal unity, given the person also has to be seen as a relatum of relationships constituted with other persons and as a particular and constitutive part of a relational-narrative process? Again, one might here speak about human becomings rather than about human beings. (For connecting this insight of theological anthropology with the present state of biological and social anthropology, see Ingold 2013 and especially Fuentes 2013: 42–58.)

Finally, does this model, or the others considered, offer an account of not only those who commit offences but also the victims of those offences? If negative events are removed from the identity of the perpetrator, does it not mean that there also has to be compensation for the victim of that act as well? Sometimes the classical approach has been accused of being ‘offender centred’ instead of ‘victim centred’ (cf. the discussion by Etzelmüller 2001: 327–328). A possible solution would have to take into account that the distinction of offender and victim is also a relational state of affairs.

The Barthian doctrine of election and the notion of a selective judgment of personal biographies both offer positive ways to escape forms of strict eschatological dualism. The view that there is a strict disjunction between a twofold eschatological outcome (including the model of annihilation) and universal salvation depends on the fact that particular ‘human becomings’ are seen as individuals instead of as relational persons. In other words, this notion presupposes an individualistic concept of created personhood, which does not align with a proper understanding of humans as images of the triune (relational) God. One alternative would need to make the appropriate classification of what is actually to be judged (human beings as individuals, human beings as particular persons in relation, relations between persons, sets of human beings, human beings as life-stories, sequences of life-stories, etc.). Furthermore, the focus would need to shift away from the outcome of the last judgment and conceive judgment in a relational and dynamic way, i.e. as a relational process with a specific aim. In so doing, the argument could be progressed into a fruitful conception of God’s gracious last judgment. Outlining this alternative conception will be the focus of the following section.

3 The last judgment as a process of transformation and creation

The above discussion has considered the main doctrines (and their associated difficulties) in mainstream discussions of the ‘last judgment’. This section will explore one possible approach which aims to avoid the pitfalls of previous practices and to move the general discussion in a positive direction.

3.1 The purpose of the last judgment and its presuppositions

The first step to is to recognize what the purpose of the last judgment is and what it is not. It is not an idea of ultimate reprobation, revenge, or even of distributive justice in the last instance. The purpose of the last judgment is related to the other eschata. Despite their name, these eschata do not denote separate things or events, but instead describe the single theme of the eschatic reality in different distinguishable yet connected aspects. The Parousia of Christ describes the eschatic reality in its constitution: how will it be realized? Eternal life and other metaphors, like theosis (deification) or visio beatifica (the beatific vision), describe the eschatic reality in its event-like shape, as it can be derived from its constitutional conditions from the Parousia. Bodily resurrection and judgment are different means for the realization of the eschatic reality. Whereas ‘resurrection’ describes the eschatic reality in continuity with our pre-eschatic here and now, the ‘last judgment’ describes the eschatic reality in discontinuity with the here and now: which alterations are necessary so that the eschatic reality at the same time being conceived as a purely good and in continuation with the here and now?

To answer this last question, we first must look into the other eschata as presuppositions of the last judgment:

(1) A theology based on revelation can express nothing which is not given in the triune revelation of the Father by Christ in the Spirit. Therefore, ‘Parousia’ describes the constitution of the eschatic reality in accordance with the Christ event. Like the incarnation, the Eastern epiphanies and the presence of Christ by the Spirit, the Parousia is a kind of presence. However, in contrast to incarnation it is not an alluring revelation but a convicting one (Matt 24:23–27). Just as the Eastern epiphanies of the resurrected Christ can by no means be extrapolated from mundane rationalities, the Parousia will happen suddenly and not as an outcome of everyday calculable rules (Mark 13:24–27). The main point of the Parousia, however, is that it is not to be understood as a historic, super-historic, or ahistoric event, but as a personal event: 1 Thess 4:13–17 describes the aim of the Parousia as human persons being together with Christ immediately and forever. Under the presupposition of redefining classical Christology in terms of a narrative ontology, such an aim has important implications. Since the classical divine nature of Christ has to be understood in a way that Jesus’ story is part of God’s own story of love, and since Jesus’ human nature means that his story is part of the story of every human being, the identity of the person of Christ would be incomplete unless there is an immediate life between Jesus and human beings. Therefore, the Parousia has a value not only for human beings but for Christ as well – and, by implication, for the other divine persons. Christ’s incarnation, death, resurrection, ascension, and Parousia are therefore not distinct events, but have to be seen as different aspects of one event: no incarnation without Parousia, no Parousia without incarnation (Mühling 2015: 252–301, 338–366).

(2) The aim of the Parousia is to be together with Christ forever. This immediate presence of Christ to creation is only possible if the trinitarian theosis by grace takes place: according to the trinitarian self-disclosure, God reveals Godself as a dynamic mesh of relationships of love among the Father, Son, and Spirit. Divine unity (the koinonia between the divine persons) and personal particularity within the Trinity are ‘equiprimordial’ (existing together as equally fundamental) and relationally constitutive (the persons are defined by their relationships to one another). Therefore, persons, divine and human, can be described as particular ‘whence-and-wither becomings’ (Mühling 2020: 77, 95–97). Since the imago dei, the image of God, can be described as an imago personalitatis and imago trinitatis, as image of personhood and as images of the Trinity, so can created persons. Persons, divine or human, are always persons in relation. Therefore, the complete identity of a human person is only possible in the context of a relationship with Father, Son, and Spirit. This immediate communicative personal presence of God can be expressed with the traditional metaphor of theosis. According to Anastasius of Sinai (Migne 1865: 36), theosis does not imply created persons ceasing to be creatures or created persons being absorbed into the singularity of a divine being in a mystical way; rather, theosis consists in the incorporation, by grace, of created persons into the event-like framework of the trinitarian relations. In other words, the human story will be enveloped by the trinitarian story. God becomes our environment, our space and our time. Personal transcendence (alterity), relationality, and an event-like structure (novelty) are therefore included in the life of the eschatic reality (Mühling 2015: 168–169, 345–354).

(3) This incorporation or theosis is, however, only possible if it is really we, the pre-eschatical human beings (i.e. our relational stories), who are integrated. The metaphor of the bodily resurrection is therefore a means to express this necessary eschatical value of present life. The soma pneumatikon (‘body spiritual’) Paul speaks about in 1 Corinathians 15 has to be understood first as a ‘body’ that is reigned by the Spirit alone (Lampe 2002: 1–2, 114). Second, bodiliness has to be conceived in relational and communicative terms: a body is not primarily something composed of the molecules of matter, but a means of a person’s communicative abilities (perception and reaction) in relation (Mühling 2016: 37–70; 2020: 541–543). Human spatiotemporal bodies necessarily consist of physical matter, but that is only one possible actualization of the body. Since the body is also explained in personal terms, and since a person can only be understood in a storied way, our pre-eschatical stories (what we do and experience) matter for the eschatic reality.

(4) Obviously, the life-stories of all created persons do not simply harmonize with each other or with the divine love. Therefore, some kind of discontinuity or transformation also has to be expressed, which is the theme of the final judgment.

3.2 The transformation of ethical into aesthetical differences

Events are not merely valueless facts. Understood phenomenologically, in each event there is a unity of the perception of truth and value (Wahrwertnehmung; Mühling 2020: 39–60). All possible values can be roughly distinguished into three kinds: veridic values (dealing with values like right and wrong), ethical values (dealing with expressions like good and bad) and aesthetic values (dealing with expressions like beautiful and ugly). Neoplatonic and idealistic philosophy and theology claim that positive values – i.e. the good, the true, and the beautiful – have to coincide with each other and with the divine being. However, this determination of the relations relies only on a philosophical approach, without revelation. If revelation is taken into account, the picture alters: the resurrected Christ has to be seen as the prototype of the true, the good, and the beautiful, meaning the good and the true coincide: first in Christ, and second, derived from that, in the created realm undergone the judgment. The eschatical reality, therefore, can only be good and nothing other than good.

In contrast to the classical approach, there can be many equally good events that are different in types of beauty – though not when it comes to ascribing more or less beauty, but other beauty. The same applies to the eschatical reality: it can only be good and nothing but good. If, however, the course of the present world is to contribute to the eschatical reality, it cannot consist in a contribution to its goodness, since such a claim would contradict the doctrine of justification (that salvation comes by God’s action alone, not by human merit). The contribution can, however, consist in a particular instantiation of beauty. It is possible to conceive of multiple eschatical realities that are equally good, but different as to their aesthetic form. The last judgment can then be understood as God’s final action in the world, which transformes all remaining ethical difference (that is, variations consisting of ‘more’ or ‘less’ good) into goodness without remainder – to the extent that ethical differences (degrees of goodness) have no further influence on the eschatical identity, since they have been transformed by divine action into aesthetic differences.

The aim of the final judgment is therefore precisely this transformation of ethical differences into aesthetic differences. This conclusion also means believing that the divine action of judgment is that evil will not merely be eliminated, annihilated, or immortalized through a form of eternal punishment. Rather, through divine judgment, evil can be transformed into good, to the extent that it is capable of contributing to the non-foreseeable aesthetic form of the eschatical reality. Such an overcoming of evil can be expressed with the picture of the resurrected Christ as prototype of the eschatic life: he wears scars as signs of his identity and beauty. The scars signify, first, that the evil he experienced in his life on Earth belongs to his very identity as God the Son; second, they signify that this kind of evil is (although not annihilated) overcome and therefore, they are signs of his beauty. In other words, the last judgment is the process of keeping, healing, and lifting (of ‘sublating’, in Hegelian terms) the pre-eschatical events – not, as Hegel thought, in the concept (im Begriff; Hegel 1991: 154), but in the eschatical story. Whereas Hegel claimed that this process is inherent in the course of history and can be understood by philosophical reason (‘im Begriff’), Christian eschatology claims that it is a process not inherent in the story of history, but is rather the divine process of judgment inaugurating a continuing but new story, which can only be conceived by revelation.

3.3 Objects and criteria: the last judgment as creation

The above assessment established that a doctrine of the classical outcomes of the last judgment may be critiqued by developing a thoroughgoing disjunction between a dual outcome and universal salvation. Within this framework, we determined that the error in this version of the doctrine consists in the fact that it presupposes an individualistic and atomistic understanding of the created person as the object of the last judgment. This understanding implies that a person’s individual biography, particularly their actions, constitutes their personhood, and is the object of judgment. However, this approach has not held up to further scrutiny, and the decisive question remains: what, then, can we see as the positive object and the criteria of the judgment?

Biblically, the works or deeds of a person are explicitly named as the criterion of judgment (Matt 24–25). The wrath of judgment, to come at the end of time as a result of the fact that the law has not been fulfilled, is reason for Paul in Rom 1:18–20 to excuse neither the pagans, for whom the standard of measurement is written on their hearts, nor the Jews, to whom the law was revealed. This criterion was largely taken for granted during the entirety of the Middle Ages (Ott 1990: 48–54, 157–160). While the Reformation thinkers did not deny this viewpoint, they assumed faith was ultimately the determinative criterion, which posed problems for the Biblicist versions of the older Protestant theology (Gerhardi 1885: 22–23). Even if contemporary Protestant theology were to reject speaking about the final judgment according to works (Stock 1980: 240–256), the actual issue of the relationship between faith, person, and works remains unresolved.

From the relational constitution of created persons and natures, it follows that the object of the last judgment is the personal and social world. We also saw that a created person – as an image of the Triune God who is love – is constituted by the relational structures in which he or she is involved. These are relationships to non-personal and personal creatures, as well as to God. The relational structure of a created person consists of the events in which the person is actively and passively involved. Persons are not substances, but rather narrative processes or ‘becomings’. Persons, in so far as they can pursue specific aims and intentions, establish specific claims about themselves (who they want to be with their actions) which are either accepted or rejected in their interaction with other persons, whereby the relational structure ideally realizes the twofold love command to love God and neighbour. Taken in the fullest sense, should the claims that created persons make about themselves be taken seriously by God, then in the last judgment at the first glance a person would have to be identical with their particular narrative biography (what a person does and experiences). Furthermore, this shows that preferring God’s claim over created persons leads to God’s wrath (as a revelation that the identity of God is violated by sin) about the state of the sinner. God’s wrath, however, does not bring about the annihilation of the sinner, but instead leads to God’s redeeming work in the Son and of the Holy Spirit on the cross and in the resurrection.

A new judgment of God over the sinner is possible. Consequently, the concept of personhood is not only strongly relational, but is also to be understood eschatologically. God can distinguish between the sinner and the sin, in that the person of the sinner is what God will make out of them eschatically (including the last judgment). Therefore, the person can no longer be identified with works or experiences in relationship with other persons, but with what the person experiences in the eschatical eternity with God. As a result, the deeds and consequences of the person in the relational structures in this world are considered positively, and indeed also in the last judgment. The last judgment is therefore not an event in conflict with the concept of personhood, but is rather the very process that is constitutive for personhood. This is true for the eschatical person and also for the person in the present, because the person at present is nothing other than the promise of what they will become. The eschatical process of final judgment is therefore nothing other than the process constituting created personhood. The final judgment is therefore creation – but not new creation in the sense of being a second creation. The ‘final’ judgment is the original creation of the human person.

Based on the preceding argument, it follows that nothing can happen in the last judgment other than what happened on the cross and in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The last judgment can be affected by means of works, without any semi-Pelagian tendency being taught, since the last judgment occurs primarily on the cross of Christ.

Konrad Stock understands the wrath of God as ‘the indignation and wounding of God by this […] experience of human history’ (Stock 1980: 251–252). In other words, God is wounded by the interweaving of human personal biographies not in accord with the twofold love command. The cross can then be understood as God’s devotion or surrender to humanity, in which the scale of the consequence of sin is made manifest: sin is not only violence inflicted on oneself, but also, as Erskine suggested (Erskine 1831: 51; Mühling 2005: 213), an attempt to kill God. Consequently, God is actually injured. However, the resurrection of Christ through the Spirit reveals to humanity that God’s love is stronger than sin. We can therefore define the last judgment from the centre of the event of reconciliation (Stock 1980: 152, 252–253, 255–256).

Thus, created persons and their works (and experiences) can be objects of the last judgment without the problems encountered in the classical outcomes model, to the extent that relational events are the objects of the last judgment – since persons and their actions may be conceived as variations on relationally constituted events. Persons are the intersection of the events that constitute them, knots in the relational lines of becoming. However, within the manifold relational structures of a person, it is the relationship to God that has a determinative function. Crucially, this is always the relationship to God who made Godself to be sin on the cross. As a result, created persons cannot be annihilated, because they are only first created eschatically by the cross, resurrection, and judgment, and this verdict is retroactively attributed to the human persons living in the here and now, wherein their complete personhood is promised to them.

The true criterion of the last judgment does not consist in anthropological phenomena like good deeds, faith, or one’s decision how to behave in the light of the call of the kingdom of God. These are all only expressions of the true criterion. The true criterion is not an anthropological but a theological one. It is the double surrender or self-giving of God to humanity in the cross and resurrection of Christ through the Spirit.

Although the choice between a ‘double outcome’ and ‘universal salvation’ is a false dilemma in the strict sense, we now can use these terms metaphorically and perspectivally. Since the judgment is itself constitutive for personal identity, there is to some extent something like a universal salvation from the perspective of eternity. If it is the eschatic confrontation between creaturely and divine action that first brings about the fulfilment of creaturely personhood, then God does not annihilate any created person, since it would violate God’s faithfulness to Godself. However, from our present, non-eschatical perspective, the last judgment does not mean universal salvation for the individual human being. From our perspective, individual human persons do not know which of their identity claims (which parts of their story) will endure beyond the last judgment. That is, they do not know what will endure in the process of the constitution of their person, or which elements in the relational structures in which they live will be translated into aesthetic differences. Moreover, this process of transformation itself is to be understood as painful: for the person who is judged, for the persons who relate to them in one way or another and for God as judge as well.

3.4 The judge and the process of judgment

Thus far, we have implied that God is the one who judges. The claim is by no means self-evident. In the biblical material both God (2 Thess 1:5; 1 Cor 5:13; Rom 2:3; 3:6; 14:10; Matt 10:28 and parallels; 6:4–18) and Christ (Matt 25:31–46, 7:22–22 13:46–43; Luke 13:25–27; 1 Thess 4:6; 1 Cor 4:4–5 11:32; 2 Cor 5:10) are said to judge. Also, according to Matt 19:28, even the apostles are named judges over the tribes of Israel. In 1 Cor 6:2–3 all the saints, that is, all sanctified human persons, are ultimately named as judges – not only over humans but over everything, including the angels.

The divergent biblical resources have led to various attempts at systematization and reconstruction throughout the history of theology, generally centring on the effort to harmonize the various subjects who perform judgment with one another.

God and Christ do not cancel each other out as agents of the judgment, since on the basis of the doctrine of the two natures, Christ is also fully God. For Bonaventure (d. 1274), the saints attain the office of judge on the basis of their position of honour as assistant judges to Christ (Ott 1990: 153). In his treatise on the judgement, significant in the Middle Ages, Richard of Saint Victor’s (d. 1173) – following the lead of Gregory the Great (d. 604) – focuses on Matt 19:28 in particular, and therefore hardly goes into the notion of Christ as judge. He recognized five different groups of humans, regarding the possibilities of judging and being judged, claiming that some saints may judge without being judged themselves (Ott 1990: 53–54). However, such a schematic application does not provide a solution to the material problem.

Any clarification about the subject responsible for the last judgment cannot simply be a clarification about the unity of various passages in the Bible. It needs a systematic answer. In addition, it is also necessary to make clear that the term judgment is a metaphor for the process of the transformation of the provisional (pre-eschatic) reality into the eschatical one. Accordingly, the last judgment itself is an event-like and procedural occurrence in which multiple related beings can actively participate. In modern court proceedings, there is not only a judge but also witnesses, attorneys, jurors, law enforcement officers – i.e. the various functions of subjects within the event. The question about the judge is a question about the entity making the decision. It presupposes that the judgment is not simply the independent and automatic enforcement of an abstract criterion, but rather that the judgment depends on a personal decision. It is, however, questionable whether we ought to model the process of eschatical transformation using these characteristics of human law courts. There are no qualifiers that could tell us whether these elements of the process (of the eschatical transformation of created persons) possess neutral, positive, or negative analogies to the model of judgment as found in modern court proceedings. As a result, we are only able to question the level of subjectivity and its function in this process.

The acting agent in judgment is ultimately God, because the process of eschatical transformation can only be carried out by God – who, in the persons of Father, Son and Spirit, is the ultimate existence. Therefore, the trinitarian persons can also be named as the three eschatoi (Mühling 2015: 66–78), the three ultimate personal existences (what the ending -oi in Greek denotes). Since the unity of God is not personal, but only the divine persons, and since being a subject of the judgments requires one to be a person, the unity of all predicates in God requires that all persons are judges, including Christ as the incarnate second person of the Trinity. Then it is plausible that the events of his human life, especially his death and resurrection, form the standard of measurement for judging. The biblical tradition also teaches that humans (the Twelve Apostles, or the ‘saints’) can be agents of the judgment. However, in contrast to Richard of Saint Victor’s example mentioned above, this does not necessarily mean that they are exempt from being judged. There are also examples of this interpretation from the tradition. Bonaventure assumes even the hidden sins of the elect will be revealed and named in the judgment, in order to demonstrate the greatness of God’s grace (Ott 1990: 158), which is significant because it can support the following consideration: if humans are designated as judges, yet their sins are nevertheless also uncovered, then the office of judge is not based on sinlessness. Thus it is not only possible for Christ and a few saints to serve as judges, but every created person who is to be judged could also serve as judge.

Such a conclusion is certainly not to be understood in the sense that humans can pronounce a verdict at their own discretion, but only that they acknowledge the soteriological-christological criterion of the last judgment. Self-judgment is inevitable under the condition that the eschatical created person include a kind of freedom. Martin Kähler (d. 1912) postulated that in the ideal of modern procedures of judgment, a guilty defendant claims punishment as their own right, and, in so doing, pronounces the verdict of judgment on themselves (Kähler 1998: 409). This might be overly optimistic in regard to human courts, but it is important because it can resolve the dilemma between grace and freedom. The question of how grace and human freedom can be compatible was dealt with by Origen, Erskine, and Schleiermacher, among others (Mühling 2015: 295), who postulated a post-mortal/pre-eschatic life of created persons that offers entirely different potential for development. If this ‘intermediate state’ is conceived as having endless duration, this idea makes it possible to establish the compatibility of grace and creaturely freedom without resorting to forms of semi-Pelagianism. This argument is equivalent to a reduplication of the world, which must be rejected because it eschatically devalues the present world. However, if the judgment itself is this merger of grace and freedom, and those who are judged also participate in Christ’s pronouncement of the verdict, then these concerns no longer hold any sway: there is no doubling of the world resulting in a devaluation of the present life, and nothing like an infinite duration has to be accepted.

The last judgment is not only the process of creation of the human person from the perspective of eternity. It is also the process of transformation in which the apparent contradiction between grace and freedom is resolved, as those who are to be judged also appear as judges next to Christ, the primary judge. The judgment would then be understood as a perfect revelation that discloses the truth about the world and one’s own life. According to the twofold love command as the criterion of judgment, the one to be judged, with the help of the Holy Spirit, can do nothing other than pronounce the judgment in relation to Christ, whatever the outcome might be.

3.5 The timing of the last judgment

The biblical tradition speaks of the judgment in relation to various points in time. In addition to the conclusive final judgment, Johannine theology also suggests that the judgment has already occurred in the present world (John 5:24; cf. Becker 1991: 281–296). The notion of a temporally localized judgment is dependent on a particular model of the correlation between time and eternity (Mühling 2015: 80–106). In the model of kairotic (related to kairos, implying the ‘opportune time’) or punctiliar (related to a particular point in time) eternity, the last judgment can only be understood as an isolated incursion of eternity into time. In the model of eternity as absolute or partial simultaneity (in which events occur all at once), the last judgment is thought of as occurring simultaneously throughout all points in time. In the linear model of time, there is the difficulty of coordinating the various points of time of the judgment with one another, which can be seen in Richard of Saint Victor’s tractate on the last judgment. He distinguishes times of judgment which occur at present, immediately after death, and after the Parousia (Ott 1990: 53–54). Martin Luther spoke of judgment in two parts:

(1) At present, humanity constantly undergoes judgment in terms of the experience of spiritual torment (Anfechtung). Here, the verdict is always that of damnation, because the person is simul iustus et peccator, just and sinner at the same time. One’s own works cannot contribute to blessedness but are themselves deadly sins. The phenomena in which this present form of judgment appears are fear of death, doubt sown by the devil, and brooding over whether one belongs to the elect (Peters 1967: 40–47).

(2) Distinct from this feature, however, is the final judgment – which, according to Luther’s understanding of the future of individual human beings after death as a kind of sleep (cf. Mühling 2015: 292), occurs immediately after death. Thus, the person goes immediately to this judgement. Now, however, the simul is removed, since in the judgment faith alone gives life: fides sola dat vitam (Luther’s Works 39.I.96; Luther 1883: 7). Nevertheless, the biblical discussion of judgment according to works does not pose a problem for Luther, since good works necessarily follow from faith and therefore in the final judgment the works bear witness to faith (cf. Luther 1883: 289, 34–290 [vol. 12]).

If the timing of judgment rested on the compatibility of various theologies in the Bible, or depended on the presupposed model of the relationship between time and eternity, then the question would be virtually meaningless in a systematic-theological sense. The compatibility of various biblical expressions remains within the framework of an ahistorical biblicism, and the question of the model of time and eternity has not only theological but philosophical premises. However, there is one specific systematic-theological aspect that makes this question appear significant: we saw that the judgment is to be understood as a process of transformation or constitution, in which nothing other than what has already happened on the cross and in the resurrection occurs. The final judgment, on the other hand, must be understood as an unambiguous revelation of this state of affairs applied to the life of human being, and therefore as what constitutes human personhood. Consequently, we can distinguish between two aspects of the judgment, understood as a process of transformation. First, a judgment takes place wherever Christ is present and is known for who he is. Accordingly, the events of the cross and the resurrection and the constitution of faith in individual humans are both experiences of the judgment. They share the same origin as the promise of human eschatical personal being, as do the assurance and strengthening of faith in word and sacrament.

Second, however, judgment is distinct from the transformation that occurs when a person shifts from the spatio-temporal framework of individuation to the eschatical framework of individuation. The former exists in the present world; the latter consists in being drawn into the storied trinitarian relationship of God. In contrast to the provisional phenomena of the judgment in the present, final judgment does not leave any room for doubt: it is definitive, whereas the judgment in the here and now has to be understood as a kind of foreshadowing of the final judgment. The question as to the precise point of time of the final judgment is no longer meaningful if we adopt a model of time and eternity which does not derive eternity from time, but identifies eternity with the intra-divine story (Mühling 2015: 3–106): it is not temporal and spatial relations that individuate persons in the here and now, but the logical properties of time and space that make it possible. However, they do find the condition of their possibility in the inner trinitarian relations of the divine life itself. The final judgment is therefore the process of transformation necessary for theosis, which is ultimately the same thing as the eschatical constitution of the human person in God.

4 Back from the future: the contemporaneity of the last judgment

The idea of the last judgment naturally bears ethical implications. The fear that countless generations have felt in anticipating the final judgment is a prime example. This fear itself could be misused as a motivation for certain kinds of moral conduct. For example, during the Inquisition, heretics were executed for the supposed purpose of securing their rescue in the final judgment. There are also liturgical implications. The idea that unworthy participation in the Eucharist effected the final judgment for the undeserving communicant led to the Eucharist being rarely celebrated in Lutheran churches at certain times in history.

The decisive question, therefore, is not whether the idea of the final judgment possesses ethical implications, but which of those implications are meaningful and accord with the gospel. A correction to the history of interpretation can be made: if the last judgment is ultimately identical with the eschatical constitution of the person, it is not something to be feared, but to be hoped for. The concept of action as an expression of human life presupposes humans are living with horizons of expectation. There are pre-eschatical, everyday horizons of expectation, in which only what can be derived by past experiences appears. However, a main feature of experience is that humans are surprised by unforeseen experiences. To expect the unexpectable is therefore a vivid sign of real life, and to deal with this unexpectable is the subject matter of Christian hope. To speak about that hope in a reflective and conceptual way is the task of eschatology, where the last judgment plays an important role. Without the eschatological theme of the last judgment, any kind of ultimate hope for an eschatic reality would be nothing but an idolization of natural hopes and fears.

Hopes and fears structure all human horizons of expectation, be it the restricted everyday horizons or the eschatical horizon of a human person. The shape of one’s eschatic horizon, however, not only forms ‘moral ontologies’(Taylor 1989: 8) – that is, how one acts and behaves – but also forms capabilities of perceiving oneself and environment (Mühling 2020: 164–166). If a person’s eschatic horizon is formed by the revelation of the triune God, i.e. if it is a Christian horizon of expectation, this has specific consequences. The judgment is by no means an object of fear, but exclusively one of hope. As a result, the linguistic distinction between ‘expectation’ and ‘fear’ is not an eschatical distinction as supposed, but only a provisional and linguistic one belonging to inner-worldly horizons of expectation. Regarding eschatology, fear can only be used positively to mean personal ‘fear’ of God in the sense of awe, reverence, or veneration, not in the sense of a terrifying eschatological event. In faith and trust, Christians long for and experience the unmediated personal presence of Christ, which is due to the last judgment meaning nothing less than the definitive constitution of one’s person and identity. Since currently humans also make sinful identity claims, the last judgment proves these claims to be provisional and incompatible with eschatical life.

Liturgically, conceiving the last judgment exclusively as hope means that the doctrine of manducatio indignorum leading to judgment – i.e. the doctrine that in the Eucharist sinners really eat the body of Christ, but for judgment – is to be taught not as means of producing terror, but rather as consolation. Additionally, for denominations that do not agree with such a view of the Eucharist including the manducatio indignorum, the point behind it is valuable: judgment as consolation should be a basic theme of pastoral care. The theme of consolation is therefore the character disposition for the present, which ought to inaugurate the last judgment. Consolation releases humanity from the notion that the identity claims they inevitably have to make during their lives would actually have to constitute their identities. Accordingly, the last judgment becomes a consolation for the conflicting actions of both offender and victim. As such, it can only be experienced in the here and now in light of the grace of the cross and resurrection. In this light, the verdict of damnation will no longer be feared: even if God were to send all people to hell, we could all go cheerfully, because it was God who had sent us – and therefore hell, understood as being without relation to God, would no longer be hell; hell would be transformed into life (Luther 1968: 76).

All conceivable ethical implications of the last judgment must satisfy one criterion (1 John 4:17):

Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.


Copyright Markus Mühling (CC BY-NC)


  • Further reading

    • Janowski, Johanna Christine. 2000. Allerlösung. Annäherungen an Eine Entdualisierte Eschatologie. Neukirchen/Vluyn: Neukirchener.
    • Mühling, Markus. 2015. T&T Clark Handbook of Christian Eschatology. Translated by J. Adams-Maßmann and D. A. Gilland. London: T&T Clark.
    • O’Callaghan, Paul. 2011. Christ Our Hope: An Introduction to Eschatology. Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press.
    • Rosenau, Hartmut. 1993. Allversöhnung: Ein Transzendentaltheologischer Grundlegungsversuch. Berlin: De Gruyter.
    • Stock, Konrad. 1980. ‘Gott Der Richter. Der Gerichtsgedanke Als Horizont Der Rechtfertigungslehre’, Evangelische Theologie 40: 240–256.
    • Ziegler, Philip G. (ed.). 2016. Eternal God – Eternal Life. London: T&T Clark.
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