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Written by Ángel Manuel Rodríguez
The Bible says that we will appear before the “judgment seat of God.” What does that mean?
Very often the meaning of expressions can be elucidated by studying the biblical passages in which they are used. In this case we are dealing with a legal practice in Roman society employed by Paul to embody important theological truths. Knowing the ancient practice is useful, but the biblical text itself helps explain its meaning and doctrinal significance.
1. Origin of the Phrase: “Judgment seat” is the English rendering of the Greek term bēma. The literal meaning of the word is “step,” (used as a measure to designate approximately a meter; “a foot of ground”; literally, “a foot [length] of a step”). From that basic meaning bēma came to designate a platform raised at least a step above the ground. Such platforms were usually built in or near the marketplace and used by Roman officials to deliver speeches (e.g., Acts 12:21) and to make judicial decisions. The magistrate sat on a seat placed on it to address those present. The term bēma was by extension applied to the seat of the magistrate. The “judgment seat” was a judicial bench.
2. Legal Procedure: In front of the Roman magistrate stood the accused and the accusers. During Jesus’ trial Pilate sat on the “judge’s seat” while Jesus stood before him (Matt. 27:11, 19; cf. John 19:13).* The accusers presented the charges, Pilate allowed Jesus to defend Himself, and a legal decision was rendered (Matt. 27:13, 14, 24-26).
We find a similar situation in Acts. While in Corinth , the Jews brought Paul to the “court” (bēma) of Gallio, proconsul of Achaia (Acts 18:12). He listened to the charges against Paul but determined that according to Roman law they had no legal basis. He had the Jews “ejected from the court” (verse 16). Jewish leaders also pressed charges against Paul in Caesarea , before Festus. “He convened the court and ordered that Paul be brought before him” (Acts 25:6). The accusers stood and presented their charges against Paul, and an opportunity was given for him to defend himself (verses 7, 8).
So the judgment seat was a public tribunal, a place where alleged criminals were brought before a Roman officer who functioned as a judge. The accused and the accusers stood before him, presented their arguments and evidence, and he listened to the defense. After an evaluation of the evidence the Roman magistrate pronounced his legal decision for or against the accused.
3. Theological Usage: This legal practice was employed by Paul to illustrate proceedings in the heavenly tribunal. In Romans 14:10 he referred to the bēma as “God’s judgment seat,” while in 2 Corinthians 5:10 he called it “the judgment seat of Christ.” These two passages contain several important ideas. First, they affirm that there is a divine court in which God, through Christ, functions as our judge. The reference is to the eschatological judgment.
Second, Christian believers will appear before the judgment seat of God to give an account of themselves ( Rom. 14:12). At the end of the eschatological proceedings all “will bow before me [God]; every tongue will confess to God” (verse 11) to acknowledge the justice of God.
Third, God’s people will also appear before His judgment seat to receive what is due them “for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad” (2 Cor. 5:10).
Fourth, 2 Corinthians 5:10 reveals that in the judgment evidence is analyzed and a verdict is pronounced by God on the basis of that evidence.
Finally, we should notice that Paul did not say who the accuser is. Second Corinthians 5:10 suggests that in the heavenly realm the record of our deeds could speak against us, but other biblical evidence indicates that the ultimate accuser of God’s people is the enemy (Zech. 3:1). Other passages specify that the defense is presented by our advocate, Jesus (1 John 2:1; Heb. 7:25). Since we confessed Him here on earth, He will confess in the heavenly tribunal that we belong to Him (Matt. 10:32; Luke 12:8, 9).
There is no need for us to physically appear before God’s judgment seat, because Christ will represent us there. That is good news!
*Bible texts in this column are quoted from the New International Version.