Written by Ángel Manuel Rodríguez
Does the final judgment begin before or after the Second Coming?
Christians disagree concerning the timing of the final judgment. Adventists believe that it begins before the second coming of Christ. Interestingly, this is a common idea among Roman Catholics and many Protestants.
In addition, Catholic theology teaches that there are a particular judgment and a general judgment. The particular judgment takes place immediately after death, and determines whether the soul will experience heaven, purgatory, or hell. Obviously, this judgment takes place before the return of Christ and is necessary because of the doctrine of the immortality of the soul. The general judgment takes place at the return of Christ, is universal, and includes righteous and wicked.
Dispensationalists teach that there are several judgments. The first one is the judgment of the church that takes place in heaven after the rapture and before the Second Coming. One wonders, Why is it necessary to judge believers who have already been raptured?
Other Christians prefer to describe the judgment as a single universal event that takes place at the second coming of Christ, when the general resurrection of all—wicked and righteous—occurs. That position seems to ignore the fact that Christ comes a second time to save those who are waiting for Him, not to determine whether they should be saved (Heb. 9:28). Neither does it take into consideration a millennial and postmillennial judgment (Rev. 20).
According to Hebrews 9:27, 28, the final judgment takes place after one dies, and the next eschatological event is the second coming of Christ. Those who are alive at the close of the great controversy will be judged while they are still alive (1 Peter 4:5).
During apostolic times the judgment of the dead was still in the future; it did not occur at the moment the person died (2 Tim. 4:1; 1 Peter 4:5). To argue that the judgment takes place at the Second Coming, when the final verdict is assigned to everyone, is a partial explanation of the biblical teaching. At His return Jesus does not come to deal with sin, “but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him” (Heb. 9:28, NIV). At the return of Christ each one receives a reward that was apportioned to him or her according to what he or she has done in this life (Matt. 16:27). This is not the moment when the Divine Tribunal will judge every person, but the moment when the reward is handed out.
If the reward is given at the coming of Christ, then the judgment began before His return. This is what Paul indicates in Romans 2:5, 6: “You are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed. God ‘will give to each person according to what he has done’” (NIV).
Notice first that there is a time when the “righteous judgment of God” (verse 5) is hidden to human sight. The righteous judicial decision is made before the Second Coming because it is at Christ’s coming that it is manifested/revealed to humans. So the final judgment begins before the return of Christ (see Dan. 7:9, 10, 26, 27).
Second, Paul refers to the basis upon which that judicial decision is made: “‘According to what he [the person] has done’” (verse 6, NIV). The works of every individual are examined and evaluated to determine the proper legal sentence that actually will be granted to them at the return of Christ. This process of investigation and evaluation is part of the judicial process in the heavenly court.
Summarizing, the last judgment is a judicial process that includes (1) a pre-advent, investigative judgment (Dan. 7; Rom. 2:5, 6); (2) a millennial judgment (Rev. 20:4; 1 Cor. 6:1-3); and (3) an executive judgment after the millennium (Rev. 20:11-15; Matt. 25:31-46). Therefore, the final judgment begins before the Second Coming and includes the judgment of the saints and the judgment of the wicked during and after the millennium. Adventists have incorporated into our understanding of the final judgment all the biblical evidence available, including the timing of the different aspects of it.