Question: "What happens at the final judgment?"
Answer: The first thing to understand about the final judgment is that it cannot be avoided. Regardless of how we may choose to interpret prophecy on the end times, we are told that “it is appointed to men once to die, but after this the judgment” (Hebrews 9:27). We all have a divine appointment with our Creator. The apostle John recorded some details of the final judgment:
“And I saw a great white throne, and Him sitting on it, from whose face the earth and the heaven fled away. And a place was not found for them. And I saw the dead, the small and the great, stand before God. And books were opened, and another book was opened, which is the Book of Life. And the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works. And the sea gave up the dead in it. And death and hell delivered up the dead in them. And each one of them was judged according to their works. And death and hell were cast into the Lake of Fire. This is the second death. And if anyone was not found having been written in the Book of Life, he was cast into the Lake of Fire” (Revelation 20:11-15).
This remarkable passage introduces to us the final judgment—the end of human history and the beginning of the eternal state. We can be sure of this: no mistakes will be made in our hearings because we will be judged by a perfect God (Matthew 5:48; 1 John 1:5). This will manifest itself in many undeniable proofs. First, God will be perfectly just and fair (Acts 10:34; Galatians 3:28). Second, God cannot be deceived (Galatians 6:7). Third, God cannot be swayed by any prejudices, excuses or lies (Luke 14:16-24).
As God the Son, Jesus Christ will be the judge (John 5:22). All unbelievers will be judged by Christ at the “great white throne,” and they will be punished according to the works they have done. The Bible is very clear that unbelievers are storing up wrath against themselves (Romans 2:5) and that God will “give to each person according to what he has done” (Romans 2:6). (Believers will also be judged, at a different judgment called the “judgment seat of Christ” (Romans 14:10), but since Christ’s righteousness has been imputed to us and our names are written in the Book of Life, we will be rewarded, not punished, according to our deeds.) At the final judgment the fate of the unsaved will be in the hands of the omniscient God who will judge everyone according to his soul’s condition.
For now, our fate is in our own hands. The end of our soul’s journey will be either in an eternal heaven or in an eternal hell (Matthew 25:46). We must choose where we will be by accepting or rejecting the sacrifice of Christ on our behalf, and we must make that choice before our physical lives on this earth come to an end. After death, there is no longer a choice, and our fate is to stand before the throne of God, where everything will be open and naked before Him (Hebrews 4:13). Romans 2:6 declares that God “will give to each person according to what he has done.”