Atonement: Jesus, Judge of the Living and the Dead

On September 26 some friends and members of Wascana Fellowship spent an evening celebrating an evening known to Jewish people as the conclusion of yom kippur. We began our conversation by discussing what that day meant in the lives of ancient Israelites. It was the day that all their sins across the entire land of Israel were “covered” by the blood of the many sacrifices, according to Leviticus 16.

This sacrifice extended geographically over all of Israel and temporally over the entire year from the previous sacrifice. It even covered the sins of all resident non-Israelites in the land. This picture is inclusive of foreigners, rather than exclusive (as many imagine the Israelite laws were intended to be).

It was a different sacrifice than Passover, which was a celebration of salvation from slavery in Egypt. The Atonement sacrifices were about the restoration of right relationship with God through dealing with sin. It must have felt good to have God officially overlook the sins of the year. It would have perhaps felt like a renewal to a state like that initiated at the first Passover.

For Christians it would seem that the sacrifice of Jesus Christ at Passover was so full of significance that God set apart an extra Israelite holy day to look ahead other aspects of it. The author of the biblical book of Hebrews draws direct parallels between the sacrifices offered on that day (see Leviticus 16) and Jesus’ presentation of his own blood at the “heavenly temple” to literally “remove” sin (Hebrews 9:11-28).

Jesus’ sacrifice parallels the ancient sacrifices of Atonement, but goes way beyond by effectively dealing with sin once and for all. It also goes way beyond the temporal and geographical limits of the ancient Israelite sacrifices by being a once-for-all-time event. Jesus’ sacrifice removes the sins of all who believe in him, no matter what nationality and no matter when and where they have occurred. This opens up the way for the complete reconciliation of the human race with the God who made them and with each other.

In Zechariah 8:19 there is an obscure prophecy about how various fasts, including the “fast of the seventh month” or Atonement, would become joyous feasts. Jesus’ death and resurrection have done precisely that by reconciling all people with God through Jesus. If Passover is symbolic of freedom and salvation in Christ, Atonement extends it into symbolism of joy and the universal reconciliation of believers.

The ancient fast day of Atonement seems to hint at a future aspect of Jesus’ ministry as well. As individuals we have our sins forgiven by the application of Jesus’ sacrifice. As individuals we enter into a community of people whose sin is dealt with and who are reconciled with both God and each other (at least in theory).

However, we do not yet see sin completely wiped out in the world around us. (For that matter, we don’t even see sin completely wiped out in our own lives.) For this to happen, sin must be finally judged and eliminated once and for all. Like the Azazel goat of the Atonement offerings, Sin must be sent into an exile so far away that it can never return to trouble the world. That series of sacrifices, completed in Jesus Christ, paves the way for a Final Judgment that truly deals with sin in a final way.

There are two ways that sin can be finally dealt with in a final judgment:

    1) the repentant sinner who accepts Jesus Christ’s sacrifice in payment for his own sin can be forgiven on the basis of a paid penalty and regenerated until he or she ultimately has no more desire to sin, or
    2) the unrepentant sinner who rejects the sacrifice of Jesus Christ can be sacrificed in payment for his own sin.

Somehow, the former seems much preferable to the latter. In either case, the sin is eliminated, and the land is cleansed of both sin and sinners.

The temporal and territorial extent of the covering by the ancient Atonement Day sacrifices were only a shadow of their ultimate fulfillment by Jesus Christ.

From the judgment on Jesus’ sacrifice is applied to all human beings who remain alive on earth after the Judgment.

It applies over the entire world.

It applies for all time.

At this point questions came up about the Final Judgment. Will it be a simple sentencing for the obviously guilty (everyone) who did not come under Christ’s blood? Do all who come up in the second resurrection of Revelation 20:11-15 automatically go into the lake of fire?

I have what has been called an “optimistic view.” Others might call it erroneous or even heretical.

Hebrews 9:27-28 suggests that there is an appointed time to live, followed by a judgment. This is followed by a parallel: Jesus’ death and departure is followed by a second coming to bring salvation, not condemnation. Judgment and salvation in parallel, hmmm…

If Peter is correct about judgment being on the “family of God” at this time (1 Pet. 4:17), it would seem that judgment takes a certain amount of a lifetime, even for believers. Peter is telling believers to continue doing good in the face of persecution. Could a final judgment also take longer than most of us have been trained to assume?

Do those who have never known Jesus have an opportunity to learn of Him and accept Him as Lord? James tells us that Jesus Christ is the one Judge “who is able to save and destroy (James 4:12).” When we think of Jesus as Judge, do we think of saving or destroying?

Because Jesus the Judge both saves and destroys I have hope.

I know that this falls far short of proof, but Ezekiel 37:1-14 speak of a resurrection of “the whole house of Israel” after a long period of death. The fact that their bones are scattered on the surface of a valley suggests a most ignominious death, which a Hebrew would have expected of somebody cursed by God. In other words, these are not the faithful dead. These dead bones represent the utterly rebellious house of Israel.

The most intriguing thing is that God speaks of breathing His Spirit into them at this time of resurrection.

Commentators are no doubt correct to see this vision as representing the rebirth of the nation as a faithful people in Jesus Christ, not as a literal description of the resurrection proper. We, who believe in Jesus Christ, are grafted into the house of Israel and share in this promise of mass conversion. I do get that, really.

Still, I am intrigued by this suggestion of post-mortem conversion. They died the death of those cursed by God, yet He not only gives them life, He gives them His Spirit. If nothing else, this suggests a favourable intent on the part of God.

I am aware enough of human nature to be pretty sure that not all human beings, even if given a post-mortem chance at conversion, will actually accept Jesus Christ. I do not think it is universalism to wonder if there is a post-mortem chance for those who have never heard of Jesus Christ to learn of Him and accept Him. Nor do I think that would constitute a “second chance” to be saved, since they really had no opportunity prior to this to know Jesus.

For these admittedly inconclusive reasons, I have hope.

Does this hope lessen the urgency of evangelism? Wouldn’t it make sense to just not evangelize your loved ones if you think they would stand a better chance after death? Several possible answers present themselves.

    Are we sure they stand a better chance after death? We had better be sure before we make that choice.
    Evangelism is a commission of the church. It is not an option. It shouldn’t make a difference whether we think the unevengelized dead will have a post-mortem opportunity.
    Life with Jesus now has meaning and blessings. Why deny those to potential new believers?
    Overcomers now get to reign with Christ in the Millennium. Would we want to wait 1000 years to be reunited with our loved ones?

Another possibility: Yes, it can reduce the frantic urgency of evangelism.

I hope it reduces the frantic urgency to a point where calm and thoughtful spiritual conversation can ensue. Sometimes the intense pressure some people feel to evangelize leads to a relentless pressure that drives people away from Jesus Christ.

I hope it reduces our urgency to resort to coercion rather than gentle exhortation. I hope it reduces our urgency to resort to preachiness rather than helpfulness. I hope it reduces our urgency to resort to preaching moralism instead of preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Jesus came to save, not condemn. Can we discern the difference?

The real pressure to evangelize should come from a conviction that “having your behavior seemly among the Gentiles; that, wherein they speak of you as you as evil-doers, they may by your good works, which they behold, glorify God in the day of visitation” (1 Pet. 2:12).

Frankly, it is only by grace that people are called to Jesus Christ. All we can do is spread the word in the best way we can. It is up to God the Father to call people to His Son, Jesus Christ. It is good to participate in His work… but it is still His work.

I have hope that the saving work of Jesus Christ continues in His role as Judge of the Living and the Dead.

About John Valade

I facilitate and teach in Wascana Fellowship. I have been married to Wanda since 1984. M.Div. from Briercrest Seminary, SK in 2011 and B.R.E. Canadian Bible College (now Ambrose University College) in 2000.
This entry was posted in Faith, gospel, Religion and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Atonement: Jesus, Judge of the Living and the Dead

  1. A l Hodel says:

    Thank You ! John . The depth of this dissertation will require much thought and prayer, as always
    thoroughly enjoyed.

  2. mymoss says:

    Thank you John for the very well stated point of view; which I find very reasonable, encouraging and hopeful for all mankind. It also gives a purpose and direction which Christians can apply to their own lives and share by example with those around them.

  3. dieta says:

    Ordinarily, even in a worthwhile film like “Saving Private Ryan,” where a constant drum of violence is somewhat inherent to the plot, the violence itself is a minus. But this isn’t ordinarily. One of the complaints of negative reviews is that not enough time is spent on Jesus’ teachings. But that’s not the film’s purpose nor focus. In John 3 , Nicodemus (a ruler of the Jews ) came to Jesus by night and admitted that they (he and the other rulers) knew Jesus was a Teacher come from God. In what seemed like a major change of subject, Jesus said that Nicodemus needed to be born again. The point is that Jesus’ ESSENTIAL role was not that of a Teacher, but of a Savior. OUR essential NEED is not to understand more and more doctrine, but to be born again. And without the blood sacrifice of Jesus, it would not be POSSIBLE for us to be born again.

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