What Did Jesus Teach about Judgment?

This article is part of the What Did Jesus Teach? series.

“Judge not, and you will not be judged.” (Matt. 7:1 and Luke 6:37)

Some have said that the most popular verse in the Bible is Jesus’s command not to judge. Jesus warned against judging since it will lead to our own judgment and condemnation (Matt. 7:1; Luke 6:37). Now, this should not be interpreted to mean that all evaluation of the lives of others is forbidden. Even in the context of Jesus’s command not to judge in Matthew’s Gospel, his followers are commanded to be discerning so as not to throw what is holy to dogs (Matt. 7:6). Elsewhere, believers are enjoined to judge one another and to remove from the church those who are blatantly disobedient and unrepentant (1 Cor. 5:12–13). Such cases call for gentleness and the recognition that we are liable to fall into the same sins (Gal. 6:1) so that there is no room for being supercilious and superior. Having said all this, God has the prerogative to judge—something we as human beings don’t possess. As the Creator, as the sovereign Lord and King, he evaluates and assesses our lives (cf. James 4:11–12). Thus, judging others isn’t so much wrong as it is blind—we fail to see that we indict ourselves by our very words of judgment. Our critical evaluation of others should, instead, cast us upon the mercy of God and lead us to be more merciful in our interactions with others because the day when we will be judged by the Creator of the universe is coming.

“But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment.” (Matt 5:22)

Jewish law taught that one who murders is subject to judgment in human courts (Matt. 5:21), but Jesus goes further, saying that those who are angry and insult others will face an even more severe judgment in the divine hall of justice. The judgment in God’s courts is irrevocable and horrible, for the destiny of the wicked is hell (Matt. 5:22). Jesus uses the illustration of being handed over to the judge and being thrown into prison, declaring that one will not be freed until the last cent has been paid (Matt. 5:25–26). The illustration should not be misinterpreted as if people will eventually pay the required sum and thus escape. Jesus speaks hyperbolically, and the point is that they will never get out of prison since they have no resources to pay the settlement.1

The Justice and Goodness of God

Thomas R. Schreiner

Thomas Schreiner offers a comprehensive analysis of eternal destruction, examining themes of sin, death, and redemption repeated throughout the New Testament and other passages of Scripture.

What Jesus says about murder and anger discloses that sin isn’t trivial in God’s sight, that judgment is warranted not only for murder but also for anger directed toward others, for outbursts of anger that we don’t turn from or apologize for. We could overinterpret this story in perfectionistic ways. What God looks at is our heart, the person we really are, whether we are humble and soft and flexible or whether we are self-righteous and angry and vindictive. We can both overinterpret and underinterpret what Jesus teaches here. We should readily acknowledge Luther’s truth that we are simul iustus et peccator—“justified and at the same time sinners.” Nevertheless, believers are new persons, and that newness should be manifested by our lives.

“For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” (John 3:17-18)

In John 3:18 those who don’t believe in Jesus as God’s Son are “condemned already.” The verb “condemned” is perfect tense (kekritai), signifying a reality that is present. The present reality of judgment is emphasized further by the use of the word “already” (ēdē). Condemnation is an existing reality for those who refuse to believe in the Son who came to save the world, the one who came so that people would not “perish” (apolētai) in the final judgment (John 3:16–17). According to John, the world needs saving, but it stands to reason that those who reject the one who came to save stand under judgment. John expands on the judgment in John 3:19–20, explaining why people refuse to come to the light that has dawned with the coming of Jesus (cf. also John 1:9; 8:12). People flee from the light because of the evil they practice: they don’t want the light to expose the wickedness of their behavior. Judgment belongs to those who don’t want to admit to reality and to the truth. They insist on hiding their evil to avoid shame (even though admitting and forsaking their sin is the path to freedom), but they also veil their actions so that they can continue to practice evil. John emphasizes here that, paradoxically, some human beings choose darkness and judgment when an opportunity for salvation and truth is opened to them.

“You judge according to the flesh; I judge no one. Yet even if I do judge, my judgment is true, for it is not I alone who judge, but I and the Father who sent me.” (John 8:15-16)

In John 8:12–20, the Pharisees object that Jesus’s testimony can’t be accepted since he testified about himself. But Jesus countered that his testimony should be believed because he knows both where he came from and his future destiny. The standard of judgment used by his adversaries shouldn’t be trusted since they assess matters according to the flesh. By way of contrast, Jesus judges no one, and he probably means by this that he wasn’t rendering final judgment on anyone during his ministry. He didn’t come to judge the world but to save it (cf. John 3:17). We are reminded of the Old Testament teaching that God is “slow to anger” (Ex. 34:6; Num. 14:18; Neh. 9:17; Pss. 86:15; 103:8; 145:8; Joel 2:13; Jonah 4:2; Nah. 1:3). The Lord’s judgment is just but not immediate. He patiently gives people time to repent. Still, if Jesus judges, his judgment is reliable because he and the Father jointly judge.

Jesus then returns to the matter of testimony, claiming that his testimony has credence because it is a testimony that comes from the Father and the Son. The opponents of Jesus didn’t receive his testimony since they didn’t know the Father or the Son. Jesus’s judgment doesn’t merely accord with human standards or conceptions, which are fallible, limited, and partial. His judgment accords with the truth since it is a divine judgment, a judgment coauthored by the Father and the Son. Here is a judgment that sees the whole metanarrative and encompasses all reality. Such a judgment is impossible for mere human beings, but Jesus’s judgment isn’t merely human, so his judgment accords with reality, with the truth. Thus, there is no question about whether the judgment is unfair. The judgment is just because it takes into account all the facts of the case.

“For judgment I came into this world, that those who do not see may see, and those who see may become blind.” (John 9:39)

At first glance, John 9:39 seems to contradict John 3:17. In the latter Jesus says he didn’t come to condemn the world, but the former says that he came to judge the world. Such paradoxes, however, characterize John’s writing, and when we look closer, we see that there isn’t truly a contradiction. When Jesus says that he came to save the world, the reference is to his explicit intention and motivation for coming into the world. He is slow to anger! Judgment wasn’t his fundamental motivation for entering the world but the inevitable consequence or result of his coming. Thus, Jesus came so that those who are blind would come to see (John 9:39). Those who continue in their blindness, claiming that they see clearly, are those who refuse to receive the testimony about Jesus. They would not persist in their blindness if they humbled themselves and acknowledged their sin. Judgment belongs to those who proclaim their own righteousness, who are too prideful to plead to Jesus for forgiveness, and who persist in evil. Thus, Jesus didn’t intentionally come to judge—that was not his raison d’etre—but judgment is the destiny and consequence for those who don’t ask for forgiveness.

Jesus came so that those who are blind would come to see.

“If anyone hears my words and does not keep them, I do not judge him; for I did not come to judge the world but to save the world. The one who rejects me and does not receive my words has a judge; the word that I have spoken will judge him on the last day” ​​(John 12:47–48)

We find a similar text in John 12:47–50, where Jesus says that he refrains from judging those who fail to keep his words since he didn’t “come to judge the world but to save the world” (John 12:47). At first glance this seems to say that there will be no judgment for the disobedient. But John’s paradoxical style surfaces again since in the next verse (John 12:48) Jesus says that there will be judgment for the one who rejects him and his teaching: “The word that I have spoken will judge him on the last day.” We see again that Jesus’s primary aim wasn’t to judge but to save. Furthermore, he doesn’t judge during this age since this is the era of salvation. His word will judge on the last day. There is a judgment coming, but the present aeon is a time for repentance and belief, for salvation and deliverance from wrath. Jesus affirms in John 12:49–50 that he speaks as the Father who sent him commanded. The final judgment has divine authorization so that the word of judgment Jesus will speak on the last day is a divine word. At the same time, Jesus came fundamentally to save. We have the recognition that judgment is the Lord’s strange and foreign work (Isa. 28:21), that his fundamental desire is to save not to destroy.

“But whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 10:33)

Judgment belongs to those who deny Jesus in the presence of others; they in turn will be denied by Jesus before God (Matt. 10:33; Luke 12:9). The verdict may seem harsh, but it makes perfect sense and accords with justice. We might hope at some moments that decisions in life weren’t consequential, as if life had a fantasy-like quality. At our better moments, however, we know and relish the truth that our lives are significant and that what we choose to do with them is momentous.2 Denying Jesus contradicts the bedrock reality in the universe, the truth that God has revealed about himself. Another way of putting it is that Jesus lets stand the decisions human beings have made about him. He ratifies and confirms the choices we have made about him on the final day, and he judges accordingly.3

“And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.” (Matthew 5:3)

A common term for fiery judgment is “hell,” a translation of the Greek term geenna. The term comes from the “Valley of Hinnom,” which became a place where people burned children as sacrifices (Josh. 15:8; 2 Kings 23:10; 2 Chron. 33:6; Jer. 7:31, 32). Along the same lines, 1 Enoch 54:1 speaks of “a valley, deep and burning with fire.” The New Testament picks up the notion of a fiery judgment so that the term “hell” (geenna) represents the final judgment.4 For instance, Jesus speaks of “being sentenced to hell” (Matt. 23:33), and wherever the word “hell” is used, the notion of fire is present. We saw earlier that those who are unrighteously angry are subject to final judgment (Matt. 5:21–26) and that judgment is portrayed as “the hell of fire” (tēn geennan tou pyros, Matt. 5:22). Similarly, those who don’t conquer lust will be thrown into hell (Matt. 5:29, 30). Losing physical life is difficult, but it is far worse to experience future punishment in hell.

Jesus warns about introducing offenses and stumbling blocks into the lives of the little ones who have put their faith in him (Matt. 18:6–7). Using metaphorical language reminiscent of Matthew 5:29–30, he goes on to say that it is better to cut off hands or feet or to gouge out an eye than to let sin get a foothold because, if one allows sin to dominate, one is cast “into the eternal fire” (Matt. 18:8) or “the hell of fire [tēn geennan tou pyros]” (Matt 18:9; cf. Mark 9:45, 47). It is obvious that “eternal fire” (to pyr to aiōnion) and “hell of fire” describe the same reality. The parallel in Mark describes hell as “the unquenchable fire” (Mark 9:43).

Jesus describes hell as the place “where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:48), picking up on the last verse of the book of Isaiah.10 The righteous “shall go out and look on the dead bodies of the men who have rebelled against me. For their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh” (Isa. 66:24). Fire denotes final judgment, a judgment that endures forever, and viewing that judgment functions as a warning to the godly.


We learn from the Gospels that Jesus often spoke about the judgment. The coming judgment is a verdict that will be announced on the last day against the wicked. This verdict is not an empty one since those who are judged will experience destruction and anguish, dissolution and unending pain. The images used for destruction, such as the reference to fire, should not be pressed as if they physically describe what will happen. On the other hand, the judgment is real and eternal. The metaphors point to a judgment that means the unraveling of human life, a torment that is unending. In the Gospel of John, those who don’t believe will be judged, face God’s wrath, and be cut off from the life that God gives. It is imperative to remember that all the texts about judgment in the Gospels and Acts are intended to provoke people to repent. God is merciful to those who repent; he doesn’t judge immediately. People are warned of the hurricane that is coming so that they will take shelter in Christ before the storm arrives. At the same time, the rightness and justice of the judgment is underscored. No one is judged unfairly; all those who are judged deserve it.


  1. The Lukan version of this account should be interpreted similarly (Luke 12:58–59).
  2. Leon Morris, The Biblical Doctrine of Judgment (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1960), 51–53, emphasizes that we choose judgment by our own decisions.
  3. Though there are some deficiencies in C. S. Lewis’s understanding of everlasting judgment, he rightly says, “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.’ All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell.” C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), 75.
  4. Stephen H. Travis, Christ and the Judgement of God: The Limits of Divine Retribution in New Testament Thought (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2009), 234.
  5. Against Travis, Christ and the Judgement of God, 235, the text most naturally refers to eternal conscious punishment.

This article is adapted from The Justice and Goodness of God: A Biblical Case for the Final Judgment by Thomas R. Schreiner.

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