Picture walking down the street, seeing people en masse. See yourself walking down a corridor, passing people by in a hotel. Imagine sitting in a crowded stadium full of people. Everywhere they drink and eat and are merry. Or they strive to this end if possible. When I see vast amounts of people, or merely pass a few strangers on the street, I wonder: what is their destiny? When dining at Thanksgiving or Easter, enjoying a good glass of wine, filling my belly, eating to my heart's content, I wonder too. The thought comes...it is when the universe will be complete, and judgment day will have come to fruition. All will be made bare and laid open before the throne of God. It is sobering.
I have had the tendency to obsess about this. Maybe I'm in the break room asking, "What will happen to my co-worker?" It gets stressful. It gets depressing. On the contrary, the Lord tells us to rejoice always and that Jesus will give us his joy as we devote ourselves to him (Phil. 4:4; John 15:11). It gives me great pause: how this can be when hell awaits the unrepentant?
Even so, if I watch the news (I don't much anymore) I find myself thinking like the disciples, "Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?" (Luke 9:54). Jonah's disgruntled predujice against the saved people of Nineveh envelopes me when I learn of a vile person like a child molester or a murderer, I am glad at the idea of this wicked perpetrator suffering for all eternity. Maybe I should shudder instead. Maybe I should run to the prison cells and frantically plead for him to repent. But I don't.
If hell is real--and I believe it is--then this is an awful thing to behold. What must we do with this doctrine? Paul tells the Thessalonians to "Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business and to work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody," (4:11-12). As people press into the kingdom of God (Matt. 11:12), we have a view to the kingdom's victory. We hold the final judgment in this perspective: Jesus is King and will reign victorious and is reigning now. Andrew Sandlin elaborates, "Jesus saves in order lovingly to subjugate the world to Himself, not just snatch souls for a pietistic nirvana."
In Matthew, we learn that the kingdom will grow. It will cover the earth like wheat fills a field. The church will reign victorious, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it. The gospel will be preached to all nations, and Jesus is always with us (Matt. 13, 16:18, 28:16-20). God's economy functions as each one is called to a certain task and each is endowed with certain gifts. We use them to God's glory, and we anticipate victory. But we also issue a message of warning. And it is in this repeating cycle with which we involve ourselves.
But still, judgment day looms overhead like an overcast sky. If we know this final state--that this awful day awaits, how do we rejoice and enjoy life, family, work, and worship like we are told? John MacLeod captures this perplexity smoothly. His statement pictures us moment by moment, living with the repeated cycle of the enigma of present life and future death. I imagine him too, walking down the street after having visited his favorite cafe and on his merry way to the theatre or art museum:
"But there is this final paradox: to believe in this latter end of all things, and to live and walk in a world that must one day melt in fervent heat — to walk among the living dead, with my bright smile and polite talk, and never to challenge, and never warn."