Facing up to the final examination

Many people dislike examinations. I am one of them. Even as a fifty year old adult with a doctorate I still have a recurrent nightmare that I am back at school and facing a maths or German exam which I have either not prepared for or cannot do. Nevertheless, no matter how much we may dislike examinations, they are an inescapable part of life.

From SATS tests for primary school children, through GCSEs and A Levels, to university examinations, driving tests and examinations for professional qualifications, examinations are something we simply cannot avoid and what most sensible people do is accept that they have to face them and ensure that they are as well prepared as possible for the particular examination they have to take. However, there is one examination which most people neither think about nor prepare for, even though it is one that everyone without exception will have to face. This examination is the judgement by Jesus that everyone will have to face at the end of time.

The fact that there will be such a judgement is a central part of traditional Anglican belief. The three Creeds affirmed by Anglicans, the Apostles, the Nicene and the Athanasian all declare that Jesus will return to judge the living and the dead. Article IV of the Thirty Nine Articles tells us that Jesus will ‘return to judge all Men at the last day’ and the Collect for the first Sunday in Advent in the Book of Common Prayer asks God to ‘give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness and put upon us the armour of light, now in the time of this mortal life, in which thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in glorious Majesty, to judge both the quick and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal.’

The reason why it is a central part of traditional Anglican belief is that it is a central part of biblical teaching. The Old Testament teaches that God is the ‘judge of all the earth’ (Genesis 18:25) and promises that He ‘will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with his truth’ (Psalm 96:13) and in the New Testament passages such as Matthew 25:31-46, John 5:25-29, Acts 10:42, Acts 17:31, 2 Corinthians 5:10, 2 Thessalonians 1:7-10 and Revelation 20:11-15 all make it clear that this Old Testament promise will receive its fulfilment at the end of time when Jesus comes to judge the living and the dead. In the words of St Augustine, this clear biblical witness means that ‘there is no one therefore who denies or doubts that the last judgement, as it is foretold in holy Scripture, is to be executed by Jesus Christ, unless it is someone who, with an unbelievable kind of animosity or blindness, does not believe in these sacred writings, which by now have demonstrated their truth to the whole world.’

As the 17th century Anglican bishop and theologian John Pearson explains in his commentary on the Apostles Creed, the reality which is affirmed by the Anglican tradition and taught by Scripture is that:

‘…the eternal Son of God, in that human nature in which he died and rose again, and ascended into heaven, shall certainly come from the same heaven into which he ascended, and at his coming shall gather together all those which shall then be alive, and all which ever lived and shall be before that day dead, when causing them all to stand before his judgement-seat, he shall judge them all according to their works done in the flesh, and passing the sentence of condemnation on the reprobates, shall deliver them to be tormented with the devil and his angels, and pronouncing the sentence of absolution upon all the elect, shall translate them into his glorious kingdom, of which there shall be no end.’

If this is the reality then it is certainly something which all people ought to think about and prepare for. What will happen at the end of time will be a final examination by Jesus of everything that we have ever thought, or said, or done. There will be no way of escaping this examination (even the dead will be summoned to appear) and no way that the judgement that will be passed on us will be wrong. As C S Lewis writes ‘it will be an infallible judgement. If it is favourable we shall have no fear, if unfavourable, no hope that it is wrong, We shall not only believe, we shall know, beyond doubt in every fibre of our appalled or delighted being, that as the judge has said, so we are: neither more nor less nor other.’

Given that the judgement will be inescapable, infallible and final, this is an examination that everyone deserves the chance to prepare for, so they will receive a favourable verdict and enjoy eternal life with God for ever. Nothing, absolutely nothing at all, in life is more important to prepare for than this. However, rich, famous and well regarded we may have been in this life will count for nothing if we are found wanting by Jesus Christ at the last judgement. As the old Authorised Version translation of Matthew 16:26 puts it ‘For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?’

In a rational world therefore the Church would be proclaiming as clearly and loudly as possible that the judgement is coming and that people should, while there is still time, avail themselves of the means that God has given to escape condemnation; namely receiving the forgiveness and new start that God offers in Jesus through faith and baptism and seeking with the assistance of the Holy Spirit to live holy lives in line with the teaching of the Bible.

Furthermore, in a rational world not only would the Church be doing this, but the state would be supporting the Church in doing it. The state insists that all children in this country should be educated and that their education should tell them everything that they need to know in order to give them a chance to make a success of their lives. The state also runs public information campaigns warning people about things that will harm them and telling them what they need to do about them (the long standing anti-smoking campaign is a good example). This being the case, and the last judgement being a reality, what the state ought to be doing is supporting the Church by ensuring that teaching about the last judgement and how we should prepare for it was a central part of the education system and using the means that it has at its disposal to ensure that people are constantly reminded of their need to be ready to face Jesus at the last day.

We have become so used to living in a society in which the state does not ‘do God’ that the idea that the state might act in the way that I have just described may seem utterly fantastic. However, historically, the state in this country did support the Church in this way. In historical terms it is only comparatively recently that the state came to think it had no responsibilities in this area. Furthermore, the fact the state currently thinks the last judgement is not its concern does not mean that it should think this. A state that really cared for its citizens would seek to ensure their eternal wellbeing as well as well as their happiness in this world and would therefore see the last judgement as very much its concern. A child can be happy for eternity knowing absolutely nothing about quadratic equations. He or she cannot be happy for eternity without a right relationship with God. Why therefore is the state concerned with what is less important while ignoring what is more important?

Nevertheless, for the foreseeable future it does not look likely that the state will act in the way I have described. There is, however, no reason why the same should be true of the Church of England. There is no reason why the Church of England should not make it a priority to proclaim clearly the final judgement and every reason why it should. People deserve the chance to pass their final examination and so Christian charity means that the Church of England should be telling people that the judgement is coming and what they need to do to be ready for it. This is what the Apostles did, what our ancestors did and what we need to do as well.

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