The trumpet blasts through a self-ripping sky. The earth trembles as the mountains sink into the sea. A trillion galaxies erupt in the last moan of painful labor, giving birth once again to the Son of God. This time, He is not an infant, but rather a Judge, glorious, resurrected, triumphant, and returning. All that is wrong, will be made right. Tremble, O sinners – you and I. For we are what’s wrong with the world.
Here comes the Day of Judgment – that Protestant Purgatory – when the very thoughts of our minds and hearts are laid naked in our own Gethsemane. Here peers the all-seeing eye of God, blazing with holiness. Before His law, what sinner can plea? Beneath His gaze, what wretch can hide?
At the end, for the believer, there is Paradise, for we know we are saved by grace through faith in Christ, and comfort abounds in that thought. But what comfort is there in the thought of judgment? Even the sinful believer shrinks at the thought of giving an account to the holy God of creation. There is no comfort in that thought. There is only the grip of guilt and the terror of conviction.
“Day of wrath,” the Catholic mass for the dead exclaims, “day that will dissolve the world into burning coals.” Then comes the despairing questions: “What am I the wretch then to say? What patron can I beseech when scarcely the just can be secure? King of tremendous majesty, do not lose me on that day. My prayers are not worthy, but do thou good God deal kindly with me lest I burn in perennial fire.”1
“My prayers are not worthy.” All hope of salvation hangs in the confidence of our own stammering prayers. The terror blackens with the lines of the medieval frescoes, where grotesque demons lead the naked dead into the flames. “What patron can I beseech when scarcely the just can be secure?” “Good God deal kindly….lest I burn.”
Certain in the Return
We, as Protestant Christians, must surely know better now, 700 years after these dark thoughts haunted medieval minds, but this is sadly not always true. Perhaps intellectually, we rest knowing that our salvation is assured in Christ, that God is gracious, that our hope is secure, that paradise awaits beyond the doors of judgment. But emotionally, there is no comfort in the thought of judgment day. We despair for the unsaved sinner. We tremble for ourselves.
That is why for its first hearers, the Heidelberg Catechism would have sent shock-waves of wonder through burdened souls. Question 52 reads: “What comfort is it to you that Christ will return to judge the living and the dead?”
What comfort, we wonder? What terror, perhaps? Surely terror can be granted. What pain awaits you? What fear torments your soul? But to ask us what comfort, as if we can feel not only triumph but warm and glorious affection in the thought of that coming day, seems both arrogant and naive.
What comfort is it to you that Christ will return to judge the living and the dead?
The answer of the Catechism slaps against Hell’s face with demon piercing beauty: “That in all distress and persecution, with uplifted head, I confidently await the very judge who has already offered himself to the judgment of God in my place and removed the whole curse from me. Christ will cast all his enemies and mine into everlasting condemnation, but will take me and all his chosen ones to himself into the joy and glory of heaven.”
Nothing is certain about the future except for one thing: Christ is coming back again. And in Him, all is certain.
Rejoice in the Return
Not only should we find comfort in the expectation of Christ’s return, but we should rejoice in it.
Listen to these words from Psalm 98, which resounds with the same soaring strength of the Catechism:
“Make a joyful noise unto the Lord, all the earth: make a loud noise, and rejoice, and sing praise. Sing unto the Lord with the harp… Let the sea roar, and the fulness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein. Let the floods clap their hands: let the hills be joyful together, before the Lord; for he cometh to judge the earth: with righteousness shall he judge the world, and the people with equity.”
Rejoice. Sing. Clap your hands. For He cometh – the Judge – and He will judge uprightly.
Why? Verse 3 reminds us: (For) He hath remembered His mercy and His truth toward the house of Israel: all the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God.”
One day, the trumpet will fill the earth until the sky rips from the sheer inability to contain its triumph. The sea will rise and burst forth, clapping against sinking mountains of stone. The angels will sing in triumph: Holy! Holy! Holy! Is the Lord God of hosts, and then, for the second time in history, will we know what that repeated word means.
The Slain Lamb will appear as Conquering Lion. He hung once, naked, cloaked in blood. He comes again, glorious, clothed in victory. He came once to suffer; He comes again to conquer. The Son of Man arrives in eternal resurrection. Mortal flesh rips the shroud of time. God of gods, Lord of lords, King of kings, Very God of Very God, enters our broken story once more, but this time the Prince of Peace bears a sword.
Comfort in the Return
What comfort is this to you?
Our comfort is that the coming Judge has offered Himself to the Judgment. The Curse of the Law has been laid on the Divine Head and the sinner stands whole and justified. The very Christ who comes in glorious triumph is He who screamed in agony on the Cross: My God! My God! Why have you forsaken Me? And through His blood, we will not be forsaken.
We shall not hide the ugliness of our own sin, for He knows it better than we. He bore it on Himself, and its weight crushed Him, crushed down, down into the justice of the Divine, until He could lift His head above the curse and cry once and for all, with all the force of Heaven’s gavel: It Is Finished.
Here comes the Judge dressed in the robe of the Advocate. He who did not spare His own Son, how shall He not, with Him, freely give us all things? There is, therefore, no condemnation, for He has condemned Himself and risen again. We are more than conquerors through Him who loves us, for He who was slain has won the victory.
Neither the death that was, nor the life that is to come; neither the angels who stand in gaping wonder at the abundance of God’s grace, nor the demons who tremble before the rising dead; neither the power of guilt, nor the weight of the present, nor the torment of the past, nor the judgment to come; neither the height of our sin, nor the depth of our depravity; nor any other created thing – not even ourselves before the Creator – can separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
You are not strong enough to open the gates of Hell, for they have been shut by the Divine Hand and sealed against you by Divine Blood. You are not weak enough to close the gates of Heaven, for they have been opened to you by the Judge Himself, and He has stooped to save you – even you – and has born you up, above a Cross into glory.
1Dies Irae, (Latin: “Day of Wrath”), attributed to Thomas of Celano, 1256.