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If judgement is in heaven, how do sinners get there to be judged?

Many preachers are saying that the judgement will be in heaven and is for all. If it’s for all, how can a sinner enter into heaven for judgement?

It seems the problem articulated is that the following three statements are incompatible with each other.

  1. The judgement will be in heaven
  2. Sinners will be judged
  3. Sinners cannot enter heaven

The simple solution is to simply deny the first statement. The preachers saying this got it wrong. Charitably, (perhaps?) they were being too simplistic in their communication and gave a false impression. I don’t see the Bible teaching this explicitly (I could be wrong here – but I’d want some biblical support for this claim). The timeline in Rev 20 and 21 indicates 1 is false; the judgement with book of life in front of the great white throne (20:16-21) is first, and then comes the new heavens and the new earth (21:1).

Another simple solution, without denying any of three statements, is to suggest sinners are tried in absentia.

Assuming the picture of heaven that people typically have in their minds (which I’ll argue below is somewhat helpful but ultimately misconceived), another way to break the contradiction is to see the judgement of the righteous occurring in heaven (which is their reward after-all) and the judgement of sinners occurring elsewhere.

Another way to address this problem is to see an equivocation in the term “heaven” in 1 and 3. That is the word “heaven” in 1 may be a general term for the presence of God, and “heaven” in 3 may refer to the blessed final state of man. (The Bible uses the term heaven in these two senses as well).

Accordingly, there is no incompatibility between;

  1. The judgement will be in [the presence of God],

and

2. Sinners cannot enter [the blessed final state of man].

Another way to break the contradiction would be to deny the popular, and therefore powerful, but nevertheless misconceived, imagery of heaven being a place (a somewhere-out-there). Such metaphors to describe the utopia which is the hope of our faith can be a useful quick-hand in most situations, but when pressed too hard may lead us astray in others. Here would be one of those cases where it’s not so helpful. I find it more helpful (though still not perfectly accurate) to think of heaven more as a time you arrive at rather than an alternate place that is presently waiting for you to enter. Heaven is when God takes full control, or his dominion (rulership) is finally in full-bloom.

The word-picture the book of Revelation uses is of the New Jerusalem descending down, coming to rest on the world. It seems heaven (the end-time kingdom) is located here. Right here on Earth! That the domain of God and his angels becomes co-extensive with the physical realm. The New Jerusalem doesn’t have a temple (21:22). Because whole earth is the temple; the meeting place between God and man – no curtains necessary (21:3).

Don’t let the word-picture lead you to believe that heaven is literally a city currently floating in a parallel universe preparing to somehow merge with our own space-time manifold. Don’t think of heaven as an alternate else-where realm where angels have their abode and God sits on a throne. Think of heaven as the time when God’s reign on earth is fully realised. There is the height, and width and depth dimensions. Then there is an extra-dimensional reality superimposed on the here-and-now, currently invisible to us, but just as real and as present as the first three dimensions are. The kingdom of God (heaven, in one sense) is in our midst, becoming more apparent as the kingdom advances, and when we carry out His will for our lives we become transparencies that people can look through and capture a vision of the future with Christ.

Understanding heaven correctly helps us see how 1, 2 and 3 are compatible with each other. It gives us a model to help us see the original error, and bring some of the solutions I’ve provided above together.

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