Michelangelo, The Last Judgment, 1541, The Sistine Chapel, The Vatican, Rome, Italy
By Daniel Simundson, Renewing Hope, 2001, pages 88-90.
Daniel 12:1b-2 — There shall be a time of trouble, such as never has been since there was a nation till that time; but at that time your people shall be delivered, every one whose name shall be found written in the book. And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.
This passage contains the clearest statement about the resurrection of the dead anywhere in the Old Testament. Such a hope was implied in earlier biblical passages, and many Jews and Christians came to understand them that way (as, for example, the vision of dry bones in Ezekiel 37). But Daniel states it directly. After a time of the greatest anguish since history began, the people whose name is found written in the book will be delivered, and “many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.”
At the time of the writing of Daniel, many had been persecuted and even killed for remaining loyal to their God. The wicked were in power and they were vicious in their suppression of any insubordination. Why should humans stand up against hopeless odds to make a witness for truth if it will cause their death? If this life is all there is, why should one willingly give it up? If God is a God of justice there must be a judgment following this life when innocent martyrs can be rewarded and the perpetrators of evil can be punished. The Hitlers of the world cannot go quietly into oblivion without having to answer for what they have done.
So in Daniel God promises a resurrection so that distinctions can be made. Death is not the great equalizer where good and bad, rich and poor, peasant and king, have all arrived at the same status of endless sleep, never to be disturbed again. We are not all the same in death, just as we were not all the same in life. But, there is an important difference. True justice will reign after the resurrection. Often the tables will be turned. Those who had everything in this life may lose it in the next. They may even be punished. Those who were victims, abused and exploited by the powerful, will be rewarded for their faithfulness in the life to come.
Is this good news or bad news? Is this an important word of hope for us or is it something else to worry about as we face not only our future on earth but what lies beyond?
It is good news for those who have suffered for the faith, who have had miserable lives filled with one trial after another. Even persons who have suffered innocently for a lifetime and die in agony can have hope. God is a God of justice who will make sure that good will triumph over evil. Of course, we would like justice to occur while we are alive to see it, but it is not absolutely necessary. God will right the wrongs that have come to us and to others. There is always time for that to happen.
But it is bad news for those who have been disobedient or unfaithful to God and think they have gotten away with it. No matter that they live happy and healthy into a ripe old age and die in peace with their family around the bed and are given a royal send-off by throngs of admirers at a wonderful funeral. God will exact justice from them if their name is not written in the book (Daniel 12:1).
We may hear this as good news if we are sure that the negative judgment is intended for someone else, our enemies, people we don’t like anyway. But what if we start to question our own status with God? What if we are terribly sensitive about the wrongs that we do, even in very subtle ways that the world would excuse but make us feel guilty? What if we join St. Paul and Martin Luther in our conviction that no human being is good enough to avoid a negative judgment from God? What if our name is not on the list? If we are going to be raised from the dead only to face everlasting contempt (Daniel 12:2), it would surely be better to sleep forever in an undisturbed and unconscious slumber.
If there is a resurrection followed by a judgment, we need assurance that the God who decides about us is loving, forgiving, and compassionate. This can be good news and a great source of hope only if we know that we can safely pass the close scrutiny of judgment day. Christians believe that this is possible, not because we are good enough or clever enough, but because Jesus Christ has taken care of any necessity for precise justice and is willing to vouch for us. We trust in God’s grace and therefore we are justified. Resurrection and judgment are not to be feared. They are, in fact, vital to the hope that sustains us even beyond life itself.
John 3:16-17 — For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.
Look mercifully, O Lord, we beseech Thee, on the affliction of Thy people; and let not our sins destroy us, but let Thine almighty mercy save us; through Jesus Christ, Thy Son, our Lord. Amen.
—Lutheran Altar Service Book, 1958, Augsburg Publishing House