What is final judgment?

June 26, 2007    By: Jacob J @ 1:49 am   Category: Eternal Progression,Theology

Eric recently asked me how final I think “final” judgment is. The short answer is that I don’t think final judgment is very final, at least not in the traditional sense. There is nothing too earth shattering about this; the term “final judgment” is not scriptural to begin with. There are, however, lots of scriptural references to a time of judgment when all people will stand before God to be judged according to their works, and these scriptures must mean something. I am one of those heretics that believes in the continuation of free will after judgment, progression between the kingdoms of glory (i.e. the possibility of eternal progression for all but the SofP), and even the logical possibility of God’s downfall. In a personal theology with so much change and opportunity after resurrection, it becomes interesting to ask what meaning (if any) final judgment still retains. This is the question I intend to address in this post.

The Guide to the Scriptures says that “the final judgment that will occur after the resurrection.” Since we usually teach that we are resurrected with either a telestial, terrestrial, or celestial body (prior to final judgment), many a seminary student has wondered if final judgment might be something of an anticlimax. If I walk into final judgment with a terrestrial body, isn’t the cat out of the bag, so to speak? Just what role is judgment to play?

Why not “final judgment”?

(For Geoff’s post on this question, go here). Many people think that final judgment is focused on a person’s history. They imagine God reviewing all of the person’s sins, cross checking to see which have been repented for and so forth. I don’t think of judgment like that at all. As I explained in my Dialogue article on the atonement[1], I believe that judgment is ultimately based on who we are rather than what we’ve done. What we’ve done will be relevant only in that it constitutes the choices and actions that made us into who we are.

As far as I can tell, “who we are” can continue to change after judgment (making it difficult to have a “final” judgment). We continue to have free will, which alone requires the possibilities of progression and regression. Further, we have the scriptural declaration that everyone in a kingdom of glory will continue to be “perfected and sanctified” by the laws of their respective kingdoms. We also know that people in the terrestrial kingdom are appointed to minister to those in the telestial, presumably to further their progression since (as B.H. Roberts said) we can conceive of no other reason for their ministry. I share Geoff’s prima facie difficulty in believing that God sets up an arbitrary and eternal barrier which prevents him from helping his telestial and terrestrial children progress for all eternity, and these scriptures only enhance that difficulty for me. Furthermore, I believe that God himself continues to have free will, which means I must allow for the logical possibility that God could choose to do evil. (That is, God is free to do evil, but chooses not to.) Blake Ostler argues[2] (I believe persuasively) that God must have the ability to do evil if he is to be considered morally praiseworthy for always choosing to do good. Given all of this opportunity for people in every situation to progress or regress after the resurrection, I have a hard time understanding how there could ever be anything like a “final” judgment.

So, what is judgment, then? (for a heretic like me)

My view is influenced heavily by the ideas found in Alma 41-42 and D&C 88. Imagine that there is some correlation between your personal righteousness and the state of glory in which you reside. This correlation can be tighter or looser depending on the cosmic situation. In the current state of the earth, the correlation is incredibly weak (non-existent?). Quite often the wicked prosper while the righteous suffer. The lack of correlation is dramatic and indisputable. The situation in the celestial kingdom, we suppose, is not like this at all. Sin immediately disqualifies a person from presence in the celestial kingdom. Consider the following passage in light of this idea:

Now, we see that the man had become as God, knowing good and evil; and lest he should put forth his hand, and take also of the tree of life, and eat and live forever, the Lord God placed cherubim and the flaming sword, that he should not partake of the fruit—
And thus we see, that there was a time granted unto man to repent, yea, a probationary time, a time to repent and serve God.
For behold, if Adam had put forth his hand immediately, and partaken of the tree of life, he would have lived forever, according to the word of God, having no space for repentance; yea, and also the word of God would have been void, and the great plan of salvation would have been frustrated. (Alma 42:3-5)

Alma says that if Adam had partaken of the fruit of the tree of life after eating the forbidden fruit, he would have “lived forever” in his sinful state having no space for repentance. This assumes a very tight coupling between personal righteousness and environment, which, as explained, would have doomed Adam. Instead of this, “there was a time granted unto man to repent,” which is the probationary time we live in currently. The current “space for repentance” was provided so that Adam and Eve would be “subjects to follow after their own will” (Alma 42:7).

In other words, instead of judgment being executed immediately, judgment would be postponed during this probationary time until after Adam had a chance to repent and prepare himself. This situation in which judgment was postponed was new; the way things work in God’s presence (fruit of the tree of life), the consequences of eating the forbidden fruit would have followed immediately.

After final judgment, D&C 88 says we will go back to what I call a “state of judgment” in which there is a tight correlation between personal glory and the glory of the kingdom in which we reside:

All kingdoms have a law given;
And there are many kingdoms; for there is no space in the which there is no kingdom; and there is no kingdom in which there is no space, either a greater or a lesser kingdom.
And unto every kingdom is given a law; and unto every law there are certain bounds also and conditions.
All beings who abide not in those conditions are not justified.
For intelligence cleaveth unto intelligence; wisdom receiveth wisdom; truth embraceth truth; virtue loveth virtue; light cleaveth unto light; mercy hath compassion on mercy and claimeth her own; justice continueth its course and claimeth its own; judgment goeth before the face of him who sitteth upon the throne and governeth and executeth all things. (D&C 88:36-40)

Thus, final judgment is the time at which we go back to the normal state of things in which consequences for our actions are immediate and perpetual. No longer will the wicked prosper while the righteous suffer. Instead, all will dwell in the kingdom whose laws they already abide.[3] Judgment is a state rather than an event. This view seems to me to incorporate the important scriptural concepts of judgment while allowing for the dynamic post-resurrection existence also spoken of in the scriptures. Judgment continues to be a matter of who you are rather than what you have done. But, rather than judgment being a one time thing, we will go back to a situation in which our personal righteousness is tightly coupled to our environment, where intelligence cleaveth unto intelligence, where the kingdom in which we reside is always a direct consequence of who we are, even if that is open to change. At the heart of our concept of judgment is the idea that at judgment day everyone finally gets what they deserve and reaps the consequences they have sown. I am simply extending this basic concept to a state of being rather than a one time event.

So, does this work? Can you buy this as a replacement for the traditional doctrine of final judgment?

[1] See especially pages 6-10 starting at the heading “The Nature of Justice.”
[2] See the section under the heading “Is God a Morally Perfect Being?”
[3] Notice that the correlation does not become infinitely tight. In the telestial kingdom there will be lots of people covering a broad range of personal glories, yet they will all be in a single kingdom.


  1. Jacob:

    Wow! This is very well written. I am not sure I agree 100%, but this is pretty good stuff.

    Almost thou persuadeth me to be a kingdom hopper.

    So are you saying that you believe in a type of continuous judgement other than final judgement? Does this mean a never ending PPI or performance evaluation? If that is the case, I’m not sure I want any part of it. Perhaps no evaluations will be necessary in your view, just ‘natural’ consequences perhaps?

    If I consider this possibility, I would think that things would simply not be very dynamic, even though there might be that potential. If I were Matt I might try to put up a progression chart that asymptotically approaches our potential, and after a long amount of time I do not think we would change very much. We are already eternal in some way, right? If God is still progressing, I do not think he changes much. Relatively speaking very, very little over very very long periods of time. Won’t it be the same for us – whatever we become?

    So even if there is kingdom hopping, I would think it would not happen very often.

    Anyway, Jacob, thanks for addressing my question so quickly and so well.

    Comment by Eric Nielson — June 26, 2007 @ 5:40 am

  2. So, does this work? Can you buy this as a replacement for the traditional doctrine of final judgment?

    No, and no. I have previously argued against you and Geoff’s non-traditional views on soteriology, so I wont bother to regurgitate any of that. I will defend your right to speculate, but dont agree with any of your conclusions on these particular matters.

    With respect to Judgement, the BofM clears up what is happening with that insofar as the Resurrection is concerned. The resurrection pulls people back into the presence of God (cf. Hela 14:17, Alma 42:23, Morm 9:13), just as the Fall dropped people out of His presence (cf. 2 Ne. 9:6). Once that occurs, we “have a bright recollection of all our guilt” (cf. Alma 11:43) and are judged.

    Comment by Kurt — June 26, 2007 @ 6:25 am

  3. Good post. I especially liked the explanation of the Fall and its connection to the probationary state.

    I’m wondering about how your theory of “state of judgment” fits with scriptures and authoritative statements telling us that we will be judged by certain people–i.e. Jesus or the Twelve Apostles of our own dispensation.

    Comment by Bored in Vernal — June 26, 2007 @ 6:31 am

  4. I believe there was a “final” judgment for our first estate where we were called in to be questioned about “how well” we did within the period allotted. Those who “passed” come here, gain a body, etc. Those who didn’t, do not.

    I believe there will be a “final” judgment for our second estate where we will be examined to see if we were faithful and true while in this sojourn. Our reward will be assigned based upon our works and the level of our faith.

    You argue persuasively that there may be further times of reckoning. But, I believe, only to those who qualify.

    Comment by Mondo Cool — June 26, 2007 @ 8:27 am

  5. Eric,

    Does this mean a never ending PPI or performance evaluation? If that is the case, I’m not sure I want any part of it.

    Don’t describe it as an eternal PPI or you’ll turn me against my own idea (g). You are on to my approach with the “natural” consequences angle.

    As to how much change there will be post-resurrection, it is hard to say for sure. I certainly would not expect anywhere near the current level of change. The ways in which God is “eternally progressing” are a matter of much disagreement. D&C 76 and 88 both make it clear that the telestials can progress, at the very least to a fullness of telestial glory. I like the idea that there is a potential for slow steady progress for those perfected and sanctified by the laws they abide and the opportunities for growth they are given.

    Comment by Jacob J — June 26, 2007 @ 9:14 am

  6. Jacob:

    So, do you not go for ‘kingdom hopping’ (that deadly heresy)? When you say that telestials can progress, at the very lest to a fullness of telestial glory, it makes me wonder. I would probably say ‘very most’ instead of ‘very least’.

    I view the resurrection and judgment as being very closely connected, and quite permanent. So I am in some general agreement, but with some firm boundaries. (which may end up being a significant disagreement).

    So, I still feel like you have expressed your views very well, and have made me think all morning.

    Comment by Eric Nielson — June 26, 2007 @ 9:34 am

  7. Kurt,

    I think all those scriptures about judgment are relevant, but I also think they all fit very nicely with what I have proposed here. In fact, I explicitely tied the fruit of the tree of life to God’s presence in my explanation of Alma 42.

    When Nephi is shown the meaning of Lehi’s vision, he learned that the tree of life represents the love of God. Not some vague reference to God’s love, but specifically the love of God as manifest in the condescention of Jesus (1 Ne 11:14-22). Now, if the tree of life represents the atonement, one wonders why Adam should not immediately begin partaking of it after the fall. That was the time needed the atonement the most, right? Also, what would it mean that Adam had been partaking of the fruit of the tree of life prior to his fall? Was he applying the atonement before his fall? All these questions are answered by realizing that the fruit represents the presence of God.

    The BofM makes the connection between the atonement and the presence of God consistently. “And because of the intercession for all, all men come unto God; wherefore, they stand in the presence of him, to be judged of him” (2 Ne 2:10). In classic Old Testament style, the symbol is simultaneously a blessing to the righteous and a cursing to the wicked. Dwelling in the presence of God is the blessing to the righteous (Morm 7:7) and the cursing to the wicked (Alma 12:14).

    The reason it is a cursing to the wicked is exactly as you said, which is that dwelling in God’s presence is inextricably tied to judgment. This becomes the basis for Alma 42 and the idea that eating of the fruit before he repented would be a bad thing for Adam. I see D&C 88 as dovetailing nicely with this idea of judgment coinciding with the presence of God and explaining why the wicked are cast out of God’s presence while the righteous remain. This is the meaning of judgment as I have described it.

    Comment by Jacob J — June 26, 2007 @ 9:38 am

  8. BiV,

    we will be judged by certain people–i.e. Jesus or the Twelve Apostles of our own dispensation.

    I don’t know just what to make of the idea that we will be judged by the apostles of our own generation, but I don’t see any reason we shouldn’t expect to come back into the presence of God for a “final judgment” type of experience as described in the scriptures. I guess what I am saying is that I don’t think that experience sums up the totality of what is implied by the idea of judgment in the sciptures.

    Comment by Jacob J — June 26, 2007 @ 9:45 am

  9. Mondo,

    I don’t have any problem with the idea of some judgment “events.” I suppose what you are getting at is that “final” could be relative to some specific time period (pre-mortal life, mortality, etc.). I think that this idea could fit together fine with what I have proposed. Of course, since the word “final” is not in the scriptures in the first place, I am just as happy to drop it as to come up with a different thing for it to mean.

    Comment by Jacob J — June 26, 2007 @ 10:02 am

  10. Jacob,

    You are mixing a blatantly figurative analogy (Lehi and Nephi’s dream of the TofL) with something that is, at the very least, presented as literal (The Tree of Life from the Garden of Eden) and assuming they are one and the same. They are not.

    Comment by Kurt — June 26, 2007 @ 11:27 am

  11. Did my last comment get caught in a filter?

    Comment by Eric Nielson — June 26, 2007 @ 11:36 am

  12. Jacob J: While Final is not in the scriptures, the word “last” is used in connection with Judgment, at least in D&C and Alma, if I recall correctly.

    That said, I am not arguing against you, but am actually completely undecided on this point.

    Comment by Matt W. — June 26, 2007 @ 12:15 pm

  13. Matt,

    I am aware of scriptures which refer to the last day, and some of these scriptures say that the last day is also a day of judgment, but I am not aware of any scriptures that refers to last judgment. Can you give me an example?

    Comment by Jacob J — June 26, 2007 @ 6:16 pm

  14. Eric (#6),

    I do believe in the deadly heresy of kingdom hopping. I say the telestials can progress at the very least to a fullness of telestial glory because I think everyone can agree on at least this level of progression for telestials (the scriptures seem to suggest this pretty clearly, cf. D&C 76:98; 88:31,34). Personally, I think provisions are in place for telestials to progress even more than that, but I was trying to build on common beliefs like they taught me to do on my mission.

    Comment by Jacob J — June 26, 2007 @ 6:34 pm

  15. Kurt (#10),

    Would you care to elaborate on the relationship (or lack thereof) between the tree of life in the Garden of Eden and the one in Lehi’s dream as you see it?

    Comment by Jacob J — June 26, 2007 @ 8:41 pm

  16. Jacob,

    Can you elaborate on the “who you are” (as opposed to what you’ve done) concept?

    Jesus is the Christ because of what he accomplished, correct?

    If I’ve done 5 good deeds and 2 evil deeds, doesn’t my actions describe who I am? If you’ve done the same 5 good deeds and 2 evil deeds as I, then what is the difference between “who you are” and “who I am”?

    Comment by Daylan — June 26, 2007 @ 9:28 pm

  17. One is presented as blatantly literal and one is presented as blatantly figurative, with an interpretation of the figure provided in the text. The tree in the Garden is presented as literal, its fruit is presented as literal, something they would eat, just like the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Literal. Not figurative. No interpretations provided in the text.

    Furthermore, the interpretation provided in Lehi/Nephi’s figurative dream does not, not at all, suggest anything whatsoever, not even a hint, that it is related to, in parallel with, or associated in any way with the Garden of Eden tree. Rather, it is related to a whole host of other symbols for life in general, which have nothing whatsoever to do with teh Garden.

    Comparing the two is non-sequiter. Both being trees doesnt cut it.

    Attempting to interpret the Garden tree as figurative is opening up a major can of worms that I believe has been previously opened on this blog. Which can does not need to be opened at this point.

    Comment by Kurt — June 27, 2007 @ 7:51 am

  18. Kurt,

    One is presented as blatantly literal and one is presented as blatantly figurative

    So, I take it you don’t “interpret” the Garden story at all because it is 100% literal. Is that right? If so, you might be the first person I’ve ever met who does not think there is anything figurative in the Garden narrative. I can understand your objection to interpreting the story as entirely figurative (which I have not done nor suggested), but I’m frankly surprised that you would take it to the extreme of being entirely literal. Eating of a literal fruit would make Adam live forever with no chance for repentance? God took an actual rib out of Adam and made Eve from it? Adam and Eve gained knowledge by chewing and swallowing a certain kind of actual fruit? Are you committed to all of these positions?

    Furthermore, the interpretation provided in Lehi/Nephi’s figurative dream does not, not at all, suggest anything whatsoever, not even a hint, that it is related to, in parallel with, or associated in any way with the Garden of Eden tree.

    Here is a post I wrote detailing some hints and parallels between the two. Here is a paper from the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies Volume 2, Issue 2. Of particular interest in that paper is the section under the heading “Lehi’s Dream of the Tree of Life as a Diagram of the Garden of Eden.” You may disagree with points made in my post or in that paper, but I think these adequately refute your claim that there is nothing “whatsoever, not even a hint, that it is related to, in parallel with, or associated in any way with the Garden of Eden tree.”

    Comment by Jacob J — June 27, 2007 @ 11:20 am

  19. Daylan,

    Can you elaborate on the “who you are” (as opposed to what you’ve done) concept?

    There is a very clear connection between what we’ve done and who we are now because the choices we make turn us into who we are. In many contexts, the two are correlated tightly enough that no distinction is necessary. One can often be use as shorthand for the other, which is what I think happens in the scriptures a lot. The idea that we will be judged by our works (as it says consistently in the scriptures) is generally accurate but needs to be clarified when we get down to the nitty-gritty details.

    The place where I find myself needing to make the distinction is when we start talking about the details of repentance and judgment.

    Looking back on my “self” of many years ago is in many ways like looking back on a different person. People tell embarrassing stories about their former selves much more readily than about their current selves because of this fact. It no longer feels like telling an embarrassing story about oneself but about a close friend.

    Why should I be held accountable for the things that this other person did (my former self)? I used to think about this question a lot, and my final resolution was to realize that, strictly speaking, I am not held accountable for things my former self did. I am only held accountable for who I am now. Of course, those two will be the same unless I have changed in the interim (i.e. repented). I sometimes get annoyed with the four Rs of repentance because they take focus off of the substance of repentance (becoming a better person) and put it on the suggestions for how to make that change (recognize, remorse, restitution, etc.). All too often, people think of repentance as a checklist, which it is not.

    An example might help to illustrate why I make the distinction. A good friend of mine tells me that he used to worry that there might be sins he hasn’t repented for because he has forgotten what they were. How can he confess and make restitution for things he does not remember? This question had him concerned. I believe thinking like this is based on a misunderstanding of repentance. You don’t have to confess every individual sin you have ever committed. If judgment was about accounting for every act we’ve ever done in our history, that might be the case, but it is actually about what kind of person we have become, which allows my friend to sleep easier because things he did when he was 11 are not generally relevant anymore to who he is today.

    Another time I remember this coming up was in this comment. (You will have to read the previous comment on that thread and potentially the post to understand context.)

    Does any of that help make the distinction I am after any clearer?

    Jesus is the Christ because of what he accomplished, correct?

    Jesus is our Savior by virtue of the fact that he saved us–that is simply what the word means. If we give him a title based on what he has done, then it will be based on what he has done, no question. Same is true for being the Christ, which he is by virtue of being the anointed one. However, I believe he is God by virtue of what his holiness, longsuffering, goodness, mercy, power, etc. (in other words, who he is), not because of specific things he has done in the past. Do you disagree?

    Comment by Jacob J — June 27, 2007 @ 5:36 pm

  20. So, I take it you don’t “interpret” the Garden story at all because it is 100% literal. Is that right?

    I am not going to sit here and parse out the bits. There are three different textual accounts (e.g., Genesis, Abraham, Moses) and a whole host of related Scriptural texts that argue vehemently for a literal reading. If you want to pretend otherwise, so be it.

    but I think these adequately refute your claim that there is nothing “whatsoever, not even a hint, that it is related to, in parallel with, or associated in any way with the Garden of Eden tree.”

    Only in the most speculative reading possible, which is what you are obviously forwarding, drawing the texts entirely out of their context and largely ignoring what they actually say, as well as an awful lot of related texts, could they be taken as parallel or remotely related. If that is your defense, then congratulations on refuting my claim: you now have the flimsiest of legs to stand on, namely, a reliance on the entirely acontextual superficial. Not persuasive.

    Any “solution” that creates more problems than it solves, is intrinsically bad.

    Comment by Kurt — June 28, 2007 @ 10:00 am

  21. Kurt,

    I know you don’t want to parse out all the bits of the Garden story, but I do have one question for you: Do you think the Tree of Life in the Garden narrative was a literal tree with literal fruit on it that would make Adam and Eve live forever?

    (I’m assuming you are not a hyper-literalist but I am curious about where you personally draw the line between literalness and figurativeness in the story. Different people seem to have different lines on this. (And I’m not trying to pick a fight so please don’t get all defensive about my question))

    Comment by Geoff J — June 28, 2007 @ 10:13 am

  22. Yes.

    Comment by Kurt — June 28, 2007 @ 11:02 am

  23. Thanks.

    (I ought to post a poll on that subject. I had for some reason assumed that seeing the Tree of Life and its fruit as literal was a minority position in the church but now I’m wondering why I assumed that…)

    [end threadjack — sorry for the sidetrack Jacob]

    Comment by Geoff J — June 28, 2007 @ 11:20 am

  24. Sorry to interject here, but I couldn’t find any contact information at the site to send a separate e-mail to any of you.

    I’ve enjoyed reading various posts here and wondered if you “take requests” for new topics. My wife and children were recently on vacation for several days on a last-minute trip, and I was unable to join them due to work. I’ve been thinking about the creation and the statement that “it is not good that man should be alone.”

    Has that been explored already here or elsewhere? Specifically, man and woman were obviously both needed to bring about families. The Proclamation teaches us that marriage is ordained of God and that families are central to Heavenly Father’s plan. Aside from this though, what is it about the nature of men and women and our role as husband/wife that creates synergy? How do we best tap into that strength and growth that is available through marriage?

    I’m not sure if I’ve adequately captured this potential topic here, but I’d love to see something like this explored (or a link to an existing post if it has been done already). I apologize again for the misplaced post but didn’t know how to contact you….

    Comment by Jimbob — June 29, 2007 @ 10:34 am

  25. Thanks for the suggestion Jimbob. Take a look at this (rather radical) post about the necessity for men and women to unite in this life and the life to come. It may not be what you have in mind but it could be a start and food for thought on the subject.

    Also, if you have a post idea (or a draft of a guest post) just email it to me at geoff at newcoolthang dot com

    Comment by Geoff J — June 30, 2007 @ 12:15 am

  26. BRIGHAM YOUNG on Final Judgment:

    “The sectarian doctrine of final rewards and punishments is as strange to me as their bodiless, partless, and passionless God.” (“Personality of God—His Attributes—Eternal Life, Etc.,” reported by G. D. Watt, Journal of Discourses, vol. 11 [Liverpool: B. Young Jr., 1867], pp. 125–26.)

    Comment by John Coltharp — September 9, 2007 @ 10:14 pm