Most JOTGES subscribers immediately recognize the Judgment Seat of Christ (the Bema) as an eschatological event—a significant, future event foretold by Bible prophecy. It is the public examination, by Jesus Himself, of the past faithfulness of every believer in Christ (OT saints included). Thus, it is a valuation of the works1 of all believers who have lived prior to this dramatic assessment. Since this great, eschatological event will determine each believer’s eternal experience,2 it should be viewed as an enormously important event. We should seek to understand all that we can discover about the Bema, including its timing: when will the Judgment Seat of Christ occur?
II. MAJOR VIEW: THE JUDGMENT SEAT OF CHRIST WILL OCCUR DURING THE TRIBULATION
Many Evangelicals believe the Judgment Seat of Christ will transpire in heaven, between the occurrences of the Rapture of the Church and the return of Christ to the earth. J. Dwight Pentecost represents this view by asserting that this appraisal of believers “takes place immediately following the translation of the church out of this earth’s sphere.”3 This appears to be the generally accepted viewpoint among pre-tribulational, premillennial Bible teachers.4
A. Evidence for the Bema Occurring During the Tribulation
Some who hold this view make the case that the pronouncement of Rev 5:10 demonstrates that “the Bema Seat has already occurred” prior to the Tribulation judgments being poured out upon the earth.5 Revelation 5:10 declares that the twenty-four elders “will reign on the earth” (emphasis added). The argument declares, by implication, these elders have already received their reward to rule at the Judgment Seat. And since the events of Revelation 5 allegedly occur after the Rapture of the Church and prior to the outpouring of judgments during the Tribulation period, the Bema must, therefore, occur in a timeframe between the Rapture and the Tribulation.
This position rests on two pieces of evidence. The first is the declaration of Rev 5:10 that the twenty-four elders “will reign upon the earth,” and the second is the elders’ possession of their crowns of rule (cf. Rev 4:10).6
B. Evidence Against the Bema Occurring During the Tribulation
Regardless of whether the twenty-four elders of Revelation 5 represent all faithful believers throughout history7 or a specific group of faithful believers, they will experience kingdom rule in the future. But the possession of their crowns in Revelation 4 and 5 does not prove the Bema has already occurred.
For example, the Lord Jesus is seated at the right hand of God the Father, awaiting His future reign.8 Being seated on His Father’s throne represents Jesus’ experience of kingdom reward prior to His full realization of that remuneration.9 There is no doubt that He will reign, yet He is not ruling now. Instead, this is a pre-rewarded experience for our Savior, since His reward will not be realized until the arrival of the kingdom upon earth. Based on the example of Jesus, the elders’ possession of crowns does not necessarily imply the Bema has already occurred by the time the scene in Revelation 5 transpires.
If the scene in Rev 5:10 occurs chronologically prior to the Bema, then the elders’ possession of crowns certainly indicates they know ahead of time how they will be assessed at the Judgment Seat, but Scripture indicates this is not an unusual experience. Examples of this prescience are: King David has known for many centuries that he will rule, as have careful readers of Ezek 37:21-28; the Apostle Paul knew shortly before his death that he would rule in the kingdom (cf. 2 Tim 4:6-8 and 1 Cor 9:27);10 when Stephen saw Jesus stand to welcome him into heaven, he, too, knew he would rule in the coming kingdom;11 and nearly two thousand years ago, God revealed that those listed in the famed Hall of Faith in Hebrews 11 will rule in the coming kingdom. Therefore, it appears that many deceased, faithful believers already know that they will be rewarded,12 which means that the proclamation the twenty-four elders “will reign upon the earth” does not demonstrate that the Bema has already transpired by this point.13
III. ALTERNATE VIEW: THE BEMA OCCURS DURING THE 75 DAYS AFTER THE TRIBULATION AND BEFORE THE MILLENNIUM
A. The 75-day Interlude Implies the Bema Occurs Then
Jesus will not initiate the kingdom immediately after His return to the earth to vanquish the armies of the world.14 Instead, there will be an intermission of time allowing for two key events to occur, one of which is the Judgment Seat of Christ.
The evidence for such an intermission begins in Dan 12:1: “there shall be a time of trouble, such as never was since there was a nation, even to that time. And at that time your people [the Jews] shall be delivered, everyone who is found written in the book.”15 Clear similarities between this statement and one made by Jesus (Matt 24:21) connect them to the very same occasion. Both speak of trouble or tribulation which will be worse than any in the history of mankind, experienced by Jewish followers of Jesus during the Great Tribulation.16 In addition, the angel promises to Daniel the deliverance of these Jewish followers of Christ,17 while Jesus indicates this liberation will occur at His return, culminating the Tribulation period.18
The angel continues in vv 6-10 of Daniel 12 his reference to this time of trouble. Then in vv 11 and 12, this messenger of God explicitly presents two intervals forming the time gap between the return of Christ and the inauguration of the kingdom of God upon the earth: “And from the time that the daily sacrifice is taken away, and the abomination of desolation is set up, there shall be one thousand two hundred and ninety days. Blessed is he who waits, and comes to the one thousand three hundred and thirty-five days” (emphasis added).
Surprisingly, Dan 12:11 references 1,290 days—an extra thirty days following “the time the daily sacrifice is taken away” (at the occurrence of “the abomination of desolation”). To make this enigma even more mysterious, v 12 discloses the period of 1,335 days following “the abomination of desolation”—an additional forty-five days added to the 1,290 days of v 11! So, which is it—1,260 days, 1,290 days, or 1,335 days?
The answer is that all three periods of time are eschatologically correct. There will be 1,260 days—or three and a half years—from the abomination of desolation until Christ returns to the earth. The extra periods of time in vv 11 and 12 indicate two phases between the return of Christ to the earth and the inauguration of Christ’s rule in the kingdom. Could these two prophetic periods signal two significant events transpiring between the return of Christ and the inauguration of the millennial kingdom?
We now look closer at these important intervals in their chronological occurrence.
B. The Difference Between the Two Phases
The first of these phases of time lasts thirty days. While we do not learn in Daniel what is included in this span of time, we can deduce that it contains the judgment of the Gentile nations (Matt 25:31-46).19 This judgment must occur during this interval, as it fits with the defined timeframe (as presented in Matt 25:31),20 and it is the only event cited in the Bible occurring at this eschatological stage.21
Therefore, if the judgment of the nations occurs during the thirty day timeframe, what will transpire within the forty-five day period which follows—the one immediately preceding the inauguration of the kingdom? While Daniel does not identify this eschatological event, we can use NT clues to solve the riddle.
It is likely that a significant occurrence, on par with the judgment of the nations, will occur during this second timeframe. Two reasons indicate this: the same attention is drawn to it in context as is placed on the first event, and the second span of time is even longer in duration than the first, suggesting an event at least as momentous as the previous one.
Just as the first assessment—the judgment of the nations—provides an epilogue to the present age,22 it would make sense for the second judgment to present a prologue to the next age, the millennial kingdom.
The only eschatological event mentioned in Scripture which could fit each of these criteria is the Judgment Seat of Christ.23
C. Jesus’ Return to Earth in the Parable of the Minas
There are other clues indicating the Judgment Seat of Christ will transpire within the forty-five day timeframe.
One such clue is presented in a parable displaying the Judgment Seat of Christ, found in Luke 19:12-27. Luke uses two Greek words to indicate Jesus has in view here His return to the earth to assess believers, namely hupostrephō in v 12, which means to “turn back, return,”24 and epanerchomai in v 15, which denotes returning to the very place one has left.25 These expressions portray Jesus returning to the earth to carry out this assessment of believers. According to this parable in Luke 19, it is after returning that Jesus will assess His servants at the Bema.26
D. Jesus’ Return to Earth in Matthew 16:27
Further evidence for placing the Judgment Seat of Christ after His return to the earth can be found in Matt 16:27. Following the reference to His Return in v 27, Jesus indicates He will reward His faithful followers after His coming. This sequence in time is signaled by the use of tote (“then”), the primary Greek term utilized in eschatological passages in Matthew to signal what comes next.27 Hence, Matt 16:27 reveals that the Judgment Seat of Christ will take place after Jesus’ return to the earth and prior to the inauguration of the kingdom on earth.
E. Jesus’ Return to Earth in 2 Timothy 4:1
Another indicator of the timing of the Judgment Seat of Christ can be found in 2 Tim 4:1 where we read this exhortation: “I charge you therefore before God and the Lord Jesus Christ, who will judge the living and the dead at His appearing and His kingdom.” The phrase “His appearing and His kingdom” connects Christ’s manifestation with the inauguration of His kingdom.28 The Greek term for appearing refers to “a visible manifestation of a hidden divinity… in the form of a personal appearance.”29 J. N. D. Kelly points out that when this same Greek word is used in 2 Tim 1:10, it refers to “Christ’s first appearance on the earth in the incarnation,” while its use in 2 Tim 4:1, 8 and Titus 2:13 “denotes His future return [to the earth] in glory.”30 This indicates that the “appearing” of Christ in 2 Tim 4:1 refers to “the Second Advent,”31 which Paul links with the inauguration of the kingdom of God upon the earth.
In Paul’s exhortation to Timothy in this same verse (2 Tim 4:1), he connects the return of Christ (to establish God’s kingdom) with the judgment of believers. While Jesus will judge Gentile survivors of the Tribulation period, following His return to the earth,32 this is not the judgment toward which Paul is pointing Timothy, for Paul’s “son” in the faith will not face that particular judgment. The only assessment that will affect Timothy is the Judgment Seat of Christ. Because Paul connected the return of Christ (to the earth) to the Bema, we can see he believed the Judgment Seat of Christ will transpire after Christ’s return to the earth.
F. Hebrews 10:35-38
Another passage placing the Judgment Seat of Christ after Christ’s return to the earth is Heb 10:35-38. Verses 35-36 exhort Christian readers to endure faithfully for Christ in order to experience kingdom reward. The reason33 believers should remain faithful to Christ is that in “a little while” Jesus will return to the earth.34 In other words, if Christians remain faithful till Christ returns to earth, they will receive great reward. Thus, Jesus will reward believers after His return to the earth.
G. Revelation 11:15-18
The post-return timing of the Bema can also be seen contextually in Revelation 11. Within the Apostle John’s vision of the future, the seventh angel announces the arrival of God’s kingdom in this way: “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ, and He shall reign forever and ever.”35 By proclaiming that the kingdom of God has now replaced the kingdom of the world, the angel essentially announces the return of Christ.36
In response to this dramatic declaration, the twenty-four elders of Revelation worship God, proclaiming the time has come for the Lord to reward His faithful servants.37 Since this rewarding of Christ’s followers will occur at the Judgment Seat, the presentation of Rev 11:15-18 strongly implies that the assessment of Christians will convene after the return of Christ.38
H. The Purpose of the Bema
As Merrill Unger declared, “The Judgment Seat of Christ is necessary for the appointment of places of rulership and authority with Christ in His role of ‘King of kings and Lord of lords’ at His revelation [return] in power and glory.”39 This is a critical understanding, for, if true, it reveals the Judgment Seat of Christ will be convened after Christ’s return to the earth. After all, as Rev 20:4-6 shows, those martyred for their faith during the Tribulation period will rule in the kingdom. Thus, if the Bema is necessary “for the appointment” of rule in the kingdom, this assessment must occur after the Tribulation period for these Tribulation saints to rule in the kingdom. Since Christ’s return ends the Tribulation period, the purpose of the Judgment Seat places its timing after Jesus’ return.
This paper has argued that the Judgment Seat of Christ will occur during the forty-five day timeframe preceding the inauguration of God’s kingdom upon the earth. This timing of the Bema makes sense on at least three levels.
First, this timing is compatible with the purpose of the Bema. A primary purpose for this judgment is to prepare for Jesus’ administration. During His rule, Jesus will employ faithful individuals to help Him administrate the kingdom. Thus, He will utilize the Judgment Seat of Christ to determine positions of administration based on past faithfulness. This comports with the occurrence of this assessment just prior to the initiation of the kingdom.
Second, as shown in Rev 20:4-6, followers of Christ martyred during the Tribulation period will rule with Jesus in His kingdom. Scripture does not present the Judgment Seat as a series of events; instead, it is pictured as one grand occurrence. If so, the Bema needs to occur after the Tribulation period for the Tribulation martyrs to receive their appointment to rule in the millennial kingdom. This, of course, means the Judgment Seat of Christ will occur after the return of Christ and prior to the inauguration of the millennial kingdom.
Third, the occurrence of the Judgment Seat of Christ immediately prior to the initiation of the kingdom completes God’s perfect pattern. We have seen that Daniel 12 reveals two important interludes of time between the conclusion of the Tribulation period and the installation of the kingdom. Since the first interlude (of thirty days) includes a significant judgment (the judgment of Gentile survivors of the Tribulation period) that wraps up the present age,40 it is reasonable to believe that the second interlude of time (forty-five days) would also include a weighty, Scriptural judgment introducing the next age (the kingdom). The only judgment mentioned in the Bible which could fit the timing of this second interlude is the Judgment Seat of Christ.
The evidence indicates that this future assessment of Christians will occur in the forty-five-day era immediately preceding the coming kingdom, following the return of Christ to the earth.
1 See 2 Cor 5:10 for the clearest pronouncement of this, though many other Biblical statements and descriptions allude to this judgment of the works of believers. See John Claeys, A New World Coming (Longview, TX: 289 Design, 2015), 53-73.
2 For evidence of this contention, again see Claeys, A New World Coming, Chap. 3.
3 J. Dwight Pentecost, Things to Come (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1964), 220. As per Pentecost, many believe that following the Rapture, Jesus will return to heaven with believers; however, see John Claeys, The Impending Apocalypse (Sisters, OR: Deep River Books, 2014), 14-15, 242-243 (especially, endnotes 10-14) for the view that Jesus and believers remain in the air (out of sight of people living upon the earth) throughout that seven-year timeframe.
4 See also: Arnold G. Fruchtenbaum, The Footsteps of the Messiah: A Study of the Sequence of Prophetic Events (Tustin, CA: Ariel Press, 1984), 107; Mark Bailey, “The Judgment Seat of Christ,” Countdown to Armageddon, eds. Charles Ryrie, Joe Jordan, and Tom Davis (Eugene, OR: Harvest House, 1999), 97; Joe Wall, Going for the Gold (Chicago: Moody, 1991), 18; Arno Clemens Gaebelein, The Prophet St. Paul (London: Pickering & Inglis, 1939), 89; and Joseph C. Dillow, The Reign of the Servant Kings: A Study of Eternal Security and the Final Significance of Man (Miami Springs, FL: Schoettle Publishing Co., 2002), 515-520.
5 John Niemela, “Revelation 5, the Twenty-Four Elders, and the Rapture.” See http://www.pre-trib.org/articles/view/revelation-5-twenty-four-elders-andRapture. Accessed May 14, 2016.
6 This paper is not dealing with the assertion that the Rapture will occur chronologically prior to the scene depicted in Revelation 5. For the argument that the Rapture does not chronologically occur until Revelation 6, see Zane C. Hodges, “The First Horseman of the Apocalypse,” Bibliothecra Sacra (October 1962): 324-34.
7 This representation could be seen based on the sum of twelve plus twelve which is utilized later in Revelation as representing the twelve tribes of Israel and the twelve apostles—cf. Rev 21:12, 14. Thus, this number could represent both OT (twelve tribes of Israel) and NT (twelve apostles) believers.
8 See Luke 22:69; Acts 2:23-25, 30-33; Rom 8:34; Col 3:1; Heb 1:13; 10:12.
9 See Rev 3:21.
10 Note the twin concepts in these verses indicating future rule: 1) Paul finished his life faithfully for Christ; and 2) he will receive a “crown,” signifying rule, at the Judgment Seat of Christ (“that Day”).
11 See Acts 7:55-56. Elsewhere, we do not see Jesus standing in heaven, but sitting, “at the right hand of God”—cf. Ps 110:1; Matt 22:44; Mark 12:36; 16:19; Luke 20:42, 43; Acts 2:34, 35; Col 3:1; Heb 1:13. That Jesus would stand to welcome Stephen “home” demonstrates the kind of honor that will only be accorded to those who will rule with Christ.
12 In addition, it could be argued that faithful, deceased believers are already experiencing a “pre-rewarded” experience for their faithfulness. Perhaps Jesus’ reception of Stephen (which can be seen to be His confession of Stephen before others, as in Luke 12:8) presents this concept, along with the white robe dispensed to the Tribulation martyrs during the Tribulation Period (Rev 6:9-11), the attire of “fine linen” worn by faithful believers prior to the return of Christ (Rev 19:8), and even Lazarus’ experiences of being welcomed and carried by angels to Abraham’s “bosom,” a place of privileged seating next to one of the greats of the OT. Jesus’ present session “at the right hand of the Majesty on high” (Heb 1:3) could also lend itself to this discussion.
13 If it did, then it follows that the Bema had already occurred when Jesus declared to the apostles that they will rule upon the earth (cf. Matt 19:28; Luke 22:28-30). But, of course, it had not.
14 These armies of the world will invade Israel prior to Christ’s return in a paltry attempt to halt Jesus from ascending the throne of David to begin His millennial rule. See Claeys, Impending Apocalypse, 171-77.
15 This book most likely refers to the book mentioned in Rev 20:12—the Book of Life—which designates all who have received eternal life (by believing in Jesus Christ for it).
16 This refers to the last half of the Tribulation period.
17 He refers to these Jewish believers by the phrase, “your people.” Clearly, “your people” refers to Jews, as Daniel is Jewish. In addition, because faithful Jewish believers in Jesus will be the ones experiencing persecution during that period, this announcement specifically refers to that group. For more on this, see Claeys, The Impending Apocalypse.
18 If we read Matthew 13 and 24-25 closely, we can see this deliverance will occur when Jesus returns to the earth. Furthermore, by noting the context of Dan 7:13-14 and Zechariah 12-14, from which the language of Matt 24:29 stems, we can more readily see that Jesus announces in Matt 24:29-31 that He will deliver Israel from its enemies at His return. Following His return, He will establish God’s kingdom, providing for the Jewish nation to be at peace from enemies henceforth.
19 This is an adjudication of Gentile Tribulation survivors: both believers and unbelievers.
20 For a presentation of this assessment and its timing, see Claeys, “Matthew 25:31-46: Salvation by Works?” JOTGES (Autumn 2017): 55-70.
21 This judgment follows the return of Christ, as indicated by Matt 25:31. In addition, it is evident that this eschatological event occurs between the return of Christ and the initiation of the Millennial Kingdom based on the following: 1) the judgment shows the retribution of unbelievers (cf. Matt 25:41, 46) from all the nations; and 2) the contextual link with chapter 24 (e.g., cp. 24:29-31 with 25:31), shows that it follows the Tribulation period.
22 For a presentation of this assessment and its timing, see Claeys, “Matthew 25:31-46.” 55-70.
23 The only other eschatological judgment mentioned in Scripture is the Great White Throne Judgment, which will be convened after the millennial kingdom. Thus, of the eschatological judgments cited in Scripture, only the Judgment Seat of Christ could fit this timeframe.
24 See Walter Bauer, William F. Arndt, Wilber F. Gingrich, and Frederick W. Danker, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1980), s.v., “hupostrephō,” 847.
25 See James Hope Moulton and George Milligan, The Vocabulary of the Greek Testament (Grand Rapids: MI; Eerdmans, 1980), “epanerchomai,” 229.
26 This is how Zane Hodges understood this chronology: “It is at the return of Christ to earth that rewards are dispensed for the kingdom which follows (cf. Luke 19:15; Rev 11:15, 18).” See Zane C. Hodges, “Do Not Be Ashamed (2 Timothy 1:1-18)” Grace in Focus (January/February 2018): 20.
27 For examples, see Matt 13:43; 24:9, 10, 11, 14, 16, 23, 30, 40; 25:1, 7, 31, 34, 37, 44, 45. See BAGD s.v., “tote,” p. 824, where BAGD lists this use of tote in Matt 16:27 “to introduce that which follows in time.” Thus, according to BAGD, after Jesus returns to the earth, then He will judge His followers.
28 The two are connected by kata (kata tēn epiphaneian autou kai tēn basileian autou) in the original Greek text. J. N. D. Kelly observes that “[Christ’s] kingdom is naturally coupled with it [His appearing], for after the judgment He will consummate His kingdom for the elect [believers in Christ]” (J. N. D. Kelly, A Commentary on the Pastoral Epistles [Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1983], p. 205).
29 See BAGD, s.v., “epiphaneia,” p. 304. (Though the full statement of BAGD is, “As a religious technical term it means a visible manifestation of a hidden divinity, either in the form of a personal appearance, or by some deed of power by which its presence is made known,” clearly, in the context of the verse, Christ’s “appearing” refers to the former—His “personal appearance”—as BAGD makes clear in the same article when 2 Tim 4:1 is specifically listed under the statement, “Of Jesus’ coming in judgment.”
30 Kelly, Pastoral Epistles, 205.
31 See Ronald A. Ward, Commentary on 1 & 2 Timothy & Titus (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1979), 203.
32 See A New World Coming for more on this assessment.
33 The reason is indicated by the use of the Greek term gar in v 37, as well as the explanatory presence of v 36, following the admonition of v 35.
34 See Zane C Hodges, “Hebrews,” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary: New Testament Edition, ed. by John F. Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1983), 806; see also F.F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1990), 272-274.
35 See Revelation 11:15 as per The Greek New Testament According to the Majority Text, edited by Zane C. Hodges and Arthur L. Farstad (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1985).
36 See Hodges, “The First Horseman of the Apocalypse,” 329. In addition, this connection—between the kingdom(s) of the world becoming the kingdom of God and the return of Christ—can be seen in a comparison of Daniel chapters 2 and 7, as well as in the unveiling of Revelation where chapter 19 portrays the return of Christ, and chapter 20 describes the rule of Christ over God’s kingdom upon the earth.
37 See v 18.
38 See Hodges, “Do Not Be Ashamed,” 20.
39 See Merrill F. Unger, Unger’s Bible Dictionary (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1980), “Judgment Seat of Christ,” 622.
40 Jesus indicated that the Tribulation period is part of our present age by terms such as “the end” or “the end of the age” in Matt 10:22; 13:39-40, 49; 24:3, 6, 13-14.