The sheep and the goats: why there are only two final eternal destinies in the Bible
The New Testament is unanimous in affirming that there are only two final destinies for all people: either the enjoyment of eternal life with God in a new heavens and a new earth, or the 'eternal destruction' of the lake of fire. For theological paradigms in which God's retributive justice is ultimate, this separation is entirely on the basis of one's works, in accordance with the principle of 'just deserts': everyone gets what's coming to them. Those who did well are granted eternal life, while those who did evil are sent into the lake of fire.
The immediate problem is that the notion of just deserts seems incompatible with there being just two ultimate destinies, because in this scenario the penalty for doing evil completely annuls any reward a person might receive for doing good. On some accounts, even the smallest sin, the most seemingly innocuous white lie is enough to condemn a person to eternity in hell, while nothing good that a person does can counter-balance that sentence. At this point the proponent of retributive justice might object that it is not just individual acts of sin that are culpable, but an overall, settled rebellion against God and His will over the course of an entire lifetime. But there is still the problem that in this scheme good acts are not rewarded, except perhaps as a mitigation of one's sentence in hell. But given the overall hopeless and miserable state of those in hell, and the intensity of the New Testament's contrast between the two destinies, this does little to absolve the scheme of injustice according to the standards of 'just deserts'.
Of course I have not taken into account the work of Christ in this scenario: proponents of penal substitution will say that all those who believe in Christ's atoning work on the cross are counted righteous because Christ's deserved righteousness (deserved because he was totally faithful and obedient to God, even to the point of death) is imputed to them. It is on this basis alone that believers will be acquitted on the last day, with a spotless record of good works. But the above problem remains with regard to the unbelievers, who certainly have done many good works in the form of giving to the poor, caring for the sick, fighting for justice and selflessly sacrificing themselves for others. On the two destinies scheme, when coupled with the principle of strict retribution, they most certainly do not receive 'just deserts' for any of these good deeds, since their eternal destiny was entirely determined by the evil that they did. The idea of one person's experience of eternal hell being more tolerable than that of another person's on the basis of the former's good works seems incoherent and incompatible with the severity of the sentence according to Jesus (there are passages in which Jesus speaks of it being, e.g. more tolerable for certain towns he visited than Sodom and Gomorra on the day of judgment, but I suspect he had a different meaning in mind, which I will expound on below).
Am I suggesting then that a person could merit salvation solely on the basis of good works, that if a person achieved a certain optimum ratio of good to bad works then salvation should be guaranteed? By no means! On the contrary, I am suggesting that perhaps it is unwise to think of the final judgment in terms of strict retribution.
Now the Bible does speak of people being judged 'according to their works' on the last day, and Paul affirms in no uncertain terms that those who do evil will not inherit the kingdom of God. So how could the judgment be based on any principle other than a retributive one?
To answer this question we must first think about what it really means for God to once and for all intervene to put the world right, to do away once and for all with injustice and evil. In the eschatological kingdom there is no space whatsoever for anything destructive, anything the least bit devious or out of harmony with God's perfect justice, which in its broadest sense means the world functioning exactly as it was meant to function in the beginning. God's restorative justice takes many forms at the end of history, some benefits of which are felt in the here and now: the forgiveness of sins, the healing of diseases and illnesses, the annulment of the 'sting' of death, etc. But it also means, of course, the complete annihilation of anything that stands in the way of God's justice, as Revelation affirms of the beast, the false prophet, and even death and hell themselves. Since God means to completely do away with the old order of sin and death, no vestige can remain of that old order.
Now this is truly an either/or scenario: either you are entirely on the side of God's restorative justice, passionately longing for God's will to be done on earth as it is heaven, or you are still clinging to the old order, which is destined to perish. The biblical prophets describe God's justice as a mighty stream (Amos 5:24), a force 'charged with the omnipotence of God', in Abraham Heschel's words. This image reminds me of a scene in Tolkien's The Two Towers, in which the Ents, ancient guardians of the forest, unleash a dammed-up river onto the evil wizard Saruman's filthy, polluting war factories:
Similarly when God's justice pours down like a mighty stream, it will make the barren earth fertile again and sweep away all filth, but just for that reason anyone who clings to their filth will be swept away as well. There is no middle ground here, no 'neutral' island to stand on which is 'safe' from God's cleansing justice, which in addition to being a mighty stream is also a 'consuming fire'.
In light of this conception I would suggest that the final judgment is based, not on people receiving 'just deserts' for the actions committed in this life, but on whether people get on board with God's program of restorative justice initiated in Jesus Christ or not. The condemnation of the damned is not that they had done evil things, but that they did not accept God's gracious offer of reconciliation and forgiveness of sins and did not participate in bringing about God's sovereign rule. Miroslav Volf puts it well:
God will judge, not because God gives people what they deserve, but because some people refuse to receive what no one deserves; if evildoers experience God's terror, it will not be because they have done evil, but because they have resisted to the end the powerful lure of the open arms of the crucified Messiah. (Exclusion and Embrace, p.298)
This conception makes the most sense of Jesus' actual pattern of judgment, which branches off from John the Baptist's original proclamation. John preached that God was coming to winnow the wheat from the chaff, but the basis for escaping the winnowing (or rather to counted with the wheat instead of the chaff) was for his hearers to produce the 'fruits of repentance'. (Luke 3:8, 17) Notice that he makes no mention of retribution here. The fruits of repentance are fruits of repentance; they signify the hearer's acknowledgement of his or her culpability in tolerating or spreading injustice and his or her commitment to work to seek the kingdom of God, but they are not the kind of good works which could enable a person to deserve salvation.
Similarly, Jesus preached that "The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the gospel!" (Mark 1:14) One's eternal destiny is determined, not by one's balance of good to bad works, but by one's response to the gospel of the imminence of God's kingdom. Though he certainly meant to turn sinners away from their evil ways, he never approached sinners with a message of condemnation. Who did he actually condemn? Not those who merely did evil things (which is everyone), but those who refused to admit their culpability and insisted that they were blameless, and therefore did not feel that they needed God's forgiveness and mercy (one thinks here of the parable of the unforgiving servant, whose condemnation was not based on the debt he owed to his master, but on his refusal to extend the forgiveness he encountered to a fellow servant). John says that the condemnation is that light has come into the world, but men loved darkness rather than light, they clung to darkness because they loved their evil deeds (John 3:19).
This also makes sense of Jesus' pronouncements that certain towns which rejected his message would have a harder time at the judgment than even Sodom and Gomorrah! The basis of the greater condemnation was not that the inhabitants of one town had sinned more than the other, but that one town had been confronted with the gospel and had rejected it, whereas the other had not heard the gospel. There is greater accountability for those who hear the gospel and reject it, but one's final destiny is determined ultimately by one's response to the gospel.
In this scenario, there is no basis for anyone to protest the injustice of being condemned for not believing, while having done good deeds in this life, because the final judgment is not about just deserts! In fact, even some of those who have done great works in Christ's name will be excluded, not on the basis of those works (how could anyone be condemned for doing good works?) but because they thought those works would enable them to stand on their own before God, precisely in fact because they presumed that salvation was contingent on good works! To make such a presumption shows that one has not understood and accepted the gospel, but in fact has arrogantly rejected it because I can do just fine on my own, thank you very much. The gratuitousness of grace is meant precisely to preclude such an option. Because God knew that applying a system of strict retributive justice to fallen human beings would ensure the condemnation of each and every one of us (e.g. Psalm 130:3), he purposefully introduced a righteousness 'apart from the law', so that one could be saved simply by accepting a free gift, not because of works we would have to perform.
But what of Paul's reference to God punishing those who do not know and obey the Gospel with eternal destruction (2 Thessalonians 1:6-9)? But notice here again the basis of the condemnation: it is not simply that these people have done evil things, but that they reacted to the gospel with arrogance and hostility instead of with humility and repentance. As such they are putting themselves in opposition to God's program of restorative justice, and so will be swept away and destroyed in its wake.
The only eschatological scenario consistent with retributive justice would be one with an infinitely fine gradation of eternal destinies, pleasant and unpleasant in accordance with the balance of good and evil in a person's life. But this would imply that God's eschatological kingdom would feature varying degrees of evil and suffering which would persist in accordance with a person's deeds, which makes a mockery of God's promise that nothing would hurt or destroy in all His holy mountain, and that the new heavens and the new earth would be one without pain, suffering and death. Conversely, having just two ultimate destinies would make a mockery of retributive justice because it is impossible to imagine a person being meaningfully compensated for good deeds in the context of eternal punishment and separation from God. Thus, I suggest that the final judgment is based not on one's balance of good and evil deeds, but on the basis of one's response to God's final justice-making initiative, which is entirely either-or, no room for compromise.