Why the Pre-Advent Judgment?
Since God already knows who believers are, why have a judgment in heaven before Jesus comes? Adventists often get asked that when explaining our unique beliefs.
We can point to Revelation 14, which predicts a global proclamation immediately preceding Christ’s return: “Fear God and give Him glory, for the hour of His judgment has come” (verse 6). Why have this pre-Advent judgment, since God knows everything? Its purpose must be to enlighten His celestial creation. Scriptures portray celestial beings as intensely interested in questions concerning human salvation (1 Pet. 1:12, Eph. 3:10, 1 Cor. 4:9 and Ex. 25:20.) And Jesus promised to confess us before His Father and the angels, defending our names in heaven’s Book of Life (Rev. 3:5). Defending us against whom?
Let’s revisit the beginning of the great controversy between good and evil. Satan, father of lies, originally raised doubts about God's fairness and integrity. He repeated these charges during Christ's days on Earth: "This man receives sinners!” In other words, "How can the Holy One accept those who are unholy?"
God can't ignore the devil's accusations, since His government operates through the trust and loyalty of His celestial creation. He must settle doubts about His trustworthiness. So the Bible indicates He will let Himself be audited: "Let God be found true, though every man be found a liar, as it is written, 'That Thou mightest be justified in Thy words, and mightest prevail when Thou art judged'" (Rom. 3:4, NASB).
Just as judges on Earth face scrutiny after paroling prisoners, God comes under question for setting us free from condemnation in the Lord Jesus Christ. Satan, whose name means "adversary" or "accuser," accuses us of being unworthy and our Forgiver as being unfair. Indeed we are unworthy in ourselves, but God finds in the cross of the Lord Jesus all the evidence He needs to vindicate our salvation in heaven's judgment (see Rev. 12:9–11).
Let's not pervert God’s judgment by imposing our Western judicial process upon the biblical text. In Hebrew, the primary meaning of the word "judgment" is not scrutiny but "vindication" or "deliverance." The book of Judges, for example, shows God raising up judges not to condemn but to deliver His people and save them from their adversaries. In the Hebrew legal system, judges defended the accused. In fact, there were no defense attorneys in normal situations. The judges were required by law to take the side of the accused and actually be predisposed toward vindication (see Ps. 35:24, etc.).
Of course, judges had to be fair, and if the accuser presented evidence that could not be dismissed, they had to abandon their defense of the accused and pronounce condemnation. But Jewish judges were predisposed toward vindication — and so is God as our judge. It is "His good pleasure to give us the kingdom" (Luke 12:32). He is on our side in the judgment, and Jesus assists Him as our intercessor (Rom. 8:33–34). And remember, this judgment is not about whether we are good enough; it’s about whether we genuinely believe in Jesus.
Years ago I took a delightful train ride that illustrates the meaning of judgment for Christians. One sunny day I rode Amtrak south to San Diego. As our train skimmed the scenic coastline, the conductor began his judgment of who was worthy to ride. Holding a ticket, I felt no threat to secure passage. It was predetermined that my worthiness was based exclusively on that ticket. Thus the investigation was not of my achievements or failures, but of my claim to hold the ticket. The inspection did not threaten my security as a passenger, but manifested it.
Likewise with us before God, we must all give account of what we did with Jesus, who is our ticket to heaven. If we have chosen sincerely to receive Jesus, we need not fear the judgment. But those who rebel against God are already condemned, Jesus taught, "because they do not believe in Me" (John 16:9). They affiliate themselves with old Adam’s fallen humanity, which was judged as unworthy at the cross. Lacking Christ, they have no ticket to heaven.
Amtrak passengers can't purchase tickets and then discard them, or they have no claim to ride the train. For us as well, since it's possible to rebel and leave Jesus, there is no such thing as once saved, automatically always saved. Initial acceptance does not guarantee we choose His life today.
But Jesus defends our salvation as we receive His death on the cross and new life in His Spirit. He “is even at the right hand of God, who also makes intercession for us" (Rom. 8:34). That’s the faith-inspiring doctrine of the pre-Advent judgment entrusted to Seventh-day Adventists.