In the early 1800s, a group of New Englanders thought they’d found evidence that Jesus was about to return to Earth. They’d been inspired by the teaching of William Miller, a farmer, soldier and self-taught Bible student from Vermont. Miller had delved into a prophecy that, he concluded, began on one of the verifiable dates of ancient history—457 BC, the date of the decree by the Persian ruler King Artaxerxes of Persia that the Israelite people could return to their ancestral homeland and rebuild their capital city, Jerusalem (Daniel 9:25).
Applying the 2300-day prophecy of Daniel 8:14 to that same date, and substituting years for days as suggested in Ezekiel 4:6, Miller dated the fulfilment of the prophecy to around 1843 to 1844, at which time, according to the prophet Daniel, the sanctuary would be cleansed. Miller believed that the sanctuary that needed to be cleansed was the earth itself, and that this cleansing would take place when Jesus destroyed the earth at His second coming. Christians of many denominations welcomed the news. Miller’s message became a great sensation, with estimates of as many as 100,000 people waiting with him for Jesus’ second coming.
Sophisticated religionists of the day scoffed at the notion that Jesus’ return could be predicted, reminding them that of “that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (Matthew 24:36).
Miller himself, agreeing that the day and hour couldn’t be known, at first suggested a range of time, from March 1843 to March 1844, for the second coming. Preacher Samuel Snow was less cautious. He calculated the Day of Atonement according to an ancient Jewish calendar and arrived at the date October 22, 1844, for Jesus’ return. This was the date that became best known as the day when Jesus would return in the clouds of glory.
Many prayed the entire night of October 22, expecting at any moment to hear the sound of the trumpets of God. When the time passed, they were deeply disappointed. Believer Hiram Edson wrote: “Our fondest hopes and expectations were blasted, and such a spirit of weeping came over us as I never experienced before.” Some had been jeered and mocked, and even expelled from their churches. Others had sacrificed all their earthly possessions to the cause, thinking they’d no longer need them.
Most of Miller’s followers abandoned his movement after October 22 had passed, but a small number were certain that something had happened that day. They just weren’t certain precisely what. Their study in the days following led them to believe that it had something to do with divine judgement.
One of the truths common to all religions is that human beings haven’t been put on this planet merely to do whatever they like. They are to live a certain kind of life, responsible to one another and to God. The Jewish faith spelled out 10 rules, the Ten Commandments, by which we are to live, and by which God will judge us. To that, Jesus added His own earthly life as a model.
To be judged by the choices we’ve made isn’t merely an academic exercise. According to the Bible, our reward—a sin-free, suffering-free eternal life (Revelation 21:1–4)—hinges on our Judge’s evaluation of the life of every human being. According to Revelation, those whose names are found written in the book of life will be granted heaven, and the rest will be destroyed (Revelation 13:8; 20:12, 15).
Fortunately, there’s more to qualifying for heaven than merely good behaviour. The Bible says that “all have sinned” (Romans 3:23), and “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). If all we had to bring to the judgement was our own pathetic and failed attempts at goodness, we wouldn’t stand a chance. Fortunately, through the mercy of Jesus Christ, “the gift of God,” writes the apostle Paul, “is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (verse 23). It’s a gift that was bought for us by Christ’s death on the cross.
But when is this judgement?
Before a man comes to trial in a courtroom, many people have already made judgements about him. Police officers have judged that he should be arrested. A grand jury judges whether there’s enough evidence to prosecute. Lawyers, too, make judgements, some showing evidence to argue that the accused is guilty, and others that he is innocent. And each juror makes his or her own judgement. Eventually a vote by the jury will decide whether the accused is guilty, and the judge will pronounce the sentence.
So here’s the question: where in that long process did judgement occur? The answer: all along the way. The penalty is pronounced only after many judgements have been made.
Revelation describes a final scene where everyone, “great and small” will appear before God’s heavenly throne for judgement (Revelation 20:12) where “God and Jesus Christ . . . will judge the living and the dead” (2 Timothy 4:1). Yet this, too, is only the end of a long series of judgements.
Our parents began making judgements when they rewarded or punished us for our behaviour. All the people around us make judgements about us that, if we are alert, can help us to be better people. Law enforcement teaches us what behaviours are unacceptable in society. The Bible judges us, in a sense, every time it tells us that something we commonly do is a sin. The Holy Spirit has alerted our consciences, warning us to make good choices rather than sinful ones.
Thus, as I’ve said, judgement begins long before that final moment when we’re sentenced either to eternal destruction or to eternal life.
And, up in heaven, God has already started this judgement. In Revelation’s description of Christ’s second coming, Jesus declares that when He returns, “My reward is with me, and I will give to each person according to what they have done” (Revelation 22:12). He may not have announced it to everyone yet, but the Judge already knows your fate.
Why it matters
This was the truth that arose from the ashes of the October 22, 1844 disappointment. The disappointed Bible students returned to the phrase “then shall the sanctuary be cleansed” (Daniel 8:14, KJV). In the Jewish temple, the priest entered the Most Holy Place of the sanctuary on the Day of Atonement to bring before God the sins of His people for judgement and forgiveness. Could something similar have begun in heaven?
Their study told them that this was precisely what had happened on October 22, 1844.
The Bible makes it clear that there’s a judgement of all humankind. But why should you and I care when that judgement is happening? It’s important for one reason: it warns us that Jesus is about to return. Just like a courtroom trial is the first step in a process that will result in a verdict, so the beginning of heaven’s judgement is the first step toward Jesus’ return in the clouds of glory.
Daniel describes a scene in heaven where “thrones were set in place, and the Ancient of Days took his seat. . . . The court was seated, and the books were opened” (Daniel 7:9, 10). And what does he see next? The “son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven” (verse 13). Judgement begins in the heavenly courts and proceeds, it appears, right up until very near the time that Jesus returns to take us to heaven.
So by alerting the people of Earth to the beginning of the heavenly judgement in 1844, God was letting them know that He was in the final phases of His preparations to return, even if not on that particular October night. God wanted His followers to tell the whole world that the second coming of Jesus was very near and it was time to get ready.
Knowing that all of these things are about to happen, “what kind of people ought you to be?” asks the apostle Peter. “You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming” (2 Peter 3:11, 12).