'For we must all appear before God’s tribunal, so that each may receive back into their care those things that relate to what they have done through their bodies, whether good or bad.'
Now I admit I’m being a bit daring in my translation here as it’s not in line with the consensus view as to what Paul means here. Generally translators take Paul to mean simply that people will be repaid in kind for what they have done, whether good or bad. In the same way they would say that, when Paul says to the Colossians literally that the one who does wrong will receive back what he has done wrong, he’s expressing poetically that a bad man will be repaid in kind. Therefore, in a way we could say that his bad deeds will be turned back on him - they will be repaid back into his lap, so to speak. I’m not saying this line of interpretation is completely wrong, but I do think that there’s more to it than that and we may be missing out on an important layer of meaning if we stop there.
When we talk about someone having to live with what they have done, I think we are getting closer to what Paul is talking about. When we do something wrong we have to live with that part of ourselves that is tied up in the wrongdoing and with the ripples that have been created in the people and things around us as a consequence. If we are committed to what is good, we will accept that we have to deal with these things and take responsibility for them. Where appropriate it means putting right what was wrong. If anyone is not committed to this they may succeed, like Jimmy Saville, in burying it underground and covering it with flowers, but Paul’s words indicate that in the end it will come out from its hiding and they will made to look it full in the face and live with it.
There is an interesting question here: when Paul says that we will all receive what relates to our deeds, whether good or bad, does he means that even for those who belong to Christ, they will receive in relation to the bad things they have done as well as the good? If so, what does he mean by that? Or is he thinking of it in terms of the good things that believers will receive for the good they have done, as against the bad things that the others will receive for the bad they have done? My translation tilts it towards the first of those alternatives, but so often with Paul I think that what he is saying can be applied on different levels. This is the case here; when he doesn’t appear to make it clear, I think that it can be taken either way. Certainly if we dismiss the first way of thinking about it, I think we lose out on a rich level of meaning.
Christians believe that when we are resurrected in glory we will be given new transformed bodies and we will no longer be afflicted by sin but are we right to assume that everything that relates to our previous lives will be completely sorted out from the start? Will there be no ends to tie up, no making up to do? In that case, what does John mean in the book of Revelation when he says of the tree on each side of the river in the heavenly Jerusalem, that its leaves are “for the healing of the nations”? I remember the late pastor of my previous church being asked what we will do in heaven. He replied, 'I think to start with at least, we’ll spend a lot of time saying sorry to each other.' That made me chuckle and yet it rang true with me as well and I would dare to take it further. Making up is more than just saying sorry; it’s about some kind of making good, some kind of restoration, it’s committing ourselves to bringing healing and building up again what we have broken.
What happens in the case of a Christian who remembers with grief the wrongs they have done to another, but they have no way of making them right because that person has died. Or let us imagine Stalin or Pol Pot having a death-bed conversion and being given a true understanding of the enormity of the harm they had brought? They wouldn’t be able to do much to put things right – at least not in this life. In these kinds of situations, doesn’t anyone who is genuinely sorry want to have a chance to make up to those he or she had wronged? Wouldn’t they be glad of the opportunity to receive back into their care anything that relates to the wrong they had committed; they could then start to rebuild the relationships that they had wrecked? What Paul is saying here is that they will indeed have that opportunity.
Therefore, we needn’t worry about those we don’t have any way of properly making up to in this life, however much we would like to. If we’re trying to help someone who is struggling with this, we can assure them that there’ll be plenty of chance to make up in when we all meet in glory.
We’ll also have the chance to build on the good things we have done as well.
Click here to listen to Andrew's talk on the above.