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Friday, August 19, 2016

Too Hot to Handle: The Judge of All the Earth

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

On her way to work a few months ago, a Muslim driver urged my friend to reconsider her ways in view of coming judgment. The driver knew nothing at all about his passenger, but he was convinced his god will one day be both her judge and the judge of all mankind.

Tom: Not all religions acknowledge judgment is coming, I suppose, but many do. It is not an exclusively Christian teaching. But there are some things about biblical judgment that make it distinctive, Immanuel Can, and perhaps we can explore some of those today.

No Afterlife, No Judgment

Immanuel Can: Well, let’s see. In the view of some religions, like atheism and modern Reformed Judaism, there is no judgment because there is no afterlife. In others, like Hinduism, there is no judgment because there is an infinite cycle of lives for every person. In Islam, there is said to be a judgment, but it’s the same one for everyone. That makes Christianity unique.

Tom: I’ve heard people complain that the judgment of God is merely an invention of the Church (or earlier, of Judaism) calculated to manage the behavior of the masses. Does that make sense to you?

IC: Yes, that sounds like Marx. Of course, Marx turned out to be wrong on practically everything, even in his own lifetime. But the point does need addressing, if for no other reason than that some people still believe it. Of course, judgment is not really a consolation, is it? I mean, it would be if you knew that you yourself were sinless and not subject to judgment. Then you might see it as a chance for you to get what you deserve. But who wants what they deserve if what they deserve is a good whipping? So the Christian consciousness of sin is a great check on that.

Tom: Right. Few Christians eagerly anticipate judgment as if it might be an enjoyable thing to experience, but I can’t think of any who don’t recognize that in principle judgment is both reasonable and necessary. Inevitable, in fact. So the notion that we’ve concocted this little bit of our theological package and that we cling to it because it gives us security or something seems a bit unlikely.

You’re Going to Get It Now!

But is it possible that men invented the idea because it appeals to our egos to be able to say, “Well, maybe I’m going to get judged, but HE’s going to have it worse”?

IC: Ha. When we understand what justice based on what we deserve involves, there’s not a single person who would ever want it. It entails that any creature that sins dies … dies eternally, as in complete and absolute separation forever from the source of life and goodness. That’s a key difference between “religions”, atheism and Christianity. Religions diminish the cost of sin, or like atheism, deny it entirely. Only Christianity is hard-nosed about our inherent guilt and yet also confident about a complete remedy. Only AFTER that remedy can anyone sanely be enthused about judgment.

One Judgment or More?

Tom: Now you had pointed out in an earlier email that many Christians seem confused about what the Bible actually says about judgment. I’ve noticed that too.

IC: Yes. That comes from a couple of confusing facts. Firstly, because of the gospel, we all ought to know that Christians are not going to be subject to God’s judgment. On the other hand, the Bible clearly talks about a Great Judgment. And then there’s Paul’s claim, made to Christians, that “we must all stand before the Judgment Seat”. So it’s somewhat understandable people get confused, isn’t it?

Tom: Well, that principle you’re talking about goes back a lot earlier than the gospel of John and the Lord’s enunciation of it there. In fact, if we go all the way back to Genesis and the judgment of Sodom and Gomorrah, we find Abraham defending his relative Lot, who is living in Sodom and endangered by God’s plan to destroy the wicked city. And Abraham says this:
“Far be it from you to do such a thing, to put the righteous to death with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?”
Abraham intuited that true justice demands you never deal with the good guys the same way you deal with the bad guys. And God’s response to Abraham makes it clear that Abraham has latched on to something real with that little bit of intuition.

Judgment and the Character of God

IC: Ah. And are you suggesting it works out the same way throughout the scriptures?

Tom: It seems to me that Abraham is on to something essential in the character of God, not simply recording a one-off decision. He says, “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” He says it as if God is bound by certain rules that are in operation as a consequence of his own nature. C.S. Lewis would like that idea, I think. The “deep magic” in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is a similar concept. Aslan must do certain things … because he’s Aslan.

IC: Okay. So the Lord does not treat the righteous like the unrighteous. Would this not suggest, then, that the gospel is our guidepost here? In other words, we need to ask, “Am I among the righteous or the unrighteous?” And according to the gospel, the answer has to be, “Among the righteous-by-grace”, no?

Tom: Absolutely.

Will They or Won’t They?

IC: But how do we deal with the fact that we are told that Christians will be judged in Romans 14, as I pointed out earlier, and that they won’t be, in John 5? Will they, or won’t they?

Tom: Well, I know there are whole swathes of Christendom that don’t accept this possibility, but I reckon there are two very different judgments. Different in terms of who is being judged, and different in terms of what they are being judged about. Same judge though.

I don’t think that’s an outrageous thing to discover, even if it has been noticed rather late in church history. Prophecy is like that: it’s never obvious until the information contained in the prophecy is actually relevant. Take, for example, the Lord’s reading of the book of Isaiah at the synagogue in Nazareth, where he stops with the words, “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” and rolls up the scroll, leaving out “and the day of vengeance of our God”.

Until that moment, no Jewish scholar had seriously considered that there might be two different Messianic advents, separated by thousands of years. Jews today still do not consider it.

Similarly to the two comings of Messiah to earth, the judgments are often muddled. But the New Testament makes so much more sense when you recognize it speaks of more than one judgment.

IC: Okay, I agree with you. Let’s talk about this some more next week.

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