Sometimes Christians are a bit embarrassed by God’s judgment. We would rather talk about God’s love. But I want to suggest that God’s judgment is good news.
Christ’s judgment establishes meaning
In Ecclesiastes the writer explores life in the world under the sun and he concludes that everything is meaningless. People live their lives in the pursuit of pleasure – just as they do today. But it is meaningless. It does not last. It fades away into death. Others live their lives for wealth. But that, too, is temporary and empty. Even trying to be righteous is meaningless because the righteous end up no better off the wicked (Ecclesiastes 8:14). If you exclude God from the picture – if you look at life ‘under the sun’ – everything is meaningless. ‘I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind.’ (Ecclesiastes 1:14).
But listen to how the book ends: ‘For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.’ (Ecclesiastes 12:14). In a world without judgment everything is meaningless. Good is no different to evil. There is no basis for calling something ‘right’ and something else ‘wrong’. We have no basis for deciding what is worth pursuing and what is not. The writer of Ecclesiastes takes a look at the world in just those terms and says that it is all meaningless. But, he concludes, God will re-order the world. God will impose order and meaning through judgment. That is what judgment is: God imposing order. Right will be right and wrong will be wrong. And that is what gives our actions meaning. The coming judgment of God means that we can talk about out actions being right or wrong. They do have value. We can pursue things in life which have meaning.
Christ’s judgment establishes justice
We long for justice. That is what the emotional impact of the film Arlington Road reveals. Deep inside we want right to be rewarded and evil to be punished. We see it in all sorts of different ways. If someone jumps the queue we are outraged. Usually we are too diffident to say anything, but we seethe inside. It is not right. The queue jumper should not treat other people which such selfish indifference. We seen in the crowds who stand outside, shouting abuse at an accused criminal. When I heard that General Pinochet had been arrested in Britain and involuntarily cheered: I could not help myself.
People crave justice. We pursue people in their eighties and nineties for their part in the holocaust because we cannot bear to think that these people should get away with their crimes. We cannot bear to think that evil should go unpunished. We feel that we owe it to the victims to judge their oppressors. A friend of mine (Tim Davies) was telling me of time when he spoke on how God can allow suffering at a meeting for non-Christians. Afterwards he got arguing vigorously with a strong atheist. Then a women who was listening in said: ‘What troubles me is that there is so much injustice and people just seem to get away with it.’ And my friend replied, ‘If you believe this man (the atheist) then they will.’ Without a God of wrath, people get away with it. But because of God’s wrath no-one escapes justice. I find it a great comfort that when crimes go undetected and tyrants go unpunished knowing that one day these people will face justice. They may die in their beds, but they will stand before the court of God’s judgment.
During the Rwandan massacres, television coverage showed bodies floating down the river, people who had been butchered to death with machete blows in orchestrated tribal violence. An interviewee commented, ‘My only comfort is that God will judge these people.’
There is a point in the television series World at War in which a man, a Christian as it happens, sees a railway truck full of people. They are Jews being transported to a concentration camp. He sees they are desperate for a drink so he starts handing cups of water up to them. He does not know exactly what is happening, but he realises it is not good. Eventually he is seen by a guard who pushes him away. As he is pushed away the man says, ‘You will not get away with this.’ It was not a statement of faith in the victory of the allies. It was a statement of faith – even of hope – in God. One day God will call to account.
To all these people and in all these situations, God’s wrath is good news.
Christ’s judgment establishes the value of human beings
Have you ever heard something like this: ‘The problem with Christianity is all that stuff about hell and judgment. How can you worship a God who is always killing people and condemning them?’
I think we have got to have the courage to ask what the alternative is? What kind of God would you like to worship? Would you like to worship a God who is indifferent to evil? Would you like to worship a God who can shrug his shoulders at six million Jews through the gas chambers? Would you like to worship a God does nothing about the massacres in Rwanda? Would you like to worship a God who says we need not bother about the ual abuse of children – we can just sweep it under the carpet? Is that the God you want to worship?
If God is not a God of wrath then we have to say that the lives of six million Jews do not count, the oppression of people does not matter, that the suffering of countless children in the industry is of no consequence. We have to say that human beings have no value. We are left with a god who says, ‘You can do what you like to each other, because none of you matter to me.’
Is that really good news? Is that a better option than God’s wrath? God’s wrath is the flipside of his love. To the Nazis the Jews were just like animals who could be herded into cattle trucks, who could be experimented on, who could be kept like battery chickens and who could be exterminated like vermin. To God they were people made in his image, people who he loved. God is angry about what we do to each other because he loves people. He is not indifferent. We matter to him.
Christ’s judgment establishes the reign of God
Christ’s judgment establishes the reign of God. This the message of Psalm 2:
Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain?
The kings of the earth set themselves,
and the rulers take counsel together,
against the Lord and against his anointed, saying,
‘Let us burst their bonds apart
and cast away their cords from us.’ (Psalm 2:1-3)
Humanity has thrown off the reign of God. We have said that we want to live our lives our way and be gods of our own lives (Psalm 2:1-3). We pushed God off his throne. The problem is that when we reign for ourselves we make a mess of the world and of our lives. We fight among ourselves for control. God’s rule brings life and blessing and justice and peace. Our rules brings conflict and hatred and suffering and death.
He who sits in the heavens laughs;
the Lord holds them in derision.
Then he will speak to them in his wrath,
and terrify them in his fury, saying,
‘As for me, I have set my King
on Zion, my holy hill.’ (Psalm 2:4-6)
What is God going to do? If he does nothing then he is not just. If he does not nothing then he does not care. If he does nothing then he is not God. But God will be God (Psalm 2:4-6). And so God anoints his King, King Jesus
I will tell of the decree:
The Lord said to me, ‘You are my Son;
today I have begotten you.
Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage,
and the ends of the earth your possession.
You shall break them with a rod of iron
and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.’
God is sending his King to re-establish his reign on earth. John understood this well. He keeps quoting these verses to speak of the coming of Jesus (2:26-27; 12: 5; 19:15). The King is coming to conquer rebels. God’s wrath will destroy the world of evil and evil-doers. Through his judgment God will create a world without sin, a world without suffering, a world without pain, a world without death. God is going to purge the earth.
If God does not act in wrath then the whole plan of salvation falls apart at the seams. God sent his Son Jesus into the world to reconcile us to God; to call us submit to his loving rule.
Now therefore, O kings, be wise;
be warned, O rulers of the earth.
Serve the Lord with fear,
and rejoice with trembling.
Kiss the Son,
lest he be angry, and you perish in the way,
for his wrath is quickly kindled.
Blessed are all who take refuge in him. (Psalm 2:10-12)
But if at the end of the day both God’s friends and God’s enemies have a place in God’s kingdom – both those who submit to God and those who reject him – then we are back where we started. We have a world of rebellion and evil and therefore of pain and suffering and death. The day of God’s wrath is the day when he defeats his enemies, when he overthrows the reign of Satan, when he establishes his reign of life and blessing. It is the triumph of King Jesus (Philippians 2:10-11).
Think of a world without the wrath of God. In a world without the wrath of God:
- our actions are meaningless, there is no point to what we do
- might is right, the oppressors get away with it, the poor have no protection
- people don’t really matter, one million Tutsis rounded up into churches or stopped at roadblocks, men, women and children, whole families, bludgeoned to death – none of it matters
- evil triumphs, evil gets the last word, there is no hope, there is no future without evil and suffering
So God’s judgment is good news because:
- it gives our actions have meaning
- it means justice is done
- it means people matter
- it means evil is defeated and
- it means God will make a new world of justice and peace and blessing
And that is good news. But there is bad news.
[This is also the conclusion of a previous blog entry, but I do not feel I can leave this post without such an ending.]
Christ the Judge and the judged
God’s wrath against Humanity may be good news for all the reasons we have seen, but it means that God’s wrath is against you and I. We all cry out for justice. But there is a day when we must all stand before God.
Sometimes people ask, ‘Why doesn’t God do something about suffering?’ The problem is, what would it take for God to get rid of suffering and its causes? Have you ever caused someone to suffer? It is all well and good to cry out for justice, but none of us has always done right by other people. And none of us has always done right by God. And so God’s wrath against humanity means God’s wrath against you and I. The coming of God’s wrath means we all face God’s judgment. It means God’s wrath is being stored up against us. It means terror and anguish. It means death and hell. It means that one day we will call on the rocks to cover us from God, but there will be no escape.
Then the kings of the earth and the great ones and the generals and the rich and the powerful, and everyone, slave and free, hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains, calling to the mountains and rocks, ‘Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb, for the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?’ (6:15-17)
Although this is bad news, we should be able to acknowledge that even this is right. It is right, it is fitting, that God’s wrath should be against us. ‘True and just are your judgments.’ We must say that if God were to send us to hell it would be fitting. It is like a film with a good ending. We long for a world in which there are standards of right and wrong. The problem is that we do not always want to live by those standards ourselves. We long for a world in which justice is done. But we would rather like God to make an exception for us. But we cannot have it both ways. We long for justice. But when God comes in judgment it will mean judgment for you and me.
In the middle of the seven bowls as God’s wrath is completed, John writes: ‘Behold, I am coming like a thief! Blessed is the one who stays awake, keeping his garments on, that he may not go about and be seen exposed!’ (16:15)
The martyrs who cry out for justice from the altar are given white robes to wear (6:11). Before God’s justice we are and exposed (see also Hebrews 4:12-13). But God himself offers to clothe us. The Risen Christ tells the church at Laodicea they are : ‘For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and .’ (3:17) They think they are self-sufficient and self-righteous. but they are and exposed before God’s judgment. But the Risen Christ goes on: ‘I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, so that you may be rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself and the shame of your ness may not be seen, and salve to anoint your eyes, so that you may see.’ (3:18)
God’s judgment is coming, but there is a refuge. There is an escape and that escape is Jesus Christ. God himself has made a way of escape from his own coming judgment.
Jesus himself experienced the wrath of God – instead of us. He was forsaken by God, taking our judgment in our place. If you belong to Jesus then all God’s wrath that was being stored up against you was poured out on his own Son. And, just as your judgment is transferred to him, so his righteousness is transferred to you. We are clothed with his merits. Through faith we are united to Christ so that all that belongs to him now belongs to us.
A debtor to mercy alone,
of covenant mercy I sing:
nor fear, with thy righteousness on,
my person and offering to bring;
the terrors of law and of God
with me can have nothing to do;
my Saviour’s obedience and blood
hide all my transgressions from view.
Jesus, your blood and righteousness
my beauty are, my glorious dress;
mid flaming worlds, in these arrayed
with joy shall I lift up my head.
When from the dust of death I rise
to claim my home beyond the skies
then this shall be my only plea:
Jesus has lived and died for me.