An Excursus on Judgment
Douglas Skinner (2023)
A Sin-Judgment-Grace Pattern has been detected in the flow of the stories told in Genesis 1-11 (Adam and Eve – Genesis 2-3, Cain and Abel – Genesis 4-5, the Sons of God and the Daughter of Men – Genesis 6, Noah – Genesis 6-10, the Tower of Babel – Genesis 11).
God has an expectation of and sets a standard for human behavior.
That standard gets violated by human beings.
God tells human beings that they will be judged for that violation.
God executes that judgment, but not without some expression of mercy.
Not just in the Pre-history stories of Genesis 1-11, but throughout the breadth of the Biblical narrative, judgment is a standard component of what God does. As George Eldon Ladd (1911 – 1982), a professor of New Testament at Fuller Theological Seminary during my time there, explained – “It is a clear teaching of Scripture that people are individually responsible for their deeds and must face a day of judgment before a holy and righteous God.” The British Bible Scholar C.H. Dodd (1884–1973) called judgement and grace the two beats of the heart of God, and the Swiss Theologian Karl Barth (1886 – 1968) said that God’s word of judgment was the “no” that prepares us to receive God’s “yes” in His word of grace.
But today we would prefer not to think or talk about judgment at all. As Stephen Travis, a lecturer in New Testament and the vice principal of St. John’s College in Nottingham, England, notes, “no theme is so prominent in Scripture” and yet “so neglected by Christians today” as judgment is. In my own work with my regional church’s committee on ministry, I have seen just how flustered ministerial candidates can become when they are asked to talk about how judgment fits into their understanding of who God is and what God does, as well as how it fits into their own self-understanding and view of the church’s life and ministry.
Because the notion of God’s judgment is a crucial part of the church’s conversation about both justification (the personal gospel) and justice (the social gospel), it is something that we ought to be able to talk regardless of where we fall on the theological spectrum. I would suggest that an inability to do so exposes a deficiency in one’s theological formation, while an unwillingness to do so exposes a lack of transparency in one’s convictions. Either way, it’s a problem.
The thought of judgment makes us uneasy, and there are any number of reasons why. One reason for this uneasiness is the church’s unfortunate track record of judgementalism. Romans 2:1-3 is an echo of Matthew 7:1-5. The repetition of such an emphatic teaching of Jesus in the writings of Paul is an indication of pervasiveness of the problem of judgementalism in the early church.
Jesus said –
“Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgement, you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, “Let me take the speck out of your eye”, while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.” (Matthew 7:1-5)
Paul wrote –
“You have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment
on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things. You say, ‘We know that God’s judgment on those who do such things is in accordance with truth.’ Do you imagine, whoever you are, that when you judge those who do such things and yet do them yourself, you will escape the judgment of God?” (Romans 2:1-3)
Dana Carvey’s “church lady” bit on Saturday Night Live worked so well because we all know people like that; we’ve all been people like that. It is not without cause that Christians are perceived by those outside the church as being small-minded, thin-skinned, hyper-critical, and mean-spirited people. Philip Yancey tells a horrific story at the beginning of his book “What’s So Amazing About Grace?” about something she did pout of desperation and despair. When she was asked why she hadn’t gone to a church to ask for help, she responded, “Church…Why would I ever go there? I was already feeling terrible about myself. They’d just make me feel worse.”
St. Ephraim of Syria’s (306 – 373) prayer for Lent, a standard of the Eastern Church, includes the specific petition – “Yea, O Lord and King, grant me to see my own transgressions, and not to judge my brother.” This needs to be said out loud and repeatedly in the church’s preeminent season of penitential attentiveness because it is easier to look for the weeds in a neighbor’s garden than it is to weed one’s own.
Another reason for uneasiness about judgment among Disciples is a conscious and principled denominational choice. The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) is not a “hell fire and brimstone” church by conviction. Alexander Campbell, one of our founders, in his essay on “Regeneration” in his “Christian System” (1839) explained why –
“Man in a state of alienation and rebellion, naturally suspects, that if he be a sinner, and if God hate sin, he must hate him. As love begets love; so hatred begets hatred; and if a sinner suspects that God hates him, he cannot love God. He must know that God loves him, before he can begin to love God. ‘We,’ says an Apostle, ‘love God because he first loved us.’ …It is in the person and mission of the Incarnate Word, that we learn that ‘God is love.”’ That God gave his Son for us, and yet gives his Spirit to us – and this gives us himself – are the mysterious and transcendent proofs of the most august proposition in the universe. The gospel, Heaven’s wisdom and power combined, God’s own expedient for the renovation of human nature, is neither more nor less, than the illustration and proof of this regenerating proposition. … The grand principle or means which God has adopted for the accomplishment of this moral regeneration, is the full demonstration and proof of a single proposition addressed to the reason of man. This sublime proposition is, that God is love.”
A helpful examination of the efficacy of preaching judgment versus preaching grace (as Alexander Campbell advocated) in his own Norwegian Lutheran Church can be found in Ole Hallesby’s (1879 – 1961) “How Can the Word of God Be Preached so as to Result in Awakening and Conversion.” Learning how to speak the two words that God has spoken to us, Law and Gospel, is a challenge.
A third reason for the uneasiness about judgment is the mood of popular religion in our culture these days. It’s said that at one time the Bible verse everyone knew, Christian and non-Christian alike, was John 3:16. But these days the Bible verse that everyone seems to know and can quote from memory is Matthew 7:1 – “Judge not lest ye be judged.” The shape that popular religion has taken in our day has been described as “moral, therapeutic, deism” (Christian Smith and Melissa Lundquist Denton in “Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers”). It champions 5 big ideas –
- A God exists who created and orders the world and watches over human life on earth.
- God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
- The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
- God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.
- Good people go to heaven when they die.
Theologian David Wells notes that ideas like these lead to a religion of personal happiness that looks to God to solve our problems and get us stuff while not making any demands on us. He describes the God of these ideas as “weightless,” a God “without much cash value,” a God who is reticent to define how people should live, and powerless to enforce any moral expectation. But this God is impossible to square with the stories of Genesis 1-11, and the rest of the Bible for that matter. Two passages of Scripture, one from the Old Testament and the other from the New Testament, are representative of who the God of the Bible is, how the God of the Bible works, and what the God of the Bible wants.
From the Old Testament there’s Exodus 34:6-7 –
“The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.”
And from the New Testament there’s I John 1:5-2:2 –
“This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him is no darkness at all. If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not live according to the truth; but if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.
My little children, I am writing this to you so that you may not sin; but if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.”
As theologian Emil Brunner (1889–1966) explained, God is not just one thing. God’s character cannot be exhausted by reference to a single attribute. I John 4:8 is the Bible verse that says, “God is love,” but note that before I John says this, it says that God is light and discusses this attribute of God with reference to sin, separation, confession, forgiveness, and atonement. God is love, to be sure, but not just love.
Taking the Biblical witness about God seriously requires us to hold in tension ideas that pull us in opposite directions. Martin Luther, the Protestant Reformer, called this the “paradoxy” of Biblical faith. Rather than artificially and prematurely smoothing out the rough edges of Scripture’s polarities, Luther was committed instead to following “the contours of Scripture wherever they led.” This meant that when he encountered one of the “furious opposites” of Biblical truth – that God is three in one, that Christ is fully human and fully divine, that we are justified and sinful – that he was content to leave them “opposite” and “furious” (Gene Edward Veith, Jr.).
Hosea 11:1-9 bears witness to the “furious opposites” of God’s sternness and God’s tenderness –
“1 When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. 2 The more I called them, the more they went from me; they kept sacrificing to the Ba′als, and burning incense to idols. 3 Yet it was I who taught E′phraim to walk, I took them up in my arms; but they did not know that I healed them. 4 I led them with cords of compassion, with the bands of love, and I became to them as one who eases the yoke on their jaws, and I bent down to them and fed them.
5 They shall return to the land of Egypt, and Assyria shall be their king, because they have refused to return to me. 6 The sword shall rage against their cities, consume the bars of their gates, and devour them in their fortresses. 7 My people are bent on turning away from me; so they are appointed to the yoke, and none shall remove it.
8 How can I give you up, O E′phraim! How can I hand you over, O Israel! How can I make you like Admah! How can I treat you like Zeboi′im! My heart recoils within me, my compassion grows warm and tender. 9 I will not execute my fierce anger, I will not again destroy E′phraim; for I am God and not man, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come to destroy.”
Verses 1-4 bear witness to the tenderness God’s affections for His people. Verses 5-6 bear witness to the sternness of God’s judgment on the unfaithfulness of His people. And verses 8-9 bear witness to push and pull of these “furious opposites” in the heart of God. Whenever I see a cross, I think of these verses. I hear them as God’s inner dialogue during the outward offering of Himself in Christ on the cross. “The cross is the only place where the loving, forgiving merciful God is revealed,” explained Emil Brunner, “in such a way that we perceive that his holiness and his love are equally infinite.” And just as they are held together in the Biblical witness, so they must be held together in our faithful understanding of God’s being and doing.
This is hard to do. We like the tenderness of God’s affection. We don’t like the sternness of God’s judgement. And so there is enormous pressure for us to release the tension, to let go of the sternness in our embrace of the tenderness. But in so doing, it is the God who discloses Himself through the Biblical witness that gets misplaced. The “holy love” of God is the phrase that the Scottish Congregationalist Theologian P.T. Forsyth (1848–1921) coined to think and talk about what it was that he found in the Biblical witness about the God who is there. Because “holy” qualifies “love” in this phrase, David Wells has worried that it can create the impression that “love is basic and holiness is secondary.” He says that Christianity “uniquely combines love and holiness because in God’s character they are, and always have been, combined.” A better way to think and talk about it, David Wells suggests, would be – “God’s-holiness-and-God’s-love-in-their-union-with-each-other,” but quickly admits that such a “cumbersome” phrase would quickly become “annoying,” so he’s staying with “holy love” despite his reservations.
When Scripture speaks about the judgement of God it does not speak of it as a single event. Judgment is not just something that comes at the end of the world, or at end of our lives. God’s judgments occur throughout the entire story that the Bible tells, from the first chapters of Genesis to the last chapters of Revelation. Sometimes these acts of divine judgment bring deliverance and vindication. At other times they bring destruction and condemnation. And often, the very same act of divine judgment results in both salvation and separation depending on where your choices have situated you before God. St. Isaac of Syria (613 – 700), provocatively suggested that the glory of heaven and the fire of hell were actually the same thing, just seen from two different vantage points. The love of God in Christ that warms and purifies those who are receptive to it burns and torments those who reject it. The judgment that some dread, others welcome.
Jiří Moskala, a Professor of Old Testament Exegesis and the Theology Dean of the Seventh Day Adventist Seminary at Andrews University in Michigan, says that while “there is only one judgment of God,” that underneath its “umbrella” there are several different “phases.” I find six of them in the Biblical witness–
The God made known by the Biblical witness is a God who is both holy and loving. Judgment and mercy are both at work in God’s dealings with humanity. God speaks both Law and Gospel to us. This is why the Creed opens the affirmation of God the Son in the second article by naming His saving work and closes that same affirmation by naming His judging work. The “furious opposites” the Biblical witness are kept “opposite” and “furious” in the Church’s faith. As P.T. Forsyth insightfully out – “If we spoke less about God’s love and more about God’s holiness, more about God’s judgment, we should say much more when we did speak of God’s love.”
The Judgment of God in History
The Biblical witness tells us that throughout salvation history God has acted in judgment. The stories of Prehistory in Genesis 1 – 11 of the Garden, the Flood, the Tower each have an account of the judgment of God in them, but it doesn’t end there. The stories of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18), the Exodus (Exodus 8-14), the Golden Calf (Exodus 32), the Conquest of Canaan (Joshua), and the Exile (2 Kings 24-25) are all stories of God’s judgment in history. And it is not just Israel that God “chastens and hasten His will to make known.” The tour of nations and their transgressions at the beginning of Amos (1-3) bears witness to the fact that the God of the universe has a moral quarrel with everyone, everywhere, always. In the New Testament, it is the church, a people drawn “from every tribe, and tongue, and people, and nation” (Revelation 5:9) that God holds to moral and spiritual account. The opening vision of the Risen, Glorious Christ walking among the candlesticks of the seven churches of Asia Minor challenging and correcting them (chapter 1-3), is a picture of Peter’s observation that God’s judgment begins “with the household of God” (I Peter 4:17).
The Judgment of God in the lives of Individuals
It is not just nations that God brings to judgment in the course of human history in Scripture, but individuals as well. Among the most troubling stories that the Bible tells are those that describe God judging a person in the course of their life for a sin they have committed. In Leviticus 10 Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, the High Priest and brother of Moses, kindled a “strange fire” and it consumed them. In 2 Samuel 6 a man name Uzzah reached out to steady the Ark of the Covenant when it faltered in procession, and he was instantly struck dead. And in what appears to be a New Testament parallel to this “text of terror,” in Act 5, Ananias and Sapphira were struck dead in succession for “lying to the Holy Spirit.” Scripture urges caution in making an automatic and invariable connection between personal misfortune and the judgment of God (The whole premise of the book of Job, Jesus’ teaching about the Tower of Siloam and the Slaughter of Herod in Luke 13:1-9, and the healing of the man born blind in John 9:1-12), but clearly teaches the Spirit’s convicting work in our lives holding us to moral and spiritual accountability (John 16:12-15), the Word’s pruning work (John 15:1-11; Hebrews 4:12-13), and the disciplining hand of God as the proof of our status as children of God (Hebrews 12:3-11). I have a much better sense of how and when God does this “shadow” work of His love in my life than when God does it in yours. I think it’s best to tend my own garden in this and to stay out of yours.
The Judgment of God on the Cross of Christ
As Jesus made His way into Jerusalem for the last time, He told His disciples – “Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die” (John 12:31-33). One of the ways that Scriptures tells us about the significance of what God was doing in Christ on the cross is to talk about judgement. When we think and talk about Jesus Christ as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29), we are using the language and imagery of the sacrificial system of the Old Testament Tabernacle/Temple to understand the meaning of Christ’s death. Two of Christ’s “seven last words from the cross” focus our attention on this aspect of God’s saving work in Christ – “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” (Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34), and “It is finished” (John 19:30), and the Paul (2 Corinthians 5:21), Peter (I Peter 2:22-24), and John (I John 3:5) all make reference to it.
Taking Romans 3:26 as his departure point (“It was to demonstrate at the present time his own righteousness, so that he is righteous and he justifies the one who has the faith of Jesus”), George Eldon Ladd bore eloquent testimony to the importance of this way of thinking and talking about the cross of Christ –
“The death of Christ is both an act of righteousness and an act of love. As an act of righteousness, God in Christ treated sin as it deserved to be treated. “This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins” (Romans 3:25). Before Christ, God had not dealt with sin as it deserved to be treated, God seemed to be blinking at human sin. But in Christ’s death God displayed His righteousness. God dealt with sin as it deserved to be dealt with.
Here is mystery. What happened in the cross? I do not know; it extends beyond the bounds of human imagination. Bit in his death Jesus suffered my death; he chose my doom. We might even say that he went to hell in my stead. …A cross has become a seat of judgment. The believer is in one sense of the word already on the heavenward side of the eschatological judgment. This is why Paul can write, ‘There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1).”
It is a mistake to limit our understanding of God’s saving work of Christ on the cross to just this line of interpretation, but it is equally a mistake to eliminate it from the interpretative range that the New Testament offers us. As Richard Mouw explained in his article “Getting to the Crux of Calvary” in the June 2012 issue of “Christianity Today” –
“The Bible presents the work of the Cross as a many-faceted event, setting forth a variety of images for the Atonement: self-giving love, the forgiveness of enemies, payment of a debt, the ransom of captives, victory over the demonic principalities and powers, and so on. Theologian Scot McKnight gives us an excellent image for how to see this diversity of atonement images. In his fine book A Community Called Atonement: Living Theology, he says that together these images serve like a bag of golf clubs: Different clubs are needed for different situations. A skilled golfer will know when it is appropriate to use the driver or the wedge or the putter. …It is always important to think carefully about how we reach out to specific individuals and groups with the gospel. We should not assume that we have to present the whole theological picture all at once to unbelievers. People come to Christ for many reasons.”
No single way of understanding the meaning of the cross is enough to capture its full meaning all by itself.
The Judgment of God in the Decision of Faith
Everybody knows John 3:16, but what about John 3:17? The verses immediately following the Bible’s best-known verse are about judgment –
“God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him. He who believes in him is not condemned; he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For everyone who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. But he who does what is true comes to the light, that it may be clearly seen that his deeds have been wrought in God.”
In seminary I was told that every time the Word is preached we are brought to the threshold of a decision. They called it “verdict theology.” The Word of God is not neutral. As Bernard Ramm explained, Scripture always comes to us by way of a double structure, “the inner and the outer, the objective and the subjective, the hearing ear and the burning heart.” He said, “God speaks into the heart while the ear listens to the outward Word,” and this always brings us to the brink of a decision, the decision of faith. It was what the people asked Peter on the day of Pentecost after he had preached the Word and the Spirit had “cut them to the heart,” “What shall we do?” (Acts 2:37). And then decisions we make in response to the Word are momentous.
“We live in a real world with real choices to be made,” explains Stephen Travis, and “the way we chose affects our lives now and in the future.” Paul told the Colossians, by their faithful reception of the Word he preached they were “delivered from the dominion of darkness and transferred to the kingdom of God’s beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (1:13-14). And Paul told the Thessalonians that their faithful reception of the Word he preached “delivered them from the wrath to come” (I Thessalonians 1:10), and theme to which he returned at the end of his first letter to them when at the end of his explanation of the sequence of events at the Second Coming of Christ he concluded with the affirmation, “God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ” (I Thessalonians 5:9). This is not something that gets settled far off in the future, but here and now. As Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears my word and believes him who sent me, has eternal life; he does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life” (John 5:24).
The Judgement of God at the Moment of Death
Some Christians believe that when we die we are dead until the Second Coming when we are raised to face Final Judgment. But this has always been a minority position in the Church. Most Christians have taught and believed that between one’s death and the close of the age that Christians “go to be with the Lord” (Philippians 2:21-23; 2 Corinthians 5:6; Luke 23:43). The most suggestive passage in the Bible about this transition is Luke 16:19-31, the story Jesus told about Dives and Lazarus. At death these two individuals went to separate places, Dives to Hades (16:23) and Lazarus to ‘the bosom of Abraham” (16:22). This division requires a separation, and so Christians from across the spectrum – Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Protestant – with varying degrees of specificity, teach that there is a “particular” judgement of each individual when we die. This sorting will be based on the choices we make in this life, and on the direction those choices take our lives. C.S. Lewis’ explained it like this –
“There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.” All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. Those who knock it is opened.”
The Judgment of God at the Close of the Age
The Creed makes the final judgment an article of faith with the affirmation – “He shall come again, with glory, to judge both the quick and the dead; Whose kingdom shall have no end.” It’s said that Jesus talked about this judgment more than did anyone else in the Bible. He certainly talked about it in some of the Bible’s most memorable ways – in His parables of the Kingdom (Matthew 13) and the Olivet Discourse (Matthew 25). And if there is a verse in all of Scripture more sobering than Matthew 10:28 – “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” – then I don’t know what it might be. The final judgment is a frequent theme in the letters of Paul (Romans 1:18; 2:1-16; 14:4; 10-12; I Corinthians 3:10-17; 4:5; 2 Corinthians 5:1-10; I & II Thessalonians). And the book of Revelation climaxes with the New Testament’s fullest description of it (19-20).
The right question that needs to be asked is – If there is a “particular judgment” at death that involves a separation into different outcomes as was discussed in #5, then why is a Final Judgment necessary at all? Aren’t things settled before that? Technically, because of #4, it’s actually settled before we die. At death the orientation of our lives has been set. Judgement, particular or final, is simply the confirmation and outworking of the choices that we make in this life. So what is the Final Judgment about?
Many interpreters argue that there are two aspects to God’s Final Judgment. First, there is an indication in the Biblical witness of a judgment of the works of believers with a view to their rewards. The Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25:14-30) or Pounds (Luke 19:11–26) is said to describe this aspect of the Final Judgement. It is called the “Bema Judgement” based on the reference to “the judgment seat of Christ” in 2 Corinthians 5:10. The “bema” refers to the tribunal seat or platform from which judgments were pronounced in the ancient world (John 19:13; Acts 25:22-23).
The” Great White Throne” Judgment is described in Revelation 19-20 and gets referenced throughout the teachings of Jesus (Matthew 5:22; 30; 11:20-24; 13:24-30; 36-43; 13:47-50; 19:21-35). Revelation 1:7 suggests that the return of Christ at the close of the age “to judge the quick and the dead” is something of a public vindication of righteousness of God’s judgments and demonstration of the goodness of God’s character – “Behold, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, everyone who pierced him; and all tribes of the earth will wail on account of him.”
The Psalmist proclaimed that “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether” (19:9), but this is not obvious to us. We object to the way that God runs the universe, and we question where God is and what God is doing in world events and personal circumstances. The Psalms of lament would seem to be our permission to do this. The Penitential Psalms are God’s complaint about how we have not kept faith with God in our covenantal relationship with Him. The Psalms of Lament are our complaint about how God has seemingly failed at this too. It doesn’t always feel like God is keeping up His end of the covenantal relationship either.
I was told in my very first class in seminary that the most frequent theological question people would ask me as a pastor would be “why?” “Why is this happening?” “Where is God?” “How could a good and powerful and loving God let this happen?” “Why isn’t God doing something?” One of C.S. Lewis’ books is called “God in the Dock.” The “dock” is the box in a British courtroom in which the accused stands during a trial. The point that Lewis was making by that title was that we feel like God has some explaining to do. He wrote –
“The ancient man approached God (or even the gods) as the accused person approaches his judge. For the modern man, the roles are quite reversed. He is the judge: God is in the dock. He is quite a kindly judge; if God should have a reasonable defense for being the god who permits war, poverty, and disease, he is ready to listen to it. The trial may even end in God’s acquittal. But the important thing is that Man is on the bench and God is in the dock.”
There is an anonymous piece of writing called “The Long Silence” that I first came across in Christian College back in the mid 1970’s. It’s a story that has generated serious conversations about God and God’s judgments. Stephen Travis told it in his book 1974 “The Jesus Hope” (58-59), and John Stott told it in his 1986 book “The Cross of Christ” (336-337). John McNeil turned it into short play that can be found @ dramatix.org.nz/archive/Evangelism/Longsilence.html), and it has become a short film that can be seen @ www.youtube.com/watch?v=CIUBHszdqOU).
The Long Silence
At the end of time, billions of people were seated on a great plain before God’s throne. Most shrank back from the brilliant light before them. But some groups near the front talked heatedly, not cringing with shame, but with belligerence.
“Can God judge us? How can He know about suffering?” snapped a bold young brunette. She ripped open a sleeve to reveal a tattooed number from a Nazi concentration camp. “We endured terror … beatings … torture … death!”
In another group a young man lowered his collar. “What about this?” he demanded, showing an ugly rope burn. “Lynched, for no crime but being black!”
In another crowd there was a pregnant schoolgirl with sullen eyes: “Why should I suffer?” she murmured. “It wasn’t my fault.”
Far out across the plain were hundreds of such groups. Each had a complaint against God for the evil and suffering He had permitted in His world.
How lucky God was to live in Heaven, where all was sweetness and light! Where there was no weeping or fear, no hunger or hatred. What did God know of all that people have been forced to endure in this world? For God leads a pretty sheltered life, they said.
So each of these groups sent forth their leader, chosen because he had suffered the most. A Jew, a slave, a person from Hiroshima, a horribly deformed arthritic, an abused child. In the center of the vast plain, they consulted with each other. At last they were ready to present their case. It was rather clever.
Before God could be qualified to be their judge, He must endure what they had endured. Their decision was that God should be sentenced to live on earth as a man.
Let him be born a Jew. Let the legitimacy of his birth be doubted. Give him a work so difficult that even his family will think him out of his mind. Let him be betrayed by his closest friends. Let him face false charges, be tried by a prejudiced jury and convicted by a cowardly judge. Let him be tortured. At the last, let him see what it means to be terribly alone. Then let him die so there can be no doubt he died. Let there be a great host of witnesses to verify it.
As each leader announced his portion of the sentence, loud murmurs of approval went up from the throng of people assembled. When the last had finished pronouncing sentence, there was a long silence. No one uttered a word. No one moved.
For suddenly, all knew that God had already served His sentence.”
The Seventh Day Adventists have built this vindication of the righteousness of God’s judgment and the goodness of God’s character into their understanding of what happens in God’s judgement.
The Adventists teach that in the act of judging God the judge actually proves the justice of His judgments to those who are being judged. Because in the end there are not just sins that need to be satisfied, but wounds that need to be healed and questions that need to be answered, the Seventh Day Adventists teach that God patiently unfolds how His “judgments are true and righteous altogether” so that there is no question about “the fullness and fairness of His justice.” Everyone will finally see just how “earnestly and patiently” God cared for them throughout the whole course of their lives, and how their acceptance or rejection of God’s care was something freely chosen by them after repeated divine approaches. In the end, no one will be left wondering about how things turned out the way they did, or have room to question the goodness or love of God.
Hans LaRondelle, a Professor of Theology at Andrews University, summarizes the teaching of his church by writing –
“The judgment delineates clearly in every case the righteousness of the sentence passed. Thus God’s wisdom, justice, and goodness are placed beyond question forever. The character of God is vindicated before the universe. All creatures in heaven and on earth, the righteous and the wicked, cannot help bowing their knees at the name of Jesus and “confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:10, 11). This means the final coronation of the Son of God, exalting Him to the highest place, “above every name” (verse 9). All those around the throne of God respond with the doxology ” ‘Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise!'” (Revelation 5:12). All are fully satisfied that God’s ” ‘judgments are true and righteous'” (Revelation 19:2).
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