Here Comes The Judge
Genesis 18:16-33, Acts 10:34-43, John 3:16-21.
“From thence He shall come to judge the living & the dead.”
In the last chapter when speaking about the line from the Apostles’ Creed, “From thence He shall come to judge the quick and the dead!” I mentioned that the first half of the phrase, “He shall come again” had become almost unbelievable, because of the way this message had been cartooned by its most ardent supporters. But I also noted that the part of the line which says “He shall come to Judge the living & the dead” has become absolutely unacceptable in our culture.
Speaking about the Second Coming was complex enough. It continues to be an issue of great and trivial debates within God’s church. But if the creed had gone on to say:
- “From thence he shall come in great glory” or,
- “From thence he shall come to take his children home!” or,
- “He shall come to bring peace to mankind.”
then it would have been much more acceptable. However, when the ancient church wrote the creed they saw Him coming primarily as The Judge.
And that puts some minds into immediate turmoil. How can we reconcile the love of God with the judgment of God? The very creed that moments before had been speaking about the love of the Father & the gift of the Son now shuffles the kaleidoscope and we see the polar opposite – judgment.
It takes only a few seconds, however, to realize that the problem is not only in the creed, it is stamped large upon every page of the scriptures. The theme of God’s Love and the theme of God’s judgment are intertwined from start to finish in both Old and New Testaments.
It is in Jesus, however, that the problem comes to white heat. Never have we seen the love of God so clearly! Never were we so convinced that God’s nature and God’s name is Love! But from this same Jesus we also see judgment most clearly spelled out.
His parables of mercy usually conclude with
- someone being thrown into outer darkness, or
- wedding guests being ejected from the banquet, or
- debtors being cast into prison.
- He tells us that it were better for us that a millstone were hung about our necks and we were thrown into the sea, than to hurt a child.
And it is not only the teachings of Jesus that bear this out. Look at his actions.
- Hear him speak scathing words of judgment on the Pharisees, “You hypocrites, you whited sepulchers!”
- See him in the temple with a whip of cords, driving out the animals and upsetting tables and temperaments.
- See him cursing a fruitless fig tree.
How do we process the clear enunciation of the love of God and his coming as Judge? Let me lead us into some thoughts that may help.
1. It is Jesus who comes to Judge.
First of all it is Jesus himself who comes to judge the world. Paul tells us that, “God shall judge the world in righteousness by the one whom he has appointed – Jesus Christ!” (Acts 17:31)
Why would I consider this good news? If anyone could be trusted to be fair and compassionate it would be Jesus. He knows the strength of temptation, and he has demonstrated beyond a shadow of doubt that he passionately loves all of humanity.
In the Old Testament when Abraham is faced with the dilemma of God’s judgment he says, “Shall not the judge of all the earth do right?” There is no question in that question. God shall always do right. And with Judgment being placed in the hands of Jesus, I know that it could never be unfair.
2. ALL are to be judged
There is a second thought that comes to mind. All are to be judged. Both the quick and the dead. (I lived in Montreal for two years. In Montreal the traffic is so fast and the drivers so wild that there is a saying there: “There are only two kind of pedestrians in Montreal – the quick and the dead.”) Well obviously in the creed the word “quick” does not carry quite that meaning. The words mean “the living and dead”
Why would I consider this good news? Jesus shall come to judge all people, those alive now and those whom “we have loved long since and lost awhile.” He will come to judge the good, the bad and the ugly.
That means that the word “judge” need not be a negative judgment, even though that is primarily what we have taken the word to mean in our modern world. Judges at the Olympic Games are not there to condemn the participants. They are there to evaluate the competitors.
And so the creed is not saying “He shall come to condemn the living and the dead.” But instead it means, “He will come to evaluate everyone.” There will be those to whom God will say in that moment of Judgment, “Well done, good and faithful servant! Enter into the Joy of your Lord!”
So God’s judgment is not necessarily a condemning one. The judgment may be a rewarding event, where God announces the winners to the waiting universe who sit in the grandstands.
3. The Granting of Justice
There is a third thought that comes to mind that helps me understand the Judgment of God. The Old Testament meaning of the word judgment is “to grant justice.” That is what the judge of a court is there for. To make sure that justice is done to all parties – both the accused and the plaintiffs. The judges in our courts are there to ensure that the innocent are declared innocent, and that the guilty are declared guilty, and hopefully pass a sentence whereby some of the damage done can be compensated for. The creed may well be read this way; “He will come to grant justice to the living and the dead.”
Why do I consider this good news? Justice is a grave problem in our world. The early Christians were subject to terrible injustices. And to this very day there are people who are constantly misunderstood; people who are pre-judged with prejudice. But there is coming a day when such people will stand before one who will understand them and will not pre-judge.
There are entire nations and people groups who through tyranny have been subject to injustice all their lives. There is coming a day when that injustice will cease and all will be treated fairly, and more than fairly, for the first time in their lives. For many the judgment seat of Christ will be the place of healing of the many hurts caused by the wickedness of others. In Revelation 22:1-2, heaven is for the healing of the nations. So Jesus himself will come to grant justice to all who live and all who have died.
4. God’s Strange Work.
There is a fourth thing that comes to mind about the judgment of God. Judgment in the negative, that is, condemnation, is according to Martin Luther, “God’s strange work”. It is his reluctant activity! It is almost out of character for him to condemn. Condemnation is never his first choice or his first response. It is never His second choice or His third choice either.
Mercy, compassion, and love are his normal ways of responding to his creation, and condemnation is his last resort. When his people in the O.T. went astray, God cries, “How can I give you up?!” The Book of Hosea paints God as the Schizophrenic God – God in two minds. He must leave them to their fate, but He is reluctant to do so. The same is true in the N.T. as Jesus cries, “How oft would I have gathered you as a hen gathers her chicks, but you would not… and now your house is left to you desolate.”
St. Peter speaks to the cynics and scoffers of his day when they say, “Where is the promise of His coming?” Peter’s response is, “The Lord is not slow about his promises as some count slowness, but He is forbearing towards you, not willing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.”
Judgment that condemns is God’s reluctant work. He would do almost anything to help us bypass condemnation, even to the sacrificing of his own Son. For as the book of Jonah teaches: God relents quickly whenever we repent.
It may well be that the scriptures speak of the experience of judgment as taking place on one day, the Day of Judgment. It may be so distasteful to God that he gets it over in a day, whereas he loves redemption so much, so he prolongs the opportunity throughout the centuries.
5. But why must He condemn anyone?
But perhaps the greatest problem is the question, “Why must he condemn anyone at all?” I confess I do not know.
It is almost as though God had no choice. Of course we know that God must obey no law that stands over him commanding His compliance. All good law flows from the character of God alone. But the internal integrity of God may give him no choice. He will do justice because He is just.
But… He knows that the final examination is coming up. So what does He do?
He gives everybody a copy of the test questions.
He reveals to us the right answers.
He gives us every encouragement to prepare for the test.
He sends the Holy Spirit & the Church as tutors,
Why? Because He wants us each to pass the test.
Then why must there be a judgment, if he is so reluctant to condemn anyone?
It may go back to the very beginning of time. When God created man and woman he made them sovereign beings. He made them godlike. They were given the gift of freedom, the gift of self-determination. They were given the power to choose their own way. They were given enough freedom to rebel against God, but also enough freedom to rebel against the world, the flesh and the devil. But built into the very genetic code of creation was the law of harvest. Whatever we sow, that is what we get to reap! Sow good and good will rebound upon us like an echo. Sow evil and a whirlwind of evil will echo back upon us.
At the seat of judgment, when a person is condemned it is interesting to note that God does not inflict harm on that person. There are no gruesome torture chambers to punish a person for sinning. It is said of Judas, “He went to his own place.” The judgment of condemnation seems simply to be God saying, “Depart from me, I never knew you.” And those who wanted to avoid God all of their lives, will then be allowed to do so. And that will be hell!
What is hell? The word that Jesus uses is “Gehennah.” It is a short form of the words, “The Valley of the Sons of Hinnom.” It was the name of the garbage dump outside Jerusalem. It was the place where day by day the residents of Jerusalem brought their refuse.
On this city dump, the worms lived on the garbage; fires were always burning, continual clouds of black smoke hung over the dump. Gehenna was the destiny of things that had lost their value. And Hell is the sad destiny of those who were intended to shine like the sun, but find themselves discarded, simply discarded, having lost all value.
But let us make no mistake here. It is not the will of God than any should perish. God will face that day with great sorrow. For, after all that He has done, some will still want to have their own way. C. S. Lewis rightly observes that there are only two kinds of people. There are those who say to God, “Your will be done.” And then there are those to whom God says, “Your will be done. Have it your way!”
But that will bring no joy to God, only sadness.
Robert Frost wrote a poem that speaks of the central experience of his own life
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler,
Long I stood, and looked down one as far as I could
Then took the other, as just as fair
But having perhaps the better claim
because it was grassy and wanted wear….
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Some where ages and ages hence,
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
and I, I took the one less traveled by
And that has made all the difference.
You and I also stand every day at the dividing of the ways, and we too get a choice. I want to be among those who sing,
“Have your own way, Lord, have your own way,
You are the potter, I am the Clay…”
And to those who do, the Son of God, himself will say on that day,
“Come you blessed of my Father,
inherit the kingdom prepared for you
from the foundation of the world!”
Thanks be to God!