John Lennon's 1971 song "Imagine" encouraged a generation to imagine there is no heaven or hell, and to instead embrace "living for today." Over 40 years later, many evangelicals are following Lennon's advice.
It's commonly said that the gospel is not really about the afterlife. The gospel answers much bigger questions than a person's eternal state. It's about life today—not so much about tomorrow.
And slowly but surely, we have begun to let the promise of divine judgment that appears in the Apostles' Creed—"He will come again to judge the living and the dead"—slip by unnoticed. Many Christians talk a lot about justice and very little about judgment. Justice here and now is a popular subject. Judgment there and then? Not so much.
But justice and judgment are two sides of the same coin. You cannot have perfect justice without judgment. God cannot make things right without declaring certain things wrong. It's the judgment of God that leads to a perfectly just world. Try to take one without the other, and you lose the Good News.
Why do we feel pressure to downplay the notion of judgment in the first place? What bothers us about this section of the Apostles' Creed?
Maybe we're embarrassed by the idea of eternal hell, and we think that if we remove the obstacle and offense of eternal judgment, we will be able to make Christianity more palatable to a society that has no room for judgment in its understanding of God. Unfortunately, when we downplay or deny judgment, we lose one of the reasons to share our faith in the first place. Our desire to remove the obstacle actually removes the urgency.
Or maybe our neglecting the truth of divine judgment is a way of easing our conscience when we fail to evangelize. Rejecting the traditional Christian understanding of hell may help us deal emotionally with the fact that we have unsaved friends and family members who have died. We don't want to imagine that Grandpa is in hell. Downplaying judgment helps us to cope.
Or perhaps downplaying judgment keeps us from having to come face to face with our own evil. Most of us in the West have been shielded from the atrocities of humanity. If we had experienced Cambodia's killing fields, or Auschwitz, or Rwanda, we might be more concerned about justice. Once we admit that justice is necessary, we open the door for our own sins to be dealt with. Perhaps downplaying judgment is attractive because there is a part of us that would like to suppress the reality of injustice rather than admit it and our role in perpetuating it, thus indicting ourselves.
But what are we missing when we neglect that uncomfortable line of the Apostles' Creed? Expounding on it, the Heidelberg Catechism asks: "Why does this knowledge bring comfort?" Upon first glance, this seems like a strange question. "Jesus is coming back to judge," we say. So why take comfort?
I don't know what you think of when you hear the phrase "Judgment Day," but it sounds dreadful to me. My mind races to end-of-the-world movies that describe an apocalypse of epic proportions. And even when I remember that I need to let the Bible, not Hollywood, shape my understanding of judgment, I find many reasons to be terrified. Just think: God's holy and righteous judgment being poured out on all that is wrong with us and the world. Yikes!
But there is something comforting about God's judgment, something that the writers of the catechism recognize as integral to the gospel storyline. It's something we don't want to miss.
Judgment and Justice
Humans are united by a desire for justice. We realize that life isn't fair. And yet for some reason, we also think it should be fair. The Bible teaches that life isn't fair now, and yet Scripture still points to a day when wrongs will be righted and justice will be served. God will straighten things out once and for all.
That's why the idea of Christ's return in judgment brings comfort. To those who suffer at the hands of the unjust, it is comforting to hold on to the promise that one day all will be made right. This upside-down, crazy world will not go on in its current state forever. God will execute justice. The righteousness of God will be evident for all to see, and the knowledge of the Lord will flood the earth as the waters cover the sea.
But there is also a scary side to the idea of a world of perfect justice. Just think: If God were to return and purge the world of evil, what would happen to us? Would we be able to inhabit a perfect world? What happens when we realize that we are part of the problem, not just the ones longing for a solution?
When we imagine our place within the cosmic story of redemption, we come to realize we are more than passive victims of evil's consequences. We are evil insurrectionists, rebels against the good and loving authority of God our Creator. In The Gulag Archipelago, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who suffered at the hands of the Soviet Communists, put it well: "Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either—but right through every human heart." We thirst for justice, but once we consider the fairness of God, we quickly discover that Christ's return can only be good news if we have found mercy in God's sight.
Reasons for Rejoicing
Though the entire tide of our culture is turning toward a type of pluralism that would deny the reality of (and even the need for) divine justice, there are solid, biblical reasons for maintaining our belief in the traditional Christian understanding of final judgment:
Judgment is good news. Once we understand God's judgment as putting an end to all that is wrong with the world (war, famine, disease, and so on), then we can understand why even the apostle Paul viewed judgment as part of his gospel (Rom. 2:15-16).
The Old Testament also sees God's judgment as good news. Look at Psalm 96:13: "Let all creation rejoice before the Lord, for he comes, he comes to judge the earth. He will judge the world in righteousness and the peoples in his faithfulness."
Apparently the writers of our Bible had no problem celebrating judgment as good news. The idea of Jesus coming to judge the living and the dead was cause not only for comfort (as the Heidelberg Catechism states) but also for celebration.
Take away the notion of judgment, and you rob Christianity of any hope of satisfying our longing for justice, a longing built into us by our just and wise God. Without judgment, the gospel fails to deal with the problem of evil and the detrimental way that we humans treat each other—and, by extension, God. Once we take away judgment, we lose the gravity of our sin. Once we lose sight of our sinfulness, we short-circuit our experience of the powerful gratitude that comes from receiving grace.
Judgment demonstrates the holy love of God. God is not a bipolar deity, one side wrathful and angry, the other loving and merciful. Love is his essential attribute, but this love is not like the sentimental love we think of today. God's love is holy. It is jealous. The wrath of God is based in his love. The idea of biblical judgment not only assures us of future justice; it also gives us a clearer picture of the love of God.
When we do away with the notion of God as Judge, we are left with a one-dimensional God—a sappy, sanitized deity whom we can easily manage. He nods and winks at our behavior, much like a kind elderly man who is not seriously invested in our lives. But the evil of our world is much too serious for us to view God as a pandering papa.
The Bible's picture of God is much more satisfying. He is angry because he is love. He looks at the world and sees the trafficking of innocent children, the destructive use of drugs, the genocidal atrocities in Africa, the terrorist attacks that keep people in perpetual fear, and he—out of love for the creation that reflects him as Creator—is rightfully and gloriously angry.
The god who is truly scary is not the wrathful God of the Bible, but the god who closes his eyes to the evil of this world, shrugs his shoulders, and ignores it in the name of "love." What kind of love is this? A god who is never angered at sin and who lets evil go by unpunished is not worthy of worship. The problem isn't that the judgmentless god is too loving; it's that he is not loving enough.
Eternal judgment makes sense only if we understand that we live in a good world created by a loving God. When we sense the inherent goodness of the world God created, we are then able to see—with God's eyes—the destruction and heartache that sin has unleashed in the world. We see why creation is groaning for redemption and judgment—not the destroying fire of God, but the purging fire that will lay bare everything in this world that defaces it and leave room for God's presence to fill it once again.
Our sin angers God personally. God hates sin because of what it does to us. He hates sin because of what it does to his good creation. He rages against sin because of his great love for his children. But it's not enough to say that God will judge sin and restore creation for our benefit. This is a step in the right direction, but it leaves out a crucial component of sin and judgment. God is wrathful toward sin not only because of what it does to us, but also because of what it does to him. It dishonors his name.
When we depersonalize God's judgment, treating divine punishment as a dispassionate response to generalized wrongdoing, we wind up with a lopsided view of sin. Sin is not merely bad for us. All the sins we commit against one another are ultimately committed against God.
When Joseph is tempted by Potiphar's wife (Gen. 39:6-12), he refuses to go to bed with her because it would be a great sin against Potiphar and against God. Joseph realizes that sinning against his master—in effect stabbing him in the back—would also be plunging a dagger into the heart of God. He realizes that sin, even sin against other humans, is directed toward God.
Why must God deal with us personally in judgment? Because our sin angers him personally. It is directed to God and must be dealt with on that basis.
The concept of judgment is good for society. We should not keep judgment as part of our gospel presentation merely for pragmatic reasons. We believe in judgment first and foremost because we find the concept clearly taught in the Bible. Nevertheless, judgment is good news for society. In Life After Death: The Evidence, Dinesh D'Souza makes a powerful case for an afterlife—including the possibility of judgment—and he appeals to the idea that societies function better when there is the expectation of divine judgment after death.
Take a Communist regime like that of Ceausescu's Romania. My wife grew up in this environment, and she witnessed firsthand the injustices that took place there. Ceausescu was an avowed atheist. Because he had no fear of what might occur after death, he could live in luxury while systematically starving his people. Without any fear of standing before his Maker, Ceausescu was able to justify any selfish craving that he had.
We all sin and deserve to be judged. When we downplay or deny the notion of judgment, we don't have to come face to face with our own sins. That's why we are good at spotting evil in the world while remaining blind to the evil in our own hearts. The best way to hold onto the traditional belief in Christ as Judge is to humble ourselves by admitting our own sin and that we too deserve eternal condemnation.
When we stand before the God of the Bible, we are frightened by the perfect righteousness we see. Yet, we are also astounded by the grace of God shown to us in Jesus Christ. It's not divine judgment that is so surprising; it's divine favor!
Hope for Rebels
In his radio and television interviews, Larry King would often ask Christian preachers whether they believed Jesus was the only way to God; he also asked them about the murderer who trusts Christ: Does he get off the hook? Can a murderer enter heaven?
Indeed, the idea that a criminal could go free is astounding, but God has acted in a way that upholds justice and lavishes grace at the same time.
There is hope for rebels who desire justice and yet don't want to suffer. We see justice and mercy most clearly in the cross of Jesus Christ. The cross of Christ vindicates God's name. God is the Just One and the One who justifies. Christ's resurrection is the vindication of his innocence. God the Father overruled the verdicts of the earthly courts and declared his Son to be innocent. With Jesus Christ as our substitute we are vindicated—"declared innocent" because we are united to Christ the Righteous One.
God the Judge has promised to completely wipe out the evil of the world. And yet, he loves us. In his grace, he is the righteous judge and the gracious redeemer. His judgment against evil is poured out upon his only Son on the cross. Justice and mercy are not at war with one another. They meet at the cross. And we can find both judgment and mercy as good news once we recognize our guilt in light of God's holiness, and then bask in forgiveness in light of God's grace.
Trevin Wax is the author most recently of Counterfeit Gospels: Rediscovering the Good News in a World of False Hope (Moody), from which this article is adapted.
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