Wednesday, June 3, 2009

"For He Comes, He Comes to Judge the Earth": On the Hope (and Not the Terror) of God's Judgment

Lying in bed last night, my wife and I were talking about, of all things, eschatology. Katelin has a set amount of theological talk she can handle at any one time -- without a doubt the single most important barometer for our marital sanity -- but for various reasons the topic was on both our minds. Our specific subject was judgment: what it means, how many there are, what it is on the basis of, when it is, the consequences thereof. Interesting, and bewildering, conversation fodder.

In the moment it came to mind, out of my reading of the Psalms recently and in conjunction with having finished N.T. Wright's Justification a few days ago, how profoundly Christians' imaginative construal of, and consequent emotional feelings about, judgment contrast with that of Israel's in the Old Testament witness. Listen to the Psalms:
He rules the world in righteousness
and judges the peoples with equity. (9:8)

Arise, Lord, do not let mortals triumph;
let the nations be judged in your presence. (9:19)

Then people will say,
"Surely the righteous still are rewarded;
surely there is a God who judges the earth." (58:11)

It is God who judges:
He brings one down, he exalts another. (75:7)

From heaven you pronounced judgment,
and the land feared and was quiet--
when you, God, rose up to judge,
to save all the afflicted of the land. (76:8-9)

Rise up, O God, judge the earth,
for all the nations are your inheritance. (82:8)

Let the heavens rejoice, let the earth be glad;
let the sea resound, and all that is in it.
Let the fields be jubilant, and everything in them;
let all the trees of the forest sing for joy.
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. (96:11-13)
Not exactly frightening, much less bad news! And yet, by and large Christians seem to imagine "God judging" or "the final judgment" as a terrifying idea: the Excel spreadsheet of all our deeds, good and bad, laid out not only before God but before the rest of creation's watchful eyes, and hearing either "so, so very sinful -- but because you believe..." or "so, so very sinful" -- full stop. A great white throne with a great white King at the end of a great long line of head-bowed feet-shuffling individuals, with the repetitive pronouncement of "Sheep, Heaven" or "Goat, Hell." Then on to everlasting celestial bliss, or fiery suffering.

Clearly there are aspects of this vision taken from the Bible, and thus some parts of it contain truth. But we have much to learn from Israel's worship. Most especially in this case, that the fact of God's being a judge and of the promise of a coming time when God will judge the earth in fullness is, in truth, good news for the world and for God's people.

It is good news not because "I" get to go to heaven, nor because we will finally be released from the limitations of materiality. It is good news because the world is not right. Because the world needs fixing. Because there is profound evil and systemic oppression rampant in every corner of the earth. Because the wicked succeed in all they put their hand to. Because the powerful enslave the weak. Because the rich trample the poor. Because the developed rape the land. Because babies die and women are abused. Because war thrives. Because theft, deceit, manipulation, envy, hatred, divorce, idolatry, materialism, selfishness, pornography, abortion, slavery, addiction, and death continue unabated and unchecked.

In this world so broken and diseased we are insane not to long and plead for a righteous Judge to come and put the world aright. Even for a moment to forget that all these things do not belong and will one day be snuffed out before the holy presence of the God who is a consuming fire is to accept as normal what is in fact abnormal. This is not the way the world was meant or created to be: and so we wait with hope for the day when it is restored, even renewed, unto the heights of new life we see in the risen Lord and taste in the gift of the Spirit. We look forward not with terror -- hoping to have all our boxes checked or enough faith to get allotted a disembodied spot amongst the clouds -- but with gladness and anticipation and joy, knowing that there is One who does not overlook the wrongs we see every day, One who has promised to take care of it all, One who did it away with it in the dying and raising of one Man and will do away with it once and for all in the return of that same Man. One who has given us the power to enact his justice even here and now, if only as a foretaste. One whom we trust as faithful, true, and just.

One who comes, who comes to judge the earth. Let all creation rejoice!


[Image courtesy of the Web Gallery of Art.]


  1. Good for those who belong to the lord, sad for many as that day, and christ coming, is sobering to the joyful heart.

    Such is the bitter scroll (revelation 10)

  2. Thank you both, sirs.

    Josh Love, ever the sobering mystic.