One of the greatest stumbling blocks to Christianity, especially among those who are drawn to the idea of a loving, compassionate God, is the Bible’s teaching about judgment. As the Apostles’ Creed says, at the end of history Jesus “will come to judge the living and the dead.”
Jesus, who was full of compassion and gave his life because God so loved the world, spoke more about judgment than he did most other subjects. He could not have been more clear that an excluding verdict awaits those who, in pride and self-sufficiency, exclude themselves by dismissing his generous offer of salvation by grace through faith (Matthew 5:22; John 3:16-18).
And yet, with an even greater intensity, the same Jesus got sideways with pious religious people who wished judgment on others (Luke 9:51-56). Though divine justice demands payment for sin, he desires that all would turn to him and find shelter from the wrath to come. He takes no pleasure in the death of anyone, including “the wicked” (Ezekiel 18:23).
Jesus, at whose cross “heaven’s peace and perfect justice kissed a guilty world in love,” perfectly balanced judgment with compassion.
Disorienting Truth About Judgment
Well-intentioned but deeply misguided religious folk confuse Jesus’s teaching when they express enthusiasm about God’s judgment upon others, thus leaving others hesitant to discuss this subject in any context at all. When believers do unChristian things “in the name of Christ”—whether it be Jesus’s disciples seeking revenge on Samaritans, Peter cutting off the ear of one of Jesus’s betrayers, fundamentalist ministers faulting “the homosexuals” for the September 11 terrorist attacks, or a fringe group falsely identifying as Christian parading around the country with “God hates you” signs—such behavior make it difficult for believers to raise the subject of judgment at all.
Nobody wants to be judged. In fact, most of us are terrified of being judged. And most of us are reluctant, as we should be, to judge others. We want to be known for showing compassion and understanding. We want to show nothing but grace and love to everyone.
So we get stuck sometimes with how, exactly, we are supposed to live with that line in the Apostles’ Creed that says Christ will come to judge the living and the dead. That he will separate sheep from goats and wheat from weeds. That there is an everlasting torment, a lake of fire, weeping and gnashing of teeth, and (gulp) a great many will spend eternity there.
The lover in us asks, why can’t everyone escape this horror?
The idea of heaven is easy to embrace. Even at a nonreligious funeral, mourners comfort each other with words such as, “She is in a better place now.” Conversely, for many the scriptural doctrine of damnation has become damnable. Charles Darwin once put to words what many of us naturally feel:
“I can indeed hardly see how anyone ought to wish Christianity to be true; for if so the plain language of the [biblical] text seems to show that the men who do not believe, and this would include my father, brother, and almost all my best friends, will be everlastingly punished. And this is a damnable doctrine.”
Yet we must wrestle with Jesus’s many words emphasizing that, indeed, it is true. In moments of clarity, I am reminded of how necessary—even compassionate—this doctrine of judgment can be for us in the here and now.
Compassionate Truth About Judgment
When the Bible’s teaching about judgment is dismissed, all victims of injustice, violence, and oppression are then put at risk. If God is a God of love without the accountability of justice, then vulnerable people become more vulnerable, and bullies are encouraged to continue bullying.
If there is no ultimate accounting for evil, what hope is there for Holocaust victims regarding Hitler? What do we say to little girls who have been sold into the sex trade by greedy, oppressive scoundrels? What do we say to the boy who is abused by his tyrannical father, or the unassuming elderly widow who is robbed at gunpoint?