Andy Angel is the vicar of St Andrew’s Church in Burgess Hill, UK and lectured in Anglican theological colleges for many years. He is the author of Playing with Dragons: Living with Suffering and God (Cascade: 2014) and more recently The Jesus You Really Didn’t Know: Rediscovering the Teaching Ministry of Jesus (Cascade: 2019), in which he reflects on our antipathy as Christians to the judgment of God and on the grace and gentleness of God in preparing us for that day.
Guest blogs are invited to stimulate thought and comment. They do not necessarily reflect the view of the Centre for the Study of Bible and Violence.
I remember (now Bishop) Ed Condry asking us, as a room full of curates, how many of us had preached on the judgment of God in the last year or so. Under a fifth of the people in the room put their hands up. We were all priests. We all preached regularly. We were all preaching in Advent when Anglicans are supposed to take a month to think about life in the light of the fact that Christ will come again to judge the living and the dead. He asked us to think about why we didn’t preach on it given it is a pretty central teaching in the Christian faith.
There are probably many reasons why we and many others did not and do not preach and teach on the judgment of God as often as we should. Some are concerned about the violence of the texts on judgment, particularly those which speak of hell as a place of eternal fire. Many contemporary western churches seem to have a different agenda – that of self-worth, self fulfilment and self-realization. For many this seems to be what the kingdom of God means – that God will heal and restore me, God will put my life back together. Not only does the idea of judgment not appeal, it feels like it is the enemy. Judgment destroys my sense of self-worth. I don’t need anyone to make me feel any worse about myself. God surely would not do that if God loves me.
The idea of God’s judgment is derided in language like “I simply do not believe in a God who acts as a cosmic policeman.” The violent imagery associated with the coming of Jesus is played down as we cannot reconcile it with the love that we feel God must have for us. The notion that God might be angry or violent feels like an embarrassment to many when engaging in apologetics or evangelism. How could a loving God cast anybody into a hell “where their worm never dies and the fire is never quenched” (Mark 9:48)? Love and judgment simply do not mix in much contemporary spirituality.
This strikes me as strange. In the last few decades, it seems to me that accountability has had something of a come-back in our wider culture. TV shows in which people are judged on merit, from “Master Chef” to “The Apprentice” have become incredibly popular. TV audiences readily text or phone in to take part in the judgment process in other shows. We even have TV shows where the presenter or audience are invited to judge the moral conduct of others – and the ratings keep them on air. We have dropped ideas of national sovereignty where we believe we have the right to step into the affairs of other nations where we judge the actions of their ruling elites to be sufficiently immoral to justify this. The list could go on. We have democratized judgment and people seem to enjoy being given the opportunity to judge.
Perhaps it is not so strange. The opportunity to judge is, of course, the opportunity to judge others – not the opportunity to be judged ourselves. We rightly yearn for accountability where people harm others or destroy their livelihoods or lives. We want those who commit political and social atrocities to be brought to justice. When the evil affects or harms us, it is natural to want justice and the yearning for action to be taken to put the situation right becomes personal and persists until we see such action taken. Witness the persistence of the families of those involved in the Hillsborough disaster and now the Grenfell Tower tragedy. However, judgment becomes less attractive and begins to feel less comfortable when we are the ones who stand to be judged.
It is a pity that this (and probably other factors) prevents us from reaching deeper into the texts of the New Testament to explore the judgment of God. We reach all too quickly for doctrines of grace that exonerate us without really exploring whether they check out. For many people Romans seems to end somewhere in chapter three or four where God forgives us by faith – or perhaps in chapter eight where nothing can separate us from the love of God. Few of us get to chapter eleven where we are warned to note the kindness and severity of God and encouraged to stay within God’s kindness “otherwise you too will be cut off” (Rom 11:22). Fewer get to chapter fourteen where we are told that we will all stand before the judgment seat of God and so we had better make sure our behavior is in order (Rom 14:10). But Romans (the book most people reach for to teach the gospel of grace) does not teach that God offers the kind of cheap grace that does not hold people properly accountable for their actions. Rather, Romans teaches that the grace of God forgives and then changes and transforms people. We change when filled with the Holy Spirit and so live righteous rather than sinful lives.
Jesus taught exactly the same thing. He called people to repentance and then taught people how to live righteously in the light of the fact that he will come again to judge us all. As he put it in one of his most challenging sayings: “Not everyone who says to me ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter into the kingdom of heaven but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. Many will say to me on that day ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many works of power in your name?’ And then I will swear to you, ‘I never knew you; depart from me you workers of lawlessness’” (Matt 7:21-23).
Throughout the four gospels, Jesus teaches that there will be a reckoning – that there will be a judgment. He will come again in glory as Son of Man and judge. Some will enter life eternal and some will be cast into outer darkness. But the Gehenna of fire, with its weeping and gnashing of teeth are not where Jesus invites us or wants us.
Jesus calls us through forgiveness into a relationship in which he transforms our behavior. He teaches us how to live. He does so as a kind and gentle teacher who understands where we are coming from and has the patience to help us through all our stumbling. He invites us to live as a community of humble learners who help each other where we have the experience to do so – and who do not judge as we are only too aware of our own failings. He invites us into a life where we acknowledge that he has every right to judge us, where we understand that he is right and that he loves us so much that he does not simply forgive us and leave us hanging around with a “get out of judgment free” card waiting the day of his coming with all our mess and chaos happening around and within us. He forgives us and invites us into learning to live a new way. He teaches us how to live this way and gives his Spirit to give us the power and ability to change. God’s judgment is good because when the Spirit convicts us of sin, the Spirit gives us the wherewithal to change. God’s judgment leads to transformation.
Surely this is a good thing. Our culture has generally rejected the idea that all must have prizes. The trend towards ever-increasing accountability shows few signs of stopping. The democratization of judgment in popular culture seems to find favour with the majority. There may well be tensions between these trends and the call for inclusion (as surely judgment often excludes) but the tensions have not moved people away from wanting to hold others accountable or judge their performance. The gospel as Paul and Jesus teach it, the gospel which has the judgment of God at the heart of it, has something important to contribute to our culture: an assurance of judgment which will bring the justice we long for, an opportunity for forgiveness and reconciliation which can include anyone who is serious about these things, leading to a learning a way of life which prevents harming others and ourselves in the first place. Perhaps the judgment of God is worth revisiting.