Who is God?
The Judge: the God of the New Jerusalem
This is the last sermon in our series on “Who is God?” And to finish off the series, we turn to the last chapters of the Bible, to words that have inspired great hope – and great fear – in generations of people. The idea of God’s judgment isn’t a very congenial one these days. You won’t hear many sermons on it even in conservative churches. Things were different once upon a time.
In the early days of America, the predominant theological orientation of the church-going was what we call Calvinism, which emphasizes above all the sovereignty of God. A sovereign God has not only the right to judge his world, he must judge his world; he is the only one who can, and if he does not, it will fall even shorter of its design. And since we “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God,” we all have earned his rejection – which only he can repair. Wesleyan/Arminianism doesn’t deny the sovereignty of God, but sees God as working with his world, allowing a greater degree of response from his creation, and emphasizing the love of God more than the justice of God. In both cases, Calvinist and Wesleyan/Arminian, revival preaching emphasized the need of the individual human person to repent and claim the grace of God in Jesus Christ and be “saved.”
And what are we to be saved from? Well, saved from sin, certainly. But also from the effects of our sin, which are death and hell. In the here and now, surrendering yourself to Christ yields peace with God and the growth in grace we call holiness – which is nothing other than loving as God loves, as Wesley said. And in the world to come, surrendering yourself to Christ yields everlasting life in the kingdom of heaven.
Constant repetition of the call to be saved, however, bred a slightly changed sense in church folk of what being saved meant. In early modernist Christianity, being saved became simply about escaping judgment – sort of a “get out of hell free” card. And as modernism gathered steam, preachers began to talk about the grace of God in a merely therapeutic way, as if mending our manners or our morals – and the better adjustment, in the psych sense, that yielded - was what was important. Our alienation from God became seen as the cause of our sin, rather than the result of our sin – which is a heresy, but a natural one, given how salvation was being presented. People were urged to come to Jesus because they were lonely, hurt, maladjusted, and he would love them into harmony with righteousness. Sin was de-emphasized, and the grace of God that could forgive any sin, no matter how heinous, was offered on increasingly easy terms. “Could God forgive even me?” has become “why wouldn’t God overlook that?” And the idea that God has any standards at all is now routinely questioned. Richard Niebuhr described modernist religion as one in which “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a Kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.” And this is what is actually being taught in many churches today.
We have lost the whole idea of judgment. But judgment is part of the weft and warp of reality, a mere fact of our existence. We all are judged every day. When we act contrary to the law of our nature, we experience judgment naturally. If you walk off a cliff, you will go splat at the bottom, not because God punishes you for disobeying the law of gravity, but because gravity is part of the law of our nature and if you act contrary to it, you will experience it as judgment. If you eat all the stuff that’s bad for you, you will have poorer health; if you don’t learn good work habits, you will have a hard time holding a job; if you drive too fast, you may wreck your car. Now, we all realize that some people have health problems that are not related to diet, and some people lose their jobs for reasons other than their work habits, and some people wreck their cars for reasons other than their driving habits, but that doesn’t mean that when we do stupid stuff we have a right to complain when our actions lead us into problems – and yet we do.
In the UK last week, there was a news report about an 18-yr old young woman who went to a bar with her friends (which is perfectly legal over there) and took advantage of a 2-for-1 special to down ten Jagerbombs in a sitting. (For those of you who don’t know what a Jagerbomb is, it’s a mixed drink in which a shot of Jägermeister liqueur is dropped into a glass of Red Bull energy drink – giving you the depressing effects of alcohol and the stimulating effects of caffeine at the same time.)
Well, the next morning, as she was telling her Mum about her night out, her body finished metabolizing all that alcohol, but the caffeine of those ten Red Bulls was still in full force, and she went into cardiac arrest and collapsed on her bathroom floor. Her parents started CPR and called for an ambulance, and she was taken to a hospital, where they inserted an automatic defibrillator. Her heart stopped three times in all, she spent a week in the hospital, and when she had recovered, the press interviewed her, and she said, “They shouldn’t be allowed" to serve those things.
“They shouldn’t.” Neither she nor her parents said at any point that the young woman herself “shouldn’t have” downed ten Jagerbombs. But surely this is the natural conseqequence of overindulgence, wouldn’t you say? I mean, I’m glad she recovered and all, but if she were my daughter, I think I’d tell her something about exercising better judgment, so that you don’t experience the natural judgment that is visited upon foolish actions.
And when we talk about the supernatural judgment – the judgment of God – we need to realize that the damned are not made so by God, but by themselves. God does not judge us arbitrarily, as if we merely disobeyed a law decreed by his whim; rather, when we cling to our sins, we make ourselves into something increasingly unlovely, and we damage our ability to choose better. Eventually, like someone who develops on addiction, we become unable – apart from outside intervention – to choose anything other than the thing we hate but cannot live without.
The 14th Century monk, Uhtred of Boldon, said that at death, every person has a clara visio – a “clear vision” – of God. Some will experience that encounter with joy, others with despair; but only at that moment will one discover what one’s heart’s choice has been all along. A Church Council that discussed this was very disturbed by Uhtred’s doctrine. It ordered him to recant, saying that if this were true, then every person would be judged simply by what was in one’s heart, which would mean that the Church was unnecessary, and the sacraments of no effect.
Uhtred accepted the correction of the Church, but his idea has stuck around. Dante had used it before him in The Divine Comedy. C.S. Lewis later used it in his final Narnia book, The Last Battle. Uhtred and Dante and Lewis would say, the judgment only reveals what has already been determined. But how can one know the secrets of one’s own heart? Would not some of us be greatly oppressed and grow fearful by this doctrine? And might not some of us be unreasonably optimistic, ignoring the fact that Jesus said, “Not everyone who says to me, Lord, Lord, will enter the kingdom of heaven.”
The Church and the sacraments are given to us so that we may know what is in our heart, and know that God is there, and have hope that we may grow into the citizens of heaven that we desire to be. We are not left to our own devices, to make of ourselves what we will. God intends to rescue us from our folly, if he can. And he has sent to us his Son to take away our sin and heal our hearts; his is the outside interference that can break our chains, and only he can do it. He is our hope.
So, what are we to make of this scene of the great white throne and the judgment of the dead? In Old Testament religion, it was taught that God was a god of justice, who saw every act and knew every thought, and who would reward the right and punish the wrong. But, of course, some people escape such judgment; they “get away with it” (whatever “it” might be) and they die all fat and happy, heaped with honors, while others, who have done right all their lives, may die untimely and without redress of their wrongs. Furthermore, we all know that even good people do wrong sometimes – even intentionally so – while even bad people are capable of acts of love and goodness. And how do you sort out a person who does a good thing while in pursuit of a bad cause against a person who does a bad thing while in pursuit of a good cause?
If you sincerely believe in a God of justice, this is all a terrible problem. And God’s solution, which the prophets later revealed, is that he intends to recall to life every person who has ever lived, so that none will escape his justice. The books by which the dead are to be judged are simply the record, the memory, in the Mind of God, of everything everyone has done – even “every idle word” we have uttered, as Jesus said. And God intends to bring it all out. Every good deed will be rewarded and every bad deed punished; at least, every one will be praised or condemned, and it cannot be said that any will have escaped his notice. God is a god of justice, and justice will be done.
But before it’s all over, there is another book, the Book of Life, to be consulted, and in this book is recorded the name of every person who has entrusted one’s soul to Christ, and who is depending upon Christ to plead for him at the judgment. And after all the rewards and punishments have been handed out – when it is finally revealed just what you and I have made of ourselves – then those who make no plea on their own behalf, but trust in Christ to make it for them, will receive Christ's reward. For God is also a God of love, and “eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, what God hath prepared for them that love him.”
The Resurrection starts out merely as a means of demonstrating the justice of God, but then becomes the means of sharing the love of God with those who belong to Christ. And with the coming of the New Jerusalem, the creation will be fulfilled, and all things will be set right for ever after. This is something to be hoped for, not dreaded, something eagerly to be expected, prepared for, prayed for – indeed, you and I pray for it every week. Every time we pray, “thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” we are asking God to end the wrongness that prevails here, and set things right; and most of all, to straighten out our crooked hearts and make us right, not only that we may escape hell, but that we may enjoy heaven – that we may be made such as desire above all things the company of our Savior, who has bought us with a price, who has redeemed us by his blood, and who has promised us the kingdom of heaven.
And of those promises, we cannot do better than to quote this Last book of the Bible: “Write this, for these words are trustworthy and true.” Amen. Come, Lord, Jesus.