How much time to you spend thinking about the judgment of God?
It’s a hard subject, isn’t it? We would much rather focus on the tender portions of God’s character—love, mercy, tolerance, and acceptance. In fact, I’m not sure how much attention people are willing to give anymore to God’s all-encompassing judgment. My hunch is that we have spent so much time dealing with superficially and stridently judgmental people (and there are plenty of those) that we have gradually dismissed the righteous and perfect judgment of God from our theological discourse.
Yesterday, however, as I listened to the words of the 82nd Psalm being read as part of the morning worship service, I was suddenly and powerfully reminded of the unsettling fact that the judgment of God is a biblical reality that cannot be ignored or trivialized.
Psalm 82 begins in this way: God is seated in the divine council—a poetic image in which heaven is pictured as a divine courtroom where God is the irrefutable judge.
Then the Psalmist offers a one-sentence lament: “How long, O God, will you judge unjustly and show partiality to the wicked?” This, of course, is an eloquent way of saying “Hey God, why do the wicked people seem to be doing so well here on earth?! Why not place a heaping helping of your wrath upon those people?!”
There is an appealing honesty about that line of questioning, isn’t there? Which one of us, after all, has not secretly (or not so secretly) wished the judgment of God upon Osama Bin Laden or some other individual whom we perceive to be wicked?
But the Psalmist quickly moves from his sharp lament to a heartfelt beckoning of God’s judgment upon the earth: “Arise, O God,” the Psalmist says, “arise and judge the earth. Give justice to the weak and the orphan. Maintain the right of the afflicted. Rescue the weak and the needy. Arise, O God, and judge the earth.”
Notice that the kind of judgment that the Psalmist envisions in this moment of Scripture is not a judgment concerning our eternal destiny. It is not a judgment, in other words, concerning heaven and hell. Rather, the kind of judgment for which the Psalmist prays in this Scripture is a present and earthly judgment, a judgment that makes right what seems to have gone horribly wrong. It is a judgment that produces justice for the disenfranchised and the marginalized. “Arise, O God, and judge the earth.”
In the New Testament, Jesus also speaks of the judgment of God. He speaks of it as an occasion in which all the nations of the world are gathered before the throne of the returning king, the exalted Christ. In that judgment, Christ will separate the sheep from the goats, the redeemed saints from the unrepentant sinners. And what is the criterion for judgment, according to the New Testament? Simply this: Did you feed the hungry? Did you clothe the naked? Did you care for the sick and the prisoner? In other words, did you see my face (the face of Jesus) in the least and the lost? Did you live out your salvation in such a way that your life served to incarnate my love and my ministry in the world?
Both testaments, then, old and new, speak powerfully about the reality and comprehensiveness of God’s perfect and righteous judgment. But what are we to make of this biblical subject matter as disciples of Jesus Christ endeavoring to be faithful in the year 2010? How are we to understand the judgment of God?
It is true, after all, that, over the years, people have sometimes attempted to say far too much about God’s judgment, proclaiming far more than God has revealed and venturing into theological terrain that is not theirs to enter. Some have even gone so far as to speculate concerning the specific population of the eternal kingdom (as though we have sufficient wisdom to discern with great specificity who is “in” and who is “out”).
And yet, although there is great danger in saying too MUCH about God’s judgment, there is also great danger in saying too LITTLE about it.
When we speak of God’s judgment, we are speaking of a God who cares about all that transpires in the unfolding of human history; a God who is always laboring to bring about justice where there is injustice; a God who is redemptively at work to rectify everything that has been distorted by human sin.
When we speak of God’s judgment, we are speaking of a perfect and holy God who has the capacity to be both heartbroken and angered by human sin and disobedience. That particular fact (brightly illuminated by Psalm 82) might just inspire us to resist the temptation to make God into nothing more than a heavenly grandpa who coddles us and winks at our disobedience. “No,” says the Psalmist, “do not reduce God in that manner. Do not make God into something smaller than what God really is—a token deity that fits more conveniently in your preconceived worldview.” The Psalmist reminds us that God is nothing less than a perfectly righteous and holy judge who dares to love humankind enough to hold us accountable for the things we do and the things we don’t do.
When we speak of God’s judgment, we are speaking of a God whose mind-boggling righteousness places substantial demands upon the lives of those who wish to love and worship this God. Which is to say, the righteous judgment of God, if we are thinking about it in the right way, inspires us to bring our lives into alignment with what that righteous judgment requires.
Perhaps most of all, when we speak of God’s judgment, we remind ourselves of the urgency of our relationship with Jesus Christ, whom the New Testament describes as the One who prepares us for judgment. He prepares us by graciously and mysteriously imparting to us HIS righteousness, thereby making it possible for God to look upon us in judgment and see first, not the ugliness of our sin, but the righteousness of the Son.
Such is the wonderfully illogical salvation that God has made possible in Jesus Christ—a salvation brought to us by a Savior who stands with us and for us in judgment and whose righteousness graciously becomes OUR righteousness.
Today, I am praying the prayer the Psalmist prays in the 82nd Psalm: “Arise, O God, and judge the earth.” In other words, make things right. Make this world into the world that you created it to be. Bring the purifying fire of your righteous judgment.
But to the Psalmist’s prayer, I add this petition: “God, help me—and help all your people—to stand upon the secure ground of Jesus Christ where the purifying fire has already burned.”