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John Lennon’s 1971 song “Imagine” encouraged a generation to imagine there is no heaven or hell, and to instead embrace “living for today.” Over 40 years later, many evangelicals are following Lennon’s advice.
It’s commonly said that the gospel is not really about the afterlife. The gospel answers much bigger questions than a person’s eternal state. It’s about life today—not so much about tomorrow.
And slowly but surely, we have begun to let the promise of divine judgment that appears in the Apostles’ Creed—”He will come again to judge the living and the dead”—slip by unnoticed. Many Christians talk a lot about justice and very little about judgment. Justice here and now is a popular subject. Judgment there and then? Not so much.
But justice and judgment are two sides of the same coin. You cannot have perfect justice without judgment. God cannot make things right without declaring certain things wrong. It’s the judgment of God that leads to a perfectly just world. Try to take one without the other, and you lose the Good News.
Why do we feel pressure to downplay the notion of judgment in the first place? What bothers us about this section of the Apostles’ Creed?
Maybe we’re embarrassed by the idea of eternal hell, and we think that if we remove the obstacle and offense of eternal judgment, we will be able to make Christianity more palatable to a society that has no room for judgment in its understanding of God. Or maybe our neglecting the truth of divine judgment is a way of easing our conscience when we fail to evangelize—after all, who wants to imagine a loved one is in hell? Or perhaps downplaying judgment keeps us from having to come face to face with our own evil.
But what are we missing when we neglect that uncomfortable line of the Apostles’ Creed? When we neglect it, we miss something comforting about God’s judgment, something integral to the gospel storyline—something we don’t want to miss.
Rejoicing in Judgment
Though the entire tide of our culture is turning toward a type of pluralism that would deny the reality of (and even the need for) divine justice, there are solid, biblical reasons for maintaining our belief in the traditional Christian understanding of final judgment:
Judgment is good news. Once we understand God’s judgment as putting an end to all that is wrong with the world (war, famine, disease, and so on), then we can understand why even the apostle Paul viewed judgment as part of his gospel (Rom. 2:15-16). Without judgment, the gospel fails to deal with the problem of evil and the detrimental way that we humans treat each other—and, by extension, God. Take away the notion of judgment, and you rob Christianity of any hope of satisfying our longing for justice, a longing built into us by our just and wise God.
Judgment demonstrates the holy love of God. God is not a bipolar deity, one side wrathful and angry, the other loving and merciful. Love is his essential attribute, but this love is not like the sentimental love we think of today. God’s love is holy. It is jealous. The wrath of God is based in his love. He is angry because he is love. He looks at the world and sees the trafficking of innocent children, the destructive use of drugs, the genocidal atrocities in Africa, the terrorist attacks that keep people in perpetual fear, and he—out of love for the creation that reflects him as Creator—is rightfully and gloriously angry. The idea of biblical judgment not only assures us of future justice; it also gives us a clearer picture of the love of God.
Our sin angers God personally. God hates sin because of what it does to us. He hates sin because of what it does to his good creation. He rages against sin because of his great love for his children. But it’s not enough to say that God will judge sin and restore creation for our benefit. This is a step in the right direction, but it leaves out a crucial component of sin and judgment. God is wrathful toward sin not only because of what it does to us, but also because of what it does to him. It dishonors his name.
The concept of judgment is good for society. We should not keep judgment as part of our gospel presentation merely for pragmatic reasons. We believe in judgment first and foremost because we find the concept clearly taught in the Bible. Nevertheless, judgment is good news for society. In Life After Death: The Evidence, Dinesh D’Souza makes a powerful case for an afterlife—including the possibility of judgment—and he appeals to the idea that societies function better when there is the expectation of divine judgment after death.
Take a Communist regime like that of Ceausescu’s Romania. My wife grew up in this environment, and she witnessed firsthand the injustices that took place there. Ceausescu was an avowed atheist. Because he had no fear of what might occur after death, he could live in luxury while systematically starving his people. Without any fear of standing before his Maker, Ceausescu was able to justify any selfish craving that he had.
We all sin and deserve to be judged. When we downplay or deny the notion of judgment, we don’t have to come face to face with our own sins. That’s why we are good at spotting evil in the world while remaining blind to the evil in our own hearts. The best way to hold onto the traditional belief in Christ as Judge is to humble ourselves by admitting our own sin and that we too deserve eternal condemnation.
When we stand before the God of the Bible, we are frightened by the perfect righteousness we see. Yet, we are also astounded by the grace of God shown to us in Jesus Christ. It’s not divine judgment that is so surprising; it’s divine favor!
Hope for Rebels
In his radio and television interviews, Larry King would often ask Christian preachers whether they believed Jesus was the only way to God; he also asked them about the murderer who trusts Christ: Does he get off the hook? Can a murderer enter heaven?
Indeed, the idea that a criminal could go free is astounding, but God has acted in a way that upholds justice and lavishes grace at the same time.
There is hope for rebels who desire justice and yet don’t want to suffer. We see justice and mercy most clearly in the cross of Jesus Christ. The cross of Christ vindicates God’s name. God is the Just One and the One who justifies. Christ’s resurrection is the vindication of his innocence. God the Father overruled the verdicts of the earthly courts and declared his Son to be innocent. With Jesus Christ as our substitute we are vindicated—”declared innocent” because we are united to Christ the Righteous One.
God the Judge has promised to completely wipe out the evil of the world. And yet, he loves us. In his grace, he is the righteous judge and the gracious redeemer. His judgment against evil is poured out upon his only Son on the cross. Justice and mercy are not at war with one another. They meet at the cross. And we can find both judgment and mercy as good news once we recognize our guilt in light of God’s holiness, and then bask in forgiveness in light of God’s grace.
This post is adapted from Trevin’s article, “Rejoicing in the Wrath: Why We Look Forward to the Judgment Day,” which first appeared in Christianity Today, July/August 2012.