In the background of the biblical narrative lies the threatening clouds of judgement. There is hardly a book in the Bible that does not touch on this great theme at some point. From beginning to end, the storm clouds of judgement roll through the pages of scripture until they dissipate forever in the glimpse of the New Jerusalem in the last chapters.
Even the crucifixion of Jesus when rightly understood is a legal transaction betwen the Son and the Father, in which the former carries the judicial penalty of sin on behalf of repentant sinners. The fact that judgement is inextricably entwined with the mission of the Lord Jesus Christ himself, is used by the apostles as an urgent warning that the wrath of God must be taken very seriously. To trample upon the blood of the Messiah leaves one with no forgiveness of sins, even if he performs mountains of good works.
Our first encounter of judgement is found in the opening of Genesis. Already, we are to understand that a fallen angel, Satan, had been cast out of heaven and had grown maximally evil and malignant. We infer that a terrible rebellion had taken place and an equally terrible judgment had been meted out to the disobedient angels.
Judgement quickly appears in the life of humankind. No sooner are they created, God warns the man and the woman that disobedience will lead to death. This is tragically demonstrated when our first parents are expelled from the garden of Eden and the gate is guarded by a fiercesome power that prevents re-admission.
Later, as the human race expands and grows exceedingly sinful God finally sends a promised judgement in the form of a global catastrophe. The Flood of Noah, which nowadays is maligned and scoffed at by sophisticated moderns, is used by the Lord Jesus as a template for what we may expect in the future. Thus it is that the story of the human race is bookended with judgement.
Notably, God did not reserve these judgements only for sinful unbelievers. In the Pentateuch, God outlined progressively more serious judgements (or “curses”) that would befall Israel should it disobey his law. Regrettably, the Old Testament unflinchingly reveals a church that perpetually falls into sin. Over and over again, Israel turned from God to idols; and their worship became trival and hollow.
As a result, the prophets of God spent a lot of their time either trying to impress upon their hearers the importance of obedience, or trying to call their nation back to God. They sought to reform, correct, and warn. For this reason many of the prophets came to a violent end. They said things that their rebellious countrymen simply did not want to hear. And when people habitually sin, enjoy sin, and make sin a core aspect of their personality and life, it tends to produce explosive results when such men are reminded of ultimate accountability before a holy God.
Despite the poisonous spiritual toxins of the peddlers of the prosperity gospel, the threat of judgement does not end with the coming of Christ. Although Christ certainly came to save men’s lives and not to condemn, yet for all of his kindly and gracious entreaties, Christ the Incarnation of God is still presented by scripture as the faithful witness who proclaims frequently the theme of judgement and of hell.
Repeatedly the Lord calls people to obedience. His parables draw sharp and urgent lines across the religious landscape. Jesus leaves us with vivid images of unprepared men and women who are surprised by the sudden return of the Master or the coming of the Bridegroom. Or, if we look to another of Christ’s signature images, he gives to us the graphic picture of the closed door with men and women locked on the wrong side of it, knocking in vain to be admitted.
At the end of the Bible, in the Revelation, the glorified Christ sends seven churches some letters from heaven. Seldom in scripture do we receive such a sense of the intimate closeness between heaven and earth; between Lord and church than here. The boundary line between time and eternity seems to blur and bend on these pages.
Through the pen of St. John, the Lord Jesus who once walked on earth speaks to his foundation churches who are buffeted by the world, persecution, heresies, and “faith decay”. The letters reveal a Christ who is fully aware of the struggles of his church in an ungodly age, the struggles we share still today. The phrase “I know” appears in all of them. Christ knows his people’s works, where they live, and their inner disposition. He knows because he is always observing his church.
Yet, these letters warn the five of the seven churches of imminent judgement upon them. Jesus tells them that due to their present spiritual condition they have strayed from his expectations, and if they do not immediately amend their ways, their lampstand (or candlestick) will be taken away, presumably extinguished.
Regardless, then, of systems and schemes of theology that seek to downplay these warnings and make Christianity all about blessing and feeling good, the New Testament’s consistent backdrop is the urgent need to escape from coming judgement.
Moreover, if scripture illumines anything for us, it is that the judgements of God are not to be taken lightly. From Sodom to Babylon; from Moab to Edom, when God’s hammer fell, the devestation was indescribable. Even the Old Testament church was not spared God’s wrath.
The judgements that fell upon Israel were often described by writers (like Josephus, and also unbelieving gentile writers like Tacitus) as being apocalyptic in nature. They were accompanied with strange signs and wonders in the heavens and on earth. For example, the Roman historian Tacitus reports that prior to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD, people spoke of a rushing wind leaving the temple which Tacitus interpreted as “the gods” exiting the temple. Josephus records similar cosmic phenomena.
Each time judgement fell on Israel, entire generations were extinguished and only a small remnant was left. After years of warning, God’s judgement on the disobedient northern kingdom of Israel permanently destroyed its nationhood and extinguished its tribes. They were taken captive to the gentile nations, after which their identity was absorbed by the “peoples of the land” around them.
Meanwhile, the southern kingdom headed by the chosen tribe of Judah, went into exile and thereafter fell into various forms of subjection by gentile powers. Finally, in 70 AD Jerusalem itself faced a supreme judgement for their rejection of the Messiah.
Wracked by nationalist rebellion, three Jewish factions siezed control of Jerusalem. Rent by divisions, they coordinated their defence poorly and consequently the city was sacked by Roman armies. Judgement fell during Passover when the city was choked with maximum numbers of observant Jews. Josephus estimates that more than a million people were slain by the Romans. The elderly were killed. Tens of thousands enslaved, many of whom perished in the arenas for the amusement of their Roman captors. The destruction of the temple in Jerusalem sent shockwaves throughout the remaining Jews, and contributed to a psychology of lamentation and despairing traditions of abandonment.
The Jewish people themselves dispersed like seeds on the wind throughout the gentile world. To such an extent did this diaspora dissolve nationhood that as recently as the mid-1800’s only about 10,000 Jewish families resided in Jerusalem.
As terrible and awful this judgement upon Jerusalem might have been, the New Testament warns of an even worse judgement than this. It speaks of a global judgement on all people’s and nations that will be so terrible and dreadful that it will herald the end of the world. This will be the final judgement upon every human being who has ever lived, with none other than God himself rendering a final verdict from which there is no appeal. It is an inescapable appointment for mankind – for both the dead and the living – since God has the power to raise the dead. The legions of self-satisfied sinners, cruel tyrants, evil slaveholders, urban celebrities, and hardened atheists who think by dying they have escaped accountability will discover that death is not the fortress they hoped it would be.
On that day, which the prophet Zechariah describes as a long day, the human race will be assembled and the whole history of the world will be read out and judged. Every secret will be made public; every wrong will be righted. On that day “stripes” (to use Jesus’ language) will be justly apportioned. Every wicked blow will be paid back thousand-fold. Every torturer will himself be tortured. Evil leaders will be subjugated in hell suffering the misery they meted out to others.
Men will be assigned places in hell or gifted places in heaven. Every good Christian deed will receive its eternal treasure. Every evil deed will receive its eternal censure. Men will be placed on pedestals of shame and glory, and there will be order.
God will be magnified over his creation. And for one time only before men are sent to their everlasting destinations, the whole human race will kneel before him – just as the human race should have from the beginning of time – and will acknowledge “that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father”.
Yet, for all of this unmissable emphasis on judgement in God’s word, it is astonishing how absent it is from modern preaching, modern hymnody, and the concerns of modern theological publications. One may fairly see in this a sign of the times we live in, and the worrying direction in which many self-proclaimed Christians and churches are headed. Here we behold a form of religiosity but without power, which is to say, without obedience.
The lack of emphasis on biblical doctrines of judgement help nobody. Whereas the regular preaching of judgement tends to create believers who:
- Have a focus on self-purification (for all who have hope, purify themselves)
- Have a strong sense of spiritual urgency
- Are innoculated against downgraded versions of the faith
- Are missional and evangelical
- Provides a concrete reality during spiritual crises or struggles
I have had personal experience of the last item on this list. When I was at college many years ago, I had a crisis of faith which lasted for several years. It was a period of intense depression, and an unending search for truth. Most of my college years were not spent actively pursuing my studies – which seemed pointless in the absence of my faith – but reading voraciously anything that I thought would give me some insight or glimpse as to what was true.
I can never forget that crushing desire to find out what was true that I might believe it. It was like nothing else that I have experienced before or sin. And I see now from the vantage point of twenty years that this urgency was propelled by an underlying fear of missing it, of believing error, and thereby failing to reach the eternal mark.
Unconsciously, doctrines of judgement had so shaped my thinking that even when the bottom fell out of my faith, they quietly worked to produce urgency and activity to resolve burning questions. Apathy was a non-option. How can one be apathetic in the face of eternal accountability?
I remember having conversations with my fellow students on issues of faith. Most were extremely nominal Christians who had a lackadaisical religion. They attended church infrequently. The salvation of their own soul certainly had a low priority on their list. None of them believed in eternal judgement in a biblical sense. They either believed the secular fiction that all “good people” go to heaven, or they believed that if hell existed, it was reserved only for the really wicked people, like Hitler.
They did not share my feverish interest or desparation. I found it disheartening when I saw their eyes glaze over in boredom or embarrassment when the subject turned to God. I found it impossible to understand why their voices lifted with excitement at talk of parties and drinking. These latter motivated them far more than acceptance by God. I could not understand the flabbiness of what they professed to believe.
On those rare occassions when there was a more orthodox expression of Christianity, it too seemed weak at the edges. It shied away from controversy or firm expressions of principle. It had the strength of wet lettuce and therefore the staying power of the same.
I came to develope a fear and revulsion for such religion because even in the midst of my personal purgatory of doubt, I knew that such weak, anemic “Christianity” bore no resemblance to the fiery, robust, confident faith preached by Christ or his Apostles.
Thus, the doctrines of judgement propelled me inexorably in the right direction, even when I did not understand why, and even when I lapsed into sin and worldliness. It was precisely because I lived in terror of being on the wrong side of the eternal Judge one day that I kept moving, searching, and knocking. Fear generated a desperation to find truth.
The doctrines of judgement are thus not only true – and therefore ought to be preached and meditated on frequently – but are also necessary. Yes, necessary, to produce a genuine Christian. The sort of Christian that Jesus desires.
The doctrines of judgement sanctifies through terror.
If this sentence is problematic for you, then you might need to consider that you have imbibed too deeply the lessons of our culture which is saturated with pop-psychology, positive-thinking and feel-goodism. It teaches us that no good arises from terror. We want to be terribly positive, which is to say, we want to feel good about ourselves. Yet, terror can be a far more powerful influencer for good, and God’s word never sinks into the sugarwater of positive thinking. Truth is always good, but it is not always pleasant, or kind to the ego.
It is by terror of God’s wrath that Christianity produces believers that become concurrently haters of sin and lovers of good. The doctrines of judgement illuminate the soul and cause us to realise how holy God is and how dreadful the wages of sin is.
Furthermore, only the doctrines of judgement equip a believer with the capacity to fully appreciate the love and grace of God, which like a bright star is most vividly seen when it stands against the blackness of the night. As a red silhoutte vanishes against a red background but leaps into existence when displayed against a black one, so it is that the love of God becomes most radiant and properly accessable when witnessed against the background of the terror of his justice.
A lively awareness of our terrible need and the expansion of our love for Christ invariably takes place in the blazing light of the truth of coming judgement. When this is missing, believers are quickly absorbed into temporal affairs, worldly concerns, and lacklustre dedication to living a holy life.