The Effect of the Absence of Judgement in Modern Preaching

wrath

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:

    1. Have a focus on self-purification (for all who have hope, purify themselves)
    2. Have a strong sense of spiritual urgency
    3. Are innoculated against downgraded versions of the faith
    4. Are missional and evangelical
    5. 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.

The Death of a Minor Celebrity

armchair-art-chair-696407

It was reported this week that a young Canadian by the name of Rick Genest killed himself (although some of his friends and associates have claimed his death was an accident).

Rick Genest wanted to be a freak.

He set out to achieve this distinction by covering himself with tattoos of bones and insects. The top of his head was shaved and tattooed with exposed brains. His eye sockets and tip of his nose was black (whether this was tattooed or aided by cosmetics is uncertain). Around his mouth and over his lips were tattoos of teeth. Over his torso were tattoos of ribs with fragments of skin tissue hanging between the bones, and insects scuttling around the illusion of a cavity. Metal piercings in his nose and ears completed the image of a living Frankenstein’s monster.

Genest wanted to look as if he were in a partial state of decomposition like a zombie. Indeed, his nickname was “zombie boy”, an title he gladly adopted as part of his public signature. To say that he succeeded in his aim to look horrific is an understatement. The tattoos are repellent. Yet the New York Times reported that Genest had been proud of his appearance. “Please do stare,” he was quoted, “I like it.”

Unsurprisingly, the Guardian reported that Genest had a long history of depression. In May of this year, for example, he posted a photograph of himself in a hospital bed wearing a shirt emblazoned with the words “Kill Me” and a tongue depressor hanging from his mouth. The article mentioned that he frequently wore this shirt for media interviews. The shirt was referred to with the definite article – “the Kill Me shirt” – since it had appeared so often in photographic shoots. The use of the definite article accords the shirt an iconic status, although it never seemed to occur to the Guardian writer that a shirt that invites people to murder the wearer – even if worn only for shock value – points to the real source of Genest’s problems and does not at all deserve a celebrated status.

Genest made both money and fame from his appearance. He displayed uncanny instinct in generating an income from his repugnant appearance. Even the sympathetic eulogising of the left-wing press cannot disguise Genest’s evident eye for career development and industry shrewdness.

For example, the New York Times mentions that he was named in the Guinness World Records in 2011 for having the most insects tattooed on a human body. Setting aside the complete lack of merit inherent in such a title, it is noteworthy that to get a mention in the Guinness World Records would require Genest to apply for a record title.

The Guinness process is exhaustive, requiring several witnesses, authenticated evidence, and detailed photographs. Genest could only have received his title by being an initiator and driver of the process. Depending on how much personal effort he was willing to invest in his application, it may have cost him a large amount of money. An official Guinness consultant – marketed by the Guinness organisation to people who wish to obtain notoriety; in other words, people exactly like Genest – would have cost thousands of dollars and still required him to be painstakingly photographed from head to foot.

Genest was also aware of the value of victimhood. He ascribed forms of victimhood to himself publicly on several occasions. He claimed to have run afoul (among other things) of school bullying and religious parents. Both of these alleged forms of “oppression” are quite commonplace, and most people successfully move past the memory of difficult childhood experiences when they reach maturity. But with a horrific visage to illustrate the supposed depth of his angst, Genest was able to weave a narrative fabric out of humdrum teenage experiences and thereby elicit the needed pathos for forging fame. Victimhood is the coin that makes the coffer sing in the 21st century.

When asked about other people’s reaction to his appearance, Genest expertly coloured his life with a sparkling beatific quality worthy of a Greek Orthodox iconostasis. His self-appraisal is highly suggestive of a self-indulgent and narcissistic personality.

What changed was the masses’ reaction to me. Prior, I had my place amongst those who understood me and had the luxury of privacy. Now I often feel that every walk of life either has a question or an opinion about the way I breathe air – although I do seize this opportunity to raise awareness for tolerance, acceptance and embracing our differences.

Here, other people are merely “the masses” who did not understand him. For Genest, the ignorance of “the masses” was both an indictment against them – for they lacked broadness of vision – and evident proof of the enlightened complexity of his existence. To be unconventional is a sign of moral superiority. This is the internal narrative of the entertainment world in which he swum. Aberration is sophistication. Revolution is evolution. Normality is boring.

Genest also hinted at his frustration that the people around him had the temerity to hold an opinion on the repellent tattoos he chose to inflict on the world at large. But fortunately for everyone, their narrow-mindedness only produced more virtue in his beneficent heart. It gave him an opportunity to “raise awareness” for the liberal shibboleths of “tolerance”, “acceptance” and “embracing differences”. By this he meant that, contrary to all appearances, his tattoos performed a public service. By making himself so horrendous and ghastly to look at, other people must (and ought) to accept and tolerate him. This caused them to grow to be as broadminded as he was.

At times his hypocrisy was staggering, yet no interviewer ever pressured him to explain the incongruity between his words and his life choices. For example when asked “what is the philosophy behind your tattoos”, he answered:

The zombie concept is also often used as a metaphor for runaway consumerism. Rebelling from this notion is the very meaning of punk. The origins of the zombie creature came about from stories of people being buried alive in times of plagues and such crises; that would come out the other side ‘transformed’. Zombies, to many, represent a pervasive xenophobia. As in my life, I was often out-casted, hated or misunderstood.

Genest answered by pointed out that within his subculture, his tattoos serve as a metaphor for “runaway consumerism”. It is surprising that Genest was not perspiring from the sheer effort to sound deep and meaningful at this point in the interview.

Despite his concern about “runway consumerism”, Genest’s most publicised employment involved working as a model for the fashion label Rocawear and performing in high end fashion shows in Berlin and Paris. He also appeared in a music video with Lady Gaga (the stage name adopted by Stefani Germanotta) in the performance of her song Born This Way. Typical of the zeitgeist, the song begins with a long, disturbing prologue followed by an uptempo song in which Germanotta sings in her underwear.

Surely, in all the pages of history, there have been few industries which better exemplify rank consumerism than the pop music and fashion industries of the 21st century. Over and over, Genest appeared in slick photographic presentations wearing designer gear. In one photograph, he is turning somersaults on red leather couch positioned against an expertly arranged tapestry, set against a mottled wooden floor. The image appears to be extensively photoshopped, light-filtered, and edited until it is more artificial than real. In another marketing photograph he huddles in a bed glaring up from underneath his labelled attire.

After insinuating to his interviewer that his tattoos were a cry against runaway consumerism, Genest is asked for more details about being “the face” of the fashion label Rocawear. One cannot help wondering whether the interviewer was asking tongue-in-cheek because it is such a naked inconsistency.

To this Genest replies with an burst of enthusiasm:

Growing up in the city as a teenager, I have always embraced urban culture and style. It is a great honor to represent what I live, breathe, and bleed for as long as I have. I’m excited to be involved with Rocawear’s re-launch across Europe for Spring Summer ’13.

Urban style and urban culture, says Genest, is what he lives, breathes and bleeds for. What, then, is urban style and culture? This is not defined by Genest, but presumably Rocawear’s designer hoodies, oversized caps, and ridiculously baggy trousers permits us some insight into what Genest believed urban style to be. In short, it “urban style” is a carefully cultivated shtick that permits the safe and comfortable middle-classes to ape some of the grittiness of the city, so that they might feel a little more “authentic”.

Elaborately torn and disfigured garments are essential to this image. One line of jeans features imitation paint splotches down the front of the legs while others are purposefully cut and ripped. Others billow around the wearer’s limbs like prison garments, utilising fabric far in excess of what is necessary to cover the person sensibly. Apparently this is what Genest meant when he spoke of “urban style”. In other words, “urban style” is ghetto chic for people who will almost certainly be safely insulated from ever experiencing the horrors of poverty in an urban slum.

Genest also had roles in a few films and was busily working on a music album. The entertainment industry, like the fashion industry, are not exactly bywords for frugality and material restraint. To the contrary. One can think of few industries that symbolise the “runaway consumerism” against which Genest submitted his tattoos as a living protest, than the very industries he sought to make a career within.

Rick Genest was a man who spent his life living in an unreal bubble. Most of his tattoos were completed before his was out of his teenage years. For nearly half of his life he drew people’s gaze and riveted their attention. Whether walking down a street or attending a party, his visage was blatant. His tattoos extruded into the world around him and gave him the limelight he so evidently wanted. The desire to be noticed, to catch people’s gaze, to gain notoriety, to be the most obvious person in a room are all symptomatic of a person who is either profoundly insecure or profoundly narcissistic.

But something of the person is always lost by such self-seeking. Thus, it is impossible for anyone to tell what Genest really looked like. The tattoos functioned as a mask, concealing the person beneath. One is left to wonder whether even Genest himself could really peer beneath the inking to see his adult self. In any case, they would have served as a daily reminder as he stood at the bathroom mirror that he had rendered himself different. He had turned himself into a macabre character. The horror they resembled was an inescapable feature of his life and must surely have leaked into his perception of the world around him. How could any person find simple and unadulterated delight in a blue sky or a flower when their life was both swaddled and imprinted with horror?

It shows how full body tattoos can take on a life of their own. For although these morbid tattoos arose initially from Genest’s teenage personality, upon being tattooed, they in turn contributed to forging his character and his career. For instance, few things shape a person quite as much as the company they keep and the social circles in which they move. Genest’s tattoos would surely have alienated him from much of conventional society, forcing him to walk among the bizarre and freakish individuals that inhabit the moral wasteland of the entertainment industry. By tattooing himself in this way, he deliberately isolated himself from the very relationships that might have helped him to surmount his depression and find a meaningful and manly existence.

It is with extreme difficulty, for example, that one could imagine him ever having a settled marriage, being a dedicated father of children, or enjoying the comforting routine of a family life. Yet God has so created human beings that we discover purpose and comfort in fixed and permanent relationships, and in the nurture of children. Genest’s tattoos largely precluded him from the possibility of relating to the sort of woman that might have helped him to discover God’s intention for his creatures.

Even of his self-professed friends, now busily eulogising him in overblown language, there were many who personally profited from his tattoos. He was their marketing gimmick; their gritty freak to bestow their wares with some element of novelty. This makes it uncertain whether his closest associates truly valued him as anything other than a mobile stage fitting. Certainly without his tattoos, would they have given him a second glance?

Whether it was suicide – as has been reported by the press – or an unexpected accident as claimed by his friends and manager, we know only that Genest spoke to his girlfriend, went out onto a balcony for a cigarette, and fell to his death. Nobody witnessed his death. We have only his girlfriend’s word about the lead up to it, although there is no good reason to speculate that she is not being truthful.

Whatever the case, the death of an unbeliever has eternal repercussions, as death does for us all. Our Lord teaches us that there is no hope for souls who part this life without having repented and believed in the salvation of the cross through Christ. The future of the wicked is fixed and no rays of a new dawn will lighten their eternity. For this reason,  the Bible urges men, “Today if you will hear his voice, do not harden your hearts”, for the day of salvation is today. Each day is our opportunity to find our shelter in the Rock from the deluge of judgement that will surely come.

It is bitterly ironic that after Genest’s death, a poem he wrote was posted to Instagram. It has been suggested this post was automatically sent by a posting app. Perhaps Genest had planned for this poem to be his final work before his death? The poem is dark. It references a pagan god and uses the tawdry and boring themes so beloved by those who think the darkness of the goth subculture is “deep”. He writes about flesh being cut, and the cold, the moonlight, and howling under the stars. The image that accompanied the poem featured darkness interrupted only by a circle of light.

In one sense, this is chillingly symbolic of his soul’s trajectory. Having quite literally loved darkness rather than light, Genest’s final word to the world – whether by design or happenstance – is also about the things of the night. Little did he realise that there is a darkness more terrible than that of his subculture and imagination. Our Lord called it “outer darkness”, a lonely wilderness everlastingly submerged in blackness, where the souls who refused to submit to Christ will wander in torment forever.

Genest was a wicked man. He did not commit murder or violent crimes, but he set himself against God and the imago Dei imprinted on his humanity nonetheless. By his own confession he lived a life that purposefully sought to normalise the aberrant and ungodly. He took his body and disfigured it into a grotesque death mask thereby claiming his ownership over it and pretending that it was not God’s. His very flesh which was meant to reflect the glory of God became a canvass upon which he could feature the horror of death, desecration of the sacred, and to turn people’s minds to devilish themes.

The death of this minor celebrity will make no difference to the vast majority of mankind. Like a candle snuffed out, he will be quickly forgotten. As so many before him have done, he has stepped suddenly over the parapet into an eternity he spent little time considering. For him, his short existence here is over; his time is up. Far sooner, perhaps, than he may have ever expected.

We may find little (or more accurately, nothing) to commend in the central, consuming passion of his life, or the empty and frivolous nature of his work. But the death of an unconverted sinner should at least remind us of the urgency of repentance and the hope that exists in Christ Jesus alone. By faith, we can make ourselves ready for eternity.

St. Paul’s words in the Letter to the Romans are apt. They contradict Genest’s glamorisation of darkness, with an unshakeable and towering authority:

The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armour of light… clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not make no provision for the flesh… (Romans 13:11-14)