I’ve read many things about God’s judgement recently. Judgement of nations1 , judgement of groups2 , and judgement of people. The concept of God’s judgement is apparently a very misunderstood and frequently misrepresented and since it has the potential to do great harm to a believer’s growth or an unbeliever’s understanding of the relationship between grace and holiness, I figured it deserves some more ink (or pixels as it were).
Some of the extreme examples of recent stances taken regarding the judgement of God is the relatively new practice of imprecatory prayer3 where advocates literally pray for the death of specific individuals such as President Obama. This practice is said to have come from select Old Testament texts where various figures such as the Psalmist, David, and others prayed for their enemies to be vanquished.
I’m not sure this is what Jesus had in mind when he told us to pray for our enemies4.
Most Christians don’t go this far, thankfully, but they do adopt a slightly milder view of God’s wrath and judgement through unfortunate events5 and natural disasters6. While this view of God’s judgement often comes from a noble desire to uphold God’s sovereignty which often, unfortunately, crosses the line into causal determinism and, in order to reconcile the two, forces the holder of such a view of God’s sovereignty to ignore clear Biblical teaching about judgement in order to explain why a sovereign God would cause such tragic events to unfold rather than prevent them.
This issue ultimately leads to the question of evil in general, which is covered far better elsewhere, but I want to focus on the simple question of God’s judgement and what we can and can’t say about it in light of some clear teachings from the Bible.
The nature of God’s judgement can be summed up by the three words Jesus spoke on the matter from the cross. It is finished7 . The Bible clearly states that Jesus paid for sin once and for all at the cross8 . After Jesus rises from the dead we don’t read of anyone being punished for their sins but we are told that this is a time of grace until the final judgement comes where all remaining unrighteous will be dealt with. In fact, we are told that there is only one sin which will determine our innocence or guilt according to Matthew 12:32 and that is the acceptance of the witness of the Holy Spirit to Jesus, the Son sent to pay for our sin. In other words, to blaspheme the Holy Spirit is to call God a liar by refusing to believe in His Son.
An astute observer will note Ananias and Sapphira9 as an example of God judging (and smiting) people after the resurrection of Jesus.
However I would point out that, in addition with Paul’s admonition of 1 Corinthians 5:5 to “deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord”, Hebrews 12:17 tells us that when we are adopted into God’s family we are disciplined as sons . Because of the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints (once saved, always saved) we shouldn’t think that Ananias and Sapphira were judged in the sense that they somehow lost their salvation but were rather disciplined.
Only by claiming that Jesus did not actually die for the sins of all men could you claim that God is still at work judging and smiting the wicked or else we would have a problem with God requiring double payment for sins. This, too, is something many in the reformed camp end up accepting as a result of their theology10 which ultimately raises more issues than it solves.
As for claiming natural disasters and random events as judgements from God we need to look back to the Old Testament and how God brought judgement then and how what we call judgement today just doesn’t add up.
The first thing we should note is that the prophets in the Old Testament were sent to proclaim the coming wrath of God in order to 1.) give the people time to repent and turn to God (or did you think grace and mercy were unique to the New Testament) and 2.) to remove all doubt as to where the coming calamity came from and why.
With most (if not all) modern forms of “judgement” we see no prophet and we also, frequently, do not see the precision in scope we see in the Old Testiment. In other words, innocent civilians are caught up in many so called acts of judgement we hear about today.
While some theological systems do not hold to the notion of an innocent bystander and are perfectly fine with the idea that God would indiscriminately pour out his wrath on the righteous as well as the unrighteous, Abraham shows us God’s character in regard to judgement in Genesis 18. Before undertaking the task of bargaining with the Lord, he asks “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked?”, and later asks “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” This should show us, along with God’s statement about the Amorites ((Genesis 15:16 tells us that their sin had not yet reached its full measure)), that when God judges, he states his case clearly and limits his wrath to those he has also warned and given ample opportunity to repent.
One of the best pieces of advice I’ve ever heard when it comes to building a Biblical worldview is the admonition to remain consistent in what we believe and teach. In other words, we have no business telling people about the grace, mercy, and love of a God who has indeed paid everything on the Cross if we are, at the same time, going to tell them that God is, at this time, judging the world for the sin he supposedly already dealt with at the cross.
- particularly the USA [↩]
- generally whichever one we don’t like at a particular moment [↩]
- http://www.sltrib.com/faith/ci_12690952 [↩]
- Matthew 5:44 [↩]
- Such as 9/11 and bridges collapsing [↩]
- such as tsunamis and hurricanes [↩]
- John 19:30 [↩]
- Hebrews 10, notice that Paul mentions the finality of Jesus’s sacrifice and the corresponding futility of thinking we can “add” anything to it. [↩]
- Acts 5:1-10 [↩]
- Which is sad, because it shows how bad theology can color a natural reading of the text, turning God into a capricious monster. [↩]