We said, last post, that ‘God’s wrath’ is mentioned comparatively rarely in Scripture. The main people that ever get threatened with it are corrupt Jewish leaders. By comparison, the theme of God’s judgement is overwhemingly and explicitly prominent, in both testaments, proclaimed to everyone regardless of status or nationality.
Judgement is one of the true biggies, the big-picture ideas that make sense of the whole story. Let’s take a look at the shape of this theme. Let’s tell some stories:
When God created man he placed him in a beautiful paradise. But outside was untamed wildness, empty of life, perhaps unfit for life. God tells the man, subdue the creation. Bring it under your will. Make it a place fit for habitation. Man is to bring his judgement to the unruly world, and fix it – as agents of God’s judgement.
However, man sins and finds himself on the ‘wrong side’ of God’s judgement. Thus begins the long story of mankind’s wrongs and God’s efforts to put things right. It is no longer safe for man to eat from the tree of life and live forever – perhaps confirmed forever in wickedness. So God’s judgement drives them out. It is not safe for mankind to live all in one city – who knows what depths of evil they might sink to? So God’s judgement scatters them. These judgements are, of course, also mercies. Mankind is no longer a force for good, imposing God’s judgement on the unshaped world. Now he is a force for chaos. And so, out of love for his creation, God determines to rid the earth of man. He sends the flood – a mighty judgement.
This first great judgement is described like this:
And Yahweh saw that the evil of the human creature was great on the earth… and Yahweh said, “I will wipe out the human race I created from the face of the earth…” But Noah found favour in the eyes of Yahweh. Genesis 6:5-8
Explicit here is the distinction made between the bulk of mankind, and Noah. He receives a different judgement from the rest. They are placed on one side of the judge – the ‘condemnation’ side – and he on the other – the ‘favour’ side.
When Yahweh awards the promised land of Canaan to Abraham, he also explicitly takes it away from the Canaanites. God acts out this judgement by passing through the divided animals he has ordered to be set out. Very visually, Yahweh’s judgement makes a division between Abraham and the Canaanites (Genesis 15:16-21).
In another great act of judgement, Yahweh destroys the cities of the plain, and all their inhabitants. Except Lot. Why the exception? Because Abraham pleads with God to judge rightly:
And Abraham stepped forward and said “Will you really wipe out the innocent with the guilty? Far be it from you to do such a thing, making the innocent and the guilty the same. Will not the judge of the earth do justice?” Genesis 18: 23-25
Here we are introduced to the basic function of judgement: to distinguish between the righteous and the wicked. In Abraham’s view, this is what it means to judge rightly. The thought of universal condemnation strikes Abraham as implicitly unjust.
The great judgement event of the Hebrew Scriptures is the exodus. God’s judgement is the theme to the fore when Israel gets stuck in Egypt, under the tyranny of Pharaoh (cf. Genesis 15:14). By refusing to let them go, Pharaoh puts himself on the deadly side of that judgement. God cannot rescue his people without first smashing Egypt – which he proceeds to do. In the plagues we see the extreme to which Yahweh’s love will go to bring judgement for his people (i.e. make things right for them). We see that judgement can be extremely costly. Also foregrounded in the Exodus narrative is the division which judgement brings, depending on which side of it you are on: for or against, salvation or wrath.
Later, under the judges we find one pattern repeated over and again: God’s judgement violently rejects his people’s idolatry, then God’s judgement rescues and restores them. Both of these acts of judgement are, of course, mercies, expressions of God’s jealous love for his people. The judges themselves represent or embody that judgement, and they are largely warrior/saviours. They bring judgement to Israel by releasing her from bondage – and judgement to the surrounding nations by punishing their aggression.
The exile is the other focal point of judgement in the story of Israel. God refuses to leave his people under the misery of idol-worship and oppressive leadership. He will come with a ‘Spirit of burning and a Spirit of judgement’ and cleanse the bloody stains of his people (Isaiah 4). He will not stop until all that is wrong has been burned away. The exile is part of that fire. But the whole program, outlined by Isaiah, does not stop with exile. God’s Spirit of judgement will recreate the nation, putting right Jerusalem and giving a new lease of life to the people (cf. esp. Isaiah 4). Not all will be lost: there will be a holy remnant saved – once again the idea of division is basic to judgement.
John the baptist picks up on this Isaianic program, preaching of the one who will flood the nation with the Spirit of fire and judgement (Luke 3). For John the Baptist, the time to put Israel right once and for all (last judgement) had finally arrived, now. True Israelites (the wheat) would be regathered into God’s house (barn), while those who rebelled would be burned up (the chaff): a division, once again. Jesus Messiah would do all this by the power of the holy fire-Spirit which he was bringing. The day of judgement had arrived.
This was all going according to the prophetic forecast – but a shocking twist now occurred in the story, when Messiah himself came under judgement. He was ‘handed over to the nations’ like Israel, bore the fire of judgement and exile in his own body. There it burned out the sinful human nature which he had taken up, until it killed him. This was Jesus’ baptism of fire (Luke 12:50). And in this baptism, John the baptist’s program was completed: like wheat grain emerging from the chaff, the old body of sin was done away with, burned away, leaving a new, cleansed body to come forth. This recreated body, now filled and animated entirely by the power of the fire-Spirit, was gathered up into God’s house. The final judgement was complete.
But the effects of this Day of Judgement did not stop with Jesus. Rather, they began to ripple out catastrophically across the world. The judged one was now appointed Judge of the world. The fire that had fallen on Jesus fell on the whole earth (Luke 12:49). It fell on Jerusalem in tongues of fire at Pentecost – at which point a new and rival Jerusalem sprang to life and began to function – complete with its own new leadership – right in the midst of the old rebellious city. The grain emerged from the chaff. Judgement had arrived, and was announced openly (Acts 2:40). The people were to submit to this Spirit of judgement by taking the sign of it on themselves: baptism. At which point the fire would fill their lives, and they would be cleansed and made right towards God. Others resisted and were defeated (cf. Acts 5:17-42). A division became painfully apparent in the Jerusalem.
But the judgement could not be contained in that city – like a flood it flowed out across the landscape, transforming whatever it touched, doing what God’s judgment always does: bringing a division. A new people sprang up: a cleansed people living radical lives of love and holiness, and suffering bitter persecution from their neighbours.
The means of this judgement spreading was always the news of its arrival at the cross. As Jesus’ cross and resurrection were proclaimed, it was like opening the floodgates, and the fire-Spirit would fall, the judgement would arrive. People would divide. We still live in this phase of things now.
And so it can be seen that God’s original plan is finally accomplished: a second Adam stands as the agent of God’s judgement, to bring judgement to an unruly and broken world. To overthrow all that is evil, set things right and restore everything. But this time Adam does the job.
It should be apparent from the story we have just told (the Bible’s big story) that ‘judgement’ is a much bigger category than ‘wrath’. We would never want to title Jesus ‘the bringer of wrath’. However, the early Christians’ basic confession was ‘Jesus is Lord’, by which they meant that Jesus is the one God appointed to bring the whole creation into alignment under his leadership, gathering together the willing and destroying his enemies. If they were using the terminology of the book of Judges, they would have said “Jesus is JUDGE.”
Tomorrow: Universalism and Karl Barth