God’s judgement is a stench to many westerners. Yet Christians from other cultures who know the harsh reality of conflict and oppression cry out for the judgement of God. In scripture judgement means the end of oppression and violence.
Belief in God’s anger and, worse, God’s judgement, is an exclusivist outrage to many westerners. Richard Dawkins in ‘The God delusion’ writes along these lines:
Progressive ethicists today find it hard to defend any kind of retributive theory of punishment.
If God wanted to forgive our sins, why not just forgive them, without having himself tortured and executed in payment…
The liberal tradition of Christianity similarly finds it offensive and embarrassing to affirm God’s anger or judgement. God is love. J. A. T. Robinson for example claims that the idea of the love of God and the anger of God are mutually exclusive.
It seems natural for those who advocate for compassion and justice to feel sympathy for these views. The idea that God adds to the world’s exclusion and violence seems incongruous in light of his heart for the vulnerable.
Truth be told, these heralds of offense call attention to a vital and often neglected biblical theme regarding judgement: judgement should disturb us. Judgement should disturb us because judgement disturbs God. In Isaiah 28:21 the prophet calls judgement God’s ‘strange work… his alien task’. Judgement is not God’s preferred end for any of humankind. God did not create his image bearers for judgement but for a thriving life in his world! Similarly Peter says regarding Christ’s return:
The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. (2 Peter 3:9)
In my younger days of reading reformed theology I didn’t get this. I thought that judgement and salvation were equal to God. I thought that God sort of ladled out judgement and salvation, person by person, according to his perfect will. (Obviously my reformed categories were more sophisticated that this, but this was the sense) But this is not the biblical sense of judgement – judgement is God’s strange work, its alien task.
Yet there is much, much more to say. There is a striking difference in how God’s judgement is perceived from the comfort of western universities and western lounge rooms on one hand and cultures which know the harsh reality of conflict and oppression on the other. From the coddled comfort of the west any violence feels offensive, especially God’s. But in places where violence and oppression touch community, friends and even family, God’s judgement is not only acceptable, but essential for life to be liveable. If westerners are to understand God’s judgement it is important to hear from these cultures.
Reading Jose Miranda, a Mexican theologian, was a great help to me in this regard. Miranda learned to read the Bible while working with vulnerable workers in Mexico. Living and working with these workers and their families Miranda yearned for the day when God will establish his justice. He writes of the ‘day of the Lord’, that great day that the prophets spoke about when God would return and establish his ‘shalom’ – his deep peace. Miranda writes that this day, ‘has the sense of ‘Finally!’ ‘At last! ‘This is what all mankind has been awaiting for thousands and thousands of years!’. Immersed in the grief of the world Miranda longs for the day of justice when oppression is ended and justice is established. It is God’s dramatic intervention that will ultimately end oppression. God’s intervention includes the judgement of oppressors for how can shalom prevail when oppressors are still oppressing?
Another help to me was Croatian theologian and philosopher Miroslav Volf. Volf’s ‘Exclusion and Embrace’ articulates a response to violence and injustice in light of the Yugoslav war of the early 90s. Highly organised atrocities against Croatians and Bosnians aimed to cleanse the region of whole ethnic groups – it was here that the phrase, ‘ethnic cleansing’ was first used. In dialogue with such atrocities Volf explores the relation between God’s patience and his judgement:
Should not a loving God be patient and keep luring the perpetrator into goodness? This is exactly what God does: God suffers the evil doers through history as God suffered them on the cross. But how patient should God be? The day of reckoning must come, not because God is too eager to pull the trigger, but because every day of patience in a world of violence means more violence and every postponement of vindication means letting insult accompany injury. “How long will it be before you judge and avenge our blood,” cry out the souls under the altar to the Sovereign Lord (Rev 6:10).
It is only judgement that will end suffering. It is only the exclusion of oppressors that can bring shalom. God is patient. But endless patience means endless suffering. In response to the idea that God’s anger and his love are incompatible (cf J.A.T. Robinson for example) Volf writes: ‘In a scorched land, soaked in the blood on the innocent, it will invariably die.’
These cross-cultural insights help us understand the generally positive view of judgement in scripture. While judgement in the Bible is bad news for rich oppressors and idolaters it is most often yearned for and celebrated rather than mourned. Judgement in the Bible is emphatically good news for the world. It is yearned for by the Psalmists: ‘How long Oh Lord?’. It is yearned for too by the saints under the altar who had been ‘slain for the word of God’ (Rev 6:9-11). And the coming of judgement is celebrated – the trees of the field clap their hands! For Micah judgement is another Exodus – wonderful deliverance for the whole world.
We must add that the relation of judgement and injustice in the Bible points us again to the cross of Christ. For we are all oppressors! And westerners are almost all rich oppressors! Jeremiah reads us right does he not: ‘The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked – who can know it:’ God’s intolerance of injustice compels us to cling to the cross once again, where our sins are borne and where we receive ‘grace upon grace’.
We must acknowledge too that there are two postures that attract the judgement of God in the Bible: idolatry and injustice. Are these not the unswerving themes of the prophets: Israel’s idolatry and her injustice. What is fascinating – and the depth of this I can’t yet understand – is that true worship and the practice of justice come hand in hand.
Judgement then is a central part of the hope that we have in Christ. The future of the world is safe in its creator’s hands. He loved the world to life in creation and he will love it to life again. Christ’s return will include the exclusion of oppressors and the forgiveness of sins for all who come to Christ. Judgement is a part of the Christian hope; God’s anger and judgment are inseparable from his love.