By Hannah Bowman
This post continues a series on the Four Last Things. Part one may be found here.
Even more than death, judgment is at the center of the “four last things” traditionally contemplated during Advent. Indeed, traditionally, preparation for death was understood to be primarily preparation for the judgment to follow. This is clear in Anglican sources from Jeremy Taylor’s Holy Dying to the 1789 Book of Common Prayer’s office of Visitation of Prisoners, which urges them, in the face of upcoming execution, to consider the judgment to come:
After you have thus finished the course of a sinful and miserable life, you shall appear before the Judge of all flesh; who, as he pronounces blessings on the righteous, shall likewise say, with a terrible voice of most just judgment, to the wicked, Go, ye accursed, into the fire everlasting, prepared for the devil and his angels. Your sins have brought you too near this dreadful sentence it is therefore your part and duty humbly to confess and bewail your great and manifold offences, and to repent you truly of your sins, as you tender the eternal salvation of your soul.
Even in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, the funeral anthem not only promises resurrection but also pleads in the face of judgment to follow: “Holy God, Holy and Mighty, Holy and merciful Savior, deliver us not into the bitterness of eternal death” (492).
Judgment is not a topic the church often wants to contemplate, but it is not one we can avoid. How can we understand the dialectic of God’s judgment and mercy at the final coming of Christ so that divine judgment — and not just the hope of avoiding it — is for us something to be desired, not just feared?
The book of Daniel makes clear the connection between resurrection and judgment (12:2). As Jürgen Moltmann interprets Daniel, the resurrection is not primarily about the promise of eternal life, but rather about God’s vindication of the righteous in God’s judgment of the world.
While judgment often seems like a threat to us, in reality, it is the necessary reversal of the world’s wrongs. The more attuned we are to suffering in the world (whether our own or that of others), the more we learn to long for God’s judgment.
Vindication underlies the final judgment. Who desires judgment and who fears it? Those of us who are mighty in this world are not the ones who will be vindicated in the judgment of God — rather we will be cast down in favor of those we have marginalized. As Luke’s beatitudes express it, “woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.”
But for those who suffer in this world, judgment is a promise of justice. John Thornton Jr. writes about our common tendency to differentiate between “prophetic” speech that calls out the powerful for injustice and “pastoral” speech that cares for people’s needs, explaining that this distinction is primarily relevant to the rich (and that it prioritizes their comfort over everything else). For those who are marginalized and in need, prophecy against the rich is a form of pastoral comfort!
Luise Schottroff suggests the practice of “eschatological interpretation” of Scripture: to read the parables of Jesus as if in a community, oppressed and suffering, who desire the coming vindication of God that they see already present in the world. Such a reading, she suggests, presents us God as a judge, but as one aimed at the good of those who suffer. “Eschatological interpretation” undermines traditional interpretations of God as tyrannical—as, for example, in the parable of the ten bridesmaids (Matthew 25:1–13). For Schottroff, God is not the host who closes the door to lock out the unprepared. Rather, the parable is, itself, a picture of God’s condemnation on all such practices of exclusion. God is on the side of those excluded and harmed in this world, even when every door is shut to them. After all, immediately after this parable is the famous passage where Jesus identifies himself with “the least of these.” In the final courtroom, Jesus does not appear only as the judge, but also as the prisoner in need.
Judgment is not just a future reality, far from those in need of vindication now. Judgment of the world has already occurred on the cross of Christ. As Jesus says in the Gospel of John: “Now is the judgment of this world” (12:31). The crucifixion of Jesus — the death of God — makes visible all the harm we do to one another and all the powers of evil in the world. Judgment is truth-telling, the exposition of those powers of evil, revealing them as the bankrupt and ugly powers they are. On the cross, God in Christ “disarmed” those powers and “made a public example of them, triumphing over them in it” (Col 2:15). All powers and acts of evil are exposed and revealed on the cross. This is the judgment of God!
Judgment is the revelation of “things done and left undone” (Book of Common Prayer, 447). This is perhaps why in the New Testament the question of judgment upon the church is closely linked to the celebration of the Eucharist (1 Cor 11:27–34). The elevation of the host in the Eucharist makes the crucified body of Jesus — that which stands against us as a visible sign of all the harms we have done to one another — visible in the center of our worship. How could this not be a sign of judgment against us?
Judgment is the revelation of a new way of living — the reign of God — that we know is better than the way we live now, but which we find ourselves unable to live out faithfully, or even see clearly. “And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world and the people loved darkness more than light because their deeds were evil” (John 3:19). The New Testament promises that God will judge us by exposing our works (see, for example, 1 Corinthians 3:13 and 2 Peter 3:10). The eucharistic judgment against the church in Corinth was that because of their inequality and failure to care for one another, some continued to be sick and die. Surely the same is true for us: our failure to provide housing for those who are homeless, to provide healthcare for those who are ill, to provide food for those who are hungry, means that “many of [us] are weak and ill, and some have died” (1 Cor 11:30). Our own way of living unjustly and the unnecessary suffering it causes is the final judgment of God against us, made already present in our current reality. The cross, the eschaton, and our world in between all make judgment visible.
But the fact that the image of the cross — and the crucified body of Jesus made present in the Eucharist for us — is the picture of divine judgment also illuminates the relationship between judgment and mercy. God’s judgment and God’s mercy are not in opposition. Mercy is not the way God somehow “spares” us from his righteous judgment. Instead, God’s mercy upon all is the form of his judgment upon us.
To make sense of this paradox, it is essential to distinguish between judgment and punishment. God’s judgment may be harsh, but it is not retributive. God does not punish — God does not desire us to suffer, but that all shall “turn and live” (Ezekiel 18:23). When God judges Israel for their misdeeds, God casts them down from power and gives them into the hands of their enemies. This is not suffering inflicted by God for the sake of retribution. It is instead a radical overturning of the power relations that allow injustice to flourish. God casts down those who misuse their power to harm the vulnerable. This is the story of the prophets. It is the story of the Magnificat, where Mary sings “he has cast down the mighty from their thrones… he has sent the rich away empty.” Such casting-down of the powerful may be experienced as suffering, but the judgment is not punishment but rather the setting-right and equalizing of inequities that have led to harm, suffering, and marginalization.
But to deny the retributive nature of God’s judgment is not to soften or minimize its reality. God’s casting-down of the mighty and judging all, and us, for our harmful works is a radical restructuring of the world.
Instead, to recognize that God’s judgment takes the form of mercy and God’s mercy takes the form of judgment allows us to face with courage the reality that all of us will be subject to the judgment of God. Christian faith is not a “get out of judgment” card. Christ’s intercession for us before the Father occurs within the context of judgment upon our works. Judgment shows what is true and sets right what is wrong.
The cross is simultaneously the site of judgment and the fount of mercy. The Eucharistic host that stands in visible judgment against our works is also the “medicine of immortality” (St. Ignatius of Antioch). At the cross, as at the eschaton, God’s judgment and God’s mercy coincide.
In our relation to God, judgment is a challenge to us: to love God faithfully for God’s own sake and not even for the hope of our final salvation. Karl Barth describes this, in his commentary on Romans 1:18, as the way we know ourselves to be under God’s judgment and yet love the Judge, affirming the divine “No” which is set against us.
What does such fidelity look like? We see an example in Daniel 3, where Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego face the fiery furnace of King Nebuchadnezzar not in certainty that God will spare them but instead determined to be faithful regardless: “If our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire and out of your hand, O king, let him deliver us. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods and we will not worship the golden statue that you have set up” (Daniel 3:17–18).
Perhaps this fidelity is how we can prepare for the coming judgment of God. We know that God will judge our works. We know that all of us have sinned, have harmed and marginalized others, and that we all will be in some way cast down — even as we are also (we hope) to be vindicated for our righteousness and lifted up.
We do not hope to avoid judgment; we do not hope that God will in his mercy spare us from it. Instead, we long for the revelation of evil — including our own — for the sake of the truth. We long for the vindication of those who have been harmed — even by us — for the sake of love. We long for God’s casting down of the mighty and lifting up of the lowly — even if it means judgment against us — for the sake of justice. We prioritize the vindication of the righteous above our hope for our own salvation.
In the second week of Advent, John the Baptist reminds us to repent, because the kingdom of God is at hand. Our desire and expectation for the coming of the kingdom of God is also a desire for the judgment of God upon the world as it is. The merciful reign of God stands in witness against the broken world, and against us for our part in it. Judgment, beginning at Bethlehem and stretching from the cross to eternity, is the hope that someday we may see the reign of God, the world of care and mercy for one another as it is meant to be — and, seeing it, tremble. Simultaneously “deeply wailing” and “with what rapture” shall we see Christ’s “glorious scars” — and their testimony against us, which is also the hope of the vindicated world to come.
Hannah Bowman is a layperson in the Diocese of Los Angeles, where she works as a literary agent and serves as a volunteer chaplain in the LA County Jails. The founder of Christians for the Abolition of Prisons, she is pursuing an M.A. in Religious Studies at Mount Saint Mary’s University, Los Angeles.