By Joey Royal
Given how much attention the Scriptures give to divine judgment, it’s remarkable how little attention we give it. The creed tells us that Jesus “will come to judge the quick and dead,” but preachers seldom tell us that. I don’t remember the last time I heard a sermon specifically on God’s judgment. I don’t remember the last time I preached a sermon on it. Why not?
To judge is to pronounce a ruling in order to make distinctions, often between right and wrong, good and bad. It is the precondition for justice, which is a state in which rightness and goodness is vindicated and permitted to flourish. Judgment ultimately belongs to God; nevertheless, God has delegated the responsibility of judgment to human beings, provisionally and in certain spheres (Deut. 1:16-17). Jesus’s often misunderstood exhortation to “judge not lest ye be judged” (Matt. 7:1) is in fact a sober warning against deflecting judgment from yourself in the interest of weaponizing it against someone else. St. Peter’s reminder that judgment “begin[s] with the household of God” (1 Pet. 4:17) reminds us, similarly, that the Church is to receive the judgement of God before pronouncing it.
When God created the heavens and the earth he judged it all as “good”. The biblical depiction of creation involves not only making but also distinguishing and separating – light from dark, day from night, male from female, animals according to their kind. That is to say that God’s judgement, as his will to make distinctions, inheres all creation. In a fallen world this means distinguishing between goodness and degrees of privation of goodness. This is a sifting process, as God separates wheat from tares – in the world, in the Church and in us. There is no evading it; God’s judgment, spoken according to the scriptures and enacted in time, determines the shape of history. There is mercy, to be sure, and plenty of it. But mercy is not the absence of judgment, nor is it the abdication of it; mercy is God saying “but.”
“But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8).
Many segments of the church in the West have all but erased the notion of divine judgment. Perhaps this is due to the influence of the surrounding culture, which deems “being judgmental” a bad thing (although a few moments perusing Facebook reveals a culture that relishes in pronouncing judgments). Regardless of the underlying causes, the fact is that in most churches — be they “conservative” or “liberal” — we are more concerned with comforting and reassuring people in their illusions than we are with preparing them to stand before the judgment seat of Christ. The exception to this is perhaps social justice issues, in which judgement plays a big part of the Church’s public discourse, but even then, theological considerations are often tacked on to essentially secular habits of thought and speech. This eclipse of divine judgment in our theology means we lose sight of God’s providential care of the world.
The recent COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare this denial of divine judgment. We hear frequently that this virus (and presumably any kind of trouble) has nothing to do with God’s judgment. But then what does it all mean? No one knows, and few are willing to consider the providential purposes of “plagues.” Before our prayer books were sanitized for modern consumption, they attributed sufferings of various kind to God’s will. Take, for instance, the prayer “In the time of any common Plague or Sickness” from the 1662 Book of Common Prayer:
O ALMIGHTY God, who in thy wrath didst send a plague upon thine own people in the wilderness, for their obstinate rebellion against Moses and Aaron; and also, in the time of king David, didst slay with the plague of pestilence threescore and ten thousand, and yet remembering thy mercy didst save the rest: Have pity upon us miserable sinners, who now are visited with great sickness and mortality; that like as thou didst then accept of an atonement, and didst command the destroying Angel to cease from punishing, so it may now please thee to withdraw from us this plague and grievous sickness; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
By reciting instances in Scripture of God of sending plagues, this prayer makes a causal link between the distress of the present and the will of God. Of course, the primary purpose of the prayer is to ask for mercy, which is here understood as God “relenting.” Modern prayer books — not to mention modern pieties — seem to have expunged this sort of thing entirely. We still pray for relief from suffering, but assume God is only in the business of relieving our pain and not “visiting” us with it.
One problem with this modern assumption is that it ignores much of the Bible. Take, for example, the exile, which is one of the defining events of the Old Testament. The Prophets, following a trajectory beginning in Deuteronomy, trace a story of disobedience and infidelity and divine judgment which leads to the gradual collapse of Israel and Judah, climaxing in the destruction and desecration of the Jerusalem temple (2 Kings 25:8-26). All the ingredients in the story — persons, nations, events — are instruments in hands of the Lord, who uproots and tears down, destroys and overthrows, builds and plants (Jer. 1:10).
We’re disturbed by these parts of our faith, and so we ignore them. We have in effect taken Job’s rhetorical question — “Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?” (Job 2:10) — and answered in the affirmative. Yes, of course we receive good things from God but not bad or hard things, or at least not really hard things. I’m not naïve about the pastoral complexities of all this. The idea that God “visits” us with plagues — or suffering of any kind, really — can be a bitter pill to swallow, especially for those of who are suffering in the present. Additionally, in the wrong hands this can be (and has been) used in ways that are harmful, abusive or self-justifying.
Let’s assume God is “visiting” us with this virus, that this Time of the Virus is part of a divine sifting process within time in preparation for the final judgment at the end of time. What then? I submit the following for discussion and discernment:
- Let’s not be quick to deny COVID-19 is a function of God’s righteous judgment. That does not mean everyone who gets sick or who suffers directly from it is being punished individually. Things seldom work that way (see: Job and Luke 13:1-5). But at very least it means that God is permitting a “time of trial” to come upon us, to which we should ask “What would it take for me (we) to turn back to God in the midst of this?” The Scriptures have plenty to say about how God’s people are to respond to suffering, and plenty to say about the urgency of repentance.
- On the other hand, let’s be nuanced in how we speak of this. Scripture depicts creation as an arena of conflict and contestation; it is fallen and provisionally (not ultimately) ruled by Satan and demonic forces. God is not the author of evil, so God’s judgments are calls to repentance away from evil, not participation in or perpetuation of evil.
- Questions of divine punishment are questions for the Church to discern, as she seeks to understand her own life in light of scripture. Let’s not use Scripture in a satanic way, to accuse others while exempting ourselves from God’s judgment. After all, Jeremiah, despite his faithfulness, was in Jerusalem when the Babylonians were hammering down the walls. Much of that time he was at the bottom of a muddy cistern. God’s people, even at their most faithful, are unlikely to escape the Lord’s correction. After all, “the Lord disciplines those whom he loves, and chastises every child whom he accepts.” (Heb. 12:6). If we speak of divine judgment, we must first speak of God judging us and calling us to repent.
- Lastly, we must not disconnect these considerations from the person and work of Jesus Christ. Instead of asking “how do we make conceptual sense of this?” better to ask “how can this experience further unite me to Christ through participation in his death and resurrection?” That question has the advantage of tethering us to Christ, and not to abstract speculation. After all, it is Christ we will stand before on the Last Day, and it is Christ — and he alone — who clothes us with “garments of salvation” and covers us with “the robe of righteousness” (Isa 61:10). In other words, talk of divine judgment, if it is to remain distinctly Christian, remains centered on the One who is both Judge and judged, who will judge the world in righteousness and who was judged in our place. Only Jesus Christ — Lion of Judah and slain lamb — is worthy to “open the scroll” and thereby reveal the divinely-spoken meaning of world, a world judged in righteousness and saved in hope.
The Rt. Rev. Joey Royal is a suffragan bishop for the Diocese of the Arctic in the Anglican Church of Canada.