One of the things contemporary cultural Christianity rejects or tries to ignore, downplay, explain away, or not honestly wrestle with is the fierce and wild judgment of God found throughout Scripture. Not only do we reject or ignore it, but we seem embarrassed by it. Because of that, we overemphasize God’s love to the exclusion of talking about his judgment and justice.
In this article, however, I want to address the reality of judgment and speak directly to it. I want to make the case that God’s fierce judgment is a significant part of and evidence of his passionate love. Further, I want to make the case that the reality of God’s judgment is something the American church needs to hear and reflect upon more deeply.
First, let’s just state the obvious in any real or even casual reading of Scripture. God’s judgment and warnings of judgment on people and nations are found all throughout the bible. Especially, but not exclusively, warnings of judgment abound in the prophetic books. And in those books, it isn’t a “tame” or “timid” judgment; it is a fierce, wild, startling, frightening, “no holds barred” kind of judgment.
Consider just this small section from the book of Nahum, which prophesies against Ninevah: “I am against you,” declares the Lord Almighty. I will lift your skirts over your face. I will show the nations your nakedness and the kingdoms your shame. I will pelt you with filth, I will treat you with contempt and make you a spectacle. All who see you will flee from you and say, ‘Nineveh is in ruins—who will mourn for her?’ Where can I find anyone to comfort you?” Are you better than Thebes, situated on the Nile, with water around her? The river was her defense, the waters her wall. Cush and Egypt were her boundless strength; Put and Libya were among her allies. Yet she was taken captive and went into exile. Her infants were dashed to pieces at every street corner.” (Nahum 3:1-10).
Does any of that unsettle you? Does any of this make you uncomfortable? What do you do with passages like this? When was the last time you heard a sermon even out of the book of Nahum? Has God changed? Have we “evolved” into a more civilized understanding of God?
Here are some of my thoughts on the judgment of God:
- God’s anger, jealousy, and judgment are evidence of his love. A God who does not punish evil and evildoers could not be a God of love. Not calling to account, punishing wrongdoing, and bringing justice (part of which is accountability for perpetrators) would indicate a lack of care and love. Further, true peace itself is not possible with first judgment.
I just finished reading a book called South Sudan, the Untold Story. Throughout the book, the author made the case that for lasting peace to become possible, accountability would need to happen indeed. On the very last page, she writes, “Nevertheless it was clear to me that the gravity of atrocities committed meant that reconciliation would not be possible unless accountability was served. To many, peace would be a reality only when justice was in process…it was also clear to me that any attempt of skirting this responsibility, and relying on impunity for the perpetrators who had committed atrocities during the civil war would likely imply a return of new violence later, revenging what had happened to the victims, or in other ways making sure that the crimes were not forgotten. The cyclical pattern would continue” (Johnson, pg. 286).
Why is there so much talk in Scripture of God’s judgment and our giving an account on the day Jesus returns? Because judgment is evidence of his love! Peace is not possible without an accounting. Justice for the righteous cannot be served without judgment of the wicked. A God who is not angry at evil and who does not judge wickedness is not a God of love or a God worthy of worship. A God who ignores injustice cannot be just and good. God’s fierce and wild judgment is evidence of his fierce and wild love.
Another book I just read, Networked Theology, puts it this way, “The hope also has judgment at its heart; there is here no evasion of the gravity of sin and offence, oppression and injustice. In the City, in the New Jerusalem, justice will be enthroned. In judgment the poor and the weak are to be vindicated and upheld. This hope challenges the existing orders of injustice, violence, and brutality.” (Campbell & Garner, pg.128).
- God is slow to get angry and measured in his anger. His anger is not a reaction out of proportion to the actions of people. It is perfectly expressed and righteously administered. He is a God of deep emotion but in complete control of his emotions.
I add this point not to tame or downplay the fierceness of God’s judgment, but to ensure we don’t think God sins or goes overboard in his anger. Additionally, Scripture emphasizes again and again how slow God is to anger and judgment. He does not blow up or react immaturely or disproportionately. While sometimes hard for us to accept, his judgments are just and true.
This can only be trusted; however, if we believe at his core, God is truly good, and God is perfectly righteous and loving. When we come across passages that shock us, we will have to wrestle with the character and justice of God. This wrestling is something I want to encourage, not attempt to solve here. The bible is full of books like Job and Habakkuk, and characters like Jacob and others who do just that; they wrestle with God’s justice and goodness. I would put it this way: a faith without doubts or wrestling is a shallow faith. The bible invites us to identify with righteous men and women of old who wrestled with God and came out stronger in their faith because of it.
However, believing in the goodness of God can challenge us in another way. How can a good God allow evil and suffering in this world? For some, they struggle with the reality of God’s judgment; others, however, struggle more with the reality of God’s patience and grace. Here is a thought addressing those in that place:
- God’s delay of judgment is not approval of actions or letting people off the hook for their actions. His lack of immediate consequence is not the passivity or lack of accountability. Judgment and accountability will come in his due time and process and should not embolden or encourage people to continue in wrongdoing.
Why does God allow evildoers to prosper? Why does he allow righteous people to suffer at the hands of wicked and abusive people? Why doesn’t he prevent it or stop it sooner? Why doesn’t he immediately and swiftly judge?
A hard pill to swallow for those caught in the grip of evil or suffering at the hands of the wicked is the reality that God wants no one, not even his fiercest enemies, to perish, but all to come to repentance (2 Peter 3:8-10). And Scripture is clear that it is his patience (or kindness) that leads us to repentance (Romans 2:4). It is important to remember that this grace and God’s kindness extended to sinners is something none of us deserve or are worthy of (or others less worthy of).
But God’s delay is not God’s approval. The apostle Peter puts it this way: But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord, a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead, he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything done in it will be laid bare.
He is slow to anger, but the day of his wrath is swift and fierce and all-consuming. The time to repent is now; because the clock is ticking. We don’t have to bear the wrath of his judgement since Jesus bore it for us. He took our place on the cross where God’s justice and mercy most fully meet. He suffered the penalty in full for all our sin so that God can justly forgive.
The theology of God’s anger and judgment is something needed and missing from today’s popular cultural Christianity. Perhaps because previous generations went too far with too much emphasis on this, it fell out of favor. It left a bad taste in people’s mouths or wrong picture of God in people’s minds as an always angry or scowling Deity. But the abuse of this teaching doesn’t negate the truth of this teaching.
While this subject is not popular, it is needed to provoke healthy respect for the Lord and one another. It is to stimulate to right living knowing we will one day give an account before the Lord and a day of judgment is in store for evildoers. It is healthy to prick the conscious of those contemplating evil with these reminders. And it is an opportunity to repent to be saved, forgiven, and cleansed from iniquity.
“So look to him, all you people in the land who worship him faithfully. You always do what He commands you to do. Continue to do what is right. Don’t be proud. Then perhaps the LORD will keep you safe on the day he pours out his anger on the world.” -Zephaniah 2:3 NIRV
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.” -Matthew 25:31-33 NIV