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franciscan - May 2004

© The Society of Saint Francis, 2004

Judgement  In The New Testament

by Frances Young

In the New Testament, God's judgement is often taken for granted, and sometimes seems to hang over everything.  This is a feature which some have thought inconsistent with the overall thrust of the New Testament message. In the second century, for example, Marcion argued that the God of Jesus Christ was a God of love, whereas the God of the Jewish scriptures was a god of judgement, who could not therefore be the same god.  His opponents, however, had little difficulty in showing that the God of the New Testament was entirely consistent with the God of those books known to Christians as the Old Testament: the same God had sent Jesus Christ as had called the Israelites into covenant. 

The covenant was a relationship of love, but also one that required accountability.  This meant obedience to the Law given by God, and penalties for disobedience - indeed the message of the major prophets was that the conquest of both Israel and Judah, followed by the exile, were such penalties, while also being a sign of God's on-going covenantal engagement with his people.  It is against that set of assumptions that the Gospels portray Jesus as telling such parables as, for example, the well-known story of the judgement of the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25.31-46).  Accountability before God means facing the judgement of God.

The Bible is clear that judgement is the other side of love's coin.  The experience of parenthood is an analogy that helps to make sense of this, and one much used in the scriptures.  In the Epistle to the Hebrews (12.5-11) we find this spelt out:

And you have forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as children - 'My child, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, or lose heart when you are punished by him; for the Lord disciplines those he loves, and chastises every child whom he accepts.’  Endure trials for the sake of discipline. …  We had human parents to discipline us, and we respected them.  Should we not be even more willing to be subject to the Father of spirits and live?  For they disciplined us for a short time as seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share his holiness.  Now discipline always seems painful rather than pleasant at the time, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it. (NRSV)

An important point to note is that this Christian author quotes Proverbs 3.11-12, while making a point repeatedly urged in the book of Job and other texts we know as the 'wisdom literature' of the Bible.  Nowadays we may put more emphasis on affirming  children and giving them confidence, while treating physical punishment as abuse.  But traditionally a loving parent has been told that to spare the rod is to spoil the child, and even now, most parents find they have to determine boundaries, which the child may not overstep without some sanctions being imposed.  Love makes demands; love has expectations; love judges and disciplines for the sake of the loved one.  It is not surprising that the Gospels report sayings of Jesus that hold out sanctions or rewards on the basis of behaviour that conforms to or challenges the will of God the Father.

On the other hand, we are all familiar with the saying of Jesus, 'Judge not that you be not judged.'  This statement, however, is hardly a blanket prohibition of judgement.  It is in a context concerned with hypocrisy (Matthew 7.1 ff), that is, with the human tendency to judge or criticise others without noting one's own very similar faults.  And the form of the saying itself implies that judgement is part of the structure of relationships: in the end it is not our judgements that count, but the much truer judgements of God.  The earliest Christian writings outside the New Testament (some of them were treated as part of the canon in the early centuries, and they are known as the Apostolic Fathers) have as a major theme the notion that we are all accountable to God who sees into our hearts and knows every motivation.

Let us observe how close God is, and that none of our thoughts, none of the inner debates we have, escape his attention. Awe and respect for the Lord is a beautiful thing…  For God is a searcher of thoughts and desires (I Clement 21.3,8-9).

Nothing escapes the Lord's notice - indeed, even our secrets are present to him. So let us act in everything we do as if he were dwelling within us, so that we may be his temples, and he may be our God within us. Indeed, that is already the case, and will appear obvious to the extent we love him. (Ignatius, Ephesians 15.3).

For these writers, as for the New Testament, the prospect of God's final judgement, when all will be exposed for who they are, is a real expectation.  It is in this sense that I suggested that judgement 'sometimes seems to hang over everything'.  The early Christian movement was much affected, it seems, by the ideas found in the so-called 'apocalyptic literature'.  This genre developed at a time when Israel's dire situation seemed to be far worse than any concept of God's justice could cope with.  The struggle between good and evil was projected onto a cosmic stage, with Satan and his angels ranged against the forces on God's side, and the expectation was that eventually God would intervene and sort things out.  This was the context for the expectation of God's final judgement - a hunger for justice.

There are apocalyptic passages in the Gospels: Mark 13, Matthew 24-5, and Luke 21 are the most extended.  In addition the Pauline Epistles contain passages of an apocalyptic kind, such as the Thessalonian Epistles.  The book of Revelation is a Christian Apocalypse.  Sayings that suggest eternal punishment, and even the idea of resurrection, have a similar background, for the idea of resurrection is first found in apocalyptic pictures of the dead rising to face the final judgement (e.g. Daniel 12).

However, there are good reasons for suggesting that the New Testament does not teach final condemnation.  In the Gospel according to St. John, krisis is happening all the time, in the sense that people are exposed for what they are by their reaction to Jesus.

And this is the judgement, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil (John 3.19, NRSV).

Yet Jesus says,

I have come as light into the world, so that everyone who believes in me should not remain in darkness.  I do not judge anyone who hears my words and does not keep them, for I came not to judge the world, but to save the world (John 12.46-7).

And the 'hour of glory' turns out to be the moment when he enters the deepest darkness on the cross, challenges the 'ruler of this world' and declares 'It is finished!' (John 12.27-32, 19.30).  Likewise, in the Epistle to the Romans, Christ bears the wrath and judgement and brings about atonement.

Judgement truly is the obverse of love's coin. f


Frances Young is Edward Cadbury Professor of Theology at the University of Birmingham.


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