When I was in middle school, a church group showed an evangelistic film in the park near my house. This short film depicted a group of teenagers waiting in line at the gates of heaven after dying in a car crash. As each teenager stepped forward, an angel checked a computer database to see whether they had accepted Christ back when they were alive. The angel directed the souls with names listed in green to the right and they passed into heaven. However, the angel directed those whose names were listed in red to the left and they rode straight down to Hell in an elevator. After the film, one of the evangelists grabbed a microphone and in a booming voice, led the neighborhood kids in a sinner’s prayer to accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.
For weeks afterward, I had nightmares about going to Hell in an elevator.
"The Last Judgment" from "Les Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry" (15th Century). Source: Wikimedia Commons.
I recently reflected on this eschatological trauma as I prepared a sermon on Jesus’ parable of the goats and sheep in Matthew 25:31-46. In this parable, Jesus uses the separation of a flock of sheep and the goats as a metaphor for cosmic, universal judgment. Growing up, I frequently heard that the parable meant the following: sheep go to heaven; goats go to Hell, so make sure you’re one of the sheep and not a goat.
Many of us in the church feel uncomfortable with cosmic judgment. We live in a culture that values ‘tolerance,’ but is intolerant of intolerant people. Many of us fear that to believe in cosmic, end-times judgment means that we end up being part of the intolerant camp. Besides, for us liberal Christian peaceniks, the thought that God would still punish the poor and oppressed whose rights we advocate for seems counter-intuitive to a social justice commitment. Therefore, we either avoid any mention about cosmic judgment, or argue that the image of Hell in the New Testament is a result of philosophical pollution by the Greeks and advocate universal salvation.
This avoidance of cosmic judgment undermines a central claim of the Bible — that Christ will return at the end of history in order to restore the relationship between God and creation. Part of the process of making this relationship whole will involve cosmic, divine judgment. As both the Old and New Testaments emphasize, God is concerned about justice and in order for justice to exist, there needs to be both accountability and judgment. If I truly believe in a merciful and good God, then whatever judgment God renders at the end of time will also be merciful and good.
On the other extreme, there are also many Christians who seem to derive to much delight and pleasure from the end of the world, as they breathlessly discerns signs of the apocalypse in every natural and human-made catastrophe. With all due respect to the various traditions of millennial thinking within the church, there’s something obscene about cheering for global apocalyptic suffering in order to validate our own opinions. Perhaps I’m being overly harsh here, but I don’t believe that God is about to usher in the End Times so that every knee shall bow and every tongue shall confess the truth about our pet economic and social theories.
While the Bible does claim that God will judge humanity at the end of history, I would also argue that scripture is more ambiguous about the specific criteria of judgment. In the imagery of cosmic judgment throughout the parables, there’s often a sense of the unexpected. In other words, those who are saved and who are damned are surprised by the verdict. We need to always approach the biblical text with humility and be careful not to assume that God favors our preferences and condemns our dislikes.
I do believe that eschatology is profoundly important for the church. The hope of Christ’s return and the restoration of creation should inform how we live our lives as Christians today. At the same time, we need to be careful to allow the Bible’s depiction of cosmic judgment to stand on its own. We need to allow God be God and resist the understandable temptation to try to dictate and control God’s way of working in the world.
To Be Continued: The Ambiguity of Judgment
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