Thursday, October 29, 2009

Jesus and Judgement

I have been involved in a few conversations here in recent days via email on the subject of Jesus and judgment. As those of you who know me personally are aware I do not accept the traditional evangelical definition of eternal punishment as judgment as being a gospel idea. This philosophical idea changes my worldview in a way that often causes me to be challenged and oft even abused by those who claim a more traditional interpretation. This is an attempt to cull together a myriad of paragraphs that I have written in the context of the a fore mentioned discussions into a singular essay. I am deeply appreciative of my friends who have challenged me, and even those who have abused me, for requiring me to think critically in order to offer an explanation of the place I stand.

The message the world attributes to "Christianity" is a message of moral superiority, building programs, political ambition, a legacy of abuse, and an obsession with infighting over semantic disagreements. The exclusivity created by concluding that God will endlessly torture those who disagree with my theological understandings is an arrogance that affronts the very character of Jesus gospel. The idea that God is required to act in certain by any active causation neuters the "free" nature of the gift being offered. Jesus is the ultimate example of inclusiveness, and being transformed by that idea would quickly humble the pride of our superior revelation of God.

Still being fair, the idea of judgment certainly comes from inside the text of Jesus' own stories. So one has the responsibility to harmonize the inclusiveness and judgments into a functional paradigm. I will first say, that this harmonization is impossible outside of the active work of the Holy Spirit to reveal the heart of God for his creation through the person of Jesus and the community of his church. It is in the practice of living counter to the system of oppression that divides the world through walls of oppressor and oppressed, that we see salvation and judgment manifested in everything. The gospel must be Good News for the oppressor and the oppressed, because we are all slaves and masters both. So we look at Jesus' words committed to their meanings being shaped by these lenses.

Here Jesus has sent out his disciples to participate in the practice of gospel throughout the region. This passage has been used to justify a doctrine of eternal judgment. However, I would break it down to a few separate thoughts. First off, I think it is important to look at what "gospel" did Jesus send these disciples out with. Their "gospel" like Jesus' own proclamation of gospel in Luke 4, is active in the current world. Sickness, death, leprosy, demonic possession these are real world examples of the conditions of falleness. These problems exist because the problem of sin exists. "Kingdom of God is near" is proven by the facts that the effects of falleness can be proven as powerless. This message proclaims the current world power (money, power, greed) is a worthless power. There are places in this world that are too vested in the current system to receive the new system, they will reject it, and so they will sit in the consequences of siding with a system that has already found itself judged. They MUST be reforged, they must have their swords beaten into plowshares. This will be painful, but it will not be merely punitive.

It would be quite easy to fast forward this text out of it's historical placement and place it as a reference to a judgment that is an eternal punishment. However, as the Oxford scholar of first century history NT Wright points out in "The Challenge of Jesus" there is a better alternate reading of both these passages. He Notes that Jesus, in his vocation as a first century Judean prophet in an occupied state, would have been fulfilling both his role within that vocation and his role in the vocation of "Immanuel." Israel was the people of God, the recipients of Torah. However, God's design was never to bless Israel as an end to itself. God's design for Torah was for Israel to be a peculiar people, a blessing to the world. Israel rather than becoming a people of the Torah had become the keepers of Torah, and Torah had been reduced to a God management system. Israel's nationalism stemmed from their belief in this concept. The Jewish nationalism would be their downfall. Those who live by the sword will die by the sword. In this case that judgment did come for this place when Judea was ravaged by Rome in 70AD. There is a timeless truth for us to not trap God by our ideas and into our identities as these people
had done.

I want to note first that the 10 virgins were friends of the Bridegroom, the wicked servant was a servant of the master, and the sheep and the goats are in the shepherd's flock. I note this because these passages seem to be the most serious words Jesus has to speak about judgment. However despite the usual way they are presented, as an invitation to become part of Christianity or be subject to eternal judgment. Instead the stories share common theme about who God's judgment is directed toward, and that is at the insiders. The 5 foolish virgins were not unaware of the Bridegroom's intentions. The wicked servant was not unaware of the way's of his master. So too there is an expectation Jesus has of those who claim membership in his flock. Note to return once again to Jesus' own proclamation of gospel in Luke 4 in the "sheep and goats." This is a serious warning to any version of "gospel following" that is not rooted in participation with God in the margins. If we do not "lose our life" for the cause of those in the gutters we remain in the perpetual state of missing finding our life in living as part of God's Kingdom.

The issue I see as most pressing in this entire discussion is Christianity's need to interpret texts based on ideas that we hold sacred, not because they are sacred, but instead because they a protect a system we have come to like. By this I mean to conclude the whole discussion by going back to the outside world's perception of Christianity. The outside world's perception is right because it is based not on Christ's church commitment to his command of "Follow Me" but instead a civil institution that spends 80% of collected offerings on buildings, staff, and programming. The institution of the Christian religion is NOT Christ's church. Building programs, workshops, political causes, and a paid clergy are corporate functions for a civil institution. Christ's church is not a civil institution; it is the living incarnation of Christ on earth. Jesus said you would know a tree by it's fruit. If the fruit of the Christian religion is judgmental moral fundamentalism, righteous superiority, and intolerance then it is connected to a different vine than the fruit that comes from the life of Christ.

This is a very serious accusation because when Jesus speaks of judgment he is speaking to EXACTLY this problem. Jesus speaks of judgment for those who count themselves as insiders of God's work. Those who claim ownership of God, and use his name to perpetuate ideas that they hold personally profitable are looking forward to reaping the fruit of their actions.

In closing I note that there has been shared with me a Quaker idea that presents the cross as the ultimate act of solidarity by the creator with his creation. I think this idea has power to shape the praxis of our theology. It calls me into a deeper solidarity with the brokenness that Christ wishes to redeem through my hands and feet. If we can not join God, in community and in solidarity with those suffering oppression, then we stand judged already by Jesus' gospel that we claim to be the keepers of.


Nathan Slaughter said...

The thing I wrestle with is this: if that is the message Jesus was communicating, then why don't we see that portrayed in the Apostles once they receive the Holy Spirit? Paul, Peter, Philip, Stephen and all preach the human condition of sin and the need for humility before God. Look at their sermons where the Spirit convicted the world of its sin so they would turn to God. How can one know the love of God if they are never made aware of or convicted of their sin? I look at those Jesus judged and those he did not: he judged those who were unaware of their shortcomings and gave mercy to those who already felt judgment. He brought them ALL BALANCE. Those with no judgment and all mercy he brought judgment and those with all judgment and no mercy he brought mercy. The marginalized did not need to feel judged, they already felt that and needed someone to show them the mercy of God so they could be whole. The Pharisees needed that judgment so they could see their failings in relation to that perfect Father who loves us.

The message and actions of the Apostles in Acts look radically different from the understanding of Jesus' teaching you purport.

And where do phrases like "they who overcame the world" and "do not let anyone disqualify you for the prize" fit in with this understanding you are sharing?

Kevin J Bowman said...


I don't disagree with what you are saying. First off, I think this is the message we see the Apostles portray. To say that "Jesus is Lord" means that no other power is Lord.

I do not think it could be better stated than you did the, "I look at those Jesus judged and those he did not: he judged those who were unaware of their shortcomings and gave mercy to those who already felt judgment. He brought them ALL BALANCE." and continuing to your point that living out the grace of God does bring wholeness to all.

As far as statements about overcoming the world and the prize, it is often true when we read them in context, like say 1 John 5, we see that the author does not put "life" as contrasted to an eternal punishment. Instead he puts God life as the contrast to a person who is not entrusted to Love through the Holy Spirit. Paul in 1 Cor 9 uses a word that literally means "proven false."

Let me summarize, I certainly see Jesus' discussion of Ghenna and Revelation's lake of fire. However fire is a common OT illusion, and it proves it self redemptive. John talks elsewhere about a smelting pot. I do not discount that God the sovereign and righteous judge holds the keys to death and to the second death. I do not believe one could hear the message of Jesus, and not believe in God's judgment.

My point is that I reject the way judgment has been mishandled by the evangelical side of Christianity, and I reject the certainty of binding God's judgment as the last word in the Eternal Purpose of God.

Nathan Slaughter said...

I, too, totally reject the way judgment has been handled. In fact (to give an instance of what I see to be proper use of judgment) our Children's Director has been working with a woman who is an alcoholic. One night last week she got drunk and called Annette (the CD) and asked for her to come and get her. Long story short, Annette came up to me on Sunday and said: "What do I do? She fell again and I do not want her to think I am ok with it so I need to 'do' or 'say' something to her about it and let her know what she did was wrong."

I looked at her and said, "No you do not. She called you because she was aware of her sin and was seeking your help. She already feels the judgment of her actions and what she needs from us is mercy. We have to be her way out."

Judgment is appropriate and GOOD. It is what challenges us and drives us to change: the awareness and conviction of our shortfallings. Paul talks about the man who had married his mother and he says, "Turn him over to Satan! Kick him out!" Mercy was not transforming him, so he needed judgment to be made Christlike. Whereas the prostitutes needed mercy because judgment was not transforming her.

The goal is transformation! You and I agree about that. There are people who never knew Christ who will be in heaven because of his blood (according to Romans 2). You and I would agree on that. There are Jews who have been deliberately blinded by God and Paul says they will be redeemed. You and I (I think) would agree on that. The mercy of God is much greater than most Christians believe. You and I probably agree on that. The problem I am seeing is there seems to be a thought in your post that one can deny Jesus their entire life and still be restored to new life. This is my contention with(and my addmitted perception of) what I think you are saying. Am I right or am I wrong?

Is your heart wrestling with the undeserved beligerance and hatred of sinful people which has been practice in the church and you are trying to reconcile judgment and mercy in your mind, or are you abandoning the idea of eternal judgment all together and proclaiming all will be restore in heaven regardless of faith or lack-thereof?

Mark said...

Sorry for the rambling in advance...

Great post!

This also reminds me of Romans 2:14 - those without the law following with their lives things mentioned in the law. Jesus never says that his teachings are outside of the law (Paul does in several instances), Jesus instead says he came to fulfill the law. I'm happy to know that the full law is one that puts us in closer touch with something that touches the conscience of all cultures.

However, i see this "all-culture conscience" being equated with a "lowest common denominator conscience" (one that says, "do whatever you like, whatever feels right to you - follow your bliss") my question about Rom 2:14 is: "how do you become better - and more appropriately, how does society reach up from the mud and seek holiness when we're all doing what we want - like little children?"

I agree that Jesus seems to be tough on the religious leaders who uphold religious and political institutions, and compassionate toward those abused by those institutions. Also notable is how the sermons in Acts from Peter seem to be mostly aimed at Jews as a whole. (Side note: Funny that the poor are increasingly absent in Acts - and that the "summary" statements Luke gives to describe the expansion and characteristics of the church also dwindle as the book unfolds).

Paul seems to see a need to introduce the Gentiles to Jesus, but why? It seems they would be safer for the Gentiles in not knowing and avoiding the "pride" and religious leverage of knowing about Jesus.

I'm thinking Paul covered the Empire because he truly believed that the life in Jesus Christ was worth all the trouble. That even though judgment in the church was a reality, it was for the benefit of the church in its pursuit of holiness - and no judgment could be levied on those unaware of Christ.

But what about today in the West, where many have heard the news about Christ, but actively choose to turn him away? Or, like Paul's story - are choosing to assault those in the flock? What is their fate? Glad to know Saul/Paul's story ended so well - but what about atheists bent on disproving and upending Christianity for example? :)

I'm personally happy not to point any fingers or judge their fate. I'll leave that to the One with the proper perspective. In fact, I see many questioning atheists as a proper balance to keep believers honest about their claims.

Kevin - so glad you're writing on this - you're a great thinker and I need this stuff. Keep it up. :)

PeaNuht said...

I don’t think there is an issue so much with God’s judgment but the understanding of what Christ did on the cross.
If one believes that Christ died on the cross for a possibility of salvation of certain men. This leads to confusion on how God works and makes it had to understand salvation, because God doesn’t technically save anyone, just made it possible. But let’s say if Christ died and paid for the sins of those that are going to be saved, for the glory of God and His Glory only, why? Deut. 29:29.
It’ feels like there is an attempt to understand man and make men out to have the ability to be good. Men are evil and are hell bent. Really each and every one of us deserves to be eternally punished, and it is an amazing blessing that God chose to save anyone.

Unknown said...

There is no free pass to heaven! Life is a DO program, whether you choose to DO selfish things or righteous things, everybody will receive judgment no matter who you are! THAT I AM CERTIAN