JUDGMENT: Caring Love (pp. 67-77)

Creative love theism has a special way of ordering the love and judgment of God. Love is accompanied by judgment, but not along parallel lines as in the doctrine of double predestination. God's judgment serves God's grace. God says yes to the world, not yes and no (2 Cor 1:20). His love is not ambiguous or doubtful. God judges our sin but in his heart wants to have mercy on us all (Rom 11:32). We think of judgment as God's caring love, over against distorted ideas about wrath held by some. It is wrong to imagine divine wrath as an attribute of God like his mercy, as though God had competing and even conflicting attributes that led him sometimes to forgive and other times to condemn.

Love and Wrath

To correct this misreading of the gospel, it is necessary to clarify the relationship between God's love and God's wrath. Calvinism has tended to regard wrath as a function of divine holiness and to sever its relation to love. This gives the impression of a split in the deity, with one part clamoring for condemnation and the other part yearning to forgive. This leads, then, to a view of redemption in which there is a problem in God that has to be overcome - as if God had to be persuaded to love sinners almost against his nature. It was theorized that the justice component in God has to be requited by the mercy component to win him over to a policy of reconciliation for humanity.

One thing that can be said for this view is that it takes sin seriously and avoids depicting God's love in a sentimental way. But the idea of a split in God, a problem needing resolution if humanity is to be saved, is intolerable. We cannot believe that there are two gods and two divine wills - one longing to save and the other needing to condemn.

Luther came perilously close to saying so when he spoke of a hidden and a revealed God, of a will that desires to save and a will that secretly decides to reject. This is a dangerous and unhappy dualism. God's wrath in response to sin cannot be divorced from his love for sinners, but is to be seen as an expression of it. As Paul Jewett said, "Wrath describes not God as he is in himself but as he is related to the sinner who spurns his love and dishonors his name." [Paul K. Jewett, God, Creationand Revelation: A Neo-evangelical Theology (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1991). P.246]

When we relate love and wrath, it is important to recognize that God's wrath is in the service of his love. Love and wrath are not equally ultimate in the divine nature like two parallel attributes: instead, wrath is subordinate to love. This is clear in many texts; for example,

The LORD, the LORD,
a God merciful and gracious,
slow to anger,
and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness. (Exodus 34:6)

Although there is wrath (contrary to liberal theology), God's love but not his wrath is everlasting. If God were wrath in the same way that he is love, God would be internally schizophrenic. The Trinity is a fellowship of love, not of anger. Wrath arises in relation to sinners who spurn divine love. Betrayal calls for a vigorous response; God's wrath arises from injured love. But wrath must not be seen in isolation from concern for humanity. [So Abraham J. Heschel, The Prophets (New York: Harper & Row, 1962), chap. 16.]

Wrath is an indicator not of God's dark side (which does not exist - in him is no darkness at all) but of God's response to humanity's treatment of him. God is not indifferent to what we do when we sin, and so wrath arises in him. It is a measure of his concern for us that he is not indifferent to us. Concern is the source of his anger - it is not its opposite. Paradoxically, if God is angry with us it is because he loves us. What would be truly awful would be if God didn't care, if he were indifferent to our evil and even condoned it.

God's anger is aroused when the rights of the poor are violated, when orphans and widows are oppressed and when his name is blasphemed. But it is aroused because he loves sinners, not because he hates them. If he did not love them, he would let things be as they are and give up. The story of the flood in Genesis suggests that God almost reached that point once but, thankfully, drew back (Genesis 6:6-8).

Slow to Anger

The Bible stresses the fact that God restrains his anger when it does arise. The Bible says that God is good and is slow to anger. God does not like anger in us because he does not even like it in himself. Think of the book of Jonah, which tells how God wants to repent of the evil that he said he would do to Nineveh. He really longs for the Ninevites to repent so that he will not have to judge them. God does not want to be angry, and his wrath only happens when people remain stubbornly impenitent, when they leave God no alternative but to act in judgment. But even then God would much rather do them good, because he is compassionate by nature.

When God's anger does burn against sinners, the Bible says it lasts only a moment. His anger passes, but his love endures forever. Wrath happens, but it does not abide. Because God's anger is rooted in his love for us, it is actually distasteful to him. It is a tragic necessity, not something God ever delights in. It causes him suffering and means he must suspend his mercy for a time.

Paul tells us not to avenge ourselves but to leave wrath to God (Romans 12:19). This may be because we cannot handle it without being vindictive. Compare this with what Isaiah says about God judging Egypt. The prophet says that God is going to make himself known to the Egyptians but will have to come down hard on them first: "The LORD will strike Egypt, striking and healing; they will return to the LORD, and he will listen to their supplications and heal them" (Isaiah 19:22).

Our point is that God's wrath is not a fundamental disposition inherent in God's nature but a reaction that God experiences because of his love when he is confronted by sin. Jeremiah knew that God's mercy is greater than his justice:

Although our iniquities testify against us,
act, O LORD, for your name's sake. (Jeremiah 14:7)

Even in judgment, God acts out of love: "I reprove and discipline those whom I love" (Revelation 3:19). The principle is plain:

Although [God] causes grief, he will have compassion
according to the abundance of his steadfast love;
for he does not willingly afflict or grieve anyone (Lamentations 3:32).

The matter is clear. God is love, and he manifests wrath when spurned. This is what any real lover does. Clearly God's purpose is to save, not to condemn or destroy. "God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him" (John 3:17). When Jesus encountered the woman taken in adultery, he did not condemn her (John 8:11). He just wanted her to change.

God's judgments, when they fall in advance of the final judgment, are intended to lead men and women to repentance (Romans 2:4). Because, as Peter says, "the Lord is . . .not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance" (2 Peter 3:9). His threat to remove the lampstand from a church, for example (Revelation 2:5), is to provoke conversion. God wants to have mercy on all people, wherever possible (Romans 11:32).

The purpose of judgment is mercy. If God had his way, all his judgments would be penultimate, and everyone would be saved. Only when judgments fail to provoke repentance do they provoke eschatological wrath. Only when the final no is rendered does God close the books on the impenitent (Romans 2:5). Before that they remain open. (We will return to this point in chapter eight.)

Judgment and Salvation

Let us try now to view God's judgments in the context of his saving purposes. Yes, God judges sinners, but his judgments are those of a lover, not those of an angry judge. God is the Savior of the world, who cares about what is just and right even in his act of saving. The context for viewing God's judgments is not the courtroom but the family. Judgment is the reaction of trinitarian love to sin.

Should there be a final refusal to repent, God's judgments may mean final judgment and irrevocable rejection. The finally impenitent will be swept away in fury - we do not intend to sidestep clear biblical warnings to that effect. But the judgments in history prior to final judgment are not meant as God's last word. Judgments upon nations, cities, peoples, churches, families and individuals are meant to warn and deter, heal and restore. They are not proof that God does not love us but proof that he does. Paul states that the judgments that fall on disobedient Israel serve the divine purpose that has for its end God's having mercy upon them all (Romans 11:32).

God is a father who would heal his broken creatures, not a judge thirsty to condemn them. He wants us all, without exception, to turn back from folly and grow into conformity with the image of his Son. His judgments have a loving and constructive purpose. His wrath falls upon men and women in order to warn, correct and teach them. Human actions in a moral universe have consequences and incur judgments, but the judgments fall so that sinners might learn, change and grow. God's wrath does not mean that he hates us.

Not all biblical texts make this clear . The prophet Nahum, for example, does not seem to see it that way from his brief oracle. Perhaps it was not yet revealed to him. Old Testament writers often display a less than Christian point of view even when they teach some truth. It is possible to cite texts of judgment, such as the account of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, where there does not seem to be any concern to correct and restore sinners but only to destroy them.

Many read the Book of Revelation in the same way as a book of terrible judgments that result in the damnation of all but a few persons. But is this the best way to read it? And, by extension, is it the best way to read the Bible as a whole?

The book of Revelation itself alerts us not to interpret in this manner. It tells us that overarching the throne of God is a rainbow (Revelation 4:3). This is a signal not to interpret the disasters that follow as if God had forgotten his promise to Noah and his covenant with all flesh. The visionary wants us to interpret the coming ordeals described in his book as part of a process that has its goal the salvation of the nations. God is going to succeed, and he will not fail to bring a chaotic world under his sovereignty. It won't be easy, it won't be painless, but it will be done.

It is wrong to read John as if he were saying that God is going to be happy with saving a mere vestige of fallen humanity and so has given up on the world as a whole. On the contrary, John the Divine expects God's purposes to triumph in the new heavens and earth, even though there will be considerable judgment first. There is a rottenness to be purged and a great deal of transforming to be done. But God intends to do this through the Lamb who has broken the seals. John is an optimist, not a pessimist. He believes and predicts that all the nations will come and worship God in the end (Revelation 15:4). He predicts that after the battles have subsided, the nations will emerge free of Satan's deception and come under God's reign.

How have we missed this point? The smashing of evil forces in Revelation does not refer to the destruction of most humans (as some read it) but to the defeat of the evil powers and the liberation of humanity from their grip. It is a message of victory over evil. John anticipates the day when all the kings of the earth will bring their glory into the new Jerusalem (Revelation 21:26). There is scarcely a more eloquent statement of the global purposes of God in the Bible.

George Caird gets it right: "The repeated attacks upon the ungodly world ordered by all the armament of heaven, which occupy so large a part of John's book, are designed not to destroy or to punish, but to penetrate the defenses which the world has erected against the rule of God." The whole point of this book is that a presently enslaved humanity will be set free and experience healing. This is what God wants to happen and will make happen. [George B. Caird, A Commentary on the Revelation of St. John the Divine (London :Adam and Charles Black, 1966). p.300

The Judgment of God

It is important to see that God's righteousness is an integral part of his saving work, not something alien to it. According to the forensic model, righteousness and judgment are something to be afraid of. Yet in the Bible one does not fear God's righteousness but hopes in it. The righteousness of God is not something that stands against us to threaten us but something that will ultimately put right what is wrong with the world. Justification is not only a declaring just but is also a putting right. It transcends the forensic level, being both a gift and a power, both a declaring just and a making righteous. God's righteousness in the power of God moving history to new creation.

Justification is a relational term. It has been a mistake to think of justification just as forensic acquittal or legal fiction. Paul is talking about a new relationship with God. God has put things right between us and welcomes us to his family of sons and daughters. Much more than acquittal, justification is a rectification of our relationship with him. [Ralph P. Martin, Reconciliation: A Study of Paul's Theology (Atlanta: John Knox, 1981), pp. 32-37.]

We celebrate God's righteousness as the hope of salvation, and do not fear it. Isaiah has it right:

Shower, O heavens, from above,
and let the skies rain down righteousness;
let the earth open, that salvation may spring up,
and let it cause righteousness to sprout up also. (Isaiah 45:8)

The righteousness of God refers to his saving action. God's righteousness has been revealed together with the power to save humanity (Romans 1:17). Righteousness is synonymous with the saving activity of God and it is allied with God's mercy, the very opposite of condemnatory judgment. Of course, God's righteousness includes the serious demand that humanity return to the order God has established. But it also has in view making this return a possibility. God's justice will rectify and put things right. It aims at restoration, not condemnation, and therefore is a cause of hope, not of fear. God's righteousness is not primarily forensic - it is not to be viewed as a legal attribute before which we tremble and which demands penal satisfaction. The righteousness of God is not a barrier to salvation but the source of salvation. It is God's righteousness that brings salvation.

What then does it mean to say God is our Judge? This has nothing to do with an internal struggle in God over whether to save or to reject. God brings his judgment to bear on sin in the work of triumphing over it. The Judge is our Savior, one who comes to our rescue and delivers us. God accuses us and exposes sin - but only in order to defeat evil in us.

Biblical writers viewed judgment in the context of salvation, not in opposition to it. It is an aspect of God's desire to liberate us. His judgment has mostly to do with ruling and saving. Remember how God raised up "judges" to deliver Israel (Judges 2:16). They acted on behalf of his people, they judged in the service of grace. Even in the case of Egypt and Assyria (as we noted), after God has judged them, he says he will also heal them. After all the judgments are passed, God will declare: "Blessed be Egypt my people, and Assyria the work of my hands, and Israel my heritage" (Isaiah 19:25). God wants his judgments to make way for his mercy. But judgment is not to be the last word.

This is not the kind of judging one finds expressed in Islam or in forensic theism generally. According to the Qur'an, we will all stand before the Judge at the last judgment. Allah will hold the scales of justice and place our good deeds on one side and our bad deeds on the other. If our good deeds outweigh the bad ones, we will go to heaven. If the Judge decides there is more bad than good, we'll go to hell.

The model that has been dominant in the Western church is more subtle but not altogether dissimilar. The thinking goes like this: Because of original sin all people are consigned to hell. Jesus came into our world and died on the cross as a substitute. He made the payment that was sufficient to be a just penalty for our sins, an atonement that could be credited to our account.

The question was how the atonement would be credited to our account. Roman Catholics believed it was by baptism and submission to the church under papal authority. Calvinists believed Christ's saving work was credited to those whom God predestined. Nineteenth-century evangelicals believed that those who heard the gospel and responded in repentance and faith could be saved. All others deserved to go to hell, and God as Judge was bound to send them there.

This pattern of thinking pictures God in a law-court setting instead of in a family. In the family model, the love of God is viewed like that of a loving parent encouraging children to become loving. Any judging of such a parent is a part of loving. This is in contrast to the judicial model, where wrath flows against sinners in a courtroom setting as people are condemned before an awesome judge. In that picture God starts loving only when his justice has been satisfied. Is there any doubt which picture fits biblical revelation?

God the Judge

The biblical picture is one of hope. God wants to bless all the families of earth in Abraham. The expectation is for all the nations to come before God and worship him. But before that will happen, we get to hear about judgment. God is driven to judgment because there is so much garbage to clear away before this future can be realized. The goal is steady though the road may be rocky-God wants the salvation of his creatures and does not give up on them (Hosea 11:8-9). He is faithful to his promises, come what may, even if it means doing new things to open up the future, that his grace may be realized.

Jesus is in line with this. He proclaims his mission to be the inception of the kingdom of god, but not yet in fullness. Many judgments will have to fall before its consummation. Still, God's desire is not ultimate judgment but salvation.

To grasp the meaning of God as judge and his judgment, we need to take a fresh look at the book of Judges, because it tells us how the Jewish people saw judges functioning. Judges were leaders empowered by the Holy Spirit to set people free from oppression (Judges 6:33-34). Deborah, Gideon and Samson were not law-court judges - they were leaders who took great risks in order to care for the oppressed. They fought for the people, they led them out of bondage, and they brought peace. A judge might have to settle petty quarrels between individuals, but the ordinary business of civil and criminal law was carried on by town elders at the city gate.

In creative love theism, we are trying to picture God as a judge along these lines. God is the kind of judge who is concerned for the liberation of people. He is the Lord who visits and redeems his people from slavery (Luke 1:68-69), as in the events of the exodus.

The Jews looked back to King David in the same way. Like the judges, he led the nation against oppressors. He established peace, dealt with quarrels and provided for worship. He was gentle like a shepherd, caring and approachable like a father. It was this kind of Judge whom the Jews anticipated in the Servant Messiah. But they never pictured a Roman law court judge.

In the Psalms too, God is appealed to as a Judge who saves and protects his people. God's judgment is not something a conscience-stricken believer has to fear so much as something the believer can hope for. God's kind of healing judgment included the dimension of social justice. Isaiah told the people to "seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow" (see Isaiah 1:11-17). Similarly, in Hosea God says: "I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice" (Hosea 6:6). Micah asks rhetorically, "What does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?" (Micah 6:8). Justice was not a law-court category but a word of salvation, including an active concern for the needy.

In the Old Testament, God is the Judge of nations and individuals after the manner of the leaders in Judges, like the just and caring ruler pictured in Psalms and like a loving parent assigning consequences for the good of the children. His aim is not to exclude but to restore. When parents get angry and assign consequences that seem unfair, children need reassurance that they are still loved. For the same reason, reassurances of the love of God are often given in the Scriptures. Believing that God still loves us even when bad consequences descend on us is an important component of faith.

How does the New Testament see God's judging? The central point may be found in Jesus' message. Unlike Jews of his day, who would have limited salvation to Israel, he promised a share in it to the Gentiles. Regarding a Jewish town that did not welcome the disciples, Jesus says, "Truly I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town" (Matthew 10:15). Whereas Rabbi Hyrcanus denied that the people of Sodom would be raised, Jesus said they would be. The Queen of Sheba, the men and women of Nineveh and even the wicked sinners of Sodom will arise in the resurrection; all the nations without exception will stand before God, according to Jesus. Their appearance may be to confirm that the judgments they suffered in history were final, or it may be to show to them some unexpected mercy. Just because Sodom was destroyed in early times, it does not follow that it has no hope at the end of history. To many who do not expect it Jesus will say, "Come, you that are blessed by my Father" (see Matthew 25:31-46).

Jesus did not view Israel as a vessel of mercy while all Gentiles would go to perdition. In the last judgment, any distinction between Jew and Gentile is to disappear, and God will show mercy to all people. From the east and the west, from north and south, they will come to sit at table with Abraham in the kingdom of God (Matthew 8:11). The same justice will be measured out to Gentiles as to Jews. The glory of the Lord will be revealed to the whole world, and the Gentiles will come to God's mountain to worship. They too will belong to the people of God and will partake in the messianic banquet. As Isaiah said:

On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples
a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines,
of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.
And he will destroy on this mountain
the shroud that is cast over all peoples,
the sheet that is spread over all nations;
he will swallow up death forever.
Then the Lord GOD will wipe away the tears from all faces,
and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth. (Isaiah 25:6-8)

Although the Old Testament speaks much about the judgment of the nations, Jesus sees them as eventually incorporated into the kingdom of God.

Jesus' hearers in Matthew 10 and Luke 10 would have known about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in Abraham's day. They would have known about the devastation of the cities of Tyre and Sidon a few hundred years before their day by the armies of Alexander. Jesus is warning them that cities in Galilee could be similarly ravaged in that generation if they did not repent. Even today countries are ravaged by civil war and invading armies. They are prey to terrible disasters and upheavals. Sometimes prophets are able to give reasons for the disaster - sometimes not. As in the case of Job, there are occasions where no apparent cause for the disasters he suffered can be discerned. In such a case, we believe that God is just even though the explanation is not immediately available.

In creative love theism, God certainly does judge nations and individuals, but his judging has the character of mercy. God is like an Old Testament judge, a just and caring king, a loving parent who assigns consequences to actions. God cares, protects, defends, frees, intervenes, fights for, sends into exile, brings back from exile. But all the while keeps on loving us and wants never to exclude anyone, even though some may eventually exclude themselves.

Chapter 7  .....