Preaching Hope, Preaching Judgment

How often do you hear a sermon at your church that develops what we find in the Creed: “I believe in Jesus Christ … who will come to judge the living and the dead, [and in] the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting”?

This theological creed affirms a constant theme of the Bible: God will judge, and God’s judgment results in redemption or destruction.

[Personal note: When I was a PhD student I met Stephen Travis, who was teaching at that time at St John’s Nottingham, he was helpful to me in the few brief conversations we had, I have followed his writings since those days, and I have great respect for him as a Christian and scholar.]

Our culture challenges this belief, and Stephen Travis, in his essay “Preaching Hope and Judgment,” in Ian Paul, D. Wenham, Preaching the New Testament, is an expert candidate to inform us about how to deal with these topics. Why? Travis has been studying and writing about judgment since the 70s. What are the challenges?

1. God is a distant memories and absolutes, or at least clear moral teachings, are a distant memory.
2. Scientific materialism rules the meta-stories.
3. Previous generations overbaked the bread and some teachers lack confidence in the biblical themes.

So what can we do?

Teach the great truths about eschatology.
Inspire action in light of them.
Stir the imagination, as CS Lewis did in The Last Battle.

But that leads to some method questions and some stances:

1. Come to terms with eschatological language as imaginative yet true.
2. Come to terms with some crucial passages.
3. Come to terms with Christian options in eschatological discussions.

What are the major themes to be taught and preached?

1. Who will come again?
2. For what purpose: to complete his work, to judge, to bring the new heavens and the new earth, and resurrection.
3. When will he come? Soon and sudden balanced by ignorance and patience.
4. How should we live?

Now what about judgment? Here are the themes for Travis:

1. Universal judgment: all will be held accountable.
2. The outcome of the judgment is inherent in the deed. It is the destination of a character formed.
3. Criteria in the Bible: faith in Christ tied to works manifesting that faith.
4. The outcome is destiny. The debate about the nature of hell can distract from the reality of a destiny and the possibility of being cut off.
5. Will all be saved? Travis says universalism distorts God’s love into coercion.

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  • Phil M

    It seems to me that there is an important aspect of judgement that has been left out here: the tone of the judgement to come is in the spirit of “putting right the wrongs”. It will be as much about justice for those who have been (are being) wronged as it is about punishing those who have perpetrated the wrong.
    One aspect of this is the judgement of Christians – our actions do not escape judgement (being shown for what they were) and I believe we will bear the full weight of finally understanding the results of our sins.
    The coming judgement is often portrayed as the consequences of our faith decisions, but isn’t it firstly about the rightness/wrongness of all actions, and then the consequences follow?

  • Clay Knick

    I thought this was one of the best chapters in the whole book! I’ve enjoyed his books, too.

  • Tim

    I see Exclusivism here being contrasted with Universalism. What of Inclusivism? Where does that fit within his eschatology?

  • When he talks about universalism distorting God’s love into coercion, what does he mean by that? I’ve often thought that universalism doesn’t make sense because people may not want to be with God at all, and if he were to force them to do so, then heaven would become a sort of hell for that person. God seems to be in the habit of wooing people into communion with him, not coercing them. I’m probably being influenced by Lewis’s The Great Divorce in this line of thinking, but it makes sense to me. Not having read Travis’s book, I wonder if this is what he’s getting at?

  • A.G. Reichert

    I recently spoke with a woman that wants to divorce her husband because “he is selfish”, she did not have Biblical grounds. She said, “God wants me to be happy”. When I shared my own painful divorce, how I asked God to forgive me for the sin while sharing the verses where Jesus spoke of marriage and divorce she said “God does not judge”. So, yes, this is not talked about enough and it leads people to misunderstand one of God’s attributes of “Judge”. His Grace was not sufficient for her, she went beyond God’s Grace behind a shield of denial where the Holy Spirit is deflected. By the way, we all do this, I am not excluding myself from the sin of denial. However, Universalism is a raging co-dependent, an good-hearted but misguided enabler that saves no one.

  • scotmcknight

    Andy, that’s what he means. Universalism means all must choose God or God makes them choose.

  • Kenton


    To follow up on #6, to what extent does Travis say the differences in revelation and understanding matter. I grew up in a Christian home in the buckle of the bible belt, but my co-worker Ravi grew up in a Hindu home in rural India. Our abilities to choose the God revealed in Jesus or in the Christian scriptures are not anywhere near the same.

    Also, is there any recognition of the irony that if universalism distorts God’s love into coercion, that (in/)exclusivism distorts God’s coercion into “love”? (That was really too easy.)

  • “This theological creed affirms a constant theme of the Bible: God will judge, and God’s judgment results in redemption or destruction.”

    Which creed affirms that judgment results in the dichotomy of redemption or destruction? Not Nicea or the Apostles’. If resurrection is the redemption of our bodies from death, why is it presented as a binary equal here instead of an opposite. The creeds affirm belief in the life everlasting, not life or death everlasting.

    And for all the accusation of universalism being coercive, how about “believe or burn/be annihilated?” I think we’re fooling ourselves if we don’t think that’s coercive.