The Surprise of Judgment

The following post is written by my friend Joshua Ryan Butler and it’s the second of three that he’ll write this week. (His first one is HERE.)  Josh has written a killer book titled The Skeletons in God’s Closet: The Mercy of Hell, the Surprise of Judgment, and the Hope of Holy War. In this second blog, Josh looks at God’s judgment through a different lens.

“Do Christians go running into the kingdom, while everyone else gets kicked outside?”

Exclusivity is a thorny topic for the Church today. Many seem to think it means, at the great final judgment, folks who sat

Joshua Ryan Butler
Joshua Ryan Butler

in the Sunday pews are “in” while everybody else gets hosed.

“Won’t this produce arrogant Christians,” we worry, “looking condescendingly down their nose at outsiders to the Christian faith?” “Is this really a fair way for God to judge the world?”

These are common fears many people have. When we turn to Jesus’ teaching on the matter, however, I think we’ll be surprised—literally. Let’s take a look.

Shock and Awe

Jesus says God’s judgment will be a surprise. This is perhaps the chief characteristic of his teaching on the topic. God turning the tables on our expectations is one of the primary things we should expect.

When the King shows up, the prodigals and prostitutes are running into the kingdom while the self-righteous and self-made are weeping outside the party. The sick, poor, blind, and lame are partying it up at God’s Wedding Feast while those who thought their own clothes were good enough are cast out into the darkness. Crowds of pagans come streaming from east and west to the Jerusalem banquet while many of those who carried God’s name unworthily find themselves outside the city, weeping and gnashing their teeth.

Insiders are weeded out; outsiders are gathered in.

Jesus says God’s arrival will be a day of astonishment and reversals. The first become last and the last first. Many who call Jesus “Lord” are told he never knew them, and many who never recognized him are told he’s known them all along. Many who thought they were in are cast outside, and many who didn’t seem to recognize there was an in or an out to begin with are welcomed with open arms.

The name of God’s game is shock and awe.

The gospel tells us who the judge is; it does not tell us the particularities and details of his judgment’s outcome. But it does give us confidence in this: Jesus is a good judge, and his judgment is good news for the world.

A Roman Centurion

So why does Jesus judge the world? I explore a variety of angles in my book, but one important angle can be found in Matthew 8, when a Roman centurion comes to Jesus and asks him to heal his paralyzed servant. Now, the Roman Empire was an overtaxing, enslaving empire bent on world domination, and the centurion is a military officer ordering a bunch of troops around the Holy Land.

So he’s not only identified with the empire, but influentially so—he is a commander in the occupation of God’s people.

Not a good start for someone coming to talk to Jesus, the Jewish Messiah.

Yet in his encounter with Jesus, something striking happens. He recognizes Jesus’ authority as greater than his own, and asks Jesus to heal his servant. Jesus responds with the shocking statement:

“I tell you the truth, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith.” (Matthew 8:10)

This must have come as quite a shock to Jesus’ audience. Within the people of God, the community that carried God’s name in the world, Jesus has not found such great faith as he has found here in this outsider—a Roman centurion, identified with the powers and structures of Gentile imperial domination that God has vowed to demolish.

Jesus finds faith in unexpected places.

Jesus then uses the Roman centurion’s faith as an illustration, an example that foreshadows what will happen when God’s kingdom comes:

“I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Matthew 8:11-12)

Notice, God’s judgment in this passage is directed primarily at the people of God, not the outsiders. It is the “subjects of the kingdom” who are thrown outside: those who have heard God’s Word, known his promises, and been proximate to his work in history.

When God shows up, Israel’s leaders are being kicked outside and Roman centurions are streaming in.

Vast multitude are streaming into God’s holy city. Their number is “many”: these are not just a few stragglers or isolated exceptions. These are crowds of worshippers rushing into the city of God. God’s kingdom has a posture of welcome and embrace towards the nations.

This is not universalism: people are being weeded out, and not everyone is being gathered in. But it is more nuanced than the caricature.

So what might this picture teach us about God’s purpose in judgment?

Divine Surgery

God’s kingdom reconciles east and west: it heals the nations. Sin is like cancer: it wants to tear the human social body apart. But Jesus is a Great Physician, whose judgment is like divine surgery: performed to make humanity whole again.

God will lay humanity down on the operating table of divine judgment to excise the destructive, fracturing power of our recalcitrant rebellion, that has shattered humanity like a china doll and flung the divided nations like shards scattered across our war-torn world. God’s endgame is a multiethnic, international body from every nation, tribe and tongue . . . and God stands against all that stands opposed to this.

God’s purpose in judgment is to make humanity whole again.

Jesus does not pluck a few people from a few nations into an abstract, acultural kingdom. Jesus restores the nations from the fragmentation, devastation, and alienation of sin, to the glorious, gracious goodness of his very presence, and through himself to one another.

God is on a mission to heal the nations.

There’s more than this to judgment, but not less. And the “surprise” nature of Jesus’ coming judgment should humble us, not make us arrogant, as we work to anticipate his coming restoration and justice today, preparing for his kingdom to arrive in fullness.

And when it does, we should expect surprise.

Joshua Ryan Butler is the author of The Skeletons in God’s Closet (free sample chapter, video trailer, and more here) and pastor of local & global outreach at Imago Dei Community (Portland, OR).

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