I have a question for everyone who thinks about divine judgment. What do you believe is going on? I mean really. Churches teach judgment as an image of the great courtroom beyond the sky to children and youth where everyone’s sins get listed (I suppose with place and time just to establish the fact). Jesus shows up to clean the slate for those who believed in him and the story. Who is being vindicated in this image? Who is in charge of the vindication?
Judgment as Vindication
The United Methodist Church requires candidates for ordination to answer some questions about theology. One question is “what is your understanding of the kingdom of God, the Resurrection, and eternal life?” A few years after these questions are answered a request is made, “Give examples of how the practice of ministry has affected your experience and understanding of: (g) The kingdom of God (h) Resurrection and eternal life.”
The questions appear to dance around the idea of divine judgment. You cannot discuss these three topics without coming to terms with divine judgment. The New Testament gives a lot of information about the topic. Essentially, the General Conference of The United Methodist Church through the Book of Discipline asks how the prospective pastor intends to teach the subject. I asked myself, “how much dancing around the topic am I going to do?”
What I Wanted to Avoid
I live in the buckle of America’s bible belt. I have heard about the end of the world and god’s constant judgment on the world all of my life. There are small fundamentalist schools where I live that I suspect hold daily exercises of “Rapture practice.” If you believe wrong, you won’t be participating. The message is “you better get right with God, now!” Or as a friend of mine described it “turn or burn.”
I see people who are really looking forward to this end of all things. Some of these people even smile when describing the evil that will occur. I believe I am justified for wanting to get past that kind theological pathology. I said similar words to myself. It was then I knew that I had my answer.
Paul On The Judgment
“Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” Philippians 2:9-11
The hymn recorded here is not Paul’s own words. Most scholars believe he is quoting an early Christian devotion. Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 15 are usually used to debate the kind of body described in the Resurrection. God bless you if you jump into that debate. The point Paul makes in both these texts is that the Final Judgement has nothing at all to do with us. It is about what we will see.
We will see the Son of God, Jesus the Christ, vindicated. The Christ will be revealed, blessed, and empowered at the end of all things. He does not exonerate us with a testimony that he paid the price for all of our sins. The scene is not Jesus saying to God, “Nope, that one is mine.” Rather, as the hymn says, once we see this revelation “every knee shall bow and every tongue confess” what we see.
We are not vindicated. Christ is.
What About Us?
We fit into this Easter message of promise. We have a role to play. Our role is to make that confession. Every Easter we declare “Christ is Risen!” And we vindicate Jesus’ words and actions. “Jesus is Lord” is the witness of our actions and beliefs. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, there is a moral arc to the universe that bends toward justice. As this justice is achieved, we learn the laws of love and grace that allows forgiveness as an eventuality for the eternal life.
When I wrote my original answers years ago, one person asked, “Would you clarify what you wrote.” I replied with much the same as I have just said. His next question was, “Why didn’t you just write it that way?”
So, now I have.