We’re winding down our sermon series, Razing Hell, this weekend talking about the Second Coming.
When many people think of the Christian belief in the eschaton, last things, it’s the last judgment they have in mind. Many Christians have Michaelangelo’s grave depiction of the last judgment, in which an irate Christ rejects the damned at his feet and the martyrs surrounding Christ seem to delight in their torment, seared in to their minds.
Michaelangelo’s painting is evocative and beautiful in its way but biblical it is not. It’s true imagery of the last judgment populates a number of Jesus’ parables. Jesus speaks of judgment coming like thief in the night. He speaks the faithless being cast into darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. Still, the sense of resentment, self-righteousness and revenge that animates much Christian preaching on judgment is antithetical to Jesus’ own preaching on it. Judgment in Jesus’ parables isn’t about what will happen one day. It’s meant to compel faithful behavior in the here and now.
Jesus’ judgment is not vindictive.
Yet neither does scripture give us a God who is smiling, doting old man. For as many Christians who erroneously espouse a resentful, vindictive God there are as many Christians who act as though God is not entitled to judge us.
God is, as Hebrews says, a consuming fire (12.28).
What gets lost too often is that the fire of God is the fire of loving judgment- a purifying fire. God’s judgment is not a closure on relationship with us; God’s judgment is the means by which God opens relationship with us. The Last Judgment is no different, theologically, than the judgment preached by the prophets or worked on the Cross. It’s a judgment in which our Sin- that which separates us from God- is burnt away.
As Gregory of Nyssa understood it, there’s no actual difference between the fire of God’s judgment and the light of God’s glory. It’s one and the same. It’s only our perception and experience of it that changes.
This is what separates the inhabitants of Hell, Purgatory and Heaven in Dante’s Divine Comedy. The spectrum is marked by the extent people can stand to be in the light of God’s glory.
When it comes to belief in the Last Judgment is that at the end of time, all of us will be held to account (1 Corinthians 3). There is no distinction between believers and unbelievers, between the saved and the not-so-much. There is no easy, get-out rapture before the judgment. All of us will be held accountable for the mercy shown to us based on whether we too have been merciful to others (Matthew 25). Have we returned grace with grace?
The Christian hope is that we will all be judged but that the Judge is the Crucified Christ. The King who judges us is the one who died for us while we were sinners. This is a Judge determined not lose us.