Judgment! Who wants judgment? My general observation in life is that everyone wants other people to be judged, but they do not want it for themselves. Yes, the police should stop and give tickets to other people who speed. No, the police should not stop me and give me a ticket for speeding! The "problem" with God's judgment is that it is for everyone. If we finally come to terms with a personal judgment, what difference should that make in our life? When I'm arguing a case in court, I need to know what legal standard applies, I want to know about the judge, and I want to know about the process. Let's plunge into our study of the Bible and see what we can learn about God's judgment!
The Pre-Advent Judgment
Commentary for the November 30, 2013 Sabbath School Lesson
“Look, I am coming soon! My reward is with me, and I will give to each person according to what they have done.” Revelation 22:12, NIV
“He’s making a list. He’s checking it twice. He’s going to find out who’s naughty or nice. Santa Claus is coming to town.” So go the lyrics of the Christmas standard, “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” by John Coots and Haven Gillespie.[i] Written and first performed in the midst of the Great Depression, it was a song of its times. Addressed to children, it nonetheless spoke to the greater economic picture.
The suffering masses, which had lost jobs, bank accounts, and much of their material possessions, were looking for the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel. This song and the myth of Santa Claus carried with them the hope that there would be a reward waiting at least once a year if everyone would not succumb to despair and continue to live by a high moral standard because it was the right thing to do. Better you be nice, not naughty, if you want that reward.
In a Capitalist system, hard work is supposed to ensure prosperity. The “Roaring Twenties” seemed to epitomize that with fortunes being made on Wall Street and wealth flowing like a river. Consumers rushed to purchase and enjoy products made possible by advancing technology: radios, automobiles, movies, and many familiar items made more desirable after being recast in the Art Deco image. The Great War to end all wars had recently ended and peace and prosperity were the expectations of the day. Little did everyone know that the good times would soon come abruptly to an end.[ii]
When the stock market crashed in 1929, the downward spiral began. This created widespread unemployment. While those who lived and worked on the farms did not share in the prosperity of their urban fellow citizens, they also were not as devastated by the crash. They had their farms and at least their food and shelter were sure as long as they could grow fruit and vegetables and raise livestock. Then the Dust Bowl hit and several years of repeated drought destroyed both crops and livestock. Desperate to feed their families, the farmers started to migrate in search of work and food. This migration was illustrated in John Steinbeck’s novel, “The Grapes of Wrath.” Farmers who needed work went with their families to places like California where there wasn’t enough work to go around even for those who were already there. In the midst of this bleakness, Coots and Gillespie wrote their hope-filled song.
Suffering has always been a difficult concept for humanity to deal with. Rather than accept the idea that suffering might be totally random and without specific purpose, we tend to search for meaning in suffering. Per a website quoting Friedrich Nietzsche, “To live is to suffer, to survive is to find some meaning in the suffering.”[iii] There is something about the very core of our being that eschews any idea of senselessness to life. We wish to find meaning in everything, both good and bad, but especially in the bad.
Buddhists simply accept suffering as a given. Their First Noble Truth, “Life is suffering” is based on observation that no one living escapes suffering.[iv] They tell us that suffering results from our cravings. For instance, our craving for a corporeal form makes us subject to disease, weakness, death and many other sufferings. To some Christians, the idea of suffering being the result of wrong motives and actions is appealing. They cite instances such as when Jesus would heal someone and tell them to stop sinning else something worse might happen to them.[v] However, at other times, Jesus stated that suffering was simply random and not based on the wrong actions of the sufferer.[vi]
Perhaps this idea that suffering cannot be avoided and is without meaning is why Solomon wrote, “There is something else meaningless that occurs on earth: the righteous who get what the wicked deserve, and the wicked who get what the righteous deserve. This too, I say, is meaningless. So I commend the enjoyment of life, because there is nothing better for a person under the sun than to eat and drink and be glad. Then joy will accompany them in their toil all the days of the life God has given them under the sun.”[vii] He apparently felt that since we could not make sense of the suffering, better to enjoy the good whenever God granted it to us.
Yet there is something within us that seems to rebel against the idea that all boils down to simply enjoying what we have when we have it. For example, we see the millions of dead in the Holocaust and seek meaning in their suffering. Perhaps we can accept random suffering to some degree on a minor scale, but when it impacts millions, we have a hard time believing that it was just a “Whoops! I rolled a bad result!” on some cosmic dice roll. Some anti-Semites, who ignore the millions of others who died in the Nazi death camps, focus on the Jews and blame the Holocaust on an imagined racial rejection of Christ as the reason for their annihilation. The idea is ridiculous. Thousands of priests and pastors were rounded up and ended their lives as prisoners of the Holocaust. There was even a special barracks for these clergymen in Dachau. There were only a few survivors at war’s end.[viii] The Holocaust was not simply a “God act” of retribution for Calvary.
Did these Christian clergy find meaning in their suffering at Dachau and other death camps? Perhaps, but maybe more importantly, some found that they could make a difference against the overwhelming tide of evil engulfing them. Some preferred to suffer even more in order to relieve the suffering of others through acts of self-sacrificing kindness both inside and outside the camps. Some, like Father Maximilian Kolbe, a Polish priest, even chose to pay the ultimate price by dying so that others might live.[ix] It is hard to conceive of individuals doing this if they did not believe that their suffering had purpose and that ultimately justice will out.
While Santa Claus is certainly an imaginary figure and the many songs about him are only delightful holiday melodies, they do speak annually to the bigger issue of ultimate justice, that there is a reward for being good and a punishment for being bad. This illustrates a teleological understanding that transcends scientific causality. It is also a biblical concept in that Jesus is attributed to have repeatedly said as much.
For instance, in the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats,[x] Jesus makes the point that relieving human suffering is salvific. However, He was not alone. The idea was broached in very similar terms by the Old Testament prophet Isaiah as well.[xi] When we see the suffering multiplied around us, we are tempted to ask God, “Why don’t You do something about it?” But the wise Christian understands not to ask that question, lest God also asks us the same thing.
Whether as the Buddhists claim, “Life is suffering,” or as Nietzsche opines that in order to survive, we must find meaning in our suffering, one thing that runs like a golden thread through Scripture is that we have a responsibility to relieve it to the degree that is within our power. There is no biblical command to figure out what caused the suffering in order to determine if the sufferer is worthy of relief. Perhaps we might even go so far as to say that beyond personal introspection, causality is not a concern of the Christian when faced with suffering, except as it focuses on relief. Telling a person that their poor choices have led to their hunger is not likely to get a hearing unless we have first relieved the hunger. If we choose to blame the sufferers before helping them, we will only drive them away and threaten both their salvation and ours.
As we draw closer to the Parousia, the Bible tells us that suffering will increase.[xii] Therefore the need to relieve suffering will increase as well. How we will understand and address that suffering is vital. God is not Santa Claus, but He is keeping track.[xiii] And unlike Santa Claus who is keeping track of naughty missteps, God is only putting the good on His list, those who are caring, compassionate relief workers to the need of a fallen world. Those who are not such individuals will not be found there.[xiv] This does not mean they are ignored or forgotten, far from it. Their end is not glorious. It might even be said that all the suffering they chose not to relieve will, in the end, be visited upon them. Paul said as much in his Epistle to the Galatians.[xv] Better we are found on God’s list.
[i] “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” www.wikipedia.org
[ii] 1 Thessalonians 5:3
[iv] “Basic Buddhist Concepts,” www.buddhanet.net
[v] John 5:14
[vi] Luke 13:1-5
[vii] Ecclesiastes 8:14-15, NIV
[viii] “The Holocaust: Non-Jewish Victims,” Terese Pencak Schwartz, www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org
[x] Matthew 25:31-46
[xi] Isaiah 58:6-9
[xii] Matthew 24:12-13, 21-22
[xiii] Revelation 20:12
[xiv] Revelation 20:15
[xv] Galatians 6:7
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