In this year’s battle between Rob Bell and what has been playfully described as “team hell, ” God’s judgment has come under serious scrutiny. Both sides of the debate seem to accept the presumption that God’s love cancels out His judgment, whether this happens for a predestined elect, for those who choose Christ as savior, or for all humanity whether they accept God’s love or not.
But what if God judges us because He loves us? And what if the point of Christ’s sacrifice for our sins is not to cancel out God’s judgment but to empower us to receive it as loving discipline rather than wrathful condemnation?
Isaiah 2 illustrates how God judges humanity not because He’s the supernatural equivalent of a mean middle-school gym teacher, but because He loves us and wants us to live in communion with Him and each other. God’s judgment has two sides in Isaiah 2: those who seek it find the life-giving basis for perfect human community; those who reject it find wrathful terror to be fled. For those who have been empowered to embrace God’s judgment, it is solidarity with us as victims of sin and sanctification for us as sinners who desire to be brought into communion with a perfectly holy God.
The first five verses of Isaiah 2 present a beautiful, hopeful vision of a world in which the nations have “beaten their swords into ploughshares and spears into pruning hooks” (v. 4). This is always a popular passage at anti-war protests, but I can understand why people dismiss this vision of peace as naively utopian. Nobody objects to peace, but somebody needs to protect the world against terrorists and harmful people. The basis for the peace in Isaiah 2 is what keeps the vision from being naïve.
Isaiah’s peaceful vision is centered around “the mountain of the LORD’s temple [which has been] established as the highest of the mountains” (v. 2). The lifting of this mountain symbolically represents a transformation in which “the nations” come to recognize the world’s true King and “stream” to Him to be taught “his ways, so that [they] may walk in his paths” (v. 2-3). The nations no longer “train for war” because they have accepted God as their rightful judge. Isaiah writes that God “will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples” (v. 4). In other words, the first part of Isaiah 2 tells us that God’s judgment is the foundation for world peace.
But after the first five verses of Isaiah 2, we face an uncomfortable question: how will God’s mountain rise up over all the other mountains? How will God’s judgment grant peace to all humanity? Isaiah lived among a people “full of superstitions from the east” who “practice divination like the Philistines” and “embrace pagan customs” (v. 6). God’s judgment was anything but sovereign among a people who worshiped “silver and gold, ” “chariots, ” and “idols” that were “the work of their hands” (vv. 7-8).
The only way for God’s holy mountain to be established among a land of many competing spiritual mountains is for God to “rise and shake the earth” (v. 19) on the “day [that God has] in store for all the proud and lofty” (v. 12), in an earthquake that levels “the cedars of Lebanon, ” “the oaks of Bashan, ” as well as “every lofty tower, and every fortified wall” (vv. 13-15), all of which symbolizes the complete destruction of the old world order that defies God’s judgment. Only through this violent transformation on what the Old Testament prophets called the “day of the Lord” can “the arrogance of man [be] brought low and human pride humbled” so that “the LORD alone [is] exalted” when “the idols disappear” (vv. 17-18).
Thus, the two sides to God’s judgment in Isaiah 2 are the mountain of the Lord, where God lovingly settles disputes between people who have accepted His judgment, and the day of the Lord, when God’s wrath destroys all that defies the divine authority upon which peaceful human community depends. God’s judgment sanctifies those who have been made capable of desiring to walk in His ways, but the safe space within which this can happen is only created when God crushes an oppressive world in solidarity with the victims of its sin. Thus, God’s judgment takes the form of edification or condemnation depending on whether we are empowered to receive it. We need both to be delivered from God’s wrathful judgment and brought under His edifying judgment.
Isaiah 2 thus suggests that our basic need as humans is to be converted from a state of contempt for God’s judgment in which we “love darkness instead of light because [our] deeds are evil” (John 3:19) to a state in which we desire God to judge us and chisel us into His masterpiece (Ephesians 2:10). Jesus’ cross is our bridge over the fault-line between the wrathful day of the Lord and the sanctifying mountain of the Lord. Without trusting that Christ died for our sins, we remain trapped in a fundamental dishonesty in which we try to rationalize our sins instead of asking God to judge our sins and liberate us from their way of death. We might be great at judging others and astute at calling out the subtleties of sin in general but we find all sorts of creative ways to sidestep God’s judgment of our own sin.
Misunderstanding the relationship between Christ’s atonement and God’s judgment can cause us to read the Bible for the wrong reasons. As long as we see God’s judgment as a terror to be averted by believing the right things about Jesus, then we comb scripture for the doctrine that will save us if we prove our faithfulness by arguing incessantly with other Christians. We end up “promot[ing] controversial speculations rather than advancing God’s work” (1 Timothy 1:4). But if we really trust in Christ’s atonement for our sins, then we can receive God’s judgment as a gift and read the Bible not to save ourselves through doctrinal loyalty tests, but for the sanctifying purpose of “teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16).
Let’s take for example Jesus’ two parables in which he gives the most vivid descriptions of eternal judgment: the sheep and goats in Matthew 25:31-46 and the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31. Both of these parables have been proof-texted to death by “social justice” advocates on the one hand and defenders of “eternal conscious torment” on the other. But what if instead of using these Biblical passages to win arguments with other Christians, we allowed ourselves to be judged by them? I know that I’m not going to spend eternity in a lake of fire, but I’m definitely a goat who has completely ignored Lazarus rather than inviting him to eat at my table. I haven’t visited Jesus in prison or fed Him when He was hungry or clothed Him when He was naked. And because Jesus died for me, wretched sinner that I am, I can mourn my sins of omission and let God’s judgment chisel me into a better vessel of His love. Jesus’ standards are impossibly high, but He tells us point blank: “If you love me, keep my commands” (John 14:15). Some of these commands are stated directly; others are given to us implicitly through His parables. We will only hear His commands if we read the Bible hoping to be judged.
God’s judgment is not something God’s love protects us from; it is itself central to God’s love. God judges in solidarity with the victims of sin and for the sanctification of sinners who accept His judgment. For those who hate God’s judgment, it is nothing but wrath. But those who trust in Christ’s atonement are empowered to receive God’s judgment as a gracious gift that carries them to the peak of His holy mountain.
Morgan Guyton is the associate pastor of Burke United Methodist Church in Burke, Virginia, and a Christian who continues to seek God’s liberation from the prison of self-justification Jesus died to help him overcome. Morgan’s blog “Mercy Not Sacrifice” is located at http://morganguyton.wordpress.com.