- John Shepherd
The theme of judgment figures largely in the Christian tradition. From early on, Christians incorporated into their writings the inherited idea that God’s eventual coming into the world with power and great glory would be the occasion of judgment. Mercy would be granted to the righteous. The unrighteous would be cut down and thrown into the fire.
So when Luke tells us of John the Baptist announcing the coming of a Messiah, it is a Messiah straight out of Old Testament imagery, with a winnowing fork in his hand, clearing the threshing floor, gathering the wheat into the granary, and burning the chaff with unquenchable fire.
And with that, we’re told, John proclaimed the good news to the people. Good news? Being destroyed in unquenchable fire because of our unrighteousness? If that’s good news, we’d hate to hear the bad news. Curiously, it is good news, but it needs teasing out.
When John the Baptist was asked, “What should we do, in the face of our impending rejection?” he answered, in summary, offer support, shelter and sustenance to those in need, act fairly, don’t abuse or cheat others, don’t bully, extort or lie, and don’t grumble about how life is working out for you.
That is, act compassionately and justly to others, and get on with it.
This is what God is looking for, and it concerns the way we relate to each other. It’s a matter of conduct in community.
Unfortunately, however, the idea of God’s judgment came to refer more to doctrine, than conduct.
As the Church established itself, correct doctrine was invented, and it was assumed that, above all, right belief was what God wanted. What we thought now mattered more than what we did.
And so people who tried hard to make the lives of those around them a little happier, a little more worthwhile — if they didn’t at the same time acknowledge their belief in the prescribed articles of doctrine — were made to feel excluded.
The priority to attaining righteousness and achieving salvation became right belief, rather than right behaviour, with the result that the gate snapped shut for many, if not the majority of the world’s inhabitants, both living and dead.
As a way of encouraging disillusionment, suspicion and a keen sense of the Church’s irrelevance, this approach was gold-plated. The extent of pastoral harm it caused is incalculable.
Surely if God is indeed the God who is the Creator and Redeemer of all creation, then this God would never shut anyone out who treated others with kindness and generosity and forgiveness, and so offered them hope for a richer, fuller life — no matter what creed they confessed, or even if they confessed no creed at all.
In fact, if the definition of so-called “right belief” were ever thought to be the central feature of the Christian faith, this would be a profoundly worrying thing.
What is important for Christianity isn’t that it gets its beliefs absolutely clear and definite. If it’s really God were talking about, we can never hope to do that anyway.
What matters is that we make the spirit of God a living reality for others in all our acts of charity, of generosity, of forgiveness and of caring. God is within all of us, irrespective of the degree to which we care to acknowledge it or not, and we make this God a reality for others more by what we do, than what we say. As John reminds us, “anyone who does what is right is righteous, just as Christ is righteous” (I John 3:7).
If we had to define judgment, I think we could say that judgment is knowing ourselves. Judgment happens when we see ourselves as we are. Not as we’d like ourselves to be seen, but as we actually are.
This is a daunting prospect. Frightening, even.
Except for one thing.
When we do see ourselves as we really are, we’ll see ourselves as God sees us.
“My knowledge now is partial,” says Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians, “but when I meet God face to face, it will be whole, like God’s knowledge of me”(13:12).
That is, when we get to see ourselves, it won’t be destructive for us, because we’ll see ourselves as God sees us, and the way God sees us is by looking beyond our weaknesses to our potential.
God won’t stop at our failures, but will go on to what we’re capable of, and focus on the immense amount of good we have done, and can do.
This means that the judgment of God will never be destructive. It will be affirming, if it is truly God who is judging us, and not some lesser god of our own invention.
So judgment is not something to be feared, but something for which we can give thanks to the God who is both our maker and mender.
The Very Rev Dr John Shepherd is Dean of Perth, Western Australia