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Judgement – Richard Baukham

Christians were once very familiar with the image of the Last Judgment.  In many a medieval parish church there was a very prominent wall painting of ‘doomsday’.  (A few survive.)  Christ was depicted as judge, seated above the chancel arch, despatching the resurrected dead to their eternal destiny.  To his right the angels led away the righteous to paradise, while to his left the devils eagerly grabbed the wicked and dragged them into the fires of hell.  To gaze at such an image Sunday by Sunday must have made a profound impression on illiterate peasants who understood the Latin words of the service hardly at all.  To many of us today it looks like an image designed to instil fear.  We may wonder what it has to do with the Gospel message of the love of God or with the Jesus of the Gospels who lived and died to enact that love of God for the salvation of sinners.

Yet it is the Jesus of the Gospels who says that he will sit in judgment on all people, distinguishing the innocent from the guilty as a shepherd might separate the sheep from the goats in a mixed herd (Matthew 25:31-46).  In the teaching of Jesus and throughout the New Testament there is frequent talk of two eternal destinies.  Yet they do not have quite the symmetry that the medieval doomsday paintings might suggest.  In the parable of the sheep and the goats, Jesus consigns those on his left hand to ‘the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels’ (v 41), whereas those on his right inherit the kingdom prepared for themselves (v 34).  One destiny is the truly human destiny for which God has created all people; the other is the consequence of refusing that destiny and making an irrevocable choice for evil.  Moreover, while most of what the New Testament says about the ultimate fate of the damned is designed to warn people against it, such warnings are given only in the context of the positive prospect of participation in God’s future for his whole creation.  The images of loss highlight the seriousness of the choice for good that the Christian Gospel invites and makes possible.

The distinctive way in which the Gospel of John relates Jesus Christ to divine judgment may help us to understand this.  Since Jesus in his incarnate life is the truth of God made manifest in human history, the judgment of the last day is in a sense already taking place in people’s response to him.  Those who refuse to come to the light he would shed on their lives, choosing to pursue evil in darkness, are already condemned.  Jesus himself, this Gospel claims, condemns no one.  He came not to condemn but to save.  He embodies God’s purpose for salvation for the whole world.  Yet Jesus’ message, his witness to God’s truth, the same witness that leads those who believe in him into the truth, itself condemns those who reject it.  At the final judgment, Jesus’ message, whose purpose was salvation, will become a witness against – and so the judge – of those who built their lives on rejecting it (John 3:17-21; 12:46-48).

I shall try to answer two key questions about the way the last judgment is depicted in the New Testament and the Christian tradition.  One concerns the dualism of the portrayal.  Why are there only two fates to which those who are judged are consigned?  Since their whole lives are being assessed, should there not be a sliding scale of good and evil with rewards and punishments in corresponding gradations?  The answer is that, although it is by their deeds that people will be judged, God’s final judgment is not a legalistic implementation of distributive and retributive justice.  What is judged is the appropriateness of a life for entry into God’s eternity.  What each person’s deeds expose is the fundamental alignment of that person’s self towards God and the good, or, conversely, their fundamental rejection of God and the good.

Therefore judgment according to deeds is not inconsistent with the Pauline message that it is faith that is decisive for salvation.  Deeds are the index of faith or the lack of it.  Nor does judgment according to deeds exclude God’s mercy.  Far from it.  No one could pass God’s final assessment of their life without God’s limitless mercy.  It is true that even with God’s limitless mercy no one whose fundamental choice has been made for evil can enter the eternal kingdom of God’s righteousness.  In the nature of the case they do not belong there.  But those who, sinners that they are, have desired God’s mercy, are shown, in the final truth of things that the last judgment brings to light, to be aligned towards God and his kingdom.  They belong there.  They receive mercy, richly, generously, without calculation of faults and merits.

The second question is closely related: by what criterion are people judged?  Though the various New Testament witnesses portray this in a variety of ways, they are united in seeing relationship to Christ as in some way the criterion.  I suggest two ways in which we might think about this.  One is in terms of Jesus’ own message about the coming of the kingdom of God, which was a message both of radical grace and of radical demand.  Jesus came to call sinners, not the righteous, but he called them to a life of radical commitment to living the life of God’s kingdom.  In the Gospels Jesus’ loving acceptance of sinners is matched by the comprehensive practice of love that he demands of his disciples.  That the verdict at the last judgment should be both according to deeds and entirely dependent on God’s mercy is consistent with this.

Another way of thinking of Christ as the criterion of judgment is in terms of the cross.  The crucified Christ has borne already and representatively the full weight of God’s final condemnation of sinners, and has borne it in order that God’s love may reach those under condemnation, bringing them forgiveness and renewal of life.  Those who by faith find in Christ their representative discover already, provisionally, God’s verdict in their favour.  The astonishing coincidence of God’s utter condemnation of sinners and God’s radical grace for sinners has occurred definitively at the cross and will recur at the last judgment.  The last judgment will implement only what has been decided once and for all at the cross.  From this perspective we can see how mistaken it is to think that God’s judgment and God’s mercy detract from each other, as though the more weight we give to judgment, the less we can give to mercy, and vice versa.  Rather, there is direct proportionality between the two. God’s mercy is as extensive as the severity of his judgment, and his judgment as uncompromising as the depth of his mercy.

The image of the last judgment points to the need for the final truth of all human lives to be made clear: ‘nothing is hidden that will not be disclosed’ (Luke 8:17). In the light of God’s judgment all illusions about oneself, all pretences and deceit, all distorted self-representations must be discarded.  It follows that also all our illusions about other people must be dispelled.  Such truth will be painful but will also include happy surprises.  At the same time, at the last judgment, we shall confront the truth of the One who judges, the truth of his dealings with us in this life as well as the truth of his final verdict on us.  We shall recognize him as he is in Jesus Christ – in his uncompromising righteousness and his infinite mercy.

Medieval Christians contemplated doomsday on a regular basis.  Most Christians now do not.  But perhaps there is something to be said for contemplating the last judgment – among the other great images of the Christian hope.  It could train us to be honest about ourselves before God, to seek some understanding of the truth of our lives as God sees them, knowing that his love for us can never cloud his judgment but includes it.  f

Richard Bauckham is a biblical scholar and theologian, now based in Cambridge.  His latest books are The Bible and Ecology (2010) and Jesus: A Very Short Introduction (2011, OUP). More information is available on his website: