Wrong Angle on God’s Judgment

I recently read some of the blog posts on the topic of God’s holiness and wrath by neo-reformed blogger, Tim Challies. You can catch all 4 parts here – part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4.

First off, let me begin by saying I have great respect for Tim Challies, and other neo-reformed folk. Not so much because I agree with their every theological approach. But because they typically engage and interact with great humility. All could learn a thing of two from these brothers and sisters.

Nevertheless, there is a problematic trend that I tend to see amongst those of the neo-reformed paradigm when they address topics like judgment, God’s holiness and the ever-growing popular topic of hell. I am very familiar with the particular approach because I would have argued very similarly in past days.

First off, what I want to address is not so much the biblical exegesis. I actually think Andrew Perriman does that well in his interaction with Challies’ posts. At some point in the future, I think Perriman might be dabbed the ‘theologian of hell’, since he is leading the way in helping people better understand the concept from the biblical narrative, which is, I believe, a far cry from what is actually taught in many evangelical settings. You can see his 2 posts here – part 1, part 2 – and I would recommend his shorter e-book on the topic entitled, Hell and Heaven in Narrative Perspective.

And, for starters, let me clarify that I do believe that Bible teaches that God judges and does reserve wrath for individuals and nations, that sin is a major problem before our good and holy God, that there is a final judgment, etc. Yet, as I noted, I believe we have gravely misunderstood certain biblical words and concepts surrounding sheol, hades, gehenna, death and other such related terms.

Having said that, the biggest problem I think that I see in a more neo-reformed, or even broader evangelical, perspective is that of God’s judgment and wrath being primarily directed as retributive justice, to give sinners their just due. Again, yes, I agree that sin must be dealt with. But I think it is approaching things from a wrong angle.

I believe a larger, even better, perspective of the sweeping Scriptural narrative is this – God’s judgment is ultimately and primarily about making things rightThings are out of order, outside the Edenic model given in the beginning. And so God introduced a restorative project as a response. And to bring restoration will also call for dealing with the muck of rebellion. Still, the primary focus is about bringing corrective judgment for restoration. That’s why the story ends, at the conclusion of Revelation, with things looking and sounding very similar to the way they began. Eden is restored, if you will.

Again, when God judges, yes, it means that sin must be dealt with. But it’s dealt with in the midst of God’s greater purpose – to make things right, to make all things new. And for new creation, it means old and dead creation must be dealt with in the midst of his power of renewal and redemption. This is why, at least for God’s people, judgment is a good thing. It’s bringing things back to their original order and intention. For the rule of God to come on earth as it is in heaven means that God is restoring back to what he meant when he originally meant all creation and humanity.

I don’t know if anyone sees the fundamental difference here?

For me, one empowers with grace. The other, I believe, mainly leaves quite distanced and alien from our God, that we can never attain to his good kingdom purposes and that we are merely failures waiting for all things to come to finality.

Tit for tac, you might be able to ‘prove’ the latter from quoting a buffet selection of verses. But I am convinced that a more grace-empowering, even biblical, perspective is that of seeing God’s kingdom rule right all things – for humanity and the whole cosmos-creation.

As in Acts, tell them that God ‘has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed’ (17:31), and such has been confirmed in the raising from the dead this one unique man, God’s king and Son. But draw people in by telling them it’s for making all things new, all things right, all things good and just.

That, my friends, smells like gospel, like good news.

7 thoughts on “Wrong Angle on God’s Judgment

  1. Hi Scott, I like this. Also enjoyed your last post too. With this one, are you able to expand on your views on what hell is then? If the afterlife is for ever, what does that mean for people who don’t go to heaven? I’ve been reading some of the Andrew Perriman posts but am still trying to work out his answer to that, plus I’m interested in your take on it.

    • Paul –

      Thanks for commenting here. Yes, I can hopefully post some things in the future on hell.

      Maybe some brief thoughts now.

      Sheol (in the OT Hebrew) and hades (in the NT Greek) typically refer to the place of the dead, the grave, which all humanity is allotted. But it’s resurrection that is granted to the righteous in the end. The word gehenna (which we tend to translate as “hell”) very rarely shows up in Scripture. I think 11 times across the Gospels on the lips of Jesus (not including the repeats of the same accounts in the varying Gospels). There is discussion around whether this refers to an abstract, unknown future judgment or an historical punishment that took place in and around the destruction of the city of Jerusalem in and around AD 70. It is language referring back to OT descriptions of rubbish dump that was continually burning outside Jerusalem. Perriman believes Jesus’ use of gehenna is referring to this more historical act. It’s also interesting to note that God’s judgment, wrath, day of the Lord, etc, always took place within an historical framework. Not a future, abstract judgment post-mortem. Death & destruction (annihilation) seems to be the overall general judgment placed upon disobedient and rebellious humanity. The imagery at the end of Revelation of the lake of fire is that this is the second death and things being completed and finalised. Death itself shall even be burned up in this lake of fire.

      There are many passages and points to be considered. But this is where I am currently leaning at this point.

      • So (to get it clear in my own mind) are you saying that essentially hell is not overcoming death and going to heaven? In order words, hell is missing out on heaven?

        What about when Jesus says it is a place where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth – wasn’t he speaking in the future tense? (Maybe that’s just the point at which people miss out on heaven.) Also, how would you say the parable of the rich man and Lazarus fits in with it all?

      • Hi Paul –

        I would say the usual evangelical concept of ‘hell’ is a misunderstanding of the word gehenna. Hades (used in the NT) is not ‘hell’. As I said, it is mainly the place of the dead, the grave, which we all enter. It is the pronouncement of judgment on humanity in the beginning – we will surely die, dust returning to dust. It is those in Christ who participate in resurrection. Heaven has already broken in and God’s ultimate plan is that heaven fully invade earth. Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Heaven is not so much ‘up there’, but the reality of God’s rule. And when God fully rules, it restores and renews, as well as dealing with sin/evil.

        Gehenna (which is found in Jesus’ words in the Gospels and the usual word translated as “hell”) is more likely referring to a particular place of judgment near Jerusalem where the faithless Jews would be punished. It’s called the “Valley of Bin Hinnom” in Jer 7:30-33 & 19:1-13. It’s a place where dead bodies were thrown where there was burning of rubbish, etc. Jesus was drawing upon that place, which Jews would know well.

        So for Jesus to speak of it future, it would have been future in his time. He was speaking somewhere around AD 27-30. This judgment of gehenna came upon Jerusalem in AD 67-70. I am very much open to it being a picture of the final judgment, which we see clearly spoken of in Rev 20. The unrighteous are thrown into the lake of fire and, as far as I can tell, they are consumed there. It’s finality of destruction.

        That’s my leanings at this point. Hope that is more understandable.

  2. Interesting to read this as I think I broadly agree with your take on judgement. I have understood from others (on thin ice here, because my knowledge is zero) that the Hebrew concept of judgement is as you say – about a putting right of things (which need in no way minimise the seriousness of sin or indeed the necessity of a serious response). Thought-provoking stuff and I believe an important distinction.

    I too would be interested to hear your take on hell – have read your comments above and it makes me want to study this more. My simple and inexpert reading so far had been that there are some complex and varying images used to portray hell (by which I mean as an end-time thing, rather than simply the place of the dead), including separation from God, eternal punishment, and destruction. I have let myself sit for a while with the tension between those images, but might explore further! The most pertinent things to be said about hell, it would seem to me, are from Jesus’ teaching, where he is clear that it is not pleasant and something to be avoided at any cost!

    • Matt –

      Thanks for commenting here.

      On ‘hell’, this word comes from the normal Greek word used in the Gospels, which is gehenna. It has its roots in the Old Testament as a place outside Jerusalem where the dead were thrown, even burned. You can see this in Jer 7:30-33 & 19:1-13, as I mentioned to Paul Hod.

      So it is very possible that Jesus is referring to an actual real-time place when he speaks of gehenna (not an abstract future ‘place’) and the judgment that would come upon the Jewish people if they did not recognise their Messiah had come and God was wanting to bring great changes. God’s judgment has always been within real-time history as recorded in Scripture.

      But we do have the description of the lake of fire at the end of John’s apocalyptic vision in Revelation. There is seems more finality. The punishment for sin was death. But it’s the righteous that are resurrected to life, while the unrighteous, who are dead, are consumed/destroyed in the lake of fire.

      There are a few references in Matthew to ‘eternal punishment’ or ‘eternal fire’. Even if these are connected more to an abstract future date, what could be being described here is the finality of it all, it is eternal and cannot be resisted for the unrighteous.

      One book that was very interesting for me, and only just over 100 pages, was Perriman’s Hell and Heaven in Narrative Perspective. It’s really a collection of many, many articles on his blog put together in book form.

      • Interesting indeed – will look into this. Very interested to see your comment on the meaning of “eternal” in this context – I too have felt that the word has potential to mean either everlasting in the sense of duration or potentially everlasting in the sense of finality.

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