The judgment of God is problematic for many people in today’s culture. Read on for some thoughts about how to understand and talk about justice, and God’s judgment of the world.
To listen to the sermon, click the play button:
To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer:
Download Revelation Part 18
Revelation #18. The Problem of Judgment & Punishment
This next message is not directly about the text of Revelation, but rather about issues raised by the text. I think it is important that we deal openly and clearly with the messages of judgment, justice and vengeance. All over the Book of Revelation we find God judging the wicked, and, in many cases, causing them to suffer. For instance:
3 Then from the smoke came locusts on the earth, and they were given power like the power of scorpions of the earth. 4 They were told not to harm the grass of the earth or any green plant or any tree, but only those people who do not have the seal of God on their foreheads. 5 They were allowed to torment them for five months, but not to kill them, and their torment was like the torment of a scorpion when it stings someone. 6 And in those days people will seek death and will not find it. They will long to die, but death will flee from them. (Revelation 9:3-6, HCSB).
Even the good saints who have already been martyred, seem almost bloodthirsty. When the fifth seal is opened, the Martyrs cry out:
10They cried out with a loud voice: “Lord, the One who is holy and true, how long until You judge and avenge our blood from those who live on the earth? ” (Rev 6:10, HCSB)
The idea that the wicked will be punished for their sins is problematic for our culture. For one thing, the dominant view in Western culture is that no one is truly wicked (with the exception of one or two people like Hitler). On the other hand, they also believe that no one is truly good, either: they think, in general, that all people of faith are hypocrites who don’t actually practice what they preach.
Non-Christians and pseudo-Christians in Western society do have a sense of morality, a curious mix that is partially derived from the Bible, and partially from secular humanism. Very high on the moral list of secular culture is that we should not judge anyone. I think this has rubbed off on most Christians also. So, how do we handle the judgments in Revelation? How do we handle the destruction and death that is released by God’s command? What do we do with this almost black and white view of the righteous and the wicked? I think there are several points that might help us understand and accept these concepts in Revelation.
1. God is infinite, and we are not. If you’ve been following this blog in real time, you know that last time we talked extensively about how God is so much greater than we are. Trying to understand God is like trying to use a tablespoon to contain the contents of a running garden hose. The tablespoon is filled up immediately, but there is no end to the water that comes out of the hose. This is what it is like when we try to understand God. What this means is that there could be a very convincing and satisfying explanation for all of the things that trouble us, and yet we will never be able to understand it. In fact because God is infinite, and we are not, it is very likely that we won’t be able to understand much about God at all, including the way he judges the earth. In plain language, we need to accept that God has very good reasons for what he does, and that we cannot understand very many of those reasons.
2. God is God, and we are not. In other words he can do whatever he wants to do. He made this world and he can do what he likes with it. Even if we could understand the reasons for what he does, we have no right to judge him. Another very important aspect of this point is that we human beings are not the ones who do the judging. It is absolutely wrong for us to take judgment into our own hands.
If we say something different from what the Bible says, even if we think we are being more lenient, then we are putting ourselves in the place of God, and judging others.
When we tell other people what the Bible says, we are not judging others – we are simply repeating what God has already said. Even so, we must remember that final judgment belongs to God, and it is not up to us to put God’s judgment into action.
The martyrs under the altar were asking God to act, because they understood that it was not their own place. Violence is never an appropriate expression for any part of the life of a Christian. We may, in extreme situations use violence to defend ourselves from physical danger. But we may never consider ourselves the instrument of God’s judgment, and it is not our place to deliberately harm any other human being. When David had the opportunity to kill King Saul, even when Saul was pursuing him in order to kill him, David refused. He said:
12“May the LORD judge between you and me, and may the LORD take vengeance on you for me, but my hand will never be against you. 13As the old proverb says, ‘Wickedness comes from wicked people.’ My hand will never be against you. (1Sam 24:12-13, HCSB)
This should be our attitude towards those who oppose us also. Paul wrote to the Romans:
17Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Try to do what is honorable in everyone’s eyes. 18If possible, on your part, live at peace with everyone. 19Friends, do not avenge yourselves; instead, leave room for His wrath. For it is written: Vengeance belongs to Me; I will repay, says the Lord. (Rom 12:17-19, HCSB)
We Christians interpret the whole Bible in relationship to Jesus. Therefore, even though there are texts in the Old Testament instructing the Israelites to wage “Holy War,” those texts cannot be taken literally by those who follow Jesus. Jesus himself made this very clear:
38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. 40And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. 41And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. 42 Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.
43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. (Matt 5:38-45, ESV2011)
Clear enough? God will take care of these things. It isn’t our place to harm anyone.
3. These violent and overwhelming judgments tell us that sin is serious.
Imagine that a terrible sickness was discovered. It is a virus that inflames the lining of the brain. Those who get it eventually go mad, and if not restrained, many of them, in their insanity, commit cruel and horrible crimes. Driven by the disease, they rape, humiliate, torture and murder others. Eventually, everyone who gets the virus dies; the mortality rate is 100%. It is extremely contagious, and there is no cure.
Now, some of the people who get this virus manage to control it to some extent. They are able to refrain from the worst cruelties. However, that same virus that makes some people do unspeakable horrors lives inside everyone who has it. You never know when the sickness might suddenly progress and cause someone to commit a horrific crime. The potential for the most awful cruelty will always be there, in every single person who has the disease.
In addition, everyone who has it is a carrier. Everyone who has it will infect others. So even if someone has mild symptoms, that person will pass the disease on to others; and those others may end up with the very worst symptoms.
You can see that this is a terrible, horrific virus. To control it, you would have to implement a zero tolerance quarantine, and enforce it 100%. The only thing to do, is to wait for those who have it to die.
My little analogy is actually quite true. The disease exists: it is called sin. In some people, sin exhibits mild symptoms. But the same thing that makes me snap at a dear friend in selfish anger is what makes someone else commit the most horrific crimes: rape, torture, murder. The root cause is the same.
Yehiel Dinur was a Jew. During the 1930s he experienced the increasing bigotry and persecution of the Jews, fostered by Hitler. During WWII, he ended up in a concentration camp, and after unspeakable horrors, survived. Many years afterward, he was summoned to Nuremberg Germany, to testify at the War Crimes Tribunal. He was called upon to testify against Adolf Eichmann, one of the architects of the holocaust, who had been one of Dinur’s torturers. When he stepped into the courtroom and saw Eichmann sitting on trial, he broke down in uncontrollable sobs, and had to be escorted out of the room until he could compose himself. When he was later interviewed, the news reporter assumed that Dinur’s breakdown was due to hatred, fear, or terrible memories. Or perhaps it was just the overwhelming emotion that came as a result of knowing that this terrible man was finally brought to justice.
Dinur denied all of these. He gave this as the reason for his uncontrollable emotion: “I was afraid about myself. I am — exactly like he is.”
Dinur knew that the same horror that caused the Nazi to commit such atrocities lived also inside of him. According to the Bible, he was absolutely correct. That horror lives inside each one of us, even if some of us suppress it better than others. The sin that lives in me is just as evil as the sin that lived inside of Nazi torturers. It is that serious.
All this is to say that we cannot criticize God for taking severe measures to stop the horrible disease of sin, even when its outward symptoms are mild among some people.
4. Although judgment is coming, Jesus has provided a way out for all people. That is why the gospel must be preached before the end can come (Revelation 6:1-2): so that all those who want to can escape the final judgment. The full judgment for sin fell upon Jesus. Jesus died, and if we trust him, our sinful nature was killed along with him. As Paul writes, we were united with him in his death, which means that the terminal illness of sin has been purged from our souls and spirits.
3Or are you unaware that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? 4Therefore we were buried with Him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too may walk in a new way of life. 5For if we have been joined with Him in the likeness of His death, we will certainly also be in the likeness of His resurrection. 6For we know that our old self was crucified with Him in order that sin’s dominion over the body may be abolished, so that we may no longer be enslaved to sin, 7since a person who has died is freed from sin’s claims. (Rom 6:3-7, HCSB)
Anyone who trusts Jesus is counted as having already died; we were included in the punishment and death that was given to Jesus on our behalf. In addition, he creates within us a new life, a spirit that wants to do good, and not evil:
“If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away, behold the new has come” (Second Corinthians 5:17)
What about those who never got a chance to hear the gospel before they died? Only God knows. But we know that he is merciful and gracious. Again, it is not our place to determine what happens to such people – thank the Lord!
5. The terrible judgments are also paid out against the spiritual forces of evil. In other words, if it makes you uncomfortable to think of God judging human beings, remember that some of this judgment is also given out against evil, demonic forces. If you feel like it is hard to give your hearty agreement to the judgment of the world, even after all these things we’ve been saying, we can certainly agree with these sorts of judgments against the devil, and his evil spirits.
6. Human beings are hardwired for justice. Think about this: every day, all over the world, 12 and 13-year-old girls are being kidnapped. They are raped repeatedly until the abuse brain-washes them into submission, and then they are sold as sex slaves. How can we possibly say that this is okay? How could we possibly suggest that God gives those evil and twisted abusers a pass, because “he’s a God of love?” He wouldn’t be a loving God if he allowed that to go on without consequence. I don’t believe that anyone reading this thinks God should give these rapists/slave traders a pass. Our natural response to hearing this is to demand justice. Revelation tells us that God will put all things right, including this evil. He will finally destroy the awful disease that makes people do this. He will fully punish everyone who refuses to repent. When we open our eyes to the true evil that lives in this world, how can we wish for anything less?
When we think about judgment, there is a very useful acronym to sum all of this up. The acronym is LOVE.
Look beyond the human instrumentation to the real enemy of our souls (Eph. 6:12).
On the cross, Jesus himself bore every curse (Gal. 3:13).
Vengeance belongs only to God (Rom. 12:19).
Eventually, God will set all things right (Rev. 11:15).
(This acronym is not original with me. I found it at: (http://psalms.seedbed.com/frequently-asked-questions-about-psalms/ accessed 2/6/18)
Let the Spirit speak to you today!