Thursday, October 12, 2006

6. Changing our View of God: God and Judgement

Today we come to what I believe to be an extremely important area in our changed view of God. In each of the other areas I have looked at, it can at least be argued that they are based on evidence within the Bible and Christian tradition itself:

  • God did make us male and female and we are all one in Christ Jesus
  • God is the Creator and he did declare his creation good
  • Jesus did include everyone in his ministry and ate and drank with sinners
  • Jesus’ death on the Cross is an act of love and does show us how we too should live

The problem in each of these areas is not whether what is being said is true, but whether it is the whole truth, or anything like it. However, the removal of any notion of judgement and any reference to the wrath of God amounts not simply to a concentration and an emphasis on one part of the truth, but to a complete reinterpretation of the nature of God. We really do end up with a very different kind of God. This is the God that most of us have wanted and have opted for, but it is right to pause and consider just how different the God we believe in and preach is from the God of previous ages. I don't think we realize how far we have moved in this area.

I will post the next in the series on God on Monday, and then take up the theme in this series, Changing our View of God, on Tuesday. Thank you for sticking with me this far. I look forward to your comments!

Changing our View of God: God and Judgement

The judgement of God, that is, belief in a God who judges people and either punishes or rewards them has either been rejected altogether or is now seen as being of no more than peripheral concern. Most of us are explicit or implicit universalists, that is, we believe that God after death will welcome and accept all. We certainly don’t believe that nice people who don’t believe in Jesus will be excluded from God’s kingdom, that would be unthinkable. In believing this, we don’t always realize how drastically we have moved from the New Testament. We may be happy to have done so, but it is important to acknowledge the fact. It is, then, perhaps worth reminding ourselves at the start of what the New Testament attitude is to the Judgement of God.

Take, for example, one of the most well-known and popular of the verses in the New Testament, John 3:16:

‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.’

This is sometimes described as the golden verse of the Bible. It continues however:

‘Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.’

What does John mean by this? John 3:36 seems to make it plain:

‘Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever disobeys the Son will not see life, but must endure God’s wrath.’

In Acts 17:30-31 Paul is recorded as saying to the Athenians:

‘While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.’

What he means by this Paul spells out in 2 Thessalonians 1:5-10:

‘This is evidence of the righteous judgment of God, and is intended to make you worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are also suffering. For it is indeed just of God to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to give relief to the afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. These will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, separated from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, when he comes to be glorified by his saints and to be marvelled at on that day among all who have believed, because our testimony to you was believed.’

These are not just isolated verses, but are to be found in every strand and at every level of the Biblical narrative. Nor is it the case that Jesus says anything different. In St Matthew 25 there is the famous passage in which Jesus says that those who give food, water, clothing and so on to one of his disciples gives it in fact to him. It is a powerful passage and is often used at this time of the year in Harvest Festival services. What we perhaps miss in the passage is what Jesus says will happen to those who don’t:

‘Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.’ (St Matthew 25:41)

And, again, this is not untypical of the language that Jesus uses.

I could multiply examples and that’s before we get to the Book of Revelation where in 14:10 we are told that unbelievers ‘will also drink the wine of God’s wrath, poured unmixed into the cup of his anger, and they will be tormented with fire and sulphur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb.’

I am deliberately giving these examples and labouring them because we forget how intrinsic to the teaching of Jesus and the New Testament is the idea of God’s wrath and judgement.

This was already changing when I became a Christian. People were being attracted by John Lennon’s vision of ‘no hell below us, above us only sky’. And if 'all you need is love', what place anger and wrath? It was not always so. For hundreds of years Christians had believed in and taught that one day there would be a judgement and that God would reward some and punish others. Some far too eagerly. For it has to be said that at times in the history of the Christian Church, Christians seemed to believe more in hell than they did in heaven and seemed to get a sadistic delight out of the thought of people being punished and tormented.

We, however, were having none of that. We quickly saw where the world was going. A society which had got rid of the death penalty, as Britain had, was hardly likely to approve of a God who had not. We focused instead on the passages, where Jesus was nice to sinners and not on those where he consigned them to 'outer darkness' where there was ‘weeping and gnashing of teeth’. Such discussion about judgement that did take place, took place where there was no danger of anyone from outside listening in and hearing. If that seems cynical, look at any evangelistic book or booklet put out by mainline churches. You won’t hear much of places, again to quote Jesus, ‘where their fire never goes out and the worm never perishes’.

In theological circles, a major revision in Christian teaching was taking place. It did not get too much publicity as the secular press found our revision of sexual ethics and the role of women far more juicy and reportable. But this revision was, perhaps, far more significant because it was changing the whole tone of Christianity and excising a major character trait in the Biblical description of God.

We were extremely uncomfortable with the idea of a God who got angry and punished people. Indeed, as we were not convinced they were sinners in the first place, there was not exactly a lot to punish them for. Yes, there were some bad people, people like Hitler, for example, but these were the exceptions. Most were just ordinary people, like you and me, doing their best, often in difficult circumstances. How could a loving God possibly justify inflicting pain on someone simply because they didn’t believe in him in the way he wanted? Such a view surely belonged to a less enlightened and more primitive age. Others argued that this was the God of the Old Testament, but that Jesus had shown us a different view of God. This was self-evidently not true, but it played well to the masses, and it was what we wanted to believe was true. So you now will hear plenty of sermons about what Jesus meant by eating and drinking with sinners, you won’t hear many about what he meant when he said they would be thrown into ‘outer darkness’.

This was not only about a theoretical change in doctrine. We rewrote our liturgies to remove as much as possible any reference to God’s judgement. We left passages about God punishing people out of the lectionaries so that we didn’t have to suffer the indignity of hearing them read out in church. That would be so embarrassing! The Psalms had been used in Christian worship for hundreds of years, as they had and are in Jewish worship. But these contained loads of verses about God punishing people. We did not want to stop reading them altogether because they had nice to things to say as well. We got round the problem by enclosing verses about judgement in brackets so we knew not to use them. Old hymns were revised and new ones written to reflect what was supposed to be a more positive view of God. Nor were these changes confined to the more liberal wing of the Church. You won’t find many charismatic worship songs about the judgement of God.

While these were changes within the Church and the community of believers, there was a consequent change in our attitude to those outside. Take, for example, the hymn, ‘Thy kingdom come, O God’. Originally the last verse read:

O’er heathen lands afar
thick darkness broodeth yet:
arise, O Morning Star,
arise, and never set!

This was revised so that the first line read, ‘O’er lands both near and far’. In the past, missionaries had gone out to non-Christian lands, lands afar, expressly because out of love they had wanted to save the lost. The heathen, they believed, were in grave danger of being lost to the fires of hell, and it was the Christian’s duty to do all he or she could to save them. And it is often forgotten how many missionaries were women. I owe my own Christianity, in part, to a female missionary to China whom I never met.

Nowadays, of course, those formerly known as heathen are now our dialogue partners, members of other faith communities. When I first went to theological college, I was part of prayer groups praying for missionaries who worked amongst those we thought of as pagans who had never heard the Gospel. These missionaries were the heroes of the faith, those who had sacrificed all, quite literally, for the sake of the Gospel and those for whom Christ had died. How quickly things changed.

It was not long before missionaries came to be seen not as ambassadors of Christ, but as agents of colonialism and western imperialism. They had knowingly, or unknowingly, helped spread the values of the west, which had resulted in the political oppression and exploitation of those they had gone to. These victims of the Church and missionaries did not need to hear the Gospel because they already had their own light, their own way to God, every bit as valid as that of the Christian west.

It wasn’t long before not only did we not pray for missionaries, but missionaries themselves ceased to exist. Instead of missions to the heathen, we sought to undo the sins of the past by working for fair trade, involving ourselves in development projects, and fighting unjust governments, even if the regimes that came in their place were no more just than those they replaced. Digging wells took over from distributing Bibles. ‘Peace and justice’ not ‘peace and forgiveness’ became our theme. Of course it did, for forgiveness implies sin and judgement about it, and peace in the past meant first of all peace with God, not peace amongst nations.

It is, perhaps, worth pausing to spare a thought for these missionaries so maligned by modern Christians. Did they always get it right? Of course not. Did they sometimes mix western values with the values of the Gospel? Of course they did, just as we do all the time. Did they love Christ and care passionately for those they went to? You only have to read their biographies and writings to see that they did. Many died at the hands of the very people they went to save. We talk about how Jesus loves everyone. They demonstrated it by giving their lives out of love for those they were sent to. They believed they were being sent, and wanted more than anything for people to become Christians. We are not sure it is even valid to ask anyone to become a Christian if they have a faith of their own. Who is exclusive and who inclusive? Were not the missionaries being inclusive in offering Christ to everyone and anyone, and aren’t we being exclusive by refusing to offer him to people because we respect the faith that they already have?

We see it as ignoble to be motivated by the thought of saving people. And we would think that, wouldn’t we, because we don’t believe there is anything to save them from. They are not sinners, they are not going to appear before the judgement seat of God, they are not going to be punished after death, Jesus loves them just as they are. What more is there to say? God is our friend, not our judge.

Let’s hope to heaven we are right for we are going to have a very long time to regret it if we are wrong.

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