For centuries the word "judgment" has struck fear in the hearts of God’s people, but this doesn’t have to be our response
What is your first reaction, thought, or feeling when you hear that God will judge you?
Whatever your background—political, social, religious, ethnic, educational, or age—the answer is unanimous: Fear!
In the past, I thought this was mainly my problem, because I grew up in a totalitarian communist regime. When I heard the word judgment, I imagined a judge in dark clothing, with a severe expression on his face, pointing with his finger at someone, and condemning that person to death.
I have found, however, that everywhere, impressions about the divine judgment are dark and cold. Most people think of God as a heavenly policeman, waiting to punish them for their mistakes and perceive Him as a cosmic Nebuchadnezzar before whose sovereign authority nobody can escape. They feel that they are under the magnifying glass of the heavenly Judge, and thus are full of anxiety.
My distorted understanding was grossly influenced by some preachers who used divine judgment as a pedagogical tool to motivate believers to obedience, to encourage them to be good and to behave nicely. They thought that scaring and threatening people with judgment would help them to follow God faithfully—contrary to Romans 2:4. They built their concept on a mistranslation of Jude 23: “Others save with fear” (as some old translations have it), and presented the divine judgment in full negativity.
These interpretations troubled me deeply; from my early childhood, I had a bleak and unfriendly picture of judgment that played a dreadful role in my mind. As a result, I was afraid of God, frightened by Him, and naked before His eyes. I felt lost, alone, and abandoned, with an acute sense of guilt. I perceived nothing favorable in God’s judgment.
Fear as a universal human reaction toward divine judgment is understandable because we know that God is holy (Lev. 11:44, 45; 1 Peter 1:15, 16) and a consuming fire (Isa. 30:27), and we are sinners (Rom. 3:23). Consequently, we cannot possibly stand before the awesome Judge of the Universe (Gen. 18:25). Our typical response is aptly described by Asaph: “Who can stand before you? . . . From heaven you pronounced judgment, and the land feared and was quiet” (Ps. 76:7, 8).1 At the bottom of our negative thoughts lies the conviction of our insufficiency and sinfulness.
According to popular understanding, to judge means to “condemn,” “punish,” and “destroy.” This is why people are scared, full of anxiety. This is why they avoid even talking about it. When people equate God’s judgment with condemnation, punishment, and destruction (and such meaning can clearly be attested to in the Bible), no wonder they do not experience joy and assurance of salvation in Christ Jesus. This threat of divine judgment robs them of thankfulness, and their world is divided between the redemption secured on the Cross and the fear of God’s judgment.
Thus, they live in a spiritual schizophrenia. On the one hand, they know that they are saved in Jesus Christ, but on the other, they understand that there will be a judgment. They do not know how to reconcile these two realities, and they lose peace and certitude. Are fear and hopelessness inseparable from the concept of judgment? Are uncertainty and soberness its necessary companions?
There is a positive dimension to divine judgment—without denying that there is also a negative, very sober, and tragic side of God’s judgment. For the biblical authors, the divine judgment is something that is desired and to which they looked forward with great anticipation: “Rise up, O God, judge the earth” (Ps. 82:8). Judgment plays a vital role in God’s plan of salvation, and it is a central part of the eternal gospel (Rev. 14:6, 7). “The center of biblical theology . . . is the glory of God in salvation through judgement.”2 If that is so, the basic question is, therefore, what is the primary meaning of God’s judgment?
To Judge Means to Justify
According to biblical understanding, “to judge” means “to justify,” a legal action with an awesome impact on our lives. Every time we confess our sins and are forgiven, we pass through God’s eschatological judgment, which breaks through to our situation, and we are justified by His grace—declared just. Judgment is justification: God as a true Judge justifies repentant sinners (Rom. 3:22-26), and they are cleansed and acquitted from all guilt (Ps. 51:1, 2).
God does this—and can do it—because He is our heavenly Judge. In this way, for example, Abraham was judged by God and pronounced righteous because Abraham believed in Him (Gen. 15:6). Joshua, the high priest, was made right (Zech. 3:3-5). Isaiah boldly declares: “In the Lord all the descendants of Israel will be found righteous and will exult” (Isa. 45:25). In this way, to judge means “to cleanse” (Ps. 51:7-10). Justified sinners stand in a restored and right relationship with their Lord. This positive proclamation of God on our behalf gives full assurance of salvation, new courage to live. It brings true peace and joy into our lives.
David joyfully states: “Blessed is he whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord does not count against him and in whose spirit is no deceit” (Ps. 32:1, 2). This is why Paul unambiguously clarifies: “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1). And Jesus plainly assures: “‘Whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life’” (John 5:24). The forgiven transgressor does not come into the judgment of condemnation and will not experience God’s disapproval.
Consequently, Paul announces that those who truly accept Jesus as their personal Savior are raised to new life and are already sitting on the heavenly throne in Christ at the right side of the heavenly Father (Eph. 2:6). Thus, if we are already there, why are we so worried about making it into heaven one day? Not one of our performances (however noble), great achievements, or good deeds can help us get into the kingdom of glory. We receive salvation as a pure gift only through and in Christ.
“If you give yourself to Him, and accept Him as your Saviour, then, sinful as your life may have been, for His sake you are accounted righteous. Christ's character stands in place of your character, and you are accepted before God just as if you had not sinned.”3 No wonder authority was given to Him to pronounce judgment (John 3:17, 18), and all glory belongs to Him (Ps. 34:2).
Additional examples are plentiful and portray this reality in various episodes in the Bible. The first recorded judgment is over Adam and Eve after they broke their love and trust relationship with their Creator and ate the forbidden fruit (Gen. 3:6). Instead of being destroyed as God initially said—“‘You must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die’” (2:17)—by God’s grace their lives were spared, and He even looked for them in the garden (3:9).
God’s call “‘Where are you?’” (Gen 3:9) was an expression of His deep love in search of humanity and revealed His judgment and grace at the same time. On account of the grace coming from the Lamb, who was slain before the creation of the world (Eph. 1:4), they were given life. The very first expression of the gospel announced God’s love for sinners because only He could provide a solution for our lost sinful situation and defeat Satan (Gen. 3:15). When we are in Christ, we are sons and daughters of God and heirs of His kingdom. In Christ we have everything (Gal. 3:29), and we can entirely wrap ourselves in His divine forgiveness.
George Ladd correctly explains: “The doctrine of justification means that God has pronounced the eschatological verdict of acquittal over the man of faith in the present, in advance of the final judgment. . . . Thus the man in Christ is actually righteous, not ethically but forensically, in terms of his relationship to God.”4 God is just (Deut. 32:4; 1 John 1:9); He never perverts His judgment, nor can He be accused of favoritism (Prov. 17:15; Acts 10:34, 35). He is just while justifying sinners (Rom. 3:26) because He changes them.
God sees in the present what we will become by the power of the Holy Spirit, His mighty word, and His blazing grace. He declares us righteous because by His amazing grace we will be righteous, our lives will be transformed. We are new creatures in Christ, and His grace will grow in us (2 Cor. 5:17; 1 Peter 2:2). Grace is amazing because it changes people and does what we cannot accomplish for ourselves (Rom. 7:14-18). When we pass through God’s acquittal, He justifies us as our Judge, and in His eyes we are what we will be.
To Judge Means to Save
God saves believers from the second death, sin, guilt, the power of evil, and gives eternal life (John 3:16; Rom. 6:5-9, 23). King David first described a negative aspect of divine judgment in terms of destruction and cutting off but then emphasized judgment as salvation: “All sinners will be destroyed; the future of the wicked will be cut off. The salvation of the righteous comes from the Lord; he is their stronghold in time of trouble” (Ps. 37:38, 39). Asaph stressed that when God rises up to judge, it means that He is coming “to save all the afflicted of the land” (Ps. 76:9). Thus, these biblical texts explicitly state that for God to judge means to save His people. God’s judgment is salvation and comes uniquely from the Lord (Ps. 62:1; Isa 12:2). God is the Savior and Redeemer (Deut. 32:15; Isa. 44:6; Jer. 14:8).
The biblical flood account (Genesis 6-9) is another good example of salvation in the midst of God’s judging activity. The whole story culminates with this statement: “God remembered Noah” (8:1). This climax does not mean that God had a loss of memory and suddenly He remembered, but that He intervened in favor of Noah in the midst of judgment to save him and his family.
Furthermore, Noah received grace from God (Gen. 6:8). It is important to note that the word for “grace” appears for the first time in the Bible in the Flood narrative. Surprisingly God’s intervening grace is the apex of the story, because from it all salvific actions flow for humanity.
And God’s grace was not only for Noah; it was offered to the antediluvian people as well. Genesis 6:3 reveals that God’s Spirit was striving with people by calling them to repentance. However, God had to sadly proclaim: “‘My Spirit will not contend with man forever.’”
In this verse, the Hebrew word for “judge” appears, and translators are puzzled because they are not sure what to do with this concept. They do not try to hide the difficulty of this verse and propose various solutions. In what sense was the Spirit of the Lord no longer able to “judge” them? God wanted to justify and save the antediluvian people, but because of their stubbornness, refusal to listen to His word, follow His instructions, and that their thinking was evil, He was unable to judge them favorably.
Nevertheless, even in such an estranged situation, God gave them 120 years of additional grace so they could repent and turn back to Him (Gen. 6:3). Unfortunately, God’s amazing grace was not received graciously, and the result is described in language indicative of a total state of human depravity: “The Lord saw how great man’s wickedness on the earth had become, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time” (vs. 5). Noah was a preacher of righteousness to them, but his words and example of godliness were not taken seriously.
God had to stop the avalanche of evil, but He was waiting till the last second. When He intervened with His negative judgment, He actually intervened in His grace, because He could no longer envision the destruction, perversion, violence, torture, and exploitation of the pre-Flood world. He destroyed what had already been destroyed by humans (Gen. 6:11-13). God, as the Surgeon, removed the cancer of sin.
Sadly, at the end, God was able to save only one family whose members were willing to cooperate with Him. If God had not intervened, the blight of sin would most probably in time have overrun even this faithful remnant. God’s promised Seed would not have had a place to be born, His word would not have been fulfilled (Gen. 3:15), and the Messiah’s coming would have been hindered. Thus, the cancer of sin would have completely engulfed the world, evil would have won, Satan would have triumphed, God’s cause would have been defeated, and humanity lost. God’s grace prevailed, however, even in this tragic event (Rom. 6:20, 21).
To Judge Means to Deliver
God as our Judge delivers us from condemnation and the tyranny of sin because He is the true Liberator (John 8:32, 36; Gal. 5:1, 13). He is the Victor over Satan (John 12:31, 32); therefore He is able to deliver from different addictions to sin. He is the Giver of freedom. We are in danger of slavery to sin (Rom. 6:11–18), and our Judge delivers us from the power of the evil one (Matt. 6:13). “Throughout the Bible those who experience God’s deliverance experience it through his judgment.”5
God delivered His people from slavery in Egypt and set them free in the midst of His judgment upon the Egyptian gods and upon those who were associated with them (Ex. 3:8; 5:2). This deliverance goes even deeper. To be free from sin means to be healed (Ps. 41:4). Salvation is ultimately deliverance from the power of sin and a complete well-being or healing.
God helps us to understand the nature of His judgment through the Old Testament Book of Judges. What was the primary function of these judges? To condemn, punish, or destroy God’s people? On the contrary, judges were sent by God to deliver them from the oppression and devastation of their enemies. They were called to protect, care, save, deliver, and liberate God’s people from their foes. They were there to give and secure freedom. This book should be named the “Book of Liberators” or “Deliverers.” Judgment for God is His passionate way of demonstrating His positive attitude toward the oppressed, His coming to rescue them.
God wants our freedom, and the original intention of His law was to protect our freedom. It is important to observe that God’s first command was actually commanding freedom: “‘You are free to eat from any tree in the garden’” (Gen. 2:16). True freedom lies in accepting our limits and God’s instructions and discipline (Prov. 1:1-7).
To Judge Means to Vindicate
Our Judge vindicates His people against the accusations of our archenemy Satan. The Psalmist reassures: “The Lord will vindicate his people and have compassion on his servants” (Ps. 135:14). The story of Job reveals this truth. In the heavenly tribunal, Satan accused Job of selfish motives: “‘Does Job fear God for nothing?’” (Job 1:9). The key term in this question is “for nothing.”
In this court setting, God is on the side of Job even though He cannot answer directly and immediately Satan’s accusation. At the end, God accomplishes moral victory when Job’s unselfish love, trust, and service are revealed. God’s love, truth, and justice prevail (Ps. 100:5). He is just while justifying sinners (Rom. 3:4, 26). This theodicy is the heart of the spiritual warfare.
John declares that Jesus silenced Satan’s accusations because of His victory on the cross. His blood defeated Satan’s charge that a loving devotion to God is impossible. Christ’s victory is claimed by His followers. He identifies with them (Matt. 25:40, 45), so they associate with Him, willingly follow wherever He leads (Rev. 14:4), and follow Him faithfully even to the point of death.
John reports that he heard a loud voice in heaven that described this reality: “‘Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God, and the authority of his Christ. For the accuser of our brothers, who accuses them before our God day and night, has been hurled down. They overcame him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony; they did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death. Therefore rejoice, you heavens and you who dwell in them! But woe to the earth and the sea, because the devil has gone down to you! He is filled with fury, because he knows that his time is short’” (Rev. 12:10-12). Satan accuses, but God defends and vindicates (Rom. 8:31-39).
Only people who are on death row can rejoice over the news that there will be a trial addressing their situation. This news means new hope for their case. When we accept that we are condemned to eternal death because of our sins, then we can actually rejoice over the news that there will be God’s judgment. This judgment is our only hope. It is a chance for sinners to be saved. However, in this judgment, all depends on our relationship with our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
We need to realize that the court system in ancient Israel was different from our Western system of justice. In our society’s court system, we mainly have two individuals (besides the prosecutor and jury), each with a different function, for ensuring justice in legal cases. (And in our culture we have good reasons for doing so.)
These two main figures are the judge (whose principal function is understood to be sentencing or condemning people) and an attorney (to defend the accused persons). But in ancient Israel, there were no attorneys. Only one person was needed in legal procedures—a judge who was, at the same time, an attorney. One individual fulfilled both functions. The judge was perceived as the savior. Only he could deliver and vindicate an accused person from injustice. If someone needed help, only a judge could intervene and bring solution to the problem (Luke 18:2-8).
We today associate judgment with fear, but the biblical authors connected judgment with surpassing joy. Consider the verbs in the following biblical passage that describes an attitude toward judgment: “Rejoice . . . be glad . . . resound . . . be jubilant . . . sing for joy . . . sing before the Lord, for he comes to judge the earth” (Ps. 96:11-13). Also a psalm of the sons of Korah reiterates: “Mount Zion rejoices, the villages of Judah are glad because of your judgments” (48:11).
God does not need to organize a judgment in heaven to condemn humanity, because we are already condemned to death. We are all sinners, guilty, and doomed to death, and if God would not intervene in our favor, we would certainly die. God does not need to condemn us for the second time. But when He judges us again at the pre-advent judgment, it means that His principal purpose is different: He secures legally our place in heaven in front of the heavenly court for all eternity. This judgment also unmasks the antagonistic activities of the little horn before the universe (Daniel 7–8).
Thus, we do not need to be afraid of God’s pre-advent judgment, because at that judgment He affirms, confirms, reveals, discloses, and demonstrates to the heavenly world the decisions we made for Him during our lifetime. He will not add anything else to our decisions and neither will He alter them. As the faithful and true Witness of our lives, He testifies for His people that we are His (Rom. 8:31). Paul states clearly: “‘The Lord knows those who are His’” (2 Tim. 2:19). The pre-advent judgment does not pronounce a new sentence in contrast to what we experience in our daily life. Jesus will only verify and affirm God’s saving activity or the condemnation of a particular person.
The destruction of the wicked, the evil angels, and Satan himself is good news because there will no longer be an evil force or sin that would destroy what is valuable, good, and beautiful. There will be no more death, pain, criminality, or disease. No more cemeteries, jails, or hospitals. Love, peace, creative work, and meaningful relationships will be the content of life. God’s love, truth, and justice in judgment will prevail (Phil. 2:10, 11).
The only way we can stand before the holy God is by His grace. We are saved by God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ (Gen. 15:6; Rom. 3:22-31). He is more than willing to save us; by walking with such a gracious God, it is easier to be saved than to be lost (Rom. 8:35-39). We have eternal life not because we feel it, but because God says so (Ps. 10:12; 1 John 1:7-9).
God’s Judgment Reconsidered
We are used to thinking negatively about God’s judgment, however, the Bible provides a different paradigm regarding this essential divine activity, and we need to learn to perceive it as an affirming event. God is for His people and never against them. Only when we are attracted to God by His goodness and beauty are we then able to respond positively to Him (Rom. 2:4). As a consequence of the first sin, we are all afraid of God, and we are hiding from Him (Gen. 3:10). “The judgment makes known Yahweh’s nature.”6 Through it, He reveals who He is. The Lord as Judge is the Savior.
The biblical record is transparent: The primary meaning of God’s judgment is to justify, save, deliver, and vindicate. When we ask God for forgiveness, praying for it honestly, openly, and sincerely, God as our Judge forgives our sins and proclaims us right. He does this—and can do it—because He is our heavenly Judge. God’s eschatological judgment breaks into our time, and we are judged favorably; we pass from death to life; we are not condemned and have eternal life (Gen. 15:6; John 3:16, 17, 36). Only when we do not accept the positive dimension of God’s judgment are we under condemnation, i.e., the negative meaning of His judgment.
The proclamation of the judgment in the context of Revelation 14 is very good news, and it is a part of the eternal gospel. From this indicativeof the gospel that “His judgment hour has come” springs the imperative of the gospel: “‘Fear God and give him glory. . . . Worship him who made’” everything (Rev. 14:7). The gospel is a proclamation of the good news about God as our Judge.
Judgment is about restoring justice. The Psalmist cries: “Rise up, Judge of the earth. . . . How long, Lord, will the wicked, how long will the wicked be jubilant?” (Ps. 94:2, 3). True uncorrupted justice can be inaugurated only by God; His love, truth, and justice will prevail. The only solution to our sinful situation—to not be under condemnation—is to accept and personally know our Judge, because in the face of our Judge we can recognize the face of our Savior (Isa. 63:6-9).
At the end, when Jesus comes in glory with the holy angels, only two groups of people will be there. One group will cry in desperation to the mountains and rocks: “‘Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb!’” (Rev. 6:16). The other group with victorious shouts of great joy will look up with confidence expressing their realized hope: “‘Surely this is our God; we trusted in him, and he saved us. This is the Lord, we trusted in him; let us rejoice and be glad in his salvation’” (Isa. 25:9). Words cannot contain their excitement. The choice is ours.
Can we hide from God? David proclaimed that God is everywhere, and there is no place to conceal us from Him (Psalm 139). But still, there is a special place where the heavenly Father cannot “find” those who follow Him. This unique hiding place is in Jesus when we accept Him as our personal Savior. David prays: “Rescue me from my enemies, O Lord, for I hide myself in you” (Ps. 143:9).
The “in Christ” motif means that the heavenly Father looks upon us but sees His beloved Son Jesus Christ. When we are in Christ, all that is His is given to us as a free gift, the result of His amazing grace. His purity is our purity, His righteousness is our righteousness, His perfection is our perfection, His character is our character, and we are accepted by our heavenly Father as if we had never sinned.
“Living in every instance in the judgment of God makes our life what it is,” writes theologian Peter Brunner. “Living in the judgment of God is the creative power that makes us what we actually are. We do not make ourselves what we are; God’s judgment about us makes what we are, for the judgment of God works very differently from human judgment. . . . I am what God thinks about me. God’s judgment carries with it the immediate power of execution. God’s decree creates what it says. . . . If God decrees, ‘He is my beloved child,’ then that is what I really am, even when so much seems to speak against it. . . . God’s judgment about you and me creates the basic foundation of our existence. I live as I live in the judgment of God. I am what I am through the judgment of God. Any weight that I might place on the scale of my life produces only a superficial and temporary swing. But what God’s judgment brings into my life shifts the balance for all time and eternity. That is why the question of what God thinks of me is the most important of all questions.”7
Praise the Lord that God is our Judge!
Jirí Moskala, Th.D., Ph.D., is Professor of Old Testament Exegesis and Theology at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary in Berrien Springs, Michigan.
NOTES AND REFERENCES
1. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references in this article are quoted from the New International Version of the Bible.
2. James M. Hamilton, “The Glory of God in Salvation Through Judgment: The Center of Biblical Theology?” Tyndale Bulletin, vol. 57, p. 59.
3. Steps to Christ, p. 62.
4. George Eldon Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1974), p. 446.
5. Hamilton, “The Glory of God in Salvation,” op cit., p. 62.
6. Walther Zimmerli, “The Word of God in the Book of Ezekiel,” The Fiery Throne: The Prophets and Old Testament (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003), p. 106.
7. Peter Brunner, “The Forgiveness of God and the Judgment of God,” Word & World, vol. 21, p. 282.