One day as I was walking down a busy city street, an apparently sincere Christian approached me, held out a pamphlet, and said, “Won’t you please read this?” Not wanting to be rude, I took the little booklet and put it in my pocket. I didn’t even think of it again until I was cleaning out my pockets and the bright-red print caught my eye.
The cover showed a picture of Jesus, a Bible, and the words in big red letters, “THE WRATH OF GOD TO YOU.” I turned to the back cover and noticed large red flames. A Bible verse was printed over them, with one word of the text many times larger than all the rest: “ ‘The wicked shall be turned into HELL, and all the nations that forget God’ (Psalm 9:17).” When I opened the pamphlet, I read many statements about wrath, hell, and judgment.
I must confess that I didn’t find all this terribly appealing. In fact, I considered it odd. What was this depressing talk about punishment and wrath doing with that picture of Jesus on the front? Didn’t whoever put this booklet together know that Jesus reveals a God of grace and forgiveness? Why then all this emphasis on wrath?
As I looked more closely, however, I noticed that every word of this brochure came directly from the Bible. It wasn’t just someone’s crazy ideas. But the fact that it came from the Bible didn’t make it any more appealing. Is this really the Bible’s message about judgment? Is God a God of wrath, judgment, punishment, and hell?
In a way, the whole subject of judgment presents a dilemma. On the one hand, Christians affirm that God is fair and just. On the other, they also see God as kind and loving. But these two ideas don’t always fit well together. If God is just and demands accountability, how can any of us, who know ourselves to be frail sinners, ever have any assurance about the future? On the other hand, if God doesn’t demand accountability, how can we make sense out of a world in which innocent people suffer and millions of people die because of a dictator’s act of genocide?
Years ago a colleague and I attended a convention in Los Angeles. I traveled by car and agreed to pick him up when he arrived later on a plane. When we met, he introduced me to a man he had befriended on the plane who was attending the same convention. We invited him to ride with us, and once we got in the car I realized that this man was a famous theologian. In fact, he was one of the originators of the “God is dead” movement in the 1960s.
One of the primary reasons he gave for espousing the view that God is dead concerned this matter of evil in the world and who’s accountable for it. He said that when he saw the murder of six million Jews, he had to conclude one of two things: either there is no all-powerful God who rules the universe, or there is a God and He just doesn’t care. He said that he found it much more acceptable to believe that there is no God.
What the Bible says
The Bible, however, gives a different answer. It teaches that a judgment is coming when God will bring an end to evil and suffering and when He will hold all those who have contributed to evil and suffering accountable for their actions. In fact, every human being will be held accountable. This judgment will come at the end of human history, and it will determine everyone’s destiny.
Paul, in the midst of admonishing the Roman Christians that they should quit judging each other, appealed to this final judgment when he said, “We will all stand before God’s judgment seat. It is written, ‘ “As surely as I live,” says the Lord, “every knee will bow before me; every tongue will confess to God.” ’ So then, each of us will give an account of himself to God” (Romans 14:10–12).
Similarly, he told the Christians in Corinth, “We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad” (2 Corinthians 5:10).
The book of Revelation also speaks of judgment. It pictures a time just before God establishes a new heaven and new earth when all the wicked will stand before God’s throne to be judged. We read, “I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. Earth and sky fled from his presence, and there was no place for them. And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books. The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what he had done. Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire” (Revelation 20:11–15).
Obviously the God of the universe doesn’t need books to determine what people on this earth have done. Today, we would at least use a computer! But these “books” are powerful symbols of the accountability that we all must face with reference to God. God is not just an onlooker. He’s holding us accountable, and He will judge us. In fact, the Bible pictures this judgment as beginning even before Christ returns to this world. Revelation 22:12 tells us that when He comes, He will bring His rewards with Him. Apparently the process of reviewing each life will begin before Christ’s second coming.
The fear factor
Now all this sounds ominous. God is keeping track of our lives. He’s going to demand accountability of us. And this judgment will determine our ultimate destiny—either eternity with Christ in a new heaven and new earth or destruction in a “lake of fire.” That certainly sounds like something that would make a stern and solemn warning appropriate. Maybe the flaming red pamphlet I received on the street was right on track! Maybe my failure to find it appealing was just my problem. Maybe there should be a lot more people on the streets warning the world of a coming judgment!
I’m still not convinced, however, that this pamphlet told the whole story, even though all of its contents were taken out of the Bible. You see, the Bible also tells us some other things about the judgment that we need to know if we are to see the entire picture. In fact, three times in the book of Revelation God is actually praised for His judgments (Revelation 16:1–7; 19:2)! So this ominous accountability is actually a cause for rejoicing! It’s something to shout about! “We give thanks to you, Lord God Almighty, the One who is and who was, because you have taken your great power and have begun to reign. The nations were angry; and your wrath has come. The time has come for judging the dead, and for rewarding your . . . saints and those who reverence those who reverence your name, both small and great—and for destroying those who destroy the earth” (Revelation 11:17, 18).
I imagine that when those words were first written, they seemed preposterous. How could mere human beings do something so drastic as destroy this whole big earth? But the situation is different today. We really do have it in our power to destroy the earth. So Revelation tells us that God is not going to leave our world to self-destruct in a bang of nuclear explosions or a whimper of pollution. He’s still in control. He’ll act as Judge and bring about an end to suffering and a fair and just accountability.
But this cosmic good news still doesn’t answer the part of the dilemma with which we began. Certainly the end of pain, suffering, death, and evil is good news for the world. It’s also good news for those who come out on the right side of that ominous final judgment. But is it good news for you and me?
When I think of those books and that final day of judgment and then look at my own life with its weaknesses and problems, it’s pretty scary. When I realize how many times I’ve made resolutions only to fail miserably later, it seems almost hopeless. How could I ever stand in such a scene before God and come out on the right side?
The hope factor
Fortunately, the Bible answers this question too. And it’s here that we hear the ultimate good news of the judgment. The fact is that we do not need to be afraid of the judgment. When Jesus came and lived on this earth, died on the cross, came back to life, and was exalted to God’s throne, He took away our need to worry about the judgment. Notice that most familiar verse in the Bible: “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned” (John 3:16–18).
And writing in 1 John 2:1, 2, Christ’s apostle said, “My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father on our defense— Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.”
Yes, there will be a judgment someday, and the Bible says that we will all appear in that judgment. But Jesus will also be present as our Advocate—our Defense Attorney if you please. He will show that the same books that record our sins will also show that the word forgiven has been written across each one.
No, red flames of wrath don’t even begin to tell the whole story. Only when the scene includes the open, scarred hands of a gracious Savior who died to forgive our sins do we see the entire picture that God has revealed about the judgment.