STUDIES IN ESCHATOLOGY No. 9
“Judgment of the Wicked”
July 27, 2003
We have been studying the various motifs or central themes the Bible uses to describe the unfolding future of the kingdom of God. We have considered the seed, the land, the day of the Lord, the last days, the salvation of the nations, and the spiritual recovery of the Jews. There are a few more that I want to cover, viz. tonight the judgment of the wicked and next time the renewal of the cosmos. Then, following those studies, I want to take up a few of the texts around which swirl the controversy among Christians regarding the way that human history will end (especially Matthew 24 and Revelation 20) – and, in that way, spend a bit more time on the question of the millennium or golden age –; spend a Sunday evening on the dispensational scheme of biblical prophecy and, finally, deal at some length with the four last things: death, judgment, hell, and heaven. Obviously, as we have said many times so far, the Bible is shot through with eschatology, so this is a series that might never end. But, we must end somewhere and I don’t want to begin repeating myself in a way that would begin to make tiring a subject that should remain for all of us not only a perpetual fascination, but a great engine of faith and holiness in our lives.
So, tonight, our last biblical eschatological motif but one: the judgment of the wicked.
Now, we will get to the consummation of that judgment in due time, when we consider the last judgment and the nature and meaning of hell. However, like virtually all the other motifs that are consummated at the end of history, this one meets us at the very beginning and accompanies us all along the way. As much as the Bible is the story of salvation, it is also the story of divine wrath and divine judgment. As it relates the Lord’s election and redemption of a people, his drawing them into fellowship with himself, it does so against the backdrop of the Lord’s rejection of people and his judgment and punishment of their lives. As it tells us about men who are made good by the grace of God, it also tells us about men who remain evil and whose lives produce evil and who either suffer immediately the divine wrath or store it up for a later time. For every Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, there is a Cain, an Esau, and a Laban. For every exodus from bondage in Egypt or deliverance of Jerusalem from Sennacherib there is the catastrophic destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah for their wickedness. The story cannot even begin, there in Gen. 3:15, without our hearing that the way in which the seed of the woman will deliver mankind from sin is by crushing the head of the serpent. The Lord Jesus hardly ever preached a sermon in which he did not cast the alternative facing every human being in terms of God’s salvation or God’s wrath.
The late Dr. John Gerstner, one of the most learned theologians of the 20th century, reported that a friend of his did a master’s thesis, more statistical than theological, in which he concluded that for every reference to God’s mercy in the Bible (OT and NT) there are three references to his wrath. Now, I’ve never gone to the trouble to count them up, but I have no reason to doubt Dr. Gerstner’s report. It certainly seems that could be right. Not because, to be sure, God is three times more just than merciful, but because we have three times the difficulty taking seriously the premise of his wrath.
Think of the promise that God made to Abraham, when he renewed his covenant with the patriarch in Genesis 15. Abraham’s descendents would have to remain in Egypt 400 years. Why, for goodness sake? Why couldn’t they take possession of the Promised Land? Because the iniquity of those nations that then lived in the Promised Land, the Amorite peoples, was not yet full. Even Israel inheriting the Promised Land, even Israel entering to take possession of the Promised Land, was, at one and the same time, executing judgment on a people whom God had borne with long enough, whose sins had become a stench to heaven, whose brutality and bestiality God would tolerate no longer. And so Israel entered Canaan as an avenging army and struck down the Canaanites as an instrument of the divine wrath. We learn about Israel’s holy wars in the Bible, when God used her to judge the wicked peoples around her. But, we also learn about God’s wrath toward Israel when she betrayed his covenant and embraced the degraded worship of the ancient Near East.
What are the great features of Israel’s history as a nation. Her long years of frustration as she suffered God’s displeasure and wrath over and over again during the period of the Judges. After the short respite under David and Solomon, her troubles mounted steadily in the north until the Assyrians destroyed the nation of Israel and left nothing to be recovered from her. And then in the southern kingdom Babylon struck as God’s avenger, Judah was carried off into exile, and only a small remnant returned to Judea decades later. And then after 500 years of existence as a small client state, she received her Messiah, but rejected him, and was obliterated as a nation in consequence. One of the last things that our Lord Jesus said about the Jews, even as he was carrying his cross to Golgotha, was that they were soon to suffer the divine wrath for their unbelief. Jerusalem was destroyed, no stone left on top of another in the temple area, the Jews were scattered, and their long history as a people dwelling as aliens among other peoples began.
And, if that is what God did to his own people, what shall we say of the nations of the ancient world, of Egypt, then Assyria, then Babylon, then Persia, then Greece, then Rome as well as so many of the smaller states: Moab, Ammon, Philistia, and the like. The prophets are chock full of oracles of judgment against such peoples and nations and every one of them came true. Those people who have lifted up their hand against God and his will, have all come to ruin. They had their day in the sun, but are no more. Even unbelievers like Shelley can see this.
I met a traveler from an antique land
Who said: ‘Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half-sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Osymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye might and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.’
[Ozymandias is Greek for Rameses II]
The world rings with judgment. The punishment of the wicked transpires before us every day, by every manner of means: the law of the state, the law of nature by which vices eat away and destroy the fabric of life, the law of God by which great movements in the world are set in motion that lead to the judgment of the wicked, sometimes by the wicked, as happened so often in the ancient world. God used Assyria to punish Israel, which did not make Assyria righteous. We see it every day, whenever we open our newspapers or turn on the television news. Those two wicked sons of Saddam Hussein died in a hail of gunfire. The evil that they did, their cruelty to others, has not been repaid in full, by any means, but their wickedness has brought a violent end to their lives.
There is evil in this world, to be sure. But there is also the wrath of God and the judgment of God. Alvin Plantinga is one of America’s most consequential philosophers working today, Professor at Notre Dame, and an evangelical Christian. He writes:
“Of all the antitheistic arguments, only the argument from evil deserves to be taken really seriously. [He means the argument that God, if he is worthy to be God, would not allow to take place the evil that fills up our world.] But I also believe, paradoxically enough, that there is a theistic argument from evil, and it is at least as strong as the antitheistic argument from evil…. What is so deeply disturbing about horrifying kinds of evil? The most appalling kinds of evil involve human cruelty and wickedness: Stalin and Pol Pot, Hitler and his henchmen, and the thousands of small vignettes of evil that make up such a whole…. What is genuinely appalling, in other words, is not really human suffering as such so much as human wickedness. This wickedness strikes us as deeply perverse, wholly wrong, warranting not just quarantine and the attempt to overcome it, but blame and punishment. But could there really be any such thing as horrifying wickedness if naturalism were true? I don’t see how. A naturalistic way of looking at the world, so it seems to me, has no place for genuine moral obligation of any sort; a fortiori, then, it has no place for such a category as horrifying wickedness…. There can be such a thing only if there is a way rational creatures are supposed to live; obliged to live; and the force of that normativity – its strength, so to speak – is such that the appalling and horrifying nature of genuine wickedness is its inverse. But naturalism cannot make room for that kind of normativity: that requires a divine lawgiver, one whose very nature it is to abhor wickedness. Naturalism can perhaps accommodate foolishness and irrationality, acting contrary to what are or what you take to be your own interest; it can’t accommodate appalling wickedness. Accordingly, if you think there really is such a thing as horrifying wickedness (that our sense that there is is not a mere illusion of some sort), and if you also think the main options are theism and naturalism, then you have a powerful theistic argument from evil.” [Philosophers Who Believe, 72-73]
Another way of saying that is to say that we cannot make sense of our world, about what happens in our world, or about what we feel about what happens without the twin concepts of God’s holiness and his wrath. There is a way that human beings ought to live. It is defined by the nature of the God who made them. When they live otherwise, they not only sin against their own nature as creatures made in the image of a holy God, they subject themselves to his judgment and punishment. Every human being, whatever he may say in debate, agrees with this in principle as his won moral judgments show. That is the story of the world. The reason why people care about evil is that they have been made in God’s image and he cares about evil, deeply and perfectly. The reason we feel that evil should be punished is because we have been made in God’s image and cannot escape the moral character of the world in which we live. God has imposed that character indelibly upon it. We see that even in misshapen expressions of it, as when people are sued for enormous amounts of money but everyone hurries to say that the suit is not about the money, but about justice, about morality, about right and wrong.
But, we know, it is not yet the complete story. No, it is just what we would expect it to be, taking the rest of the eschatological themes or motifs together. The wrath of God against the sin of man is unfolding, you see it already in steps and stages being worked out, but you do not see it in its completeness and fulfillment. God promises of – that the wicked will not go unpunished, that at the end of the world a just judgment will be imposed on the world of men. There are statements to this effect in the law and the profits – everywhere. We will read some of them at the supper tonight. But God not only promises the judgment of the wicked, he executes that judgment. You see it everywhere you look. You see Hitler and Eva Braun killing themselves and being soaked with gasoline and burned in the garden of the bunker in Berlin; you see sexually transmitted diseases become the scourge of the promiscuous; you see criminals being incarcerated; you see adulterers among the rich and famous being exposed to public shame and ridicule – as in the case of Kobe Bryant –; you see the vicious shot down as were the Hussein brothers this past week; you see the greedy overreaching themselves and falling; and on and on. Oh there is judgment aplenty in our world all the time, wherever one looks. The problem of hell and its existence is already with us. It is not a problem only about the future, it is a problem about the present. For punishment can be found everywhere we look. Punishment for evils of every kind. But, you do not yet see God’s justice in anything remotely like its completeness. We want justice to be done and it often is not.
Many seem to get away with their wickedness all their lives. Hugh Hefner, for all the grief and bitterness he has been the cause of in the lives of American men and women, should be shunned by every self-respecting human being as the dirty old man that he is. But the rich and famous still beat a path to his door. Only a fraction of the murders that are committed are ever solved. Murderers sometimes get away with it on a legal technicality or because their guilt cannot be proved. More often, they are never identified and no case is brought against them. There was a terrible murder on the campus of our Covenant Theological Seminary several years ago. A delightful Scottish woman, studying at the seminary, was brutally killed. The police were quite sure they knew who did it – a seminary student – but never charged him and, probably, never will. What is more, there are many evils that are not crimes and go unpunished or inadequately punished. Evils in marriage and home and family; evils in the workplace; in politics; in war; in human concourse of every kind. Everywhere you look there is evil that is not punished. The more of a Christian you become, the more astute an observer of life, the more you will see evil even where others find only good. Even when good things are being done, right things, heroic things, evil is right there nipping at the heels.
“During the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955, Martin Luther King Jr. and the Montgomery Improvement Association led thousands of local blacks through months of hardship in an attempt to break municipal bus segregation. Blacks rode bicycles, trudged miles to and from work, and formed car pools that local police regularly harassed. Police would stop and interrogate drivers, make them demonstrate their wipers and lights, and then write them up for tiny and, often, bogus violations. Drivers adapted. According to one historian, they ‘crept along the road and gave exaggerated turn signals, like novices in driving school.’
Under these difficult conditions, many black citizens of Montgomery supported the boycott single-mindedly and with a spirit of mutual help and accountability. Even those who had little to sacrifice nonetheless sacrificed what they had in order to bring down the city walls of injustice. Remarkably, a number of blacks also figured out ways to defraud their own movement. By submitting phony reimbursement claims, they hustled the Montgomery Improvement Association for ‘oceans of gasoline and truckloads of imaginary spare tires.’ … The hustlers were living on tears.” [C. Plantinga, Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be, 78-79]
The bigot policemen and the cheating citizens conspiring together to buy comfort for themselves with the pain of others. No, there is much more sin that goes unpunished in this world than is punished. Much more justice deferred than justice accomplished.
What is more, there are many righteous who suffer for their righteousness. The man who will not lie or cheat and either loses his job or finds himself at a fatal disadvantage. The woman whose purity makes her the object of scorn and someone to patronize. The man whose kindness is taken advantage of. Judgment rewards the righteous as well as punishing the wicked and there is a great deal of righteousness that has never received its reward in this world.
And we haven’t spoken yet at all about man’s rebellion against God himself, his indifference to God his Maker, his refusal to worship and serve him, his defiance of his laws and commandments, his refusal to acknowledge that they come from him.
When and how will all of this be put right? We want it to be put right? Everyone does – however much he may be unwilling to admit how much there is in his own life that must be brought to justice, he certainly wants others to be brought to justice.
Well, all through the Bible there is the promise of a final reckoning, a final justice. We see it anticipated in the many judgments of the Lord recorded in Holy Scripture and especially in those great historical pictures of the divine wrath against sin: the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians. We see it enacted in the terrible suffering and death of the Lord Jesus which not only reveals what the divine justice requires in order to be satisfied for sin, but what must befall those who will not avail themselves of the atonement of Jesus Christ. And we see it in the ever more explicit promises of judgment and punishment that are given in the later portions of Holy Scripture.
“This will happen when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels. He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power on the day he comes to be glorified in his holy people and to be marveled at among all those who have believed.” [2 Thess. 1:7-10]
So, you see how it is. There was a promise of a seed at the very beginning of history and that seed has been preserved through the ages; it was consummated in the appearance of Jesus Christ, but attains its ultimate fulfillment only when Christ and all his people – the seed of Abraham – are gathered together in heaven. There is the seed in the world but we are awaiting the seed of the world to come. There was a promise of the land, fulfilled first in the Promised Land of Canaan and now in the evangelization of the whole world, but to be fulfilled in perfection when we enter the heavenly country, the final Promised Land. There was the promise of the Day of the Lord, which was given many anticipations in the biblical history, but whose final consummation is to be found in the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. Well, we could go on. But, in the same way, there is a divine judgment. We watch it befall the wicked everywhere we turn in Holy Scripture. But it is present in the world only in a very incomplete way, more in the way of witness than in the way of fullness. But the day is coming when justice will be done for everyone, everyone will get what is due him for what he or she did in the body. Everything will be put right and the wicked will get their deserts. As salvation will find its fulfillment there, so too judgment. We have both already, but wait for both in their completeness.
The world rings with the judgment that is to come. That should solemnize us in regard to our own lives; should make us careful to live faithfully before the Lord, should make us concerned about our unbelieving friends and neighbors, should make us unperturbed when evil seems to be advancing in the world – it is only for a time, and those who sin and do not suffer God’s wrath, are storing up that wrath for a later time.
Isaiah tells us that God’s judgment of sin and human wickedness – selfishness, corruption, indifference, evil desire, cruelty – that God’s judgment of all of that is his “strange and alien work” (Isa. 28:21). He does not delight in punishment as he delights to show mercy. He does not desire the death of the wicked but that all should come to repentance. He stands ready to forgive all those who will find righteousness by faith in his Son. But he will by no means clear the guilty, those who remain guilty. He was willing to make his people endure a 400 year wait to give more time to the Amorites, but they squandered his patience and were judged without mercy in due time. He waits today for the world, but his patience will have an end. Judgment will befall the world. And what will we all think about things then?
One thing we will not think, no one will think, because no one can think, is that God did not prepare us for his judgment, did not warn us, did not give us a thousand thousand anticipations of that judgment so that no one would mistake its certainty or severity.