After the tragic shootings in Newtown last week, there’s been much written in the way of response, not least from Christians. Some have attempted to defend God’s justice, others to declare his judgement, many simply expressing grief and honest incomprehension. Nearly a week on, I didn’t want to try to add anything, or to critique other people’s responses. Plenty has been said. But after my last advent post on trusting Jesus’ promise to return, I’ve been reflecting on why it’s a good thing that he will return. I’ve become convinced that Christ’s second coming that we look forward to during advent is not just a wacky doctrine for end-of-the-world fanatics, not just a neat solution to tie up the loose ends of the Jesus story, but a truth that speaks to the heart of our suffering and affirms our indignance.
|2012 X Factor judges|
The New Testament claims that when Jesus returns, it will be as Saviour and Judge. Jesus claims for himself all of God’s authority in heaven and on earth, the authority given by the Ancient of Days to the one like a son of man in Daniel 7. I’d always imagined these two roles as separate, as opposites. The ‘saviour’ part is obviously a good thing, but ‘judge’ doesn’t always have such positive connotations. Judge makes us think of judgementalism, of intolerance and fault-finding, of superiority and criticism. It could make us think of corrupt judges, taking bribes for protecting the powerful. Or perhaps our minds jump to the X Factor judges, commercially minded and equally comfortable with dishing out both cruelty and flattery.
But recently I read about a judge who changed all those images for me. Joaquim Barbosa, the first black member of Brazil’s supreme court, presided over the massive trial responsible for convicting 25 powerful people for offences around money-laundering, bribery and fraud. Barbosa has become something of a national hero for bringing to justice many corrupt politicians and working to end a culture of manipulation, greed and impunity in Brazil’s power structures. By his courage in bringing justice to corrupt leaders, Barbosa represents freedom and truth for Brazil’s people.
To a world held in the grip of human selfishness, of greed, of addiction, of oppression, and of sheer cruelty, Jesus’ promise of judgement speaks that same freedom to all of us.
That Jesus is coming to judge evil once and for all and to free us from its grasp tells us that heinous crimes like that which the world witnessed last Friday matter to God. I hope it’s too obvious to have to say, but it means that God hates the suffering caused by such evil. Whatever we might want to argue philosophically about divine impassibility, I’m convinced that the heart of God was broken on Friday, and that it is every day for the suffering that we inflict on one another. It means also then that how I treat other people matters to God, that the way I use my power to love others to love them or to hurt them, matters. From the cutting remark I might make to put another down, through bullying, abuse, rape, murder and genocide, we can be sure that it matters to God, and that we matter to God.
Jesus’ coming to judge assures us too that evil does not have the final word. Though we may suffer now for our years on earth, it won’t be like this in the eternity that God invites us to share with him. This isn’t what we were made for, and our deep sense that ‘this is not right’ when we witness evil and suffering is entirely justified. We’re right. It isn’t meant to be like this. It won’t be forever. God will have the final say.
When I’ve thought of Jesus as Saviour and Judge in the past, I’ve thought of myself as being the “saved” category, saved from the evil ‘out there’ in the world. I’ve thought of ‘bad people’ judged, and ‘good people’ saved. Yet I know, I know because the cross shows me, that I’m drawing a false dichotomy. I know that on the cross, the evil being judged was the evil in me. See, both salvation and judgement are things which have in some sense already happened and some sense are still to come. On the cross, my sin was judged and justice was done. By faith in Jesus, I’ve been saved from the penalty of my sin. By faith in Jesus, I’m being set free from the power of my sin. So when Jesus comes again, both salvation and judgement will be complete – I’ll be rescued not just from the evil and suffering in the rest of the world, out there, but also set free from the presence of evil, the sin in me. Evil will be finally judged, and I’ll be free.
Jesus’ return as saviour and judge is good news. It means that evil matters to God. It means that even the smallest pain I feel matters to God. It means the way I treat others matters to God. It means that evil will not have the final word. God does. It won’t always be like this. For all who know that they contribute to the suffering in the world, we already have a way to be free from the penalty of sin – by faith in Jesus’ death. We have ongoing power to be free from the grip of sin in our lives – by faith in Jesus’ resurrection. And we can have certainty that we will be free from the presence of sin and suffering forever – by faith in the promise that Jesus will return as Saviour and Judge.
One more thing though. Jesus’ promise to return to end all evil and suffering tells us not to expect that now. We hardly need to be told that God has not yet finally ended our suffering on earth. The fact that we know there is a final judgement to come means that we can ignore those who announce that such tragedies as the Newtown shooting are in some way God’s act of judgement. Jesus’ himself was asked a similar question in the face of a tragedy – was it judgement for those who suffered? No, he said. But he warned of a judgement to come.
So what of how I live now, while we wait? Well, it means I’ll try to remember how much God cares about my actions, my relationships, and my responsibility to show love rather than to cause suffering. It means I’ll want to work to free people from their suffering now, to “act justly and show mercy”, while knowing that it is God who will ultimately act to right injustice. I’ll want to be bold in the face of the evil that does exist, knowing it is God rather than any evil who will have the final say. And I’ll want to share with many, many people – all those who want to know – the good news that the penalty for our own sin can be dealt with at the cross, that we can have power over sin through his resurrection, so that when Jesus returns as Saviour and as Judge, we can finally we freed from all evil, both internal and external, for an eternity in God’s new creation. Just as it’s meant to be.