The Justice and Judgement of God
By Fr. John Abberton
Can there be a sane person in the world that does not have some idea of justice? So many people speak about their rights. Where does this notion come from? What makes me think I have “rights”? Not only do I have some rights, I am also entitled to justice. Not only do people have some understanding of justice in relation to others – an employer, one’s fellow citizens, but we all have some sense of justice when it comes to punishing criminals. There are still some people who believe in the death penalty. In the Western world, most people do not. Yet, everyone agrees that some punishment is necessary.
If we ask what punishment is for, we may want to say, first of all, it is for the sake of the criminal: his or her education and rehabilitation. We know that this is not enough. When we have finally banished all thoughts of vengeance; when we have conquered our anger and perhaps, even forgiven the criminal, there is still a need for punishment. Why? What is it that drives us to punish others and, in humility, accept punishment ourselves? Without knowing the answer people instinctively demand justice. Strangely, when it comes to God many have problems with divine justice and, especially, judgement. Many think that religion is sweeter; more palatable, without justice and judgement. God is all merciful, so how can He also be a judge? If God has forgiven us, if Jesus has died for us, what punishment can there be? Surely, if we are saved, we are saved, and there is no need of judgement. Doesn’t the Bible say something like that?
It could be said that there is no civilisation without justice. Yet, different cultural and religious groups will argue seriously amongst themselves about what constitutes true justice. Christians do not agree with vengeance. We should not punish another to satisfy our pride or in response to our hurt feelings. Yet, we know that crime should be punished. There is a principle that we all accept – without having to say it. We know that no society can continue to exist in peace unless there is some form of justice.
For us to survive in a world which is sometimes cruel and frightening we must have some safeguards, some moral parameters, and some laws. Laws that are broken need to be defended or they will become irrelevant. Public Punishment is a statement about the law and society. In being punished the criminal is almost like a servant. What he or she suffers as a result of disobeying the law reaffirms the moral values of society. It is, if the criminal does not always know it, a case of suffering for the people. It is not innocent suffering but, at least in principle, it is not selfish either. Criminals have often spoken of “paying my debt to society”. For every crime there must be some form of punishment.
Honouring Goodness (Glorifying God)
What happens when a criminal is punished is that the good that he or she has defied or thrust aside is raised up. The greater the good, we argue, the more severe should be the punishment. Behind the desire for revenge there is a refusal to allow the “good” that has been attacked (whether it be seen as our own ego or, more genuinely, such things as the right to private property) to be diminished. Vengeance is a primitive urge that has something to do with recognising the value of something or someone. If my brother is killed, vengeance means two things; firstly recognising the worth of my brother’s life and secondly, as an expression of this, and of my own loss, exacting the recompense of his killer’s life.
Vengeance is usually associated with high emotion yet it can be a very clinical and cold-blooded affair, almost seen as a sacred duty and one that is pursued almost like a religious ritual. At the heart of vengeance there is also a great evil, especially where violence is concerned. It leads to the most hideous corruption involving the exaltation of the ego and contempt for human life. In the end vengeance solves nothing. All too often one act of revenge leads to another because of a distorted sense of honour. In societies where dangerously eccentric views of family and personal “honour” are maintained there is no lasting peace, but a climate of fear and intimidation. Vengeance may begin with some kind of recognition of good but it ends in more tears, more blood and the destruction of peace.
Those who argue in favour of the death penalty are often offended when they are accused of wanting revenge. Part of their argument is precisely that when the crime has been so heinous (and they bring up the example of child rape and murder) a very serious punishment is demanded. The argument that legal execution can also be a deterrent is still proposed. It is not very convincing; some of the worst criminals in history have committed suicide. The theory that the punishment must fit the crime has some weight. Until recently the death penalty was an option allowed by Roman Catholic teaching (following St. Thomas Aquinas). The first edition of the New Catechism was criticised for allowing it. Pope John Paul II subsequently spoke out against the death penalty. It is not the answer. The goodness of life is not adequately defended or honoured by its deliberate destruction. Death is not the answer to death. Death is only conquered by life, just as sadness is only answered by joy and the ravages of war only healed in peace. Punishment produces no real fruits when it is so destructive and often cruel. Such retribution takes on the character of despair. Has the death penalty, anywhere, led to anything like a celebration of human life? The question looks strange, even tasteless. This is the ultimate argument against it. The good is not honoured; life is not celebrated.
What then of Hell? Isn’t Hell completely negative? What good is Hell?
To begin with, there is no one in Hell who doesn’t want to be. The choice is ours. At the very least Hell witnesses to the freedom granted to us by God – a freedom He will not remove or overrule. At the same time, we can say that those who are in Hell are there because of the holiness of God. This is like a very bright light which is warm and delightful for those who are “children of the light”, but is blinding and painful for those who have chosen to live in darkness. Those who die in the darkness of serious sin cannot endure the light of God’s holiness. In fact this light makes the darkness seem even deeper since evil cannot abide it, and even minor imperfections must be burned away. Those who fly from the light witness to its brightness: those who descend to Hell witness to the purity of those in Heaven. In this sense Hell witnesses to the justice and mercy of God.
What does it mean to be saved?
To be saved means to be set free, and being free means having a choice. The Lord Jesus overcame sin, death and Hell, but He did not wipe out free will. Serious sins can be forgiven in this life, if we sincerely repent, so that even if we make the wrong choices on this side of the grave we can begin again. It is true that all sins can be forgiven except the sin of refusal – the sin against the Holy Spirit which is persistent obstinacy in face of the Truth. It is the nature of this sin that it refuses the offer of forgiveness. We are free then, but freedom means responsibility and between one path and another, the choice is ours. This is what Christ has done, He has liberated us. However, we will not experience the true joy of freedom unless we make the correct choices. There is really only one path to ultimate freedom, and that is the path of true love. The other path leads to self-enslavement. The difference now, since the paschal triumph of Christ, is that we choose it ourselves; if we wish, but we are free to choose Heaven.
Choosing God, means accepting correction. God loves us as we are, but He doesn’t want us to stay as we are. God wants the best for us and that means encouraging us to grow, to change, to become holy. Always, He allows us the freedom to back out. If we say “Yes” to God, God will say “Yes” to our sanctity. As long as we do not turn our backs on Him in a serious and consistent way, He will make us into saints. The path to sainthood is not easy going. There are many hard knocks and lessons along the way. Mistakes are expected, but there is also penance, mortification, self-denial and much prayer. Suffering is unavoidable, and precious.
Chastisement reminds us that we are not yet perfect and that the happiness we have experienced so far is not enough. God has more wonderful things in store for us. As C.S. Lewis reminds us in “The Problem of Pain”, what we experience as punishment can often be interpreted as God allowing us to learn such lessons. If everything was always satisfactory and we were never troubled, never dissatisfied, we might be fooled into thinking that we had found a kind of Heaven. At the same time, since earthly pleasures and happiness are, of their nature, finite, limited and ultimately insufficient, we would become bored and then selfish and then bitter. We would make ourselves dissatisfied because our hearts would yearn for more. As St. Augustine wrote,
“O God, Thou hast made us for thyself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee”. If God allows pain, suffering, even tragedy, it is an aspect of His mercy. We need to consider this carefully. It can only be grasped in faith.
In Notebook 17 of “True Life in God”, in the message given on Oct 13, 1987, Jesus said;
“I get no pleasure in punishing you, I wish that my creation returns to Love, tremendous reparations have to be done, amend those that can amend for others, My creation has to change, daughter My creation has to learn and believe in my Spiritual Works, My creation will have to accept me as Omnipotent, My sacerdotal souls must understand how wrong they are denying My works of today”
The King of mercy is also the Judge.
Let us turn to the New Testament. In the Gospels it is clear that Jesus, the Son of Man, is both liberator and judge. His very presence leads some to cry out for help and causes others to feel insecure, threatened and angry.
Some are drawn to Him because they seek mercy; others follow Him in the shadows because He disturbs them, and they don’t like it. He is dangerous and must be removed. To some He is a healer, to others His very presence is like judgement. The evil spirits react without being told;
“What do you want with us? Have you come to destroy us – we know who you are…”
There are too many passages connected with mercy and justice for all to be mentioned here. Here are five which bring out the different aspects of judgement.
- Mark 3. 1 – 6. The Man with the Withered Hand.
In this story, Jesus heals on the Sabbath. The healing takes place in the synagogue. The man with the withered hand does not ask for help – at least, not openly. Jesus may be reading his heart. He calls the man forward and asks him to stand in the centre. He then asks the man to stretch out his hand. It is restored. This act of love and mercy is greeted with disapproval by the Lord’s opponents. He looks at them “angrily” (NRSV). “He was grieved at their hardness of heart”.
Here we see mercy and judgement. Those Pharisees and others who were ready to condemn Jesus for healing on the Sabbath plot against Him “immediately” – on the same day, in the same place. Their own attempted judgement of Jesus rebounds on them. He has done “good”: he has “saved life”. They plot to destroy life. Thinking they were protecting the Sabbath they have profaned it, and they have done this out of fear, pride and jealousy. The evil that was already in their hearts is now out in the open. The man with the withered hand was called out into the open. His healing has brought the Lord’s opponents out into the open. They have withered hearts and souls. The presence of Jesus in their midst has brought judgement.
- Mark 11. 12 – 14. Jesus Curses the Fig Tree.
This story is difficult to understand. Scripture scholars suggest it could be a symbolic act showing the Lord’s displeasure at the state of the Temple and religious leadership in Israel. Jesus is hungry and walks over to a fig tree that is “in leaf”. There is no fruit on the tree, “for it was not the season for figs”. Jesus then curses the tree. This seems unfair. Was the tree expected to produce figs out of season? If Jesus is really angry with someone else, why does He curse a fig tree that is out of season?
One way of understanding this story is as a warning of judgement. God’s judgement will come when we least expect it. Jesus spoke elsewhere about the “thief in the night”. He warned that the Son of Man would come when He is “least expected”. There is no season for fruits as far as Israel, the Church, humanity or each person are concerned. When Christ comes, He will expect us to be ready. If, in the end, we have no fruit there will never be any fruit. This is a “wake-up call”. The strength of the text is this; if the Lord can curse a fig-tree out of season what will happen to us if we do not produce “fruit”. For us, just as for Israel, there is no “season”.
- John 9. 1 – 41 The Healing of the Blind Man.
This wonderful story contains some very important teaching about mercy and judgement. First of all, in answer to His disciples’ question about the reason for the man’s blindness Jesus answers, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him”. Handicap, birth deformity etc have a purpose. God can and will work through these afflictions for the good of others; for the salvation of souls. For Christians, no one, however weak, afflicted, or deformed can be treated as “useless” or regarded as a burden on society. This is not irrelevant to our reflection on mercy. In these cases mercy comes through pain and shows itself in those who ask mercy from us. At the same time, such people bring judgement (as we shall see).
In healing the blind man, Jesus challenges the “Pharisees” who, unable to deny the healing continue to accuse the healed man of being in sin. They regard themselves as better than him and, in their pride, make the incredible mistake of ignoring the truth in front of their eyes; that a blind man who could not see from birth can now see, physically, as well as they. Jesus speaks about true blindness and false blindness. He says, “I came into this world for judgement so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind”. The Pharisees ask if He is saying they are blind. The answer is yes because, as He tells them, “If you were blind, you would no have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see’, your sin remains” (NRSV)
The Blind man was thought to have been blind because of sin. In fact it is the opponents of the Lord who are in sin because they refuse to see the truth. Judgement and mercy meet. Those who have refused to show mercy have proved themselves unworthy of it themselves.
- John 12. 44 – 48 “I do not judge”
In this passage from St. John’s Gospel, Jesus says, “I have come as light in the world, so that everyone who believes in me should not remain in darkness. I do not judge anyone who hears my words and does not keep them, for I came not to judge the world, but to save the world. The one who rejects me and does not receive my word has a judge; on the last day the word that I have spoken will serve as judge”
Here Jesus appears to contradict the words He spoke at the healing of the blind man (“I came into this world for judgement”). In fact, Jesus does not yet judge the world in a final sense. He warns of judgement, He points to the pride and hypocrisy of some of the Jewish leaders, He casts out evil spirits and curses the fig tree. Jesus speaks of His Father’s will that no one should be lost and later, in His prayer before the Passion says to the Father, regarding His disciples, “Not one of them was lost except the one destined to be lost” (Judas). “Destined” here has the sense of the consequence of free choice. Judgement happens because of the Lord’s presence; He is light and evil cannot hide. At the same time enough is said to make us aware that there will be a more direct judgement. Jesus is not a bystander; judgement arrives with Him and because of Him. Perhaps He has only to look at us with the kind of penetrating gaze we see in icons of Jesus Pantocrator. That look opens the conscience and the words that he spoke resonate in our souls.
- Matthew 25. 31 – 46. The Last Judgement
In this well known depiction of the Last Judgement Jesus, “The Son of Man” is the judge. He separates the “sheep” from the “goats”. Goats were not regarded as evil or useless, but at some point the shepherd would have to gather the sheep together. The sheep here represent God’s people. God’s mercy is shown in a remarkable way; Christ identifies with those who are in need. Those who have a claim on our mercy represent Him. The refusal to show mercy is taken personally by Him. This judgement makes sense. No one could complain about it.
What will happen when we see the face of Christ and recognise there those we have ignored, passed by, treated with contempt or patronised (in the manner St. James describes)? Before Christ says anything we will know where we belong. The parable speaks of Him distinguishing sheep from goats, but the goats will know who they are and will be recognisable. There will be no resistance; they will know where to go.
The final pronouncement is a confirmation of what is already known.
In speaking of this scene Pope John Paul II (in “Crossing the Threshold of Hope”) says, referring to the “goats” or the lost; “Here it is not so much God who rejects man, but man who rejects God” (Page 73. The phrase is in italics in the original text). What is also clear from this text is that The Judgement is already taking place, here and now. If I know this, I do not need to see visions of the Holy Face to know who is knocking on my door and asking for food. At the same time, there are other kinds of poor. I am poor myself. The Orthodox writer, Archimandrite Vasilios Bakogiannis (in “After Death”) makes this point well when he writes about the duty we have to care for our own souls. How are we caring for ourselves? What about the selfish (whether wealthy or not), the lax, the self-indulgent and the violent? They are also “poor” and in need of “clothes” etc. They are in a kind of prison and are just as much in need of help as anyone else. In short, everyone has a claim on our mercy, especially – we are also warned – those who have sinned against us.
We can never forget the holiness of God. We have received His invitation to intimacy with Him, but we can never forget that He is God. There is an awesome aspect which is described by the philosopher Rudolph Otto (in “The Idea of the Holy”) as mysterium tremendum et fascinans. The Latin does not need translating. Something of this magnetic awe was captured by C.S. Lewis in his “Chronicles of Narnia” where the Christ figure is the lion, Aslan. When the children in the story first see the Lion they discover that something can be “good and terrible at the same time…for when they tried to look at Aslan’s face they just caught a glimpse of the golden mane and the great, royal, solemn overwhelming eyes: and then they found they couldn’t look at him and went all trembly” (“The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” Chapter 12) As fierce as the lion seems, they are drawn by His charm. Later when Lucy meets Aslan in person after some time has passed she says, “You’re bigger” to which he responds, “You have grown”. God is always “bigger”.
The holiness of God is purifying but for those who choose the path to Hell it is fierceness itself. God is Love, and never stops loving us, but those who reject God will find His love unbearable.
Judgement and the broken world
We live on a beautiful planet in a magnificent universe. Photographs taken by extremely powerful telescopes or sent back to earth from different kinds of space craft have amazed and consoled us. But there have also been photos of the earth showing hurricanes and other violent natural disturbances. On earth we have instruments that can predict earthquakes, and scientists can point to volcanoes and geysers and warn us of what will happen in the future. In this 21st century many of us are talking about freak weather patterns. Many say that such things are the result of global warming.
There have always been storms, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and plagues. Since the Fall and the effect of Original Sin on nature itself, mankind has struggled with forces beyond its control. God has allowed us to suffer the consequences of sin even as regards the weather. There seems to be a relationship between the disturbances of nature and the sinfulness of Earth’s inhabitants. We can understand how greed, expressed in deforestation, pollution, excessive cultivation, depletion of fish stocks and gross interference with natural systems has caused serious problems which sometimes threaten human life itself. We might also ask questions about the effects of atomic tests in different parts of the world, including the Pacific Ocean. Such things can more easily be traced to human frailty. The mystery of sin is not so easily described. Yet we sense that there is something profoundly wrong with the earth and the universe and we suspect it has something to do with us. In many ways prophecies of disaster remind us of our common humanity and our responsibility for the Earth. When and if we sense God warning us it is firstly an act of mercy. A warning is a warning, not a condemnation.
In Notebook 17, in the message given on Oct 26, 1987, Jesus said;
“It is out of my boundless mercy that I descend on earth to warn you. I am the Spirit of truth who speaks; listen to what I have to tell My Churches, creation, do not stand still, foreward my warning. I am standing at the door knocking…”
We have free will; we can answer the call of repentance or not. We have the poor. We can try to help them or not. Governments and wealthy businesses have huge resources. They can cancel debt or not, help cultivation in desert areas or not, work for peace and justice or not.
Jesus Christ did not heal the whole world, but He showed that such healing is both possible and planned. He calmed the storms, gathered unusual catches of fish into the nets of His fishermen disciples, multiplied bread and fish for the multitudes, and raised the dead. When He died there was an earthquake. Since His Ascension and the coming of the Holy Spirit there have been other occasions when the world seemed to behave in unusual ways. Sometimes these occurrences are like mystical phenomena, seen by only a few, even if these are numbered in the thousands (as at Fatima in 1917). Sometimes they are real events that defy explanation (such as the strange lights in the sky over Europe just before the Second World War – an event prophesied by the Virgin Mary).
The world is no longer under the control of the devil, but it can be damaged by sin and much depends on our response to grace. If we reject God we allow the devil back in, even if only temporarily, but once back the evil one is not so easy to dislodge. The science of deliverance is based firmly on faith. Christian exorcism everywhere exalts the Cross and proclaims the Word. Evil HAS been defeated. We cannot say it enough, but that triumph must be seen in the lives of Christians and the gates of Hell must be barred and bolted. One day this will come – perhaps sooner than we think. When we experience the great joy of Christian unity St. Michael will be advancing towards those gates with a great chain.
Judged by Love
Quoting Matthew’s Gospel about the coming of the Son of Man “in glory” Archimandrite Vasilios reminds us that the glory of Christ is His loving kindness. The embodiment of this is the Cross. St. John’s Gospel speaks of the glorifying of Christ in terms of His passion, death, resurrection and ascension but in a special way, His glory is His death. The moment of triumph is the final cry before the release of His Spirit.
This is the triumph of love; of Love. Once this has happened everything that follows is given. In the film, “The Passion of The Christ” the moment of Christ’s death is brilliantly depicted as the defeat of the evil one. The devil is shown alone in a waste land screaming in despair.
The triumph of the Cross is the triumph of love. This is why the Cross will be shown to us in both its horror and splendour. We will look on the one that we have pierced – that our sins have pierced. We will see what those on Calvary saw 2000 years ago, and we will see the fiercely beautiful face of the one who died for us. This is a more terrible judgement than we could create for ourselves because this is the Truth, that absolute Truth about ourselves in relation to God.
When the film, “The Passion” was released, I am sure many asked themselves the question of how this graphic depiction of the sufferings of Christ would affect people. We know now that some came out of cinemas in tears, others testify that their lives have changed. What will be the impact of the real thing? Does the Second Pentecost involve a glimpse of the full horror? Mystic souls (including Vassula) have seen something of this. Padre Pio saw the crucifixion when he celebrated Mass. Is it any wonder that he bore the marks in his anointed flesh? This is it. This is the judgement, and Christians need to draw closer to the Cross. Early on in the messages of True Life in God Jesus asks Vassula (and us) to make the Stations of the Cross. Unless we meditate on the Passion, the real Passion, how can we ever hope to understand anything about God’s love for us? For Christians, holiness is impossible without the Cross.
(See the TLIG message Nov 12, 1987)
Pope John Paul II says (in “Crossing the Threshold of Hope”), “Before all else, it is Love that judges. God, who is Love, judges through love. It is Love that demands purification, before man can be made ready for that union with God which is his ultimate vocation and destiny” (Page 187).
If only we could see Heaven, so much would become clear. St Paul, who had a mystical experience of Heaven, tells us that there is no comparison between what we suffer here and now, and the joys that await us. Why are we afraid to say this? What could be more consoling? Too few preachers talk about Heaven at funerals. Once we have Paradise in view we find more strength to pray and love and suffer. What God has in store for us is beyond the greatest poetic imagination. It cannot be depicted in music, painting or prose. The best we can do is to be silent in the face of an awesome mystery. Our liturgies should be beautiful, musical, and replete with symbols, signs, colour and light. But we also need silence because there is somewhere these things cannot go. They take us to the threshold. Beyond that there is the unspeakable, unthinkable, unimaginable joy of Paradise. We can only know something of it now in a kind of quickening that is something like a golden form of adrenalin entering the heart. It is an interior call, a faint echo of the insistent call of the Father; “Come, my child, come to me”
The Lord Jesus wants us to go to Heaven. He wants us to be holy. He wants to share His life with us. It is as though He “thirsts” for us. All is love, but this love is more than we can ever put into words, or paint, or music.
In Notebook 18, Nov 13, 1987, Jesus gave Vassula this prayer;
“Father, Righteous One, My Shelter,
send out Your Light and Your Truth,
let these be my guide, to lead me to
Your Holy Place where You live,
I, for my part love You fully,
I will keep my vow to fulfil Your word,
Holy Father I am aware of my faults,
Of my sins, have mercy on me
In Your Goodness and Your great Tenderness
Forgive my sins, purify me Lord,
Be my Saviour, renew me,
Keep my spirit faithful to You and willing,
I offer You my will, surrendering,
I am willing to be Your tablet,
I praise Your Holy Name and thank You
For all the blessings and peace You have given me.
Vassula responded in these words;
“Thank you Jesus for leading me step by step, You are my Holy Teacher, teaching me with Love and patience, guiding me and guiding others too to know You better, to know what an infinite Love You are never deserting us, but always ready to search for us who were lost and bring us back to You, never did I feel harshness from You, or impatience, I only felt loved. You gave Love and Peace to my soul. This is what You are. I will never leave you Lord.”
Let us pray that we may respond to God’s Love with gratitude, fidelity and abandonment. May we all be His instruments of peace and reconciliation. May He always be loved, honoured and obeyed, and may the Light of Christ shine in our hearts and in the Church to come. Amen.
THE HOLY BIBLE. New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
“After Death.” Archimandrite Vasilios Bakogiannis.
Tertios Publications 2001
“Crossing the Threshold of Hope.” Pope John Paul II
“The Idea of the Holy.” Rudolph Otto
“The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.” C.S. Lewis