Well, we finished off last year with a merry little Christmas post about sin, and we start the New Year full of zip and optimism with 2000 words about judgement!
Here’s the next chapter in the ‘Two ways to live’ evangelistic book. It’s based on box 3 of the outline, and tries to do that difficult thing of speaking plainly, persuasively and winsomely about the most awful subject—that we’re all facing death and judgement because of our rebellion against God.
Three things I’ve been particularly aware of as I’ve been drafting:
I don’t want to write in a mealy-mouth, backpedalling fashion about the subject, as if I’m embarrassed about it;
And yet I’m aware it will be a topic that many readers will be unfamiliar with and potentially offended by—so no need to put them off unnecessarily by how I approach it;
But most significantly, unless the reader understands why death (and eternal destruction/death) is the punishment for our rebellion, it’s impossible to understand why the death of Christ takes our punishment for us.
Looking forward to your feedback about it. (Send me an email at email@example.com)
A bit of housekeeping: some of you have been having difficulty downloading the PDF of the chapter. I’ve been back and forth with the substack platform about it, and we haven’t got a complete solution yet. In the meantime:
If you log in to the substack website itself, you’ll be able to download the pdf from the website. That seems to be working for everyone.
As a fall back, I’ve also pasted the text of the chapter below (something I maybe should have done from the outset).
The justice of God
One of the many strange decisions I have made in my life is to be an Arsenal supporter. I live on the other side of the world from England, and so could have really chosen any football team to go for. But Arsenal it is, and will remain.
It’s a burden, of course, Arsenal’s form in recent years being what it is.
But the worst of it is that Arsenal suffers the most blatant refereeing injustice in the entire Premier League. It’s unbelievable. I can’t remember ever seeing an Arsenal match in which the referee was not against us. When a referee arrives at Arsenal, a switch flips in what passes for his brain. Not only will he call every 50/50 decision against us, but he will perpetrate the most blatant howlers and inconsistencies. We are always getting robbed, and I am constantly left shouting at the TV about the injustice of it all.
Strange thing, though. My brother, the Liverpool supporter, says exactly the same thing about how the refs treat his team. And so does my Spurs mate, and the poor sap I know who goes for Watford.
Every football fan is a one-eyed judge. When a decision goes our way, it was absolutely reasonable and just. When a decision goes against us, it is an obvious injustice by a criminally biased referee.
It’s not just in sport, of course. When some idiot roars past me driving dangerously fast, and then I come across him a few minutes later, parked on the side of the road getting a speeding ticket, I give a little satisfied grunt. Serves him right.
When I am the idiot driving too fast in a hurry to get somewhere, and a police car looms up behind me and flashes its lights, I also make a noise, but not a satisfied grunt.
We are like this as humans. We have a profound sense that there is such a thing as ‘justice’—that certain things should be the case, and that when they are not, it’s just not right or fair, and there should be some kind of reckoning. And yet we are self-centred and inconsistent about it. Sometimes we rush to judgement in our anger and get it wrong. Very often, we want justice to apply to thee, but not to me.
It’s interesting, though, that we are so passionate about justice, and so outraged when something is ‘not fair’, especially when it is not fair to us. In a god-less, accidental world, with no created standards of right and wrong, where did we get the idea that there is some kind of universal court of rightness or justice that applies to everybody, and to which we can appeal when things don’t go our way? It is hard to see how this kind of ‘justice’ has any rational basis in a purely material, accidental universe. In fact, if evolutionary development entirely explains how things have come to be the way they are, then when Person A screws over Person B, what’s to complain about? Surely that’s just the survival of the fittest.
The kind of ‘justice’ we take for granted in Western society is (once again) a very biblical idea. It has its roots in the justice of God.
God is the perfectly just and good judge. The goodness with which he created the world is also the goodness with which he assesses and judges what he has made, including us. Unlike human judges, God is never corrupt or arbitrary or incompetent. He always administers justice rightly, patiently and impartially.
We see this in God’s reaction to Adam and Eve’s rebellion against him. After the fateful events of the serpent and the eating of the fruit, the next paragraph goes like this:
And they heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God among the trees of the garden. 9 But the LORD God called to the man and said to him, “Where are you?” 10 And he said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself.” 11 He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten of the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” 12 The man said, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate.” 13 Then the LORD God said to the woman, “What is this that you have done?” The woman said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.”
The way Adam and Eve hide from God’s presence tells us what sort of relationship they used to have—one in which the Lord would walk in the garden and talk with them. But now they are afraid of him, and flee his presence. God reacts with a series of steadily escalating questions.
—Where are you?
—Who told you that you were naked?
—Have you eaten of the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?
—What is this that you have done?
God looks for Adam and Eve, and for the truth of what they have done. He is disturbed at their absence, and steadily horrified by their disobedience. If we can picture the Lord God walking in the garden at the beginning of the paragraph, we can almost imagine him with his head in his hands by the end of it.
God then pronounces judgement on the serpent and the woman and the man, in a way that matches their wrongdoing.
The serpent is doomed to crawl on his belly and eat dust, because he rose up as one of God’s creatures and lured humanity into rebellion against him. Now he will be the lowest of the low.
Likewise with the woman. Because she saw fit to rebel against God’s ways, the unique part she plays in God’s plan for humanity (bearing children to ‘multiply and fill the earth’)’ will be marked by pain and suffering.
And because the man willingly joined his wife in disobedience, he will no longer have a beautiful and fruitful garden to work in. Instead, the ground is cursed, and becomes hard and resistant to his efforts. (For the details, read Genesis 3).
All of this correlates with what we looked at in the last chapter. Our rebellion against God has consequences. Nothing is the same anymore. On all sides, we experience difficulty, pain, suffering and hardship, not only in ourselves and in our relationships, but in the world itself. The Bible says that these dysfunctional consequences are part of God’s justice.
The goodness of our world is a created goodness, formed and fashioned by a good God. When we rebel against God and the way that he has created the world, we rebel against goodness. And to rebel against goodness is to be given over to badness.
This is the nature of God’s justice against humanity. He’s giving us what we deserve, and have asked for. We have decided that we don’t want to live under his rule, within the good and beautiful order that he has created. OK then, says God, you want to reject me, and the goodness that I have baked into this beautiful world? Go ahead and see how that works out for you.
The punishment fits the crime.
But we haven’t yet mentioned the worst aspect of God’s punishment for human rebellion.
God is not only the creator and source of all goodness; he is the creator and giver of life. To be cut off from God, is to be cut off from life.
We are talking about the great unmentionable, the subject we never want to talk about or even think about. Death. Death is the final and awful punishment for rebelling against God, because a rejection of God is a rejection of the life that God gives.
As Adam and Eve discovered.
When God commanded them not to eat from that one tree, he warned them that “in the day that you eat of it, you shall surely die” (Gen 2:17). That is just what happened. When God ejected them from the Garden and from his presence, they became like cut flowers—dead from that point on, because they had been severed from the source of their life. They were made from dust, and to dust they would inevitably return.
Death is neither natural nor good. It is the judgement of God against us for our rebellion against him. In rejecting him, we reject the life that only he can give.
This is a hard truth, but we sense its truth whenever we encounter death. Both of my parents are now dead, and on both occasions I was able to view their bodies after their passing. It was a strange and sad experience. It wasn’t possible to stand there and look down at their corpses, and think that I was looking at something natural and good. It was all terribly wrong. The good and precious thing that had been their lives was gone forever.
That word ‘forever’ haunts us. Our loved ones are gone forever. One day, we all will be gone forever. But does ‘forever’ have any content? Is there something beyond death?
This is impossible for us to know by our own lights. In fact, it is difficult even to imagine what an existence beyond death might be. But God exists outside of time. He was there before the world came to be, and before human life began. And he is there after human life finishes. We will one day all stand before him, and give an account for all that we have done in our rebellion against him; for the people we have wronged and hurt; for all the damage we have done.
This both comforts and horrifies me. I am deeply glad that there will come a time when the evils and injustices of the world will be set to rights; when all those who have done terrible wrongs in the world will face justice from God for their crimes. I have a decently long list of people I am looking forward to God sorting out.
But I am less glad about the prospect of that justice being applied to me. I am a one-eyed judge when it comes to me, because I know that my rebellion against God has manifested itself in multiple ways that I would not be keen to answer for.
The ‘day of judgement’ that the Bible speaks of is hard for us to wrap our minds around, because we have no experience of any life beyond this one. We find an existence and time of reckoning beyond death difficult to visualise, and we find it equally hard to comprehend what sort of punishment or justice God might dispense beyond death. The Bible speaks on the one hand of being shut out from God’s presence forever, of experiencing an ‘eternal destruction’; on the other hand, it promises an ‘eternal life’ for those pass the test of judgement.
But who is going to pass that test?
The full nature of the human problem may now be apparent. If we have all rebelled against God, without exception, surely we are all doomed to fall on the wrong side of God’s judgement, without exception. We all die, and we will all face a negative judgement against us beyond death.
If the Christian gospel was a TV drama, this is the black moment—the time when everything seems dark and hopeless. The news seems as grim as it could be.
But understanding and appreciating the nature of this bad news is essential for understanding the extraordinary good news that is about to unfold.