It would occupy no small degree of time, to inventory and investigate every Biblical passage concerning judgement. In the assorted voices of the Old Covenant as well as in the New, one finds that judgement is invoked on a habitual basis. In the matrix of biblical narratives, stories and instructions, judgement seems to be inserted almost universally, at the micro and the macro level.
But what does judgement even mean? In the Hebrew cosmology, judgement (mishpat) is closely related with the justice (tzadeqah). In ancient Israel, judgement and justice were both connected with judicial and legal application, whereby disputes or injustices of one degree or another were adjudicated. Judgement also had a personal and social usage, which entailed righteous living and harmony between individuals and communities. In the Hebrew Bible, various passages illustrate the close ties between justice and judgement:
“Justice and judgement are the habitation of thy throne” (Psalm 89:14).
At the most basic level of definition, judgement can be understood as to “rule or govern,” a concept which comes primarily from the Hebrew verb (shaphat) or the Greek verb (krino), meaning “to judge, decide or distinguish.” This judgement is understood to be informed and enacted by and through the “moral standard” of God, which is the metric that defines what is just. God’s very nature, which is by definition inherently just and good, then becomes the basis upon which proper judgement or judging is held to account. In rendition, judgement is essentially a response to the absence or abuse of justice. Judgement refers to the “means [of] correcting what went wrong when primary [or initial] justice was not done.” In other words, it can describe, “doing what is right or just in response to violations…it can [also] refer to caring for the victims of unjust treatment and sometimes includes the concept of discipline of wrongdoers” (Ray Foucher, “Types of Justice”).
In situations where justice was absent in society, proclamations would be made by prophets, judges and finally by God Himself about the impending arrival of divine judgement, which has often been perceived as purely punitive or retributive. It is difficult to grasp or examine these ideas without the interpretive haze of our own assumptions about the fundamental character and nature of God. While punishment, judgement and correction are all described as actions of God in the Old and New Covenants, we are still left wondering about the purpose and emotion that drives God’s actions. Too often, God’s nature is confused with God’s actions or “passions.” Some theologians have sought to argue that God is in fact impassible (which in certain cases, meant unaffected by or incapable of experiencing emotion). This position is hard to defend, especially when one examines not just Christ’s emotional dispositions, but those ascribed to God in the Old Testament (Luke 19:41-44, John 11:35, 1 Kings 3:10, Exodus 4:14, 34:14, Jeremiah 32:41, Genesis 6:6 etc).
The key distinction then, is that God’s nature remains immutable or unchanging, but not unfeeling. And so, because God is love (a statement about His nature), all divine actions must then flow out of that unchanging facet of being. Therefore, God’s judgement, His anger, His wrath at sin and any other action or feeling, has to flow out of the eternal constant that is His love. Judgement is then, the application of God’s love through various necessary measures, such as punishment, discipline, correction and warning. Finally, judgement has both its historical and eschatological fulfillments. This means that judgement has occurred in the past, occurs in the present and will occur in the future. When thinking about this, it is also critical to understand that judgement is not always an external “act of God.” In many cases, judgement is simply the removal of God’s protection. This is also known as divine withdrawal and there are many examples of this in Scripture. In short, this withdrawal, is God’s way of allowing us to experience the natural consequences of sin and rebellion, which is of course a result of our free will choices (Psalm 7:14-16, Romans 1:24). Judgement in these instances is then the natural result of sin.
In John’s Gospel, Christ is described as the one who will one day come and “convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgement” (John 16:8, NASB). Because God is God and we are not, time and time again, believers are cautioned with regard to our own usage of judgement. Such teachings have significant value (and are indeed expected to be the norm) in any Christian context and yet it would seem prudent for the secular world to adopt such a frame of mind towards judgement as well. In any case, on a day-to-day basis, individuals use judgement for good and for ill. In a positive sense, we judge or “discern” a situation or an action based on how appropriate it is in a given situation. In home settings, social setting or an environment like a reentry program such as Damascus Way, there is always a level of judgement, that is to say “discernment” that must take place. Decisions or situations must be evaluated and judged to determine whether or not they are not just practical, but ethical as well. Because we believe that the Holy Spirit dwells within us, we can affirm that the Spirit will assist us in rightly ordering our judgement, while ‘guiding us into all truth’ (John 16:13).
There is a tension that is caused when God’s Truth confronts our ego. The unfortunate reality is that our judgement is often clouded by our own ego, our sin and our brokenness. This is yet another reason why Scripture firmly reminds us to refrain from judging others. In the second chapter of Romans, Paul is insistent upon this. Speaking in no uncertain terms, the Apostle states:
“Therefore, you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgement on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things. You say, ‘We know that God’s judgement on those who do such things is in accordance with truth.’ Do you imagine, whoever you are, that when you judge those who do such things and yet do them yourself, you will escape the judgement of God? Or do you despise the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience? Do you not realize that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?” (Romans 2:1-4).
In 2 Corinthians 5:10, Paul explains that “we must all appear before the judgement seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil” (ESV). In the Epistle to the Romans, Paul states that each of us will give an account to God (Romans 14:12) and in Matthew the warning is even more explicit. There, Jesus says, “I tell you, on the day of judgement people will give account for every careless word they speak” (Matthew 12:36). Perhaps if we truly took this to heart, we’d guard our tongues more consistently.
The primary motivation behind belaboring these points is to underscore that God’s standard towers above our own. God’s standard is perfection. The ideal. The summation of all Truth. Our impartial, incomplete and flawed actions and beliefs are thus always measured or judged in contrast to this perfect standard. But the beauty of this all is that there is no condemnation for those who have joined with and acknowledged the Lordship of Christ. In doing so, we submit ourselves to the perfection of God, which is revealed in Christ. We acknowledge that we are not God and that we do not get to define truth ourselves or “play God” by judging others. In doing so, we seek to put ourselves in the judgement seat of Christ, edging God out and pushing our ego in. Perhaps this is why judgement is needed in the first place, because ultimately, judgement is a response to injustice, evil and sin. Judgement is when a wrong is confronted. It is when a mirror is held up and the fragmented fruits of our pride, vanity and selfishness are revealed, tested and shown to fall short of God’s glory.
God’s judgement can be a difficult subject to broach, not just for those outside the Christian faith, but for those within it as well. Judgement carries a weight and a gravity that can be hard to stomach. It’s important to begin by acknowledging that discomfort. One of the beautiful things about the God we believe in, is that He does not despise our doubts and our questions. Wrestling with a difficult idea is part of the formation of an authentic faith. Consider the Book of Job or even the narrative in Genesis where Jacob seems to wrestle with God. In such instances, God gives space for an individual to voice a challenge or a query and then God responds with a rebuke or a revelation. Often when we bring our confusion or uncertainty to God, He gifts us with some kind of clarity or insight about Scripture or Himself. So, it is important to press into Scripture and to seek the Holy Spirit to help find greater understanding and experience of God’s Truth.
Scripture speaks profusely about God’s (and Christ’s) judgement, often in manners that are meant to instill awe and reverence. In Proverbs 1:7 it is stated that, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” We often conflate fear (yirat) with being scared, when the word is really getting at a kind of awe-filled reverence and respect. A holy trembling before the majesty of God’s power, beauty and perfection. To experience this state of fear or awe, is to come before the standards of God and to realize that we are not God and that only God is the perfect judge.
As humans, we are marred by the effects of the Fall and our ability to “judge righteously” is most certainly impaired as a result. Even believers should be reticent about our usage of judgement because what is deemed as righteous judgement generally degenerates into judgementalism. The Church has, in far too many instances, been a place of condemnation and judgement rather than grace, humility and compassion. Because of this, the clarity and proclamation of the Gospel has been clouded. Similarly, society and its institutions have also monumentally failed to deliver proper judgement in the civic sphere and in today’s current cultural climate, judgementalism is as rampant and widespread as it has been and can be in the Church.
In conclusion, this article will leave the reader with five forms of judgement to avoid:
1.) Judgement without Humility
2.) Judgement without Forgiveness
3.) Judgement without Context
4.) Judgement without Grace
5.) Judgement without the Holy Spirit
“Do not pervert justice; do not show partiality to the poor or favoritism to the great, but judge your neighbor fairly” – Leviticus 19:15
Cunningham, David S. “God’s Judgment (but Mostly Our Own) in Times of Crisis.” Journal for Preachers 44, no. 2 (Lent 2021): 17-23.
Foucher, Ray. “Types of Justice.” February 7th, 2018. https://characterofgod.org/types-justice/
Travis, S.H. “Judgement.” In Dictionary of Paul and His Letters: A Compendium of Contemporary Biblical Scholarship edited by Gerald F. Hawthorne, Ralph P. Martin and Daniel G. Reid. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993.