Rejoicing over Judgment

Why God’s Wrath Is Good News

A couple of years ago, a friend and I were enjoying the view from a downtown hotel’s rooftop bar when we realized there was a function going on around us. Wanting to get some free food, we stuck around and started to mingle. But after just a couple of minutes, someone stood up to address the gathering, and we quickly discovered this was an event for a particular activist group — one whose cause both of us felt profoundly uncomfortable with, and so we discreetly slipped away.

Many people might feel similar as they read certain passages of Scripture. In Psalm 98, for example, we find ourselves in the middle of a celebration: there is a lot of music and energy (verses 4–6); all creation seems to be joining in (verses 7–8). But the cause of all the festivity quickly becomes apparent: “[God] comes to judge the earth” (verse 9). Which is where the discomfort might start. Perhaps we want to slip out.

The surprise is not just that the Bible speaks about God one day judging the world, but that his doing so is something to celebrate. Paul connects coming judgment to the gospel he preaches: “. . . on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus” (Romans 2:16). God’s judgment is part of the good news.

The Bible gives us at least five reasons why.

1. God’s judgment is needed.

Many today assume that people, deep down, are fundamentally good, and that bad things only really happen because of poverty, lack of education, poor upbringing, lack of privilege, and the like. What we need is progress, not judgment. Judgment is outdated. We’re sophisticated enough to know what’s right and wrong.

Miroslav Volf, professor of theology at Yale Divinity School, grew up in Croatia and lived through the bloodshed in that part of the world in the 1990s. In his book Exclusion and Embrace, he argues that one reason so many Westerners do not believe in judgment is that their lives are often too sheltered, too suburban, too quiet (300). For those who have lived through genocide, the idea of judgment can bring deep comfort. The fact is, many things in this world are not just unfortunate, but truly evil. We are naive to think otherwise. And too much wickedness is never adequately dealt with.

The truth of God’s judgment shows us that every wrong will be righted. No evil will ultimately prevail. No one will escape justice.

2. God’s judgment is fair.

Many people who don’t believe in God’s judgment do believe in judgment itself, and that it is down to us to implement it. Our social media feeds cry out with comments decrying injustice; often, the commenter also seems certain of exactly what needs to be done. Bloodshed erupts in the Middle East, and people who moments ago hadn’t even heard of the places in turmoil have no apparent doubt about who’s to blame and how to fix it.

The Bible does speak of a form of judgment that takes place in this life. Paul shows us that the state carries the sword of justice as an instrument of God’s wrath and an expression of his judgment (Romans 13:1–4). But such justice is incomplete and proximate at best. Even those of us fortunate enough to live in countries with healthy systems of justice know they are imperfect. Which is why Paul also speaks about “the day of [God’s] wrath,” when full justice will be done (Romans 2:5). If we don’t believe in that future judgment to come, our only hope for justice tends to be political justice in this life. Without God, such measures are all we have left.

“God sees the whole situation; we don’t. He is perfectly just; we’re not. He is not vindictive; we are.”

But we should be very hesitant to think we know how to fix the problems of the world. Paul’s language around the future judgment through Jesus shows us why: he will judge “the secrets of men” (Romans 2:16). Without that capacity, we will never have full justice. We can hide things from one another, even from our nearest and dearest, but we can hide nothing from Jesus. He sees the secrets of our hearts. He knows all our motivations, all our circumstances. His judgment — and only his judgment — will be fair.

3. God’s judgment shows we matter.

It is common to think that if God loves us, he won’t judge us; and if he judges us, he doesn’t love us. But the opposite of love is not judgment, but indifference.

When I was at university, a friend and I began to suspect a particular professor didn’t actually read our papers. They were often ungraded, with only vague comments and no evidence of the pages having been physically turned. So, we conducted an experiment. We each wrote an entirely random, outrageous sentence in the middle of our papers to see if he would spot it and comment on it. He never did. It was quite a blow.

There were some papers I’d worked especially hard on — papers on topics I deeply cared about, and where I wanted to make sure my understanding was clear. And yet he’d never actually bothered to read them. Which told me I didn’t matter to him — or at least this part of my education didn’t matter to him. Not grading and assessing someone’s work is a sign you don’t care about them.

So, God’s judging us is a sign that we really do matter to him. He is not indifferent to us. He cares how we live and what we do. His judgment is a backhanded compliment: our lives really are consequential.

4. God’s judgment makes us less violent.

If God is judgmental, we might think that gives us a personal license to be so as well. But Scripture shows us the exact opposite is the case: because God will bring final, perfect judgment at the end of time, I can trust him and not seek to enact my own form of justice now. If there is no judgment to come, then all I have left is whatever I can come up with in this life. Wrongs will have to be avenged here and now.

Paul writes, “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord’” (Romans 12:19). Paul wouldn’t need to write this if the tendency toward vengeance was not so prevalent in the human heart. His words are emphatic: “never avenge yourselves.” This is not a recommendation or a rule of thumb that applies most of the time. It is a categorical command. However grievous the wrong, we are never to seek personal vengeance.

Paul shows us why. Significantly, he addresses his readers here as “beloved,” a term he does not typically use in this letter. He is reminding us of the undeserved love we have received from God. We haven’t received what we truly deserve from him; we were his enemies, but he has lavished his love upon us. So, as recipients of such undeserved love, how can we refuse it to anyone else?

But it is not just the love God has shown us, but also his judgment to come, that restrains us from vengeance in the present. We are to “leave it to the wrath of God.” He is the one who repays. He punishes sin and brings judgment. He sees the whole situation; we don’t. He is perfectly just; we’re not. He is not vindictive; we are. We can trust him to repay — and he will. And because he will, I can hold back my own desire for vengeance.

5. Jesus delivers us from judgment.

Perhaps the biggest way the good news of the gospel connects to the judgment of God is this: in Christ, we have no need to fear it. As Paul writes to the believers in Thessalonica,

You turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come. (1 Thessalonians 1:9–10)

God will indeed judge the world. History will not lack a moral resolution. Perfect justice will come. But those in Christ do not need to fear it. The wrath our own sins deserve has already fallen on Jesus. We have been justified through faith in him. So, along with all creation in Psalm 98, we will be able to celebrate when that judgment finally comes.