Divine Judgment in Scripture: A Brief Look at Issues and Language

In my blog post titled ‘Three Reasons to Reconsider Universalism’, I claimed that Scripture itself does not eliminate the possibility that eventual universalism is actually God’s plan for angels and humanity. In this post I will very briefly glance at the theme of judgment in the Bible.

Concerning judgment, suffice it to say that judgment is not intrinsically incompatible with future salvation of one punished. In order to speak to the permanence of a judgment of God, we need more information than simply that there is a judgment. We need a description of that judgment.

Does the Biblical concept of judgment point to particulaism (i.e., only a particular group of people, rather than all people, will ultimately be gathered into the presence of God)? Well, considering the fact that Paul pointed to believers as being judged, I would say, ‘not necessarily.’ Judgment seems to me not a theme speaking to salvation or non-salvation, but a theme speaking to ethical conduct that conforms to living out the kingdom of God by the enabling ministry of the Holy Spirit. (See especially Ecclesiastes 12:13-14, Romans 8:13, 1 Corinthians 3:10-15.) Such an approach does much to redeem the judgment of God as a merciful quality, rather than an action that divorces his decrees from his love for the sinner.

One of the difficulties about the descriptions one might expect to find for the judgment of God on those who do not submit to the Spirit in this life is that most of the alleged descriptions occur in material whose best genre could be called something resembling ‘parable’, ‘allegory’, or ‘symbol.’ This is especially true of the story of Lazarus and the Rich Man in Luke 16, the parables of Jesus, and many of the of the images in Revelation. (How concrete would any description be in a book that says a sword is in Jesus’ mouth?)

And then there is also the convenient difficulty of the Greek. How ought it to be translated? Eternal? Divine? Age? World? Etc. One’s interpretation of the Greek language itself has seemed in my limited study to have a profound affect one how one interprets the images of judgment and lostness in the New Testament. For William Barclay, the Greek word αιονιος (aionios) seems best interpreted as a Divine attribute. Something is aionios to Barclay if it is a kind of action attributable only to God. For Pastor Gregory Boyd, an advocate of conditional immortality (the damned cease to exist), aionios is clearly a term that does not place restrictions on how it is interpreted to refer to time. (See Jonah 2:6 or 7, depending on which Septuagint you are reading, to see a time in the Greek OT that aionios does not mean ‘forever’ or ‘everlasting.’)

We are then caught between images and words of divine judgment. Our interpretation of the images and words of divine judgment appears at first glance to have a more profound affect on our beliefs about the nature of God’s judgment than the words in Scripture itself. It is important to keep this in mind when approaches issues like universalism and particularism. The worst thing we can do, in my estimation, is to seek to resolve the ambiguous data presented us in Scripture and ‘general revelation’ by means that constitute an obvious dismissal of that which is clear. It would not make sense to resolve confusion about the nature of the law and grace by saying that anything goes and that it does not matter how one conducts himself sexually, for example. Nor would it be reasonable–on my reading–to brand the Old Testament as non-Scripture simply because there are points at which it does not appear to cohere with the New. However one divides the word of truth, it must be divided rightly. And I argue that that will require reading it holistically, rather than twisting it to fit a rigid preconceived mold.

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