Summary: The sixth phrase of the Creed: "From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead."
WHO’S THE JUDGE?
As we continue our travels through the Apostles’ Creed, we come to a rather squirmy line: “From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.” Thinking about the judgment passages of Scripture is not an easy way to pass the morning, but I think we have made them much worse than they need to be. The doctrines surrounding God’s judgment of the earth have been some of the most misused in Christian history, and unfortunately we don’t have to go back very far in history to see that such abuse continues in modern culture.
September 11 had people declaring that the tragedy was God’s judgement on us for any number of reasons, and there is no shortage of people who believe that we have been dropping bombs of God’s judgment on Islam ever since. If you have HIV/AIDS there are plenty of people willing to label your illness as God’s judgment, and there are hordes of people who think that the problems and tragedies which hit their families are God’s punishment for past misdeeds.
In the face of all of that, I want to stand up and say, “Stop it!!” If such judgments were meted out in our courts, we would be declared barbaric and probably put on trial ourselves for crimes against humanity. So where do we get off thinking that such behavior is characteristic of God? If God is love, why on earth would you think that God would give you some dread disease as a punishment? Would you do that to someone you loved?
I remember a young woman once coming into my office. She told me that she had an abortion when she was young. Now she was in an abusive relationship and thought God had sent her this relationship as punishment for the abortion. As a result, she would not leave it. She was accepting her punishment. Fortunately, I knew her mother, who was as kind and loving a woman as you could find. I asked the young woman, “So, did your mother approve of the abortion?”
“No,” came the reply.
“And do you think your mother would have given you this terrible relationship as a punishment for having the abortion?”
Again she said, “No. Of course not.”
This was, of course, my point. “If your mother wouldn’t do that to you, why do you think God would? God is far more kind and merciful than your mother.” And yet this is what we do all the time...attributing to God things that we would condemn as horrible behavior if a human being were to do it.
I’ve spent a fair amount of time in judgment halls. In seminary I was a mediator for the Atlanta courts, which meant that I spent a day a week sitting in court, waiting for cases that the judge would send my way. Once I entered ministry I ended up going to court with members of my congregations. Most recently I have spent time on the Board of Ordained ministry, sitting in judgment myself over candidates seeking to become pastors or pastors who have gotten into trouble.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned from all of those settings it is that who you get for a judge makes all the difference in the world. From the fierce debates over the appointment of federal and supreme court judges, down to the discussions that go on between every lawyer and client as they prepare to go to court, the nature and temperament of the judge can be the difference between jail and parole, between justice and a farce, between mercy and retribution. Who the judge is matters even more than the merits of the case itself.
Now, leave that thought there for a minute and let’s look at the other thing I have learned through my experiences: third-party judgment is sorely needed. Whether it was an intense family issue or a case that ended up in civil or criminal court, anyone who has ever been involved in a serious conflict knows that you get to a point where you can’t sort it out yourselves. The emotions are too intense, the stakes too high. No matter how good you might be at seeing what is right for other people, when it’s your own stuff, you need a third party that is not directly involved to help get things sorted out. You need someone to judge.
As much as we might dislike the thought that we might be on the receiving end of God’s judgment, I don’t think there’s a person in this room who wants a God who does not judge. I have yet to meet anybody who wants God to pat Adolf Hitler on the head and say, “There, there, what you did really doesn’t matter.” We may have considerable differences over what sentence we think a person ought to receive for their crimes, but I believe every last one of us wants others to understand the wrongs they have done.