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Beliefs That Count by Georgia Harkness


Georgia Harkness was educated at Cornell University, Boston University School of Theology, studied at Harvard & Yale theological seminaries and at Union Theological Seminary of New York. She has taught at Elmira College, Mount Holyoke, and for twelve years was professor of applied theology at Garrett Biblical Institute. In 1950 she became professor of applied theology at the Pacific School of Religion, in Berkeley, California. Published by The Graded Press, Nashville, Tennessee, 1961. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Chapter 11: We Believe in Divine Judgment


God is not only the Creator but he is also the Judge of all the earth. All men and nations stand before His judgment bar. The moral law and the Christian ethic judge both sinner and saint. Beyond all human laws, customs, and opinions there is one divine Law which remains absolute and unchanging. Men may break themselves and their civilizations upon that Law but the Law itself stands forever. The judgments of the Almighty are true and everlasting.

The Judge of All the Earth

One of the early stories recorded in the Book of Genesis has some searching words: "Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?" (Genesis 18:25.) It is the story of the projected destruction of Sodom for its sinfulness, and Abraham protests that the Judge of all the earth will surely not slay the righteous with the wicked! Thus in one sentence both the judgment and the mercy of God are suggested. These two motifs are found throughout the Bible, and together they are imbedded in the Christian faith. To take away either is to withdraw from the other something vital and indispensable.

Yet God’s mercy and judgment have not always been held in proper balance. The experienced fact of human sinfulness and the promise of salvation through the unmerited forgiveness of sin have placed much emphasis on divine judgment in traditional Christian thinking. Both the Old and New Testaments refer many times to the wrath of God. The apocalyptic passages in the New Testament also contain a number of statements of which this one at the conclusion of the parable of the weeds is typical: "The Son of man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and throw them into the furnace of fire; there men will weep and gnash their teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father." (Matthew 13 :41-43.)

It is not surprising, therefore, that there developed very early a doctrine of heaven and hell with a sharp separation of the righteous from the wicked at death and the eternal punishment and torment of the latter. So deeply imbedded is this concept that, as was noted earlier, many people have trouble in thinking of salvation in any other terms than those of escaping hell and reaching heaven after death. They cannot conceive of it in any other fashion,

In recent years the belief in hell has waned among Protestants partly because of the difficulty of locating it in space but more from the conviction that a loving God would not want to condemn anyone -- even a hardened sinner, to say nothing of a kind and highly moral person who is not a Christian -- to endless torment. The ancient question "Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?" leads us, as it led Abraham, to think that it would not be right for God to be so destructive.

As a consequence, we sometimes get too sentimental about the loving-kindness of God and forget that he is exacting as well as loving. The belief in a "fire and brimstone" hell we may well surrender; we shall say more about this later. But we cannot overlook the belief in divine judgment -- and with it divine punishment -- without distorting the Christian faith. So, what may we believe about it ?

What Is Divine Judgment?

Divine judgment will be clearer, perhaps, if we think of it in terms of the justice of God. Both words are derived from the Latin jus, which means "right" or "law." A true judgment is passed when the decision reached is one that is right and just. We do not need to think of the judgments of God legalistically, as we do when a human judge instructs the jury in a court case; yet the judgments of God are directly related to the laws of God.

Likewise, we do not need to think of God’s punishment as vindictive, retributive, or retaliatory. Our human tendency is to think of justice as "getting even," as one small boy strikes another and the other strikes back, or as a supposedly mature individual or nation thinks it must give back to enemies either the treatment received or something more severe. This ancient idea of the lex talionis -- "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth" -- was explicitly repudiated by Jesus. But it still persists in our society even when our better sentiments recoil from it.

How, then, is punishment justified? Our best analogy is the human family, although even this must, of course, fall short of the infinite love of God. The child who is always indulged and never punished becomes a "spoiled brat" and grows up with less strength of character than one who is firmly and justly disciplined. Brutal or arbitrary punishment will not do; loving and just punishment is a necessity for the fullest achievement of character.

God is infinitely loving and just. He takes sin seriously, and all men are sinners. God would not be a God worthy of our worship -- certainly not the God of Jesus -- if he smiled indulgently upon our sins, bypassed them, and let us go on sinning with no evidence of divine disfavor.

The Hebrew prophets proclaimed again and again the judgment of God on a sinful nation. These words of Amos still ring in our ears:

Thus says the Lord:
"For three transgressions of Israel,
and for four, I will not revoke the punishment;
because they sell the righteous for silver,
and the needy for a pair of shoes --
they that trample the head of the poor into the dust
of the earth,
and turn aside the way of the afflicted. . . ." (Amos 2:6-7.)

Yet there is another side of this message -- a note of hope in the midst of doom. Again we read the words of Amos:

Seek good, and not evil,
that you may live. . . .
. . . . . . . . . .
"I hate, I despise your feasts,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
. . . . . . . . . .
But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an everflowing stream. . . ." (Amos 5:14, 21, 24.)

Today, as in the eighth century before Christ, we find greed, exploitation, callous indifference to human need, and vast amounts of conflict and strife between nations and social groups. These situations always cause tension and suffering; sometimes they break out in war. But we must remember that these wars do not occur because God desires them. They take place because a just God has so ordered his world that sin inevitably brings suffering and distress in its wake. God respects the freedom he has imparted to his children and does not interrupt our sinning by any forced conformity to his will. But God the Judge is always the Ruler of his world.

There is a moral order in the world. When we break the laws of God, we are broken upon them. This does not always seem apparent in individual lives, however, for an obviously sinful person may seem to get along pretty well. Therefore we are inclined to ask Jeremiah’s question,

Why does the way of the wicked prosper?
Why do all who are treacherous thrive? (Jeremiah 12:1b.)

Yet inwardly there is a difference between the love, joy, and peace of the dedicated Christian and the person who demands more and more for himself in defiance of God and at the expense of other persons. Whether in a sense of guilt and inner unrest which drives many to psychiatrists or in the perhaps more terrible lethargy that drugs conscience to insensibility, punishment for unrepented sin is an inescapable fact of life.

Sometimes this judgment is interpreted as automatic punishment that goes on without God’s concern simply because the world is made this way. But such a view of an inflexible moral order is not enough to express the full meaning of divine judgment. The personal God who punishes in love does not simply leave us to our own destruction. He yearns to save us, and his just condemnation never cancels his mercy. This is why he sent his Son, Jesus Christ, for our redemption, and this is the major message of our faith.

Law and Grace

Beyond all human laws, customs, and opinions there is one divine Law which remains absolute and unchanging. Men may break themselves and their civilizations upon that Law but the Law itself stands forever.

Because all human laws, customs, and opinions change from time to time and vary from place to place, we tend to think of right and wrong as relative to the particular culture in which we live. To cite a familiar example, some Christians think it is perfectly all right to drink a cocktail occasionally if they do not get drunk; others see this as a sin against God. Extend this dilemma to problems of family life and business dealings, to the moot problems of school integration and the use of atomic and hydrogen bombs in war, and it becomes evident that there is no unanimity among Christians as to the will of God in concrete matters of ethical decision.

When we look to the Bible for an absolute set of rules, we fail to find it. There are, to be sure, many sources of guidance in the Bible, but neither the Ten Commandments nor the words of Jesus tell us everything. If we take everything in the Bible literally as a mandate for today, we run into strange developments. For example, Deuteronomy 25:5 specified that if a man died without having a son, his brother must marry the widow and try to beget a son who would bear the dead man’s name. And he had to do this regardless of whether or not he had a wife already! I do not know of any Christian in our time, however much of a biblical literalist, who feels obligated to keep this command.

Such factors may lead us into an ethical relativism regarding our duty as Christians. But ought this to happen? The statement quoted affirms that "there is one divine Law which remains absolute and unchanging." This is true and vitally important.

There is only one absolute and unchanging law laid for us by God through Christ. This is the law of love. Some would not call it a law, since love is not subject to command. But in any case, it is a supreme obligation. Jesus stated duties on which "depend all the law and the prophets" when he answered the inquiring lawyer’s question with the words:

"You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. . . ." (Matthew 22:37-39.)

Under all circumstances, the Christian is obligated to do the most loving, serving thing he can. This will not always be the same thing under differing circumstances. Words that cut must sometimes be spoken if healing is to take place, while under other circumstances the same words would simply be unloving or even spiteful. Christians will not always agree as to what is the most loving course of action to take, as Christians today are not in agreement over participation in war. Yet love stands always as the one supreme Christian obligation.

And how is love related to justice? No end of theological and ethical writing has been done on this theme, and we cannot go into all the issues here. In brief, love and justice must be united, even as judgment and mercy are united in the nature of God. Love without justice becomes sentimentality; justice without love is no longer just, but vindictive. Then the coercive power that is a necessary instrument of justice replaces concern for persons. Many of the world’s major tangles today stem from attempts to preserve justice by force without the love of neighbor which alone makes force justifiable. Apply this idea to the international scene, to labor disputes, to racial tensions, or to almost any other social problem, and it becomes evident.

This brings us to the idea of law and grace. Law is the instrument of justice, whether human or divine, although, as we have seen, there is only one supreme and unchanging divine law. Love is the expression of grace. The overflowing and, on our part, unmerited, love of God forgives our sin even though we still stand under the divine judgment, and the love of God for us enables us to love our neighbor. "We love, because he first loved us." (1 John 4:19.)

Amid the relativities and clashing opinions of our time, the law of God stands forever. It is a law that is more than law because its source is the grace of God. It is a justice that is more than judgment because it springs from divine mercy. From this fountainhead Christians are called to love all men as brothers and to treat all men with a justice that finds its criterion and springs of action in love.

After Death

The judgments of the Almighty are true and everlasting.

We come now to say a few words about that disputed subject, the reality of hell and the possibility of everlasting punishment meted out by God. Here opinions differ greatly among Christians, and anything we say must be tentative.

As we shall observe more fully in the next chapter, eternal life is a basic conviction of Christian faith. It is thought of in different ways, but this faith and hope are central in the faith of the Christian church. We do not know all about heaven because it lies beyond our observation and the Bible does not tell us all we should like to know. But most Christians believe that God provides such an eternal dwelling place for those who love him.

Eternal life in this affirmative sense, as indicated in the Gospel of John, is not simply continuance after death; it is a quality of life which begins here and is endless. Because this is true, can we not then assume that the rejection of the call to love and serve God lies also on both sides of death? Hell in this life is certainly a reality; there is no sufficient reason to think that it ends with death.

Hell must not be thought of as physical torment or endless burning in a sea of fire. This is pictorial imagery like the pearly gates and streets of gold with which heaven is often pictured. The basic ideas in the meaning of hell are alienation and separation from God by persistent rejection of him, the tighter forging of the chains of sin as we misuse our freedom, and the loneliness, remorse, and inner turmoil which are sin’s worst punishment. It is unwarranted to suppose that the Judge of all the earth remits these penalties in life or beyond death if persons persistently and impenitently refuse his grace.

We have said that the wrath of God must not be taken to mean vindictiveness. It means God’s inevitable condemnation and terrible judgment upon sin. It is because sin is so serious and divine judgment is so real that hell in the sense just indicated is a reality upon earth and may well be after death. God forces no man to love and serve him; but when we refuse his invitation, we bear the penalty.

Will all men after death eventually be won to acceptance? Some noted theologians think so on the ground that otherwise the redemptive purpose of the ever-loving God would be unfulfilled. Others, including the present writer, believe that human freedom is so basic to personality that its misuse in rejecting God’s grace, whether in this life or the next, will always be possible. We do not know; we must leave this in the hands of a just and loving God.

"The judgments of the Almighty are true and everlasting" -- yes, and righteous altogether. It is as good to be aware of these stern certainties as it is to have the equal assurance that in God’s grace we shall find our peace.

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