When it comes to our personal and final judgment, after we die, there are many caricatures and distortions that are possible. One is of Jesus as a stern and grouchy judge who is looking for reasons to keep us out of heaven. This is the “sinners in the hand of an angry God” distortion. Or perhaps the Lord is weighing our good deeds against our bad deeds in a kind of impersonal, numerical manner. This is the Pelagian distortion where salvation depends on our earning it.
But at the other end of the spectrum and far too common today is the universalist distortion which presumes that almost everyone is saved with little or no reference to one’s preferred spiritual or moral life. It is an overreaction to the stern and litigious “God” of the first two distortions because it trivializes and reduces the Lord to a kind of harmless hippie, tokin’ on a number and saying, “Who am I to judge?” and, “All are welcome.”
The truth, of course, is in what the Lord actually teaches, not in such distortions. God wants to save us (e.g. Ezekiel 33:11; 1 Tim 2:4). But the real question is what do we want? Sadly, as the Lord laments, many prefer the wide road to destruction, rather than the narrow road to heaven (cf Mat. 7:13).
There are two scriptures (among others) that illustrate this well.
The first Scripture is in John’s Gospel in the third Chapter. The passage begins by reaffirming God’s desire to save us:
For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that everyone who believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through Him. Whoever believes in Him is not condemned… (John 3:16-18a)
But, even here there comes a warning rooted in our response:
but whoever does not believe has already been condemned, because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. (John 3:18b)
And then comes an analysis by the Lord as to why some refuse, and in what judgment consists of:
And this is the judgment: The Light has come into the world, but men loved the darkness rather than the Light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the Light, and does not come into the Light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. But whoever practices the truth comes into the Light, so that it may be seen clearly that what he has done has been accomplished in God.” (John 3:19-21)
Notice then, the judgment, the verdict, consists in whether or not one loves or hates the light. The Greek root word used here is ἀγαπάω (agapao), a word that indicates a strong love, a preferential love above other things. The Lord further teaches that those who love and prefer the darkness also hate the light. The Greek root word here is μισέω (miseo) – which means, to detest, denounce; to love someone or something less than someone (something) else, i.e. to renounce one choice in favor of another. So, there is a love of the darkness and a hatred of the light due to the prideful aversion of not seeing their sins and errors exposed for what they really are: sinful, wrong and harmful.
Why then are some excluded from heaven? Is it NOT because a mean and hateful God seeks to keep them out. No, it is that they prefer the darkness. They are accustomed to darkness and prefer it. And thus, the Lord teaches that the judgment that excludes the unrepentant is due to the Lord recognizing their preference and consigning them to the outer dark they prefer (Mat 22:13). In reality, they cannot stand the bright light of heaven where the truth of God radiates, vividly and intensely, leaving no shadow. Indeed, the Lamb of the Light is the city of God (Rev 21:23)! The saddest truth of the damned is that they would be more miserable in heaven. For those who hate the truth see the truth as hateful and irksome, and those who prefer the darkness experience the light as harsh. We see this frequently today when secular people denounce their opponents of faith as hateful and phobic and want to exclude them from their world.
The second Scripture is from this last Sunday’s Gospel (Lk 12:32-48; 19th Week, Cycle C) wherein the Lord paints a picture of two reactions to his coming. He begins by teaching the principle:
For where your treasure is, there also will your heart be. (Lk 12:33).
If our treasure is what we value most, is the world, then our heart is with the world. If our treasure is God and the things of heaven, then our heart is there. As most of us know, this is the great human drama. A very honest question that even Church-going Catholics must ask is, “Do I love God more than this world?” The honest answer for most is that we struggle to love God most of all. And, any look to the world around us today is that many, if not most, are obsessed with the things and priorities of the world and have marginalized God; some have marginalized Him completely. Their treasure and preoccupation is here, and so also is their heart. Far fewer are those who long for God and have their life directed to him and the things of heaven. And this is why we must constantly ask the Lord to fix and redirect our hearts.
Next, the Lord paints two responses, two groups, if you will, at our summons to death, and to the judgment seat.
Group One is described:
like servants who await their master’s return from a wedding, ready to open immediately when he comes and knocks.
Group Two sees the Lord as
A thief who is coming, and they do not want their house be broken into.
Why does Group Two see the Lord as a thief? Because their treasure, and therefore their heart is this world and the things of this world. And when the Lord comes they will see him as a thief coming to take away all they think is theirs, but is not. They are not happy to see Him, they wail and grind their teeth, seeing hm as one who is putting an end to their frivolities. They do not want what he offers, (the Kingdom of Heaven), for they prefer the darkness of this world: its priorities, personalities, power and possessions.
But Group One the Lord describes as like servants who await their master’s return from a wedding, ready to open immediately when he comes and knocks. He also describes them as having girded their loins, and lighted their lamps. To gird the loins is the ancient equivalent of “rolling up our sleeves.” It is to be ready for and doing the work that God has given us by setting our house in order, growing in holiness and eagerly anticipating being with the Lord in heaven. To “light our lamp” is to read the Word of God and be deeply immersed in God’s wisdom, his vision and priorities. It is to be imbued with the Kingdom values and to be longing for God’s justice and the Glory of heaven. This group has their treasure in heaven and, so also, their hearts. They look forward to the Lord’s coming with eager expectation and joyfully and actively prepare to meet him with longing in their hearts, repenting of their sins and setting their house in order. Hence, when the Lord comes they see him as Savior and Lord who will bring to completion in them whatever is undone (Phil 1:6) and lead them to the glory of heaven which they so desire. They do not see him as a thief, like Group One.
Thus, judgment consists in the Lord recognizing and ratifying that some joyfully come to the light, others are repulsed by it. So, ultimately, the judgment is on us. If someone prefers darkness, he gets the darkness he wants. If someone loves the light and comes to it by God’s grace, he enters the Kingdom of truth and Light he desires. God respects our freedom to choose, and at the judgment seat of Christ our preference and decision are recognized and ratified by the Lord Jesus. “Here is the judgement in question,” says the Lord, “that the Light has come into the world but some prefer the darkness.” In the end you get what you want.
So, one Lord, Savior and Judge comes to us (or we go to him) but the two groups experience him differently based on the disposition of their own hearts rooted in what they value and where their treasure is. God is not angry, though some are repulsed by him and regard him as a thief.
Some have said in recent years, something to the effect: “God does not judge us, we judge ourselves.” But this is only partially true. The Lord Jesus does in fact judge us (e.g. John 5:22), but his judgment is rooted in and recognizes what we ourselves have chosen and manifest by the way we live our lives. These two pictures of judgement make that point rather clearly.
This song from Camelot “playfully” ridicules goodness and prefers a wicked world: