Sunday, July 03, 2011

Judgment (Revelation 20:11-15)

Some people shy away from the book of Revelation because of its strange images and visions. Those different creatures, all of those trumpets and seals and numbers and marks -- they confuse us and maybe even frighten us a little. We don't know what they mean, so we feel safer not talking too much about them (a rare humble moment for some, I'm sure).

We might also back away from it because some of the Christians who do and say things we don't like use Revelation as a source for those things we don't like. Harold Camping's prediction of a May 21, 2011 rapture was based in part on what he believed he read in Revelation. If we bring up the book, we might be lumped in with him. Some Christians talk a lot about the final destination of folks' souls -- hell or heaven, smoking or non-smoking. They may be pretty mean about it, too, and draw from images like the one in this passage about the lake of fire. We don't really like what they say and we don't want to be associated with it, so we back off the book those images come from. They're too "judgmental."

Of course, when we say "judgmental" there, we're really talking about condemnation instead of judgment. We have to judge things every day. And we judge people all the time too: This person is my friend, that person is not. This person is dependable, that person is not. This person stays calm in a crisis, that person does not. We judge them and we decide what we do based on those judgments.

What we shouldn't do, of course, is condemn people. What do I mean? Well, judgments can change. New information brings a new understanding. That person who wasn't calm in a crisis before has new skills and now handles troublesome issues quite well, thank you. Even in the legal system, judgments can change. We've all read stories of people convicted and sentenced to jail who were freed many years later when DNA evidence proved that someone else committed the crime. Before, they were judged guilty. Now, they are judged not guilty.

But condemnation is permanent. Back to legal terms for a minute, where we use it to talk about capital punishment: The guilty person is condemned to die. Nothing could be more final than an execution. If we find out later that someone else was guilty, we can't bring the executed person back to life.

So we shouldn't condemn, but we should be aware that developing and using good judgment is important.

The language of Revelation, which talks of a final judgment, looks like it's about condemnation, so if we want to avoid condemning people then that might be another reason we back away from it. This passage, for example. talks about judging the living and the dead according to their deeds "as written in the books." They are all judged "according to what they had done." That sure sounds like some of those mean people we'd rather not be linked with, doesn't it?

It's also a little uncomfortable for us because we realized that we're going to be judged too, and I for one would definitely like to set that notion aside. Sure, like most folks I haven't ever seriously harmed anybody or done anything that bad. So I might like to think I'm OK, really. Not a spotless record, maybe not even a great record, but not all that bad. But what about the people who have done something harmful? People who have, through their words or actions, injured someone else? Being judged according to what they did might give them a lot more reason to worry. Is that fair? Is there a line somewhere that says how much bad is too much? Does God say, "You didn't do so great, but you did some good and that cancels it out?"

See how this gets troublesome? Because most of us are probably also aware of how we haven't measured up to the standard God sets for us. We know, to borrow Paul's words, that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. If Revelation means a judgment and we're going to be judged for what we did, we'd just as soon not think about that, thank you kindly. Because it's a final judgment and that sounds like we're back to not just being judged, but being condemned.

That's what it says, "anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire." That's condemnation for you, right there! The lake of fire, the same lake of fire that Death and Hades are going to be thrown into...waitaminute. How did that go again? "Anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life..." Nothing about being judged worthy or unworthy. Nothing about whatever bad or whatever sin was written down in those books. Just being written in the book of life. Well, how does that happen?

And that's when Jesus says, "I'm glad you asked me that question. Let's talk about it a little."

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