God’s relationship with the world
The Lord sustains the whole cosmos and everything in it at every moment. The writer to the Hebrews makes this clear:
“The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word” (Heb 1:3). All that happens could not take place without him sustaining what causes it. Hence the prophets can say God performs all judgments in his wrath. But that is omitting reference to secondary causes, which is particularly the case in the Old Testament. He has given free will, desires and a sense of need to human beings which can lead to wrong action and negative consequences. Those consequences can be seen as judgment but they are not God directly intervening in judgment.
Not all divine judgment is by means of secondary causes. God has, of course, sometimes intervened directly in judgment. The deaths of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-11) is surely an example of this.
God also intervenes positively, often in answer to prayer. He can intervene to protect people from negative events which threaten them. In his great mercy he often intervenes to protect the impenitent sinner from the negative effects of his sin. On the other hand, where someone is an impenitent sinner, he can decide not to intervene and so such people experience either the negative results of their behaviour or the negative events which threaten them. They bring it on themselves but it can be described as divine judgment because the Lord decided not to intervene in protection.
So God often works through “the changes and chances of this mortal life” – sometimes in judgment. Here are some examples:
• The sons of Eli were living sinful lifestyles and their father rebuked them. But they “did not listen to their father’s rebuke for it was the Lord’s will to put them to death” (1Sam 2:25). In other words, God decided not to intervene to protect Eli’s sons in battle and they were both killed.
• Amos says the Lord caused lack of food in Israel and withheld rain from crops. He struck the gardens and vineyards, with blight and mildew. He also sent plagues (Amos 4:6-10). It is unlikely that God did this by direct intervention. Rather, he simply did not intervene to protect them from these problems and provide for them.
• The Lord is said to have put Saul to death (1 Chron 10:14) But it was the Philistines who actually carried it out. Literally, “Saul died because he disobeyed God. God removed his protection from him.”
• Amaziah, King of Judah, wouldn’t listen to a prophet warning him against going to war and so he was defeated in battle. The writer comments “Amaziah, however, would not listen, for God so worked that he might deliver them into the hands of Jehoash, because they sought the gods of Edom” (2 Chron 25:20). Literally, because of Amaziah’s persistent idolatry God didn’t intervene to convince him of the truth of the prophet’s warning. Events took their course.
• Isaiah speaks of the Lord’s “work against Mount Zion and Jerusalem” (Isa 10:12). But he goes on to say that Assyria was an instrument in God’s hand (i.e. God allowed Assyria to conquer) and would be judged for arrogantly thinking it had conquered by its own power (Isaiah 10:24-25). God allows Assyria’s selfish, violent expansionism to punish Israel but then he punishes Assyria for it’s wrong attitudes towards his people, namely the Babylonians conquered the Assyrians. God worked through the military action of these powers.
• Jeremiah quotes the Lord speaking of himself carrying out the actions of Babylon – actions which would normally be carried out when a dominant superpower invades a country. He works through ordinary human events (Jeremiah 27:6-11). Similarly Jeremiah speaks of Nebuchadnezzar carrying Judah into exile (29:1) but then says God carried Judah into exile (29:4, 7, 14). So God uses the selfishness, pride and violence of human beings in his purposes but they are still free in their decisions and responsible for their actions. Jeremiah says God will respond to national repentance by averting destruction (Jeremiah 18:7-10). This must mean that when there is repentance God restricts human evil and selfishness and demonic activity but often allows them in cases of no repentance. Human selfishness and evil and demonic activity is widespread bringing trouble and suffering to others. God does not literally need to bring that trouble and suffering but simply not to restrict and hold it back.
• Paul said that “God gave [the Jewish people] a spirit of stupor, eyes that could not see and ears that could not hear, to this very day.” Actually it is Satan, the God of this world, who blinds the mind of unbelievers. God simply didn’t intervene with many of them to bring them to faith.
How do we recognise God’s judgement in action today?
We need to be careful in concluding that some event is an example of God’s judgment, not least because God is very merciful, even towards persistent sinners. We can follow the approach taken in Scripture briefly outlined above, namely, recognising that God does judge people by not intervening to protect them from the results of their actions or “the changes and chances of this mortal life.”
If someone persists in wrong or unwise behaviour they may reap the result of that behaviour. This may simply be the natural result or, for example, human punishment of bad behaviour. On an analogy with Scripture, this could sometimes be seen as divine judgment. It could be in the sense that the person is reaping the result of flouting rules which God has written into creation, e.g. health rules. We often half-jokingly say when someone reaps a negative result from wrong behaviour “That’s judgment on you.” Or it may be in the sense that humans (police, law courts) are enforcing the law which is based on God’s order for society. Paul refers to this in Romans 13:1-5
“Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.”
The New Testament specifies various failings which will lead to judgement. In many of them it is not clear if it refers to judgment in this life or after death. The following are specified as leading to judgment: selfish anger (Matt 5:22), judgmentalism (Matt 7:1-2), rejecting the Gospel (Matt 10:15; John 12:48), careless words (Matt 12:36), hypocrisy (Matt 23:13; Rom 2:1-5), sexual immorality (heterosexual and homosexual), idolatry, greed, drunkenness, slander, swindling, idolatry, stealing (1 Cor 6:9-10), witchcraft, hatred, discord, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions, envy (Gal 5:19-21, Eph 5:5-6) ungodly church leaders (1 Tim 3:5-7), grumbling (James 5:9), going back on commitment to Christ (1 Tim 5:11-12).
However there are two passages which clearly speak of judgment in this life. Paul teaches that taking Communion unworthily can lead to sickness or even death (1 Cor 11:29-34). Pauls writes: “For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves. That is why many among you are weak and ill, and a number of you have fallen asleep. But if we were more discerning with regard to ourselves, we would not come under such judgment. Nevertheless, when we are judged in this way by the Lord, we are being disciplined so that we will not be finally condemned with the world.” This “judgment” is divine discipline which is intended to have a beneficial effect on the believer.
Both Paul and Peter teach that judgment sometimes takes the form of the undeserved suffering of believers which can build them up (2 Thess 1:4-7; 1 Peter 4:16-18). Paul writes: “among God’s churches we boast about your perseverance and faith in all the persecutions and trials you are enduring. All this is evidence that God’s judgment is right, and as a result you will be counted worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are suffering. God is just: he will pay back trouble to those who trouble you and give relief to you who are troubled, and to us as well.” Again this is divine discipline which strengthens them as they endure it in faith.
Peter writes: “However, if you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name. For it is time for judgment to begin with God’s household; and if it begins with us, what will the outcome be for those who do not obey the gospel of God? And, ‘If it is hard for the righteous to be saved, what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?’ So then, those who suffer according to God’s will should commit themselves to their faithful Creator and continue to do good.” Again this “judgment” is divine discipline.
So we may recognise God’s judgment on the church. Many churches don’t really pray (beyond brief prayers at services), don’t preach the Gospel in any effective way and don’t seek to put into practice the New Testament teaching on the church. The result is decline. The church has sometimes not handled the tragic issue of sexual abuse properly. The result is scandal. The House of Bishops seems to be “generally speaking, generally speaking” over the issue of homosexual partnerships/marriage. The result is that society ignores the church. And so it goes on.
We may also recognised God’s judgment on the world when human failing leads to negative consequences. This will include such things as:
• Self-seeking politics and military action leading to:
o Oppressive regimes
• Irresponsible attitude towards creation leading to:
o Global warming
o Other ecological disasters.
• Turning away from Christianity leading to
o Breakdown of biblically-based morality.
o Increasingly dominant influence of Islam
• Immoral, irresponsible behaviour, including sexual behaviour, which causes:
• Sexual immorality leading to:
o Undermining of marriage
o Breakdown of the family
o Harm to children
Of course, these negative consequences spread to many innocent people.
It is more difficult to speak of God’s judgment when it involves natural disasters: earthquakes, volcanos, floods, tsunamis, tornados, meteor/asteroid impacts. These are all natural events inherent to nature as we know it. Jesus speaks of earthquakes and disturbances in the heavens as signs pointing to his return but he does not say they are judgments. The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, which may have been caused by an earthquake, is, of course, seen as judgment, as is the Flood, so it is not illegitimate in principle to see natural disasters as judgment. But it surely requires a clear word from the Lord to recognise a particular natural disaster as judgment.
Judgment and Compassion
How do we reconcile the idea of God’s judgment (especially affecting innocent people) with divine compassion? There are various considerations:
1. God “judges” even faithful believers through suffering and persecution (2 Thess 1:4-7; 1 Peter 4:16-18) so no-one, even an innocent person, is immune from experiencing such “judgment.” All human beings are vulnerable to suffering but God seeks to build up character, faith and perseverance through suffering. His grace is therefore available to all innocent sufferers. We too must be available to innocent sufferers to give help and support.
2. God is merciful even to those who deserve judgment. We must be too. We should not limit our compassion to innocent sufferers. The guilty may be brought to repentance through our kindness. On the other hand, the very judgment they experience may help bring them to repentance.
3. We believe in a God who became incarnate to experience the worst human suffering in order to show his love and to bring us salvation. So even God, in his perfection, is not immune to suffering. Suffering is an inevitable part of human life.