image of cross-shaped headstone beside growing roses

Although judgement is one of the traditional themes of Advent1, along with death, heaven, and hell, it’s probably even less thought about, talked about or preached about than even its companions in the quartet commonly known as “the last things”. And yet in the readings used this time of year in both daily prayer and at mass, it is quite inescapable as one of those things the biblical authors have a lot to say about. Nowhere is that more common than in the prophets, who formed the theme for the advent wreath candle that is lit today, the second Sunday of Advent.

I confess to finding it difficult, mainly because of the ways so many people use it to claim God’s disapproval of whatever specific behaviour they don’t like. In what follows, I am, I guess, seeking to clarify my own thinking about the ways we can talk about it in relation to the present rather than eternity, and see if it has any coherence.

Some ways of speaking about it simply invite mockery, and seem disconnected from any understanding of the universe that underpins our daily living. One such example was when the then Bishop of Carlisle declared the 2007 floods that devasted much of his diocese, were in part God’s response to the UK government having passed laws giving gay people equality. This caused Libby Purves in The Times, to label him a “mitred misfit”.

He did try to add nuance, by also talking about judgement in ways which resonate with both science and secularism. The floods were one of many extreme weather events which are the consequence of the ways in which we, as a species, have failed to care for the planet. But that bad actions (sometimes) have bad consequences is a common observation that doesn’t need God as part of the explanation. Indeed, invoking God as in some sense a direct cause of such consequences raises more difficult questions than it answers. Why, for example, should relatively poor rural Cumbrian farming communities that are well in tune with the natural environment be on the receiving end of a judgement occurred by relatively wealthy urban industrial ones who exploit nature’s resources?

Yet the concept of divine judgement (in and through historical events) is so baked-in to scripture and tradition that it’s not one Christians can easily dispense with. And indeed, if we wish to maintain that God is indeed a God of justice, then in some sense provisional intimations of a final putting right of all things seem to provide at least a fitting component of what we might mean by such a belief.

There are those who pursue justice with the conviction expressed by Martin Luther King: “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.” To me that feels rather too like a Whig interpretation of history2, and one supported by very little empirical evidence. There are many days when the news gives little reason to discern some overarching directionality of the cosmos towards justice. We are just as likely to find ourselves longing for justice, not at all confident in some kind of reverse moral entropy, but despairing of it, with the sound of the four horsemen’s galloping hooves echoing in our ears.

Justice, if it is held to be an ultimate, an absolute good, as opposed to a relative social construct, only makes sense in theological terms, as a property of God, and as the work of God. The language of judgement is less about making direct correlations between that God and events in the world, as it is about seeing events in the world as signs – in some sense sacramentals – of our moral and epistemological fragility. Our confident assertions of our own moral rightness are called into question by the ways in which our plans don’t turn out as we thought they would. The planetary ecosystem, even before our behaviours have damaged it, is as capable of disrupting human life as nurturing it.

A more subtle account of the environmental crisis than the Carlisle one is still an obvious example. Our civilisational belief in being masters of the planet has been brought up short by the myriad of ways in which our environment is becoming more and not less hostile to the existence of what we have liked to call civilization and progress. Yet even within the science, the web of cause and effect is too complex to make simple causal connections between one behaviour and another result. To speak about this in terms of judgement is not to stray into a realm of alternative causes, but to commit ourselves to a new humility before the creation as well as its creator, a conversion of our way of life away from self-satisfied consumption, and towards greater simplicity. To draw on the language of judgement is to demand transformation for and of ourselves.

The theology of martyrdom also offers a rejection of simplistic connections between suffering and judgement. The view found in some of the earlier stages of Israelite (and other) religion was that suffering meant either active divine punishment, or at least a withdrawal of God’s direct favour. The book of Job is a great poetic rejection of such a view, but the later development of martyrdom in and after Maccabean times positively replaces it.

But the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God,
and no torment will ever touch them.
In the eyes of the foolish they seemed to have died,
and their departure was thought to be a disaster,
and their going from us to be their destruction;
but they are at peace.
For though in the sight of others they were punished,
their hope is full of immortality.

Wisdom 3:1-4

Suffering is not a punishment from God for faithlessness, but a testimony to others of a faithfulness to God that shall surely be faithfully rewarded. The martyr does not say “What have I done to deserve this?” Judgement will vindicate the righteous sufferer. Any necessary link between bad things happening and the moral character of the person to whom they happen is severed once and for all. Christian understandings of the cross grow out of this seedbed of a post-mortem vindication of the righteous victim.

Talk of judgement is complicated. But if this meandering post has led me anywhere, it is to think of the language as having perhaps three interrelated threads. It is a reminder that we live sub specie aeternitatis: we are praying, living and working for God’s kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven. We do not routinely expect justice now, far less see it as an inevitability of some postulated cosmic moral progress. Nonetheless we called to seek it now, to work for it here and now – “on earth” – in the conviction that the ultimate end – “as it is in heaven” – will indeed be just.

The language of judgement is an invitation to read the signs of the times, and be challenged to understand events in the light of the story of God as we have received it. As an invitation to discernment, it is also a summons to transformation, to an ongoing conversion of the way we live. In the light of the discernment we make together, we hold one another to account for our faithfulness to the one who is truly just, and who alone can give perfect, and perfectly restorative, justice. For this God is the one who will make all things, and all manner of things, well.

  1. The title of this post comes from the Book of Common Prayer’s Advent Collect. ↩︎
  2. The idea that history is a journey from a dark and dismal past to a sunlit and glorious future. The phrase was coined by Herbert Butterfield in his 1931 book of the same title. ↩︎

By Doug

One thought on “Now in the time of this mortal life”
  1. Thank you, Doug. The events of the past month in the Gaza strip have caused me to contemplate on the relationships between Middle Eastern peoples/nations spanning history long before Christ and how the writers of the various books of the Bible chose to portray them. Today, if another ‘bible’ was to be written we might expect its contents to be written by politicians, journalists, extremist religious fanatics and others with entrenched views to put their own spin on events and justify their actions.
    I can point to a number of communities around the world where peoples living in what we may describe as ‘basic’ conditions with few amenities and little monetary wealth seem to have been able to live in harmony with each other. Few of these bemoan their lack of our amenities as, in some way, a punishment from God. I was recently telling someone of a visit I made to a peasant rural community in the hill country of eastern Macedonia in 2004. There were no metaled roads and the dwellings had earthen floors, no furniture, no running water or sanitation. I was welcomed, invited to sit on a rug on the floor by an elderly lady living on her own who immediately offered me drink and bread. I realised that she offered me, a traveller, all that she had and had carried the water from a spring on the hillside above her dwelling. Not once did I hear a word of complaint or of animosity against any other human being.
    The only time tears welled in her eyes was when, through an interpreter, she was telling me of her daughter who had left the community years previously to seek ‘a better life’ in a town far away. The rural community in which she lived shared everything. More than that, they shared what they had with the few visitors they welcomed.

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