The closing ceremonies of the 2012 London Olympics featured a children's choir singing John Lennon's Imagine while a giant replica of his head was assembled in the middle of the stadium. I wondered if the whole stadium was going to bow down to this image. We were once again urged through the lyrics of the song to imagine that there is no heaven or hell and that we simply live for today.
Trevin Wax, in an article in Christianity Today, suggests that this thinking is not only embraced by our world, but also by many who identify themselves as believers. He writes that Christians seem to talk a lot about justice, but say very little about judgment—and especially about an eternal hell. Wax gave a number of reasons for this:
We feel that the concept of hell is offensive to the unbelieving world. If we can remove the obstacle and offense of eternal judgment, perhaps we can make Christianity more palatable to our culture.
We feel guilty about our own failure to evangelize. We have unsaved friends and family members. If hell is real, we have an urgent obligation to share the gospel with them. If they have died, the thought of someone we know experiencing eternal judgment is emotionally difficult to accept.
We in the West have been shielded from the atrocities that so clearly call for judgment. If we had experienced Cambodia's killing fields, Auschwitz, the Gulags, or the Rwandan genocide, we might be more concerned about judgment.
If we admit that judgment is necessary, we open the door for our own sins to be addressed. The net of judgment may be wide enough to catch us. It is too frightening to consider.
We're looking at Paul's two letters to the Thessalonians. Thessalonica is the capital of Macedonia/Northern Greece. A church had been established there on Paul's second missionary journey. Verse 1: Paul refers to the missionary team that first came to Thessalonica.
I see three things in this text:
We can flourish today despite desperate circumstances.
Paul's first readers are growing spiritually despite living in a very difficult world.
Their faith itself is growing (v. 3a). We tend to think of faith as a static thing. You either have it or you don't. But faith is a relationship of trust in God—and like all relationships—it is a living, dynamic, growing thing.
Further, their love for one another is increasing (v. 3b). Again, we tend to view love as static. We may feel that we love someone or we don't—and there is nothing much we can do about it. Individuals will say after 5, 10, 20 years of marriage, "I never loved my spouse." It's not true. Love is a living relationship; we can take steps to nurture it. That is true within marriage; it is true within the church.
But these readers are growing—and they're growing despite the fact that they live in a hostile world. Verse 4: These believers are living with persecution, cruelty, abuse. It is a world that is largely foreign to us. You may have seen the stories out of N. Korea. You can be executed—or find yourself and extended family in a death camp—for owning a Bible. Believers suffer terribly throughout our world.
The world as we know it will not continue.
There are two reasons for this in the paragraph beginning in verse 5. God is going to act in judgment. Persecution, suffering, rejection is temporary. Verse 5: Contrary to how we think, God's judgment is a good thing. Every evidence is that his readers have been actively following after the Savior. It is not that they've made themselves worthy. It's that they reflect the reality of God within their lives.
But the contrast between the evil of persecution and brutality, and these believers who are growing spiritually and actively following after God is evidence that God's judgment is right. It is a good thing. In our terms, the contrast between a thug bullying a child at school, and a child who is vulnerable and trying to learn is evidence that a teacher's decisive judgment and discipline is right. It is a good thing for the teacher to bring that to an end.
Verse 6: The God we worship is just or fair. John Stott says,
We see the malice, cruelty, power and arrogance of the evil men who persecute. We see also the sufferings of the people of God, who are opposed, ridiculed, boycotted, harassed, imprisoned, tortured, and killed. In other words, we see injustice—the wicked flourishing, the righteous suffering. It seems completely topsy-turvy. We … inveigh against this miscarriage of justice. "Why doesn't God do something?" we complain indignantly.
And the answer of this passage is: He will.
Look at verse 6b and 7. Paul tells us when this judgment will take place. Verse 7b: This will take place with the second coming. Notice two things: Jesus Christ will be revealed "in blazing fire." Fire is a symbol of God's holiness and presence. For example, when God reveals himself to Moses he does that through a burning bush.
Further, Jesus will come with his powerful angels. In the book of Revelation we're told that Jesus will come riding a white horse. "With justice he judges and makes war. … He is dressed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is the Word of God. The armies of heaven were following him, riding on white horses and dressed in fine linen, white and clean. Out of his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations. He will rule them with an iron scepter. He treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty" (Revelation 19:11b, 13-15).
You may remember in 1 Thessalonians that his coming is described in different terms. There he comes with a loud command, the voice of an archangel, the trumpet call of God. There he comes with believers. Because of this, some—including myself—believe that the Second Coming will come in two stages. Regardless, this judgment takes place with the Second Coming.
We're told who will be punished. Verse 8: Those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. This refers to unbelievers. Believers are those who know God experientially; they have a relationship with him. We also obey the gospel by placing our trust in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. Conversely those who reject Jesus Christ don't know God and have not obeyed the gospel.
We're told what form this punishment will take. First, the language suggests what the punishment is not. It is not some unreasoning vindictive cruelty. The phrase "shall be punished" is literally "shall pay a penalty." The last word—penalty—comes from the same root that gives us the word "just." This is describing that which is earned or fair or just.
We're then told what the punishment is. It will be everlasting or eternal destruction. The second clause—"shut out from the presence of the Lord"—explains what this eternal destruction involves. It is not annihilation. It is not that the unbeliever no longer exists; he or she does. It is to be shut out from the presence of the Lord. Whatever else hell is, it is the absence of God's presence. It is the complete loss of everything that matters.
God is the source of all love, beauty, joy, relationships—all that is good. Today we all live off of his presence. Life has meaning today because of that presence.
Tim Keller has a helpful analogy. He says that everyone on our planet lives off the physical presence of the sun. There is no life without the sun. When we walk on the beach on a sunny day; we enjoy and live off the presence of the sun. But we can also be crawling through a cave; we still live off the presence of the sun. If the sun flames out both those on the beach and those in the cave are going to freeze to death.
The point is this: All love, beauty, joy, relationships—all that is good—comes from God. Everyone on the face of the earth lives off of his presence—whether they realize it or not. If that is removed, then nothing that means anything is left. It is the spiritual equivalent of a burned out universe. It is eternal destruction. It is complete meaninglessness. Jesus describes it as outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. And it is completely just and fair. God doesn't force himself on anyone. If you want nearness to God, you get it. If you want God out of your life, you get it.
In the Bible, judgment is a number of things:
It is a kind of comfort. Again, it is a good thing. God's judgment will put an end to all that is wrong with the world—war, famine, disease, brutality, cruelty.
The Bible can view judgment as a source of joy and celebration: "Let all creation rejoice before the Lord, for he comes, he comes to judge the earth. He will judge the world in righteousness and the peoples in his faithfulness" (Psalm 96:13).
Judgment demonstrates God's love. God loves us; he cares about us. We live in a world where dictators murder their people, children and women are trafficked, terrorists kill, and maim, and keep people in perpetual fear, the unborn are brutalized.
Sin is serious; it calls for a very real response. Within our own personal worlds sin is serious. It destroys marriages, the vulnerable, the innocent; it destroys us; it leaves us in bondage. Again, this is Trevin Wax:
The god who is truly scary is not the wrathful God of the Bible, but the god who closes his eyes to the evil of this world, shrugs his shoulders, and ignores it in the name of "love." What kind of love is this? A god who is never angered at sin and who lets evil go by unpunished is not worthy of worship.
Further, God is able to do what this passage describes. He is able to judge. Those Paul is writing to had been victimized by powerful individuals. Victims in the world today are confronted by powerful individuals. The second coming will be the ultimate power display. On that day we will see "the glory of his might" or power (v. 9).
There is a second reason—God is going to transform us. Verse 10: Jesus will be glorified in his holy people. If we have believed, God views us as "holy." It is what God has made us positionally. Notice what this passage says.
When Jesus comes he is not simply glorified in front of his holy people; we're not just spectators watching this unfold. He is glorified in his holy people. John writes in his first letter: "When we see him we will be like him." We will be transformed. Stott compares us to a filament glowing with light and heat as a current passes through it.
Further, we will marvel at him. One of the versions says it will be "a breath-taking wonder." Think of what it will mean for Jesus Christ to break back into this world. The infinite Son of God coming to rule over this planet. I can't fathom what that will be like.
God's future transformation of us has already begun.
Verse 11: Paul prays that what God has made us positionally—we have complete forgiveness; we've been given the righteousness of Jesus Christ—would be reflected in our lives. Verse 12: Paul prays for two glorifications or two revelations. Jesus Christ is to be glorified in us, and we in him. The first is easier for me to understand: We should reflect the reality of Jesus Christ within our own lives. The unbelieving world should see something of Jesus Christ within us. And apparently Paul means that we should also reflect all that God has designed us to be as Jesus Christ sets us free and transforms our lives.
But this transformation process has already begun within us. We've been given the Spirit. God is already in the process of bringing us into conformity with his Son.
Three observations about the coming judgment
So here are three observations about the coming judgment:
We have a God who sees.
The teaching of the Bible is that everything anyone does will be remembered and judged by God. No sacrifice to do that which is good, to be honest, to be merciful will be forgotten. Ever. In the big scheme of things we may feel that much of what we do simply doesn't matter. In the musical Les Miserables, the students are giving up their lives for the barricade, for the revolution. They sing: "Will the world remember you when you fall? Could it be your death means nothing at all? Is your life just one more lie?" As Tim Keller points out, if there is no judgment then nothing matters; life does mean nothing at all. But if there is a judgment then everything matters, everything makes a difference. Good things. Bad things. Nothing will be forgotten.
Jesus said that even a cup of water given in his name will be remembered and rewarded. And every evil is also exposed. What happens at work tomorrow will be remembered. What happens within your marriage or with your children will be remembered. But that leaves us with a problem. When Jesus Christ returns in judgment where does that mean for us?
There is a scary side to a world of perfect justice. At some point we realize that we're part of the problem, not just the ones longing for a solution. We are insurrectionists. We ourselves have rebelled against God in a hundred ways. We thirst for justice, but in our more honest moments we are very much aware of our own guilt.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn suffered terribly at the hands of the Soviets. One of his best known statements is this: "Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either—but right through every human heart."
Everyone of us is damaged. That's why this judgment scares us.
We have a God who experienced our judgment for us.
On the cross, Jesus Christ experienced God's judgment in the fullest sense. Again, that judgment is the turning away of the Father. We get a sense of that judgment when Jesus cries out, "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?" On the cross the sun goes out; the total freeze occurs. He experiences God's judgment in the fullest sense. God's presence is removed from him.
There is nothing within Jesus that calls for judgment. He is doing this for us. He is taking our sin and judgment on himself. When we place our trust in him his death is applied to us. Our sin has been punished in him.
God is a God of mercy and compassion. He is willing to do whatever is necessary to make forgiveness available to us. We see that with the cross. Jesus came to seek and save those who are lost. That is God's heart.
Because we have a God who judges, we are now able to forgive others.
Paul is writing to people living in a world of persecution. These are people who have lost husbands, wives, sons, daughters. People were doing horrible things to them. How do they respond to that? They don't have to. We don't have to, because God is the judge. That role will kill us if we take it on ourselves. It will leave us angry and bitter.
I live with a good theologian. When someone has done something really offensive, something painful, my wife on more than one occasion has said: "We don't have to worry about that; that's not our issue. He/she will have to answer to God for that." And that person will. Because God will judge, we can extend forgiveness.
God's judgment will transform the world. Even now, it will transform our lives.
Jim Nite is the pastor of Center Point Community church in Naples, FL.