Don: The concept of an afterlife is relatively easy to understand in most religions. But in Christianity, the issues of judgment—which rewards or punishes us with the afterlife we deserve—and grace, which only appears to reward, clouds the issue. Our binary concept of judgment—you are good or bad, a sheep or a goat, on the left or on the right right—allows of no middle ground, no degree of goodness or badness; and that itself is problematic.
What tips the scale one way or the other? How good do you have to be to be to be admitted to heaven, and how bad to be consigned to hell? We all know we are not perfect, that there is some good and some bad in all of us. How much of either does it take to go one way or the other? Without grace, these are questions of utmost significance. But with grace, they are not. With grace, it is God’s infinite goodness which is at stake, not ours.
In churches and in Scripture, much has been written and discussed concerning judgment before and after death, before and after the millennium, and even judgment after resurrection from death. There is debate on judgment criteria—are we judged on our works or on our words? And above all is the question of the identity of the judge: Is it God the Father or God the Son? Is it the angels? Is it our good peers who went to the afterlife before us? Is there a record of all our deeds, and if so, is it reliable? Is it questionable? Could it be hacked?
Some religions believe that mortal prayers can influence the judge in the judgment and disposition of souls in the afterlife. The Mormons practice baptism for the dead: Each believer is responsible for being baptized on behalf of his or her ancestors through the previous four generations. It is an elaborate theology based upon a short passage in Scripture:
Otherwise, what will those do who are baptized for the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why then are they baptized for them? (1 Corinthians 15:29)
Essentially, it enables dead ancestors to be forgiven their sins in life long after their death. It explains why genealogy is so important to Mormons. It seems unfair that someone might be denied heaven because their descendants failed or forgot to intercede with God for their salvation.
Are we all barking up the wrong tree? Could judgment be something other than the final binary assignment, something other than salvation? If so, what? Our study of the topic so far has produced a number of principles that might guide us toward an answer.
1. The first principle is that there is a judgment that no-one can escape:
For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may be recompensed for his deeds in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad. (2 Corinthians 5:10)
2. The second principle is that the results of judgement seem to be counterintuitive, given that the judged on both sides—good and bad—are surprised to have been so judged.
3. The third principle is that judgment is a divine prerogative. We see this in the garden of Eden, where Adam and Eve are prohibited from eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil—knowledge which would enable them to judge right from wrong, good from evil. Specifically, judgment is the prerogative of Jesus:
For not even the Father judges anyone, but He has given all judgment to the Son, (John 5:22)
4. The fourth principle links judgment specifically to our judgment of others. How we are judged depends on how we judge others:
Do not judge so that you will not be judged. (Matthew 7:1)
5. The fifth principle is that the numbers suggested in Scripture give odds overwhelmingly in favor of a positive outcome from judgment. Waiting for admission to heaven will be…
…a great multitude which no one could count, from every nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, and palm branches were in their hands,… (Revelation 7:9)
Similarly in the parable of the Wedding Feast, the admitted guests are innumerable, while the number of gatecrashers is just one.
6. The sixth and final principle is that the end product of judgment is either to remain with God or to be separated from Him and consigned to outer darkness, for eternity.
Nevertheless, the contradiction remains: How can we be both judged and given grace? In one parable, the laborers in the vineyard who worked longest and hardest yet were paid the same as those who worked little and lazily at all posed essentially this same question:
‘These last men have worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden and the scorching heat of the day.’ But he answered and said to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what is yours and go, but I wish to give to this last man the same as to you. Is it not lawful for me to do what I wish with what is my own? Or is your eye envious because I am generous?’ So the last shall be first, and the first last.” (Matthew 20:12-16)
The hard workers thought they should be judged on the quantity and quality of their work. So did the elder brother of the Prodigal Son, when their…
…father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet; and bring the fattened calf, kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.’ And they began to celebrate. (Luke 15:22-24)
This did not sit at all well with the elder son, who said angrily to his father:
‘Look! For so many years I have been serving you and I have never neglected a command of yours; and yet you have never given me a young goat, so that I might celebrate with my friends; but when this son of yours came, who has devoured your wealth with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him.’ (Luke 15:29-30)
Like the laborers and the prodigal’s brother, we too think that judgment should be premised upon the quantity or quality (or both) of our work. Then along comes grace and throws a spanner in our works. This is no problem for those who are lazy good-for-nothings, but it is a problem for those who think their works are good enough not to need the intervention of a spanner. The acceptance of grace is more difficult than one might think. For some reason, the lone uninvited guest at the Wedding Feast felt unable to accept the guest robe—a metaphor for grace. The Pharisee in the following passage seemed to be of a similar frame of mind:
The Pharisee stood and was praying this to himself: ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, the sinner!’ (Luke 18:11)
So, too, did the Rich Young Ruler who thought that obeying the commandments was enough to earn a place in the kingdom of heaven.
Don’t the hardworking laborers, the elder brother, the Pharisee, and the Rich Young Ruler have a point? How can we reconcile judgment with grace?
Donald: Judgment is about how we live our lives. Fundamentally we need to ask ourselves whether we should live life with the goal of earning a good judgment, or allow God to guide our lives according to His plan. The Commandments are a recipe for living a better life, for following God’s plan. But in themselves they are not a recipe for salvation. Would the Prodigal Son have been better off, in the end, staying home with his father, instead of going off and doing his own thing? Would the context of our faith (not necessarily of our religion) actually make our lives better, as opposed to just following the rules?
Don: The Prodigal’s brother seemed to resent the fact that his brother was out having a good time while he himself was hard at work.
David: The Prodigal was favored over his brother. There is an inequality of reward in this parable, whereas in all the others, the reward is equal. I can’t see how judgment and grace can possibly be reconciled unless we establish different contexts for them. Perhaps there are two judgments: One, a provisional judgment that applies to living life on earth (with ramifications concerning the kingdom of heaven on earth); the other, a final judgment that applies to life after death.
Kiran: If I were the vineyard owner, I would know that the better workers would grumble about equal pay, so if I wanted to establish the principle that all are rewarded equally while retaining favor with my entire workforce, I would probably slip the better workers an extra denarius or two on the side, out of sight of the other workers. Otherwise, my message to the harder workers would be that their effort was wasted. But that is precisely the message God wants us to understand: That to Him, our efforts to deserve His grace are not just puny but even offensive given that He is offering all of us—no matter what we may think of ourselves and what we deserve—His grace as a free gift.
Robin: The elder brother of the Prodigal seemed to be working hard to get a reward—hence, his anger when the Prodigal got a better reward. He failed to understand that the father loved both sons equally; that they had no need to earn his love.
Kiran: I too would feel offended. It’s natural. But that’s because I’m human—I cannot think like God, though I sense that He must feel offended when we, thinking we have bought and paid for a reward, reject His free gift of grace.
Don: The inequality of reward in the case of the Prodigal and his brother complicates the issue further.
Robin: The father had unconditional love for his children, but the elder son’s love for his father appears to have been conditional. In the parable of the Lost Sheep, too, the father has unconditional love for the whole flock, including the sheep that strayed.
Jay: It’s easy to think of the older brother as the bad guy, but maybe he’s not. The father never admonishes him for complaining—indeed, he acknowledges that he has been a good son and says “All I have is yours”—in the end, you will inherit everything. So the kid got a party and a fatted calf! Big deal! There’s no doubt, in my opinion, that judgment is divine and has a grace component. That makes it very difficult for humans to wrap their minds around it—hence our surprise at the judgments Jesus illustrates. To me, they serve to emphasize that judgment is none of our business.
When Jesus talked about the Unpardonable Sin in the context of forgiving sin, he was saying much the same thing. It’s none of our business to judge. We are incapable of knowing. It is a divine business. It was not enough to have eaten the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. That does not mean we should not try to be good, but we should not judge. Religions fall into the trap of prescribing behaviors “guaranteed” to produce a good result—salvation—at judgment.
Kiran: The Prodigal’s elder brother was offended, but it may also have served as a providential lesson to him, in helping him see his own fault, that would serve him well later.
David: If there has to be a bad guy in the parable, perhaps it was the father! 😉
Jay: As humans, we always look for the bad guy, but in these parables, there isn’t one. We want a checklist of things to do to earn salvation, but we don’t like the checklist Jesus gave us: Turn the other cheek, go to the back of the line, give up all your wealth, abandon your family, bear my cross. This checklist is a lot harder to cross off than the checklist of Ten Commandments.
Kiran: As humans, we readily recognize inequality. God does not, That’s why grace troubles us.
Don: It does. Why wouldn’t the loner at the wedding feast accept the wedding garment?
Robin: He didn’t think he needed it. He thought he was good enough as he was.
David: I have a theory that the loner is the Devil, the only Being of pure evil, unadulterated by goodness. The wedding garment is transparent, like the fairy tale Emperor’s New Clothes. It returns the state of the wedding guests to the state of naked innocence that prevailed before the Fall. If the Devil had donned it, it would expose his evil.
As for grace: It can come during mortal life and (we believe) after it. We assume it comes to us all equally upon death, though other religions have different views about the afterlife and judgment. In any case, no matter the religion, grace is there when we reach the end of our tether, including our tether to life itself. It was there for the Prodigal Son when he reached the end of his tether. No judgment was necessary.
I’m not sure I fully agree that we don’t know how to judge. Jesus taught us about visiting people in prison, and so on. We know whether or not we follow His teaching. The question is whether we follow it to earn brownie points or because the person in prison commands our sympathy and love.
Kiran: It’s easy to judge Harvey Weinstein, yet God surely loves and accepts Harvey just much as He loves and accepts me! It’s hard to be equated with a Harvey Weinstein, or worse.
Donald: Harvey’s wicked life seemed to give him joy. Are we supposed, then, just to enjoy life and not worry about judgment? If we live life with the goal of earning salvation, it seems not to work. A good marriage is not the result of constant, conscious effort—it is just a matter of love and acceptance.
Jay: We tend to judge the sin, the evil in one another, rather than the good. Perhaps God looks only for the good in us. Perhaps that’s why the lazy vineyard workers, the Prodigal, and so on deserve grace—there is some good in them, and that, to God, seems to be a reason to rejoice.
Chris: We always have an end in sight, some goal we want to achieve or some complication we want to avoid. If only we would stop worrying about the end result and focus instead on loving our fellow man. When we don’t worry about the end, we don’t worry about judgment.
Don: But then, if judgment is not about the end product, the outcome, what is it about? How can we re-frame a theology of the importance, universality, and correctness of judgment without looking at the end product?
David: I think Jay had the answer: “Some amount of good” is what God desires, and judges. The wedding garment—grace—would seem to amplify what little goodness may be in the wedding guest to the exclusion of all evil, but if there is not a smidgeon of good (as there always is in all God’s children) it will reveal it. We might not see it, but God can.
Michael: I don’t think grace overthrows judgment. But if we remove the quantitative (hours worked) and qualitative (effort put in) measurements as criteria of judgment, what else is there to judge?
Don: Given the many Scriptural references (including in the Gospels) to judgment, I agree that grace does not exactly supplant it. It does exist. Yet grace does throw a wrench into judgment. A Muslim friend too has expressed to me great skepticism about the concept of grace on the grounds that it lets people get away with anything.
Donald: It is a very frustrating and discomforting question.
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