Thursday, December 1, 2011

Cyril & Wright on Judgment

I've been thinking about the last post on Cyril on the Twofold Coming of Christ. Three things intrigue me about the passage given that I am just about finished with N. T. Wright's, Surprised by Hope.

1. Cyril's affirmation that "he (the returning Lord) will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead."

2. Cyril's phrase, "we shall go out with the angels to meet the Lord and cry out in adoration: Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord" which has implications for how he understood the second coming.

3. Cyril's expectation that "the created world will be made new."

I'm going to post something about each of these over the next few days with reference to the writing of N. T. Wright whose approach strikes some as novel but which is actually not just biblical, but consistent with theologians of the early church like Cyril.

Judgment: The idea of judgment is unpopular with contemporary Americans. It is unpopular in general, but particularly when it comes to the idea that God might judge us. It must be admitted that that is partly do to some bad teaching and preaching in churches in which God has been portrayed as angry and vindictive, prepared to destroy the world and send many people to hell imagined as a sort of eternal torture chamber. I do think that is bad teaching and preaching. Still, that God (or Jesus, the Son) judges is a basic article of Christian belief. We do affirm in the Creed that he will come to judge the living and the dead. Note though, that in the Bible, God's pending judgment is usually longed for as good news. And if we think about it, some sort of judgment is necessary. As Wright writes,

Judgment is necessary – unless we are to conclude, absurdly that nothing much is wrong or, blasphemously, that God doesn’t mind very much.
. . . .

God is utterly committed to set the world right in the end. This doctrine, like that of resurrection itself, is held firmly in place by the belief in God as creator, on the one side, and belief in his goodness, on the other. And that setting right must necessarily involve the elimination of all that distorts God’s good and lovely creation and in particular all that defaces his image-bearing human creatures. . . . There will be no barbed wire in the kingdom of God. And those whose whole being has become dependent upon barbed wire will have no place there either.

For “barbed wire,” of course, read whichever catalog of awfulnesses you prefer: genocide, nuclear bombs, child prostitution, the arrogance of empire, the commidification of souls, the idolization of race. (Surprised by Hope, p. 179)

In the Bible,
all the future judgment is highlighted as good news, not bad. Why so? It is good news, first, because the one through whom God’s justice will finally sweep the world is not a hard-hearted, arrogant, or vengeful tyrant but rather the Man of Sorrows, who is acquainted with grief; the Jesus who loved sinners and died for them; the Messiah who took the world’s judgment upon himself on the cross. Of course, this also means that he is uniquely place to judge the systems and rulers that have carved up the world between them, and the New Testament points this out here and there. Surprised by Hope, p. 141)

How do we put all that together? With fear and trembling and great caution. We should beware the "cheerful double dogmatism . . . both of the person who knows exactly who is and who isn't 'going to hell' and of the universalist who is absolutely certain that there is no such place." (p. 177). It is also possible to acknowledge God's judgment without getting lost in naively literalistic images of the eternal, pain-filled fires of hell.

I find this intriguing from Cyril, "Look, the Lord almighty will come, and who will endure the day of his entry, or who will stand in his sight? Because he comes like a refiner’s fire, a fuller’s herb, and he will sit refining and cleansing." Might that be a way of understanding the judgment Christ brings - refining and cleansing? Each person? Creation? History? If so, we might note that however unpleasant to the ore, the process of refining is neither permanent nor the point. The point is purification.

I've attempted to make sense of this elsewhere with the idea of "hopeful universalism". Though I should note that N. T. Wright explicitly rejects that idea, I still think it has merit - if we avoid false confidence and complacency.

In any event, it is a good thing in Advent to take stock of the barbed wire in our lives and ask ourselves if our lives - body, mind, heart, and soul - are hospitable to the Prince of Peace whose advent we anticipate.

Next: Second Coming, Parousia, and Rapture


Lee Wyatt said...


The idea of judgment as refining and cleansing similar to Moltmann's idea of judgment as establishing new creation where, in addition to ridding the world off all evil and ugliness, persons are judged by forging reconciliation between them - perpetrators having to own their evil and victims having to forgive them. I find find both yours and Moltmann's views attractive.

Lee Wyatt

Matt Gunter said...

Thanks, Lee.

I have appreciated Moltmann, particularly Theology of Hope. I've also been influenced by Pannenburg. In truth, I have no more than a thin grasp of the theology of either of them. But, I think they are onto something in their focus on eschatology. Some words from Moltmann might make an appearance here soon.

To be honest, I am wary of what I take to be Moltmann's presumption of universal salvation. I'd say we need to allow more for God's freedom to judge and human freedom to reject God's love. And presumption in this area is likely no less theologically troublesome than anywhere else.

FWIW, Wright gives a tip of the hat to both Moltmann and Pannenburg in Surprised by Joy.

Grace and peace,