Redeeming Judgment arose from my sense of urgency. The Protestant church in which I grew up and to which I belong has largely grown silent about the judgment of God. It seems that we are bent upon living up to H. Richard Niebuhr’s caricature of liberal Protestantism: “A God without wrath brings men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross” (Kingdom of God in America, p. 193).
Redeeming Judgment is meant to remedy this aversion to judgment. Judgment accompanies God’s saving work throughout the Bible. Redeem has been prefixed to judgment to indicate that I am proposing to reclaim this theological teaching. Moreover, judgment is itself a component of the redeeming action of God. Thus, we are out to reclaim a teaching that is essential to the redeeming purposes of God.
Although the book was not written specifically for those engaged in political theology, the concept of divine judgment should be at the foundation of any political theology that aspires to be rooted in the Bible. Judgment is a component of practically every interaction between God and humans in the Bible. The reader’s understanding of how the concept can be faithfully applied to historical and contemporary events will be enriched by studying “paradigm cases.”
The book traces the story of divine judgment in the Bible’s version of human history. The first chapters of Genesis expose the human condition: creatures, capable of ruling; on the other hand, sinners. I take the story of the “fall” to be an account of how innocent humans become responsible. Mysteriously, the state of responsibility entails irresistible temptation to sin. The state of irresistible temptation is “inherited” by the couple’s sons: the first criminal trial in history. Cain is banished from the soil he has stained with blood.
Eventually the Lord concludes that humans are a lost cause, and decides to wipe humanity out by flood. When he decided to save one family, he had no illusions: humans would continue imagining evil (Gen. 8:21); God would simply handle it differently.
The Lord selects one family to be a blessing to the rest of the families of the world, cultivating righteousness within and interceding for nations threatened with judgment. In the stories of the “ancestors” the reader finds a mirror of the religious community of all ages. In Genesis, the family does not undergo divine judgment during the era of patriarchs and matriarchs. The family moves to Egypt and flourishes until the Egyptians enslave them. In response, the Lord intervenes. God’s act becomes judgment on the Egyptian ruler and people when they renege on an agreement to let the Israelites leave.
Once liberated, the newly emerging people march to Mount Sinai where they enter into covenant with the God who brought them out of Egypt. This covenant grants YHWH sovereign authority over Israel and Israel a unique status with the one universal God. Their special status calls for a unique law, a law shaped by the over-arching prohibition against recognizing any God besides YHWH. No sooner is the covenant in place than the whole people break it. This is the first grave sin and judgment on Israel’s record; it is analogous to the fall of Eve and Adam. The covenant is amended to allow for forgiveness and God’s dwelling among them.
The Pentateuchal narrative stays focused on the emergent nation, but we find judgment of the individual members in Proverbs and Psalms. The individual laments are the supplicant’s plea in a trial scenario, and God’s answer is his judicial decision.
A rebellion precipitated by the hardships of the desert and the report of scouts prompts the Lord to condemn the exodus generation to live out their lives in the wilderness. This is an event of divine judgment on the whole people of God, a precursor of the exile of Israel and of Judah in later centuries. Moses himself later reinterprets this divine decision as disciplining—training, so to speak, for living faithful lives in the Promised Land.
Let’s fast forward to the prophets of the 8th century, Amos, Hosea, Isaiah and Micah. Each reports a call to prophecy at the heart of which is the commission to pronounce God’s judgment. Their message is: the entire people of God, embodied in two kingdoms, is so deeply corrupted that there is no escaping the wrath of God. Accusations range from injustice to immorality to self-serving foreign alliances to apostasy. It was the burden of Jeremiah and Ezekiel to revive this message for Judah a century later.
Judgment was never meant to be the last word. The prophets of judgment also promised salvation. The book of Isaiah journeys furtherest along the way from judgment to redemption. The entire book is issued under the authority of Isaiah of Jerusalem, who was commissioned to proclaim judgment to Israel, Judah and Jerusalem. In Isaiah 40-55, another prophet is told to declare the end of judgment and beginning of salvation. The final chapters (56-66) adapt the message of salvation to post-exilic Jerusalem.
The final form of Isaiah sets forth a new ideal of religious piety, emphasizing humility, compunction and intense spirituality. It also envisions a “final” judgment, beyond the judgments of history, on the horizon. One finds a similar ideal of piety and expectation of a final denouement in the Psalms and elsewhere.
The message of divine judgment doesn’t stop at the beginning of the Christian testament. It does change the focus to final judgment. John the Baptist and Jesus proclaim the beginning of the end and offer salvation to those who embrace this future. The message about Jesus does offer mercy to sinners, but judgment remains for those who do not accept the offer. The book of Revelation portrays the story of judgment from Christ’s sacrifice until the end. The message about Jesus retains the prospect of judgment as well as salvation. Paul sees human history under the sign of God’s wrath and redemption for those who throw themselves on God’s mercy offered in Christ.
The political theologian has an “arsenal,” so to speak, of perspectives for applying judgment and mercy to the events of our time. Applying them requires good human judgment; misused, the concept of divine judgment becomes either nonsensical or toxic.
Dale Patrick is Professor emeritus at Drake University, Des Moines, Iowa. He is the author of Arguing With God: The Angry Prayers of Job, The Rendering of God in the Old Testament, Old Testament Law: An Introduction, (with Allen Scult)Rhetoric and Biblical Interpretation, andThe Rhetoric of Revelation in Hebrew Scripture, and now Redeeming Judgment.