According to this morning’s New Testament lesson, the Roman governor Felix “sent for Paul and listened to him as he spoke about faith in Christ Jesus. As Paul talked about righteousness, self-control and the judgment to come (emphasis mine), Felix was afraid and said, ‘That’s enough for now!'” (Acts 24:24-25)
For better or worse, I have tended not to focus my preaching and teaching on the subject of the judgment to come, choosing to dwell instead on matters pertaining to grace, living a transformed life, and looking forward to the promised renewal of all things. This doesn’t mean, however, that I don’t believe in judgment. And in fact, as the brokenness and sin of our world has been all-too-clearly put on display in recent weeks, I have been reminded of just how important judgment is in order to establish our hope for the future. As biblical scholar N. T. Wright puts it: “Judgment is necessary…unless we conclude that nothing much is wrong, or that God doesn’t mind very much. Evil must be identified, named, and dealt with before there can be reconciliation.” (Surprised by Hope)
Having said that, I will also say that I’ve got plenty of questions about the judgment to come. And so, it is with some trepidation that I’m preparing to preach a sermon about Hell at my church this Sunday. Ironically, perhaps, the sermon is part of a series that focuses on Heaven. But — as Catholic scholar Peter Kreeft points out: “For salvation to be ‘good news.’ there must be ‘bad news’ to be saved from.” So I guess it’s only fitting that we take a look at the “flip side” of our eternal hope.
What has been interesting in the days leading up to this message, however, has been the number of people who have told me that they’re looking forward to this sermon. Unlike Governor Felix, who was afraid of the judgment to come, we seem to have a fascination with damnation. And I can’t help but wonder if that’s because we long deeply for justice — or because we assume that judgment doesn’t involve us.
The Apostle Peter wrote, “For the time has come for judgment, and it must begin with God’s household. And if judgment begins with us, what terrible fate awaits those who have never obeyed God’s Good News?” (1 Peter 4:17; NLT)
It remains my constant hope that none of us will feel a need to fear judgment; after all, “Perfect love casts out fear.” (1 John 4:18) However, I hope we’ll take it seriously…and that we’ll grow in the grace that allows both we and the people with whom we interact to await confidently that day when “our Lord doth design our dross to consume and our gold to refine.”