I suppose everyone has a guilty pleasure. Mine happens to be 80s action flicks. Recently, on one of those rare evenings that occur roughly quarterly, when the house was still and the laundry caught up, I screened Terminator: Genisys. Though not technically an 80s film, I reasoned, as an attempted reboot of the venerable franchise, it fit the bill. Spoiler alert: it’s not a good film. But it does present a pretty compelling theological trojan.
The narrative crux of the Terminator series is a devastating nuclear attack that kills half the earth’s population. This attack, predictably perpetrated by advanced machines with artificial intelligence, is referred to as “Judgement Day.” In the films, this Judgement Day is boilerplate Hollywood, with gritty midapocalypse war scenes, blackened clouds, scorched earth and widespread devastation.
I began to wonder: How many Christians experienced cognitive dissonance while watching those scenes unfold? The term “Judgement Day” is clearly borrowed from the Christian story. But does the picture match the narrative? For Christians who viewed the film, did this depiction of judgment go down smoothly?
You could scarcely do worse than to depict Judgement Day as a nuclear holocaust.
In short, it shouldn’t have. While “Judgement Day” as a code word for “the end of the world” squares well with the Christian story, the vision of the world’s end in Terminator and other apocalyptic films stands in stark contrast to the biblical vision. For Christians, Judgment Day is not a day of death and destruction. In fact, you could scarcely do worse than to depict Judgement Day as a nuclear holocaust. Far from scorched earth, blackened clouds, and humans indiscriminately pulverized into charcoal dust, the witness of Scripture points to Judgement Day as a fundamentally good day. It is a day of justice and resurrection, the inauguration of the full expression of God’s Kingdom. It is a good day because it is God’s day. This day, of all days, should anchor our hope and animate us into action.
Yet this scriptural hope rarely survives its caricatures from the pulpit. Regrettably, themes of judgment are rarely explored outside the macabre indulgence of turn-or-burn preaching. Meanwhile, in other provinces in Christendom, God’s judgement is dismissed with blithe indifference. However, neither indulgence nor indifference are faithful to the witness of Scripture. Further, neither approach provides a compelling foundation for Christian ethics. Our eschatology shapes our ethics: It matters how we picture the end of the age. It’s time to heed the prophets and welcome a coherent, biblical vision of Judgement Day, one that I believe is properly framed by justice and resurrection.
JUDGMENT, JUSTICE AND LOVE
In their incisive and arresting book The Justice Calling, Bethany Hanke Hoang and Kristen Deede Johnson argue that God’s judgement, God’s justice and God’s love are inextricably intertwined. The Justice Calling gives witness in Scripture and story to “a God who longs for justice and righteousness in this world and who calls his people to join him in seeking it.” Hoang and Johnson argue that God’s love carries with it a vision of the world as it should be, a vision that is made visible in God’s justice. God’s justice, Hoang and Johnson write, “involves righting the wrongs that impact the people whom God creates and loves.” In other words, judgement is what happens when God enacts God’s justice.
There is an inherent tension to God’s justice: God’s love appears as judgement precisely because the world is not the way it should be. Justice’s center of gravity in Holy Scripture is in the future. While Scripture overflows with visions of God’s justice, the majority look to a future day when all things will be made right. Especially in the psalms and prophets, this future day of justice is a regular theme. Notice the prophet Micah’s repeated future-tense (emphasis mine):
God will judge between the nations and settle disputes of mighty nations, which are far away. They will beat their swords into iron plows and their spears into pruning tools. Nation will not take up sword against nation; they will no longer learn how to make war. All will sit underneath their own grapevines, under their own fig trees. There will be no one to terrify them; for the mouth of the Lord of heavenly forces has spoken (Mic. 4:3-4).
And again in Psalm 98: “He is coming to establish justice on the earth!/ He will establish justice in the world rightly;/ He will establish justice among all people fairly.”
It is simply truth-telling to say that not all are happy with God’s justice. To the extent that your life depends on ways that violate God’s vision for the world, your life will disappear in the face of God’s righteous rule. The reality is that those who profit from “the way things are” will not be happy with “the way things will be.” Yet as Hoang and Johnson point out, “While the justice God and his people aimed for may have included punishment of the evildoer, this punishment was not mere payback. It was for the greater good – a restoration of what had gone wrong.” God’s drive to justice lies fundamentally in the creative restoration of the beautiful.
In toto, Scripture does not so much attempt to detail the rationality of how God can wait to establish justice. Instead, the weight is on the conviction that it will happen, a conviction rooted in the revelation of God’s love. God cares; God is not indifferent. That God will right all wrongs is not up for debate in Scripture. That all is not currently as it should be is no witness against God’s love or authority. The justice of God belongs to a future day, a day that is guaranteed by the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ. This leads us to the second major factor of judgement: resurrection.
JUSTICE LEADS TO RESURRECTION
For most Christians, the link between justice and resurrection is tenuous at best. But it was not always so. As Kevin Madigan and Jon Levenson unfold in Resurrection: The Power of God for Christians and Jews, justice and resurrection were closely linked in the Jewish imagination, especially during the late Second Temple period. During this critical time, resurrection was “inevitably linked with the conviction that the God of justice would soon intervene to bring an end to the present age and inaugurate the age to come.” Rooted in the knowledge of a good, sovereign God, justice would be finally enacted through resurrection. Significantly, resurrection was not “only or even primarily about the ultimate destiny of mortal human beings. It was about God’s righteousness, the vindication of those loyal to him, and the establishment of justice,” Madigan and Levenson write. They go on to note the essential nature of remembering that “belief in the resurrection was linked during this period to expectation of the dawning new age, to the belief that God was about to make a new creation and to vindicate his loyal people.”
When this is taken as the background to the Gospel narratives of Jesus’ resurrection, the lines between Old and New Testament are drawn with steadier hand and more confident appreciation. With this backdrop, Jesus’ words from Matthew 5:17 to Luke 4:21 take on their fuller meaning: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill” (Matthew); “Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing’” (Luke ). For as 2 Corinthians 1:20 says, “In Christ, all God’s promises are ‘yes.’” It is precisely in Jesus that this setting right begins and promises that future day when all things will be set right. Christ’s resurrection decisively marked the beginning of the end. Madigan and Levenson note that “God had raised Jesus bodily from the dead, and that this was a sign – the sign – that the present aeon was ending and the age to come dawning, and that the long-promised restoration had begun.” Resurrection has begun in Jesus Christ; at Christ’s return the resurrection – and God’s justice – will be completed.
EAGER FOR JUDGMENT DAY
For the Christian, then, Judgement Day is something to eagerly anticipate. Yet the fact that Judgement Day is fundamentally good does not mean it should be approached casually, with a lackadaisical, anything-goes ethic. There is no room for a cavalier attitude toward God’s vision for human interaction. On the contrary: God cares enough about both humanity and creation as a whole that what is wrong must be set right. Precisely because it is God’s good day, its advent should sober we who profit from the current arrangement of the world. Those who are used to getting away with murder? That life is coming to an abrupt end.
Christian ethics are a call for us to live as people who are drawn forward by this reality: Because God’s justice will come, we order our lives accordingly. We do not – indeed we cannot – build the kingdom itself. But we build for the kingdom. We put our shoulder to the wheel anticipating a world where Jesus is Lord. We order our lives with the confidence that we will see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living. We live faithfully even if we risk death by doing so, for the trajectory of the world has been set in and by the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
This brings us back to Judgement Day a la Arnold Schwarzenegger – because building for the kingdom is made implausible when Judgement Day is understood as a horrific day of destruction. When Judgement Day is imagined as a nuclear holocaust, the call to follow God is easily transmuted into the realm of the cognitive and private. When judgement is mere violence, the call to live lives of justice now falls on deaf ears. A vision of judgement that is clear about what will be lost and what will be recovered – that is compelling. That’s a vision worth our attention.
So let’s deepen our scriptural imagination. Let’s feel the painful distance between reality and God’s good future. Let’s live lives pursuing the justice that Christ’s resurrection has made inevitable.
Noah Livingston co-pastors Abbe Reformed Church, Clymer, New York.