5 days before hurricane Sandy came to the US we heard warnings on the news. They told us it was going to be a “monster” storm, the worst we’ve ever seen. This warning was repeated often and more enthusiastically each day Sandy got closer to our shore. The day before the storm arrived, people who lived along the shoreline and in flood areas were encouraged to evacuate their homes…again with the warning that this was going to be worse than anything we’ve ever seen. Extreme measures were taken that had never before been taken in our history; it was that serious. There was no doubt in the minds of the meteorologists and other experts that we were going to be hit very hard. They warned us and some of us took that warning to heart and made preparations. Others were less concerned. Some even told me they were used to storms and it was not going to be as bad as they said, because it never was.
The day after Sandy I watched the news for the first time and was shocked at the devastation I saw in New Jersey and surrounding areas. I was shocked at the foot of snow falling on West Virginia. I knew it would be bad, they had told me that, but I still was not prepared for just HOW bad it would be. What shocked me most, though, were the people being interviewed in the places where experts warned explicitly would be hardest hit and to evacuate had not evacuated. The people who had chosen to ignore the dire warnings and stay in very dangerous circumstances….and even more shocking was their disbelief at how bad the storm actually was. They were surprised at the damage to their homes and properties, as we all were. But they had chosen to stay as they were despite repeated and urgent warnings to leave. And then what was predicted actually happened and we all were shocked at the result.
We were warned repeatedly that something very big and important was going to happen. We were told clearly what to do in order to avoid the worst of the destruction. Some took heed and made the necessary changes, others chose not to and took their chances….some of whom made out ok and others did not.
I’m sure we all struggle with the notions of judgment, heaven and hell, particularly hell. I’ve heard people who identify themselves as Christians tell me that they believe in God and Christ and even heaven but not in hell. There are many interpretations of what heaven and hell are or will be, most of them based on our own ideas of what is “good” and “bad.” Many folks will say that they believe in Christ and in resurrection but not in the judgment to come. When we look at Scripture, though, some things are fairly clear: there will be a resurrection, there will be a judgment, and there will be a place of afterlife. What those look like may be unclear, but the existence of these components of our faith is stated frequently and clearly in the Bible and again we are confronted, as we are so often, with the question—do I believe what Scripture tells me or do I believe what I want to believe?
What we can be certain of is that these are very difficult topics to interpret from Scripture. The letters of Paul speak little of final judgment while Revelation, the most challenging book to interpret, speaks significantly of it. What we can conclude from this is that we should be equally concerned when someone decides they know exactly who will and won’t be saved as someone who decides there is no such thing as hell and everyone goes to heaven. Just as we should be equally concerned when the weather channel tells us there will be an awful storm as when someone else tells us they are not at all concerned about it.
Many folks don’t want to deal with the idea of judgment. We claim Christ has taken all our sin, which is true, however we take that further and decide that what we do is irrelevant and unimportant to God. That part is not true. To say there is no final judgment is to say that the things we do here don’t matter to God and Scripture tells us over and over that what we do on earth matters a great deal to God! Jesus didn’t teach us what we should do after we die, he taught us what we should be doing now, while we are alive. Jesus taught us how to treat one another now, on earth. And he told us that what we do here and how we care for one another here matters so much to God that we will stand in judgment for it.
We can compare sin to illness to some degree in order to understand how it is cured. Illness must be diagnosed and recognized before it can be cured or healed. That analogy works for our behavior and judgment before God as well. Sin must be identified, wrongdoing must be revealed before it can be reconciled. We can’t be reconciled before God if God doesn’t see anything wrong…what would be the point? The wrong has to be revealed before the reconciliation, or healing, can take place. That is judgment. Our wrongdoing and lack of faith must be revealed to us and to God before we can be reconciled through Christ. That is why we offer prayers of confession or repentance. Jesus told us over and over…Repent! If there is no judgment and no heaven or hell, why the need to repent? We’ve been warned over and over again and we’ve been told what we need to do to prepare ourselves: repent, believe, be obedient.
Throughout Scripture God tells us of his desire to reconcile the creation to himself. Jesus was sent for that purpose, so that wrong could be made right. Everything that distorts the image of God in us has to be eliminated in order for creation to be made right again. How else is this done but through repentance, judgment, reconciliation? I find it harder to believe that there will be no judgment than that there will. Look at the world around us…the horrible things people do to one another and the grief we feel when we witness those things. If there were no judgment, if God, in whose image we are created, just didn’t care and ultimately intended that we all will be together in the end on a big fluffy cloud, why do we grieve when horrors are committed by those created in God’s image? Why do even hardened criminals abhor child abusers? Why are we outraged when no help is offered to the homeless, when children die of hunger, when justice is not served? Why do we even care that there is justice if not that we are created in the image of a JUST God who desires the reconciliation of his creation and, in order to accomplish that reconciliation, requires judgment?
A hurricane is not a judgment against humanity nor is it a punishment for sin, it's just weather. It can be, however, a parable…an illustration to us that shows us a glimpse of God’s kingdom. Most of us are very fortunate that we survived relatively unscathed. We may have been inconvenienced by a power outage, the inability to get where we need to go, or the mess of downed trees, but we have survived. We can choose to just chalk it up to good luck or God’s mercy, or whatever we want….and we can also choose to see the parable….that we were warned, we were given opportunities to prepare ourselves and instruction on how to do so….some of us chose to heed the warnings and observe the instruction and others did not. Jesus gave us warnings of judgment and also instruction on how to be prepared for the worst. Repent. Believe. Obey.