We’ve been going through Revelation 21-22 these last few weeks, considering the future hope and home of God’s people, the renewed creation where God will dwell among his people, “wipe away every ear from their eyes, and death shall be no more” (21:4), and satisfy them for all eternity.
In the midst of all the vivid descriptions of what life in the renewed creation will be like, you find a number of reminders that a judgment had to occur to bring about this salvation:
“But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.” (21:8)
“But nothing unclean will ever enter it, nor anyone who does what is detestable or false, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life.” (21:27)
Whereas we might feel a bit uncomfortable putting images of paradise side-by-side with images of God’s judgment and wrath, God’s Word is not. And this is because a major component of what God will and must do to bring about his kingdom is once and for all do away with sin and evil, with all that is threatening, oppressive, unjust and fearful.
All throughout Scripture you see that God’s salvation is connected to God’s judgment. The ushering in of new life and peace and relief is connected to the removal of evil.
Now, one of the reasons that we may struggle to grasp this is that we tend to downplay the extent and depths of sin and evil in our world (and in our own hearts!). We want to believe that the problem is not that bad; we want to believe that we are not that bad. We want to believe that we humans are sufficient to address the evil in our world, through education, government policies, law enforcement, charitable giving, a belief in “progress.” It seems too threatening to face evil squarely in the face, and acknowledge that it is a problem beyond our fixing.
And to some degree, for those of us living in the modern west, we rarely have to do this. We live in a society of relative peace and stability. We don’t have the threat of warring tribes attacking our neighborhood, stealing our children. Most wars happen far away from us, and we don’t feel genuinely threatened by them. We have laws that curb much outward evil, and our society is generally-law abiding, compared to others.
And so, while we may acknowledge that true evil exists, we can think of it as something out there, far away from us, something for our government or militaries to deal with.
But this “benefit” of our specific time and place in history also buffers us from reality. With a little honest reflection, we see that the disease of sin has wreaked this world for thousands of years, bringing trouble, pain, tears and death. Humanity has yet to find a cure, and in all reality, things don’t seem to be getting better.
With a little honest reflection, we see also that it’s not just out there. We know the words of Jeremiah 17:9 to be true: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?”
And so for God to usher in a renewed, eternal world filled with peace, joy and righteousness, he must also once and for all reckon with sin and evil. He must be the just and righteous judge, before whom there is no hiding, pretending or bribing. Salvation is connected to judgment.
One way to feel the good and necessary weight of this is to consider those in oppressive situations from which there is no easy way out. For the girl caught in the sex trade, the salvation she needs and longs for includes the right judgment of those oppressing her. This judgment may happen in limited ways here and now: arrest, imprisonment, loss of position and power. But whether or not a judgment happens here (and this is by no means guaranteed) it will happen before God’s throne, with perfect justice.
For the people group being threatened with genocide, the salvation they need and long for includes the right judgment of their enemies. For those caught in abusive relationships, the salvation they need and long for includes God’s judgment of the abusers.
And even if we don’t find ourselves actively oppressed by evil, we do find ourselves surrounded by godlessness, harm and hatred inflicted on God’s image bearers, willful embracing of that which is evil, and evildoers succeeding. Like Job among the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, we find ourselves “greatly distressed” and tormented (2 Peter 2:7-8) by what we see. And we long for the proclamation of God’s sovereign rule and will, and the vindication it brings.
Now, even as Scripture teaches us to long for God to justly deal with sin and evil, and to give God thanks and worship for doing so, it does not give us permission to gloat, or to delight in the suffering of others. When God saves his people with a salvation that includes the judgment of the godless and wicked, there is no room for pride, for it is a salvation entirely by grace. The only reason we are spared from God’s end-time judgment of sin is because Jesus bore the judgment for our sin on the cross.
Rather, like when a human judge lays down a heavy, but just sentence, and the audience nods their heads in agreement, perhaps even applauds, not in any sick delight in what is inflicted on the criminal, but in recognition that the judgment is right, and good for the flourishing of society, even good for the soul and character of the criminal, so will we find humble and grateful relief and comfort in God’s end-time judgment. A relief and comfort we can begin to experience now, as we cling to God’s promises.