Written by Tyler Kleeberger.
Religious systems have a complicated relationship with judgment. It’s quite useful for affirming one’s beliefs and condemning others. It’s necessary to determine status, value, and inclusion amongst communities. Yet, it’s also not something one is supposed to do — even though it happens all the time. Do not judge, right?
However, how do we know who can belong and who cannot? How do we know whether we agree with someone’s behavior or perspective and if they are on the right track? How do we know if some transcendent being agrees with one’s behavior or perspective? That’s what judgment is all about.
But whether it is God’s judgment or our judgment or others’ judgment of us is a bit more convoluted.
God’s judgment typically lines up quite conveniently with our own, our judgment tends to always be in defense of God’s, and others should not be judging us because, as it goes, only God can judge me. Judgment is also a great tool for confirming that we are in a good place and those not like us have some work to do.
Up front, let us name an important component of this poignant topic: Judgment is esoterically beyond comprehension. We are talking about a metaphysical reality beyond the capacity of finite humans. Yet, we still have this innate tendency to want to know the outcomes of judgment in order to help us navigate an ambiguous and complex world.
A Tale of Two Judgments
Consider, for example, a person who is a self-described atheist, writing about the non-existence of God. They often spend time alone because of their unhealthy relational capacity with others. They’ve run into problems with the government and are constantly living in suspicion of the authorities. They are poor, living in ragged clothing, and have a reputation for not fitting in. What judgment awaits them? How should we judge or not judge such a person?
Or, what about a person who moved to the poorest place in the world; who dedicated their life to holding people in their dying moments. They have dedicated themselves to not having more than their poorest neighbor and spends every day attempting to overcome the poverty of an entire region while trying to bring healing to some of the worst medical diseases of history?
How ought judgment work between these two?
Or, a less unique example. What about a person who is raising a child out of wedlock? They have a criminal record, they’ve been divorced, they have a history of drug and alcohol abuse, and they often shut down communication with their closest friends and family to escape intervention. Pretty clear judgment, right? Especially if compared to a person who did things like taking on guardianship of a child whose father abandoned them, moved in with their divorcing parents to try and bring reconciliation, and who gives away most of their income to help their struggling neighbors.
Religious culture has a lot of ideas about judgment. We also tend to conveniently use judgment for navigating our complicated world in a way that suits us.
However, in the Christian tradition, talking about judgment should begin with how Jesus talked about it.
Of which there are a few teachings and, particularly, a parable.
What is Judgment? A Survey of the Biblical Array
First, some defining of terms.
Judgment is a concept of what is going to happen to the world and to the individuals within it based on the character of God. This is what we talk about when we talk about how there will be a judgment of the earth and a day of judgment on various souls. It’s a big, cosmic issue of God judging things. General judgment.
Then you have God’s judgment on the particulars. Your daily behaviors and actions. Is this thing good or bad in the eyes of God? God will weigh the totality of your life, but God also is watching you closely for the effect of your current actions at the moment. Kind of like Santa Claus. Particular judgment; which includes both beliefs and ethics.
Human Judgment: 3 Kinds
Then you have our judgment. We, too, participate in general judgment and particular judgment. Is someone going to achieve a particular afterlife? Is someone’s character deficient or praiseworthy? Usually, this is only explicit when we make such proclamations on behalf of the divine. We’re simply passing on what we know God would be saying here. Often, however, this is hidden. We claim that we aren’t going to judge and then proceed to make these judgments behind a veil of obscurity.
Yet, you also have our regular judgments. We make decisions about ourselves and others in every single minute of every day. The only way a person makes a decision is by judging the circumstances and acting accordingly. Usually, this does not involve a religious implication.
There’s one more form of judgment — legal judgments. A court case with judges and robes and laws and sentences.
Defining these uses is helpful because it categorizes how different forms of judgment also get thrown in under the same word in the English language. When someone talks about judging, which form are they referring to?
One notable place Jesus discusses judgment is in Matthew 25 — the sheep and the goats. This is metaphysical, general judgment. Interesting note: the criteria is taking care of the least of these; which is quite explicitly based on the prophet Isaiah (another text heavily enmeshed with judgment language). General judgment, at least in the Christian tradition, is tricky if for no other reason than it is also eschatological. God’s judgment runs parallel with God’s ultimate intentions with the cosmos. In Isaiah, for example, God’s intentions deal with healing and restoring the earth. God’s judgment is not simply about how one aligns with a particular list of rules. It is about creating a particular kind of world. This may be why Jesus often uses the metaphor of a party; one where everyone is invited but not all choose to come. As it goes, God doesn’t seem to remove people from the party. Instead, people remove themselves by not wanting to participate in such a party that is God’s restored world. For the same reason, this is why the Torah often expresses judgment as natural consequences. If you don’t take care of the land, your crops won’t grow. God isn’t necessarily causing the crops to fail. God is allowing human beings to get what they want. Judgment in this sense is handing people over to the world they’ve chosen. I also find it interesting that God is still portrayed as having the crops grow even when Israel is disobedient.
The Hebrew sense of judgment (mishpat) conveys the meaning of justice; of setting things right. Sometimes, healing the wrong deals with God overcoming the wrong as opposed to punishing it. Many Biblical instances could be garnered that would make God out to be the parent that makes many threats and never follows through with them.
Again, judgment is a tricky thing.
The book of Revelation, for example, talks a lot about judgment. Another detail that may be helpful is that certain uses of the word judgment imply “revealing” or shedding light on. Judgment is simply a way of showing what already is. Judgment, therefore, might not be something that God does but rather what God sees. Revelation uses the concept of judgment as a great revealing. This isn’t just for the supposed bad stuff, either. Divine, general judgment shows the world as it really is. There’s no weighing of the heart here.
I suppose the observation here is simply to tread cautiously when claiming to speak for God’s judgment. Yes, the Egyptian military drowns in the sea as a result of the world they created because of Pharoah’s hardened heart. Yet, we’re also told about Egyptian foremen who walk through the sea with the Hebrew people. And it’s not quite clear whether Pharoah’s hardened heart was his own doing or not.
Does God punish wrongdoing or is it natural consequences for our decisions within human agency and free will? Does God sometimes withhold judgment for the sake of grace? Or, to put it another way, what kind of parent is God? What is God’s forgiveness like and how far does it go? How big is the party and what keeps one out of the party?
Of course, if God’s judgment does not involve handling the goats, what does this mean for humanity? Can we just do whatever we want? Are there no consequences? Whatever position you take will certainly have its own ramifications for how you understand life in the world.
Best practices here, at least from our human limitation, might be to err on the side of grace. We tend to like grace up until the point that it includes us. I suppose I simply hope that the invitation is big enough that even my wretched being can be included.
And who knows, if the great revealing and justice actually involve the restoration of all things — like Jesus, Paul, and Revelation explicitly claim and the narratives such as Genesis and Isaiah emphatically propose — maybe God has other means of undoing the wrongs of the world than just killing them all and sorting them out.
Really, though, despite all of this conjecture on how condemnation works, the central engine of judgment throughout the Bible has little to do with categorical separation for infinite eternity. From the plagues of Exodus to building a house on rock or sand, one of the key components of judgment in the Bible concerns endurance. Judgment is not just a thing that will happen one day. It’s also not just reserved for certain people when they do bad stuff.
Judgment has all of these uses and implications, but there is one more sentiment revving through the Biblical text that is worth pointing out: Judgment is something to be endured by everyone; and not from a Zeus-like figure reigning lightning from the sky. Judgment is about enduring the world as it is so as to enter into a world as it should be. The question is not whether or not you will be judged nor whether or not you will pass the test of a robed God in the sky — the question is how you will endure the world as it is. This is why Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, says the storm comes no matter what. How will you endure the storm of being alive in the world? And the invitation is to endure the curses, the storm, and the judgment in the same way Jesus does: the cross.
How will we make this thing move? With the same posture Jesus does.
I know very few sermons have considered judgment in this way, but aside from the hefty conversation we’ve waded through, this is, in my opinion, what the Bible spends the most time on when discussing judgment. When the world cuts you open like a knife, what will we find? When the conflict of being alive reveals who you really are and everything hidden is seen, what will be there? When God sets all things right, will the cruciform pattern of Jesus have refined you to the point that the party is most joyous or will the natural consequences of the world we’ve built make a restored heaven and earth feel a bit more like the pits of hell?
Jesus’ Conversation(s) on Judgment
Back to Jesus. And us. Trying to concisely shore up all details concerning a religious and metaphysical approach to judgment is an impossible task. Even just sticking to Biblical texts, you can easily defend any position with proper selectivity. When it comes to God’s judgment, there are a perplexing array of details.
Quite possibly, this may be why Jesus talks about judgment in the way he does.
First of all, Jesus explicitly claims that we should not judge. In contrast to English, the Greek language in which the New Testament is written uses different words for the different kinds of judgment on offer. When Jesus talks about not judging others, he isn’t referring to the natural judgments of decision-making or the judgment of legal proceedings. Jesus is talking about the judgment on others’ identities. He uses the word krino which is the judgment of God.
The scene is humorous. Engaging in this judgment is apparently the equivalent of pointing out the speck of dust in someone’s eye all the while there is a 2×4 jutting out of your own. And this is not because your moral errors are so grievous in comparison to the hypothetical other. Whatever wrong someone else has done, the moment you begin making a judgment on their worth and identity as a human being, you have done exponentially more wrong just in the act. Don’t do it. As soon as you begin to play God, your error surpasses any moral failing that we humans are prone to do.
This is similar to what Paul mentions in 1 Corinthians chapter 4:
I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore, do not pronounce judgement before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive commendation from God.
Paul has been talking about the cross as a picture of one’s life. Christians ought to be defined by the cruciform example of living that Jesus invites us to. He then mentions how it is our finite limitations that get in the way of executing this example. As his argument goes, God does not share these limitations and thereby transcendently offers to us contingent beings what we cannot offer ourselves. We, therefore, must put ourselves in our proper place; which brings up judgment. That also escapes your human constraints. Everyone is on level ground. The krino kind of judgment simply isn’t possible. Don’t do it. It’s not your job, it’s not your responsibility, and you aren’t even capable of it.
All of this — from divine judgment to human constraints in light of the eschatology of the world — is something Jesus told a parable about.
Matthew 13: The Wheat & the Weeds
It’s worth mentioning that Jesus tells this parable to a people desperately wanting justice. The covenantal people of Israel in 2nd Temple Judaism had only ever known occupation since the days of the Assyrians. In their oppression and poverty and hopelessness, they clamored for a military superhero who would crush their enemies, rid them of the powers that be, and make their world good, again. Really, the sentiment was to do the same thing to other people groups that had been done to them.
In this, Jesus shows up and says that kingdom is actually here, but they need to be people who see and hear (a slight nod to Isaiah’s vision for the world) and be the covenant that blesses the world and sets all things right (not just their things). Then he tells a story about agricultural sabotage in Matthew 13v24–28:
He put before them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, “Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?” He answered, “An enemy has done this.” The slaves said to him, “Then do you want us to go and gather them?” But he replied, “No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.”
So, you’ve got a field of wheat, but there’s also some weeds; often referred to as zonin or tares. Zonin grows very similarly to wheat. In fact, you can’t really tell them apart until harvest. However, if you don’t deal with the zonin, it will poison the wheat.
The question of the parable is what should be done about the weeds. If you remove the weeds, you’ll probably end up getting some wheat in there, too. This world was planted good, but there are some weeds among the wheat. What should we do? To which the crowd probably said, “Rip them out!”
But Jesus says God doesn’t do that. God lets the wheat and weeds grow together. At harvest, in the great revealing, we will be able to distinguish and act accordingly — but this, of course, is God’s job.
I imagine that the crowd would have been slightly angry. God is supposed to crush the bad guys and the heathens. A proper response to Jesus’ questionable provocation is, “Why can’t God make everything as we want?” But one reason we might want to wait is because weeds often think they are wheat.
Why would God do it this way? Because, as we’ve seen with judgment, the world is always more complex than it appears. We may think we understand exactly how judgment works and we may be quite confident as to what is wheat and what is weeds, but there is a chance that it is all more complicated than our perception admits.
The intricacies of the world’s destination will always outwit your eyes.
And there’s always a story behind the story.
Judgment usually comes down to us wanting to filter the world through rigid, clear categories which rarely exist. There’s zonin in the wheat field and we might not be the best determinants of what is what and of what should happen to the field anyway.
Assuming we know teleological purposes might be a fruitless conjecture and the projection of all that is wrong on all of the people we don’t like may be the most damning experience of all.
For example, the person of government suspicion writing about the non-existence of God in comparison to the one who took up the task of being poor and healing diseases: which is wheat and which is weeds? Or the divorced addict with the out-of-wedlock child in comparison to the generous parent of an abandoned child: which is wheat and which is weeds?
The problem is that it is a trick question. Because in both of those examples, I am actually describing the same person.
What if the situation with the wheat field is not only convoluted because we do not know the purpose of the field nor do we have the capability of determining wheat and weeds but also because when we look closely at the human person and the world we live in, the field is actually all of us? We are the slave working the field and the field is our life.
What if the wheat and the weeds are the same person?
Why does God let those plants grow together? Because we are all wheat and we are all weeds. We may want God’s judgment to run rampant, but our discernment is weak and, in the end, we may not see that we are talking about ourselves.
The invitation of Jesus’ parable may be to see that this is us, too. Desiring judgment on anything that doesn’t meet certain requirements may result in all of us being out.
Within the trajectory of the cosmos, it may also be true that the outcome of one part of the field will also be the outcome of all. We ought not to celebrate another’s destruction because the destruction of one part of the field implies a loss to the field as a whole. Why would we want someone to be out? If but one loses, we all lose. If but one doesn’t come to the party, the party is less of a party. And if the qualification of attendance is that everyone be like you, then you will be a bit lonely at a table for one.
The hope, then, is that when the field is collected, the enduring judgment of God will match the hope of God evident throughout the entire Biblical narrative — that there will be no bundles left to burn. The hope is that the qualifications of wheat have less to do with us and more to do with the character of God. The real question is whether God can make wheat out of weeds.
The whole field needs healed and the hope, at least for someone like me, is that the wheat will take over. And that’s the beauty of grace. Grace is not something you get because you are good. Grace is something we already have because God is good.
I can only hope that this is what God will do with the field; which begins by admitting that I won’t be the one to make the decision.
Judgment is not my responsibility.
The world is complicated and can’t be split up so easily.
And the hope of judgment is that God will do with everything that I need God to do with me.
Until then, my only job is to endure the world today and move toward the world as it will be in the end.