When the clouds roll back, and we peek into heaven, we see martyrs cry out for justice: “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” (Revelation 6:10). We hear an angelic call to worship “because the hour of his judgment has come” (Revelation 14:7). We hear yet another “song of Moses,” in which the saints in heaven proclaim, “All nations will come and worship you, for your righteous acts have been revealed” (Revelation 15:4).
How many of us, if we’re honest, can barely stomach the thought of divine judgment?
We may genuinely believe the Bible, and acknowledge the reality (and rightness) of God’s wrath and an eternal hell, while mostly trying to avoid the subject. In a way, we tolerate God’s judgment, but our instinct is to turn away. At bottom, we may be a touch embarrassed by it. We celebrate Jesus’s self-sacrifice at the cross, but talk as little as possible about hell, even when sharing the gospel.
The idea that we might someday enjoy God’s justice and power on display in his judgment seems almost imponderable — much less the thought that we might actually appreciate him for it, even now.
When we avoid hell, though, we miss deeper and wider vistas on the glory of God. We overlook, minimize, or neglect significant facets of who God is.
The wrath of God, and the reality of divine judgment, is one of Christianity’s most offensive claims today. Yet, as Tim Keller writes to skeptics, and to all of us, “If Christianity were the truth, it would have to be offending and correcting your thinking at some place. Maybe this is the place, the Christian doctrine of divine judgment” (The Reason for God, 73).
What if our shyness about divine judgment actually erodes our joy in God, rather than preserving it? Healthy hearts, of course, are not warmed at the prospect of unbelieving loved ones facing omnipotent wrath for all eternity. And yet if we follow God’s revelation of himself to us in the Scriptures, many of us will find more joy to be had, even now, not only in his love and grace, but also in his wrath and justice. Take just two glimpses, among others, in pondering the possibility.
Judgment and Joy at the Exodus
In Exodus 14, God’s people were backed up against the Red Sea, and they could see Pharaoh’s army coming for them. They seemed trapped, and began to experience a collective panic. Speaking into their great fear, Moses promised, “The Lord will fight for you” (Exodus 14:14), and as Pharaoh’s army approached,
The angel of God who was going before the host of Israel moved and went behind them, and the pillar of cloud moved from before them and stood behind them, coming between the host of Egypt and the host of Israel. (Exodus 14:19–20)
God, manifesting his presence in the pillar, moves to stand between his people and their enemy. This is an act of war. He steps forward to shield his own. He puts himself in the middle. He says, in effect, I’ll take this fight. I’ll protect my people from their aggressors. Let me have the Egyptians.