Judgment, Divine (in the Bible)

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The belief that God is judge of all men is found throughout Scripture. Judgment is sometimes manifested in this life, but when the belief in an afterlife appears, God is seen primarily as eschatological judge. see eschatology (in the bible). In the New Testament much emphasis is placed upon the bestowal of the divine prerogative of judgment upon Christ. This article will investigate the concept of God as judge, the particular judgment, and the general judgment.

God as Judge. The concept of God as a judge, imposing divine decisions upon men, is an idea that Israelite religion shared with surrounding pagans. The power that all religions generally attribute to their gods is best illustrated by the prerogative of judging, of issuing decrees and verdicts from which there is no appeal. The Biblical concept of judgment, however, can be clearly understood only in relation to the idea of justice, for it was the primary duty of a judge "to do justice" (see justice of god; justice of men). A man is just (saddīq ) if he is in a right relationship with God and his fellow men. Since this righteousness is necessary to regulate all the affairs of life, it can be described as the highest value in life. By Western standards just conduct is considered as behavior conforming to an established ethical norm with absolute claims. In the Old Testament, however, conduct was measured not by an ideal norm but by the fulfillment of the various claims exacted by specific relationships with other men. Men move in many different relationshipsfamilial, national, economiceach of which carries with it particular demands.

There is, furthermore, the special relationship of man with God; here again the just man is the one who fulfills the claims placed upon him by this relationship. In turn, God shows forth His justice, His righteous acts, when He is faithful to the role which He Himself established in relation to Israel. God fulfills the claims of this relationship particularly when He acts as judge. Numerous texts appeal to the divine decisions: "The Lord judge between you and me" (Gn 16.5; see also : Jgs 11.27; 1 Sm 24.13). So closely are justice and judgment related that the two terms are constantly linked in Biblical texts, becoming almost a literary cliché [Am 5.7; Ps 35 (36).7; 93 (94).15; 139 (140).13].

Basically, the notion of judging means settling a dispute, making things right. Inasmuch as one of the disputants was right and the other wrong, to judge came to mean to help a man obtain his rights [Ps 74 (75).8] or to condemn a man (Ez 7.3; 8.27). Many of the Psalms of complaint envision the suppliant pleading before God to do justice, i.e., to recognize the requirements of the divine relationship with His servant by vindicating the servant before his enemies [Ps 25 (26).1; 34 (35).24; 42 (43).1].

The vindication of the just man through God's judgment brought with it condemnation of the unjust adversary; hence judgment is sometimes equated with punishment or condemnation: "He will do judgment on the nations, heaping up corpses" [Ps 109 (110).6; see also : 7.12; 118 (119).84; Ez 25.11].

Particular Judgment. Because of development of thought concerning the resurrection of the dead and afterlife, ideas on God's judgment of the individual underwent a good deal of change during the Biblical period. Separate sections on particular judgment in the Old Testament and in the New Testament will make this evolution clear.

In the Old Testament. Particular judgment in the sense of a divine pronouncement determining an individual's fate after death is not found in the Old Testament. The prevailing view of a retribution operative within the limits of the present life prevented such an understanding until quite late, when the ideas of resurrection (see resurrection of the dead) and immortality had taken hold of Jewish thought. The judgment of God had to be exercised here and now by recognition of a man's works and the recompense proper to them. Prosperity, posterity, longevitythese were the signs of God's favorable judgment upon a man [Ps 1.13; 36 (37).1825; 54 (55).23; Prv 22.4]. To live wretchedly and to be cut off from life early without descendants were regarded as evidence of God's judgment against a man [Jb 15.2021; Ps 139 (140).12; Wis 3.1819]. For the just and unjust alike the judgment was lived out in this life.

Reality belied the traditional picture, however. The Psalmist might say, "Neither in my youth, nor now that I am old, have I seen a just man forsaken nor his descendants begging bread" [Ps 36 (37).25], but from early times Israel could also ask, "Why do the wicked prosper?" [Jer 12.1; see also : Psalms 36 (37) and 72 (73)]. In such questioning the justice of God is not doubted; this divine attribute is always assumed: "Does God pervert judgment, and does the Almighty distort justice?" (Jb8.3). Even the cynical assertions of the Book of ecclesi astes about a like fate for the good and the wicked are counterbalanced by the author's insistence that "God will bring to judgment every work" (Eccl 12.14; see also : 3.17).

To see God's justice achieved was more difficult, however, and the gap between theory and observable fact produced genuine pain. The answers varied from dogged repetition of the traditional view to the cynical assertion that "it is all one! Both the innocent and the wicked he destroys" (Jb 9.22). The answer of an immortality of reward or punishment following a personal judgment was not reached until a century and a half before Christ.

If some texts seem to suggest a personal judgment after death, this is doubtless because the developed doctrine of a later time is read into them. For example, Sir 21.9 suggests the fires of hell: "A band of criminals is like a bundle of tow; they will end in a flaming fire," but the words indicate merely the speedy destruction of the wicked by comparing them to swift-burning tow. Mention of the pain, decay, and corruption in store for man (Jb 17.14; 21.26; Is 14.11; 66.24) means no more than the fate common to all men. (see afterlife, 2.) Even the texts that speak of God's repaying a man on the day of his death according to his deeds (Sir 11.26) refer to retribution in this life, which may, however, be deferred until the day of death.

The prerogative of judging is closely associated with Yahweh's power as king. Justice and judgment are the foundations of His throne [Ps 96 (97).2]. The divine judgment is not limited to Israel, for the entire earth is under His sway: "Rise, O God; judge the earth, for yours are all the nations" [Ps 81 (82).8; see also : 104 (105).7; 1 Sm2.10; Jer 25.31]. God is especially the protector of the rights of the poor, the widow, and the orphan [Jb 36.6; Ps 67 (68).6; 81 (82).3; Is 1.17]. All the judgment exercised by the Israelite king is regarded as the gift of the Lord, from whom all right judgment comes [Ps 71 (72).12; Is 9.6].

From God's decisions there is no appeal, and Israel recognizes the justice of His verdict: "By a proper judgment you have done all this because of our sins" (Dn3.29; see also : Tb 3.25; Ez 7.8). Every man will be judged according to his works (Wis 3.10; Ez 7.8). This doctrine of individual responsibility is developed especially in Ez 18.132; 33.1020. As divine pronouncements, His decrees possess a binding force like that of the commandments, with which they are often associated: "They shall live by my statutes and carefully observe my decrees" (Ez 37.24)


Beginning with Genesis, God's judgment upon wickedness is spelled out in almost every book of the Old Testament, from the punishment of adam and eve to the fate of the soldiers in the army of the Machabees (2 Mc 12.4042). The moral will of the Lord permeates all of life; He is not indifferent to His creatures' disobedience, and He never leaves the guilty unpunished (Na 1.23; 1 Chr 21.7). Indeed there is often a disconcerting association between evil-doing and swift judgment: "Her was wicked in the sight of the Lord, so the Lord killed him" (Gn 38.7).

Numerous proverbs in the sapiential books show the Lord weighing a man's heart: "The eyes of the Lord are in every place, keeping watch on the evil and the good" (Prv 15.3; see also : 16.2). Nothing escapes His impartial and just scrutiny (Prv 16.11); the nether world and the abyss lie open before Him; "how much more the hearts of men" (Prv 15.11; see also : Sir 18.1).

In the New Testament. The notion of divine judgment is continued and expanded in the New Testament. Since the ideas of the resurrection of the body and immortality were well developed by the time of Christ, God's definitive judgments, both particular and general, were regarded as taking place after death. Meanwhile, both the good and the wicked will continue to grow until the harvest (Mt 13.30, 40). There are no clear references to individual judgment in the Gospels; passages such as "Of every idle word men speak, they shall give account on the day of judgment" (Mt 12.36) can refer to either a particular or general judging. The particular judgment is implied in the story of Lazarus and the rich man (Lk 16.1931). References to judgment occur always within the context of admonitions to penance and good works. Only repentance can save a man from the wrath to come (Mt 3.710; Lk 3.79). To avoid the dread sentence no price is too great: "It is better for thee to enter life maimed or lame, than, having two hands or two feet, to be cast into the everlasting fire" (Mt 18.8; see also : Mk9.4246). see hell (in the bible). In the light of coming judgment men are urged to enter by the narrow gate leading to life (Mt 7.1314; Lk 13.2430); to lay up lasting treasure in heaven (Mt 6.20); and for the sake of heaven to rejoice in suffering (Mt 5.12).

In his Epistles St. Paul reminds his hearers that "we shall all stand at the judgment seat of God" (Rom 14.10; see also : Acts 24.25; Heb 9.2728). In 2 Cor 5.10 he speaks of judgment before the tribunal of Christ.

General Judgment. The theme of a judgment upon all men on the last day is a common one in Scripture. In both the OT and the NT it is often referred to as the day of the lord.

In the Old Testament. The concept of general judgment in the OT occurs usually in the form of divine verdicts upon cities, tribes, or peoples in terms of punishment here on earth for their crimes. There is no doubt that events like the deluge (Gn 6.58.19) or the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gn 19.129) are presented as God's moral judgment upon human wickedness. The Book of judges is built upon the often-repeated pattern of sin, punishment, repentance, and delivery. The prophetic writings in particular abound in harsh threats of the judgment awaiting the men and nations who continue to defy the Lord by the evil of their ways (Am1.32.16; Ez 38.2122; etc.). After the division of the kingdom, Amos threatened Israel and her neighbors with divine punishments for their manifold crimes (Am1.46.14). Other prophets, too, direct their oracles against the pagan nations, reminding them of God's judgment to come (Is 13.119.25; Jer 46.151.64; Ez 25.132.32). These nations will feel God's wrath because of their crimes and because they have rejoiced over the desecration of the Temple and over Judah's downfall.

Although God will punish the arrogance of the pagans toward His chosen people, He nevertheless permits this conduct as His judgment upon faithless Israel: "I will chastise you as you deserve; I will not let you go unpunished" (Jer 46.28; see also : 17.4; 25.811). He uses the pagan nations as a rod for the punishment of His chosen ones (Is 10.511). Utter ruin and exile are the historical forms in which the Lord's judgments were expressed.

One of the earliest features of messianism in Israel was the expectation of "the day of the Lord," a time when God's destiny for His people would be fully and finally realized. This day of shame and destruction for Israel's enemies would bring corresponding triumph and prosperity to Israel. But the prophets question this understanding; Amos asks, "What will the day of the Lord mean for you? Darkness and not light!" (Am 5.18). This day will be "exceedingly terrible" (Jl 2.11), a day "of wrath and burning anger" (Is 13.9). These and similar texts are often applied to the general judgment at the end of the world; see also : Ez 30.119; So 1.22.15.

As messianism developed, the prophetic vision of judgments upon individual nations and upon Israel became cosmic in scope: God's judgment would be a definitive intervention in history at the end of time (Dn 8.17), marked by devastation and destruction as preludes to a new order of things (Dn 2.3145; 7.1114, 1727). In this apocalyptic literature the end of time is preceded by resurrection from the dead; the good will live forever, but everlasting horror and disgrace will be the lot of the wicked (Dn 12.2). The tribunal will pronounce against all the enemies of God and give to the just possession of the kingdom (Dn 7.918, 2123, 2627).

In the New Testament. Many specific references to the general judgment at the end of the world at the return of Christ occur in the New Testament. The most dramatic account of the general judgment is found in Mt 25.3146; see also : Mk 13.1427. The Judge, the standard of judgment, and the rewards and punishments are vividly described. At that time the son of man will render to everyone according to his conduct (Mt 16.27); it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon than for unbelievers (Mt 11.2224; Lk 10.14); and the men of Nineve will rise in judgment against an unbelieving generation (Mt 12.41; Lk 11.32).

The judgment of condemnation is invariably linked with fire: John the Baptist warns that the bad tree will be cast into unquenchable fire (Mt 3.10; Lk 3.17; see also : Mt 18.89; Mk 9.4247). Jesus uses the same metaphor in Mt 7.19, as well as in the parable of the wheat and weeds (Mt 13.30, 4042). Buried in hell, the rich man longs for a single drop of water (Lk 16.2224). In Matthew's classic description the wicked are committed to the fires intended for the Devil and his angels (Mt 25.4146).

For the just the final judgment will be a vindication and often a reversal of their situation in this life; on that day they will take possession of the kingdom (Mt 25.34) and receive a hundredfold with life everlasting (Mt 19. 2930). The ideas of the kingdom of God and judgment are closely associated: John preaches that the kingdom is at hand (Mt 3.2), and one can enter it only through repentance (Mt 3.78), which is also the condition for a favorable judgment. Further, a man's attitude toward the kingdom is often mentioned in terms applicable to the final judgment: "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' shall enter the kingdom of heaven" (Mt 7.21). Finally, the kingdom in its full glory will be established only on the day of judgment, when the good will be separated from the wicked.

The general judgment is most often depicted as a single aspect of the parousia, the glorious return of Christ (Mt 16.27; 19.2829; Lk 9.26). Historically, Catholic piety has often emphasized the judgment to the neglect of other features, such as the definitive establishment of God's kingdom and the inauguration of a new order of creation (see creation, 1). In the Parousia it is Christ who judges, but there are also texts which state that it is the Father who repays (Mt 6.4, 18; Lk 18.7) and that it is Christ who bears witness for the just (Mt 10.32).

John speaks of judgment in terms similar to those of the Synoptics (Jn 5.27, 29; 12.48), but in some passages a new note is found: judgment has already occurred (Jn5.25; 12.31). In this realized eschatology the believer "does not come to judgment, but has passed from death to life" (Jn 5.24), while the wrath of God rests upon the unbeliever (Jn 3.36; see also 3.18). The twofold theme of light and life [see life, concept of (in the bible)] in his Gospel is closely linked with judgment: "Now this is the judgment: The light has come into the world, yet men have loved the darkness rather than the light, for their works were evil" (Jn 3.19); and "he who is unbelieving towards the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God rests upon him" (Jn 3.36). John speaks of judgment having been committed to the Son (Jn 5.22, 27, 30; 9.39), but he also states that Jesus has not come to judge, but to save (Jn 3.17; 12.47). see john, gospel according to st.

The Epistles also speak of the last day when "God will judge the hidden secrets of men through Jesus Christ" (Rom 2.16; see also : Acts 17:31; 1 Pt 4.5). The role of Christ as judge is emphasized in all the texts; usually the judgment is spoken of in connection with the second coming of Christ (2 Thes 1.710; 2 Tm 4.1), when pronouncement will be made on both the living and the dead (Acts 10.42; 2 Tm 4.1; 1 Pt 4.5).

Since the judgment will manifest God's justice, St. Paul speaks of it as "the revelation of the Lord Jesus" (2 Thes 1.7). The day of the Lord described by the prophets becomes for him "the day of our Lord Jesus Christ" (1 Cor 5.5; 2 Cor 1.14). The unexpectedness of God's visitation should prompt watchfulness (1 Thes 5.111) and perseverance in good works. The reward of the just is "to be ever with the Lord" (1 Thes 4.17), but the Lord will pour out his wrath upon sinners (Rom 2.510), slaying them with the breath of His mouth and the brightness of His coming (2 Thes 2.8).

Reflecting the traditions of the late apocalyptic writing of the Old Testament, the Book of Revelation emphasizes the resurrection of the dead before the final judgment (11.11), the utter destruction of God's enemies (ch. 6, 8, 9), the coming of Christ for judgment (14.7, 1420), and the establishment of a new order of happiness and bliss for the elect (20.46).

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