I am currently reading a novel that will be reviewed soon on this blog (God willing) and the difference between its focus and the focus of many of my Calvinist acquaintances is worthy of some mention. Elsewhere I have commented on the way in which the carrot and the stick motivate the behavior of many people in this world , and this blog is a continuation of these themes on an eschatological level looking at ultimate rewards and punishments and the way in which people are often motivated by fear and greed even when it comes to dealing with questions of their eternal reward. That it is say, for many people their ultimate motivation is not far different than the normal motivations of their lives.
I was looking through one of the e-mails I got this morning and it sought to present the point that when the teaching of hell ceased to be emphasized, that justice left churches. Others, justified by a misreading of what Jesus Christ said to the “good thief,” focus their attention on the supposed rewards of heaven that await a believer immediately after death. It should be noted, of course, that neither of these doctrines is on firm biblical ground, as the Bible presents a very clear view of the afterlife (albeit one that is absent the details of exactly when all of this will occur) that shows that people go to the grave and “sleep with their fathers” when they die, but that the blessed dead will be raised incorruptible at the return of Jesus Christ at the seventh (and last) trumpet and will reign with Jesus Christ but that the rest of the dead will not rise for another thousand years and will face their judgment based on their works after they have had the chance to meet their Maker and repent of their wayward and corrupt ways. Those who do will receive eternal life themselves, and those who do not will be burned up in the biblical lake of fire.
We ought to note that the Bible itself contains both mercy and judgment, but states that mercy triumphs over judgment because for any to receive mercy, there must be a way that pure justice is moderated by other concerns for our sakes. The fact that anyone is saved is an act of grace and mercy, since no one deserves it or merits it on their works. Judgment (and justice) is simply people getting what they deserve, and in the context of our behavior toward God, this can only be a bad thing, as we all fall woefully short of His perfect and unchanging divine standard. But while people may be unbalanced either in being unmerciful prophets of divine judgment on the wicked while neglecting the fact that God’s mercy to them is as undeserved as the scorn they heap on others, or in focusing so much on heaven and eternal rewards that they forget the reality of judgment on those who are incorrigible rebels against God’s ways, the Bible itself presents a balanced view that shows both of the ultimate fates of mankind depending on our choices.
It should also be noted that there is a distinct difference between the biblical view of reward and punishment. The grace that is provided to mankind through God’s word (and the instruction of it) as well as the sacrifice and resurrection of Jesus Christ, is something that God greatly enjoys. Salvation, entering the joy of the kingdom of heaven, is described in joyfully picturesque terms, and clearly guiding and helping people into His family is something that God views with great happiness and pleasure. On the other hand, God does not enjoy in the least–it is not God’s wish or desire that any should perish, but that all should find eternal life (1 Timothy 2:4), but some people will choose death over life and cursing over blessing because they would rather be destroyed than to give honor and praise to their creator. Our attitude to such misguided people is not rejoicing in our role of judging and punishing the wicked, but rather is a mournful attitude at the heart-hearted rebellion of some against God’s ways, and a sincere desire for their eventual repentance, or a sad turning away of the head when their time of judgment comes and they have remained defiant and stubborn.
If we are in positions where we exercise judgment over others (and most of us at some point have these positions), our attitudes should be the same. We should feel happy at being able to praise and reward, and we should feel sad when we have to rebuke and punish. There should be no pleasure in giving judgment to others, and we should grieve that it was necessary to punish, even as we act justly and fairly and avoid punishing others out of anger or spite, all of which can make it enjoyable to put others through what we see as their deserved suffering, while placing ourselves above such a state. Given that we all deserve judgment, we should all treasure the grace that we have been given and seek to be as gracious as possible to others. We should cultivate the biblical attitude of a desire to do good, and a great dislike of punishment, even as we develop both the behaviors of giving reward and punishment as time and circumstances demand. We have to keep the balance between the two as well as a right attitude toward both, lest we either become too permissive towards those who deserve punishment and need to be made aware of that fact, or lest we enjoy condemning and judging others too much when we often deserve the same treatment ourselves.