Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God. John 3.17-21.
A great many Christians (it seems to me) tie themselves in knots over God’s judgment, and indeed allow it unnecessarily to cause them great concern and anxiety. Why is this? Perhaps because they confuse the two different types of judgment that Scripture talks about. Or perhaps because they are not hearing what Jesus is saying when he explains how judgment works.
First, in Scripture, there is the judgment referred to throughout the Old Testament which is eagerly anticipated and deeply longed for, particularly in the Psalms and in the Prophets. But, crucially, this is not the judgment meted out in a criminal court judgment but the judgment dispensed by a civil court. It is the judgment that involves wrongs being put to right. It is a judgment when those who have no voice are finally heard and when the abused and downtrodden and exploited and cheated do at last get the justice they have longed for. It is the kind of judgment described in Luke 18.2-5 where a widow seeks redress for some injustice that has been perpetrated against her. It is a judgment that brings joy: “Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy before the Lord; for he is coming, for he is coming to judge the earth. He will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with his truth” (Psalm 96.12-13).
But, second, there is the judgment of who should enter God’s Kingdom, who should dwell in the New Heaven and the New Earth. This is the judgment that Jesus talks about a great deal in John’s gospel; but at first glance we find that what he says there is both confusing and contradictory. “The Father judges no one but has given all judgment to the Son,” he says in John 5.22; but then in John 8.15-16 he says: “I judge no one. Yet even if I do judge, my judgment is valid.” There is more. “For judgment I came into the world,” he says in John 9.39; but then, in John 12.47, he insists: “I did not come to judge the world but to save the world.” What are we to make of all this?
The answer lies in this morning’s passage – Jesus’ first explanation of judgment and the one that is the key to all the rest. Quite simply, Jesus says that to encounter him is to come into judgment. Judgment is the inevitable consequence of any meeting between Jesus and a human being. That is because he is the Light of the World and whenever light shines in the darkness it inevitably attracts or repels whatever is there when the light comes. Some folk, like moths drawn to a flame, are drawn to Jesus; others, like beetles when a stone is lifted, scurry away from him and try to hide. That is judgment. And Jesus makes it clear that if we encounter him now, the judgment happens now. There is no second judgment for those who choose him now: “Very truly, I tell you, anyone who hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life, and does not come under judgment, but has passed from death to life” (John 5.24). And it seems clear that for those who don’t encounter Jesus now, the process on the Day of Judgment will be exactly the same as for those who do. It will be an encounter with the Light. It will be a meeting with Jesus. It will be a reaction to looking into the face of Christ.
In The Last Battle, the last of his Narnia books, C S Lewis images Judgment Day on Narnia in just such terms …
And at last, out of the shadow of the trees, racing up the hill for dear life, by thousands and by millions, came all kinds of creatures … And all these ran up to the doorway where Aslan stood … But as they came right up to Aslan one or other of two things happened to each of them. They all looked straight in his face; I don’t think they had any choice about that. And when some looked, the expression of their faces changed terribly – it was fear and hatred … And all the creatures who looked at Aslan in that way swerved to their right, his left, and disappeared into his huge black shadow … I don’t know what became of them. But the others looked in the face of Aslan and loved him, though some of these were very frightened at the same time. And all these came in at the Door at Aslan’s right.
Am I looking into the face of Jesus now and loving him? If so I need not worry my head about the Day of Judgment. It need give me no cause for concern whatsoever.