Brian McLaren, the elder statesman of the emergent church movement, has written in this book “A Generous Orthodoxy” that God as judge was perhaps a useful metaphor in some long past generation but today men and women need to construct more helpful and relevant metaphors for God. There is so much wrong with McLaren’s perspective that it would be impossible to sum up in a single post. However, at the heart of his error is that Judge is merely a metaphor for God that can and indeed should be replaced with more helpful metaphors. The arrogance is breathtaking. First, the assumption is that when the Bible speaks it does not do so authoritatively. Even what God declares about himself can be altered to suit a changing generation. Second, McLaren assumes that we are able to choose for ourselves metaphors for God that make him more suitable for us. There is no room in his thinking for a God who would sacrifice His own Son in order to make sinners suitable for Him.
I find chapter three in “The Great Work of the Gospel” by John Ensor to be most helpful in understanding why Judge is not merely a replaceable metaphor for God. Ensor points out that Jesus says more about hell and God’s wrath than anyone else in the New Testament. Indeed, the most graphic and horrifying descriptions of God’s punishment upon the wicked come from the mouth of Jesus. Ensor quotes the great theologian W.G.T. Shedd:
“As none but God has the right and would dare to sentence a soul to eternal misery for sin…so none but God has the right and should presume to delineate the nature and consequences of this sentence. This is the reason why most of the awful imagery in which the sufferings of the wicked are described is found in the discourses of our Lord and Savior.”
This is an important point because even among “the churched” there is a tendency to all but forget about this part of God’s nature. I have often heard it said, even from pastors, that God sends no one to hell. People send themselves to hell. As Ensor points out, this is utterly false. Knowing what we know about hell, no one would ever send themselves there. But more importantly, the aforementioned sentiment robs God of one of his self-revealed roles in an effort to protect an image of him that is loving and compassionate.
The faulty assumption is that God cannot be loving and merciful and still cast the wicked into hell. And as Ensor points out, it is the wicked, the unrighteous, the unrepentant that God will cast into hell. These are not just “people” in a generic sense.
“When speaking of God’s final judgment, the Bible uses a variety of terms that reflects the substance and foundation of our moral nature. We are called the ‘righteous’ or the ‘wicked.’ God’s judgment is not on people but on the wicked. So we read, ‘The wicked will be cut off from the land’ (Prov. 2:22) and ‘The Lord’s curse is on the house of the wicked, but he blesses the dwelling of the righteous’ (Prov. 3:33)…God will separate the ‘wheat’ from the ‘weeds’ and the ‘good fish’ from the ‘bad,’ and the ‘sheep’ from the ‘goats’ (Matt. 13:36-42, 47-48; 25:32). It is the ‘unrighteous [that] will not inherit the kingdom of God’ (I Cor. 6:9)…
“When we speak of God’s wrath coming on people rather than on the wicked, we invariably sense a oneness with them rather than with God. But this puts us in opposition to God and the righteousness of his ways…The people of God will rejoice when God brings an end to the wicked. This is not beyond our current judicial sentiment. Law-abiding, peace-loving people rejoice when the corrupt are judged and removed from power or the violent are judged and removed from the presence of the community. How much more will we say of the perfect Judge, ‘We give thanks to you, Lord God Almighty…for rewarding your servants…and for destroying the destroyers of the earth’ (Rev. 11:17-18)…
“[It] is simply not possible to square the idea that God does not send the wicked to hell – that they choose to go there – with either reason for Scripture. It is the proper and reasonable role of all judges to execute punishment. This is not a passive role. When a man is sent to prison for his criminal behavior, he is sent there. He does not choose to go there. In the same way, when final judgment comes, God is active, not passive, in his role as the righteous Judge.”
Too many Christians are embarrassed by God. That is, they are embarrassed by the God who is truly there. This is why Joel Osteen stammers and stutters and ultimately dodges questions about hell and the exclusivity of Jesus Christ when he is on Larry King. A God has been fashioned within the walls of the evangelical church that never offends, never frightens, and never inspires awe. He always affirms, is always positive, is deeply interested in our self-esteem, and never passes decisive judgment upon those who know not His Son. He is the god of our sentiments. He is the god of much popular Christian literature and worship songs. He is the god whom many preachers proclaim will help us “find the champion within,” assist us in “slaying our giants,” and be our key to “living the victorious life.” This is the god of the American dream but not the Consuming Fire of Scripture.
Let us give our God His due. He declares and we believe. He commands and we obey. He pronounces judgment and we say, “The Lord of the universe has done right!” But there is more. It is THIS great God who loves us, is merciful toward us, is kind, and compassionate. He bears with great patience those who have spurned his great salvation. He causes the sun to shine and the rain to fall on both the righteous and the unrighteous. He has given us all good things to enjoy. He seeks those who are not seeking Him. He lays down the life of his beloved Son for sinners. He turns his enemies into his friends. He brings home the prodigal. He reconciles the alienated.
Who is like our God? Has He not done right? Has He not been good?