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Judge the Living and the Dead

with Rev. Alex Lang

March 19, 2023

We all make mistakes in our lives, but what about those of us who do really horrible things…and never pay our debt? This Sunday we will be discussing judgment after death and why this idea matters to so many people.

The Scripture

Matthew 16:27-28; 25:31-33;

27 For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what they have done.

28 “Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”

31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

Acts 1:6-11

Then they gathered around him and asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”

He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.

10 They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. 11 “Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.”

Read the Full Text

During Lent, we’re doing a sermon series called Credo: The Apostle’s Creed Then and Now. Each week, we will be examining a line from the Apostles’ Creed and asking the question: What did this line of the creed mean to the people who wrote it and what does it mean to us today?

I’ll explain the traditional beliefs surrounding a statement from the Apostles’ Creed and, then, I’m going to provide a modern interpretation of that belief for those who might be a little skeptical. Whether you resonate with the traditional interpretation or with the modern interpretation, my goal is to demonstrate that the Apostles’ Creed has the flexibility to speak to both audiences.

Finish reading

Last week we discussed the line from the creed: On the third day he rose again from the dead. He ascended to heaven and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty. This week we are discussing the next line in the creed, which states: [Jesus] will come again to judge the living and the dead. This line refers to Jesus’ second coming and his judgment of the deeds of humanity.

From my perspective, this is one of the most brilliant lines of the entire Apostles’ Creed because it creates a link that many Christians often miss. Everything up until Jesus’ resurrection and ascension are part of the past. These are events that happened thousands of the years ago. However, following Jesus’ ascension, the authors of the creed are attempting to create a roadmap of what the future will look like.

Indeed, we read about the future in our text from Acts where it describes Jesus’ ascension: “…as they were watching, [Jesus] was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight…suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, “…This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”

In other words, Jesus has gone to be with God and, one day, he will return. Just to be clear, this was a very common belief among early Christians. In fact, if you read the scriptures closely, you will be able to understand that they thought Jesus might return at any moment. They didn’t think Jesus would be coming back in a couple of years or decades. They believed Jesus was going to return, like tomorrow.

This was very worrisome to early Christians, because Jesus’ return was accompanied by some rather unpleasant events. Jesus’ second coming is supposed to trigger the eschaton, which basically means the destruction of the world as we know it. Essentially, the earth will be consumed with fire, destroying all of the nations of the earth.

Once all the nations are gone, every person who has ever died in the history of the world will be resurrected into a physical body (which according to science would be more than 100 billion people—if you think the earth is crowded now with 8 billion people, wait until there’s 100 billion…we’ll be stacked up like Lego bricks.) Following this resurrection event, Jesus is established as the king of this new nation. As king, Jesus’ first duty is to pass judgment on the living and the dead. Jesus has to determine whether you’re worthy of remaining in his kingdom.

Like what we read in Matthew’s gospel, those who are worthy are called sheep. Those who fall short are called goats. If you’re a sheep, you get to live forever in Jesus’ kingdom. If you’re a goat, your soul burns in a lake of sulfur for all eternity. Pretty brutal. So when your turn comes, you definitely want to be one of the sheep. Although, to be fair, you’re going to be waiting in line for a long time, particularly if they start with Adam and Eve. You’ve got like 100 billion people in front of you and there’s only one Jesus who has to personally review and judge every person’s entire life, so get comfortable because you’re going to be waiting for quite a while, like an eternity.

Now, I find that this particular section of the Apostles’ Creed, as brilliant as it is in terms of piecing together a lot of theology that is scattered throughout the New Testament, is one of the most challenging for the modern thinker. A Pew Research study found that 45% of Americans dismiss the second coming of Jesus as implausible. This lines up with directly with the percentage of people who deny Jesus’ resurrection. If you don’t believe in Jesus’ resurrection, then you’re not going to believe in the second coming as the two are intimately connected with each other.

But this section of the Apostles’ Creed where it describes judgment gets at something really critical that is a fundamental issue we face as humans: Who is going to hold us accountable for our actions? Because the problem is that only a very small minority of people ever end up serving justice for their mistakes. The rest of us walk away without ever really facing any consequences for our actions.

I want to show you a clip from a documentary called Auschwitz: Inside the Nazi State. You’re going to hear from two different people. The first person is a Nazi guard who worked inside of Auschwitz. He’s being interviewed about the things he had to do while working there. The second person you will hear from is a Holocaust survivor. He will be telling the story of what it was like when he was being transported on a train with a group of prisoners.

Now, I think it’s important for you to understand, both of these men are responsible for murder. Obviously, the circumstances of those murders were very different. The Nazi guard was ordered to execute Jews who were in Auschwitz, while the Holocaust survivor chose to sit on a German prisoner and suffocated him to death. What’s striking is that both men felt no remorse for what they did.

The Nazi guard justified his killings by saying that Jewish traders had cheated him and his family. The Holocaust survivor justified his killing by saying the Germans killed 30-40 people in his family. He was happy to kill one German. Perhaps even more important is that neither man was ever placed on trial. Neither man ever faced justice. After the war ended, they were able to return to their lives without any major repercussions.

And these two men are just a drop in the bucket. The number of people throughout the history of the world who have committed murder, genocide, rape, torture, physical and psychological abuse, slavery, terrorism, cruelty towards animals and have never been held accountable far outweighs the number of people who have been held accountable. I mean, right now, as we speak, war crimes are being committed in the Ukrainian war. I can say with absolute assurance that 99% of those crimes will go unpunished.

This fact is why so many people hope that, after we die, there will be a balancing of the scales. Since so little justice is implemented during our lifetimes, we look to God to make sure that those people are held accountable for their evil actions. This is why so many religious people believe in hell. We want to believe that the people who inflicted suffering on others will one day suffer themselves.

This is why, for the most severe injustices, we revel in the idea that Jesus would pass judgment on that Nazi soldier, sending his soul to burn in hell for all eternity. But if you’re anything like me, you’re probably not quite so comfortable with applying the same punishment to the Holocaust survivor. Yes, he showed no remorse for murdering that German prisoner, but he and his people were the targets of the largest genocide in the history of the world. Shouldn’t he be shown a little leniency?

So I pose the question: Why do we feel that there’s a difference? Why do we feel the Nazi soldier should be given the full brunt of whatever punishment Jesus wants to dole out, while the Holocaust survivor should be given less of a punishment or none at all? Because their circumstances are different, which begs another important question: Should the circumstances of person’s life be taken into account when they are judged by Jesus?

Well, there are two ways of answering this question. One way is by looking at our crimes in isolation. For example, we could simply say that murder is murder. It doesn’t matter whether you were a Nazi guard or a Holocaust survivor, if you’ve committed murder, then you have to pay the appropriate penalty for that crime. This way of approaching the question assumes that the action itself matters more than the circumstances that led to the action. This is, honestly, how most people think of crime and punishment.

The other way we can answer this question is by taking into account the circumstances. Why did that Nazi guard kill those Jews? Well, he grew up in an environment where he was taught that the Jews were responsible for all the wrongs endured by Germany. Although he was misinformed, he was taught to hate the Jews. Therefore, when he was ordered by his superiors to murder the Jewish prisoners at Auschwitz, he believed he was killing the enemy.

Likewise, the Holocaust survivor had endured horrible deprivation at the hands of the Germans. Not only did the Germans exterminate 30 members of his family, but he was personally beaten, starved and tortured by the Germans during his imprisonment. To him, the Germans were the enemy and the death of one German prisoner was nothing in comparison to what the Germans had inflicted upon him.

Taking into account their perspectives, their actions, although deplorable, become a lot more complicated. It’s not as black and white as looking at the crime in isolation. Which version you prefer really comes down to what kind of God you believe in. If you believe in a God of conditional love (meaning that God places specific conditions on whether or not you will be forgiven), then you will likely believe in option 1. However, if you believe in a God of unconditional love, then you will likely believe in option 2, where God takes into account circumstances.

Option 1 is very interesting because, in the Christian system, there’s a loophole. Yes, you are judged according to the crimes you committed, but traditional Christianity says that, if you believe in Jesus, you will be forgiven of your sins. So according to this system of thought, that Nazi soldier, as long as he was a Christian who accepted Jesus into his heart, he would be forgiven of his sins.

On the flipside, what that also means is that the Holocaust survivor who murdered the German prisoner, because he’s Jewish and has not accepted Jesus into his heart, will not be forgiven for his sins. This means that, even though he survived mass genocide, when he’s judged by Jesus, he will then be tortured for all eternity in hell. I don’t particularly like where this logic leads, so I opt for option 2.

I choose option 2, not just because I believe in a God of unconditional love, but also because every decision we make as humans is based on prior events in our lives. Humans never make decisions in a vacuum. We always make choices based on our understanding of the world, however, skewed it might be, which is clear from the examples in the video. Hence, I believe in a God that will always judge us taking into account the life experiences that led to a specific decision.

Indeed, my personal opinion is that because it is so hard to disentangle human choices from the environments and circumstances that create those choices, that an unconditionally loving God will ultimately forgive everyone of all our evils. I know a lot of people don’t like that because what that means is the Nazi soldier who felt no remorse for executing the Jews in Auschwitz will be forgiven no matter whether he regrets his actions or not.

And I understand why people don’t like that because it feels just as unfair as the Jesus loophole in option 1. It feels like you can do whatever you want and you will never have to face any consequences for your actions because God will just forgive you. But the truth is that we don’t know what’s going to happen when we die. A lot of people today don’t believe in an afterlife, so clearly they’re not worried about the second coming of Jesus or the resurrection of the dead or the judgment of Jesus. And to be fair, we have no proof that this is going to happen. The Apostles’ Creed could quite well be wrong.

What we do have are people who have been through Near Death Experiences, otherwise known as NDEs. I’ve spoken about NDEs in previous sermons, but as a recap, a Near Death Experience generally occurs when someone dies for a short period of time and they catch a glimpse of the afterlife. There are sixteen traits that are usually associated with an NDE as identified by the psychiatrist Bruce Grayson.

People vary in which traits apply to their particular experience, but usually these experiences are accompanied by an out-of-body experience where the people float above their body in spirit form. Once they recognize they are looking at themselves, some people will see a bright light that draws them up to a heavenly realm where they meet God and people from their past. In the end, the people who return from such an experience claim their NDE to be one of the most transformative moments of their lives.

Interestingly, many people who have these experiences describe what is known as a life review. They see every moment of their life as a collage of images floating in front of them. All of these scenes overlap and blend with one another. They describe it as similar to watching a television show, but much more visceral and real. You feel all the emotions of the moment, and not just what you were feeling, but also what others were feeling. They often describe this life review as feeling more real than when they were alive.

I’ve always found this to be remarkable because every person who has had this experience describes God as being truly and fully unconditionally loving. They never feel any judgment from God. However, during the life review process, they do feel judgment from themselves. They see clearly how they hurt other people. They feel the pain they caused other people and it crushes them to know they were responsible for being the source of so much anguish in the world.

So just imagine it: That Nazi solider will have to relive killing those Jews, but this time he will feel their fear and pain as it happens. Likewise, that Holocaust survivor will have to relive murdering that German prisoner and feel his anguish as he suffocates. That’s brutal. But do you know what happens after the life review? Just when they feel they’ve reached their lowest point; just when they feel as if they’re the most horrible creatures to ever exist, God steps in and encircles them with unconditional love, washing away all of that self-hatred and lets them know they are loved and that everything will be alright.

Now I don’t know how much NDEs are reliable sources of information, but I find the fact that they have similarities across all ethnicities, cultures and religions to be reassuring. They are also a big reason why I feel confident in my belief in a God of unconditional love. So do I believe in judgment; do I believe there will be a time when I will have answer for the things I have done? Yes, I do. But if NDEs are to be believed, God isn’t the one judging us. Ironically, God has handed that job to us. Amen.