Judgment, or The Judgment, or even more specifically, The Last Judgment conjures all sorts of negative connotations in our culture. But the New Testament word “judgment” (krisis in Greek) is not as negative as our cultural stereotypes. At its root it refers to a point of decision that can no longer be put off. And this is indeed the root meaning of the English term “crisis.”
For classic Sci-Fi fans, Isaac Asimov’s “Seldon Crises” in the Foundation series of books gets to this root meaning. In that story the time of crisis felt like looming disaster and uncertain future. But at the heart of each “Seldon Crisis” (named for Hari Seldon, who, in the book, predicted these events) was a moment of time when circumstances would reveal the right choice. Make a decision too soon and the decision might be wrong because the way is not yet obvious, but wait for the “crisis” to fully mature and present itself, and the correct way forward, in contrast to the other paths which may well lead to disaster, will become obvious.
Asimov’s fictional “Seldon Crises” illustrate quite wonderfully the root meaning of that Greek term which is translated as “judgment” in the New Testament There is a sense of unease and worry about what is to come precisely because “what is to come” is hidden. There is often a sense of pending disaster because when faced with the unknown we naturally assume the worst. But the krisis or “judgment” itself, rather than disaster or condemnation, has elements of discernment, revealing, and ultimately, clarity, as that which is hidden becomes clear.
This is why the Orthodox Christian tradition typically describes the judgment (or The Judgment, and even, The Last Judgment) as “the opening of conscience, and the revelation of all that is done.” (That specific wording comes from Michael Gillis, pastor at Holy Nativity Orthodox Church in Langley, BC).
John 5 illustrates this arc of meaning quite beautifully. I don’t often think of it as a judgment text because it is read on the Fourth Sunday of Easter. Given the season, it is more often the themes of Christ and healer and life-giver, and the revelation of Jesus as the Son of God who is working in the world that are talked about.
The idea of John 5 as a judgment text came to me when I recently arrived at v. 22 and found it utterly incongruous from the verses that had come before. The Jewish leaders chide Jesus for healing on the Sabbath. Jesus, in his response, refers to God as “my Father,” and the leaders correctly surmise what’s at stake: “For this reason the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because he was not only breaking the sabbath, but was also calling God his own Father, thereby making himself equal to God” (v. 18).
Jesus’ lengthy response is as follows:
Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing; for whatever he does, that the Son does likewise. For the Father loves the Son, and shows him all that he himself is doing; and greater works than these will he show him, that you may marvel [thaumadzo, “amazement” – an apocalyptic word in much the same way “judgment” or krisis is]. For as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so also the Son gives life to whom he will. The Father judges no one, but has given all judgment to the Son, that all may honor the Son, even as they honor the Father. He who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent him (vv 19-23).
I found v. 22 quite jarring on two counts. First, Jesus just said that he can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing. And then, in v. 22, he says that the Father does not judge, but has given all judgment over to the Son. Why this sudden change of tune? (That question is for another essay.) This verse jarred me for a second reason. I think of this as a resurrection text (4th Sunday of Easter) which is all about the revelation of Jesus as the Son of God, healer and life-giver; why does Jesus suddenly start talking about judgment, seemingly out of the blue?
Ah, but on further reflection, it’s not so out of the blue. These leaders, who are in a very real sense, the judges of Israel, representatives of Israel’s highest legal body, the Sandhedrin, saw an anomaly – a man carrying his bedroll on the Sabbath (something forbidden by the legal tradition, based on Jeremiah 17:23), and determined (ie, judged) that he was breaking the law. Furthermore, upon questioning of the young man, they discovered that Jesus, the upstart Rabbi, was the cause of the trouble and judged him to be a trouble maker. After conversation with him, they heard him equate himself with God and determined him to be worthy of death (a charge that would, in a matter of months, actually be brought before the Sanhedrin for proper, legal judgment).
In other words, there’s already been a whole-lotta judgment going on, and Jesus simply names it (albeit, in an oblique manner) for what it is. And Jesus implies that they have judged wrongly. They may have gotten the facts straight, but they drew the wrong conclusions. If it were a “Seldon Crisis,” we might say that the events had not yet reached that correct moment when all would be revealed and the correct judgment would be obvious. They judged too soon, and as a result, judged incorrectly. Let me also quickly add that Jesus is not telling them not to judge. That is their job. They are representatives of the Sandhedrin. But if we judge, we need to judge correctly.
What they actually and inadvertently judged was their own motives or conscience. (Remember our description of the judgment: an opening of the conscience, or in this case, the unconscious.) Jesus is not condemning them (as if judgment is merely a form of condemnation), he is revealing what is going on in their head and their heart. A revelation has indeed occurred, and that revelation is that the religious leaders managed to get it all wrong.
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A movie critic (note that the English term “critic” is yet another form of the Greek term “krisis”) isn’t doing a job if he merely likes or dislikes a movie; rather, a critic strips the movie back layer by layer and tells the reader what is there. The critic’s job is to reveal. The critic often goes on to offer an opinion as to the quality of what is there, but the underlying job is to reveal what is there, underneath the surface.
This gets at the heart of judgment. It reveals and discerns what is there, it lays bare (when the subject is a human being) the conscience and the motives – that is, the heart. When we equate judgment with condemnation or approval, we turn it upside down. It is not the judge who condemns or approves. We condemn or approve ourselves when what is really there, hidden underneath the surface, is revealed. In John 5, the judges (the leaders) were judged by the Son, and what was revealed was pretty ugly; it was found wanting.
In vv. 24f Jesus continues his soliloquy: “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears my word and believes him who sent me, has eternal life; he does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life. Truly, truly, I say to you, the hour is coming, and now is, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.”
At this point Jesus uses the term “judgment” (krisis) in its popular sense of condemnation. When the future is hidden in the mists of unknowing, we humans tend to assume the worst. Thus judgment, in popular thinking, never ends well. This is not the root meaning of the term, but an extension of popular usage rooted in our human pessimism. I will offer a final story to illustrate.
In high school end of term math tests were for most students a matter of dread. (Remember above, the Greek word thaumadzo, translated “marvel” in v. 20?) People knew they were going to fail the test. Their lack of understanding, or more accurately, their lack of daily preparation and study, would be revealed, and they were going down in flaming failure. Certain folks (Linda, myself, Tom – we liked math and did our homework after all), always approached those tests with quiet confidence. I emphasize quiet. We didn’t trumpet our confidence because it would have sounded like arrogance. But just as they knew they were going down in flames, we knew we were going to ace that thing. The final test was the judgment. Word around the lockers was that it was going to be condemnation (the popular meaning of judgment). In truth, it was merely a revelation what had actually happened throughout the whole term.
So it is with The Judgment. In technical terms, everyone “comes into judgment” (v. 24) but not everyone is condemned. Some “hear and believe” and thus enter into life; some are condemned, not by the Judge, but by what was revealed as to already be there in their own hearts, and enter into the living death.
True confession is judgment in its purist form. True confession lays bare the soul and reveals what is there so it can be corrected. In this sense, I can be judged now or I can be judged later. The Last Judgment, in contrast, is confession writ large. It is the ultimate unveiling of what is in the heart. And to that end, it is a “crisis” in that it will determine which way will go, into life or regret.