There Can Be No Mercy Without Judgement


God is a God of Judgement.

That’s not a statement we like to hear often. We might get images of pulpit-pounding preachers and people on street corners going on about a God of condemnation. We’re much more comfortable with a God of love, mercy, and peace. We like forgiveness, acceptance, and the welcoming of all people into the family of God.

These two images of God are not foreign to the Bible. Very often people have described the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament in these dualistic terms. In the Old Testament we hear stories of conquest and war, of God wiping out people and punishing them for sin. In the New Testament we read about Jesus’ life and His welcome of the outcast and forgotten, of forgiveness and sacrifice for the sake of love.

But how can these two Testaments be part of the same book? And furthermore, how can these two images of God belong to the same being?

The main problem is that we have divided up the Old and New Testament into separate stories instead of one larger narrative. We have focused on different issues in each part, believing that God has changed, or at least changed His mind from the time before Jesus to the time after.

But one of the essential attributes of God is that God doesn’t change. It’s not like He was a God of anger and is now a God of love. If that were true, what would stop another switch to once again become a God of wrath? I believe that if we look closely, we find that there is actually little difference between God's descriptions in the Old and New Testaments. Let’s just take one dichotomy as an example: judgement and mercy.

There’s no doubt that there are explicit texts in the Old Testament that speak of God’s judgement against people, their actions, and the directions they chose to go. God had a plan and design for the world, and when humanity chose to follow themselves and other gods, God did not approve. The way people chose to go led to oppression, greed, senseless passion, and the destruction of people. But God’s plan leads to life. 

God doesn’t sit idly by, allowing the world to destroy itself (although we sometimes wonder if He does). From Abraham on, we read of a concrete plan for God to bring life and healing to the whole world. Through God’s own actions or those He commissions, sometimes people died. Sometimes whole people groups were killed. Some cities were destroyed, some people groups were sent into exile. And although this is troubling, it’s far more troubling for us than it was for them at the time.

As an almost counter-image, we see the God of the New Testament as one of mercy. It’s true that stories of love and forgiveness abound. Jesus, the incarnation of God, goes to those who have been excluded by the religious institutions of first-century Israel and shows them that God forgives and accepts them. He commands us not to judge each other but to love (even our enemies). The church is tasked with taking care of the poor, the orphans, and the widows, with being an alternative community wherein neither biological, social, or political barriers matter.

These two images of God are equally prevalent in all of scripture, not just in certain sections. The accounts in the Old Testament tell of a profoundly merciful and forgiving God. He is a God who constantly gives second chances and welcomes His people back into their covenant with Him. He rescues the oppressed and enslaved, welcomes the immigrants into His family, requires that His people walk in justice and mercy, and never gives up on redeeming His creation.

In the same way, the New Testament is full of judgement. We read of Jesus accusing the religious leaders of their hypocrisy and blindness to justice. Jesus pushes against power and oppression and isn’t afraid to name sin when it’s there. Most profoundly, the book of Revelation gives a vision of a time to come when God will finish evil once and for all, bringing about a new creation in which there will be no brokenness, sorrow, or pain.

The fact is that judgement and mercy go together much more closely than we may think. We may only want to hear of a God who is loving and forgiving, but no one would even want to serve a God who doesn’t judge between right and wrong. When we encounter evil and injustice in our lives and in this world, could we even imagine if God just shrugged His shoulders and said, “No, it’s okay. Rape, war, stealing, lying, cheating is all good. No big deal. It’s all love.”

In this world, there is good and evil. We know this because there are some things that we would never call good. And God is fundamentally described as a good God. In fact, our sense of good comes from God. Therefore, it makes no sense that God would not judge between good and evil and would not be able to conquer evil. Even more, without an ability to distinguish between good and evil, there can be no mercy.

Mercy is the act of withholding just punishment for an offence by someone who has the authority to judge. So how could God be merciful to us if He didn’t distinguish between what is good and evil, right and wrong, life-giving and destructive? God is only able to be merciful because He has the authority, as the creator of life, to judge between right and wrong. If God didn’t condemn and judge evil, then God wouldn’t be much of a good God. He wouldn’t be merciful because there’s nothing to be merciful about.

Then why are some of us still so resistant to the notion of a God who judges? Perhaps we have actually been more affected by church history than this characteristic of God. People have experienced the church as judgemental in areas God never asked humanity to be. Or maybe we’re uncomfortable with how justice and mercy from God have played out differently in different times in history. Or perhaps we like that God judges, just not when that judgement is aimed at us. These, and other reasons, are perhaps best saved for future discussions.

So is God merciful? Yes, 100%. And does God judge? Yes, 100%. Judgement and mercy go hand in hand, and God wouldn’t be worth worshipping if He wasn’t both. Our challenge is to find our place within the story, to confront evil in this world and within ourselves with the same seriousness that God gives it, and to never forget that we find our identity in the endless mercy of God.