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Judgment and Responsibility in the New Testament - Johannes Nissen

The statements of judgment in the New Testament are often considered to be some of the more difficult themes in the Bible. Part of the reason is a misuse and misinterpretation of the texts in the New Testament.

I consider the sectarian use of apocalyptic texts on judgment to be of the category misuse. As a rule, sectarian groups claim that what is said in a positive meaning refer to their own members whereas negative statements refer to everybody else. In doing so, the texts are read in self affirmation and thus not self critical. In addition, the texts on judgment are often used as a bugbear in order to convert people.

By misinterpretation I mean the fact that the word "judgment" nearly always is interpreted in a negative manner. Judgment is equated with punishment. Judgment, however, can also mean acquittal. In Greek, to "judge" really means to "distinguish", "select" or "determine". Instead of using the word "judgment", the misinterpretation may be avoided by speaking of a necessary determination or crisis, which serves to explain what in man's actions is useful and what is not.

What is characteristic of the New Testament's  understanding of judgment is the relationship between judgment and responsibility. Certainly, to look for the word "responsibility" in the Scriptures will be in vain. The concept of responsibility is really a legal expression meaning that one must "respond" in a given situation - that is to the judge -  against accusations of having done a specific action or having broken certain rules. Responsibility means that one has to account for what one has done. Even though the word "responsibility" is not found the Bible, it still expresses something quite important.

The relationship between judgment and responsibility will be made clear from the three contexts I will put forward in this article: (i) the preaching of Jesus in the first three Gospels, in particular in the gospel of Matth, (ii) the letters of Paul, and (iii) the Johannine literature.


The Kingdom of God and Judgment

In the preaching of Jesus, the judgment plays an important part but it is subordinate to the kingdom of God. Mark explained the content of the message of Jesus with these words:


"The time has come. The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!" (Mark 1:15).


The focus of this message is thus the kingdom of God and repentance. The order is important: First the preaching of the kingdom of God and then repentance. If the order is changed, the preaching may easily be seen as a way to frighten people. By means of the judgment, the attempt is made to scare people into the kingdom of God.

The difference between the two forms of preaching corresponds to the difference between John the Baptist and Jesus. In the case of the Baptist, the pronouncement of judgment was the key factor of attention. It was the cause of the necessity for repentance. To Jesus, the focus of attention was the preaching of the kingdom of God. This was the source of the necessity for repentance. Judgment is not without significance in the preaching of Jesus, but its position is different.

With the Day of Reckoning in View

The seriousness of the judgment is seen, inter alia, in the parables in which the main character is a housekeeper or a steward who is asked to act responsibly. Three significant features characterize such a steward: He exercises faithfulness and wisdom, and he acts with the Day of Reckoning in view (see i.a. Luke 12:4248).

The issue of judgment is particularly noticeable in Matthew. In what we may call the "watchfulness parables" in ch. 24 and 25, the significance of the settling of accounts is emphasized. The judgment leads to "a double exit" from which some are to join in life while others will be lost.

By way of example we may refer to the parable of the talents (25:14-30). Whereas the first two servants are given the promise "Come and share your master's happiness!", the fate of the third servant is cruel. He is to be thrown outside, into the darkness, "where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth" (v. 30).

Such an account is a deterrent to the readers. And it is tempting to use it in preaching conversion. That, however, would be contrary to the intention of the parable. Originally as well as in Matthew's record, the parable serves as a way to self-reflection and self-criticism: No promise of safety is given to those who belong to the congregation. The disciple of Jesus, too, has to account for his actions. The third servant does not fulfill this responsibility .He buried his talent that is he buried life, faith, and love -  instead of letting it bear fruit.

Surprise at the Last Judgment

In Matthew, the subsequent parable of the sheep and the goats (25:31-46) shows that the Last Judgment does not correspond to the selfish wishes of pious people, but on the contrary to the cry for truth, justice, and mercy. The day of judgment will bring many surprises.

The point is that the judge will not take on trust what people here on earth pretend to be or what they were regarded to be. He will judge each individual's innermost parts (the heart) to make certain how the person in question really were as to words and actions. On the day of judgment it will become clear that many of the pious will not make it (see also Matth 7:21 ff). On the other hand, many others will appear as anonymous disciples of Jesus Christ. To Him who judges "without considering rank or position", a change of roles will come about, cf. the words "many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first" (Matth 19:30).

What we have here are acts of love done not "for the sake of Jesus" or "for the sake of God", but for the sake of your fellow human beings. These acts are necessary because they contribute towards "lessening the distress".

The Last Judgment means salvation from any injustice in the world. Reversely, this means that justice is restored. On the day of judgment, the simple man shall turn out to be right, not the great man, and the victims shall be right, not the hangman, and the poor shall be helped while the rich shall lose everything they have gathered. See also the parable of the rich man and Lazarus in which this all-embracing judgment is envisaged by each of the two persons' deaths (Luke 16:19-31). Indeed, the primary object of the parable is to appeal to responsible conduct while time is stil1 available (v. 27-31).

God Alone Judges Righteously - Without Considering Rank or Position

The idea in the Old Testament of God as the righteous judge is taken up in the New Testament. God alone judges righteously and without discrimination (see for instance Rom 2:9-11, Acts 17:31, and 2 Thess 1:5).

God's judgment is a universal judgment. All human beings are under his judgment. Precisely for this reason, it is not our judgment on others. The implication is that we are released from judging each other. In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, "Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way as you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you" (Matth 7:1-2). Paul, in his letter to the Romans, criticized the Christians who judged their fellow Christians (14:10). Here, Paul refers to the fact that we shall all stand before God's judgment seat.

It is a great relief that no judgment pronounced by man is to finalize our case. Because we judge according to what the eye sees (Matth 7:3-5). We judge according to rank and position. But with God, it is different. He does not judge according to what the eye sees or the ear hears. His yardstick being love is quite different. His measure is mercifulness. That God -  and no one else -  judges at the Last Judgment is therefore gospel, meaning "good news". Because it means that forgiveness replaces damnation. This is even apparent in the relations between Jesus and people (see for instance Luke 7:36-51, cf. Matth 18:21-35).

This, however, does not indicate that judgment is abolished. Judgment, so to speak, has been melted into forgiveness because salvation is salvation of the guilty .In addition, forgiveness may be taken away from he who does not "have mercy in his heart". Re who has been met with God's mercy and then do not show mercy towards his brother may well lose the salvation which was intended for him (Matth 18:34-35).

Judgment Without Salvation

The Day of Justice will, just as the Day of Judgment, mean a risk to those who continue to display injustice, oppression, and falsehood. The sealed fate of the unrighteous is described depressingly and appallingly: they will be thrown into the great darkness [the Abyss] where will be tears and gnashing of teeth or into the lake of fire (Rev 20: 13-14). What we have here are metaphors and sometimes metaphors which in reality are incompatib1e. As it is, "darkness" and "fire" are opposites. And a lake cannot be on fire.

But the fact that the metaphors in a way are incompatible does not make the issue any .the less grave. The metaphors are there to emphasize the terrible situation of being devoid of a perfect and true life -  to be disqualified for a life together with God.

If these New Testament texts are compared to other apocalyptic texts (i.e. texts concerned with the end of the world) of that age, one will, however, find that the New Testament displays a striking reluctance as to be willing to "paint an alarmist picture". There are texts which express exaltation and masked vindictiveness (see Revelations 19:11-21). However, these are exceptions that hardly are consistent with Jesus' firm rejection of any form of revenge and for persecution (Matth 5:44; Luke 9:51-56).

The New Testament does not particularly mention the fate of the impenitent. Indeed, some New Testament writers have hardly touched on the issue. Clearly, Paul reckoned on a universal judgment with two exits but he rarely addressed the fate of the lost.

Jesus, too, seems to have been reluctant to use apocalyptic metaphors for perdition. Hell is not something which he believed in, rather something he renounced and opposed. In the Parable of the Great Banquet (Luke 14:15-24), a great feast has become the metaphor for salvation from which certain people were precluded from attending. Eternal perdition is to be precluded from all this fellowship. This is the isolation man inflicts on himself by rejecting love.

If, at any rate, the outcome of the judgment was favourable it would not be a proper judgment. If this was the case, then the value of the decisions we make there and then would be lost. We may fail in life and refuse to accept forgiveness. The love of God calls upon everyone and draws everyone (cf. John 12:32), but the love of God does not at all costs try to force its way.

Judgment According to Actions and Justification by Faith

Paul, too, emphasized that every human being shall stand before God's judgment seat where he is to be judged according to what he has done in life -  see for instance Rom 2:5-6; 14:10-12; 1 Cor 3:14-15; 2 Cor 5:10.

The use of metaphors for judgment is seen here and there in the texts. In Gal 6:7-9, the correspondence of present actions and future judgment is illustrated by the sow-and-reap metaphor: " A man reaps what he sows" (verse 7).

When interpreting the words of Paul, it is necessary not to overlook the tense of the verbs. What Paul said was not that a man shall reap (now) what (yesterday) was sown. Such an understanding would be similar to the Karma teachings of oriental religions. What we have here is something completely different. The correspondence should tell us that man, at the proper time in future, on the Day of Judgment, shall account for his present actions: "Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap harvest if we do not give up." (Verse 9).

In 1 Cor 3:10-15, another metaphor is used. At the Day of Judgment, the work of any man shall be revealed. It will be revealed with fire. If a house is set on fire, it will be revealed if the foundation was any good. Some of the foundation will survive while the rest will burn up. Fire, here, is not a metaphor for termination but rather for a process of cleansing and purification. The judgment is the purgatory all human beings must go through.

The result of the fire test may be either reward or loss. It should be noted that Paul does not equate reward with salvation, nor does he equate loss with perdition. We should distinguish between two facts: Where the work is no good, it will be lost. The builder himself may not be lost but he will lose his reward. This surprising distinction can be explained by the teachings of justification. Good actions do not lead to salvation; conversely, useless actions do not lead to perdition.

This, however, does not mean that our actions lose their significance. As human beings, we shall all live our lives in service and are therefore responsible to God with all that we do (cf. 2 Cor 5:10). Or put another way: In what we do, we should not strive for God's recognition. On the contrary, it is a presupposition that we are his servants ("housekeepers") which is precisely the reason why we should do deeds which are useful.

Many Lutherans find that there is a contradiction between justification by belief and judgment according to actions. Still, there may not necessarily be a contradiction. The reason is that Paul does not dissociate himself from the actions as such, but with actions of law he does. Whereas actions according to the law were done for the sake of reward or punishment, these are done under the mercy of the already fulfilled justice's sake.

To put it another way: there are not only actions of law but actions of faith as well, i.e. faith expressed through love (Gal 5:6).

It is, in this connection, not unimportant that the concept of justification itself actually stems from the legal terminology which means that it may also be expressed by acquittal. The judge pronounces the defendant not guilty .The party in question, then, is considered right-minded. Instead of being condemned he or she is being vindicated.

This general judicial phenomenon becomes apparent when reading Romans 8:33-34:

"Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who is he that condemns? Christ Jesus, who died -  more than that, who was raised to life -  is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. " The acquittal is there because of Christ, and the "judgment scene" is not merely a thing of the future, it already takes place -  in the justification.

Judgment Has Already Been Pronounced

The Gospel according to John shares the view that judgment is pronounced according to actions. What is new in that book is the emphasis on the present time. Without giving up the idea of the future judgment (John 5:28), the gospel stresses that judgment has already been pronounced. The encounter with Jesus creates a state of crisis. Man must arrive at a decision.

In John 3:16-21, it is written that God sent his one and only Son into the world not to condemn the world, but to save the world (verse 17). The judgment is linked with faith as well as actions. It is linked with faith since "Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God's one and only Son" (ch. 3:18; cf. 5:24-25).

Judgment, at the same time, is also linked with actions, since "Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what he has done has been done through God" (ch. 3:20-21; cf. 5:28-29).

The message of Jesus confronts man with the choice between truth and falsehood, between good and evil. What is to be judged is the individual 's attitude towards these contrasts.

Another significant feature of the Gospel according to John is that faith and actions form an indissoluble whole. To remain in Jesus is also to bear fruit -  cf. John 15:1-17. These verses show that you cannot play off faith against actions. Actions are no ethical merit, actions are "done through God" (John 3:21).

Confidence on the Day of Judgment

The First Letter of John includes a single reference to the future judgment:

"In this way, love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day ol judgment, because in this world we are like him. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love." (1 John 4:17-18).

This passage is interesting for a number of reasons. In the preceding verse it is written:

"God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him" (verse 16). In the literature of John, to remain in God means to remain in his love, i.e. to receive and to implement love in life meaning to let it bear fruit (cf. John 15).

To remain in love means two things: Firstly, it means to live in love with one's brother (John 4: 19-21). Faith without love is unimaginable since both are inherently bound to the love of God. Love is the "divine sphere" (as put by Teilhard de Chardin, the Catholic theologian) where the roads of man and God intersect.

Secondly, to remain in love means to stick to the faith in the love God has expressed through Jesus Christ. Love without faith is like a torso since the love of God cannot reach its goal until man is on his way to join the community of confession.

The result of the synthesis of faith and love is confidence on the day of judgment. One should not fear the judgment since, as we have seen, it is according to actions. What is judged is if actions are done with love or not. In addition, the following verses, 19-21, explain that the decisive motive can never be fear of judgment but instead God's antecedent love.


The findings of this article are summarized and presented in the following sentences:

- What is the most significant feature about the New Testament is the relation between responsibility and judgment. Responsibility belongs together with freedom and conscience and love which is an altogether different matter than today's very frequent talk about the conscious and fatalism.

-  The judgment is a judgment according to actions. Faith and actions are related to each other.

-  The judgment is not our judgment, it is God's. And it may therefore be seen as a gratifying message as well. Because the judgment of God frees us from misplaced judgment of other people. We shall not set ourselves up in judgment of "ungodly" creatures.


-  There is no salvation without judgment. There is, however, judgment without salvation which is upon the unrepentant who will not acknowledge their sins and unrighteousness.

- The possibility to choose between good and evil, truth and falsehood, justice and injustice is already given us by the future judgment.