1995 saw the release of the Pixar-created animated film Toy Story, to colossal box office success. The film’s antagonist was “Sid Phillips”, a vicious neighborhood bully, who delights to inflict pain and harm. His room is full of mutant toys that he’s dismembered and combined. At the movie’s climax, Woody, voiced by Tom Hanks, surprises Sid by conquering his fear and addressing him: “We don’t like being blown up, Sid. Or smashed. Or torn apart.”
The final great act in the drama of Jesus that Christians articulate in the Creed is that Jesus will, one great Day, “return to judge the living (or the ‘quick’ in older versions) and the dead.” This is an image many in the 21st century are deeply allergic to; we don’t like being blown up. Or smashed. Or torn apart. Judged.
The image of God or Jesus as Judge is extremely unpopular. Yet, even the most skeptical among us already live like it’s true. We live like it actually matters whether we abuse or aid the weak among us, like it matters whether we’re honest or deceptive. Life is unlivable otherwise.
In Arthur Miller’s celebrated and controversial play After The Fall, autobiographical of his failed marriage with Marilyn Monroe and her suicide, his character Quentin muses, “For many years I looked at life like a case at law. It was a series of proofs. When you’re young you prove how brave you are, or smart; then, what a good lover; then, a good father; finally, how wise, or powerful or (whatever). But underlying it all, I see now, there was a presumption. That one moved... on an upward path toward some elevation, where... God knows what... I would be justified, or even condemned. A verdict anyway. I think now that my disaster really began when I looked up one day... and the bench was empty. No judge in sight. And all that remained was the endless argument with oneself, this pointless litigation of existence before an empty bench... Which, of course, is another way of saying- despair.”
If the cosmic bench is empty, life is unlivable.
Here’s the counterintuitive surprise: in the Scriptures, that the cosmic bench is not empty is good news, not bad news. Throughout the Bible, God’s coming judgment is a good thing, something to be celebrated, longed for, yearned over. It causes people to shout for joy and the trees of the field to clap their hands. As Luke Timothy Johnson puts it, “That God judges the world also shows that creation is not a casual affair for God but rather a passionate commitment.” God refuses to ignore systemic injustice, violence, bullying, arrogance- and promises that he’ll act to put the world right. And that is good news! A God who doesn’t judge doesn’t care, doesn’t love.
And, the One who sits at the cosmic bench is no Sid Phillips, but the Suffering Servant, the Man of Sorrows who came not to condemn but to save.
Jared Ayers is the founding and preaching pastor of Liberti Church in Philadelphia, PA. He is a graduate of Lancaster Bible College, and is currently finishing an M.Div. from Western Theological Seminary’s Newbigin House of Studies. Jared and his wife Monica have been married for 10 years, and love calling Philadelphia home. They’ve been graced with two sons (Brennan and Kuyper) and a daughter (Rae Ann).