Jesus and Judgment: On Easter, Violence, and the Cross

So, we preach the old message once more: Be reconciled to God. Christ is risen.

Americans are a sentimental people. This is not all bad. It’s good to enjoy a nice April weekend, treasure time with family, and grill some burgers.

But the sentimental instinct can be a dangerous one. It can make us miss vital truths. Among these is the reality that the death of Christ—celebrated during Easter weekend on Good Friday—does not signal the end of God’s violent judgment. It signals the end of God’s judgment for believers. But for unbelievers, the cross is a warning, a blaze of fire reaching so high in the sky you can see it from a hundred miles away.

Do not miss this: Easter weekend is terrifically good news. Christ is risen. Jesus died for us, but he did not only die. He rose for us. This is the best news on top of the good news. We will spend all of eternity celebrating the completed work of Christ for us.

But this cannot obscure the bad news: all who are not believers are affected by the atonement, too. When they see the cross, they are looking at their opportunity for eternal redemption. We speak of this commonly as Christians, yearning for the salvation of our friends, neighbors, loved ones, and fellow image-bearers. But the real offer of Christic forgiveness that we commend to all sinners has a flip-side, and it is this: the cross shows us what God will do for all who do not repent of their sin and trust in the name of his Son.

The cross is the only way to be saved. This we know and confess. But the cross is also the forewarning of what awaits the hardened sinner. On the day when all accounts are settled, God will pour out all his wrath, unfathomable depths of undiluted judgment, on all who dare to think they can pay that price. Human pride will not look appealing or funny or clever on that day. Human pride will look horrifically wicked and foolish, for the sinner will drink the dregs of the wrath of God.

The foolishness of depravity is never seen in greater measure than when we compare our fitness to bear God’s wrath to Christ’s fitness. He is the only one who can satisfy the wrath of God, and his own substitutionary work left him broken and lifeless. The God-man bore our sin, and he finished his task, securing heaven for every name in the lamb’s book of life. But this work did not leave him asking for a Powerade and a sandwich. It put him in a tomb.

Divine wrath is a terrible cross to bear.

Thus we see that we cannot make the now-common mistake of rendering the cross “as the end of violence.” The cross was itself an act of Christic violence against the kingdom of darkness, even as the cross was a foretaste of the furious violence to come by the hand of God. In this world, the church yet has a category for conscionable and just violence, for the government does not bear the sword in vain (Romans 13). Punishment of wrongdoers by rightly-constituted authorities, including service in war and retribution unto death for the worst crimes, is part of the church’s biblically-derived moral witness to the world. Indeed, every act of human justice in this life, whether great or small, is itself a distant prefiguration of the greater judgment to come.

Modern evangelicals want to render down the work of Christ. They want it to ooze love and welcoming, gladness and equity. The cross and empty tomb gloriously call every sinner to repentance and life, to be sure. But the cross and empty tomb also point us forward, to the day that God has appointed. On that day, the Son will not clear the guilty, but consume them. On that day, the Son will not offer sinners life, but will make their whole existence death. These are terrible words and fearsome realities, but they are fundamentally biblical truths, and we confess them in the fear of the Lord.

So, we preach the old message once more: Be reconciled to God. Christ is risen.

Salvation is here now. Soon, judgment will follow.

Flee Sodom.