As we anticipate Holy Week, our meditation on Christ’s death and resurrection should freshly challenge the world we inhabit and the lives we lead. This year I would like to focus our attention on the cross as a place of judgment. Paul captures this most succinctly in Galatians 3:13: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree.’”
Our culture has a conflicted relationship with the concept of divine judgment. Whether attributed to God, “the universe,” or some unseen force, humans generally desire consequence for actions. In an interview with the New York Times, Vince Gilligan, creator of the TV show Breaking Bad, gave voice to this sentiment.
“I feel some sort of need for biblical atonement, or justice, or something. I like to believe there is some comeuppance, that karma kicks in at some point, even if it takes years or decades to happen… I want to believe there’s a heaven. But I can’t not believe there’s a hell.”
This emerged in Gilligan’s show when one of the main characters expressed his inner torment over killing an innocent person: “If you just do stuff and nothing happens, what’s it all mean? What’s the point?”
Judgment is the gravity of the moral universe. Without it, we are floating bodies, never grounded, incapable of movement or direction.
Yet for all our yearning for the punishment of wrong, our culture is very selective in what types of judgment we judge appropriate. In June 2012 Dan Cathy, President and CEO of Chick-fil-A, ignited a controversy with these comments about gay marriage: “we’re inviting God’s judgment on our nation when we shake our fist at him and say we know better than you as to what constitutes a marriage.” The media eviscerated Cathy for his statement. Politicians in Boston and Chicago swore that no Chick-fil-A restaurant would exist in their city apart from a public apology. Student groups protested. Activists organized protests. At least one corporate partner severed their relationship.
This incident revealed the moral confusion our culture brings to the concept of divine judgment. We need some judgment to exist in order to make moral sense out of the universe. We need that judgment to be higher than what corruptible humans can execute. Yet we want to define the terms of this judgment. We would like to reserve it for pedophiles, drug-pushers, pimps, and thugs. We have no appetite for judgment applying to sexual dalliances, white lies, managed drunkenness or other expressions of moral autonomy we deem to be socially low-impact.
The cross of Jesus cuts through this confusion. At Calvary there is no negotiating the parameters of divine judgment. Divine judgment landed on the incarnate Son of God, unmitigated both in its severity and scope. There on the judgment tree the one perfectly righteous human bore punishment for sorcerers and swindlers, perverts and petty thieves, dictators and drunks.
Only when we embrace the entirety of our guilt, that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” can we hear the good news that we can be “justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith” (Romans 3:23–25). Divine judgment is for us, and because of the judgment tree, salvation through the crucified Christ is available for all who believe.