Revelation 20:12 “And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books.”
It’s been quite a week—the natural death of an American president, the execution of an Iraqi president, and the death of a music legend—and I’ve wrestled with what to make of it. Of course the spiritual reality is that death is the great equalizer. All of them left this earth without titles or wealth or a microphone, and the status that put their deaths on the news will neither help nor hurt them before God. Gerald Ford, Saddam Hussein, and James Brown are, now, just like everybody else who has ever lived or died.
So what is God going to do with these souls? We’re pretty sure we’ve got it down. Ford—in. Brown—how do you not let the “Godfather of Soul” in? Hussein—straight to hell, do not pass “Go” do not collect $200. “The dead were judged according to what they had done,” it says, and his record isn’t pretty. The case seems pretty strong, whether you conceive of hell as an actual place of torment, as a refiner’s fire for the soul, or as a symbol of the absence of God. If you try to imagine someone who would have a tough time existing in the same space as a loving God, Saddam Hussein would fit the bill.
But then the case for all of humanity was never very encouraging, from Adam’s sin to Cain’s murder of his brother, all the way through the things the prophets have been ranting about in our readings for the past weeks and months. Jesus was born into a nation his parents had to flee, when the king slaughtered all infants under 2 years of age in Bethlehem. They returned when a new king took over, but still crosses lined the streets, corruption was rampant even in the Temple, and Jesus had to endure mockery, severe beating, and a sham trial before being sentenced to a brutal execution. You would think that the record in the books for those responsible would also put them on the “straight to hell” page. And yet, as Jesus hangs there dying, he asks God to forgive them.
I think we jump on the fact that God will judge us and forget that God (thankfully) does not judge according to our standards. The “good news” that Christians proclaim is that the nature of our judge was revealed in Jesus. We are not judged by “the rule of law,” but by “the rule of grace.” I wish we would simply leave judgment to God, but I don’t think we trust God to get it right. I think we want to control the process and pronounce judgment ourselves because a God who would hang out with sinners and willingly submit to brutality doesn’t seem like a God who will protect our interests. Forgiving Nixon lost Gerald Ford the election and we would generally like God to enact strict justice as well…except, of course, when dealing with us.
About 9:30 last night I heard the news that Saddam Hussein would be executed at 10 pm. I stopped what I was doing and said a prayer. I prayed that the legions of people he brutalized, both the dead and the living, would find peace. I prayed that there would not be more violence as a result. And I prayed that angels would fill the room where he was executed and escort his soul directly to the God who cannot help but love even him. I have no idea what happened—none of us do. God created the soul that became Saddam Hussein and only God will decide what happens to it now--the same God who loved this messed-up, brutal world enough to live and die here and whose final words of forgiveness shook the dead from their graves.
I’m glad God is the one judging him. I’m glad God will be the one judging me. I’m happy to leave it there.
Our souls are naked before you, Lord. We trust your judgment. Amen.
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