The subject of judgment and salvation is a touchy one in Protestantism. I grew up in a Midwestern Christianity that regarded the salvation of souls unto a blissful heaven as the prime objective. Hell was a place where the Devil (or God?) reigned supreme to inflict wrath upon those who didn’t meet a certain standard. The standard usually had to do with a mixture of faith, good works, prayer, and mentally ascending to certain doctrinal statements. My theological view of life was, as depicted in the Hieronymus Bosch painting above, heaven, hell, and everything in between. And though I still believe faith, good works, prayer, and doctrine are all important, my view of judgment and salvation have changed a bit.
To ancient Israel, God’s judgment was never mere fire and brimstone (thank Dante for the confusion); rather, it was the systematic undoing of creation, or anti-creation. For example, the Hebrew bible spoke of YHWH creating the world out of the depths of the sea (Psalm 24:2; 104:5-8). However, after the creation went awry, the judgment of YHWH, depicted in the flood of Noah, returned the earth to the same pre-creation watery state of Genesis 1:2. To end the flood, YHWH sent a mighty wind (elohim ruach) over the earth to push back the waters, echoing the mighty wind sent during the initial creation of Genesis 1:2. Judgment was shown to be the undoing of the creation and a return to the pre-creation state.
Jeremiah, too, tells about the destruction of Jerusalem by the hands of Nebuchadnezzar using anti-creational language:
I looked on the earth, and lo, it was waste and void;
And to the heavens, and they had no light.
I looked on the mountains, and lo, they were quaking,
And all the hills moved to and fro.
I looked, and lo, there was no one at all,
And all the birds of the air had fled.
I looked, and lo, the fruitful land was a desert,
And all its cities were laid in ruins
Before the fierce anger of the Lord
Jeremiah shows that the elements created by YHWH were to be undone at the rise of His “fierce anger.” The birds, beasts, and humans are no more. The heavens, from where YHWH once caused light to shine, are now veiled in utter darkness. The earth is “waste and void,” the exact same words in the Hebrew (תֹ֙הוּ֙ וָבֹ֔הוּ ; tohu va vohu) that described the earth in its pre-creation state (“the earth was formless and empty” Gen 1:2). And though there is much to be said concerning judgment and anti-creation, seeing the Hebrew bible has many examples, time does not permit it.
If judgment is posited as anti-creation in the Hebrew bible, then opposite is also true, namely, that redemption is announced in terms of new creation. This is preciously what we see in the New Testament. The authors of the NT constantly tug upon Creation and Genesis themes when speaking of the final redemption. The creation of “new heavens and a new earth” (Isa 65:17; 66:22; 2 Pet 3:13), the reemergence of “the tree of life” (Rev 22:2), and Paul’s constant reference to Adam (Rom 5:14; 1 Cor 15:22, 45) all function to usher the reader to the end of the story by way of the beginning.
Let’s take a moment to focus briefly on 1 Corinthians 15. Paul, in his longest excurses on the resurrection, rhetorically asks, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?” He then recounts Genesis 1 backwards, saying:
“There is one flesh for human beings, another for animals, another for birds, and another for fish. There are both heavenly bodies and earthly bodies… There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars.” (15:39,41)
As Paul tiptoes through Genesis 1, he implicitly cries out that, in the resurrection, all creation will be made new (cf. Rom 8:21). The response to the question, “With what kind of body do they come?” is answered, then, with a New Genesis. But this isn’t the capstone of his new creation theology in 1 Corinthians 15. He then moves along to the climax of Genesis 1, humanity made in YHWH’s image (1:26-28). As humanity had long born the image of the man from the earth, in the resurrection, humanity will bear the image of the Man from heaven (15:49). In the resurrection, that ancient evil enemy, Death, which has plagued mankind since its inception (Gen 3:22), will be overturned (1 Cor 15:54-55).
The judgment of YHWH, as I have shown, relates to the deconstruction of life and the disordering of the cosmos. Its no wonder why apocalyptic imagery, when depicting judgment, frequently employs cosmic disturbance (whether as a literal occurrence or as a literary device). But even as the thorns and thistles that were brought upon by disobedience typified the destruction of God’s good creation(Gen 3:18), so in the new creation, the thorns will no longer be present; giving way, rather, to a much more aesthetically pleasing foliage (Isa 55:13).