Does the emerging church really have a problem with a final judgment?

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A tweet from Andrew Jones (‘An original emerging church criticism: “Don’t conceive we crapper undergo Absolute Biblical Truth” ’) led me to Pastor and Author Bob DeWaay’s resolute and curiously robotic critique of the ‘Emergent Church’ on SO4J-TV. On one level the clip reinforces all my prejudices against conservative religious broadcasting. Bob DeWaay is so determined to defend his rationalistic, word-based, doctrinaire orthodoxy that I am left wondering whether he has much idea at all about what is happening (and why) under the banner of ‘emerging’ at the crumbling boundaries of the modern church.

The cultural and intellectual gulf that underlies this debate is exposed to almost poignant effect. The whole phenomenon is very difficult to understand, DeWaay says, because ‘even the thinking behind Emergent isn’t how most of us have been trained to look at the world and how we think.’ Well, precisely. The reason why his doctrinaire orthodoxy is under attack is that people don’t think that way any more. Something has to give here. It is quite extraordinary to hear him admit that he cannot understand how postmoderns who have lost confidence in absolute and foundationalist epistemologies (not exactly how he puts it) can still talk about having hope. Then he blithely dismisses the Emergent view that life is about relationships and experience – as though somehow hope has nothing to do with such things.

I also get rather indignant at the glib accusation that the emerging movement is abandoning biblical truth – OK, yes, partly because there is some substance to the accusation; but partly also because some of us our trying very hard to show that scripture itself resists the simplistic, rigid, personalized categories of conservative orthodoxy. But enough about my pain…

Having said all that, I will admit to having rather enjoyed DeWaay’s critique of contemporary theologies that imagine wonderful, hopeful futures without taking account of the realistic power of sin to mislead and corrupt and destroy what is good.

In the end you can’t just live out of your imagination, but that is exactly what postmodern theology is and what it does. It creates an imaginary theology where God is in the future drawing everything into himself and things are getting better, so we can go out here in the world and look around and find the kingdom of God.

There is certainly an over-confident element in emerging theologies that indeed imagines that human culture is on a steady upward trend towards some sort of utopian omega point, or the kingdom of God, when all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well. I don’t know if that is what Tony Jones had in mind when he wrote that ‘we are on a tractor beam of redemption’, but it sounds likely.

What puzzles me, though, is why the emerging movement should have a problem with the idea of a final judgment. Is there something intrinsic to emerging theologies that is fundamentally incompatible with the thought that humanity will ultimately, in some way, be judged for its wickedness? After all, the concern for justice is a hallmark of the emerging church. Why should we then want to affirm the final victory of injustice? Is it simply because we confuse the idea of a final judgment with misplaced, medieval notions of hell as a place of eternal torment?

I think DeWaay badly misinterprets New Testament eschatology when he depicts the final judgment as an outpouring of God’s wrath upon the earth – to my mind that is a serious diminution and distortion of biblical truth. But, at the same time, I don’t see what is to be gained by eliminating from our final hope the conviction that in making all things new the Creator will destroy everything that is inimical to righteousness, justice, love and life. I’m with you there, Bob! Stay real!

I, too, have struggled with the more 'utopian' perspective of some emergers/emergents, i.e., as presented in McLaren's A New Kind of Christianity. It's investing too much in humanity itself. I believe the church is the glorious bride Scripture points out, but the coming of the kingdom is God's ultimate agenda, we can only participate (and we don't always do it so well).

I liked N.T. Wright's perspective of judgment in Surprised by Hope. Ultimately, judgment is about God making things right. But to do so, injustice will have to be dealt with. How that ultimately plays out, well, it probably doesn't look like medieval ideas. But I cannot see how Scripture does not make it clear that God will deal with injustice, which includes the unjust who are not in Christ.


I've long struggled with traditional conceptions of judgment and I'm inclined at this point to think that we've misdefined judgment in a very human way as opposed to a divine way (at least the divine according to the Hebrew scriptures).  For instance, in commentary on john 12, John Calvin writes of judgment in such a way that many emergents would be very comfortable with while many non-emergents would complain that he's trying to explain away God's wrath:

Some view the word, judgment (πρίσις) as denoting reformation, and others, as denoting condemnation. I rather agree with the former who explain it to mean, that the world must be restored to a proper order; for the Hebrew word משפט, mishpat, which is translated judgment, means a well-ordered state. Now we know, that out of Christ there is nothing but confusion in the world; and though Christ had already begun to erect the kingdom of God, yet his death was the commencement of a well-regulated condition, and the full restoration of the world.



Richard, it’s an excellent comment, and I agree that it would surprise both emergents and Reformed. However, I don’t really see how we can escape the element of condemnation for sin (Israel’s rebellion against YHWH, the pagan world’s idolatry, immorality and injustice) as a precursor to any reformation. Throughout the Bible stories of reformation or restoration invariably are the outcome of condemnation and punishment – the narrative of return from exile, which dominates Isaiah, for example.

@Andrew Perriman:


Absolutely. Any restoration requires acknowledging/identifying the brokenness in the first place. Same as resetting a broken bone requires putting it back together, often a painful process. But that's still a good distance from more traditional understandings of eternal condemnation without end as opposed to condemnation that leads to eventual restoration (as seen in the exile and return and even in the judgments against Egypt in the Exodus- "that Pharaoh and the Egyptians might know that I am the living living God."


One of the problems is that god's acts of judgement contradict what we are taught about him.

For example, we hear in churches how god has unconditional love for humans. But if he had unconditional love for people, he would never torture or annihilate them. It is said god thinks of us as his children. Who would enternally torture or banish their child? That is the act of a monster.

Then the response is that we deserve judgement, but why? Who made us in his own image with the impulses to sin? And who decided what sin is? Who decided what should be the penalty?

Why do the wages of sin have to be death? The penalty could be getting licked by a beagle or having a leech suck your blood or sat in a chair for an hour or ... anything but a violent and paniful end (or eternity).

The emerging church has modern people who instinctvely recoil at the violence of judgement, but it is in black and white in the book they supposedly follow. That's why there is an issue.