I went to Birmingham for a day in the summer. The Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery had an exhibition of work by the 19th Century painter Sir Edward Burne-Jones. One of the works was a set of three drawings he had prepared for a stained glass window in Easthampstead Church in Berkshire. The crayon illustrations have about them a pleasantness and tranquility not normally associated with the ‘The Last Judgment’. They do not have the blood-curdling images of horrifying creatures that were normally used to illustrate the terrifying apocalyptic events described in the Book of Revelation. Standing in front of the drawings on that July day, a stream of questions came to mind.
The medieval church used to use terrifying judgment scenes to frighten people into church attendance, into outward expressions of belief, even if there was no inward faith. Not believing, and not just believing, but believing in a precisely right way, meant that you would burn forever in hellfire. The medieval pictures of the Last Day, the Dies Irae, the Day of Wrath, the great judgment day, would have frightened uneducated, unsophisticated peasant populations. Some of the greatest artists of former centuries, the foremost among them being Hieronymus Bosch, painted great canvases with the Last Judgment depicted in lurid detail.
We can read James Joyce’s “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man’ and almost smile as poor Stephen Dedalus, the central character, listens to the Jesuit preacher striking fear into the hearts of teenage boys with visions of hell, but such preaching is still common in many places.
Contemplating, Burne-Jones’ very gentle ‘Last Judgment’ on that July day: what sort of God, I thought, would have sent people to eternal punishment because their country happened to be Catholic or Protestant? What sort of God punished working people because they obeyed what they were told? What sort of God punished the poor for believing the stories told to them by the rich and the educated? The Last Judgment, as preached by the church through the centuries, seemed to have more to do with the control of people than with the love of God.
I had gone to the exhibition with a friend who is an atheist, we had both attended a fundamentalist Christian school in the 1970s where a day had not passed without us being reminded of the eternal flames that awaited those who did not sign up to their brand of religion. Their efforts had resulted in me declaring myself to be a Communist, a sure and certain route to the hot place, not that I worried; if God was their god, I wanted nothing to do with him. A God who judged people on obscure points of theological doctrine, rewarding the rich and the comfortable, while turning his back on common folk, was not much of a God.
The words of Jesus in Luke 21would have inspired many artists to see God’s Advent in the most terrifying of terms. On repeated occasions Jesus talks about the coming judgment as a disaster falling from heaven. “At that time men will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.”
What then do we make of Advent? Amongst all the activity leading up to Christmas, what do we make of the Lord coming in judgment?
As in the parables, Jesus uses Jewish ideas and stories to make his point. Jesus wasn’t the only person telling stories like this; he warns against ‘false messiahs’, the wandering preachers threatening people with impending doom and disaster. There was no shortage of terrifying words to prompt fear and trembling in the hearts of listeners.
But Jesus uses this language, he conjures up these pictures in people’s minds, not to frighten people, but to tell them about God. The season of Advent is a season not of terror, not of fear, but of justice.
If we believe in justice, then, I think, we have to believe in judgment. If God is to be a God who means anything, then he must be a God who keeps his word. Time and time again throughout the Bible he promises justice for his people; but how shall there be justice, if there is no judgment?
Justice and judgment, perhaps Burne-Jones has some insight to offer. His ‘Last Judgment’ has no Hellfire; that is left for others. The Book of Life, at the very centre of the picture is an expansive volume. But it is the resurrection that strikes most forcibly: the dead have been brought back to life and seem to be pulling themselves up from the grave; as though the Resurrection involves a partnership. Isn’t that an acknowledgement that Salvation itself is about God’s initiative and our response?.
Reflecting on the scenes described in the book of Revelation, Burne-Jones would have read in Revelation 20, “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”.
“The dead were judged according to what they had done”. Perhaps Heaven is reached not through being born in the right place, or the right community; not through being able to recite the right words; not through being able to claim a particular experience; but through struggling for a better world; through struggling to love one’s neighbour as oneself; through struggling to keep Jesus’ commandments because he is the only one who promises to be there at the end.
Perhaps Burne-Jones needs no Hellfire, perhaps being left in the grave on the Last Day is judgment and reward enough for the evil. But judgment there needs to be. If at the end a child murdered with a machete, and the child’s killer, both receive the same reward, then what meaning or purpose is there in Scripture or in the whole of God’s dealings with his people? Why would we try to lead good and faithful lives if our actions have no consequence?
“At that time men will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.” Jesus is promising there is meaning in life, that our lives have consequences. Jesus is promising that there will be Last Day, not in order that we might be terrified, but so that we might believe that God is a God of justice and that, believing, we “may be able to stand before the Son of Man.”