I had a seminary professor who was infamous for being disorganized. Among other things, he gave us bits and pieces of the syllabus over three or four different class periods, and he had revisions, and revisions to the revisions, and on and on it went. No one in the class was quite sure what his requirements were. He would regularly show up late for class – including the final exam, in which he arrived ten minutes late to proctor his own exam – and he would often go over the exact same material he went over the day before, reading directly from the book we were discussing in class.
Most startling, though, was his grading system. After we took the final exam and found out what our final grades were, many students were left wondering just how he calculated each person’s grade. One of my friends ended up with a C- and at first just shrugged it off. When I informed him that he needed at least a C to graduate from the seminary, he was a little more worried. So he tried to set up an appointment with the professor, hoping to find out just how he got a C-. After spending days trying to track down the professor, he was finally able to meet with him.
He sat in the professor’s office, across from him at his desk. There were papers strewn all over the place. My friend asked the professor how, exactly, he got a C-, and if he could see his grading system. The professor pulled out his grade book and started shuffling through the pages. He then pulled out a calculator and started crunching some numbers, mumbling things here and there. Finally, after a few minutes of intense number crunching, the professor looked up at my buddy and said to him, “How does a B+ sound?”
Of course my friend took it – though I joked with him later that he should have held out for an A- (and it bears mentioning that he had to keep reminding the professor for at least a month to change the official grade with the registrar’s office). But what little confidence I have in the professor’s grading abilities and whether or not his grade distribution was anything more than arbitrary. It seems as though the professor should have been regularly audited, to find out whether he had any clue as to whether a given student really passed or failed his classes.
The truth is, when it comes to education, there is nothing worse than a professor who seems to be arbitrary in his distribution of grades. If there is no rhyme or reason as to why a person gets an A or an F, a professor’s judgment is called into question.
And yet, much of Christendom – and many within Adventism – are more than happy to have a God who distributes A’s and F’s arbitrarily, without performing any type of objective or dependable investigation before He comes with His reward. In fact, not only are people in these camps happy with an arbitrary God, but they anathematize anyone who would want to insist that God is not arbitrary, and that He must perform some type of objective investigation before He can return.
And thus the controversy surrounding the so-called “Investigative Judgment.” This is, perhaps, the most controversial doctrine that the Seventh-day Adventist church maintains; a doctrine that many people would like to obliterate altogether; a doctrine that was supposedly either erroneously introduced by Ellen White, or invented by the early church leaders as a way to “save face” in the aftermath of the Great Disappointment (opponents cannot seem to figure out if it was an invention of Ellen White, or the invention of other misled early Adventists pioneers apart from her).
And yet, I hope to show, as briefly as I can, that the Investigative Judgment is one of the most beautiful reflections of the character of a loving God. (Then, in part 2, I will share some reflections on the popular evangelical understanding of the judgment, and how unloving these mistaken views are.)
To begin with, it must be understood that God always performs a judgment before reaching a verdict or taking action. The Old Testament, alone, is replete with examples of this. In Genesis 3, for example, after Adam and Eve have partaken of the forbidden fruit, God doesn’t simply share His judgment without investigating the facts. He actually comes down – an illustration of His humility and condescension – to the Garden of Eden and collects the facts of the situation, asking four questions to Adam and Eve before making any statement or giving His verdict. Only after He gives Adam and Eve a chance to share their side of the story does He give the verdict of banishing them from the Garden (and it should be noted that even in sharing this “negative” verdict, there is still a promise of a Savior in v. 15).
The same holds true for Cain, after he murders Abel. God doesn’t simply declare Cain guilty before performing an investigation. He pursues Cain and asks him five questions before He shares any type of verdict, or declaration of guilt.
We see this yet again in Ezekiel 9, where an angel of the Lord comes down to Jerusalem and orders a man in white linen to place a mark on all the foreheads of those who will be saved. The rest will be slaughtered. But the mark isn’t simply arbitrarily placed on just anyone. The man in white linen is told to go around and place a mark (which, in the paleo-Hebrew of the time, would have been the symbol of a cross) on those who “sigh and cry” over the all the abominations that are being committed in Jerusalem. In other words, only after the man in white linen investigates who was sighing and crying is he to mark those who would be saved.
Thus, scripture is quite clear that before God gives a verdict, or bequeaths a reward, He always investigates or collects the facts. And this is the only loving to do. The world and universe alike needs the assurance that God isn’t simply arbitrarily handing out rewards or punishments. In some ways, God needs “red tape” for our benefit.
If I were to arrive in heaven and see Adolph Hitler standing there, I would make a bee-line to God and say, “How did he get here?” Although I trust God implicitly, and would, no doubt, be somewhat satisfied with Him saying, “Just trust Me on this one,” I think evidence on Hitler’s behalf would go a long way in allaying my fears and consternation. Thus, God would be able to open up a book, or play a movie, showing how, when, and why Hitler passed the “test,” demonstrating that he did, in fact, have a heart-experience with the Lord.
Of course, what is probably more bothersome to opponents of the Investigative Judgment is the basis by which someone either receives an A or receives an F. How can we be saved by grace, they reason, and yet be judged by our works?
Aside from any theological or logical gymnastics that one tries to play, though, they must confront the plain witness of scripture. Over and over again the Bible declares that God’s judgment is based on what a person does, rather than simply what they claim to believe. As the Hebrew scriptures proclaim: “For God will bring every work into judgment, including every secret thing, whether good or evil” (Ecclesiastes 12:14). Or, as Jesus Himself declares: “And behold, I am coming quickly, and My reward is with Me, to give to every one according to his work” (Revelation 22:12).
In the example of Ezekiel’s Investigative Judgment, the man in white linen was not instructed to simply go around and mark those who claimed they had a personal relationship with God, or those who were baptized, or those who said they were saved by grace. He was instructed to mark those people whose outward actions passed the “test;” the ones that were living out that grace.
And this makes perfect sense to any perceptive student of scripture. Although the Bible clearly indicates that we are saved by the blood of Jesus, and nothing else, that reality takes root in a true Christian’s heart and evidences itself in his or her actions. That is why Jesus can say, “Not everyone who says to Me ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven” (Matthew 7:21). It’s also why James can quite unequivocally say, in brilliant logic, “Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works” (James 2:18).
The truth of the matter is, those who have a true heart-experience with God will display the fruitage in their lives. In plain English, they will not only talk the talk, but they will walk the walk. Thus, any type of judgment that is based on works is nothing to be feared, but simply an opportunity to live out the love-experience that is already taking place between a person and God.
But beyond this, the judgment is also good news because of its significance. When the Bible declares that the “hour of [God’s] judgment has come,” (Revelation 14:7), it can be interpreted one of two ways linguistically. The judgment can either be interpreted subjectively, in which case God is performing the judgment, or it can be interpreted objectively, where God is receiving the judgment. Or, more than likely, it is probably ambiguous enough to go both ways.
Elsewhere, Paul, quoting the Old Testament, tells us that God is being “judged” (Romans 3:4). Thus, this Investigative Judgment not only involves my eternal destiny, but God’s as well. His character has been maligned by Satan, and the “jury [the inhabitants of this world, the angels, and the universe-at-large] is still out” on Him. And when I keep that in mind, my attention moves beyond my personal little problems, to God’s.
And that is comforting to me – to realize that in this cosmic conflict, I can look beyond my little place in this universe, and try to do something that is actually helping the One who gave His life for me. Thus, “passing” the judgment is not motivated by an ego-centric desire to live forever, but a Christocentric motivation to make God look good. As Carsten Johnsen has written:
What an astonishing “democracy” on the part of an all-wise and almighty God! He never ceases His once adopted plan of going down. In front of us, the little ones, the judged ones, He is, of course, the Great Judge. But, not content with being this only, He here again turns the roles upside down. He places Himself “in the dock,” as it were. He steps down to the level of becoming the one who is judged. God is “on trial,” as the NEB expresses it; and that is the sensational way in which He proves Himself true. . . . This is the way God’s inspired word portrays Man’s supreme reality. Obedience is the highest praise man can offer to God. In being obedient he vindicates God. And in vindicating the Other One, he vindicates himself. (Carsten Johnsen, The Maligned God, pp. 265, 267)
So what’s the good news about the judgment? First, I can take comfort in knowing that God never doles out rewards or punishments arbitrarily. He will have His reasons – and a long list of them, at that – as to why a person is or is not in heaven. Not wanting to do anything haphazardly or carelessly, He will have all this prepared for us to review in heaven if we are curious.
Secondly, how a person “passes” the test is plainly stated in the syllabus. There is no confusion. When I am saved by grace, and I have a true appreciation for that grace, my actions will reflect the gratitude in my heart. This is not to say that I will never fall, but that – as any loving husband does towards his wife when he hurts her – I will be repentant about my shortcomings and seek reconciliation from the God that I wronged. And, by His grace, I will finally learn how to overcome those things that seem to trip me up time and again.
But beyond that, the judgment is good news because God, in His great humility, continues to play the role of a dependent, rather than a dictator. He does not stand above judgment or accusation. Rather, in loving humility, He places His character on the line and opens Himself up for criticism. He realizes that His loving character will win out, once and for all, and that His true followers will step up to the witness stand and speak out on His behalf. They will show what God’s agape love – that which His government is based on – can accomplish in humankind and, indeed, the universe. In a very tangible way, the universe will see what Christ’s cross can accomplish when it takes root in the heart of God’s people.
Of course, this is not to say that the doctrine of the Investigative Judgment has not been abused. Sadly, over the years, this doctrine has been used to beat people over the head, to scare them into proper behavior, and to bind them in an “Old Covenant” experience with the Lord. But such abuses do not negate a proper understanding and appreciation for a doctrine that reflects the character of the loving God who not only judges, but stands as One who Himself is being judged.
*For a very refreshing explanation of the Investigative Judgment, I would highly recommend reading Jiri Moskala’s article, “Toward a Biblical Theology of God’s Judgment: A Celebration of the Cross in Seven Phases of Divine Universal Judgment (An Overview of a Theocentric-Christocentric Approach),” in Journal of the Adventist Theological Society, 15/1 (Spring 2004): 138-165. It is available here (pdf) for on-line viewing. Among other things, instead of calling it the “Investigative Judgment,” Moskala prefers to call it the “affirmative” or “confirmatory judgment,” because, as he writes, “God in front of the universe affirms or confirms the relationship established between Him and believers during their lives. Nothing mysterious, hidden, or esoteric is performed at this judgment. It is a revelatory judgment because Jesus personally reveals the ethical dynamics of the relationship between Him and His faithful children” (p. 154). For further reflection on the idea of God being judged, see also my book Waiting at the Altar, particularly the chapter entitled, “Does God Need Help?”