I was reading the Book of IV Ezra recently. IV Ezra was a Jewish work, and Michael Stone in the HarperCollins Study Bible says that it was probably written around 70 C.E., which is when the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple. Stone also states that IV Ezra has been respected by certain Christian communities, such as Armenian and Ethiopic churches.
IV Ezra was a disturbing book for me to read, and yet I also found it fascinating. A major part of this book is a debate that Ezra has with an angel about God’s judgment and hell. Ezra challenges God’s plan to pour God’s wrath on most of the people. Ezra has questions: Doesn’t God love God’s creation? Isn’t God reputed to be merciful? Why can’t Ezra intercede for them, for God in the past has listened to intercessors, who persuaded God to turn away from God’s plan to wipe people out?
The angel offers a variety of responses to Ezra’s questions. The angel says that the people only have themselves to blame for their judgment, for their lives have a pattern of disobeying God’s law. While the angel does not talk often about God’s love and mercy, he does at one point say that Ezra cannot understand the mysteries of God’s mercy. A key point that the angel makes, though, is that God operates in different ways at different times. In this world, God loves God’s creation, is merciful, and listens to intercessors. In the next world, God will be a judge, and that’s about it!
I’ve heard different things about such issues from Christians in the past. I remember walking with a couple of Christians—-one was converting to Catholicism, and the other was a Pentecostal. The Pentecostal was rattling on about a movie that he watched about the end times and was saying that the end times are near. The Pentecostal was getting on my Catholic friend’s nerves, for the Pentecostal was dramatically telling us about scenes in the movie in which a devout evangelical Christian grandmother was telling her kids and grandkids to leave the Catholic church and become born again, and the evangelical grandmother got raptured, whereas her Catholic family (at least those past the age of accountability) got left behind. My Catholic friend did not care for the Pentecostal’s harsh portrayal of Jesus. “Did not Jesus reach out to the woman at the well and talk with her?”, my Catholic friend asked. “Oh, at the second coming, Jesus will be through with talking,” my Pentecostal friend retorted. “The first time Jesus came, he reached out to people; when he comes back, it’s with a sword!”
At least in this discussion, my Pentecostal friend was assuming that God’s M.O. will be different in the eschaton from what it is now. Now, God shows mercy; at the last judgment, God will be a judge. That’s why he, and many Christians, believe that now is the time for people to accept Christ as their personal savior and receive forgiveness of sins: they think that, at the last judgment, that opportunity will be closed to people, that those who failed to accept Christ will go to hell, no second chances. In other conversations with my Pentecostal friend, though, I got the impression that he thought that there was more to the issue than that. When it came to people in other religions, he said that Jesus did refer to other sheep, and so my Pentecostal friend was open to the possibility that some non-Christians may enter eternal life. When I asked him one time what the requirements are to be saved, or who exactly will enter eternal life, he said that the requirements are accepting Christ, and also trying one’s best to obey God. “I doubt I’ll make it,” he said to me. At the same time, he had some hope that God would be merciful to him.
Will God’s character at the last judgment be different from how God is today? Will God’s love and mercy go out the window at the last judgment? If so, can these things truly be said to be integral parts of God’s character, how God essentially is? Are they essential aspects of who God is, or simply things that God does? When it comes to the last judgment, even some evangelicals believe that God will have some mercy on people at that time. When they are asked about those who died before hearing the Gospel, they respond that God will judge people according to what they know, and that God’s judgment will be mixed with God’s mercy.
In terms of rabbinic and later Judaism, I think of the theme in the Fall festival liturgy in which Jews ask God to leave his throne of judgment and to go to his throne of mercy. That seems to imply that God M.O. is different at different times, though I may be taking the liturgy too literally in saying that. There is also a rabbinic reference that seems to present God as a balance between justice and mercy—-that, if God were too just, everyone on earth would be eliminated, for we are all sinners, and yet, if God were too merciful, the wicked would get away with murder. My understanding, though, is that, within strands of medieval Judaism, there is some aversion to saying that God has all these different attributes, for is not God a single unified being?
In terms of where I stand on these sorts of issues, well, at the very least, I believe in seeking God’s mercy for myself and others. I cannot make others believe or follow certain ideas, but I can ask God to make God’s love known to people. Often, I’ve flirted with Christian universalism, the idea that God will save everyone. While I don’t care for how many conservative Christians casually dismiss that school of thought, I have been doubting it lately, as I have read pseudepigraphic apocalyptic literature, which could have formed part of Jesus’ cultural context. But I may talk about that in another post.