Some readers wonder if I am inconsistent in what I am saying about Paul (in the “Rereading Paul” series). On the one hand, I have said that Romans 2:6-11 is not what Paul believes. He does not believe in judgment by desert (“you get what you deserve”). Romans 2:6-11 says God will reward goodness with eternal life and badness with wrath and fury. I claim, along with Douglas Campbell, that these words do not represent Paul’s belief but rather, a rebuttal to the beliefs of a certain Jewish teacher. He rebuts the teacher by pressing his claims to their ultimate and showing them to have an absurd result.
If this Jewish teacher is correct, Paul’s unseen opponent in the diatribe of Romans 1-4, then people just need to be good to find eternal life. Neither Torah-based Judaism nor the Yeshua-movement can agree that accomplishment earns eternal life. That view does no justice to Torah or Messiah.
But there are other passages where Paul describes a future judgment. And it seems to be based on good and evil. Paul says this in passages where he is not arguing with an unseen opponent. The words and beliefs in these other places seem to be Paul’s. So does Paul believe in judgment by desert or not?
2 Corinthians 5:10 says “so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.” How can I reconcile on the one hand “Romans 2:6-11 is not what Paul thinks” with 2 Corinthians 5:10?
The simple answer is this: the entire cosmos, including us, will go through a judgment of good and evil. But the judgment of God will not be proportional, as Campbell puts it (page 92, The Deliverance of God). It will not be strictly according to “what we deserve.” It will be heavily weighted in the direction of grace and mercy.
God is eliminating evil. This is because evil is a terrible thing. When we finally live in the absence of it, we will at last understand how the tiniest bits of selfishness, acquisitive greed, the will to dominate others, rivalry, bitterness, and a thousand other evils have poisoned our lives.
God does not act ruthlessly. Smiting for the sake of proving himself superior is not his way. He acts redemptively. He purges to make something beautiful.
“We must all appear before Messiah’s throne of judgment,” says 2 Corinthians 5:10. The one on this throne made his opinion known about sin and evil. He is the one who said, “Father, forgive them, they know not what they are doing.” Whose judgment would you desire to be under? There is a belief about judgment common in religious communities which is very anti-Messiah, very smug and arrogant. Do not confuse religious pomposity with Yeshua’s love.
“That each one may receive,” says Paul. Who is the “each one” he has in mind in 2 Corinthians 5? Is he talking about the “unbelievers” and hoping they will “get what they deserve”? Not at all. The chapter is about the suffering and humiliation experience by believers. He is encouraging the faithful who feel threatened by the forces around them. Future hope seems to far off. How valuable is this hope?
“That each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil,” Paul concludes. Some reading this are pretty sure they know how the “what is due” part works.
Justification theory says “if you assent to the doctrines of Christianity you are due for salvation but if you don’t assent to the doctrines of Christianity you are due for a torturous eternity.”
That is a misreading of Paul.
Paul’s view would look more like this: “if you have come to the place where you let God enlighten you by means of his Messiah, then you will be ready for reward at Messiah’s throne but those who would try and bring evil into God’s country will be judged.” How will they be judged? I think their chance for redemption is not over at that point. You may disagree. Some think they will be annihilated, having come to a certain point of no return and not yet having opened their souls to the light of God and Messiah. I don’t see any reason why God would be in a rush or fail to give his children more time.
But 2 Corinthians 5:10 does not answer such questions. It’s purpose is to encourage Messiah-followers who feel marginalized. It is not a text intended to scare bad people into becoming good people.
So, Romans 2:6-11 is not exactly what Paul believes. And 2 Corinthians 5:10, which is something Paul believes, does not contradict that assertion. Judgment is not strictly according to what we deserve. Judgment is according to redemption, judged on a scale of grace. God doesn’t base judgment on either doctrinal correctness or moral accomplishment.
But we are on a journey. Some discover light sooner than others. When we do discover that light, purging begins. Evil diminishes until it is entirely gone. This transformation pleases God and he delights to reward his children. But God will not allow evil to pass into his place. So those who are not ready will be judged in some way. We need not assume their chance for redemption is over, just that they are judged not yet ready to enter.
Why is Romans 2:6-11 wrong but 2 Corinthians 5:10 right? They come from different places. The former says, “You get what you deserve.” The latter says, “At a certain time you will be rewarded or judged based on how you’ve learned and been transformed.” There may be some overlap between the ideas, but they are not the same. The former is accomplishment. The latter is transformation by a higher power.