5 If thieves came to you, if plunderers came by night—how you have been destroyed!—would they not steal only enough for themselves? If grape gatherers came to you, would they not leave gleanings? 6 How Esau has been pillaged, his treasures sought out! 7 All your allies have driven you to your border; those at peace with you have deceived you; they have prevailed against you; those who eat your bread have set a trap beneath you—you have no understanding. 8 Will I not on that day, declares the Lord, destroy the wise men out of Edom, and understanding out of Mount Esau? 9 And your mighty men shall be dismayed, O Teman, so that every man from Mount Esau will be cut off by slaughter.
Our age is an age that does not seem to believe in divine judgment. There are likely many reasons for this. Perhaps the Church itself has oftentimes not helped to promote a solid, biblical understanding of judgment. Think, for instance, of what it does to the idea of divine judgment when it is attached to, say, petty legalisms or when it is caricatured in an effort to frighten people.
In Umberto Eco’s novel, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, the character Yambo (based, at least in part, on Eco’s own life) recalls how his spiritual director frightened him and the other children with a story about judgment.
One evening the spiritual director stood in front of the altar balustrade, illuminated – like all of us, like the entire chapel – by that single candle that haloed him in light, leaving his face in darkness. Before dismissing us, he told us a story. One night, in a convent school, a girl died, a young, pious, beautiful girl. The next morning, she was stretched out on a catafalque in the nave of the church, and the mourners were reciting their prayers for the deceased, when all of a sudden the corpse sat up, eyes wide and finger pointing at the celebrant, and said in a cavernous voice, “Father, do not pray for me! Last night I had an impure thought, a single thought – and now I am damned!”
A shudder travels through the audience and spreads to the pews and the vault, seeming almost to make the candle flame flicker. The director exhorts us to go to bed, but no one moves. A long line forms in front of the confessional, everyone intent on giving in to sleep only after the merest hint of sin has been confessed.
How horrible! A pious child had one impure thought and then was cast into hell forever! This is the kind of caricaturing I am talking about. This kind of attempt to shock and to terrify inevitably backfires and actually erodes a right understanding of judgment. Again, perhaps the church is to blame.