by Stephen Ferguson | 13 January 2020 |
Am I the only person confused with this whole story about impeaching US President Donald Trump? Maybe it is because I am not an American. In my defense as a mere foreign observer, I recently saw a television survey (okay, I admit this was from Fox News) suggesting a large percentage of American citizens also thought the House’s December 18 vote to pass articles of impeachment had actually removed Trump from office. It seems many Americans themselves do not realize there had yet to be a trial in the Senate.
To add confusion, we have the Democrat-controlled House refusing to hand over the articles until the Senate promises a fair trial. We also have a Republican-controlled Senate indicating the House investigation wasn’t fair to begin with.
We have law professors saying Trump is not technically impeached until the articles are formally sent to the Senate. We also have other law professors saying the Senate can still conduct a trial without that formal communication.
We have some Senators demanding a formal trial with a comprehensive list of witnesses. We also have other Senators saying the case against the President is so hopeless it can in fact be dismissed without a trial at all, at least not a proper one, by some sort of summary judgment.
Wow. It is as if no one quite knows how this whole process is meant to work. Not even the experts. The timing for this judgment also seems in real doubt.
The only thing that seems clear is the eventual outcome. Every commentary I have read agrees President Trump has next-to zero chance of being removed from office. The only way Trump is going to stop being President, between now and the next election, is if he himself makes a deliberate choice to resign.
Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell put this all beyond doubt when he blatantly admitted he would not be an impartial juror:
I’m not an impartial juror. This is a political process. There is not anything judicial about it. Impeachment is a political decision. I’m not impartial about this at all.
Is the idea of a guiltless Trump as absurd as a good Samaritan?
Sorry, if I didn’t make it clear earlier, but this isn’t a political article. I am not following the lead of Christianity Today’s recent editorial team, who suggested President Trump deserves to be impeached. I don’t care if you are a MAGA (Make America Great Again) fan-boy or a card-carrying member of the Democratic Socialists of America. As a foreigner, I probably have no right to make such a comment.
This is just a religious metaphor. A parable. Just an idea that came into my head one day as I was watching the news.
To many, the idea of a guiltless Trump is as absurd as a good Samaritan was to Jesus’ original audience. Or not. Others can comment about that.
Nonetheless, in my respectful opinion, the mess that is the process and timing underpinning Donald Trump’s would-be judgment is a perfect exemplar of Christian disputes about the biblical concept of judgment. Something that is really important, even critical, but which almost no one – so-called experts included – can agree upon as to how it actually works.
Make no mistake, the idea of an eschatological (end-time) judgment is firmly entrenched in the Christian tradition. In Hebrews 9:27 it states: “As people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment.”
The Apostle’s Creed and Nicene Creed, foundation statements for most Christian denominations, make clear Jesus Christ “will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.”
Within the Seventh-day Adventist faith, our denomination was arguably founded upon the idea of eschatological judgment. Our whole movement was forged in the crucible of the Great Disappointment and its immediate aftermath, in a dispute about the nature of end-time judgment, and when it was said to begin or finish.
SDA Fundamental Belief #24 states:
In 1844, at the end of the prophetic period of 2300 days, He entered the second and last phase of His atoning ministry, which was typified by the work of the high priest in the most holy place of the earthly sanctuary. It is a work of investigative judgment which is part of the ultimate disposition of all sin, typified by the cleansing of the ancient Hebrew sanctuary on the Day of Atonement… This judgment vindicates the justice of God in saving those who believe in Jesus. It declares that those who have remained loyal to God shall receive the kingdom. The completion of this ministry of Christ will mark the close of human probation before the Second Advent.
How relevant is the process and timing of eschatological judgment when its outcome is assured?
Despite this being an official belief of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, the Adventist understanding of judgment has been in much debate for many decades. Questions about its process (will the judgment of the saints really be investigative in nature? Must we be perfectly obedient, or do we keep sinning right up to the end?) and timing (does judgment really begin in 1844 and not 33 AD? How long does the process really take? and why has it been delayed?) have now been challenged. Rightly so.
Moreover, anecdotally it seems Fundamental Belief #24 has been downgraded in importance to a second-tier issue, even by those who still adhere to this official wording. In much of Adventism it is virtually a taboo topic. I have tested this many times, including amongst Generation of Youth for Christ (GYC)-loving youth, who in my experience can almost never explain the numerology behind the 2,300-day, 70-week and 42-month prophecies.
To avoid any doubt, I think jettisoning the whole concept of judgment would be wrong, ignoring a foundational Christian belief. Eschatological judgment is linked to the end of the world at the Second Coming of Jesus, which is the “advent” part of our name “Adventist”. We probably don’t preach about it enough.
Nonetheless, I do think downgrading or recalibrating disputes about the process and timing of eschatological judgment might be a good thing. Much of what currently sits within Fundamental Belief #24 should probably go in a draw.
Why I find the current impeachment hearing an apt metaphor for the Christian concept of judgment is McConnell’s own quiet confidence, that the process and timing are not really important, because he admits the outcome is set:
This is a political, not a legal trial. We know what the outcome is going to be.
When it comes to biblical end-time judgment, we too should focus on that outcome. The Bible is clear on that, as the Apostle Paul explains in Romans 8:33:
Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who then is the one who condemns? No one.
Note that Paul promises us justification (dikaiōn) – literally to be acquitted or declared righteous. But note Paul also promises us more than that.
As I finish writing this article, I see a junior Senator from Missouri will shortly introduce a motion to dismiss the articles of impeachment. There may be a judgment but no trial. Even though there was an “investigative judgment” by a hostile House, that all means nothing in a Trump-friendly Senate.
As I have written previously, by analogy, I am inclined to believe in a pre-advent investigative judgment, but not a saints’ trial. For those who emphasise God’s grace through justification, I think they may not go far enough. We are not merely justified. Paul suggests we cannot even be charged (enkalesei) with a crime. Immunity from prosecution is more than a pardon.
However, it doesn’t really matter whether I am right or not, just as it doesn’t really matter if the motion from the Missouri Senator succeeds or not. That is my point. The outcome is assured.
Is God’s judgment an unfair charade?
How can we have this assurance? Paul concludes by telling us in Romans 8:34:
Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us.
Yet the Bible doesn’t just call Jesus our defense attorney. It openly says God has entrusted all judgment to Him (John 5:22). This judgment seems rigged!
Jesus is no impartial juror or judge. He is blatantly partial, interceding on our behalf. Despite presiding over our case, Jesus also runs our defense team. Just as Mitch McConnell is not passively awaiting the House’s evidence of the President’s alleged guilt, but actively in lock-step with the White House. Rigged.
Does this mean God’s judgment is unfair? In a sense yes, and lucky for us. If judgment were fair, we would all be in serious trouble. Our own righteousness is of filthy rags (Is. 64:4-9), and anyone who claims to be without sin is a liar (1 John 1:8). Grace could never be fair in a world that says people should get what they deserve.
For those who are still outraged by this Trump metaphor, your outrage is the point I am making. As a lawyer, I affirm the inherent wrongness of what I am saying, with every fibre of my being. You should be outraged. Because grace is outrageous (Rom. 5:7-8).
But remember, this is just a theological parable and not a political statement. I am saying nothing about the merits of excluding a man from an earthly political office. I am talking about your right to a heavenly one.
In our Christian life none of us deserve heaven and all of us deserve hell. Yet heaven is what Jesus is offering, despite our obvious guilt. All we need do is accept it. We cannot earn our way to heaven with a quid pro quo (Rom. 4:4-5).
Many of Jesus’ parables go to the odd nature of this undeserving grace. My favorite is the parable of the vineyard workers, who all receive the same wage no matter how long they worked. When some workers later complain that the Master is being unfair, He explains:
I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. (Matt. 20:13-14)
How can God’s judgment be fair if it is partial and undeserving?
When God’s judgment finally comes to this world, how can the angels who pour out the last plagues claim: “Just and true are your ways, King of the nations” (Rev. 5:3)? Jesus gives the answer Himself in Matt. 20:15, in the response of the vineyard Master:
“Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?”
Jesus can be partial and undeserving to an impeachable humanity because He was perfect. Through His own life, death and resurrection, Jesus has reclaimed all of humankind as the Second Adam (1 Cor. 15:21, 45). He has won His own election over Lucifer, who was the erstwhile Prince of this World (John 12:31-33).
Jesus has convinced the cosmic electoral college (Job 2:1; 9:27-35; Rev. 4:4). As Trump can claim the same Presidential rights and privileges as George Washington or Abraham Lincoln, and invoke their conduct as precedent, so you too can claim the royal rights of Christ your Lord (1 Pet. 2:9). However undeserving.
“If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Rom. 8:31) Jesus is an even better friend than Mitch McConnell.
Merit means nothing. Delay means nothing. Trump’s status as President of the United States, and his friends in the Senate, mean everything.
In Trump’s earthly judgment, his ultimate verdict will read “not guilty”, whether people think that deserving or not. In your own heavenly judgment, so will yours, if you are but willing to accept it.
Stephen Ferguson is a lawyer from Perth, Western Australia, with expertise in planning, environment, immigration and administrative-government law. He is married to Amy and has two children, William and Eloise. Stephen is a member of the Livingston Adventist Church.