Judgement: Sheep and Goats

Questioning Church
Belief and Unbelief
Person standing in a street looking puzzled
Janet Williams

Janet Williams has taught philosophy, religious studies/theology and Buddhism in a range of universities and colleges in both Japan and England. She is currently vice-principal of St Hild College.


Often I begin a study session on the doctrine of Judgment by asking the group to summarize the doctrine as they have received it so far. The summary generally comes down to a version of the ‘Parable of the Sheep and the Goats’, as told in Matthew 25:31-46. The only substantial disagreement comes when I ask, ‘what is the criterion we will be judged by?’ Both in the story of the Sheep and the Goats, and in many popular ideas about Christianity, the answer is ethical: we will be judged on the basis of our compassionate action for the poor – or more simply, on whether we have been good or bad. Some students, however, will insist that this is not the criterion set out by the Gospel: appealing to Luther, they point out that we are justified by grace – i.e. through God’s free and unmerited gift of faith in his Son as our Saviour. Nevertheless, everyone usually agrees that the rest of the story can be taken more or less at face value: there will be a day when humanity will be gathered before the throne of a righteous Judge, who will separate us into two streams, one welcomed into his kingdom of love, one banished forever.

In many of our medieval churches, this scene is depicted in stained glass or wall paintings known as ‘Dooms’. (A particularly fine example in stained glass is in St Mary’s parish church in Fairford, Gloucestershire – there is even a Wikipedia article about it, and it’s worth looking up the images online.) There’s a little additional detail, though, in many of the Dooms: the Church is in the picture too, with St Peter and his keys opening the way to Heaven. It’s interesting to muse over this clue to the way narratives of Judgment have become entwined with claims to ecclesial power: the criterion of compassionate action, or of faith, has often been translated into the more practical currency of obedience to Mother Church.

It’s characteristic of Jesus’ stories, though (a characteristic of many teachers in the oral tradition, before meaning got flattened out by written texts), that they don’t so much convey a particular truth as provoke discussion and rumination, in the course of which deeper layers of truth will be disclosed. This is part of what Jesus and the Hebrew prophets meant by ‘having eyes to see and ears to hear’. So, I encourage my students to stay with the story of the Sheep and the Goats and to start asking it hard questions, imaginatively wrestling with it, debating it just as the rabbis and their students would debate the teachings. You might like to spend some time doing this, alone or with a friend. I don’t intend to spoil things by predicting what you’ll find, but I can say that the groups I’ve discussed this story with have found that it cracks open like an egg to reveal some startling and unexpected insights. This cracking open, not an anxious grip on the story’s surface, is – I believe – exactly what Jesus intends.

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Leaving the story to work its magic in your mind and heart, let’s turn for a while to those Dooms. It’s fair to say that in every church which has a Doom, it isn’t the only image of judgment in the church. Take St Mary’s church in Fairford as an example: in this church there are a host of images of biblical and traditional scenes of judgment, and they all have something to contribute to a great swelling conversation-in-pictures about the nature of human and divine judgment. But there’s one judgment image that we will find everywhere: the image of the man on the cross, judged and condemned, tortured and executed. In Fairford, the ‘Great West Window’ which contains the Doom faces the ‘Great East Window’ above the altar: a window which shows Pilate’s judgment of Christ. The two windows seem to challenge one another from either end of the space in which daily and weekly worship and service unfolds. In each scene, a judge sits on a throne – a human judge in the east, facing a divine one in the west. In one picture, God judges humanity; in the other, humanity judges God. Like the frames of a modern comic, the different panels of the East Window (the one the congregation will spend most of its time facing, only turning West either to leave or as they return from receiving Communion) move from the judgment before Pilate to the crucifixion on Calvary, Christ’s cross in between the two thieves – and there is another echo from one window to another, the ‘penitent thief’ echoing the ‘sheep’ in the Doom, while the impenitent thief recalls the ‘goats’.

What we’re witnessing in churches like this, where the Sheep and the Goats interrogate the Judgment and Execution of Christ – and vice versa – is doctrine as a living conversation going on literally within the body of the church, rather than played out on the pages of scholarly texts. These contrasting images bound a space within which baptisms and funerals take place, the Word is preached and broken open for the feeding of the people, prayers and praises are offered, and we belong not only to God but to one another, not as disembodied minds but as family. Like Jesus’ storytelling, these visual images of judgment invite us to ponder them together and respond. What is the relationship between that image of each of us judged on our own merits, and that other, greater, image of a man who offered himself to be judged so that we might not be? Where is he now, in our experience and practice? Is he safely removed from harm, secure in his power, able and willing to divide us from one another for eternity? Or is he still suffering human judgment and condemnation? Where do we fee safer, more at home? – standing under the Doom which suggests we will to some degree determine our own destiny, or under the picture of Jesus condemned and crucified for us? What happens in our minds and hearts when we move position? What are the character and goals of the one who judges us?

Whether it is Jesus’ story of sheep and goats, or the images in churches like St Mary’s Fairford, these narratives of judgment open out into a conversation which others are invited to join. What other images in our churches might turn out to have something to add to that conversation? In Fairford, the artists added a smaller but significant window to the right of the Doom: it presents the Judgment of Solomon – the story from 1 Kings 3:16-28. This beautiful story, about the king who above all others is a bearer of Divine Wisdom, offers what looks like a judgment of death: the king orders the baby to be cut in half. But the death sentence is the very thing that enables the truth to emerge: the baby’s rightful identity is established, the child lives and is restored to its true mother. It’s not hard to imagine what this window might be saying, if we were to record its contribution to the conversation about judgment.

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Once you begin to have ‘ears to hear’, you discover just how richly diverse the Christian conversation about judgment is. Notice, for example, that we tend to assume that ‘judgment’ is a metaphor drawn from the law courts. Even within the range of legal imagery in the Bible and tradition, there is rich variety: God is presented not only as judge, but also as prosecutor and advocate, as well as defendant. By the same token, judgment is not simply God’s fearsome threat against wicked humanity; it is also a human cry for restoration of justice, a joyous vision and promise of vindication for those victimized by the powerful. In the Gospels, Jesus offers himself to be judged by the authorities of his day, and there is room for debate as to what kind of vindication by the Father he expected to ensue; but in the one case where he was asked to act as some kind of arbiter, he refused (John 8:3-11).

Beyond this, there are some intriguing alternative images. Most of Jesus’ audience would have been much more familiar with judgment in agricultural contexts than in law courts: think of all the biblical imagery of planting, pruning and weeding, of discriminating good seed from bad, domestic vines from wild ones. John 15:1&2 presents Jesus as saying ‘I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine-grower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit.’ This image of judgment is less individualistic than the story of the Sheep and the Goats: whereas it’s hard to think of each sheep, each goat as representing anything other than individual people, there is more ambiguity in the vine analogy. Is each one of us one branch? Is it possible that there might be many branches in me, some of which need to be removed, and others only pruned? Or even that some branches might represent groups and associations of people, or cultures rather than persons?

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One final thought, too, for those who have ‘eyes’ to see. You might find it worth comparing the four Gospels’ accounts of the discovery of the empty tomb. Look for how many ‘men’ or ‘angels’ were met at the tomb, and where exactly they were. Only John’s Gospel has two angels sitting inside the tomb, at either end of the grave slab (20:12). Why might John have chosen to sketch this very specific image? Rowan Williams suggests that he intends it to call to mind another image, of the Mercy-Seat of God, the Ark of the Covenant surmounted by two golden cherubim, their huge wings touching to frame the empty space of the seat itself (Exodus 25:18-19). Williams is surely right: the visual coincidence is too striking to be accidental: this Gospel is inviting us to see the empty tomb as the very judgment seat of God. Is Christ’s resurrection the ‘incarnation’ of God’s word of judgment on us all? Is our judgment about the identity of this Christ the criterion which will separate the sheep from the goats? Is this a reassurance that our Judge is one who, in surpassing love, gave his life for us, and asks us ‘Why do you weep’? As they say in exam papers, ‘Discuss’…

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Perhaps you might have been hoping that, in reading this, you would find out something about ‘the Christian doctrine of judgment’. What I’ve been trying to say, is that there isn’t ‘a’ Christian doctrine of judgment, so much as a conversation, a set of stories and pictures and an invitation to join in the community that wrestles with them. There really isn’t a final answer to the question ‘what do Christians believe about judgment’? This is what theologian David Ford refers to as the ‘underdetermined’ nature of Christian doctrine: we are part of a community that has to come together to make sense of the tradition as it’s been handed on to us, engage with the voices that challenge us as well as those which inspire us, and offer contributions out of our own experience of God in prayer and discipleship. Our calling is to find words and pictures and habits that will enable us, in all our differences (‘Jew and Gentile, slave and free, male and female …’ Galatians 3:28), to be present to one another in such a way that we become aware of the spirit of Christ present between us (Matthew 18:20). In this sense, whatever story we tell about judgment is secondary. What has primacy is the greater conviction: God is love, loves us freely, and in him justice and mercy meet and kiss.


Further Reading

Richard Bauckham and Trevor Hart, Hope Against Hope: Christian Eschatology in Contemporary Context (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1999)

David Ford, The Future of Christian Theology (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011) – see p.35

CS Lewis, Mere Christianity (London: Fount HarperCollins, 1995), ch. 4 ‘Morality and Psychoanalysis’

Rowan Williams, On Christian Theology (Oxford: Blackwell, 2000), ‘The Judgment of the World’ (pp.29-43) and ‘The Empty judgment Seat and the Empty Tomb’ (pp. 183-196)

Rowan Williams, Christ on Trial: How the Gospel Unsettles our Judgment (London: HarperCollins, 2000)

Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996), particularly the final chapter

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