After This, the Judgment
Life is not fair. Every day, in hundreds of ways, this fact makes itself abundantly clear to us. September 11, 2001 marked a day when the unfairness of this physical life became especially apparent. The entire world stood with mouth agape as it watched four hijacked United States commercial planes used as weapons against our unsuspecting nation. Within minutes, the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were rocked by the impact of these planes. Fires burned, smoke billowed, and the loss of innocent human life shocked us all. Through the carnage and terror, one primary feeling emerged from the collective mind of the United States—we will find and punish whoever did this.
When this type of tragedy occurs and the heinousness of criminal activity comes into full focus, the question always arises: Is it right in God’s eyes for humans to demand that the perpetrators be brought to justice and punished for their dastardly act of vicious cowardice? And if so, who has the authority to administer such punishment. Fortunately, the Bible provides clear answers to such questions. In Romans 13, the inspired apostle Paul explained that each citizen has an obligation to be obedient to the governing authorities because “the authorities that exist are appointed by God.” Furthermore, the government “does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil” (Romans 13:1-4).
The Bible plainly teaches that the government has the God-given authority to execute wrath on those who do evil. What does the statement “does not bear the sword in vain” mean in this context? Without a doubt, the sword in the first century (as well as in previous and subsequent centuries) was looked upon as a weapon of death. The Old Testament is replete with references to the sword being just such an instrument. Hosea 11:6 records: “And the sword shall slash in his cities, devour his districts, and consume them.” Again in Jeremiah 15:3 it is written: “ ‘And I will appoint over them four forms of destruction,’ says the Lord: ‘the sword to slay, the dogs to drag, the birds of the heavens and the beasts of the earth to devour and destroy.’ ” New Testament references support the idea as well. Revelation 6:8 states: “So I looked, and behold, a pale horse. And the name of him who sat on it was Death, and Hades followed with him. And power was given to them over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword, with hunger, with death, and by the beasts of the earth” (emp. added). When Paul stated that the government does not bear the sword in vain, he explicitly advocated the idea that the government reserves the right to administer capital punishment.
One reason God has given this right to the government can be found in Ecclesiastes 8:11: “Because the sentence against an evil work is not executed speedily, therefore the heart of the sons of men is fully set in them to do evil.” If proper punishment is not meted out to the perpetrators of crimes, then more and more people embolden themselves to commit crimes against the government and their fellow human beings.
Along with this authority, the government has been given a tremendous responsibility to administer justice properly and without partiality. The Proverbs writer commented: “When the righteous are in authority, the people rejoice, but when a wicked man rules, the people groan” (29:2). It is true that many unrighteous rulers have taken power and misused the authority of the government. Consider Herod, for instance, who “killed the brother of John with the sword” (Acts 12:2). Or bring to mind the evil Roman Emperor Nero who captured Christians and tortured them via heinous acts of persecution. And no list of evil rulers would be complete without the infamous Hitler, who murdered over six million Jews. But even though these rulers have abused the office and authority that God gave the governing powers, the authority given to the government by God has not been lessened because of their abuse. The government “does not bear the sword in vain.”
Unfortunately, certain unalterable limitations make it impossible for the government to catch and punish every person who has committed criminal acts. Some villains inevitably slip through the cracks of the justice system and never are punished in this life. Each year thousands of parents abuse their own children physically and sexually and receive none of their just deserts. Each year hundreds of murder cases are filed away stamped “UNSOLVED,” and will stay that way. Each day thieves loot and plunder, making themselves fat and rich off of the toil and labor of their victims, yet they get away scot-free.
Because of the injustice that goes unpunished, many wonder if there is a righteous God Who sees and acts on behalf of the victims. They need wonder no more, because God “has appointed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness” (Acts 17:31). The wicked have been warned that “God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, that he will also reap” (Galatians 6:8). And: “ ‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord. And again, ‘The Lord will judge His people.’ It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:30-31). While it is the case that God’s retributive justice is not meted out to its full extent in this present age, it is not the case that it will remain muted so forever. Paul had this to say to those who persisted in wickedness: “But in accordance with your hardness and your impenitent heart you are treasuring up for yourself wrath in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God, who ‘will render to each one according to his deeds’: eternal life to those who by patient continuance in doing good seek for glory, honor, and immortality; but to those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness—indignation and wrath, tribulation and anguish, on every soul of man who does evil” (Romans 2:5-9). Some may escape the sword of the state, but they will not escape the sword of their God.