In the Gospel of John, Jesus says, “For judgment I have come into the world.” Yet, later in the same Gospel, he says, “I did not come to judge the world.” Did Jesus contradict himself? Did he come to judge or not?
On the surface, these claims seem contradictory. However, if we understand the context in which they were said and examine the specific language Jesus used, it becomes clear that he was talking about different things. There is nothing mutually exclusive about these claims.
Context is important here. Prior to the first statement, Jesus had been speaking to a man who had been blind but had recently been healed. The claim, “For judgment I have come into the world,” is only the first part of a longer sentence, which continues: “so that the blind will see and those who see will become blind.”
It is important to note that Jesus is not claiming here that he will judge people. He says rather that it is for judgment that he has come. But are not those the same thing? They are not.
Jesus did not come, and explicitly says he did not come, to judge or to condemn. His coming nevertheless precipitated judgment on the world. How does that work?
His coming into the world became an occasion – and even an instrument – of judgment. We are familiar with instruments of judgment. A tape measure is one. A plumb line is another. In a similar sense, the coming of Christ into the world is an instrument of judgment for humankind.
The image Jesus chose to illustrate this truth is light. He says, “I have come into the world as a light.” Before his coming, the world was in profound spiritual darkness.
In absolute darkness, it makes no difference whether a person is blind or sighted. I was once on a tour of a cavern when the guide turned off the artificial lights. Everyone gasped. For those few moments, we were in absolute darkness. In that environment, it is impossible to judge whether a person has sight. But turn on the light, and it soon becomes evident which persons can see.
Jesus’ coming turned on the light. If people cannot sense that light or, sensing it, scurry away from it into the shadows, they have passed judgment on themselves. In a related passage in John’s Gospel, Jesus says: “And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light . . .”
When Jesus said, “For judgment I have come into the world, so that the blind will see and those who see will become blind,” he was conversing with the man whose sight he had restored. When that man looked at Jesus, he saw goodness and truth.
A group of Pharisees was also present, men widely known for their piety. Standing in the radiance of the light of the world, they could not see past their own reputations to the goodness and truth that stood before them. The presence of Jesus became for them the occasion of judgment. Their spiritual blindness was revealed.
If I listen to the second movement of the Bach Concerto for Two Violins in D minor, BWV 1043, and hear nothing I desire, I do not pass judgment on Bach, but on myself. My musically deaf ear has been revealed. As the coming of Bach judges me, the coming of Christ judges humanity.
Judgment is, in the Bible, both a present reality and a future event. The future judgment will confirm the judgment that we now, by our response to goodness and truth, particularly as embodied in Jesus Christ, pass on ourselves. This is what people don’t understand who complain that it is unfair of God to judge. The judgment he will certify is the one they pass on themselves.
Albert Camus famously wrote, “Do not wait for the last judgment. It comes every day.” In a sense he was right. We are not so much waiting for the last judgment as we are preparing for it, each day, by the kinds of faithful – or faithless – people we are becoming.