Sunday night as I scrolled through Google News, reading one horrible story after another, I thought to myself that I should really stop doing this just before trying to sleep. And then I awoke to the news of the Vegas shooting, a real-life nightmare. My heart breaks for the many families who will live this nightmare the rest of their lives.
As of now, no one understands what motivated the shooter (who does not deserve to have his name mentioned) to perpetrate this massacre. But everyone agrees with Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman: “This is a crazed lunatic full of hate.” And this sentiment cuts across party lines. President Trump referred to the crime as “an act of pure evil.” Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi said it was a “particularly despicable” act, transforming a festive musical performance into heartbreaking tragedy.
But you know what I haven’t heard? So far as I know, not a single news analyst, public official, or even Facebook friend has challenged these condemnations. No one has demurred, “Who are we to judge?” I haven’t seen anyone quote the words of Jesus, “Judge not lest you be judged,” in an effort to mute the vilification directed toward the shooter. In this case, everyone seems quite content to call evil evil.
This is in contrast to what happened last week with the passing of Hugh Hefner. While many celebrities and columnists celebrated his life and legacy, others deplored the deviancy and exploitation he gleefully promoted in his long career (none with more devastating effect than Ross Douthat). These negative appraisals raised the ire of some of my friends on Facebook, who pushed back with criticisms about judging others. One friend said of Douthat’s column:
Its tone and content sounded like a condescending prude willing to earn a check by speaking ill of the dead. If he’s speaking from some moral high ground, how did he overlook the Bible’s views on sitting in judgment of others?
Another friend said:
I know that most of you wouldn’t pass judgment unfairly, so why don’t we leave the dead alone?
These objections almost sound pious – almost.
Except that in the aftermath of the Vegas shooting, I haven’t seen similar rebuttals from these friends regarding the judgments made about the murderer. No one has dismissed those who depicted this as an act of evil as “prudes.” And no one has (to my knowledge) spoken up in defense of moral relativism (“I think mass murder is wrong, but that’s my truth, and I don’t have a right to impose it on others”). In this case, everyone seems to believe in moral absolutes, and everyone seems to think it is appropriate to condemn those who violate those absolutes.
Which means that all of those objections to “judging” someone like Hugh Hefner because we should “leave the dead alone,” and all of those complaints about “sitting in judgment” on others, were pure moonshine. Everyone believes there is such a thing as evil and that it is appropriate to condemn it. The only real matter of disagreement is determining what behavior constitutes evil, and what standard we should use to make such judgments.
When Jesus said in Matthew 7:1, “Judge not, that you be not judged,” he was not prohibiting all judgments about right and wrong. In the very context of this statement, Jesus called upon his followers to make judgments. Just a few verses later Jesus said:
Do not give dogs what is holy, and do not throw your pearls before pigs, lest they trample them underfoot and turn to attack you. (Matthew 7:6)
We must make judgments between those who are respectful and responsive to the truth and those who are disrespectful and antagonistic toward the truth.
Similarly, Jesus urged his listeners to distinguish between true and false paths to follow:
Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few. (Matthew 7:13-14)
This requires making discriminating judgments.
And immediately following that, Jesus commanded his disciples to make judgments about false prophets:
Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits. (Matthew 7:15-20)
So if we are to judge between those receptive to the word and those opposed to the word, and between the broad way of error and the narrow way of truth, and between true prophets and false prophets, then what did Jesus mean when he said, “judge not”? Let’s look at the passage in its context.
Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye. (Matthew 7:1-5)
First, it is clear from the illustration Jesus uses that the issue here is not a flat prohibition against criticism of someone else. The problem is not in trying to remove “the speck” from the eye of a brother. In fact, Jesus wants us to do this, as verse five plainly shows: “then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.”
The problem is attempting to remove specks from someone else’s eye “when there is a log in your own eye” (verse four). In other words, what Jesus is condemning here is not judgment per se, but judgment that is hypocritical. If I criticized Hugh Hefner for profiting from degeneracy while at the same time I was using pornography, then I would indeed be guilty of the sort of judgment Jesus described here. But to use this passage as a blanket condemnation against all judgments about conduct is a gross distortion of what Jesus meant.
“But who among us has never made mistakes?” Well, no one, of course. But that isn’t the point, either. In fact, the very scenario Jesus describes in Matthew 7 involves someone who indeed had enormous problems (a log in the eye!), recognized the problem, dealt with the problem (took the log out), and then removes the speck from a brother’s eye. THAT is not judging; that is love.
Hugh Hefner richly deserved the scorn he received from many quarters because there is no evidence he recognized the vile nature of his life’s work. The fruit born by the tree of his work (pornography, sex addiction, drug abuse, exploitation) revealed him to be a false prophet of liberation. And if anything, his arrogant and defiant pursuit of degeneracy proved him to be the very sort of person Jesus said was unworthy to cast pearls before. The fact that many people in our culture have chosen the broad way of hedonism rather than the narrow way of virtue only heightens the need to speak out clearly about good and evil.
“But surely you are not equating Hugh Hefner with the Vegas shooter!” Of course not. The flesh trade, as vile as it is, is not as heinous as mass murder. But notice – to agree that murder is a greater evil than sexual deviancy is also a judgment. Moral judgments are simply an inescapable part of the real world.
And unless you are willing to demur that no one has the right to judge the Vegas shooter, then the reality is that you believe there is a time and place for speaking out against evil as well. Our only real disagreement is what standard we should use to make such judgments. In my case, I believe the standard of judgment is God’s law, revealed in nature and Scripture. That standard condemns murder, and it also condemns sexual immorality.
“But only God can judge the eternal destiny of Hugh Hefner!” Of course. And indeed, I hope that before he passed away, the gospel came into his heart and he responded to God’s grace. As impossible as it is to imagine, I would hope that the same happened for the Vegas murderer, whose eternal destiny God alone will judge. But that has nothing to do with acknowledging the reprehensible conduct of each.
Calling evil evil is part of the ministry of mercy to its victims. Otherwise, what are they victims of? Pray for God’s strength and wisdom to minister to the victims of the evil of the Vegas shooting. And pray for God’s strength and wisdom to minister to the victims of the evil of moral profligacy. But to pretend evil doesn’t exist, or that we should never name it, is insulting to God and grossly disrespectful to its victims.