On a wall in Stockholm’s cathedral hangs a huge 17th-century painting of the Last Judgment that depicts the falling bodies of the damned. On a recent visit to that church I gave the painting little more than a glance. A longer look might have found something of beauty or interest, but my reaction just then was to wish that it were not there. The ugly, violent painting was not something I wanted visitors to see as representative of my faith. Thank God, I thought, that it hangs where a tourist could easily overlook it.

Of course, I know that images of wrathful retribution reflect a long history among us, that many believers still subscribe to such an eschatology, and that many nonbelievers assume that its teaching is essential to what Christians must believe. But for me and many others the church’s heart and gospel lie far from the nightmare of eternal punishment. Urgent human issues of hope and healing and solidarity may be said to have displaced the ancient fear of an angry and punishing God. When I encounter divine wrath in scriptures, I don’t hear my perdition but instead a rhetoric of passion, of frustrated love so desperate as to resort to threats and curses. And when I speak the credal words about judging the living and the dead, I hear myself affirming a hope and dream that there will one day be justice and vindication for all those who never got them in this life. In that imagining I summon up defiant courage and hope.

Yet for all that, I am haunted by fears that may be kin to those of the generations before me. They come to me when I hear this story about an unfaithful steward called to account. We don’t know whether the wasting of his master’s property was by greed and embezzlement or by mere uncaring delinquency, but the point is that the auditor was coming and the servant was going to be exposed as a fraud.