The Four Last Things
“ Father, how could a good and loving God judge me?” Let’s back up the horse and cart here. What do we mean by judge? When someone says, “Don’t judge me!”, they usually mean, “Don’t judge me falsely or negatively!” Well, what about when I compliment someone? Or tell the ‘good job’? I don’t think I’ve ever gotten the ‘Don’t judge me’ response… yet that’s exactly what I’ve done. I’ve judged the job he or she has done, or the quality of their character, as ‘good’. To ‘judge’ simply means to evaluate, or to weigh against something else. How many times when faced with a decision do we hear someone tell us, “Use your best judgement.” Understandably, nobody likes to be judged negatively. And certainly nobody enjoys being judged falsely.
So how do we know there’s going to be a judgement after death? Like all truths of our faith, it’s because God has told us. Consider how many passages from the Scriptures speak to this:
- “It is appointed unto men to die once, but after this comes the Judgement.” (Hebrews 9:27)
- “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive recompense, according to what he did in the body, whether good or evil.” (2 Corinthians 5:10)
- “I tell you, on the day of judgment people will render an account for every careless word they speak. By your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.” (Matthew 12:36-37)
So what happens? There will be two judgements: Particular and Final.
Particular: As soon as the soul separates from the body, it goes to stand before Jesus Christ as the Judge. An account will be given for the whole of our life – the good, the bad, and the ugly. Further, we will see these as God sees them – the ugliness of even the smallest sin in contrast to the sheer beauty of God, and the abundant goodness of every virtuous act as sharing in God’s own Goodness. Nothing, good or bad, will escape scrutiny.
This is true judgement – not false. And the judge is a good judge. And a merciful one! But a note about that mercy: mercy is offered and available before death. All sins that have been brought to the mercy of God before death are forgiven, and are not counted in the final balance. But with death comes the end to the offer of mercy. If someone dies with unrepented mortal sin on their soul, then God respects the finality of their decision. In effect, good or bad, we get what we’ve chosen.
I think I need to take a quick tangent here to talk about mercy: Mercy is a particular form of Love; specifically, love that enters into another’s poverty. Mercy is not ignorant of justice. Rather, it completes it. Think: justice tells what the poverty is, and mercy seeks it out to fill it. As shown earlier, divine justice is not something I can escape, but mercy is offered to ‘heal the rift’ … and mercy can either be received or rejected.
Further, what God has revealed to us is that the final hour of life is abundant with the offer of mercy! God does not desire to see the sinner die in his sins! (2 Peter 3:9). We never know what mercy God is able to give to someone in the last moments in his or her life. But God never forces His mercy upon anyone: He respects their freedom to reject Him. And if one does so in this life in a serious manner, with freedom and knowledge, and is unrepentant at the moment of death… this is what we call dying in mortal sin.
To know if this is the state in which someone has died is beyond our ability to know through human reason alone, so we never presume. We hope, and we pray! This, too, is why it is so important for us to call on our parish priest to come give the ‘Last Rites’, which is more than just ‘Anointing of the Sick’, but when done in fullness gives the Sacraments of Penance (washes away all venial and mortal sins), Anointing of the Sick (ordinarily washes away only venial sins, and gives grace for hope), Viaticum (Holy Communion, to increase our Love for God), a profession of Faith, the Apostolic Pardon (remission of all punishment due to sin – aka, skip Purgatory), and the Final Commendation. What a mercy!
Back to judgment: When someone dies, first comes the particular judgment. Christ passes a judgment that is true, lacking in nothing, and utterly fair. For someone who dies in complete innocence (free of original and personal sin), they go straight to heaven. For someone who dies in a state of grace, but still has some attachment to sin, he or she is on the way to heaven but first must spend time in purgatory. And for the person who died with unrepented mortal sin, by which a soul has cut itself off from God, the destination is hell. Truly, it is not God who sends a soul to hell, it is a soul that sends itself there. (More on this in the next article, on Hell).
Later, at the end of time, there will be a Final, or General, Judgment. The Catechism puts is profoundly: “In the presence of Christ, who is Truth itself, the truth of each person’s relationship with God will be laid bare. The last Judgment will reveal even to its furthest consequences the good each person has done or failed to do during his earthly life.” This is not a re-judging of the soul, but rather: in the particular judgment, it was just the individual soul before Jesus. At the Final Judgment, all things that have been done by all people throughout all history will be made known to everyone. Nothing, good or bad, will be hidden to anyone. (See Matthew 25:31-46)
So how do I get ready for the judgment? It’s not something to be trifled with, so two suggestions:
- Go to Confession. There’s no better preparation.
- Never end the day without looking back and making a good act of contrition.