Four last things (2) Judgment

Michael A. Hayes

?Do not wait for the last judgment. It comes every day.?
(Albert Camus)

An immediate reaction to the word ?judgment? can be simply to think of it in terms of condemnation by an authority figure ? indeed some Christian rhetoric does give that impression. Far more helpful is to think of it in a broader sense, along the lines of the long process of reflecting, pondering and sifting that one might undertake when ?judging? a work of art, or the suitability of a person for a post, or even a fine wine.

In the famous judgment scene of the sheep and the goats in Matthew?s gospel (Ch. 25), it might seem that judgment is about the moment of sentencing, but in fact, what is striking is that both sets of people involved are surprised by the final judgment given ? they did not realise the implications of their way of living. It is not simply that they hadn?t been able to distinguish wrong and right, it is rather that during their lifetime their day to day behaviour had an ultimate meaning which had escaped them.

In the Dream of Gerontius by Cardinal Newman, it is Gerontius himself who, when the moment of judgment arrives and he encounters God, pronounces sentence; ?Take me away and in the lowest deep there let me be.? Just as we can think of excommunication as something that is done to people, it is more accurate to think of it as something people do themselves; they act in such a way as to be no longer in communion with the body of the faithful. Similarly, the insight from Gerontius is that separation from God at the moment of judgment is something that the individual does in order to enter a state of purgation (or, alas, more definitively to deliberately choose to live apart from God completely).

So, in a sense we can think of judgment as a result of choice. One of the characteristics of John?s gospel is how people encounter Jesus and have to choose for him or against him (e.g. Nicodemus, the Samaritan woman, the man born blind, Pilate); and those decisions, in the end are their judgment. Indeed very explicitly Jesus in that gospel insists: ?God sent his son into the world, not to condemn the world, but so that through him the world might be saved.?(3.17) For Pope Francis, ?this means, then, that the judgement is already in process, throughout our existence. This judgement is pronounced in every instant in our lives, as reflected in our acceptance in faith of salvation, present and through the work of Christ, or in our incredulity and our consequent self-centredness. Salvation means opening oneself to Jesus. If we are sinners, the Lord forgives us, but we must open ourselves to Jesus' love, which is greater than all things; and opening up means repenting? [Catechesis 11th December 2013].

It is clear that in the early church there were expectations of an immediate coming of Christ and therefore of an imminent judgment ? that, however, soon waned as the expected coming didn?t happen (see the transition between 1 Thessalonians 4.13-17 and 2 Thessalonians 2.1-12). Nonetheless the idea of judgment happening to people sooner rather than at the end of time became established. In 1336 Pope Benedict XII summarised the consensus of theological opinion (Benedictus Deus): after death each person is judged and enters immediately into heaven or hell or purgatory, we do not have to wait for the final coming.

In human judging, impartiality is an important virtue, and the judge is called to be as impartial as possible ? the judgment is meant to be ?objective?. The final judgment of any person is something quite different. The Christian faith emphasises that the one who ?comes to judge the living and the dead? is one who knows us and loves us ? indeed knows us better than we know ourselves and knows our inmost intentions even better than we do ourselves. ?Tout comprendre, c?est tout pardonner? says Princess Mary in Tolstoy?s great masterpiece War and Peace (ch.28) ?To understand all is to forgive all?. That may be a comment by a character in a Russian novel, but it might also well be a hope for all facing the reality of final judgment.

In living out his or her life, the Christian does so in the community of believers, and the collected wisdom and the teaching of the Church offers guidance and formation to enable those lives to be lived fully and generously. The Christian tradition aims to help the person to choose to live day by day ?in love? ? and so live in God, becoming the person that God calls them to be. In the end that is all that matters; for as St John of the Cross puts it, ?In the evening of life, we will be judged on love alone.?