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He Will Come Again to Judge the
Living and the Dead

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

The focus of the seventh article of the Apostles’ Creed is on Christ’s Second Coming at the end of the world. Also called the Parousia, the New Testament writers identify it as the final triumph of Jesus in the establishment of His kingdom.

Before we reflect on this Second Coming of the Messiah, it will be useful to briefly reflect on what we call the particular judgment. Although never formally defined, it is commonly taught by the Church that each person is judged by God on entering eternity. This is a logical conclusion from the teaching of Sacred Scripture. Lazarus is immediately taken into the bosom of Abraham, and the rich man is immediately sent to hell. Jesus on the cross says to the penitent thief, “This day you shall be with me in paradise.” For St. Paul, death is the gate to happiness and to be with Christ.

We shall be judged on our good and bad actions. The critical term in distinguishing good and bad actions is “freedom.” We shall be judged on how we have used our free will, whether in cooperating with God’s grace, or resisting His grace. There is nothing more fundamental in our understanding of God’s judgement than the fact that we have a truly free will. It is so free that we can actually say, “No,” to the will of the Almighty. However, we are free not only to choose the will of God, we are also free, that is, we have the power to say, “Yes,” to God’s grace, with no less generosity. On all these counts, we shall be judged when we are called by God into eternity.

Among the errors condemned by the Church over the centuries, was the idea that there is either no particular judgement for each person at death, or that it will take place just before the last day of the human race. Besides the Church’s teaching about the particular judgement coming right after death, we also have the Church’s practice.

  • She honors certain people as saints, and from the beginning, has invoked their intercession with God. Part of our faith in the existence of saints is the certainty that they are in heavenly glory. This presumes that they had been favorably judged right after death, and certainly long before the final judgement on the last day.

  • Not a few Christian bodies, separated from the Catholic Church, hold exactly this position: that human beings are not judged by God until the end of the world. In fact, this is one reason they give for not invoking the saints.

Our final destiny, therefore, is decided before the general judgment of the last day. In fact, we may say that our destiny is decided even before we actually die. Why? Because our moral conduct during life on earth is already the decisive factor which determines our destiny. It cannot be over-stressed how important is our faith in the particular judgment. It provides the foundation not only for the veneration of saints, but for our prayers and sacrifices for the souls in purgatory.

The General Judgement

The general judgment means that all human beings from the dawn of history until the end of time will be judged by Christ when He comes on the last day of the world. This does not mean only passing negative judgment on sinners. It also, and emphatically, means the universal manifestation of God’s mercy and of man’s cooperation with divine grace. Thus Christ will glorify the virtues of the saints no less than testify to the sinful conduct of the wicked. In both cases, however, the last judgement will glorify God; His infinite justice no less than His infinite mercy.

The consequences of our human actions will also be a part of the general judgment. One of the reasons for this final judgment is that the consequence of our human actions will be revealed to the whole world. Every moral action we perform, which means everything we do with our free will, will be manifest on the last day. However, what we have done is not only the actual choice we make when we perform an action. It is also the humanly unpredictable consequences of our free choices.

Every virtuous action we perform, no matter how trivial, has a ripple of consequences that go on and on until the end of time. So too, every single action we perform has results that will literally never end. On both levels, therefore, the general judgment is meant to reveal to the whole world, both the human actions that people have voluntarily done, and the effects of these actions, whether anticipated or never foreseen.

One more observation should be made. The evil that we have done will not be revealed to our humiliation, provided we have repented. Indeed, one of the marvels of the general judgment will be the revelation of God’s providence. We will then see how mysteriously God has drawn good from the evil that people have done.

This raises a serious question. Are we responsible for what we immediately do and not for the consequences for our actions? No, there are two kinds of responsibility we have for the actions we perform. Both need to be clearly understood if we are to appreciate the purpose of the general judgment.

  • We are obviously responsible for the real choices that we make. This is the first meaning of the word “responsible.” We have true internal freedom to choose whether to cooperate with the will of God or resist the divine will. We are free human beings.

  • But we are also responsible for the consequences of our actions. The choices we make during life include not only the immediate actions that we choose to make. We are also accountable for what will follow as a result of our choice. Actions have consequences. There is no such thing as a sterile human act. The mystery lies in the unspeakable power of our free will to determine the future, our own future and that of others. Under God, we shape the history of the human race.

Unfortunately, we have come to identify judgment with God’s justice in punishing the wicked. This is only half true. God is just as just, if not more so, in rewarding the good as in punishing the wicked. In fact, the very word “merit” is from the Latin meritum, which means wage or earning. Every time we perform a good moral act in the state of grace, we earn two things: divine grace in this life and heavenly glory in the life to come.

Christ foretold the events that will precede the general judgment. Among these events, two especially deserve to be explained.

  • Christ foretold the destruction of Jerusalem. In the mind of God, this was to be both a prelude and the proof of the final judgment. Jesus had foretold the destruction of Jerusalem. It took place just as He had predicted. Thus, our faith in the forthcoming final judgment becomes credible, because His prophecy about the fall of Jerusalem was literally fulfilled.

  • Christ also predicted the events that will precede shortly before the end of the world. We are confident that His prediction will be fulfilled. Why? So that when the events foretold will take place, those who are then alive will see in these events the verification of their faith.

This is exactly what took place in the year 70 A.D. when Jerusalem fell to the besieging Roman Empire. The Christians in Jerusalem remembered Christ’s prediction. They fled from Jerusalem, and their lives were spared. Those who were not Christian all fell victims to the cruelty of the Roman invaders.

Christ Himself will preside at the general judgement of the human race. There are three verbs that should be explained regarding the Second Coming of Christ on the last day. They are “come,” “to preside,” and “to judge.”

  • On the last day, Christ will come a second time into the world. As we said, this is the Parousia, which means “manifestation.” The first time that He came was in poverty and humility. The angels announced His first coming as a helpless child. His Second Coming, however, will be in resplendent majesty. It was this Second Coming that the angels foretold to the anxious disciples on Ascension Thursday.

  • Christ will preside as the King of the human race. He will exercise His divine power indeed, but as the God-made-man. Jesus will have completed the purpose of the Incarnation. God became man that as the God-man, He might redeem the human race. But He also became man in order to judge the human race, especially on its acceptance or rejection of Him as its Savior.

  • Finally, Christ will judge every human being. On what grounds? Because that is why God became man: to offer the gift of His grace, but also to judge the world on how people have responded to His grace.

Practical Implications

No words can describe the practical implications of our faith in the particular and general judgment. Just one word of preliminary introduction. Over the years, I have taught comparative religion to many people. I have come to know persons professing many religions. If there is one common denominator to every religion in human history, it is the belief that our life here on earth is a gauge of what our life will be when our body dies. My favorite definition of insanity is the state of mind of anyone who does not believe that our conduct in the present world determines our happiness or misery in the world to come.

We may say that the first and most fundamental ground on how we shall be judged when we enter eternity is how we had shared with others what God has so generously given to us. It is no exaggeration to say that this is the basic reason why there are needy people in the world.

They are needy so that we might meet their needs, and thus practice the main virtue needed to prove our love for God. The examples of charity which Christ gives in Matthew’s Gospel are symbolic of the five basic needs of each human being. These needs are not only bodily; they are also and mainly spiritual. Our deepest hunger is for the truth, and therefore we have the obligation of sharing with others the true faith. Our deepest thirst is for love, which we are to give others as a condition for our salvation. We are all strangers wandering in exile here on earth; our duty is to accept others and, in Christ’s words, take them in. Our own most embarrassing nakedness is not of the body, but of the soul in need of God’s grace; we are all meant to be channels of grace to other people. There is an absolute sense in which all human beings are sick, or in prison, and need to have someone show sympathy and visit them in their loneliness. Depending on how generously we respond in our concern for others, we are planning our eternal destiny.

Anticipating our judgment, Christ warns us to watch, because “you do not know the day when your Master is coming.” Behind this warning is the profound wisdom which the Savior had of how preoccupied we can be about the things of this world and how oblivious of the world to come. All other addictions to creatures are only systematic of our worst addiction, which is to the pleasures and joys, that life on earth can provide us. The lesson our Lord is teaching is that we should live in this world but always have our eyes on the world to come. The Old Testament proverb tells us, “in all your works remember your last end, and you will never sin” (Ecclesiasticus 7:40). All through our passage in time we should have our eyes on eternity. We are to be always ready because we do not know when Christ will call us from this life to the life that will never end.

Again Jesus warns us to stay awake because “You know not the day nor the hour.” The heart of Christ’s warning is in the imperative “stay awake.” The parable of the wise and foolish virgins is a commentary on His imperative caution.

This parable on the five foolish and five wise virgins opens the predictions of the Last Judgment. What is our Lord telling us? He is warning us not only to avoid evil but to do good if we hope to be saved. The five foolish virgins simply neglected to have enough oil for their lamps. They allow themselves to fall asleep before they made sure they had enough fuel to keep their lamps burning when the bridegroom arrived. Our duty, therefore, is not only to avoid what we know is sinful. We also, and with emphasis, are to keep alert to the practice of what is good. Prudence is not just another virtue. It is the queen of virtues. We must therefore be prudent, which means provident, which means provide ourselves with the virtues we will need when God calls us to give an account of our stewardship. To further make clear his teaching, Christ gives the parable of the talents immediately after the parable of the ten virgins. In the parable of the talents, the man who is finally punished is the one who had received the least. But he failed to put that little into practice. He was therefore punished for his negligence, which you may call his lack of prudence.

Not coincidentally, Christ’s prediction of the general judgement precedes the narrative of His Passion. What is the relationship between the two? They are related especially in three ways:

  • The Passion of Christ is the highest inspiration for our faithful following of Christ in order to avoid being condemned on the last day.

  • Christ died for our sins. His Passion merited the graces we need to be judged favorably on the last day.

  • The one virtue that stands out on which we shall be judged is selfless charity. The Passion of Christ is our highest model and our deepest motive for the selfless love of others. How we need this truth of our faith today. Selfless love means to sacrifice everything, even our lives, out of love for others. We are living in a world that sacrifices everything, even the life of an unborn child, out of selfish love for oneself.

One of the most revealing signs of the Second Coming of Christ is that the Gospel will have been preached to the whole world. The emphasis is on the whole world. We might say that this stands to reason. God holds no one responsible for what they do not know. There is nothing we need to know more clearly than the Gospel of Christ, if we are to follow the teachings of Christ. In other words, before the last day, the whole human race will have had the Gospel preached to them so that no one can be excused on account of ignorance.

One more issue deserves to be emphasized: that the Gospel shall be preached. To preach is to teach indeed, but to preach in such a way that what has been taught is put into practice. God’s purpose in becoming man and revealing Himself in the person of Jesus Christ was not merely academic. His purpose was, and is, that we might live what we believe and put into practice what we accepted on faith. We are speculating when we say this, but we may safely say that the end of the world is centuries away.

Imagine, after almost two thousand years since Christ was born, died, rose from the dead and told His disciples to proclaim the Gospel to all nations, less than one-third of the human race is even nominally Christian. It cannot be because Christ is wanting in His grace. It can only be because we Christians are so blind in mind and so weak in will that we have not spent ourselves in proclaiming the Savior to the human race.

Our final judgement, let me emphasize, will include our failures as sinful negligence of what we might have done had we been more alert to the will of God. The key word is “negligence.” We commonly, and inadequately, associate sin with doing what is forbidden by God, or not doing what is commanded by God. But we can also commit sin by neglecting to do what God would want of us if we were always alert to His divine will. This in fact is the main lesson of the parable of the talents which Christ made when he foretold the final judgment. All three servants of the parable had the obligation to put to use whatever gifts they had received from the Master. More still, each was to use his gifts according to his measure and capacity. We are not to be swayed to ambitious rivalry of others who are more gifted than we. Nor are we to give in to laziness because we are less gifted than others. Finally, our lives are literally filled with countless and constant manifestations of God’s will. The secret is to be awake to these visitations of God’s providence. On the last day, we shall be held accountable for our constant sensitivity to the will of God in every single circumstance of our daily life.

One closing observation, in the form of a question. How can we be constantly awake to God’s mysterious will in our lives, every moment of our waking day? The secret is to be faithful in responding to God’s grace here and now. In the measure of my fidelity to His will, He will show me what I am to do next. If I am faithful to His invitation this morning, He will let me know what He wants me to do this afternoon. If I am responsive to His grace today, He will show me what He wants of me tomorrow. And no one can ignore this divine logic of God’s providence in our lives. He is almighty and can do all things. But He gave us a free will to respond to His will. In the measure that we do, He will work, and I mean it, miracles through these weak human creatures whom He wants to cooperate with His omnipotence.

Let us close with the sobering prayer of St. John of Damascus, written in the eighth century, but timeless in its preparation for eternity.


“You see me lying speechless and breathless before you. Weep over me, O brethren, friends, relatives, and acquaintances. For yesterday I was conversing with you, but the dread hour of death came upon me all of a sudden. But, now, all my friends who have loved me and held me dear, give me your last farewell kiss; for I shall no longer walk with you, or talk with you. I go before the Judge, Who knows no favorites. Both slave and master stand before Him, king and soldier, rich and poor, equal in all respects. Each shall be rewarded with glory or shame according to his deeds. So I beseech you all, pray to Christ our God for me without ceasing, that I may not be sentenced to the place of punishment for my sins, but that I may be established in the light of eternal life.”

Copyright © 1997 by Inter Mirifica

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