There are few things that capture the Christian imagination more than the “final judgment.” From “end times” stories like the Left Behind series to near-death experiences, Christians – and many people in general – are fascinated with what happens when the individual soul and the world in general will receive final judgment form our Lord.
Yet at the same time the final judgment holds an air of mystery and dread for us as well. What is the final judgment all about?
There is a general rule when we talk about the “Four Last Things” – death, judgment, Heaven and Hell. That rule is that we can know with certainty certain general truths that come to us through Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition, and then there is a continuum of clarity.
The more specific the detail, the less certain our knowledge. In this Spiritual Project, we’re going to stick to the things we know for sure, and maybe nudge a little bit into things we can logically conclude. We’re going to save conjecture for another time.
Death Comes For Us All
So here’s are the first absolute truth. We are all going to die. None of us knows for sure when the will happen. When we die, we will face judgment before our Lord and King to give an account for how we have lived our lives. Now, this set of truths might seem so obvious that we may be tempted to gloss over it.
But this is something that the Church and the saints highly recommend that we meditate on and act upon. That’s the purpose for Ash Wednesday: “Remember, oh man, that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” Our lives in this world are temporary.
That doesn’t mean they’re not important. But as Jesus teaches us time and time again, our focus in this life needs to be on preparing for the eternal life that comes on the other side of death. The constant message of our Lord and His Church is “be ready – for you do not know the day or the hour.”
We’ll talk about what it means to “be ready” in a bit – that’s the main subject of this Spiritual Project. First, let’s consider these truths a bit more deeply.
What is death? Outside of Christianity and a few other world religions, death is assumed to be the end of the person. That’s why for so many death is met with despair, not just sorrow.
But for the Christian, death is not the end of the person. Death is a transition. At its core, the death of a human being is the separation of the spirit from the body.
This sundering of the person is a great tragedy brought about by Original Sin. It wasn’t in God’s original plan for humanity. Devoid of its animating principle – the spirit – the body turns to dust. But the spirit lives on.
While the human person is not totally complete without a body, the spirit is in large part who we are. But death marks the end of our “worldly” existence. It also marks the beginning of our eternal existence.
When we die, we will immediately face our judgment. Church Tradition, taking its cue from Sacred Scripture, has identified two judgments – the particular judgment and the general judgment.
The Particular Judgment: the Judgment of Your Soul
The particular judgment is the judgment of the individual soul. When you die, you will stand before Jesus and you will be judged according to the standards of the Kingdom. What are those standards?
Well, the basic standard of any biblical judgment is whether or not we were faithful members of the Covenant. In Jesus’ New Covenant, this means first of all that we are baptized and in a state of grace. Being in a state of grace means fundamentally that we are in a right relationship with God.
This is especially true if we have been receiving Our Lord in the Holy Eucharist and the other Sacraments and have not committed mortal sin that remains unforgiven. Through grace, the Holy Trinity lives in us and works in us, and we live in the Holy Trinity and participation the Divine Life.
Love is the core of the Covenant. The first measure of love is how much we have loved God. Jesus gave us the way to love God by living with Jesus at the center of our life, making Him the Lord of everything we are.
Sacred Scripture is also very clear that we are judged by our actions. Our actions are a reflection of how well we followed Jesus’ commandment “Love one another as I have loved you.” How well have we dedicated ourselves to love?
And true love isn’t merely an emotion. True love – Christlike love – is a choice to sacrifice yourself for the good of others. And that choice is translated into our actions. So our actions will be judged because our actions are a measure of our love.
The General Judgment: All Things Subject to the Lord
What about the general judgment? The general judgment is better understood in terms of a king than in terms of a judge the way we think of judges.
The General Judgment is the point at the consummation of the world when Jesus will finally defeat Original Sin for good and put everything under His rule. After the General Judgment we will be reunited with our bodies. We will also see the perfection of God’s justice.
Our Spiritual Project: Preparing for Your Final Judgment
Our Spiritual Project for this month is to prepare ourselves for our personal judgment at the end of our lives. How do we do that?
Step 1: Participate in the Sacraments
First things first – we need to be in a state of grace. That means the we need to be engaged in the Sacraments. Baptism is the gateway to the other Sacraments, so we first need to be baptized.
But as we discuss in the “Living the Sacraments” program, we also need to be actively living our Baptism each and every day by responding to the grace of Baptism in our lives, and by living out our Sacramental Promises.
The same is true of the other Sacraments. The Holy Eucharist is especially a source of grace for us, and the Holy Eucharist invites us into ever increasing intimacy with God.
Step 2: Ongoing Conversion
We also need to make sure that we stay in a state of grace. That means taking frequent advantage of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, especially if we are aware that we have committed any mortal sins. To live that Sacrament means to embrace the ongoing process of conversion in our lives.
When I taught about judgment to my high school students, my students would often complain that God’s judgment didn’t seem fair. A few students even said it sounded like our eternal destiny was really a matter of chance.
If we die before we get to reconciliation after we’ve committed a mortal sin we go to Hell. If we happen to die after we go to the Sacrament of reconciliation but before we commit another mortal sin, we go to Heaven. It just seems like a roll of the dice.
My response to them often surprised them because they had never heard it before – and I think it surprises some adults too.
To truly live the Sacrament of Reconciliation in our daily lives means to conquer mortal sin. Our goal should be to get to the point when we are so attached to God – where Jesus is at the center of our lives so much – that sin isn’t even attractive to us anymore.
Furthermore, this is really the beginning of the spiritual life. So if you’re still struggling with mortal sins, setting your heart to battle against those sins is your first task. Then we can also do battle against our attraction to venial sins.
So our salvation is only a matter of chance if we are taking a chance with it. If we are asking, “How much can I flirt with sin and still be saved,” you are definitely taking a chance with your salvation.
But if we put our relationship with God in the context of other relationships – for example, a marriage – we see how foolish this attitude really is. What would your marriage be like if you said, “I cheat on my spouse, but we have a great marriage as long as I don’t get caught.” Isn’t that the same thing we say to God?
What if we made not cheating, not beating our spouse, and not completely abandoning our spouse the measure of a good, healthy, loving marriage. Would we be living a good marriage in truth? OR are these things just he minimum requirements of a good marriage?
Obviously, a good marriage requires more. A good marriage is one where spouses talk with each other, intimately know each other, put each other’s good before their own, and share in each other’s lives. Well, the same is true of our relationship with God. We should never be satisfied with doing the bare minimum.
Going to the Sacrament of Reconciliation is an important part of this process of staying in a state of grace whether we are combatting mortal sin or venial sin. Then we cooperate with the grace of the Sacrament of Reconciliation by cooperating with the Holy Spirit to continue to change our hearts.
Part of our cooperation with the Holy Spirit for the conversion of our hearts is to take advantage of another source of grace –indulgences. Indulgences are spiritual actions that the Church has attached special graces to.
Indulgences work in our hearts to help us fight our attachment to sin and the other effects that sin has on our hearts – what is called the “temporal punishment for sin.”
Indulgences are such an important – and neglected – part of preparing for our judgment that we’ll talk about them specifically in the first spot check for this spiritual project.
Step 3: Deepening Intimacy with God Through Prayer
Preparing for our judgment also means deepening our relationship with God. Being in a state of grace is just the beginning. It means we have a relationship with God to work on. Our next task is to deepen that relationship. One of the main ways we do that is through prayer.
In fact, prayer is so important to our relationship with God that some saints say that you cannot be saved without an active prayer life.
Prayer is one of the main ways we cooperate with the expressions of sanctifying grace that we call the Theological Virutes – faith, hope and charity.
Hope is trust in God. Faith is intimacy with God and commitment to Him. Charity is loving God, and participating in God’s love for others.
As we deepen our trust and intimacy with God (Hope and Faith), we will find more ways to participate in God’s Divine life. We do this by living with God at the center of our everyday lives.
As we live each day with God, offering our lives to Him and discerning His will for us, we are cooperating with actual graces. These are graces that help us to perform everyday actions in a way that participates in the Divine Life.
The main expression of actual grace are the seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit. But God will also give us particular graces to help us in specific moments to serve Him more completely and to love Him more.
Step 4: Participating in God’s Love for Others
The life of God is love. So we participate in the life of God by reaching out to others in love. We also participate in the life of God when we serve His Kingdom, as we explored in the Discerning Your Mission Spiritual Project.
So you see, preparing for our judgment has a lot in common with living the Sacraments. It’s a matter of receiving grace, which God gives us freely, then responding to that grace and cooperating with it to deepen our relationship with God.
In the end, we are judged based on our relationship with God. If we have chosen God with our hearts and lives in this world, we will be drawn to Him in the next.
If our faith life is nothing more than trying to meet the minimum standards of being “Catholic,” we’re in danger of hearing from our Lord during our judgment, “Get away. I tell you I never knew you.”
But if we seek the Lord with our entire lives, making Him the center of everything we are and everything we do, we stand a good chance of hearing Him say to us, “Well done, my good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy your master has prepared for you.”
Also published on Medium.