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 Christs 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
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 Gods grace, or resisting His grace.
There is nothing more fundamental in our understanding of Gods 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 Gods 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 Churchs teaching about the particular judgement coming right after death,
we also have the Churchs 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
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 Gods mercy
and of mans 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 Gods providence.
We will then see how mysteriously God has drawn good from the evil that people
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 Gods 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 Christs
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.
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 Matthews 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 Christs
words, take them in. Our own most embarrassing nakedness is not of the body,
but of the soul in need of Gods 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
Again Jesus warns us to stay awake because You know not the day nor the
hour. The heart of Christs warning is in the imperative stay awake. The
parable of the wise and foolish virgins is a commentary on His imperative
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, Christs 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
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. Gods 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 Gods will.
The secret is to be awake to these visitations of Gods 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 Gods mysterious will in our lives, every moment of our waking day?
The secret is to be faithful in responding to Gods 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 Gods 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