The Last Judgment - by Rogier van der Weyden - from Musée de l'Hôtel Dieu, Beaune . . . Click on image to enlarge.
The Central Panel is dominated by the Son of God, seated on a Semi-circular Rainbow, with the Virgin Mary at One end of the Arc and St John the Baptist at the Other. Christ's Feet rest on a Sphere, Symbol of the Universe. With His right Hand, He Blesses those who are Saved and with His left, Curses those who are Damned. These Two (2) Gestures are emphasized by Appropriate Emblems, respectively, a Lily and a Blazing Sword. Beneath Christ stands St Michael, Prince of the Heavenly Hosts. He is pictured as Young, because he is Immortal, and as Handsome, because he is the Embodiment of Divine Justice. He holds in his hands a Scale in which he weighs Souls. The Souls are Represented by Two (2) little Naked Figures, whose names are "Virtutes" and "Peccata". The former Kneels, Overcome with Delight, while the latter seems Horrified and Screams with Terror. The Panels to the Left of Jesus (at His Right Hand) depict those 'Judged' Souls on their way to St Peter holding the Keys to Heaven; and those Panels to the Right of Jesus (at His Left Hand) depict those 'Judged' Souls on their way to Hell.
The Active Study of the Four Last Things
and the Deep Consideration of them,
is the thing that will keep you from Sin.
--Saint Thomas More
Once this Life is over, there comes the Moment to Review the Free Decisions we have made. Sacred Scripture testifies that "We must all appear before the Judgment Seat of Christ, so that each one may receive Good or Evil, according to what he has done in the Body (2Corinthians 5:10). And as with any Process-of Judgment, Evidence must be brought-forward. What has been done out of Love of God and Neighbor must be made-Clear, what are Termed the Soul's Merits. Also the Acts Contrary-to Charity, the Soul's Demerits, need to be Disclosed. Death has Brought an End to the Period of Choosing the Good and Rejecting the Evil. The Next Step in Man's Journey to Eternity is to Assess all that has Taken-place, to Determine where the Soul belongs, Based-on the Good, or Evil, it has done.
We must Understand that our Freedom has Bound us to these Acts. For them we must Answer, as for Something that is a Part-of us, that makes us what we are. We cannot Divorce ourselves from our Freely Chosen Thoughts, Words, and Actions (apart from Sins Forgiven through God's Mercy). Such things Cling-to us and Go-with us as we Leave this Life. As the Parable of the Last Judgment in Saint Matthew's Gospel shows us, we Carry these Merits and Demerits with us when we go before Christ.
Last Judgment Parable
Repeatedly Our Blessed Lord in the Gospels reminds us how such things as Material Possessions, Worldly Status, and Secular Accomplishments, Stay-behind in this Life, and will not have any Bearing on the Life to-come. But, the Parable of the Final Judgment tells us, not all things remain behind. For the Divine King says to those on his Right, “Come, O Blessed of My Father, Inherit the Kingdom Prepared for you from the Foundation of the World; for I was Hungry and you gave me Food, I was Thirsty and you gave me Drink, I was a Stranger and you Welcomed Me ... ” (Matthew 25:34-35). Nothing said about Riches, Fame, and Earthly Power, but Plenty about Service of Neighbor! Such Deeds were still very much Part-of these Good Souls in their Appearance-before Christ. Likewise for the Wicked, in their Failing to Feed-the-Hungry, Give Drink-to the Thirsty, and Show Kindness-to the Stranger - their Grievous Omissions have accompanied them (Matthew 25:41-45).
As Saint Thomas insists, it is this Intense Adherence of our Good Works and our Unrepented Sins to us after Death, that cannot be Shaken-off, that has such a Profound-effect on the Journey-of the Soul from this Point: “Even as in Bodies there is Gravity or Levity whereby they are borne to their own place which is the End of their Movement, so in Souls there is Merit or Demerit whereby they Reach their Reward or Punishment, which are the Ends of their Deeds” (Supplementum Tertiæ Partis-69,2). Good Works, adding a Kind-of Lightness to Souls, Wicked Works adding a Kind-of Weight, there is a Movement Established-by Merits and Demerits of the Soul toward God or Away-from Him. Of course, such Terms as Heavy and Light can be used Literally only-of Material Bodies. But the Message is Clear-enough. The Soul Leaves this Life with a History of Freely Willed Acts that are not Left-behind, but Establish a Direction-for the Further Journey of the Soul, Steering it to God or Away-from Him.
People will often Speak-of Experiences where Death has come very near, through an Auto Accident or something of the kind, and their Life “Flashed before their Eyes”.
In an Instant they could see all the Highlights from Childhood to the Present Moment. Perhaps this is a Preview-of what happens when we are before Our Lord the Moment we Die. Certainly, it will be an Instantaneous Event along these lines.
All at once we will have our Consciences Laid-bare and the Events of our Lives brought before us. Nothing will be Hidden or Let Ride. As Our Blessed Lord warns us: “I tell you, on the Day of Judgment Men will Render an Account for every Careless Word they utter; for by Your Words you will be Justified, and by Your Words you will be Condemned” (Matthew 12:36-37). It will be a Moment of Profound Discernment. All the Fruit/Fruit that has come-forth from the Soul: Thoughts, Words, Deeds, and Omissions, will be Exposed. As Fr Garrigou-Lagrange Elaborates, based on Saint Thomas: “Memory and Conscience penetrate [the Soul's] entire Moral and Spiritual Life, even to the Minutest Details. Only then can it see Clearly all that was Involved in its Particular Vocation, for instance, that of a Mother, or Father, or of an Apostle” (Life Everlasting, 74).
This happens Immediately after Death, and there is no Delay. It is called the Particular Judgment because it regards only the State of the Individual Soul. Our Lord does not, at this Time, deal-with the Whole of Mankind, or any other Gathering of Individuals. The Soul meets the Lord Jesus in a very Personal Encounter. It is Aware-of His Presence, but not yet Capable-of Directly-seeing His Divine Glory (otherwise it would be at that Moment, Beatified). Any Divine Light coming from the Lord would be Mediated-through His Sacred Humanity, as the Apostles Experienced at the Transfiguration.
From there the Soul goes on to the Eternal Existence it has Sought in this Life. God does not impose Himself on anyone. He longs to have us with Him in Eternity, but Man is Free to Reject Him and Choose an Eternity Without Him. After the Soul's Choice has been Determined-by Our Lord's Infallible Judgment, there is Entry-into either Reward (or Purification that leads-to Reward), or Punishment.
What is more, there is no Period-of-Waiting for the Final Judgment. There is no "Sleep" of the Soul until it is Awakened for the Resurrection of the Body. The New Testament alludes in a Number of Passages to an Immediate Reward or Punishment, after Death. In the Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man, Jesus presents Lazarus, soon after his Death, in the Bosom of Abraham, and the Rich Man (Dives) in Fiery Punishment (Luke 16:19-31). At His Crucifixion, Jesus assures the Good Thief, "Truly, I say to you, Today you will be with Me in Paradise" (Luke 23:43). Saint Paul speaks to the Philippians about his Longing to Remain with them, but also his Desire "to Depart and be with Christ", Implying an Immediate Union with the Lord after Death (1:24). The Catechism summarizes well the Definitive, Apostolic Teaching of the Church on this Matter:
Each Man receives his Eternal Retribution in his Immortal Soul at the Very Moment of his Death, in a Particular Judgment that Refers his Life to Christ: either Entrance into the Blessedness of Heaven - through a Purification or Immediately - or Immediate and Everlasting Damnation (CCC1022).
A Time will come, the Sacred Scriptures tell us, for One (1) Final Judgment of all Mankind, from Adam and Eve to the Last Human Beings on Earth. The Book of Revelation offers a Symbolic Description of this Majestic and Future Event:
Then I saw a Great White Throne and Him Who sat upon it; from His Presence, Earth and Sky fled away, and no place was found for them. And I saw the Dead, Great and Small, Standing before the Throne, and Books were Opened. Also Another Book was Opened, which is the Book of Life. And the Dead were Judged by what was Written in the Books, by what they had Done. And the Sea gave up the Dead in it, Death and Hades gave up the Dead in them, and all were Judged by what they had Done (Revelation 20:11-13).
As the Passage implies, the Resurrection of the Dead is an Essential Beginning to this Final Assembly of all Mankind. The Second Council of Lyon in 1274, gave the Clearest Possible Expression to this Belief: “The Holy Roman Church firmly Believes and Confesses that on the Day of Judgment all Men will Appear in their own Bodies before Christ's Tribunal to Render an Account of their own Deeds” (Denz. 859).
The State of the Dead, up-to-this-point, had been One of Souls Abiding-in Separation-from the Body. But at the General Judgment, this Separation-of Body and Soul will be for ever Ended. From this Moment-on, Men will have that Union of Body and Soul God always Intended-for them. However, the Appearance of the Body for these Two (2) Groups will be Vastly Different. The Bodies of the Blessed will be Radiant with Divine Light, but those of the Condemned will Manifest the Twisted and Dark Soul that is within (See Supplementum Tertiæ Partis-75, 2, ad 3). Whatever the State of the Soul is, that the Body will Reveal.
Opening the Books
Returning to the Revelation Passage, once again, Consciences will be Manifested, Symbolically Represented as the Opening of Various Books containing the Deeds of each Person. But this Time the Disclosure will be Public. And Our Lord's Words in the Gospel will be Fulfilled, "Nothing is Covered Up that will not be Revealed, or Hidden that will not be Known" (Luke 12:2).
Yet, what takes place is no-mere Repeat of the Particular Judgment. The End of Human History allows a Deeper and more Extensive Look into the Actions of each Individual. For there have been Effects Produced, that have Gone Beyond the Lives of each Soul, Effects for which each Person is in some-way Responsible. God Knew these Very Well at the Particular Judgment of each Individual Soul. But for each Person to see for himself the Full Reach of the Good he did and the Bad, there will have to be the Final Review at the End of History.
Those who have Spread the Faith will have an Increase in Reward for the Numbers of People who have Benefited from their Words and Example. The Sufferings that Good People Endured in this Life, through Sickness or Mental Anguish or the Trials of Family Life - Afflictions that were Joined-to Christ's Sacrifice and Helped Atone for the Sins of others - these and the Wonders worked-through them will be Revealed. Works of Prayer and Sacrifice, Holy Lives, Penance done for Sin; Vocations in the Secular Realm, to Religious Life, or to the Priesthood that were Lived-to the Full; all the Good Fruits of these will no-longer be Hidden from our Eyes.
On the other hand, those who have Knowingly-spread Heresy and Falsehood will see how their Teaching and Practice have Ruined the Lives and Eternal Salvation of so many Souls. Our Lord will then determine the Full Severity of the Punishment Owed to them. The Consequences of Evil done by the Wicked in their Short Lives will be followed-through Successive Generations - the Malice passed-on from Parent to Child to Subsequent Descendants will be Disclosed.
All the Good and Evil done by each Individual will be Revealed-to the Whole of Mankind. But will this mean Sorrow for those in Heaven already Experiencing the Beatific Vision? What will be the Effect of this Final Review of the Blessed at the Final Judgment? On the Last Day, will there be a Break-from the Rejoicing of Heaven, as each one is Exposed-to the Full Consequences of his Imperfect Life? Saint Thomas wondered about this Same Thing, and found the Answer in the Mercy of God that will Provide an Unassailable Source of Joy for the Blessed:
Although Charity is now the Cause of Sorrow for Sin, yet the Saints in Heaven will be so Full of Joy, that they will have no Room for Sorrow; and so they will not Grieve for their Sins, but rather will they Rejoice in the Divine Mercy, whereby their Sins are Forgiven them (Supplementum Tertiæ Partis-87,1,ad 2).
Ultimately, the Greatness of God will Strike all with Wonder at the Final Judgment. His Constant Love, Tireless Patience, and Inexpressible Wisdom will be-on Full Display as His Guidance of Human History reaches its Glorious Climax, especially in the Glorification of God Incarnate, Our Lord Jesus. Victorious over All Evil, He will Preside-in Divine Majesty as Judge of the World.
Christ Our Judge
The Coming of Our Blessed Lord will be Visible to all, the Gospels tell us. "For as the Lightning Flashes and Lights up the Sky from one side to the other, so will the Son of Man be in His Day" (Luke 17:24).
He will not Conceal Himself any longer. But Saint Thomas emphasizes that it will not be in a Purely Divine Manifestation that Jesus will Appear-to us, although that would be Entirely Possible. He will not Reveal Himself in a Pure Burst of Divine light, Keeping-from our Eyes any Vision of His Human Nature. But it will be in that Very Body by-which He Redeemed us that Our Lord will Manifest Himself:
Since the Last Judgment is Directed to the Admission of Some to the Kingdom, and the Exclusion of Others therefrom, it is Becoming that Christ should Preside at that Judgment under the Form of His Human Nature, since it is by Favor of that same Nature's Redemption that Man is Admitted to the Kingdom (Supplementum Tertiæ Partis-90,1).
We speak of the Transition to Eternity when we Consider our Judgment before Christ. From that Moment of Examination we Immediately Pass into the Eternity that We have Chosen in this World. Behind us will be the Short Days we spent here on Earth. Before us will be an Eternal Existence from which we will never again Depart. The Thought of this Future can and must fill us with a Certain Anxious Regard for the Days of Merit that God has now Put-in our hands.
But as that Moment of Reckoning itself arrives, the Desire of Our Blessed Lord is not that those who are Faithful to Him be Filled-with Fear: "And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a Cloud with Power and great Glory. Now when these things begin to take place, Look up and Raise your Heads, because your Redemption is drawing near" (Luke 21:27-28). In remaining close to Him, through Careful Observance of His Commandments, we will have Great Confidence and Peace. Words addressed by Saint Josemaria Escriva to Members of his Community should Encourage all who are Faithful to Our Lord, now in this Life:
I was amused to hear you speak of the 'Account' that Our Lord will Demand of you. 'No, for none of you will He be a Judge in the Harsh Sense of the word; He will simply be Jesus'. These lines, written by a Good Bishop, have Consoled more than one Troubled Heart, and could well Console yours (quoted in 'In Conversation with God' 1.20.3).