Stretching out across the altar wall of the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel is Michelangelo’s magnificent fresco “The Last Judgment.” Homilies about Judgment Day are rare these days, so even Catholic visitors to the chapel may sometimes puzzle over the arresting images of the fresco — not to mention the scriptural passages that inspired the work.
In particular, Catholics often wonder why the Church teaches that human beings undergo two judgments: one at the death of the individual, and one at the end of the world. Why would divine justice require a second judgment?
To answer that question, we must understand more fully what takes place in each judgment.
The Church affirms that one day each of us will be called to account for our life, with Christ as our judge. That moment arrives at death. “It is appointed that human beings die once, and after this the judgment” (Heb 9:27).
Death puts an end to the time the individual has been granted for embracing God’s grace or rejecting it. The person’s decision for or against God is ratified, so to speak, by God himself. This first, individual judgment is known as the particular judgment. The soul of the deceased, without its body, goes to hell or to heaven, and for those who are heaven-bound the journey may involve the cleansing preparation process called purgatory (see the Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 1022).
What is left, then, for God’s justice to accomplish? Just as the time of reckoning arrives at last for the individual, so it does for the world as a whole. This future day will bring the end of the present age with what the Church calls the general judgment. On that day, as the Creed proclaims, Christ “will return in glory to judge the living and the dead” (see Mt 25:31-46; Rv 20:11-13).
Why is Christ returning to earth? To bring human history to a just conclusion, so that, as the Creed continues, “His kingdom will have no end.” Divine justice in its fullness requires that this world’s wrongs be made right. It demands a definitive end to the power of evil. So the outcome of Christ’s return is the termination of human evildoing on earth, when hell and its human allies will be utterly vanquished, and God will be “all in all” (see 1 Cor 15:23-28).
But there’s much more. At death, the body and soul of the individual are separated. At Christ’s return, before the general judgment, the souls of the dead will be reunited with the bodies they had in their life on earth (see Jn 5:28-29; 1 Cor 15:12-23,51-57). Because of this general resurrection, the bodies of the blessed will be able to take part in the joys of heaven, while the bodies of the damned will have to endure their share of the torments of hell.
Once souls and bodies are joined again, Christ, our judge, will call all people to account in the most public of judgments. “There is nothing concealed that will not be revealed, nor secret that will not be known. Therefore whatever you have said in the darkness will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered behind closed doors will be proclaimed on the housetops” (Lk 12:2-3), Jesus warned. When the Lord comes again, St. Paul declared, “He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will manifest the motives of our hearts” (1 Cor 4:5).
Why Must It Be Public?
Why must this reckoning be public? When we confess all the details of our lives before Christ and the rest of the human race, and when others do the same in our presence, we will all be forced to recognize and admit the full effects on others of what we have done and what we have failed to do. Justice requires such recognition and admission.
Yet mercy plays a role here as well. To face the truth and confess it, drinking the cup of shame all the way to its dregs before a watching world, will be a painful reckoning. But for the friends of God, it can serve as part of the purging process necessary to prepare them for heaven.
At the same time, on that day God’s friends will find it easier to forgive. As the full picture of their lives is unveiled, they will finally come to appreciate the struggles of those who offended them: the burdens they had to carry, the wounds they suffered from the sins of others and the limitations placed on them by circumstances hidden to view.
Another important consequence of this public judgment is that it will reveal to everyone the love and wisdom of God’s providence in all things. How many times in this life, when adversity tests us, are we tempted to wonder whether God really cares for us, or whether He truly knows what He’s doing? In the Last Judgment, we will be able to see all the factors in God’s determinations, all the aspects of His plan.
On that day we will be able to say to Him: “At last I understand; Your dealings with me finally make sense to me. When bad things happened, I needed faith to trust that You had not abandoned me. But now my faith has become sight.”
Justice demands that divine Providence be vindicated. The general judgment provides such vindication.
Justice and Truth
When Christ came to earth the first time, an essential aspect of His mission was revelation — to show us the truth about God, ourselves and our world. His mission is not complete, then, until the truth is fully revealed to every human being and fully acknowledged by every human being and every angel, fallen or unfallen, as well.
In this present life, throughout human history, those who have rejected God and His truth typically resist admitting their errors and deceit. But on that last day, they will have no choice but to do so.
“We shall all stand before the judgment seat of God; for it is written,” insisted St. Paul, quoting the prophet Isaiah: “‘As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bend before me, and every tongue shall give praise [or confess] to God.’ So [then] each of us shall give an account of himself [to God]” (Rom 14:10-12).
To praise God is to speak the truth about who He is, to declare His wonderful attributes. To confess (an alternate translation) means literally to agree with, to “say the same thing as,” God. Both translations point to the same reality: In the end, every one of us will have to recognize God as the Almighty Lord of all things; every one of us will have to concede the truth about God, ourselves and our world — whether we like it or not.
This, too, is a part of justice. We owe it to ourselves and others to think and say what corresponds to reality.
Consider how many people throughout history have been terribly wronged, but the wrongdoing has been covered up or denied. They wait for Judgment Day because they want the truth to be told, to be shouted from one end of the cosmos to another.
And so they should. Could God be truly just if, in the end, He allowed the terrible truth to remain hidden forever and permitted the world to maintain its malicious lies?
Those who have done wrong may go to hell adamantly refusing God’s forgiveness. But before they go to their damnation, they will be required to admit to God and to the world the truth about their wrongdoing. The general judgment must happen because truth must triumph.
The general judgment will be a day of divine wrath revealed against wickedness. On that day, the friends of God as well as those who have made themselves His enemies will have ample cause to tremble.
Nevertheless, it will also be a day of joyous celebration for those who love justice, who love truth and who love the Lord Jesus. We, too, should look to the day when the divine Judge will return to set the world aright. Longing for His appearance, we can join the ancient Christians in their fervent prayer: “Come, Lord Jesus!” (Rv 22:20).
We shall know the ultimate meaning of the whole work of creation and of the entire economy of salvation and understand the marvelous ways by which [God’s] Providence led everything towards its final end. The Last Judgment will reveal that God’s justice triumphs over all the injustices committed by His creatures and that God’s love is stronger than death.
— Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 1040
The Son of Man
When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit upon his glorious throne, and all the nations will be assembled before him. And he will separate them one from another, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will place the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. Then the king will say to those on his right, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”
— Matthew 25:31-34