The second of what the Catholic tradition calls the “Four Last Things” is Judgment.
Judgment is about as popular a concept as root canals. And yet the desire for judgment never really goes away in the human soul. Every other episode of the still-popular-after-50-years Twilight Zone was a story about judgment. So are our eternally popular myths and fairy tales. Our ongoing need for such tales testifies to something in our souls that thirsts for judgment.
Of course, Judgment is often seen as the Irritable Old Gentleman on the cloud letting fly with a lot of arbitrary rage at a humanity that cringes before his power, not his justice or his love. Such picture-thinking has no small influence on New Atheist types who tell us we must grow up, stop fearing such a god and take our place as mature adults who decide for ourselves what is good and evil. Such sentiments are invariably popular with human beings just before they commit the next massacre or holocaust.
In fact, however, the astonishing thing the Catechism has to tell us is this:
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.
At the evening of life, we shall be judged on our love. (CCC 1022)
This surprisingly quiet picture of the judgment that awaits us is basically the same thing Jesus says: “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me” (Matthew 25:35-36). All the stuff you did out of love for your neighbor—even the boring stuff and even the boring neighbor—is what makes the difference between eternal happiness and everlasting loss of the life of God.
If the news that God’s judgment is based on love and not servile terror isn’t news enough, newsier still is the news that judgment takes place in two movements.
The judgment we just considered above is what is called the “particular judgment”. It occurs in the moment of our death and can have only two possible outcomes: Heaven or Hell (of which more in my next two columns).
Popular religiosity more or less stops there and basically envisions the soul of the dearly departed floating up to Heaven in a white robe with wings and a harp or being escorted with a pitchfork at his back into a cave with flames. End of story.
Except that it’s not the end of the story. To be sure, the blessed dead will, sooner or later, enjoy the beatific vision, seeing God “face to face” in the ecstasy of heaven. To be sure the damned are damned everlastingly. But that ain’t all, and the proof of this is the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Recall that the apostles were quite ready to believe in “life after death” in the conventional sense. Like us, they could buy the idea that a ghost of Jesus might be manifesting itself out of the ectoplasm. What they were no more ready for than we are was a Jesus who was raised in a glorified body that was at once both physical and yet beyond the physics of this world—a Jesus who could eat fish, break bread, and be touched and yet who could also appear and disappear, walk through walls and somehow not appear as he had in his earthly body. The New Testament strains at the limits of language to get this reality across—which is one of the marks that the apostles are telling the plain truth. And what it means for us is this: as with Jesus, so with us. We are promised not mere “life after death” but, in the words of New Testament scholar N.T. Wright, “life after life after death”.
That’s why the Particular Judgment is not the only judgment. Rather, we are promised a Last Judgment in "the hour when all who are in the tombs will hear [the Son of man’s] voice and come forth, those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of judgment” (CCC 1038). The Last Judgment entails the fact that human beings are necessarily incarnate beings and not mere “souls” floating around in the ether. When That Day comes we will live, not as spooks on a cloud, but as fully alive human beings in a recreated and renewed creation of the New Heaven and the New Earth.