We pray in the Nicene Creed during the celebration of Mass "We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ ... He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead." These words refer to the general judgment of all mankind at the end of the world. The words "living and the dead" can refer either to those spiritually alive (through sanctifying grace) and those spiritually dead (through the loss of grace because of unrepented grave sin); or they can refer to those who died prior to the end of the world, and those still living when that final event occurs. When attempting to summarize what our faith can tell us about that last and final judgment and the events that precede it, we have to remember we are dealing with a great mystery - as to its time, its nature, its place. Yet, as in other mysteries of our faith, theologians tell us what they can based on the little that has been revealed.
SIGNS THAT PRECEDE THE LAST JUDGMENT
The following signs are noted by the Catechism of the Council of Trent:
1) The preaching of the Gospel throughout the world:
"The good news of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the world as a witness to all the nations. Only after that will come the end." (Mt. 24:14)
2) The falling away from the faith by many and the coming of the Antichrist.
"Let no one deceive you in any way, for the day of the Lord will not come unless the apostasy comes first, and the man of sin (Antichrist) is revealed, the son of perdition, who opposes and is exalted above all that is called God, or that is worshipped, so that he sits in the temple of God and gives himself out as if he were God." (2 Thess.2:3,4) Although much obscurity and difference of opinion prevails on this matter, it is commonly admitted, from the above and other texts, that before the final coming of Christ there will arise a powerful adversary who will seduce many by his wonders, and persecute the Church.
THE DAY OF THE LORD
The coming of Christ in glory to judge the whole of mankind - commonly referred to as "The Day of the Lord" - will witness several great manifestations of God's omnipotence: 1) the destruction of the physical world by fire; 2) the raising up of all the dead; 3) the judgment of all mankind, which will involve the separation of the good and the wicked, and the revelation of all that is hidden (both good and evil) in the lives of every member of the human race. We will briefly consider each of these.
A) The destruction of the world by fire
"The present heavens and earth are reserved by God's word for fire; they are kept for the day of judgment, the day when godless men will be destroyed. . . .The day of the Lord will come like a thief, and on that day the heavens will vanish with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and all its deeds will be made manifest. . . .The heavens will be destroyed in flames and the elements will melt away in the blaze. What we await are new heavens and a new earth where, according to his promise, the justice of God will reside." (2 Pet. 3:7-13)
As regards those who are still living when the world comes to an end, the more common opinion is that they will die in that final conflagration. The Catechism of the Council of Trent speaks of that as follows:
"When we say all (die) we mean those who will have died before the day of judgment, as well as those who will then die. That the Church acquiesces in the opinion that all, without distinction, shall die, and that this opinion is more consonant with truth, is the teaching of St. Jerome and St. Augustine. Nor does St. Paul in his epistle to the Thessalonians depart from this doctrine when he says:
'Those who have died in Christ will rise first. Then we, the living, the survivors, will be caught up with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. Thenceforth we shall be with the Lord unceasingly.' (3:16,17)
"St. Ambrose explaining these words says: 'In that very being caught up death shall take place, as it were, in a deep sleep, and the soul, having gone forth from the body, shall instantly return. For those who are alive shall die when they are taken up that, coming to the Lord, they may receive their souls from His presence; because in His presence they cannot be dead.' This opinion is supported by the authority of St. Augustine in his book THE CITY OF GOD." (St. Thomas Aquinas teaches that those alive at the world's end will die in that conflagration. - Suppl. 74, 7, ad 3)
There are some Scripture scholars who hold that those living at the end of the world will be taken up to Christ without undergoing death. However, it is difficult to reconcile that opinion with the fact that the punishment of original sin imposes the obligation of undergoing death on every member of the human race with the exception of Christ and His Mother, both of whom voluntarily accepted death for the redemption of mankind. (CCC 1008, 1018) "If we die in Christ's grace, physical death completes this dying with Christ (begun in Baptism) and so completes our incorporation into Him in His redeeming act." (CCC 1010)
B) The raising up of all the dead.
"The hour comes when all that are in the graves shall hear the voice of the Son of God, and they that have done good things shall come forth unto the resurrection of life, but they who have done evil, unto the resurrection of judgment." (Jn. 5:29)
The resurrection of all the dead on the last day will precede the last Judgment. (CCC 1038) Every member of the human race will be raised on that day, each with his own body. This will bring together in one place all those who have died since the creation of the world, and have undergone the particular judgment at the moment of death. It will bring together souls from heaven, from purgatory and from hell. While all of these will already know their eternal destiny, the soul will be reunited with the body - to the added glory of the just and the added suffering of the damned. The bodies of the just will be glorious and immortal, no longer capable of suffering, and reflecting the glory of the soul. Whereas the bodies of the damned (likewise immortal) will be capable of suffering and reflecting the shame and hideousness of a soul without grace that has rejected God.
We must remember that when the world comes to an end, so will purgatory. All those in purgatory until that final hour will have completed their purification and satisfied their debt of punishment. One might ask a hypothetical question: what if one dies very shortly before the end of the world in the state of grace, but with a considerable debt of temporal punishment and attachment to creatures. Is that debt paid and the purification accomplished in so short a time? St. Thomas asks the same question with regard to those who are still living at the end of the world, and the answer he gives covers both situations. As we stated, he holds that all those still living the last day will be consumed in that fire.
"There are three reasons why those who will be found living will be able to be cleansed suddenly. One is because there will be few things in them to be cleansed , since they will be already cleansed by the previous fears and persecutions. The second is because they will suffer pain in this life of their own will, and pain suffered in this life voluntarily cleanses much more than pain inflicted after death . . . .The third is because suffering can increase in intensity to make up for shortness of time." (Suppl. 74,8, ad 5). (This third reason would answer the question regarding souls in purgatory.)
To one who asked "How do the dead rise? With what kind of body do they come?". . . .St. Paul answered: "The seed you sow does not germinate unless it dies. When you sow you do not sow a full-blown plant, but a grain of wheat or some other grain. God gives body to it as He pleases - to each seed its own fruition." (1Cor. 15: 37, 38) St. Paul is speaking of the seed that is sown at baptism. God gives the increase in the measure that we cooperate with graces received by doing His will. But that divine life will not come to full bloom until the resurrection of the dead. Then each soul will differ in glory according to the growth of grace at the moment of death. (For a detailed description of the qualities of the risen body see LIGHT & LIFE, Vol. 43, No. 1)
The resurrection of Christ is the cause of our resurrection. Because of the unity that exists between Christ and the members of His Mystical Body forming one supernatural organism, with the resurrection of Christ (the head of the mystical Body) the bodily resurrection of the dead necessarily follows. By His death on the cross He liberated us from sin (spiritual death); by His resurrection from the dead He opened the way for our resurrection liberating us from bodily death. As we saw above, this conformity with Christ begins at baptism, increases with the growth of charity, extends to our conformity to his death, and reaches complete fulfillment when are conformed to His glory through the resurrection.
In the words of St. Peter, (see above) the conflagration at the end of the world will destroy not only every living thing, but the world itself as we know it. And the divine power that brings about the resurrection of the body . . . brings into being "new heavens and a new earth.""Then the human race as well as the entire world, which is intimately related to man and achieves its purpose through him, will be perfectly reestablished in Christ." (Lumen Gentium, n. 48)
C) The separation and judgment of all mankind, and the revelation of all that is hidden.
-- "There is nothing hidden that will not be exposed, nothing concealed that will not be known and brought to light." (Lk. 8:17)
-- "The Lord is . . . to judge, . . so stop passing judgment before the time of His return. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and manifest the intentions of hearts. At that time everyone will receive praise from God." (I Cor. 4:5)
-- "The lives of all of us are to be revealed before the tribunal of Christ so that each one may receive his recompense, good or evil, according to his life in the body." (2 Cor. 5:10)
-- "In the presence of Christ, who is Truth itself, the truth of each man's relationship with God will be laid bare. The Last Judgment will reveal even to the furthest consequences the good each person has done or failed to do during his earthly life." (CCC 1039)
With the exception of those still living at the end of the world, the final judgment might seem of little purpose, for all who have died previously will have already have been judged. Yet, we will see that the Last Judgment is a necessary part of the divine plan for the full manifestation of God's mercy and justice.
In our consideration of these manifestations of God's power on the last day we are not implying any necessary order of sequence, for the separation of the good and the wicked could be simultaneous with the full revelation of the lives of all as an open book. We are all familiar with Our Savior's words recorded by St. Matthew of the coming of the Son of Man in glory with His angels. Before Him will be gathered all nations, and He will separate them - some on His right and some on His left - as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. Those on His left (who neglected the needs and rights of others) will depart into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life. (Mt. 25:31,32,46)
We do not know precisely how that judgment will take place, but Christ will be the judge, and St. Thomas is of the opinion that, by His divine power, the minds of all the countless millions to be judged will be illuminated in an instant. Consequently this very separation and illumination of all could be the act of God's judgment, the good and the wicked seeing themselves apart, and understanding clearly the reason for the separation. There will be no room for saying it was not fair, or that it should have been otherwise, for the wisdom and mercy and justice of God will be most manifest to everyone. Even the damned will have to admit that they had every chance, that the Lord actually pursued them seeking their conversion. And the saved will never cease thanking and praising God for His Providence, who, in spite of their weaknesses and resistance and self-seeking, brought them to this final glory.
It boggles the imagination to try to picture that multitude, every human person (the born and unborn) since the beginning of the world. It will include, therefore, the aborted who will be brought back in the prime of life. (Cf . CCC 1261) Could it be that they will be seated with the Lord in judging those who deprived them of the span of life God intended for them in this world? (Cf. 1 Cor. 6:1,2)
Never again will the human race be gathered in all its entirety as at this final hour. It is part of the Providence of God that during life in the world the good and the wicked are mixed together, as explained in several of the parables. (e.g. Mt. 13:24-30). The mingling of the sinner and the just can occasion the conversion of the sinner by the example and prayer of the just; while at the same time, the weakness and selfishness of the sinner can provide opportunities for the just to practice charity, patience, forgiveness, etc., all of which contribute to their spiritual growth.
THE FITTINGNESS OF THE GENERAL JUDGMENT
1) The dead do not cease to influence (for good or for evil) those who live after them, by their example, their advice, their teaching, or by the heritage they left behind. At the particular judgment at the moment of death they were judged for what they did during life. Only at the Last Judgment will a full evaluation be made of all the influences their life had on those who lived after them. The Catechism of the Council of Trent speaks of this: "By all these circumstances the rewards or punishments of the dead must needs be increased, since the good or bad influence of example, affecting as it does the conduct of many, is to terminate only with the end of the world."
2) The character of the virtuous frequently suffers from misrepresentation in this life, while the wicked often gain renown, honor and praise. The justice of God demands that the full truth regarding both of the above-mentioned be made public in the assembly and judgment of all mankind at the end of the world.
3) Both the just and the wicked perform their good and evil actions in this life with the cooperation of the body. Since both body and soul cooperate in both good and evil actions, both should share in the reward or punishment for those actions. But this can be accomplished only after the resurrection of the body and the general resurrection.
4) Whether we experience in this life prosperity or adversity, true brotherhood or injustice, all that happens in this world is within the frame of an all-wise and all-just Providence. The new Catholic Catechism speaks of this: "We shall know the ultimate meaning of the whole work of creation and of the entire economy of salvation, and understand the marvellous ways by which His 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." (CCC 1040)
5) God's revelation of the final judgment is both a source of hope for those who suffer injustice in this life, and of salutary fear for those who defy God's laws, that they may turn back to him during their life on earth - the time of mercy. "The message of the Last Judgment calls men to conversion while God is still giving them 'the acceptable time . . . the day of salvation.' . . .It inspires a holy fear of God and commits them to the Justice of the Kingdom of God. It proclaims the 'blessed hope' of the Lord's return, when He will come 'to be glorified in his saints, and to be marvelled at in all who have believed.'" (CCC 1041; Eph.1:10)
"In all thy works remember thy last end, and thou shalt never sin." (Ecclus. vii. 40)
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