Our life in this temporal world determines our state in eternity. All creatures endowed with reason - angels and men - are made for eternal existence. Whether contemporary man acknowledges it or not, death leads to perpetual existence in the world of the spirit. It will be either an eternal existence with God or without Him, depending on what a man has freely chosen in this realm of time.
As we saw in the last issue of Light and Life, God created the parents of all mankind and put them in the Garden of Eden in a state of friendship with Him. Their corruptible bodies were made incorruptible by a special intervention from God. There was no threat of death for Adam and Eve. Theoretically their bodies, as they were material like ours, could have suffered injury and death from some external force. But, even here (as I neglected to point out in the last article), God was preserving them from mortal harm by making the Garden of Eden an environment from which all physical threats to their well-being were excluded. As St. Thomas says, "it is clear that paradise was most fit to be a dwelling-place for man, and in keeping with his original state of immortality" (ST I, 102, 2).
Yet, God placed them in Paradise in preparation for a more perfect life. Even though endowed with immortality and friendship with God, they were not at the fullness of life He intended for them. Paradise was not heaven. They did not have the vision of God, glorified bodies, and eternal life. Even their wonderful state, for all its freedom from suffering and death, reveals how this temporal world is meant for determining what happens to man in eternity.
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" (2 Cor. 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 St. Matthew's Gospel shows us, we carry these merits and demerits with us when we go before Christ.
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..." (Mt. 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 (Mt. 25:41-45).
As St. 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" (Suppl. 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" (Mt. 12:36-37). It will be a moment of profound discernment. All the fruit that has come forth from the soul: thoughts, words, deeds, and omissions, will be exposed. As Fr. Garrigou-Lagrange elaborates, based on St. 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 in fiery punishment (Lk. 16:19-31). At His crucifixion, Jesus assures the Good Thief, "Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise" (Lk. 23:43). St. 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:
A time will come, the Sacred Scriptures tell us, for one 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:
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 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 Suppl. 75, 2, ad 3). Whatever the state of the soul is, that the body will reveal.
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" (Lk. 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? St. 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:
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.
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" (Lk. 17:24). He will not conceal Himself any longer. But St. 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:
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" (Lk.21:27-28). In remaining close to Him, through careful observance of His commandments, we will have great confidence and peace. Words addressed by St. Josemaria Escriva to members of his community should encourage all who are faithful to Our Lord now in this life:
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