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The Last Judgment

Posted November 21, 2020

Feast of Christ the King

On this feast of Christ the King the Lectionary presents us with the passage from St Matthew’s Gospel that portrays Christ the King as Christ the Judge (Matt 25: 31-46).  Depictions of God or his Messiah executing the ‘Last Judgment’ upon the nations, rewarding the righteous and inflicting dire punishments upon the wicked, were common enough in the so-called apocalyptic literature that had long since found a home in Judaism; and St Matthew is here indebted to that kind of scenario, even if he has given it his own twist.  The Lectionary’s choice of this passage from St Matthew prompts me to offer you some thoughts on the Last Judgment, even though I might have focused instead on the First Reading, from Ezekiel, which presents God as the Shepherd-King, a humbler and more tender figure.  But that’s for some other time.  For now it’s the Last Judgment!

I begin, however, by asking if the very notion of the Last Judgment is not one that we should have outgrown, just as we have (I hope) outgrown the portrayal of God as an ageing Charlton Heston look-alike flying through the skies.  Should we perhaps ‘demythologize’ the Last Judgment?  Or would that detract from its seriousness?  Actually, it’s precisely the question of seriousness that worries me.  My concern is that the imagery of God or Christ who sits in judgment upon puny human beings, sending some to heaven and others to unspeakable punishments, may leave us with a notion of divine judgment that is not serious enough.  

I mean: I wonder how serious any judgment can be that it is always possible to resist ‒ in the manner of a brash delinquent who is never silenced even by the most severe words of condemnation.  To be sent to hell rebelling against what they have convinced themselves is an unfair judgment would bring hardened sinners a certain perverse satisfaction exactly like the satisfaction they have indulged in during long years of rebelling against God in their lifetime.  What kind of hell is it that allows you the luxury of believing that you occupy the moral high ground over an unfair God?  Yet any judgment that is pronounced by an external authority is bound to leave open that possibility.  An external judgment will always be water off the sinner’s back, even if it is God who pronounces it.  Condemnation of that sort means nothing to the wilful.

Consider a situation where one person has been gravely unjust to another ‒ or, rather, consider two such situations.  I have in mind two situations of marital infidelity, where a husband betrayed his wife, lied about it for years but finally was found out.  In the first case, the wife reacted as you would expect: she unleashed hell’s fury upon him; she poured out upon him all the anger and condemnation and vituperation that he deserved for callously destroying the most precious thing in the world. 

Now that was a kind of judgment upon the guilty husband ‒ a judgment that should have torn him apart, put an end to all pretence and reduced him to silence until his dying day and beyond.  But it was a judgment that could be resisted, for it was a judgment pronounced from outside.  It was imposed upon him, but it was not capable of entering his soul.  It was a bludgeon, if you like, not a sword.  He was able to resist it, as in fact he did resist it ‒ with denial, with excuses, by launching a counter-attack and blaming his wife for what he called her part in destroying the marriage.  Now I ask you: what kind of judgment is it that leaves the guilty one with the last word?  Indeed, what kind of judgment is it that leaves the guilty one with any words at all?  

In the second case of marital infidelity, there was, of course, the same hurt, the same devastation, the same senseless shattering of the most precious things in life.  But there was no shouting, no unleashing of hell’s fury: only a period of silence such as one expects when the world comes to an end.  But then the wife was able to forgive her husband, truly forgive him, unreservedly, to the extent of saying: ‘I forgive you and I want you back.’  A gesture of love, an unwise one, perhaps some of us would say, inspired by the memory of those glowing, lovely days when the future held all its promise of happiness, which she hoped they might rebuild together.  But he pushed her aside – without a word.  He could not bear the burden of being forgiven.

That too was a judgment, but different in kind from the judgment delivered by the wife in the previous case.  It was not a judgment externally pronounced over the guilty person, but one that took place in the core of his personality.  It was judgment in the sense of a self-imposed moral checkmate, from which there was no exit, no possible appeal.  This was radical self-condemnation, irrefutable and definitive, such that it had necessarily to determine the guilty one’s life and destiny.  Such self-condemnation is nothing other than the free expression of my own moral will: the me that I truly want; the me that loves the darkness rather than the light.  Only the offer of pure love and forgiveness can bring about that kind of condemnation.

I use this analogy to illustrate the understanding of divine judgment that we find not in St Matthew’s Gospel but in the Gospel of St John.  Consider Jesus’ saying in that Gospel: ‘The Father judges no one, but has given all judgment to the Son.’  But then hear the same Jesus proclaim: ‘I judge no one.’  That’s mighty strange, isn’t it?  The Father judges no one; instead, he has given all judgment to Jesus.  And yet Jesus says: ‘I judge no one.’  Jesus means: My judgment is not like the judgment of a judge in a law court, an external judgment that can be denied or defied.  Rather, the judgment that I pronounce is the judgment that takes place in the depths of your personality.  ‘This is the judgment’, he says: ‘that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil.  For everyone who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed.  But he who does what is true comes to the light, that it may be clearly seen that his deeds have been wrought in God.’ 

That is to say: Judgment takes place not when someone else pronounces it over you but when you yourself enact it in your heart.  Judgment is your response to the offer of light and love.  This is the judgment: that the light came into the world.  This is the judgment: that the innocent wife made an offer of undeserved love, and you, the guilty husband, rejected it.  This is the condemnation against which there is no possible appeal (for to whom, or to what, would you appeal?), and which must therefore necessarily determine your final destiny. 

St John has removed the apocalyptic scenario of God or Christ sitting on his judgment seat.  Instead, this is the judgment – that people loved darkness rather than the light.  Christ is King not because he is the one who pronounces judgment and passes sentence.  He is King because he is the mystery of my being, to which I give my yes or my no, to live joyfully in truth or to lose myself for ever. 

In demythologizing the Last Judgment, does St John detract from its seriousness?  Or does he not rather make it, literally, just too serious for words?

Fr Tom Deidun

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