For most people, the idea of being judged, whether by our boss, strangers, or even God, can be disconcerting. For Catholics, the belief that we will be judged not once but twice by God can be particularly anxiety-inducing.
In this paper, I will examine a subset of Catholic theology called eschatology. Generally translated from Greek as a discourse on last things, eschatology is concerned with death, judgment, heaven, and hell.
Specifically, I will focus on what the Bible teaches about what Catholicism calls the particular and the general judgment. Perhaps, however, it is prudent to ask why God judges at all.
By virtue of our nature, human beings are moral creatures. For most of human history, this meant the recognition of an objective moral standard by which one’s conduct could be measured. By definition, an objective standard for determining right and wrong must be entirely independent of human beings. This objective standard of morality is knowable by natural law, which is “Nothing else than the rational creature’s participation in the eternal law” (Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, 1a 2ae, quest. 91, art. 2). The eternal law is synonymous with the mind of God. Natural law is knowable to the human intellect through a properly formed conscience.
If it is true that humans possess an innate sense of right and wrong and if it is also true that an objective moral order exists, then it logically follows that there must be a judgment to determine if one has adhered to the moral standard set forth by God. Yet, Catholicism asserts that even this is not enough, that simply being “good” is not a sufficient condition for salvation. However, such an assertion involves soteriology and is beyond the scope of this essay.
In a sense, the above is an a posteriori argument and not predicated upon a religious belief. Instead, it is an acknowledgment of the innate human capacity to understand right and wrong and the need for an objective criteria.
Having sought to show why there needs to be a judgment, I turn to the question of why Catholicism asserts that God judges us twice.
The particular judgment is the belief that immediately upon death, the soul is judged by God. The Catholic doctrine teaches that immediately after death, the eternal destiny of each soul is decided by the just judgment of God. Souls who die in a state of grace and are perfectly pure are admitted directly into heaven, while those souls who die in a state of grace but require purification are cleansed in Purgatory. Those souls who have failed to repent and die in a state of mortal sin are exiled to the eternal punishment of hell.
Scripture articulates this belief, “Just as it is appointed that human beings die once, and after this, the judgment.” (Hebrews 9:27). As indicated above, the criteria for the particular judgment is how well the individual cooperated with grace by living in accordance with natural law over one’s lifetime.
If what has thus far been stated is true, it seems superfluous that there be a second judgment, called the general judgment.
Nevertheless, the belief in the general judgment has been part of the Church’s teachings since its inception. It is an article of faith in all the ancient creeds: “He shall come to judge the living and the dead” (Apostles’ Creed). He shall come again with glory to judge both the living and the dead” (Nicene Creed). “From thence he shall come to judge the living and the dead, at whose coming all men must rise with their bodies and are to render an account of their deeds” (Athanasian Creed).
Perhaps nothing instantiates the end time quite like the general judgment. Where the particular judgment is personal and occurs at the time of the individual’s death, the general judgment will occur at the Second Coming. It will be a social judgment because it will manifest God’s justice in condemning sinners and his mercy in those who are saved. It will also be a total judgment by revealing people’s moral conduct and all the accumulated blessings or injuries resulting from each person’s good or evil deeds. Additionally, the providence of God, which, on earth, often permits the good to suffer and the wicked to prosper, may, in the end, be revealed to all.
The concept of a general judgment is not limited to Christianity, and belief in it appears in the Old Testament as well as the New Testament.
While Jewish eschatology is not fixed on the particulars of a general judgment, evidence of it appears in various texts. “The day of the Lord,” proclaimed by the Old Testament prophets, suggests a final judgment of mankind.
From the Catholic perspective, the general judgment cannot be understood separately from the general resurrection and the end of the world. The general resurrection is the belief in the reunion of the soul of each human being with his own body on the last day.
In Matthew’s Gospel (Matthew 25:31-46), we are given a description of the manner in which the general judgment will be conducted. At the time of the Second Coming, all people will be assembled before Christ. Those deemed to have done the will of God will enter into the Kingdom of God. Those who have failed to conform themselves to the will of God will be damned.
In this essay, I have sought to provide a basic explanation of judgment within the biblical context.
While the belief in judgment is not in vogue in our present time, it is essential for an objective moral order. So, then, the question is not if God will judge us but when and what that judgment will be. That is the work of our lifetime.