Fire of Judgment

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An expression used by the majority of exegetes and theologians in connection with the second coming of Christ. The conflagration pictured as taking place on that day searches out the works of all men (even those of the just, for whom it is a cleansing from all guilt) and hence is a judgment of fire.

Just as in the Old Testament (Is 66.1517; Jl 2.13; Ps 96[97].3) the judgments of God were usually accompanied by fire, so also in the New Testament (1 Cor 3.13; 2 Thes 1.8; 2 Pt 3.12) it is stated that the final judgment of the Lord will be accompanied by fire. Will this fire of judgment be a metaphorical or real fire?

Considering the fire of judgment insofar as it will try every man's works in order to determine if they were according to, or contrary to the laws of God, the more common opinion is that the fire will be a metaphorical one. Except for Origen, almost all Scripture scholars and theologians agree with St. Thomas that the judgment will take place mentally (Summa theologiae 3a Suppl., 88.2). The reason for the metaphor of fire is that fire shows forth the following qualities: (1) clarity God's judgment will be luminously clear and according to truth; (2) ardor divine justice will meet out vengeance on works of impiety with zeal and power; (3) subtlety divine judgment will search out even the most secret of human actions in an admirable way. The judgment, then, will be "as of fire" for the good as well as for the bad.

As for the conflagration that will accompany and manifest the Day of the Lord, this fire is depicted as real. The just who have not yet died before the coming of Christ pass through the fires of that dreadful time. The fire could have a twofold effect: (1) the effect of killing them and reducing their bodies to ashes; and (2) a spiritual effect, since it could be employed by divine justice to purge and purify them for venial sins and the temporal punishment that still remained. This would be an instantaneous purgatory. As for those who are in mortal sin, it would be the beginning of their eternal punishment.

The fire of that day would not harm those who have been completely free of sin (e.g., the Blessed Virgin Mary and the infants who died in their baptismal innocence), neither would it in any way harm those who have completely expiated their faults in this life or in purgatory.

Concerning the last day, many things will remain obscure until they are revealed. But this much should be firmly believed: all the actions of men, even the most sacred and hidden, must be judged, rewarded or punished.

See Also: judgment, divine (in theology); parousia.

Bibliography: f. suÁrez, In 3 am Summa theologiae S. Thomae, 59 (disp. 57, sec. 1; Vivès ed. v.19). r. bellarmine, "De ecclesia quae est in purgatorio," Bk. 2, ch. 1 (De controversiis ). a. michel, Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, ed. a. vacant et al., 15 v. (Paris 190350; Tables générales 1951) 5.2:223946. e. lussier, "The Universal Conflagration at the Parousia," Catholic Biblical Quarterly 12 (1950) 243247. Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Bible, tr. and adap. by l. hartman (New York 1963), from a. van den born, Bijbels Woordenboek 498504, 172839.

[m. griffin]