Judgment, Divine (In Theology)

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The theological treatment of divine judgment (1) considers it as it has been understood and expressed in the tradition of the Church, and then (2) goes on to a synthesis of the theology of divine judgment.


The tradition of the Church continued the Biblical teaching on divine judgment and clarified some aspects of it that were obscure in the sacred text. The continuation of the Biblical teaching is especially noteworthy in the different professions of faith or creeds of the Church. From the very earliest, nearly all of them explicitly mention the fact that Christ is to come again to judge the living and the dead. One sees this in the Apostles' Creed in its varied early forms, in the so-called Athanasian Creed or Quicumque (H. Denzinger, Enchiridion Symbolorum 76), in the Nicene Creed (Denzinger 125), in the Creed of Constantinople I (Denzinger 150), in the Creed of Epiphanius (Denzinger 42, 44), and in many others in later centuries.

General Judgment. In distinction to the particular judgment, the general judgment occupied the primary place in the teaching and reflection of the early Church. It influenced Christian thought in many different ways. Athenagoras in the 2d century argued from the justice of God's judgment to the need for a resurrection of the body. He reasoned that if judgment were passed only on the soul, and the body were left dissolved forever into its constitutive elements, then God's judgment would be lacking in justice. For the one who practiced virtue or wickedness, the one who must be rewarded or punished through judgment, is the whole human person, body and soul, not the soul by itself. Hence, the very justice of the divine judgment requires the resurrection [Res. 20; TU4.2: 73].

St. Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyons in the latter part of the 2d century, writing against the Gnostic heretics and defending the doctrine of the resurrection, saw the coming of Christ itself as a work of judgment, for He comes "for the fall and the resurrection of many" (Lk 2.34). He brings ruin to those who refuse to believe in Him and resurrection to those who believe and do the Father's will. His coming thus separates people from one another and judges between them on the basis of their response to Him. The Father embraces all people in His loving providence, but human persons by their choices consent either to believe or to disobey and thus range themselves on the right hand or the left hand of the Word of God (Haer. 5.2728).

St. Hippolytus in the early years of the 3d century considered Christ's exercise of judgment at the last day as His final accomplishment of the mission confided to Him by His Father. The just and the unjust are brought before Him, to whom all judgment has been committed. He then passes the just judgment of the Father upon all, giving to each person that which is deserved in accordance with the person's deeds [Graec. 3; TU 20.2: 141].

In the opening years of the 4th century Lactantius expressed a view peculiar to himself, that only persons who have been somehow introduced into the religion of God will be judged. All the rest he maintained (through an inaccurate exegesis of Ps 1.5) are already judged and condemned. Those who have known God must be judged on the basis of whether their deeds have been in conformity with the truth that was granted them or not. The good deeds will be weighed against the evil, and whichever prove the heavier will determine the person's eternal lot [Instit. 7.20; Corpus scriptorum ecclesiasticorum latinorum 19:647649].

Such testimonies to the Church's uninterrupted faith in the last judgment could be multiplied indefinitely. These, however, may suffice as examples of how this faith profoundly influenced the Christian view of life and of man's relationship to God.

Particular Judgment. The greatest area of clarification of the scriptural doctrine on judgment concerns the particular judgment of each individual made at the moment of death. Scripture never speaks explicitly of this judgment and in general says very little about the "inter-mediate state," the condition of the soul between death and resurrection. (The most important passages are Wisdom ch. 35; Lk 16.1931; 2 Cor 5.69; and Phil

1.2123.) But it is in developing the meaning of the few places that are found that the Church came to formulate an explicit doctrine on the particular judgment.

Early Centuries. In the very early ages of the Church there was much hesitation about affirming that before the resurrection and final judgment anyone was admitted to the face-to-face vision of God. The roots of this hesitation seem to have been two: the strong emphasis in Scripture on the judgment of the last day as the time when each person will receive an appropriate reward or punishment; and the teaching of the Revelation (20.16) on a millennium, which some interpreted as an actual 1,000-year reign of Christ upon earth at the end of time, just before the last judgment (see millenarianism). But in spite of this hesitation no one among orthodox Christians questioned that at death the period of trial for the human person is over. And though at first they did not use the term judgment, yet the Fathers clearly taught that from the moment of

death onward the good and the wicked are definitively separated from one another.

St. Justin shortly after the middle of the 2d century expressed the opinion in his Dialogue with Trypho the Jew that at death the souls of the good and wicked are given separate dwelling places, the place of the good being better than that of the wicked. Here they await the day of the great judgment (5; PG 6.488).

Tatian, writing about the same time, distinguished between death and dissolution. The soul that does not know the truth both dies and is dissolved with the body. Later, however, it must rise at the end of the world to receive undying death in punishment. But the soul that has knowledge of God does not die, though for a time it is dissolved [Orat. 13; TU 4.1:14]. This appears to mean that the souls of the wicked are not only separated from the body but are annihilated until the last day, whereas the souls of the good are separated for a time from the body but remain in existence. In any event, it implies that a judgment of God upon them takes place at death.

In the opening years of the third century Tertullian considered that all souls except those of the martyrs are consigned to the lower regions. Here, however, there is an anticipation of the judgment to come. For the good experience refreshment and consolation; and the evil, punishment and pain. The martyrs are at once given entrance into paradise with Christ [Anim. 55, 58, CSEL 20:388, 394395; Res. 43, CSEL 47:8889].

St. Hilary of Poitiers in the following century used the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Lk 16.1931) to warn sinners that hell will receive them at once at the moment of death. They are not to cajole themselves into thinking that they will have some respite before their punishment begins. Though the last day brings the judgment of eternal blessedness or eternal punishment, death meanwhile is governed by its own laws, which determine that either abraham's bosom or a place of torment is to be the waiting place for that day [In psalm. 2.49; CSEL 22:74].

Writing around the year 420, St. Augustine spoke explicitly of a judgment that awaits the soul as soon as it leaves the body, and he distinguished this from the great judgment to come after the resurrection. He, too, appealed to the parable of the rich man and Lazarus and regarded any denial of such a judgment as an obstinate refusal to listen to the truth of the gospel [Anima 2.4.8; CSEL 60:341]. But he was not sure if this means that the just see God face to face before the resurrection [Retract. 1.13.2; CSEL 36:67].

Intermediate State. The question of the intermediate state, and by implication the particular judgment, did not enter the solemn teaching of the Church in an ecumenical council until the Second Council of Lyons in 1274. The occasion for this treatment was a reunion with the Orthodox Churches of the East. During the time of the schism the West had come to hold firmly the doctrine of a particular judgment immediately after death, followed at once by the reward of heaven, or the temporary purification of purgatory, or the punishment of hell. The East, on the other hand, had no universal doctrinal uniformity in this matter. Consequently, the profession of faith of this Council contained the doctrine held in the West, though it did not use the expression "particular judgment" [Denzinger 856859]. This judgment is clearly implied, however, in the just assignment of rewards or punishments straightway after death. The same thing is to be said of another Council of reunion, that of Florence in 1439 [Denzinger 130406]. The doctrine of the Council of Florence was confirmed in 1575 by Pope Gregory XIII, when there was again question of restoring communion between the East and the West [Denzinger 1986], and once more in 1743 by Benedict XIV in a profession of faith for the Eastern Maronite Christians, which expressly mentioned the first eight ecumenical councils and then Florence [Denzinger 1468] and Trent.

Benedictus Deus. One other important document on the intermediate state deserves special mention in connection with the particular judgment. It is the apostolic constitution (see benedictus deus [Denzinger 100002]) issued by Benedict XII in 1336 to set at rest certain doubts and questions that had been raised by the preaching of his immediate predecessor, John XXII. In a series of sermons given toward the end of 1331 and the beginning of 1332 at Avignon, Pope John had maintained as his opinion that until the resurrection no one enjoyed the intuitive vision of the divine essence. This was contrary to the common belief of the faithful and aroused much commotion. The Pope established a commission of cardinals and theologians to investigate the question, and they showed the Pope that his opinion was a departure from the Catholic faith. He retracted his opinion in writing just before his death in 1334. His successor, then, after a more complete examination of the whole matter issued a strict dogmatic definition of faith. He taught solemnly that the beatific vision of God is granted to the just directly after death (of after purgatory, when this is necessary). Those dying in mortal sin are likewise at once punished in hell. As is most evident, this teaching involves a particular judgment of God, separating the just from the impenitent sinners and giving to each what is due.

Reformers. The early Protestant reformers did not assume a completely clear position on the intermediate state. Luther at one time held that with very few exceptions all souls sleep unconscious until the day of judgment [Letter to Amsdorf, Jan. 13, 1552; Luther's Works, v.48 (Philadelphia 1963) 361]. But it is not certain that he thereafter continuously affirmed this. Calvin, on the other hand, opposed the Anabaptist position that maintained that all souls sleep until the resurrection. He taught that though all things are held in suspense until the appearance of Christ the Redeemer, still the souls of the pious, having ended their time of battle, enter into blessed rest and await joyfully the promised glory, and the reprobate suffer such torments as they deserve [Instit. 3.25.6; ed. J. T. McNeil, 2 v. (Philadelphia 1960) 2:996998]. They did not therefore completely deny a particular judgment for each soul at death. The Church issued no special new decree regarding their positions except to reaffirm the doctrine on purgatory [Denzinger 1580, 1820], which had been expressly opposed, and which of course implies a doctrine of particular judgment.

Since that time no documents of major importance have appeared relative to the particular judgment. It is a doctrine universally taught and believed throughout the Catholic Church, though only implicitly contained in its solemn definitions and declarations of faith. It is likewise held by many Protestant and Orthodox Christians.


This will be considered under four heads: (1) the essential idea of divine judgment as the act of God by which God achieves the divine purposes through the creature's free response to divine initiative; (2) the continuous judgment of God as the divine activity of government in executing the unfolding plan of providence; (3) the particular judgment of God as a special focus of the divine judging activity of God upon each individual in the moment of death; (4) the general judgment of God as the final consummating act of God in Christ, achieving the purpose of creation.

Essential Idea. One may proceed on the basis of all that is revealed in Sacred Scripture about divine judgment and of the meditation of the Church upon this revelation as it is manifested in the writings of the Fathers and teaching of the magisterium.

Description. This judgment may be described as God's vindication of the divine purposes in the face of the free activity of rational creatures. There is never any question of God's judgment falling upon irrational creatures, except in an analogical or symbolic fashion, as in Christ's cursing of the barren fig tree; for in the final analysis what they do is wholly determined either by the natures they have received from God (these natures variously interacting among themselves) or from the use to which they are put by the actions of free creatures. Thus, in a schematic fashion, God's judgment may be regarded as the third moment in the dialogue between God and God's free creatures that constitutes salvation history. The first moment is that of God's free, loving, merciful initiative. It embodies the divine creative purpose to share in the goodness and happiness of God with a society of angels and human beings united to God and to one another in vision, love, and joy. This divine initiative is of its nature prior to all created existence and activity. The second moment is that of the creature's free response to this loving initiative. In its response the creature either freely consents to act according to God's purpose, or in a greater or lesser degree rejects it and thus estranges itself from God and God's intentions. The third moment is God's reassertion of the divine purpose in the face of this created free response, no matter what it was; here God vindicates effectively the divine intentions and brings them to realization in a way that is somehow shaped by the creature's response. God passes judgment upon free created activity and thereby completes what God intends to achieve.

From this description of divine judgment, its effects may be listed as four: to destroy, to purify, to perfect, and to separate. God's judgment destroys the sinful response that rejected the divine initiative. This destruction does not mean annihilating the creature or making the creature's response not to have been, but it ultimately frustrates the evil intention of the sinner by somehow making this sinful purpose serve God's own merciful design. God's judgment purifies the imperfect response by removing what is unacceptable. Here there is a partial destruction in something that is fundamentally good. The latent selfishness and disorder of the creature's free activity is effectively, though perhaps painfully, eliminated from its final results. Where the response to God's initiative has been one of total acceptance, the judgment of God brings the creature's activity to full perfection. God's judgment perfects by realizing in the creature and through it the complete good aimed at by the loving, divine initiative. Finally, the judgment of God separates sometimes slowly, sometimes suddenly, but always as a manifestation of mercy and justice, those who consent to submit freely to God from those who refuse.

There is a special Christian orientation of divine judgment that needs to be mentioned even in this very general preliminary description. In the cross and Resurrection of Christ God has already passed a definitive judgment upon the totality of Christ's work, and it is a judgment of mercy. Christ is the center of God's creative and redemptive plan. He is the new head under whom all things are summed up (Eph 1.10). Christ freely responded in obedience and love to the Father's merciful disposition for the liberation of humankind from sin. The Father passed a judgment of mercy and eternal life upon all humankind in raising Jesus from the dead and constituting Him the effective source of the world's final glorification within the created world itself. From now on there is no other way in which the justifying and glorifying judgment of God falls upon an individual except in and through Christ. The last age has already begun in Him; it will be manifested and realized in all people when Christ comes again to judge the living and the dead.

Definition. Divine judgment may be essentially defined as the activity of God's intellect and will whereby God accomplishes the divine purposes in the created world according to the free responses of creatures to his prior loving initiative in the order of nature and grace. It is an act of the divine intellect, since God hereby knows the free response of the creature, the goodness or badness of that response, the consequences that follow from it, and the way it can be fitted into the divine plan. It is an act of the divine will because in judgment God effectively determines to order the free act of the creature and its consequences to God's own purposes. Judgment is thus the essential act of divine government, the effective execution of the plan of divine providence.

This understanding of judgment allows one then to make a threefold division. (1) The continuous judgment of God upon each and every free creaturely response to God's initiative. In this sense it may be said that human beings are living always under the divine judgment and that everything that happens is in some way a consequence of the judgment of God. But the full meaning of this continuous judgment of God remains to be revealed at the last day. (2) The particular judgment of God upon the individual at the moment of death. Here the judging activity of God comes to a special focus, since the individual at death makes a final, complete, irreversible response to God's loving initiative. (3) The general judgment of God upon the totality of created things. Here is the ultimate focus of the divine judging activity. God brings to final perfection the whole divine work, the universe, according to the entire history of creaturely response to God's merciful designs. All other divine judgments are integrated into this last universally consummating act, which establishes the whole of creation in its final form and sustains it forever as the perfect embodiment of divine wisdom and power and love.

Continuous Judgment of God. Human beings, both as individuals and as societies, live under the continuous judgment of God. Every free response they make to God's loving initiative is at once judged by God and related to the achievement of the divine purposes. During the period of mortal life, when the creature's choice is capable of reform and development, God's judgment also contains within it a further initiative of love. God does not simply judge what has been done but continues to invite to a fuller participation in the divine life, through a call to repentance or to further growth.

Upon Individuals. One can consider the continuous judgment of God upon individuals as it affects four different classes: repentant sinners, unrepentant sinners, the just who are endeavoring to do good, and the just who are growing careless. The judgment of God upon sin is always a destructive judgment, rendering it ultimately futile in its rebellious purpose. But as mercy tempers this judgment, God invites the sinner to destroy his own evil deed through repentance. The sinner, of course, is completely incapable of repenting and accomplishing this destruction through his own power. It is God who must draw the sinner to appreciate the disorder of his life and to reject it. This judgment of mercy leading to interior repentance was objectively passed on all sinners in the death of Christ upon the cross, "because when as yet we were sinners, Christ died for us" (Rom 5.89). It is applied to the individual sinner through faith in Christ, through fear of God's just punishments, confidence in God's mercy, sorrow for sin, and determination to follow God's will in the future. God then pronounces a further judgment upon the repentant sinner; this judgment is called justification. By it God makes the unjust person just, the enemy a friend, and thereby accomplishes the divine purposes in accordance with the response the creature has made to God's initiative. It must be emphasized that in this manifestation of saving justice God goes far beyond anything the repentant sinner is entitled to. No response the sinner has made to grace has given him any claim upon God. God's justifying judgment is a triumph of mercy, a supreme demonstration of loving kindness. This judgment was objectively passed upon all repentant sinners in the Resurrection of Christ from the dead, "who was delivered up for our sins, and rose again for our justification" (Rom 4.25). As the sinner has died to sin with Christ's death upon the cross, so he has risen to a new life in Christ's Resurrection.

When the sinner refuses to repent, persistently rejecting the light offered by God and resisting the attraction of God's grace, the judgment of God is to blind the sinner and to harden the sinner's heart. This is not a positive action on God's part; it means the withdrawal of the graces that the sinner has been refusing to accept. The immediate result of this judgment of God is the sinner's experience of personal weakness. The sinful condition is deepened and the misery of the sinner's plight forces itself upon his awareness. But even here God's mercy is at work, for the darkness and unrest that take possession of the sinner's heart are intended by God to lead to an awareness of the need for repentance and forgiveness. They are designed to break through the barrier of the sinner's resistance, not by violence or coercion, but by making the sinner taste the bitterness of this voluntary estrangement from God. It might be thought that God could more easily overcome this resistance by dazzling the sinner with the brightness of divine light and drawing him with a virtually irresistible sweetness of attraction toward what is good and holy. And it seems at times that God does act in this way in the beginning of a sinner's conversion. But one who is moved toward good in this way is still largely self-seeking; and if it is only on these terms that such a person will do what God commands, this is not really serving God but oneself. Thus, the normal judgment of God upon the unrepentant sinner is to harden and blind the sinner so that the realization of his personal insufficiency may prepare him for conversion and justification. A person may persist in trying to satisfy his deep personal need by the pursuit of power, pleasure, and fame through an exertion of energy that can end only in despair. To refuse the light is to close one's being to the advance of God's grace; and this hardening is a prelude to everlasting fixity in sin, everlasting darkness, everlasting despairnot because God so intended it, but because the sinner has made anything else impossible.

The judgment of God upon the just person who continuously responds in adoring love to the initiative of God's grace is to further sanctify and draw such a person further into friendship with god, that is, with the Holy Trinity. This judgment of God is not always an immediately pleasant experience. Our Lord said that His Father is a vinedresser who prunes the branches that bear fruit in order that they may bear more fruit (Jn 15.2). The judgment of God, while rewarding with a more abundant life those who seek God in forgetfulness of merely selfish concerns, acts also to promote a further selflessness, a deeper humility, a freer pursuit of the sovereign good. This, too, is a mingling of mercy with justice in the execution of judgment.

The just person who begins to retreat into the selfishness he once renounced is also an object of God's judgment. God gradually lets such a one experience a deep personal weakness and insufficiency, generally in small ways at first, to enable the person to learn from lesser falls the imminent danger of a greater fall. But if he continues to fail to live according to the measure of divine life the God has given, the judgment of God will be to desert him just as he has been deserting God. A halfhearted response to grace will prove insufficient to enable a person to remain essentially faithful to God, and a serious lapse will follow as a consequence of God's judgment. Once again, this judgment of God contains within it an initiative of mercy: to make the careless one realize the danger of the situation and amend his life so as to grow as God wishes.

In these judgments of God upon individuals according to their responses to his initiative one can discern the general characteristic effects of judgment noted above. God in justifying the repentant sinner, hardening the un-repentant sinner, sanctifying further the fervent just person, and gradually deserting the careless just person is destroying sin, purifying what is imperfect, perfecting what is good, and thus separating those who respond to him in adoring love from those who refuse to do so.

Upon Societies. Sacred Scripture makes it clear that God's continuous judgment falls not only on individuals as such but also on societies. The earliest concepts of divine retribution that one finds in the Hebrew Scriptures reflect this fact. A man's faithfulness or unfaithfulness had its repercussions also upon his descendants. Groups and nations were condemned or rewarded by God for their corporate actions. Later insistence upon a greater measure of personal responsibility modified but never destroyed the earlier point of view. It remains true that where one can identify a common action and a common responsibility one can speak of a judgment of God upon the group as such. This consideration opens up vast fields for trying to understand God's action in the world; but the treatment here will confine itself to some theological observations about the continuous judgment of God upon the Church, upon civil societies, upon families, and upon other human associations in general.

It may seem strange to speak of the Church as such coming under the judgment of God. The Church is the mystical body of christ, vivified by the Holy Spirit, charged with the mission and authority of Christ to teach, govern, sanctify, and save all people, divinely preserved from error in its teaching, assured of an unfailing existence until the end of time. This description might lead one to assume that though individual members of the church may come under divine judgment, the Church as such is rather to be regarded as one with the divine Judge. It is true that what is divine in the Church, what is purely and simply the action of God's merciful and redeeming love, does not come under divine judgment. But whatever in the Church involves in any way a human, free response to God does come under the judgment of God. The fact that the Church has authority from Christ does not mean that this authority will always be exercised in the best possible way. The fact that the Sacraments give grace from the power of Christ at work in them does not mean that sacramental discipline is always the one best calculated for the upbuilding of the Church. The fact that the Church cannot universally err in matters of faith and morals does not mean that it will always insist on the most significant truths or interpret them to the world in the way best suited to enlighten it. In all these ways and many more the Church as such through its leaders and its members can fail to respond properly to God's initiative within it. Or to put the matter positively, in all these areas each generation of the people of god is called upon to prove itself loyal to the covenant God has made with it in the blood of His Son.

The continuous judgment of God upon the Church does not directly affect its external success or temporal well-being; for these are not matters that are directly involved in its mission. But the Church as such will live a fervent life of faith, worship, unity, love, and apostolic concern as a consequence of God's judgment upon a submissive response of the Church's members to the guidance of the divine Spirit within the Church. Or else, the Church can experience division, formalism, defections, apostolic ineffectiveness, and scandal as God's judgment on those who seek the things that are their own and not the things of Jesus Christ. No one in the Church can be excused of responsibility before God as judge because of a particular position within the community; nor can the Church as a whole expect that, no matter what its response to God may be, its mission will be as abundantly fruitful and its witness to the world as unambiguously clear just because God is at work within it.

The continuous judgment of God likewise rests upon civil society, for this too is an instrument of divine providence for realizing God's purposes. Occasionally natural disaster or prosperity can reflect the judgment of God, as one sees illustrated in the Hebrew Scriptures. But normally the judgment of God will be seen in what directly touches the inner well-being of the society itself, in the presence or absence of tranquillity, opportunities for personal development, respect for law and civic officials, confidence in the organs of government, a tradition of genuine regard for the rights of others, and whatever else knits a people together for continuing and effective cooperation for the welfare of all. To the extent that a citizenry willingly conforms to the order of reason that manifests God's will, to that extent they as a whole will experience the tranquillity of order that is peace. It is true that there is question here largely of the working out of the natural laws of social relations; but these laws express the divine initiative on the natural level, and their built-in sanctions represent God's effective judgment on the same level.

Families, especially where these are constituted by a sacramental union, occupy a special place in God's plan and fall in a special way under God's judgment. The frequent blessings in the Hebrew Scriptures on families as such make this fact clear. But, once again, it would be a mistake to see God's judgment on a family chiefly in things that are external to it, in its wealth, social status, or even its health. Rather, to the extent that the family strives to live together in unselfish love and to worship God together in gratitude and trust, its members will as a group know the contentment that comes from God's approving judgment; and as they are negligent or disobedient in these areas, they will experience God's judgment in domestic strife, jealousy, suspicion, and unhappiness.

All other human societies and institutions follow the same pattern. Where the members genuinely cooperate for the establishment of a common good, the society will flourish, and all will benefit from the common good established by their combined efforts. But where the body of members begin to seek their own selfish aims, the institution is on its way to failure and dissolution. God's judgment upon societies as such is necessarily realized in temporal results, for these societies do not as such have an unending existence. The individual members of these societies, of course, will be judged eternally according to their individual responsibilities. A given society can exist through many generations of members, and a later generation may experience the full force of the judgment of God upon the corporate actions of an earlier generation. For by joining themselves to this society and by ratifying in their attitudes what was determined by their ancestors, they assume the responsibility, not individually but corporately, of what was done earlier. Hence, for example, it is not incongruous that the Church at Vatican Council II should have expressed repentance and asked pardon for the faults of an earlier generation of Catholics that had contributed to the disunity of the Church [Decree on Ecumenism 7; Acta Apostolicae Sedis 57 (1965) 97].

Particular Judgment of God at Death. Since divine judgment is the activity by which God achieves the divine purposes through the free responses made by creatures to God's gracious initiative, there are two moments of special focus for this activity, as was noted earlier. These are the moment of death, when the human person's response to God becomes total and definitive, and the moment of Christ's Second Coming, when the purposes of God are brought to final realization. The judgment of the individual at the moment of death is called the particular judgment.

Sources of Data. As was explained in the section on divine judgment in Catholic tradition, the existence of the particular judgment as a special instance of divine activity is attested only indirectly but certainly in Sacred Scripture and the documents of the Church. It is implied in the truths that at death the good and the wicked are straightway rewarded or punished for their choices during life and that these rewards and punishments are definitive (except for purgatory, which is a transitional state in preparation for the reward of heaven). Scripture makes this clear in the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Lk 16.1931) and in St. Paul's desire to die and be with Christ (Phil 1.2123; 2 Cor 5.69). Besides the testimony of the early Fathers, who always insist on a separation of the good and evil immediately after death but are not always clear that this results at once in definitive rewards and punishments, there is especially to be noted in this connection the apostolic constitution Benedictus Deus in which was solemnly defined the truth that the good after death (or after purgatory, if that is necessary) receive without delay the eternal beatific vision of God and that the wicked dying in mortal sin likewise without delay begin the punishment of hell [Denzinger 100002].

In the Soul. A certain type of devotional literature and popular preaching has pictured the particular judgment as a kind of judicial process, where accusations are made and a defense is offered, where one's guardian angel and patron saints plead the cause of the one being judged against the indictment leveled against the person by devils intent on carrying the soul off to hell. Meanwhile, Christ listens to both sides and at length pronounces a just sentence from which there is no appeal.

However helpful this may be to foster a proper attitude toward the seriousness of the particular judgment, it does not correspond to the way in which God's judgment is passed and the sentence executed. The particular judgment takes place wholly within the individual soul by the power of God's mind and will, which effectively and definitively joins the final dispositions of the soul with their appropriate realization. The soul in the moment of death is all that the free choices of a lifetime have made it. The dispositions of the soul in this moment sum up all the responses to God's initiative it has ever made (see death, theology of). The soul is therefore voluntarily related to God and all creation in a certain definite manner. It is fitted to occupy a certain place in the plan of God. God's judgment both makes clear to the soul what it has made of itself and gives it that place in the total design of divine wisdom and love that the soul is suited to fill. In a sense the soul judges itself; for in the light of the divine judgment the soul inescapably recognizes and affirms what it has become and what it deserves, and by an internal impulse growing out of this condition it is carried toward its destiny, St. Thomas observes, in much the same way as a heavy object is carried earthward and a light object heavenward.

Definitive. The particular judgment at death is definitive and irrevocable. During life the individual has been under the continuous judgment of God. But this has always been somewhat provisional, never totally definitive so long as the human response was intrinsically mutable and the divine initiative capable of still different approaches and manifestations. The consummating judgment of God upon the human person in death is no longer provisional but completely definitive. It resumes in itself and ratifies the whole continuous judgment of God made throughout the person's life. All the partial achievements of the divine purpose in respect to this individual become united in a total achievement, for the good of God's whole plan and for the weal or the woe of this individual depending on the basic option manifested in his life and made firm in death.

One who during life has been led by the Spirit of God (cf. Rom 8.11), who has repented of all personal sins and through the power of Christ made satisfaction for them, and who in death has perfectly assimilated the dying of Christ, experiences the particular judgment as God's action as completely perfecting and fulfilling. God is the ultimate cause of salvation, and here is finally united to the creature who now experiences intuitive vision, unfailing love, and selfless joy. By the divine judgment God assumes the soul irreversibly and wholly into the kingdom of God.

For one whose fundamental attitude is one of love of God, but who bears the stains of lesser sins or has failed to respond fully to that grace which would lead him to deeper union with Christ and help in making satisfaction for the grievous sins that have been forgiven him, the particular judgment is experienced first as a purifying action of God, one that removes and repairs what is disordered within the soul. Theologians generally distinguish purgatory and the particular judgment, but this distinction should not lead one to separate them. Purgatory is the state or condition established by the judgment of God considered as a purifying action to complete the work of grace in preparing the soul for heaven. It is generally thought that created agents are in some way the instruments of God's judgment in accomplishing this purification. But what or how this is so is not entirely clear. In any event, the ultimate purifying force is precisely the judgment of God upon the soul. The soul likewise experiences within the purifying judgment of God the immensity of God's love and the fundamental approval given its life. It is drawn to undergo in peace and perfect willingness the process that strips it of all selfishness and introduces it into everlasting blessedness.

The soul of one who dies in sin, rejecting to the last the offer of God's mercy and the invitation to repentance, experiences the particular judgment as a divine rejection, a destroying force rendering futile the self-centered goals it has refused to renounce. It must be emphasized that the individual who is lost is the ultimate cause of his own destruction. For the ultimate evil to be found in this final result is not traceable to any deficiency in God or God's activity but to the deficiency of the individual in his free response to God. God's judgment of destruction upon the individual is not the ultimate reason why a human person is lost (the individual person bears this responsibility); but it is God's affirmation of achieving the divine ultimate purpose not only in spite of, but somehow even through this rebellious individual who has chosen to be excluded from personal participation in the enjoyment of the divine good in the city of the blessed. God's action reduces this soul to the status of a mere thing, a means to an end, deprived by its own choice of the special dignity attaching to itself as person. The soul is given what it has in the last analysis really been choosing: itself, in isolation from God and in disorder with respect to the rest of the worldand this is the essential meaning of hell. And it thereby becomes through a tragic paradox an eternal witness to the fact that God is the source of all good, for cut off from God it has nothing in which it can finally rest. It witnesses also to the supreme worthiness of God to be loved, for having freely refused to love God it finds itself justly and by its own choice fixed in eternal misery.

Thus the particular judgment as it is passed on each individual at the moment of death separates finally the good and the evil. Under this action of God the world in the course of time is assuming the definite shape and structure of personal relations it will have forever.

Time and Place? Questions are sometimes raised about the time and place of the particular judgment. Some think of an interval between death and judgment when the soul is being transported to a heavenly tribunal. But such considerations spring from a too vivid imagination that attempts to picture sensibly what is wholly spiritual. The judgment of God takes place precisely at the moment of death, when the soul is separated from the body and begins to operate independently of matter. The separated soul has no spatial relationships to the material world, and so the question as to the place of the particular judgment is not a wholly intelligible one. Suffice it to say that the particular judgment does not so much occur in a place as it effectively puts the soul in a place, i.e., a state that is heaven, purgatory, or hell.

General Judgment of God. The continuous judgment of God and all particular divine judgments are ordered to the final, great consummating act of God in the general judgment when God brings all the divine, merciful designs to full realization.

Establishment of Heavenly Society. It might seem at first thought that the general judgment is a kind of anti-climax, that everything has already been decided in the sum of particular judgments, and that all one has here is a sort of public resumé of the many private acts of judgment that have been passed on all individuals in the course of history. But this is to miss the perspective of the divine purpose. It is noteworthy that Sacred Scripture frequently mentions the general judgment and nowhere explicitly mentions the particular judgment. For what God intends is not simply to save a large number of isolated souls, who thereafter happen to form themselves into a heavenly society. What God intends primarily is to establish this heavenly society, this family of persons joined to the Persons of the Holy Trinity and to one another in everlasting knowledge, love, and joy. The definitive establishment of this society is had in the general judgment.

The difference between the particular and general judgment and the importance of both can be further understood by recognizing that at one level each human person is an individual created being, while at another level each individual is also part of the total order of the universe, part of God's total design. The particular judgment consummates each person precisely in terms of its individuality, in that person's individual relationship to God, in the loneliness of the moment of death. The general judgment consummates the whole universe and the individual person along with it as a part, in that person's social relationship to all other things, in the great gathering together of all human persons at the resurrection.

It is not sufficient to distinguish these judgments by saying that in the particular the human person's soul is judged and in the general the body also. This is true enough, but it does not at all account for the greater importance of the general judgment in Holy Scripture. Human bodies are judged at the general judgment, because in the realization of God's plan human nature is reintegrated, and all human beings in their complete human personalities as body-soul composites are given the places in God's total work that their free responses to God's prior initiative have fitted them to occupy.

Some theologians have spoken of the need for a further general judgment in addition to the particular because human beings need to be judged with regard to all the consequences of their acts, and these may well continue long after the individual's death, even until the end of the world. Thus it would not be possible to judge them completely at the moment of death; another judgment at the end of time is required for all. Although there is some truth to this way of looking at things, by itself it does not seem conclusive. Strictly speaking, a person is responsible only for the consequences he foresees and intends in some way, not for everything that happens to follow upon his free choices. Hence, the individual can be judged at death for the consequences for which he is strictly responsible, and cannot really be judged at all for the other consequences. The element of truth, however, in this way of looking at the matter would seem to lie in the fact that one does influence others by one's personal choices in ways that reach across time and place and help to constitute a corporate response of humankind to the total initiative of God's love. This corporate response is indeed judged by God at the end of time. It is, of course, a response that divides humankind into two groups, those who accept this initiative and those who reject it. God's judgment forms one group into the city of God, and casts the other into outer darkness.

Names and Aspects. This judgment at the end of time has a number of different names that serve to underline various aspects of it. It is called God's judgment, because the Holy Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit together, are through their common divine act the supreme cause of the final perfection of the universe; it is a judgment passed by all of them (though by each in a way appropriate to His position within the Trinity), and it achieves the divine purpose by rewarding and punishing according to the response given the Trinitarian initiative.

It is called also the judgment of Christ. Our Lord in His humanity exercises the role of judge as one who has received this power from His Father. The New Testament and tradition are unanimous in giving Him this function. There is no opposition between a judgment of the Holy Trinity and a judgment of Christ. The Holy Trinity judges through the judgment of Christ. It is His, an activity truly proceeding from His human intellect and will, but endowed with a divine efficacy as belonging to a Divine Person within the Trinity. The act of judging is, indeed, Christ's last and greatest act as savior of mankind. Here, as will be considered presently, the glorified head of all creation completes the work assigned Him in the moment of His Incarnation.

This judgment is called the general judgment, since it embraces all human beings, good and bad, the living and the dead. The latter expression, which occurs in Scripture (Acts 10.42; 2 Tm 4.1; 1 Pt 4.5) and is found in nearly all professions of faith (Apostles' Creed, Nicene Creed, etc.), has two possible meanings. It may mean those spiritually alive and spiritually dead, and thus be the same as the good and the wicked. Or it may mean those who are physically alive at His coming and those who have already died, but are now raised to life. In any event, it is intended as a comprehensive formula to show that all people are subject to Christ's judgment.

This judgment is also called the last or the final judgment, since it is completely definitive. It does not look forward to any other judgment by which what is done here may be completed, modified, or set aside. Beyond lies only the sustaining power of God, upholding forever what is here established.

Apocalyptic Descriptions. One is accustomed to associate the general judgment with other events at the end of time, notably Christ's Second Coming and the resurrection of the dead. Following the imagery of Scripture, one thinks of Christ coming on the clouds of heaven in great glory. The dead are raised by His power to a neverending union of body and soul. And all are gathered before Him, the good on one side, the wicked on the other, to hear the fateful words of His welcome or banishment. In times past, too, it was a subject of some speculation just where this gathering together of all people would take place. Many spoke of the valley of Josaphat, relying on an expression found in the Prophet Joel (Jl 4.2).

But one must recognize that Scripture in these places is using a symbolic language to help people understand the greatness of this concluding intervention of God in human history. Neither Christ's Ascension into heaven nor His Second Coming should be thought of in terms of local motion simply visible to the eye. Christ "ascends" into heaven by entering into His glory, by being raised from the dead and completely filled in His humanity by the power of the Holy Spirit, by being associated as man in God's supreme Lordship over all creation. He "comes again" when by an exercise of His fullness of power He makes Himself present in the world, transforming it and bringing it to the state of its final perfection.

One Consummating Intervention. Scripture gives indications that the Second Coming, resurrection of the dead, and last judgment are really only diverse aspects of one single consummating divine intervention. Christ executes judgment in raising all humans from the dead, some to a resurrection of life, others to a resurrection of judgment (in John's customary sense of "condemnation," Jn5.2529). Christ comes in the act of raising people from the dead (cf. 1 Cor 15.2223; Phil 3.2021). Christ judges by His coming [cf. 2 Tm 4.1 (in many Greek and Latin MSS); Heb 9.2728]. Admittedly the places here referred to do not clearly state the identity affirmed above, but they suggest a radical unity that prompts the theologian to look more deeply into the matter.

In general a divine coming is based on an exercise of divine power that produces some new effect. Thus, the Holy Spirit comes as God infuses sanctifying grace or increases it within human persons. Hence, having recognized that Christ's Second Coming is not simply a matter of local motion and visible manifestations, one perceives that this coming, this new presence of His, is in function of a new exercise of His power producing a new effect. Thus He comes in power to the whole world when He effects a consummating transformation of all humankind. He does this by raising all people from the dead, "by exerting the power by which He is able also to subject all things to Himself" (Phil 3.21). And in effecting the resurrection of all people He gives to each a bodily condition that reflects the state of the soul in each case. Those who are united to God in the life of divine grace manifest in their bodies the glory of divine adoption. They "shine forth like the sun in the kingdom of their Father" (Mt 13.43). Those souls that are dead in sin are united to a body that rather possesses and imprisons them than is possessed by them as an instrument of self-expression and life. Individuals who are alive at this Second Coming of Christ will not undergo death as a separation of body and soul; for as St. Paul wrote, "We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed" (1 Cor 15.51). They will experience the moment of total commitment that death involves, and their bodies will be changed to accord with their inner relationship to God.

Christ Our Lord in causing this resurrection and transformation of all people is in effect judging them. He is realizing in the totality of humankind God's gracious and loving purpose according to the response that every person has made to that purpose. Each and all are brought to the final state of relationship to God, to one another, and to all of creation, that has been shaped by their individual and collective responses to God's initiative. "Then comes the end, when He delivers the kingdom to God the Father, when He does away with all sovereignty, authority and power that God may be all in all" (1 Cor 15.24, 28).

Victory and Purification. In this act of judging, which is at once Christ's Second Coming and the cause of humankind's resurrection, Our Lord reduces to utter powerlessness and futility all that is opposed to the self-giving, creative love of God. Fallen angels and condemned humans are compelled by the inner consequences of their rebellion to glorify the power and wisdom and goodness of God in the justice of their punishment. This judgment is likewise a purification for those just who are alive at the coming of Christ but are not perfectly prepared for heaven. For them, particular judgment and general judgment coincide, and the purification of purgatory is here accomplished. St. Paul described this purifying effect of Christ's judgment in the special case of some who were preaching in Corinth from unworthy motives; he made the supposition, without however actually affirming it, that they would be alive at the coming of Christ. In this case, the fire of judgment will test the quality of each person's works; if a person's work burns such a one will suffer loss, "but will personally be saved, yet so as through fire" (cf. 1 Cor 3.1015).

But most important, Christ's judgment in the glorious resurrection of the saints completes the building of the new Jerusalem. In these human beings and in the faithful angels, God's intention to share the joy of the divine Trinitarian life with created persons who relate to God in adoring love is triumphantly achieved. These persons together constitute the society of the blessed, the bride of the Lamb (Rv 21.9), "the everlasting kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ" (2 Pt 1.11).

This theological view of the general judgment does not destroy the beautiful imagery of Scripture but helps one to see the reality that lies behind it. The coming of Christ in glory upon the clouds, His voice calling all people from the grave, the assembling of all before Him to hear His sentenceall the meaning of these images is found in that totally transforming action by which Christ makes Himself present to all people, raising them from the dead, and assigning to each and all their places in the perfectly realized plan of God.

Revelation in Judgment. Finally, the general judgment is a public divine intervention making known to all the justice of God's judgment. "Therefore, pass no judgment before the time, until the Lord comes, who will both bring to light the things hidden in darkness and make manifest the counsels of hearts; and then everyone will have his praise from God" (1 Cor 4.5). This revelation will be for the glory and joy of the saved and for the shame and sorrow of the lost. It is not clear whether the blessed in a single instant will receive complete knowledge of the whole plan of salvation as it was worked out in detail, or simply that this knowledge will be perfectly available, to be acquired as they wish in an ever deepening fashion throughout eternity. Those condemned to hell will not perceive this plan with the same fullness; their knowledge will be only such as to impress upon them the isolation they have brought upon themselves, the responsibility they bear for their own condition, and the triumph of God's purposes in spite of and even through their rebellion.

The revelation of the forgiven, secret sins of the just will not be a source of embarrassment for them. For along with these sins there will be manifested the sorrow they conceived for them, the penance they did for them, and the humble acceptance of God's forgiveness that they received for them. They will rejoice that God's mercy is revealed so strikingly in their regard, to the glory of Christ and the joy of the blessed.

Christ at the moment of the Incarnation received from the Father the commission to redeem fallen humanity, to head a new race of human beings vivified by the Holy Spirit, to establish an eternal kingdom where God's love may enrich forever those He has made His sons and daughters. All the events of the terrestrial and glorified life of Christ are directed to the fulfillment of this commission, which is finally perfectly executed in the moment of the general judgment. The action of Christ in subduing all enemies is at last brought to a close by this act of power and justice and love. His work done, the Son will deliver the kingdom to God the Father; and as all things are then subject to Christ and Christ is subject to the Father, there will begin the everlasting kingdom of the Father, where God is all in all (cf. 1 Cor 15.2428).

See Also: judgment, divine (in the bible); end of the world; eschatology (in theology); heaven, (theology of); hell (theology of); kingdom of god; man; parousia; resurrection of christ; resurrection of the dead; eschatology, articles on.

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[j. h. wright]

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Judgment, Divine (In Theology)

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