The Final Judgment and Moral Sensibility

33rd Sunday of ordinary time 2016

You will be hated by all because of my name,
but not a hair on your head will be destroyed.
By your perseverance you will secure your lives.”
Lk. 21:19

             As the Church’s liturgical year draws to a close, the liturgy directs out attention to the world to come, to the so-called last things, death, judgment, the reward of Heaven or the punishment of Hell. Today most people in the once Christian West don’t pay much attention to these Gospel accounts of the last things. For a huge number of Westerners, faith is dead, and even nominal Christians no longer believe there really a final judgment. Many others claim they have some kind of faith, but their “faith” does not cause them any concern regarding a divine judgment, since they no longer believe that anyone really goes to Hell.

The universal Church has long condemned this belief in universal salvation as heretical, but it has been revived in the past half century even by some Catholic theologians. This dangerous theological notion has caused great damage today, not only to individual souls who now substitute presumption for authentic hope, but also to missionary efforts of the Church. Why would one give up home and family and country no longer to help save souls but simply to help people have a better life in this world?  One can do that by giving time and service to agencies like the Peace Corps without sacrificing all the rest.

On the other hand, this theological assumption of universal salvation, ungrounded in either Scripture or Tradition, does make this life more comfortable, perhaps, since it encourages people to live any way they chose to without worrying that they will have to render any meaningful and demanding account of their lives to God. No matter how people live in this world, universalists are convinced that God will not judge them nor demand a strict accounting in justice from anyone. What often lies hidden behind the mantra today, who am I to judge is the rationale that I shouldn’t judge anyone because even God doesn’t judge anyone.

All of this, of course, is the worst and most dangerous sort of wishful thinking. People don’t want to believe in a God who judges us. But just as whether one believes in God or does not cannot objectively settle the question of God’s existence, so whether or not one believes that following death he or she will have to render a strict account of his or her life does not really affect the truth of the final judgment. But this comforting attitude non-judgementalism will not only affect the way many will live his or her own personal moral life in this world. It will also have ramifications for the way one approaches the social dimensions of the moral life as well.

Inevitably this universalist generated non-judgementalism will also affect the way many people will look at matters of social injustice in this world. After all, if no one is to judge the moral actions of people in the personal realm of morality, why would anyone be allowed to judge moral actions that affect the social order and the common good? For instance, “who am I to judge” employers who deny a living wage or health insurance to their employees? Or who am I to judge rulers who refuse to allow any desperate migrants into their country?

So, if I become convinced that it is, in the words of one of these theologians, “infinitely unlikely” that God will condemn anyone to eternal punishment in hell, it becomes extremely difficult to fight temptations of any sort, including temptations against justice. Why should the poor not steal if God’s justice is no longer in play? Why should the man who works harder and gets less than his bosses, not embezzle to strike a fairer balance? Why not lie if it beings about a greater good, why not kill if that makes one’s life easier? After all, God doesn’t condemn anyone but has mercy on all. Universalism assures me that God will not punish me forever even if I never repent, so why not be a criminal if that choice helps me to take care of my family better?

Even worse, if one really doesn’t believe that there is any judgment or justice beyond this world, when he or she personally suffers a great injustice and sees the perpetrator escaping any just punishment in this world, does it not become much more likely that this victim may succumb to the temptation to wreak vengeance?

We know that victims who don’t believe there is any punishment for injustice beyond this world understandably feel despair and extreme anger and pain that someone like Adolf Hitler and many of his barbaric henchmen have escaped any real justice in this world. And will not this hopelessness with regards to divine justice likely cause many other victims of injustice or their families to feel a terrible temptation to take justice into their own hands when they see the perpetrators escape any punishment in this world?

But for those who believe in a final judgment and in a strict divine justice, who believe that every single act of evil and injustice in this world will be paid for, if not in this world, in the world to come, such temptations can more easily be overcome and genuine peace of heart be restored. The Scriptures, when read without ideological lenses distorting the text, teach clearly that nobody ultimately gets away with anything when it comes to sin, including sins against justice. Every loose word, says Jesus, will demand an accounting, let alone every crime: “But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken.” (Matt. 12:36)

Indeed, according to Sacred Tradition based upon Scripture, even those who repent of their sins in this life, and who have been spared the eternal punishment due to their sins by the merits of Jesus Christ, must still make real atonement for all their sins. They must do so either through undergoing the temporal punishment demanded by justice in this world and through their voluntary suffering by penance voluntarily undertaken, or they will do so in the world to come either by suffering the temporal punishment due to their sins in Purgatory, or eternal punishment in hell for the unrepentant. This is the Catholic faith regarding divine justice to be rendered for sins. So again, no act of evil or injustice ever escapes the judgment of God and the demands of his justice. No one gets away with anything forever.

It’s truly amazing how Christians can ignore the clear teaching of Jesus and of the whole New Testament regarding the truth of judgment and justice, and the reality of heaven or hell. Belief in these realities gives us a realistic vision of the evil of sin and the reality of divine justice against which to set the course of our lives. If we truly believe that justice is truly required for all of our evil acts, including social injustices, and id we truly believe that our life is short and the challenge is great to find the narrow way that leads to heaven and avoid the broad way that leads to hell, these beliefs will change the way we live in this world.

And if we also believe that the mercy of God, merited by Jesus Christ, does not contradict or deny divine justice but rather satisfies for us the demands  of that justice for the eternal punishment due to our sins, such belief will also change our hearts in relation to Our Savior. That is why all sin after Baptism is important, and why all such sin, grave or venial, demands true temporal satisfaction of divine justice, even though the eternal consequences have been satisfied by Christ.

And finally, believing these divinely revealed truths allows us to leave vengeance for crimes to the state, and vengeance for all unpunished crimes to the divine execution of justice in the next world. That belief leaves us in peace and free to focus on our own sins rather than our neighbor’s. And our whole value system becomes very different from that of the world.

Thus, the Church does us a great service by each year by recalling to our attention this truly realistic vision of life and its termination in a  final judgment.  As Paul says “Therefore, let us not sleep as the rest do, but let us stay alert and sober.”  We have been warned that at the end of time, just as in the time of Noah, most people will not be prepared for the coming and judgment of Christ.  “When people are saying, ‘Peace and security,’ then sudden disaster comes upon them.” Surely this false sense of peace and security is being promoted today by the purveyors of universal salvation who encourage a false security based not on biblical or Church teaching but simply on wishful and self-serving thinking. All of us will in fact stand before the Judge who will demand an accounting of every single act in our life, and if we have not repented, we will most certainly hear those awful words of Jesus: I never knew you, depart from me you evildoers.

However, if we take the Gospels seriously and without making them say what we want them to say – as Jesus warned in today’s Gospel “See that you not be deceived” – and if we submit our faith to the Church’s faith, then surely we have a well grounded theological hope to hear at that final judgment the merciful words of Jesus spoken in those same Scriptures, “Well done good and faithful servant … come, share your master’s joy.”

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