Michelangelo’s “Last Judgment” on the Altar Wall in the Sistine Chapel
Photography by Mark Armstrong

The Four Last Things

Catholic teaching identifies the Four Last Things as:

  • Death
  • Judgment
  • Heaven
  • Hell

In the first installment of this series on the Four Last Things, we examined what every Catholic needs to know about death. In this second installment, we will look at the Particular and Universal Judgments, the second of the Four Last Things.

The Particular and Universal Judgments

“And just as it is appointed for men to die once, and after that comes judgment…” (Hebrews 9:27).

Bodily immortality, one of the preternatural gifts God gave to mankind, was lost when Adam and Eve sinned. The result is that men and women die at the end of their earthly lives. But, Jesus Christ conquered death so bodily death is no longer a permanent condition.

Prior to Redemption, there was no possibility for the dead to enter Heaven, but now there is. Christ defeated sin and death and has opened the gates of Heaven to us.

During our earthly lives, we have time and opportunity to accept God’s free gift of salvation and gain merit. We have the opportunity to enter into a communion with God and become holy. It is an opportunity for us to turn from sin and to live and love as God does, sharing in His Divine Life through Grace. This conversion from sin to God, this leaving behind the darkness to live in the Light, is a life-long pursuit. That is why Scripture speaks of salvation as a past event, a present happening and a future hope.

When we die, that is, when the soul separates from the body, we face judgment. The time for choosing good or evil ends at death. The time for meriting reward ends at death. Then is the time for judgment.

“For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive good or evil, according to what he has done in the body” (2 Corinthians 5:10).

There is a tendency today to discount sin—to either deny its reality or to ignore its consequences. But, just as we have seen and know that death is real, so can we see and know the reality of sin and is consequences. Simply look at your own life; only one who has deluded himself would deny the stark reality that faces us in a world separated from God.

“But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you; and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So is he who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God” (Luke 12:20-21).

So let’s examine judgment.

The Particular Judgment

When we die, we shall face two judgments. The first of these is what theologians call the Particular Judgment. There will come a time when we are are individually judged by Christ. That moment will occur immediately following our death in the ordinary events of human history or, for those still alive, at the Second Coming of Christ. We will see our lives as they were, every act of sin and its consequences and every act of goodness and its consequences. We will see ourselves as God sees us. And, we will learn whether our reward is the beatitude and glory of God in Heaven or the everlasting punishment of Hell, separated from God.

This is the Particular Judgment.

For those who die before the return of Christ, our souls will depart for either Hell or to Heaven to await the Universal Judgment and the General Resurrection of our bodies at the Second Coming of Christ. These saved who depart for Heaven, if they are not perfected in the earthly life, will first undergo purification and suffer temporal punishment in Purgatory.

The saved who experience their Particular Judgment at the Second Coming of Christ will not have need of Purgatory as we ordinarily view it because they will already have undergone their final purification. Although Purgatory is not one of the Four Last Things, we will look deeper into it when we examine Heaven and Hell in the next installment.

The Universal Judgment

At the end of time, when Christ returns, all the sins of each person will be revealed for all to know. Theologians call this the Universal Judgment. Some refer to this as the final or general judgment.

It seems at times we are more concerned about what others know about us than what God knows. We act as if we are more embarrassed by others knowing our faults than about God knowing them. Contemplating the Universal Judgment is one of those times. Out of embarrassment, we might wonder why there should be a Universal Judgment.

“When the Son of man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will place the sheep at his right hand, but the goats at the left. Then the King will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world…’” (Matthew 25:31-34).

The justice of God demands that all be revealed. How often in this life does it appear that the good suffer and the wicked prosper? We see this and know that this cannot be right. At the Universal Judgment, we will know that everything is as it should be. God’s justice and His mercy will prevail.

In this life, we cannot see into the hearts of others, but God can and does. Jesus told us not to judge others. In part, this is why. We can and should judge their actions, but we can never know their hearts… until the Universal Judgment when all will be revealed and each person’s final choice is revealed.

Does the prospect of the Universal Judgment disturb you? One of the things for which we have time to overcome in this life is the sin of pride. It is because of pride that we fear others knowing our inmost dark secrets. The practice of humility, strengthened with frequent sacramental confession can overcome that fear and deepen our spiritual life.

So that’s it… “it is appointed for men to die once, and after that comes judgment…”

Into the deep…

Editor’s Note: In next Sunday’s third installment on the Four Last Things, we will look at Heaven and Hell.

Deacon Bickerstaff is available to speak at your parish or event. Be sure to check out his Speaker Page to learn more. Into the Deep is a regular feature of the The Integrated Catholic Life™.

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