First, some facts. God’s judgement is really two-fold. There is the Particular Judgement, and there is the General Judgement. Particular Judgement is that judgement which takes place immediately upon the death of an individual. When we die, we are no longer the “pilgrims” that we are in this life – we will no longer be able to sin, nor will we be able to repent from sin. If there is the rare individual who dies in a state of perfect grace, with no further need of purification, and with no temporal punishment due to them because of their previous sins, that person will directly enter heaven with the other saints. Those who die in the state of grace, but who still need some purification before the final destination of heaven will enter purgatory, where they will be cleansed and made ready for heaven, aided by the prayers and sacrifices of the faithful. And finally, those who die in the state of mortal and unrepented sin – those who have purposely offended God and don’t care that they have – will, at the Particular Judgement, enter into their unending punishment in hell. This is, of course, a much simplified explanation of Particular Judgement.
But in addition to the Particular Judgement upon each and every soul, which will take place individually at our death, there also will be the General Judgement – that judgement which we profess in the Creed, when we proclaim that “He shall come again in glory, to judge both the quick and the dead...” This is the Final Judgement of God upon all mankind. It is not simply the summation of all of the particular judgements which have taken place, but it involves the consummation of all things in Christ, when God’s kingdom will be complete. At that time, there will be no further question in anyone’s mind or heart as to the power of God, or as to the Kingship of Christ, or as to the truth of the Catholic Faith. All things will be put in subjection to Christ, and it will be the age of “the new heaven and the new earth.” Of course, we should understand that these two judgements are not as separate as they sound, because in this, God acts outside of time. In fact, they are really the one judgement by God, bringing all lives and all things to a final end.
Having outlined those basic facts, what does it really mean to us? Actually, a great deal. God’s judgement necessarily involves God’s system of justice, so we must have some understanding of divine justice as we face the reality of divine judgement. Perhaps we can better understand it if we look for a moment at the system of justice which we have in the United States.
When American justice works as it is supposed to (which, of course, is not always the case) it is based upon the supposition that if a person is found to have done something wrong, then he has to pay a price for that action. In other words, if a man is caught robbing your house, then you should be able to expect him to spend some time in prison. It’s not enough for him simply to go into the courtroom and say, “I’m sorry, your Honor,” and then expect it all to go away. The question that gets asked is, “How to you plead: guilty or not guilty,” and if he is found to be guilty, then a punishment will be exacted. That is our system of justice, and it is what we expect to happen in our courts of law.
Now let’s look at Divine Justice. One of its tenets is that it is Christ who will be our Judge. On that Last Day, when the secrets in the hearts of all men shall be disclosed, it will be Jesus who will mete out Divine Justice. And because of that, it will not be the justice of our human law-court that will be given out. If God were to administer justice in the same way that we expect our human law-courts to administer justice, then our chances of escaping eternal punishment on the Day of Judgement would be slim-to-none. We have all grievously sinned; every one of us has come short of the glory of God. Each and every one of us will stand guilty before the Divine Judge. That is why, thanks be to God, it is a different kind of court-room where Christ is the judge. Certainly, in that court-room we will all stand guilty – and in fact, we will all deserve the death penalty. But in the Divine court-room, when the judge passes the death-sentence, He then gets up from behind the bench to stand next to the guilty party, and He takes the death sentence upon Himself. Why? Because in God’s court-room, He doesn’t ask us to plead “guilty or not guilty” – rather, we are asked to plead “sorry or not sorry.” If we have lived lives which plead “sorry” – lives which have had real repentance and which have been healed and fed with His sacraments – then Christ shoulders the sentence Himself. Here’s the beauty of it all, when it comes to Divine Judgement. Christ is not only our Judge, but He is our Redeemer, too. This is God’s justice: He demands righteousness, and then He proceeds to provide us with the means to become righteous. He demands perfection, and then He provides the means whereby we may be made perfect.
Whatever else is true about God’s judgements, one thing is certain: on Judgement Day, there will not be any surprises. It will be obvious to everyone that God’s judgement is completely fair. In fact, we will receive precisely what we ask for. The record of our relationship with God will lay before us in complete truth and openness, and the facts will speak for themselves. If we have been faithful to God, if we have shown sorrow for our sins and have sought His absolution, if we have been generous to those in need, following the path of the Lord which began at our baptism, then God our Judge will say, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant...” But if we have been purposely unfaithful to God, untrue to our baptismal promises, stingy toward those in need, prejudiced and cruel to others who are also children of God, if we have been too proud to confess our sins and too lazy to do penance, if we have thrown away our birthright by clinging too closely to the things of this world, then God our Judge will say, “Depart from me, you cursed, into everlasting fire...”
It is not some fickle or uncertain justice which God will give out on Judgement Day. In a very real sense, we will actually bring judgement upon ourselves – or, at least, our actions and our attitudes will. The righteousness and the mercy of God will prevail on the Day of Judgement. The righteousness of God demands perfection – and the mercy of God means that we will have been given the means of righteousness through the perfect sacrifice of Jesus Christ upon the Cross. And it is through the Cross that we receive the forgiveness which brings us to the joy of life in eternal communion with Almighty God.