A Judgment About the Communion of Persons

Judgment is real because love is real and persons are real.

Stefan Lochner, “The Last Judgment,” c. 1435
Stefan Lochner, “The Last Judgment,” c. 1435 (photo: Public Domain)

Death, judgment, hell and heaven are traditionally listed as the “four last things” on which that branch of theology called eschatology focuses. Eschatology gains particular prominence in the Church’s readings as her liturgical year winds down, and so I offer some thoughts on these issues, neglected particularly in contemporary preaching.

I recently wrote about the paradox of how everything about death (including its diabolical author) is disappearing. It’s disappearing, even as the reality of death (although we strive to redefine it) remains and even as we embrace the culture of death ever tighter.

Today, I’d like to offer some thoughts about judgment, influenced at least in part by an author whose acquaintance I’m just beginning to make, the Romanian Orthodox theologian Dumutru Staniloae. Staniloae wrote a general overview of Orthodox dogmatic theology, which Hellenic College Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in Massachusetts has published in English. Although my final judgment of his work is still a long way out and I’ve heard some concerns about it, some of Staniloae’s ideas—particularly his personalism—favorably appeal at least initially to me.

I’d like to reflect on his thoughts about “communion” in connection with his treatment of the particular judgment, i.e., the judgment each of us undergoes at death. The theme appeals to me because the “communion of persons” (communio personarum) is a very prominent idea in the thought of Karol Wojtyła, my intellectual hero.

The particular judgment is very much the acid test of whether one is able to enter into a communio personarum or not.

First, let’s start with the notion of “judgment.” Our “non-judgmental” world, where there’s “your wrong” and “my wrong” but not just plain “wrong,” starts out with an allergy toward judgment. Likewise, that world imagines God as imply into “I’m okay, you’re okay” therapy.

Part of that “non-judgmentalism” stems from the corrosive effect of nominalism on our culture. Nominalism was a medieval philosophy, given an extended lease on life through classical Protestantism, which exaggerated God’s omnipotence at the expense of all his other attributes. Nominalism held that “almighty” God may have promulgated Ten Commandments that forbid killing, stealing and lying, but he could have issued a Decalogue that commands killing, stealing and lying – because he’s omnipotent and can do what he wants. Morality is not rational; it is pure choice, pure will.

Catholic theology, of course, rejected that vision. God cannot contradict himself: a God who is Life and Truth (John 14:6) cannot—without denying who He Is—make a world in which killing and lying are OK. Good and evil are not mere labels: they are real because God, who is Goodness Himself, is real.

Everything was fine as long as an all-wise God was somewhere in the picture, but modern man’s pushing God out of the moral picture was accompanied by a simultaneous pushing himself into it. The real God is dead; man has taken His place. Unfortunately (for man), the human is not omniscient.

Modern man thinks nominalistically—he’s just eliminated God from the equation. Instead of God, it’s people who do the moral labeling, affixing the tags “good” or “evil” by his own their preferences. The whole “choice” basis underlying the abortion liberty, for example, is nominalism grounded in an apotheosis of woman. From there, it’s just a short leap to a distorted notion of “conscience” that, instead of reflecting the moral norms that exist in a real world out there, it creates those moral norms in the subject’s head, convincing him that his “choice” makes something good.

Normal human experience, of course, does not bear this idea out. Every one of us has wanted to do something he knew he shouldn’t do (or, conversely, wanted to avoid doing something he knew he should). The very fact that each of us has experienced moral obligation as something outside of me demanding something of me tells me that I am not the maker of right and wrong.

Which means that God’s judgment at my death is not a ratification of what I think is right or wrong, but rather a confrontation of my life with what is right or wrong. The individual’s conscience will not determine if X was right or Y was wrong; it will measure what I did against a moral obligation that existed outside of and independently of me. That is why “pastoral” priests and theologians who hawk this faux notion of conscience do people no good.

Right and wrong are not what I label them, but rather what is (and is not) of God: a God who is Life, Fidelity, Truth and Right. A God who must condemn murder, adultery, lies, and theft because he has nothing in common with them.

And remember that Judaism and Christianity fundamentally reformed the human image of God by teaching us that (a) God is moral and (b) our relationship to him is primarily moral.

The true God, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of Jesus Christ, is Good. He is not Jupiter, Juno or Apollo, rutting and raping across Olympus. God is different not because he’s bigger but because he’s better. He’s the Best. He is Goodness. He is Life. He is Truth. He is Love.

And God’s relationship to man is a moral one, because love presupposes a shared good, and God is Love (I John 4:8). God and man (thanks to God’s gift of grace) can share goodness. That is their common good. That is what makes us His People and He our God. “Be holy because I am holy” (1 Peter 1:16).

“Love” is not a label whose content is indeterminate. God is Love… and Life, and Truth, etc. That is why “if you love Me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15), not as extrinsic tests God imposes, but because what they demand is what Love is.

So, at our judgment, when God gives us a glimpse of himself, the soul will either recognize it has something in common with him, i.e., there is a communion of persons between us, or it does not. As Jesus reminds us in the Synoptics (e.g., Mt 25:35-40), we will be judged on whether we had a communion of persons with our brother Jesus who, like the rest of our brothers, was hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, etc. If we are repulsed by the hungry or naked brother, we have no communion with Him. The Beatific Vision itself might be overwhelming, but will Jesus our Judge appear before us as one hungry, poor or outcast?

Judgment is not, therefore, God going down some checklist of rules, weighing books of good and evil deeds. Judgment is simply whether the soul in front of God recognizes anything in common with him. That commonality is found in truth and fidelity and other common goods that obeying the Commandments entail. It is to say that, first and foremost, do these persons—the Divine Person and this soul—have anything in common?

Staniloae also asks whether there will be anybody else at our judgment, and I like his affirmative answer. We have been prone to accept the Scriptural vision that, at the judgment, a man stands utterly alone before God and, in a very real sense, that’s true: no one but me can speak for my life.

But I think this solitary image has also been unduly nurtured by the kind of “rugged individualist/isolated monad” vision that infects modern Western thought. We are never alone (sorry, “right to privacy” advocates); we are accompanied by a “cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1) to our praise or shame. The general judgment at the end of the world is necessary because man is social: because each of our deeds affects other people, our eternal fate that derives from those deeds cannot be a “private” affair. All mankind must witness God’s justice.

Staniloae seems to suggest that this same social nature also affects the particular judgment. The soul before God has, after all, touched the lives of others, including those who have gone before us. Why would they not see that judgment?

Christian tradition has often offered the image of angels and demons litigating over the destiny of the soul before God’s judgment seat. Prescinding from such literal images, we have a relevant experience in this life. As one of the Fathers of the Church remarked, the devil readily take away our shame when we sin but piles it on double when we want to repent and confess it. Why would we not expect that, at this moment of our eternal fate, there would not be present those with an “interest” in misrepresenting our lives to our detriment? Or the angels and saints who, throughout our life, sought to redirect our steps?

To summarize: (1) judgment is real; (2) judgment is about an honest, unvarnished and unblinking discovery—unto salvation, purification or damnation—of whether the person I have made myself into has anything in common with the Person of God; and (3) that judgment, which situates me eternally, would be of interest to those who want me for that eternity on their “side.”

Yes, judgment is real because love is real and persons are real… and this is their ultimate and definitive encounter.

All views contained herein are exclusively those of the author.