He Will Come Again in Glory to Judge the Living and the Dead

SCRIPTURES & ART: Good is good and evil is evil. Pick sides.

Michelangelo, “The Last Judgment,” 1536-1541
Michelangelo, “The Last Judgment,” 1536-1541 (photo: Public Domain)

The Church has always spoken of the Last Judgment on both the last Sunday in Ordinary Time and the First Sunday of Advent. Before the reform of the Roman Calendar in 1969, those two Sundays followed consecutively. Since that reform, the feast of Christ the King (which used to be in October) now falls between them, emphasizing that the Kingship of Christ is the axis on which human history turns and to which it tends. If one attends weekday Mass in these days, one cannot fail to notice that the tone of readings in November has been decidedly eschatological — death, judgment, heaven and hell.

That’s appropriate. Unless we know where we want to go (and where we don’t) we might not reach the proper destination. Alas, our culture — although it may traffic in death — does not really like to talk about it. The end of the liturgical year and the annual tradition of November as the month of the Holy Souls should help us restore some healthy perspective and awareness that “it is appointed for man once to die, and after death, the judgment” (Hebrews 9:27).

God made this world and us for good: we should know, love and serve him in this life and be happy with him in the next. Due to sin, we’re don’t and aren’t and our relationship with the world is warped.

Jesus came into this world to redeem us. Jesus, true God and true man, came to put back together what man had broken. He came to conquer sin and death, and did so in the Resurrection on that first Easter.

But that first Easter was not just something that happened once upon a time, is over, and done with. That first Easter was the first link in a divine chain stretching through history whose final link is the Last Judgment. (The Assumption was another link in that chain).

God will have the final word in history. Good, not evil, will be the last word in human history. The redemption and restoration that began in the Easter tomb ends in the Last Judgment.

Human beings can choose good or evil, which means they can choose heaven or hell. But they cannot make evil good or good evil. God refuses no one his love, but God does not make “love” meaningless, meaning anything you want it to. Good is good and evil evil, and there will be a final, definitive separation called the Last Judgment. Pick sides.

We sometimes forget that “salvation history” is not just the Old Testament and the New Testament. “Salvation history” didn’t end with the Apostles or the early Church. Christ’s work of redemption has been going on for 21 centuries. It continues in every Mass said, every Communion received, every absolution and anointing given, every child baptized, every young person confirmed, every priest ordained, every man and woman married.

It’s going on now. But it will end. Where and when is God’s knowledge. But he’s told us to keep watch and be ready. 

Have you noticed, when we pray the Profession of Faith on Sundays, that while most of its articles are past tense (“born of the Virgin Mary, suffered death, rose, ascended”) or present tense (“I believe in the Father who creates, Jesus Christ his only Son, the Holy Spirit who is Lord and Giver of Life, the Church”), only one is future tense: “I look for the resurrection of the body and the life of the world to come.” 

Amen. That’s our faith. And it’s final act.

What is the sense or purpose of the Last Judgment? Every human being is judged in his own particular judgment at death. The Last Judgment will not change that outcome. So, what is it all about?

Several things.

God brings closure to human history. He reveals its meaning. He reveals his graces given and received or squandered. He reveals acts of love and stupidity of sin.

God fulfills who we are. We are bodily and spiritual beings. Our bodies and our souls were both responsible for the kinds of persons we became, good or evil. Our bodies and souls then justly should share in the reward or punishment for what we have made ourselves into. That justice would not be met if all bodies simply lie in graves.

We are also social beings. What we have done in life, no matter how private we think it may be, affects others. Seeing how it all fit together — for better or, by human choice for worse — is demanded by justice.

In that sense, the Last Judgment is an affirmation of the human need for justice. Ultimately, finally, and definitively good must triumph and evil must be defeated. Ultimately, finally, and definitively, the masks in which evil masquerades as good and good is concealed by evil must be ripped off: the truth of God and man must finally be seen — even if not accepted — by all. That is the Last Judgment.

The Last Judgment is obviously a rich theme in Christian art. Once upon a time, it was a standard depiction in most churches, either over the main altar or at least the main entrance. 

One might then ask why I chose so well-known a representation of this event as Michelangelo’s “Last Judgment.” 

This well-known fresco dominates the wall over the altar in the Sistine Chapel. Michelangelo designed this enormous (almost 45 feet tall and 40 feet wide) masterpiece for over four years (1536-41). 

Pope Clement VII wanted a Last Judgment scene over the Sistine Chapel’s altar — as noted above, that was standard for Catholic churches. 

Michelangelo’s work was probably not what most people expected. That Renaissance work did not look like earlier Last Judgments. Jesus is young and virile, as much an Apollo as Christ. The Renaissance inclusion of mythological elements does not end there: note the ferryman Charon driving souls to hell in the bottom right. Jesus is also dynamic. His movement enlivens the whole picture, which is theologically true: the power of the Resurrection “renews the whole world,” bursting the tombs and calling forth humanity to acknowledge “sin, righteousness, and judgment” (John 16:8). The angels bear the instruments of his Passion at the very top: cross and column of scourging. The definitive separation is underway: the good ascend on the left (Jesus’ right) to heaven, the evil descend on the right (Jesus’ left) to hell. The elect help each other: one pulls another, two ascend together, the Rosary is a particularly effective climbing chain. 

This is a social scene. The heavenly court is gathered around Jesus. If you examine the tradition of martyrdom of the Apostles, you’ll be able to identify them by the instruments of their deaths. St. Bartholomew, flayed alive, carries his skin behind him (on which it’s said Michelangelo imprinted his image). 

The damned, too, have a quasi-society. It’s a quasi-society, because while the elect help each other reach heaven, the damned mostly fall alone, but for diabolical help. Having chosen to serve devils, demons enthusiastically welcome them, all glamour of evil exposed to its true view.

It’s a scene in motion. While some are already in heaven, others are on their way, while still others, along the bottom, exit the grave. Some of those last ones are still skeletons, others stiff with rigor mortis, but the angelic trumpets are unavoidable alarm clocks. 

Preaching a retreat to Polish Highlanders, górale, St. John Paul II once observed that every man who stands before Michelangelo’s masterpiece should be moved to ask himself: “Where in that scene am I?” That’s the purpose of this great work … and today’s Gospel. As the old Confraternity of Precious Blood missal used to put it:

Waste not time, while time shall last
For after death is ever past
All-seeing God your judge will be
And heaven or hell your destiny.
All earthly things will pass away.
Eternity, alone, will stay.

And where am I?