We are Given the Spirit as a Spirit of Judgment

The cross is a sign of judgment. A God who dies on a cross is a God who takes love and sin seriously.

Francisco de Zurbarán, “Saint Luke Before Christ on the Cross” (detail), c. 1635
Francisco de Zurbarán, “Saint Luke Before Christ on the Cross” (detail), c. 1635 )

November is a month in which the Catholic Church puts greater focus on “the four last things” — death, judgment, heaven, and hell. One reason is that November has traditionally been a month of prayer for the faithful departed. Another is that, as the liturgical year winds down, eschatological themes – “the four last things” — dominate the Gospels.

One of those themes is “judgment.” Judgment is a very politically incorrect word to a non-judgmental world. “Who am I to judge?” many ask, not with humility (“there but for the grace of God go I”) but with cynical Pontius Pilate’s question — “what is truth?” — as a further subtext. To a world in which there is “my truth” and “your truth” but not necessarily “the truth,” judgment ultimately makes no sense. A world that is always on the search for truth but never believes it might actually find it, is a world on a perennial journey that never finds a home. Pace the Man of La Mancha (but very much the Man of Hippo), one’s heart will only lie peaceful and calm when it rests in the Truth — not when it “remains true to this glorious quest” but to its goal. 

So the first challenge for modern man to deal with judgment is the fact that there is something to be judged. The second challenge is that God is judgmental. 

“It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:31). That’s a biblical citation we don’t often hear. For a long time, many Catholics have nurtured a caricature of a “loving” God who is indulgent, winks at sin (and doesn’t think it is anywhere near as widespread as some voices in the Church suggest it is) and who gives us reason to dare to hope all men will be saved. How dare I impugn this picture of a God who is Love? (1 John 4:7).

Yes, he is Love. Just look at the Cross. “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved” (John 3:16). 

Yes, look at the Cross. Love takes good and evil seriously. A God who did what God did in Jesus Christ is not a God who fudges the difference between good and evil or who “turns the other cheek” on sin. The Protestant theologian H. Richard Niebuhr summed it up well: our day wants a “God without wrath [who] brought men without sin into a Kingdom without Judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross.” Or, more tersely: you can’t get to Easter except through Good Friday.

A God who dies on a cross is a God who takes love — and non-love (i.e., sin) — seriously. The Cross is a sign of Love of the God who so loved this world, but also a sign of judgment. Indeed, we like to quote John 3:16, but leave out the rest of Jesus’ dialogue with Nicodemus (vv. 18-21): because God loved the world, men judge themselves by preferring sin, “people loved darkness instead of the light because their deeds were evil” (3:19a), something John calls a “verdict,” the result of a judgment.

Which leads me to a final perspective on judgment: it’s going on right now.

Many Catholics think of judgment as something that will happen. There is the particular judgment of every human person at death, and the general judgment of all mankind at the end of the world. 

Scripture, indeed, suggests as much. “It is appointed for man once to die, and after death the judgment” (Hebrews 9:27).

All that’s true, but let me suggest broadening the perspective a little. We will be judged at our death, but that judgment is constantly in the making, is an ongoing process right now. Post-mortem judgment is just its capstone. 

Jesus’ remarks to Nicodemus suggest as much. Yes, God “so loved the world,” but the world — or at least individual men and women in it — choose not to love back. No surprise there, either from our experience of the ubiquity of human sinfulness (including our own but excluding the humanity of Jesus and Mary) or the free nature of love itself, which presupposes the possibility of being unrequited. 

But Jesus elsewhere speaks in John’s Gospel of judgment already being in train. At the Last Supper, Jesus promises to send the Holy Spirit and, “when He comes, He will prove the world wrong: about sin, about judgment, and about condemnation” (16:8). 

What is this prosecutorial role of the Holy Spirit? Simple: the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth whom we receive in Baptism and in fullness in Confirmation, convicts people of three things: of sin, because all sin is ultimately a rejection of God, so who do you say he is; of judgment, because the “conviction” that put Jesus on the Cross was unjust, an act of “raw judicial power” (to borrow a phrase) but not justice; of condemnation, because despite the appearance of evil’s domination and perhaps even triumph in the world, the final Word in human history is and will belong to good and God.

The baptized Christian (and even more so, the confirmed Catholic), who has “received the gift of the Holy Spirit” received that Spirit in our souls to convict the Prince of this World and free us from him. In the measure that we nevertheless freely adhere to him instead, we call down judgment on ourselves. Those of us who have been “enlightened” by the Spirit yet choose instead to “prefer the darkness rather than the light” and thus do not really believe in Him. They become what Vatican II calls “practical atheists” — paying lip service but not life service to God (see Isaiah 29:13). That is why the Psalmist warns us: “If today you hear His voice, harden not your hearts” (Psalm 95:7-8; cf. Hebrews 3:15). That voice is the voice of his Spirit in us, the Spirit who nudges, cajoles, inspires, empowers and prompts us — but does not force us — to do good. When we are inspired to do good, i.e., when the Holy Spirit acts in us, we are receiving actual grace. Grace is a gift, freely given. 

Consider our own experience of receiving a present. If someone offers us a present and we do not take it into our hands, show no interest in it, turn aside from the gift and its bearer, a clear message is unequivocally sent. If that is true of our fellow man, what more of God? Refusing God’s gifts is not a neutral or indifferent act. Indeed, it leads to the ultimate and one unforgivable sin: blasphemy against the Holy Spirit (Matthew 12:31). What is it? Simply put: it is the Holy Spirit giving us the grace to repent of our sins, and our saying “no” to that grace. We can’t be forgiven if we don’t want to be forgiven, but that doesn’t mean that choice is devoid of consequences, because even God can’t treat us as forgiven if we are not and don’t want to be.

So, yes, every time we refuse the Spirit’s grace, every time we “harden our hearts” we obstruct our spiritual arteries to the flow of grace whose lack, eventually, will lead to a spiritual infarction. That’s why the Sequence of Pentecost prays: “Bend the stubborn heart and will, Melt the frozen, warm the chill ….” It’s no accident the pit of Dante’s Hell is not engulfed in flames but is frozen solid.

We are given the Spirit as a Spirit of Judgment who, every day, offers us grace and judges what we do with it as we build ourselves into a certain kind of person. The judgment after death is nothing less … but nothing more … than what we have made ourselves into amidst the choices of a lifetime, for or against the better judgment of the Spirit given to us. As the Dominican Walter Farrell put it well in his great Companion to the Summa: “Heaven or hell … never comes as a shock; it is the harvest that was planted so long ago watched, cultivated, defended, and now reaped in all its fullness. It is the house at the end of the road that could lead nowhere else.” Only by following the Judging Spirit can we be lead to our true destiny: “In the case of heaven, [that house] is home and all along the way there were signed marking the path, help proffered to pilgrims, and directions to be had for the asking.” If today you hear his voice...

Horace Vernet, “The Angel of Death,” 1851

Don’t Wait to Cram for Your ‘Final Exam’

“Each man receives his eternal retribution in his immortal soul at the very moment of his death, in a particular judgment that refers his life to Christ: either entrance into the blessedness of heaven — through a purification or immediately — or immediate and everlasting damnation.” (CCC 1022)