Many years ago I had my first extended dispute with an atheist. The founder of the local “atheist and freethinkers’ society,” responding to my short defense of Christianity printed in the local newspaper, sent me a letter castigating the Church for every sort of evil. Among them was the belief in the last judgment, which he described as involving a gleeful Jesus condemning people to eternal torment with no consideration for justice or mercy.
Sadly, such warped understandings of the last judgment are common, reflecting the vague belief that moral judgments are subjective and private at best, and hateful and intolerant at worst. Ironically, we are often lectured on the evils of smoking, eating fatty foods and driving SUVs, but are then told that any qualms or negative judgments about sexual immorality, abortion or euthanasia reflect a narrow-minded and mean-spirited attitude.
In other words, false understandings of judgment and justice are rooted in a subjective, amoral understanding of reality and, increasingly, in a denial of God’s very existence.
In contrast, the Christian understanding of justice is rooted in the objective nature of God, who is not only the creator of all things, but is also holy and merciful. “The Lord,” we hear in today’s Psalm, “comes to rule the earth with justice.” This should not be cause for despair and fear, but of joy and thanksgiving: “Sing praise to the Lord with the harp … sing joyfully before the King, the Lord.”
The prophet Malachi described the approaching day of judgment as “blazing like an oven,” destroying those who are proud and evil. But those who fear the name of the Lord will be saved and healed by the “sun of justice.” Many of the early Church Fathers understood this as a reference to the coming Christ. “If the sun as a consort of and participant in nature is so pleasing,” wrote St. Ambrose, “how much goodness is there to be found in that Sun of Justice?” St. Theodoret of Cyr said this refers to both the first and second coming of Christ.
In today’s Gospel, we hear Jesus prophesy about the two different types of judgment. He told the disciples that they would be persecuted, arrested and handed over for judgment at the hands of “kings and governors”; and some would even be put to death. And yet they would not be destroyed, for the Sun of Justice saves those who persevere in their faith in him. Jesus also spoke of the divine judgment that would fall upon the Temple in Jerusalem, which was, in fact, violently reduced to rubble by the Romans in A.D. 70. The destruction of the Temple one generation after Christ’s death and resurrection signified the beginning of a new era in God’s work of salvation.
“Souls are like wax waiting for a seal,” wrote Thomas Merton in “Seeds of Contemplation.” They are made to be marked with the likeness of Christ. “And this is what it means … to be judged by Christ. The wax that has melted in God’s will can easily receive the stamp of its identity, the truth of what it was meant to be.”
In another work, “The Living Bread,” Merton wrote that the true Christian “looks forward to the last judgment as the clarification and vindication of human history.”
The Christian, in other words, understands the last judgment as final and full revelation of truth. Made for God and made to know truth, we joyfully embrace true judgment and real justice.
Carl E. Olson is the editor of IgnatiusInsight.com.