“You are going to die.” It is the best first line to a book I have ever read (Fr. Larry Richards’ Be a Man). Not just because of its shock value, but also because of its truth. 100% of the people who read the book are going to die. We can’t merely believe this, but it must be before our minds regularly. St. Paul tells the Christians in Rome that the “wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). In short, death was a punishment for the first sin of Adam. To see it merely as punishment however causes us to miss an important point. Man, because he is, even if not wholly, a material creature, is naturally subject to death. Among the original gifts bestowed upon Adam and his posterity was a supernatural immunity to death. By turning away from God, Adam rejected both God and His gifts. Adam was expelled from the Garden without access to the Tree of Life and death would henceforth come to all men. Death is then not just a punishment, but a consequence of being human. Still death was not in God’s original “plan” for mankind and thus was taken up and trampled by Christ. For the Christian death is not to be feared but to be seen as a necessary instrument for being conformed to Christ and sharing in His reward.
If death is unavoidable then, in the hands of a just God, it is not just a punishment, but also a judgment. It is what we are when God allows death to visit us that determines our eternal destiny. For those who have sanctifying grace in their souls at the time of death, death will be a mercy. For those who do not, death will be a condemnation. This is well worth meditating upon and many of the great spiritual masters have spent serious time contemplating their own deaths. But the fact is that for most of us living in a culture where death has been sanitized, we think of death as something that will happen “later” even if it is ultimately inevitable. It no longer creates a sense of urgency the way that it used to.
The Third Judgment
St. Peter well understood this tendency when he first preached the Gospel to the Gentiles and introduced Jesus as the “judge of the living and the dead” (Acts 10:42). Most of us tend to think in terms of two judgments—the personal judgment at death and the final judgment at the end of time. But what St. Peter is telling Cornelius and his friends is that there is a third “moment” of judgment, namely the temporal or judgment of the living. In other words, God does not merely judge us at the end of our lives, but continually throughout our lives. The Catholic tradition has a term for the effects of our temporal judgment that we call the “temporal punishment for sin.”
Among the theological casualties of the last century is the notion of God as judge. That is because we only see Him as judge of the dead and not so much as judge of the living. This means He is seen merely as the Condemner or Rewarder. But when we see Him as judging the living, that is punishing them in time, we can see how justly He judges the dead. Of course this means that we have to see the purpose of Fatherly punishment correctly.
Punishment has two purposes, both of which are associated with the repairing the damage caused by the transgression. First there is the damage caused to the order of things. Sin unjustly takes pleasure from something that one should not take pleasure in. Punishment removes the pleasure from some lawful good. Second, there is the damage done to the perpetrator of the offense. Our sins turn us into something (lying makes us liars, stealing makes us thieves, etc). Only by cultivating the opposing virtue can the damage be undone. Therefore, the purpose of punishment, according to Aquinas is “to bring man back to the good of virtue.” It is the admission of guilt and sorrow that acts as a bridge between these two purposes of punishment. Without it, punishment will remain merely retributive, that is reparative to the external order. To be reparative to the inner order, it must be voluntarily accepted as coming from a just judge. Only the patient who admits his sickness and willingly takes the medicine can be healed.
Although this seems obvious from what was said above, it merits pointing out that death itself is part of the temporal punishment for our sins. The manner in which we approach death as a punishment as a tremendous bearing on our eternal destiny. It remains somewhat mysterious as to how exactly death is reparative, we can take it as a given that it is. Any punishment from a loving Father is medicinal. This is why it is important that we accept death on God’s terms and not our own. This is yet another reason why assisted suicide and euthanasia by omission remain harmful to the patient. We cannot decide when God is done making the person ready for heaven. The time of death is God’s verdict on the lives we have lived.
Death as the Meaning of Life
All of life then should be seen as preparation for dying well. Those who habitually accept the temporal punishments will accept the final punishment of death in the spirit God intended and will move on to eternal life. Short a special grace to see the punishment of death clearly, those who habitually despised God’s temporal judgments will despise death as the final punishment and be condemned. It becomes clear then that when we speak of the Particular Judgment we are speaking of judgment only by analogy. God needs no examination but instead at the moment of death the soul knows by intuition and is enlightened of all its merits and demerits. In a sense the soul judges itself in accordance with truth.
If the eternal destiny of each man has been decided at the particular judgment, then why is it necessary to have the Final Judgment? St. Thomas gives three reasons for the last judgment. First, there is the fact that men are often judged contrary to truth by history (both good and bad). Margaret Sanger has been judged well by history and many Churchmen have been judged poorly. The truth will be made known. Justice is also vindicated in a second way in that the dead have had imitators in good and evil and thus their errors must be made known. Finally, and this relates to the Particular Judgment, the effects of man’s action last long after death. The good (and evil) that we do effects our children, their children and beyond. Once history is winding down, we will all see the role we have played in it, even after death. The hierarchy of heaven and the lowerarchy of hell will be set and our own place determined.