“Ask a Priest: What is the ultimate purpose of the Last Judgment?”

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Q: If a particular judgment at death sends one to hell immediately, what is the ultimate purpose of a general judgment? -V.V.

Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC

A: The general judgment, or Last Judgment, will be, so to speak, the last act in history. It will be when all of us see the big picture of salvation history, the consequences of all our actions, and the ways in which God was guiding everything. The Last Judgment won’t be an appeals court that overturns the particular judgments already meted out.

This final judgment will be preceded by “The resurrection of all the dead, ‘of both the just and the unjust'” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 1038). It will be an awesome moment. For there, in the presence of Christ, “the truth of each man’s relationship with God will be laid bare. The Last Judgment will reveal even to its furthest consequences the good each person has done or failed to do during his earthly life” (Catechism, No. 1039).

Jesus himself foretells the event in graphic terms. “For just as lightning comes from the east and is seen as far as the west, so will the coming of the Son of Man be” (Matthew 24:27). See also Matthew 25:31-46.

At the moment of death each of us faces a particular judgment. We find out immediately what our fate is: heaven, hell or, for a while, purgatory. A clarification if I may: Rather than thinking of the particular judgment as “sending one to hell,” it is more fitting to say that a person who dies in mortal sin has in effect chosen hell for himself. The sense of horror that comes over a soul at that instant has been the subject of artworks, such as a bust by Bernini.

Conversely, at the Last Judgment anyone who was rewarded with heaven or sidetracked to purgatory won’t have to worry about losing eternal paradise. People who didn’t merit heaven right away will have passed through purgatory when the last act of history arrives. “As for certain lesser faults, we must believe that, before the Final Judgment, there is a purifying fire” (Catechism, No. 1031).

The Last Judgment will, in a sense, open our eyes. “We shall know the ultimate meaning of the whole work of creation and of the entire economy of salvation and understand the marvelous ways by which his Providence led everything towards its final end” (Catechism, No. 1040).

The Last Judgment will be like the closing scene of a mystery thriller, when all the bits and pieces are put together, and all that was hidden comes to light. Frightful scene that it might be, it is an event that calls us to action, here and now. “The message of the Last Judgment calls men to conversion while God is still giving them ‘the acceptable time, … the day of salvation” (Catechism, No. 1041). Let’s pray that we all prepare well for that day.

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