Salvation is the attainment of eternal life with God. Scripture speaks of the need for justification as well as providing a snapshot into what eternal life with God means and how it might be manifested. But what criteria will be used to determine whether or not an individual has been found worthy of an eternal life with God? What is the process that must be endured in order for God to make the proper decision with respect to one's salvation? Catholicism answers these questions through the concept of judgment.
Judgment is understood in the Hebrew Bible in several ways. Isaiah speaks of judgment as both defense and vindication of Israel by Yahweh. The prophet writes (1:27–28), “Zion shall be redeemed by Justice, and those in her who repent, by righteousness. But rebels and sinners shall be destroyed together, and those who forsake the Lord shall be consumed.” Judgment is also understood as punishment. Ezekiel 24:14 provides a good example: “I the Lord have spoken; the time is coming, I will act. I will not refrain, I will not spare, I will not relent. According to your ways and your doings I will judge you, says the Lord God.” Yahweh is seen as Judge of the world. This theme is brought forth in the famous conversation between Abraham and God over the fate of Sodom. Abraham says to Yahweh (Genesis 18:25), “Far be it from you to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” Generic judgment of all peoples and nations is characteristic of apocalyptic literature, such as presented in Joel 3:9–12 and Daniel 7:9–11.
The New Testament also has many references to judgment. For the Synoptic evangelists, judgment is often associated with condemnation of sinners. Jesus says, “But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister you will be liable to the Council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hellfire.” (Matthew 5:22) In the Gospel of John, judgment is seen more in the present. John 3:18 reads, “Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” For St. Paul, judgment is found in the past, present, and future. Concerning future judgment, Paul writes in Romans 2:1–3: “Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things. You say, ‘We know that God's judgment on those who do such things is in accordance with truth.’ Do you imagine, whoever you are, that when you judge those who do such things and yet do them yourself, you will escape the judgment of God?” In the Letter to the Hebrews (6:2), judgment is seen in the resurrection of the dead. In sum, Biblical judgment is the act by which evil is overcome by God once and for all.
Particular and General Judgment
The church has addressed particular judgment over the centuries, but no council has presented a formal definition, nor has the subject been addressed in the most recent Catechism of the Catholic Church. It is necessary, therefore, to piece together indirect references that describe this teaching. The doctrine refers to the idea that immediately after death judgment is rendered by God concerning the eternal destiny of each soul. Pope Eugene IV, in 1439, declared that souls that leave a body in a state of grace yet are in need of additional purification are rendered to purgatory; those souls in the state of perfect grace are brought immediately to the beatific vision, the opportunity to see and encounter God at every moment. The teaching is also addressed in various professions of faith, including those of Pope Gregory XIII (1572–1585) and Benedict XIV (1740–1758).
The book of Revelation, while highly metaphorical, does nonetheless present the best insight into the Biblical concept of judgment. For example, speaking of those who have not apostatized during the great trial, the author (possibly the apostle John) says that the judgment of those loyal to Christ “is the first resurrection.” (Revelation 20:5b)
Particular judgment is indirectly addressed by both the New Testament and theologians. There is no particular Biblical text that affirms with any certainty the teaching of particular judgment; however, there are passages that certainly allude to this teaching. In the story of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19–31), Jesus seems to indicate that the fate of both men, Lazarus in the arms of Abraham (eternal life) and the rich man (traditionally known as Dives) in Hades (eternal damnation), had been determined at the moment of their deaths. Similarly, Jesus' promise to the “good thief” on the cross, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise,” (Luke 23:43) suggests immediate or particular judgment.
Theologians generally view particular judgment as instantaneous, at the moment of death, but again evidence to support such an opinion is not completely clear. St. Augustine in his work The City of God (Chapter 20) and St. Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologica (Supplement) speak of particular judgment in this light. As evidence to support this belief they cite Romans 2:15–16. Here Paul speaks of “the day when, according to my gospel, God, through Jesus Christ, will judge the secret thoughts of all.” Revelation 20:12 gives additional evidence: “And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Also another book was opened, the book of life. And the dead were judged according to their works, as recorded in the books.” In addition to the reality of particular judgment, the common opinion of theologians is that this event will occur at the individual's moment of death.
In contrast to particular judgment where Biblical evidence and theological opinion is indirect, the concept of general judgment is firmly established. The Hebrew Bible refers to the “Day of the Lord,” (Ezekiel 13:5, Isaiah 2:12) when nations will be brought to judgment. The New Testament speaks of general judgment through reference to the parousia, or second coming of Christ (see Chapter 9). References to this teaching abound but are most prominent in the Gospels and the corpus of St. Paul, with I Thessalonians 4:13–18 being especially illustrative.
The Bible speaks of numerous signs that will precede general judgment. These include a general proclamation of the Christian faith, the conversion of the Jews, the onset of a great apostasy, the reigning of the Antichrist, extraordinary events of nature, and a universal conflagration, often referred to as Armageddon (see Revelation, Chapter 16). The advent of general judgment is not known, but it will be swift, like a lightning strike (Matthew 24:27) or a thief in the night (Matthew 24:42–44).
Resurrection of the Body
General judgment, coming at the end of created time, will be preceded by the resurrection of the body. This basic tenet of Roman Catholic faith, which teaches that the soul and body will be reunited at the end of time, finds its source in the New Testament. John 11:25–26, where Jesus proclaims the famous words, “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die,” and Hebrews 6:2, which refers to the “resurrection of the dead,” are indirect references. The best illustration of this teaching is found in John 5:28–29: “Do not be astonished at this; for the hour is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and will come out — those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation.” The resurrection of the body is officially proclaimed in the Apostles and Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creeds, as well as proclamations from two church councils, Lateran IV (1215) and Lyons II (1274).
Why is there a need for general judgment if the eternal fate of individuals has been determined at death?
Catholicism teaches that an all-just and loving God would want both rewards and punishments to be awarded at a public and general judgment, both to reveal the wicked and to award the righteous.
Destiny of the Faithful
Judgment, both particular and general, determines the destiny of all souls. What is referred to by Christians as heaven is more accurately described as the Beatific Vision. Those found justified in the sight of God are rewarded with an eternal vision of divinity. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (#1023) teaches that those who die in God's grace and are thus purified will live with Christ forever. Referencing 1 John 3:2, the Catechism states that we will become like God and will see him as he is, face to face. The promise of this vision is also described by St. Matthew (5:8) and St. Paul (II Corinthians 3:12–18).
One teaching that separates Roman Catholicism from other Christians is the doctrine of purgatory. While there is no clear Biblical foundation for this teaching, the apocryphal text II Maccabees 12:38–46 does describe the efficacy of prayers for the dead. Western theology has always emphasized the penal character of purgatory, while the Eastern Church saw it more as a process of maturation and spiritual growth. While Protestant reformers questioned the efficacy of praying for the dead, the Catholic Tradition, as continued today in the Catechism, has always affirmed the reality of purgatory as a state of final purification of the elect. Pope St. Gregory the Great (590–604) stated, “As for certain lesser faults, we believe that, before Final Judgment, there is a purifying fire.” This teaching is affirmed by the Council of Florence (1439) and the Council of Trent (1545–1563).
The fact that condemnation, and consequently hell, is a free human choice is illustrated in the Gospel of John 3:18–19. In part this reads, “This is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.”
Justification of an individual by God, resulting in the ultimate reward of the Beatific Vision, either immediately or after a temporal period in purgatory, is countered by the judgment of condemnation by God, resulting in an individual's consignment to hell. This is a state of definitive exclusion from God, a condition brought about by the actions of the individual. The church affirms the existence of hell and its eternity, a reality confirmed by Jesus himself. In his famous Sermon on the Mount, Jesus, in metaphorical language, says if our eye or hand causes us to sin it is better to remove it “than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.” (Matthew 5:29c) Equally importantly, the church also teaches, rejecting Calvin's concept of predestination, that God does not predetermine the eternal fate of any individual. Mortal sin, which an individual can only commit by willful act, is the state that leads one to condemnation, and consequently to hell.