Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of July 15, 2002
Why are the dead judged?
By SR. LOUISE ZDUNICH, NDC
In the Apostles Creed why do they say, "He will come again to judge the living and the dead?" Aren't the dead judged already?
This statement shows the official teaching of the Church from the earliest centuries. Besides being in the Apostles Creed, this idea is in the Nicene Creed (325), the Nicene-Constantinople Creed (381) and the Athanasian Creed (end of the fifth century). In addition, papal documents and Church councils throughout the centuries have affirmed it: Lateran IV (1215), Lyons II (1274), Florence (1439).
Vatican II simply presumes this truth in its Constitution on the Church in the Modern World. In so doing, it is simply following the teaching of Scripture and Tradition.
But what is the meaning of judgment in Scripture? In the Old Testament, judgment is the defence and vindication of God's chosen people. God is the protector of the rights of those that are oppressed: the poor, widows and orphans. They appeal at God's tribunal, asking for intervention.
In the lamentation psalms, the psalmist while proclaiming his innocence, tries to move God to intervene in his suffering. God's judgment, therefore, is efficacious intervention to protect rights.
Judgment is also depicted as condemnation of evil and evildoers by God who is the supreme judge of all peoples and all the earth. Judgment is spoken of in Scripture a number of times and is part of apocalyptic (end-of-times) literature.
Joel 4:2 tells us that God will assemble all peoples for judgment. Daniel 7:9-11 talks of a judgment that will encompass all nations and inaugurate the establishment of the kingdom of God. God sits on a throne, the nations appear before him to undergo judgment and the just will be given power and glory.
A similar image of judgment appears in Matthew with Jesus separating the sheep and goats. The basis of the reward and condemnation is how humans have looked after one another. This is the key to the kingdom of heaven.
The Church distinguishes between general and particular judgment. At death, each person is judged by God and rewarded or punished. Catholics call this the particular judgment.
That those who are judged get their due immediately is shown in Scripture. Jesus tells the thief on the Cross: "This day, you will be with me in paradise." He doesn't say at the end of the world, nor even tomorrow but today, you will get your reward.
Then why is there need of a general judgment? This judgment is connected to the second coming of Christ at the end of time. It is the consummation of the world and of history. Through his resurrection and exaltation to the right hand of the Father in glory, Jesus, the Son of man, has been constituted judge of the living and dead (Acts 10:42 and 17:31).
In John's Gospel, the general judgment is linked with the first coming of Jesus. God sent the Son, not to condemn the world, but to save it (John 3:16-21). We do not see any condemnation of sinners by Jesus during his public life, other than hypocrites.
In the synagogue at Nazareth, Jesus attributes to himself the words of the prophet Isaiah that he has been sent for sinners and for those who suffer and are rejected.
To me, this general judgment will be like a great spectacle where all are brought together from every race and nation to witness to the glory of the crucified Jesus and the goodness of humankind redeemed by Christ. It will truly be a glorious feast.