Behold, I am coming soon.
I bring with me the recompense I will give to each
according to his deeds.
Blessed are they who…have the right…to enter the City
through its gates.
Revelation 22:12-14 [today’s second Reading]
God’s judgment on our deeds is an unpopular topic. But the Bible ends on just such a note, and as a promise, not a threat. As I wrap up this series of columns I want to explore why I consider God’s judgment a key part of “what really matters” for our discipleship.
First, the idea of Divine Justice seems largely to have evaporated, even among Catholics. (Listen to what’s said of the deceased in eulogies and you’d think that everyone is already a saint. The idea that a Funeral Mass is celebrated to ask God’s mercy in His judgment on the deceased’s actions is largely lost. As the Dodo said in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, “Everybody has won and all must have prizes.”)
Second, in the larger context I admit that I want two seemingly-incompatible things: On the one hand I sincerely hope that no one spends an eternity in Hell. But on the other I also hope that there’s some justice for the countless people who have been exploited, injured, killed, and generally made miserable by the arrogance, greed, and culpable stupidity of others who seem to escape any earthly reckoning. (To take two public examples: Should a still-unrepentant Henry Kissinger go unpunished for the suffering his policies inflicted on the peoples of Vietnam, Cambodia, Bangladesh, Chile, and other countries? And I’ll bet a lot of disabled Iraq War vets, and a lot of Iraqis, including the members of the now-almost-extinct ancient Christian churches of that country, would like to see George W. Bush and Tony Blair, among others, held to account for starting the Iraq War.)
There’s an image in Revelation that can help us to reconcile these two hopes; it’s the “lake of fire,” which some early Christian scholars understood as similar to a refiner’s crucible used to purify gold. (The “brimstone” – ancient name for sulfur – detail is telling: adding sulfur to molten gold ores was once a common way of removing contaminants to purify gold.) As St. Gregory of Nyssa says, “when death approaches to life, and darkness to light, and the corruptible to the incorruptible, the inferior is done away with and reduced to non-existence, and the thing purged is benefited, just as the dross is purged from gold by fire.”
More recently, here is Pope Emeritus Benedict on the subject:
God can pick up the broken pieces and make something of them. In any case, we need a final cleansing, a cleansing by fire, to be exact, in which the gaze of Christ, so to say, burns us free from everything, and only under this purifying gaze are we, as it were, fit to be with God and able, then, to make our home with him.
You may recall that I wrote a few weeks ago about why the gates to the City are pearls: because it takes hard work on oneself to transform our failings into what God desires of us. We “enter the City through its gates” by some combination of work on those failings during this life, and work on them after death (in the Catholic vocabulary, Purgatory), all with the help of God’s grace. God’s judgment will be the awareness that we need to do that work – now, or later. Until next week, peace.