Viktor Vasnetsov's The Last Judgment, 1904

Why Is There a Particular and a General Judgment?

The Particular Judgment at the Moment of Death

It is a dogmatic teaching of the Faith that at the moment of our death we will appear “before the judgment seat of Christ” (2 Cor. 5:10), Who will pronounce our eternal sentence: ultimate life in Heaven, though likely only after cleansing in Purgatory, or an eternity of uninterrupted and unspeakable torment in hell.[1] St. John Vianney wrote on the Particular Judgment:

“Our catechism tells us, my children, that all men will undergo a particular judgment on the day of their death. No sooner shall we have breathed our last sigh than our soul, without leaving the place where it has expired, will be presented before the tribunal of God. Wherever we may die, God is there to exercise His justice. The good God, my children, has measured out our years, and of those years that He has resolved to leave us on this earth, He has marked out one which shall be our last; one day which we shall not see succeeded by other days; one hour after which there will be for us no more time.”

While the certainty of the private judgment has been known since apostolic times, the particulars of the immediate consequences of our sentence was the subject of theological debate throughout the Middle Ages. Seeking to end a period of debate on whether the blessed will have the vision of God immediately after their sentence or if they must wait until the General Judgment at the end of time, Pope Benedict XII issued Benedictus Deus (On the Beatific Vision of God) in the year of Our Lord 1336, thus ending the debate:

“By this Constitution which is to remain in force forever, We, with apostolic authority, define the following: According to the general disposition of God, the souls of all the saints who departed from this world before the Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ and also of the holy apostles, martyrs, confessors, virgins and other faithful who died after receiving the holy baptism of Christ – provided they were not in need of any purification when they died, or will not be in need of any when they die in the future, or else, if they then needed or will need some purification, after they have been purified after death – and again the souls of children who have been reborn by the same baptism of Christ or will be when baptism is conferred on them, if they die before attaining the use of free will: all these souls, immediately after death and, in the case of those in need of purification, after the purification mentioned above, since the ascension of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ into Heaven, already before they take up their bodies again and before the general judgment, have been, are and will be with Christ in Heaven, in the heavenly kingdom and paradise, joined to the company of the holy angels.

“… we define that according to the general disposition of God, the souls of those who die in actual mortal sin go down into hell immediately after death and there suffer the pain of hell. Nevertheless, on the day of judgment, all men will appear with their bodies ‘before the judgment seat of Christ’ to give an account of their personal deeds, ‘so that each one may receive good or evil, according to what he has done in the body’ (2 Cor. 5.10).”

The Last Judgment at the End of the World

In addition to the Particular Judgment of each individual soul immediately after death, the Church solemnly teaches that there shall also be a second and final judgment, which will occur at the End of Time. This final judgment is also known as the General Judgment and will occur at the very end of the world, when our Blessed Lord comes again to judge the living and dead, as we profess in the Creed.

At that time, as our Savior Himself has told us, He shall “sit upon the seat of His majesty. And all nations shall be gathered together before Him, and He shall separate them one from another, as the shepherd separateth the sheep from the goats” (Matt. 25:31-32). Elsewhere in the Gospel, Our Lord described the Last Judgment with these words: “Wonder not at this; for the hour cometh, wherein all that are in the graves shall hear the voice of the Son of God. And they that have done good things, shall come forth unto the resurrection of life; but they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of judgment” (John 5:28-29).

Similarly, St. John the Apostle wrote the following in his Book of the Apocalypse, the last book of the Bible:

“And I saw the dead, great and small, standing in the presence of the throne, and the books were opened; and another book was opened, which is the book of life; and the dead were judged by those things which were written in the books, according to their works. And the sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and hell gave up their dead that were in them; and they were judged everyone according to their works. And hell and death were cast into the pool of fire. This is the second death. And whosoever was not found written in the book of life, was cast into the pool of fire.” (Apoc. 20:12-15)

The Catholic Church teaches that at the time of the Last Judgment, Christ will come in His glory, “and all the angels with Him” (Matt. 25:31), and in His presence the truth of each man’s relationship with God will be laid bare. Each person who has ever lived will be judged with the perfect justice of an omnipotent and omniscient God. Those already in Heaven will remain in Heaven, those already in hell will remain in hell, and those in Purgatory will be released into Heaven. After the Last Judgment, the universe itself will be renewed and there will be “a new Heaven and a new earth” (Apoc. 21:1).
 

Why Is There a Need for a General Judgment?

If the Last Judgment will in no way alter the verdict of our own particular judgment, why is the Last Judgment even necessary? In her wisdom, Holy Mother Church, in The Catechism of the Council of Trent, explains:

“Those who depart this life sometimes leave behind them children who imitate their conduct, dependents, followers and others who admire and advocate their example, language and actions. Now by all these circumstances the rewards or punishments of the dead must needs be increased, since the good or bad influence of example, affecting as it does the conduct of many, is to terminate only with the end of the world. Justice demands that in order to form a proper estimate of all these good or bad actions and words a thorough investigation should be made. This, however, could not be without a general judgment of all men.”

In a similar manner, the Baltimore Catechism explains the rationale for the Last Judgment by stating: “There is need of a general judgment, though everyone is judged immediately after death, that the providence of God, which, on earth, often permits the good to suffer and the wicked to prosper, may in the end appear just before all men.” And further, “There are other reasons for the general judgment, and especially that Christ Our Lord may receive from the whole world the honor denied Him at His first coming, and that all may be forced to acknowledge Him as their God and Redeemer.”

The Last Judgment will not alter in any way the eternal sentence pronounced upon us at our own Particular Judgement. On the contrary, the Last Judgment will make our sins and the sins of every person in history known to everyone else. Nothing will remain secret any longer, according to Our Lord’s own words: “For there is not anything secret that shall not be made manifest, nor hidden, that shall not be known and come abroad” (Luke 8:17). All will be revealed, and all bad will be punished and all good, even the hidden good for which we never received recognition on earth, will be rewarded openly before all.

At the General Judgement, the merits and the sins of each person will be revealed to everyone else who has ever lived. The Catechism of the Council of Trent again clearly teaches this truth:

“The second [judgment] occurs when on the same day and in the same place[2] all men shall stand together before the tribunal of their Judge, that in the presence and hearing of all human beings of all times each may know his final doom and sentence. The announcement of this judgment will constitute no small part of the pain and punishment of the wicked; whereas the good and just will derive great reward and consolation from the fact that it will then appear what each one was in life. This is called the general judgment.”

The necessity of a General Judgment also makes a lot of sense when we consider the effect which our sins and good deeds have upon others. For example, the errors and sins of a heretic like Martin Luther continue to have tremendous effects upon people today, living five hundred years later. Similarly, the diabolical philosophy promoted by Karl Marx over a hundred years ago is causing great havoc in the world today. On the other hand, the good works of the saints are still yielding good fruit. This is true of every single human’s good and evil acts. It is not until the end of time that a just judgment can be rendered upon every man for the cumulative effects of all the good and evil he did – both on the natural and the supernatural levels. And this just and perfect judgment will be made known to all men at this time!
 

When Will the World End?

The Catholic Church teaches that we should avoid pointless speculations about the time, the details of the signs, or the nature of the difficulties. The Church focuses instead on the need for living the commands of the Gospel as the only fitting preparation for the Parousia (Second Coming), whenever it happens, as St. Peter himself taught:

“Wherefore having the loins of your mind girt up, being sober, trust perfectly in the grace which is offered you in the revelation of Jesus Christ, as children of obedience, not fashioned according to the former desires of your ignorance: But according to Him that hath called you, Who is holy, be you also in all manner of conversation holy: Because it is written: You shall be holy, for I am holy.” (1 Pet. 1:13-16)

While the Church admonishes the faithful to avoid pointless speculations on the time or characteristics of when the Last Judgment will occur, she is nevertheless adamant that a true bodily resurrection will occur. The Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 A.D. clearly taught: “He [Christ] will come at the end of the world; He will judge the living and the dead; and He will reward all, both the lost and elect, according to their works. And all these will rise with their own bodies which they now have so that they may receive according to their works, whether good or bad; the wicked, a perpetual punishment with the devil; the good, eternal glory with Christ.”

So be prepared at all times. We never know when we will die, and our eternity in either Heaven or in hell will depend on the state of our soul at the moment of death. If more people concerned themselves with dying in the state of grace – instead of theorizing on the eventual end of the world – more souls would be saved.


[1] See “Where the Soul Goes Immediately After Death” for more information on the Church’s teaching, at https://fatima.org/news-views/where-the-body-goes-immediately-after-death/

[2] Tradition tells us that the General Judgment will take place in the Valley of Josaphat. Scriptural references for this teaching are found in Joel 3:2, 12. This is also the Cedron Valley which runs along the eastern wall of ancient Jerusalem. It served as the principal necropolis (cemetery) for Jerusalem. Our Lord crossed over this area on His way from the Last Supper to the Garden of Olives (cf. John 18:1). The empty tomb of the Blessed Virgin Mary has also long been venerated in this location.

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