The Last Judgement, and Other Acts of Love
There's a bit of Christian doctrine that has been crucially important over the ages - it's part of the Nicene creed - but which has also caused much perplexment and angst, to the point where we hardly ever talk about it any more. Today, the last Sunday before Lent, is the day in the Eastern Orthodox church when this doctrine is affirmed: 'Jesus Christ...will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.' Yes, today is the Sunday of the Last Judgement. Not a superbly popular thing to talk about in the modern church. But for want of any better ideas I thought I'd have a stab at it.
I am not going to say anything about the question of whether the second coming is a literal event that's going to happen some time in the future. The last judgement could be something that happens to us when we die, or perhaps at some final point in the history of humankind. But it might also be a metaphor, or a description of a process that is continually happening in some unseen dimension of human reality. I am also not going to say anything about whether after the judgement people are divided up into those who are sent off to eternal punishment and those who get to hang out with Jesus in heaven. These are all questions that you can feel free to discuss together over coffee afterwards. For now I want to just zero in on this idea of Jesus Christ as one who makes a final judgement of the lives we have lived.
To start with, why is this such a powerfully unpopular idea to post-modern liberal sensibilities? Possibly because it brings up memories of the kind of hell-fire and brimstone kinds of harangue that the church is trying to step free from. Possibly because it offends our idea of Jesus as one of us...to think of him as judge it seems to remove him from a place of solidarity and puts him over against us. Maybe it's because we dislike authority and symbols of authority, especially legal authority. Maybe it's that the church, or other Christians we know, have been a profoundly judgemental influence in our lives, and we are still trying rid ourselves of the unhelpful guilty feelings that have been seared into our marrow.
These are all good reasons to be very careful about this doctrine.
I also wonder if we're uncomfortable - I know I am - with the idea that our lives are constantly being measured against any kind of standard...that life is one big assessment, and that at some point we'll be either found wanting or found acceptable. That kind of thinking puts my personality type - the perfectionist/reformer - into overdrive trying to avoid failure.
But I also have this nagging sense that our contemporary Western society has gone too far in minimising personal responsibility. Our culture is one where a therapeutic model of describing human behaviour is pretty much dominant. This model reminds us that there are complex psycho-social reasons why people behave the way they do. Put crudely, there is nothing to 'judge' in our behaviour choices because all of us are simply responding to how we have been acted on by our upbringing or our biology. Another way of putting this, is that we have removed the idea of sin.
What a lot of unpopular words I'm using today.
By 'sin' I don't mean a permanent or innate depravity, a basic fault that permeates who we are. Nor do I mean offending a social or moral law or code. I mean more that throughout our lives, we have countless choices, and that most of us are conscious to those choices to some degree, and that sometimes, even often, we knowingly choose in ways that cause hurt or harm to ourselves and others. And that we are responsible for those choices and need to own that responsibility.1
Otherwise we get interactions that go like this:
'I'm sorry that you're hurt, but you know, I'm personality type 'x', and given this and that thing that happened to me when I was a child - well - I couldn't help it...what I did to you was pretty much inevitable.'
Please don't hear me minimising the value of personality typing or of therapy - I advocate both as really useful methods of bringing greater self- and other-understanding and health.
It's just that I'm concerned that we have used the discourses of pathology and therapy to excuse and avoid talking about sin, and to minimise the idea of being held accountable for our choices. Maybe this is partly why certain groups in our society want to 'lock criminals up and throw away the key': the notion of accountability is under threat but we don't want to apply it to ourselves so we apply it super intensively to a set of scapegoats.
Maybe it's also part of the reason for the decline in people's interest in traditional religion, in favour of self-help spiritualities that are more inclined to let people off the hook.
Why am I talking about sin and responsibility? It's because of the relationship between responsibility and forgiveness. If, as a culture, we have removed the idea of sin, and therefore remorse and apology, perhaps we have also made it impossible to know how to give and receive forgiveness. And without an idea of forgiveness, the whole notion of a final judgement is too fearful to contemplate
One of the pathways to forgiving someone else is to accept that I am also capable of causing hurt. Forgiveness involves knowing that, no matter how cruelly I have been treated, there's a dimension of me that is connected to what my 'enemy' has done, because what caused their behaviour is also in me.
Stephanie Dowrick, in her book 'Forgiveness and Other Acts of Love' writes: "Forgiveness comes to life not through our capacity to see the failings in others and to judge them, but through our willingness to own up to who we are, to know what we have done, and to acknowledge without self-pity what we are capable of doing." Zen writer Thich Nhat Han says "Our enemy is not the other person, no matter what he or she has done. If we look deeply into ourselves we can see that their act was a manifestation of our collective consciousness. We are all filled with violence, hatred, and fear."2
The concept of the last judgement is perhaps as simple as our being brought to face up to that truth. Rather than it being a case of all my actions being weighed and assessed, maybe Jesus' judgement is simply about bringing me to really see and understand that in my core I am no better or worse than any other person. And that nobody, no matter what they have done, is more or less deserving of love than any another.
I think that some people find the traditional idea of a final judgement comforting, because we see people getting away with things that we think they should be held accountable for, and that grieves us. Or because some crimes are so vast and appalling that we feel we need more than human punishment methods to be able to address them.
To a small extent it is helpful to think like this if it means that we can leave the judging of other people to God. Maybe the idea of a final judgement releases us from our own tendency to judge others in this life. Which is not the same as saying that we don't enforce laws or we can't prescribe social conditions about what's right and wrong. But our need to evaluate others and declare some worthy and some unworthy has no place if we assume that it's up to Christ to make that call, and only Christ has the viewpoint and the full knowledge from which to make good judgements. Which brings us back to the realisation that the only person whose judgement I should be thinking about is me.
Should we fear this final judgement? Possibly. Will it be painful? Probably. But that doesn't mean it is bad. Some suffering is a necessary pathway to joy. And I believe that in the end, God forgives, because forgiveness is at the heart of what God is. No matter how ruined a person is, God will always be able to find something in them to redeem and restore.
Today's lectionary Gospel reading is the story from Mark, also in Luke, of the paralysed man whose friends lower him through the roof to Jesus to be healed. Jesus startles and outrages the religious teachers by looking at the man and saying 'Son, your sins are forgiven,' before telling him to get up, pick up his mat and walk.
Jesus could see in this man - and in all of us - a need greater than the healing of his physical paralysis - his need to be forgiven. And there is no hint in the story that the man himself asked for or recognised his own need for forgiveness.
We're all paralysed in some way - and whether we know it or not we all need to hear the words of forgiveness that will catapult us into a renewed freedom of life. While the crowds followed Jesus because he healed their bodies, Jesus made it clear that the core of his life and teaching was forgiveness. I think we have no reason to believe that in any final reckoning of our lives this essential character of Christ will have changed.
The Last Judgement, then, is actually our final access to the truth about ourselves, and the mercy of Christ. It is an act of Love.
Hear some words from Frederick Buechner:
"We are all of us judged every day. We are judged by the face that looks back at us from the bathroom mirror. We are judged by the faces of the people we love and by the faces and lives of our children and by our dreams. Each day finds us at the junction of many roads, and we are judged as much by the roads we have not taken as by the roads we have. The New Testament proclaims that at some unforseeable time in the future God will ring down the final curtain on history and there will come a Day on which all our days and all the judgments upon us and all our judgments upon each other will themselves be judged. The judge will be Christ. In other words, the one who judges us most finally will be the one who loves us most fully. Romantic love is blind to everything except what is lovable and lovely, but Christ's love sees us with terrible clarity and sees us whole. Christ's love so wishes our joy that it is ruthless against everything in us that diminishes our joy."
Probably in some areas of our lives we judge ourselves more harshly than Christ does, or perhaps we have been massively and wrongly judged by others and cannot see any good in ourselves.
Possibly in other parts of our lives where we consider ourselves wholesome, we in fact need to face up to how we are causing harm even in our ignorance. Because Christ is completely loving, and completely truthful, he is committed to showing us the reality about ourselves. This reality is probably both more joyful and more terrible than we imagine.
In the end, I think the last judgement is about seeing - being able to see our acts and our motives for what they are, to see the ripples of consequence that spread out from our choices. And that this knowing will enable us finally to step free of the smallness and partiality of our mortal lives. The last judgement is a necessary threshold to living in wholeness with Christ.
It seems to me that a moment in our personal story where we get to look back over our life in the presence of the Revealer, Christ, and see it for what it was, and own the mistakes, and to celebrate the good, and to know that in it all we were loved and forgiven - such a moment is no bad thing. Terrifying perhaps. But ultimately, the transformation might be as profound as Jesus saying to the paralytic 'get off your mat and walk'. Maybe we need this process in order to get up off the mat of our mortality and step into our eternal lives.
We don't have to wait around for some day in the distant future to begin to see what we need to see and to take the first steps out of paralysis. It's a process that we can begin when we pray, inviting God to reveal truth to us, and receiving the grace to forgive ourselves and others. It's a process that we remember when we enter into the season of Lent, which begins this week. Regardless of its future dimension, the last judgement also starts now. Apparently William Blake has written that whenever we are confronted with a truth, the last judgement is upon us. Even though there are aspects of it that are painful, if we allow ourselves to see what the loving Revealer wants to show us about ourselves day by day, we will start to taste now the fullness and freedom that may one day be eternally ours.
1Stephanie Dowrick, in her book 'Forgiveness and Other Acts of Love' explores this same idea, and not from an explicitly religious perspective. While she is hesitant to do so, she suggests that 'sin' as an idea may need to be reintroduced into society in order to 'reweave the social fabric'
2Quoted in Dowrick.