There is a line that is common in the African American Spirituals which says, God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, but the fire next time! It is a line of creative genius and also a gloss on a text from Second Peter that speaks of the Second Coming of the Lord:
By these waters also the world of that time was deluged and destroyed. By the same word the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men….The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare. Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives (2 Peter 3: 6-7;11-12)
Many of the ancient hymns and prayers of the Church also speak of the Lord as judging the world by fire. The beautiful hymn Libera me from the Requiem Mass asks mercy from the Lord dum veneris īudicāre sæculum per ignem (when you will come to judge the world by fire). Many of the prayers in the old Rituale Romanum (once again permitted for use) conclude by invoking the name of the Lord Jesus qui venturus est judicare vivos et mortuos, et saeculum per ignem (who will come to judge the living, the dead, and the world by fire). This is especially true in the prayers of baptism.
Now, fire is worth respecting, and no one comes away from fire unchanged. We are either warmed by it, or burned. But fire must be respected, and we ignore it to our peril. In current times, when knowledge and appreciation of the Last Things (death, judgment, heaven and hell) is poor, we do well to consider that the Lord will judge the world by fire.
Even before that time we will all likely face our personal judgement which St. Paul likens to passing through fire. Even for those who are saved there is a kind of purgatorial fire to encounter. St Paul writes:
Each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire. (1 Cor 3:13-15)
So the world, indeed we all, will be judged by fire. And this is a fire we ought to respect more than any earthly fire. For though we have a respect and proper fear of earthly fire, and may even be able to control it, this last fire must be encountered as it is! It is a fire that will purify the saved, but only as through fire, it is a fire that will bring to destruction to what is evil. But either way, it is a fire, and a fire to be respected.
Too many make light of judgment today. Too many announce the immediate arrival of the deceased into heaven. They usher Jesus away from the Judgment Seat, take the seat themselves, and pronounce that, “Joe is in heaven!” They usually follow this “canonization” with some triviality such as “He’s probably playing poker with Jesus and Noah right now!” (For presumably “Joe” liked poker here, and thus heaven must include poker (of all things)).
Yes, there is a great setting aside of any notion of judgment. I always remind the family and friends, at a funeral, to pray for the dead. “For too many Christian funerals miss a step these days,” I tell them. “Scripture does not say when you die you go straight to heaven, it says we must face judgement first:”
- And inasmuch as it is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment (Heb 9:27)
- For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil (2 Cor 5:10)
- For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat…So then, each of us will give an account of himself to God. (Romans 14:10,12)
- God will judge men’s secrets through Jesus Christ, as my gospel declares (Rom 2:16)
- Always speak and act as men destined for judgment (James 2:12)
- Among many other texts, indeed dozens by Jesus himself that we will detail in another post.
The complete ignoring of the judgement that follows death is emblematic of our age which answers to no one. Even among Christians, there is a widespread trivializing of the notion of judgment. Yet Jesus in ways too countless to set forth here, commands a sobriety about judgment and says, But I tell you that men will have to give account on the day of judgment for every careless word they have spoken (Matt 12:36). If even our words will be judged, how much more so our deeds which many make light of.
I have no doubt that God is rich in mercy but too many Christians have descended to such a rather presumptive notion of that mercy, that they barely bother to even seek it, or ask for it. They judge presume it. Thus at funerals we wholly pass over the notion of judgment. Too few priests mention it and most laity haven’t considered it in years.
Further God is Truth Himself and he will not simply call good in us what is defective or sinful. Judgement is a moment of truth where the divine physician makes a true diagnosis, not a flattering one. And whatever remains unfinished he, by his grace and power will bring it to completion. This too is part of his mercy as well as his justice. Some purgation is surely a likely reality for most adults who die. St. Paul speaks of us as unfinished works when he says, And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ (Phil 1:6). Do we really think that “Joe” is just going to walk into heaven just as he died, with a pack of cards in his hands, no less? Perhaps some saints have been fully perfected by their death, but it seems more likely most of us will need purgation and to pass through purifying fire as St. Paul describes.
So, we are back to fire. And fire must be respected. Back-slapping at funerals ought to be replaced with a little more knee-bending and confident but sober prayer for our beloved who have died. They would probably appreciate a little more prayer from us, for they have encountered Truth, unlike a lot of us who still like to entertain fanciful notions, contrary to Scripture that judgment is either non-existent or “no big deal.”
Fire ought to be respected. And the fire of God’s judgement ought to be the most respected fire of all. The old spirituals say it plain:I would not be a sinner, I’ll tell you the reason why. I’m afraid my Lord might call my name, and I would be ready to die. (For) God gave Noah the rainbow sign. No more water, but the fire next time!
Here’s a little video I put together for young adults. It’s fun (rooted in a song by Creedence Clearwater Revival) but serious in its call to repentance and preparation for judgment.