Two Teachings of the Lord that Correct Flawed Notions of Judgement

When it comes to our personal and final judgment, after we die, there are many caricatures and distortions that are possible. One is of Jesus as a stern and grouchy judge who is looking for reasons to keep us out of heaven. This is the “sinners in the hand of an angry God” distortion. Or perhaps the Lord is weighing our good deeds against our bad deeds in a kind of impersonal, numerical manner. This is the Pelagian distortion where salvation depends on our earning it. 

But at the other end of the spectrum and far too common today is the universalist distortion which presumes that almost everyone is saved with little or no reference to one’s preferred spiritual or moral life. It is an overreaction to the stern and litigious “God” of the first two distortions because it trivializes and reduces the Lord to a kind of harmless hippie, tokin’ on a number and saying, “Who am I to judge?” and, “All are welcome.” 

The truth, of course, is in what the Lord actually teaches, not in such distortions. God wants to save us (e.g. Ezekiel 33:11; 1 Tim 2:4). But the real question is what do we want? Sadly, as the Lord laments, many prefer the wide road to destruction, rather than the narrow road to heaven (cf Mat. 7:13). 

There are two scriptures (among others) that illustrate this well. 

The first Scripture is in John’s Gospel in the third Chapter. The passage begins by reaffirming God’s desire to save us: 

For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that everyone who believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through Him. Whoever believes in Him is not condemned… (John 3:16-18a)  

But, even here there comes a warning rooted in our response: 

but whoever does not believe has already been condemned, because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.  (John 3:18b) 

And then comes an analysis by the Lord as to why some refuse, and in what judgment consists of: 

And this is the judgment: The Light has come into the world, but men loved the darkness rather than the Light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the Light, and does not come into the Light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. But whoever practices the truth comes into the Light, so that it may be seen clearly that what he has done has been accomplished in God.” (John 3:19-21) 

Notice then, the judgment, the verdict, consists in whether or not one loves or hates the light. The Greek root word used here is ἀγαπάω (agapao), a word that indicates a strong love, a preferential love above other things. The Lord further teaches that those who love and prefer the darkness also hate the light. The Greek root word here is  μισέω (miseo) – which means, to detest, denounce; to love someone or something less than someone (something) else, i.e. to renounce one choice in favor of another. So, there is a love of the darkness and a hatred of the light due to the prideful aversion of not seeing their sins and errors exposed for what they really are: sinful, wrong and harmful.  

Why then are some excluded from heaven? Is it NOT because a mean and hateful God seeks to keep them out. No, it is that they prefer the darkness. They are accustomed to darkness and prefer it. And thus, the Lord teaches that the judgment that excludes the unrepentant is due to the Lord recognizing their preference and consigning them to the outer dark they prefer (Mat 22:13).  In reality, they cannot stand the bright light of heaven where the truth of God radiates, vividly and intensely, leaving no shadow. Indeed, the Lamb of the Light is the city of God (Rev 21:23)! The saddest truth of the damned is that they would be more miserable in heaven. For those who hate the truth see the truth as hateful and irksome, and those who prefer the darkness experience the light as harsh. We see this frequently today when secular people denounce their opponents of faith as hateful and phobic and want to exclude them from their world. 

The second Scripture is from this last Sunday’s Gospel (Lk 12:32-48; 19th Week, Cycle C) wherein the Lord paints a picture of two reactions to his coming. He begins by teaching the principle: 

For where your treasure is, there also will your heart be. (Lk 12:33). 

If our treasure is what we value most, is the world, then our heart is with the world. If our treasure is God and the things of heaven, then our heart is there. As most of us know, this is the great human drama. A very honest question that even Church-going Catholics must ask is, “Do I love God more than this world?” The honest answer for most is that we struggle to love God most of all. And, any look to the world around us today is that many, if not most, are obsessed with the things and priorities of the world and have marginalized God; some have marginalized Him completely. Their treasure and preoccupation is here, and so also is their heart. Far fewer are those who long for God and have their life directed to him and the things of heaven. And this is why we must constantly ask the Lord to fix and redirect our hearts. 

Next, the Lord paints two responses, two groups, if you will, at our summons to death, and to the judgment seat. 

Group One is described: 

like servants who await their master’s return from a wedding, ready to open immediately when he comes and knocks.  

Group Two sees the Lord as 

A thief who is coming, and they do not want their house be broken into.

Why does Group Two see the Lord as a thief? Because their treasure, and therefore their heart is this world and the things of this world. And when the Lord comes they will see him as a thief coming to take away all they think is theirs, but is not. They are not happy to see Him, they wail and grind their teeth, seeing hm as one who is putting an end to their frivolities. They do not want what he offers, (the Kingdom of Heaven), for they prefer the darkness of this world: its priorities, personalities, power and possessions. 

But Group One the Lord describes as like servants who await their master’s return from a wedding, ready to open immediately when he comes and knocks. He also describes them as having girded their loins, and lighted their lamps. To gird the loins is the ancient equivalent of “rolling up our sleeves.” It is to be ready for and doing the work that God has given us by setting our house in order, growing in holiness and eagerly anticipating being with the Lord in heaven. To “light our lamp” is to read the Word of God and be deeply immersed in God’s wisdom, his vision and priorities. It is to be imbued with the Kingdom values and to be longing for God’s justice and the Glory of heaven. This group has their treasure in heaven and, so also, their hearts. They look forward to the Lord’s coming with eager expectation and joyfully and actively prepare to meet him with longing in their hearts, repenting of their sins and setting their house in order. Hence, when the Lord comes they see him as Savior and Lord who will bring to completion in them whatever is undone (Phil 1:6) and lead them to the glory of heaven which they so desire. They do not see him as a thief, like Group One. 

Thus, judgment consists in the Lord recognizing and ratifying that some joyfully come to the light, others are repulsed by it. So, ultimately, the judgment is on us. If someone prefers darkness, he gets the darkness he wants. If someone loves the light and comes to it by God’s grace, he enters the Kingdom of truth and Light he desires. God respects our freedom to choose, and at the judgment seat of Christ our preference and decision are recognized and ratified by the Lord Jesus. “Here is the judgement in question,” says the Lord, “that the Light has come into the world but some prefer the darkness.” In the end you get what you want.  

So, one Lord, Savior and Judge comes to us (or we go to him) but the two groups experience him differently based on the disposition of their own hearts rooted in what they value and where their treasure is. God is not angry, though some are repulsed by him and regard him as a thief. 

Some have said in recent years, something to the effect: “God does not judge us, we judge ourselves.” But this is only partially true. The Lord Jesus does in fact judge us (e.g. John 5:22), but his judgment is rooted in and recognizes what we ourselves have chosen and manifest by the way we live our lives. These two pictures of judgement make that point rather clearly.

This song from Camelot “playfully” ridicules goodness and prefers a wicked world:

13 Replies to “Two Teachings of the Lord that Correct Flawed Notions of Judgement”

  1. If I may complete what you’ve written in this article:

    When we prefer the darkness (untruth), it’s mostly not because it would be more pleasant to do so (it’s actually painful to the soul), but because we want to ‘hide’: we don’t want to see and acknowledge, often not even to ourselves, the various damage that our sins have done to us and to other people (including to our and their souls) – so we keep telling lies to ourselves and to others about this (we can also lie through how we act), denying the damage. It has to do with pride and vanity (and self-delusion) – and that’s why repentance has to begin with the confession of our sins (yet done with contrition or attrition, not hypocritically and cynically).

    whoever does not believe has already been condemned, because he has not believed” (John 3: 18)

    After this verse, I think that a passage about belief – what St John the Apostle has meant by ‘belief’, ‘to believe’ (as translated in English) – would’ve been appropriate and fitting in this article, for “the term is commonly used in ordinary language, as well as in much philosophical writing, to cover a great many states of mind” (The Catholic Encyclopedia).

    ›› “Some have said in recent years, something to the effect: ‘God does not judge us, we judge ourselves.’ But this is only partially true. The Lord Jesus does in fact judge us…”

    Actually, He Himself has said something subtly different from both of those statements:

    If anyone hears My words and does not keep them, I do not judge him; for I did not come to judge the world but to save the world. The one who rejects Me and does not receive My words has a judge: the word that I have spoken will judge him on the last day.” (John 12: 47-48)

  2. Father – How do you account for the verses that seem to suggest that many will be surprised to find themselves shut out of heaven. For example, the parable of the ten virgins, the parable of the talents, the parable of the wedding banquet, the separation of the sheep from the goats, and “Not everyone who says to me, Lord, Lord . . .” To me, there seems to be a consistent thread of teaching that indicates people are not “choosing hell for themselves because they prefer the darkness” but of people who, in the end, will desperately want in and will be told “it is too late” and will be “cast” into the outer darkness” rather than choosing to go there themselves. If Our Lord is simply “giving them what they want” then it is hard for me to make sense of all the verses indicating there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.” Thanks.

    1. Not sure, maybe you can answer the opposite question too. Why does Jesus say, the judgement is that they prefer the darkness. St. Thomas reasons that the souls in hell regret their suffering but do not want to repent in order to have heaven since repentance is no longer available to them. Perhaps their lament in the scenes you reference is that they are suffering the consequences and regret that but do not fully understand that heaven would be more detestable to them.

    2. I’m not Msgr., obviously, but I think that the answer is hinted at by the commenter above. Those who are surprised by their damnation have deluded themselves that they are not in need of repentance. When the stark light of judgment is on them, they would rather cling to their self-righteousness and flee from that light.

    3. Seems to me that people want paradise but they don’t want God – like the prodigal son wanted his father’s money but didn’t want his father. So people do choose darkness (a world without the Father) but are shocked when they find out they can’t also choose a dark (Godless) heaven.

    4. Don,
      after having read your question from here, I too have been thinking (and thinking) about it; perhaps you’re still going to read this delayed response:

      Adam and Eva have chosen to believe in the Serpent’s lie about the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil (Eva first and directly, then Adam through following Eva’s error), instead of believing in what the Creator has told them about it; and we can guess that they’ve been somewhat surprised, unpleasantly, by the consequences of having eaten from the forbidden fruit, even though the Maker – in Whom they’ve chosen not to trust – has warned them of what would happen.
      One of the consequences has been, that their perception of the Creator has gotten distorted – their initially deliberate mistrust has turned into a misperception.

  3. When we prefer the darkness (untruth), it’s mostly not because it would be more pleasant to do so (it’s actually painful to the soul), but because we want to ‘hide’ (“Adam, where are you?”): we don’t want to see and acknowledge, often not even to ourselves, the various damage that our sins have done to us and to other people (including to our and their souls) – so we keep telling lies to ourselves and to others about this (we can also lie through how we act), denying the damage. It has to do with pride and vanity (and self-delusion) – and that’s why repentance has to begin with the confession of our sins (yet done with contrition or attrition, not hypocritically and cynically).

    whoever does not believe has already been condemned, because he has not believed” (John 3: 18)

    After this verse, I think that a passage about belief – what St John the Apostle has meant by ‘belief’, ‘to believe’ (as translated in English) – would’ve been appropriate and fitting in this article, for “the term is commonly used in ordinary language, as well as in much philosophical writing, to cover a great many states of mind” (The Catholic Encyclopedia).

    ›› “Some have said in recent years, something to the effect: ‘God does not judge us, we judge ourselves.’ But this is only partially true. The Lord Jesus does in fact judge us…”

    Actually, He Himself has said something subtly different from both of those statements:

    If anyone hears My words and does not keep them, I do not judge him; for I did not come to judge the world but to save the world. The one who rejects Me and does not receive My words has a judge: the word that I have spoken will judge him on the last day.” (John 12: 47-48)

  4. Thank you for this article, Monsignor.

    I had my mental image of The Last Battle’s “judgement” scene in my mind as you explained Jesus “reading” us and allowing us to go where we prefer.

    So it raises a question for me. If, God willing, we “get to” heaven, we experience God’s pure light and exquisite joy. But doesn’t God Himself feel eternal sadness over the sould who chose to separate from Him? Our Lady as well, she is in paradise, yet it seems she still can suffer pain out of care for us.

  5. Thank you for this well written and thought provoking piece, Father. Might I suggest an excellent allegorical tale of heaven and hell that touches on this topic: The Great Divorce by CS Lewis. Highly recommend.

  6. I think at the end of the day, don’t get hung up on competing scriptures. Live your life in accordance with God. Be holy every day, be kind and respectful to others, attend Mass, keep your eyes fixed on Jesus. The church will help guide us to our final moments and we can rest easy, in God. It’s up to each of us to “check ourselves” every day. God is watching us, no doubt.

  7. My heart agrees with all the points presented in this article. However, there is one key scripture verse that appears to have been overlooked. Mark 16:16 says, “All who believe and are baptized shall be saved.” Those are the words of Jesus Himself, and appear to describe something similar to the ‘universalist distortion.’ God is ‘rich in mercy’ (see Ephesians) and that extent of that mercy is a manifestation of the Mystery that God Himself is. Too many of us Christians are self-righteous and behave like Jonah who became angry over the mercy God chose to show the Ninevites. Yet we know that it is ‘the goodness of God’ that brings people to repentance. Let us continue to pray for one another, love one another and persevere. Let us walk humbly with each other and with God. Let us greet God joyfully when He calls us and may we live so obediently and so well, that the Lord may say to us, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant: thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy lord.” (Matt. 25:21.)

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