In the modern era, the idea of the Last Judgement has faded into the background: Christian faith has been individualized and primarily oriented towards the salvation of the believer's own soul, while reflection on world history is largely dominated by the idea of progress. The fundamental content of awaiting a final Judgement, however, has not disappeared: it has simply taken on a totally different form. The atheism of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is—in its origins and aims—a type of moralism: a protest against the injustices of the world and of world history. A world marked by so much injustice, innocent suffering, and cynicism of power cannot be the work of a good God. A God with responsibility for such a world would not be a just God, much less a good God. It is for the sake of morality that this God has to be contested.
Spe Salvi 42
Reflection – Well, it’s been quite a while since we visited this document. This is good solid intellectual meat here, and not something to pass over lightly. I will do the second half of par. 42 tomorrow, where Pope Benedict gets into even more dense matter… but it’s worth it to make the effort.
So our Christian doctrine, just to make it clear, is that there is a Last and General Judgment, distinct from the particular judgment of yours or my soul, at which the whole cosmic order will be set into perfect order. The particular judgment pertains to how you or I have lived and what our eternal destiny will be, a fearsome prospect or at least it should be so. God is merciful and loving, but He is an awesome and just judge, too. None of us should be so foolish as to blithely approach that judgment seat without a bit of trembling.
But the Last Judgment is about the world and God’s justice in regard to the world. It is a question of the whole of creation and God’s action towards creation being laid open and bare for all to see, so that the perfect goodness, love, and justice of God towards the works of his hands may be manifest, and all the saints may rejoice in seeing at last that God has established his kingdom and put an end, forever, to all injustice and evil.
Now, we believe this because it is clearly revealed by Jesus in the Scriptures. But this is a Christian doctrine that flows from a deep human experience as well. Namely, the experience that (excuse my language) the world kind of sucks, you know? I mean it has its OK moments, and some people seem to get off a bit lighter than others, suffering-wise, but generally there is something deeply wrong with the world. It just doesn’t add up—the ledgers of humanity, that is.
Justice is fleeting, fugitive, hard-won and quickly lost. Joy is precious to us because it only stays for a season. Truth is elusive; many don’t find it, many don’t want to. ‘Men cannot bear much reality,’ I believe it was T.S. Eliot who said that.
The world is in a state of grave and gross imperfection, and this bothers us deeply. This belies the truth of materialist evolutionary philosophy, by the way. Why on earth would imperfection bother us if we are merely evolved blobs of matter? It is perfectly natural for matter to be imperfect, in flux, and to be exactly all these things we experience that cause us so much distress. That it bothers us so much (and any familiarity with the grand history of human thinking, striving, expression shows that it does indeed do this) suggests that we are more than matter, more than simply evolved blobs of flesh.
So we have a Christian doctrine of the Last Judgment, saying that all that distresses us, all that is incomplete and imperfect and absurd will at last be done away with so that perfect justice and goodness may reign.
The rejection of Christianity, then, or of any theism, does not remove the problem, but instead places us in a deep travail. We must make the world perfectly just, must remove every last trace of evil, hatred, deceit, exploitation, exclusion, every failure of love, every petty or gross injustice. We must, because God won’t do it now, and in fact there is no God and so He won’t do it later, either.
Simply, whenever humanity has entered this travail of creating a perfect world (apocalypse now!), the result has been tyranny, misery, totalitarianism, and the death of tens of millions of people. The doctrine of the last judgment, and the implied acceptance of our current state of injustice, ironically is the safeguard of human justice and freedom in the here and now.