Rev. Patrick J. McHugh: Judgment and the Laws of the Universe

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Painting: The Last Judgment by Michelangelo

Painting: The Last Judgment by Michelangelo

By Rev. Patrick J. McHugh, EWTN News

What happens after death–the Judgment–is in a certain sense previewed and acted out in an obscure symbolic way in things that happen now. To put this in another way: every day we experience “judgments,” only we do not call them that; nor do we realize that that is what they are: judgments on the way we act and think and like.

Consider this analogy. Suppose a man were waiting for his turn to come down in an elevator. In a burst of intellectual freedom he says, “This is ridiculous! I refuse to accept the indignity of subjecting myself to a law of gravitation that that fool, Isaac Newton, thought up and imposed on the rest of us. I am going to be free.” He proceeds to jump out the window. For a few seconds, or a few moments depending on the height, he seems to have proved his point. He is getting down faster. He is having an exhilarating experience, free fall and all the rest of it, until he hits the ground. A smashed body is the “judgment” that the law of gravitation passes on all who try to flout it.

This is the first way to try to understand the judgment. The Lord has made the world in such a way that we always get what we choose . . . ultimately. If I choose to jump from the top of a high building, I will get injury or death. That is the judgment the universe God has made passes on me. If I refuse to learn, I will get ignorance and all the painful things that go with ignorance. That is judgment. If I choose to hurt and humiliate others out of envy, I will get darkness of soul and all that goes with that, the impulse to tear down what is good. That is my judgment. The Judgment is not so much something the Lord confronts us with in the world to come as it is the law of the universe that operates now and in everything. The ways in which Judgment appears, the smashed body, ignorance, failure, darkness of the mind are previews of the final confrontation with the reality of what we have chosen to become.

There is one difference between the judgment that God exacts through the physical universe and the judgment that He exacts through the spiritual. In the judgment of the physical order there is no appeal and no mercy but in the judgment of the spiritual order there is. Suppose that this man we spoke of jumped from the 80th floor but as he hurled past Floor Number 35, he had a change of heart. He cried out, “Oh, great and mysterious Law of Gravitation, I was foolish to think that I would defy you and get away with it. Forgive me!” If he were to receive an answer the Law of Gravitation would say, “I do not forgive. This is what you chose and this is what you are going to get . . . your judgment.” What is impossible in the physical order (apart from a miracle) happens all the time in the spiritual. The Lord reaches out and snatches us from what we are falling to.

The moral laws are laws, that is to say, they are statements of the reality of things. Here, for example are statements of the real universe in which we live: “Thou shalt not take arsenic with thy coffee. Thou shalt not use gun powder as tobacco. Thou shalt study for thy exams . . . or else.” These are laws. We cannot really break them–we can only break ourselves against them.

In exactly the same way the following statements are statements of the real universe too. “Thou shalt not commit adultery. Thou shalt not steal. Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.” These are laws too. We cannot break these either. We can only break ourselves against them. If I try to defy the law of gravitation, I begin to fall to my ruin. If I try to defy the law of morals, I also begin to fall to my ruin–unless, and until, the Lord reaches out, snatches me out of mid air in my fall, sets me down gently and says, “Your sins are forgiven you. Go and sin no more.” In the judgment of the physical order, there is no mercy, no appeal. In the judgment of the spiritual order, there is. That is the difference. But in both cases, there is Judgment.

Suppose a man were invited to a party and he acted in a very rude way; he was critical and abusive towards his host and fellow guests. If he were to complain afterwards, “they avoid me” you would say to him, would you not, “What do you expect?” If you were in a philosophical mood, you might go on:

“We live in a cosmos, not in a chaos. If we choose disorder, disorder we shall have. If we choose to hurt others and tear at them, we enter into a spiritual darkness in which we no longer see good as good, but as evil. In that darkness we have chosen to enter we are poisoned with aversion from good. We are filled with bitterness, frustration and hate. If we encounter Honesty in our place of work we do not admire it, we fear it. If we meet Integrity we feel threatened by it. That is our Judgment.”

The Lord takes us seriously. He lets us have our own way. We get what we choose. We go to our own place. If we betray the Lord, as Judas did, we get up and leave His company; we go out into the night. The Judgment is not so much something that God decrees as it is the Lord Who allows our free-will to run its course–unless He intervenes to save us from ourselves. This is what He does, again and again. If we begin to fall to our ruin the Lord sees us; He takes pity on us and reaches out and grasps us in mid-air (so to speak) and changes the course we have chosen by our folly and our sin. The mercy of God is His endless miracle of saving sinners who are bent on destroying themselves.

From In Season, Out of Season: Meditations on the Sunday Gospels and Second Readings, Liturgical cycle C, seventh Sunday of Easter, second reading: Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17.

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