Why does Scripture say there will be a general judgment since we will all be judged at our death?
Although proclaimed often in Scripture, we really know little about what the Last Judgment will look like nor how or when it will happen. At death, each individual's fate is decided privately and immediately in the particular judgment.
The reason and need for a general judgment is different. It will be for the glorification of Christ as Son of God and Son of Man in the presence of all of creation.
The New Testament, especially but not exclusively Matthew, gives many broad hints about this general judgment. The Gospel of Matthew, written for the Jewish community, often warns them (and us, too) about hearing and being faithful to the message of Jesus or they will suffer the consequences.
Matthew speaks of the coming tribulations and that "they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. He will send his angels . . . to gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other" (24.30-31).
When Peter questions the future fate of the disciples, Jesus responds: "When all is made new and the Son of Man sits on his throne of glory, you will sit on the 12 thrones to judge the 12 tribes of Israel" (Matthew 19.28).
Matthew (25.31-46) shows Jesus separating all the nations assembled before him into those saved and those condemned. When asked by each group why this judgment, the only reason Jesus gives is because of their care, or failure to care, for him in his needy brothers and sisters.
The Book of Revelation presents us an idea of the purpose of the Last Judgment. We cannot interpret Revelation literally as the author writes in the apocalyptic form common from 200 BC to 200 AD.
In this style, the past, present and future are so intermingled that it is difficult to know which belongs to each of these periods.
In addition, strange symbols and images are selected to portray the message. In Revelation, many of these are taken from Old Testament apocalyptic books.
The author constructs an extraordinary symbolic universe with Christ as the blessed and exalted Son of Man who has conquered Satan and redeemed the world. At the end, the powers hostile to God are annihilated and the everlasting reign of God begins.
This Last Judgment is presented as a grandiose event in an amazing setting praising and glorifying God.
The display is elaborate with an image of the throne and its occupant in terms of precious stones. Surrounding the throne are seven flaming lamps representing Spirits of God, 24 seated elders and four unusual animals, described as "like a lion, like a bull, like a flying eagle and one with a human face, day and night singing "Holy, holy, holy" (Revelation 4.8).
Every time the animals sing, the elders prostrate themselves, throwing down their crowns, and saying "You are our Lord and God, worthy of glory, honour and power" (Revelation 4.11).
Revelation continues in this fashion with trumpets and seals, horses and dragons, angels and eagles, chants and prayers, multitudes of every race and nation and 144,000 from the tribes of Israel and a host of other spectacular details. Only the slain Lamb is worthy to break open the seals on the scrolls.
For the judgment, one like the Son of Man appears with a gold crown on his head and a sickle in his hand to reap earth's harvest.
The Church has always believed in a last judgment and we profess this belief explicitly in our Creeds. The conduct of each individual, even the secret sins of the just, will be made known to all, so that God's justice and mercy may be glorified. This will add to the glory of the saints, not their embarrassment.
This judgment is important to show that in good times and bad, everything is in the hands of the all-wise, all-just and all-ruling Providence of God. At the time it was written, it gave hope to early Christians at a time of persecution.
In the New Testament, the uncertainty of the judgment's timing is used as an incentive to vigilance: "You must stand ready because the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect" (Matthew 24.44). The day of the Lord will come "as a thief in the night" (24.42-43), "like lightning" (24.27), "like a snare" (Luke 21.34).
Reason for us all to pause in our busy lives and reflect.
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