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Father Michael Schmitz: What is the point of the Last Judgment?

I understand that when we die, we are immediately judged by God. It is my understanding that we either then go immediately to hell or heaven (via purgatory if necessary). If that is the case, why is there something called the “Last Judgment”? Are we judged again? Is it a “second chance”?

This is a fantastic question. I will have to divide my answer up into two parts. In the first part, I want to highlight a few things about the particular judgment. And in the second part (next month), I will get to your actual question about the Last Judgment.

Father Michael Schmitz
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Before that, let me affirm your understanding of the fact that we are all judged at the moment of our death. I would like to add a couple of notes to this (so that all of us can be on the same page). It is an article of faith that, at the moment of our individual death, we will have made a definitive choice for either God or “not God.” We will, with our everyday, actual decisions, have chosen heaven or hell. This choice is irrevocable. Therefore, if we have chosen God, we get him forever. And if we have chosen anything other than God, we get that choice forever.

I hope that you (and anyone reading this) can truly appreciate the seriousness of this. God doesn’t technically “send someone to hell.” He allows us to choose hell against his will. It is God’s will that all of us spend eternity with him. God wills that we all experience his love and joy and Presence forever. And he gives every person the opportunities and all of the grace that they need to make this choice. But if we prefer our own will instead of God’s will, he lets us get what we’ve chosen. God does this because he is good and because he made us free. We are free to choose to love him. And because of that we are also free to reject him.

This decision to reject God seems to me to be remarkably easy. It doesn’t necessarily require that I rage against God with my defiant fist in the air towards the heavens while I curse God. It could look as simple and as undramatic as my being indifferent to him. I wonder how many people miss out on heaven simply because they “don’t care much” about God or because they are just “too busy” or “too distracted” or “too full” to bother with loving God.

Remember, the principle is: God gives us what we’ve chosen. If I have not actively chosen God, then I have not actually chosen God. No one gets heaven by default. Our decisions have to demonstrate the reality of our heart: that we have placed God first in our lives. If I do not actively choose God in life, why would I imagine that I would actively choose God at the moment of death?

Everyone in hell has chosen hell for themselves by choosing “something other than God.” And this is their definitive choice for eternity. As C.S. Lewis famously said, “Hell is a door locked from the inside.”

On the other side, everyone in heaven has chosen Heaven for themselves by choosing to say “yes” to God from their heart. This is not just having nice feelings or thoughts about God but actively conforming our will to his will. As Jesus put it, “If anyone would be my disciple, he must deny himself, pick up his cross, and follow me” (Matthew 16:24). And the great news is: if we choose him, we realize that he has already chosen us! God loves you already and is like a potential groom who is waiting for his potential bride’s answer to his marriage proposal. He has already declared his love for you. Our response makes all the difference. A potential bride who doesn’t answer the proposal will die as a single woman. And a person who doesn’t answer the proposal of Jesus Christ will die outside his family — and spend eternity there.

I know that this first part of my response to your question could be received with fear. Or it could be received with a heavy heart. That’s OK. Those reactions might merely mean that we are taking the reality of eternity seriously for the first time. But we never stay there. The fear of God is the beginning of wisdom, but we are meant to get to a place where love casts out all fear.

And this is the key: love. God loves you so much that he sent his Son to live, suffer, die, and rise from the dead so that you could live with him forever. He wants you! He wants you to love him back. And he gives us every grace and every chance to love him.

For our part, we must make that choice. And the choice is to love him or not to love him. This is what we are judged on. As St. John of the Cross once said, “At the evening of life, we shall be judged on our love.” So do not be afraid, but also, do not be indifferent to his proposal. Love him back. It is the difference between heaven and hell.

Father Michael Schmitz is director of youth and young adult ministry for the Diocese of Duluth and chaplain of the Newman Center at the University of Minnesota Duluth.