The Great Assize, by Venerable Fulton Sheen, 12 March 1933

1952 photograph of Venerable Fulton John Sheen produced as promotional material for the television show 'Life is Worth Living'There comes a time in the life of every man when at the supreme and tragic hour of death his friends and relatives ask, “how much did he leave?” It is just at that split second God is asking, “how much did he take with him?” It is only the latter question that matters, for it is only our works that follow us. The story of life is brief: “It is appointed unto men once to die and after this the judgment” for “the Son of Man shall come in the glory of His Father with His angels, and then will He render to every man according to his works.” In the general forgetfulness of the Christian religion, which has passed over our civilization like a foul miasma, this great truth that a judgment follows death has been ignored in the moral outlook of the universe. Our souls can profit much from meditation upon it and its two important features, namely, its necessity and its nature.

All nature testifies to the necessity of judgment. Everywhere below man nature reveals itself as passing sentence on those who refuse to obey her laws. We need only look around us in the hospitals, prisons, and asylums to see that nature, like a judge seated in judgment, is squaring her accounts with those who violate her laws. If the body has abused itself by excess, nature takes revenge and passes the judgment of disease and infirmity. If a fragment of a star breaks from its central core and swings out of its orbit, nature passes the judgment that it shall burn itself out in space.

Nature settles her account with natural things here and now. But the moral side of the universe has not made its lasting reckoning with every man on this side of the grave: there is too much anguished innocence; too much unpunished wrong; too much suffering of the good; too much prosperity of the evil; too much pain for those who obey God’s laws; too much pleasure for those who disobey them; too much good repute for those who sin unseen; too much scorn for those who pray unseen; too many unsung saints, too many glorified sinners; too many Pilates who act as righteous judges; too many Christs who go down to crucifixion; too many proud and vain souls who say, “I have sinned and nothing has happened.”

But the reckoning day must come, and just as once a year each business man must balance his accounts, so too that important hour must come when every soul must balance its accounts before God. For life is like a cash register, in that every account, every thought, every deed, like every sale, is registered and recorded. And when the business of life is finally done, then God pulls from out the registry of our souls that slip of our memory on which is recorded our merits and demerits, our virtues and our vices: – the basis of the judgment on which shall be decided eternal life or eternal death. We may falsify our accounts until that day of judgment, for God permits the wheat and the cockle to grow unto the harvest, but then, “in the time of the harvest, I will say to the reapers: gather up first the cockle and bind it into bundles to burn, but the wheat gather ye into my barn.”

But what is the nature of judgment? In answer to this question we are more concerned with the particular judgment at the moment of death, than with the general judgment when all nations of the earth stand before their God. Judgment is a recognition both on the part of God and on the part of the soul.

First of all, it is a recognition on the part of God: Imagine two souls appearing before the sight of God, one in the state of Grace, the other in the state of sin. Grace is a participation in the nature and life of God. Just as a man participates in the nature and life of his parents by being born of his parents, so too a man who is born of the Spirit of God by Baptism participates in the nature of God – the life of God, as it were, flows through his veins, imprinting an unseen but genuine likeness. When, therefore, God looks upon a soul in the state of Grace, He sees in it a likeness of His own nature. Just as a father recognizes his own son because of likeness of nature, so too Christ recognizes the soul in the state of Grace in virtue of resemblance to Him, and says to the soul: “Come ye blessed of My Father: I am the natural Son, you are the adopted son. Come into the Kingdom prepared for you from all eternity.”

God looks into the other soul that is in the state of sin and has not that likeness, and just as a father knows his neighbor’s son is not his own, so too God, looking at the sinful soul and failing to see therein the likeness of His own flesh and blood, does not recognize it as his own kind, and says to it as He said in the parable of the bridegroom “I know you not” – and it is a terrible thing not to be known by God.

Not only is sin a recognition from God’s point of view, but it is also a recognition from man’s point of view. Just suppose that while cleaning your car, or your house, a very distinguished person was an- nounced at your door. You would probably act differently than if you were thoroughly clean, well dressed and presentable. In such an unclean condition you would ask to be excused, saying you were not fit to appear in the sight of such a person. When a soul is before the sight of God, it acts in much the same manner. Standing before the tremendous majestic presence of Almighty God, it does not plead, it does not argue, it does not entreat, it does not demand a second hearing, it does not protest the judgment, for it sees itself as it really is. In a certain sense, it judges itself, God merely sealing the judgment. If it sees itself clean and alive with the life of God, it runs to the embrace of Love, which is Heaven, just as a bird released from its cage soars into the skies. If it sees itself slightly stained and the robes of its baptism remediably soiled, it protests that it is not to enter into the sight of Purity, and hence throws itself into the purifying fiames of Purgatory. If it sees itself irremediably vitiated, having no likeness whatever to the Purity and Holiness of God; if it has lost all affection for the things of spirit, then it could no more endure the Presence of God than a man who abhors beauty could endure the pleasure of music, art and poetry. Why, heaven would be hell to such a soul, for it would be as much out of place in the holiness of heaven as a fish out of water. Hence, recognizing its own unworthiness, its own unholiness, its own ungodliness, its own distaste for the Purity of God, it casts itself into Hell in the same way that a stone, released from the hand, falls to the ground. Only three states therefore are possible after the particular judgment: Heaven, Purgatory and Hell. Heaven is Love without Pain; Purgatory is Pain with Love; Hell is Pain without Love.

Such is judgment! And oh! how much better the present age would be if it lived in the habitual temper of men who remembered that they had an account to give! How much more justice would reign in our economic and social life if all men walked in fear of the judgment that is to come! How much happier life would be if each realized that there are only two beings in all the world, our soul and the God Who made it. Our emphasis on the group and on the nation and on the masses has made us oblivious to the great truth lying behind the judgment – ^that we are all individual souls responsible to God. We find ourselves talking of society as if it were a permanent thing, forgetting that it is really the passing of separate immortal persons into an unseen state, that while some slip away and others steal in, the flux and influx is the going of individual personal existences, each of which is worthy of redemption. We talk of masses of human beings as of a counter which was cleared from time to time, all the while forgetting the pathetic truth that all is not over with those whom history describes.

I wonder if a general ever thinks of the value of each soul and the responsibility it has to give when he sends his army into a storm of steel and shell; I wonder if the university professor realizes it, as he poisons the souls of his students with his sophistry and leaves not a hope behind; I wonder if we, as we walk the streets, jostle the crowds, hustle into subways, mingle with mobs, push into theatres, are fully conscious that the men and women who make up these groups are endowed with immortal souls and are responsible for each and every conscious act, down even to the last? I wonder if we remember that all that is past and done in human history has one day to be revived into living and eternal interest at the judgment seat of God? All those men and women of , history who figure in the scrolls of time, whose reality seems more like the characters of a story, whose names we cover with praise or insult, whose deeds we loathe or imitate, all those peacemakers and mischief makers, saints and sinners, saviours and betrayers of nations, lords and peasants; all the Egyptians who mused before the silence of their Sphinx and paid tribute to their dead before the stony jute of the pyramids; all the great ones of the earth whose names are carved in granite and all the poor ones whose names are painted on wood; the thief at the right hand and the thief at the left hand; Mary Magdalen and the Pharisees; Nero and Paul, Alexander, Caesar, Bismarck, Napoleon, Washing- ton, Lincoln – all these lived and they had their likings and their hates, their loves and their hopes; they gained what they thought was worthwhile, and en- joyed what they thought was best, and what each one did in his flesh is determining his present des- tiny. The door of their opportunities is shut and they have rendered an account of their stewardship, and like them, each one of us individually is reserved for a day when we shall be judged not by public opinion, but by the eternal Christ coming with His Cross in the clouds of heaven to render to every man according to his works.

We can therefore be sure of nothing while eternity is in doubt, but while there is life, there is hope, there is opportunity! While our days are with us, there is heaven and happiness within our reach if we be the faithful, virtuous and simple of heart, and make friends with the Judge. The longest day has its evening, and after the evening comes the darkness of night. Christ crucified has no redemptive relation with the dead: He has either redeemed them, or they are beyond the reach of redemption. While we yet have life, the pierced hands of Christ are out-stretched to beckon us onward to drink the wine of love from the great chalice of His Sacred Heart. But when our soul has passed the gate of eternity, those pierced hands, which all during life we saw outstretched on the Cross, will detach themselves and fold together in judgment. May we be caught within the folded embrace as eternally captured captives of His Redemptive Love!