My Dad just retired a couple of years ago, and so he finally has time to achieve a long-held dream of his: raising goats. After he retired, he worked for months on the fence around his pasture, built a “goat tote” for his pickup, and ran a water line out to a trough. Then, when everything was ready, he finally went and bought three goats: two females and male. And since this endeavor is more of a hobby than an agricultural enterprise, he and my mom decided to name them. Now, my dad has a very dry sense of humor, so the goats’ names were as follows: Scape, Judas, and Roxie. Guess which one my mom named. Obviously, my dad has heard Matthew 25 a time or two.
Here at the close of our liturgical year, we take special care to reflect on the end of time, and on the four last things: Death, Judgment, Heaven and Hell. Reflecting on these last things is a sobering thought, yet it keeps us grounded and focuses on how we live our lives here and now. Since deacon Denver has recently preached on death, and I have often preached on Heaven, today we’ll focus on the other two: Judgment and Hell.
The gospel we just heard is Christ’s own warning about the Last Judgment that will happen at the end of time. We also heard it foreshadowed in the first reading from Ezekiel. These readings describe the day when Jesus, the Divine Judge, will separate the sheep from the goats; the sheep to his right and the goats to his left.
For me, this gospel evokes the famous depiction of the Last Judgement by Michelangelo. This enormous painting is a fresco on the wall of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican. While most people visit the Sistine Chapel to view the ceiling—certainly a masterpiece in itself—it is the Last Judgment that looms large over the sea of tourists that visit the Chapel each day.
It’s a busy scene, frightening and tense, yet hopeful and triumphant. It is a transcendent work of art at the end of the Renaissance age—transcendent because it points beyond itself and beyond the artist to portray the truths revealed to us about the Last Judgment. It draws the spectator in, causing him to ask himself, “Where will I end up in this picture?”
Christ himself is depicted in the center of the wall, his right arm raised in a condemning gesture as he looks towards his left. This same Christ who humbled himself to become a baby, who worked miracles and offered himself up to death for the sins of mankind is the same Christ who comes again on the last day to judge the world.
Dozens of figures on his left are reacting in horror to what is happening. Some are raising their hands up as if to shield themselves from Christ’s penetrating gaze. Others cover their mouths and open wide their eyes. And all these figures on the left have contorted, ugly bodies, which was Michelangelo’s way of showing the vicious state of their souls.
At the bottom of the painting, some demons emerge from a fiery pit that looks like a furnace, and they drag the damned souls down into Hell. Just above them, we see angels blowing their trumpets, as if to wake the dead and call them to the Resurrection. At the top, we see winged angels triumphantly carrying the instruments of Christ’s Passion.
Back in the center, next to Jesus, the Virgin Mary has her arms crossed in prayer, but even she cringes in sadness that so many souls are lost forever. To Christ’s right, we see some familiar figures—the Apostles, martyrs, and virgins. These souls are pure and righteous, and they are rising to eternal life in heaven. Their bodies are muscular and healthy, showing the virtuous state of their souls.
What spectator could look upon such a painting and think only of the skill and time required to create it, without giving at least a fleeting thought to his own destination at the end of time?That was Michelangelo’s goal—to remind the viewer that judgment comes to us all.
Now, I’ve got some good news and some bad news about the Last Judgment. First, the bad news—we don’t know when it’s going to be. Jesus was very explicit in telling us that that day will come like a thief in the night, and that we know neither the day nor the hour. We don’t want to be caught by surprise like so many of the miserable souls in the painting. So until then, we are expected to keep vigil and watch, ready for the coming of the Lord.
Now the good news—we do know how we will be judged. It’s like getting the answers to the pop quiz in advance. You already know the answers, you just don’t know when the quiz is coming. And the answers are the corporal works of mercy:
- Give food to the hungry
- Give drink to the thirsty
- Welcome the stranger
- Clothe the naked
- Care for the ill
- Visit the prisoner
These are acts of love, and love is not always easy. For us Christians, the works of mercy are set apart from mere humanitarian goodwill in that we see Christ in those we serve. We strive to see the face of Christ in the poor, imprisoned, and sick. When we serve those who are hardest to serve, we are trained in the school of love. By growing in love for our neighbor, we encounter the very presence of God.
Now a word on Hell. It’s not often that I preach on Hell, but as unpleasant a thought as it is, it is very much a reality. We have books and movies called “Heaven is for Real,” but I doubt that anyone will be making a movie called “Hell is for Real.” In our culture, Hell is something we take out every now and then and we play with it like a toy. We create haunted houses at Halloween and celebrate the spooky and the macabre. While it’s mostly harmless fun on the surface, it can lead us into thinking that Hell is make-believe, and that no one ever goes there. Well, not anyone we know. At funerals, we comfort ourselves by saying “s/he’s in Heaven now,” but the fact is that we don’t know that for sure. Hell is for real.
That always brings up the question, “Why would a loving God create a place like Hell? And why would he send any of his beloved creatures there?” The answer has to do with the greatest power you and I possess—it is great gift, but it is a double-edged sword. I’m talking about free will.
It’s absolutely true that God loves us. In fact, God even wants us to love him back. But God, who is love, knows that love does not force itself upon the beloved. Love requires freedom. Love is a free gift that the lover bestows on the beloved. If the lover is not free, but rather forced to “love” another, then that is not authentic love.
And so, God gave us free will so that we may choose to love him. And this is where the double-edged sword comes in—if we can choose to love God, we can also choose not to love God. We can choose selfishness. We can choose anger, resentment, and spite. We can choose greed and lust. We can choose sloth and gluttony. We can choose life, or we can choose death.
Hell is a consequence of this free choice. God does not desire to send anyone there. Quite the contrary. God desires for all people to be saved. But God is a gentleman, and he will not force us to be with him if we would rather be left alone. And so, it not God who chooses to send us to Hell, it is we who choose it. The author C.S. Lewis once summed it up in a few words: “The gates of Hell are locked, but they are locked from the inside.”
Brothers and sisters, let’s not forget that every human soul is immortal. The body must die, but the soul lives forever. Heaven is where the souls of the righteous will live forever in the presence of God, and Hell is the place where the unrepentant sinners will live forever in the absence of God. God never stops loving the damned, and that means he respects their free decision to be separated from him forever. They have chosen to spend eternity without God, and without love.
Now is the time for each and every person to choose his/her eternal destination, and we Christians know the way to determine our path. It is the way of love. The time that we have on this earth is a time of training in the school of love. We train our spiritual muscles with every decision we make and we live out those decisions in our actions. When we repeatedly choose to love, especially when it’s difficult, we grow in the virtue of charity.And charity will be our solitary boast at the Last Judgment. St. John of the Cross once summed it up perfectly: “In the twilight of life we will be judged on love alone.”
While the four last things may seem grim and sorrowful, they are actually a real message of hope. We all must die one day, but death is not the end—it is the gateway to Heaven. We have a great gift in free will, because it is the means by which we can choose to love God and to love others.
Brothers and sisters, choose love, and you choose eternal life.
 1 Timothy 2:4