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The Judgment of God | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J. | February 18, 2008

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"When one is not aware of the judgment of God, when one does not recognize the possibility of hell, of the radical and definitive failure of life; then one does not recognize the possibility and necessity for purification. Then man does not work well on behalf of the world, because in the end he loses his bearings; he no longer knows himself, not knowing God, and destroying the world. All of the great ideologies have promised: We will take things in hand; we will no longer overlook the world; we will create the new, just, correct fraternal world. Instead, they destroyed the world." — Benedict XVI, To Roman Clergy, February 7, 2008.

"The greatest moral challenges headed our way do not, in fact, come from hate-filled fanatics threatening death and destruction. They come rather from well-meaning scientists and technologists offering life, pleasure and enhancement.... Human nature itself lies on the operating table, ready for alteration, for eugenic and psychic 'enhancement,' for wholesale redesign. In leading laboratories, new creators are confidently amassing their powers and quietly honing their skills, while on the street, their evangelists are zealously prophesying a post-human future. For anyone who cares about preserving our humanity, the time has come to pay attention." — Leon Kass, Commencement Address, St. John's College, Annapolis, 2007


An underlying theme of Benedict's "Regensburg Lecture" was that we are confronted with at least two immediate threats of a worldwide scope.

The first is radical Islam, which will not go away, all our nave pretending that it will voluntarily disappear notwithstanding. We simply refuse to grasp how a religion can, after centuries of relative inactivity, suddenly rearm itself to pursue the same goal it had from its beginnings. This goal is the conquest of the rest of the world for Allah by whatever means seem feasible at the time. Very intelligent and aggressive men do conceive that, at no time in the modern era, has this goal seemed more feasible and attainable by disciplined Islamic movements.

The inner moral weakness of the West is obvious to anyone who cares to look. Two times in the past, at Tours in the eighth century and at Vienna in the sixteenth century, Europe barely escaped Muslim conquest of its independent life. For their part, the Muslim thinkers who pursue these (to them) religious goals see the West as a far easier target today than at any time in the modern era. It seems more open to conquest than, say, India or China, objects of earlier Muslim conquests, but these latter can wait. The population decline of the West needs quick replacement, which Islam is providing even without military conquest.

The Regensburg Lecture, however, was more aimed at the intellectual structure of Europe than at the threat of Islam. The military danger of Islam was not under-estimated by the pope. Nor were its intellectual roots in voluntarism left unexamined. Benedict, moreover, knows the background and origins of science, his second area of concern. Benedict does not minimize any of the benefits and genius of scientific method and accomplishment. He is, however, quite critical of this method when it claims that only a system based on matter and mathematics is "scientific," as if there were no spiritual power in the universe and no way to know it insightfully. The scientific method itself assumes a spiritual power of knowing.

For a long time, even into early modernity, it was considered that "human nature" would itself be the criterion for establishing the "limits" of science. It was understood that what man is from nature cannot and ought not to be experimented with or radically altered. If from Hume on there is a doubt about whether a nature, human or otherwise, exists or can be known, such a limit disappears. Nothing now prevented the elimination of a given human nature as a norm of human worth. Once man himself became an object of his own scientific studies, however, the very structure of man was called into question. Science becomes not so much a study of what is as of what "ought to be"—as if what man actually was had no prior meaning. We only want to know "What we can do." Man himself becomes an object of "scientific" improvement as if he was nothing in himself.

Thus, no objective human nature is implicit. The parameters of what it is to be human cannot be defined. Doctors, for instance, no longer state "This is what you must do to be cured," but ask "What do you want me to do for you?" If it can be done, we will do it; if not, we will learn how. We are now filled with proposals, as Benedict recalled in Spes Salvi, having to do with conception of children, enhancement of their bodies or minds, making men women, women men, single-sexed world, extending life in this world decades and centuries, cloning, in vitro, and other extra-marital forms of bringing human beings into existence apart from a normal family.

We can evidently separate sex and children so that the family experience is totally by-passed, not unlike what was advocated in book five of the Republic. Other institutions, particularly schools and the state, fulfill the family's functions. The family is even considered the source of most social problems. Why do we want to do these things that would change our being? Evidently, in part just to see if we can do them, but also because we claim that it is an "improvement" on the original design of what it is to be a human being. The human good henceforth is to be considered as a scientific project, a work in progress. The human good now skips over the whole ethical and social condition of man as we have known him. At the heart of man's good, however, is not something that was done for him, but, in the classic sense, something he had to do for himself through his own discipline and free acts.


What is being rejected here? The classical and Christian idea of man accepted the fact that, from nature, man, as he was, was good. To be the kind of being he was meant to be given what he was. He was granted a certain limited number of years of life on this earth during which he was to decide his eternal destiny while relating to his fellow citizens in various ways. The human being was to achieve this destiny by practicing the virtues, by understanding what the world and revelation was about, by how he lived, and by what he knew and believed. The central focus was on man's own given dignity. From nature, he was an unfinished project whose life, as it resulted from his choices, was either good or bad. This configuring of himself as good or bad was the most important thing about him. His condition of his being better or worse depended largely on himself. Ultimately, he could not blame someone else for what he turned out to be. The locus of order and disorder in his soul was finally in his own free will. This is why he is always subject to judgment, both to identify what is wrong and reward what is right.

This given nature and destiny implied that man's choices were significant for his being what he ought to be or for rejecting what he ought to be. It was a risk to be a human being. Indeed, it was a risk (and indeed a romance) on the part of God to create him as he was: free. Man did not have to choose what he ought to be, only whether he would choose to be what he ought to be. The much maligned doctrine of hell was about this very issue of the importance of human choice and hence of our relation to God, others, and the world. Hell was not so much a description of doleful punishment. It was rather the logical consequence of what followed when man chose his own description of himself and what he ought to do.

Hell was an unavoidable possibility if we were really free beings. When we talked about it, we did so to depict the consequences and importance of each of our free acts as they affected ourselves and others. Since He created each human being to be what he was, God was intimately associated with our acts as they affected others. No free act touched only the one who put it into effect. Hell thus was always and only the result of a free and intelligent act of a particular finite and rational being. On God's part, man was allowed his own choice. Once made, he was to see its logical consequences carried out in his own life unless he stopped it through repentance. On his own authority, man, in sinning, specifically rejected the laws of nature and God. God could stop this only at the cost of making man not to be man.

This consequence of an eternal placing oneself outside all those who chose God was the other side of the awesome dignity of human independence and autonomy as a real being. God evidently did not create patsies or automata. He created something lofty enough to be offered His inner life, something independent enough to reject it if he so chose. God created the only kind of a being worthy of His love and attention, the only kind of being who could, in grace, properly praise and know Him. He was created to be happy, in other words, not to be damned.

This is why the primary locus of all drama and all life, public and private, is found within us. This is why we are the most interesting figures in the cosmos. We are the beings in the universe that can reject what we are. We can do this because we are likewise the only beings who are given the gift and choice of accepting to become what we are and are intended to be. We can reject this gift. This is both our freedom and our hell. If we did not have this power, we could not also meaningfully choose glory.

What is characteristic of modern political and scientific thought, however, is that it "confidently," to use Leon Kass' word, proposes a way to "perfect" man without his having to do or choose anything himself except submission to the new procedures and technology designed, so it is said, to improve him. His ills are now considered to be ultimately external to him and removable. This position is just the opposite of the classic and revelational traditions where our moral lot is found within us. Disorders, human and moral, can now, it is claimed, be cured by a scientific system. They are subject to investigation and massive reconstructions.

This transformation of man will be accomplished by the rearrangement of the polis or the family or, now more immediately, by the very human corpus and psyche themselves. Death, which even Scripture said God did not initially intend, is now looked upon, not as the normal, expected, and even welcome end of every human life, but as something that can be postponed if not eliminated, a project to be dealt with. We are told, often without reflecting on what this might mean, that we can look forward to continuous life in this world. Children were once thought necessary to replace dying generations, but if we do not die, why do we need children?

On reflection, this thinking, when we imagine what a life of say two hundred years might entail, makes death look rather better than we might have expected. Benedict's Spes Salvi went into this speculation about the scientific "improvement" of the human condition. Basically, over against the proposals to "improve" us scientifically, the normal teaching of a life of four score years and ten, of heaven, hell, death, and purgatory looks better and better by comparison. On almost every point, orthodox doctrine makes more sense and is more human. We are in fact more likely engaged in this "scientific experimentation in creating monsters, not better men. I believe the author of Frankenstein, Mary Shelley, was aware of this possibility, as were the authors of Brave New World and 1984.

The upshot of this reflection is that the primary way to safeguard the human condition as it was given to us as good from the beginning is to rethink the notion of the "judgment of God." Ironically, right thinking about the transcendent order is the only way in which we can protect this world to be what it was intended to be. The reason for this is that today scientific thinking proposes to itself a way to achieve the goals of the transcendent order in this world by its own methods.


The pope remarked that, in recent years, we seldom hear serious preaching and discussion of the last things, the things mentioned at the end of the Creed, particularly "the judging of the living and the dead." In part, he attributes this neglect to the abiding influence of Marxism. It claimed that the reason why there were problems in the world was because Christians were alienated from it. They devoted their efforts solely to the transcendent order. They neglected this world. Religion was thus the cause of our problems. If only we could forget about anything beyond this world, we could perhaps, even on this earth, build a kingdom suitable for man.

Under the shadow and pressure of this Marxist approach, many Christians shifted their attention to this world. Spirituality, theology, social justice, and immediate problems became the chief concern of such thinkers. Political and economic solutions replaced spiritual attention to one's soul and its destiny. Ironically, the methods espoused to improve the world seldom in practice worked. The application of such ideology to politics often resulted in something far worse than might ever have been imagined. Hell became something of this world in the worst cases. Without judgment, this-worldly hells became even more difficult to explain, for having thought that we eliminated the very idea of hell, it came back as an inner-worldly issue.

Of course, as the pope said in both Deus Caritas Est and Spes Salvi, not only is there room for Christian attention to this world, but an absolute necessity for it. The idea that Christians neglected the world was, on record, a myth. This life is indeed the place where we work out our destiny, but not without common sense and prudence. What we do for our neighbor is a central criterion of our transcendent life. In this sense, Christianity has a much more realistic and practical view of the world than any of its alternatives. It dealt with real people, not abstractions. It actually believes the world exists with its own order. It also maintains that the supernatural gifts of faith, hope, and charity are actually directed to what is often lacking in the natural order. Charity, in particular, is the most pressing need of actual people in the real world. We do not need, as the pope said at the end of Deus Caritas Est, just policies and programs run by civil bureaucrats.

Benedict uses a rather peculiar phrase when he speaks of the final fate of those who have caused serious evil in the world and whether they will ultimately have to answer for what they did. "Today, we are used to thinking: 'What is sin?'" the pope spells out the issue to the priests of Rome. "God is great; he understands us, so sin does not count; in the end God will be good toward all. It's a nice hope. But there is justice and there is real blame. Those who have destroyed man and the earth cannot sit immediately at the table of God, together with their victims." This passage in effect denies the idea that sin has no consequences and that all will be simply forgiven with no accounting on our part or on God's part. The passage does, as it must, leave open the door for repentance of even the most hardened sinner. But it by no means makes the great sins simply insignificant acts as many would like. There is "justice" and "real blame." They have to be acknowledged and accounted for.

What is the pope driving at here? He is definitely not affirming that everyone will be saved no matter what he does, repent or not. Rather, he is carving out the grounds upon which our understanding of natural and divine order must rest. The living and the dead will be judged according to their works and their intentions. This is a given found in the very heart of existence. There is also Purgatory, whereby those who repent are further purified before they can see God fully. But first there is judgment. We do not today like the word "judgment." It means ultimately that we are not the only ones who know and analyze with we do or do not do on an objective basis. A free act is not complete in its being and understanding until it is judged to be what it is.

Even from Plato, we have had to ask the question of whether the world was just or not. What was at stake was its very intelligibility. This concern for justice meant that we had to acknowledge the actual crimes and abuses of men in real time against their fellow men. We cannot "hurt" God, of course, but we can destroy or abuse those He loves, something perhaps even more dangerous. In general, we know and are told what is right and wrong. We are also warned against doing wrong. The Socratic principle upon which our civilization is built is that "it is never right to do wrong." Given a choice between dying and doing wrong, we prefer death as the lesser evil. The reason for the death itself defines the good it upholds.

If we think out of existence any notion of divine judgment on our acts, these acts simply go unrequited or, in the case of good acts, unrewarded. To give them credit, often the famous modern ideologues were horrified at the evil in the world and sought to eliminate and punish those who caused it. They assumed a divine prerogative. But in the processes, they ended up causing greater ills and crimes since their solutions did not conform to human nature. They supposed that they could use evil to do good. Thus, it is important to recognize that the judgment of God signifies that the right order is not to be tampered with. Sins and disorders will be judged and punished. Otherwise, no ultimate justice can be found. The world is, at bottom, unintelligible in its own terms.

Benedict, in conclusion, is fond of citing a passage from the Marxist philosopher Theodore Adorno. Admitting that he (Adorno) was not a believer, he recognized that the accumulation of unpunished sins (and unrewarded benefits), which is in fact the record of the actual world, logically leads to the notion of the resurrection of the body. For without this real presence of the real persons involved, the crimes of actual people, or the rewards of the good, could not be dealt with in any ultimate, personal sense. Thus, the doctrine of the judgment of God leads to the doctrine of the resurrection of the body, which is in fact the orthodox position in the matter, even though the resurrection of the body, as such, was simply God's ultimate granting to man what he was, a complete being of body and soul even in eternity.

How then, we might ask, is this doctrine of the judgment of God an answer to the Marxist charge that Christians are not concerned with this world? It is simply that Christians, by putting things in their right places, take the world much more seriously than do the Marxists. In including the judgment of God on their acts, they are, or should be, much more aware of how we are to deal with one another. The principles and standards do not, basically, change. And to return to the scientists and indeed to Islam, the judgment of God is not arbitrary. The kind of being we were created to be is the kind of being that ought to be in its completion.

The judgment of God is not merely the affirmation of God about His omniscience, but the reiteration of the fact that the creature that God made remains by far the better and more exciting reality in creation. We are free. We can choose to accept the gift of what we are, or to reject it. The judgment of God is simply the constant reminder that God intended us to be what we are, persons destined to eternal life, if we so choose.

Related IgnatiusInsight.com Articles, Excerpts, & Interviews:

Hell and the Bible | Piers Paul Read
The Brighter Side of Hell | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
Peace, Justice, Ecology: The "Substitutes" For God | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
Are God's Ways Fair? | Ralph Martin
Putting Things In Order | Father James V. Schall, S.J., on Eighty Years of Living, Thinking, and Believing
Secularity: On Benedict XVI and the Role of Religion in Society | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
The Temptation of the Earthly City: Tolkien's Augustinian Vision | Dr. Jose Yulo
The State Which Would Provide Everything | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
The Regensburg Lecture: Thinking Rightly About God and Man | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
The Two Most Important Philosophers Who Ever Lived | Peter Kreeft
Socrates Meets Sartre: In Hell? | Peter Kreeft
The Comprehensive Claim of Marxism | Peter Kreeft
Seducing Minds With The Socratic Method | An Interview with Peter Kreeft
Plato's Ring in the Sudan: How Freedom Begets Isolation of the Soul | Dr. Jose Yulo

Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown University.

He is the author of numerous books on social issues, spirituality, culture, and literature including Another Sort of Learning, Idylls and Rambles, A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning, The Life of the Mind (ISI, 2006) and The Sum Total of Human Happiness (St. Augustine's Press, 2007). His most recent book is The Order of Things (Ignatius Press, 2007).

Read more of his essays on his website.

Visit the Insight Scoop Blog and read the latest posts and comments by IgnatiusInsight.com staff and readers about current events, controversies, and news in the Church!


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