Good Questions: Is there a Judgment Day? Is Purgatory Real?

Reflections from Dr. Howell

We’ve spoken of death and the tantalizing possibilities of a glorious eternal life. But is there a pause between the two, a stopping off in God’s courtroom where you tremble, wondering if you’ve passed muster? The Bible drops plenty of hints, and offers dozens of clear indicators that there is a Day of Judgment when all will be held accountable for their lives, from nations to individuals. I had a go at this in my sermon on Oct. 16.

Chipper, cynical, fun-loving modern people treat this idea as if it’s some fossil from our primitive religious past. Steve Martin, humorously I think, asks “Wouldn’t it be funny if you woke up in heaven? Pearly gates? Oh no… In college they said this was all BS. What? You’ve been keeping records on me?” But don’t we desperately hope that there is an accountability at the end of the day, that child abusers and cheats and murderers and swindlers don’t just get off? Don’t we need justice to make sense of the world? And of our own lives?

The Bible expects us to shiver over the prospect of final judgment – coupled with the hope that we’ll take God seriously now, that we’ll come before God toting suitcases of the good we’ve tried to do. I wonder, if we believe there’s a judgment, if we misconstrue the scene, as if I’m the accused, and God is the judge, sorting through evidence to see if I have enough stuff for a happy sentencing. We will be judged, not by the standards of some legal system, but by the personal, living God, the God who’s rooting harder than we are for acquittal, the God who is also the defense attorney, the God who is our best witness, pleading for and enacting mercy.

Accountability matters. Full disclosure matters; all secrets will be revealed. I love Gerhard Lohfink’s insightful vision of final judgment: “When we encounter God in death, we will for the first time recognize with full clarity who we really are. God will have no need to sit in judgment on us, to harangue us. In our encounter with the holy God our eyes will be opened to behold our own selves. We ourselves will judge and condemn the evil in ourselves…” He adds that those we’ve hurt or not helped may also stand before us and stare – becoming our judges! My knees buckle at such the prospect of such an “encounter with the truth about God, about others, about the world, and about ourselves.” But Lohfink says we should rejoice, because as Jesus said “You shall know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

How? God’s judgment is all mercy. We will see what all is being forgiven – which will be not so much a relief but a great joy, this kind of deep realization of “What wondrous love is this.” God’s mercy then will work its judgment that is purification, and healing. Do you really just want to go to heaven? or to prepare diligently and put on your Sunday best before you enter?

Catholics allow for a season of purging and preparation after death but before heaven. Is Purgatory real? I don’t think I think so – but who could know? C.S. Lewis, not Catholic himself, wrote that “Our souls demand Purgatory, don’t they? Would it not break the heart if God said to us, ‘It is true, my son, that your breath smells and your rags drip with mud, but we are charitable here and no you will upbraid you with these things, nor draw away from you. Enter into the joy’? Should we not reply, ‘With submission, sir, and if there is no objection, I’d rather be cleaned first.’ ‘It may hurt, you know.’ ‘Even so, sir.’”

So the hope is that it’s not that at the end of this life, you’re done, and that’s what passes into eternity. There’s more grace, considerable healing, much transformation. And we have the historic Good Question: How old will we be in heaven? Will a 7 year old who died far too young still be 7? Will the 93 year old be 93? The classic theological answer is that we will be 33. And why? Jesus was 33 when he died and was raised – and we will be like him. But will age really be a thing in eternity?

One last thing. Judgment will be not just of individuals, but whole peoples, and nations. In the Old Testament (something echoed in the New!), we see God putting the great powers, Assyria, Babylon, Rome, and even Israel itself, in their place. There will be no stars and stripes flying on the ramparts of heaven. All earthly powers will have been judged as fallen far short of their own promises, and of God’s kingdom. All borders and dividers will be no more – something all the individuals will need then, as they strangely enough need now, to flourish.