The last judgement takes place on the first page of the Bible: ‘in the beginning,’ speaking of the creation, ‘God saw that it was good… God saw that it was very good.’ (Genesis 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 24, and 31 (‘very good’). God’s judgement that creation is good is a refrain that echoes throughout the first chapter of Genesis.
The Hebrew word ‘tov’ is full of rich meaning. The meanings of ‘tov’ include ‘righteous’ and ‘right’ as well as ‘fitting’ and ‘beautiful’. ‘Good’ is a good translation of ‘tov’ if we hold in our minds both moral and aesthetic goodness.
God’s judgement is that what God has made is morally and aesthetically very good.
Michelangelo’s great painting gives us a picture of a ‘last judgement’ taking place at the end of time, with the righteous received into heaven and the wicked being cast out of Christ’s presence. [See below.] It is a powerful but misleading metaphor. The ‘last judgement’ in the New Testament is not so much an apocalyptic judgement at the end of time as the revelations of the ultimate judgement. The Latin word ‘ultimus’ means both ‘last’ and ‘ultimate’. Ultimately, the wicked are never close to Jesus, the good always proceed from his presence.
Jesus’ imagery of sheep and goats show what has been right and beautiful from the beginning to the end of time. It is always good to feed the hungry; it is always good to visit the sick and imprisoned; it is always good to clothe the naked. It is always bad not to (Matthew 25:31-46). It is always wrong and ugly to refuse to give to those in need.
My Grandad once sat me down on a pew in our little bush church and admonished me that God is judging me now as he always will right until I stand before God at the end of time. (I must have been naughty to get that lecture!) I don’t remember Grandad telling me, that, in the end, God’s judgement of me is that I am good; I am very good.
The good news is not some version of Father Christmas where the good will get their presents and those who have been naughty will miss out. The Last Judgement as described in the Bible is far more serious than that. The Judgement is that God’s world ultimately reflects the nature of God, God’s goodness in the richest sense of the word (Genesis 1:27). In the end nothing can extinguish that light (John 1:5).
The baby Jesus embodies the Last Judgement. Despite his poverty, homelessness and human vulnerability, Mary and Joseph, shepherds and magi are judged by the infant Jesus. He brings out their goodness. The death of Jesus spotlights human cruelty, greed, jealousy and fear. It shows them for what they are, and that evil cannot stand against the love that flows from God’s goodness.
The Ultimate Judgement is for all time: goodness was the judgement in the beginning, we judge the present by the standard of God’s goodness, and goodness will be the criterion until the end of time. It is a judgement not of punishment, but of grace. Our response is not fear, but joy.
In the New Testament, resurrection is key. Its light transforms all the life described there, placing all things under its spotlight, and revealing the extent of God’s love for us.
Without shadows, it is hard to see death in its full harshness. It’s there, of course: the young man at Nain, Lazarus, Jairus’ daughter, are all stone-cold dead. Lazarus has been dead for so many days that there’s a stench. Jairus has brought in the professional mourners. The townsfolk of Nain are already wondering what will happen to the bereaved widow without a man to belong to. (Luke 7:11, John 11:39, Mark 5:38.)
The New Testament depicts death as final and irreversible. Lazarus is not sleeping. Jesus told the disciples plainly, “Lazarus has died.”’ (John 11:14)
A humorous old spiritual, The Deacon Went Down to the Cellar to Pray, has a chorus which claims ‘You can’t get to heaven on roller-skates, You’ll go right past them pearly gates.” Underneath the humour there’s a serious point: If you fail to take death seriously enough, you’ll miss out on the resurrection.
Despite popular culture’s love-affair with murders, we are reluctant to talk seriously about death. Our unexamined fear of death makes Western society especially vulnerable to, say, Al-Qaeda’s acts of terror.
At Christmas-time when absence scratches at people’s wound of loss, our unfamiliarity with death prevents us from providing comfort and community to the bereaved.
Death has the last word. We are the stronger for facing its power. Classics like Bishop Jeremy Taylor’s Holy Dying admonish Christians to face death full on as a powerful way of growing spiritually. It’s not good enough to say that we will be raised with Christ. First, we die. We must experience the reality of death: no-one escapes it.
Eugène Ionesco’s play, Exit the King, is a powerful meditation on death. The King comes to realise that the whole world dies when he dies. Trees, people, stars, the universe, all disappear with me, me! he complains. Each death is indeed an appalling loss. Each individual is of cosmic worth, and her or his unique talents and personality are plundered from the world at death. All ceases to exist when we die.
As Christians, we shout, ‘Death may have the last word, but God has the last last word!’ God reached into the tomb where Lazarus’ earthly remains were starting to rot, and brought him back to the world of the living. Jesus himself was dead and buried: gone from existence. Yet God called Jesus back into existence so triumphantly that the raising of Jesus is a guarantee that, if we stick with him, we too will be called back into life (I Thessalonians 4:14), a life that is even more glorious than this life.
Believing in resurrection is not enough. It’s like being sure that Houdini will escape from the water-tank. Of course, he will: that’s the nature of illusions. But our dying is real, not an illusion. Jesus, like us, was born to die, and it is only in the spiritually-bracing acceptance of death, death as final act, that we can open to the possibility of being raised from the dead.
‘Twenty thousand kilometres; two thousand dollars.’
Like us, the signorain the pensionehad travelled to Assisi for Christmas. Her annual highlight was driving herself 60 kilometres. She had never been further from home than her annual trip south.
She kept wondering aloud in Italian the statistics of our journey:
‘Venti mila chilometri, duemila dollari.Venti mila chilometri, duemila dollari.’
The world is a big place, and our overnight flight from Perth to Italy had disguised how huge the distance to Assisi is. It is, as for our friend the signora, a cause of wonder.
Scientists tell us there are 300 billion stars in our Milky Way galaxy. The size of one star, one sun is hard to imagine. The trip from Perth to Assisi would take only a fraction of the sun’s circumference. 300 stars are hard enough to imagine, but 300 billion… Then, astronomers estimate, there are between 100 billion and 200 billion galaxies. How many stars there must be. My digital calculator puts it at 4.5e16 stars. The number is meaningless, staggering in its scope.
Many scientists then tell us that our universe may be one only of an infinite procession of universes, coming in and out of existence at a fantastic rate. At this point, I’ve lost the power of imagination completely. The best I can do is stand outside and gaze at the night sky. I see red Mars, 10 years of rapid travel away. I see bright Southern Cross 350 years ago, its light just now reaching me, light that started on its journey when Charles II finally became king and the 1662 Prayer Book was promulgated.
This colossal creation can be a starting point in our journey searching for heaven. No, I am not suggesting that heaven is a place, perhaps hiding behind one of Saturn’s moons or in a 10-lightyear distant galaxy! But such a startling and amazing universe can flex our sense of wonder. Like the signoraat Assisi, we can contemplate over and over the complex and awe-inspiring cosmos of which we are part, and yield to wonder.
This is the universe our God is creating. Spectacular and lovely. A Creator God of such power has intentions. He has an agenda that his beautiful universe should more and more reflect God’s own qualities of love and goodness.
And if God is prepared to pour Godself into the making of such a spectacular and lovely universe, we can begin to imagine how wonderful are God’s intentions for you and me: to be more and more the love, goodness and beauty we discern in the physical universe. In fact, God promises it. God promises that we shall see face to face. (I Corinthians 13:12) God promises that his agenda for us is better, more delightful, more caring than anything we can imagine, just as his universe is more than we can imagine (I Corinthians 2:9)
Ventimilachilometri, 300 billion stars, God of a wondrous universe. Let us find heaven in our wonder.
Give no gifts this Christmas.
Explain to your family that you are using your economic power to help the poorest by giving no gifts. Often, the gifts we give are useless or unwanted.
Instead, make gifts or cards which are much more personal.
Join the Advent conspiracy
Give Christmas gifts directly to the poor by buying presents through Oxfam Unwrapped, Christian Blind Mission Gifts of Life or the Tear Fund.