Will You Survive the “General Judgment”?
Is mankind in general judged at death? Or does judgment take place after resurrection?
THE “general judgment” has for centuries been a major theme for the sculptures on some of Christendom’s most noted churches. This scene appears, for example, over entrances of world-famed French cathedrals in Paris, Chartres, Rheims, Auxerre, Bourges and Autun, as well as over the doors of churches in many other places. Tens of thousands of visitors have walked under these sculptures without ever stopping to realize how they contradict a basic doctrine that is taught inside these very buildings.
A common “general judgment” scene shows the dead pushing off their tombstones and rising from their graves. Catholic authorities say that the judgment represented by these sculptures arrives “after the general resurrection.”1 Yet, inside these very churches people are told that their judgment occurs at the instant of their death.
One priest wrote: “At the instant of death, the soul appears before the judgment-seat of Christ,” either to be “forever excluded from God’s kingdom,” or to go to heaven or to purgatory.2 Another says that “at the very moment of death our soul will be established forever in a state of friendship or enmity with God, that is in happiness or eternal woe.”3
So, when does the judgment of the world of mankind in general occur: “At the very moment of death,” or “after the general resurrection”? If the world of mankind in general is judged immediately at death, and that judgment can be neither wrong nor changed, then why the “general judgment,” pictured on these churches?
Christendom’s theologians endeavor to explain this by saying that the “general judgment” is not really a judgment at all. Instead, they say it is merely a “confirmation” of the previous judgment, which permits everyone to “form a proper estimate of the good or bad actions of all.”4
But that is not what the Scriptures say. Rather than speaking of an individual judgment of each person immediately at his death, they speak of a “day” or period of time for the judgment of the majority of mankind during the coming 1,000-year reign of Jesus Christ. This is what Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ, said to the highest judicial court in Athens: “God . . . has set a day in which he purposes to judge the inhabited earth in righteousness by a man [Jesus Christ] whom he has appointed, and he has furnished a guarantee to all men in that he has resurrected him from the dead.”—Acts 17:30, 31.
SOUL NOT JUDGED AT DEATH
Actually, the “two judgment” problem arises from assuming that judgment occurs for mankind in general “at the instant of death.”5
The fact is that the Bible does not teach that “souls” immediately go on to spiritual life with God in heaven, there to be judged. While that statement may indeed shock many persons, the fact is that even leading religious authorities recognize that the Bible does not say that the soul is immortal and so lives on after the body’s death.
For example, the Roman Catholic Encyclopedia Dictionary of the Bible* says that the Hebrew word néfesh, which is translated “soul” in modern Bibles, actually refers to the person himself. It also says that the Old Testament “really gives no basis” for the idea that the soul “could exist apart from the body . . . after man’s death.” It says: “The expression nefes̆ mêt, which would literally be ‘a soul of a dead man,’ actually does not mean that, but it means ‘a dead man,’ i.e., a corpse.”—Column 2288.
This same religious dictionary says the Bible does not present death “as a separation of soul and body,” either in the “Old Testament” or in the “New Testament,” which “continues to use the traditional concepts of the OT [Old Testament] in this matter.”—Columns 532, 534.
THE DEAD “SLEEP”
Rather than teaching that mankind in general has an individual judgment immediately after death, the Bible indicates that the dead are dead. It says they are asleep, conscious of nothing at all, not knowing anything, but that they await the resurrection when they can stand up again to life. The Bible shows clearly that this is the state of the dead. Among numerous Biblical passages that deal with this subject, Ecclesiastes 9:5, 10 says: “For the living are conscious that they will die; but as for the dead, they are conscious of nothing at all . . . there is no work nor devising nor knowledge nor wisdom in Sheol, the place [of the dead] to which you are going.” This is why the Bible frequently speaks of the dead as “sleeping,” rather than as having already been “judged” and being in a place of rewards or punishments.—John 11:11.
Thus the scenes represented over the doors of Christendom’s ancient cathedrals may be closer to the Bible than what is taught inside. These sculptures show people rising from their tombs to be judged. “Souls” are not represented as coming out of “hell,” or down from heaven, to inhabit them. But after their judgment they are seen going to their reward. The Bible does not parallel the ancient Egyptian idea that “souls” could return to mummified bodies. But it does teach that the majority of dead mankind will be raised and given the opportunity to receive God’s everlasting blessings.
When will the sleeping dead of mankind in general be raised to be judged? The Bible, in its last book, gives the order in which the events leading up to this long-awaited resurrection will occur.
Christ’s heavenly second presence arrives, his kingdom having been established in heaven. (Rev. 12:1, 2, 5) Satan’s activity is confined to the vicinity of earth, where, in his anger, he causes unprecedented woes. (Rev. 12:7-12) The Lamb, Christ Jesus, standing in the royal position on the heavenly Mount Zion, is joined by his 144,000 co-judges “bought from among mankind as a first fruits to God and to the Lamb.” (Rev. 14:1-4) Next, demonic expressions lead the kings of the earth into open warfare against God. (Rev. 16:13-16) Christ, with his heavenly angels, goes to battle against them, hurls man-made systems into fiery destruction and slays the enemy armies and onhangers. (Rev. 19:11-21) After that, Satan himself is seized and bound, “that he might not mislead the nations any more.”—Rev. 20:1-4.
Liberated from the influence of Satan, his demons and their earthly cohorts, earth’s inhabitants then begin to enjoy grand blessings. The aged apostle John was granted a magnificent vision of this glorious change in earth’s leadership.
He wrote: “I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the former heaven and the former earth had passed away, and the sea [of distressed mankind, alienated from God] is no more.” By means of his Kingdom rule over the earth God himself will reside with men. “And he will wipe out every tear from their eyes, and death will be no more, neither will mourning nor outcry nor pain be any more. The former things have passed away.”—Rev. 21:1-4.
The earth will have been purged of wickedness, Satan and his demons will have been bound and hurled into the abyss. The righteous new conditions for which all God-fearing men have waited will have been established. These are the conditions for which all Christians have prayed when they have said to God: “Let your kingdom come. Let your will take place, as in heaven, also upon earth.”—Matt. 6:10.
Into these righteous conditions all those in the common grave of mankind will be resurrected. The Bible shows that this great judgment “day” (or period) will occur only after Satan is bound and Christ is seated on his “throne” during the 1,000 years of his Kingdom rule. Obviously this “day” will be longer than a mere twenty-four hours, since the Bible says that the judges rule “as kings with the Christ for a thousand years.” Such a long period will allow abundant time for the resurrection to occur in an orderly manner.—Rev. 20:4.
Mankind in general will then be judged according to their heart condition—according to their desire and willingness to do God’s will, and not according to whether they previously had opportunity to earn of that will or not. “Scrolls,” containing God’s instructions, will be opened, and all mankind will have the opportunity to know the “things written in the scrolls.” Everyone will be judged in accordance with his obedience to them.
All this is described in the apostle John’s great vision of the judgment day of mankind during Christ’s millennial rule. “And I saw a great white throne and the one seated on it [Jehovah God]. From before him the [present wicked] earth and the heaven fled away, and no place was found for them. And I saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne, and scrolls [containing God’s instructions] were opened. But another scroll was opened; it is the scroll of life. And the dead were judged out of those things written in the scrolls according to their deeds [according to their obedience to these instructions].”—Rev. 20:11, 12.
Only after their final testing when Satan is temporarily released after the end of Christ’s thousand-year kingdom, they finally “come to life” in the fullest sense. All those passing the final test will be granted the right to have everlasting life on a righteous, perfected earth. Only then will their names be permanently written in “the scroll of life.” This is why Revelation says of them: “The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended.”—Rev. 20:5.
This is the “everlasting life” for which Christians hope. It is life without end on a paradise earth, cultivated to the perfection God originally purposed for this jewellike creation.
So the Bible does not teach an individual judgment of the world of mankind in general immediately after death. Instead, it teaches the general judgment of the majority of mankind during Christ’s thousand-year reign, when resurrected mankind will be taught God’s will and will have the opportunity of conforming to it to receive everlasting life.
How can you prepare now to have your name written in the “scroll of life”? By studying God’s Word, and living by it. Cultivate a personality that is receptive to God’s instructions. (Col. 3:5-14) Form the habit of willingly obeying them. Developing such an obedient life pattern now will aid you to conform to the instructions God will give during the thousand-year reign of Jesus Christ. It will help you to receive God’s blessings, survive the final testing, and gain everlasting life in the perfected earth. Nothing could be of greater value than to have your name finally “written in the book of life” after the end of Christ’s thousand-year reign.—Rev. 20:15.
But to be privileged to live on earth during that judgment day for mankind in general and thereafter, it is urgent that you learn and do God’s will at the present time. By doing this you will be in line to survive an early execution of divine judgment upon this wicked system of things, now so near at hand. Are you taking the steps necessary to survive, first the end of this system of things, and then the “general judgment”? The answer to that question depends on the life pattern you are forming now.
1 Dictionnaire de la Bible, F. Vigouroux (Paris; 1903), Vol. 3, cols. 1837, 1839.
2 Encyclopedie Théologique, Migne (Petit-Montrouge, France; 1850), Vol. 35, book 1, col. 126.
3 Dictionnaire Pratique des Connaissances Religieuses, J. Bricout (Paris; 1927), Vol. 2, col. 203.
4 Catholic Encyclopedia (New York; 1910), Vol. 8, p. 552.
5 La Fin du Monde, Lavergne (Paris; 1941), p. 12.
Originally published in the Netherlands as Bijbels Woordenboek by A. van den Born, and translated into English by Louis F. Hartman, Executive Secretary of the Catholic Biblical Association of America (New York; 1963).
[Picture on page 453]
Closeup view of Judgment scene over central door of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris