“…and He shall come again with glory to judge the living and the dead; Whose Kingdom shall have no end.”
The scripture readings at a funeral are these:
The Epistle (I Thessalonians 4: 13-17) – Brethren, we would not have you ignorant, brethren, concerning those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, shall not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first; then we who are alive, who are left, shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air; and so we shall always be with the Lord.
The Gospel (John 5: 24-30) – Truly, truly, I say to you, the hour is coming, and now is, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live. For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself, and has given him authority to execute judgment, because he is the Son of man. Do not marvel at this; for the hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come forth, those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of judgment. “I can do nothing on my own authority; as I hear, I judge; and my judgment is just, because I seek not my own will but the will of him who sent me.
Both of these passages refer, in the first instance, to the resurrection of the dead which will take place at the end of time when Christ comes from heaven to judge the living and the dead. This will be the Last Judgement when our place for all eternity will be given us. However, they also refer to the end of our own lives. John 4:25 tell us “…the hour is coming, and now is, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.” And John 5:24 tells us that we have “… passed from death to life.” In other words, at our baptism, by going down into the water three times and coming up three times, we have become participants in Christ’s death and resurrection. In a sense, our resurrection at the end of time is the last part of a process which began at our baptism.
Although our final destiny for eternity will not be finally decided until the Last Judgement, we have a foretaste of heaven or hell after our death, when the particular judgement takes place. As in the Letter to the Hebrews says “And just as it is appointed for men to die once, and after that comes judgment” (Heb 9:27). Incidentally, in saying that it is appointed for human beings to die once, the Bible excludes the idea of many lives, i.e., reincarnation. Although some fringe groups in Christianity seem to have believed in reincarnation in some form, it has never been accepted by the church as a whole. The Bible describes the Last Judgement in Matthew 25: 31-46:
“… He will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other. “From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see all these things, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away till all these things take place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. “But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only. As were the days of Noah, so will be the coming of the Son of man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and they did not know until the flood came and swept them all away, so will be the coming of the Son of man. Then two men will be in the field; one is taken and one is left. Two women will be grinding at the mill; one is taken and one is left. Watch therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But know this, that if the householder had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have watched and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready; for the Son of man is coming at an hour you do not expect. “Who then is the faithful and wise servant, whom his master has set over his household, to give them their food at the proper time? Blessed is that servant whom his master when he comes will find so doing.”
This Gospel is read on Meatfare Sunday, the second Sunday before Great Lent. It makes clear that we all face judgement and that it will be based on the practical help and charity which we have offered to those in need. Have we fed the hungry, clothed the naked and visited those who are sick or in prison? We should note that Christ will not judge us on how ‘religious’ we were during life. Christ will not ask us how many church services we have attended or how strictly we fasted. Does this mean we do not have to practice our faith? No, because we know how difficult it often is to help people. Helping people often seems beyond our strength. It is the grace that we receive through practicing our faith that gives us the strength we need.
We have to remember that God loves us and He never wavers from that love. What is hell then? Hell is a willful, intentional turning away from God and other people. God loves us, but he respects our freedom also. He will not force us to love him. If we choose to turn our backs to God, He regretfully accepts this.
When we read these parables of judgement it may seem impossible for us to live up to them. However, as Christ says: “With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” (Mt 19:26)
But the point is, we will not be judge by some distant God far away from us, but by God who became a human being to save us. That is, Jesus Christ. Jesus was genuinely human (and genuinely God) and He knows what it is to be tempted. The Letter to the Hebrews says: “For because he himself has suffered and been tempted, he is able to help those who are tempted.” (Heb 2:18) and “For we have not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” (Heb 4:15).
Although Christ never sinned, He knew that temptation that human beings face and will judge us on this basis. The Kingdom that Christ will establish at the end of time is an everlasting kingdom. There is no kingdom ‘higher’ or ‘beyond’ Christ’s kingdom. But life in the kingdom will not be a static life. The process began at our baptism will continue for all eternity as we grow further and further in God’s love and God’s life.