JUSTICE AND MICHELANGELO'S LAST JUDGMENT
The role of Christ as the final decider
Atricle by Rev. Dr. Daniel Patrick Francis Rice
People say they don’t like to talk about this subject, but they actually do.
We talk about it, or refer to the idea of a Final Judgment all the time. You will get some complaints that studying a painting dedicated to the doctrine of damnation is morbid and frightening, but the culminating doctrine of the Last Judgment offers "thinkers" both interesting instruction by addresses serious contemporary topics like justice, and strangely enough, comfort.
Western Art is full of depictions of the Last Judgment, some of which are tremendous and hugely famous, such as Hans Memling’s Last Judgment, a triptych of stunning artistic imagination and power; Roger van der Weyden’s polyptych depicting Christ seated above an angel weighing the souls of humans on the scales of judgment, and of course, Michelangelo’s giant depiction on the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel - a radical departure from earlier artists.
For the sake of the discussion let us talk about the topic of the Last Judgment as if it is a fact and not merely a theological idea or viewed through the lens of agnostic doubt.
Among other things, the Last Judgment itself, as a coming invincible reality, is necessary, not only for the punishment of the sins, the devil, and evil doers, but to demonstrate that God cares about matters of justice, and that every evil done under the sun will be paid for.
It tells us that God himself will require of us an accounting of the deeds done in this life, in this body, and he will demand a justification for how we treated one another.
All will be judged; the great, the small, the rich, the poor, the powerful, the powerless, the doubters and the religious too. The one inexorable fact is, all will be judged, which includes you and me.
If this is true, then this subject must surely be the most important subject of our lives; the one we cannot escape facing. And, if it is not true, then the topic alone evokes in us considerations about the right and the wrong of our doings, of our ethical behaviors, our humanitarian treatment of others, our honesty in business, and issues of the exploitation of others, and so on and so forth.
So, in every way THIS is a theme that poses vital and relevant questions to each one of us. Vis. “Are you living the kind of life that will keep you out of the worst kinds of troubles in the end?” - and - “If your life was measured in a balance today, would you ascend to the world of bliss or would you descent into unending regret and torment?” If for no other reason the idea of the Last Judgment is brilliant, because it echoes our own innate sense that justice and injustice exist.
We FEEL this deep within our guts.
Justice must exist, or else this world would be only a freakish nightmare of absurdity for those who suffer. And, because be believe justice exists, it is not enough to simply recognize the difference between them in some detached philosophical sense, but something must be done about injustice; no matter how long it takes to address — and that reckoning must be sufficient to at least balance the scales, if not tip them in favor of those who suffered for moral and spiritual uprightness.
We feel that those who have committed injustices must be “brought to justice” in the end, and they must be punished for their wrong doings, not just slapped on the hand or scolded. We feel that a sublime and transcendent judgment and not merely an emotional angry reaction should have the final say in the lives of offenders.
This is a very big topic indeed, but it is this assurance, in the Bible, that evil will be dealt with, that tyranny at last will be swept away, that wrongs will be made right, that those who suffer will be comforted, that those who have been persecuted for righteousness sake will be vindicated, exonerated and rewarded. All of our concerns and much more is addressed in the topic of The Last Judgment.
With regard to Michelangelo’s depiction of the Last Judgment, I have a larger lecture about this work - a work which I have seen numerous time in person and studied for many years. There is far more that could be said than these next few words.
The following is important to note, observe.
First, note that this is the altar wall and in front of it is the Eucharistic table, the place where the faithful, through faith in Christ, receive the Body and Blood of the Lord as they celebrate his death until he returns. This is a posture of existential immediacy as well as a consciousness of the past and an eschatological anticipation of the future. It is the place where human beings stand with the risen Christ in the midst of the stream of history, anticipating the culmination of the vast prophetic corpus of scripture.
Second, Christ himself is the Great Judge on that day. Note how He is no longer seated at the right hand of the Father, but rises from his throne to bring an end to the old order and signal the beginning of the new.
His physique is Herculean in mass and power. He is in motion. He is taking action. You can feel the sweeping dramatic power of his movements. Energy emanates from his being. All of his divine faculties are being brought to bare, and the entire realm of humankind responds. Every soul is brought under his control.
See how he, with his right hand, draws the righteous-dead from their graves into heaven, and with the other hand, his left, he casts the wicked into hell. Angles assist those who rise, and devils drag the terrified wicked into hell.
How is it that the "Lowly Jesus" of the New Testament can be the harbinger of the apocalyptic end of all things? There is a profound reality at work here, and this is part of it . . . It is not some distant God who judges mankind from an aloof position. No, it is one of our own.
It is a man, who knew personally what it means to be human, to suffer injustices of the worst sort, who knows hunger and thirst, longing and disappointment, temptation and agony, rejection and sorrow. It is a human being who is the judge of us, because only a human being can bear perfect testimony to the experiences we all know so intimately as humans.
He not only walked a mile in our shoes, he walked an entire lifetime in our skin, and whatever anyone may say about God being guilty for the suffering of the world Christ took the judgment against God and bore the accusation - he took responsibility - he took the blame, both human blame against God, and God’s judgment against mankind. He bore both judgments on the Cross. That is why he is the perfect advocate and mediator of humankind before God, and it is why he is the perfect representation of the "righteous demands of God," to the human race.
He not only represents God to Mankind but Mankind to God as well.
How can he do this, because, as the Creeds tell us, He was perfectly God and perfectly human. It is the mystery of his incarnation that is the hinge on which the ancient, hidden, secret, plan of salvation moves.
Why is this significant? Because only one who has been a human being is fit to speak for the experiences of other human beings — because his testimony will be “personal” and closest to the truth of the matter.
Christ “must” judge humankind because, “legally” and “ethically” his testimony would be the most reliable. He “knows” what it means to be human. His humanity qualifies him to speak on behalf of human beings. His testimony will be true, because he is a true witness of the human condition.
Look closer - see how Mary turns away from Him in that terrible moment.
This is not a repudiation of Mary - not at all. It is merely showing that even she cannot look upon Him - she turns her face away - nor does it appear she is interceding for anyone in this hour. The judgment belongs to Christ and to Christ alone.
Michelangelo worked out this arrangement with the help of his dear friend Vittoria Colona, who told him, "Honor Mary in this composition, but don't venerate her." That would have been inappropriate in Christ's hour of judgment - and I believe she was right to advise such. In the end, Michelangelo took her advice and both honors Mary, but gives the final word to Christ, as it should be; as it will doubtless be.
This is, in fact, the crux of the Apostles teaching. The Father has committed all judgment into the hands of the Son of Man.
Christ is both Son of God and Son of Man - and just as he was partaker of human flesh and blood, so the plan is that we should become partakers in his resurrection from the dead. He is the door that swings open in both directions.
Christ is, according to his own words, the only door. This should give us hope --- that there IS a door. And "that" is the judgment against us . . . that we prefer another door, a different door, a door of our own choosing. The humble heart will rejoice in that at door has been made for us. The proud will resent that they had no choice in that determination.
And this is the entire point. Christ has offered us a way, because He IS that way; and because he is the way itself, he is also the judge of those who refuse to advantage themselves of they Way he has provided.
So - what is Christ judging?
He is judging between those who have chosen righteousness and those who demand to go their own way. That means, he is judging between those who have chosen to be conformed to his likeness and those who demand to to have a relationship with God on their own terms - a private and convenient spirituality of their own making.
These become their own god, as it were, bowing to no one, judging what is right and wrong for themselves, advantaging themselves over others, seeking their own will and way, living life according to their own desires, giving no thought to the consequences of their actions, caring only for themselves and not their neighbor, living self-centered, selfish, self-aggrandizing, self-benefiting lives. These are they who reject the Lordship of Christ. They love baby Jesus, but despise the very notion of the risen sovereign Lord of all. They love his morals and his healing touch, but they reject the notion of personal responsibility to be obedient to everything this taught us.
Let us be clear that injustice is not a mysterious “thing” that just "happens" to people, randomly, or accidentally. Evil and injustice are what WE do to one another.
Why do we act this way? Because we want our own way. We are selfish. We are self-absorbed, we are motivated by self-advantage, greed, lust, fear, anger, gluttony, pride, envy, sloth and ambivalence toward the “good,” a denial of the evil we ourselves commit, and the failure to rightful care for and celebrate our neighbor. We refuse to be our brother’s keeper and trample them under our feet by what we do - and by what we fail to do. We are all guilty of this kind of behavior.
So in brief, I will let you unpack what Michelangelo is depicting in this fresco for yourself, the point is, we will all give an account before Christ of how we live and why we have done or not done with this gift of life we’ve received. The bottom like is this. Christ cares about justice, and he will have it! In the end he will settle the scores, and he, not us, will do it perfectly. There will be no collateral damage. Every soul will be placed where it rightfully belongs, without exception.
If any of this is true, then what manner of people ought we to be?
I encourage all to come to Christ, the ruler and judge of all. You will find he provides you with his transforming mercy that will make you like him. Confess and forsake your sins, invite Christ into your life. If you do, you will begin the journey from the realm of those whose hearts are darkened to the state of being that none can enter but the pure in heart. It is called, The Kingdom of Heaven.