Becoming Catholic #7: The Day of Judgment, and Works, Part 1

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The “Becoming Catholic” blog series is a multi-part, multi-year, bite-size, fact-focused attempt at describing the journey of a lifelong protestant to the Catholic Church.  You can read all the individual articles here.

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Many years before I even consciously considered becoming Catholic, I had many questions about the broadly protestant theologies I was exposed to and took for granted.  As long as I can remember, I’ve always deeply cared about my faith.  I never had a “rebellious” phase where I outright rejected the faith.  As a kid, I was always known to take my faith seriously, and that has continued into my adult life.

Thus, reading and deeply studying the Bible was common for me.  As early as the 6th grade, I was reading Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology, and buying study Bibles by men like John MacArthur and R.C. Sproul, and also others such as the Geneva Study Bible.  Either in my late teens or early 20’s (I honestly don’t remember), I purchased all of Calvin’s Commentaries, a multi-volume set of Charles Spurgeon’s Sermons, and had read a decent amount of Luther.  I wanted to know what men I considered great at the time thought about Scripture.

But despite my efforts, I simply could not understand how some of the protestant theologies I was exposed to were compatible with the Bible.  While there were many such topics, I’ll begin with one big one: the idea of salvation “by faith alone.” 

I will not directly, let alone comprehensively, address that topic here, as it is enormous.  But suffice it to say that no matter how many explanations I heard of this “doctrine,” it all amounted, in one way or another, to the idea that works play no role in whether we go to Heaven or Hell. 

The range of opinions on this are immense within protestantism.  Some extremist sects will say you can be saved by “faith alone,” commit as many sins of any variety, and still go to Heaven.  Others (such as the Reformed position) assert that this faith is a “living faith,” and thus is always accompanied by good works—but that these works are not, themselves, meritorious, or in any way determinative of our ultimate destiny.

But throughout my life, no matter how often it was explained to be (by people, or by books), this idea seemed to be flatly contradicted by the Bible—not once or twice, but frequently, and persistently.  The reason I believed this was simple: every single time the Day of Judgment comes up, our works—what we did—is directly referred to as the basis of God’s judgment.  Not once is it otherwise. 

This played into what I can only say was my perception of a fundamental incompatibility between Jesus and Paul within a protestant theological framework.  Many protestants claim there is no such discontinuity.  But after years of study, and simply reading the Bible, I could never conclude that was true.  Either Jesus was wrong (impossible), Paul was wrong (again, impossible), or protestantism fundamentally misinterpreted both of them.  It is no accident that many contemporary protestant scholars are re-evaluating everything protestants have believed about Paul, and many have even said what has been obvious to many for a long time: Paul wasn’t wrong; Luther was wrong—about Paul.

But that is for other posts in the future.  This post is dedicated to one particularly narrow goal: namely, an overall look at the biblical data on the Day of Judgment, and the importance of deeds in the verdict rendered thereupon.

In these next few posts, I’d like to simply present the biblical data—with minimal commentary—that, even as a teenager constantly caused my eyebrows to rise given what I had been taught about being saved by “faith alone.”  That data is consistent, clear, and pervasive—our deeds matter to our eternal destiny.  In this first part, I will focus on verses from the Gospels of Matthew and Mark.

(A quick side note: many people have a very poor understanding of what the Catholic Church means when it says “works” with respect to ultimate salvation.  Again, this topic will not be covered here, but suffice it to say that if you have never examined the Church’s teachings on this matter, you are virtually guaranteed to not understand them—caricatures abound.)

But one final note.

The “First Century Peasant Test”

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I’ve had a principle for interpreting the Bible I’ve developed over many years that is relevant to this issue.  I call it the “First Century Peasant Test.”  Others would simply call it the “plain meaning” rule, so I don’t claim I’m being particularly unique with this.  But I prefer “first century peasant” because it is more visual, and focuses on the lived reality of Jesus’ teachings, and the original audiences who heard them.

What it means is this: the vast majority of the people addressed by Jesus and the Apostles were first century peasants—hence the name of the test.  Being such a peasant meant you were not formally educated, you probably could not read, and you probably could not write.  Such has been the condition of the vast majority of Christians throughout history.  Thus, there is a sense in which the plain, straightforward meaning of Scripture—the sense in which a simple, uneducated person from that time would take it—must play an important role in how we interpret it.

On the other hand, I believe Scripture is infinitely deep.  The “First Century Peasant Test” is the shallow end of the pool—but that does not mean there isn’t a deep end as well.

Nonetheless, they are part of the same pool.  Thus, generally speaking, I tend to approach the Bible assuming that its deeper sense is an elaboration, an expansion of what the plain meaning would suggest—but again, the plain meaning as it would’ve been understood by the original audience, not 21st century Americans.

How is this relevant to the apparent importance of works in every mention of the Day of Judgment?  Precisely because I believe many protestants try to use their own sense of the “deeper” meaning of the Bible to obfuscate and get around the utterly plain meaning of the words as received by the original audience (a great irony, given that many of the early protestants claimed that Scripture was clear enough—because it was plain enough—to be understood by anyone, educated or not).

Thus, when a first century peasant hears that those who do evil go to Hell, and those who do good go to Heaven, he takes it to mean precisely that.  No amount of theological sophistry can get around this.  Jesus, the Apostles, etc. were not trying to fool people.  Now, the “deeper” end of the pool can certainly greatly increase our understanding of this plain meaning by leaps and bounds.  I am not denying that.  What I am denying, however—especially against those who claim the Scripture is clear enough to be understood by the average person—is that the plain meaning to the average “peasant” cannot be dismissed; and when analyzing the consistent, pervasive, and clear importance that works plays in every mention of the Day of Judgment, creating a theology where works play no role in that final verdict is an exercise in absurdity.  And if works play a role in the final verdict on our lives, then “faith alone,” of any variety, becomes untenable.

Without further ado, let us see how the Gospels of Matthew and Mark deal with this issue.

Matthew 5 and Mark 9: Better Red than Dead

The first example comes from Matthew 5, and its corollary in Mark 9.  Matthew 5 naturally marks the beginning of Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount,” which is full of extraordinarily strong language on the importance of behavior to eternal destiny.  Beginning at verse 29, Jesus uses a famous, and strong metaphor to illustrate the essential connection between behavior and our ultimate destiny:

29 If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell. [Matt. 5:29-30]

The same story is recorded in Mark 9, again, strongly implying that committing sin causes you to end up in Hell:

43 And if your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life crippled than with two hands to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. 45 And if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off. It is better for you to enter life lame than with two feet to be thrown into hell. 47 And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into hell, 48 ‘where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched.’ [Mark 9:43-48]

Again, while Jesus is clearly using metaphorical language, the point cannot be missed: behavior plays a pivotal role in our eternal destiny.

Matthew 7: The Narrow Gate

Jesus continues this theme in Matthew 7, where He speaks about the “narrow gate”:

13 “Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. 14 For the gate is narrow and the way shard that leads to life, and those who find it are few. 15 “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep's clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. 16 You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thorn bushes, or figs from thistles? 17 So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. 18 A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. 19 Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. 20 Thus you will recognize them by their fruits. 21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ 23 And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’ [Matt. 7:13-23]

Jesus explicitly declares that only those trees that produce good fruit shall enter the kingdom of Heaven.  As for those sent to Hell, Jesus doesn’t say they all produced bad fruit, but that some merely produced no fruit.  While the exact meaning of “fruit” is not entirely clear from this passage alone, other places of Scripture imply that at the very least, it includes righteous deeds and a life of repentance.

Matthew 12: Every Word

In Matthew 12, Jesus again asserts that our works—in this case, every word we speak—will be judged (a proceeding He already made clear affected eternal destiny):

35 The good person out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure brings forth evil. 36 I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, 37 for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.” [Matt. 12:35-37]

Matthew 13: Sin and Lawbreakers

He is more specific in Matthew 13, specifying that judgment will be executed on “all causes of sin and all lawbreakers”:

40 Just as the weeds are gathered and burned with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. 41 The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all lawbreakers, 42 and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 43 Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears, let him hear. [Matt. 13:40-43]

Quick side note: Jesus clearly says “his kingdom” will contain “sin” and “lawbreakers,” both of which will go to Hell.  Thus, the Calvinistic presumption that “the church” are those predestined from eternity to be saved cannot be true, based on this and many other verses.  Many Church Fathers talk about this being a fundamental reality of the Church’s pilgrimage on earth—it (yes, the one true Church) is full of sinners who will one day be in Hell, just as much as it is full of saints who will one day be in Heaven. 

But I digress…

Matthew 18: Better Cost than Lost

In Matthew 18, Jesus again uses the metaphor of entering Heaven maimed in order to avoid Hell as He did in Matthew 5/Mark 9:

7 “Woe to the world for temptations to sin! For it is necessary that temptations come, but woe to the one by whom the temptation comes! 8 And if your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life crippled or lame than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the eternal fire. 9 And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into the hell of fire. [Matt. 18:7-9]

Conclusion

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In all these examples, straight from the mouth of Jesus, our behavior, our actions, our deeds, play a crucial role in our eternal destiny.  The Day of Judgment is a day on which our deeds—yes, our works—will be judged, and Heaven or Hell will be the terminus point of those deeds.

Is that the entirety of what the Bible or the Catholic Church teaches?  No.  But for this particular “series within a series” of Becoming Catholic, I am simply trying to show how frequent, and how strong are the connections between deeds, the Day of Judgment, and our eternal destiny throughout the Bible—specifically in the words of Jesus and the Apostles. 

Ever since I’ve been a Christian, these examples always caused me great consternation—they do so still.  I cannot get around Jesus’ words: my deeds are inextricably linked with the Day of Judgment, upon whose outcome I will enter eternal paradise, or eternal damnation.  Either Jesus is right, or “faith alone” is wrong.  He could not be clearer—first century peasants could not have been in doubt as to what He was saying, nor can we.

And we’re not even done with Matthew.

RESOURCES

You can access my conversion story, as well as the writings of the Church Fathers (purchased and free) at the following links:

(1) My Conversion Story (podcast)

(2) Heart, Mind, and Soul: Intellectuals and the Path to Rome (Chapter 7 features my Conversion Story)

(3) “38 Volume Set” of Church Fathers for purchase (physical books)

(4) Church Fathers: New Advent website (the “38 Volume Set” online for free)

(5) Church Fathers: Ethereal Library of Christian Classics website (another free version of the “38 Volume Set”)