What happens at the moment of our death? The last judgement is often a confusing and anxiety-ridden topic. Allow C.S. Lewis and his Narnia Aslan to open up a conversation about Christ the judge! Discover how this neglected doctrine can inspire within us love, life and the pursuit of truth!
Transcript of “How Narnia depicts The Last Judgement”
Today we’ll be reflecting on a very significant article of Catholicism, one that is not often talked about, or when it is, not done very well. As you’ve gathered from the title, I refer here to our judgment before God, the moment at the end of our lives when we come face to face with Jesus, and the entirety of our lives are laid bare. What images come to mind when you think of this moment? Perhaps you have Michelangelo’s epic fresco in St Peter’s flash before your eyes, where Christ stands with arm outstretched, dividing the damned and the saved. Perhaps you have the separation of the sheep from the goats from Matthew 25, and pray to God you’re not one of the goats who get sent to eternal damnation. And what do you feel when you think about these images? Perhaps there’s a mixture of fear and hope, anxiety and longing… and even confusion about how all this judgement business actually works with a loving God. How can God be both justice and mercy? How could he possibly send someone to hell? I don’t promise to address all these questions – because they’re all very good questions and deserve adequate time to unpack. What I do hope to do is to get us thinking and re-evaluating what the Catholic notion of judgement is, and I believe a scene from Narnia can give us a few rather helpful pointers. It’ll be taken from book 7, The Last Battle, the final of the Narnia books.
The Door scene in Narnia, The Last Battle
So this scene takes place in the very last chapters, pretty much at the end of Time. The old world of Narnia has come to an end, and the New Narnia is about to be born. Aslan, the great Christ like Lion, has created a single, magical door, which sort of acts a portal between the old world and the new. In this scene, we see that every single creature that has ever lived in Narnia – alive and dead – must now approach this door. They come one by one in a line, to the door, and more importantly to Aslan, the judge who stands beside it. Let’s now read the actual passage:
“The creatures came rushing on, their eyes brighter and brighter as they drew nearer and nearer… But as they came right up to Aslan one or other of two things happened to each of them. They all looked straight in his face; I don’t think they had any choice about that. And when some looked, the expression of their faces changed terribly—it was fear and hatred: except that, on the faces of Talking Beasts, the fear and hatred lasted only for a fraction of a second. You could see that they suddenly ceased to be Talking Beasts. They were just ordinary animals. And all the creatures who looked at Aslan in that way swerved to their right, and disappeared into his huge black shadow, which (as you have heard) streamed away to the left of the doorway. The children never saw them again. I don’t know what became of them. But the other creatures looked in the face of Aslan and loved him, though some of them were very frightened at the same time. And all these came in at the Door, in on Aslan’s right. There were some queer specimens among them. Eustace even recognised one of those very Dwarfs who had helped to shoot the Horses. But he had no time to wonder about that sort of thing (and anyway it was no business of his) for a great joy put everything else out of his head. Among the happy creatures who now came crowding round Tirian and his friends were all those whom they had thought dead. There was Roonwit the Centaur and Jewel the Unicorn, and the good Boar and the good Bear and Farsight the Eagle, and the dear Dogs and the Horses, and Poggin the Dwarf. “Further in and higher up!” cried Roonwit and thundered away in a gallop to the West.”
Okay, so hopefully from this scene you can already recognise some parallels to the Catholic vision for the day of judgement. In the scene:
(i) Aslan represents Christ
(ii) going through the door represents entryway into heaven
(iii) going into Aslan’s shadow represents eternal damnation.
Before we explore this scene further, I want to quickly mention that Catholic teaching actually speaks about two judgements that are to come: the particular judgement (which happens at the moment of our individual death) and the final judgement (which takes place at the end of time at the second coming of Christ). For the purposes of this episode, I wont really be distinguishing between the two judgements, mainly because it won’t be relevant for what we’ll be discussing. And also, even in this Narnia scene C.S. Lewis actually kind of conflates the two judgments into one.. which technically possible because in eternity, the separation of time is not really a thing.
Do Catholics believe in universalism?
Okay, so back to the scene with the animals. The first detail I want to point out is one that many today will find hard to swallow: the notion that Catholics do not believe in the idea of universalism. Universalism, what’s that? Universalism simply put, is the idea that in the end, everyone will get saved and everyone will go to heaven, that even the most evil people will eventually somehow see the light. Hell will eventually be empty because when even the most wretched sinner sees the face of God, they won’t be able to help but choose him etc. Sound familiar? It’s a very popular idea today, and often goes side by side with the idea that ‘all religions and paths are really the same and all eventually lead to God’. To nip this confusion in the bud, C.S. Lewis, the paragon of Christian orthodox, gives us this Narnia door image, where it is very clear that not all the creatures get saved, and some indeed do disappear into the shadow of Aslan. At this point you may be wondering why don’t Catholics believe in universalism? After all, wouldn’t a loving God wish salvation upon all his children? The answer of course is yes, God does wish that. But, he also wishes that we choose to love him, rather than be fated to love him. The fact that God leaves our free will intact is very important. Because if you do the logic, if everyone has to get saved in the end, then at some point in time, God has to also take away our free will. And this is something God will never do, because God is love, and love must always embrace choice. Love necessitates free will. After all if a man forces his partner to marry him, the woman wouldn’t really be loving him would she?
What we will be judged on
But even so, what person in their right mind would want to not choose God? What Narnian creature would not want to enter the door, and instead swerve away into Aslan’s shadow? Well, this passage gives us a clue. Remember that detail that when the animals approached Aslan, some saw his face and hated it and swerved into the shadow, while other gaze on Aslan’s face and loved it, and went through the door? This is very rich in symbolism, and in it lies in an important truth. In the same way God doesn’t force anyone into heaven, he also doesn’t sentence anyone to hell. If anyone ends up in hell, they are there by their own choice. People choose hell because in this lifetime they have grown to be disgusted and repulsed by the idea of heaven. How? Well in the section of the catechism which talks about judgement, a profound quote from St John of the Cross is offered, where he says “In the evening of our lives, we shall be judged on our love alone.” Think of it this way: the only thing that will ‘carry over’ from this life, to the next, is love. We cannot take anything else with us… for nothing that has not been blessed, created or redeemed with love will make it ‘through the door’ per se. After all, we Christians profess that God is love. If this is true, then by definition heaven is love … heaven is relationship. For heaven is where God is, and heaven is the full actualisation of God’s love, for all eternity. All who are ‘in’ heaven are those who are living in right relationship… with God,, with neighbour and with ourselves. Those who don’t choose heaven then, are those who are habitually closed off to relationship, living lives that are anti-love, anti-relationship. When love and truth is offered to such people, they are simply repulsed by it.
Hell, and the Prodigal Son’s older brother
Think of the older brother in the parable of the prodigal Son. Because of his hardness of heart, he was unwilling to receive his father’s love, unable to forgive his younger brother for his sins, and most importantly, was repulsed by the father’s mercy towards this same younger brother. Even when the father comes out to plead with the older brother to come inside to the light, he seemingly chooses to remain out in the dark! See, even in this one parable, it is obvious that it was not the father who sentences the older brother to the dark. Rather, it was the older brother who was repulsed by the love shown inside the banquet. Alongside showcasing the father’s heart, this parable gives us a dire warning of what happens to one who is closed off to divine love. For Christian love, is not about warm and fuzzy feelings for one another. Rather it is a particular quality of love, the type exemplified by Jesus himself. Some of the unique characteristics of Jesus’ love are: mercy, self-gift, a love centred on the good of the other. It embraces the poor and marginalised. It is a love that is ready to forgive, and to receive forgiveness. It is a love that extends even to our enemies. It is a love that sees every suffering and cross as an opportunity to expand our capacity to love, and be loved. And… it is a love that seeks, and celebrates the truth. But the older brother in the parable wanted none of these, and so, rather than seeing the tender face of his father and loving it, he was disgusted by it, and wouldn’t enter the light. Now, to be fair, we don’t actually know how the parable ends… and we hope that in time, the older brother’s heart expands and he comes inside. In the meantime, the parable offers us a window into the real possibility of how we can grow to be disgusted by what God represents. For we are rejecting God’s love when we refuse to forgive another person. We are rejecting God when we condemn another, judging them unworthy of mercy. We are rejecting God when we choose to live according to lies, rather than living by the truth. God is Truth himself, and no lie, no matter how sweet and popular it sounds here on earth, will make it through the door.
Judgment and the image of being dazzled
The older brother’s turning away from the light image actual opens up another metaphor to explain why some animals are repulsed by the face of Aslan, while others love it. And it is this: say you’re out for a walk at night and your eyes have become accustomed to the dark. Think of what happens when someone suddenly shines a torch in your face. What do you do? You cover your eyes, and instinctively, turn away, back into the dark. In that instant, you turn away even without intending to. You could say, that if a person has become accustomed to living their entire life in the dark, why would they suddenly be ready to receive the light when they see it? The light would be painful, overwhelming, repulsive… like Aslan’s face to those who had lived not according to his ways. This image busts the myth that ‘oh when an unrepentant sinner sees God, they’ll just suddenly convert and repent.’ No. When an unrepentant sinner sees the face of God, they’ll instinctively turn away from the light. And the darkness, which they’ve chosen to embrace during their lifetime, will be the only reality they know.
Only the guilty fear judgment and damnation
You know, another reason many object to the idea of a final judgement is precisely because our conscience tells us that we are, in fact guilty! Deep inside, many of us know that we are not loving or living in right relationship. And so, we prefer not to think about death and judgment at all. But we must never suppress a guilty conscience by wishing away the judgment that is to come, because we only fear judgement if we are guilty. If an innocent man walking down the street suddenly encounters a policeman, he wouldn’t bat an eyelid. He might even say hi to him! But a guilty person in the same position … would start sweating profusely and be terrified, and wish the policeman away. And fair enough, because he knows he has a stolen watch in his pocket. So it is with our conscience. If we find ourselves scared by the doctrine of judgment, lets first examine our conscience, and bring that to prayer.
When God’s judgment is desirable
It might also be helpful to consider a different perspective on God’s judgement, where judgement actually becomes something desirable. Far from meaning vengeance or punishment, we know that justice in the bible refers to the right ordering things, or the re-ordering of things that have become disordered. If a person has been grievously wronged in this lifetime, or has suffered great injustices like abuse, persecution etc, we actually want God’s justice to break forth, and indeed we cry out for it. Think of all the atrocities that have been committed in the world against the innocent. Think of the recent atrocities in the Ukraine … shellings of hospitals, maternity wards and kindergartens. Think of the heart wrenching school shootings of children in the US. Doesn’t something in us cry out for justice, that true justice be eventually given to all those morally responsible? Well, the good news is, it will be, because God’s final justice will eventually break forth, and his final judgement will be more fair, and more restorative, than anything we can possible imagine. Seen in this light, when we’re standing on the side of the oppressed … Gods justice is actually a very good thing.
Christ as Merciful Judge
There is one more detail I want to highlight about this Narnian door scene, that may not be as obvious without reading all 7 books. Its about the role of Aslan as judge. In the scene, it looks like Aslan is sort of a passive judge and just standing by the door waiting to pass sentence. But in actual fact the opposite has been true. Despite the fact that some of the Narnian creatures were disgusted by Aslan’s face, Aslan had previously done everything he possibly could to reach out to his fallen creatures. His mercy had been extended time and time again, not just to the fallen creatures like the dwarves and the Calormenes, but also to heroes like Edmund and Susan. This merciful initiative of Aslan is absolutely crucial in understanding Christ as judge. While we know that Jesus does in the end sit on the throne of judgment at the moment of our death, he doesn’t sit as the type of judge we typically are used to in a court of law. Rather, we have a judge who has literally done everything possible, to make a way for us. I would even suggest that not only is Jesus a merciful judge, he also sends us his best defence lawyer – the advocate, the Holy Spirit, to plead on behalf of us. This is incredibly reassuring for us sinners, knowing that the cosmic judge is incredibly biased towards us, and has sacrificed everything to set us free.
For a summery of the Catholic position on the two judgments, here is Ascension Present’s Fr Mike Schmitz – ‘The Lesser Known Last Judgment’
Soundtrack info: from OST of “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” (composed by Harry Gregson-Williams). I also used a cover of “Be Still for the Presence of the Lord” by Elite Artists Trio