The drawings for ‘The Last Judgment’ by Sir Edward Burne-Jones hang in the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. The crayon illustrations, outlining the design for a stained glass window, have about them a tranquility not normally associated with apocalyptic events described in the Book of Revelation. Standing in front of the drawings, a stream of questions came to mind.
The medieval church used such scenes to terrify people into church attendance, into outward expressions of belief, even if there was no inward faith. Not believing, and believing in the right way, meant that you would burn forever in hellfire. Perhaps Burne-Jones’ gentler images of judgment would be closer to the tone of Jesus than the horrifying, nightmarish pictures conjured up in the medieval Dooms; the pictures painted to educate people as to what waited.
What sort of God sent people to eternal punishment because their country happened to be Catholic or Protestant? What sort of God punished working people because they obeyed what they were told? What sort of God punished the poor for believing the stories told to them by the rich and the educated?
The Last Judgment seemed to have more to do with the control of people than with the love of God. My companion, an atheist, and I had both attended a fundamentalist Christian school where a day did not pass without us being reminded of the eternal flames that awaited those who did not sign up to their brand of religion. Their efforts had resulted in me declaring myself to be a Communist, a sure and certain route to the hot place, not that I worried; if God was their god, I wanted nothing to do with him. A God who judged people on obscure points of theological doctrine, rewarding the rich and the comfortable, while turning his back on common folk, was not much of a God.
Looking at Burne-Jones’ work online a day after seeing the original, there seemed reassurance. Hellfire is left for someone else to portray; the Book of Life is an expansive volume; but it is the resurrection that strikes most forcibly: the dead seem to be pulling themselves up from the grave.
Perhaps Burne-Jones intended no theological point to be made, but perhaps it suggests the possibility that Heaven is reached not through being born in the right place or community; not through being able to recite the right words or claim a particular experience; but through struggling in the hope that there is something better, in the hope that, at the end, there is something to make sense of it all. It’s a thought as alien to most Christian teaching as it is to the humanism of my friend.