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Judgement of the Dead

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"And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Also another book was opened, the book of life. And the dead were judged according to their works, as recorded in the books."
Book of Revelation 20:12, New Revised Standard Version

So our hero has died. Will he go to Heaven, to Hell, or somewhere else entirely? In this trope, our hero (or his spirit/soul) appears before a judge, who reviews his actions in life to determine where he deserves to end up. Often this is a chance to recap and reflect upon important events and character-defining moments in the story.

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The judgement typically takes place in an Afterlife Antechamber, with the character being judged moving on to Heaven and Hell, the Spirit World, The Underworld, The Nothing After Death, or wherever is appropriate for the setting and deeds. Occasionally, the deceased person might be able to talk the judge out of sentencing them at all, and return to the land of the living. In To Hell and Back plotlines, this sort of Rules Lawyering is essential to persuade the judge to let you in or out.

Who does the judging can vary— it can be anyone from God himself to the Grim Reaper to Saint Peter (the gatekeeper of Fluffy Cloud Heaven) or any other form of divine lackey. The judge's temperament can fall anywhere from the Hanging Judge to The Paragon, but often they are Lawful Neutral, appearing harsh or eerie but devoted to justice. This trope is almost essential to any Celestial Bureaucracy.

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Note that the judgement does not need to be a formal proceeding, occasion or event; in fact, the less important the judge is in the grand scheme of things, the less likely it is to be an actual trial. A typical depiction (particularly in comedic works) is to have St. Peter simply read over the newly deceased's entry in the all-seeing Book of Earthly Deeds, and make a pass/fail decision then and there. Of course, the Rule of Drama states that the protagonist is most likely to be refused passage.

This trope is Older Than Dirt, as the judgement of the dead was a key part of Egyptian Mythology. Similar elements exist in many modern religions. Shout-Outs to to older examples are common; expies of characters from The Aeneid and recreations of the Weighing of the Heart from the Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead seem to be especially popular.

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Compare Chess with Death, where a character's fate is determined by a test of skills or luck rather than a trial of their actions. Contrast It's a Wonderful Plot and Yet Another Christmas Carol, which also involve supernatural reflection on a character's life, but seek to make a character change their ways rather than determine their fate in the afterlife.

This is a Death Trope. Beware of unmarked spoilers!


Examples

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    Art 
  • The Sistine Chapel's altar painting depicts Jesus in the center calling the souls of the just from the grave to ascend to their reward of Heaven with his right hand while condemning the souls of the wicked into the fires of Hell with his left hand.

    Fan Fiction 
  • In Pony Pals Dirk Strider Edition, Author Avatars Dirk Strider and Jeanne Betancourt get together with a demonic cat named Minos to judge Acorn for his many crimes and shepherd him into the afterlife. Things quickly get derailed in a very meta way, and Acorn is able to return to the land of the living through a Retcon.
  • With This Ring: Paragon Paul invokes this judgement for Teth Adom and Teth Adam by starting a Battle in the Center of the Mind between them and inviting the gods who empower them to provide the judgement. When Adam fails, he is swallowed by Ammut and Adom takes over the body.

    Film 
  • This is the premise of Defending Your Life, in which souls pass to an Earth-like purgatory called Judgement City after death. Here, souls are tried to see whether they should be sent back to Earth (if they are very flawed or still retain fears), or Ascend to a Higher Plane of Existence (if they do not).
  • Dont Eat The Pictures features Big Bird and Mr. Snuffleupagus helping a 4000 year old Egyptian child solve a riddle that will allow him to be judged by Anubis. Once that's over with, Big Bird then has to provide one of his feathers to be balanced against the child's heart to decide whether he joins his ancestors among the stars.
  • Outward Bound is about passengers on a spooky ocean liner, who aren't quite sure how they got there. Eventually they figure out that they're all dead and the ship is an Afterlife Express taking them to either heaven or hell. Once their voyage is done, an "Examiner" comes on board, reviews their cases, and decides whether they're going to heaven or hell and just what the nature of their afterlife will be.

    Literature 
  • The Aeneid:
    • King Minos is seen judging the newly dead in between the ghosts of infants and the suicides as Aeneas enters the realm of Pluto.
    • Apollo's priestess explains that those damned to the Fields of Punishments are first interviewed by Rhadamanthus, who they are compelled to tell their every crime.
  • In American Gods, Anubis weighs Shadow's heart against a feather. It balances, and when Shadow is given his choice of afterlife he chooses The Nothing After Death.
    Shadow: I want to rest now. That's what I want. I want nothing. No Heaven, no Hell. Just let it end.
  • In the Bobby Dollar series, recently deceased will be visited by angels and demons who then hold a trial where the parties serve as defense and prosecution respectively, while a neutral celestial being acts as the judge to decide if the deceased will go to heaven or hell.
  • In The Camp Half-Blood Series's version of The Underworld shown in Percy Jackson and the Olympians, the judgement of the souls is performed by a rotating roster of judges done at the Judgment Pavilion. They decide whether souls go to the Fields of Punishment (for those who did evil), the Fields of Asphodel (for more or less neutral souls), Elysium (for good souls), or in exceedingly rare cases, the Isles of the Blest (for the absolute best souls who do good three reincarnations in a row). True to Classical Mythology, Minos is one of the judges, although historical figures such as Thomas Jefferson and William Shakespeare are also mentioned.
    • In the companion series within the same continuity, but based on Egyptian Mythology, the judgement of Anubis becomes a plot point. Since most of the pantheon has been sealed away for thousands of eons and only recently release the characters are working to restore their stations. To this end they must deliver the feather of truth to the scale at the entrance to the afterlife, but they must maintain total honesty or it becomes too heavy to move.
  • The Divine Comedy: In Inferno, King Minos is depicted as the judge of the dead in Hell, sitting at the entrance of the second circle where he judges damned souls that enter, wrapping his snake-like tail around them corresponding to the circle number they are sent to. Just one of the many elements lifted from Classical Mythology.
  • Incarnations of Immortality: On a Pale Horse: The job of Death is to judge the souls that are too close to the line between good and evil, and help them go to their correct afterlives.
  • The Silmarillion: In J.R.R. Tolkien's Legendarium, the Vala Mandos (Namo) presides over Aman's halls of the dead, where the souls of elves killed in conflict are interred until they are deemed fit for re-embodiment. Mandos presides over these judgments based on the individual's deeds in life, mental health, and willingness to return to the world of the living; only one, Feanor, has been barred from leaving until the end of time.
  • In The Wish List, it's revealed that all souls who have recently died will have the good deeds and sins that they have performed in their life weighed upon each other to determine whether they will go to heaven or hell. The Protagonist Meg Finn is one of the rare cases where her soul is perfectly balanced between good and evil, so she gets sent back to Earth as a spirit in order to tip the scales one way or the other.

     Live-Action TV 
  • In American Gods (2017), Anubis serves this role for two characters and weighs their hearts against an ostrich feather:
    • Mrs. Fadil, who initially doesn't realize that she's dead. When her heart balances with the feather she asks Anubis to choose an afterlife for her, and only wants to not be sent to the same place as her abusive father.
    • Laura Moon. She declines to have her heart weighed, and Anubis sentences her to The Nothing After Death for her lack of belief. She refuses to go, but then she's resurrected by the power of Mad Sweeney's coin anyway.
      Laura: Don't I get a say in this?
      Anubis: Death is not a debate! How many, do you think, have come before you, all with promises and threats of glory, gold, love? Who are you to misguide me from my duty? You are but a man, not even one I should remember! You shall go into the darkness, and I shall forget having ever met you.
  • An entire season (all ten episodes) of the Norwegian comedy show Fleksnes Fataliteter revolved around the main character dying and ending up in front of the Pearly Gates. But St. Peter doesn't allow him entrance, and instead makes him watch various scenes from his life (which partly includes footage from earlier seasons).
  • While there is no singular 'judgement' that happens per individual, the idea of judging people based on the good or bad they did on Earth and sending them to an appropriate afterlife is an essential part of the premise of The Good Place. Each action has a positive (good) or negative (bad) point value, and only the people with the highest positive scores get into the titular Good Place, with everyone else save one person sent to the Bad Place.
    • At least that's how the system is supposed to operate. In season 3 the characters discover that it runs off Black and White Morality and fails to account for how complicated and interconnected modern life has become. The points system continues to judge people for decisions they have no way of knowing they've made, such as a man losing points for giving his grandmother roses because they were grown with toxic pesticides. As a result nobody has made it to the Good Place in 521 years.
  • Played For Laughs in Horrible Histories where one reoccurring sketch called "Stupid Deaths" has Death himself judging the deaths of various people throughout history to determine whether they make it through to the afterlife. However unlike most version of this trope he judges based on how much the deaths are able to make him laugh, and if they entertain him enough then he lets them into the afterlife.
  • Played With in Lexx. Stanley falls off a Moth and drowns on the Planet Water, which the course of season 3 eventually reveals is the in-universe equivalent of Heaven. Its counterpart, Fire, serves as Hell. Stanley is then judged as to which of the two planets his soul should be remanded to. Unfortunately, the judge is Prince the ruler of fire, (and thus, the analog of Satan) who has his own reasons for wanting to condemn Stanley to Fire, effectively making it a Kangaroo Court. At the end of the episode, despite having tried his best in a hard universe and numerous extenuating circumstances, even Stanley himself is convinced he truly belongs of Fire. And then the whole thing gets subverted since souls on Fire and Water are effectively still alive, and Xev is ultimately able to rescue him.
  • Saturday Night Live: This appears n a tribute to Rodney Dangerfield. In the sketch, St. Peter reads a list of questions to the late comedian who has arrived at the pearly gates, then simply says, "Okay, you can get in." RD is amazed at this, and St. Peter admits, "I just wanted to hear those jokes one last time." RD is nearly reduced to tears upon realizing that he has finally gotten some respect.
  • In the first episode of the Fox series Second Chance Charles Russell dies and goes to be judged; he's found too bad for Heaven and too good for Hell. He is given the opportunity to go back to earth and try to give his teenage self a nudge in the right direction - a "second chance" if you will.
  • Zigzagged in Supernatural. The Grim Reaper and his army of lesser "Reapers" are responsible for ferrying souls to the afterlife, but they do not judge which afterlife they are destined for. This role was originally carried out by God, and after he went missing the Angels hired the pagan god Anubis to continue judgment in his absence. However, when the Winchesters attempt to blackmail Anubis into altering somebody's destined afterlife, he flatly declares that neither he nor God can actually change it: people themselves are responsible for their fates, through the choices they have made in life. Free will and all that.

    Mythology And Religion 
  • The Ur-Example may be Egyptian Mythology. After death, people would be sent before Osiris (or a tribunal of gods in some versions), who would weight their heart against a feather representing truth and goodness. If the person's heart was heavy with bad deeds, it would be fed to demons and they would be destroyed. If not, the deceased would be allowed to live forever in the land of Osiris.
  • Many passages in The Bible refer to a final judgement of souls. Most Christian denominations believe in a Last Judgement in which Christ will return in some manner and separate the good and the evil and send them to separate fates, though there is considerable disagreement about the timing and location of this.
    • In Eastern Orthodox theology, there is a distinction between the Last Judgement (for the entire humanity after the Second Coming of Christ) and the Personal Judgement (for every person after death; often called the aerial tollhouses). In short: first, the Personal Judgement's results may be changed for the better until the Last Judgement, while the latter will be the absolutely final decision; second, after the Personal Judgement, the soul gets just the foreshadowing of its future eternal glory or eternal despair, after the souls reuniting with bodies and the Last Judgment, the person will experience the fullness of Heaven or Hell.
  • Similarly, in Islam there is a belief in a Last Judgement where at the end of the world the dead will be resurrected and God will judge everyone based on their deeds, with the righteous being granted eternal life.
  • In Chinese Mythology, the soul of the departed, obviously the defendant, is tried up against a Mirror that plays instances of specific actions in his life. The defendant gets a supernatural lawyer who knows the laws of heaven. Unlike in most religions, you can argue your way out of a sentence in Chinese Hell. Chinese Hell resembles an Old Chinese torture chamber/prison, whereby you serve your punishment for a given amount of time (not unlike the mortal penal system), and then you're released either in the afterlife or you get reborn.
  • In Greek Mythology the dead were judged by Minos, Aeacus, and Rhadamanthus upon entering Hades' realm to determine what their fate in the underworld would be. Especially wicked people were sent to torment in Erebus/Tartarus.
  • In Hindu Mythology, the judgement is done by Yama, the god of Death, based on one's accumulated karma throughout their life. Those who have good karma spend some pleasant time in the afterlife and are reincarnated as a higher class or lifeform, while the opposite is true for those with bad karma, who are tortured in Naraka and reincarnated as lower classes or lifeforms.

     Tabletop Games 
  • In the Forgotten Realms campaign setting, Kelemvor, the god of the dead, judges the faithless based on how righteous they are and assigns them to live various locations in the City of the Dead in accordance with their deeds.
  • Zig-Zagged in Pathfinder's Golarion setting. Souls naturally progress to an afterlife appropriate to their Character Alignment and/or patron deity, so the Psychopomps only adjudicate complicated cases like major last-minute conversions or disputed soul-binding pacts. The ultimate authority is their mistress Pharasma, Lady of Graves, the Neutral goddess of death, but it's very rare for her to get involved.

     Theatre 
  • Liliom has a scene in which Liliom and two other suicides are posthumously brought to a police magistrate's court (an analogous scene was written for the musical adaptation Carousel but ultimately deleted).

     Video Games 
  • In Dante's Inferno, the video game adaptation of The Divine Comedy, Minos, the Judge of the dead, is depicted as the second boss. Dante is forced to fight him and split his face in half on his own breaking wheel to gain access to the second circle of Hell.
  • Guild Wars 2
    • Those who die enter the Realm Of Lost Souls in the Mists. Dead spirits must discover their purpose, and then talk with a judge (formerly the death god Grenth, now his avatar) in order to move on. The Judge is portrayed as just but a bit creepy.
    • In Vabbi, priests of Palawa Joko hold a trial for every dead person to evaluate their deeds to determine if they are worthy of the "privilege" of being Awakened— turned into a mummy. This is presented as a great honor even though it is in fact an eternity of mindless slavery.
  • Touhou Project bases its afterlife upon a combination of Classical and Buddhist mythology, starting with the departed finding themselves at the shores of the Sanzu River where the local shinigami ferries the departed across the waters, the distance from the shore of the living to Higan, the other side, depending on variables such as payment done to the ferrywoman and who they were in life. Once in Higan, the departed is brought before Eiki Shiki, Yamaxanadu, the Yama of Paradise, who, using her Rod of Remorse and Cleansed Crystal Mirror, confronts the departed with their past and sins and then passes judgement upon them. She also tends to visit the realm of the living on slow days (or when her shinigami ferrywoman is slacking off again) and always makes time to lecture the living in order to make them improve upon themselves so she won't have to send them to Hell.

     Webcomics 
  • When a god-tier player dies in Homestuck, a cosmic clock will judge whether their death was heroic (i.e. martyrdom), just (if the person had become evil or tyrannical), or neither. If the death is neither, the player will return to life to continue fighting, but if they died for good or evil, they will remain dead forever.
  • In The Order of the Stick, after Roy dies he sits down with a celestial deva who resembles a lawyer or a social worker. They go over his "file" of actions in life to determine if he is worthy of a Lawful Good afterlife.

     Western Animation 
  • A whippet angel greets unscrupulous Charlie Barkin in All Dogs Go to Heaven. She consults a tome which contains Charlie's image and a list of his misdeeds. Subverted, as none of this seems to matter, as dogs are inherently good and loyal, thereby attaining heaven by default.
  • In Beavis And Butthead, Beavis is (temporarily) dead after running head-on into a wall. He rises through the clouds hearing angelic choirs ("This music sucks!") and encounters St. Peter, who reads all Beavis's bad deeds recorded in his life journal...this ends up going on a long time with no sign of ending.
    Beavis: Uhh, this is beginning to suck. Do I get into Heaven or not?
    St. Peter: ...umm, no.
  • The Tom and Jerry cartoon "Heavenly Puss" has Tom get squished by a piano (a typical injury that in other episodes Tom would bounce back from, but in this story he actually dies) and ascend via escalator to Fluffy Cloud Heaven. However, a gatekeeper cat informs Tom that he cannot board the Heavenly Express until he obtains a signed Certificate of Forgiveness from Jerry. Tom has only one hour to complete this mission; failure will result in Tom being condemned to a fiery Hell presided over by a satanic bulldog. Fortunately for Tom, given that Jerry relents a fatal instant too late and Tom falls into the fiery cauldron just as he was making a dash for the escalator, it turns out that It Was All A Dream.

Alternative Title(s): Judgment Of The Dead

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