The Last Judgment

by Karel Capek

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Karel Capek’s 1929 short story “The Last Judgment” opens with the death of the main character, Ferdinand Kugler, a wanted man with a long history of violence and trouble with the law. In his final run from the law, Kugler, who is wanted for several murders and other crimes, finds himself cornered and opts not to be taken alive. His last stand leaves an officer dead, but Kugler manages to escape earthly punishment, dying without penance for his laundry list of crimes. In the next world, a “gray and infinitely desolate” void, Kugler faces a panel of three judges; rather than heavenly agents or even God himself, these judges were once mortals, too, and served as judges on earth as well. Continuing their service in the next life, these judges decide the fate of each soul and pass the final judgment, which determines whether the soul will be allowed into heaven or condemned to hell.  

Kugler is guilty of murder: not only did he kill a police officer who pursued him mere moments before his death, but he is also responsible for the deaths of eight others. His murders were motivated by trivial and immoral reasons, inspired by greed, desire, and pride. Looking at the judges, who are "old and worthy councilors with austere, bored faces," Kugler realizes that they are human men, who are not unlike those judges he encountered on earth. 

Kugler faces this otherworldly trial, and the judges question him. He considers himself guilty of nothing, a claim the trio immediately discounts. They call God to the witness stand and ask that he, an omniscient observer, tell them of the defendant’s misdoings. He willingly obliges and begins to tell stories about Kugler’s life, ranging from his depraved murders to his family history and mundane experiences. As he details the broad strokes of the accused’s earthly life, he asks whether he should “mention [Kugler’s] good deeds,” to which judges reply no. Briefly, God reveals Kugler’s positive traits, explaining that he could be generous and often helped others. He continues, explaining that the criminal was generally kind to women and animals and usually kept his word. However, God’s compassionate insights do not seem to sway the judges, and they leave the room to deliberate over Kugler’s eternal fate.

Left alone with God, Kugler questions the structure of the afterlife and wonders why God himself does not judge the souls. God explains that he relies on human judges because, even though he knows everything, his knowledge makes him a poor judge. He knows everything and understands the minute details of every life; he “can’t possibly judge” because he understands completely and compassionately. “Man belongs to man,” he explains, indicating that the judgment of men must be left to men, who can be dispassionate and critical, unburdened by the weight of perfect knowledge. They do not need to know of Kugler’s good deeds or struggles; they are uninterested in all but his crimes, for those are what matter to their decision. Further, God says, humans are not worthy of divine judgment and only deserve to be judged by other human beings.

When Kugler mentions a man he thinks he killed, a man that God forgot to count in his tally, God explains that the man lived and that he is a very good man, despite his evident faults. God cautions Kugler, saying that he should not think of anyone as "completely worthless." It is perhaps for this reason that God himself is only the witness and not the judge: he sees the good and the bad in everyone, so he might be inclined to be merciful—more merciful than other humans, who tend to see the bad alone. Their conversation concludes with the return of the judges, who condemn Kugler to “lifelong punishment in hell” and then immediately move to the next soul on the docket.

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