Icon of the Last Judgment
I imagine that someone, somewhere, has already written this piece in some manner. With the Sacred Scriptures stating that “there is nothing new under the sun,” what I am about to say is most likely old news to a lot of people. But while some news may be old to one person, it is always new news to the person who personally discovers it for himself. It is kind of like the person who hears about Jesus for the first time, accepts the message of God’s abundant grace through Christ, and can’t stop talking about it in his excitement of being forgiven his sins. When he goes on and on about Christ to those who have been Christians all their lives, they smile, and perhaps even are happy for his excitement and joy of finding the reality of Christ’s love, but for them, this is old news. It is nothing new, it is simply something that is “new” to the convert.
Converts can have a multitude of blind spots, which are caused by the intense love and attraction they feel for the main locus of the belief to which they have converted. In my case, that love has run into many years for the Catholic faith, and was particularly intense in the first three years, a sort of mountain top experience which has been dubbed in certain circles as “Convert Fever.”
Yeah, and I had a particularly bad case.
The singular most important point of my conversion was that I had connected with the very first Christians in believing that the Eucharist is really the very Body and Blood of Christ, rather than some juice-n-crackers memorial meal with little significance other than what one put into it by stopping a minute to conjure up mental pictures of Jesus dying on the Cross for our salvation. I felt that I was finally home, that I had managed to wade through the morass of theological constructs to find what the Apostles had taught. And most importantly, that this settled the constant arguments of doctrine between the 40,000+ non-Catholic denominations in the world, all claiming to have the true truth and all disagreeing with each other.
My recent and most vexing discovery over the last three years has been to come to understand the large (might I say vast) difference between the Roman West and the Greek East in the understanding of God’s salvation program. My assumption was that both had the Sacraments and both were pretty much on the same page, especially since the Church was one, united body of believers before the schism of 1054 AD.
This is not so, and in examining the soteriology of the West, I get the distinct sense that while they may not mean to do so, the West is selling God’s grace. This merchandising of salvation for money is what initiated the Protestant Reformation for Martin Luther when he watched Tetzel and his minions beating every last cent out of the poor to buy their loved ones out of Purgatory.
“What? You mean if I purchase an Indulgence for my father he will get out of his suffering in Purgatory? Maw, go get our last chicken and sell it in town. I can’t let Daddy be another moment in Purgatory.”
Really? Never mind perhaps that good ole Paw was a wife-beating misanthrope who went to church twice a year when he wasn’t drunk so that people wouldn’t talk about him. Do you see the problem here? The Eastern view of the next life is that we go to be in the presence of Christ, where our true state is revealed. We either love God (imperfectly at best, but nonetheless love Him in our feeble way) or we hate Him. No amount of coins tossed in a plate is going to change Paw from being a very rotten human being, neither here nor in the next life.
The Light of Truth, God’s Energy, God’s grace which will fall on men unhindered by corrupt conditions in the Day of Judgment, will be the same to all men. There will be no distinction whatever. All the difference lies in those who receive, not in Him Who gives. The sun shines on healthy and diseased eyes alike, without any distinction. Healthy eyes enjoy light and because of it see clearly the beauty which surrounds them. Diseased eyes feel pain, they hurt, suffer, and want to hide from this same light which brings such great happiness to those who have healthy eyes.
But alas, there is no longer any possibility of escaping God’s light. During this life there was. In the New Creation of the Resurrection, God will be everywhere and in everything. His light and love will embrace all. There will be no place hidden from God, as was the case during our corrupt life in the kingdom of the prince of this world. The devil’s kingdom will be despoiled by the Common Resurrection and God will take possession again of His creation. Love will enrobe everything with its sacred Fire which will flow like a river from the throne of God and will irrigate paradise. But this same river of Love – for those who have hate in their hearts – will suffocate and burn.
“For our God is a consuming fire” (Heb. 12:29). The very fire which purifies gold, also consumes wood. Precious metals shine in it like the sun, rubbish burns with black smoke. All are in the same fire of Love. Some shine and others become black and dark. In the same furnace steel shines like the sun, whereas clay turns dark and is hardened like stone.
The difference is in man, not in God. The difference is conditioned by the free choice of man, which God respects absolutely. God’s judgment is the revelation of the reality which is in man.
Saint Symeon the New Theologian says that it is not what man does which counts in eternal life but what he is, whether he is like Jesus Christ our Lord, or whether he is different and unlike Him. He says, “In the future life the Christian is not examined if he has renounced the whole world for Christ’s love, or if he has distributed his riches to the poor or if he fasted or kept vigil or prayed, or if he wept and lamented for his sins, or if he has done any other good in this life, but he is examined attentively if he has any similitude with Christ, as a son does with his father.”
I think that by now we have reached the point of understanding correctly what eternal hell and eternal paradise really are, and who is in reality responsible for the difference.
In the icon of the Last Judgment we see Our Lord Jesus Christ seated on a throne. On His right we see His friends, the blessed men and women who lived by His love. On His left we see His enemies, all those who passed their life hating Him, even if they appeared to be pious and reverent. And there, in the midst of the two, springing from Christ’s throne, we see a river of fire coming toward us. What is this river of fire? Is it an instrument of torture? Is it an energy of vengeance coming out from God in order to vanquish His enemies?
No, nothing of the sort. This river of fire is the river which “came out from Eden to water the paradise” of old (Gen. 2:10). It is the river of the grace of God which irrigated God’s saints from the beginning. In a word, it is the out-pouring of God’s love for His creatures. Love is fire. Anyone who loves knows this. God is Love, so God is Fire. And fire consumes all those who are not fire themselves, and renders bright and shining all those who are fire themselves (Heb. 12:29).
God many times appeared as fire: To Abraham, to Moses in the burning bush, to the people of Israel showing them the way in the desert as a column of fire by night and as a shining cloud by day when He covered the tabernacle with His glory (Exod. 40:28, 32), and when He rained fire on the summit of Mount Sinai. God was revealed as fire on the mountain of Transfiguration, and He said that He came “to put fire upon the earth” (Luke 12:49), that is to say, love, because as Saint John of the Ladder says, “Love is the source of fire” (Step 30, 18).
The Greek writer, Fotis Kontoglou said somewhere that “Faith is fire, and gives warmth to the heart. The Holy Spirit came down upon the heads of the apostles in the form of tongues of fire. The two disciples, when the Lord was revealed to them, said ‘Did not our heart burn within us, while He talked with us in the way?’ Christ compares faith to a ‘burning candle.’ Saint John the Forerunner said in his sermons that Christ will baptize men ‘in the Holy Spirit and fire.’ And truly, the Lord said, ‘I am come to send fire on the earth and what will I if it be already kindled?’ Well, the most tangible characteristic of faith is warmth; this is why they speak about ‘warm faith,’ or ‘faith provoking warmth.’ And even as the distinctive mark of faith is warmth, the sure mark of unbelief is coldness.
God is a loving fire, and He is a loving fire for all: good or bad. There is, however, a great difference in the way people receive this loving fire of God. Saint Basil says that “the sword of fire was placed at the gate of paradise to guard the approach to the tree of life; it was terrible and burning toward infidels, but kindly accessible toward the faithful, bringing to them the light of day.” The same loving fire brings the day to those who respond to love with love, and burns those who respond to love with hatred.
Paradise and hell are one and the same River of God, a loving fire which embraces and covers all with the same beneficial will, without any difference or discrimination. The same vivifying water is life eternal for the faithful and death eternal for the infidels; for the first it is their element of life, for the second it is the instrument of their eternal suffocation; paradise for the one is hell for the other. Do not consider this strange. The son who loves his father will feel happy in his father’s arms, but if he does not love him, his father’s loving embrace will be a torment to him. This also is why when we love the man who hates us, it is likened to pouring lighted coals and hot embers on his head.
“I say,” writes Saint Isaac the Syrian, “that those who are suffering in hell, are suffering in being scourged by love…. It is totally false to think that the sinners in hell are deprived of God’s love. Love is a child of the knowledge of truth, and is unquestionably given commonly to all. But love’s power acts in two ways: it torments sinners, while at the same time it delights those who have lived in accord with it” (Homily 84).
God is love. If we really believe this truth, we know that God never hates, never punishes, never takes vengeance. As Abba Ammonas says, “Love never hates anyone, never reproves anyone, never condemns anyone, never grieves anyone, never abhors anyone, neither faithful nor infidel nor stranger nor sinner nor fornicator, nor anyone impure, but instead it is precisely sinners, and weak and negligent souls that it loves more, and feels pain for them and grieves and laments, and it feels sympathy for the wicked and sinners, more than for the good, imitating Christ Who called sinners, and ate and drank with them. For this reason, showing what real love is, He taught saying, ‘Become good and merciful like your Father in Heaven,’ and as He rains on bad and good and makes the sun to rise on just and unjust alike, so also is the one who has real love, and has compassion, and prays for all.”
Now if anyone is perplexed and does not understand how it is possible for God’s love to render anyone pitifully wretched and miserable and even burning as it were in flames, let him consider the elder brother of the prodigal son. Was he not in his father’s estate? Did not everything in it belong to him? Did he not have his father’s love? Did his father not come himself to entreat and beseech him to come and take part in the joyous banquet? What rendered him miserable and burned him with inner bitterness and hate? Who refused him anything? Why was he not joyous at his brother’s return? Why did he not have love either toward his father or toward his brother? Was it not because of his wicked, inner disposition? Did he not remain in hell because of that? And what was this hell? Was it any separate place? Were there any instruments of torture? Did he not continue to live in his father’s house? What separated him from all the joyous people in the house if not his own hate and his own bitterness? Did his father, or even his brother, stop loving him? Was it not precisely this very love which hardened his heart more and more? Was it not the joy that made him sad? Was not hatred burning in his heart, hatred for his father and his brother, hatred for the love of his father toward his brother and for the love of his brother toward his father? This is hell: the negation of love; the return of hate for love; bitterness at seeing innocent joy; to be surrounded by love and to have hate in one’s heart. This is the eternal condition of all the damned. They are all dearly loved. They are all invited to the joyous banquet. They are all living in God’s Kingdom, in the New Earth and the New Heavens. No one expels them. Even if they wanted to go away they could not flee from God’s New Creation, nor hide from God’s tenderly loving omnipresence. Their only alternative would be, perhaps, to go away from their brothers and search for a bitter isolation from them, but they could never depart from God and His love. And what is more terrible is that in this eternal life, in this New Creation, God is everything to His creatures.
As Saint Gregory of Nyssa says, “In the present life the things we have relations with are numerous, for instance time, air, locality, food and drink, clothing, sunlight, lamplight, and other necessities of life, none of which, many though they be, are God; that blessed state which we hope for is in need of none of these things, but the Divine Being will become all, and in the stead of all to us, distributing Himself proportionately to every need of that existence. It is plain, too, from the Holy Scriptures that God becomes to those who deserve it, locality and home and clothing and food and drink and light and riches and kingdom, and everything that can be thought of and named that goes to make our life happy” (On the Soul and the Resurrection).
In the new eternal life, God will be everything to His creatures, not only to the good but also to the wicked, not only to those who love Him, but likewise to those who hate Him. But how will those who hate Him endure to have everything from the hands of Him Whom they detest? Oh, what an eternal torment is this, what an eternal fire, what a gnashing of teeth. ( Excerpts from Dr. Alexander Kalomiros – The River of Fire . A speech given to the 1980 Orthodox Conference in Seattle WA, July 22-25)
This is the Orthodox understanding. Heaven or hell are not dependent upon what we have done. They depend entirely on what we have become. It is the condition of our soul at death which determines the condition of our afterlife, and no amount of money tossed into a plate can buy a change in a soul’s condition. That is something that is from God’s grace alone, wrought in us as we cooperate with God’s energies working in our souls.
What does this mean? It means that you cannot simply buy a Scapular or Miraculous Medal and expect that you will be assured of heaven. That is making merchandise of God’s grace – and presuming upon it as well. You have to change.
On the website Orthodox.org I read a paper on the “Miracle at Fatima” which took place in 1917. In discussing Fatima, the author wanders into some of the very issues which I am addressing here:
On the occasion of the revelation in 1925, the so-called “Great Promise” was given; this promise states: “I promise to assist at the hour of death with the graces necessary for salvation all those who, on the first Saturday of five consecutive months, go to confession, receive Holy Communion, say the Rosary, and keep me company for fifteen minutes while meditating on the fifteen mysteries of the Rosary, with the object of making reparation to me.” This promise clarifies the Communion of Reparation of the First Saturdays which was mentioned in the third appearance in July, 1917.
Now first of all, this reception of communion in Roman Catholic churches is one of the two conditions for the conversion of Russia; but this is obviously unacceptable for Orthodox Christians. Further, the idea that the Theotokos could give one at death “all the graces necessary for salvation” entails a teaching which is completely foreign and contrary to Orthodoxy. The view of grace presented here is the very materialistic one associated with indulgences, as if grace were a commodity which could be stored and distributed; but grace is God’s uncreated energy at work in the world, not something that can be handed out by the saints in exchange for our good works. Our calling as Christians is to follow our Lord Jesus Christ in obedience to God in every aspect and moment of our lives; that obedience, possible only with the grace which comes from the new life in Christ which we receive in Baptism, brings us into a new relationship to God. To think that one could purchase one’s salvation by performing a few pious acts on five consecutive Saturdays trivializes the whole Christian life and makes a mockery of our Lord’s life, death, and resurrection.
In point of fact, the First Saturdays are another instance of the parallelism between the Immaculate Heart of Mary and the Sacred Heart of Jesus. In the seventeenth century Margaret-Mary Alacoque received this promise about the Sacred Heart of Jesus by special revelation: “In the greatness of the mercy of my Heart, its all powerful love will give to all those who receive Communion on the first Friday of every month for nine consecutive months, the grace of full repentance that they shall not die under my displeasure nor without receiving the sacraments, and that my Heart shall be their sure refuge at that last hour.
The most vivid picture of this Western thinking which comes to my mind is that scene in the Godfather where Fredo, having been caught betraying The Family, is taken fishing by one of his brother’s goons. Fredo knows the jig is up, and he begins to pray the Rosary in what appears to be a sort of last gasp attempt to do something to miss the fires of hell. But Fredo is not changed on the inside. If he were to somehow shoot the goon about to kill him and escape to Mexico, he would the same ego maniacal little gangster he has been all his life. And he would meet God in that way – his Rosary meant nothing. It was a last ditch attempt to escape punishment, to perhaps impress God and not get a hell-beating. This is a far cry from a sincere life of repentance and seeking God in which the soul experiences theosis in this life and becomes like Christ.
God is not bought off. His grace is not for sale. But more than that, He has saved the whole world through Christ Jesus, every man, woman, and child who will ever live.
Romans 5: 18 Therefore as by the offence of one judgment came upon all men to condemnation; even so by the righteousness of one the free gift came upon all men unto justification of life.
19 For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by the obedience of one shall many be made righteous.
It is not up to us to earn or buy our salvation. That is done – finished – finito – completed. Mankind is invited to enter into union with Christ Jesus through baptism into Him (Romans 6:3) and from there to begin the journey in to god-likeness. Roman soteriology does not talk about this process. They do have an understanding of Divinization (which is called Theosis in the East) but in fifteen years in the Catholic Church, I can count on one hand the number of times I have either heard about or read about this from the Roman Church. What I do see is this constant yammering that if you do this or do that, you are assured of heaven, sometimes on the non-stop direct express which passes Purgatory. I find such selling of God’s grace to be reprehensible at best, and an insult to the Gospel and the work of Christ. In a sense, it is “cheap grace.”
Now in all fairness to the Roman Church and Her dogmas, if you have a Scapular, pray the Divine Mercy, and you are in addition living a life of devotion to Christ and eschewing sin, then these things can be an additional help to you in your journey. But if you wear the Brown Scapular and that is the sum total of your devotion to Christ, expecting that He is going to welcome you into heaven simply because you have this lovely little piece of brown cloth around your neck – you are in for a most rude awakening. God’s grace to us does not work that way. It is synergistic, which means that as we cooperate with Him, obeying His commands and His Church, following the faith and receiving the Sacraments in good faith, He works mysteriously within us to make us more and more like Christ.
So what is my problem and why did I write this article. Because I’m not seeing a lot of this taught from the Roman Church. What I mostly read are articles in which sinners are promised eternal life because of what they have done – not because of what they are.
While this is not along the lines of the heretical teaching of Evangelicalism that once you “accept Jesus” you are set for heaven, it it close. This is one of the things that the Roman Church is going to have to change if there is to ever be reunion of the East and West.