I am in the process of listening to Fr. John Strickland’s excellent series of podcasts on the Christian faith, PARADISE AND UTOPIA. In them he traces the history of Christendom, starting a point before the schism of 1054 AD and showing the development of the particular doctrines and differences between Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism. It is, at least to me, a monumental work in that it makes the difficult clear and understandable, and gives a real insight as to why Christianity in the West developed as it has developed. I highly recommend them to anyone who is thirsty for a deeper understanding of why East and West are still divided some one thousand years after the sad events of that year.
In my third year of seminary (the year I was rather nastily thrown out of my studies by a bishop who didn’t even care to hear my side of the story) I became aware of the differences in how the East and the West approach theology. This was something new to me, having been raised in the West and having been imbued with a deeply Western understanding of God and the Last Judgment. Here it is in a nutshell:
GOD IS ANGRY WITH YOU AND IS GONNA WHUP YOU GOOD!!
Well, okay……I did engage in a tad of hyperbole there, but either spoken in sermons (a la Jonathan Edwards) or unspoken (your conscience being annoyed by the evil spirit who constantly reminds you of your sins), the message is the same. God is THE JUDGE and some day you are going to stand before Him and answer for all the bad stuff you have ever done. Such musings bring forth pictures of God as dour-faced, stern, angry, and ready to condemn. Sermons in many of the churches in our country – especially in the Fundamentalist South – reinforce this image, complete with lurid descriptions of the manner in which Jesus is going to get even with sinners for the audacity of them choosing sin over Him. The Roman Catholic Church is not exempt from such musings either, especially by those who identify themselves as TLM Catholics (Traditional Latin Mass). All the Catholic visions of the next life seen by their visionaries involve intense suffering and the great mass of people (like about 99% according to the famous sermon of St. Leonard of Port Maurice, in which he describes just about all people who will ever live winding up in hell forever) suffering eternal damnation.
Where did all this come from?
It came from the culture of the Roman Empire affecting and changing the Church, rather than the Church changing the culture around her. The development, practice, codification, and exercise of legal precept was premier in the Roman Empire. The Roman citizen was ruled by Roman Law. Within the framework of Roman Law was stability, security, and the ability to plead for justice, as we see St. Paul doing when he pleads Roman Law in order to defend himself. (Acts 22: 25-29, 23:27) For the Roman citizen, the Law was everything, and it was in the forefront of his thinking as he dealt with the complexities of life.
It is no surprise then that when the Sacred Scriptures were studied, the Roman mind would see the word “judgment” and think of a Roman court of law. And since the Christian faith was established in the Roman Empire, it was inevitable that the Roman law court thinking should come to color the understanding of the Sacred Scriptures.
Now at this point, dear reader, I can surely hear you respond to me, “But look at all the verses in the Bible that speak of judgment! How do you ignore them?” I am not suggesting that they be ignored. What I am saying is that we try to look at them without the cultural baggage that has been brought to bear on them by Roman thinking. There is another way of looking at them and understanding the context in which the word “judgment” is used. In this case, the context would be the whole of the Bible, starting with the character of God.
The Western mind appears to have lost any sense of what is meant when the Bible says “God is love.” Not that He loves, but that He is love. If God merely loved as a choice, then He could also choose to hate. He would have that option to change from love to hate and back to love again, much as we human beings do in responding to the vicissitudes of life.
4 Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5 It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7 It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. 8 Love never fails…. (1 Corinthians 13: 4-8)
This is God. How unlike the Western concept of God, Who is quickly and easily angered against the smallest of sins. In Western theology, rather than being patient, kind, and never failing, God is ever offended and in need of our sacrifices to propitiate that anger. These ideas come from viewing human beings as “lawbreakers,” and God as being utterly just in plunging them into the deepest of suffering forever for their sins.
But how does Jesus speak of us as sinners?
Matthew 9:11 And when the Pharisees saw it, they said unto his disciples, Why eateth your Master with publicans and sinners? 12 But when Jesus heard that, he said unto them, They that be whole need not a physician, but they that are sick.13 But go ye and learn what that meaneth, I will have mercy, and not sacrifice: for I am not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.
We are described as sick and in need of a physician. And this is, in my opinion, what the Last Judgment is all about. It is Dr. Jesus reviewing the Book of Life for each one of us, and making a judgment regarding the state of our soul. I wrote to Fr. Strickland and offered this view of the judgment of God:
“Regarding God as Judge. As I see it, there are two ways in which one could look at the act of judging. One is condemnation, i.e., with a presupposition of guilt leading to a sentence of some sort (i.e. the Roman mindset on this) and the second is that of a doctor making a judgment on a patient, based on the symptoms that are displayed (i.e., the medicinal Eastern view of salvation). I think the tendency in the West is to view God as Judge (and often in some posts, a quite upset, angry, and offended Judge) rather than as a physician looking at us in our illnesses and making a judgment (“Hmm………..well, this particular patient has ______ and needs _________ to be cured).”
Father wrote back and said he rather liked that description of the judgment.
What will be the judgment? Will it be that we need eternal fire that never ends and never accomplishes anything other than giving God a chance to vent His spleen against those who refused to repent in this life? That doesn’t meet any of the criteria of love as found in 1 Corinthians 13. And it certainly doesn’t meet the picture of our loving heavenly Father as given to us in the Parable of the Prodigal Son.
Love never fails. Western theology says that the One who is love will indeed fail to redeem all those whom He has created. Some will just be too tough to crack. Poor God. He won’t be able to bring them to repentance, either in this life, or the next one, or for all eternity. Or maybe you are one of those who thinks that even if eternal fiery hell is bursting at the seams with sinners who will suffer torment forever, God still won a great victory at the Cross. I’ve had numerous Roman Catholic and Protestant apologists tell me that even with all the people who will be in hell forever, God somehow is the winner over Satan.
That’s not a victory in my book.
No, a victory to me is Dr. Jesus prescribing just what each one of us needs to be brought to our knees in sorrow, repentance, and obedience to Him. It is Him passing judgment by saying, “Now I judge that this one needs to feel the pain he caused his wife by his selfishness. Let him feel every sorrow she felt. Let him see himself not as he fancied himself to be, but as I saw him. Let it cut down right into his heart and break it open in sorrow. I know that this is what he needs, and I know that he will be crushed and brought to repentance by that experience. So let it be”
Eastern Christian prayers speak of “the awesome and fearful Judgment Seat of God.” But the fearful part of that judgment is not eternal hell – it is something far worse. It is to be seen exactly as we really are, with all the pretense, lies and falsehood stripped away. For many people, to see clearly the pain, the sorrow, and the damage we have done to others by our selfishness will be a burning fire in our souls.
It is exactly the medicine we need.