The End of the World (Universal Judgment)
Bishop Alexander (Mileant)
Universal JudgmentAmong numerous testimonies of the future Judgment, the most complete description of it we find in the Gospel of St. Matthew, 25:31-46: "When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the holy angels with Him, then He will sit on the throne of His glory. All the nations will be gathered before Him, and He will separate them one from another, as a shepherd divides his sheep from the goats. And He will set the sheep on His right hand, but the goats on the left …" See also: John 5:22-29, Mt. 16:27, 7:21-23, 11:22-24, 12:35-42, 13:37-43, 19:29-30, 25:31-46, Acts. 17:31, Jude 14-15, 2 Cor. 5:10, Rom. 2:5-7, 14:10, 1 Cor. 4:5, Eph. 6:8, Col. 3:24-25, 2 Thes. 1:6-10, 2 Tim. 4:1, Rev. 20:11-15).
Through this pattern in Matthew one can learn about some particulars of the Last Judgment, namely, that it will be universal, extending to all peoples — both living and dead, of both good and evil — and will extend to fallen angels as well, as inferred by other scriptural indications. This Judgment will be solemn and open, as the Judge will appear before the face of the whole world in His Divine glory, surrounded by innumerable Angels. It will be stern and fearful, being accomplished in the entirety of God's justice, and it will be "the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God" (Rom. 2:5). It will be final and decisive, determining for eternity the fate of each individual. Its results will be perpetual retribution — either blessedness and bliss for the righteous, or rejection and torment for the condemned sinners.
Portraying in the brightest and most joyful details the eternal life of the righteous following the Universal Judgment, the Word of God speaks just as emphatically and assuredly about the eternal torment of sinners: "Depart from Me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels," will say the Lord on the day of Judgment. "And these will go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into eternal life" (Mt. 25:41-46).
The place where sinners will be condemned after the Judgment is graphically represented in Holy Scripture as a place of horrible sufferings from unquenchable fire and the undying worm. The Lord called this place Gehenna, reminding the Jews of the dreadful valley to the south of Jerusalem in which evildoers were executed and in which the city's rubbish was constantly burnt. Similarly, St. Paul speaks of the "flaming fire taking vengeance on those who do not know God, and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ" (2 Thes. 1:8). In the book of Revelation this place of eternal sufferings is called the "lake of fire" (Rev. 19:20). Evidently these and other similar vivid descriptions in the Scripture symbolically portray the severity of the punishments.
"I know," writes St. John Chrysostom, "that many are terrified of Gehenna, but I think that the deprivation of the bliss of God's Kingdom is the worst of torments, even worse than Gehenna … Many foolish people desire only to be delivered from Gehenna, but I think that he who is deprived of the Kingdom of Heaven should weep not so much over the torments of Gehenna as over being deprived of the good things of Heaven. For this alone is the cruelest of all punishments" (Homily 25 on Matthew and Homily 1 to Theodore).
Some ancient heretics (like the followers of Origen) claimed that demons and sinners will suffer in hell only up to a certain period and later will be restored to their previous pure state. This doctrine is known as Apokatastasis. However, the Church, basing itself on God's word, teaches that the torments of Gehenna will be eternal and unending. The Fathers of the Fifth Ecumenical Council officially rejected the false teaching of Apokatastasis. Attempts to understand the torments of Gehenna in the relative sense of a certain period, perhaps lengthy but finite, reappear from time to time. Some sectarians go as far as to entirely deny the reality of infernal torments. In support of their views they bring logical considerations like the disharmony between torments in hell and God's infinite love, the seeming discrepancy between temporary misdeeds and eternal punishments, or the discrepancy of these punishments with the ultimate purpose of the creation of mankind, which is blessedness in God.
In considering these and similar arguments we should remember that it is not for us to determine the boundaries between the unutterable mercy of God and His absolute justice. We know the Lord "wishes that all will be saved, and come to the knowledge of the truth." However, man, through his own free will, is capable of rejecting God's mercy and all His means of salvation. St. John Chrysostom, explaining the depiction of the Last Judgment in the Gospel of Matthew, remarks: "When the Lord spoke of the Kingdom, He said: "Come you blessed ones, inherit the Kingdom," and added, "Which was prepared for you from the beginning of creation. "But when He spoke of the fire, He didn't use the same words; instead He said that it was prepared for the devil and his angels. Thus He made the Kingdom for you, but the fire not for you, but for the devil and his fallen angels." (From the sermon on the gospel of Matthew). In the book of Revelation St. John calls the condemnation at the Universal Judgment the second death.
We do not have the right to take the Lord's words as only a threat or as a certain pedagogical method used for the rehabilitation of sinners. Bishop Theophan the Recluse explains: "The righteous will enter eternal life, and the satanized sinners into eternal punishment in community with the demons. Will these torments end? If satanism and becoming like satan will end, then torments may end too. But is there an end to satanism and becoming like satan? We will behold and see this then. But until then we shall believe that just as eternal life will have no end, so eternal torment that threatens sinners will also have no end. What did satan not see after his fall! How he himself was struck by the power of the Lord's Cross! How up to now all his cunningness and malice are defeated by this power! But still he is incorrigible; he constantly opposes; and the farther he goes, the more stubborn he becomes. No, there is no hope at all for him to be corrected! … This means that there must be hell with eternal torments."
However, the concept of anger in relation to God is conditional and pictorial, as we learn from the teachings of Blessed Anthony the Great. He says: "God is benevolent, dispassionate and unchangeable. Now some who think it reasonable to affirm that God does not change may well ask how in that case it is possible to speak of God as rejoicing over the righteous and showing mercy to those who honor Him, while He rejects the evil doers, is angry at sinners, and when they repent He shows them mercy. To this one should say that in reality God neither rejoices nor grows angry, as gladness and anger are human passions. It is improper to think of God as becoming good or bad on account of a human's deeds. God is good and only does good. He does not harm anyone, and always remains the same. And we, when we are kind, enter into communion with God, due to likeness with Him, and when we become evil, then we move away from Him due to unlikeness with him … Therefore, to say God turns away from evildoers is the same as to say that the sun hides itself from the blind" (Philokalia v. 1).
Many writings of Christian ascetics explain that the higher someone rises morally, the keener he recognizes his responsibility before God and the stronger his hope for God's mercy and love towards Him.
Kingdom of Glory.
With the transformation of this world into a new and better one, the eternal Kingdom of God will begin. Then the earthly Kingdom of Grace — the militant Church on earth, to which we belong — will merge with its heavenly counterpart — the Kingdom of Glory. Then the Son of God will reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, and "His Kingdom shall have no end," as the Angel Gabriel proclaimed to the Virgin Mary (Lk. 1:33). Cyril of Jerusalem comments about this, saying: "For will not He who reigned before overthrowing His enemies, reign all the more after He has conquered them?" (Cathetical Lectures).
Then death will lose all its power over the righteous: "The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death … So when this corruptible has put on incorruption, and this mortal has put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written: "Death is swallowed up in victory," states St. Paul (1 Cor. 15:26 and 54). The book of Revelation predicts that then time will cease to exist. Apparently in that eternal spiritual world not only will the sensation of the flow of time disappear, but also the very concepts of space and time will be drastically different from what they are now.
Chapter 21 of the book of Revelation vividly depicts the blissful state of eternal life: "And I saw a new heaven and a new earth, as the previous heaven and earth have gone, and the sea is no more." In the Kingdom of Glory all will be spiritual, immortal, and holy. Most importantly, those attaining eternity in communion with God will become partakers of that perfect union with Him Who is the ultimate Source of all life and happiness. In particular, the new members of God's Kingdom share with the Angels the honor and happiness of seeing their Creator and Benefactor. They will contemplate His glory, not as if through dim glass, not conjecturally, but face to face — and not only contemplate but also partake in His Divine Life, shining like the sun in the Kingdom of their Father. They will become co-heirs with Christ and will share with Him His glory (Rev. 3:21; 2 Tim. 2:11-12). As the book of Revelation describes: "they shall neither hunger anymore nor thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them, nor any heat; for the Lamb who is in the midst of the throne will shepherd them and lead them to living fountains of water. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes." It will be as the prophet Isaiah summarizes: "Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, Nor have entered into the heart of man The things which God has prepared for those who love Him" (Rev. 7:16-17; Is. 64:4; 1 Cor. 2:9).
Blessedness in God will be more desirable in that it will have no end: "and the righteous will enter life eternal." Nevertheless, according to the Fathers of the Church, even glory in God has its levels proportional to the spiritual level of each person. This belief is based on the following explicit statements of Holy Scripture: "In my Father's house are many mansions … God will give to everyone according to his deeds … There is one glory of the sun, another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; for one star differs from another star in glory" (Is. 64:4; 1 Cor. 2:9; John 14:2, Mt. 16:27, 1 Cor. 3:8, 15:41).
St. Ephrem the Syrian explains this as follows: "Just as everyone enjoys the rays of the sensual sun according to the purity of his power of seeing, and just as when a lamp illuminates a large room, each ray is perceived as coming from that same source, similarly it will be in the future age: all the righteous will share inseparably of a single joy, but each in his own degree will be illumined by the single spiritual Sun, and to the degree of his worth he will draw in joy and rejoicing as if in a single atmosphere and place. No one will see the degrees that are higher or lower, lest looking on the surpassing grace of another and upon his own deprivation, he will thereby have some cause for sorrow and disturbance. This cannot be there, where there is neither sorrow nor sighing. But there everyone will rejoice inwardly according to the grace proper to him, while outwardly all will have a single contemplation and a single joy" (Sermon On the Heavenly Mansions).