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The Judgment of Love | Reflecting on Sunday of the Last Judgment

Mercy at the Dreadful Judgment of Love

The Dreadful Judgment

The Dreadful Judgment — why is it called dreadful, and who should dread it? In today's “post-Christian” world, this concept may not hold significance, except for those few who still strive to follow Christ as best they can. Yet the dreadful judgment is not simply about dread, for what could be more joyful for a true disciple of Christ than meeting the Teacher whose love he constantly feels? The Judgment of Love, where God is Love and whoever abides in love abides in God becomes the focal point for Christians.

God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God in him (1 John 4:16). For a Christian, there is no greater treasure than love and dwelling in it, while the fear of losing this love is the ultimate terror. This fear of the Lord, described by the Psalmist as the beginning of wisdom and the foundation of good understanding (Proverbs 1:7), guides their entire lives.

King Solomon likens this instructive fear to a school (Proverbs 15:33), and Jesus, the Son of Sirach, sees it as wisdom surpassing all wisdom (Cf Sirach 25:14).

This fear is not a dread, but more a path to knowledge, both rational and mystical, that elevates a person to higher levels. It has nothing in common with the natural fear for one's preservation, which is rooted in our fallen state. Some holy fathers even consider this fear of death as the hidden cause of all sins, carrying us into the abyss like a fiery river of sinners in the fresco of the Dreadful Judgment.

The Second and Dreadful Coming of Our Lord Jesus Christ

The Second and Dreadful Coming of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Mid-16th century. Church of the Intercession in Lyadiny Village (Kargopol District, Arkhangelsk Region, Russia).

Indeed, there are different kinds of fear, as the Apostle John the Theologian has pointed out. Contrasting love and fear, he wrote: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear because fear involves torment. But he who fears has not been made perfect in love.” (1 John 4:18). As Christ's love grows within a person, the torment from fear diminishes, and this is true even for those who may face eternal torment. The parable read on the Sunday of the Dreadful Judgment (Matthew 25:31‒46) sheds light on who may endure eternal torment and how to avoid it. And, essentially, there is nothing new said here. Is it anything more than a vivid, concrete illustration of what has been said in the Scripture repeatedly by prophets and Christ Himself, who commanded us in the Sermon on the Mount to be merciful, for then we will be shown mercy, and elsewhere — be merciful, just as your Father is merciful (Luke 6:36)? Or maybe of the words of Apostle James: judgment without mercy to the one who has shown no mercy (James 2:13)?

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Mercy is not just a virtue but a necessity and, as Metropolitan Antony of Sourozh suggests, a sufficient condition for attaining eternal life. He writes: “At the Dreadful Judgment, God will not inquire about our faith, beliefs, or outward displays of piety. Instead, the Lord will ask us one crucial question: Were we humane in our actions towards others? Did we show compassion to the hungry by giving them food? Did we care to shelter the homeless and offer them warmth and security? When someone we knew fell into disgrace and ended up in prison, did we set aside our shame and visit them? And when we had extra possessions, did we share them with those in need? These simple acts of kindness and mercy are all that the Lord asks about when speaking of the Dreadful Judgment.”

Anthony, Metropolitan of Sourozh

Anthony, Metropolitan of Sourozh

The parable should be seen in the broader context of Christ's teachings on entering His Kingdom, based on faith in Him and God, following Him, and partaking in His Flesh and Blood. This teaching extends beyond the Jews or Christians, applying to all peoples. It sets a minimum standard for everyone: to be human; and this determines our eternal fate, regardless of our background. Like a shepherd separating sheep from goats, the Judge will categorize humanity based on this fundamental distinction: those who exemplify true humanity and those who do not.

The Serbian Patriarch Pavle wrote: “We do not choose where, when, or among whom we are born, but we do choose whether to be human or inhuman.” The choice is ours, and we will be held responsible for it. Some might choose to avoid making a decision, but because it is also a choice, it condemns us to torment. This torment may differ from that experienced by sinners placed in the nine circles of the underworld based on the severity of their crimes. If we fail to make a decision or if our choice proves to be wrong, we may face torment both in this life and beyond.

Service at the Psychoneurological Nursing Home for the Elderly and Disabled No.3

Service at the Psychoneurological Nursing Home for the Elderly and Disabled No.3 in Minsk

“The unhappy fate of many people,” writes the renowned psychoanalyst and sociologist Erich Fromm, “is the consequence of their unmade choice. They are neither alive nor dead. Life turns out to be a burden, a barren occupation, and deeds only a means of protection from the torments of existence in the realm of shadows.”

In the realm of shadows lies a world akin to the biblical land of forgetfulness and the shadow of death, encompassing Jewish Sheol, Greek Hades, Tartarus, and the netherworld of ancient civilizations. For those who fail to make a choice, this world becomes a haunting place of the living dead, unworthy, or, in the words of Dante's “Comedy,” of either heaven or hell. These are indeed unfortunate souls, whom “neither God nor His enemies will take”, and are not even worth speaking about.

“Those who renounce the great gift of life in cowardice are not even worth mentioning,” writes Virgil to his companion. This suggests that every living man and woman has been endowed with a great inheritance. The refusal to embrace this gift, which is destined for all the living, leaves one adrift in a purposeless existence. As Dante observes, those who evade choice are but “pitiful people who never were alive,” devoid of true vitality.

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Likewise, Fromm writes of existence as “a dynamic process of unveiling one's inherent potentials. The realisation of these potentials is intrinsic to all organisms, with the unfolding of human capabilities representing the ultimate aim of life. However, true fulfilment is only attained when an individual transcends their individuality to embrace universality, thereby surpassing the limitations of the self.”

The parable of the silver talent serves as a stark reminder of the imperative to cultivate and multiply the gifts bestowed upon us. Failure to nurture these talents and offer them back with interest condemns one to the outer darkness inhabited by ungrateful servants who squandered their master's trust, believing he was just as evil and ungrateful as they were. Christ underscores the necessity of abiding in Him to bear fruit: “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5, NIV).

Icon of the Saviour "The True Vine"

Icon of the Saviour "The True Vine"

Furthermore, since God is love, any labour that lacks love is futile and may even be harmful, as it fails to cultivate love and, ultimately, salvation.

Regarding the lambs, it is only at the Judgment of Christ that they come to understand that their acts of compassion towards the hungry, naked, prisoners, and sick were acts of mercy shown to Christ Himself. This lack of awareness leads them to perform good deeds without recognizing their significance or goodness. In a sense, they are unaware of the good they are doing, echoing the Savior's words about the right hand not knowing what the left hand is doing. This serves as a measure of the genuineness of good deeds in other contexts.

The love for our neighbour, a commandment impossible to fulfil without love for Love itself, becomes ingrained in the nature of the “sheep,” just as the lack of love becomes the defining trait of the “goats.” Each is rewarded or punished according to their nature, leading some to suffering and others to bliss, both in life and beyond. This same principle extends to the eternal fire, offering a hellish, unilluminating flame for some and a heavenly coolness for others. Surprisingly, as Isaac of Syria posits, both outcomes are manifestations of God's Love. He suggests that those tormented in hell are overwhelmed by an excess of love. The torments of love, he argues, can be more bitter and merciless than any other punishment. Sinners, feeling the weight of their transgressions against love, bear a curse more potent than any physical torment. It is erroneous to believe that those in hell are devoid of God's love. Love transcends measurement; its power manifests in two ways: tormenting sinners, akin to the anguish felt by one who has betrayed a friend in the presence of that friend, and bringing joy to the faithful. In this light, the torment of hell is seen as a form of repentance.

The Judgment of the Lord will be truly dreadful only for those who, though born as humans, failed to embrace their humanity. For those in whom the image of God, the image of Christ's love, was buried in the ground like a talent, eternal torment awaits. This torment is characterized by the anguish of belated and futile repentance, the despair of “being unable to love anymore,” as Dostoevsky describes hell following the Mark of Isaac. It is noteworthy that this parable was delivered by the Savior in Jerusalem shortly after the parable of the talents, just two days before Easter and one day before the crucifixion, serving as a final and profoundly ominous warning.

Feast of the Exaltation of the Precious and Life-Giving Cross of the Lord

Feast of the Exaltation of the Precious and Life-Giving Cross of the Lord at St. Elisabeth Convent in Minsk

Make haste to love! In this famous expression of Dr. Haase, we find the essence of the message: good deeds may sometimes be done for selfish reasons, even in pursuit of a heavenly reward. However, the sheep entering eternal life did so without realizing the goodness of their actions.

The judgment will be merciless for those who lack mercy, and vice versa. In the Gospel of John, we encounter the comforting words: “Very truly I tell you, whoever hears My word and believes Him Who sent Me has eternal life and will not be judged but has crossed over from death to life” (John 5:24). It is striking that these words are often recited at funerals, offering solace to those mourning their departed loved ones like no others.

Konstantin Kravtsov

March 10, 2024
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