Today’s topic is: “He shall come again in glory.” For the last couple of weeks, we’ve been talking about the difference between Hades, the abode of the dead, and Gehenna, the state of final damnation following the Last Judgment.
Last week we talked about how the confusion between these states helped lead to the development of the Roman Catholic doctrine of Purgatory. I finished up last week by stating that if we really want to understand these topics, we have to view them from the perspective of the Last Judgment, since both the New Testament as well as our Liturgical hymnody point us toward this event.
The first thing I want to point out today is that the Second Coming of our Lord is the Last Judgment. And the Last Judgment is nothing other than the appearance of our Lord in all His glory, that is, we cannot separate the appearance of Christ from His judgment. For the Orthodox, the fire of Gehenna is nothing other than the presence or the glory of Christ. That is what St. Paul says in 2nd Thessalonians Chapter 1 when he speaks of the damned being punished from the presence of Christ and the glory of his power.
Now as a Southern Baptist, I would have interpreted that verse as meaning that sinners are cast away from the presence of Christ, into a fiery pit, where Christ cannot be because He cannot be near sin. However, the Greek word for “from,” apo, can also mean “from, as from a source.” Indeed, if you look at the entire context of this passage, you will see this is the most likely meaning of Verse 9. When Christ returns in glory, as our Lord taught us, and as we confess every Sunday in the Creed, He will, as St. Paul says, “be all in all.” There will be no place where God isn’t. It is therefore the very presence of Christ, which will either be blessedness for the saints or condemnation for sinners.
Now I’m well aware that there are passages in the Scriptures that depict damnation as a casting away, such as the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats. But I would point out here that the Scriptures employ many metaphors for the Judgment, just as it employs many different metaphors for salvation. There is however a hierarchy among these metaphors. Some are more primary than others. On the whole, the Church Fathers understand the Last Judgment and final damnation of the wicked as suffering from the presence of the Lord and not as being cast away from His presence. As St. Isaac the Syrian famously said, “Gehenna is the love of God,” that is, it is the loving presence of God to those who cannot or will not respond to His love. And of course, Dostoevsky picked up on this theme in The Brothers Karamazov.
The second thing that I want to point out about the Second Coming and Last Judgment is that it is the final consummation of the Incarnation, and therefore, the consummation of creation itself. You see, for us, the Incarnation was not Plan B. God did not suddenly look down from Heaven one day and notice that mankind had fallen into sin, and then decide “Well, I’d better send my Son to fix all this.” On the contrary, the Fathers teach us that the world was created with the Incarnation in view. That means that the Incarnation did not begin with the Annunciation to the Virgin, but at the very moment that God began to speak the cosmos into existence. The cosmos was created by the Word and for the Word. That is what the Scripture means when it says that Christ was the firstborn of all creation.
The Second Coming of Christ, then, is the consummation of God’s pre-eternal plan for the entire cosmos. It is the final revelation of God, not only to but within His creation. Now if we take this big picture view of things, from the first moment of Creation to the Second Coming, we can begin to understand what death is and how it relates to the Final Judgment. The fall of mankind represents our failure to live up to our priestly and kingly vocation, as living beings created in the image of God. St. Basil says that man is the only creature with orders to become like God.
Death was the inevitable result of that failure. Now notice a couple of things here. First, God did not say that He would kill Adam and Eve if they ate the forbidden fruit, but that they would surely die. In other words, death was not presented in the Bible as a punishment but as a consequence. Second, Adam and Eve did not in fact die the day they ate of the tree, at least not physically. This tells us that physical death is in fact the consequence of the spiritual death, the break of the communion with God that Adam and Eve imposed upon themselves with their disobedience.
We must understand, therefore, that death is a continuum of sorts that embraces both the lack of communion with God and the disillusion of the psychosomatic unity of man. The latter follows from the former. Because man was created in the image of God, that is in the image of Christ, death is a profoundly unnatural state. We as Orthodox Christians do not believe that a disembodied soul is a complete human being. That is why the Scriptures call death an enemy, in fact, the last enemy to be overcome. That is also why we insist on the centrality of the physical resurrection.
At the same time however that we speak of death as an enemy and of Christ’s Resurrection as a victory over death and Hades, the Fathers also look at death as a gift, of sorts, of God’s providence, that is to say, God allows death as a means to bring us to repentance. Death mocks us. It mocks the fortunes we work so hard to accumulate. It mocks the buildings we build and upon which we inscribe our names. It even mocks the human relationships that we build as we watch our loved ones lowered into the earth. In short, death shows us the utter futility of life lived out of communion with God, the only source of light and life for mankind.
When our Lord assumed our human nature from the Virgin, as He had intended from the very beginning, He assumed not only the best and highest aspects of our nature, created in His image, He also assumed all of the consequences of our fall, including death itself. Christ’s descent into Hades represents this kenotic assumption of the lowest depths of the human experience. Consequently, His Resurrection from the tomb on the third day represents the complete and utter victory over sin and death and the restoration of humanity to its pre-eternal calling. And yet, people still die.
How then can we affirm with St. John Chrysostom at the Paschal Liturgy that not one dead remains in the tomb, when graveyards all over the world are full? Well to understand this, we have to take into consideration what Fr. John Meyendorff liked to call “the Time Factor.” God, of course, exists outside of time, but creation exists within time. Christ is the firstborn of all creation; the last Adam who was before the first Adam. Yet, He was born at a specific point in human history. He lived on Earth for 33 years or so and was crucified at a specific time on a specific day in a specific place.
Now, you and I also live within time, but more precisely, the time between our Lord’s Ascension into Heaven and His Second Coming. And yet, to the extent that we are united with Christ in Baptism and live according to His Spirit, we also live, at the same time, outside of time. We experience this especially in the sacramental life of the Church, where not only are the events of the past are made present to us but also the consummation of the ages.
That is why in the Liturgy, just after the Words of Institution and before the Consecration of the Gifts, the celebrant says “Remembering all that has come to pass for us, the Cross, the tomb, the Resurrection on the third day, the Ascension into Heaven, the sitting at the right hand, and the Second and Glorious Coming.”
Do you see? We actually remember the Second Coming. Now that context, what theologians like to call “eschatological time,” is the context in which we must try to understand the fate of the dead prior to the general resurrection. To the extent that a person is united with Christ and is able to bear His presence here and now, then death cannot possibly separate him or her from Christ, which of course is precisely what St. Paul confirms. And yet, we must also stress that this state, which we sometimes refer to as blessed repose, is not the state of final blessedness. That state will only be attained at the resurrection, because human beings were created as psychosomatic unities, not as disembodied spirits.
But what of those who are not united with Christ in this life, who die in a state in which their souls are unprepared to abide in the presence of the Lord of Glory? Well, this is where the Church still uses the term Hades, not Gehenna mind you, but Hades. It is a state of sorrowful anticipation of the Last Judgment. But some will ask, “I thought Christ emptied Hades?” Well, He did, when He raises all people from the dead. Remember, we have to think in terms of “eschatological time” here.
Now several other questions arise at this point. Why do we pray for the salvation of Christian souls? Aren’t Christians saved already? Are we allowed to pray for the non-Orthodox? Is there a chance that someone in Hades might be saved before the Last Judgment? Well, I’ll get to all of these questions next week when I wrap up the series on Hades and Gehenna. Until then, let us remind ourselves that this life is the arena appointed for our salvation and let us make the most of it.
…And now may our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, through the intercessions of St. Innocent of Alaska and the Blessed Elder Sophronius Sakharov, have mercy upon us all and grant us a rich entrance into His eternal kingdom.