Our topic that we are going to be discussing today, is the last judgment. Now, the last judgment is one of those topics that is misunderstood. It is feared. It is a topic that we do not really know a tremendous amount, and yet, seemingly, have a lot to say, about, at least in some Christian circles. And just about everybody who knows something about Christianity knows that, as a major teaching within our Church, within the Christian teaching, we believe that God will judge all of us for our sins.
However, I would like to try to put a point of clarity on the last judgment, or at least approach it from a different perspective, to try to express just what exactly is happening, when Christians, specifically, classic Orthodox Christians, talk about the last judgment, when we read in the scriptures, or the fathers, about the coming again of Christ.
I would like to share a few thoughts on this subject. First of all, most people struggle, even Christians struggle, with the concept of a last judgment, simply because they struggle with the concept of who Jesus is, in the first place. It seems to me that we absolutely have to say, that if we believe that God became incarnate in the God-man Jesus Christ, then He will again come in glory on the last day, and that there will, in fact, be a last judgment. In other words, if we are going to proclaim the incarnation, then we also have to proclaim the last judgment. It is a logical conclusion, in fact, to the Incarnation, and I will explain why in a short bit.
However, what is really a problem for a lot of people when they think about this topic is, the concept of Jesus coming back and being the judge, that He would come back and judge all of us. And that is largely because very many people have a distorted view of who Jesus was in the first place, when He walked through the streets of Jerusalem, and traveled between Jericho and Jerusalem, and traveled, really, the highways and byways of Palestine at the time. People generally tend to think of Jesus as this kind, loving, compassionate teacher, and there is no doubt, of course, that He was love incarnate, that He was kindness incarnate, and that He was compassionate, even to the point of being compassionate from the cross, and being crucified for the sins, and by the sins, of the world. However, He was certainly not nice, in the way that we want Him maybe to be nice.
This is the same Jesus, of course, who aroused the sheer anger and hatred of so many of the authorities of the day, simply by standing up to them. He was not afraid, for instance, to turn the tables of the money changers over in the courts of the temple. I often think about that, especially that one little verse, in which it says that Jesus made a whip of cords, and I think about how premeditated that event was. Jesus had to find the cords, and perhaps He had to buy the cords, but He had to bind them up and put them together to make His own whip of cords, so that He could drive, not just the money changers, but all of the animals and the livestock that they were selling in the temple courtyard.
So, He would also, in fact, be able to stand up against the Pharisees: “Woe to you, Scribes and Pharisees,” He said over and over again. And He was not Mr. Nice Guy. The other problem is, that people are generally stuck with a kind of air-brushed image of Jesus in their minds. They imagine the Jesus of this kind of bearded lady of kitschy artwork and they do not realize that the Jesus whom the apostles preach, whom the church proclaims, and with whom every authentic disciple is in relationship, is a Jesus who has ascended and been enthroned. In fact, the Jesus that we are in relationship with, is the very Jesus transfigured on Mt. Tabor, at which, Peter, James and John could not even gaze, but were thrust down, as in the icon, and tried to veil themselves against the glory of the revelation of who He is.
If we want to get a clear understanding of exactly who the Jesus is that we are in relationship with, through the church and our Eucharistic communion with the apostles and all of the angels, and the whole host of heaven, we only have to read the book of Revelation. Now, the book of Revelation was written by St. John, of course, the beloved disciple, the one who leaned upon the Lord’s breast, the one whom Jesus had a special friendship, a special relationship with, among all of the disciples. So, he was somebody that clearly knew Jesus, ate with Him, walked with Him, slept beside Him, all those years that He was traveling through Palestine, preaching the Kingdom of Heaven. Here is how he described Jesus: John is in the Spirit on the Lord’s day, of course, at the beginning of the book of Revelation. He is on the island called Patmos, because he is exiled there because of the preaching of the word and the testimony, the witness, the martyria, that he was giving to Jesus, and he suddenly hears behind him the loud voice, the sound of a trumpet, the announcement, and he hears the voice, “Write in a book what you see and send it to the seven churches, ” and then there is the list of the seven churches: Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea. But then, he turns to see the voice that was speaking with him, and he sees seven golden lampstands, and he describes how in the middle of the seven lampstands, he sees one, he says, like a Son of Man. And he describes this one like a Son of Man: He says he is clothed in a robe reaching to the feet and girded across his breast with a golden girdle. And he says that His head and His hair were like white wool, like snow. And he says that His eyes were like a flame of fire. His feet were like burnished bronze when it is being caused to glow at a furnace. His voice was like the sound of many waters, and in His right hand he held seven stars, and out of his mouth came a sharp, two-edged sword, and His face was like the sun shining in its strength.
Now, this is how he is describing the risen, ascended, and enthroned Jesus—the God-man, and he is describing Him in very emphatic, apocalyptic terms. He is describing Him as having the robe reaching to His feet and being girded across His breast with a girdle. These are images from Exodus and Leviticus, indicating that He is a high priest, but also the golden girdle is the fact that He is King, that He is wearing the kingly garment, the golden girdle about Him. He describes how His hair was white, like wool, and this symbolizes His eternality and is an image from Daniels’s Ancient of Days. He describes how His eyes were like flame of fire, and this signifies knowledge, supreme knowledge, omnipotence. Then, he describes Him as having feet that were burnished, like bronze, which symbolizes His permanence, His stability, His everlasting presence. His voice, he says, was like the sound of many waters, signifying the authority of His teaching. In His right hand are the seven stars, the churches, the whole of the Church in His right hand, and from His mouth come His sword, signifying His power, signifying the fact that He speaks what is truthful, He speaks that which creates and destroys the world. This is the Jesus with whom we are in relationship, and this is, in fact, the Jesus that will return again on the last day to judge heaven and earth, to judge all men, all of whom will be raised before Him.
Now, a lot could be said about that, we could go in all kinds of different directions. We could talk about what happens to the soul after death. When do we come before God? What will happen? We know, of course, in symbolic language, that the books will be opened, that there will be the river of fire. We have, in Luke’s gospel, the statement by the Lord, Himself, that the Son of Man will come, and with Him, all His angels, which is a terrifying idea, just a terrifying thought, considering that just one angel is enough to knock any human being, a human being like an Ezekiel, or an Isaiah, or a Daniel, on their faces, but in this case it is all the holy angels. We could talk about all those things, and certainly all those things do present a kind of scary image of what will happen on the last day, and there is no doubt that we ought to conduct ourselves in fear and in trembling, preparing ourselves for that last judgment. However, I also want to say, that as fearful and trembling as it might actually be, we can also say that this is something, at least, in the apostolic mind, this is something that we should be looking forward to. This is something that we should be encouraging, and even, according to St. Peter’s second catholic epistle, we should be hastening through our own actions. We should be crying out for the Lord to come in glory, and to judge the earth. And we do! In fact, on Holy Saturday, we all cry out in the church, “Arise, oh God, and judge the earth!” And we do not just mean that He rises from the dead and His resurrection, His ascension and enthronement, is a judgment upon all of the wickedness, and the devil, and the death of this world, but that He would come again in the same glory, and that he would bring the finality of justice to the world.
However, all these things, as scary as they are, I would say, are almost incidental to the more terrifying fact of the manner of his coming.
And I want to tell you about that through an analogy to an ancient story. Many hundreds of years before Christ, Himself, we had the recorded poems of Homer, notably, the Iliad and the Odyssey. The ancients used to say that the Iliad was for the young men, the Odyssey was for the old men. And in the Odyssey, we follow the adventures of a man named Odysseus. Odysseus was a very resourceful, brilliant man. He was less a fighter, like Achilles, and more of a tactician. He was the one who came up with the idea for the Trojan horse, and settled the war and the siege of Troy.
In his second epic poem, Homer describes the journey home by Odysseus. Odysseus offends the gods at the very beginning of the story, and spends the rest of the epic going from one misadventure to the other, desperately trying to get to his beloved home in Ithaca, and more importantly, and the thing that carried him through the whole of the journey, was getting home to his beloved Penelope, his wife, and to his son, Telemachus. Now, when Odysseus finally does get home, he discovers before he gets to his palace that his home is overrun with suitors. They have been waiting 20 years for Penelope to give up her hope that Odysseus would ever return, so that one of them might marry her, and all of these suitors, to a greater or lesser degree, have abused Odysseus’ palace. They have profaned his name. They have killed his cattle, they have drunk all of his wine; they have taken over the palace, and made it into a den of robbers and thieves.
Odysseus finds out about all this and he is furious. But he realizes he cannot just walk in there. He needs a plan to take his palace back. So, he goes disguised, with one of the gods’ help, as a beggar and an old man, just to see what is happening in the palace, and when he gets there, he is abused, and laughed at, and ridiculed. But in the meantime, Odysseus meets with all of the faithful servants in his household, and he tells them what is going to happen. And he tells them to go to his beloved wife, Penelope, to tell her that he is coming home, and that she is to call a contest to trick the suitors into believing that she will finally, after all this time, marry one of them.
So, finally Odysseus leaves, and he comes back the next day, the day of the great contest. Now, the contest was simple. Penelope told all the suitors to gather in the great hall of the palace, and she tells them that whoever can bend Odysseus’ great bow and shoot an arrow straight through 12 hooks in the ceiling, then that suitor would be the one to marry her. And so, all gather in the great hall, and one by one, the men try to bend the bow, and not a single suitor, even the greatest of the suitors, the strongest, the most heroic of the evil suitors, not one of them could bend the bow of Odysseus.
Finally, Odysseus, still dressed in his rags, although having his bright armor beneath them, steps up, and all of the suitors laugh at him. And they say, you may go ahead and try to bend this bow, old man, but when you do not, we will kill you. So Odysseus takes up his bow, he feels it again, he takes an arrow, and strings it in the bow, and to their astonishment, he pulls the bow back, and back, and back, stretches it out to its full length, and shoots an arrow, singingly, through all 12 hoops. At that moment, his rags are thrown off, his bright armor is revealed, and everybody—just everybody, realizes Odysseus is back. In fact, one of the main suitors cries out, “It is Odysseus!” But as soon as he gets the words out, an arrow pierces through his throat and he gurgles out the last syllables of Odysseus’ name. And then one by one, Odysseus takes his bow, and then shot after shot, he hits the marks of every evil suitor in the hall. His servants have locked the door so that no one can run. And soon, Odysseus dispatches all of the suitors in his home, and order is restored, and Odysseus is back with his wife.
Now, why did I tell you this story? I told you this story simply because, Odysseus returns to Penelope, and he takes revenge against the suitors, in love for his wife. It is that kind of jealous love that our Lord will return with. You see, our Lord is not coming back as a cold judge. He is not coming back with a kind of indiscriminate need for justice and blood. He is coming back, as the scriptures describe him, in fact, as the bridegroom, to retrieve his beleaguered bride, the church and its members. And all of the righteous, jealous lover’s rage which Odysseus had in the great hall, to reclaim his wife, is the kind that the Lord will return with to reclaim us, from the midst of this crooked and perverted generation. And in that sense, we are totally safe. We have only that to look forward to. You see, Penelope, day in and day out, waited, desperately, for hope that her Odysseus would return, and save her—and he did. And she knew she was safe when he returned.
And that is what I am saying, that the last judgment will, indeed, be God returning to His people, His beloved bride, as their bridegroom, and saying, this bride is my bride! And this bride is the bride that I will bring justice upon the earth for mistreating. Now, of course, all of this love, which God returns with, will be interpreted and felt as hatred by those who have rejected it, and misused it, and rebelled against it, and have used it against the bride. But it is all love, it is all love. God will return with love, He will judge the world with love, just as He calls the world in love, into his arms, stretched out as they are on the cross, the true picture of the bridegroom.
And in that sense, in that sense, we can only cry out, “Maranatha! Come, Lord Jesus!” Because, until He returns, there will only be unanswered injustice. And there is a time when we can cry out, “Come, Lord Jesus, and judge this earth! Come, now, and judge it.” There is a time for that righteous request, and the Lord will answer, and He will come, and He will judge the earth, and no doubt, we will stand in judgment, along with everybody else, but that judgment will be a judgment of love.
Now, the last thing I would like to say is, how that judgment will occur, I do not know. And all of the apocalyptic language is imagery for something that is incomprehensible to the human mind. We do not have the specifics of how it is going to look. In fact, very pointedly, the gospels do not even go into description of it. The Lord, in Luke, and in Matthew, does not give us a blow-by-blow of what is going to happen. The human mind cannot comprehend this sort of thing. However, we do know He will return, and we know that our whole lives are meant to be in response to the love that He has called us with and in, and we know that there will only be two reactions: He will come with all the righteous love to reclaim His bride, and we will have one of two reactions: We will reach for Him, or we will run away from Him, we will reject it. And that, in itself, will be the judgment. Because the Lord, Himself says, in His parable of the last judgment, “Depart from Me, for I never knew you.” It is all about knowing us.
Have our hearts been turned to Him? Have our minds been burning to know about Him? Have we conducted our lives so that He might be part of it? Not because we are afraid of the judgment, but because we know how much love is waiting at the door, and knocking at the door of our hearts, to dwell with us in our lives.
And so, our lives are lived either as a rejection of that love, which becomes an eternal, everlasting rejection, or seeking it, and needing it, and struggling with it. We are Israel, after all. We are the ones who wrestle with God. But I would rather be wrestling with God than running from Him.
So, we know that God will return with love, and we know that our lives, in preparation for that judgment, are meant to be preparing ourselves, living faithfully as Penelope in the palace, for His return, and never forgetting that He will return. And after all, Penelope, time after time, day after day, had to invent new ways to forestall the suitors’ demands, and new ways to remain faithful. And that inventiveness is a big part of the spiritual life. How inventive can we possibly be, waiting for the coming of the Lord? Trying as much as possible to be faithful to Him, knowing that He will return, but preparing for it, as well, and preparing our hearts in love for His coming, and even hastening it, and crying out, “Maranatha! Come, Lord Jesus!”
One of the last lines, practically the last line, of John’s revelation is, “The Spirit and the bride say, come! And let the one who hears say, come! And let the one who is thirsty come. Let the one who wishes, take the water of Life, without cost.” And all we can cry to this is, “Maranatha! Maranatha! Come, Lord Jesus!”