By Bishop Sergios of Loch Lomond
Attention has recently been drawn to the fate of mankind after death.
As we approach the Sunday of The Second Coming of Christ, popularly known as “Meatfare”, we will hear one of the Saviour’s parables when the Gospel of Saint Matthew, 25: 31-46, is read:
When the Son of Man shall come in His glory, and all the holy angels with Him, then shall He sit upon the throne of His glory: and before Him shall be gathered all nations: and He shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats: and He shall set the sheep on His right hand, but the goats on the left. Then shall the King say unto them on His right hand, Come, ye blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: for I was hungry, and ye fed Me: I was thirsty, and ye gave Me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took Me in: naked, and ye clothed Me: I was sick, and ye visited Me: I was in prison, and ye came unto Me. Then shall the righteous answer Him, saying, Lord, when saw we Thee hungry, and fed Thee? or thirsty, and gave Thee drink? when saw we Thee a stranger, and took Thee in? or naked, and clothed Thee? Or when saw we Thee sick, or in prison, and came unto Thee? And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily, I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these My brethren, ye have done it unto Me. Then shall He say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from Me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels: for I was hungry, and ye gave Me nothing to eat: I was thirsty, and ye gave Me no drink: I was a stranger, and ye took Me not in: naked, and ye clothed Me not: sick, or in prison, and ye visited Me not. Then shall they also answer Him, saying, Lord, when saw we Thee hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister unto Thee? Then shall He answer them, saying, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to Me. And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal.
The indispensable Explanation of the Gospels by Saint Theofylaktos of Ochrid which we now have in an excellent English edition of 4 volumes (published by Chrysostom Press, Explanation by Blessed Theophylact of the Holy Gospel, www.chrysostompress.org), draws attention, in its comments on this parable, to the “gentleness”, fruitfulness and utility of sheep; and to the precipitous, unruly and fruitless character of goats.
Saint Theofylaktos refers to the fact that heaven and hell, as ultimate fates, are not assigned until God has judged the individual (The Explanation by Blessed Theophylact of the Holy Gospel According to St. Matthew, p. 219, volume 1 of the above-cited series) - thus avoiding any soteriology smacking of predestination. And he goes on to give the rationale for this judgement: For He loves mankind and teaches us to do the same as well, not to punish until we have made a careful examination. (Op. cit. 219).
And given God’s loving fairness in all this, . . . those who are punished after the judgement will have no cause for complaint. (Ibid. p. 219).
Saint Theofylaktos notes that the fire to which the damned are consigned is the fire prepared for the devil(Ibid. p. 220). For as the demons are without compassion and are cruelly and maliciously disposed towards us, it is fitting that they who are of like mind with them, and who have been cursed by their own deeds, should merit the same punishment. See that God did not prepare the fire for men, nor did He make hell for us, but for the devil; but I make myself liable to hell.
It is striking that both the saved and the damned are surprised to find themselves in their respective circumstance (Then shall the righteous answer . . . when saw we Thee . . . . ? Then shall they [the damned]also answer Him saying . . . when saw we Thee . . . . ?)
The God-Man answers by referring both the saved and the damned to the deeds that characterized their relationship to others over the course of their life on earth, disclosing that in dealing righteously or sinfully with others they were all along dealing righteously or sinfully with the God-Man, Jesus Christ Himself!
Here the Saviour makes clear the distinction between that which is of God, and our own contemporary secular-hedonistic culture, presided over as it is by - inter alia - the French atheist-existentialist philosopher Jean Paul Sartre, who famously wrote L’enfer, c’est les autres (“Hell is other people”).
Nothing could contradict the word of the Word of God more clearly than Sartre’s terrible observation: for us, “other people” are literally the means of our salvation! Thus the evangelical equation, How we have lived earthly = how we will live eternally.
There is another Gospel in which our Saviour, the God-Man Jesus Christ, speaks of the fate of those who have died. Saint Luke records the Lord’s parable of the Rich Man and Poor Lazaros (Saint Luke, 16:19-31).
And there was a certain rich man, who was clothed in purple and fine linen, and fared sumptuously every day. And there was a certain poor man named Lazaros, who was laid at his gate, full of sores, and desiring to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man’s table: moreover the dogs came and licked his sores. And it came to pass, that the poor man died, and was carried by the angels into Abraham’s bosom: the rich man also died, and was buried. And in hades he lift up his eyes, being in torments, and seeth Abraham afar off, and Lazaros in his bosom. And he cried and said, Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazaros, that he may dip the tip of his finger in water, and cool my tongue; for I am tormented in this flame. But Abraham said, Son, remember that thou in thy lifetime receivedst thy good things, and likewise Lazaros evil things: but now he is comforted, and thou art tormented. And beside all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed, so that they which would pass from hence to you cannot; neither can they pass to us, that would come from thence. Then he said, I pray thee therefore, father, that thou wouldest send him to my father’s house: for I have five brethren, that he may testify unto them, lest they also come into this place of torment. Abraham saith unto him, They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them. And he said, Nay, father Abraham, but if one went unto them from the dead, they will repent. And he said unto him, If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead.
The lesson is the same. He who is indifferent to the plight of the “least of these My brethren” has no place in the bosom of Abraham, that is, in eternal life experienced as paradise.
There is a great gulf fixed between eternity as paradise and eternity as hell. And when the rich man, in torment, remembers his living brothers and asks Saint Abraham to send Lazaros back to earth, to warn them of the fate awaiting them, Saint Abraham refuses: the Rich Man’s living brothers have Scripture, and they must heed it.
The Rich Man disputes this with St. Abraham (!) and tells him (! !) that if one were to go to his brothers from the dead, then they will repent. But Saint Abraham has the last word in this unequal conversation (! ! !): If they hear not Moses and the prophets, neither will they be persuaded, though one rose from the dead.
In addition to providing irrefutable scriptural evidence for the fact of intercessory prayer to the saints - the message conveyed is as clear as it is sobering.
The question also arises, naturally in a pluralist society, what will be the fate of those who are not members of the Body of Christ on earth, and there is of course that instructive word from Saint Paul the Apostle to the Nations in Romans 2: 11-16:
For there is no respect of persons with God. For as many as have sinned without the law shall also perish without law: and as many as have sinned in the law shall be judged by the law: (For not the hearers of the law are just before God, but the doers of the law shall be justified. For when the Gentiles, which have not the law, do by nature the things contained in the law, these, having not the law, are a law unto themselves: Which shew the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and their thoughts the mean while accusing or else excusing one another;) In the day when God will judge the secrets of men by Jesus Christ according to my gospel.
The emphasis is on what is done (For not the hearers of the law are just before God, but the doers of the law shall be justified) throughout a man’s life.
Saint Paul leaves the matter of the fate of men to the day when God will judge the secrets of men by Jesus Christ. Man’s fate is in the hands of God, where it belongs.
In 1 Timothy, 2:1-4, the Apostle to the Nations remarks I exhort therefore, that, first of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men; for kings, and for all that are in authority; that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty. For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour; Who will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth.
We trust God to know how to propose Himself to everyman, in a manner both effective and respectful of man’s freedom, because His own will is that all men . . . be saved.
We pray for all. At the time Saint Paul instructed Saint Timothy to pray for kings, and for all that are in authority he was referring to the Roman Empire, officially pagan and legally bound to the worship of daemons.
And yet, one prayed for them. One had to pray for them. That was part of the essential responsibility of Christians for others, it was the right way to live out one’s days on this infested earth. The rest is up to God. We do not always know what God will do, nor why. We most certainly do know what we must do, and why.
Saint John Chrysostomos commented on this section of Scripture - as always, remarkably:
And if we are commanded to pray for our neighbors, not only for the faithful, but for the unbelieving also, consider how wrong it is to pray against your brethren. What? Has He commanded you to pray for your enemies, and do you pray against your brother? But your prayer is not against him but against yourself. For you provoke God by uttering those impious words, ”Show him the same!” “So do to him!” “Smite him!” “Recompense him!” Far be such words from you the disciple of Christ, who should be meek and mild. From the mouth that has been vouchsafed such holy Mysteries, let nothing bitter proceed. Let not the tongue that has touched the Lord’s Body utter anything offensive, let it be kept pure, let not curses be borne upon it. For if “revilers shall not inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Corinthians 6:10) much less those who curse. For he that curses must be injurious; and injuriousness and prayer are at variance with each other, cursing and praying are far apart, accusation and prayer are wide asunder. Do you propitiate God with prayer, and then utter imprecations? If you forgive not, you will not be forgiven. (Matthew 6:15) But instead of forgiving, you beseech God not to forgive; what excessive wickedness is this! If the unforgiving is not forgiven, he that prays his Lord not to forgive, how shall he be forgiven? The harm is to yourself, not him. For though your prayers were on the point of being heard for yourself they would never be accepted in such a case, as offered with a polluted mouth. For surely the mouth that curses is polluted with all that is offensive and unclean.(Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, vol. 13, First Series, p. 427, Hendrickson Publishers, 1999).
One always feels, in reading Saint John Chrysostomos, just how radical the Christian revolution was in its encounter with the hedonistic paganism of the Roman Empire.
In addition to his Mysteriological emphasis - the centrality of the eucharist in the life of Christians - Saint John Chrysostomos continues to stress the behaviour (interior as well as exterior) of the confessing Christian especially in his relationships with others - the list of what is at variance . . . what is far apart . . . what iswide asunder - in the actual life of confessing Christians grips our attention. We see how deeply provoked Saint John is by the wide horizon of Scripture, as the comprehensive, the catholic documentation of the Saviour’s actual words, forming the context of the liturgical evangelism of the Church throughout space and time.
And when we fail the “other” - The harm is to yourself, not him! To that fundamental truth, all ourremembering of death must remain faithful!
And Scripture must be present not merely as the normative content of our answers to the great questions, it must also be present as the criterion by which we frame the question to begin with. Ask the wrong question - only wrong answers will be found; equally, ask the question wrongly, and the result will be similarly askew.
In placing Scripture at the heart of our attention as we ponder the universe and our place within it, we remainanchored in God.
And in placing Scripture at the heart of the matter, we are always following the Fathers.
+Sergios, Suffragan Bishop of Loch Lomond
The Sunday of the Second Coming of Christ, called Meatfare 2010