Sergius Bulgakov: Bad Endings Ruin Good Stories

Summer 2000, Mount Pleasant, South Carolina—I learned a very important lesson back then. Actually I already well knew the lesson, but it was good to re-learn it. Starring George Clooney and Mark Wahlberg, the movie The Perfect Storm appeared in the theaters. I knew nothing about the plot. I didn’t even know that it was based on real historical events. Hence my only hope when I bought the tickets was that it would be as exciting as the trailers made it out to be. And all was going great—right up until the very end. (Spoiler alert: if you have never seen the movie, please do yourself a favor and read on. This is a movie about which you want to be spoiled!)

After taking in a historic catch of fish, captain and crew decide to return home, despite the ferocious storm that stands in their way. There’s a lot of money at stake. Time to roll the dice. The storm turns out to be worse than any of them expected. Finally they encounter an enormous rogue wave, and the boat capsizes. George Clooney decides to go down with his boat and crew, but in an act of “selfless” heroism he pushes Mark Wahlberg out the door—without a life jacket! Boat sinks. Wahlberg swims to the surface. He is alone in the ocean … in the storm … no hope of rescue … (cut!) … memorial service.

What the heck?! They all die? What kind of adventure movie is this? I was absolutely furious. I felt like the grandson in The Princess Bride after he learned that Westley is dead and that Prince Humperdinck survives. “Jesus, Grandpa,” he cries out, “what did you read me this thing for?” I bitterly complained to my wife for the rest of the day and night. Why did they make the movie? Why did I shell out eight dollars to subject myself to such disappointment?

So what was the lesson I re-learned? Bad endings ruin good stories. I’m sure you can think of plenty of examples of this phenomenon, both in cinema and literature.

I propose that this intuition lies at the heart of Sergius Bulgakov’s vision of apokatastasis. The story God is telling in his creation simply must conclude with a happy, indeed glorious ending. The gospel is good news! The death and resurrection of Jesus has changed everything. Death is conquered. Satan is overthrown. The Spirit is poured out. And one day he will return in glory. What kind of ending would it be if evil should continue in the form of everlasting hell? “It is a bizarre conception of the parousia,” Bulgakov declares,

to limit its power to a judgment whereby heaven and hell are separated and hell is eternalized. What virtue and justification would the parousia have if part of humanity turns out to be unprepared for it? In that case the parousia would not attain its goal, or it would even attain the opposite: the establishment of an eternal hell. But does this justify the parousia? A separation can only be accepted if, in the final analysis, it nonetheless attains the goal of the universal salvation or the sophianization of creation. Otherwise, creation would appear to be an error or failure, since it would end with the eternity of hell, even if this were accompanied by the eternity of heaven. An eternal separation of humanity in the elect and the reprobate is clearly not the final meaning of creation. One must therefore suppose that this separation has an inner proportionality of grace that assures a positive sum of all the pluses and minuses of history, a universal harmony, total and beautiful. In other words, the judgment that separates the sheep from the goat and good from evil, both in humankind in its entirety and in individual hearts, is not the definitive conclusion of eschatology. It is only the first event of eschatology, the beginning, not the end. Both the judgment and the separation must be understood not as a static unchangeability but as a dynamic striving beyond their limits, on the pathway to universal deification or salvation. Only deification is capable of justifying creation. It is the only theodicy. (The Bride of the Lamb, p. 501)

In other words, hell is a terrible ending. It would just ruin everything. And it would ruin everything even if I am one of the fortunate ones who should enter divine blessedness!

This, I suggest, is where the critics of Origen of Alexandria, St Gregory of Nyssa, St Isaac the Syrian, and Fr Sergius Bulgakov go wrong. They think that because these four men proclaim the ultimate victory of God over evil and death, therefore they must believe that God has mechanically determined everything to work out and therefore human freedom is an illusion. Or as the critics like to say, universalists confuse nature and person. But the funny thing is that’s not how the universalists understand matters. They firmly deny that their vision of apokatastasis implies any violation of human freedom, coercion, or manipulation. That’s the wonder and surprise of the gospel—against all expectation and prediction, everyone freely repents of their sins and embraces the Love that is the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Not a philosophical conundrum to be solved but a faith to proclaim. God wins, humanity wins, the cosmos wins. How does God achieve this glorious conclusion? Our universalist theologians really don’t know, though they have some ideas they like to throw around. St Isaac is the least speculative. Speaking from the depths of his mystical experience, Isaac prophetically announces: “I am of the opinion that He is going to manifest some wonderful outcome, a matter of immense and ineffable compassion on the part of the glorious Creator, with respect to the ordering of this difficult matter of Gehenna’s torment: out of it the wealth of His love and power and wisdom will become known all the more—and so will the insistent might of the waves of His goodness” (II.39.6). This triumph over hell is as mysterious as Christ’s triumph over death on Pascha; indeed, it is simply the consummation of Pascha.

The orthodox prophets of the universalist hope do not ground their confidence on some kind of ontological determinism: they ground it on the extraordinary and miraculous power of crucified Love. How very strange to think that the divine Author, foreknowing that many or even most human beings would fail to achieve heaven, would go ahead and begin the human story anyway. “Sorry, guys. It’s the best I can do. You can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs (in this case billions of eggs). I’m restricted by what you call ‘freedom.’ I’m really not sure how your decision for me can be said to be truly free, since the only real alternative you have is endless torment—talk about intimidation, coercion, and lack of freedom!—but it appears I have to let you damn yourselves for all eternity. But please know that I love you. I really, really do. It’s just that my love is impotent before your choices. I discovered that on the cross. I’m free to write the story of creation; but I’m not free to write a happy ending. Only you can do that; but unfortunately you don’t and won’t.” (Big divine sigh from heaven. Lots of screams from the depths of Tartarus.)

The gospel is good news, my brothers and sisters! Do we believe this? Can we preach this? Or do we find ourselves imaginatively paralyzed before our rationalistic, nonmysterious, nonantinomic idol of freedom?

I’ll give Bulgakov the penultimate last word: “In revelation, it is said not that God is freedom but that He is love” (p. 128).


But the ultimate last word belongs to the Word of God:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband; and I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more, for the former things have passed away.” And he who sat upon the throne said, “Behold, I make all things new.” (Rev 21:1-5)

Amen. Amen.

P.S. Bad endings ruin good stories; but the obverse is also true. Good endings rescue bad stories!

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John Romanides: The Most Interesting Theologian in the World

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Sergius Bulgakov: Hell as Universal Purgatory

“A human being cannot fail to love the Christ who is revealed in him, and he cannot fail to love himself revealed in Christ” (The Bride of the Lamb, p. 459). This striking statement represents the most provocative claim in the eschatology of Sergius Bulgakov. Upon it rests his confident hope in apokatastasis. In one form or another, we find this claim sprinkled throughout the concluding chapters of Bride of the Lamb. To be glorified by Christ is to see him, and to see him is to love him, for in him we discover the fulfillment of our deepest yearnings.

Yet this profound insight does not lead Bulgakov to conclude that at the parousia all will be instantaneously and magically converted to God. He knows both the Bible and the human heart too well. For some, perhaps many, the return of Christ Jesus in glory will ignite a gehennic conflagration in the depth of their souls. Imprisoned in their egoism and malice, they will hate the Son and with all their might will attempt to extinguish the love that has been born in their hearts. And so they will burn. They will know the torment of hell, a torment of love, guilt, and self-condemnation. Guiding Bulgakov’s reflections here are the homilies of St Isaac the Syrian, which he knew in Russian translation. He refers to the following passage several times:

I say that those tormented in gehenna are struck by the scourge of love. And how bitter and cruel is this agony of love, for, feeling that they have sinned against love, they experience a torment that is greater than any other. The affliction that strikes the heart because of the sin against love is more terrible than any possible punishment. It is wrong to think that gehenna are deprived of God’s love. Love is produced by knowledge of the truth, which (everyone is in agreement about this) is given to all in general. But by its power love affects human beings in a twofold manner: It torments sinners, as even here a friend sometimes causes one to suffer, and it gladdens those who have carried out their duty. And so, in my opinion, the torment of gehenna consists in repentance. Love fills with its joys the souls of the children on high. (Quoted in Bride, p. 466)

This passage will be familiar to many of Eclectic Orthodox readers, as it is perhaps the most quoted passage from all of St Isaac’s writings. But note the bolded sentence: the torment of gehenna is repentance generated by knowledge of the truth. This translation is unfamiliar to us. The Transfiguration Monastery version renders the bolded sentence differently: “Thus I say that this is the torment of Gehenna: bitter regret” (Homily 28, p. 266). At least to English ears, there’s a big difference between repentance and bitter regret. The older translation by A. J. Weinsinck renders the sentence thusly: “I say that the hard tortures are grief for love” (p. 136). Last week I wrote the respected Syriac scholar Sebastian Brock and asked him his opinion about the passage. In his email response he states that the Syriac word is probably best translated “remorse” and observes that in the original text it is followed by the phrase “which is from love,” which Brock interprets as that “remorse that comes from the sudden awareness of God’s love: i.e. it is the sudden realisation of how one has sinned against God’s love that produces the torment in which Gehenna/Hell consists.” This phrase, however, was dropped from the ancient Greek translation, which probably explains why the phrase is missing from both the Russian and TM translations. Weinsinck appears to have captured the meaning of the original better than the Russian and Transfiguration Monastery versions. It may also be noted that the Greek text renders the Syriac word by metameleia; the Russian by raskaianie.

In any case, what is important for our purposes is how Bulgakov interpreted the passage: the damned suffer because of the inner conflict between their desire to be united to Christ, awakened in their hearts by the parousial manifestation, and their impotence to realize their desire, perhaps because of their bondage to the dominating passion to live apart from God. “Hell is love for God,” Bulgakov writes, “though it is a love that cannot be satisfied. Hell is a suffering due to emptiness, due to the inability to contain this love of God” (p. 492). Hell is knowing what it means to be made in the image of Christ and being horrified by one’s deformity (p. 487). Hell is the suffering of receiving into oneself the judgment of God, the judgment of divine image upon failed likeness:

Judgment as separation expresses the relation between image and likeness, which can be in mutual harmony or in antinomic conjugacy. Image corresponds to the heavenly mansions in the Father’s house, to the edenic bliss of “eternal life.” Likeness, by contrast, corresponds to that excruciating division within the resurrected human being where he does not yet actually possess what is his potentially; whereas his divine proto-image is in full possession of it. He contemplates this image before himself and in himself as the inner norm of his being, whereas, by reason of his proper self-determination and God’s judgment, he cannot encompass this being in himself. He cannot possess part (and this part can be large or small) of that which is given to him and loved by him in God (cf. St Isaac the Syrian); and this failure to possess, this active emptiness at the place of fullness, is experienced as perdition and death, or rather as a perishing and a dying, as “eternal torment,” as the fire of hell. This ontological suffering is described only in symbolic images borrowed from the habitual lexicon of apocalyptics. It is clear that these images should not be interpreted literally. Their fundamental significance lies in their description of the torments of unrealized and unrealizable love, the deprivation of the bliss of love, the consciousness of the sin against love. (pp. 474-475)

There can be no easy escape from this suffering, for it is the inevitable consequence of a life lived in passionate attachment to the goods of the world. The soul now finds itself naked before fiery Love. The suffering of hell must be lived out to the end, Bulgakov insists. Evil must be fully expiated; the debt to justice must be paid to the last farthing:

The one not clothed in a wedding garment is expelled from the wedding feast about which it is said: “If so be that being clothed we shall not be found naked” (2 Cor. 5.3). This nakedness, this absence of that which is given and must be present, stéresis, as the original definition of evil, is fundamental for the torments of hell. It is the fire that burns without consuming. One must reject every pusillanimous, sentimental hope that the evil committed by a human being and therefore present in him can simply be forgiven, as if ignored at the tribunal of justice. God does not tolerate sin, and its simple forgiveness is ontologically impossible. Acceptance of sin would not accord with God’s holiness and justice. Once committed, a sin must be lived through to the end, and the entire mercilessness of God’s justice must pierce our being when we think of what defense we will offer at Christ’s Dread Tribunal. (pp. 475-476)

This passage surprises and confuses. How can Bulgakov declare that sin cannot be absolved, given his emphatic assertion of the love and mercy of the Creator throughout the pages of his Great Trilogy? Surely he is not rescinding what he has so clearly declared. I believe that the contradiction can be resolved if we interpret the word “forgiveness” in this passage as “remission.” God cannot simply overlook our condition of sinfulness; he cannot receive the unholy into heaven. Every human being must be perfectly conformed to the divine Image and transformed in the Holy Spirit, and this transformation can only be achieved through the sinner’s repentance and synergistic cooperation with divine grace. My interpretation is confirmed, I believe, by Bulgakov’s claim that the perditional suffering is redemptive in nature: “The weeping and gnashing of teeth in the outer darkness nonetheless bears witness to the life of a spirit that has come to know the entire measure of its fall and that is tormented by repentance. But, like all repentance, these torments are salvific for the spirit” (p. 499). Hell must be experienced to the end, until it has achieved it’s divinely-ordained purpose. “The torments of hell are a longing for God caused by the love for God. This longing is inevitably combined with the desire to leave the darkness, to overcome the alienation from God, to become oneself in conformity with one’s revealed protoimage” (p. 492).

Bulgakov describes gehenna as “universal purgatory” (vseobshee christlische), which, as Paul Gavrilyuk notes, “describes the gist of his teaching remarkably well” (“Universal Salvation in the Eschatology of Sergius Bulgakov,” p. 125). Rejecting the long-standing retributive construal of eternal punishment, Bulgakov interprets the punishment of hell as a freely accepted purgative condition:

Hell’s torments of love necessarily contain the regenerating power of the expiation of sin by the experiencing of it to the end. However, this creative experiencing is not only a passive state, in chains imposed from outside. It is also an inwardly, synergistically accepted spiritual state (and also a psychic-corporeal state). This state is appropriately perceived not as a juridical punishment but as an effect of God’s justice, which is revealed in its inner persuasiveness. And its acceptance as a just judgment corresponds to an inner movement of the spirit, to a creative determination of the life of the spirit. And in its duration (“in the ages of ages”), this life contains the possibility of a creative suffering that heals, of a movement of the spirit from within toward good in its triumphant force and persuasiveness. Therefore, it is necessary to stop thinking of hell in terms of static and inert immobility, but instead to associate it with the dynamics of life, always creative and growing. Even in hell, the nature of the spirit remains unchanging in its creative changeability. Therefore, the state of hell must be understood as an unceasing creative activity, or more precisely, self-creative activity, of the soul, although this state bears within itself a disastrous split, an alienation from its prototype. All the same, the apostle Paul defines this state as a salvation, yet as by fire, after the man’s work is burned. It is his nakedness. (p. 498)

The Purgatorio of Dante Alighieri immediately comes to mind. Dante envisions purgatory as “the mountain that dis-evils those who climb” (XIII.3). Repentant souls ascend the mountain to be cleansed of their sins and made fit for the enjoyment of paradise. The punishments of each terrace are directly correlated to the vice or sin from which the soul needs to be delivered. As Anthony Esolen explains: “In purgatory man is made a ‘new creation’ by being restored to his original straightness, his original innocence before the fall of Adam” (p. xvi). It undoes the damage of sin and is thus best thought of as an infirmary rather than a prison or torture chamber.


In the sixth terrace, for example, souls are cured of their gluttony by deprivation of food and drink. A large tree with “apples sweet to smell and good to eat” stands next to the path, but its branches taper downwards, thus preventing anyone from climbing the tree to reach its fruit. Dante comes across an old friend, Forese, now emaciated and gaunt, and inquires about his condition. Forese replies:

From the eternal providence divine
a power descends into the tree and rain
back there—a power that makes me lean and fine.
And all these people singing in their pain
weep for immoderate service of the threat,
and thirst and hunger make them pure again.
The odor of the fruit and of the spray
splashing its fragrant droplets in the green
kindle desire in us to eat and drink.
And many a time along this turning way
we find the freshening of our punishment,
our punishment—our solace, I should say,
For that same will now leads us to the tree
as once led the glad Christ to say, “My God,”
when by His opened veins He set us free. (XXIII.61-75)

The gluttons are subjected to the punishment of starvation and thirst, yet instead of raging against the punishment, they embrace it as medicine for the soul that conforms them to the sufferings of Christ. Their desire is thus purified and reordered to the love of God.

In an essay published in the Irish Theological Quarterly in 1922, “The Two Theories of Purgagtory,” Maurice Francis Egan contrasts the two principal theories of purgatory then advanced by Roman Catholic theologians—the punishment theory and the purification theory. Proponents of both theories agree that all souls who enter into a condition of purgatorial suffering have already been pardoned of their sins and are thus destined for the beatific vision; but they disagree on the precise purpose of purgatorial suffering.

According to the punishment theory, the chastisements of purgatory are primarily retributive. There is a debt of justice (reatus poenae) that needs to be satisfied. French theologian Martin Jugie succinctly expresses this position:

It follows from all this, that the principal—one might even say the unique—reason for the existence of Purgatory, is the temporal punishment due to sins committed after Baptism, since neither venial sin nor vicious inclination survives the first instant that follows death. Immediately on its entering Purgatory, the soul is perfectly holy, perfectly turned toward God, filled with the purest love. It has no means of bettering itself nor of progressing in virtue. That would be an impossibility after death, and it must suffer for love the just punishment which its sins have merited. (Purgatory and the Means to Avoid It, p. 5)

Catholics who have been tutored in the Catholic Catechism are sometimes surprised to learn that this retributive understanding of purgatory was common among Latin theologians in the first half of the 20th century. We find it expressed, for example, in the article on purgatory in the older Catholic Encyclopedia: “God requires satisfaction, and will punish sin, and this doctrine involves as its necessary consequence a belief that the sinner failing to do penance in this life may be punished in another world, and so not be cast off eternally from God.” When Bulgakov describes hell as “universal purgatory,” he is not thinking of this retributive view.

According to the purification theory, the chastisements of purgatory are primarily medicinal, reparative, and purgative. The theory does not deny, states Egan, that through their purgatorial suffering sinners pay the temporal debt and penalty incurred by their sins; “but it asserts that the payment is the means, the normal though not absolutely necessary means, by which God cleanses their sores and gives them the perfect spiritual health which their future life with Him requires” (p. 24). Dante’s vision of purgatory would definitely come under this category, as would also St Catherine of Genoa’s Treatise on Purgatory.

Since Vatican II the purification theory has emerged as the dominant interpretation of purgatory in the magisterial teaching of the Catholic Church. In one of his 1999 catechetical addresses, Pope John Paul II describes purgatory in these words:

For those who find themselves in a condition of being open to God, but still imperfectly, the journey towards full beatitude requires a purification, which the faith of the Church illustrates in the doctrine of “Purgatory.” … Every trace of attachment to evil must be eliminated, every imperfection of the soul corrected. Purification must be complete, and indeed this is precisely what is meant by the Church’s teaching on purgatory. The term does not indicate a place, but a condition of existence. Those who, after death, exist in a state of purification, are already in the love of Christ who removes from them the remnants of imperfection.

The Catholic Church authoritatively teaches that the eternal destiny of the individual is irrevocably settled at the moment of death. At this point the person has made a definitive decision for or against God. Many theologians invoke the language of “fundamental option” to describe this life-decision. Entrance into the purgatorial condition thus presupposes a “state of grace.” In his encyclical Spe Salvi Pope Benedict XVI uses the language of personal encounter to speak of the sanctifying process:

Some recent theologians are of the opinion that the fire which both burns and saves is Christ himself, the Judge and Saviour. The encounter with him is the decisive act of judgement. Before his gaze all falsehood melts away. This encounter with him, as it burns us, transforms and frees us, allowing us to become truly ourselves. All that we build during our lives can prove to be mere straw, pure bluster, and it collapses. Yet in the pain of this encounter, when the impurity and sickness of our lives become evident to us, there lies salvation. His gaze, the touch of his heart heals us through an undeniably painful transformation “as through fire”. But it is a blessed pain, in which the holy power of his love sears through us like a flame, enabling us to become totally ourselves and thus totally of God. In this way the inter-relation between justice and grace also becomes clear: the way we live our lives is not immaterial, but our defilement does not stain us for ever if we have at least continued to reach out towards Christ, towards truth and towards love. Indeed, it has already been burned away through Christ’s Passion. At the moment of judgement we experience and we absorb the overwhelming power of his love over all the evil in the world and in ourselves. The pain of love becomes our salvation and our joy. (§47; cf. the discussion of purgatory in Joseph Ratzinger, Eschatology)

The 16th century Protestant Reformers rejected purgatory and prayers for the dead as subverting the atoning sufficiency of the death of Christ and justification by faith. But in recent years some Protestant theologians and philosophers have proposed models of purgatory very similar to that of Popes John Paul and Benedict. Perhaps the best book on this subject is Purgatory: The Logic of Total Transformation by Wesleyan philosopher Jerry Walls. Walls sees purgatory as a post-mortem educational process in which justified but imperfect sinners come to a deeper understanding of their vices and sinful dispositions, thus being led by the Spirit into perfect holiness. It is unreasonable, he argues, to think that God would magically transform sinners into saints, without their free cooperation and involvement. Just as sanctification is a synergistic process in our earthly lives, so we may reasonable expect an analogous process to occur in our heavenly lives, until complete deliverance from sin is achieved.

How might we envision the educational process of purgatory? Consider Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. Ebenezer Scrooge, whom the narrator describes as “hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire,” is visited one night by three spirits. These spirits disclose to him the truth of his life—past, present, and likely future. The spirits assist Scrooge, Walls explains, “to see others in ways he had not been able to before. By seeing himself rightly in relation to others, he comes not only to see them differently, but himself as well” (pp. 85-86). Scrooge’s encounter with reality results in his spiritual awakening and moral conversion.  As the narrator concludes the story: “And it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge.” Perhaps we may think of purgatory as that eschatological event in which God takes us on a review of our lives, allowing us to “see with full clarity not only how our lives have hurt others, but most importantly, how God sees them. Even more than the visits of the three spirits to Scrooge, such an extended encounter with truth through the Holy Spirit would alter us and heal our disposition to sin” (Walls, p. 85).

In disagreement with Catholic magisterial teaching, Walls is willing to entertain the possibility of post-mortem repentance. Surely the God of infinite love will go to every length to secure the eternal happiness of all human beings. “If we take this picture of God’s love as a serious truth claim,” he writes, “and not merely a piece of pious rhetoric, we have reason to accept a modified or expanded view of purgatory that grace is further extended not only to the converted who are partially transformed and imperfectly sanctified, but also to those persons who have not yet exercised any sort of saving faith” (p. 150). But the God of love will not coerce. Human beings remain free to choose eternal alienation from the Father of Jesus Christ. Yet Walls is cautiously hopeful: “The fact that we are created in God’s image is a much deeper and more resilient truth about us than our sin and whatever damage we have done to ourselves” (p. 151).

Clearly Sergius Bulgakov’s understanding of hell as universal purgatory can be helpfully supplemented and deepened by contemporary discussions of purgatorial sanctification. Those theologians, both Catholic and Protestant, who assert that a person’s eternal destiny is definitively determined at death will, of course, disagree with his belief that parousial glorification gives us solid grounds to hope for the conversion and salvation of all.  But Bulgakov is even more firmly convinced, based on the word of Holy Scripture, that God’s love and mercy will triumph in the end:

Then cometh the end, when he shall have delivered up the kingdom to God, even the Father; when he shall have put down all rule and all authority and power. … And when all things shall be subdued unto him, then shall the Son also be subject unto him that put all things under him, that God may be all in all (1 Cor 15:24, 28).

(cont)

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At the deathbed of Archpriest Sergei Bulgakov

From early morning on Saturday, I sat by his bed and was struck by how his face constantly kept changing expression, as if some mysterious conversation was being carried on. The expression of his face reflected an intense inner life.

Muna, Father Sergius’ daughter, came that morning, and I drew her attention to how the expression of his face kept changing. After twelve o’clock, all four of us stood around Father Sergius. His daughter left, and no one else came.

Not only did his face keep changing, but it was becoming more luminous and joyous. The expressions of agonizing concentration that would previously occur from time to time were now completely replaced by a childlike expression. I did not at once notice a new phenomenon on his face: an amazing illuminatedness. But when I turned to one of the others standing around him in order to share some impression of mine, one of the others suddenly said: “Look, look!”

We were witnesses to an amazing spectacle: Father Sergius’ face had become completely illuminated. It was a single mass of real light.

One would not have been able to say what the features of his face were like at this time: his face was a mass of light. But, at the same time, this light did not obliterate the features of his face.

This phenomenon was so extraordinary and joyous that we nearly cried from inner happiness. This lasted for about two hours, as Mother Theodosia, who looked at her watch later noted. That surprised us, for if someone had told us that the experience had lasted but a single instant, we would have agreed with that too.

The light on Father Sergius’ face apparently remained. For us, compared with what had been, this was not so noticeable. But there were sensitive people and close to him who, when they came to see him, said: “Father Sergius is giving forth light.”

Sister Joanna Reitlinger

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Jerry Walls on Purgatory

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Sergius Bulgakov: The Most Interesting Theologian in the World

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Sergius Bulgakov: The Judgment that Blesses and Curses

When the Son of man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will place the sheep at his right hand, but the goats at the left. Then the King will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink? And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and clothe thee? And when did we see thee sick or in prison and visit thee?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.’ Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to thee?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me.’ And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life. (Matt 25:31-46)

Given Sergius Bulgakov’s deep conviction that the Last Judgment will be a glorifying and converting event and that every human being will be ultimately reconciled to God through Jesus Christ, how does he interpret the warning of our Lord that at the end of the ages the righteous and the wicked will be eternally separated? This parable, along with other texts in the Bible that speak of eschatological condemnation and punishment, must be interpreted theologically, Bulgakov insists, within the entirety of Christian revelation, fully attentive to the symbolic nature of the language. Perhaps most importantly, we must remember that the One who told the parable is the Savior of humanity, for whose sins he “tasted the agony of Gethsemane and the death on Golgotha” (Bride of the Lamb, p. 485). Our exegesis of Scripture, in other words, must be guided by the gospel of divine love and mercy, as revealed in the death and resurrection of the incarnate Son of God and the intercessory ministry of the exalted Theotokos. “God-Love judges with love the sins against love,” Bulgakov declares (p. 459).

Three verses from the Gospel of John are particularly important for Bulgakov’s interpretation of the judgment passages:

For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him. (John 3:17)

The Father judges no one, but has given all judgment to the Son. (John 5:22)

If any one hears my sayings and does not keep them, I do not judge him; for I did not come to judge the world but to save the world. (John 12:47)

The Son of Man desires the salvation of the world, not its condemnation. When all of humanity is transfigured in the glorified humanity of Christ, he himself becomes each person’s immanent judgment; divine judgment becomes self-judgment:

The figures that are used to describe the last separation, or judgment, and that are borrowed from the language of human jurisprudence should not lead us into error concerning the inner, immanent character of this judgment. … The proper self-determination of every human being in his creaturely freedom presents itself here as a certain self-evident reality, and not only as an external judgment upon him. This means that the Father left the judgment to His Son, who Himself is the Son of man, and, in His humanity, every human being finds himself and the judgment upon himself. This judgment is therefore not transcendent but immanent. In every human being, his own unreality or nakedness, his failure to wear a wedding garment at the wedding feast, is clearly distinguished from Christ’s reality.

Just as the Holy Spirit manifests Christ in glory, so it reveals Christ’s presence in every human being. … God’s image will be revealed to every human being by the Holy Spirit as inner justice and judgment for creaturely life. This judgment of Christ is also every human being’s own judgment upon himself. It consists in each person seeing himself in the light of his own justice, in the light of his proto-image, which he perceives in his resurrection under illumination by the Holy Spirit. The Judgment is the judgment of every human being in his true image upon himself in his “likeness.” (p. 458)

The judgment of the Lamb upon the throne becomes the self-judgment of the one who is judged.  Christ embodies the truth in which each will see himself and by which he will judge himself.  “The judgment and the verdict constitute an inner, immanent, personal act accomplished by each human being upon himself in the light of Christ’s justice” (p. 460).

And it will be an antinomic judgment, perhaps to everyone’s surprise. “I have not come to bring peace, but a sword,” declares Jesus (Matt 10:34).  On first reading of the parable of the sheep and the goats, one might deduce that human beings will be irrevocably divided into two classes, the sinless and the sinful. “But no one is perfectly sinless except the ‘Sole Sinless One’ and the Most Pure Mother of God,” objects Bulgakov, “just as no human beings are so utterly sinful that no trace of good can be found in them” (p. 462). Pure evil does not exist in man. Every person is a sinner, a mixture of good and evil. The difference between human beings, between the greatest saint and the most cruel murderer, is relative, not absolute. Every human being needs the saving Blood of the Crucified.

Pure evil for the sake of evil, satanical evil, is something not proper to man, who bears the principle of good. In individual cases, evil can decidedly predominate, but, in the final separation, evil itself is known only in conjunction with, even if in conflict with, good. In this sense, hell is a function of heaven, and evil is the shadow of good, not only in the world in general but also in every human being in particular. It follows that the separation into sheep and goats is accomplished (of course to different degrees) within every individual, and his right and left sides are bared in this separation. To a certain extent all are condemned and all are justified. … Thus, the judgment and its sentence introduce into the life of every person an antinomic separation that consists in participating in glory and incorruptibility and, at the same time, in burning in the fire of divine rejection. The difference between the two states can here be only a quantitative one.

The judgment condemns in every person that which deserves condemnation, that which is incompatible with glory. The judgment is inwardly executed by every person’s sophianicity [think "image of God"], which is the ontological norm of his being. His sophianicity judges his proper creaturely self-determination, convinces him that it does not correspond to this norm. His sophianic image in incorruptibility and glory is his true reality, which is recognized by him as such. On the contrary, that which seemed to him real in his earthly life is condemned as unreal, as illusory: “He himself shall be saved, yet so as by fire” (1 Cor. 3:15); we desire to be clothed, so that “we shall not be found naked” (2 Cor. :5:3). (pp. 462-463)

The parable of the sheep and goats is addressed antinomically to every human being. Each person will discover that he is simultaneously sheep and goat—simul iustus et peccator; each will discover that he compounds the incorruptible Imago Dei and the undying worm and inextinguishable fire. “The spiritual sword cuts a human being asunder to his very depth,” Bulgakov declares (p. 463). The goat-self must be destroyed in the flames of God’s holy love.

Death, perdition, destruction, annihilation—these pitiless words of Scripture are to be symbolically interpreted as referring to the painful separation the Spirit accomplishes within each sinner. “Every person,” Bulgakov memorably writes, “bears within himself the principle of gehennic burning, which is ignited by the parousia of Christ in glory” (p. 484). Every person must freely endure the purifying torments of hell. All malice, hatred, greed, envy, lust, bitterness must be named and expunged. Everything that does not conform to the to the image of the Second Adam, the Primal Image, must be severed from the person and cast into the lake of fire. “Clearly, condemnation to death, perdition, and annihilation should not be understood literally here, for that would contradict resurrection in incorruptibility and immortality,” explains Bulgakov. “They indicate only the special character of the sufferings of sinners in the state of glory” (p. 473). The eschatological judgment mysteriously combines “calling and rejection, blessing and damnation, which can refer to one and the same person but in different aspects of his being” (p. 475).

Fr Sergius, therefore, reads the parable of the sheep and the goats as ultimately referring not to the division of humanity into two classes but to the division that must and will occur within the soul of every person. The last judgment is a horizontal division that “passes through all humankind, not a vertical one which would separate it into two mutually impenetrable parts. For the righteous, that which is ‘damned’ is absorbed and made powerless by that which is ‘blessed.’ But in the darkness of damnation, sinners see reflections of blessedness cast into the night” (p. 515).

Let no one think that Bulgakov’s reading of the parable in any way diminishes its power—or terror. The judgment of Messias and his Spirit is a judgment of love but it remains judgment nonetheless: “Love is the Holy Spirit, who sets the heart afire with this love. But this love, this blazing up of the Spirit, is also the judgment of the individual upon himself, in conflict with himself, that is, outside Christ and far from Christ. And the measure and knowledge of this separation are determined by Love, that is, by the Holy Spirit. The same fire, the same love gladdens and burns, torments and gives joy. The judgment of love is the most terrible judgment, more terrible than that of justice and wrath, than that of the law, for it includes all this but also transcends it” (p. 459).

(Go to “Hell as Universal Purgatory“)

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