The mystery of paradise and hell is the mystery of freedom. Orthodoxy Christianity, explains Dumitru Staniloae, views the Last Things through the prism of communion, and “because disposition toward communion is a matter of freedom, the question of paradise and hell is also a matter of freedom, and as such cannot possibly be rationalized” (The Experience of God, VI:40). I’m not sure what he means when he says that the question cannot be “rationalized.” On first thought it all seems quite logical: the human being chooses to either surrender to God or not. If he does, he enters into eternal communion and supreme happiness with the Father through the Son in the Spirit; if he does not, he enters into a state of eternal alienation and torment. But perhaps Staniloae is referring to the mystery of creaturely rejection of God: there is nothing rational about a human being definitively rejecting the Absolute Good who is his good; there is nothing rational about choosing eternal misery. Two pages later he refers to the mystery of human freedom and humanity’s “potential to become hardened in a negative freedom that cannot possibly be overcome” (VI:42). But perhaps Staniloae means something else. He immediately follows the sentence in question with a citation from St John of Damascus which states that the good is what God wants, not what we want—the implication being that God is not subject to any law or standard external to himself. If we would find true happiness, we can find it only in communion with the uncreated Person who is Goodness and who personally defines Goodness. As St John writes: “The righteous too rejoice when they desire God and when they have Him always within them; the sinners punish themselves and have no consolation when they desire sin and do not have the matter [in order to be able] to sin, being consumed as if by fire and by worm. For what is suffering if not the absence of that which is desired?” (VI:40). Staniloae thus opposes all juridical construals of divine judgment, which he believes characterizes Western Christianity. The judgment of God is never external to the human person. It is not an impersonal law imposed by sovereign transcendent authority. The criterion of divine judgment is the incarnate God himself, in union with whom we find life and happiness and outside of whom there is only death.
“The Father judges no one, but has given all judgment to the Son” (John 5:22). But why? Is not the entire Trinity involved in the judgment of mankind? Of course. Yet it is the incarnate Son, crucified and risen, who preeminently exercises the role of Judge, in concert with the Father and Spirit; for in him the unity of divinity and humanity has been perfectly achieved. We are not judged by a Deity infinitely distant from our condition but by the Christ who has lived as one of us, who has been tempted as one of us, who has died as one of us. Jesus the Crucified is the standard of divine judgment:
The criterion according to which the eternal state will be finalized will be our effort, or lack thereof, to draw near to Him, with our aim being the perfected humanity that Christ realized as a man. Thus Christ does not get this criterion from outside, but He Himself is this criterion. He is the standard for the judgment, and He is the one applying this standard because He alone achieved it, as its model, and He knows it perfectly from within Himself. Moreover, not only is He the criterion and Judge but also the crown with which He, as Judge, rewards those who made the effort to rise toward his level as man, being fulfilled by Him through His perfected humanity.
This is why all judgment has been given to Jesus Christ. If one can speak of a right He has earned to exercise this quality, this ought to be understood in the sense that by assuming and raising our humanity to our exemplary quality through His cross, Resurrection, and Ascension, He has raised in Himself humanity’s firstfruits to the place where they should be. Through His dwelling in those who believe, He has given them the help they need to die to the old man and to become alive forever through virtues; He has done everything so that men may attain the pinnacle of humanization, where He is. On the other hand He has this right because only in Him could this humanization truly attain its eternal pinnacle. He is Judge in His quality as guide and supporter on the path of humanization, in His quality as the goal and its achievement in those whom this advancement has taken place. He is the way and the life, our supporter and crown. (VI:58)
Man is the Judge of man—not a far-off Divinity who demands too much but the Son of Man who has fulfilled in himself the calling to be fully human in communion with his Father. “We are judged,” states Staniloae, “according to a criterion attained by man, by a man who has done everything so that we too may arrive there and who, by means of judgment, shares with us the level He reached—if on our part we offer our cooperation with Him in order to reach that level” (VI:58).
Thus Staniloae’s insistence that we are not judged by an impersonal and external law is clarified. At all times he has in mind the risen and glorified Christ. We are evaluated, assessed, affirmed or condemned by a divine Person who is simultaneously a human person (III:62). That the perfect Man who is also God should judge us is our salvation. In his sanctified humanity the eternal Son is the “driving force in sustaining humanity’s progress toward its perfection within the divine absolute” (VI:59). All is not relative and therefore irrelevant. We now know what it means to be human being, for God has presented himself in the flesh as our exemplar.
In the absence of this divine judgment, we are doomed to either fall into nothingness or to ascend and descend in karmic reiteration but never reaching fulfillment of our humanity. Only by eschatological finality does life come to possess true and absolute meaning. Or as Fr Dumitru bluntly puts it: “There is nothing outside Christ’s judgment except hell” (VI:59).