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 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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1 Response to Sergius Bulgakov: The Judgment that Blesses and Curses

  1. brian says:

    I think Bulgakov’s reading is correct. It’s not popular with many Christians, who don’t see the point of it all if everyone has at least some sheep in them. My mom is pretty sure I’m all goat. I say goats are fine animals. People who don’t like goats have never met one.

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