And he shall come again with glory to judge both the quick and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end.
The Great Assize—I am brought into the courtroom of the Divine Judge. The prosecutor presents a movie of my life, with infallible commentary. The entirety of my life is presented in exquisite and shameful detail. Nothing is hidden. All of my actions and inactions, with underlying motivations, are revealed. And to make things worse, the movie shows the consequences of my decisions upon the lives of others, rippling down through the centuries. Finally, the prosecution rests its case. No defense is offered, can be offered. With dread I await the verdict.
What’s wrong with this scenario?
In the view of Sergius Bulgakov, it fails to grasp the inner connections between creation, incarnation, parousia, glorification, and universal resurrection. When the Incarnate Son returns in glory, the dead will be raised and all will be glorified. Every resurrected person will partake of immortality, irrespective of merit. Resurrection is wholly a gift of God, bestowed in the paschal victory of Jesus Christ. Bulgakov quotes the Apostle Paul: “Christ shall change our vile body, that it may be fashioned like unto his glorious body, according to the working whereby he is able even to subdue all things unto himself” (Phil 3:21). He then comments: “This applies, we repeat, to all humanity without any exception, for the Lord became the New Adam, assumed humanity in its entirety: ‘As we have borne the image of the earthy, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly’ (1 Cor. 15:49). The image of the heavenly will shine upon all resurrected bodies, clothed in glory” (The Bride of the Lamb, p. 450).
The joy with which Bulgakov writes of the Second Coming is palpable. One can almost hear in his words the bells of the Paschal Vigil. The kingdom is so very close. Bulgakov often closed his writings with the acclamation from the Apocalypse: “Even so, come Lord Jesus.” The Russian priest eagerly awaits and prays for the return of Christ: the dead will be raised; the world will be made new; all will be transfigured in the Spirit. The parousia is the fulfillment of the gospel; but perhaps most surprisingly, the divine judgment is the fulfillment of the gospel. “Let the field be joyful, and all that is therein,” the Psalmist sings: “then shall all the trees of the wood rejoice before the Lord: for he cometh, for he cometh to judge the earth: he shall judge the world with righteousness, and the people with his truth” (Ps 96:12-13).
Glorification in Christ immediately, simultaneously, inescapably subjects humanity to divine judgment:
It is necessary to understand that the parousia, the coming of Christ in glory, that is, in the manifestation of the Holy Spirit, is, as such, already the judgment. The parousia cannot be an external and mutually indifferent encounter between God who has come into the world and man who remains in his isolated state of being, as he was before this encounter. On the contrary, man too is clothed in glory and incorruptibility, and the creaturely Sophia becomes transparent for the Divine Sophia. This changes man’s very being. This encounter with God, this entering into the realm of the divine fire, is not something optional for human beings. It is inevitable. For some this is the time of liberation (“look up, and lift up your heads” [Luke 21:28]). For others it is a time of fear and horror: “then shall all the tribes of the earth mourn, and they shall see the Son of man coming in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory” (Matt. 24:30). No one can avoid this encounter, for it is not an outward encounter but an inward one. For many this will be an unexpected and undesired transformation of their being, for the transfiguration, the light of glory given to human beings, can do more than illuminate. It can also consume in fire. (p. 455)
The final judgment is baptism into glory and light and fire and truth.
Here the popular image of the courtroom misleads. We think of the divine judgment as an external revelation. The book of our life is opened, read, assessed. We stand passively as the verdict is declared and the sentence executed. But this is the wrong way to think of the last judgment. It’s not as if we are judged according to a legal standard and then rewarded or punished. Judgment occurs in the event of our baptism in glory, as an encounter with the risen Lord who is not only outside us but within us in the depths of our being. “Behold, the kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:21). The final judgment is both transcendent and immanent.
The parousia manifestly clothes every human being in Christ by the Holy Spirit. It is precisely in this sense that the parousia is also the judgment. And Christ, as the Judge (John 5:27), judges by the Holy Spirit. Human beings are clothed in Christ, who is the Truth and the Life, by the life-giving Holy Spirit, who is the Spirit of Truth. This means that every human being is inwardly confronted with the truth about himself. Every human being sees in the truth, by a vision that is not abstract but living, like the consuming flame of a fire from whose light one cannot hide, for all will become visible: “for judgment I am come into this world” (John 9:39), says the Lord. …
The manifestation of God’s glory in the world is also the manifestation of the truth itself, as well as the abolition of falsehood and the power of the father of lives (John 8:44). No falsehood, no self-deception, no error will have a place in the kingdom of truth, and this “exposure” by the Spirit of truth is already the judgment. By virtue of the truth this judgment becomes for everyone a self-judgment, a shedding of the veils of falsehood and self-deception that cover emptiness. The enthronement of Christ in the world, the reign of God come in power, is the Holy Spirit that fully, without any kenosis, pours forth upon all flesh. Christ’s revelation in the Holy Spirit has an irresistible force, which is manifested both in the universal resurrection and in the transformation of the world, with a transfiguration and glorification that extend to all flesh. This illuminating and transfiguring power is expressed in the image of fire, not natural of course but “spiritual,” which will penetrate the “spiritual” body and the spirit itself. The fire of the future age consumes, but it also transfigures, illuminates, gladdens. (p. 456)
Bulgakov speaks here of the Lord’s judging word as possessing an “irresistible force.” A crucial clarification is needed. Throughout Bride of the Lamb the author stresses the importance of human freedom. God works with human beings in synergistic collaboration. “The freedom of the person remains inviolable and impenetrable, even for God” (p. 226). God persuades in love, never by force. Bulgakov even goes so far to speak of God limiting his omnipotence before the freedom of man. Like Eastern theologians before and after him, he quotes the words of Christ from the Book of Revelation: “I stand at the door and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come into him, and will sup with him, and he with me” (3:20). “This door,” he interprets, “is creaturely freedom, the source of the originality and reality of creation in its correlation with the Creator” (p. 226). Freedom is not just an attribute of the human being; it is the foundation of human existence. When Bulgakov speaks of the divine judgment as possessing “irresistible force,” therefore, he cannot mean a divine action that in any way violates human personhood. It must be a word that speaks a truth so personally compelling and self-evident that it can only be affirmed and appropriated:
The judgment and separation consist in the fact that every human being will be placed before his own eternal image in Christ, that is, before Christ. And in the light of this image, he will see his own reality, and this comparison will be the judgment. It is this that is the Last Judgment of Christ upon every human being. … Just as the Holy Spirit manifests Christ in glory, so it reveals Christ’s presence in every human being. The judgment is the theophany to the world of the Son sent by the Father in the Holy Spirit. Resurrection in incorruptibility and glorification is precisely the Last Judgment, in which creation appears before the face of God and sees itself in God. For the image of God, given to man at his creation, is also the judgment upon man in relation to his likeness, which is the realization of this image in creaturely freedom. The “likeness” is the book of life opened at the judgment. 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.” As such, the judgment is self-evidently persuasive. This genuine image for every human being is Christ: The judgment consists in the fact that the light has come into the world (see John 3:19). “For judgment I am come into this world” (9:39).
Is it possible to reject this ontological self-judgment upon oneself as inappropriate and unconvincing? No! It is not possible, for one is judged by one’s own being, by one’s own truth. St Isaac the Syrian says that the torments of hell are the burning of love for God, the burning fire of this love. … This idea is also applicable to man’s relation to his divine proto-image: being aware of how distant he is from his proto-image in his given state or likeness, a human being nevertheless recognizes himself in this image as he could and should be according to God’s thought. He loves this image of himself, judges himself by it, compares himself to is, does not and cannot retreat from it inwardly.
This proto-image is Christ. Every human being sees himself in Christ and measures the extent of his difference from this proto-image. 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 two things are the same. Such is human ontology. 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, his vision of himself outside 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. … It is impossible to appear before Christ and to see Him without loving him. (pp. 457-459)
The divine judgment becomes irresistible because it declares the truth that we already know in the depth of conscience; irresistible because it presents the good that we have always desired; irresistible because it gives the love for which we have long sought; irresistible because it discloses our inmost self. Our freedom is not overridden but rather fully engaged. Bulgakov acknowledges that how each person receives the parousia, whether in joy or hatred, is conditioned by interior disposition. Resurrection and glory will come as a transcendent reality from which man cannot hide, ex opere operato; yet given free-will the manner of reception remains proper to each person, ex opere operantis. But after affirming this synergism, Bulgakov reasserts even more strongly the primacy of grace: “But, to be sure, creaturely limitedness here does not limit the power of divine action in the manifestation of the divine image in man. A human being is saved by this action, though only in connection with what he himself is. These forms of salvation differ depending upon what foundation a human being has built upon. It is possible that he himself will be saved ‘yet so by fire’ (1 Cor 3:15); and he will be naked, for his work will be consumed” (p. 457).
Surrounded by the light of Christ and penetrated by the fire of his Spirit, we are stripped of delusions and pretensions. Denial is impossible. We know ourselves as we are, as we were meant to be, as we shall be. We see ourselves in Christ and Christ in us. In his humanity we discover our true selves. When Jesus appeared in Galilee, it was possible for men and women to know him and yet not recognize him, possible to know him and crucify him. Such was the kenosis of the Word made flesh. But in the parousia Jesus is revealed in glory, and we cannot but acknowledge him as the divine Image in whose image we have been made. “God is so irresistibly persuasive for man because man receives God into himself, in his sophianic proto-image” (p. 492). All will be immersed in the consuming fire of Christ’s judgment. All will know the truth. All will embrace the truth.
“Even so, come Lord Jesus.”
(Originally published on 19 July 2014; mildly edited)