The Judgement 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)


Last Judgment—given Sergius Bulgakov’s apocatastatic conviction that it will be a glorifying and converting event, reconciling every human to God through Jesus Christ, how does he interpret the Matthean warning of our Lord that the righteous and wicked will be eternally separated at the end of the ages? Surely this parable refutes the universalist hope. Bulgakov rejoins: we must interpret the parable theologically within the entirety of divine revelation and attend to the symbolic nature of apocalyptic language. But 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, 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,” the Russian priest 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,” he explains. “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).

Bulgakov, 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)

All will be judged. All will be condemned. All will be made righteous unto eternal life.

[24 July 2014; mildly edited]

(Go to “Hell as Universal Purgatory”)

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15 Responses to The Judgement that Blesses and Curses

  1. Karl says:

    I’m always interested in people’s thoughts on this:

    DRURY: I had been reading Origen before. Origen taught that at the end of time here would be a final restitution of all things. That even Satan and the fallen angels would be restored to their former glory. This was a conception that appealed to me — but it was at once condemned as heretical.

    WITTGENSTEIN: Of course it was rejected. It would make nonsense of everything else. If what we do now is to make no difference in the end, then all the seriousness of life is done away with. Your religious ideas have always seemed to me more Greek than biblical. Whereas my thoughts are one hundred per cent Hebraic.

    (Recollections of Wittgenstein, ed. Rhees, Oxford 1984, p. 161.)


    • brian says:

      Some of my thoughts — I keep a few to myself, why should I share everything all at once?

      It’s really pretty well established by now that the Greek – Hebrew divergence is somewhat artificial. The development of Old Testament theology is not isolated from Israel’s contact with the nations. There isn’t really any question that Hellenic thought is incorporated into Hebrew experience. This doesn’t equate to an undigested and foreign influence creating a spurious alloy. On the contrary, Israel always synthesizes creatively; but the notion that Greek metaphysics is tout court anathema to Biblical thinking is unfounded.

      Further, the inference that apokatastasis is merely a wooden transference of neo-Platonic notions of egress and regress from the One can only be entertained by someone who is frankly tone deaf to the actual message of Biblical revelation. It is the fidelity of God’s love for his Creation that establishes the criteria for what would equate to a fitting victory for Divine Care. Revelation itself calls forth philosophical reflection. The metaphysics of the gospel may make use of Platonist modes of thought (among others), but it does so by adaptation and integration into a narrative that is both historical and eschatological in orientation.

      And lastly (for now), the common objection that somehow universal redemption makes nonsense of the significance of temporal actions is itself a judgement lacking in seriousness and imagination. Bulgakov’s idea of an intrapersonal judgement instantiates the Orthodox distinguishing between natural and gnomic will. One discovers one’s “true self” as always already a gift originating within the Logos. Therefore, there is both the capacity for healing and sorrow over the divergence between one’s unique, intimate calling and what one has made of one’s life. There is no hint here of any kind of cheap grace or superficial dismissal of the moral consequences of temporal acts. The question is whether or not temporal failure should be considered eternally determinative. It’s funny, because people who are supposedly deeply offended by the injustice of ultimate salvation are not at all troubled by an irremediable and eternal suffering for temporal crimes, however perverse and grotesque.

      But then, of course, such a criteria and hermeneutic frequently understands the person as the atomized individual of modern nominalist, voluntarist provenance. If person is constituted equally by a unique, irreplaceable center of will, affection, judgement and act and the infinite relations with God and creation, it is impossible to consider the fate of an “individual” as a matter of indifference to “others.” As Dostoevsky’s Father Zosima asserts, “Each is responsible for all.” This seems irrational and irresponsible apart from an understanding of the Unity of Humanity and the archetype of Personal Being in the Trinity. From a more deeply discerning Cosmic Vision of the reach of Christ, a different judgement becomes possible from the blithe certitudes of those who think the drama of history is only serious if it stops with death.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Someone posted this exchange between Wittgenstein and Drury on FaceBook last week, and I’ve been mulling it over. Does apokatastasis do away with the seriousness of life? I suppose in one sense it does. The threat of eternal damnation certainly raises the stakes. If I know that everlasting fire-and-brimstone is a real possiblity for me, then avoiding that outcome assumes paramount importance. As Samuel Johnson quipped: “When a man knows he is to be hanged…it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”

      One might go a step further and claim that a game is not worth playing without the possibility of losing. If everyone gets a ribbon in the end, why play? As Mia Hamm once remarked, “The person that said winning isn’t everything, never won anything.”

      Is life accurately compared to a game?

      Are there not some activities and relationships that are their own reward?

      If Wittgenstein is right, what happens to the seriousness of life in heaven? The game has already been won and their are no more games to be played.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Andrew says:

        Then again if the “stakes are that high” and God might become unmerciful, essentially, how is one even to begin truly loving Him? In that case, how does the “game” even begin? Why would one want to play it?

        Liked by 1 person

      • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

        A follow-up quote from a Next Generation episode:

        Worf: Rest assured, Commander we will be victorious, at whatever the cost.
        Riker: Worf, it’s just a game. A friendly little competition. You work up a sweat, you have a few laughs and you make new friends.
        Worf: If winning is not important, then, Commander, why keep score?


    • Mike H says:

      I’ve come across the issue addressed by Wittgenstein many times – (the avoidance of) punishment being the thing that, in the end, ensure that our lives and moral acts have meaning. I think it’s an important one and gets to the heart of a lot of different things.

      It’s not that there isn’t some rhetorical force to what he’s saying. I get that it would be heartless and make life relatively meaningless if one were to assert that everyone “just waltzes into heaven no matter what they’ve done in life” as is so often caricatured. Over against that, irrevocable retributive punishment or annihilation, on the surface, appears to “take sin seriously”.

      In a different format, Wittgenstein’s dilemma might be phrased as:
      *What’s the point of being good if the retributive punishment of evil ends? One interprets a sort of arbitrariness to good vs evil or (at times) veiled excitement at the prospect of “those evil people” (certainly no one in my tribe) finally getting what’s coming to them.
      *What’s the point of life if the moment of death isn’t the fulcrum of existence – the fixed point about which everything revolves? After all, one reads many stories about people who have committed horrific evils “finding God” in their last moments (I recently read a story like that about a Nazi executioner/guard). This question ends up more about the centrality of death than the “meaning of life”.
      *If a person can’t ultimately and irrevocably subvert God’s desire for their salvation (which doesn’t necessitate mechanistic determinism), what’s the point?

      But as it relates specifically to meaning – all else aside – , I guess I’d flip things around and ask the same sort of question but in relation to good rather than evil:

      “What does it mean for the ‘seriousness of life’ if evil is finally permitted to subvert God’s intent for creation?”

      So reframe the question from “why abstain from evil?” to “why be good?”

      If we recognize, (1)creation ex nihilo (2)the autonomous individual being a faulty picture of personhood (3)the picture presented here as a person being both sheep & goat (4)the desire of God to fill all things, etc. – the sort of things found in DB Hart’s “The Moral Meaning of Creation ex Nihilo” and elsewhere – I think that the ultimate necessity of a “loss” for a “win” to mean anything is just the wrong way to approach it.

      Ultimately, why love if that love is a waste? Why love at all, why be good, if love ultimately flickers and fades in comparison to irrevocable suffering? One has to concede that a parent’s love for a child is ultimately meaningless (and many theologies hold forth that sort of thing – where the suffering of damned loved ones either provides a certain amount of bliss or is wiped from their memory all together).

      I think that the best reason to live a life of love, hope, grace, forgiveness, etc. is based in the fact that these things aren’t an exercise in futility, but the exact opposite. The hope of the gospel of all things made new in Christ is, I think, the thing that gives the MOST meaning to life because it says that good – the good that is original – is what endures. Why work towards a universal flourishing, why long for Eden (or beyond Eden) if such a reality is wishful thinking? A pipe dream?

      Liked by 2 people

      • brian says:

        If God’s agapeic giving of the gift of being demonstrates a generosity that cannot be subverted by the resistance of evil, then to participate in God’s mode of giving is to also refuse to foreclose on the ultimate salvation of the other enmeshed in sin. If “reward” is not some extrinsic commodification of the Good, but actual divinization that brings one into the very life of God, then the justice of the holy will engender a capacity to love as God loves.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Jonathan says:

        Great comment, Mike. I have nothing substantive to add except that when you write “why abstain from evil?” and “why be good?” I thought immediately of Tom Waits’ awesome song “God’s away on business” in which he sings

        Goddamn there’s always such a big temptation
        To be good, To be good
        There’s always free cheddar in a mousetrap, baby
        It’s a deal, it’s a deal…

        And of his song “Everything goes to hell” which starts out:

        Why be sweet, why be careful, why be kind?
        A man has only one thing on his mind
        Why ask politely, why go lightly, why say please?
        They only want to get you on your knees
        There are a few things I never could believe

        A woman when she weeps
        A merchant when he swears
        A thief who says he’ll pay
        A lawyer when he cares
        A snake when he is sleeping
        A drunkard when he prays
        I don’t believe you go to heaven when you’re good
        Everything goes to hell, anyway…

        Both from the fantastically dismal album Blood Money. The citation is a bit crude (although I love Waits and think he’s a sort of genius) but I think it gets at precisely the mindset you’re invoking here when you turn the question about. And by the way, I think Waits would recognize this. He puts on gruesome to show why it’s gruesome (and to have fun), not to promote it, in case anyone’s wondering. The man’s also got uplifting, or at least sweeter, material. But he does dark best and I think that’s important because we need that sort of art from time to time, it’s like a pressure relief valve.

        Liked by 2 people

        • brian says:

          I really appreciate your sensibility Jonathan.


        • Mike H says:

          Thanks Jonathan. Those lyrics express exactly the sort of thing that I was attempting to get at. Why be sweet, why be careful, why be kind? Totally with you on ‘dark art’ too. Sometimes it’s the only honest way to deal with absurdity & call something what it is.

          It’s not at all that I don’t sympathize with certain aspects of the way that Wittgenstein approaches the problem. It’s just that the assumptions that undergird the expressive form that his protest takes (and when one words his question just a bit differently it becomes more apparent) appears to invite the exact sort of meaningless about life that he’s attempting to avoid. “Why not be bad” and “why be good” can be the result of fundamentally different ways of looking at life…..

          And one other thing. It could be argued that my protest of Wittgenstein’s protest is sort of “emotional” . That’s it’s own conversation, but I’d simply point out that Wittgenstein’s argument is no less “emotional”.

          Spotify listed Nick Cave as a similar artist to Tom Waits. Cave has a new album out (Skeleton Tree) and talk about ‘fantastically dismal’ (though in a different way than Waits, I think – I’m not familiar with Waits). He’s a man of deep faith (from my understanding), but also possesses a punk-rock anti-institutional sort of bent.

          It’s a heart breaking album that grew out of a tragedy. I can’t recall the last time that I had a song wreck me like “Distant Shore”. It expresses, for me, the difference between “why be good” and “why not be bad”.

          They told us our gods would outlive us
          They told us our dreams would outlive us
          They told us our gods would outlive us
          But they lied

          It doesn’t end with that though:

          Soon the children will be rising, will be rising
          This is not for our eyes

          Liked by 1 person

          • Jonathan says:

            So I listened to Skeleton Tree last night. . . Wow. Thanks for bringing Nick Cave to my attention. I used to listen to him a good bit, but haven’t in about ten years and none of the more recent albums. I first encountered his music through Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire (aside: that film belongs in there with the group of Tree of Life, Calvary, and The Island that came up a little while back, along with Babette’s Feast, which I know Brian has brought up once or twice). Nick Cave is a powerful artist. Definitely in a different register than Waits, anyway in that album, but I suppose I could see why Spotify would class them together.


  2. Andrew says:

    This is the same approach that Saint Gregory of Nyssa (or his sister Saint Macrina rather) took in On the Soul and the Resurrection, correct? The one difficulty I have with this interpretation despite it’s attractiveness is that the earlier parables in the Gospel of Matthew of the wheat and the tares seem to cut against it. In that parable the wheat and tares are explained to be persons, not deeds, passions, etc. I don’t understand how Bulgakov or St Gregory reconcile that parables explanation (from The Lord himself) with their own interpretations


    • brian says:

      Bulgakov and Gregory’s interpretation is metaphysically sound. The person is divided against him or herself. The tares and wheat are ineliminable from temporal existence. We simply are this incompleteness, this mixture of sin and love, failed striving and graced victories. Judgement will be both for and against. Only in Christ will one attain an eternal unity of being.

      But then again, I think the meaning of Scripture is determined by a holistic theological interpretation. It is a mistake to isolate specific verses and then insist that all equivocity or analogical possibility be ruled illicit in favor of a precise and univocal meaning. Certainly patristic praxis was not all confined to such a narrow range of possibility. This seems to me a particulary egregious form of interpretation when dealing with a parabolic mode of expression.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Andrew says:

        I agree, even in the same chapter as the one which contains the parable of the wheat and the tares there are other parables of the Kingdom which seem show that the wheat and the tares are not persons. Reconciling the two such as Bulgakov has done seems legitimate to me.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. John Stamps says:

    When I was taking Theology 101 at Princeton back in 1978, we read Paul Tillich and Karl Barth in “dialogue” with each other. Looking back, there’s no way that a snot-nosed 21 year old kid can make sense of religious language in general and Tillich in particular. I kept trying to map religious symbols 1:1 to some kind of literal (yes, and probably fundamentalist) theological grid.

    This was my way of trying to tread water to keep from sinking. I found the very notion of religious symbolism very threatening, I’m not sure why. Reinhold Niebuhr once said he takes religious symbolism seriously but not literally. That strikes me as a very good rule of thumb.

    That said, I do find some theologians much more helpful than others. The best theologians are those who hear the message of Scripture and can communicate the deep mysteries of God without emptying out their content. To me, there is only one unforgivable sin for a theologian — please don’t turn wine into water. Just don’t do it. Don’t masquerade your skepticism, rationalism, and unbelief as theology. Please make your theology eucharistic and doxological. Don’t turn it into fast food or, even worse, husks fit only for the swine.

    Theologians like Bulgakov are great because they help us try to discern the mystery of God without emptying it of its existential power. Reading Bulgakov strengthens our minds while at the same time our hearts sing. You can’t ask for much more from a theologian.

    My $.02.


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