“The separation into sheep and goats is accomplished within every individual, and his right and left sides are bared in this separation”

Resurrection in incorruptibility and in glory is neither annulled nor limited by the separa­tion that follows the judgment. Spiritual “death,” or any other defect, is inseparable from immortality. According to the apostle Paul, “If any man’s work shall be burned, he shall suffer loss, but he himself shall be saved; yet so as by fire” (1 Cor. 3:15). There is no place for evil and sin in the kingdom of God; but sinners, with their incorruptible image, abide in the kingdom, though they bear within themselves the principle of the torment of death, of the undying worm and the inextinguishable fire. This combination of incorruptibility and glory with the casting into the outer darkness, the judgment with its double sentence, cannot be grasped by our understanding. It is one of the fundamental antinomies of the kingdom of Glory.

Nor should one diminish the universal significance of this antinomy. True, in the form of a parable, the discourse on the Last Judgment applies this final separation to different objects: to sheep and to goats, to those who go on the right and to those who go on the left. One could deduce from this that human beings are separated into the sinless and those who are subject to sin. But no one is perfectly sinless except the “Sole Sinless One” and the Most Pure Mother of God, just as no human beings are so utterly sinful that no trace of good can be found in them. In the fall of man in Adam, we know elements of error and delusion, which, without erasing the fall, somewhat soften it. The same thing is applicable to every person in his creaturely limitedness. Whatever may be the differences between different individuals as far as their personal sinfulness is concerned, this sinfulness always has an element of delu­sion and error, of acts accomplished in the name of an imaginary good. 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. A condemnation that would be the final casting into the outer darkness (nonbeing) is meta­phys­ical death. Even to be rejected, a human being must have in himself the power of being; that is, he must find support in the image of God given to him. 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, 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).

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Humankind in its entirety is Christ’s, for it has entirely been assumed into His Divine-Humanity. And if Christ suffers for and in humankind before the judgment, is it possible to think that He stops suffering after the judgment in relation to the lost drachma, the lost sheep: “If a man have an hundred sheep, and one of them be gone astray, doth he not leave the ninety and nine, and goeth into the mountains, and seeketh that which is gone astray?” (Matt. 18:12)? Redemption is conceived as the acceptance and compassionate experienc­ing to the end of the sins of the entire world, and this suffering of the Lord “for all people and for all things” (as the anaphora says), the redemptive sacrifice brought on Golgotha, extends to all times, as long as this sin and this suffering remain. The Lord does not deprive sinners of His redemptive love. He suffers with them and for them in this redemption that continues because of the existence of hell. The angry words of God’s justice addressed to sinners, “depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire” (Matt. 25:41), are said, nonetheless, by the Savior. They are words of love, punishing but not expelling even sinners from His human­kind, for “it is not the will of your Father which is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish” (Matt. 18:14). Even those banished by Christ remain in His love, are embraced by His universal redemptive sacrifice.

And since redemption is accomplished not only by the sacrifice of the Son sent by the Father, but also by the Holy Spirit, healing the sores of creation, the Holy Spirit continues its work of healing and restoration as long as that which is unhealed and unrestored remains. And the Holy Spirit can penetrate even the doors of hell. The heart of the Mother of God, the Spirit-Bearer, is pierced by the sword of hell because of Her compassionate love; and Her maternal intercession is effected starting with the Dread Judgment, which is the beginning, not the end, of the judgment. And the “Mother of God’s way of sorrows,” revealed to the vision of the Russian people, continues. Just as Christ’s love extends also to the damned and rejected (more precisely, to those who have damned and rejected themselves), so the maternal love does not cease either, which perhaps tries even harder for them and feels an even greater compassion for them, for it is love that damns and rejects them. There can be no final rejection of creation by God’s love, just as there can be no final abandonment of creation by the “pitying heart” of the Church’s love.

Let us remember, first of all, that the Church is not divided into two parts and that some completely dead part is not cut away from her. The separation of the sheep from the goats, with their final destinies, is a figure that refers not to individual persons or groups of persons but, above all, to their inner state. The possibility of hell and heaven is present in every soul, although to different degrees. This is a horizontal division, which 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 only see reflections of blessedness cast into the night.

Therefore, the idea of two humankinds, divided and separated from each other at the Last Judgment, does not correspond to the fullness and connectedness of reality. Humankind is one. It is one in Adam and one in Christ, one in his Body, in the Church: “so we, being many, are one body in Christ, and every one members one of another” (Rom. 12:5). This unity is expressed in love. “Whether one member suffer, all the members suffer with it; or one mem­ber be honoured, all the members rejoice with it” (1 Cor. 12:26), “for we are members one of another” (Eph. 4:25), “members of his body, of his flesh, and of his bones” (5:30). Can it be that this law of love will lose its power after the Last Judgment? Can it be that not only the sickness but even the spiritual death of many members will cease to provoke the compassion of active, praying love on the part of the healthy members? No! is the answer that must follow from a clear statement of the question. In that sense in which one can speak of them, the torments of hell inevitably extend not only to those who are condemned but also to the entire Church, to all humankind.

We can forget that all are saved with all, just as all are condemned with all and all are responsible for all, only if we understand eschatology exclusively from the criminal-law point of view, and especially if we understand salvation individualistically (if not egotis­ti­cally). Is it possible to accept that the righteous are capable of forgetting their rejected brothers, of being indifferent to them? Do not Moses and the apostle Paul offer a model of love when they declare themselves ready to be rejected for the sins of their people, togeth­er with their people? Such a forgetting, if it could occur at all, would be sufficient to sentence the righteous themselves to the torments of hell for the great sin against love. How could a mother remain indifferent to the perdition of her son or a son remain indifferent to the fate of his mother? Can the diverse personal ties of love that connect humankind be frayed to the point where our very memories of one another are lost? Such a picture of mutual annihilationism in love is a terrible nightmare, a blasphemous slander against the God of love and the Church. On the contrary, the existence of a hell with eternal torments affects all humankind, the whole body of the Church like a common malady. The presence of hell becomes a reality for all creation. Therefore, even for the righteous, heavenly bliss comes only after the expulsion of hell from the world. “For he [Christ] must reign, till he hath put all enemies under his feet . . . that God may be all in all” (1 Cor. 15:25, 28). All perish and are saved together, although differently, by Christ’s redemptive sacrifice, which creaturely sin can neither negate nor limit. And, like the pitying heart of the Mother of God, the Church’s love also does not know any limits.

Sergius Bulgakov

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7 Responses to “The separation into sheep and goats is accomplished within every individual, and his right and left sides are bared in this separation”

  1. Very interesting read. That many of the parables, such as that of the wheat and the chaff for example, refer not to separating human beings from each other, but to separating the good and evil in the human heart is not to me a new idea. I think this is almost the very concept of judgment, and also why judgment is healing. It is not that evil men are cut off from the righteous, for the Righteous Man came to redeem and save all, but that the evil within each heart is revealed, and therefore made ready to be cleansed. Though I believe that sometimes God cleanses – perhaps a very great deal – without ever bringing it to our full awareness or consciousness.


  2. John burnett says:

    What is that icon? It seems to be about the tollhouses, not the last judgment, for its central figure seems to be the snake that issues from the mouth of the pushme-pullyou beast inside gehenna, which reaches right up to the throne prepared image. By contrast, in the classic last judgment icon, a river of fire issues from the throne of Christ and circulates throughout creation, illumining the saints and terminating in gehenna, suggesting that the fire of divine love and the fire of gehenna are one and the same, as Bulgakov more or less says in this article. But in this painting, the river of fire doesn’t issue from the throne of Christ; it seems to come out of nowhere and it has an existence of its own, along with the gehenna in which it terminates— and before arriving there, it seems to surround a darkened world of nature.

    Also, in classic icons of the last judgment, the gehenna where the river of fire terminates is usually empty, or has only the devil in it; here— well, since the image is too small to read the inscriptions, I can’t tell, but— the oreo cookies in the bottom right corner and all the people trussed up in the panel just to the left of them seem to suggest that gehenna is fairly well populated. The next step would be to populate it with our enemies, like Stalin and Hitler, as I’ve seen in one church in Ukraine.

    The white circle in the lower left must be paradise, for there are the good ‘thief’, three men who are surely Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and the Theotokos after her dormition— and its gate is guarded by the cherub (actually represented as a seraph) below, with the saints, led by John the baptist, standing outside awaiting entry.

    At least as i read it, I find it disturbing, theologically illiterate, and even heretical. In any case, isn’t it sorta the opposite of what Bulgakov is saying?


  3. John Burnett says:

    The main thing, Fr Aidan, is to look at an icon, or any work for that matter, and pay attention to its details and to its overall aspect.

    That guy has some interesting ideas. The “Labyrinth of Conscience” is, well, different.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      John, I’ve been posting Last Judgment images on my blog for years now. One thing I learned early on is that not all Eastern images, e.g., include the river of fire flowing from the throne (see, e.g., this 17 c. Novgorod icon) and Latin images never do. Given the ecumenical thrust of this blog, I try to be ecumenical (within my own self-chosen limits) in my choice of images to accompany my articles.


      • John Burnett says:

        And i wouldn’t dream of challenging your right to post whatever images you like, Fr Aidan! I was only startled by the image here because, overall because it _looked_ like the usual Last Judgment, but it had so much more going on than one normally sees, and on the face of it did have a number of unexpected elements— not least the big snake that is its central figure!

        So, upon inspection, I saw that it was telling a story of the tollhouses, borrowing from the classic Last Judgment icon, and that some of its imagery, and the way those images were related, was, well, a bit odd and inexplicable and disconnected. Moreover, and above all, the main action didn’t emanate from Christ, who is depicted as rather remote, but from a Gehenna that was somewhat foregrounded, apparently had an independent existence, and had no connection with Christ, and thus with God’s love, at all! So all of that was very strange, and demanded an even closer look. And reflecting on what i could make out (and i’d do better if i could read the inscriptions, but my russian’s very limited at best)— it did seem to be saying the _opposite_ of what Bulgakov is saying in the article you posted below it. So, interesting contrast.

        I’m actually grateful that you posted this picture, because i think it might be the best depiction i’ve ever seen of the eschatological cosmology that arguably has *replaced* the Bible and the fathers’ understanding of these things in the popular Orthodox mind. It _looks_ biblical (“last judgment”, right?) and _seems_ patristic (“tollhouses” and other motifs), but the story it tells is both imaginative and really rather confused and fantastic and actually contrary to both the Bible and the fathers when you get to thinking about it. The painting seems like one artist’s effort to work out how all the elements of the eschatological cosmology that we’ve come to inhabit, especially in recent decades, fit together. And while it does manage to bring them into a single gestalt, the thread that unites all of the pieces literally emanates from Hell, and not from Christ! So really!— Thanks for the image! It’s actually quite horrible!— and now we can see it clearly!

        In the 1600 to 1800s, especially in Russia, where theology was being taught in Latin from western scholastic manuals, a style of iconography developed, never seen before, which had strong connections with the esoteric, symbolical “emblems” with which Western philosophical authors of the same period liked to illustrate their ideas. One example of such an emblem would be the Unfinished Pyramid on the back of our dollar bills. Another is the icon of the “All-Seeing Eye”— just google “all-seeing eye orthodox icon” and go to the images page, you’ll find scores of them, each stranger than the next. Imagine trying to pray in front of a four-eyed emblem! But the point is that these “icons”, like the emblems from which they took their inspiration, did not depict the saints, although sometimes they incorporated saints, as in the icon of the Burning Bush, so much as rationalistic theological ideas and systems of thought. Ultimately the Church seems quietly to have ditched them, without any council ever having formally proscribed them. Now, it struck me that this artist’s “Last Judgment” fit into that style, and on visiting his page (thanks for the link!), his “icon” of the “Labyrinth of Conscience” certainly confirmed that impression. He is significantly a painter of ideas and systems, among other things. Graphic design is certainly an interesting way of working out one’s thoughts— i wish i had more ability!— but ultimately a system is a system, and not a person. And the Church’s consciousness is centered on the Person, and not on a system.

        You have been interested in many years in the question of “universalism”, especially after you were so seared by the descent of your son, whom you still love very much, into darkness and death. (Please forgive me if i’m intruding where i should not.) I don’t think this icon supports a sense of universalism at all— and does not support the passage from Bulgakov to which you’ve attached it— precisely because it seems to be an image of a system— or rather, because it’s an attempt to systematize the eschatological cosmology that many of us have come to take for granted. On that level i think it’s brilliant, but it makes one uneasy for the *exact* reason that you are uneasy with the idea of an eternal Hell— it’s an idea that fits really well with a rational System of Theology, but breaks down when we start thinking about the Person who is always the center of Orthodoxy— ultimately Jesus the Messiah himself.

        But a temptation we may then face as we try to work out where we stand on all this, would be to counter the System of Hell with another System, called “Universal-ism”. But although we may reject the System of Hell, the Church’s consciousness is still centered on the Person, and not on a System, even of Universal Salvation. Theologies, as well as icons, can dazzle us by their apparent orderliness and completeness— but order and completeness and system can absolutely exclude the Mystery.

        In fact it would be really interesting to study the Icon of the Last Judgment as it developed through time. When was the first one produced? Was it from the beginning a product of the impulse to systematize? Or was it attempting to organize all that is said in the Bible about the Final Judgment in such a way as to _respect_ the Mystery?

        I haven’t studied a lot of them, but I have noticed, as i mentioned in my first response above, that in the classic icons, the gehenna where the river of fire terminates is usually empty, or at most has only the devil in it. Sometimes he’s standing just outside of it. Here— I wish i could read the inscriptions, so I can’t tell, but— the oreo cookies in the bottom right corner and all the people trussed up in the panel just to the left of them seem to suggest that gehenna is fairly well populated— and as i said, a next step would be to populate it with specific enemies, like Stalin and Hitler, as I’ve seen. But there, we’ve shifted from the mystery of God’s judgment to judging people ourselves.


  4. John Burnett says:

    Btw, the link to the 17th c Novgorod icon you posted a couple a comments ago doesn’t seem to work, but i figured out that it’s supposed to point to one of those at https://www.uncutmountainsupply.com/categories/icons/of-feast-days/minor-feasts.html?sort=alphaasc&page=2

    All three of the Last Judgment icons shown there are more or less the same as this modern one— or rather, Oleh Husak’s follows those. So he is working out his thoughts on eschatological cosmology in terms of this “traditional” image. But note the period in which all three of those “traditional” images from Novgorod were painted— precisely the 17th and 18th centuries, the period of System, as I discussed above.

    Jonathan Pageau discusses the Last Judgment icon in the article/youtube (1 hr) at https://orthodoxartsjournal.org/icon-last-judgement/. He says that it shows not only the Last Judgment but also the course of our lives and of our personal judgment at death. The latter is represented by the snake of tollhouses, which he likens to the Ladder of Divine Ascent, at both the middle and end of the hour. I would distinguish the Last Judgment, though, from images of our own personal judgment depicted around the figure of the tollhouse snake. Later, some icons try to synthesize the two.

    Pageau says that the Last Judgment icon is “an image of the structure of reality” or of “the structure of being and how we participate in its unfolding”. So it’s interesting from that angle. But again, i think we don’t much find the impulse to System and abstraction in the earlier centuries. And i think Bulgakov is resisting it, because although synthesis is good, System can get carried away with itself.


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