The Parable of the Last (Final, Great) Judgment—“No one who has heard this parable even once,” Robert Capon remarks, “ever forgets it” (Kingdom, Grace, Judgment, p. 504). It also poses the greatest challenge to Capon’s position on justification by faith (as well as the confident universalism of Fr Aidan Kimel). Indeed, so powerful is it that many judge it as proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that the greater hope is a chimera, a pipe dream that contradicts the clear and plain teaching of the Lord Jesus Christ. For well over a millennium, this parable has effectively functioned as the cornerstone of all preaching. “The love of God is unconditional, you say? Then why are the goats cast into the eternal fire?” “God does not punish? Then please explain why Jesus states that the damned ‘will go away into eternal punishment.'” Whatever the gospel means, it must make provision for a populated hell. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that once the proposal of everlasting perdition is embraced as dogma, it then shapes, reshapes, and corrupts all of theology, backwards and forwards. Damnation becomes the one thing needful. Jesus came into the world to bring us hell. This we know. For the Bible tells us so.
Unlike my previous articles on the parables, I offer two different translations: first the Revised Standard Version and then the David Bentley Hart Version. As you will observe, different translations of the parable are possible. Unfortunately, Capon follows the RSV and other traditional translations and does not entertain alternative renderings. Even so, he insists on reading the parable, as he does with all the parables of Jesus, through a hermeneutic of absolute love.
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 [RSV])
And when the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his throne of glory; And all the nations will be assembled before him, and he will separate them from one another, as the shepherd separates the sheep from the kid goats, And will set the sheep to his right, but the kid goats to the left. Then the King will say to those to his right, ‘Come, you blessed by my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the cosmos. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you gave me hospitality, Naked and you clothed me, I was ill and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the just will answer him, saying, “When did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and give you hospitality, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you ill or in prison and come to you?” And in reply the King will say to them, “Amen, I tell you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.” Then he will say to those to the left, “Go from me, you execrable ones, into the fire of the Age prepared for the Slanderer and his angels. For I was hungry and you did not give me anything to eat, I was thirsty and you did not give me drink, I was a stranger and you did not give me hospitality, naked and you did not clothe me, ill and in prison and you did not look after me.” Then they too will answer, saying, “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or ill or in prison, and did not attend to you?” Then he will answer them, saying, “Amen, I tell you, inasmuch as you did not do it to one of the least of these my brothers, neither did you do it to me.” And these will go to the chastening of that Age, but the just to the life of that Age. (Matt 25:31-46 [DBH])1
In the Parable of the Great Judgment, Capon asserts, the central themes of Jesus’ parabolic teaching about the Kingdom come to fruition:
- The Kingdom is catholic, not parochial.
- The Kingdom is mysterious, not recognizable.
- The Kingdom is actual, not virtual.
- The Kingdom is met with welcome and hostility.
- The Kingdom summons faith, not works.
Capon devotes several pages discussing each theme. Space prevents me from discussing them in depth. I invite readers to read his reflections. You will find them interesting and challenging.
Contrary to what we might initially think, Capon tells us, the catholicity of the Kingdom is vindicated by God’s salvific envelopment of both the righteous and the wicked. The eschatological act of separation remains an expression of the shepherding of the Good Shepherd:
The catholicity of the kingdom is vindicated even with regard to goodness and badness: in the end as in the beginning, evil is not simply excluded but provided for—given a place in the final scheme of things. True enough, Jesus’ parables of judgment are rife with images of separation: the outer darkness is the final destination of the man without the wedding garment and of the useless servant; the wrong side of the door is the portion of the foolish virgins. But in the Great Judgment, Jesus goes out of his way to stipulate that the Son of man “will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.” Do you see what that means? Jesus is the Good Shepherd, and the Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. But he lays down his life for the goats as well, because on the cross he draws all to himself. It is not that the sheep are his but the goats are not; the sheep are his sheep and the goats are his goats. Any separation that occurs, therefore, must be read as occurring within his shepherding, not as constituting a divorce from it. . . . Accordingly, Jesus’ drawing of all to himself remains the ultimate gravitational force in the universe; nothing, not even evil, is ever exempted from it. Hell has no choice but to be within the power of the final party, even though it refuses to act as if it is at the party. It lies not so much outside the festivities as it is sequestered within them. It is hidden, if you will, in the spear wound in Christ’s side to keep it from being a wet blanket on the heavenly proceedings; but it is not, for all that, any less a part of Jesus’ catholic shepherding of his flock. (pp. 505-506)
Capon’s suggestion that hell is sequestered within the spear wound of Christ is quite beautiful and profound. The self-damned are ultimately separated neither from Christ nor his eschatological banquet. But because of their adamant refusal to embrace the Crucified and join in the festivities of love, the Lord graciously hides them within himself. At all times, for all eternity, they are enveloped in his love and care. In his book Between Noon and Three, Capon develops this image in conversation with C. S. Lewis:
C.S. Lewis suggested that all of hell could fit into a tiny crack in the soil of the heavenly country (and therefore that hell was within the heavenly country, no matter how far away its inhabitants felt themselves to be). But I’m going to suggest that all of hell will fit into the hands of Jesus—and specifically, into one of the Glorious Scars of the crucifixion, into the nail wound in the left hand of his risen body. That, you see, goes Lewis one better. It puts hell not under the floorboards of the eternal party but in the palm of the hand of the host who is passing the drinks and hors d’oeuvres.2
A critical theological truth is at stake here. We must not think of damnation as something that happens apart from the Lord’s saving work: “Everything that happens after the second coming of Jesus—judgment, heaven, and even hell—happens within the triumphantly reconciling power of his death and resurrection” (p. 96). Whether they realize it or not, the damned are definitively and forever forgiven and reconciled in Christ. Their sins are nailed on the cross of the Savior. They have died with Christ and been raised in him. All they need do is crawl out of the spear wound and join the banquet. This fundamental truth must govern our reading of the parable. Capon elaborates:
The separation of the two [sheep and goats] is a disposition made by the Good Shepherd himself in the interests of his own goodness, not in regard to some supposed inability on his part to put up with evil. It is a provision by the King for the best possible government of all the subjects of his kingship. At least in some sense, therefore, the separation remains within the flock and within the kingdom. The Shepherd/King does not have a problem with evil: Jesus has taken all the evil of the world into himself. The final dispensation is not a destruction of evil; it is precisely a sequestration of evil in the Son of God. Accordingly, whatever else hell may be, it is not where God isn’t: if it exists at all, it exists because he, in his creating Word, is intimately and immediately present to it. Jesus is the Life even of those who go down into the second death; he is the shepherd even of the goats whom he divides from his sheep. Accordingly, on this point I want simply to run up a flag: the separation imagery of the parables is a tricky piece of business; for my money, it should not be interpreted in a way that portrays Jesus as having taken off the velvet glove of grace and put on brass knuckles. Above all, it should not be read in this parable as turning the Good Shepherd into the wolf. (pp. 507-508)
But does not Christ say that the wicked will be cast into the eternal fire? Capon does not explicitly address this; but the answer is obvious, especially from an Orthodox perspective: the eternal fire is God himself in his consuming love.3
How are we to understand the grounds of the separation of the righteous and wicked? The parable is often read as a judgment of works, a bookkeeping event, yet matters are not so simple. The sheep are told that they shall inherit the Kingdom because they fed the King when he was hungry, gave him drink when he was thirsty, clothed him when he was naked, welcomed him when he was a stranger, visited him when he was in prison. And the goats are told that they are condemned to everlasting punishment because they did not do any of the above. In both cases the decisive factor is their relationship to Christ. And stranger yet, neither the sheep nor the goats are aware of having done or not done anything for him. They do not know!
Do you finally see? Nobody knows anything. The righteous didn’t know they were in relationship with the King when they ministered to the least of his brethren, any more than the cursed knew they were despising the King when they didn’t so minister. Knowledge is not the basis of anybody’s salvation or damnation. Action-in-dumb-trust is. And the reason for that is that salvation comes only by relationship with the Savior—by a relationship that, from his side, is already an accomplished eternal fact, and that therefore needs only to be accepted by faith, not known in any way. “No man,” Luther said (if I may quote him one last time), “can know or feel he is saved; he can only believe it.” At the final parousia, we will not be judged by anything except our response of faith or unfaith to the Savior whose presence was coterminous with our whole existence. And at that day he will simply say whether, from our side (by faith, that is—but with no other conditions specified as to knowledge or any other human achievement), we related to that presence. He will simply do the truth from his side—simply affirm his eternal, gracious relationship with all of creation—and honor what both the sheep and the goats did with that truth from their side. (pp. 510-511)
The sheep are not saved because they have a splendid moral record. They are saved by their acceptance of Christ’s acceptance. “Or to put it even more precisely,” writes Capon, “they are praised at his final parousia for what they did in his parousia throughout their lives, namely, for trusting him to have had a relationship with them all along” (p. 510). Nor are the goats punished because of their evil deeds: they are condemned for not trusting in Jesus. What decisively matters is faith in the ever-present Mystery, just as Capon has said again and again throughout his analysis of the parables:
Jesus came to raise the dead, not to reform the reformable, and certainly not to specify the degree of nonreform that will nullify the sovereign grace of resurrection. He came to proclaim a kingdom that works only in the last, the lost, the least, and the little, not to set up a height-weight chart for the occupants of the heavenly Jerusalem. (p. 510)
The Parable of the Great Judgment, suggests Capon, should be read alongside the well-known passage from the Gospel of John:
For God so loved the cosmos as to give the Son, the only one, so that everyone having faith in him might not perish, but have the life of the Age. For God sent the Son into the cosmos not that he might pass judgment on the cosmos, but that the cosmos might be saved through him. Whoever has faith in him is not judged; whoever has not had faith has already been judged because he has not had faith in the name of the only Son of God. (John 3:16-18)
Love, and only love, judges the world. Our lack of faith condemns us. We are saved neither by our good works nor by our theological knowledge. We are saved by the God who indiscriminately summons the poor, the dispossessed, the broken and humbled, even sinners and the spiritually dead into his Kingdom. To be saved is merely a matter of accepting the invitation.
Capon’s final word on the Final Judgment:
What counts, therefore, is not what we know (most of that can only count against us) but what he knows. And what he knows is that “God did not send his Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved by him.” His saving relationship with the world has already been established—and it will stay established forever. The only question at the end is whether we trusted the truth of it and made it a two-sided relationship, or whether we distrusted it and left it a relationship from his side only. And Jesus alone knows the answer to that question. In this last parable of all, he deliberately deprives us of any way of even thinking about it: the only ground the Great Judgment gives us for hope is trust in his presence in the passion of the world. But since no one will ever quite manage to be apart from that passion—since we do not need to stipulate anyone’s participation in it—this parable also deprives us of the luxury of telling the world all the complicated things it has to do to get on the right side of his eschatological presence. The only thing we can possibly do is give the world the living witness of our trust in his presence in its passion. We need only to act as if we really believe he meets us in leastness and death. The rest is his business, not ours.
And therefore all the theological baggage about repentances that come too late or acts of faith that peak too soon, all the fine slicing about how maybe a suicide who has time to think between the bridge and the river is in better shape than one who blew his brains out—and all the doctrinal jury-rigging designed to give the unbaptized a break or to prove that unbelievers are invincibly ignorant—all of it is idle, mischievous, and dead wrong. We simply don’t know, and we should all have the decency to shut up and just trust him in the passion we cannot avoid. And we don’t even have to know if we have succeeded in doing that, because Jesus is there anyway and he is on everybody’s side. He is the Love that will not let us go. If anybody can sort it all out, he can; if he can’t, nobody else ever will. Trust him, therefore. And trust him now.
There is nothing more to do. (pp. 511-512)
Love, grace, faith, death and resurrection—these are the great themes of Capon’s theological reflections. As we have seen, they decidedly inform his reading of the parables. I applaud him both for his passionate conviction and for the consistency of his interpretation. He is a true preacher of the gospel.
And yet there remains hell. Capon describes perdition as an eternal stand-off between the reprobate and the Lord:
But the very hell of hell lies precisely in the fact that its inhabitants will be insisting on a perpetual rejection of an equally perpetual gift. It will be an eternal struggle to escape from the grip of a love that will never let them go. And for that everlasting stand-off, I think, there is not a word in Scripture that is too strong: not the “fire that is not quenched,” not the “worm that dieth not,” not the “outer darkness,” not the “bottomless pit,” not the “weeping and gnashing of teeth”—and certainly not the utterly fruitless “second death.” (p. 117)
Because of his fidelity to Scripture, Capon cannot bring himself to pull the universalist trigger, as he explains in the preface to The Romance of the Word:
I am and I am not a universalist.
I am one if you are talking about what God in Christ has done to save the world. The Lamb of God has not taken away the sins of some—of only the good, or the cooperative, or the select few who can manage to get their act together and die as perfect peaches. He has taken away the sins of the world—of every last being in it—and he has dropped them down the black hole of Jesus’ death. On the cross, he has shut up forever on the subject of guilt: ‘There is therefore now no condemnation. . . .’ All human beings, at all times and places, are home free whether they know it or not, feel it or not, believe it or not.
But I am not a universalist if you are talking about what people may do about accepting that happy-go-lucky gift of God’s grace. I take with utter seriousness everything that Jesus had to say about hell, including the eternal torment that such a foolish non-acceptance of his already-given acceptance must entail. All theologians who hold Scripture to be the Word of God must inevitably include in their work a tractate on hell. But I will not—because Jesus did not—locate hell outside the realm of grace. Grace is forever sovereign, even in Jesus’ parables of judgment. No one is ever kicked out at the end of those parables who wasn’t included in at the beginning.4
Like Moses who led Israel to the promised land yet was not able to enter himself, so Robert Farrar Capon brings us right to the threshold of the greater hope . . .
 See my article “Sometimes Eternity Ain’t Forever.”
 Robert Farrar Capon, Between Noon and Three (1996), p. 275.
 See Alexandre Kalomiros, “The River of Fire.”
 Robert Farrar Capon, The Romance of the Word (1995), pp. 9-10. Capon does not absolutely reject the possibility that someone in hell might yet be saved. In The Mystery of Christ (1993), he suggests that God eternally offers the gift of his forgiveness and remarks: “Maybe the ‘hell’ of hell is the eternal racket of his knocking as it beats on the ears of those who wish he’d just go away and leave them alone” (p. 179). Therefore we should not too quickly dismiss the possibility, he says, that someone might accept the invitation to join the party. Capon’s most substantive discussion of the last things may be found in Between Noon and Three, chaps. 25–32.