Sunday of the Last Judgment
It is unusual, at least it has been, in Orthodox tradition to emphasize the sufferings of hell and eternal damnation. This thought, this image provides the sum and substance of much evangelical preaching, where accepting Jesus as one’s savior is sold as fire insurance. We don’t mention it much. The reason is because the emphasis of the ancient faith was not on how you could crawl up out of the pit and escape from the fires of hell. It was how you could be united to God and be joined to his resurrection through grace and participation in the life of his body. Our liturgy is not simply an immolation of a victim as the Roman Mass had been for many, many, many years. It’s not so much anymore. It is rather, a celebration of the resurrection of Him who was the Paschal victim.
And yet today, the church directs us – on a Sunday, on a day of the Resurrection – to place our thoughts on the awful and dreadful possibility of eternal damnation, of everlasting death, of pain without remission, without amelioration, unending. And that is because the Church wants us on this day, this week before we enter into the Great Fast, to contemplate that our faith, our religion, is not a hobby, not a prejudice, not a particular choice we’ve made of several possible choices, but that our faith is real, actual, and has consequences.
We are not here today to rejoice in the thought that some might enter into eternal damnation, but to contemplate the worst pain we’ve ever experienced in our lives and then to multiply that pain to every organ, every limb, every inch of our bodies, and then to anticipate that pain growing worse and worse, but never ceasing, never remitting, without hope. Even for the person who is suffering unto mortal death, there is the hope that death will come and put the physical pain to an end. But the pain of everlasting damnation is physical as well, for it is in our resurrected bodies that we are threatened with the awful possibilities of eternal suffering.
And who are they who will be the recipients of this suffering? Will it be the Hindu, or Buddhist, who have never had Christ preached to them in a way that makes it possible for them to accept Him? One certainly doubts that. Of course we’re told that if you accept the Lord Jesus Christ, and believe that God raised Him from the dead, you’ll be saved, right? But that doesn’t meant that everybody who says that “Jesus is Christ, and God raised Him from the dead” is saved. Certainly, the devil now knows who Jesus is. He believes that God raised Him from the dead, to his eternal consternation for he thought when he had captured Him in hell, that it could hold Him captive. He thought he could possess, he could digest God in the belly of hell, but God gave him a bellyache. To paraphrase what John Chrysostom says, Hell swallowed up a body, and it gave it a terrible case of indigestion. He broke the bonds of death.
And so it’s not just simply believing something, it’s believing in Jesus Christ and that means living according to Jesus Christ’s commandments, His law and His teachings. You know there are many people for whom Orthodoxy is not a faith at all, it’s simply their chosen superstition. They turn to their icons when life is rough. In the breach they observe the fasts, and they go to confession once a year because it’s expected of them. They drag out their Orthodox clothing – their wedding garment – and put it on on Sunday morning and go to church for awhile, and maybe they can even stay in church for half the liturgy. Then they go home and take it off and go back and live the way they’ve lived all the other days of the week. It’s simply a magical charm, simply a token to them. These people experience what it was that Marx spoke of when he said, “Religion is the opiate of the people.” He didn’t mean that religion is a drug that puts you in a hallucinatory state. He meant, Marx believed, religion is what killed the pain of the people so that they didn’t know that life was rough. And Marx is absolutely right. He’s right about that because if anyone really thought about the nonsense of human existence without God having planned it, without God intervening into it, without God easing our suffering, giving meaning to our meaninglessness, if they ever thought of themselves as what they would be without God as their creator and redeemer, that is to say, very intelligent animals who unlike the other animals are able to be aware of their present predicament and of their future sufferings, as condemned men and women sentenced to death by a slow and painful death or a quick and sudden death, but ultimately grinding their way to death.
T.S. Eliot said, ‘I was a communist in the 1920s and then one day I woke up and said, ‘Why would anyone believe in a doctrine that offers the promise that a thousand years from now, one’s ancestors would look back on him as some lemur in the line of his evolution?” that’s the only meaning that can be offered by life without God intervening into it. And so these people who allow themselves to be doped up, they’ll accept the opiate part of Christianity. They say, “Oh well, if I die” – not “when I die” by they – but “if I die, I believe I’ll go to heaven.” But if you ask them, “What about going to hell?” “Oh, you know, you don’t really believe that do you,” or, “That’s for really bad people. Hitler and Stalin and those guys.” But let me tell you that it’s the same Lord who told us about Heaven – about the many orders of angels, about the many mansions in His Father’s house, and who promised us that we could be with Him where He is at the right hand of the Father – who also described the lake of fire, the place of destruction where the worm does cease and the fire is not quenched.
Brothers and sisters, if there’s a sin that makes a person worthy of losing the grace God has given him, it’s handling lightly the gift of the blood of God. It’s taking Christ’s cross on our shoulder and then putting it in the closet for the rest of our lives because it really is not an attractive ornament and a pretty heavy burden for us. It is pretending to be a believer. It is making believe that we are Orthodox, holding in the back of our minds some silly thought like, “Well, maybe I will win the lottery and there really is a heaven.” That is the really dangerous position. It is not being an adulterer, a murderer, a fornicator, or a homosexual pervert that is the most terrible thing. It is the sin against the Spirit of God. It is calling good “evil,” and evil “good.” It is embracing Jesus, not with tears like Mary Madgalene, not wiping His feet with our hair, but it is approaching Jesus like Judas – giving Him a kiss and then saying, “Now go away. I’ll put you aside for a while God because I can’t really enjoy life with you in the middle of it. I can’t do the things I wanna do if I see your face looking at me while I do them.”
Remember the Grand Inquisitor, I believe in Brothers Karamazov, the Grand Inquisitor in Spain. Christ comes and He appears, and He’s brought to the Grand Inquisitor. And he says, “I know you can’t say anything because you can’t add any words to what you’ve already said. So let me tell you, I know who you are, but you have to die again. You’re inconvenient. You get in our way. Remain a plastic Jesus on our dashboards, or an icon in the corner, but don’t get in the middle of our lives.”
What was it, today, that the Lord spoke to those people who are called the goats, who are placed on His left hand and who are told to depart to the place that was never prepared for human beings – it was prepared for the Devil and his angels? He didn’t say, “Depart from me because you hated, or because you stole, or because lied, or because you committed adultery, or you didn’t honor your father and mother , or didn’t keep the Sabbath holy.” He says, “Depart from me because you didn’t do the good things you were supposed to do. Because, when I was hungry, you didn’t care if I starved to death. When was thirsty, you didn’t care if I dehydrated and died by the road. When I was naked, you didn’t care if exposure caused me to experience frostbite or if I succumbed to the elements. When I was sick, or I was in prison, you ignored me.” And they said, “Lord, we wouldn’t have done that. How can you say such a thing? If we’d gotten a personal note from you, ‘Jesus S. Christ says, “I’m hungry, bring me some food,”’ we would have brought it to you. We certainly would have brought you water. We would have given you clothing. We would have visited you.” And the Lord says, “In as much as you did not think to do it to the least of my brethren, then you failed to do it to me.” It is in our complacency that is found the possibility, the awful possibility, of our damnation. It is in handling lightly the sacred things of God. We have been ordained, everyone of us as priests, anointed with Holy Chrism, made kings and high priests in Jesus’ kingship and high priesthood, and when we throw that aside like a bunch of old rags, we place our souls in danger.
And so, brothers and sisters, let’s understand that every human being who leaves this life – except for God’s mother – every human being, even the saints whom we commemorate, has to pass through the grave into Hades and behold the terrors of hell, and see the fire and the pre-damnation suffering of those disposed to hate God and who deny his love, before they enter into paradise. That’s why we pray on the third and ninth day, and on the fortieth day, because, although they are outside of time, in our temporal way of thinking of things, we know there are ordeals that they endure beholding the terrors of hell, beholding the delights of paradise, making choices, not of their own but by the grace of our prayers.
And so today, on this Sunday of the Last Judgment, I want you to be scared for just a minute, I want you to contemplate for a moment that your time has come. The Son of Man has come on the clouds of heaven, the trumpets sound, we’ve all been caught up and we’re standing before Him. The six psalms that are read at the beginning of Matins are being read by the archangel, and in the brief time, the twinkling of an eye, each of us is passing in front of Him, and you look into His eyes, and what you see there is corruption reflected in His eyes, and hypocrisy on your part – that you pretended to be a disciple; that you claimed to be a believer, that you even wore the token of His passion on your body, but that really you were a worshiper of possessions, of power, of prestige, of comfort, and of human pleasure. You were really, one of those donkeys, one of those animals who having an angel’s soul in a physical body despised the joys of heaven. And you hear from Him, “Depart from me evildoers,” and you find yourselves now anticipating, not surgery in which the doctor’s going to pierce your body and cause you pain, not a disease that’s going to cause your flesh to weaken but from which you can gain relief through medication, surgery, and prosthesis, but you’re going to receive pain that’s going to start bad and never end. Contemplate that. Turn with fear away from hypocrisy. Quit pretending to be an Orthodox believer. Quit lying about what you are and what you do. Turn your face steadfastly toward God, like the children in the desert following the pillar of fire; not like later when they turned their back toward the rising sun and walked away from paradise because they were afraid of the difficulties of entering into it. As the psalms say, “Their bones were dried up in the desert, their bodies were left in the sand.” Hear the words, then, of David. Hear the words God speaks, “If today you hear My voice, harden not your heart in the time of tribulation, in the time of testing. In the desert for forty years Israel tested Me, they tried Me, and saw My ways.” If today you hear His voice, soften your heart, let Him enter into it, embrace Him in spirit and truth, turn your life around, cast from it all doubt, all fear, all anxiety, embrace His saving love and turn your back on the fires of hell.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, glory to Jesus Christ!