When You, O God, shall come to earth with glory, all things shall tremble and the river of fire shall flow before Your judgment seat; the books shall be opened and the hidden things disclosed! Then deliver me from the unquenchable fire, and make me worthy to stand at Your right hand, righteous Judge! (Hymn for the Sunday of the Last Judgment)
There are different images of the Day of Judgment presented in the Scriptures. Some are quite unique and strikingly different than often portrayed in art and hymnology. The Gospel reading for the Sunday of the Last Judgment (Meatfare Sunday) – Matthew 25:31-46 – is a good example of a very different image of the Last Judgment. This Gospel lesson occurs within a series of parables that Jesus tells. In this case, the Lord Jesus presents a judgment not based on sins which violate God’s commandments, but rather based on whether people showed mercy to those in need. We see in the Church, that diverse Scriptural images of the Last Judgment were readily combined together to form a picture of the Judgment Day. So the hymn above speaks about the river of fire, though that is not mentioned in the Gospel lesson for the day. The hymn for the day is based more on Revelation 20:11-15 than on Matthew 25.
Besides the various images of the Judgment Day we find in Scriptures, the church fathers provide a variety of interpretations of the Matthew 25 text of the Judgment. St Simeon the New Theologian offered perhaps the most unusual interpretations of the text (see my blog series St Simeon the New Theologian on Matthew 25:31-46). He was concerned that monastics might feel judged and excluded from Christ’s blessings for focusing their lives on repentance rather than on acts of mercy – so he radically reinterprets the parable to be about repentance not acts of mercy. He has it that Christ is hungering for our repentance but we don’t repent and that Christ lies abandoned in the home of our hearts where we refuse to visit Him.
A more “traditional” interpretation can be found in the writings of St. John Chrysostom, who takes the failures of us beyond simply failing to minister to the least of Christ’s brothers and sisters by saying we even add to the suffering of the poor by chasing them away rather than helping them [Indeed, society is pretty successful in making sure that the poor remain invisible and that they are kept far away from ‘decent folk’. I remember one couple who went on vacation to a 3rd world tropical island and was very offended that the beach hotels did not have the ‘decency’ to tear down the slum dwellings which were visible from the hotel. Poverty ruined their vacation!] Chrysostom does not soften the judgment for those who fail to minister to the least of Christ’s brothers and sisters – he envisions violent, physical torture which he is willing to detail even if Matthew 25 doesn’t:
If those who did not give nourishment to Christ when he was hungry are condemned with the devil to the fire that never dies, what about those who have reduced to famine choirs of monks and virgins, and have reduced to nakedness those who were clothed? And those who have not only not welcomed strangers but have chased them away; and those who have not only not cared for the sick but have afflicted them yet more; and those who have not only not visited the captives but have cast into prison those who had been free of chains? Imagine what torments they will suffer! Then, you will see them grilled, burning, enchained, weeping, their teeth gnashing, henceforth wailing futilely, and repenting uselessly and without recompense, just as that rich man. These same people will see you in the blessed state, crowned, chanting with the angels, reigning together with Christ; and they will cry out much, and wail, and repent of the inconsiderate words they said against you, addressing to you their supplications, and invoking your mercy and philanthropy. But all of this will be of no avail to them. ( Letters to Saint Olympia, p. 77)
For Chrysostom not only are the sinners going to experience eternal physical torments, but they will also be able to see the blessed ones rejoicing in the Kingdom and so will be fully cognizant of what they are missing – a double torture. Additionally, they will realize how wrong they were and repent and experience grief for their sins but it will be of no benefit to them but will only add to their suffering.
All of the torments are easily avoided simply by showing mercy to those in need, for as Christ taught, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy” (Matthew 5:7).