Last Judgment: A Call to Do Good Not a Threat of Retribution


“The Last Judgment begins in the earthly life of the person and takes place every moment when one chooses or neglects to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, visit those in prison, or share with those in need.  Christ’s words about the Last Judgement [Matthew 25:31-46] are not a threat of retribution, but a call to do good.  This is how the Orthodox Church understands this parable, addressing the following words to its members on the Sunday of the Last Judgement:

Having understood the Lord’s commandments, let us live in accordance with them: let us feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, give rest to strangers, visit the sick and those in prisons, so that he who will come to judge the entire world will say to us: come, blessed ones of my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you. (The Lenten Triodion)


The Orthodox Church teaches that all people without exception will stand before the Last Judgment – Christians and pagans, believers and non-believers.  However, the thought that Christians will be judged with special strictness is present already in the Epistles: ‘Judgment must begin at the house of God’ (1 Pet 4:17), i.e. beginning with the Christian Church.  Regarding those outside the Church, St Paul writes that they will be judged in accordance with the the law of conscience written in their hearts (Rom 2:14-15).  Virtuous pagans, says Chrysostom, are astonishing because ‘they had no need of the law but fulfilled everything contained in it, having inscribed in their minds not the letter, but deeds.’ And he draws a radical conclusion: ‘If a pagan fulfills the law, nothing else will be necessary for his salvation.’  When acts committed during one’s life are evaluated, moral criteria will be applied to all people without exception, the only difference being that Jews will be judged according to the Law of Moses, Christians by the gospel, and pagans according to the law of conscience written in their hearts.  According to Basil the Great, the Last Judgment will be not so much an external as an internal event: it will take place primarily in the conscience of each person, in his mind and memory.  …


These explanations introduce an important corrective into the understanding of the Last Judgment that is reflected, for example, in Michelangelo‘s renowned frescoes in the Sistine Chapel.  In these frescoes, the main idea is that justice is administered: each person receives according to his merits, and God’s sentence is irreversible.  But in the Orthodox understanding, the Last Judgement is not so much the moment of requital as the victory of truth.  it is the revelation of God’s mercy and love that is underscored.  God will never cease to be love and light; but, subjectively, divine love and the divine light will be perceived differently by the righteous and by sinners.”    (Metropolitan Hilarion Alveyev, THE CAMBRIDGE COMPANION TO ORTHODOX CHRISTIAN THEOLOGY, pp 112-113)