Before the beginning of Great Lent, a period of preparation for Holy Pascha (Easter), we commemorate the Last Judgment when we all will stand before God:
When the thrones are placed, and the books are opened, and God sitteth for judgment, O what a fearful sight, as the angels stand in fright, and thy river of fire floweth by! What then shall we do, we men who have come under condemnation by reason, of the multitude of our sins? And as we hear him call the blessed of his Father to his kingdom, and send the sinners to punishment, who will bear that terrible verdict? Wherefore, O Savior and Lover of mankind, alone King of the ages, hasten to me before the end with repentance, and have mercy upon me. (1)
Before we commemorate the Last Judgment, we are prepared by the Sunday of the Tax Collector and the Pharisee, reminding us that the person accepted by God is not the outwardly religious Pharisee, who is filled with pride and judges others as worse sinners than himself, but the humble soul who, feeling the depth of his own spiritual sickness, sincerely and prayfully turns his heart to God in repentance. We are also prepared by the Sunday of the Prodigal Son, which teaches us that no matter how far we drift from God and squander the good things we have received, if we repent (turning away from what is unnatural toward God), our Loving Father is ready to run toward us, warmly embrace us, and receive us back with joy.
God is Unconditional Love and God is a Consuming Fire. God is Love and is Fire. Love and Fire are One. There is no contradiction here. God's Uncreated Love is Uncreated Fire. In the prayers of the Church, we ask God not to consume us because of our sins, but to consume our sickness, our deadness, "the thorns of our transgressions," and to purify and illumine our souls. For those who seek healing, the Uncreated Fire is purifying and transformative. The Fire consumes all that is unhealthy and barren. The Fire of God's Love does not cause pain for the purified and illumined, but is the moist breeze of Paradise and refreshing River of Life that brings everlasting joy and peace.
Those who are full of selfishness and pride will not experience God's Love as Paradise. The unloving will be consumed by Pure Love. St. Isaac the Syrian explained that
those who are suffering in hell, are suffering in being scourged by love.... It is totally false to think that the sinners in hell are deprived of God's love. Love is a child of the knowledge of truth, and is unquestionably given commonly to all. But love's power acts in two ways: it torments sinners, while at the same time it delights those who have lived in accord with it. (2)
St. Gregory the Theologian wrote from the same perspective, “O Trinity, Whom I have been granted to worship and proclaim, Who will some day be known to all, to some through illumination and to others through punishment!” (3) Likewise, St. Basil the Great said,
I believe that the fire prepared for the punishment of the devil and his angels is divided by the voice of the Lord. Thus, since there are two capacities in fire, one of burning and the other of illuminating, the fierce and scourging property of the fire may await those who deserve to burn, while illuminating and radiant warmth may be reserved for the enjoyment of those who are rejoicing. (4)
Those whose hearts have been purified, their souls healed, and are filled with divine love become flames united with the Uncreated Flame of Unquenchable Love. Our goal in this life is summarized in the words of an ancient spiritual father, Abba Joseph, who said, "If you will, you can become all flame."
As the unloving, proud, and impure will be tortured by the presence of Divine Love, they will also be abused by their own souls, a result of their refusal to accept the healing offered to them by their compassionate Creator and Physician. In his “Letter to Publius,” St. Ephrem the Syrian noted that “the gehenna [hell] of the wicked consists in what they see, and it is their very separation that burns them, and their mind acts as the flame.” (5) He explained that “the hidden judge which is seated in the discerning mind has spoken, and has become for them the righteous judge, who beats them without mercy with torments of contrition” and “saliently accuses and quietly pronounces sentence upon them.” (6) The “inner intelligence has been made the judge and the law, for it is the embodiment of the shadow of the law, and it is the shadow of the Lord of the Law.” (7)
The Last Judgment is a reality for each of us, but we are reminded of this reality within the Church as we are also reminded of the Way of the eternal kingdom of God: humility, repentance, love, and prayer. God has planted the Church for the our healing so that we may be united with Him and become radiant torches of Divine Love, Peace, and Joy. For those seeking the healing of their souls and union with God, the images of the Last Judgment assist us in finding humility and focusing on the condition of our own souls with rather than judging others. Pride is a great enemy that keeps us from seeing ourselves as we really are with sobriety. We live in a culture wherein we are constantly being tempted to act and think in ways unnatural to our human nature and that are contrary to the path of good health.
The fear of hell can serve to bring us to repentance. The highest reason for pursuing salvation is love for God, not fear of punishment, but because of our spiritual delusion and the sickness in our souls, fear of separation from God in hell can serve as motivation to overcome our laziness and pursue the Way of spiritual healing that God has given us. Always being mindful of God's love, we should remember the words of St. Silouan the Athonite, "Keep your mind in hell and despair not."
Since the Last Judgment is a reality, we should not downplay the necessity of repentance as an essential aspect of the healing process in this life. When someone is facing physical sickness and death, they may be more receptive to hearing about repentance than at other times. Within an Orthodox context, we can help patients facing physical sickness and death achieve deep healing in their souls so that they may experience the Kingdom of Heaven (even in this life) and be resurrected in their physical bodies, not to judgment and spiritual death, but eternal life and joy in body and soul.
While some may not give much thought to the Last Judgment until they face their own mortality, others may possess a rational fear of hell, but without knowledge of God's love. They may see God as a Judge, but not as a loving Father. (Perhaps their concept of God has been twisted by exposure to heretical doctrine and/or unhealthy human relationships.) In such cases, we must help these individuals learn about God's unconditional love for mankind (philanthropia), the Orthodox Way as the path of healing, and our goal of becoming purified, illumined, and united through the unquenchable flames of Divine Love.
(1) Glory at "Lord, I have cried," Vespers, Sunday of the Last Judgment
(2) Alexander Kalomiros, The River of Fire, presented at the 1980 Orthodox Conference, sponsored by St. Nectarios American Orthodox Church, Seattle, WA (Seattle: St. Nectarios Press, 1980), quoting St. Isaac the Syrian, Homily 48. The text of The River of Fire is available at http://www.stnectariospress.
(3) Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos, Life After Death, trans. by Esther Williams (Levadia, Greece: Birth of the Theotokos Monastery, 1996), 259, quoting St. Gregory the Theologian, Or. 23.13, On peace 3, PG 35, 1165B.
(4) Archbishop Lazar Puhalo, On the Nature of Heaven and Hell According to the Holy Fathers (Dewdbey, Canada: Synaxis Press, 1995), 9, quoting St. Basil the Great, “Homily on Psalms,” 28.6; See also Met. Hierotheos, 257.
(5) Ibid., 7-8, quoting St. Ephrem the Syrian, “Letter to
Publios,” para. 21-23.
(6) Ibid., 8