It is difficult for some of us who were raised on a theology of substitutionary atonement, those of us Protestant converts to holy Orthodoxy, it is difficult for us to accept that our final judgement will involve anything more than the forgiveness of sins. But the Church teaches us otherwise. Parables such as the Rich Man and Lazarus, and the Separation of the Sheep and the Goats play a huge role in the hymnology of the Orthodox Church and in its understanding of what our judgement before God will look like. That is, judgement before God is not merely about forgiveness of sin. But rather, the judgement of the Age to Come is also about comfort and torment; or as Christ puts it in the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Father Abraham speaking to the Rich Man who is in torment), “Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things; but now he is comforted and you are tormented.”
A significant aspect of the torment of the Age to Come is connected to how we have reveled in comfort while those around us have suffered. Yes, forgiveness is part of it. Christ is the propitiation for the sins of the whole world, St. John tells us in his first Epistle (2:3), and while we might debate the role of faith or acceptance in the experience of the forgiveness of our sins, one thing is certain: the problem is not on God’s side. God has forgiven all. And yet, though we are forgiven, there there may still torment.
Certainly, some of this torment of the Age to Come—a torment that begins in this life, just as eternal Life begins in this life and continues into the Age to Come—some of this torment has to do with struggling to accept that God has forgiven us for our sins, that the abyss of our sins is not greater than the ocean of God's love. However, another aspect of the torment of the Age to Come has to do with what we have left undone: the good we could have done but didn’t, the help we could have given but held back, the good life we enjoyed (materially, socially, spiritually) refusing to reach out to and love those suffering from want of material blessings, from want of functional family or social support, or for want of a healthy church community and sound (Orthodox) teaching about the nature of God, man and the universe. Some of the suffering of the age to come will have to do with our failure to love.
One of the best depictions in English Literature of this torment over what is left undone, this refusal to care about those around us, and how it might be experienced in the Age to Come is found in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. After the ghost of Jacob Marley shakes up Ebenezer Scrooge and warns him of the three Christmas ghosts who will visit him, Marley’s ghost leads Scrooge to the window where Scrooge sees “the air…filled with phantoms, wandering hither and thither in restless haste, and moaning as they went. Every one of them wore chains like Marley’s Ghost; some few (they might be guilty governments) were linked together; none were free. Many had been personally known to Scrooge in their lives. He had been quite familiar with one old ghost in a white waistcoat, with a monstrous iron safe attached to its ankle, who cried piteously at being unable to assist a wretched woman with an infant, whom it saw below on a doorstep. The misery with them all was, clearly, that they sought to interfere, for good, in human matters, and had lost the power for ever.
The night is bitterly cold, we are told earlier in the story, and this poor woman is huddled on a doorstep with her infant trying not to freeze. And Scrooge’s departed friend, with an iron safe chained to his ankle, now wants to help, now wants to use the wealth of his resources, what is now bound to him as a burden, to help this poor woman and her baby. And this is the torment of the Age to Come. These are the flames and the gnashing of teeth and the worms that do not cease of the Age to Come. Freed from the voluntarily chosen blindness caused by sin, the old ghost in the white waste coat now feels human compassion, now loves the sister and brother whom he had for a lifetime ignored, now he cares, but now it is too late. Now he can do nothing.
And of course this torment isn’t merely about money and how it might have been better used to help others. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the torment of the Age to Come has nothing directly to do with money. It has nothing to do with money and everything to do with love. It has to do with seeing other people, seeing their pain, loving them and suffering in some small way with them, in some small way lessening your own comfort for the sake of someone else. And you don’t need to spend a dollar to do this. Who do you sit with at lunch break at school that others don’t want to sit with? Who do you hang out with at a party? Do you look for someone who would otherwise be standing alone? Who do you talk to on a bus? Are you willing to listen politely to an old man or woman who is desperate to talk to anyone? Who are you willing to see that you would rather not see? Who is hard to love whom you could try a little harder to love? You don’t have to have any money to love, to care, or to see. You just need to be willing to be a little uncomfortable, to feel a little compassion, to weep a little with those who weep.
I find it interesting that twice in the book of Revelation (chapters 7 and 21) it speaks of God wiping the tears from from every eye. In both contexts, the texts seems to be talking about saints who are already in heaven, already experiencing the blessing of the Age to Come. So here’s the question: where do these tears come from that God wipes away? I don’t know, but I wonder if those tears have something to do with this sudden awareness in the Age to Come of the people we refused to see and of the suffering in others that we did not allow ourselves to share. But as I said at the beginning, it is hard for some of us to conceive of a world to come in which one does not experience either Paradise and only Paradise or Gehenna and only Gehenna. But St. Isaac the Syrian suggests that the experience of the Age to Come may not be as segregated as we suspect.
St. Isaac emphasizes that there is no middle place between Paradise and Gehenna, there is no Limbo or “lesser heaven” or “higher hell.” However, for St. Isaac, both heaven and hell, Paradise and Gehenna, can be experienced in the human heart, in the same human heart. For St. Isaac, and some, perhaps many, Church Fathers, hell or heaven are referred to as places only metaphorically, in a way that makes sense in this current age of time and space as we know it. However, more precisely heaven and hell refer to experiences, or better, they refer to how one experiences continued existence in the Age to Come. The great gulf fixed between the Rich Man and Lazarus spoken of in the parable does not refer to a literal amount of space (as though it could be measured with a long-enough ruler). What it exactly refers to we do not know, for it is part of the mystery of the Age to Come. However, I suspect that the great gulf has something to do with the life lived and that is now over, a lifetime on earth that cannot be changed for it has been lived, it is what it is and it’s over, just as I cannot change yesterday for it is gone: a great gulf is fixed.
But so long as I continue to live in this world, change is possible. I cannot do anything about yesterday, but I can love today, right now. I can open my eyes now and see the Lazarus at my gates, the poor, the lonely, the stranger, the hard to love. And St. Isaac says (in Homily 32), that one who suffers to love others, as one is “chastised” or suffers in his or her struggle to love God and neighbor and to avoid sin, as one suffers now for righteousness sake, for the sake of mercy and love, St. Isaac says, “He who is chastised here eats away his own Gehenna.” For St. Isaac, there is no contradiction between the experience of heavenly rest and the experience of punishment for pleasures that we allow ourselves through sinful and selfish licentiousness. These are experienced by each of us now, in time and space as we know it, generally sequentially: “Every rest is followed by hardship, and every hardship endured for God is followed by rest.”
How hardship and rest, Gehenna and Paradise, may be experienced in the Age to Come, we don’t know; but St. Isaac assures us that the rest (or perhaps what we would more likely call peace) that we experience as a gift from God now is only an earning that “does not eat away its own capital.” That is, when God grants us peace, comfort and encouragement now in this age, it takes nothing away from the peace, comfort and encouragement of the heavenly reward. It’s just a foretaste, a bit of interest paid out that in no way diminishes the capital of the heavenly blessing God has stored up for those who love Him. But suffering for Christ’s sake, suffering to avoid sin or to love our neighbour, suffering for righteousness sake is actually a gift of God’s “rich mercies” because suffering now “eats away” the Gehenna, the suffering that may await us in the Age to Come, especially those of us like me who love God with only part of my heart, part of my soul, part of my mind and part of my strength.
This is not a theology of works righteousness, not exactly. Past sins cannot be undone. Only God forgives sin. However, that I recognize that I have sinned against God and my neighbor (which, by the way, is the same thing) and that I attempt to do something about it to the extent that I willingly suffer somewhat for love, for righteousness sake, this is a great gift to my own conscience.
As I have said before, some of what St. Isaac writes is controversial, mostly because he is not a systematic theologian. He is a mystical theologian who speaks of what he has experienced and known in his relationship with God, who speaks in a way that has for more than a thousand years helped millions of holy men and women (mostly Orthodox monastics) grow in prayer and the knowledge of God. St. Isaac did not write to be systematized, he wrote to help men and women meet God. He writes in paradox and parable about the actual experience of a life in God, what the Orthodox Church often calls theology, but nothing like the rational explanations you find in academic books, what popularly passes for theology. Therefore, it would be a mistake to hear anything I write as I reflect on St. Isaac’s homilies as a challenge to Orthodox dogma. Everything St. Isaac says assumes Orthodox dogma. Everything he says fits squarely in the teaching of the Orthodox faith—even if sometimes it is a fit that cannot be rationally squared. It is a mystical fit, a fit that mystically resonates in the hearts of millions of holy men and women who have come to actually know God within the Orthodox Church.