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Bishop Kallistos Ware
Orthodox Church

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  • Part II: Faith and Worship
    • The Church of God
      • The last things
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The last things

For the Christian there exist but two ultimate alternatives, Heaven and Hell. The Church

awaits the final consummation of the end, which in Greek theology is termed the apocatastasis

or ‘restoration,’ when Christ will return in great glory to judge both the living and the dead. This

final apocatastasis involves, as we have seen, the redemption and the glorification of matter: at

the Last Day the righteous will rise from the grave and be united once more to a body — not

such a body as we now possess, but one that is transfigured and ‘spiritual,’ in which inward sanctity

is made outwardly manifest. And not only man’s body but the whole material order will be

transformed: God will create a New Heaven and a New Earth.

But Hell exists as well as Heaven. In recent years many Christians — not only in the west,

but at times also in the Orthodox Church — have come to feel that the idea of Hell is inconsistent

with belief in a loving God. But to argue thus is to display a sad and perilous confusion of

thought. While it is true that God loves us with an infinite love, it is also true that He has given

us free will; and since we have free will, it is possible for us to reject God. Since free will exists,

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Hell exists; for Hell is nothing else than the rejection of God. If we deny Hell, we deny free will.

‘No one is so good and full of pity as God,’ wrote Mark the Monk or Hermit (early fifth century);

‘but even He does not forgive those who do not repent’ (On those who think to be justified from

works, 71 (P.G. 65, 940D). God will not force us to love Him, for love is no longer love if it is not

free; how then can God reconcile to Himself those who refuse all reconciliation?

The Orthodox attitude towards the Last Judgment and Hell is clearly expressed in the choice

of Gospel readings at the Liturgy on three successive Sundays shortly before Lent. On the first

Sunday is read the parable of the Publican and Pharisee, on the second the parable of the Prodigal

Son, stories which illustrate the immense forgiveness and mercy of God towards all sinners

who repent. But in the Gospel for the third Sunday — the parable of the Sheep and the Goats

we are reminded of the other truth: that it is possible to reject God and to turn away from Him to

Hell. “Then shall He say to those on the left hand, The curse of God is upon you, go from my

sight into everlasting fire(Matt. 25:41).

There is no terrorism in the Orthodox doctrine of God. Orthodox Christians do not cringe

before Him in abject fear, but think of Him as philanthropos, the ‘lover of men.’ Yet they keep

in mind that Christ at His Second Coming will come as judge.

Hell is not so much a place where God imprisons man, as a place where man, by misusing

his free will, chooses to imprison himself. And even in Hell the wicked are not deprived of the

love of God, but by their own choice they experience as suffering what the saints experience as

joy. ‘The love of God will be an intolerable torment for those who have not acquired it within

themselves’ (V. Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, p. 234).

Hell exists as a final possibility, but several of the Fathers have none the less believed that

in the end all will be reconciled to God. It is heretical to say that all must be saved, for this is to

deny free will; but it is legitimate to hope that all may be saved. Until the Last Day comes, we

must not despair of anyone’s salvation, but must long and pray for the reconciliation of all without

exception. No one must be excluded from our loving intercession. ‘What is a merciful heart?’

asked Isaac the Syrian. ‘It is a heart that burns with love for the whole of creation, for men, for

the birds, for the beasts, for the demons, for all creatures’ (Mystic Treatises, edited by A. J. Wensinck,

Amsterdam, 1923, p. 341). Gregory of Nyssa said that Christians may legitimately hope even for the

redemption of the Devil.

The Bible ends upon a note of keen expectation: “Surely I am coming quickly. Amen. Even

so, come, Lord Jesus(Rev. 22:20). In the same spirit of eager hope the primitive Christians

used to pray: ‘Let grace come and let this world pass away’ (Didache, 10, 6). From one point of

view the first Christians were wrong: they imagined that the end of the world would occur almost

immediately, whereas in fact two millennia have passed and still the end has not yet come. It is

not for us to know the times and the seasons, and perhaps this present order will last for many

millennia more. Yet from another point of view the primitive Church was right. For whether the

end comes early or late, it is always imminent, always spiritually close at hand, even though it

may not be temporally close. The Day of the Lord will comeas a thief in the night(1 Thess.

5:2) at an hour when men expect it not. Christians, therefore, as in Apostolic times, so today

must always be prepared, waiting in constant expectation. One of the most encouraging signs of

revival in contemporary Orthodoxy is the renewed awareness among many Orthodox of the Second

Coming and its relevance. ‘When a pastor on a visit to Russia asked what is the burning

problem of the Russian Church, a priest replied without hesitation: the Parousia (P. Evdokimov,

LOrthodoxie, p. 9 (Parousia: the Greek term for the Second Coming)).

Yet the Second Coming is not simply an event in the future, for in the life of the Church, the

Age to Come has already begun to break through into this present age. For members of God’s

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Church, the ‘Last Times’ are already inaugurated, since here and now Christians enjoy the first

fruits of God’s Kingdom. Even so, come, Lord Jesus. He comes already — in the Holy Liturgy

and the worship of the Church.




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