... and He will come again with glory to judge the living and the dead…
This Jesus who was taken up from you into heaven, will come the same way as you saw him go into heaven (Acts 1:11).
These words of the angels are addressed to the apostles at the ascension of the Lord. Christ will come again in glory, “not to deal with sin, but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him” (Heb 9:28).
For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the archangels’ call, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first; then we who are alive, who are left, shall be caught up in the cloud to meet the Lord in the air, and so we shall always be with the Lord (1 Thess 4:16-17, the Epistle reading of the Orthodox funeral service).
The coming of the Lord at the end of the ages will be the Day of Judgment, the Day of the Lord foretold in the Old Testament and predicted by Jesus himself (e.g. Dan 7; Mt 24). The exact time of the end is not foretold, not even by Jesus, so that men would always be prepared by constant vigil and good works.
The very presence of Christ as the Truth and the Light is itself the judgment of the world. In this sense all men and the whole world are already judged or, more accurately, already live in the full presence of that reality—Christ and his works—by which they will be ultimately judged. With Christ now revealed, there is no longer any excuse for ignorance and sin (Jn 9:39).
At this point it is necessary to note that at the final judgment there will be those “on the left hand” who will go into “the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Mt 25:41; Rev 20). That this is the case is no fault of God’s. It is the fault only of men, for “as I hear, I judge and my judgment is just,” says the Lord (Jn 5:30).
God takes no “pleasure in the death of the wicked” (Ez 18:22). He “desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the Truth” (1 Tim 2:4). He does everything in His power so that salvation and eternal life would be available and possible for all. There is nothing more that God can do. Everything now depends on man. If some men refuse the gift of life in communion with God, the Lord can only honor this refusal and respect the freedom of His creatures which He Himself has given and will not take back. God allows men to live “with the devil and his angels” if they so desire. Even in this He is loving and just. For if God’s presence as the “consuming fire” (Heb 12:29) and the “unapproachable light” (1 Tim 6:16) which delights those who love Him only produces hatred and anguish in those who do not “love His appearing” (2 Tim 4:8), there is nothing that God can do except either to destroy His sinful creatures completely, or to destroy Himself. But God will exist and will allow His creatures to exist. He also will not hide His Face forever.
The doctrine of eternal hell, therefore, does not mean that God actively tortures people by some unloving and perverse means. It does not mean that God takes delight in the punishment and pain of His people whom He loves. Neither does it mean that God “separates Himself” from His people, thus causing them anguish in this separation (for indeed if people hate God, separation would be welcome, and not abhorred!). It means rather that God continues to allow all people, saints and sinners alike, to exist forever. All are raised from the dead into everlasting life: “those who have done good, to the resurrection of judgment” (John 5:29). In the end, God will be “all and in all” (1 Cor 15:28). For those who love God, resurrection from the dead and the presence of God will be paradise. For those who hate God, resurrection from the dead and the presence of God will be hell. This is the teaching of the fathers of the Church.
There is sprung up a light for the righteous, and its partner is joyful gladness. And the light of the righteous is everlasting…
One light alone let us shun—that which is the offspring of the sorrowful fire…
For I know a cleansing fire which Christ came to send upon the earth, and He Himself is called a Fire. This Fire takes away whatsoever is material and of evil quality; and this He desires to kindle with all speed…
I know also a fire which is not cleansing, but avenging… which He pours down on all sinners… that which is prepared for the devil and his angels… that which proceeds from the Face of the Lord and shall burn up His enemies round about… the unquenchable fire which… is eternal for the wicked. For all these belong to the destroying power, though some may prefer even in this place to take a more merciful view of this fire, worthily of Him who chastises (St. Gregory the Theologian).
... those who find themselves in Gehenna will be chastised with the scourge of love. How cruel and bitter this torment of love will be! For those who understand that they have sinned against love undergo greater sufferings than those produced of the most fearful tortures. The sorrow which takes hold of the heart which has sinned against love is more piercing than any other pain. It is not right to say that sinners in hell are deprived of the love of God. ...But love acts in two different ways, as suffering in the reproved, and as joy in the blessed (St. Isaac of Syria).
Thus, man’s final judgment and eternal destiny depends solely on whether or not man loves God and his brethren. It depends on whether or not man loves the light more than the darkness—or the darkness more than the light. It depends, we might say, on whether or not man loves Love and Light Itself; whether or not man loves Life—which is God Himself; the God revealed in creation, in all things, in the “least of the brethren.”
The conditions of the final judgment are already known. Christ has given them Himself with absolute clarity.
When the Son of Man shall come in His glory, and all the angels with Him, then He will sit on His glorious throne. Before Him will be gathered all the nations and He will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and He will place the sheep at His right hand, but the goats at the left. Then the King will say to those at His right hand, “Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.”
Then the righteous will answer Him, “Lord, when did we see Thee hungry and feed Thee, or thirsty and give Thee drink? And when did we see Thee a stranger and welcome Thee, or naked and clothe Thee? And when did we see Thee sick or in prison and visit Thee?”
And the King will answer them, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.”
Then He will say to those at His left hand, “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.”
Then they also will answer, “Lord, when did we see Thee hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to Thee?”
Then He will answer them, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me.” And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life (Mt 25:31-46, Gospel reading for Meatfare Sunday).
It is Christ who will judge, not God the Father. Christ has received the power of judgment “because He is the Son of Man” (Jn 5:27). Thus, man and the world are not judged by God “sitting on a cloud,” as it were, but by One who is truly a man, the One who has suffered every temptation of this world and has emerged victorious. The world is judged by Him who was Himself hungry, thirsty, a stranger, naked, in prison, wounded, and yet the salvation of all. As the Crucified One, Christ has justly achieved the authority to make judgment for He alone has been the perfectly obedient servant of the Father who knows the depths of human tragedy by His own experience.
For He will render to every man according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, He will give eternal life; but for those who are factious and do not obey the truth, but obey wickedness, there will be wrath and fury. There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil… but glory and honor and peace for every one who does good… for God shows no partiality. All who have sinned without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified (Rom 2:6ff).