Abba Evagrius said: … “Weep and lament for the judgement of sinners, bring to life the grief they suffer; be afraid that you are hurrying towards the same condemnation. Rejoice and exult at the good laid up for the righteous. Aim at enjoying the one, and being far from the other. Do not forget it, whether you are in your cell or abroad. Keep these memories in your mind and so cast out of it the sordid thoughts which harm you.”
~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers, 3.3
A necessary corollary from the fact that all die, from a Christian perspective at least, is that all will face the judgment seat of Christ, who “will come again in glory to judge both the living and the dead” (Nicene Creed). Indeed, while I have focused recently on the logic of asceticism, life—death—resurrection, it is important to remember that, in fact, there are two sorts of resurrection described in the Scriptures, the one to new life and the other to the “second death.”
I confess that reflection on “the judgement of sinners” and “the grief they suffer” is not a regular part of my practice of watchfulness. While I have been working on cultivating a continual remembrance of my mortality, meditation on eschatological reward and (especially) punishment has not always made sense to me, to be frank. After all, it is not I but Christ who will “judge both the living and the dead,” right?
It would be a mistake to read this saying as if Abba Evagrius wanted us to be looking at others and forecasting their ultimate ends. There is a whole section in my version of the Sayings of Desert Fathers titled “That We Should Judge No Man”; the fathers routinely warn against the dangers of a judgmental mindset.
There is one story from that section that might offer some clarity:
A holy man wept bitterly when he saw someone sinning, and said: “He today: I tomorrow.” However grave a sin is brought to your notice, you must not judge the culprit, but believe yourself to be a worse sinner than he.
Fair enough. So we need not be judgmental toward others in order to reflect on “the judgement of sinners.” The point is a sort of watchfulness that ought to engender humility. But yet, what does it all mean, really? What is this judgment? For that matter, what is “the good laid up for the righteous”?
To some extent, perhaps it is wise to admit our ignorance. Yes, we all know the typical images of fire and torment, on the one hand, and the bright light, white robes, and heavenly bliss, on the other. But these are images. Images are necessarily connected to what they depict, but they are not identical with their prototypes, just as we are created after the image of God but are not, for that, God.
I have written in the past about how, as St. Ambrose so succinctly put it, “The wicked man is a punishment to himself, but the upright man is a grace to himself—and to either, whether good or bad, the reward of his deeds is paid in his own person.”
That which is eternal is, in a sense, natural to us. We are, of course, temporal and mortal, but we are created after the image of God in order to be conformed continually into an ever closer likeness to him.
The virtues, and the true joy that follows from them, are eternal. Perhaps, in fact, this is one way of understanding the words of Ecclesiastes:
What profit has the worker from that in which he labors? I have seen the God-given task with which the sons of men are to be occupied. He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also he has put eternity in their hearts, except that no one can find out the work that God does from beginning to end.
I know that nothing is better for them than to rejoice, and to do good in their lives, and also that every man should eat and drink and enjoy the good of all his labor—it is the gift of God.
I know that whatever God does,
It shall be forever.
Nothing can be added to it,
And nothing taken from it.
God does it, that men should fear before him.
That which is has already been,
And what is to be has already been;
And God requires an account of what is past. (3:9-15)
“Eternity in their hearts”—and thus, if we reject that which is eternal, we will find a void within us: “‘Vanity of vanities,’ says the Preacher; ‘Vanity of vanities, all is vanity'” (Ecclesiastes 1:1).
Perhaps this sheds some light on a different way of understanding those images of torment and condemnation. Just as the righteous experience now a foretaste (prolepsis) of what is to come for them as a natural consequence of the good they do, so also sinners—and so, to an extent, all of us—experience what is to come for them as an anti-natural consequence of the evil they do.
We all face a thousand deaths daily, not only the tragedy of physical death, but the death of hopes, aspirations, dreams, desires, self-conceptions, and expectations. Just as with our physical deaths, the question is not whether we will die: that much is certain. Nor, to be precise, is the question about resurrection. That much, according to Christian dogma anyway, is certain as well. Rather the question is in what manner we shall die and, by consequence, in what manner we shall rise again.
If we, through the sacraments and asceticism, are crucified with Christ and die daily with him to our passions and sins, then we rise daily to newness of life. If, however, we die estranged from God and thus from what is most real and the grounding of all reality, we rise to “the second death,” daily.
We who are created ex nihilo (“from nothing”) have the choice, as St. Augustine so vividly illustrates in his works, between God who is the fullness of being, existence, reality, and life, on the one hand, and nothingness, an existential and metaphysical void, emptiness, negation, and non-being.
In this way to be estranged from God is also to be estranged from ourselves. For what is virtue but a partaking of the life of God (cf. 2 Peter 1:2-4)? And if virtue is what is most natural to us, then failure to live in accord with it is a failure to live both according to the will of God and as our truest selves.
Indeed, there is a death which begets new life. And there is a death which only begets more death, a vicious cycle of fleeting pleasures, comforts, securities, and the grief that follows from their loss.
Do we—by, through, in, and with Christ—conquer death by death daily, or are we ever conquered by death? No doubt for most of us life is something of a mixture of the two. If someone is old enough, no doubt he or she has tasted, if only minimally, the flaming fuel of that “lake of fire.” Far from the stuff of religious imagination, “the second death” is a common existential struggle, being consumed by “the sordid thoughts which harm [us].”
I do not know if, in addition to this, there is something more to the typical, “literal” understanding of images of the last judgment. But I do know that, in fact, “with what judgment you judge, you will be judged; and with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you” (Matthew 7:2).
There is an ancient, Christian apocalypse that almost made it into the New Testament. It is attributed to St. Peter. In it, among other things, the punishment of the damned is depicted in gruesome detail. Yet, aware that allegory was a common mode of expression for ancient peoples, I do not think that a literal reading would be correct or charitable. Or more accurately, I do not think that what is often assumed to be a literal reading is, in fact, in accord with the sort of literature (and, hence, truly literal) that an apocalypse is.
I suppose it could be, for example, that “false witnesses” will someday literally be “gnawing their tongues and having flaming fire in their mouths” (Akhmim Fragment, 29). But I find it far more likely that the message here is rather about how when we sin with our mouths through deceit, it is through this very act that we are tormented. And if we pridefully cling to our self-tormenting self-justifications, the void we experience now will open forever into a great, bottomless abyss.
If, on the other hand, we meditate on such images and strive to maintain our remembrance of them, we will not fail to “cast out of [our minds] the sordid thoughts which harm [us].”
That’s one way to see it, at least. And for me, it has made Abba Evagrius’s recommendation make a lot more sense. But understanding is one thing. Practice is another, and far more important at that. Lord have mercy, then, that I might at all times learn to better “weep and lament for the judgement of sinners” and “exult at the good laid up for the righteous,” “enjoying the one, and being far from the other.”