If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?
-Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago
Solzhenitsyn puts his finger on the problem: the human heart is a “mixed bag.” This thought hovered in my mind this past Sunday, the Sunday of the Last Judgment, on the Orthodox pre-Lenten calendar. The gospel reading was the familiar passage in St. Matthew on the parable of the sheep and the goats. There everyone is judged according to what they did “to the least of these my brethren.” But the Solzhenitsyn-inspired thought asked, “But what about those who sometimes act like sheep and sometimes act like goats?”
Such an analysis is actually quite accurate. We are none of us always kind to the least of these our brethren, but neither do we always ignore them. So questions arise? Does the judgment involve adding them up and seeing which one holds the preponderance of our actions? In a novel I read back in the 80’s, a science fiction writer imagined a world in which those whose good and bad actions were too closely matched for an easy judgment were sent to a purgatory in which they had to do the calculations on their whole life, with forms that had been designed by the IRS. It sent shivers down my spine!
Of course, the very suggestion of the problem will immediately raise howls of protest from those who want to remind us that we are saved by grace and not by works. That facile distinction cannot obliterate the parable, however. For what seems to linger most about the parable is its conclusion: “And these will go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” (Mat 25:46) For, regardless of how you reckon that some get there, the parable suggests an eternal punishment. My question, regarding the mixed-bag of souls, is, doubtless impertinent. Anyone can rightly say that the judgments of God are inscrutable. But if they are so inscrutable that we cannot know anything about them, why the parable?
St. Gregory of Nyssa takes a noteworthy approach to this question.
Not in hatred or revenge for a wicked life, to my thinking, does God bring upon sinners those painful dispensations; He is only claiming and drawing to Himself whatever, to please Him, came into existence. But while He for a noble end is attracting the soul to Himself, the Fountain of all Blessedness, it is the occasion necessarily to the being so attracted of a state of torture. Just as those who refine gold from the dross which it contains not only get this base alloy to melt in the fire, but are obliged to melt the pure gold along with the alloy, and then while this last is being consumed the gold remains, so, while evil is being consumed in the purgatorial fire, the soul that is welded to this evil must inevitably be in the fire too, until the spurious material alloy is consumed and annihilated by this fire….
…In any and every case evil must be removed out of existence, so that, as we said above, the absolutely non-existent should cease to be at all. Since it is not in its nature that evil should exist outside the will, does it not follow that when it shall be that every will rests in God, evil will be reduced to complete annihilation, owing to no receptacle being left for it?
St. Gregory of Nyssa, On the Soul and the Resurrection
In this treatment, the saint (called the “Father of Fathers” by the Seventh Council) treats the import of the story of judgment as a story within each soul rather than a story of one soul versus another. The judgment, a separation, is a separation of the good and evil that resides in the heart of every human being. It is, in effect, God’s rescue of His enslaved creation.
I am not here arguing for or against the Father of Fathers. Rather, I am allowing him to help me think about the perplexing reality of sheep and goats. For in our experience, the sheep and goats seem to have interbred in such a manner than cannot be distinguished from the outside.
Perhaps it is truly that some are really goats at heart, while others are sheep. And that when they stand face-to-face before Christ, they will somehow reveal their true nature. But this contradicts St. Gregory’s point. We are, he notes, by nature desirous of God. The judgment, he says, is the destruction of that which is not truly our nature. We are freed to become what we truly are.
I am aware of the many arguments and objections this raises for many, and of its place within the Tradition. But I cite it here for a different use. For many can mount objections as to its final application, but cannot, I think, object to its use in the present moment. We are indeed a mixed bag, a confusion of good and evil. Indeed, we are not good one moment and evil the next. Rather, our good never seems to be entirely pure, lacking in mixed motives, and our evil never seems to be devoid of some good desire, regardless of how perverted and distorted that desire might be.
Judgment is a very messy business, something that must remain in the hands of a good God (and Him alone).
My experience of Christ on a daily basis is far more like that of St. Gregory’s image. Every moment of my life is for my salvation. Even the tragedies and disasters that befall me (including those of my own making) seem, in hindsight, to have been something that in the hand of God is doing me good. The fire is continually burning, devouring action and thought and purifying intention. Many times the fire is too bright and far too hot to think anything about it other than to flee and shield my self. But even the briefest encounter with those flames is not without benefit.
The final disposition of souls is in the hand of God. But so is the daily disposition of our lives. I know that when the roll is called for goats, I bleat in excited response, even while some muted sheepish sound murmurs in protest. For today, I know the roll call for goats is one calling us to a blessed slaughter that is nothing less than our day-to-day salvation.
O blessed, holy judgment and sweet flame!