For a Christian ending to our life: painless, unashamed, and peaceful; and a good defense before the dread judgment seat of Christ, let us ask of the Lord.
From my childhood, I have memories of the phrase, “Great White Throne of Judgment.” It comes complete with an abundance of frightening images and threats. It is the last possible moment before all hell breaks loose and the preachers at long last get one right. Of course, that same childhood heard lots of predictions about troop movements in the Middle East, explanations of Gog and Magog, and warnings about where everything was leading. The future was not a happy place. At this point in my life as an Orthodox Christian, it is hard not to hear echoes of these frightful threats in the prayer regarding the “dread judgment seat of Christ.”
I’ve only been in front of a judge twice in my life: for a speeding ticket and to testify in a child custody case (worse than a speeding ticket). It was dreadful.
But what is this dread judgment seat? Do we have any examples? The answer is actually quite clear, and it is not what the preachers imagined (based on their misreading of Revelation).
The dread judgment seat of Christ is actually something quite familiar, something that enters our life any number of times and on a regular basis. I suggest that you rid yourself of what you think a “throne” is, for the throne of Christ is nothing other than His Cross.
From the Feast of the Elevation of the Cross:
Today the Cross is lifted up,
and all the world is sanctified.
For You, while enthroned with the Father
and with the All-holy Spirit,
by stretching out Your hands thereon,
have drawn the whole world to Yourself,
that it might know You, O my Christ.
Therefore, grant divine glory
to those who trust in Your goodness.
The irony of this identification (Cross and Throne) is revealed on the very day of the crucifixion. Kings are normally crowned while sitting on a throne. This King is crowned as He “sits” upon the Cross. It is proclaimed for all to see: “King of the Jews.” Orthodox iconography makes the irony yet more clear, by changing the description hanging above the crucified Christ into the “King of Glory.” The Cross is His throne and the Cross reveals His glory.
My childhood Christianity made a huge distinction between the Jesus of the Cross and the Jesus of Judgment Day. For all intents and purposes, they were two different entities. Jesus on the Cross was meek and mild. This, however, was treated like a temporary feint. The “real” Jesus was the one who was coming again and there was to be nothing meek or mild about that coming. The Cross was past tense. The coming throne could be seen in Revelation 20, and this was taken to be the true and permanent revelation of Christ.
There is so much lost in this modern mis-reading of Revelation. The champion of that book is the “Lamb who was slain,” and it is this Lamb who is most closely associated with “Him who sits upon the throne.” The Great Irony of the Christian gospel, is that all of these images of power are most clearly manifest in the Crucified Christ. Thus St. Paul says that he is determined to know only “Christ Crucified.” (1 Cor. 2:2) St. Paul does not treat this as a temporary, passing image, but the very image of God: “Christ crucified…the power of God and the wisdom of God.” (1 Cor. 2:2-3). This is not a momentary diversion. The Lamb is slain from the foundation of the world. It is an eternal image and revelation.
It is Christ Crucified that reveals all things to be what they truly are. It unmasks every pretense of uprightness and self-justification. It welcomes the thief while the hypocrisy of others drives them away. This is the judgment that we avoid. Think back to the last argument you had. Perhaps you were in the right. Take that argument and stand before Christ on the Cross. For myself, I cannot imagine any such argument that I’ve had that isn’t revealed in its absurdity and emptiness in that context. Presently, we live in a world of arguments. Enslaved to our own shame and anger, we are slowly pulling each other down towards an abyss of meaninglessness. All of this is taking place in the presence of the Crucified Christ. It takes place before the dread judgment seat.
Understanding the nature of the judgment seat reveals why it is rightly called “dread.” It is not some fearful pronouncement we need fear so much as the truth of ourselves that is revealed in that place. The image of judgment in Matthew 25 (the sheep and the goats) is often drawn on by the imagination. Interestingly, the parable combines both the concept of “ontology” (our being) as well as “character” (our actions). It begins with sheep and goats—that is, what we actually are (ontology). And that description is revealed in the character of our actions: what did we do to the least of these in our lifetime? This is revealed to have been nothing other than the treatment of Christ Himself. We can say that we moment by moment stand before the dread judgment seat of the Crucified Christ. He is present in every opportunity of love and sacrifice, of mercy and generosity. With every embrace of Christ, our path moves more steadily to the right, becoming the path of a sheep. With every rejection, the path moves towards the left, the path of a goat. And with every opportunity, we not only move on that path, we become what the path reveals.
There are some who treat the parable as a reference to the heart of each individual—of the “sheep” or “goat” within. Very few of us are all goat, even fewer all sheep. It is similar to Solzhenitsyn’s reflection:
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?—The Gulag Archipelago
At the first revelation of the judgment seat, outside Jerusalem in 33 AD, most fled like frightened goats. The Beloved Disciple and the Mother of God remained steadfast, having long before settled the matter in their hearts. She was enduring the sword that would “pierce her own soul,” while St. John refused to abandon the One who loved him. He is given paradise that day in becoming the new son of that Holy Mother. That reality would later win him the footrace with Peter to the empty tomb.
Peter had encountered the Crucified Christ three times in the evening before (in the guise of those who accused him of being a follower of Jesus). With each challenge he bleated (like a goat), “I don’t know Him.” Such is the mercy of the Crucified Savior that Peter was not given over to the judgment of his own fear. A final question is put to him three times on the shore of the Galilee: “Peter, do you love me?” His answer impels him on the path of a sheep, one that will ultimately lead to his own crucifixion some 40 years later.
It is essential, I think, that we acknowledge that this judgment begins within our hearts. As we meet Christ in the disguise of shame (poor, hungry, naked, in prison) we are brought face to face with our own shame. It is invariably the case that those who are the kindest and most generous to the poor, hungry, naked and in prison, are those who themselves are poor, hungry, naked and in prison. I have witnessed this countless times. We should fear our excellence and our competence above all things.
Humility alone stands unashamed before the dread judgment seat of the Cross. And this is the greatest irony. For humility is nothing other than the voluntary bearing of a little shame. It has nothing in common with the modesty of the excellent. Be careful not to remove Christ from the Cross as you stand there. Many Christians have done frightful, angry and boastful things under the sign of a naked Cross.
The Elder Sophrony once said, “God never judges twice.” That which we bring before Christ now, we will never hear about again. Without shame or fear, those who willingly bear a little shame in this life will have none in the next. Peter’s judgment is instructive: The one who had denied Christ is not upbraided about that three-fold incident. He is asked, “Do you love me?” It was doubtless the most searching question that could have been spoken. It is the likeliest form that the judgment will take for us all. Many times each day.