In the Christian narrative we find the picture of humans and their response to God (lived lives) portrayed by the categories of sheep or goats. There are positive connotations associated with sheep and negative ones with goats. For example, we have Matthew 25 regarding the, “Final Judgment.” We read:
“When the Son of Man comes 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 people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left.”
Those on the right, the sheep, are told to come and inherit the Kingdom. Those on the left do not fare as well. Or, at least this is the common understanding of these verses. The sheep are bound for heaven, while the goats to eternal perdition. One is either a sheep or a goat, there is no in-between. Two groups. Very simple. Very black and white. You know, the way most of us like our theology.
And yet, I wonder. So too did Sergius Bulgakov. There are alternative readings to what we call the “final judgment,” or the end times. Bulgakov offered such a reading, which I find compelling and closer to the over-all sweep of Scripture, the Christian narrative, and of the God portrayed therein.
What partly formed his reading of Matthew 25 and the sheep and the goats, was his view of what “judgment” entailed and meant. We normally view judgment as something happening outside ourselves. We stand before an external judge who makes a decision regarding our lives, our souls. It is something handed down to us, rendered or decreed. It is separate from our own judgment, reflection, or internal calculus.
Bulgakov saw it differently. He saw an encounter with Christ at the final judgment as a moment of self-judgment, an internal awakening and revelation. To stand before Christ was to see and understand, for the first time, the gulf, the chasm, the distance between who we were and who he is. It is a self-realization of profound depth. One looks in the mirror and finally all pretense, all falseness, all the masks, excuses, defenses, and every partition of hiding are all now gone in the light of Christ’s presence. We are completely naked and see ourselves for the first time.
When we internally experience the brute realization of what we are, with what we see in Christ, therein is our judgment. This doesn’t mean we subjectively decide our own personal judgment or fate. In fact, for the first time, we will have a purely objective, honest, real, and true view of ourselves. If we now have even a glimmer of self-awareness or ability to reflect, such should give us considerable pause.
I would imagine we will be undone. It will be in that moment, we, like David, will learn we are the “man.” We who cried, “Who did this?!” “Who is responsible for this?!” will learn that we did this, we are responsible. No more need be said. No external judgment can compare to the one that comes within and is now in agreement with the universe, love, the Trinity. The truth.
With that understanding of the final judgment, Bulgakov interprets the sheep and goats in Matthew 25. We read of the separation of people. When we think of the evils that have befallen humankind, they are almost always preceded by the separation of people. We categorize and designate the “other.” We decide who is “in” and who is “out.” All prejudice, much mistreatment and injustice, begins by the separation of people. This happens first in our hearts and then too often becomes a physical reality, enforced in either custom or law.
However, Bulgakov saw the separation happening in Matthew 25 not as a physical separation of people, but as a separation that happens internally, in our spirit and soul. We are each a sheep and a goat, all at once. We might say each will burn in hell and also experience the sublime heavens. Or, put another way, we will all stand before Christ. We read:
“The separation of the sheep and the goats, with their final destinies, is a figure that refers not to individual persons or groups of persons but, above all, to their inner state. The possibility of heaven and hell is present in every soul, although to different degrees. This is a horizontal division that passes through all humankind, not a vertical one, which would separate it into two mutually impenetrable parts…Therefore, the idea of two humankinds, divided and separated from each other at the Last Judgment, does not correspond to the fullness and connectedness of reality. Humankind is one. It is one in Adam and one is Christ…” (Pg. 515—The Bride of the Lamb)
These interpretive understandings along with others are, no doubt, what partly inclined Bulgakov toward universalism. What is it that we fear with such interpretations and understandings? Do we fear we are interpreting incorrectly, or is it something more?
I would imagine most of us want an outward judgment based upon locating a moment in time when we were “saved,” or upon some outward, physical act like baptism or a good life. It must be somewhat unnerving to consider our judgment might be the inner revealing of who we really are, which is to say both a sheep and a goat. Further, that being such is a “line” running through every heart. As Alexander Solzhenitsyn reminded us:
“The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart — and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained.”
Again, we will all stand before Christ. This is our judgment; this is our heaven and hell. We will then realize we are sheep and goats, we are saved and lost, all at once. Thus, we pray, Lord have mercy.
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