Written by Vladimir Moss



Neither is God's mercy without judgment, nor is His judgment without mercy.

St. Basil the Great.


     “Of mercy and judgement will I sing unto Thee, O Lord”, says the Psalmist (100.1). And at no time in the Church year (with the possible exception of Holy Week), do we think more about this profound subject than today, the Sunday of the Last Judgement. But it is a subject that our age finds particularly difficult to discuss, because, to put it bluntly, most people today, even so-called believers, do not believe in God’s judgement…

     In this connection, it is commonplace in the West to draw a distinction between the Old and New Testaments. The Old Testament, it is said, emphasizes God’s judgement, while the New Testament dwells rather on His mercy. This is nonsense. God’s mercy, as St. Basil says, is always, in both the Old and the New Testaments, intertwined with His mercy, and vice-versa. If there is a difference between the two Testaments, it is that in the Old Testament, excluding certain passages from the Prophets, we see God’s judgement and mercy played out on a merely terrestrial plane, as it were, while in the New the perspective is widened to include the whole of the cosmos in the whole of time and eternity, making God’s justice infinitely more terrifying and His mercy infinitely more wonderful!

     To the great discomfort of the “unbelieving believers”, nobody speaks more about God’s justice, and in more terrifying words, than the Lord Jesus Christ Himself. Those who believe that “God is merciful” means “God will forgive everyone, and bring everyone into Paradise” simply haven’t read the Lord’s words about, for example, the Galilean cities around Him: “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works which were done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I say to you: it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon in the day of judgement than for you. And you, Capernaum, who are exalted to heaven, will be brought down to hell, for if the mighty works which were done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. But I say to you, that it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment than for you” (Matthew 11.21-24).

     It is sometimes thought that since Christ abrogated some Old Testament laws, such as the lex talionis, “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”, therefore the NT law must be softer, more merciful. But a glance at the Sermon on the Mount will cure one of any such thought. The OT had certain penalties for certain external actions, for example, murder. But the NT judges not only the external action, but also the inner disposition, for example, anger. And the penalty for that is much harsher. Thus “whosoever says ‘You fool!’ shall be in danger of hellfire” (Matthew 5.22). Personal vengeance is forbidden. But that does not mean that God will not avenge: “Vengeance is Mine – I will repay!”

     For, as St. John of Damascus writes, “a judge justly punishes one who is guilty of wrongdoing; and if he does not punish him he is himself a wrongdoer. In punishing him the judge is not the cause either of the wrongdoing or of the vengeance taken against the wrongdoer, the cause being the wrongdoer’s freely chosen actions. Thus too God, Who saw what was going to happen as if it had already happened, judged it as if it had taken place; and if it was evil, that was the cause of its being punished. It was God Who created man, so of course He created him in goodness; but man did evil of his own free choice, and is himself the cause of the vengeance that overtakes him.”[1]

     Thus justice has an absolute value in and of itself; and if the New Testament has brought other values to the fore, such as mercy, these have in no way superseded justice. Moreover, if the new law is superior to the old, this is not because the old law is unjust, but because the new law, unlike the old, destroys evil not merely externally, in the realm of action, but internally, in the realm of the mind and the heart…

     In any case, according to the new law, too, evil must be balanced by an equal and opposite good – justice must be done. The difference is that according to the new law the counter-balancing good must be offered not only by the offender, but also by the victim. Thus the offender must repent, and the victim must forgive; if there is both repentance and forgiveness, then the debt of justice is paid. But if a victim does not forgive his offender he is himself offending and adding to the total of injustice in the world. Why? First, because «all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God» (Romans 3.23), so that all the suffering we receive is, if we would only recognize it, the just repayment of our sins. And secondly, because all sin is, in the first place, sin against God, not man; for as David says: «Against Thee only have I sinned, and done this evil before Thee, that Thou mightiest be justified in Thy words and prevail when Thou art judged» (Psalm 50.6). Therefore if we are to be justified before the Just Judge, we must at all times recognize that we are offenders, not victims. That is why «if we condemned ourselves, we would not be condemned» (I Corinthians 11.31).

     However, the new law goes still further. If the repentance of the offender is not deep enough to expiate his sin, the victim may take that sin upon himself, suffering in his place. All that is required of the offender is that he accepts the gift with gratitude. This is an act of mercy that at the same time restores justice. For even under the old law, a man who is in prison because he cannot pay his debts can still be released if somebody else pays his debts. For it is not important who pays the debt, so long as the debt is paid and justice is done. And the great joy for Christians is that Christ has paid that price…

     In Christ's redemptive suffering, we find the new law put into practice to a heightened and supremely paradoxical degree. For, on the one hand, since Christ alone of all men was without sin, He alone had no need to suffer, He alone suffered unjustly. But on the other hand, for the same reason He alone could suffer for all men, He alone could be the perfect Victim, by Him alone could justice be perfectly satisfied. All other sacrifices for sin are tainted since they are offered from a sinful nature. Only a sinless human nature could offer a true sacrifice for sin.

     Christ suffered all the consequences of sin, even to death, the death of the Cross, which meant that His suffering was immeasurably greater than ours insofar as His nature is immeasurably holier than ours. Thus He suffered the whole wrath of God against sin in the place of us sinners, becoming “the Lamb of God Who taketh away the sins of the world” (John 1.29). “Surely He hath borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed Him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; upon Him was the chastisement that made us whole, and by His stripes we are healed” (Isaiah 53.4-5).

     In the Cross we see both justice and mercy. In the centre is Christ, the perfectly sinless God and man Who suffered for the sins of the whole world – and the whole world could have received mercy if it had recognized its sin, recognized the justice of its punishment, and turned to the Redeemer in faith and gratitude. This is what the good thief on the right did (the Greek word describing him in the liturgical services is “eugnomon”, “grateful”), and he went up to heaven. But the bad thief did not recognize the justice of his fate, did not believe, and went down to hell. And so “In the midst of two thieves, Thy Cross was found to be a balance-beam (“merilo”) of justice.”[2]

      So the Cross is perfect justice - but justice of a supremely paradoxical kind. In St. Maximus’ words, it is “the judgement of judgement”[3]. Sin, that is, injustice, is completely blotted out - but by the unjust death and Sacrifice of the Only Sinless and Just One. Christ came "in the likeness of sinful flesh" (Romans 8.3) and died the death of a sinner, uttering the words expressive of sinners’ horror at their abandonment by God. The innocent Head died that the guilty Body should live. He, the Just One, Who committed no sin, took upon Himself the sins of the whole world. When we could not pay the price, He paid it for us; when we were dead in sin, He died to give us life. "For Christ hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust" (I Peter 3.18). And the self-sacrificial love of this sacrifice was so great in the eyes of Divine justice that it blotted out the sins of the whole world - of all men, that is, who respond to this free gift with gratitude and repentance.

      The Church has expressed this paradox with great eloquence in its service for the Exaltation of the Cross: "Come, all ye peoples, and let us venerate the blessed Wood, through which the eternal justice has been brought to pass. For he who by a tree deceived our forefather Adam, is by the Cross himself deceived; and he who by tyranny gained possession of the creature endowed by God with royal dignity, is overthrown in headlong fall. By the Blood of God the poison of the serpent is washed away; and the curse of a just condemnation is loosed by the unjust punishment inflicted on the Just. For it was fitting that wood should be healed by wood, and that through the Passion of One Who knew not passion should be remitted all the sufferings of him who was condemned because of wood. But glory to Thee, O Christ our King, for Thy dread dispensation towards us, whereby Thou hast saved us all, for Thou art good and lovest mankind."[4]

     So there is no conflict between justice and love. To say that God should be loving but not just is like saying that the sun should give light but not heat: it is simply not in His nature. It is not in His nature, and it is not in the nature of any created being, for the simple reason that justice is the order of created beings, it is the state of being as it was originally created.

     For, as St. Dionysius the Areopagite writes: “God is named Justice because He satisfies the needs of all things, dispensing due proportion, beauty and order, and defines the bounds of all orders and places each thing under its appropriate laws and orders according to that rule which is most truly just, and because he is the Cause of the independent activity of each. For the Divine Justice orders and assigns limits to all things and keeps all things distinct from and unmixed with one another and gives to all beings that which belongs to each according to the dignity of each. And, to speak truly, all who censure the Divine Justice unknowingly confess themselves to be manifestly unjust. For they say that immortality should be in mortal creatures and perfection in the imperfect and self-motivation in the alter-motivated and sameness in the changeable and perfect power in the weak, and that the temporal should be eternal, things which naturally move immutable, temporal pleasures eternal, and to sum up, they assign the properties of one thing to another. They should know, however, that the Divine justice is essentially true Justice in that it gives to all things that which befits the particular dignity of each and preserves the nature of each in its own proper order and power.”[5]

     When people say that God is loving but not just, or that His justice demonstrates a lack of love, they do not know what they are saying. For His love is aimed precisely towards the restoration of justice, the restoration of “the nature of each in its own proper order and power”, in which alone lies its blessedness. And if the restoration of justice involves suffering, this is not the fault of God, but of His creatures, who freely go against their nature as God created it and thereby create injustice, which can only be abolished through suffering.

     “If we hold the view,” says Archbishop Seraphim (Soloviev), “that God is only love, and do not bear in mind that He is also the righteous Judge, then we can come to the opinion that from God there proceeds only all-forgiveness, and so there will come a time when all sinners together with the demons will be forgiven, the eternal torments will come to an end and there will be only one eternal blessedness for all rational beings. But this opinion contradicts Divine Revelation – its witness that God will reward each man in accordance with his works, as well as the direct teaching of the Saviour on His terrible judgement and on the future unending life with eternal blessedness for the righteous and eternal torments for sinful people and demons.

     “That Divine justice is at work in our salvation is witnessed by the church chant: ‘Thou hast redeemed us from the curse of the law by Thine honourable blood’… The very concept of redemption contains within itself a juridical element, for it signifies buying up or satisfaction. But this satisfaction could not be demanded by Divine love, which gives everything for free. It was demanded by Divine justice. If only love were at work in our salvation, then the sacrifice of Christ on the cross would not have been necessary. Then the very word ‘redemption’ would not have been in the Holy Scriptures. But besides the welcoming words of the Apostle Paul, where he speaks about redemption (Galatians 3.13), we also have the witness of the Apostle Peter, who also gives us this concept of redemption with a juridical meaning in the words: ‘You have not been redeemed by corruptible silver or gold…, but by the precious blood… of Christ’ (I Peter 1.18-19).”[6]

     Modern man rejects the role of Divine justice in our salvation because he cannot understand that justice, he finds it unjust. But God is justified in His words and prevails when He is judged by those who accuse Him of injustice. As He says through the Prophet Ezekiel: “Yet saith the house of Israel, The way of the Lord is not equal. O house of Israel, are not My ways equal? Are not your ways unequal? Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, every one according to his ways” (Ezekiel 18.29-30.). Again, the Prophet Malachi says: “Ye have wearied the Lord with your words. Yet ye say, Wherein have we wearied Him? When ye say, Every one that doeth evil is good in the sight of the Lord, and He delighteth in them; or, Where is the God of judgement?” (Malachi 2.17). But God is not unequal in His ways, and He is always the God of judgement.

     Nor is justice a kind of cold, abstract principle imposed upon Him from without, as it were. As Vladimir Lossky writes: “We should not depict God either as a constitutional monarch subject to a justice that goes beyond Him, or as a tyrant whose whim would create a law without order or objectivity. Justice is not an abstract reality superior to God but an expression of His nature. Just as He freely creates yet manifests Himself in the order and beauty of creation, so He manifests Himself in His justice: Christ Who is Himself justice, affirms in His fullness God’s justice… God’s justice is that man should no longer be separated from God. It is the restoration of humanity in Christ, the true Adam.”[7]

     Love and justice may be seen as the positive and negative poles respectively of God’s Providence in relation to the created universe. Love is the natural, that is, just relationship between God and man. Sin has destroyed love and created injustice. Divine Providence therefore acts to destroy injustice and restore love. We would not need to speak of justice if sin had not destroyed it. But with the entrance of sin, justice is the first necessity – love demands it.

     However, since love never demands of others what it cannot give itself, the justice of God is transmuted into mercy. Mercy is that form of justice in which the punishment of sin is removed from the shoulders of the offender and placed on the shoulders of another, who thereby becomes a propitiatory sacrifice. Thus the Cross is both love and justice, both mercy and sacrifice. It is the perfect manifestation of love, and the perfect satisfaction of justice. It is “the mercy of peace”, in the words of the Divine Liturgy, the mercy that restores peace between God and man.

     This intertwining of the themes of love and justice in the Cross of Christ is developed with incomparable grace by Metropolitan Philaret of Moscow:“Draw closer and examine the threatening face of God’s justice, and you will exactly discern in it the meek gaze of God’s love. Man by his sin has fenced off from himself the everlasting source of God’s love: and this love is armed with righteousness and judgement – for what? – to destroy this stronghold of division. But since the insignificant essence of the sinner would be irreparably crushed under the blows of purifying Justice, the inaccessible Lover of souls sends His consubstantial Love, that is, His Only-begotten Son, so that He Who ‘upholds all things by the word of His power’ (Hebrews 1.3), might also bear the heaviness of our sins, and the heaviness of the justice advancing towards us, in the flesh of ours that He took upon Himself: and, having Alone extinguished the arrows of wrath, sharpened against the whole of humanity, might reveal in his wounds on the Cross the unblocked springs of mercy and love which was to the whole land that had once been cursed - blessings, life and beatitude. Thus did God love the world.

     “But if the Heavenly Father out of love for the world gives up His Only-begotten Son; then equally the Son out of love for man gives Himself up; and as love crucifies, so is love crucified. For although ‘the Son can do nothing of Himself’, neither can he do anything in spite of Himself. He ‘does not seek His own will’ (John 5.19 and 31), but for that reason is the eternal heir and possessor of the will of His Father. ‘He abides in His love’, but in it He Himself receives into His love all that is loved by the Father, as he says: ‘As the Father hath loved Me, so have I loved you’ (John 15.9). And in this way the love of the Heavenly Father is extended to the world through the Son: the love of the Only-begotten Son of God at the same time ascends to the Heavenly Father and descends to the world. Here let him who has eyes see the most profound foundation and primordial inner constitution of the Cross, out of the love of the Son of God for His All-holy Father and love for sinful humanity, the two loves intersecting with, and holding on to, each other, apparently dividing up what was one, but in fact uniting the divided into one. Love for God is zealous for God – love for man is merciful to man. Love for God demands that the law of God’s righteousness should be observed – love for man does not abandon the transgressor of the law to perish in his unrighteousness. Love for God strives to strike the enemy of God – love for man makes the Divinity man, so as by means of love for God mankind might be deified, and while love for God ‘lifts the Son of man from the earth’ (John 12.32 and 34), love for man opens the embraces of the Son of God for the earthborn, these opposing strivings of love intersect, dissolve into each other, balance each other and make of themselves that wonderful heart of the Cross, on which forgiving ‘mercy’ and judging ‘truth meet together’, God’s ‘righteousness’ and man’s ‘peace kiss each other’, through which heavenly ‘truth is sprung up out of the earth, and righteousness’ no longer with a threatening eye ‘hath looked down from heaven. Yea, for the Lord will give goodness, and our land shall yield her fruit’ (Psalm 84.11-13).”[8]

     St. Macarius “Nevsky”, metropolitan of Moscow (+1926), summed up the matter: “The justice of God demands the punishment of the sinner, but the love of God demands clemency. According to the justice of God, the sinner, as having nothing by which he could satisfy this eternal justice, must be subject to eternal torments. But love demands mercy. The Wisdom of God found a means to satisfy both justice and love. This means is the Redemptive Sacrifice of the Son of God. Christ paid by His blood for the debts of all sinners. They are forgiven, but after baptism people have again offended both the justice and the love of God. Consequently, they have again become heirs of hell. Then love wishes again to have mercy, and does not subject the sinner to eternal punishment, but punishes him temporarily, calling on him to repent through this punishment. If the sinner repents, the Lord forgives him, having established for this the Sacrament of Repentance...”[9]

      Thus mercy and judgement, love and justice, are inseparable and presuppose each other in God’s all-embracing plan for the salvation of mankind. Only at the Last, Most Terrible Judgement does it appear that love and justice have been disjoined, going in opposite directions. But that is only appearance, not reality, for in fact it is mankind, not God, that will have been disjoined into two parts and gone in opposite directions. The Last Judgement is a mystery proclaimed by the Word of God and grounded in the deepest reality of things. It both proceeds from the nature of God Himself, both from His love and from His justice, and is an innate demand of our human nature created in the image of God. It is the essential foundation for the practice of virtue and the abhorrence of vice, and the ultimate goal to which the whole of created nature strives, willingly or unwillingly, as to its natural fulfillment. Without the Last Judgement all particular judgements would have a partial and unsatisfactory character, and the reproaches of all unbelievers against faith would be justified; for the demand for justice – perfect justice – is an innate characteristic of the human soul. And if the Last Judgement is different from all preceding ones in that in it love seems to be separated from justice, love being bestowed exclusively on the righteous and justice on the sinners, this is because mankind will have divided itself into two, one part having responded to love with love, to justice with justice, while the other, having rejected both the love and the justice of God, will merit to experience His justice alone…


January 29 / February 11, 2018.

Sunday of the Last Judgement.



[1] St. John of Damascus, Dialogue against the Manichaeans, 37.

[2]Triodion, Ninth Hour, Glory…, Troparion.

[3] St. Maximus the Confessor, Questions to Thalassius, PG 90:408D.

[4] Festal Menaion, September 14, Great Vespers of the Exaltation of the Cross, “Lord, I have cried”, “Glory… Both now…”

[5] St. Dionysius the Areopagite, On the Divine Names, VIII.

[6] Archbishop Seraphim, “V Velikuiu Subbotu. O sovmestnom dejstvii bozhestvennogo pravosudia i bozhestvennoj liubvi v dele nashego iskuplenia” (For Great Saturday. On the joint action of Divine justice and Divine love in the work of our redemption), in Ob istinnom monarkhicheskom mirosozertsanii (On the True Monarchical World-View), St. Petersburg, 1994, p. 199.

[7] Lossky, “Christological Dogma”, Orthodox Theology, Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1989, pp. 114-115. My italics (V.M.).

[8] Metropolitan Philaret, “Sermon on Holy Friday (1816)”, The Works of Philaret, Metropolitan of Moscow and Kolomna, Moscow, 1994, pp. 107-108.

[9] Tatyana Groyan, Tsariu Nebesnomu i Zemnomu Vernij. Mitropolit Makarij Altajskij (Parvitsky – “Nevsky”), 1835-1926 Moscow, 1996, p. 305.

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