As everyone is the Prodigal Son who needs to go home, so also is it true that everyone will come face to face with the Lord on Judgment Day.
It is up to you and me whether that Day will be a homecoming, or something else.
Grownup Christians must think about Judgment Day bravely and correctly. Frankly, much of the fear surrounding this issue is based on ideas that are not Orthodox.
As a priest, one of my main responsibilities is to make sure that we know what our faith teaches. Many times, we have to come right out and say that certain other ideas are in error. We don’t do this to be mean or argumentative, but we do this because these ideas do not show the true character of God, and these ideas actually damage our ability to pray and love and even live.
You should not be bothered that I use the word “heresy” here. I seriously believe that wrong ideas about God can -- and often does -- cause mental illness. I always think of the healing effect of good Orthodox doctrine as “bright and cleansing thoughts.”
So here is a list of important Orthodox teachings about Judgment Day, the Second Coming of Jesus Christ:
The Second Coming of Christ, the Universal Resurrection and Judgment Day happen at the same moment. This will be the end of time. Our world and all creation will be completely transfigured by the Uncreated Light. It will happen, as the Apostle Paul said (in 1 Corinthians 15.52), “in a twinkling of an eye.” This means that it will be instantaneous.
There is no space or time between the Second Coming and Judgment. Those who try to divide these up into separate events by inserting an interruption or length of time between the Second Coming and Judgment are called “chiliasts” by the Orthodox Church -- and according to the Second Ecumenical Council (and the Nicene Creed), chiliasm is heretical and toxic to the faith. The “Rapture” as taught by many protestants is “chiliastic.” So also is the teaching of the “seven-year tribulation” and the literal “thousand-year millennium” heretical.
Everyone and everything will be resurrected. Whatever and whoever God creates is eternal by His Grace, and is the object of His love. Nothing is lost, everything is gained. The evil and unrepentant will be raised just like everyone else. The end of the world by fire that is described by St Peter and others is the fire of the Uncreated Light of Transfiguration.
Everyone who can make moral choices (that is, humans and angels, who are “noetic” creatures) will experience this Judgment. What is Judgment? It is not a courtroom setting -- that kind of scene is a Western invention, and is not what the Apostles taught. More importantly, Judgment is not the Lord being angry or wrathful with people and “needing” to let His anger out, or needing to have justice done or His honor restored. These, again, are ideas that were invented in the West long after the Apostles, and outside of Holy Tradition and away from the Orthodox Church Fathers.
What is Judgment at the End of Time? It is your own response to the question, “Did you recognize Me when I came to meet you in every moment and every place? Did you accept My friendship? Did you answer My call? Did you accept My invitation to join My family? Did you open the door of your soul so that I could share with you My peace?”
“Did you accept My love? Did you love Me? Did you love others, as I have loved you?”
"By your love, did you prove to yourself that I conquered sin by the Cross, and that I demolished death?"
Because only by loving Him and others can you become like Him -- and loving Him requires thinking of Him the right way, with His “bright thoughts.” Loving others requires overcoming the passions of a darkened soul.
So in that instantaneous moment of Judgment, your entire life -- both hidden thoughts and plain actions -- will produce a single answer to the question: “Did you love? as I love?” This is what “noetic” means: your ability to make a free choice whether (or not) to recognize God as love, and to become like Him.
Remember here that whenever the Lord spoke of Judgment, He said that He would judge people “by their works.” And from the entire Bible, especially the New Testament, and all of Orthodox Tradition, these “works” are our belief, our prayer, our charity and kindness.
It is far more likely that a pagan who is kind, generous and merciful will respond well to Jesus on Judgment Day, than a person who calls himself a Christian but was cruel and self-centered. But what is certain and beyond all doubt that the Christian who loves because he or she believes, through sacrament and doctrine, will have become so like Christ that he will be drawn into the presence of Christ by desire.
“We know that when He appears, we shall see Him as He is, and we shall be like Him,” says St John the Theologian (in 1 John 3.2).
By your moral choices and good action will you be able to recognize Christ as the God of Love, and freely choose to enter into His presence.
At the Last Judgment, our complete and perfected memory (perfect because of the Resurrection) will be the only evidence: “… on the day of Judgment our own thoughts will stand forth, both those that condemn and those that exonerate, and no person will need any other accuser at that trial” (John Chrysostom, Homilies on Romans 5.5).
Judgment actually begins right now, in this life: our conscience is the awareness of our soul of the Last Judgment, and our memory should call us to constant, positive, confident and joyful repentance. If you regret past behavior, do not despair, but pray in repentance, over and over again. This is what St Mary of Egypt did, because of the Judgment: this is what we should do.
The good news about this is that if we entire into a lifestyle of repentance, of remember in advance the Judgment, then the Judgment will not be something in the future for us: “He who hears my words and believes in him who sent me, has everlasting life, and shall not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life” (John 5.24).
Symeon the New Theologian says that Judgment is actually the presence of Christ. Yes, Christ is present with us right now, as He promised “I will never leave you nor forsake you ... I am with you always” at the end of the Gospels. However, He is not visible to the physical senses: He is spiritually seen in the eyes of belief (which can only be opened by faith, doctrine, sacrament and fasting).
But what happens in the Day of the Lord (which is the Second Coming, the Resurrection and the Last Judgment all at once) is that ALL SENSES -- spiritual and physical (sight, smell, touch, sound, etc) -- will be overwhelmed by the unavoidable glory of Jesus Christ, God the Saviour, at Whose Name “every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2.10-11).
Jesus Christ, the Word of God, will be completely universally present, and there will be no where to hide, and no way to turn from Him.
At this point, we understand then that the Day of Judgment is really the Day of Truth, the Overwhelming Triumph that God is Love. The Day of Judgment, Symeon says, is Jesus Christ Himself: He is the Light, as He said, “I am the light that is coming into the world.” He is the Day, as He is called the “Dayspring from on High.”
If one does not desire God or His deifying Love, or does not desire to Love, then the only option for him is to sink inside a psychotic ego of horrible, always decreasing but always extending self-isolation. The Fathers say that inside the hellish ego is the “fire” of unquenchable passion that will never go out, because the ego refuses to accept any help -- the help of which can only be Love. The very thing that can save -- the Light of the Holy Trinity -- is the very thing that every satanic consciousness refuses the most.
Hell is only a psychic reality. It is definitely not an external, objective reality. How could it be, since Christ demolished Hell at His descent and revelation in terrible glory that the Son of Man is the Son of God.
And to think that the Devil is still an Arian.
That is why the River is central and key to the icon of the Last Judgment. At the bottom of the River is fire, that represents the sinner's rejection of God's love but being immersed in the very thing that he rejects, and thus the sinner's rejection of not only God, but his own essence. But at the top of the River, there is the River of Life, whose water is healing, beauty, light and peace to those who desire the Word of God, Who is Christ.
It is the same River, the same Water of Life.
God loves His creatures forever. St Isaac the Syrian says that God continues to love even Lucifer--the devil’s rejection of this Divine Love is what produces his own private hell, which is the most extreme.
Thus God does not “send” anyone to Hell, in reality. But He will not prevent anyone from lapsing into the eternal psychosis of self-loathing passion, simply because anyone refuses His love.
We Orthodox know that “Truth” is not some philosophic idea, which Pilate assumed when he asked the Bridegroom, “What is truth?”
Actually, in beautiful irony, the Truth was standing right in front of him, hidden by His humiliation from the Passion, and by Pilate’s passionate blindness.
But there will come a Day when everyone will see Him as He is.
The happy, happy news is this. You and I are already in that Day, when we are received into Eucharistic Communion, and having prayed, with tears, “O Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, accept me this day as a communicant of Your Mystical Supper.”