In every major service of the Church, the deacon instructs us to beg the Lord “for the right answer before the dread judgment seat of Christ.” This word “dread” is variously translated “awful,” “terrible,” “fearful,” and “awesome.” You can see from these translations the deep and dreadful image we are evoking with this rich word. We shall fall on our faces before the divine Emperor of glory, the All-ruler (gr. pantokrator).
This doesn’t jibe with the “Buddy Christ” of much contemporary religion, satirized in the film Dogma by Kevin Smith. Smith’s “Buddy Christ” sports a big grin and a used-car salesman pose reminiscent of the images of the “Lauging Jesus” or the youthful Jesus I call the “Michael W. Smith Jesus.”
Following Scripture and the holy fathers of the Council of Chalcedon, we affirm that the Lord Jesus Christ is, “with respect to his manhood, like us in all things, with the sole exception of sin.” Certainly this includes laughter and happiness. However, the icons of the Church reveal to us a sober figure — neither passionately angry nor passionately happy — and he blesses us. This is utterly counter to the fleshly encouragement of passion that surrounds us on all sides.
In modern English, “passion” has a dual meaning: It can mean the deep commitment to an ideal or vision, but it can also mean the domination of the soul by fleshly lusts. The first sense can be confusing when we discuss the passions in the teaching of the Church, because it developed recently; it will only serve to confuse us here. It is perhaps better thought of as devotion.
The second sense is similar to the word pathos as it was used by the fathers of the Church, especially the Desert Fathers — those men and women who founded the first Christian monasteries in the deserts of Egypt. It is in this sense of domination of the soul by lusts and desires, rather than by Christ, that the fathers held up passionlessness (gr. apatheia) as an ideal. Again, we must carefully distinguish this original word from the modern English word “apathy,” which is quite different — more of a commitment to nothing than a decisive stand against domination of the soul by evil and lusts.
Both Scriptural and in continuity with the life of the Church, this vision for human life is not a bland, colorless, emotionless vacuum; it is the communion of the soul with the Lord Christ, and with him the dominion of all our life. By entering into communion with him, we gain the power and the authority to exercise his dominion and lordship over lust and evil. “As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance. But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: ‘Be holy, because I am holy.’” (1Pt 1.14-16) “‘I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful.’” (Jn 15.1,2, cf. whole chapter) This is passionlessness as we find it in the writings and sayings of the fathers.
The goal of this is to be so united to Christ by communion with him in the Holy Spirit that the dread judgment reveals nothing to us that he has not already revealed. We have already cried tears of compunction over our sins; we have turned away from them (gr. metanoia: repentance, conversion, lit. change of mind); we have embraced our Lord, lover, king, and comrade; we have allowed his uncreated light to reveal and purify our sinfulness. In short, we have become filled with the fire of his love.
At that last day, either we shall find that he will welcome us into his embrace, and having already been filled with his fire, we are blessed, or we shall find that he will welcome us into his embrace, and having not known him in truth in this life, we will be submerged in his love as in an everlasting lake of fire, as the Scriptures say.
Is this seat of judgment terrible, fearful, awful and dread? Indeed. I am a sinner and the chief of sinners. And yet, do Christians have anything to fear from the love of God? Only if they refuse to let his love fill every part of their being.