by Matushka Valerie Zahirsky
The image of fire appears frequently in the Orthodox Church’s prayers and teachings concerning our eternal destiny as human beings. For example, on the Sunday of the Last Judgment (Meatfare Sunday) we sang in the kontakion, “When You, O God, shall come to earth with glory, all things shall tremble, and the river of fire shall flow before Your judgment seat.”
For some people, this image terrifyingly conjures up flaming torment in which sinners will be forced to exist forever. On the other hand, Ron Reagan, the adopted son of President Reagan, considers it something to scoff at. In a short TV ad promoting an atheist/agnostic organization, he identifies himself as “Ron Reagan, lifelong atheist, not afraid of burning in hell.”
With such divergent views in the world around us, it’s important to understand what the “river of fire” is in Orthodox teaching. In one well-known description, Alexandre Kalomiros writes that in the New Creation of the Resurrection, “Love will enrobe everything with its sacred Fire which will flow like a river from the throne of God and will irrigate paradise. But this same river of Love—for those who have hate in their hearts—will suffocate and burn.”
Who can determine what will be in our hearts when we meet the Lord in the final judgment? Only we ourselves. We all will encounter the same river, and for those who have nurtured love in their hearts it will be a refreshing stream that “irrigates paradise.” Only those who have allowed hate to overtake their hearts will “suffocate and burn” in that same river.
We can’t help but marvel at this difference. It surely is marvelous that the same “river of fire” flowing from God’s throne can be experienced as paradise by some and as suffocation and burning by others.
But the even greater wonder is the generosity of God. He has no desire to see us suffocate and burn in that river. He leaves it up to us to fashion our hearts, and to determine what our experience of the river will be. If we undertake the lifelong struggle to make ourselves worthy, we can enjoy the destiny described in the kontakion’s final line. We can, for all eternity, “stand at Your right hand, O Righteous Judge.”