To Judge or Not to Judge
Written by Vladimir Moss
TO JUDGE OR NOT TO JUDGE
If the righteous scarcely be saved, where shall the ungodly and the sinner appear?
I Peter 4.18.
“Judge not, that ye be not judged” (Matthew 7.1) – we all know this very important commandment of the Lord. We know what it means: to express condemnation of a person with hatred or derision. And we know, if we are honest with ourselves, that we very often sin against it… However, the word “judge” has many meanings in the English language; and there is a tendency to use the commandment not to judge in this sense as an excuse for inaction, as a stick with which to suppress dissident opinions, and even, sometimes, as an argument in favour of ecumenism. Let us look at these different meanings.
First, it is important not to confuse judging in the sense of passionate condemnation with rebuking or reproving. Blessed Theophylact writes: “He forbids condemning others, but not reproving others. A reproof is for another’s benefit, but condemnation expresses only derision and scorn. You may also understand that the Lord is speaking of one who, despite his own great sins, condemns others who have lesser sins of which God will be the judge.”
To reprove with meekness, and without passionate condemnation or hypocrisy, is a very difficult art. But a vital one. The clergy especially have to rebuke. As the Apostle Paul says to Timothy: “Them that sin rebuke before all, that others also may fear” (I Timothy 5.20), “in meekness instructing those that oppose themselves” (II Timothy 2.25). But ordinary Christians, too, must sometimes employ rebukes. Parents must reprove their children, spiritual fathers have to reprove their children, brothers in the Church must reprove each other when they see each other going wrong. “Brethren, if a man be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual restore such an one in the spirit of meekness” (Galatians 6.1). If we did not exhort and reprove each other as the Gospel commands (I Thessalonians 4.18; Hebrews 12.5; Ephesians 5.11), our communities would very soon lose grace. Well-directed reproof is the wine that the Good Samaritan poured into the wounds of the man attacked by robbers, the salt that keeps the body of the Church from corrupting.
We may refrain from reproving others for good or bad reasons. Good reasons include: fear of hypocrisy out of a consciousness of one’s own great sinfulness; fear of mistakes out of insufficient knowledge of the person; and fear of one’s own fallen nature, which is constantly ready to add the sinful element of derision or scorn to the sinless element of reproof. But there are bad reasons, too: fear of losing the other person’s favour – in other words, man-pleasing or social cowardice; and simple indifference to the other person’s salvation – in other words, lack of love. Man-pleasing is a particularly widespread and dangerous vice in our times, as has been recently pointed out by his Grace, Bishop Photius of
Secondly, we must not confuse judging in the sense of condemnation with discernment of the truth about a person or situation. The Apostle Paul uses the word “judge” in the sense of “discern” when he says: “He that is spiritual judgeth all things, yet he himself is judged of no man” (I Corinthians 2.15). Discernment, the gift of seeing the difference between good and evil in men and situations, is another vital gift, without which salvation is impossible.
Now discernment is acquired, above all, by examination of oneself and one’s own sins rather than those of others. And preoccupation with the sins of others may lead to pharisaism, blindness to one’s own sins and therefore to the opposite of true discernment. Nevertheless, fear of pharisaism should never be used as an excuse to refuse to see the evil that is in front of one’s eyes and that necessitates action from us.
Thirdly, “judging” as sinful condemnation must be distinguished from “judging” as “executing justice” or “following the judgement of a properly qualified judge”, whether ecclesiastical or secular. This confusion is often made by ecumenists, who accuse the Orthodox of “judging” when we are simply following the judgements of the Lord and His Holy Church. We are supposedly not allowed to “judge” heretics and apostates when it is not a question of personal, sinful condemnation, but of loyalty and obedience to the decrees of the One, Holy, Catholic and
Particular attention should be made to the “refusal to judge” argument in the context of ecumenism.
Now ecumenism can be described as the refusal to accept the judgement of the One, Holy, Catholic and
So the question arises: What do we know for certain? Can we make judgements about the salvation or damnation of those outside the Church? And if so in what sense of the word “judge”?
Before proceeding further, it is necessary to deal with the objection that we should not even be discussing this question, because, as the Fathers say, we must concentrate on our own sins rather than the sins of others.
In the context of personal asceticism, this is perfectly true. In that context, to wonder whether our neighbour will be saved or not is at best a distraction, at worst a serious temptation. However, the context of this discussion in not personal, but dogmatic. As is well-known, the ecumenists often assert that it would be unjust of God and contrary to His merciful loving-kindness to condemn those outside the Church. And from this they deduce the idea that there is salvation outside the Church and even, in more contemporary forms of the heresy, that everybody will be saved. This false idea must be refuted for the sake of the defence of Orthodoxy. And so it is legitimate to discuss the question of the salvation of those outside the Church in this context.
Now two different meanings of the words “salvation” and “hell” in English need to be distinguished. Sometimes we mean by “salvation” the deliverance of the soul from hell – that is, hades - immediately after death, at the “particular judgement” of the individual soul. At other times, however, we mean “final” salvation, that is, salvation from gehenna - at the Last Judgement of all souls. Now it is obvious that a person who is delivered to hades after his death is in very great danger of being cast into gehenna at the Last Judgement. Nevertheless, there is a difference between being in hades and being in gehenna. Thus we know from Holy Tradition and the Lives of the Saints that some people in hades have been saved through the prayers of the Church; but we also know that nobody who is cast into gehenna will ever escape from it. Cases of deliverance from hades are doubtless rare; and in themselves they are not enough to create a dogma of the faith. Nevertheless, they indicate the possibility, if nothing more, that a person who is in hades will not be cast into gehenna at the Last Judgement and the General Resurrection.
In this sense we can agree with the “moderate traditionalists” – and indeed, with all the Holy Fathers of the Church – that we do not know who will be saved. We know neither whether we who are in the Church will be saved, nor even whether those who die outside the Church will be saved at the Last Judgement. For it is possible even for one who is in hades to be saved from it and therefore also from the eternal fire.
Therefore: 1. We cannot say with certainty that all those who die outside the True Faith and the
We shall call this, not a dogma of faith, for faith apprehends only certainties (Hebrews 11.1), but a postulate of hope. And therefore the salvation of those outside the Church is a permissible object of love – that love which “hopeth all things” (I Corinthians 13.7)
However, this is not the end of the story. Some things about salvation we do know for certain, including the following: 2. We can say with certainty that all those who die outside the True Faith and the
The proof of this second statement is found in the completely categorical words of the Lord Himself: “Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Unless a man is born again of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter into the
Another absolutely necessary condition of entrance into the
This point is proved by two canons. The first is the 46th of the Holy Apostles: “We order that a bishop or presbyter that recognized the baptism or sacrifice of heretics be defrocked. For ‘what accord has Christ with Belial? Or what has a believer in common with an unbeliever?’” The second is the 1st of the Council of Carthage (of St. Cyprian): “We declare that no one can possibly be baptized outside the Catholic (i.e. the Orthodox) Church, there being but one baptism, and this existing only in the Catholic Church.”
To these scriptural and canonical witnesses we may add the witness of Holy Tradition, in the form of the experience of Blessed Theodora, who, after passing through the toll-houses and being returned to her body, was told by the angels: "Those who believe in the Holy Trinity and take as frequently as possible the Holy Communion of the Holy Mysteries of Christ, our Saviour's body and Blood - such people can rise to heaven directly, with no hindrances, and the holy angels defend them, and the holy saints of God pray for their salvation, since they have lived righteously. No one, however, takes care of wicked and depraved heretics, who do nothing useful during their lives, and live in disbelief and heresy. The angels can say nothing in their defence... [Only those] enlightened by the faith and holy baptism can rise and be tested in the stations of torment [that is, the toll-houses]. The unbelievers do not come here. Their souls belong to hell even before they part from their bodies. When they die, the devils take their souls with no need to test them. Such souls are their proper prey, and they take them down to the abyss."
Someone may argue: “Even if an unbaptized person cannot enter the Kingdom of heaven, that does not mean that he is in hell.” To this we reply: “There are only two places a soul can go to after death: heaven or hell (hades). So if he is not in heaven, he must be in hell. There is no third possibility, since the Orthodox do not believe like the Latins in purgatory or any such place.”
It will be useful to test these conclusions by reference to an article by Archimandrite (Metropolitan) Philaret of blessed memory entitled “Will the Heterodox be Saved?”There is nothing in this article that contradicts the two propositions asserted above. However, the metropolitan introduces some valuable nuances into the argument, as follows:
1. The metropolitan writes: “What should one say of those outside the Church, who do not belong to her? Another apostle provides us with an idea: ‘For what have I to do to judge them that are without? Do ye not judge them that are without? Do not ye judge them that are within? But then that are without God judgeth’ (I Corinthians 5.12-13). God ‘will have mercy on whom He will have mercy’ (Romans 9.18). It is necessary to mention only one thing: that to ‘lead a perfectly righteous life,’ as the questioner expressed it, means to live according to the commandments of the Beatitudes – which is beyond the power of one, outside the Orthodox Church, without the help of grace which is concealed within it.”
It is not quite clear what the metropolitan is saying precisely here. One possible interpretation is: rather than say that the heterodox will not be saved, which is beyond our knowledge, for “those who are outside [the Church] God will judge”, it is better to say essentially the same thing in a more positive, less “judgemental” way: that the grace which enables us to fulfil the commandments of God is given to people only in the Orthodox Church.
Whether or not this is a correct interpretation of the metropolitan’s words, it will be useful to examine more closely what the passage from I Corinthians 5 that he quotes really means by looking at it in its wider context.
“It is reported continuously,” writes the apostle, “that there is fornication among you, and such fornication as is not so much as named among the Gentiles, that one should have his father’s wife. And ye are puffed up, and have not rather mourned, that he that hath done this deed might be taken away from among you…” (5. 1-2).
We can draw two immediate conclusions: (1) this was not a matter of faith, but of morality, and (2) the Corinthians were “looking through their fingers”, as the Russian expression goes, at the fornication of their brother; they neither rebuked him nor excommunicated him, as the canons required. The apostle, far from praising them for their “refusal to judge”, reproved them for being “puffed up” – that is, proud. This again shows that the “refusal to judge” may proceed, not from humility, but from its opposite…
“For I verily,” continues the apostle, “although absent in body, but present in spirit, have judged already, as though I were present, concerning him that hath so done this deed. In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when ye are gathered together, and my spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus Christ, to deliver such an one unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus. Your glorying is not good. Know ye not that a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump? Purge out therefore the old leaven, that ye may be a new lump, as ye are unleavened. For even Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us.” (5. 3-7).
We can now draw a third conclusion: (3) the context of this passage is not the rightness or wrongness of “judging” sinners in the sense of censuring or criticizing them, but rather the rightness or wrongness of “judging” them in the sense of bringing them to trial. In the case of a sinners within the Church, the apostle declares that it is necessary to excommunicate him and deliver him to bodily punishment at the hands of Satan for the sake of his salvation through Christ in the Day of Judgement. The setting is a parish or diocesan assembly at which the apostle is not present but at which he presides in spirit. The Corinthians are rebuked once again for pride, “glorying”, because they complacently considered that they could not be infected by the bad example of their sinning brother. But the leaven of sin infects the whole lump, the whole church community, if it is not cast out by the judgement of the community – that is, through the judgement of a properly convened ecclesiastical court. Christ our Passover was sacrificed for us in order to cast out sin from our souls and bodies, and do we then with such vainglorious complacency allow sin to come back into our lives?!
The importance of this passage is shown, as Archbishop Averky points out, by its being placed in the liturgy of Holy and Great Saturday. It teaches that we who are about to receive the Sacrifice of the Body and Blood of Christ for the remission of our sins must take special care to cleanse ourselves of all sin, not only personally, but in the community as a whole. It also shows the danger that comes if we do not judge the sinners within our own ranks – the word “judge” being used here in the triple sense of “discern” their sin, “reprove” their sin, and “pass judgement” formally on their sin.
However, continues the apostle, it is quite a different matter with people who sin against us from outside the Church. “For what have I to do with judging those who are outside? Do ye not judge those that are inside?” (5.12-13). Or, as Bishop Theophan puts it: “We ourselves judge our own sinners here, and through that, by disposing them to repentance, deliver them from the judgement of God. But the pagans do not have a mediating corrective court: what awaits them without mediation is the judgement of God.”
Nor, says the apostle, should we take such sinners to a civil court. For “does any of you dare, if he has something against another person, to go to law before the unjust, and not before the saints [the Christians]? Do ye not know that the saints shall judge the world? And if the world shall be judged by you, are ye unworthy to judge the smallest matters?” (6.1-2). Or, as Bishop Theophan puts it: “Having spoken about the inner Church court in spiritual matters, the apostle wishes that everyday matters also should be examined by the Christians themselves without taking them to pagan courts… If court justice is necessary, then they must seek it before righteous people – the holy Christians… The Christians are holy, and by their example of faith and love they will be the accusers of the impious world at the Judgement of Christ, so are they really unworthy now to examine their own affairs that are of little importance?” (p. 146)
We may conclude that this passage is not relevant to the question whether it is right or wrong to say that heretics go to hell. For the context is not sins against the faith, but moral sins, and the “judging” in question is not passionate condemnation, but the taking of a sinner to trial in an ecclesiastical or civil court. Moreover, the only kind of “judging” that the apostle is explicitly condemning is the taking of pagans to trial in a civil court.
2. The metropolitan continues: “In attempting to answer this question [can the heterodox be saved?], it is necessary, first of all, to recall that in His Gospel the Lord Jesus Christ Himself mentions but one state of the human soul which unfailingly leads to perdition – i.e. blasphemy against the Holy Spirit (Matthew 12.1-32). The same text makes it clear that even blasphemy against the Son of Man – i.e. the Lord Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son of God Himself may be forgiven men, as it may be uttered in error or in ignorance and, subsequently may be covered by conversion and repentance (an example of such a converted and repentant blasphemer is the Apostle Paul. (See Acts 26.11 and I Timothy 1.13.) If, however, a man opposes the Truth which he clearly apprehends by his reason and conscience, he becomes blind and commits spiritual suicide, for he thereby likens himself to the devil, who believes in God and dreads Him, yet hates, blasphemes and opposes Him.
“Thus, man’s refusal to accept the Divine Truth and his opposition thereto makes him a son of damnation. Accordingly, in sending His disciples to preach, the Lord told them: ‘He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved, but he that believeth not shall be damned’ (Mark 16.16), for the latter heard the Lord’s Truth and was called upon to accept it, yet refused, thereby inheriting the damnation of those who ‘believed not the truth, but had pleasure in unrighteousness’ (II Thessalonians 2.12).
“The Holy Orthodox Church is the repository of the divinely revealed Truth in all its fullness and fidelity to apostolic Tradition. Hence, he who leaves the Church, who intentionally and consciously falls away from it, joins the ranks of its opponents and becomes a renegade as regards apostolic Tradition. The Church dreadfully anathematized such renegades, in accordance with the words of the Saviour Himself (Matthew 18.17) and of the Apostle Paul (Galatians 1.8-9), threatening them with eternal damnation and calling them to return to the Orthodox fold. It is self-evident, however, that sincere Christians who are Roman Catholics, or Lutherans, or members of other non-Orthodox confessions, cannot be considered renegades or heretics – i.e. those who knowingly pervert the truth… They have been born and raised and are living according to the creed which they have inherited, just as do the majority of you who are Orthodox; in their lives there has not been a moment of personal and conscious renunciation of Orthodoxy. The Lord ‘Who will have all men to be saved’ (I Timothy 2.4), and ‘Who enlightens every man born into the world’ (John 1.43), undoubtedly is leading them also towards salvation in His own way.”
Confusion may be caused by the holy metropolitan’s unusual and somewhat paradoxical definition of the word “heretic”, which is much narrower than the usual definition. The usual definition is very simple: a heretic is a person who believes a heretical teaching, that is, a teaching contrary to the Orthodox Faith – regardless of whether he was brought up in the truth or not, or has consciously renounced Orthodoxy or not. “Sincere Christians who are Roman Catholics, or Lutherans, or members of other non-Orthodox confessions” are heretics, according to this definition. They are not as guilty as those who have known the truth but have personally and consciously renounced it, who are not only heretics but also apostates (renegades). But they are nevertheless in error, heterodox rather than Orthodox, and therefore cannot receive the sanctification that comes from the knowledge of the truth (John 17.18).
However, this difference in the definition of the word “heretic” does not affect the validity of the metropolitan’s main point, which may be formulated as follows:
3. We may be certain that at the Last Judgement the lot of those who have known the truth but have consciously rejected it will be worse than those who have remained in error out of ignorance.
This third major conclusion of ours in no way contradicts the first two. All heretics in the usual sense of the word will go to hell (hades) after death because they do not know the truth and have not received the baptism by water and the Spirit that alone, according to the Lord’s infallible word, delivers a soul from hades and brings it into the
Some may interpret the metropolitan’s words to mean that “sincere Christians who are Roman Catholics, or Lutherans, or members of other non-Orthodox confessions” can be saved in the sense that they can go to
Finally, it may be useful to say a few more words about the word “ignorance” in this context. Ignorance - real, involuntary ignorance - is certainly grounds for clemency according to God's justice, as it is according to man's. The Lord cried out on the Cross: "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do" (Luke 23.24); and one of those who were forgiven declared: "I obtained mercy because I acted in ignorance” (I Timothy 1.13; cf. Acts 3.17, 17.30). For our Great High Priest is truly One "Who can have compassion on the ignorant, and on them that are out of the way" (Hebrews 5.2).
However, there is also such a thing as wilful, voluntary ignorance. Thus
Wilful ignorance is very close to conscious resistance to the truth, which receives the greatest condemnation according to the Word of God. Thus those who accept the Antichrist will do so "because they received not the love of the truth, that they might be saved.” (II Thessalonians 2.10). Wilful ignorance is therefore the same as the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, which we have already discussed. Metropolitan Philaret’s definition of this sin is essentially the same as that of Metropolitan Anthony (Khrapovitsky), who in turn follows the definition of the Seventh Ecumenical Council: “Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, or 'sin unto death', according to the explanation of the Seventh Ecumenical Council (VIII, 75), is a conscious, hardened opposition to the truth, 'because the Spirit is truth' (I John 5.6).”Another similar, but somewhat broader definition is given by St. Ambrose of
Wilful ignorance can be of various degrees. There is the wilful ignorance that refuses to believe even when the truth is staring you in the face – this is the most serious kind, the kind practised by the Pharisees and the heresiarchs. But a man can also be said to be wilfully ignorant if he does not take the steps that are necessary in order to discover the truth – this is less serious, but still blameworthy, and is characteristic of many of those who followed the Pharisees and the heresiarchs. Thus we read: "That servant who knew his master's will, and prepared not himself, neither did according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes. But he that knew not, and did things worthy of stripes, shall be beaten with few stripes. For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall much be required; and he to whom men have committed much, of him they will ask the more" (Luke 12.47-48). To which the words of St. Theophylact of
Or, as St. Cyril of
The ecumenists often bring up the example of the Hindus and Buddhists and others who have lived their whole lives in non-Christian communities. Can they be said to be wilfully ignorant of the truth? Of course, only God knows the degree of ignorance in any particular case. However, even if the heathen have more excuse than the Christians who deny Christ, they cannot be said to be completely innocent; for no one is completely deprived of the knowledge of the One God. Thus
Many have abandoned the darkness of idolatry by following creation and conscience alone. Thus St. Barbara heeded the voice of creation, rejected her father's idols and believed in the One Creator of heaven and earth even before she had heard of Christ. And she heeded the voice of her conscience, which recoiled from those "most odious works of witchcrafts, and wicked sacrifices; and also those merciless murderers of children and devourers of man's flesh, and the feasts of blood, with their priests out of the midst of their idolatrous crew, and the parents, that killed with their own hands souls destitute of help" (Wisdom of Solomon 12.4-6). But her father, who had the same witnesses to the truth as she, rejected it – and killed her.
Thus there is a light that "enlightens every man who comes into the world" (John 1.9). And if there are some who reject that light, abusing that freewill which God will never deprive them of, this is not His fault, but theirs. As St. John Chrysostom says, "If there are some who choose to close the eyes of their mind and do not want to receive the rays of that light, their darkness comes not from the nature of the light, but from their own darkness in voluntarily depriving themselves of that gift."If the Light of Christ enlightens everyone, then there is no one who cannot come to the True Faith, however unpromising his situation. If a man follows the teachers that are given to everyone, creation and conscience, then the Providence of God, with Whom "all things are possible" (Matthew 19.26), will lead him to the teacher that is given at the beginning only to a few - "the Church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the Truth" (I Timothy 3.15). For "it is not possible," writes St. John Chrysostom, "that one who is living rightly and freed from the passions should ever be overlooked. But even if he happens to be in error, God will quickly draw him over to the truth."Again, St. John Cassian says: "When God sees in us some beginnings of good will, He at once enlightens it, urging it on towards salvation."
This leads us to draw the following further conclusions: 4. The
For the Orthodox do not believe in the Roman Catholic concept of “invincible ignorance”. No ignorance that is truly ignorance is invincible – that is, cannot be conquered by the Almighty Providence of God. The only ignorance that God cannot and will not conquer – because to do so would be to violate the free will of man – is the ignorance that is wilful and artificial, being created by man himself through his stubborn refusal to learn the truth.
November 1/14, 2007.
The Explanation of Blessed Theophylact of the Holy Gospel according to St. Matthew,
 “Prosopolatreia: I Nosos Tou Ierou Imon Agonos”, I Foni tis Orthodoxias, July-August, 2007, pp. 16-17 (in Greek).
Quoted by David Ritchie, "The 'Near-Death Experience'", Orthodox Life, vol. 45, no. 4, July-August, 1995, pp. 22-23.
 Metropolitan Philaret, “Will the Heterodox be Saved?”, Orthodox Life, vol. 34, no. 6, November-December, 1984, pp. 33-36.
 Bishop Theophan, Tolkovanie Poslanij Sv. Apostola Pavla,
Metropolitan Anthony, "The Church's Teaching about the Holy Spirit", Orthodox Life, vol. 27, no. 3, May-June, 1977, p. 23.
 St. Ambrose, On Repentance, II, 24. Cf. St. Augustine, Homily 21 on the New Testament, 28.
St. Theophylact, Explanation of the Gospel according to St. Luke 12.47-48.
St. Cyril, Homily 93 on Luke. Translated by Payne Smith, Studion Publishers, 1983, p. 376.
Bishop Nicholas, The Prologue from Ochrid,
St. Chrysostom, Homily 3 on Romans, 2.
St. Chrysostom, First Homily on Hannah, 3.
The Lives of the Women Martyrs,
St. Chrysostom, Homily 8 on John.
St. Chrysostom, Homily 24 on Matthew, 1.
St. Cassian, Conferences, XIII, 8.