Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net thrown into the sea,
which collects fish of every kind.
When it is full they haul it ashore
and sit down to put what is good into buckets.
What is bad they throw away.
Thus it will be at the end of the age.
The angels will go out and separate the wicked from the righteous
and throw them into the fiery furnace,
where there will be wailing and grinding of teeth.
Life as Jesus describes it in Matthew is full of risks, the choice being what is now called binary, either /or. There is the broad way that leads to destruction or the narrow way that leads to life (Matthew 7:13–14). One of the famous literary forms in the early church was the two-ways paradigm represented in popular Christian literature by the Didache and in Scripture by Mathew 24 and 25, in which at the end of the age those who have cared for the poor sit down with Abraham at the eternal banquet and those who have not are cast into outer darkness. In the end the weeds found in God’s garden will be cast into eternal fire while the wheat will be gathered into God’s barn (Matthew 13:36–41). And in Matthew above the good fish will be saved but the bad thrown away, cast into eternal fire. So Sacred Scripture says.
Man is born in the endangered condition called freedom, a freedom God’s providential love does not obviate nor the present mystery of His grace in human actions destroy. The price of freedom has been high; it was the presupposition of the rebellion in the Garden, but the result of freedom endowed with grace is the glory of God. Sacred Scripture spends many words explaining what the relation between the omnipotent, omniscient Creator and His creatures is. We know from Genesis that when they are dust He causes them to exist by breathing life into them. We know that He assigns them duties, to till the Garden and to multiply. We know that He has given them the capacity to obey because He commands their obedience, and we know further that they chose disobedience, believed the serpent, and willed to know not the good God wills, but to know good and evil for themselves. God punishes and the penalty is death, but from the beginning we know that His original, primal will for life will somehow be realized. After punishment there is mercy and love. There is redemption from slavery in Egypt. There is also redemption from slavery to sin under the law. There is the promise of a new heart and a new creation not marred by sin. There is the gift of Himself by His coming in the person of His Son, who is not only a messenger or a manifestation but is of one substance with His father, who will die and rise again, bringing the new hope of life. But there is this as well. Just as obedience to His will was the price of life in the Garden, now obedience to His will is still the price of life, but with this difference: in achieving this obedience He does not stand over against us but He is with us and in us and we in Him. “In His will is our peace,” says Dante.
How then can it be possible that His creatures could fail? How could it be that at the end of the age, within the net that is His church, at the end there could be fish not only thrown out of the net but thrown into the fiery furnace by God’s angels? This will be because it is God’s eternal justice that He be obeyed from the heart, in the submission of souls to His divine, providential will. In the end every creature will obey the divine will, either from love or as a sign of His justice. Everyman will, as C. S. Lewis wrote, finally say to God either “Thy will be done,” or “My will be done.” Binary indeed. And this not as a tyrant but as a loving Lord who has made us in His own image and labored in an evil-infested world in every instant of every life to bring as many as may be to Himself, not as unfree captives but as free-formed sons.
Every person born into the world appears as the protagonist of a drama that he or she did not write and in which he has not chosen to participate but participation in which is the greatest gift, the difference between that player’s being and not being, between existence and non-existence, the gift of life. This is the first sign that each person walking onto the stage of life is a creature; the gift is not ours absolutely, but as custodians of the generosity of the Great Giver. In Mid-summers Night Dream or even Our Town the players must choose to say the lines and make the movements they have been given if the production is to come off well. But they are free. They are free to neglect their duty to study their part. They are free to know better than the playwright and the director. And we have all seen plays in which the actors did not choose to play their part.
God has not only created the players; He has created a script for every life. There are not only general instructions on how to be a good actor, but a particular part. And the drama of life has this further dimension, that at every moment in the drama the divine playwright wills to know the actors, so that at the end of act five, when the cast appears for their curtain call, the audience will not be those onlookers who came to watch but the maker of the play, who wills every soul He has created and given a part in the story finally to know Him. And failure to do so has a cost, for the maker of the play, while He has had a redemptive part in it and has walked the boards Himself, is not only one of us but is our creator who requires that we play our part well if we are to appear on stage as the curtain goes up for the last time.
Freedom is the glorious presupposition of the greatest gift, of the ability of every person by grace to offer to God his obedience, not as do the stars and the animals but of our freedom to long to do the will of Him whose service is perfect freedom, so that having loved Him this life, we will be with Him forever. And at last, after the long story of centuries and ages, God will have achieved what He commanded in the Garden, the obedience of love.