When a Devout Christian Attends a Rave and Takes MDMA

Flying From The Divine

1c70b053e5235ed30d1d567103b62807[1].jpgWe found ourselves among the magenta lights,
Swimming in the ocean of fireflies,
Dancing in the galaxy of vibrating embers.

A certain kind of bliss.
But not the blessed happiness.

I saw you sitting before me, sipping an ice cold rivet, slightly nodding your head as the band before us exploded with sound.
You were absolutely gorgeous.
I couldn’t avert my eyes for more than a few seconds before I was drawn back again to gaze upon your beautiful face and figure.
My masculine hesitation prevented me from saying anything, or perhaps it was simply the catastrophic chaos of the mosh and the violence and volume of the drums.
I suppressed my subtle longing to reach out and connect.

And then the gig was over.

I turned and talked with my new friend and flatmate, another lovely lady joining us in the conversation.
Eventually they ran off, and I was alone.

And then you returned, met me in the doorway, and said hello.
What on earth is happening?
The most beautiful girl at the party, confidently walking up and introducing herself to me?

My head was reeling, as the empathic amphetamines were beginning to overwhelm me.
It was easy to talk, and yet hard to converse.
I felt elevated, and yet unable to follow a train of thought to conclusion.
Nevertheless, we laughed, and we spoke, and we connected.

Danielle was your name, and Alex mine;
You study psychology, I study scripture;
You work on the street, I spin code on a screen;
You are drinking beer, I am drinking water;
Your heritage is chinese malaysian, mine is the british isles;
And both of us are true blue Aussies.

You ask why I’m drinking water.
I respond that I’m being very cautious tonight.
You immediately know what’s going on: you fully understand the nuances of the scene: Magnesium, Vitamin C, Alpha Lipoic Acid, 5-HTP.
I laugh and shake my head: “She knows!”

So I am here to find God in myself and God in the other, and experience the joy and bliss of connection.
Why are you here?

“This is my fourth beer in half an hour”
Laughing, I reel back in surprise.
“And I’ve dropped a cap too”
Smiling, I shake my head in shock.
What on earth are you running from?

But I don’t have the chance to ask, for the party whisks you away to the next conversation.

The night goes on and the love flows round.
People are dancing, people are stumbling,
people are pinging, people are munting.
Everyone is laughing, everyone is having fun.
The beat never changes for the entire night, but the crowd remains content.
And the whole time, I wonder, what are you running from?

I meet many people, all of them lost souls, finding consolation in the ephemerality of life.
Some lay beneath the blossom tree, gazing up at the flowers. Watching them float away and die.
Some take refuge in the absurdity of nihilism, and angrily proclaim the pointlessness of life.
No one here experiences salvation.
No one here understands the gospel.
No one here understands the power of Christ.
How sad.
How bittersweet.

Where are the elect in this place?
Where are the ones who walk in the light?
Perhaps this is my mission field.

A night concluded in the blink of an eye.
I’m back home, lying in bed.
Thinking back to the people and the party,
And especially you, that most gorgeous girl.

What were you running from?
I may never know.
But then again, I plan to return once more.
I plan to carry the light of Christ into that dark place;
To shine and illuminate;
To preach and proclaim;
To save this abandoned nihilistic hedonistic mass.

I don’t know what you were running from, but I know what you are searching for:
You are searching for the love that never dies;
The bliss that always endures;
The divinity that satisfies all longing;
The salvific rest of the Savior;
The warm embrace of Christ.

You don’t believe it’s possible, but I know it’s true, and I will embrace this descent into Hell to convince you of it.
I will not abandon you to the illusionary pleasures, but introduce you to the source of all life and love.

What were you running from?
I don’t know, but whatever it was, I want you to know: there IS meaning in life.
Take my hand and i will show you;
Follow me and I will give you rest.

God beckons, and he is waiting to wrap you up in an eternal embrace of ecstatic bliss, so let us ascend to heaven and enjoy the divine feast that has been prepared for us.
There is a seat at the table of the lord with your name on it, and I will not rest until you have taken your place at the supper of the lamb.

Whatever you may be running from, run to God,
And you will experience the ecstasy beyond ecstasy,
The life beyond life,
And the love beyond all love.

Run to God, and you will become one with the infinite beauty;
United to the hidden aesthetic truth,
Forever soaring beyond the sun and the myriad stars.

Alex Roberts, 2018

Pure Theology – The Doctrine of God as Trinity in Unity: “On the Interchangeability Between Different Models of the Trinitarian formula”

b57780a431bd921dc7b5f12113c4b482[1].jpgThe Trinity is a fascinating doctrine. It is important to always keep divine simplicity squarely in view when pondering the Trinity, in order to avoid slipping into idolatry.

I recently realised that the classic “Father, Son, Spirit” presentation of the Trinity is not the only possible way to speak of this divine mystery. In fact, this divine drama of the three and the one impresses itself upon our intellects in a wide variety of modes. In this post I will attempt to list as many of them as I can think of.

  1. The Scriptural presentation: The Father, the Son and the Spirit.
  2. The Relational model: The Lover, the Loved, and the Love.
  3. The Creational model: The uncreated creator, the one who is begotten, and the act of begetting/creating itself.
  4. The Salvific understanding: The saviour, the one who is saved, and the act of salvation itself.
  5. The Incarnational approach: The hidden and transcendent incarnator, the manifest and immanent incarnation, and the act by which this incarnation comes about.
  6. The Eternal Progressions view: the Static, simple immutable past; the dynamic, mutable future; and the lively freedom of the present moment.
  7. The Abstract/Concrete dichotomy: Being itself; an actual, specific being; and the divine movement by which Being itself gives rise to individual being.
  8. The Essence-Energies distinction: The concealed Essence, the revealed Energies, and the act of emanation by which Essence gives rise to Energy.
  9. The Eastern Wisdom formulation: Infinite Consciousness, Infinite Being, and the Infinite Bliss that is the act of Infinite Consciousness beholding Infinite Being.
  10. The Divine Vocalisation approach: The one who speaks, the eternal word who is spoken, and the act of speaking.

The fascinating thing about all of these is that due to divine simplicity the terms of the formulas are interchangeable: The Father is the lover is the saviour is the hidden incarnator is Being itself is Infinite Consciousness is the concealed Essence is the one who speaks. etc

In fact, you need only take the following generic Trinitarian dogmatic formula, and substitute in the words provided in the above list and in every case you will arrive at a statement of profound, deep truth about God.

  1. Hypostasis 1 is God.
  2. Hypostasis 2 is God.
  3. Hypostasis 3 is God.
  4. Hypostasis 1 is not Hypostasis 2.
  5. Hypostasis 2 is not Hypostasis 3.
  6. Hypostasis 3 is not Hypostasis 1.
  7. There is only one God.

To take but a single example:

  1. Consciousness is God.
  2. Being is God.
  3. Bliss is God.
  4. Consciousness is not Being.
  5. Being is not Bliss.
  6. Bliss is not Consciousness.
  7. There is only one God.

The father is infinite consciousness, the son is infinite being, the spirit is the infinite bliss of the infinite consciousness as it contemplates the infinite being.

I do not claim to have exhaustively enumerated all the different ways of conceiving of the Trinitarian dogma, and it is fascinating to attempt to take in all of these conceptions all at once. I find that I arrive at a place where words simply fail me and all I can do is worship in profound silence. The Trinity is a perfect object of meditation in which there bubbles up a fountain of ineffable Truth.

To pick another of the conceptions arbitrarily and elaborate upon it: The father is the hidden, simple, transcendent essence of divinity, while the son is the manifest, manifold, immanent energies, and the spirit is the act of the energies emanating from the essence. We participate in the energies (that is to say, Christ), and by participating in the energies we truly participate in the fullness of Divinity. The essence-energies distinction is therefore simply another way of framing the Trinitarian relationship of plurality in unity within God. Due to divine simplicity, the emanation is God, the energy is God, and the essence is God. We participate in the emanation and the essence, but only through participating in the energy.

10134_2[1].jpgTo take another example: The father is the static, immutable, eternal past, the son is the dynamic, lively, unknown, temporal future with all of its possibilities, the spirit is the free movement of creating and giving birth of past to future, that is to say, the present. In the present moment we behold the Trinitarian relationship directly: by reflecting on our freedom and the creation that surrounds us, we are witnessing the hidden, immutable father freely creating the lively and dynamic son in whom we live and move and have our being, and this living and moving and having our being just is the Spirit. In this way the present moment represents a window into the dramatic, divine life of God: Just as it is only through Christ that we come to know the father, so too it is only through the present that we are able to know the past and anticipate the future.

Pure Theology – The Doctrine of God as Trinity in Unity: Simplicity and Trinitarianism

1b06a2abe5efbf6f82da06140e8f59c2[1].jpgIn the previous post, we saw how pure reason, unaided by revelation, is able to arrive at an understanding of God which approximates the classical Christian presentation of the Trinity. In that article I used the words “Father”, “Son” and “Spirit” to refer to the three hypostases out of habit, however this was something of a premature move, and perhaps I should have referred to the hypostases simply as “Loved”, “Lover” and “Love”, or “God A”, “God B” and “God C”, or even “God One”, “God Prime” and “God A”. The classically Trinitarian “Father”, “Son” and “Spirit” terminology is incredibly loaded. In the previous article I simply wanted to demonstrate that within the ocean of being, consciousness and bliss that is God, there is both Unity and Plurality, Infinity and Simplicity, and that this coalesces into a divine relationship of love between distinct individuals.

However now I propose to turn to the actual, revealed Christian Trinitarian doctrine, and see what we can make of it in light of divine simplicity and the other concerns of classical theism.

Speculations on Loving, Creating and Begetting

slide-12-creator-god[1].jpgTraditional Trinitarian doctrine states that the Father is eternally unbegotten, and that he eternally begets the Son, who is in turn spoken of as being eternally begotten. Let us immediately invoke the principle of Divine simplicity: The Son is fully God, and the Father is fully God, and therefore anything that can be predicated of the Father or the Son can also be predicated of depersonalised divinity (that is to say, “God”). Notice that we immediately end up with a baffling paradox: God is simultaneously eternally unbegotten, eternally begotten, and the eternal act of begetting. Any devout Muslims reading this are probably having a seizure.

Surah Al-Ikhlas 112

قُلْ هُوَ اللَّهُ أَحَدٌ اللَّهُ الصَّمَدُ لَمْ يَلِدْ وَلَمْ يُولَدْ وَلَمْ يَكُنْ لَهُ كُفُوًا أَحَدٌ

Say, “He is Allah, who is One, Allah, the Eternal Refuge. He neither begets nor is begotten, Nor is there to Him any equal.”

Now, traditionally Christian theology has said that God is free to create or not to create, and this would not compromise his nature as creator. However, God needs to create something in order to be a creator; so if not the cosmos, then what? If God could have not created creation and yet remained the creator, he must have created something within himself, so what is it that he is eternally creating?

Substitute the word “beget” and its relevant conjugations for the word “create”, and we come up with an answer: Divinity creates itself, as God begets God. God is himself the principle of his own existence. God is simultaneously created and uncreated, begotten and unbegotten. His essence is his existence; he both eternally creates himself and is eternally uncreated. God is an ocean of paradox.

In order to make sense of this paradox, the doctrine of infinite plurality in unity comes into play: there are separate and distinct individuals in God, all playing their individual roles. The Father is the source and principle of the Godhead, the eternally uncreated and unbegotten. But the Son is the Fathers knowledge of himself, eternally created and begotten as another distinct divine hypostasis. The Spirit is the relationship between the Father and the Son, and of course, the relationship in question is one of infinite love; the father eternally loving the son into existence.

But here’s the crucial point. As mentioned towards the end of the previous post, the exact actors in the divine equation do not matter – they are interchangeable. God is the lover, the loved and the love itself. All of the hypostases are purely actual and divinely simple and therefore any of the hypostases can stand in for any of the other hypostases in this equation. The crucial thing to realise, is that within the equation itself, there are distinct roles. To make the point clear, let me restate the Trinitarian dogma in more abstract terms:

1. The Lover is God.
2. The Loved is God.
3. The Love is God.
4. The Lover is not the Loved.
5. The Loved is not the Love.
6. The Love is not the Lover.
7. There is only one God.

passionate-kiss-red-tan-peach-love-abstract-by-chakramoon-belinda-capol[1].jpgTo talk in Anthropomorphic terms, any of the infinite persons of God could occupy the role “Lover” at one moment, “Loved” at the next, and “Love” at the moment after that. You can imagine these three roles as “boxes”, and the infinite persons of God as ghostly apparitions which float in and out of these boxes, and migrate between them at will.

However, regardless of “which divine person” is currently occupying the different boxes, the fact remains that the boxes themselves are rigidly defined in relationship to one another: namely, the first box is the eternally uncreated source of the love, the second box is the object of this eternally uncreated love, eternally loved into creation by the first box, and the third box represents the eternal act of love itself. So while divine personhood itself is fluid, and can flow back and forth between the different boxes, the boxes themselves are rigidly defined in a very specific relationship to one another.

Now, all we need to do is tweak the terminology we are using, and the doctrine of the Trinity immediately falls out: The three boxes are the three “hypostases” of God. The first box we call the Father, the second box we call the Son, and the third box we call the Spirit. Suddenly the Trinitarian dogma makes so much sense: The Father hypostasis is not, and simply could not be, the Son hypostasis. And yet by divine simplicity the infinite God who “currently occupies” the Father hypostasis is very the same infinite God that “currently occupies” the Son hypostasis (using language loosely in the mode of condescension to make a point)

Divine simplicity also sheds light on the internal relationships of the Trinity in another way in that in God, to create is to love and to love is to create. So saying that the Father loves the Son, is to say that the Father “creates” the Son, and the Holy Spirit just is that act of creating. And so God is from eternity simultaneously created, uncreated and the free act of creating itself. I suspect that the church fathers adopted the language of “begetting” in order to distinguish this “eternal creation” relationship from the relationship of creation that exists between God and the contingently created cosmos which we occupy.

An East/West Controversy

hqdefault[1].jpgNow we can turn to that most controversial of words: the filioque. The Father begets the Son, and the Spirit proceeds…. from who? The Father alone? Or both the Father and the Son?

Well, the uncreated ground and source of the love between the father and the son is the father, so in that sense, the Spirit proceeds from the father alone. However, the actual act of love between father and son is given and received and reciprocated in both directions: The son loves the father just as the father loves the son. This is a throwback to the idea mentioned earlier that it does not matter which exact divine person sits in which “relationship box”. At the end of the day, God loves God and God is the love. So the Divine person occupying the father box loves the Divine person occupying the son box., and these two divine persons could swap positions and this formula of love would remain true. In other words, the son could take the position of the father and the father could take the position of the son, and the relationship would hold true. If this interchangeability were not possible, it would represent a violation of divine simplicity, because the three hypostases would become three segregated, separate and distinguishable parts of a single divinity. So so long as we are unhooking the infinite divine personhood of God from the individual Trinitarian hypostases, we are free to say that the Spirit proceeds not only from the Father and the Son, but also from the Spirit itself! Because really what we are saying is that God begets God and God proceeds from God.

Of course, if we were being pedantic by abstracting away the infinite divine fluidity of personhood and instead focusing on the concrete relationships between the concrete hypostases, then of course the spirit proceeds from the father alone, because it makes perfect sense to say that the uncreated (Subject: Father) creates (Verb: Spirit) the created (Object: Son), but it makes absolutely no sense to reverse the terms of the sentence and say that the created (Son) creates (Spirit) the uncreated (Father). This is absurd, illogical and incoherent. The Father hypostasis is the ground and source of divine being and the other hypostases, and therefore the Spirit proceeds from him alone.

So the west is correct to note the fluidity of personhood that results from divine simplicity, infinity and plurality: God loves God and God is the love. However the east is correct to insist upon the precise definition of the relationship between the hypostases: The lover is not the loved, the loved is not the love, and the love is not the lover.

To Create is to Love and to Love is to Save

Jesus+-+Touch+me+and+see[1].jpgGod is not merely a creator and a lover, he is also a saviour. But how could God be a saviour if there were nothing to save?

I’m now about to tread onto extremely speculative ground. So far we have seen two ways in which God manifests as a “Subject Verb Object” Trinity: 1. The Father loves the Son. 2. The Father creates the Son. Due to the doctrine of Simplicity, these two formulations, and the terms of these formulations are all entirely interchangeable. I propose to introduce one further Trinitarian formulation: From all eternity, the Father is the saviour of the Son.

The doctrine of the incarnation comes into play at this point. From all eternity, the son assumed fallen human nature, and took onto himself all of our sins and bore the consequences of those sins, namely – damnation, rejection, Hell, non-existence, death. The son willingly embraced this state of damnation on our behalf. But, someone who is in such a state of damnation requires a saviour; someone to deliver them from the darkness. This saviour is the father. So from eternity by his incarnation the son embraces death and non-existence and plunges into it, and from eternity the father rescues him from the Tartaran depths, resurrects him and raises him up to new life and eternal glory.

And so the divine paradoxes continue to proliferate: God is both living and dead, both unity and plurality, both simplicity and complexity, both existing and non-existing, both being and non-being, both light and darkness, both created and uncreated. God takes everything that is opposed to him up into himself and in doing so defeats it and glorifies it.

Incarnation as Trinitarian Identity

Incarnation[1].jpgThe incarnation itself can be expressed as a Trinitarian relationship: The Father (Subject) eternally incarnates (Verb) the Son (Object). The Father is inaccessible, eternally hidden, entirely transcendent, out of reach of our intellect. The Son is accessible, perfectly revealed, completely immanent, and able to relate to us as an equal. The Spirit is the act of the taking on of flesh. All three terms of the equation are equally Divine.

And due to divine simplicity, this Trinitarian relationship is equal to the others. In some analogical way, to create is to love and to love is to create, to love is to save and to save is to love, to save is to incarnate and to incarnate is to save etc etc etc.

And this is where theology becomes Gospel. Because of the doctrine of incarnation, creation has been united to divinity. And so God loves Adam just as much as he loves Jesus, because Adam has been absorbed into the infinite ocean of living love that is God. All creation lives and moves and has its being in Christ, the incarnation of God. The infinite act of creation that flows from Father to Son, now also flows to us. The infinite act of love that flows from the Father to the Son, now also flows to us. The infinite act of Salvation that flows from the Father to the Son, now also flows to us. And the infinite act of incarnating glorification that flows from Father to the Son, now also flows to us. God creates us, loves us, saves us and deifies us, because he has drawn all of us up into his inner divine life where this beautiful theodrama eternally plays out.

Final Implications of Trinitarian Theology

I return now to the question which launched this series: Did God need to create the cosmos? Could the cosmos not have been?

As we have seen in this post, God could have not created us, and yet still remained a creator. God could have not loved us, and yet still remained a lover, God could have not saved us, and yet still remained a saviour. So not only are God’s acts of Creation, Love and Salvation completely and entirely free, gratuitous and uncoerced, but it is within the realm of reasonable possibility that God may have chosen to do otherwise without compromising his nature. But, could God have chosen not to become incarnate?

Incarnation is the bridge where necessity and contingency meet and it is the road where Divinity and Creation collide. Is it necessary that the Father eternally love the Son into being? No, the Father’s act of love towards the Son is completely uncoerced, unforced, free, gratuitous. However if it were not the case that the Father loved the son, then God would not be God. The incarnation brings all of creation into this equation. Is it necessary that God eternally loves creation into existence? No, God’s act of love towards creation is completely uncoerced, unforced, free, gratuitous. However because of the incarnation, if it were not the case that the Father loved creation, then God would not be God.

BeholdTheThrone[1].jpgThis same trick can be repeated for the other Trinitarian relations: Creation, Love, Salvation. The incarnation assumes us up into the divine life of the Trinity, a life where there is no necessity and no compulsion, only freedom. And yet it is also a life of perfect Creation, Love, and Salvation, gracefully bestowed as freely offered, freely accepted gifts between one person and another. By the incarnation, we are taken up to experience the uncoerced necessity of God’s free choice to save us. God chooses to save us, and it no longer makes any sense to speak of him as doing otherwise, because we have been assumed into the divine life itself, where the boundary between freedom and necessity has melted away and God can do nothing but love us with all of the infinite freedom that this love implies.

But, all of this is predicated on the necessity of the incarnation. And so the question becomes pressing, could God have chosen not to incarnate?

Let’s once more invoke divine simplicity: If the Father freely and gratuitously loves the Son, and yet it does not make any reasonable sense to imagine the Father not freely and gratuitously loving the Son, then we must imagine the incarnation in the same way. The Father freely and gratuitously incarnates the Son, and it does not make any reasonable sense to imagine things happening any other way.

In this way, the conclusion of the first post hasn’t changed: God does not create out of some sort of necessity or out of obedience to some higher principle, but if he didn’t create, he would not be God, and it is therefore nonsensical to imagine that the cosmos might not have been. However the crucial point here is the incarnation: if not for the fact that divinity eternally united itself to creation, creation very well might not have been, because God contains everything within himself and is completely self-sufficient. But because of the incarnation, created reality is assumed into the divine life, and the so the necessary freedom of God has become applicable.

And once more we finish on a note of Gospel: We have been assumed into the divine drama. If within this drama the Father would not abandon the Son to Hell and everlasting torments, instead resurrecting him to new life and glory, then how much more will he save his creation; perfectly uniting us to Christ by faith, sacrament and theosis? Could God leave anyone or anything behind? Only if God could abandon himself, for he has united himself to the creation and everything in it. But we know that he will not abandon himself, and so we know that he will not abandon any of us. All creation, and everything and everyone within creation are destined for glory and beatitude. I leave the final word to God himself:

If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, will he not also give us all things with him?Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies;who is to condemn? Is it Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised from the dead, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us?Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written,

“For thy sake we are being killed all the day long;
we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers,nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

(Return to first article)

Pure Theology – The Doctrine of God as Trinity in Unity: Divine Plurality For Non-Trinitarians (Specifically Muslims and Jews)

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Jews and Muslims stand united in their rejection of the Trinity. To them, the doctrine seems to compromise the divine unity; it seems to directly violate the Shema and the Shahada, which clearly state that there is only one God:

Deuteronomy 6:4, The Shema Yisrael

שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ יְהוָה אֶחָֽד

Shema Yisrael Adonai eloheinu Adonai ehad

Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord

The Shahada

لَا إِلٰهَ إِلَّا ٱلله مُحَمَّدٌ رَسُولُ ٱلله

lā ʾilāha ʾillā llāh muḥammadun rasūlu llāh

There is no god but God, and Muhammad is his messenger.

However – as we shall see in this post – it is possible to come to a doctrine of “Divine plurality”, even if not a full doctrine of the Trinity, merely by depending upon reason, logic and the common “classical theistic” grounding that is shared equally by the more sophisticated strands of the Christian, Jewish and Muslim intellectual traditions.

God as Pure Actuality – The First Way

220px-Carlo_Crivelli_007[1].jpgTo get the ball rolling, it is helpful to rehash one of the classic proofs of God that has traditionally been put forward in some form or other by big name thinkers from all three Abrahamic traditions. In point form:

  1. We invariably observe change in our everyday experience of life.
    • Change is defined as the actualisation of a potential, or a “movement” from potential to actual.
      • For example a match has the potential to be lit, but this potential is not actualised until the match is struck, at which point the match becomes actually lit.
      • Another example would be a ball placed on top of a desk. The ball has the potential to roll off the edge of the desk, but this potential is not actualised until something bumps the ball and causes it to actually roll off the table and therefore actually be on the ground. Prior to this bump, the ball is only potentially on the ground.
  2. It seems to be a fair assumption that no change can bring itself about, which is to say no potential can actualise itself. An implication of this principle is that in order for some given potential to be actualised, something which is already actualised has to operate upon the potential.
    • An example would again be the match. The match cannot just randomly and spontaneously combust (abstracting away quantum theory for the sake of argument). Instead, a human agent – who is already in some combination of various potential and actual states – has to come along, pick up the match and strike it. This picking up of the match and striking it is an example of actuality working upon potential to bring about further actuality.
  3. We observe chains of causality between agents. One thing actualises potential in another, this thing too actualises potential in some further thing, and this further thing goes on to actualise potential in something else.
    • It is helpful to draw a distinction between two types of causal series: Causal series ordered per esse and causal series ordered per accidens.
      • A causal series ordered per accidens in one which stretches backwards and forwards in time. This sort of causal series is the sort that most people think of when debating the beginnings of the universe and the existence of God. “What was before the big bang?” the apologist asks; “What caused the big bang?”. “God” responds the Christian. “Nothing” responds the Atheist. A biblical example of this sort of series is “Abraham begets Isaac, Isaac begets Jacob”. There is no intrinsic necessity tying the two actions together: Abraham need not continue to be around and exercise his causal power in order for Jacob to get about the business of begetting Jacob. Similarly, arguments for the existence of God that proceed from a “What was before the big bang?” platform inevitably are going to come up short: God may have created the universe and then immediately ceased to exist on this account, which would make him all but irrelevant to our lives today.
      • A casual series ordered per esse is a different sort of beast. It is a causal series in which the relationship between the agent doing the actualising and the potential being actualised is simultaneous. That is, in an essentially ordered series, time has been abstracted out of the equation. It’s not that the brick first hits the window, and subsequently the window shatters; instead the brick hitting the window and the window shattering are conceived of as simultaneous events. A classic example of a per esse series, is that of a hand holding a long stick and using this long stick to push a rock into a loaf of bread. In this case the actuality flows through the chain of potentiality like electricity through a wire: the stick has the potential to move the rock, the rock has the potential to sink into the bread, the bread has the potential to mould itself around the shape of the rock. However until the hand actually applies itself to the stick, the entire chain is devoid of movement. The question becomes, “What is acting upon the bread?” is it the rock, or is it the hand? The answer is “both, but in different senses”. The rock is the next link in the causal chain, but it is the hand which is the source of power and actuality for the entire chain. If not for the hand, nothing would happen.
  4. It is a reasonable principle that such causal chains must necessarily have either a first actualised element, or some external agent which can bestow actuality upon the entire chain.
    • Consider an infinite chain of potentials. Unless there is some first element of the chain which itself is in a state of actuality, then by point two this infinite chain of potential interactions must remain inert and immobile.
    • Alternatively, consider an infinite chain of potential interactions with no “first element”. In this case, the source of actuality must come from somewhere outside of the chain.
  5. It is this “First element of the chain” or “External agent which bestows actuality upon the chain” which everyone refers to by the word “God”.
  6. A variety of properties of God are immediately implied. To name a few: Pure Actuality, Immutability, Omnipotence.
    • One of the properties of God which immediately falls out is that God cannot itself have any potential, because if it did then some explanation would be required for how that potential is being actualised, and as established by point 2, no potential can actualise itself. In this way, God is actus purus – pure Act. He could also be referred to as an unmoved mover or an unchanged changer, for it is the principle which actualises all potential while it itself requires no such actualiser.
    • Seeing as God is infinite actuality and completely devoid of potentiality, he is immutable. God cannot change, because the ability to change implies some sort of unactualised potential.
    • If power is defined as the ability to bring about actuality from potentiality, and if God is the ultimate source of all observed actualisation, and is himself pure actuality, then this implies that he is omnipotent. All things that actually are actualised are actualised by the power of God.

And so in 6 precisely defined steps, we logically move from the observation of change to the existence of an immutable, omnipotent, purely actual God.

Divine Simplicity

shutterstock_313063250-jpgoriginal[1].jpegIt is helpful here to quickly import the concept of divine simplicity, which is one that can be proven by a variety of methods but for the sake of brevity we are just going to take it on faith. Divine simplicity – simply stated – is the idea that God is not composite; that God has no components or parts. Combining this with Aquinas’ doctrine of analogy is essential to have any hope of comprehending it. In God, love, mercy, grace, existence, being, justice, willing, action, freedom and all other attributes; are in reality one and the same thing – God himself. However we cannot understand all these words in a univocal sense (ie, in exactly the same way that we understand them normally) because otherwise we run into absurdity: for example in our everyday experience of life wrath is totally different to love, justice is totally opposed to mercy. The key point is that when we apply these terms to God and say that in him, they are all one and the same thing, we are speaking analogically. It is important to remember that Analogy does not mean Equivocity; when we apply these words to God we are saying something intelligible and meaningful. However we do not know precisely what we mean when we call God these things, and instead have to rely on the ineffable movements of divinity within our intellects and intuitions to bring us to a wordless apprehension of the Truth of the analogical situation.

In summary, in God all attributes are univocally equal, whereas with us, they are all equivocally unequal. The relationship between these attributes as they apply to us and the attributes as they apply to God is one of analogy: In us, justice and mercy are different but in God, they are the same. The relationship of our justice to Gods justice, and our mercy to Gods mercy, is the relationship of analogy.

Implications of Pure Actuality and Divine Simplicity

heider[1].jpgSo, we have a God who is simple, and purely actual, devoid of potential. Certain classical theists (Most notably, Edward Feser), argue that because God has these properties, there can only be one God. The reason why is easy to see: If there were two Gods, there would have to be some way to tell them apart, but this would imply some potential which is actualised in one God and not the other, or some component in one God which the other God lacks. But this is absurd, because as we have already established, God has no potential and God has no parts. Therefore, there can only be one God.

The logic is sound but the conclusion is faulty. What such classical theists have discovered is not some sort of logically necessary “numerical monotheism”. Instead, what they have discovered is God’s divine and uncountable infinity. As Aquinas says, “There is no number in God”. It does not make sense to count God, for divinity is uncountable. Lets for the sake of argument say that we had three purely actual, completely simple Gods: How on earth would we even begin to count them? There would be no way to tell them apart! You would point your finger at one of them in order to start audibly counting “one, two, three”, but the moment you point your finger at one of them, you have pointed your finger at all of them! And this is the crucial point: it makes no more sense to say that there is one God than to say that there are three Gods. In fact, we may as well say that there are an infinitude of Gods! Once you start trying to count the uncountable, you find yourself counting up to infinity!

These reflections might sound familiar to those who are well versed in deeper Trinitarian thought such as the doctrine of perichoresis and the apophatic doctrine of “stupid arithmetic”. We could easily imagine three purely actual beings and arbitrarily call them the Father, the Son and the Spirit. It would be immediately noted that these three beings could not be separated one from the other, and it would not be possible to even clearly distinguish between them or count them. Combine this with a couple of bible verses and the liturgical tradition of the churcha couple of bible verses and the liturgical tradition of the church, and we would be well on our way to developing a robust doctrine of the Trinity.

This is the point where we can extend an ecumenical bridge to our Jewish and Muslim brethren. Christians, Jews and Muslims are all equally humbled before the mystery of an uncountable divine infinity, which subsists as a purely simple and actual plurality in unity. It makes just as much sense to say “one”, “none”, “three” and “infinity”, because in God there is no way of distinguishing between these numerical designations.

Divine Plurality

6dd734196c30266fdf6fdf422fb3b4c1[1].jpgWhat are some further implications of divine infinity?

Well, for one thing, it becomes possible for God to relate to God as one relates to another. Thoughtful readers will have the Trinitarian dogma hovering at the back of their minds:

  1. The Father is God.
  2. The Son is God.
  3. The Spirit is God.
  4. The Father is not the Son.
  5. The Son is not the Spirit.
  6. The Spirit is not the Father.
  7. There is only one God.

The Father loving the Son and the Son loving the Father in return; this is simply God loving God. However the crucial point is that due to the divine infinity, God loving God does not take on a schizophrenic, selfish character, as if it were one person “loving himself”. Instead, due to the divine infinity, Divinity is able to relate to divinity “as one relates to another”. To put it bluntly, when Jesus prays to the Father, this is not an example of divine schizophrenia; Jesus is not talking to himself. There is indeed a conversation going on within God, but God is not confusedly muttering to himself. Jesus is not the father, and yet they are both the same infinite reality that we call “God”.

maxresdefault[1].jpgLet us conceive of God as an infinite ocean of pure bliss, unspeakable love, ineffable consciousness. In this case, God relating to God takes on the character of this infinite ocean folding back upon itself, and simultaneously taking on the roles of the lover, the loved and the love itself. A Plurality spontaneously arises from this wonderful infinitude of unity. A true relationship, “as one to another” naturally emerges from this boundless ocean of bliss and love.

Points 4-6 of the Trinitarian dogma as stated above serve to secure the “as one to another” aspect of this divine love. If the father were the son, then we would indeed have a case of divine schizophrenia, as the father/son would be talking to himself. However by pinning down the fact that the father is not the son, and the son is not the spirit, we lay hold of this beautiful doctrine of a God who is both the love between distinct individuals and the individuals themselves.

God is love, but love demands both a subject and an object. And of course due to divine simplicity God is both the Subject, the Object, and the love itself. Some readers may find this sort of talk familiar to traditional Trinitarian presentations of divinity. The Father begets the Son, and the Son loves the Father, and the Spirit is just that love that exists between them, and all terms of the equation are divine.

It is interesting to note that Christians often hurl an accusation at Muslims and Jews, that their God is not “love by nature” because he is a single numerical personality and therefore requires his creation in order to have an object to love. However an astute Jew or Muslim, after reading this post should be able to articulate why this is not the case, even if they don’t go as far as the full Trinitarian dogma. God does not require his creation in order to be loving, because within the infinitude of God and flowing from his perfect simplicity, there is a divine plurality in which God loves God as one loves another. Whether you call the one “Son”, the another “Father”, and the act of love that exists between them “Spirit” is by-the-by. The fact of the matter is that just as one loves another, God loves God, and God is love. I guess that’s a Trinity of sorts.

The Divine Dance of Love

image_291[1].jpegA question comes to me as I reflect on these things: If the son is not the father, what is it that distinguishes one from the other? If there is something that distinguishes one from the other, then doesn’t this violate divine simplicity and pure actuality? Doesn’t it imply some sort of actualised potential which the son possesses and the father lacks? How else could we identify them as father and son? The doctrine of perichoresis states that all that the father has and is, the son also has and is, such that if you were to take the son, you would get the father too, and vice versa. And yet in theological discourse, we say that the son became incarnate, and not the father. What do we mean by this? Surely we can’t mean that only part of God became incarnate? God has no parts; if the son became incarnate then surely this implies that the entirety of God became incarnate, father and spirit too?

Perhaps the Son is different to the Father only in the act of loving – there is no actual difference between them besides the roles they assume in the Subject Verb Object formula, and as such they are completely interchangeable. The one doing the loving could equally well be the father, the son, or the spirit, the one being loved could equally well be the father, the son, or the spirit, and the love itself could equally well be the father, the son or the spirit. The crucial point is that so long as it is the father who is doing the loving, it is necessarily either the Son or the Spirit who is being loved. Similarly so long as it is the Son doing the loving, it is either the Father or the Spirit being loved. In this way the differences between the hypostases of the Trinity only arise in the context of their assuming different roles in the relationship of love. And yet due to divine simplicity and pure actuality, in a sort of divine dance the hypostases of the trinity assume all of the roles all at once.

But these are ponderings for another time.

(Go to “Simplicity and Trinitarianism”)

Pure Theology – The Doctrine of God as Trinity in Unity: Divine Freedom and Necessity; Contradictions, Square Circles and Rocks that Can’t be lifted

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I have been reading a brilliant series by Father Aiden Kimel over on his “Eclectic Orthodoxy” blog about psuedo-Dionysius and his deep, profound reflections on divinity. I had to pause to worship and set my thoughts down. As I paced around my room churning it all over in my mind I felt as if I had a series of breakthroughs and insights. Here is my attempt to set them down. Such exciting theological discoveries are typically hard to capture with human language, but here is my attempt regardless.

Did God Have to Create? Is Creation Necessary?

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  • Yes, in the sense that God would not be God if he did otherwise than what he does. God needs a creation in order to be a creator.
  • No, in the sense that God’s act of creation is completely uncoerced, unforced. It is a completely free, gratuitous and voluntary act. There is no necessitating principle which requires him to create in order for him to be who he is, or if there is such a principle, it is absorbed into the divine simplicity along with everything else, such that God IS both the principle and that which it demands.

So,

Is God forced to create?
Is God forced to love?
Is God forced to save?
Is God forced to be omnipotent?

No. For this would imply some sort of superior principle determining God’s nature and actions. God is completely free of all such restraint.

But,

Could God have not created?
Could God have not loved?
Could God have not saved?
Could God have not been omnipotent?

No. For if he were not creator, lover, saviour and omnipotent, he would not be God.

The Internal Life of the Trinity

Call-to-Love-Learning-Journey[1].jpgThere is no necessity within God, imposing upon his nature that it must be such and such a way, for example loving, or omnipotent, or just. Instead, there is an invitation extended from God to God: the invitation to be loving, the invitation to be merciful, the invitation to be omnipresent, the invitation to be omnipotent, the invitation to be creator, the invitation to be saviour. God always fully and freely accepts this invitation which in his infinity is made from God to God as from one to another. Due to divine simplicity, God is both the one making the invitation and the one accepting the invitation, God is what the invitation offers, he is the act of inviting itself, and he is the act of accepting the invitation.

Whereas if there were necessity within God, this would imply a sort of dissonant violence within divinity: God commands God to be loving by necessity, and there is tension as God obeys this inevitable command, perhaps against his will. God commands God to be saviour, and there is rebellion and struggle as God begrudgingly accepts the pain that is involved. God commands God to be omnipotent, and God throws this infinite power back in God’s face by creating square circles and rocks that can’t be lifted.

Anthropomorphism at Fault Again

high-resolution-2048x2048-abstract-yin-yang-hd-arena[1].jpgThe problem comes from imagining freedom in a creaturely way. In our every day experience, we commonly deliberate between multiple distinct and contrary options, and we locate our freedom in the selection of one of these options. Whereas for God this cannot be the case. There is no deliberation between options in God and – more starkly still – there is no “choice” in God. God does not “choose” to create; he simply creates. God does not choose to love; he simply loves. But the crucial thing here is that whenever we attach a verb to God, the adverb “freely” is always implied, and the adverb “freely” itself implies an action that is completely uncoerced, completely unforced, and entirely gratuitous. So God does not simply love; he freely loves. God does not simply create; he freely creates. God is not simply who he is; he freely is who he is. God is not omnipotent out of some necessity that he be omnipotent in order to be who he is, instead, God freely embraces omnipotence. The definition of God as omnipotent flows from his free act to embrace omnipotence, rather than his act of being omnipotent flowing from some predetermined, and necessary definition which is superior to God.

Of course, as I have elaborated on elsewhere on this blog, it is possible to embrace dualism and anthropomorphism and conceive of God as choosing between two polar opposite alternatives: Good and Evil, Being and nothingness. The choice to love, to save, to create, to be omnipotent, omnipresent, infinite, to be free; in short, to be God – this represents the choice for good. The choice to hate, to damn, to destroy, to be powerless, to be illogical, to be nowhere, nothing, non-existent, enslaved; this represents the choice for evil. But really, when put in such stark terms, how could we imagine God choosing anything but the first option? If he didn’t, he would not be God.

Can God Actualise Irrational Potentials?

large-boulder[1]These considerations also directly bear on the age old problem of rocks that can’t be lifted and the possibility of square circles. Could God have actualised these strange and irrational potentials? No, because if he were to do that, he would not be God – he would be either greater than he currently is, in which case the God we worship is not truly God; or he would be less than he currently is, in which case he would not be worthy of the title “God”.

At this point the principle of non-contradiction comes into the spotlight and is sometimes invoked as a superior principle which even God is bound to follow. However it is important to remember that God is not bound by this principle as something over and above him, but he freely chooses to embrace order over disorder, structure over chaos, logic over irrationality. The principle of non-contradiction lies at the heart of logic, reason and rationality, and therefore God freely embraces this principle as part of his nature, just as he embraces omnipotence, omniscience, love, justice, mercy etc. Could he have done otherwise? Yes he could, but then he would be some other God, and some other God is no God at all, which in the end is just another way of saying no he could not have. This implies that there is a certain divinity inherent in the principle of non-contradiction; it is one of very few clear windows into the character of the mysterious and ineffable God whom we worship.

So, is there any external principle which prevents God from creating rocks that can’t be lifted or square circles? Again, no. God’s choice not to create these things is completely free and gratuitous, just as free and gratuitous as his act of creating the world, or being omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent and omnipresent.

But could he create them? Yes, but then he would not really be God, which is just another way of saying no. This does not represent some external principle, regulating and restricting his freedom and limiting his power. It simply represents the fact that God freely is who he is, and if he were otherwise he would not be God.

Calvinism, Sovereignty and Freedom

solar-system-11188_1280-e1505503768960[1].jpgGod freely embraces love, he freely embraces omnipotence, he freely embraces justice. But due to divine simplicity, he freely embraces everything else about himself too: he freely embraces transcendence, he freely embraces simplicity, he freely embraces infinitude, he freely embraces both unity and plurality. Most bafflingly of all, he even freely embraces freedom itself!

This sheds a little bit of light on the Calvinist obsession with the attribute of Sovereignty: God’s infinite freedom means that he freely embraces love, justice, mercy, grace, power. Where the Calvinists tend to go wrong is when they conceive of this freedom in anthropomorphic terms; as the choice between two options, either of which God could deign to choose. In this way the Calvinists tend to imagine a God who is free to save or to damn, to create or not to create, to love us or to hate us, to save us or damn us. But this is going about it all wrong, for the God who does not choose to love, to create and to save is not the true and eternal God. God is who he is and he is what he does and if he did any different he would not truly be God. Divine freedom and sovereignty is not a choice between two options; it is the infinite, free, overflowing bubbling fountain of love and salvation that is God himself. God is not forced to create us, love us, or save us; but he could not do otherwise and remain God.

Final Thoughts

Hakim_Art%20(1)[1].jpgAnd so finally we come to the most pressing question of all:

Must God save everyone?

No, for nothing can compel God to do anything.

But will God save everyone?

Of course! For if God did not save everyone, he would not be the true God, he would be some other god, and “some other god” is no God at all.

To he who resides in the impenetrably immanent depths of infinitude, bliss, being, love; to he who transcendently loves the cosmos into existence; to he who enters into the divine silence of the most holy inner sanctuary and freely offers himself to himself as one to another; to he who died for our sins and rose again for our salvation; to him be all praise, glory, honour, worship, devotion and love, in saecula saeculorum, αἰῶνας τῶν αἰώνων

Amen.

(Go to “Divine Plurality for Non-Trinitarians”)

The Gospel, Sola Fide, Faith Alone, Salvation and Soteriology: Commands, Invitations and Promises

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  • Commands impose on peoples freedom, but in a negative sense, because there is always the threat of retribution for failing to obey the command – obey or die.
  • Invitations do not impose on peoples freedom, they make people free. When an invitation is made, all of a sudden a world of opportunity has opened up and the person to whom the invitation has been extended is free to either accept the offer or let it pass.
  • Promises also impose on people freedom, but in a positive sense. With a promise, the promiser is binding himself to the promised outcome, and the person to whom the promise is made can do nothing to impact the final outcome – they can either have faith, disbelieve, or be apathetic.

Salvation is all three of these things: an invitation, a command, and a promise.

  • Salvation is an invitation, in that God says “I love you, so I am offering you eternal bliss, infinite happiness, everlasting life. You need only turn your will towards me, and wholeheartedly accept my offer and all of these things will be yours”
  • Salvation is a command, in that God says “I love you, so I exhort you to accept the offer, because failing to accept it will only lead to darkness, torture, unbearable pain. I do not will these things for you, but must warn you that these are the consequences for failing to walk the path of salvation towards me”
  • Finally, Salvation is a promise, in that God says “I love you, therefore I promise you that I will never leave you, I will never revoke my offer, I will always hold it out to you, I will always help you. I will not abandon you, and I will not rest until I see you safely immersed in my bliss and love.”

What effect should these three aspects of salvation have on us?

  • The command should lead to a healthy (ie, not scrupulous) fear and trembling, as we consider the magnitude of what is at stake, and the cost of failing to struggle towards heaven.
  • The invitation should excite us and encourage us to move forward on the path of salvation, eagerly striving for the beautiful prize that is held out to us.
  • Faith in the promise should give us assurance and peace in the present time, as we realise that God is on our side and that therefore we cannot ultimately fail. As we realise that everlasting damnation is no longer a live possibility, we sing praises to God and rejoice, finding in this happiness the divine strength to keep on fighting.

What happens if you neglect different aspects of salvation?

  • Those who insist on such juvenile images of God as “the perfect gentleman” who “never imposes on our will” are taking salvation as an invitation at the expense of the other two aspects; such people forget that God is sovereign, and that he ultimately gets what he wants, which includes the salvation of everyone and everything. God keeps his promises and he promises to save you, so do not be so idolatrous and presumptuous as to think that you can resist his will.
  • Those who insist on Salvation as merely a promise tend to forget that we humans are free, and that God does not force us to love him. Such people are idolaters in the sense that they think God is a puppet master who merely marches some of us into Heaven and others of us into Hell without consulting us. Such people tend to think that God actively hates certain people and wants them to be damned. Then they have the nerve to turn around and call their god “loving”. We should eagerly await the rightful damnation of these people, for they are worshipping Satan by the name of Yahweh – a most grievous sin.
  • Those who only think of Salvation as a command are nothing but judgemental Pharisees or – in some cases – poor scrupulous souls. The Pharisees are convinced that they are doing alright while the vast majority of the masses they preach to are damned to hell. Whereas the scrupulous souls are the victims of the pharisaical preaching: they are convinced that they are not good enough, and have a vastly over-inflated fear of fiery tortures in the darkness of Gehenna. No matter how hard they try, it is never enough.

A correct and healthy view of salvation requires one to understand and correctly balance all three aspects of salvation:

  • The true Christian recognises that salvation is a command; that there are consequences for failing to strive for the prize during this life.
  • He also recognises that salvation is an invitation; that God will not do the work for him, and that he himself must freely walk the path of salvation, to the infinitely desirable prize held out before him.
  • He similarly understands that salvation is a promise; he rests, safe in the confident assurance that God will never abandon him to the darkness of Gehenna. He understands that no matter how many times he falls off the horse, he will always be able to remount and continue the charge to heaven.

The true Christian knows that no matter what, he cannot ultimately fail on the journey to heaven, because God himself has promised his ultimate success in the struggle, and he knows that he cannot ultimately refuse God’s offer of salvation, because no matter how many times he pushes God’s hand away, God has guaranteed that he will always extend his hand again; who could forever resist such a beautiful and enticing love?

Pure Theology – The Doctrine of God as Trinity in Unity: “God is Perfectly and Entirely Free, and yet he can not Do Other than what he Does: Create us, Love us, Save us.”

Hi Father,

I’ve finally got around to reading the Dionysian ponderings series on your blog. I’ve been saving it for some months until I could find a time to properly settle into the armchair by the fireplace with the pipe and cheese and appreciate it. It was well worth the wait.

I’m currently up to the part about whether or not God was forced to create the world (or whether he could have not created the world). I want to try and summarise my understanding of what you’ve written in a few sentences and send it off to you for marking:

  1. God had to create necessarily, in the sense that if he did not create he would not be “creator” and therefore would be some other God. However the notion of “some other God” is incoherent because there is only one true God, which is the God revealed to us in this reality and therefore “some other God” is really no God at all.
  2. Despite the fact that God had to create, this necessity of creation is not necessity in the sense that God is “compelled” or “forced” to create. Instead, God made an 100% libertarian uncompelled “free” choice to create. In this way, creation remains 100% contingent upon Gods free choice and in that sense, creation “need not have been”
  3. Divine simplicity helps to frame the issue: God is what God does. Therefore God is both the one who creates and the free choice (to create) itself. If the choice had been different, we would be dealing with a different God. But as already mentioned, this is incoherent.
  4. Divine freedom should not be construed in the same way that we conceive of creaturely freedom, ie, as a deliberation and selection between multiple alternatives. Instead we should think of divine freedom as a movement of will which is completely uncoerced, uncompelled, unconstrained, unforced etc. in this way, there was only ever “one” possible “alternative” for God to “select”, but the crucial point is that his “selection” of this “choice” is completely and entirely free; completely and entirely uncoerced.
  5. So Could God have decided not to create? No. Does this mean that there is some necessity imposed on his will? Also no. The only necessity that it is reasonable to speak of here is the necessity that God be as God is, and this necessity encapsulates a perfect and infinite divine freedom; the total transcendence of all restrictions and constraints. God is perfectly and entirely free, and yet he can not do other than what he does: create us, love us, save us.
  6. Side point, often with creaturely freedom our choices are entirely compelled and coerced, even when there are multiple options on offer: for example when presented with a large variety of icecream flavours, I will always choose the mint choc; I simply don’t have the “free will power” to branch out and sample the other flavours on offer. Whereas God has only a single option: to create. And the crucial point is that his “selection” of this “option” is the most free movement of will conceivable

Thank you as always for your wonderful writings. Such a joy and source of edification in my life over the past four years. While I never pray as much as I should, I do try to keep you and your family in mind as you’ve been such a large influence in my spiritual journey despite the fact that we’ve never properly met.

Stay strong in Christ, with infinite joy and invincible hope,

Alex Herlihy

Beautiful Heresy 101 – Original Sin, Mortal Sin, and the Murder of God: “The Cross Was The Fall”

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The fall didn’t happen when Adam ate from the tree; the fall happened when humanity nailed God himself to the cross. Original sin was not something that happened “way back then” in the murky mythologies of before the beginning of history; The original sin was when God offered us life and we chose death; he offered us friendship and we chose brutal murder.

So it simply will not do to appeal to our “freedom” to explain how we end up in hell or heaven. We had the freedom to choose God, but no longer. We freely, wholeheartedly and definitively rejected God when he came to us with peace and love and we executed him. This was the unforgivable sin; there is no freedom after this, no repentance, no turning back. Every one of us has already made our final choice: non accipio.

And yet God can forgive even the unforgivable sin: and this he did by his resurrection. He does not “respect” our freedom. If he respected our freedom he would have just stayed dead. No, he conquers our freedom. We always and everywhere choose death: but from this death he draws out life. We constantly choose evil; and from this evil he brings about good. We respond to his friendship with hatred: yet from this hatred he works irresistible love.

He could have “respected” our freedom by staying dead and withdrawing his love. But instead, he insists on continuing to love us and by his victorious resurrection he has revealed that he will never stop loving us until every single one of us loves him back. We will not die: we will rise again. We will not be damned: We have already been saved.

History is the story of us choosing death and God giving us life in spite of that choice. History is the story of Grace: it is not the story of a God who “respects our freedom”. We all without exception have chosen Hell, and so God bestows his mercy on us all.

Eschatology and Soteriology – A Universalist Catholic Account Of The Last Things

I affirm the dogmatic, three-fold, Catholic eschatological division of Hell, Purgatory and Heaven. However I understand these three realities in ways that are different to the standard presentation, and I also propose a fourth realm which I’m not sure what to call, but will tentatively refer to as Eschaton. Finally, there is also a state called Limbo which overlaps with both Heaven and Purgatory, but it is important to note that my understanding of Limbo is quite different to the traditional understanding.

Hell

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In my understanding, and following the current Catechism, Hell consists of “Total separation from God”. I take this at face value and interpret it as meaning that Hell consists of “Ceasing to Exist”, because this is the only way to truly be “totally separate” from God. As it says in the psalms “If I make my bed in Hell, you are there with me”

I also believe that Hell is empty, which is to say that no one will actually experience this fate. I allow room for the idea that Jesus himself descended to this Hell and suffered the punishment of annihilation on our behalf on Holy Saturday. However I am not dogmatically committed to the idea.

People might wonder what the point of this Hell is if no one goes there. This is easily answered: Without everlasting damnation there can be no salvation. God needed to save us from something, and this is what it was. In this way, the purpose of Hell is to remind us how bad it could have been, which in turn serves to emphasise just how much God loves us, and just how great his Grace is.

Purgatory

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In my understanding, Purgatory is both a punishment and a purification. Both the punishment and the purification are directly proportional in intensity to the amount of sins a person commit during life.

Purgatory is also what I take all the biblical references to “Gehenna” to be referring to. As such, I believe that Purgatory is experienced as “Eternal Conscious Torment” (as long as the word “eternal” is understood to mean “timeless”). I take biblical references to the worm that dies not, eternal punishment, eternal fire, the outer darkness, weeping and gnashing of teeth, and eternal destruction as references to the experience of purgatory. Purgatory really, really sucks and you don’t want to go there.

I also believe that people who do not have explicit faith in Christ prior to death go to purgatory. I believe that it is impossible for someone who has not been evangelised and who has not come to faith in the unconditional promises of God to enter salvation. Salvation requires a full purification, but also explicit faith in the gospel message. Without these two things, it is impossible to experience heaven.

Heaven

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In my understanding, Heaven is the place where someone goes when they have perfect, explicit faith in the unconditional promise of salvation, and when their soul has been fully purified of all stain of sin. Implicit faith is not enough. A loving heart is not enough. The soul must be perfect and their faith must be explicit.

The degree of reward received in heaven is directly proportional to the good works that the person performed during life. It is an abstract, spiritual sort of pleasure that consists of the direct apprehension of God and his pure beauty, truth, goodness, love, mercy, justice and so forth.

Where my view of heaven starts to differ from the standard account, is that I believe that it is impossible for the people in heaven to actually enjoy the fullness of heavenly bliss while their friends and family remain suffering in Gehenna. I believe that the people in Heaven can see the suffering in Gehenna, and they are horrified by it. As such, so long as there is a single soul remaining in the dark torments of Gehenna, this will cause a chain reaction of compassionate empathy that effectively nullifies the supreme joy and bliss of everyone in heaven.

I believe that because of this, the people in heaven will organise missionary trips to purgatory. They will descend from Heaven and minister to the poor souls who are trapped in Gehenna, preaching the Gospel to them, reasoning with them, loving them, and generally doing everything they can in order to bring these poor souls to perfect faith and repentance so that they may escape the darkness. This missionary activity will continue so long as there is a single soul remaining trapped in Gehenna.

Limbo

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Limbo is not really “another state”, and is instead just a dramatically reduced experience of Purgatory and Heaven. People who did not do many or any good deeds during life, but who also did not commit many or any sins during life, therefore do not merit much or any punishment and reward in the afterlife. Therefore regardless of whether these people end up in Heaven or Purgatory, the experience will be much the same: very blank and devoid of any content. This “nothing” state receives the name “Limbo” in my theology. Notice that it is different to “The limbo of the infants” and “The limbo of the fathers” from traditional Catholic scholasticism, although aborted babies and young infants do indeed experience my version of Limbo, on account of the fact that they haven’t sinned or loved at all during life.

Eschaton

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Where the previous states were disembodied spiritual realities which the soul experiences alone, this state has to do with the resurrection and new creation.

The eschaton is the final state, the end of history, the teleos of creation. In this final state, there will be no more tears, no more pain, no more suffering, no more sickness, no more death. The lion will lie down with the lamb. Every knee shall bow and every tongue shall confess that Christ is lord. All the gentiles will be saved, all of Israel will be saved. Even all of the fallen Angels will have been saved.

The eschaton will not arrive until the missionary activity from heaven has succeeded and therefore every soul who is stuck in Gehenna has escaped. The joy of salvation cannot be complete until everyone has been fully saved. The eschaton represents the state of affairs when this has finally occurred. It is the most glorious state of all: No longer is there any impediment to the saved enjoying their salvation, because all of their friends and families have been saved too!

Furthermore, this is simultaneous with the resurrection, the Parousia, the final (general) judgement and the new creation. All the disembodied souls will be reunited with their glorified bodies, in a renewed and glorified physical reality that encompasses all of history and includes everything that has ever lived or existed. This is the true and final end to the story. So long as people fail to achieve heaven, heaven can’t really be heaven. But in the eschaton, everyone will have finally achieved salvation and therefore the joy of salvation will be complete. Finally we will all be able to enjoy God to the full, experiencing unadulterated, uninterrupted heavenly bliss, as well as perfect love for all people, all things, all creation and God himself.

Conclusion

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Heaven is not what we should be aiming for, and purgatory is not what we should be settling for. The eschaton is what we are working towards, and the good news of the gospel is that we can’t fail! Salvation is guaranteed, but it is not automatic: we still have to walk the path. But the good news is that we will walk the path. God guarantees and promises us that in the end, we will fight the good fight, we will run the race, we will win the prize. There is a crown waiting for each of us, and in the eschaton we will all be victorious, to the praise and glory of God.

7 Myths About Universalism

Robin Parry holding a teacup

Below is Parry’s article—originally published as Bell’s Hells: seven myths about universalism in the Baptist Times.


You can be a good evangelical without believing in eternal punishment, writes Robin Parry

On Tuesday February 22 2011, Rob Bell – the influential pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan – posted the promotional video for his new book, Love Wins.

Rumours started spreading almost immediately that Bell’s forthcoming book advocated universalism and, unsurprisingly, the Internet went white-hot. On Saturday February 26 Justin Taylor, a well-known neo-Calvinist, posted his provisional reflections about Bell as a universalist on The Gospel Coalition blog and, reportedly, by that evening about 12,000 people had recommended his post on Facebook.

That same day Rob Bell was in the top 10 trending topics on Twitter. And from there the number of blog posts exploded. Overnight, universalism went from being a marginal issue that most evangelicals felt that they could ignore to being the next big debate.

Feelings are running high at the moment and a lot of strong language is being used. I think that if the church is to have a fruitful discussion on this matter (rather than a bad tempered battle-to-the-death) then it is essential that we have a clear understanding of what Christian universalists actually believe. A lot of myths about universalism are informing the current debate and I want to explore seven of them very briefly below.

To begin it will be helpful to have a quick definition of Christian universalism. Christian universalists are (mostly) orthodox, Trinitarian, Christ-centred, gospel-focused, Bible-affirming, missional Christians. What makes them universalists is that they believe that God loves all people, wants to save all people, sent Christ to redeem all people, and will achieve that goal.

In a nutshell, it is the view that, in the end, God will redeem all people through Christ. Christian universalists believe that the destiny of humanity is ‘written’ in the body of the risen Jesus and, as such, the story of humanity will not end with a tomb.

Myth: Universalists don’t believe in hell

Many an online critic of Bell has complained that he, along with his universalist allies, does not believe in hell. Here, for instance, is Todd Pruitt: ‘Rob Bell . . . denies the reality of hell.’ Mr BH adds, ‘To Hell with No Hell. To Hell with what’s being sold by Rob Bell.’

Nice rhyming but, alas, this is too simplistic.

Historically all Christian universalists have had a doctrine of hell and that remains the case for most Christian universalists today, including Bell. The Christian debate does not concern whether hell will be a reality (all agree that it will) but, rather, what the nature of that reality will be. Will it be eternal conscious torment? Will it be annihilation? Or will it be a state from which people can be redeemed? Most universalists believe that hell is not simply retributive punishment but a painful yet corrective/educative state from which people will eventually exit (some, myself included, think it has a retributive dimension, while others do not).

So it is not hell that universalists deny so much as certain views about hell. (To complicate matters a little there have even been a few universalists that believed that hell is an eternal, conscious torment! An unusual view for a universalist but possible – honest.)

Myth: Universalists don’t believe the Bible

One does not have to read Bell’s detractors for long before coming across the following sentiments: Universalists are theological ‘liberals’ that reject the ‘clear teaching of the Bible’. Surely all good Bible-believing Christians will believe that some/many/most people are damned forever? ‘If indeed Rob Bell denies the existence of hell, this is a betrayal of biblical truth,’ says R Albert Mohler. David Cloud, concerned about Bell’s questioning classical conceptions of hell, writes, ‘It is evil to entertain questions that deny Bible truth.’

So, are universalists really Bible-denying? No.

Historically, Christian universalists have been Bible-affirming believers and that remains the case for many, perhaps the majority, today. The question is not ‘Which group believes the Bible?’ but, ‘How do we interpret the Bible?’

The root issue is this: there are some biblical texts that seem to affirm universalism (eg Romans 5:18; 1 Corinthians 15:22; Colossians 1:20; Philippians 2:11) but there are others that seem to deny it (eg Matthew 25:45; 2 Thessalonians 1:6-9; Revelations 14:11; 20:10-15).

At the heart of the biblical debate is how we hold these two threads together. Do we start with the hell passages and reread the universalist texts in the light of them? That is the traditional route. Or, do we start with universalist passages and reinterpret the hell texts in the light of them? That is what many universalists do.

Or do we try to hold both sets of biblical teachings in some kind of tension (and there are various proposals for how we might do that – some leaning towards traditionalism, others leaning towards universalism)?

There is also the question of wider biblical-theological themes and their relevance. For instance, biblical teaching on God’s love, justice, punishment, the cross-resurrection, covenant, etc. How might reflection on those matters influence our theology of hell?

This is not just about finding ‘proof texts’ to whip your opponent with (both sides are capable of that) but about making best sense of the Bible as a whole. And when we follow the big plotline of the scriptures, which ending to the story has the best ‘fit’? Universalists believe that the ending in which God redeems his whole creation makes the most sense of the biblical metanarrative. Traditionalists disagree.

My point is that this debate is not a debate between Bible-believing Christians (traditionalists) and ‘liberals’ (universalists). It is, to a large extent, a debate between two sets of Bible-believing Christians on how best to understand scripture.

Myth: Universalists don’t think sin is very bad

Blogger Denny Burke thinks that Bell’s ‘weak’ view of hell if based on a ‘weak’ view of sin which, in turn, is based on a ‘weak’ view of God: ‘Sin will always appears as a trifle to those whose view of God is small.’

Universalists ‘obviously’ think that sin isn’t something to get too worked up about – after all they believe that God’s job is to forgive people, right?

Once again we are in the realm of mythology. Propose a view on the seriousness of sin as strong as you wish and you’ll find universalists who would affirm it. Does sin affect every aspect of human life? Is it an utter horror that degrades our humanity and warrants divine wrath? Does it deserve eternal punishment?

Universalists could affirm all of these things so long as they believed that God’s love, power, grace, and mercy are bigger and stronger than sin. Universalists do not have a low view of sin, they have a high view of grace: ‘Where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more.’

Myth: Universalists believe in God’s love but forget his justice and wrath

Here is Britten Taylor’s response to Rob Bell: ‘God is love. But, He is also just. God pours out His mercy, but He also pours out His wrath.’ The implication is that universalists overplay divine love and forget that God is also holy and just. Right? Wrong.

Christian universalists have a lot to say about God’s holiness, justice, and even his wrath. Typically they think that God’s divine nature cannot be divided up into conflicting parts in such a way that some of God’s actions are loving (eg, saving sinners) while others are just and full of anger (eg, hell).

They see all of God’s actions as motivated by ‘holy love’. Everything God does is holy, completely just, and completely loving.

So whatever hell is about it must be compatible not simply with divine justice but also with divine love. Which means that it must, in some way, have the good of those in hell as part of its rationale.

Universalists feel that one potential danger in traditional theologies of hell is that while they make much of God justice and anger they appear to be incompatible with his love and, as a result, they divide up the unity of God’s nature.

Myth: Universalists think that all roads lead to God

Here is Kevin Mullins’ definition of universalism in his discussion of Bell: ‘Universalism – the belief that everyone, regardless of faith or behavior, will be counted as God’s people in the end. All roads lead to Him. All religions are just different expressions of the same Truth.’

That idea is what underlies crparke’s comment that, ‘If Rob Bell denies hell then he denies the need for a “savior” and makes the sacrifice of Jesus irrelevant.’

Here our Internet conversation partners have confused universalism (the view that God will one day save all people through Christ) with pluralism (the view that there are many paths to God and that Jesus is simply one of them). But Christian universalists deny pluralism. They insist that salvation is found only through the atoning work of Christ. Without Jesus nobody would be redeemed!

Now there is a disagreement between Christians about whether one needs to have explicit faith in Jesus to share in the salvation he has bought. Some Christians, called exclusivists, think that only those who put their trust in the gospel can be saved.

Others, called inclusivists, think that it is possible to be saved through Christ even without explicit faith in him.

Thus, for inclusivists it is possible to be saved even if, for instance, you have never heard the gospel. Inclusivists would maintain that if someone responds in humility, love, and faith to the truncated divine revelation that they have received then God can unite them to Christ and they may be considered as, perhaps, ‘anonymous Christians’.

But we need to be careful not to confuse the discussion between exclusivists and inclusivists with the issue of universalism. Many people make that mistake. The former debate concerns how people can experience the salvation won by Christ while the latter concerns how many people will be saved. Two different questions.

Thus, some universalists are inclusivists (eg, Rob Bell) but others are exclusivists, maintaining that only people who trust in the gospel can be saved. (Obviously exclusivist universalists have to believe that salvation is possible after death.)

But whether one is speaking of exclusivist or inclusivist universalists, neither relegate Jesus to the sidelines.

Myth: Universalism undermines evangelism

Here is Matt: ‘I do think the Scripture is clear that salvation at least has some limits. If it doesn’t, then preaching and evangelism are ultimately wasted activities.’ And R Albert Mohler worries that, ‘If indeed Rob Bell denies the existence of hell, this . . . has severe . . . evangelistic consequences.’ Why, after all, would anyone bother to go through all the effort and struggle of evangelism if God is going to save everyone in the end anyway?

So must universalism undermine evangelism? Not at all. There are many reasons to engage in mission and evangelism, not least that Christ commands it. And it is a huge privilege to join with God in his mission of reconciling the world to himself. The gospel message in God’s ‘foolish’ way of setting the world right so, of course, universalists will want to proclaim it.

Fear of hell is not the only motivation for mission. And, what is more, the majority of universalists do fear hell. Whilst they may not view it as ‘the end of the road’, they still consider it to be a dreadful state to be avoided.

And historically universalists have not run from mission. Here are the words of an eighteenth century Baptist universalist, Elhanan Winchester, who was himself an evangelist: ‘There is no business or labour to which men are called, so important, so arduous, so difficult, and that requires such wisdom to perform it [as that of the soul-winner]. The amazing worth of winning souls, makes the labour so exceeding important, and of such infinite concern’ (sermon on the death of John Wesley, 1791).

Myth: Universalism undermines holy living

Here is Frank: ‘Oh thank goodness Rob Bell is here to explain that we can do whatever we want because (drum roll please) . . . there’s no consequence, there’s no hell!’ And Frank is not alone. During 17th, 18th and 19th centuries many Christians were especially worried that if the fear of hell was reduced people would have little to constrain their sinful behaviour. Thus universalism, they feared, would fuel sin.

But the fear of punishment is not the only motive for avoiding sin and, even if it were, universalism does, as has already been mentioned, have space for some such fear. But far more important for holy living – indeed the only motive for heartfelt holy living – is the positive motivation inspired by love for God.

Who, after all, would reason, ‘I know that God created me, seeks to do me good, sent his Son to die for me, and that he will always love me…so I must hate him!’? On the contrary, the revelation of divine love solicits our loving response (1 John 4:19).

Clearly there is an important debate to be had but if we desire more light and less heat we need to start by getting a clearer understanding of the view under discussion.