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: 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)

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

jesus-crucified-2[1]

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.

Hell, Damnation, Salvation, Freedom, Omnipotence, Sovereignty and Goodness: Tough Apologetics Questions for the Non-Universalist

Apologetics Question 1. Does God love the people in Hell?

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If they say No:

So he doesn’t love the people in Hell? How can you call him a loving God? Doesn’t this contradict scripture, tradition, the church? How could you worship such a monster?

“But those people deserve to be punished”

Isn’t the Christian message that we all deserve to be punished? And isn’t the gospel of grace a message that God gratuitously rescues us from this punishment? Why would he only rescue some people and not rescue everyone? He has the power to rescue everyone; so what’s stopping him?

“We should be happy that God even rescues a single one of us. He is under no obligation to rescue anyone at all, let alone everyone”

Nonsense. Once I had a Calvinist friend use an analogy to justify God’s condemning people to Hell that went something like this: “Imagine a backstreet where 10 homeless people live, and then imagine that a rich man comes along and chooses one of them to take into his home; washing, cleaning, feeding and generally taking care of him. This rich man has done a good thing, and cannot be blamed for failing to rescue all 10 of the hobos who reside in the backstreet, let alone all the hobos in the world.” This analogy fails: If God is the rich man, he is a rich man who has infinite money and material wealth. If this is the case then the rich man has a moral obligation to use his money to rescue all of the hobos. If he does not use his limitless financial power to save all the hobos, he is culpably negligent and malevolent. So it is with God, salvation, and us: God has the power to save everyone; he suffers from no limitations whatsoever, and saving everyone would not detract from him or his glory in any way, so he is morally obligated to save us.

“But God can not be obligated to do anything”

If he is a perfect father, then yes, he can. Parents are obligated to care for, raise, and will the good of their children, and if they fail to do so they have failed as parents. If God truly is our perfect father in heaven, then he is obligated to care for us as his children and prevent us from irreparably harming ourselves (ie, entering into eternal damnation). He will not sit idly by while we commit spiritual suicide: he will intervene, like a good parent should. Sometimes he rewards us and sometimes he punishes us, but the punishment is always remedial and with the purpose of correcting us and helping us grow into the creations we were meant to be, in divine union with him. This is the entire purpose of Hell: to drive home to those rebellious souls who refuse to listen that they are living a life that leads to destruction: God lets us experience that destruction in Hell, so as to teach us a lesson that will bring us back to repentance and union with him.

If they say yes:

In what sick world is “everlasting conscious torment” compatible with or an expression of love?

“God loves the people in Hell, but he loves them differently”

Does this not compromise divine simplicity? Why is it that God chooses to love the people in heaven in such a way that they are saved, while he chooses to love the people in Hell in such a way that they experience infinite tortures for all eternity? It seems completely arbitrary. Do you even know what you’re talking about? At the point where “love” can hold the definition “brutal torture forever and ever”, the word has simply lost all meaning.

Apologetics Question 2. Can God’s will be defeated?

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If they say yes:

Why would you want to worship such a weak and pathetic God? Isn’t God supposed to be sovereign? Doesn’t God get what he wants? If God wills something to happen, what on earth could prevent it? Isn’t he omnipotent?

“God has two wills: his ordaining will and his permissive will. He desires the salvation of all via his ordaining will, but he allows the damnation of some via his permissive will”

This makes God sound like a schizophrenic, and certainly not the omnipotent sovereign lord of all reality. I accept the distinction between ordaining will and permissive will, as a solution to the problem of evil in the present time. However I do not accept that the permissive will can remain out of sync with the ordaining will forever. In the end times, in the eschaton, the permissive will and the ordaining will will coincide perfectly, because there will be no evil: everything that God will permit to happen will be exactly what God wants to happen. This is not the case now – in the present age – because we still have to contend with evil, which God does not desire. However in the eschaton all tears will be wiped away, the lion will lie down with the lamb, there will be no more sickness, suffering or death. Everything will be perfect. God will no longer need to “permit” anything because everything that happens will be perfectly in line with his ordaining will.

If they say no:

If God’s will can’t be defeated, then how the heck do people end up in Hell? Doesn’t it clearly state in the bible that God wills the salvation of everyone?

“God wants those people to be damned, he doesn’t really will the salvation of all”

So how can he be a loving God? It sounds like he hates some/most people and takes pleasure in torturing them forever.

“God doesn’t damn us: we choose to be damned. We damn ourselves”

And why would God allow us to do that? Wouldn’t it make him a terrible parent? What parent would not seek help for a suicidal child? Who on earth would simply “accept” their child’s attempts at suicide? So it is with us and God: If he really is God, he’s not just going to “put up” with our attempts to damn ourselves; he’s going to use his omnipotence to rescue us. What parent gives total autonomy to their baby? What parent waits for consent to change a baby’s nappy? The parents are the ones who decide what’s going to happen; not the children. In the same way, God decides who will be saved, not us, and as he has clearly spelt out in many places in sacred scripture, he has decided to save everyone, so that’s damn well what’s going to happen. If this is the argument you’re going to make, then you’re essentially saying that the children have veto power over the parents: God can say that he’s going to save everyone, but we have the power to thwart this plan of his and damn ourselves forever.

Apologetics Question 3. How do the people in Heaven feel about the people in Hell? Do they feel sad?

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If they say yes:

How can you say that they are sad? If they are in Heaven, then nothing could possibly detract from their joy. Otherwise it simply wouldn’t be heaven. Either they are not sad, or they are not really in heaven, and therefore not really saved.

Furthermore, if they are sad, then why don’t they do something about it? Why don’t they go down to Hell and evangelise the poor souls who are trapped there? Why don’t they storm God’s throne with prayers to save these people?

“These people are frozen in their rejection. They can no longer repent”

Bollocks. There is a strong tradition of afterlife repentance in Apostolic Christianity. In the east, there is the efficacious prayers for the dead, which assist those in hades to move from there to paradise. In the west, there is the doctrine of afterlife sanctification in purgatory; presumably this sanctification involves repentance in both life and afterlife. Furthermore the eastern understanding of the Harrowing of Hell on Holy Saturday provides precedent for afterlife repentance: Jesus descended into Hell and preached the Gospel to the souls who were imprisoned there, giving them the opportunity to repent and accept the good news. If Jesus was willing and able to do that, we should too. Furthermore, there is a Marian devotion which says that Mary visits the souls in purgatory once a year; if Mary can do it, we can too.

If they say no:

They don’t feel sad to witness their families burning in Hell? Well, how on earth do they feel?

“They are so enthralled by God’s goodness and beauty that they simply cease to be aware of the damned”

I like to call this the “Heroin addiction” view of Heaven: The saved are so high on God that they simply cease to care about what else is going on in creation. The fact that their parents, children, brothers and sisters are suffering unspeakable agonies does not concern this soul; he simply doesn’t care. I ask you; in what strange world is this the perfection of Christian charity? Surely so long as there is a single soul outside heaven, the saints cannot be truly happy and satisfied until that soul is saved? Heaven is not heaven unless everyone is there.

“The people in Heaven rejoice in the sufferings of the damned, because nothing can subtract from the joy of heaven, and the joy of heaven can only be increased by created things”

Does this really need any comment in order to highlight how sickening and contrary to Christian love it is? Lets spell it out: A mother loses her baby, the baby goes to Hell and the mother goes to heaven. The mother peers over the clouds of heaven in order to take a look at those who are suffering in Hell. She sees her baby burning in the infernal flames and cries tears of ecstatic joy, praising God for his most glorious display of justice, and beseeching him to increase the degree of torment even more, revelling in the brutal torture of her child. Aren’t the saved supposed to be perfected in Christian charity? Aren’t they supposed to have empathy and compassion for those who are stuck walking in darkness? If this is what it means to be saved, I want nothing of it. I would rather go and be with my family in Hell, because there is more love down there with them than with your evil vindictive God and his bloodthirsty, sadistic saints.

 

Gospel and State of Grace – Perfect Contrition and the Abolition of Hell

Card-_110-Contrition-front[1].jpgHe who understands the gospel will never fall from the state of grace – no matter what sins he commits – because to understand the gospel is to experience perfect contrition, and perfect contrition is the abolition of Hell. If you are unable to detect perfect contrition within yourself, you have not yet understood the gospel. Someone who understands the gospel with their mind, naturally overflows with both Joy and Sorrow in their heart: Joy at the unconditional promise of an eternity spent with God, sorrow at the reality that he daily fails to live up to his destiny.

It is impossible to force your will towards love for God, and so it is impossible to manufacture perfect contrition. You must first recognise that God loves you and all those who you care for, and therefore could never abandon you to damnation. Only then will real love for God spontaneously explode in your heart, driving out any fear of Hell.

But even after all this, there is a higher way. Christ was willing to suffer damnation for the sake of the salvation of his enemies. Your love for God and neighbour is not perfect until you find yourself in the position where you are truly willing to do the same. Only when God has promised you eternal bliss, and yet you are willing to sacrifice it for the sake of the salvation of the other, can you truly be said to have achieved union with the divine.

Orthodoxy 101 – Anselm was Wrong: Wounded Pride and Everlasting Punishments

The Anselmian argument in favour of everlasting punishment is fallacious. Here is a brief summary of the argument:

Every sin against God is an infinite sin because God has infinite dignity and the magnitude of sin is determined by the dignity of the one who is wronged. Infinite sin deserves an infinite punishment, therefore those who sin descend into the torturous flames of Hell and remain there for all eternity

This is unbiblical. The biblical view of retribution is “an eye for an eye”: the harm bestowed in retribution should be equal to the harm caused by the offence. Seeing as it is impossible to harm or offend God (he is immutable), sin simply cannot lead to any sort of divine retribution under this schema.

Instead, sin is it’s own punishment as the primary person who is harmed by sin is the sinner. Someone who hates and curses God does not harm God: they harm themselves. And so God never punishes anyone, he only ever rescues us and liberates us from slavery and bondage to selfishness, death, and pride.

There will indeed be a cosmic equalisation, where the rich will be made poor and the poor will be made rich. Hitler will experience the harm he has caused. Rapists will be made to feel the terror and torment they have inflicted. Justice will be done.

But the ending of the story is reconciliation, forgiveness and joy: Hitler will sing songs with the Jews, rapists and their victims will embrace, broken families will reunite.

At the centre of it all will be pure, triune love. The three divine, perichoretic circles that drive the cosmos to perfection. Love wins, Hell loses, and this is the only eternal reality we need to anticipate.

David Bentley Hart – That All Shall Be Saved

I’ve just read the recently released book length essay by David Bentley Hart concerning Universal Salvation – “That All Shall Be Saved”. I was pleasantly surprised to be struck with some insights regarding theodicy and the mystery of evil, which now seem completely obvious to me despite being elusive up to this point. Here they are in dot point form

  1. Contrary to popular educated Christian opinion, evil does have an identifiable reality and substance and essence; evil is not merely an illusion. The experience of pain is the essence and substance of evil. In this way, evil is a real and true component of the fabric of reality – and we are all intimately familiar with it – even if it is understood to be a privation and purely negative, parasitical phenomenon. For example when someone is tortured, both the act and the outcome are evil (although even in the case of a torture the intention is good, as in the case of torturing someone to obtain information which would prevent a destructive act of terrorism).
  2. God does not sovereignly determine evil acts and outcomes. He merely sovereignly permits them. The one single thing that God sovereignly determines is the glorious eschaton and a creation which is constructed in such a way that it infallibly arrives at this eschaton – this is the essence of predestination. The intermediate details are almost entirely determined by us and our autonomous agency (ie, free will) – putting aside direct and divine miraculous intervention.
  3. God does not control all things, but he does create all things. Everything that happens happens because God sustains it in existence and creates it – including our autonomous “free” choices. However God is not a puppet master; nothing is caused by God in the same sense that a puppeteer pulls strings to animate his puppet, or in the same sense that I cause a billiard ball to move by striking it. (For more on this point, search for “Double Agency” and “Synergism” and “The Causal Joint”)
  4. Evil is not part of God’s plan and God’s original design had no evil in it. If it were up to God, there would be no evil. God neither desired nor ordained the Holocaust, he merely permitted it. The holocaust is not an integral component of God’s plan, and he still would bring about the glorious apokatastasis even if the holocaust had never happened.
  5. Our freedom means that the possibility of evil is necessary, but the actuality of evil is not essential. In other words rapes, murders, tsunamis and genocides are not crucial components of God’s plan to bring us to the eschaton, even though rapes, murders and tsunamis are accounted for in that plan. In other words, God has built contingencies into evil, such that it always rubber-bands back to good, in both a temporary and ultimate sense, but his plan does not require evil in order for him to achieve his purposes.
  6. God does not play dice; he knew all possible outcomes of his act of creation before he created – to speak analogically – and yet he went ahead and created anyway. He arranged creation such that everything works together to bring about the glorious eschaton, regardless of whether evil occurs or not. This implies that regardless of how much or how little evil we commit, all things are predestined to the happy ending of the eschaton. To put it in a catchy sound bite, freedom pertains to history while sovereignty pertains to eschatology.
  7. It will not do to complain that the one true gospel of universal salvation renders all action meaningless, “so we may as well eat, drink, have sex and be merry, because it will all be ok in the end anyway regardless of how we behave”. This attitude is completely delusional. Evil is not a step towards the eschaton, it is always a step away from it. For this reason, so long as we remain in our sins, the eschaton is prevented from being actualised. You can’t “sin and still be saved”: So long as you go on sinning, the promised eschaton is prevented from being realised. However, God has created reality in such a way that eventually everyone will infallibly be enlightened as to the truth of things and cease from sinning.
  8. There are two relevant conceptions of Hell to entertain.
    • The first is where someone else holds us in the flames against our will (for example in the case of rape or torture) for sadistic ends. For example the Calvinist god (ie, Satan) wants to demonstrate his attributes and glory, so he damns people to hell and derives selfish glory from their tortures and takes sadistic pleasure in their pain, and all the while they are screaming for mercy and trying to escape. In this first conception, we are in Hell because someone has abducted us and carried us there and held us against our will. To escape from this damnation, some third party has to come and defeat the monstrous prison master and trample the gates of Hell, allowing everyone to escape to freedom. (cf, early “ransom” theories of atonement)
    • The second conception of Hell is where no one is actively holding us in the flames but our very own selves. In this second conception, to remain in the fire could only be due to slavery to ignorance and insanity. However unlike the first conception of Hell, in this conception we do retain our agency and autonomy and dignity, despite being enslaved to the powers of darkness and delusion. Under this second schema we retain the ability to make mistakes and learn from them, and as the ages go by it is inevitable that we will eventually make all the possible mistakes and learn all the possible lessons, and therefore eventually arrive at a state of being wherein we always make the right choices; it is only at this point that we truly can be said to be “free”, “liberated” and “saved”. In this second conception, the process of salvation is less of a “prisonbreak” and more of an education.
  9. People always seek God in everything that they do, it’s just that sometimes (often) they do it in entirely the wrong way. Even the sadistic rapist is not primarily trying to inflict harm on his victim; he is merely seeking pleasure, which is itself a good thing, but unfortunately in this case the pleasure is coming at the expense of the pain of a second person, and this pain is an evil thing. As such, the ultimate sin is to seek retribution: “You hurt me, so I will hurt you”, which only leads to “I hurt you, so you are going to hurt me” and this continues in a vicious circle forever, condemning all of us to an everlasting Hell. The only way to break free from this samsaric cycle of vengeance inflicted and vengeance suffered is to adopt an attitude of mercy, grace and true justice, which involves striving for love and unconditional forgiveness, rather than clinging on to a disordered desire for revenge and “justice”.
  10. It should be recognised that even the desire for revenge and retributive “justice” is in actual fact a desire for God, but it is a fundamentally disordered desire because it has conflated seeking heaven for oneself with inflicting Hell on someone else, and this will in actual fact only serve to perpetuate the current situation – which is a seemingly endless circle of evil, pain and suffering; something of a massa damnata. Retributive justice can only serve to postpone the glorious apokatastasis that we all ultimately crave. However at the point where everyone understands that always and unconditionally seeking the good for the other is the key to true happiness – rather than seeking revenge – the eschaton will have finally been inaugurated. Cue the second coming. Cue the final resurrection. Cue the glorification of Satan and his demons. God is finally all in all, and the glory is infinite and the rejoicing never ends. All are in love and love is in all, and all the evils we had suffered were worth enduring after all. Thanks be to God

Hermeneutics 101 – What is Everlasting Hell?: Eternal Punishments and Timeless Tortures

Aἰώνιον Punishment

Matthew 25:31-46RSV-CE

31 “When the Son of man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33 and he will place the sheep at his right hand, but the goats at the left. 34 Then the King will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink? 38 And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and clothe thee? 39 And when did we see thee sick or in prison and visit thee?’ 40 And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.’ 41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44 Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to thee?’ 45 Then he will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me.’ 46 And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” – These terrifying words of our lord are one of many scriptural passages commonly invoked to prove that the mainstream understanding of everlasting punishment and perpetual torments is clearly and explicitly taught by scripture.

Now, as has been discussed at length and in great detail by other people far more learned than me, the original Greek is not quite as clear cut as the English translation on this issue. In Greek, the original passage is simply ambiguous, and not necessarily as scary as it might at first appear. To summarise: the Greek word αἰώνιον, commonly translated as “everlasting” or “eternal”, more literally translates to “of the coming age”. As such, a far more literal translation of Matthew 25:46 reads “And they will go away into the punishment of the age to come, but the righteous into the life of the age to come.” Note that a literal translation such as this says absolutely nothing about the duration of the eternal punishment or the eternal life. The life may last forever; it may be temporary. So too with the everlasting punishment. The verse simply does not specify any durations.

everlasting hellIt is true that αἰώνιον can be translated as “everlasting” or “eternal”, however these two options do not exhaust the translational range of this word. There are other alternatives, which may arise in diverse contexts. As such, it is entirely within the realm of possibility that we could employ a literal translation so that αἰώνιον does not mean “eternal” in Matthew 25:46.

So much for the Greek. When arguing theology with a protestant who dogmatically follows the historical-critical method of hermeneutics, this argument can be employed to great effect. However following this line of argument with a knowledgeable Catholic might not have quite the same impact. As discussed previously on this blog, Catholics give just as much authority and weight to translations of scripture as they give to the original manuscripts written in the original languages. As such, a Catholic cannot simply dismiss the English translation of Matthew 25:46 with the wave of a historical-critical hand.

Catholics are stuck with an authoritative, magisterially approved translation of scripture which undeniably reads “everlasting punishment”. What are we Catholics who subscribe to the gospel of universal salvation to do?

Experience and Reality of Everlasting Punishment

So eschatalogical punishment is in some sense “everlasting”: what sense could it be? Assuming that the gospel message of universal salvation is true rules out the idea that the everlasting punishment of Hell is “objectively” everlasting. This would be a contradiction. Something has to give: either we abandon the gospel and resign ourselves to the depressing notion that there will be people who never make it to heaven, or we find a way to reinterpret the passage in question in order to harmonise it with the gospel message.

Everlasting PunishmentI would like to propose a way of understanding this passage which does not contradict the gospel: What if “eternal punishment” is not understood as an objective reality, but is instead understood as a description of a subjective experience? To elaborate: What if – in reality – the eternal punishment of the damned really does come to an end, and yet what that everlasting punishment actually feels like to someone who is experiencing it involves a sensation of timelessness and eternity? Those of you who have had a bad psychedelic trip before potentially know exactly what I am talking about. During a bad trip your sense of time completely dissolves: you do not have an intuitive perception of the passage of time; you feel as if you are stuck in a timeless, eternal, everlasting moment and it feels like Hell. Of course in reality time is indeed still passing by and the trip will eventually come to an end, but in the thick of the action and the heat of the moment you have no understanding of this idea and feel trapped in an eternal prison of terror, pain and suffering. If that’s not a description of Hellish torments I don’t know what is.

This actually makes sense according to traditional theological and philosophical presuppositions. It is widely accepted that there is no time in the afterlife. As such the afterlife is presumably experienced as a “timeless” moment, similar to the psychedelic experience. However there is also a firm traditional understanding that despite the lack of time, there is still change in the afterlife. If this were not the case, then it would not be possible to escape purgatory, but it is dogmatic fact that all who enter into purgatory will successfully escape. As such “Eternal punishment” in scripture could very easily be referring to the experience of purgatory.

So what if eternal punishment is just like a bad trip (although perhaps infinitely worse in intensity)? The eternal punishment does not literally “last forever”, it merely is experienced as “timeless”. This is still a completely terrifying prospect, and is not a fate that you would want to wish on anyone, however – unlike the standard understanding of objectively eternal torments – it is completely compatible with the gospel. Why should Hell have the final say? Does this not contradict the good news of the gospel? Hell is everlasting, but Christ can still defeat it and rescue the captives who are detained there. Gehenna is eternal, but God can still bust down the doors and liberate the sinners therein from their slavery to evil, death, and Satan. Hades is timeless, but Jesus can still trample down its gates and free all men from the clutches of sin and rebellion against love.

So timeless punishment is a subjective experience, it is not an objective reality. Christ will still have the victory and all who are cast into the lake of fire will eventually repent through the flames. God will be all in all. Amen