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

Salvation is Both Necessary and Gratuitous – Father God Loves All People Without Exception: On the Impossibility of a World Without the Cross

imageI often hear Protestants talk about the cross as if it were a gift which God could just as easily have withheld from us. They talk about Grace and Salvation as if it is all some supererogatory gift on Gods part which he could have just as easily chosen not to bestow upon us. I completely deny this. God is first and foremost the perfect, loving father: it is in God’s nature to save his wayward children, just as it is in the nature of any parent to save their children from irreparable harm. What parent, when confronted with their drowning child, would refuse to dive into the water and rescue the helpless infant? If we broken and imperfect humans are able to act with such decision, then how much more will the God of infinite love and mercy dive into the strangling depths of Hell to rescue us! If God didn’t save us, he would be going against his nature and this is something which he can never do. He is not only a God of Justice, content to punish sin: Before all else he is a God of love, who must save us from that sin.

To say that God will refuse or fail to save someone is a great and abominable blasphemy. Those who speak such horrible words understand neither Grace nor Love, neither Mercy nor Justice. Such people are entirely ignorant of the things of God and are completely unacquainted with the glorious gospel of our Lord’s victory over sin, death, Hell and The demonic powers.

Pray for the salvation of all and eagerly await the advent of the eschaton, wherein all without exception will dance a dance of love around the throne of God, singing praises and hymns to the sovereign, kind and merciful lord of the universe, to the ages of ages, amen.

Mormonism and Orthodoxy – Holy Saturday and the Unquenchable Love of the Latter Day Saints

Hans-Memling-The-Last-Judgment-The-First-Stolen-Painting[1].jpgThought experiment: You go to heaven but your family goes to Hell. How do you feel?

  • Option 1, The “traditional” option: Nothing can subtract from the joy of heaven, so you experience a sadistic pleasure as you watch your family burn. You rejoice at God’s justice and glory, crying tears of ecstatic joy as you witness your family brutally torn asunder before your eyes for all eternity.
  • Option 2, The “heroin addiction” option: You are so entirely overwhelmed by God’s glorious presence that you cease to be aware of anything else. Your family ceases to matter to you: You simply don’t care about them any more. God’s love is just so enticing and addictive that you no longer give a fuck about anything.
  • Option 3, The “loving and charitable” option: You love your family so much that you are aghast and horrified as you witness them burn. The joy of heaven cannot be complete unless they too are saved. With this in mind, you organise a mission to Hell, descending into the darkness to minister to the lost souls who are trapped there and doing everything you can to help them repent and escape their terrible fate.

Which response sounds the most “Christian” to you?

Options 1, 2 and 3 correspond to the most popular views on the issue in Catholicism, Protestantism and Mormonism (Latter Day Saints) respectively. Option 1 in particular was famously formulated by St Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologica. As such it has enjoyed significant support among lay Catholics, clerics and theologians. I’m not sure who first formulated option 2, but it seems to be the prevalent view among Calvinists and Evangelicals. Oddly enough this is one of the few situations where the Calvinists come across as less Satanic than the Catholics. Option 3 has a precedent in the Orthodox and Catholic tradition in the form of Christ’s harrowing of Hell on Holy Saturday, but it has received it’s most full and robust expression in the official theology of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

php_hell_01[1].jpgAs I have spoken about previously on this blog, I do not necessarily disagree with Aquinas’ assessment of the situation outlined in my thought experiment. If I go to heaven and my family go to Hell, I will indeed rejoice. However the reason behind my rejoicing is entirely different to that proposed by Aquinas. Aquinas asks us to believe that we will take some sort of sadistic pleasure in the suffering of the damned; We cry tears of joy as we contemplate God’s justice in action and witness our families suffering in the flames. Whereas the only reason I can agree that I will rejoice at the sufferings of the damned is that I am an advocate for universal salvation, therefore it seems clear to me that the saints will share in God’s omniscience and so come to a perfect understanding of exactly how all this excruciatingly horrible suffering fits into the divine plan of salvation.

Personally, I think that the Orthodox and Catholic traditions surrounding Holy Saturday give sufficient motivation to cast doubt on the standard view, and actually lend support to the Mormon view. For those who are unfamiliar with Holy Saturday, this is the elaboration of the clause in the apostles creed which says “He (Jesus) descended into Hell”. Basically the story goes, that during the 3 days between Jesus’ Crucifixion and Resurrection, our lord and saviour Jesus Christ descended to the darkest depths of Hell in order to preach the gospel and minister to the spirits who were trapped in this prison. Many of these people believed the gospel and were busted out of Hell, triumphantly following the lamb of God out of the jaws of death and into the light and bliss of heavenly paradise.

Cotton+MS+Nero+C+IV+f.24[1].pngNow, most people seem to take this as a “one-off”; a “once in a lifetime” event. However it seems clear to me that this is not the case. For one thing, there is no time in the afterlife; it is not a temporal existence. The afterlife is either aeviternal or eternal depending on who you ask. Either way, there is no time. As such, Holy Saturday was an eternal event. It seems reasonable to me that we should all expect to meet a ministering Christ when we die. Holy Saturday was not just a historical curiosity wherein Jesus busted out the righteous Old Testament Jews from the Limbo of the Fathers; I suspect that instead, Holy Saturday was an eternal, universal event; encompassing all souls who pass over to the unknown realms of Hades and death.

Interestingly, it doesn’t require much more development from this point to arrive at the Mormon (Latter Day Saints) view. It is generally accepted by Catholics and Orthodox that salvation involves theosis. Theosis involves a full and robust participation in divinity, including the attributes of omniscience, omnipotence, omnibenevolence, as well as a sharing in Christ’s kingship, priesthood, mediation, intercession and ministry. It is this last point which is important: All of us share in Christ’s ministry. Does this not include his ministry to the dead? Is it really so unreasonable to expect that perfected saints will join Christ in his harrowing of Hell, descending into the darkness of Hades and the flames of Gehenna to charitably minister to the poor souls who are trapped there; preaching the good news of the gospel to them, exhorting them to believe and repent, experiencing compassion and love for these wayward, lost spirits?

Latter Day SaintsHonestly this alternative is the most plausible account of afterlife relations I have heard. It always excites me to no end when I meet Mormons (Latter Day Saints), because I know that this theology of afterlife ministry is dear to their hearts as well. Admittedly, Mormon (Latter Day Saints) eschatology and cosmology are incredibly wacky, and their doctrine of God is laughable. However on this particular point, I think the Latter Day Saints church has struck theological gold. Many of these cults and new religious movements are trying to recover a more consistent, more loving view of God. On this particular issue, I think the Mormons (Latter Day Saints) get it right.

Thank God for Mormons; they really are a lovely bunch.

Testimony – Catholic to Universalist

(Go to Part 1: “Agnostic to Christian”)

Clashing with my Past

It was mid-2014. After my realisation that I was already a Catholic, I begun to do a total practical transition from Protestantism to Catholicism: I stopped attending church at St Barnabas, convinced that it was all false teaching. I slowly stopped attending Credo events and disentangled myself from Credo people. I was still friendly with many of the wonderful people I had met in Credo, for example Poya, Luke Simpson and Timothy Ho, but I did not go out of my way to hang out with them.

During this time I was still on the leadership team of the FOCUS ministry. I began to second guess myself. Should I really be on this team if I am a Catholic? If I believe that the FOCUS team is spreading false teaching and teaching a counterfeit gospel, am I really comfortable contributing to that?

61UgA-K7sDL._UY395_[1]One day I brought some rosary beads along to a FOCUS event, and was showing them to people and talking about how they help you to pray. I did not actually know how to pray the rosary at the time, but I was just looking for some way to affirm my identity as a Catholic. This caught the attention of Helen Yim, who recognised the rosary beads as a typically Catholic accessory, even though she didn’t understand their significance or what they are used for. She was completely unimpressed.

She sent me a text message saying “Alex, you can’t bring those ‘rose beads’ to FOCUS again. If you do, I will have to take you off the leadership team. Salvation is found IN CHRIST ALONE” I responded with “Of course salvation is found in Christ alone. What has that got to do with Catholicism or rosary beads? Catholics are in complete agreement. Besides, I’m resigning from my position anyway; I don’t feel comfortable serving alongside people who believe in heresy any more.” Helen clearly was a victim of the anti-Catholic indoctrination and propaganda that is so rampant among Evangelicals. She was probably convinced that I was flirting with heresy and my salvation was in question.

Early Catholic Days

I signed up to the UTS Catholic society and integrated myself into one of their small groups. I found the Catholic small groups to be an intriguing contrast to the Credo bible studies. The Catholic society really was much smaller and more incognito than Credo, with almost no noticeable presence on Campus. During the small groups, we would discuss saints and church documents, rather than reading the bible. This was in direct contrast to Credo, which had a singular focus on the scriptural text in both small groups and public talks. At first I found this very jarring, as my evangelical formation had indoctrinated me into the erroneous idea that Christianity is primarily about studying the bible. I later found out that Catholics place much more emphasis on Liturgical participation and the multi-faceted life of prayer.

I started going to Sunday mass at St Benedict’s, Broadway; a Catholic church only a few steps away from St Barnabas. I was introduced to what seemed at the time to be an intriguing quirk of the Catholic religion: daily mass. Every now and then I attended daily mass and confession. I quickly wrangled with the idea that there is a “Sunday Obligation” and that the acceptable times to fulfil this obligation are any time on a Sunday or the Saturday night vigil.

high-mass[1].jpgFor about the first two years of being a Catholic, mass was entirely cryptic and impenetrable to me. I had not memorised the structure or the responses, and the language employed in the prayers was so high and lofty that it may as well have been Latin, even though it was English. Some times it actually was Latin.

The Sunday service really didn’t appeal to me as much as the old protestant services did. The homilies were cryptic and not at all evangelical. The Priest never actually explained the bible readings, and would instead focus on moral exhortation. The sense of community in the parish was practically non-existent. At St Benedict’s there was a super evangelical Singaporean girl called Priscilla Liem who managed to hold together a basic sense of fellowship among some of the students and young workers, but it really was nothing compared to the spontaneous and naturally loving community that I had experienced in my time hanging out with Protestants. The parish really seemed dead: most people would just stay for the liturgy, receive communion and go straight home. Some people would even leave before the final blessing or during the communion hymn.

This was not something that I had anticipated during my internet research into Catholicism. I began to feel isolated and disillusioned, and started to have doubts about whether I had made the right decision to return to Catholicism and renounce Protestantism. However I decided to stick it out and keep going to mass and confession because Catholicism simply made so much sense on paper.

During this time I still had the thought hovering over my head that perhaps the Orthodox church is the true church rather than the Catholic church. However as time went by I began to ponder the role of the Papacy. It became clear to me that Jesus appointed Peter as the leader of the apostles and the church, and therefore whoever succeeds Peter inherits that position as leader. I realised that the way to identify the one true church was first to look for the Pope, and then to look for the bishops who are in communion with that Pope. Once I understood this principle, I begin to intellectually feel much more comfortable in my choice of Catholicism over Orthodoxy. Nevertheless, I retained a great respect for Eastern theology and it had a large influence over my thinking in the subsequent months.

reformation-conference[1].jpgUnfortunately it was around about this time that I had a minor falling out with Alex Macdonald, and we fell out of regular contact for some time. I had massive respect for Alex Macdonald, and he had somewhat mentored me through my post-cult early Christian days. He had lent me books and been extremely generous with his time, reading the bible with me and having deep and meaningful chats. Naturally I wanted to share my Catholic journey with him. When I met up with him, we ended up getting into violent debates. Alex was obviously very concerned at my movement towards Catholicism. I suspect he felt as though he had invested a lot in me and was a tad distraught that I was drifting away towards something he didn’t really understand or agree with. Our arguments were passionate, as we both shared our core convictions with each other. Alex was convinced that the Catholic church had gone astray in the middle ages and that the reformation had got the church “Back on track”. I was convinced that sacred tradition and an infallible magisterium were essential components of the one true church and it would be inappropriate and catastrophic to dispense with them.

Me and Alex went our separate ways, and I haven’t been in regular contact with him ever since. I catch up with him sporadically and he has since mellowed out and accepts me as the Catholic that I am. I of course still have tremendous respect for him and wish him nothing but the best.

Relationship Adventures

virgin1[1].jpgDuring this time, I had also been maintaining a long distance relationship with Mindy. We had incredibly long chats on facebook messenger, and sent very long emails to each other. We were incredibly open and honest with each other. Perhaps a little too honest. Mindy revealed some truly shocking things about her past and I was totally open about my virginity and insecurities surrounding sex. She didn’t realise I was a virgin. I had been pulling the Chinese girls off their boyfriends left right and centre during China mission so she obviously just assumed I had a lot of sexual experience in my pre-Christian days. Admittedly I had tried to cultivate this misconception in a spirit of “fake it till you make it” – a remnant of my pick up artist days. But I figured honesty was the best policy. I thought to myself, “If she thinks I’m going to be a God in the sack and we end up getting married, how disappointed is she going to be when she finds out that I’m an inexperienced virgin?” With this thought in mind, I decided to drop the “Virgin” bombshell on her. She took it extremely well, although admitted that she was surprised and that I had successfully fooled her into thinking otherwise. She reassured me that it was nothing to worry about.

Eventually, Mindy managed to get me to swap out my old Nokia 3315 for a slightly better model which had the capacity to run Whatsapp. This was a crazy learning experience for me. My relationship failures from my high school days had taught me to distrust internet chat software, so I had some psychological barriers to overcome in order to engage with favicon[1]Mindy in this way. Whatsapp was on 24/7 from then on out, and I was receiving a constant stream of messages from Mindy. This was unknown territory for me: as an introvert who generally shunned technology, being connected in this way was a somewhat scary prospect which would take some time to adjust to. I was used to spending most of my waking hours alone, in the company of myself, enjoying being with my own thoughts. But all of a sudden I was having to put up with this constant barrage of messages from Hong Kong. But of course, I was in love, so I was willing to give it a go in order to keep some fire in a long distance relationship.

During our many facebook and email sessions, I dropped the “Catholic” bombshell on her as well. I informed her that I was thinking of converting to Catholicism and attempted to explain some of the reasons why. I assured her that the prospect of converting does not appeal to me because I am quite happy as an Evangelical, nevertheless I feel compelled to investigate the Catholic claims. I was secretly hoping that she would come along for the ride and investigate Catholicism with me, by my side. I was hoping that she would have an open mind, like me, and be able to overcome her prejudices and entrenched bias against Catholicism. Unfortunately this was not the case, and this fundamental difference in personality and outlook led to relationship disaster further down the line.

Mindy had some reservations about my becoming Catholic. She didn’t actually understand what Catholicism was all about: It was a scary and foreign concept to her. The only things she knew about Catholicism were what she had learned at CBS and what her Evangelical ministers had told her, and this was obviously not going to be a friendly assessment of the faith. I ended up hiding just how Catholic I had become since she had last seen me. It was an easy thing to hide in the context of a long distance relationship: I just simply had to avoid talking about my conversion.

Mindy Returns to Sydney

10404324_10153064836764813_5048957769984912660_n[1].jpgEventually December rolled around again. Mindy was scheduled to return to Sydney for her graduation ceremony at UNSW. She brought her whole family, complete with Godparents. I had not seen her since China Mission six months ago, and was incredibly excited to meet her face to face again. We organised to meet up at the AFES headquarters near UNSW just prior to her graduation ceremony. When I finally got to see her in person again, I had forgotten how much shorter than me she was and it sort of threw me off. Nevertheless she looked gorgeous and I was so happy to finally see her in person.

I sat with Mindy’s family and watched her graduation ceremony, and then afterwards her family left us alone and we went to dinner with some of Mindy’s friends from UNSW. The following few days I spent hanging out with Mindy and her family. We went to the fish markets, I visited the flat they were staying in at Zetland and brought an entire lobster in my backpack for dinner, we visited the opera house. I invited Mindy to an evening art exhibition put on by some friends from UTS housing. It was great to finally see her and be in each other’s presence.

Mindy’s family went back to China, but Mindy remained in Sydney on holiday. NTE 2014 was rapidly approaching and both me and Mindy had signed up and were looking forward to it. I recall when it finally arrived. All of Mindy’s friends were advising her not to get into a relationship with me seeing as I was flirting with Catholicism so much. Mindy had a catch up with Helen Yim, and I can’t help but speculate that Helen told her in extremely strong words to break up and stay away from me. There was a moment during free time when we were sitting outside on some grass. It was a great opportunity to kick back and relax in each other’s presence, but Mindy had other plans.

hail-mary1[1].jpgShe started interrogating me about my Catholicism, asking me why I’m not satisfied with the Bible and why I need to become Catholic. Why couldn’t I just stay as an evangelical? The discussion slowly heated up and eventually both of us were feeling high strung and emotional. It finally got to a point where Mindy strongly implied that Catholics are not Christians and it was the final straw and ultimate insult for me. I stomped off in exasperation and sorrow. The next session was starting, but I didn’t go. I just sat at the edge of the oval, praying. It was at this time that I prayed my first Hail Mary as an act of spiritual defiance against the bigoted and ignorant Protestants who surrounded me. This was a crucial turning point in my Catholic journey.: I had finally opened my heart to beloved Mary, even if in a spirit of defiance and martyrdom rather than love and devotion.

Following NTE there was a short mission trip. I went to Sadlier in western Sydney with some of the Credo UTS crew, while Mindy went up to Port Macquarie with all the people from the Cantonese FOCUS church at UNSW. We stayed in communication during our respective missions, and Mindy invited me to come and visit Port Macquarie once my mission was complete. I caught the train up the coast and arrived at Port Macquarie, where Mindy’s lovely host family picked me up in their big car and drove me to their big house. This turned into a nice little holiday spent with Mindy and her host family, who were incredibly hospitable.

The Holy Grail

We returned to Sydney, and it turned out that Mindy had nowhere concrete lined up where she could stay. She got in contact with Ai, a Japanese girl from UTS FOCUS who lived in one of the other UTS Housing complexes – Bulga Ngurra. Ai was happy to welcome her into her flat, providing a mattress and bedroom in which she could sleep.

However that’s not exactly how things played out. Mindy would spend every second night in my flat staying up late chatting with me and my flatmates. As the clock ticked away, she would propose that it’s far too late to disturb Ai and can’t she just stay with me? It seemed like the easiest thing to do, so I agreed. And of course I still suffered from a desire to be intimate with a girl and was secretly hoping that she would stay.

Naturally, we started to indulge in some serious fornicating. At first I just let her sleep in my bed while I slept on the floor. But one night while we were chatting in the dim light of my red lava lamp, she suddenly rolled off the bed, landed on my chest and started making out with me. This was a pretty exciting and new experience for me and I let myself enjoy it. Things quickly turned extremely sensual, sexual and erotic, without us technically having sex.

Things carried on this way as the days rolled by, and I would sometimes spend all day in my bed with Mindy, just rolling around with her; we were tickling each other, kissing each other all over and physically playing with each other. It was all very fun, but of course there was this terrible guilt gnawing away at me. I intuitively knew I shouldn’t be doing this.

131122232657-sex-couple-feet-bed-super-tease[1].jpgOne day I finally arrived at the destination I had been craving prior to my experimentation with psychedelics: I had sexual intercourse. This was a very strange experience. It was over incredibly quickly and I felt somewhat confused about it afterwards. I had a chat to my psychologist at EIPS the next day in order to attempt to integrate the experience. It really all felt somewhat anticlimactic, and it was honestly nothing like what I had been expecting all these years (Of course, I had a totally warped view of sex thanks to my prior porn addiction; this probably contributed to the emotions I was feeling). I also had a whole bunch of religious guilt getting in the way. It seemed clear to me that I had seriously sinned and I really should have saved this experience for marriage, when I could have properly appreciated it.

The Arguments Begin

During this time spent in my bedroom, we got talking about matters of faith. She still was concerned about my Catholicism, and I was unimpressed with her Protestantism. It was at this time that we had our second serious fight. She was trying to convince me that the bible is the word of God, but the way she was going about it was entirely irrational. She was completely unable to account for the canon, the source of the bible’s authority and so on. I accused her of having blind faith. She accused me of being a “young Christian” and belittled my serious reservations by calling them “young Christian questions”. Her pride was manifest: she thought she was a better Christian than me just because she had grown up in a Christian family and therefore had technically been one longer than I had. This fight was a total yelling match and I’m sure the rest of the people in my flat could hear every detail.

But we were in love, so we were able to push past this fight and continue fornicating, and hanging out during the day. At one stage, when I was dropping her off at Ai’s house in a futile attempt to regain some moral cleanliness in my life, she stopped me and started talking to me in an extremely emotional yet serious tone.

hqdefault[3]“Promise that you will move to Hong Kong after you graduate” she pouted. “Promise me that you will never leave me”: She was threatening to call off the relationship if I don’t move to Hong Kong to be with her ASAP. I was willing, but I didn’t want to commit to such a drastic life change without thinking about it first. But Mindy was relentless: She pulled every string she could think of in order to try and get me to make this crazy promise. She put on as much pressure as she could. Eventually I caved and made the promise. She was satisfied.

Long Distance Again

Mindy’s holiday came to an end and she flew back to Hong Kong. 2015 had arrived.

I had spoken to Helen Yim about my plans for the future and she advised me to enrol in TESOL and learn to teach English. My degree up to that point had been in Information Technology and I absolutely hated it, so I was looking for some sort of exit strategy. This seemed like the perfect opportunity.

crazy-party[1].jpgI begun to talk to Mindy every night on facetime. As well as talking to her non-stop throughout the day on whatsapp. We would call and catch up for hours, which severely interfered with my sleep and had a fatal effect on my mood stability. At the same time, somehow during this semester our flat had been designated as the party flat. Every night until midnight – and sometimes longer – there would be crazy Europeans partying like animals right outside my bedroom door. Half of the flat was keen on the situation, and half of the flat absolutely hated it. It was keeping me up well past a healthy bed time and I had to invest in some uncomfortable ear plugs just to sleep through the night.

During the mid semester break I made a trip to Hong Kong to visit Mindy. Her Grandma was kind enough to let me stay with them in their already overcrowded flat. Naturally, we continued our fornication and intercourse at every opportunity. I was slowly gaining more experience with sex, which made me feel good. But at the same time I was overwhelmed with a crushing guilt, knowing that I really shouldn’t be doing this. I was also terrified at the prospect that Mindy might get pregnant: We never used contraception.

We continued to argue and fight over theological matters during this trip. On the day before I was to return to Sydney, Mindy looked at me with an overcast face and said “I’m not happy with this relationship”, clearly implying that she wanted to break up. I wasn’t having it, and managed to convince her that it’s not all bad and things will work out: A Catholic and a Protestant getting married is totally possible and feasible.

Wedding-Proposal-1c-T-Shirts[1].jpgAt the airport on the day of my departure, I got down on one knee and proposed to her. This wasn’t really as big a deal as it sounds. We were practically already engaged, seeing as we had started the relationship under the proviso that we would be married within two years.

I returned to Sydney and continued studying my diploma in TESOL. News of our “Official” engagement leaked to facebook and all sorts of people who I didn’t even know came up to me and congratulated me.

As the semester came to an end and the mid year break approached, Mindy brought up the promise I had made to her when I was in Sydney. She started putting pressure on me to move to Hong Kong. My doctors, family and psychologist were doing everything they could to convince me that this was a bad idea: In Hong Kong I would be completely cut off from every single support network that I have; no more doctors; no more friends; no more family; no more medicare; no more cheap drugs.

But I wanted to remain a virtuous person who keeps his promises, and so against my better judgement, I gave in to Mindy’s nagging and got ready to depart for Hong Kong. In retrospect, it was incredibly manipulative of Mindy to have made me make this promise in the first place. I was not prepared at all to start a new life in Hong Kong.

The Big Move

My bags were packed. I had a suitcase full of drugs that would last me for months, and another bag loaded with clothes and some books. When I arrived in Hong Kong I had no job and nowhere to live. Mindy’s minister kindly let me stay at his house for a few days while I found my feet.

hongkong[1].jpg

I found myself living in a “Tong Fong” at Tin Shui Wai run by an incredibly dodgy landlord. A Tong Fong is basically a house that has been artificially subdivided into a series of smaller rooms, which are then rented out to poor suckers like me. In my particular Tong Fong, I was living in the kitchen of the flat. My flatmates had to step over me while I was sleeping in order to get their breakfast out of the fridge.

caged-homes[1].jpgYou might be surprised to learn that Tong Fongs are not even the lowest rung on the ladder of Hong Kong housing options. I was spared the fate of living in a “Cage house”: this is basically just a bed in a cage, with a box for you to throw your wallet and passport in while you sleep.

This could not go on for long: my mental state was already pretty shaky, and living in a Tong Fong was not doing anything to help the situation.

I begun to look for a job. I went to an online Hong Kong jobs database and began browsing. I typed “English Teacher” into the search bar and set the category to “Information Technology”. I was incredibly surprised when this actually resulted in a hit: Some English school called “Butterfly milk” was looking for a programmer to come and help them start up a course aimed at teaching technological concepts to children. I thought to myself “This sounds good” and applied for an interview.

The next day I trekked the two stations down the line to Yuen Long, and made my way to this school. In 20 minutes I had conquered the interview and the owner of the school – the half South African, half Cantonese Aaron Mo – was willing to hire me on the spot. I had obviously managed to muster up enough passion for Technology to convince Aaron that I was the real deal.

1200px-YOHO_Town_Phase_1_2011[1].jpgOne of the perks of the job was that it came with relatively comfortable accommodation if I needed it. Aaron’s beautiful girlfriend and assistant, Samantha, took me up for a tour of the flat. The complex was called “YOHO Town”. It was incredibly cramped by Sydney standards, but I could instantly tell that by Hong Kong standards it was luxury living. I asked for the rental price and found out that I would get a great deal: The English school would subsidise over half of the rent because Aaron was planning to use the living room of the flat as a combination office and workshop. I signed up immediately.

When I returned to Tin Shui Wai and attempted to cancel my lease with the owner of the Tong Fong, he wasn’t willing to budge. He wanted to hold onto my bond and two weeks rent and didn’t want to cancel the contract. Mindy got on the phone with him and went into full crazy bitch mode, which freaked him out and forced him to relent and hand over the money.

Life in Hong Kong

I fell into a daily grind: every now and then I would teach English in the school. Most days I would spend programming and building robots up in the flat with another foreign employee – the gorgeous Annika Neumeister from Germany. At the end of the day I would travel on the MTR through the mountains between the New Territories of Hong Kong and Kowloon, so as to meet up with Mindy and go on dates. This happened literally every day, week in and week out. I felt as if I had no time to myself.

Ss._Peter_and_Paul_Church_(Hong_Kong)[1].jpgDuring this time I attended Sunday mass at the local Catholic Church: St Peter and Paul’s, Yuen Long. The congregation consisted almost entirely of Filipino maids and Nigerian workers. It was during my time at this church that I first began to fall in love with Catholic liturgy. The music and singing were heavenly and sublime. The prayers of the mass began to come alive for me and resonate deep within my heart. The prayer of the centurion filled me with zeal and conviction as I repeated it every Sunday: “Lord I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed”. I could relate to this prayer on the deepest level: I knew I was a sinner in need of healing, and as I repeated the formula I was always shaking with a strange combination of hope and despair: I thought to myself “I know you can heal me Lord; please, do it!”

Despite the fact that I was friendly with the priests at this church, I didn’t form any relationships with the congregation. We simply couldn’t relate to each other. I was a supposedly “rich” gwai lo, whereas they were all “lower class”.

In contrast to this, each Sunday evening me and Mindy were coming together to visit an English Anglican church on Nathan Road – St Andrews Kowloon. The people at this church were typical Protestant Evangelicals: incredibly warm, friendly and loving. The leadership had all studied in Sydney at Moore College, so the services they delivered felt very familiar and reminded me of my Evangelical days. Despite this warm welcome, I felt a bit unnerved: I was starved for Catholic companionship. I did not want to hang out with heretics. You become the company you keep, and I deeply desired to form some Catholic friendships. These happy Protestants were not what I needed. I became incredibly resistant to attend this church and did not feel happy going to the bible studies that they organised.

10671306_978063365591543_847585719953331907_n[1]As time went by, I really struggled to be productive in my work. I enjoyed teaching English most, and got a greater sense of satisfaction and achievement from this aspect of the job. Whereas when I was stuck behind a computer screen trying to code, my ADHD kicked in and I was simply unable to progress. My personality is also not conducive to “real life” sort of work: I am a very theoretical and academic person; I like to play with ideas and deep concepts; I do not enjoy getting my hands dirty. I reflected upon my work history up to this date and saw the same pattern repeating itself: Even during my time at Cargowise and Macquarie bank, I had struggled to complete the tasks put before me. I simply lacked the interest, passion and competency required to perform in these jobs.

Descent Into Hatred

Now that I was living in Hong Kong, there was not much stopping Mindy from staying at my flat and getting frisky with me on a regular basis. Mindy would often sleep over at my house and we would almost always have sex. At the time I felt guilty and as if it were my fault, but in retrospect I feel comfortable placing the blame entirely on her: I really was trying to stop this sinful behaviour; I was doing my best to prevent Mindy from staying at my flat too late. However whenever I would try to put pressure on her to leave and go home, she would go into pout mode and I would feel guilty and relent, letting her stay and hoping to God that we wouldn’t slip up again. She would basically rape me: She would wait until I had taken my sleeping pills and collapsed on the bed, and then snuggle up close to me and start the kissing. I would just reflexively kiss her back, half asleep. Before you know it our clothes were off and I was pounding her into the headboard while she moaned in ecstasy.

I don’t understand what the appeal was for her: I was practically a zombie while under the influence of these antipsychotic pills. Every time, all I really wanted was for it to be over so that I could go back to sleep. It was painful to stay awake, and yet my carnal sex drive kept me awake enough to perform.

sex-stock100[1].jpgSometimes she would seduce me before I took my pills, and we would engage in wild, extended lovemaking sessions, with lots of sweating, screaming, moaning, spanking and whatever else. It finally got to the point where I was having “Good sex”. Compared to my first time – which was over in seconds and very anticlimactic – this sex was amazing. We would go at it for up to an hour at a time.

I finally had my old wish fulfilled: I had sex on tap. But ironically, I no longer wanted it. I honestly wanted to remain chaste and celibate until marriage. Every time after we slipped up, my trust for Mindy died a little more, and my love started to dissipate. I began to hate her and resent her. I wished she would just piss off and leave me be, rather than constantly engineering situations in which we were going to slip up and fuck.

Every time we slipped up, I would be filled with overwhelming guilt, despair and fear of Hell. Premarital sex has been clearly defined as a mortal sin by the Catholic church: I knew my faith well enough to realise what I was doing. I had to awkwardly drag myself to face to face confession Sunday after Sunday to confess this relentless sin. My relief at being back in the state of grace was only temporary, as it would not be long before me and Mindy were rooting again.

1[1].jpgI suspect that our sexual sins directly lead to a disintegration of the relationship, as I no longer trusted her and found it nearly impossible to love her. Every now and then I would skype Jaison back in Sydney: When he asked how I was going with my porn addiction and other sexual sins, I straight up confessed to him what was happening. He was very concerned and advised me to break up with Mindy. I was extremely resistant to the idea, fooling myself into thinking that we could work things out and it would all be better once we were married. In retrospect, I really should have followed his advice. Perhaps if I had threatened to leave Mindy earlier, she would have made more of an effort to stop screwing me and things would have turned out alright.

A Defiant Gesture

Some time during my Hong Kong stay, we had got in contact with the lead pastor of St Andrew’s – Alex McCoy – and asked if he could help us do some pre-marriage counselling. He readily agreed and we set a date for our first appointment.

Bp_Greg[1].jpgPrior to our appointment, we had been visiting the St Andrew’s Sunday evening service regularly for quite some time. At one of these services, Alex McCoy was performing the Anglican communion rite. He invited everyone to come up and receive the bread and wine with the usual Protestant disclaimer: “If you do not trust Jesus to forgive your sins and save you then please remain in your seat”. As a Catholic I understood that it is inappropriate to receive communion outside of a Catholic liturgy, so I remained in my seat. This action caught the eye of Alex McCoy. After the service had officially concluded, he made a beeline straight to where me and Mindy were sitting and said hi.

With a concerned look on his face, Alex immediately asked me why I hadn’t gone up to receive communion. For the first time I revealed my Catholicism to him. He gave me a puzzled and bemused look and said “But you’re not a real Catholic are you? I thought you went to Barneys back in Sydney?” Mindy had been trying to hide my Catholicism from friends and new acquaintances, as it was an awkward thing for her to explain why she was dating someone from another religion. As such, when I had first met Alex McCoy and he had asked what church I went to back home in Sydney, Mindy immediately jumped in and said “St Barnabas Broadway” before I could say anything. Alex quickly responded to this with “Ah, such a great church; I know lots of the guys who go there” and the conversation flowed on.

It felt good to finally own my faith publicly, so I insisted “No I’m a legit Catholic: I go to mass every Sunday, regular confession; the lot!” Alex McCoy looked a tad concerned, and the conversation moved on to other topics.

The Anti-Catholic Challenge

After one Sunday evening service, when everyone goes and has dinner together, I found myself in a food court dedicated to ramen noodles and sitting next to Alex McCoy. “So tell me about this Catholicism of yours” he said with a big grin, and a friendly and inquisitive look on his face. Rather than doing that, I just told him the story of how I became a Christian (Part 1 of this series). He listened politely, and at the end of the story asked “But what about that Catholic stuff? What do you think about Papal infallibility?” I responded that I don’t see how the church can possibly function without it and he leaned back in his chair and scoffed.

good-works[1].jpgAlex revealed that he himself had grown up in the Catholic church and came to reject it when he started reading the bible for himself. I internally rolled my eyes: this was such a typical ex-Catholic testimony. I had heard it a million times before during my time in Credo. When he says “I started reading the bible for myself”, what he really is saying is “Some friendly evangelicals sat down and indoctrinated me into their heresy by quoting the bible at me apart from it’s Catholic context.” I was unimpressed. Alex started to talk about how Catholicism teaches that you have to merit your salvation by works (which is total bullshit) and how he had to reject such a clearly heretical theological system after reading Ephesians 2:8-9, which claims that we are saved by grace through faith.

He continued to rattle off his objections to Catholicism, all of which were entirely inaccurate misconceptions. I tried to remain polite and composed, but I felt helpless in the face of this baffling display of ignorance and bigotry. How is it that someone could grow up in the Catholic church and come away with such erroneous notions as this? Did he not bother to investigate what the church actually teaches? It seemed clear to me that he had simply been taken in by the friendly demeanour of the Evangelicals who had approached him during his university days and soaked up whatever lies and nonsense they fed to him about Catholicism. I had seen it happen many times already and I was totally confident that it was exactly the same story with Alex.

“Marriage Counselling”

st-andrew-church-kowloon-hong-kong_001[1].jpgEventually the date for our “Marriage counselling” rolled around and me and Mindy made the trek to the St Andrews administrative office next to the church. “Marriage counselling” basically ended up being Alex McCoy trying to convince Mindy not to marry me, whilst trying to get me to apostatise from Catholicism and return to the Protestant heresy. He had somehow got it into his head that the best and most pastoral way to approach me was to launch an all out assault on my faith. He seemed to have made it his mission to convert me back to Protestantism.

The only reason I tolerated this attack is because I really enjoy talking about theology, and in Hong Kong I was incredibly lonely and starved for someone to talk to about this topic, which I love and is dear to my heart. A theological argument like this was better than the banal crap that I had been talking about with everyone else I met in Hong Kong, even if it was a high stakes, stressful conversation.

saved_stamp.GIFI remember at one point Alex McCoy was saying “If you say works contribute to salvation you subtract from the sufficiency of the cross”. I tried to respond but he just kept saying that same thing over and over again like a mantra. Eventually something clicked within me and I totally lost it. I responded firmly with “If you say faith contributes to salvation you subtract from the sufficiency of the cross.” He sneered at me and accused me of being facetious. I was unnerved and said that maybe I was, just a little. He backed down and moved onto other topics. But I wasn’t being facetious, I was dead serious: This was a light bulb moment that has stuck with me to this day. It suddenly became clear to me that “Faith alone” is nonsense if you believe that faith has the power to objectively justify you: The cross is objectively sufficient. I realised then and there that salvation does not depend on me in any way whatsoever, and this includes faith. I had encountered my first inkling of the Lutheran theology of salvation as unconditional promise. Later on this theology would fully take form in my mind and capture my imagination, developing into a robust doctrine of universal salvation. I had Alex McCoy to thank for it, at least in part.

He began to bash me over the head with “assurance”. He was leaning in and imploring me “but don’t you want assurance of salvation?” trying to entice me over to his tribe with baseless promises of a guaranteed place in heaven. What he utterly failed to realise is that an assurance of salvation is completely meaningless without first having an assurance of truth. If your church is fallible then whatever assurance you have with regards to your salvation is also entirely fallible and untrustworthy. I tried to convey this to him but he just refused to hear it and moved on to his next perceived pet peeve with Catholicism.

512R6DPg3LL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_[1].jpgHe pulled out some anti-catholic books which he recommended that I read, giving particular attention to “Nothing in my hand I bring” by Ray Galea. I responded that Mindy had already given them to me and I had already read them and found them entirely unconvincing for a variety of reasons. He was obviously frustrated at this point and stuck for what to say next.

Our first “Marriage counselling” session ended on a dissonant note, with Alex McCoy closing with a prayer that went something along the lines of “I don’t know how we can pray to you tonight Lord, considering not all of us here actually worship you…” Classic. Pastoral and ecumenical brownie points to you Mr McCoy.

I found the entire experience to be completely traumatic, as his relentless assault against Catholicism had put me in a hyper-defensive state of mind. Unfortunately the trauma didn’t end with his closing prayer, because Mindy continued to argue with me after we left his office and headed home. She was just as bigoted and anti-catholic as he was, and ten times as ignorant! I really began to hate and despise her for her pigheadedness and theological stupidity. Was I really going to marry this utter idiot?

Our second “marriage counselling” session went down in much the same way as the first. Alex pulled out all stops and fired all canons in an attempt to take me down. We argued about the sacrificial nature of the mass, transubstantiation, indulgences, Mary and everything else. Whenever I made an attempt to respond to his objections he would immediately cut in with “Where is that in the bible?” Every time he did this I would just roll my eyes. “Why does it have to be in the bible? I don’t care if it’s in the bible or not: The tradition of the church is sufficient to prove the doctrine’s validity.” After a couple of Alex[1].pngthese exchanges Alex caught on to the fact that I was a died in the wool papist and was not going to fall for his Fundamentalist sophistries.

Alex leaned back in his chair and exhaled a loud sigh of exasperation. He didn’t know where to go from here: I was obviously committed to my Catholic faith and would not budge from my position solely based on his bullshit misconceptions and lies about Catholicism, which I had encountered a million times before during my days amongst the apostate ex-Catholics in Credo.

Descent to Depression

When I wasn’t fucking her, I was constantly fighting with Mindy. Here was the woman I was intending to marry and share my life and journey with, and yet I couldn’t even talk about my passions without it turning into a massive theological debate and then blowing up into a massive conflict. Mindy was constantly accusing me of being a Pharisee. Ironically I later realised that the label fits her far better, because she believes that “faith” is a condition of salvation and she is convinced that she has met this condition, thus puffing herself up with pride and elitism as she considers the poor plebs who don’t happen to share her faith and will therefore “rightly” burn in Hell for all eternity. It eventually got to the point where we simply avoided talking about theological topics completely.

I started to have serious doubts about whether a marriage between us was going to work out: We would be going to separate churches, and refusing to talk about that which was most dear to us – our relationship with God. We would be fighting over how to raise our children. No one should be going into a marriage expecting this level of turmoil. A couple of arguments here and there are to be expected, but this was next level.

I felt surrounded by enemies in Hong Kong. The only friends I had were the Protestants from St Andrew’s, and even though they were incredibly friendly, the fact was they were not Catholic, and this fact bubbled to the surface during bible studies. Whenever I went to bible studies with these people I always had to bite my tongue and not say anything, because I regularly found myself disagreeing on points that the entire group agreed on. This made me feel like a failed witness to my faith, and was incredibly discouraging and disheartening.

39571064_ml-ml0y0tb5jx377t8wn84fjif9oq67auyh3rcfkqp5fc[1].jpgI remember one bible study I worked up the courage to actually openly question the consensus of the group concerning this idea of total depravity/total inability. It seemed clear to me that God does not give commandments unless he knows we are able to meet them. The group disagreed, they were convinced that we were doomed to be sinners until Jesus comes back. Whereas Catholic doctrine teaches that it is within our power to be perfect, provided that we depend upon the grace of God. The group naturally jumped on me and we ended up going in circles based on different assumptions between Catholics and Protestants. This was stressful, as it was me on my own trying to stand up to 10 other people. Naturally after the bible study I ended up in a fight with Mindy. She said “I’m happy you finally contributed something, but you really are way too optimistic”. So much for Protestant joy.

As a response to the onslaught of Alex McCoy, the arguments with Mindy, and the heresy that I was being bombarded with in the heathen bible studies; I ended up reading theology and apologetics 24/7. When I was supposed to be working; I would be reading theology. When I was supposed to be sleeping; I would be reading theology. When I was travelling home on the train; I would be reading theology on my phone. It was during this time that I became more and more familiar with the eclectic orthodoxy blog, as well as universalist theology in general. I also got entirely hung up on the doctrine of Sola Scriptura: It seemed like such nonsense to me, but I was determined to understand it. I ended up going in mental circles on this issue for over a year.

I really wanted to reclaim some time for myself. I felt entirely overwhelmed after hanging out with Mindy so often. I began staying up all night and watching star trek until the wee hours of the morning. I would set my alarm for 10am and end up going to bed at 4am every night. This was not psychologically healthy at all.

I felt like I had no time to myself and was sacrificing everything for Mindy and getting nothing in return. I felt like I had given up so much for this relationship but she hadn’t given up anything at all. I felt like I was putting in all the effort on the religious front; attending those cursed bible studies and Sunday services in an ecumenical spirit, whereas she wanted nothing to do with my Catholic faith at all. I felt ripped off.

Yelling-AdobeStock_70020912-copy[1].jpgI was constantly fighting with Mindy, and not just about theological matters. I was always the one saying sorry, and she would never admit that she was wrong or had any part to play in the conflict. She was constantly threatening to break up with me.

I began to feel incredibly depressed as I considered the prospect of having to endure this for my entire life after I had locking myself into this relationship via marriage. I felt as if I was locked into an entirely depressing path: I was stuck working a job for which I was totally incompetent, and engaged to a fiancée who was utterly unable to see eye to eye with me on important issues.

I was completely terrified at the prospect of having children with Mindy: How were we supposed to bring them up? Which church would we go to? I insisted that we were going to attend both Catholic and Protestant church every Sunday, but Mindy didn’t want to play ball and complained about this to no end.

Furthermore, actually getting to the point of marriage felt nigh impossible: there were so many hoops to jump through. Mindy was refusing to have a Catholic ceremony, which meant that I had to get a special dispensation from the Sydney Archbishop to both have a Protestant service as well as marry a Protestant at all. We also had to do some compulsory catholic marriage prep course. Mindy was obsessing over finding the perfect wedding dress while I was trying to organise a logistical nightmare and track down an appropriate church and minister to perform the wedding in Sydney.

I felt an incredible sense of injustice, as I had spent so much time and energy investigating Protestantism and trying to make sense of it, but Mindy had not reciprocated. She had invested exactly zero effort in trying to understand my faith. I felt completely ripped off, and the trust in our relationship continued to break down.

I was coming home every night incredibly late. I would take my sedatives and board the MTR from Mei Foo to Yuen Long nearly every night. I had to endure the hellish tunnel that runs beneath the mountains between Mei Foo and Yuen Long, falling asleep on my feet. As I disembarked the train and begun walking back to my flat, I was full to exploding point with anger, frustration, resentment, rage and hatred for myself, Mindy, my situation, God, and life in general.

I was feeling utterly terrified of hell for most of my waking hours. I felt incredibly awkward asking for confession (my church at Yuen Long did not have regular confession times and you had to make a special request) and confessing the same old sin every bloody time.

In between my confessions I was struggling to muster up perfect contrition and utterly failing to do so. At the time I was unaware of the unconditional promises of God, and I was therefore unable to place my faith in them. I was spiritually walking in darkness, despite my deep, profound and prayerful relationship with God.

suicide-jump[1].jpgI was incredibly stressed and depressed, and I began to think about suicide all the time. I didn’t actually have any intentions of going ahead with it, but I was just constantly pondering it. I remember always glancing out at my balcony and thinking to myself “Gee that’s high, I could so easily jump off there and kill myself if I wanted to”

A Holiday to Sydney

During Christmas of 2015, while me and Mindy were walking through Mei Foo to Mindy’s house, I totally broke down crying. I missed my family so much. Pretty soon after this incident, Mindy organised a trip to Sydney for my 2016 birthday.

Once we had arrived in Sydney, I just wanted to be with my family, but Mindy had other plans: She wanted to travel to the blue mountains and attend the LIFT (Looking Into Full Time Ministry) conference that was organised by the UNSW Evangelical society. I felt obliged to accompany her, and so for four precious days that I could have spent with my family, I left and trekked to the blue mountains with Mindy.

The LIFT conference was hell. The preacher was Joshua Ng, another Hongkie. Josh launched into a vitriolic rant against the “evil and depraved catholic church who teach a false gospel of salvation by works”. My blood was boiling over and I want to get up out of my seat and walk out of the room, but I ended up sitting still and fuming. Mindy realised how awkward the situation was and started fumbling in her bag for something to distract me with.

PodcastPicBlueBack-400x400[1].pngLater on during LIFT conference, we were walking from one session to another, and Mindy was chatting to yet another ex-Catholic. This guy was saying the most offensive things about Catholicism: Claiming that his Catholic parents were not Christian and are most certainly going to burn in Hell. He shared a brief testimony of his conversion out of Catholicism, and as usual it was the same old predictable nonsense that every other ex-Catholic says: “I read the bible and realised that it contradicts Catholicism so I left”. I was holding hands with Mindy as we walked with this guy and I suddenly just wanted to get away. I wanted to toss her hand away and just escape this depressing existence.

When we returned to Sydney, Mum totally refused to cooperate with my wedding plans. She kept complaining that she “hates weddings” and “wouldn’t even go to her own wedding if she had the choice”. This frustrated me and depressed me even more. Marriage was supposed to be one of the most important events in my life and I wanted my family to be there, which was the entire reason we were going to have the ceremony in Sydney. Mum kept saying “Just invite your father” and I was like “are you freaking kidding? I want my immediate family to be there!”

Mindy managed to cut my time with my family short by another two days. She dragged me down to Melbourne to have “dinner” with her extended family. She was expecting me to have a perfect understanding of all the nuances of Chinese culture and behave like a Chinese gentleman, even though I don’t understand the language. During the actual dinner her family were incredibly rude and inhospitable to me and generally tried to ignore me. I was not accepted by these people at all. After the utter failure of a dinner I immediately headed to Melbourne’s “The Croft” bar and started pounding back shots while chatting with the bar staff. I spent 100 dollars on “Syringe shots”, and had my first hot alcoholic beverage.

crazy.PNGI knew that I was incredibly depressed at this point, but I was unable to discern just how bad and dangerous the situation was. Luckily, I had scheduled a check up with the team at EIPS. I reported that I was thinking about killing myself a lot, and my psychologist – Alexandra Goymour – was incredibly concerned. She asked me a series of questions in order to work out exactly how bad a place I was in. At the conclusion of her questions, it was completely obvious to her that the situation was balancing on a knifes edge. She exhorted me to return to Sydney ASAP. I figured, “Doctors orders” and so agreed to do it. However Mindy was a big concern: she was very manipulative and had managed to thoroughly get me under her thumb. Obviously she was going to be very resistant to the idea of my returning to Sydney.

We concluded the holiday and returned to Hong Kong. I was only intending to come back for a month, so that I could tie up loose ends, pack up my possessions and then fly back to Sydney. Mindy had been alerted to the recommendation of my psychologist that I return to Sydney, and she was already doing her best to stamp the idea out of my mind. I just went along with it and pretended to relent, but secretly I had every intention of escaping Hong Kong for good by the end of April.

Finally Seeing the Light

One night during my final month in Hong Kong, I was going about my usual business: binge on star trek; pound back a couple of Tsing Taos; read theology articles at Eclectic Orthodoxy. Around about 4am I finally slammed my laptop shut and attempted to fall asleep. As I was rolling around in bed, many theological ideas and concepts that I had encountered over the past 24 months were floating around in my mind.

Alex McCoy’s words came back to me: The Sufficiency of the Cross. The beautiful eschatology of Sergius Bulgakov was flooding my mind’s eye: A human being cannot fail to love the Christ who is revealed in him, and he cannot fail to love himself revealed in Christ. The visionary words of St Isaac hovered in my consciousness: Those in Gehenna are scourged by the scourge of love. I was seriously pondering the omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent God who I claimed to worship: If God wants to save me, is it really possible that he could fail in the attempt?

And suddenly, in the blink of an eye, it all made sense. I realised that I believed in the greater hope. I realised that I believed in universal salvation.

Omnipotent[1].jpgI sat up straight in bed, gasped and covered my mouth with my hand in shock. I begun laughing to myself and was full of wonder – I actually understand all this stuff, it really does make sense, and I actually believe it! There is no need to fear damnation, for either myself or my friends and family. I can rest assured in the confident hope that all of us will arrive safely in Heaven. Salvation does not depend on us in any way, it depends entirely on God. There is nothing that can stop him or stand in his way. Not even death, sin, unrepentance or Hell can thwart his salvific will. God can and will conquer everyone and everything. What can we do but rejoice?

I had finally discovered the good news of Christianity. After 4 years of being an active Christian, I had finally understood the Gospel.

(Go to “Testimony: Universalist to Priest”)

The Law of Christ – Contextual Absolute Morality

A Science of Moral Judgements

The law of Christ written on our hearts judges any given course of action according to the following categories:

  1. Must
  2. Should
  3. Omittable
  4. May
  5. Permissible
  6. Should not
  7. Must not

Failure to perform an action in the “Must” category, and the performance of an action in the “Must not” category are both mortal sins. Failure to perform an action in the “Should” category, and the performance of an action in the “Should not” category are both venial sins.

An action in the “Omittable” category is good to do but not obligatory, similarly an action in the “Permissible” category is good to avoid but not forbidden. As such, neither performing “Permissible” actions nor refraining from “Omittable” actions are sinful. Performing “Omittable” actions and avoiding “Permissible” actions is referred to as “Doing penance”. An action in the “May” category is morally neutral.

Performing actions in the “Must” and “Should” categories merits an increase in eschatological rewards, while failing to perform such actions merits a decrease. Similarly avoiding actions in the “Should not” and “Must not” categories merits a decrease in eschatological punishment, while indulging in such actions merits an increase.

Performing an “Omittable” action merits an increase in eschatological rewards and a decrease in eschatological punishment, while failure to perform the action is neutral. Similarly, performing a “Permissible” action is neutral, but avoiding such actions merits an increase in eschatological rewards and a decrease in eschatological punishment.

Fundamental Principles

  1. It is never permissible to do evil, even though good will come as a result. Which is to say, one must never perform an action in the “Must not” category, and one must never fail to perform an action in the “Must” category. This also implies that it is good to avoid actions in the “Should not” category, and good to perform actions in the “Should” category, however failure to do these things is not necessarily evil.
  2. The absolute moral categories of “Must” and “Must not” only arise in actual, concrete, present tense and real-life situations, and only from the first-person perspective. It is not possible to determine with certainty what an agent’s moral responsibilities are if the situation being examined is hypothetical, is distant in space and time, or if it is being analysed from the second or third person perspective; in this case it is only possible to make a probabilistic judgement and assign an action a value between “Should” and “Should not”, while the absolute categories of “Must” and “Must not” are excluded.
  3. No action is 100% good or evil when considered in the abstract. Actions only become totally good or totally evil in an actual, concrete, first person, present tense, real-life context. Apart from such a context, we can only make probabilistic judgements about the rightness or wrongness of an action.

Example

Killing is in the “should not” category. But if it is in self-defence then killing moves to the “should” category. However, if you also have other means of defending yourself available then it swings back to the “should not” category. But if those other means of defending yourself would lead to the death of multiple innocent bystanders then the killing returns once again to the “should” category. But if you somehow can see into the future and know that those innocent bystanders are going to be the catalyst for a future nuclear Armageddon in which all humanity is exterminated, then the straightforward act of killing becomes “should not” again. However, if, all of this considered, it would turn out that allowing the person to live would somehow lead to metaphysical oblivion for the entire universe, then the killing swings right back to “should” once more, etc etc etc

You can see in this example how it is always possible to add more information to a hypothetical situation, thus swinging the action in question back and forth between “should” and “should not”. Therefore, it is imperative to avoid being entrapped in schemas of rigid law and abstract absolute morality. When one is required to follow an abstract absolutist commandment such as “You must never kill”, then, despite the fact that it is “lawful”, the observance of such a commandment will be wrong and immoral in very many situations.

Absolute morality is important, but only in concrete, real situations, not in abstract hypothetical ones. Furthermore, the true absolute moral code cannot be captured within the schemas and broad strokes of religious or secular laws, or the sacred frameworks produced by the many and varied schools of religious and secular jurisprudence that exist in the world. In the end, it is up to the individual to always be prayerfully aware of the Holy Spirit speaking to their conscience, and in thus doing so, intimately come to know the law of Christ that is written on their heart, and so always do the right thing in every situation.

The Mystery of Sin: Who is Culpable?

So why do we sin? Why is it that we often perform actions in the “Should not” and “Must not” categories, whilst failing to live up to our obligations in the “Must” and “Should” categories?

There are questions of culpability in play here: If a woman’s conscience informs her that seeking an abortion is in the “Should not” category, but out of fear and terror she goes ahead and does it anyway, is it really her fault? She did indeed sin, by disobeying her conscience, but the fear and terror mitigates her culpability. But why did this fear and terror arise in the first place? Who is responsible for the fear and terror? In this case, the culpability for the fear and terror falls entirely on the community surrounding the woman, and by extension the culpability for the sin itself also falls onto the community. The community failed to offer and to provide the necessary support and care and love that would enable the woman to do the right thing. If we consider the community as a single moral agent, then providing such care, love and support would fall into the “Should” category. As such, the failure of the community to live up to its obligations is the direct cause of the woman failing to live up to hers.

In this way responsibility for sin and good works is a communal affair, not a personal one. The fear and terror of this woman proceed from a lack of trust that God would provide and take care of her and her child, but the way God does this providing is through the wider community, so if the wider community is not forthcoming with this divine love, then the woman is unlikely to be overflowing with the faith necessary to obey her conscience. The general moral principle here is that when one person either sins or does a good work, the entire community is ultimately responsible and culpable for the act.

While one is damned, all are damned

But this applies to soteriology. Universalist leaning philosophers and theologians love to speculate about how it is impossible to “freely” choose Hell and the eternal, everlasting damnation of the age, because such a choice is utterly irrational and insane, and therefore hardly qualifies as “free”. But this is a similar situation to the abortion hypothetical proposed above. Someone’s conscience may clearly reveal to them that “Choosing God” is in the “Must” category, which implies that they have full knowledge of what is right and wrong in this case, and failure to follow their conscience here would indeed be a mortal sin which leads to Hell and damnation. But due to terror, fear, scepticism, insanity, or whatever else, they may decide to disobey this clear, unambiguous command written on their heart. In this way, they truly did “choose” Hell, with the full consent of their will and a fully informed knowledge in their conscience. However, the factors motivating this choice were terror, fear, scepticism, misinformation, wrong impressions and so on. So, what caused those factors? If we dig a little bit deeper into the story of this person’s life, we discover that they had been taught lies about God, had been indoctrinated into a faulty theology, had been abused and betrayed by all their Christian friends etc. In this way, we discover that it’s ultimately not the individual who is at fault for choosing Hell, it’s instead the wider community’s fault.

This all has important implications for evangelism. If the people you are evangelising are not responding favourably then you shouldn’t judge and condemn them as if it is their fault, because if anything it is YOUR fault for not proclaiming the gospel correctly. Furthermore, when someone dies in unbelief and rebellion against God, it simply will not do to wash your hands of their blood and claim that it’s their own fault and they are merely getting what they deserve. Because if they really did reject God and end up in Hell, then it’s not their fault, it’s YOUR fault, and if you don’t do something about it fast you will be heading for the same fate.

The blood of the unevangelised stains all of our hands, especially if we aren’t praying regularly for them or actively trying to announce the gospel to them and assist them in coming to faith and repentance. Do not expect to escape punishment yourself, while the vast majority of the world languishes in Hell. Salvation doesn’t work like that. Some like to say, “Once saved, always saved”, but I prefer to say “One saved, all saved”: or, we’re all in this together. The promise of Christ to the world is “I will not be saved without you”, and we should be sincerely speaking this same promise to each other every single day, because so long as we don’t, the entire creation remains chained in darkness, unrepentance, unbelief and ignorance, and it remains devoid of love.

Most Christians these days seem to think “As long as I’m saved, it doesn’t ultimately make a difference to me whether or not you go to Hell”: this is the essence of false assurance and ignorance. So long as Christians maintain this attitude, the damned will remain in Hell. But as soon as we realise that our eschatological happiness depends on the salvation of the damned, we will all storm the gates of Hell with our prayers and armies of angels, liberating the captives and loving them all up into salvation. For a person doesn’t end up in Hell due to lacking love in their own soul; a person ends up in Hell due to everyone else lacking love towards that person.

When people die in unbelief, we should be asking forgiveness for both our souls and their soul: our souls because we are ultimately responsible for that person’s damnation, and their soul because no one is ever completely beyond redemption.

All of this is felt clearly whenever we are confronted with a suicide victim. The sense is always that we failed to help the person who died, not that they themselves are at fault. This intuition is correct, and if it applies to the sin of suicide, how much more does it apply to the mortal sin of totally rejecting God! But in reality, it applies to every sin. Every sin without exception committed by an individual is in fact the collective fault of the entire community.

The Final Word

But God is in the process of liberating us all from the chains that prevent us from fulfilling the requirements of the law written on our hearts. By slowly pouring out his love – which is to say, himself – upon us all, he is wiping away the darkness and filling us all up with light. As we love each other more and more, we lift each other up out of Hell and we all collectively rise up to Heaven. And in the end, not one person will remain separate from God, and all will always do good, and never do evil, and the requirements of the law will be fulfilled in us all, and God will be all in all, and there will be no more Hell, no more damnation, only joy, bliss, faith, hope and love.

Hermeneutics 101 – Catholicism and the Council of Trent: An Anathema Against Assurance

“If any one saith, that he will for certain, of an absolute and infallible certainty, have that great gift of perseverance unto the end,-unless he have learned this by special revelation; let him be anathema.”

Thus reads the sixteenth canon of the sixth session of the Council of Trent. To my knowledge, this is the only anathema in the entire Catholic tradition which touches on the issue of assurance. If any readers are aware of another dogma which concerns assurance, I would be most indebted and grateful if you could inform me and direct me to the statement.

AnathemaIt is my conviction that misinterpretation of this anathema has solidified much misery and despair among the Catholic sensus fidelium for the past 500 years. Catholics simply are not happy; nearly every single Catholic that I meet is either apathetic towards salvation, or utterly terrified that they are going to slip up, commit a mortal sin, get run over by a bus on the way to confession, and then get dragged down to the deepest circle of Hell, reserved for those totally depraved sinners who masturbate, smoke weed and lie on their tax return. Catholics simply do not have assurance. Meanwhile – during that same 500 years – Evangelicals have been moving forward in leaps and bounds, overflowing with assurance and gospel joy at the promise that there is a place in heaven and the new creation reserved especially for them.

Catholics have been taught that they can have no assurance that they are “saved”; they can have no assurance that they will persevere to the end; they can have no assurance that they will go to heaven; if they have gone to confession, they nevertheless can have no assurance that they are in a state of grace; if they have commit a mortal sin and privately confessed it to God, they nevertheless can have no assurance that they have done so in a state of perfect contrition. Uncertainty, Uncertainty, Uncertainty. To believe that you are surely saved is regarded as the mortal sin of presumption.

It is my conviction that all of this uncertainty is a toxic parasite on Catholicism which has been sapping the joy from our congregations for over a thousand years. It has been around for far too long and needs to be done away with once and for all. It is my conviction that things really needn’t be this way: Catholics are well within their dogmatic and ecclesiastical rights to have the same assurance of salvation that the Protestants are currently enjoying. Lets pull apart this anathema from Trent to see why.

An Exploration of Certainty

189289836[1].pngWhat exactly does “certainty” mean? Is it actually possible to be certain of anything? It seems to be valid to doubt anything and everything. It is possible even to doubt your own existence! Even from a young age, I understood that it is impossible to have an epistemological certainty of anything. There is always the possibility that whatever you are believing is false. There is always the possibility that reality is not how it seems.

The film “The Matrix” is a wonderful cinematic exploration of this principle: In the film, the computer hacker Thomas Anderson (who adopts the hacker moniker of “Neo”) goes about daily life; he goes to work, has breakfast, sleeps, browses the internet late at night. But he feels like something is “off”. He suspects that reality is not quite what it seems to be. Eventually he is contacted by a mysterious group of people who claim to be able to show him the truth. Thomas meets with these people and they make him an offer: take the blue pill and leave the mystery unsolved, returning to real life and going about the daily grind, or take the red pill and have his eyes opened to true reality for the first time ever.

Thomas takes the red pill, and his whole world shatters. It turns out that almost everything that he took for granted was a lie. He was living in a computer simulation the entire time. Stuff that he thought he could depend on with certainty was pulled right out from underneath him.

We are all in exactly the same position as Neo: There may very well be an objective Truth out there (this is in fact an article of faith in Catholicism), however we can never be certain that we have really grasped it: it is always possible for someone to swoop in, offer us the red pill, and shatter our entire view of reality, showing us that everything we believe is wrong.

Assurance: Are You Saved?

AssuranceThis principle of uncertainty applies to literally everything: You cannot be certain of the colour of your own eyes, you cannot be certain of your own age, and most importantly, you cannot be certain of your salvation.

It is a classic tactic of Evangelicals and Fundamentalists to walk up to Catholics and ask “Are you saved?” Anything less than a devout “Amen brother!” from the Catholic will result in a free and unrequested sermon on assurance and knowing that because of what Jesus did on the cross, you’re going to make it to Heaven (and of course they will typically water down this wonderful message by attaching conditions to it, such as “faith” or “accepting Christ”). Most Catholics when asked this question will say “I don’t know if I’m saved. I’ll find out when I die”, causing the Evangelical asking the question to shake his head in pity and disapproval.

In an epistemological sense, this typically Catholic, non-committal response is completely correct. The Catholic simply cannot know whether they are saved or not. The Catholic has no sure idea what’s going to happen to them after they die. Furthermore, the Evangelical is completely fooling himself if he honestly thinks that he can be certain of his salvation. This is what I would like to call epistemological presumption. To be certain of anything constitutes epistemological presumption.

Assurance: Two Kinds of Certainty

And yet… perhaps there are things which we can be certain of. This is best illustrated by example:

Right now I am typing up this blog post. Now, do I know with objective certainty that I am currently typing up this blog post? No, of course not: this could be entirely illusory: I’m not certain that my computer exists; I’m not certain that my fingers and keyboard exist; I’m not certain that this blog even exists. All of it could be a lie.

ordinateur-de-bureau-pc-1456070535WEH[1].jpgBut here’s the twist: there is in actual fact exactly one thing that I can be certain of in this situation. I can doubt that I exist; I can doubt that this post exists; I can doubt that my computer exists; however I cannot doubt that I am currently experiencing the act of typing up a blog post on my computer. While I can doubt the content of my experience, I cannot doubt the experience in and of itself. This experience is real, even though the content of this experience may all be a lie.

I call this subjective certainty: it is the only form of certainty that it is valid to possess. The certainty of the fact that experience itself is true, even if the content of that experience is false. In this way there is a certain objectivity to our subjectivity. Arguably this is because subjective experience is in actual fact a form of objective divine revelation direct from God.

To review: I am not certain that I exist, but I am certain that I experience existence. I am not certain that I am hungry, but I am certain that I experience hunger. I am not certain that I love my family, but I am certain that I experience love for my family. And finally, I am not certain that I am saved, but I am certain that I experience salvation.

When Protestants talk about being “certain” that they are saved, this is what they are talking about (although many of them don’t realise it). Protestants examine their experience of life, and they are able to detect something within their experience of life which corresponds to the idea of “Salvation”, namely, an invincible joy which proceeds from the fact that they trust the unconditional grace of God to get them to heaven.

This is why, if you ask a Protestant if they are saved, many of them will respond with “Of course!” – It just seems so obvious to them: they are living and breathing salvation; they are walking in the light; Jesus is their best friend and they regularly converse with each other; they are overflowing with gospel joy at the prospect that God has them in his hands and will never let go. Protestants have a subjective certainty that they are saved: they simply know it because they daily experience it.

Anathema: What is actually being condemned?

The question is, does such a subjective certainty fall under the condemnation of the anathema of Trent quoted at the beginning of this post? Are protestants to be held as heretics on this point? Has such an overwhelming experience of gospel joy been dogmatically ruled out?

It seems fairly obvious to me that no, such an experience of joy has not been condemned by this anathema. Consider: The anathema talks about future salvation or perseverance. It claims that it is impossible to be certain that you will persevere all the way to the end and arrive safely at heaven. However the evangelical joy comes from experiencing and believing in present salvation. The evangelical joy proceeds from living a life of salvation right now. The evangelical joy does not necessarily have anything to say about perseverance to the end: it is instead all about living in the present moment and finding salvation in your day to day experience.

AssuranceFurthermore, you have to ask what kind of certainty is actually being condemned by this anathema. Is it condemning subjective certainty, or objective, epistemological certainty? Subjective certainty is more of a “confidence”, whereas objective certainty – as discussed previously – is simply an impossibility. Admittedly the anathema is ambiguous on this point; it simply is not clear what kind of certainty it is condemning. However if I had to take a guess, I would estimate that when the anathema says “absolute and infallible certainty” it is referring to epistemological, objective certainty, rather than subjective certainty. In other words, I suspect that according to this dogma it is entirely valid to have a full and robust, 100% confident faith and hope that you will persevere unto heaven and the fullness of salvation.

In short, if I had to interpret exactly what this anathema is actually condemning, I think it is fair to say that it is not condemning a subjective experience of certainty that you are saved. Next time the cheeky Protestant asks if you are saved, you really should feel comfortable saying “absolutely! Praise God!” What it is actually condemning, is an objective, epistemological certainty that you are and will be saved.

Anathema: Two Kinds of Presumption

An objection is raised: What about presumption? Isn’t it standard Catholic doctrine that being certain of your salvation is the mortal sin of presumption?

Firstly, as far as I am aware this doctrine is not infallible dogma and it is therefore safe for a theologian to disregard. Secondly, I think it depends how you want to define “Presumption”. My understanding of presumption is not so much “being certain that you’re saved” as it is “living your life as if sin has no consequences” or in other words “taking God’s mercy for granted while simultaneously ignoring his justice”.

This is exactly why Catholics have a doctrine of purgatory: You may indeed be guaranteed your salvation, however your sins still have consequences: if you are not repentant you will burn in the hellfire until you repent.

AnathemaThis is why a Catholic who has the gospel joy is generally better off than a protestant. Protestants are very firm on their rejection of purgatory, which means that their assurance of salvation is mixed up with an unhealthy antinomianism: Protestants are convinced that no matter how much they sin, they have been covered over by Jesus’ blood and therefore they will go straight to heaven when they die. This is vile and evil doctrine of the most presumptuous kind, and thankfully Catholics do not suffer from it.

I would like to call this form of presumption soteriological presumption. Contrast this with epistemological presumption. I am convinced that both of these are mortal sins, but they are quite different in character: Soteriological presumption is the conviction that your sins will not be punished, whereas epistemological presumption is where you claim to know things that you simply do not know.

Assurance: We Should be Certain of Our Salvation

So is it ok to have faith that you will persevere? Yes! Without such a faith you cannot enter into salvation here and now! There is no dogma which condemns such a faith. We should believe that we are predestined to heaven, even if we cannot objectively know that this is the case.

Is it ok to have faith that you are saved right now? Yes! This is the essence of the Christian life! Without having this firm assurance that you are walking in the light right now, you will be constantly in doubt about your salvation and have an active fear of Hell. God did not want us to live in fear; as he says in 1 John:

1 John 4:18 RSV-CE

There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and he who fears is not perfected in love.

In the same letter through the pen of John, God exhorts us to have certainty!

1 John 5:13 RSV-CE

I write this to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life.

If you believe in the name of the Son of God, you can know that you are saved!

One of the most radical promises that God makes to us is that in the eschaton, we will finally have objective certainty:

1 Corinthians 13:12 RSV-CE

For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood.

assuranceNow we see God in a dark mirror, however in the end times we will be able to see him face to face. Looking God in the eyes is akin to staring at Objective Truth directly and beholding it in all of it’s glory. In other words, while we are pilgrims here on earth we cannot have objective certainty; we can only have faith and hope. However when we finally arrive in heaven and are staring at God face to face, we will finally have the objective, epistemological certainty which we crave. Direct knowledge and perception of God and Truth is something reserved for heaven: we eagerly await it and rejoice at the prospect of its advent.

So rejoice, dear Christian; God loves you and wants to save you. He is God; you are but a man. Do not be so presumptuous as to think you can outsmart the lord of the universe: he wants you to be saved, and he will have the victory. When we pray “Thy will be done” it is a prophecy, not a request. God gets what God wants, and he wants you. Now have faith, step into the light, and sing doxologies to our glorious saviour Jesus Christ, until he comes again, amen.

The Binding of Isaac, The Agony of Job, and The Dark Night of the Soul

The Hatred of Christ

Luke 14:25-26 RSV-CE:

25 Now great multitudes accompanied him; and he turned and said to them, 26 “If any one comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.

Matthew 10:37-38 RSV-CE:

37 He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; 38 and he who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 

gulag+vorkuta[1].jpgThese are harsh words from our lord and saviour. What could he possibly mean? We have to hate our families in order to follow Jesus to heaven? Doesn’t this contradict his commands (found elsewhere) to love our neighbour?

I have encountered certain bible commentaries in my time which have attempted to take the edge off of these passages. The Greek word translated “hate”, they say, really shouldn’t be understood as meaning “hate”; it should instead be understood as preferring one thing over another. So we shouldn’t actually hate our families; we should simply prefer God over them. Maybe there’s some truth to this exegesis, but honestly just taking the English at face value: “hate” is far different in nature to a simple preference of one thing over another.

We will return to these passages later, but for now I want to propose that rather than being too strong a choice of words, the word “hate” is in actual fact not strong enough to convey what Jesus was actually saying. We should not merely hate our families; we should be willing to see them cast headlong into everlasting damnation if that is what God wills. We should be willing to lovingly and devotedly follow Gods commands wherever they may lead, even if those commands make us uncomfortable and apparently contradict the love that God has poured into our hearts.

The Dark Night of the Soul – Salvation in Darkness

Dark Night of the Soul

St John of the Cross is a western saint and mystic who is probably most remembered as the man who formulated the theology that has since been referred to by the shorthand “Dark night of the soul”. I will briefly outline the essence of this unique idea.

God is a good, kind, and loving God who enjoys lavishing good gifts upon us. He does this to everyone: young and old, believer and non-believer, Christians, Atheists, Muslims; everyone. Such gifts include good, tasty food and drink, good health, success in study, sport and romance, a bed to sleep in each night, clean water, breathable air, rain and sun to grow crops, familial love, friendship and so on. The Calvinists like to call this aspect of God’s loving disposition “Common Grace”, because these are gifts that are lavished upon all people without exception or distinction. Even a starving African child can detect such gifts from God in their life.

Now, when someone initially comes to faith in God, these gifts will seem to multiply exponentially: All of a sudden the soul is full of supreme and invincible joy as it contemplates the salvation that has been won for it in Christ through the cross. The soul seems to overflow with a pleasurable love for God and neighbour. The soul will seem so completely happy and content. Life will suddenly be full of purpose and meaning. The world seems far more colourful than it ever did before. Smiles and laughter will surround this soul.

But in a short time, the trials and tests will arrive thick and fast. The Christian is warned to expect persecution and suffering; how will they respond when it actually arrives? This is where the Dark night of the soul begins: some people are plunged deep into the dark night; most only experience a taste of it, presumably because God in his wisdom has decided that they are not strong enough to handle further trials.

What happens at this point, is that God progressively withdraws his gifts. Where before the soul was overflowing with joy and enjoying the wonderful gifts that God was bestowing on them, now the soul is receiving fewer and fewer gifts. The soul is being plunged into a darkness of sorts: most particularly, the soul experiences an “absence of God”. With the eyes of faith, the soul may know that God is indeed still there, but nevertheless he is unable to “feel” this presence. The words of the psalmist become apt to describe the experience:

Psalm 13:1-2 RSV-CE:

1 How long, O Lord? Wilt thou forget me for ever?
    How long wilt thou hide thy face from me?
How long must I bear pain in my soul,
    and have sorrow in my heart all the day?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?

Why does God withdraw his gifts? It is to test us. God is peering into the depths of our heart and asking: “Do you truly love me? Or do you only love my gifts? If I withdraw my gifts, will you still love me?” So God progressively withdraws more and more of his gifts, and the Darkest night possible is when he withdraws all of his gifts: Your family hates you, your friends have abandoned you, you are starving, you are sick, you are dying and the question God is asking is, “Despite all this hardship, do you still love me?”

The good news is that this testing does come to an end. The end of the dark night of the soul is the bright dawn of salvation. Once the dark and fiery trials have concluded, God lavishes his gifts upon the soul to an even greater degree than before the dark night had begun. And in the case of a ascetic mystic who has walked the path of darkness to the very end, the ultimate and final gift of God is bestowed: The fullness of salvation: Theosis. The soul becomes perfectly united with God, such that it is hard to distinguish between them.

The Binding of Isaac – Abraham the Father of Faith

The Binding of Isaac

One biblical figure who experienced this dark night of the soul is the father of faith: Abraham. The Dark night of the Soul is clearly manifest in the story of the Binding of Isaac.

To establish some context: Abraham and Sarah have been praying and hoping for a child for most of their adult life. Even when they arrive at old age and still have not yet had a baby, they continue to hope and await the fulfilment of God’s promises to them that they will have a child. The day finally arrives, and despite Sarah’s old age and barrenness, Isaac is miraculously born. In Abraham’s time, children were considered one of the highest blessings and most wonderful gifts of God, and a son (rather than a daughter) was an even more special reason to rejoice. So Isaac would be considered one of the most precious, if not the most precious gift that God had given to Abraham. Now with this in mind, consider the following passage:

Genesis 22:1-19 RSV-CE

22 After these things God tested Abraham, and said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here am I.” He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Mori′ah, and offer him there as a burnt offering upon one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.” So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his ass, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; and he cut the wood for the burnt offering, and arose and went to the place of which God had told him. On the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes and saw the place afar off. Then Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the ass; I and the lad will go yonder and worship, and come again to you.” And Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering, and laid it on Isaac his son; and he took in his hand the fire and the knife. So they went both of them together. And Isaac said to his father Abraham, “My father!” And he said, “Here am I, my son.” He said, “Behold, the fire and the wood; but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Abraham said, “God will provide himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So they went both of them together.

When they came to the place of which God had told him, Abraham built an altar there, and laid the wood in order, and bound Isaac his son, and laid him on the altar, upon the wood. 10 Then Abraham put forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son. 11 But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here am I.” 12 He said, “Do not lay your hand on the lad or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” 13 And Abraham lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, behind him was a ram, caught in a thicket by his horns; and Abraham went and took the ram, and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. 14 So Abraham called the name of that place The Lord will provide; as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.”

15 And the angel of the Lord called to Abraham a second time from heaven, 16 and said, “By myself I have sworn, says the Lord, because you have done this, and have not withheld your son, your only son, 17 I will indeed bless you, and I will multiply your descendants as the stars of heaven and as the sand which is on the seashore. And your descendants shall possess the gate of their enemies, 18 and by your descendants shall all the nations of the earth bless themselves, because you have obeyed my voice.” 19 So Abraham returned to his young men, and they arose and went together to Beer-sheba; and Abraham dwelt at Beer-sheba.

After many years of painful waiting, God finally bestows Abraham with his heart’s deepest desire: a son to carry on the family legacy. Abraham and Sarah would have rejoiced and been full to exploding point with happiness when Isaac finally arrived, praising God and thanking him for his overwhelming goodness.

But behold; Abrahams personal dark night arrives. God says, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and offer him as a burnt offering”. God is commanding Abraham to renounce his greatest wordly attachment: his love for his son. God is testing Abraham, just like he tests everyone who goes through the dark night of the soul. God is asking Abraham “Do you really love me? Or do you only love my gifts? Would you still love me if those gifts were taken away? Are you willing to sacrifice that which you hold dear? Are you willing to kill your son if I command you to?” And amazingly, Abraham essentially responds with “Thy will be done lord. If you command me to kill my son, this will I do. I love you above all else. I trust you. My faith is unwavering.”

The scene is tense, Abraham practically has the knife against Isaacs throat. Imagine what is going through his mind and his heart. Sometimes I think we imagine saints and biblical figures as being superhuman, not feeling emotions the same way that we do, but this is inaccurate: Abraham was most likely suffering the full force of a particularly violent dark night; he was probably wiping away tears of agony and anguish as he approached the alter; he was willing to follow Gods commands whatever they may be, but he would have been crying out in anger, confusion and despair. He is thinking that he is about to lose his son forever, his most treasured relationship on earth, the son he had waited for for all of his life, moreover he has already accepted this fact and is already dealing with life in those terms: Isaac is already dead to him. Abraham is already mourning the death.

And right as he is about to perform the fatal blow, a messenger from God swoops in and says “Stop!!! You have proved your faith: God does not ask any more of you than this, you are willing to sacrifice your son, and for this reason you do not have to.” This is followed up with one of the most important promises in all of scripture:

I will indeed bless you, and I will multiply your descendants as the stars of heaven and as the sand which is on the seashore. And your descendants shall possess the gate of their enemies, and by your descendants shall all the nations of the earth bless themselves, because you have obeyed my voice.”

This narrative contains all the elements of an intense dark night of the soul: the initial gifts (The birth of Isaac), the purification in the darkness (The sacrifice of Isaac) and the final gift (The rescue of Isaac and an eshatological salvific promise)

The Agonising Trial of Job

Trial of Job

Another biblical figure who suffered a particular profound dark night of the soul is Job. The prologue to the book of Job reveals that God had lavished many gifts upon him. Job was practically swimming in Common Grace. He had it all: A large, devoted family, health, wealth, property, servants, land etc. Furthermore Job responds to this love with love: he is a purely righteous soul who never sins and always does what is right.

Job 1:1-5 RSV-CE:

There was a man in the land of Uz, whose name was Job; and that man was blameless and upright, one who feared God, and turned away from evil. There were born to him seven sons and three daughters. He had seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred yoke of oxen, and five hundred she-asses, and very many servants; so that this man was the greatest of all the people of the east. His sons used to go and hold a feast in the house of each on his day; and they would send and invite their three sisters to eat and drink with them. And when the days of the feast had run their course, Job would send and sanctify them, and he would rise early in the morning and offer burnt offerings according to the number of them all; for Job said, “It may be that my sons have sinned, and cursed God in their hearts.” Thus Job did continually.

But God decides to test Job. Scripture reveals that Satan makes a wager with God that he is able to tempt Job towards sin if God would only plunge Job into a dark night. God permits Satan to drag Job into the darkness and see whether or not he cracks under the pressure:

Job 1:6-19 RSV-CE

Now there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came among them. The Lord said to Satan, “Whence have you come?” Satan answered the Lord, “From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it.” And the Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil?” Then Satan answered the Lord, “Does Job fear God for nought? 10 Hast thou not put a hedge about him and his house and all that he has, on every side? Thou hast blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land. 11 But put forth thy hand now, and touch all that he has, and he will curse thee to thy face.” 12 And the Lord said to Satan, “Behold, all that he has is in your power; only upon himself do not put forth your hand.” So Satan went forth from the presence of the Lord.

13 Now there was a day when his sons and daughters were eating and drinking wine in their eldest brother’s house; 14 and there came a messenger to Job, and said, “The oxen were ploughing and the asses feeding beside them; 15 and the Sabe′ans fell upon them and took them, and slew the servants with the edge of the sword; and I alone have escaped to tell you.” 16 While he was yet speaking, there came another, and said, “The fire of God fell from heaven and burned up the sheep and the servants, and consumed them; and I alone have escaped to tell you.” 17 While he was yet speaking, there came another, and said, “The Chalde′ans formed three companies, and made a raid upon the camels and took them, and slew the servants with the edge of the sword; and I alone have escaped to tell you.” 18 While he was yet speaking, there came another, and said, “Your sons and daughters were eating and drinking wine in their eldest brother’s house; 19 and behold, a great wind came across the wilderness, and struck the four corners of the house, and it fell upon the young people, and they are dead; and I alone have escaped to tell you.”

But despite being plunged head first into a dark night, and having all his good gifts taken away from him; Job remains faithful and does not crack:

Job 1:20-22 RSV-CE

20 Then Job arose, and rent his robe, and shaved his head, and fell upon the ground, and worshipped. 21 And he said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”

22 In all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrong.

Satan returns to the heavenly assembly and God quizzes him, saying “See? Despite withdrawing all my gifts from Job, he still loves me.” Satan responds with “That is because you have not harmed his body. So long as he has his good health, he will continue to love you, but take away this, and he will hate and despise you. He will renounce you.”

 Job 2:1-8 RSV-CE

1 Again there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came among them to present himself before the LordAnd the Lord said to Satan, “Whence have you come?” Satan answered the Lord, “From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it.” And the Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil? He still holds fast his integrity, although you moved me against him, to destroy him without cause.” Then Satan answered the Lord, “Skin for skin! All that a man has he will give for his life. But put forth thy hand now, and touch his bone and his flesh, and he will curse thee to thy face.” And the Lord said to Satan, “Behold, he is in your power; only spare his life.”

So Satan went forth from the presence of the Lord, and afflicted Job with loathsome sores from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head. And he took a potsherd with which to scrape himself, and sat among the ashes.

Jobs wife comes up to him and expresses her astonishment that Job continues to love and worship a God who is so clearly callous and evil. But Job remains steadfast in his faith and refuses to renounce his good lord:

 Job 2:9-10 RSV-CE

Then his wife said to him, “Do you still hold fast your integrity? Curse God, and die.” 10 But he said to her, “You speak as one of the foolish women would speak. Shall we receive good at the hand of God, and shall we not receive evil?” In all this Job did not sin with his lips.

The rest of the book is brilliant poetry, in which Job and his three friends dialogue on matters of sin, justice, punishment, salvation, mystery, goodness. Job wonders out loud why God has allowed this misfortune to befall him: he is particularly confused because he knows in his heart that he has not sinned in any way. He wonders why it is that the righteous suffer and the unrighteous are able to get away with iniquity unpunished. The truth of the matter is that God has plunged Job into a particularly dark night of the soul in order to purify him into a shining, glorious saint. God has taken away all of these gifts so as to test Job’s love. Amazingly, Job remains steadfast in his faith through the entire ordeal: he questions God, and cries out for God to provide some sort of explanation for the suffering he has had to endure, but at no point does he curse God or renounce his love for his creator.

And just as in any dark night of the soul, when Job emerges out the other side God bestows even more gifts and grace upon him than he had in the first place!

Job 42:10-17 RSV-CE

10 And the Lord restored the fortunes of Job, when he had prayed for his friends; and the Lord gave Job twice as much as he had before. 11 Then came to him all his brothers and sisters and all who had known him before, and ate bread with him in his house; and they showed him sympathy and comforted him for all the evil that the Lord had brought upon him; and each of them gave him a piece of money and a ring of gold. 12 And the Lord blessed the latter days of Job more than his beginning; and he had fourteen thousand sheep, six thousand camels, a thousand yoke of oxen, and a thousand she-asses. 13 He had also seven sons and three daughters. 14 And he called the name of the first Jemi′mah; and the name of the second Kezi′ah; and the name of the third Ker′en-hap′puch. 15 And in all the land there were no women so fair as Job’s daughters; and their father gave them inheritance among their brothers. 16 And after this Job lived a hundred and forty years, and saw his sons, and his sons’ sons, four generations. 17 And Job died, an old man, and full of days.

So once again we have a classic case of a dark night of the soul: The initial gifts (Job’s great wealth, health and love), the plunging into darkness (The testing by Satan and loss of Job’s entire fortune), and the emergence from the darkness as a purified, tested, victorious saint (Job’s restoration of health, wealth and love as well as his long life and happy death)

Caritas Ex Nihilo

darknight.jpg

Lets put all of this together. Each of us is called to enter the dark night at some point of our lives. God is going to test every single one of us, just as he tested Job and Abraham. He is going to refine us with suffering until we are able to love him even in the absence of his gifts. But lets consider just how difficult this is going to be and what this is going to involve. Consider again the words of Christ, quoted at the beginning of this post:

“If any one comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.

“He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me”

When Jesus says “Hate”, he really does mean hate. If we desire to love him, we must be willing to trust him and follow his commands even when they contradict the love for our families that God has already gifted us with. Just as Abraham was willing to sacrifice his son Isaac, we too must be willing to see our families sacrificed if that is what God commands. We have to be willing to truly hate our families and desire their eternal, everlasting torture in the endless ocean of fire that is Hell if this is what God asks of us. God does not ask us to enjoy this prospect, he does not ask us to be happy about doing this, he does not ask us to take sadistic pleasure in the torture of our families, however he does ask us to have a rock solid faith in him and a perfect obedience to his commandments. Just as Abraham was crying as he ascended the mountain to the altar and pressed his knife against his sons throat, so too we are permitted to grieve at the eternal loss of our families, but nevertheless; we must be willing to accept this loss, all for the sake of the love of God. As Jesus says: Whoever loses his life will save it. We must renounce ALL worldly attachments and cast them into the dark flame, and this includes our closest relationships: Husband, Wife, Mother, Father, Sister, Brother, Son, Daughter. We must be willing to see everyone in our life damned, all for the sake of loving God.

The darkest night of the soul is pitch black: bleak like the trial of Job. All of Gods gifts are removed and he demands that we sacrifice everything for his sake. If this was the end of the story, it would be incredibly depressing and entirely bittersweet: we gain God, but at what cost?

Thankfully this is not the grand finalé to the tale. Recall how the narrative of the dark night of the soul always plays out. First of all there are the abundant gifts of God – in this particular case the amazing unconditional love that is found within a family. Second, there is the removal of these gifts, as a testing of darkness and a refining of fire – in this case, this consists of a renouncing of familial love in order to pursue the greater love of God. It consists of hating your family to the point where you are willing to see them damned if that is what God decrees. But there is always a happy ending. Finally, the dark night of the soul always ends in joy: the gifts are returned a thousandfold more than they were in the beginning. In this case, our families are not actually damned for God desires all people to be saved. Just as it was revealed to Abraham that he didn’t really have to kill Isaac, and just as Job had all of his wealth, health and loving relationships returned to him, so too we will see those whom we love come to salvation: we never really had to be sad at the prospect that God would damn them, because this is not on his heart. The good news of the Gospel is that God desires the salvation of all and he has the power to bring this about.

John Piper and the horror of Calvinism

61P45+ToLrL._UX250_[1]John Piper is a famous Calvinist teacher and preacher, living today. I find his views and theology to be shocking and disgusting for the most part. He believes that God desires the damnation of multitudes and that this somehow gives God “Glory”. He is happy to worship a God who would damn members of his family. For the longest time I found this to be completely weird and skewed, but after the reflections I have set down in this post concerning the dark night of the soul, I suppose I have uncovered a window into how people like him think.

In the end it is true that John Piper has an amazing, invincible faith and trust in God, just like Abraham did: He is willing to see his sons burn in Hell for eternity if that is what God commands. He does not revel at the thought; he does not take pleasure in the prospect, but nevertheless he has come to an acceptance that “if this is what God wants, this is what I will do”. The following quote is representative of his thinking:

“I have three sons. Every night after they are asleep I turn on the hall light, open their bedroom door, and walk from bed to bed, laying my hands on them and praying. Often I am moved to tears of joy and longing. I pray that Karsten Luke become a great physician of the soul, that Benjamin John become the beloved son of my right hand in the gospel, and that Abraham Christian give glory to God as he grows strong in his faith.

But I am not ignorant that God may not have chosen my sons for his sons. And, though I think I would give my life for their salvation, if they should be lost to me, I would not rail against the Almighty. He is God. I am but a man. The potter has absolute rights over the clay. Mine is to bow before his unimpeachable character and believe that the Judge of all the earth has ever and always will do right.”

I used to read this and be completely appalled. How could he be so unloving towards his sons? And yet… now I see where he is coming from. He is just like Abraham, standing on the mountain with the knife raised above his head; ready to bring it down and plunge it into Isaac’s heart if only God would give the order. He is not happy about this. He does not take some sort of sadistic pleasure in the sacrifice of his sons. Nevertheless he is willing to follow God anywhere. It is a sobering faith, but it is nevertheless a strong and true faith.

What John Piper does not seem to realise, however, is that the Gospel is “Good news” and as such there is always a happy ending to the tale. While he is to be commended on his strong and invincible faith in the face of the prospect of God sending his children to damnation, he does not have to fear this as if it were a live possibility. God always wants the best for everyone, John Pipers children included. It is admirable to be willing to sacrifice your sons, but it is even more admirable to rest in the confident Gospel Hope that you will never have to do this, for the dark night of the soul always concludes with happiness and joy, and not a bitter-sweet victory of tears, sighing and sadness.

“The night is darkest before the dawn, but the dawn is entirely glorious”

dawn-dusk[1]

In summary, we have to be willing to see our closest loved ones eternally damned for the sake of the love of God, however we do not have to fear that God will ever truly demand this of us. We know that there is always a happy ending: no matter how tense it gets; no matter how dark things seem; there will always be an angel swooping in at the last minute to stop us from slitting our sons throats, just as it was with Abraham. God’s demands are intense and exhausting, but Christ’s yoke is easy and his burden is light: we can always trust that God has our best interests at heart, as well of those of everyone we love; our friends; our families; and even our enemies! God loves everyone without distinction and without exception. This is what we have to keep in mind at all times, for this is the faith that will carry us through the dark night of the soul. When everything seems dark and Satan is tempting us to give up Hope and wallow in despair: remember the unlimited, unconditional salvific will of God and remain steadfast in faith. The reward at the other end of the tunnel is theosis: supreme Joy, the fullness of salvation and eternal satisfaction. Press on for this prize. We have to be prepared to pass through Hell on the way to Heaven; pray that God would give us strength, faith and resolve for the journey. All praise be to Christ the victorious redeemer, who has saved the world, is saving the world, and promises to save the world to come. Amen

Orthodoxy 101 – Catholicism and Sola Fide: Understanding Indulgences

IndulgencesIndulgences—speak the word and Protestants will immediately shake their heads in disapproval. Here we have a doctrine that definitively undermines the good news of God’s gift of salvation through Jesus Christ. The Anglican Articles of Religion describe indulgences as “repugnant to the Word of God.” The Westminster Confession describes them as a “cunningly devised fable, invented by designing men to impose upon the credulous, and to fill their own treasures.” In the Smalcald Articles, Martin Luther states that “purgatory, and every solemnity, rite, and commerce connected with it, is to be regarded as nothing but a specter of the devil.”

It is plain to be seen that indulgences have acquired a terrible reputation. However they need not be so quickly rejected. The problem with indulgences is that they are almost entirely misunderstood. And not just by their opponents! Even many Catholic proponents of the doctrine often get indulgences wrong and end up pronouncing theology which does indeed serve to nullify the good news of the Gospel. I propose that the best way to interpret indulgences, is to look at them through the lens of reformation theology, specifically the doctrine of Sola Fide, and so interpret indulgences as merely another expression or aspect of God’s unconditional, salvific promise.

A Shift in Paradigm

IndulgencesAn Indulgences is defined in the Catholic Catechism as “a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven, which the faithful Christian who is duly disposed gains under certain prescribed conditions“. This definition betrays a very medieval understanding of theology, in that is talks about temporal “punishment”. The focus is very much on God’s justice here: sin leads to punishment but this punishment can be waived. It’s all very “legalistic” and the scene of a courtroom is apt to represent the situation.

In recent years, the doctrine of purgatory has shifted from a “satisfaction” model to a “sanctification” model in the popular mind. This shift is reflective of a more broad movement in Catholic theology away from the retributive paradigm of “Sin as a crime which deserves punishment” to a more remedial paradigm of “Sin as a sickness which requires healing”. In short, no longer are we thought to “pay for our sins” in purgatory; instead we are thought to be “purified of the spiritual dirtiness which has clung to our soul as a result of sin”. This is a welcome change, as it is more in accord with the image of God as a loving father who desires the best for his children, rather than the image of God as a wrathful and angry judge who demands justice in the form of brutal punishment for sin.

However this shift in the understanding of purgatory demands a corresponding shift in the understanding of indulgences. It simply does not make sense to say that “My soul is drenched in sin, however I have gained an indulgence, which means I don’t have to go through the hassle of purification and cleansing. My ‘temporal punishment’ has been remitted: God accepts me just as I am, warts and all”. This is nonsensical and contradicts the clear biblical principle that “nothing unclean will enter heaven”. The solution to this problem lies in the doctrine of the communion of the saints.

The doctrine of the communion of the saints states that we are all mystically joined to Christ and each other. This union is much closer than we realise in our day to day experience. The union is in actual fact so close, that the purifying effects of my penances flow between all the members of the church, such that they do not purify my soul alone, but instead serve to purify all of humanity. Likewise, the infinite penances of Christ, Mary, and the saints flow around the entire church. In this way, my soul can be cleansed by the penances of other people. I do not have to personally make temporal atonement for my sins; I do not have to clean myself; instead, Christ has the ability to clean me directly apart from any penances which I may attempt, by simply applying the infinite penances of the communion of saints to my soul. All that I need to do to allow this to happen is to willingly consent to the cleansing through faith.

With this in mind, Indulgences can be reinterpreted as “A soul being cleansed of it’s sinful dirtiness directly by Christ, through the superabundant penances of the communion of the saints, apart from any penance directly undertaken by that soul”

Indulgences as Promise

13729201_1197343756962644_642610664857631023_n.jpgWe have already seen in this series that God makes a variety of unconditional promises to humanity (or one single promise with many aspects). A summary:

  1. God promises us that we are Righteous (Justified), right here and now, because Christ lives within us. And therefore we need not fret and feel spiritual angst about being a bad person.
  2. God promises that all of our sins are forgiven, both past sins and future sins. Therefore we do not need to feel guilty about any of our moral failings
  3. God promises that we are predestined to heaven. Therefore we do not need to fear being stuck in a state of alienation from God forever. We do not need to despair at the prospect of walking in darkness for eternity. We can have an invincible Hope that we will eventually achieve beatitude.

Now, it seems to me that indulgences are just another unconditional promise that God makes to us. This promise states “You are clean, because Christ has cleaned you; You are perfect, because Christ has purified you; No temporal punishment for sin remains”. In biblical language, we have been washed in Christ’s blood, which is to say that the superabundant sufferings of Christ function as a penance which are applied to all souls in order to cleanse them from all stain of sin. Mary and the saints are able to add their penances to Christ’s sufferings and in this way participate in his passion, however this is not strictly necessary because Christ’s blood is sufficient to clean the souls of the entire world, nevertheless it is a great honour to be united to Christ in such a way that we participate in his salvific work and mission.

It is important to note, that just like the other three promises, the promise of indulgence is Universal and Unconditional. That is to say, God implicitly speaks the promise to every individual who has ever lived, even if they do not explicitly hear the promise spoken to them during life. Again, like the other promises, it is helpful to have this Universal promise personalised and spoken directly to someone. This is where the idea of “Indulgences as promise” intersects with the traditional doctrine.

Indulgences and Sacraments

Extreme_Unction_LACMA_AC1994.171.5-56a1083c3df78cafdaa83428[1]Sacramentally, the promise of a plenary indulgence is spoken during Baptism and Last Rites. When we are baptised, we are “washed completely clean”. This is an indulgence by another name. Just as with the other promises of God, this promise of indulgence is received “by faith alone”. The degree to which the promise takes effect in my subjective experience of life, is determined by the degree to which I respond to this promise in faith. God says “You are clean”, and I believe, and therefore I experience cleanliness. On the other hand God says “You are clean” and I doubt, and therefore I experience dirtiness.

This experiential situation carries on into the afterlife and takes the name “purgatory”. If you have a perfect faith in the promise of Indulgence, then when you die you will not experience purification, because the promise of God is that there is nothing left to purify: he has already purified you. In this way you “escape the punishment of Hell”. If however you die with an imperfect faith in the promise of Indulgence, then you will enter into the Hellish torments of Purgatory. The degree to which you doubt the promise is the degree to which you are tormented. As all the sins of your life are laid out before you during the particular judgement, you behold your past crimes and perceive them as staining your soul. You are tormented by your sins. All that needs to be done to escape this situation is to hear the promise of Indulgence and throw yourself upon it completely in faith. You must repent by turning away from these sins and trusting the promise of Christ that “you are already clean”. Once you realise that you are already clean, the torments will cease and be revealed to have been completely illusory the entire time.

“Earning” Indulgences?

IndulgencesSimilarly to how it is useful as life goes on to have the promise of Justification which was spoken in Baptism reiterated in the Sacrament of Confession, so as to more easily place our faith in it; so too it is useful to have the promise of Indulgence reiterated many times throughout our life, so that we can more easily place our faith in it. This is where the traditional system of “Indulgences attached to works and prayers” comes into play.

To recap: a perpetual plenary indulgence is granted to everyone at all times and in all places. This indulgence takes the form of the scriptural promise that “we have been washed and sanctified by the blood of the lamb. We are completely clean, right now”. However it is useful to have this promise spoken to us personally, so as to allow us to receive it in faith. This is why there are many prayers and actions which are attached to the idea of indulgences.

The most important of these actions are the sacraments of Baptism and Last Rites. However there are many minor prayers, actions and pilgrimages which have indulgences attached. These need to be understood not as “doing a work so as to earn an indulgence”, instead they need to be understood as “demonstrating faith in the promise of Indulgence by concrete actions”. An example: someone who goes on a spiritual retreat for three full days is granted a Plenary indulgence. This does not mean that this person has “earned” the indulgence, instead it means that this person has demonstrated faith in the promise of Indulgence by his actions. At the end of the retreat, the promise of Indulgence is explicitly spoken. It was always implicitly spoken, however it is useful to have this promise explicitly reiterated, so that we may more easily anchor our faith in it. In this way indulgences are similar in purpose to the sacraments.

To summarise, the Promise of Indulgence is unconditional, universal, and perpetual. The works attached to indulgences do not “earn” indulgences, they are simply concrete ways in which faith in this promise is demonstrated. If you do a work or say a prayer with a “partial indulgence” attached, this simply means that you have demonstrated a “partial faith” in the promise. If you do a work or say a prayer with a “plenary indulgence” attached, this simply means that you have demonstrated a total faith in the promise.

The Final Assault of Satan

220px-Hieronymus_Bosch_013[1].jpgThe main purpose of Last Rites, or Extreme Unction, is to sacramentally speak the promise of Plenary Indulgence to a soul right when they need to hear that promise most. The soul is about to go through the process of dying. As we pray in the Hail Mary, “Pray for us sinners now, and at the hour of our death“. It is a common theological opinion that Satan will make a final assault on a soul who is dying, in the last moments of their life, while they are at their weakest. He will try to drag the soul down into doubt and despair concerning the promises of God. The Devil will do his best to tempt the soul into a state of subjective damnation by attacking their faith. Meanwhile Mary, Christ and all the angels and saints are praying and interceding and doing intense battle with the Devil and his demons. Spiritual warfare is waged over the dying soul.

The sacrament of Last Rites prepares us for this final battle by reiterating the promise of Indulgence to us so that it is fresh in our memory. The last thing that we hear before slipping away into this terrifying process of dying is the promise of God that we are clean. This is essential. Because the Devil is going to swoop in in those last moments and taunt us by saying “You are dirty. You are Guilty. Look at all of your sins. You are going to be damned for sure”. In the face of these taunts, we need to be able to throw ourselves upon the promises of God which instead say “You are clean. You are perfect. You are righteous. Christ lives within you. You are predestined to Heaven”: it is much easier to do this if we have the promises fresh in our memory.

In this way the sacrament of last rites gives us strength to face the process of dying, by reiterating the unconditional promise of God right when we need to hear it most.

Penance is Supererogatory

IndulgencesSomeone who depends on penance on order to be clean is simply doing it wrong. This is another manifestation of the “salvation by works” mindset. Objectively, their works of penance do indeed contribute to the cleansing of themselves as well as the other members of the church via the mystical union in the communion of the saints. However, if they do not have faith in the promise of Indulgence that they “are clean, right now, and have been completely washed by the blood of Christ”, then subjectively they are going to experience dirtiness, damnation and condemnation. In this way it is once again a case of “salvation by faith alone”. The way in which the promise becomes active in their subjective experience of life is through faith in that promise. People do not experience cleanliness by doing works of penance, people experience cleanliness by completely trusting in the promise of Indulgence.

An important consequence of these reflections on Indulgences, is that they make penance completely supererogatory (An action is supererogatory if it is good to do but unnecessary). When someone goes to the sacrament of confession and receives absolution, the priest will also specify some penance that needs to be performed. Strictly speaking, this penance is unnecessary and all that is really required in order for the soul to be clean is for that person to place their trust in Christ’s perpetual promise of Indulgence. However the church in her wisdom has decided that penance is spiritually beneficial. In this way, even though penance is a supererogatory act, the church mandates that we do some penance after confession of our sins.

Interestingly, all penance is supererogatory, because Christ’s passion was enough to secure a cleansing of the entire human race. Nevertheless it is a beneficial spiritual exercise to engage in acts of penance. The harm comes when people think that they must perform acts of penance in order to be saved. This will lead to spiritual angst and there are many testimonies of ex-priests and ex-monks who experienced exactly this spiritual angst and it drove them to abandon the faith. Instead we must understand all penance as being supererogatory: Our salvation and escape from the fires of Hell/Purgatory does not depend on the amount of penance we do. Instead it depends entirely on Christ and is subjectively apprehended by faith in Christ’s promise of Indulgence. Faith is the key to a subjective experience of salvation in every respect.

Beautiful Promises

christus-victor[1].jpgTo summarise, an Indulgence is not something which you earn by works and prayers. Indulgence is instead the promise of God that “you are totally clean, right now”. This promise is apprehended by faith alone, and that faith is demonstrated by the works and prayers which have indulgences “attached” to them. In this way, you do not need to work your way out of Hell or Purgatory by many and varied acts of penance: Christ has already done that for you and all you need to do is trust him.

God makes a variety of wonderful promises. “You are clean, you are righteous, you are Justified, you are forgiven, you are predestined, you will persevere”. He speaks these promises to us personally in the sacraments. We apprehend these promises by faith alone and by faith these promises invade our life and enrich it, leading to an experience of heaven on earth; salvation here and now. These promises are unconditional, which is to say they depend on God rather than us for their fulfilment. And God, being omnipotent and omniscient, is able to actualise these promises despite any resistance we might throw at him. In this way we can have invincible faith, confident hope, overflowing joy and untameable love: we can experience salvation right now. All praise be to Christ the king, who was victorious over Hell, abolished death, defeated the Devil, conquered sin. We have an amazing future to look forward to, hope for and pray for. God promises it and God guarantees it. What else can we do but have faith and rejoice?

(Return to first article)

Orthodoxy 101 – Christianity and The Glorious Gospel

What is the Gospel?

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What is the Gospel? This is a tougher question than most people seem to realise. As Christians we are called to “Proclaim the Gospel”. It is our core mission to the world. And yet the definition of what exactly it is that we are supposed to be proclaiming is quite elusive.

It is helpful to look at the literal meaning of the word “Gospel”. It is an old-English word which means “Good news”. So what is the good news? Traditionally, the good news has been summarised as “Jesus is risen!”. So far all Christians are in agreement. However why exactly is that “Good news”? What difference does it make to my life? It is in answering this derivative question that most, if not all denominations and expressions of Christianity go astray.

The good news as it pertains to me and my life, takes the form of an unconditional promise. This promise has two aspects: present and future. In the present, the promise says “You are righteous and you are saved, right here and now, and there’s nothing you have to do to make it so.” In the future, the promise says “You will not suffer everlasting damnation and you are going to go to heaven, and ultimately there’s nothing you can do to prevent this from happening“.

Once this promise has been spoken, the listener will have one of two responses: Faith/Trust/Belief in the promise, or Apathy/Disbelief/Outrage. If they have the positive response of Faith, this faith will inevitably lead to joy, and this joy is itself a direct subjective experience of salvation in the here and now: This joy is an experience of heaven on earth.

It is important to note that the promise is unconditional. This means that even if the listener does not believe in it, they are still saved because God keeps his promises. An important aspect of the fact that this is an unconditional promise is that it depends entirely on God: We do not have to do anything to “earn” it, and there is nothing we can do to mess it up. God keeps his promises and he will have the victory, even if we resist him.

This then, is the “Good news” of the Gospel as it pertains to my life. It is an unconditional promise from God which says “You are saved right now and there’s nothing you have to do to earn it, and you will be saved in the future, and there’s absolutely nothing you can do which will prevent it from happening.”

The Gospel Promise of Love

Forever-and-ever-alice-and-jasper-fanfics-13158494-240-320[1].jpgSomeone could have this wonderful promise spoken to them and be completely baffled as to the details. “Why am I saved right now?” they might ask. “Why will I certainly go to heaven?” At this point it helps to elaborate on aspects of the actual Christian narrative.

The reason that we are all saved right now, is because Jesus loved the world so much, that he paid for the sins of all humanity by willingly dying on the cross and descending to Hell and suffering all of it’s torments. Jesus took the full punishment for our sins, so that we don’t have to. He took a bullet for us. He didn’t just pay for the sins of a couple of people, he paid for the sins of the entire world. In Christ all sins have already been punished. Now no punishment remains. Furthermore all humanity has been “justified”, which is to say every single human being is united to the resurrected Christ, and has had the perfect righteousness of Christ poured into their souls, such that they transition from being sinners to being intrinsically holy and righteous. In this way, the whole world has been saved from condemnation and damnation, and furthermore the whole world is united to Christ and lives in him. Because Jesus defeated death by his resurrection, every individual without exception has also defeated death through Christ, and therefore every individual without exception is “saved”: Not only do we not need to fear Hell thanks to Christ’s atoning sacrifice of love, we can also joyfully experience becoming new creations thanks to Christ resurrection!

Note that this story is universal and entirely by Grace: you don’t have to do anything, whether it be “believing” or “loving” or “works” or “obedience”. You don’t have to do anything. The story applies to everyone: Muslims, Atheists, Catholics, Protestants, Hindus, Hitler, Walt Disney, Muhammad, Me, You, My family, Your family etc etc. The entire world has been objectively saved by Christ’s death, descent to Hell and resurrection. This is why an evangelist can simply tell the story to an unbeliever with no “ifs, ands or buts”. All that needs to be done is to say to someone “You are saved!” and then pray that the Holy Spirit will cause that person to respond to the promise with faith. But again, the promise does not depend on that person having faith: even if they disbelieve the promise, they are still objectively saved by Christ. The only difference is that they have no “experience” of this salvation and therefore they could be said to be still “walking in darkness”: Objectively they are saved, but Subjectively they are still experiencing the old state of affairs: damnation and alienation from God. This is why we must evangelise. We need people to become aware of the promise that God speaks to them so that it may become activated and alive in their experience of life.

Moving on to the future aspect of the promise. The reason that we will all eventually get to Heaven, is that the Holy Spirit has been poured into our hearts. According to scripture, the Holy Spirit serves as a “Guarantee of our inheritance”, which is to say “a promise that we will arrive in Heaven”. Someone who has the Holy Spirit therefore is predestined to heaven. Of course, God gives us freedom to resist him. We are able to resist him such that we get stuck in a state of afterlife purification indefinitely. However the promise of the Holy Spirit is that this simply is not going to happen: If you have the Holy Spirit, you WILL walk the path of salvation all the way to the end. God guarantees it. This is the doctrine of predestination. Predestination does not mean that all of our actions have been predetermined by God, predestination simply means that God promises never to give up on us. He will never leave us or abandon us. He will stick by us in the form of the Holy Spirit until we arrive at the fullness of salvation.

Again, this story is universal. Whoever has the Holy Spirit has received this promise of predestination. Arguably we all have the Holy Spirit, and so we are all predestined! And again, this narrative is entirely by Grace: God guarantees us a positive outcome and even though we may resist him, ultimately we will not rebel against him forever. Again, when evangelising all that needs to be done is to speak this promise: “You will not be damned forever. You are going to get to Heaven”. This aspect of the promise generates a strong Hope and assurance. When times are tough, and someone is drowning in sin which they feel unable to defeat, they can throw themselves upon this promise from God and say “No matter how bad things get, they are going to get better; No matter how much I fall into sin, eventually God will deliver me”. This promise therefore serves as a guard against despair in the life of the Christian.

Note that at no point in the discussion have any conditions been stated. The promise is well and truly unconditional! We do not have to do anything in order to be saved right now and have our place in heaven secured: God has done it all and God will do it all. Salvation is completely and entirely by Grace… and yet in that act of Grace we remain completely and entirely free. This leads to a more sobering aspect of the Gospel promise.

The Gospel Promise of Justice

E047_Purgatory[1].jpgOne aspect of the Gospel promise is that Justice will be done. Everything good we do will be rewarded, and everything bad we do will be punished. Hitler will be made to experience all the misery that he caused during his time on earth. Fathers who beat their children will have the situation reversed and they will experience the fear and terror that they have caused their children directly. Rapists will have their souls crushed proportionally to the harm they caused their victims. Murderers will experience the pain that they bestowed on others.

To some people, this aspect of the promise is comforting. Someone whose mother was raped and murdered by rampaging Muslim Jihadis will inevitably be crying out to heaven for justice. God promises that this justice will be done: those Jihadis will be made to pay. To most people, this aspect of the promise is incredibly sobering: Just because Jesus paid for all my sins, does not mean that I can just indulge in sin with no consequence. There will be punishment for every moral mistake that we make. This punishment will be terrifying, infinite, and experienced as everlasting. This punishment is Hell.

How does this “Justice” aspect of the promise mesh with the “Grace” aspect of the promise? For one thing, heavenly rewards do not decay. Every good thing we do will be rewarded in heaven and those rewards will last forever. On the other hand, our sins can be burned away and we can be left spotless as if we had never sinned at all. This is what happens in Hell. The horrible punishment of Hell will lead to wilful repentance, and this repentance will lead to the sins being purified and burned away. Eventually, once we have repented of all of our sins, the punishment will cease (even if it subjectively feels like it lasts forever).

The second, future aspect of the Gospel promise applies here. Another way of wording it is “Even if you go to Hell, you still have the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit is a promise that God will rescue you from damnation. You will not be stuck in Hell forever. Eventually God will get you out”

This promise could be exploited for laziness and laxness, in which case the scary side of the promise needs to be emphasised: “If you do not repent, you will go to Hell, and you don’t want to go to Hell because it is the worst possible experience you can have and what’s more, it feels like it is everlasting!”

Note that this promise is not unconditional: It depends on our free response. If we do good, we are rewarded. If we do bad, we are punished.

Where people get the Gospel wrong

worksalvation[1].pngPretty much everyone who gets the gospel wrong, does so because they either restrict the universality of the message in some way, or they change the promise from an unconditional one to a conditional one.

Arminians, Catholics and Orthodox

Catholics commonly screw up the message by saying that God “offers” us salvation. Modern Catholics will wax poetic about God’s grace, how God loves everyone and wants to save everyone and how we don’t have to do anything to earn our salvation, but then at the last second they will turn around and say “But God gives us free will, and we need to use our free will to accept God’s offer of salvation, otherwise we will be damned”. What a terrible Gospel! No longer does God promise me salvation; instead he merely offers me salvation. In the final analysis whether or not I am saved depends entirely on me and my efforts to accept salvation. This leads to perpetual spiritual angst, despair, depression as I am constantly asking myself “Have I accepted God’s offer?”. And God help you if you commit mortal sins! “Oh God, I’ve screwed up. I just had sex with my girlfriend again. I’m going to Hell if I don’t get to confession ASAP”. All of a sudden you have a terrible fear of death because if you were to die in the state of sin this would send you off to Hell forever and ever.

Calvinists

Calvinists get the Gospel wrong by altering both the unconditionality and the universality of the message. Calvinists claim that faith is a condition for salvation: if you do not have faith, you are not saved and will go to Hell. This leads to spiritual angst of another kind, as people are constantly asking themselves “do I have true faith?” What’s more, Calvinists restrict God’s love only to a select few people. God does not desire the salvation of everyone, he only desires the salvation of a couple of people who he chose for no particular reason before creation. He desires that everyone else suffer everlasting, brutal, horrible torture in Hell. In this way Calvinists are worshipping a purely evil God. Calvinism cannot even rightly be called Christianity. Calvinism is Satanism and all Calvinists are Satanists. All Calvinists without exception will be brutally punished in Hell and the Saints in Heaven will rejoice and praise God for his glorious and righteous justice as they enjoy the spectacle. Lucky for these horrible Calvinists the one true God does not deal in “everlasting” punishments, and so even disgusting, depraved individuals such as Calvinists will eventually repent of their heresies and blasphemies and achieve salvation.

Evangelicals

Evangelicals in general mess up the Gospel by adding conditions to it, which in turn serve to limit it’s universality. They say that you must “accept Christ” if you want to be saved. They say that you must “have faith”. You must “believe in God” or “trust in Jesus”. Decision theology is popular in this camp: you need to actively make a choice for God in order to be saved. If you do not do these things, then you are damned forever. Again, the same sort of spiritual angst comes into play as with the Calvinists. “How do I know that I have true faith?”, “How do I know I have chosen God?”

Of course certain Evangelicals are not troubled by such questions in the slightest. They have fully convinced themselves that they have enough faith and have chosen God adequately. They believe that they have fulfilled the conditions for salvation. These people are Pharisees. Every single one of them without exception is depending on their own efforts in order to be saved. As such they are puffed up with pride and superiority. They look at their unbelieving neighbours and think to themselves “Gee, I’m glad I’m not that guy. Thank God that I’m saved!”

If the Evangelical in question has a Christian family, he is less likely to care about the salvation and damnation of others. As far as he cares, everyone he knows and cares about is going to heaven. Too bad about those other poor souls who are going to be damned forever. “I’ll just be happy that God chose me and my friends and family. Too bad about those other suckers who didn’t believe in God before they died!”

However if the Evangelical in question is a convert from a non-Christian family, this Gospel is absolutely soul crushing: “Ok, God saved me, but what about my brothers and sisters? What about my mother and father? What about all my unbelieving friends”. The only answer that this gospel gives is that “their salvation depends on YOU”. All of a sudden, the weight of the salvation of this person’s entire family falls squarely onto that person. The person will feel like it’s up to him to save his family. If they are damned, it is his fault. If they die before showing any signs of faith, this person will feel utterly crushed and defeated. No longer is the Gospel good news to this person. Now the gospel becomes a terrible message of complete destruction and eternal torment for the people who that person loves most. A lot of people have a crisis of faith at this time. They are simply unable to continue singing songs of praise and worship to a God who would allow this to happen. Some people abandon the faith. Some people suffer intense mental anguish and go through intellectual contortions until they “accept that God is sovereign” and then they continue to bow down and worship him despite the overwhelming evidence that he is a total uncaring monster.

The Gospel Promise of Grace

chinese-717356_640[1].jpgThe Gospel as it was outlined at the beginning of this post is the only true Gospel. It is a completely unconditional promise which is universal in scope. This promise can be spoken to anyone with conviction. An evangelist can walk up to anyone and say “You are saved and you will go to Heaven!”. If the hearer of this promise responds with interest, the evangelist can continue to tell the story of Jesus. As the story is told, the faith of the listener may grow, and blossom into an experience of salvation right here and now. That person will transition from walking in darkness to walking in light, as they place their trust in the promise and absorb the salvation which it promises. And the amazing thing about this promise is that it still applies; it still will come to pass, even if the listener rejects it or has doubts. For this is the nature of an unconditional promise: it does not depend on the response of the listener. God will bring it about. This is the essence of Grace.

Now, God implicitly speaks this promise to everyone without exception. Even those people who lived before Christ. No one is excluded from his salvific love and salvific will. However it is helpful to have God’s promises spoken to us personally as individuals. This is why we have the sacraments.

Baptism

Baptism is the sacrament in which God says to the sinner “You are righteous and all your sins are forgiven, even those which you haven’t yet commit”. This provides an extremely tangible promise for a Christian to place their trust in. Whenever they sin, or feel despair at the state of their soul, they can think back to their baptism and remember the promise of God that was spoken to them personally at that time.

Confirmation

Confirmation is the sacrament in which we receive the Holy Spirit. As such, it is a sacrament in which God makes the promise of future salvation. In Confirmation, God says “I will never leave you. I will never abandon you. I am going to get you to Heaven”. In this way, whenever a Christian is finding themselves in a stage of life where they are bogged down in sin and utterly failing to repent, they can think back to their confirmation and have hope, thinking to themselves “God is going to get me through this. This is not going to last forever”. As such this sacrament is a great guard against despair.

Confession

Confession is a sacrament which repeats the promise that was spoken during baptism. As such it is not strictly necessary, although it is mandated by church law in the case of mortal sin. In confession, the promise of baptism is repeated: “You are forgiven, you are righteous”. This is helpful because as time goes by, our baptism becomes less vivid in our memories, and the promise that was spoken to us fades into the past. In this way it becomes helpful to sacramentally renew the promise so that it is fresh in our minds. This is also appropriate for the reason that as time goes by and the promise of baptism fades in our memory, the promise is less active in our mind, and so when we commit mortal sins we experience subjective guilt. This guilt is unwarranted seeing as we have already been objectively forgiven of all of our sins, past, present and future. In this way having confession available helps us to remove any unwarranted guilt, by speaking the promise of Baptism to us afresh and giving us a word to place our trust in which is closer to the present time. Someone who has a strong faith obviously does not need to go to confession, however it is always helpful to hear God’s promise spoken, and so it is wise to go to confession whenever someone commits a mortal sin.

Universalism is the only Gospel worthy of the name

6506502553_006c1eb79b_b-700x450[1]The true and glorious Gospel, is that God loves everyone, he has saved everyone, and he will save everyone. No one will be excluded from his love and salvific will. The future will be wonderful, truly something to look forward to.

This is a promise that can be spoken to anyone with utter conviction. It is unconditional and doesn’t depend on us in any way. People who hear it and believe it will have a strong experience of salvation right now. This is what evangelism is about: Objectively we are all saved and we are all going to heaven. However subjectively not everyone realises this. God uses us to preach his promise of salvation and so bring people by faith from the darkness into the light. Part of the promise is that eventually everyone will move from darkness to light. We participate in the fulfilment of that promise by our preaching and evangelism, however it does not depend on us in any way. God will fulfil his promise to save someone regardless of whether they hear us preaching. It’s just that they might spend a longer time wandering in the darkness.

Of course, we do not know with infallible certainty that this promise will come to pass. This is why we must pray continuously for the salvation of ourselves and all other people. We must have faith and hope. But surely we will overflow with faith and hope when we consider who it is we are placing our faith and hope in: Jesus Christ; God made man, who loved us so much that we was willing to die and suffer Hell in our place, who was resurrected from death to life and ascended into Heaven; who sent the Holy Spirit as a promise that we would be saved. When you fully appreciate this, it’s not that hard to love him back, is it?

(Go to “Understanding Indulgences”)

Orthodoxy 101 – Lutheranism and the Sola Fide: Objective and Subjective Salvation

e84bdc3bd3ff8b006ebdbfea4473-is-protestantism-better-than-catholicism[1].jpgI think it is helpful when approaching the Catholic/Protestant debate concerning salvation and justification, to draw a distinction between objective salvation and justification, and subjective salvation and justification. This is another application of absurdity: the seeming conflict between God’s eternal perspective and our individual subjective perspectives. In this case God’s perspective is the objective salvation/justification, and our perspective is the subjective salvation/justification.

Objective Salvation

Salvation[1].jpgIn Catholicism, there is a distinction drawn between initial justification and justification. “Initial justification” is the brute fact of whether or not we are justified, whereas “justification” is the degree to which we are justified. To translate into Protestant terminology, “initial justification” becomes simply “justification”, and “justification” becomes “sanctification”.

Romans 5:18 ESV

18 Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men.

Now, initial justification is universal: all men without exception are objectively justified by the cross, descent to Hell, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The atonement was unlimited: it was an infinite, over-abundant payment for all the sins of humanity. Christ suffered Hell so that we don’t have to. All men have life and justification due to Christ’s act of righteousness. Objectively, everyone is already saved and justified. In Christ, all of our sins have been forgiven. All of this is entirely by Grace, as it depends entirely on God and in no way depends on us.

To what degree do individuals have objective justification? This is determined by the quantity and quality of loving works which Christ performs through them. Every good and loving work performed by a soul leads to the heavenly reward of an increase in objective justification. This is the “laying up of treasures in heaven” Jesus speaks about. These treasures “never decay”, which is to say that we can never lose them: Our degree of justification can only ever increase, it can never decrease.

Furthermore, all individuals have the Holy Spirit, and therefore all individuals are predestined to persevere to the end and not ultimately fall away from the salvation that Christ has won for them.

Subjective Salvation

irrational-fears[1].jpgHowever from our perspective, things are different. Subjectively, we are walking in darkness: despite the fact that we are objectively justified, we do not by default have a strong experience of this salvation. We wander about in guilt and despair, looking for something to place our hope in and finding nothing. Despite the fact that we have objectively been saved, we are subjectively experiencing damnation.

This situation changes when someone shares the Gospel with us. The Gospel essentially is the proclamation of Christ’s death, descent to Hell, and resurrection, along with the objective justification that this implies for the hearer of the message. The Gospel is therefore an unconditional promise of both present and future salvation: The Gospel says “You are righteous, right now, because Christ lives within you” and also “You will eventually arrive in Heaven, where you will enjoy a perfect relationship with God, Creation and all other souls”. These promises are unconditional: no matter what, they are going to come to pass and there is nothing we can do about it. As such the only possible responses are either to have faith in the promise, or reject the promise through disbelief and outrage.

If you have faith in the promise, this faith inevitably leads to joy and love, and the joy and love are in and of themselves a direct subjective experience of the objective salvation/justification which Christ has won. In this way, Subjective justification can be said to come through faith alone, just as all the reformers insisted. It is important to note that we do not “earn” our justification by our faith (faith is not a work), and faith is not merely “evidence” of justification: instead faith in the unconditional promise directly leads to love and joy which is in itself a direct experience of justification. Also important to note is that it is impossible for works of any sort to lead to initial justification in a subjective sense, because you simply cannot do anything to earn an unconditional promise. An unconditional promise depends entirely on God, not on us. Whether or not we believe the promise, the promise still stands and will come to pass.

Sacraments of promise

sacraments-stained-glass.jpgIn a general, generic sense, God’s promise of salvation is spoken to all humanity universally in the tradition of the church and the pages of scripture. However it is extremely useful to our personal experience of salvation to have this general promise made directly and specifically to each of us as individuals. In order for us to put our faith in it, it helps to have the promise spoken to us specifically and personally. This is where the sacraments come in.

In baptism, God sacramentally speaks the promise of present salvation to us individually. In baptism, God declares “Your sins have been washed away; All of your sins, past, present, and future, have been forgiven; You are united to Christ; You are righteous; You are justified.” This declaration – or promise – is a statement of objective fact. When the individual places their faith in this promise, all of a sudden they transition from walking in darkness to walking in light; they are experiencing salvation here and now in their subjective experience of life. They believe and trust that Christ has justified them, and this belief and trust immediately leads to a subjective experience of justification.

In confirmation, God sacramentally speaks the promise of future salvation to each individual. In confirmation God says “I have sealed you with my Holy Spirit; I will never leave you; I will never abandon you; I guarantee your inheritance in heaven; you will not suffer everlasting damnation; you will be perfect”. Confirmation is thus the sacrament of predestination and perseverance. Again, this promise is unconditional and therefore can only be subjectively received by faith. The effect of trusting this promise is to bring the promised future eschaton into the present experience of the believer. The person who trusts in the promise of confirmation is thus living in the end times even before the end times have arrived.

Mortal Sin and ConfessionFeaturedMortalSin[1].png

Romans 8:31-39 RSVCE

31 What then shall we say to this? If God is for us, who is against us? 32 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? 33 Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies; 34 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?[f] 35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? 36 As it is written,

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

37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 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.

Objectively, there is nothing that can separate us from the justification that Christ has won for us. There is nothing we can do, no sin which we could commit, which would remove our initial justification or decrease our level of justification. Our salvation and justification is a brute fact. As St Paul says; 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.

However subjectively it is possible for someone to fall from a state of walking in the light back into a state of walking in darkness. This is a subjective movement from the state of grace, back into the state of sin. A person ceases to experience the justification that Christ has won for them. This occurs through Mortal Sin.

Faith in the promises of God has two effects: it leads to joy and love, but it also leads to guilt and sorrow. Faith in the promise of God both delights and tortures, as a soul becomes aware of how it has sinned against love and this leads to extreme agony. In this way, sin leads to a damaging of subjective justification via the introduction of subjective guilt. When we commit mortal sins, this constitutes a rejection of God and thus generates guilt in us. Of course, if we have been baptised we have already received the promise of God that all of our sins have been forgiven and that we are therefore objectively “not guilty”. However in our day to day experience of life, this promise made at our baptism becomes foggy and less vivid in our memory as time goes by. As such, guilt creeps up on us when we commit mortal sins and causes us to despair. Again, this despair is unfounded, because we have assurance that we are justified. Nevertheless the despair and guilt creep up on us and reduce our subjective experience of justification and salvation. In the case of apostasy or unbelief, our subjective justification is almost entirely lost.

In confession, God sacramentally reiterates the promise that he made to us at baptism: “You are forgiven; you are justified”. In this way, the sacrament of confession serves as a way to anchor ourselves in the promise that was spoken to us a long time ago. It gives us a sacramental object of faith which is close to the present and fresh in our memory, rather than distant in the past where we can’t remember it. This is particularly important for people who were baptised when they were infants and therefore can’t recall their baptism at all! For people who struggle to recall their baptism, it is incredibly helpful to have the sacrament of confession at their disposal, so that they can hear the promise of God sacramentally reiterated to them again and again as much as is needed. The promise spoken during confession and absolution is the same promise that was spoken during baptism, and so again, it is an unconditional promise that can only be received and activated in the soul by faith alone.

Someone who has a strong faith in the promise of God does not strictly need to go to confession, although it is always helpful to do so and it is therefore mandated by current Church discipline. If they experience perfect contrition due to their strong faith their subjective justification will never take a hit because they will never experience the guilt and despair which destroys faith and damages justification.

Subjective and Objective Beatitude

tumblr_m91n4lKUVZ1qgodnzo1_1280-827x1024[1]Objectively, every single good work Christ performs through us leads to an increase in objective justification. There is nothing we can do which will decrease this justification. However due to our imperfect memories and imperfect understanding of the effects of our actions, we do not subjectively experience this ever-increasing justification. When we do a good, loving work, we temporarily experience the heavenly bliss which it won for us. But then time marches on and the experience fades into the dark recesses of our memory. We only ever experience the present moment, and the present moment contains only some memories of the past, not all of them at once, therefore we only subjectively experience a small portion of the justification and salvation that has been won for us. In this way, Justification is something that can ebb and flow in a subjective sense, while it is something invincible that can only grow and not shrink in an objective sense. As mentioned, guilt may creep in and damage our justification despite the fact that we have been declared “not guilty” by God at baptism. This is why we have confession; to bring the promise forward into the present so that we can place our faith in it again.

At the particular judgement, when all is laid bare before us and our perspective is no longer constrained by our limited memories, everything we have ever done will be laid out before us and we will experience all the justification that has been won by our loving actions simultaneously. This will be beatitude: we will experience vision of, and union with, God, in proportion to our amount of justification.

Sacraments necessary for salvation

sacraments[1].gifThe Catholic church has dogmatised the necessity of the sacraments for salvation. But the question needs to be asked, “are sacraments necessary for objective or subjective salvation?”

The sacraments are only necessary for salvation in a subjective sense. Baptism is necessary in order to have the promise of God personalised and spoken to you as an individual. However the church also recognises “baptism of desire” and “baptism of blood”. This hints that it is really the faith in the promise spoken through the sacrament that is more important, rather than the sacrament itself. Likewise with confession: Confession is said to be necessary, but it is possible to receive justification and forgiveness via perfect contrition apart from the sacrament.

Objectively the sacraments are superfluous. Christ’s promises will come to pass regardless of if they are spoken to us sacramentally. We are objectively justified and predestined to heaven. Someone can place their faith in Christ’s promises without those promises being spoken to them personally in the sacraments. However this is hard. God gives us the sacraments to help us and reassure us and make his promises tangible. In this way it is faith in the promises alone which leads to subjective justification.

Anonymous Christians and implicit faith

how-to-volunteer-with-buddhist-monks-3-1461922112[1].pngIt is a maxim in Catholicism that works and faith are inseparable: faith always leads to works, and works are always a demonstration of faith. This idea leads to the concept of anonymous Christians. An anonymous Christian is someone who demonstrates implicit faith in God and his promises via their loving actions, despite the fact that they do not have explicit faith in the promises of God. These people are laying up treasures in heaven without realising it: they are objectively justified by Christ, and they are increasing their objective level of justification by their loving works, however subjectively they are still largely walking in darkness as they do not have an explicit knowledge of the promise of the Gospel. These people need to be evangelised and told the good news. In this way their objective justification will become subjectively activated and these people will transition from being anonymous Christians walking in darkness into explicit Christians who are walking in the light, overflowing with joy.

Summary

sola-fide1[1].jpgThe Lutheran doctrine of sola fide, when correctly understood, does not contradict Catholic dogma but rather complements it nicely. Subjective justification is by faith alone: the strength of an individuals faith in Gods promises determines the quality of their experience of salvation. However objective justification is by Grace alone: Christ died in our place and forever paid for our sins, furthermore he works through us and these works are rewarded with an increase in our level of justification.

(Go to “The Glorious Gospel”)