Beautiful Heresy 101 – The Great Apostasy: “Bride of Christ and Whore of Babylon. Infallible Church and Harlot of Adultery”

220px-Burgkmair_whore_babylon_color[1].jpgI don’t think Jesus ever said the church will never fail. (In fact he said just the opposite in a couple of parts of the bible). What he did say is that the gates of hell will not prevail against the church.

So the church is the army of God, and the image is not one of defence, it is one of offence. Christ’s army is attacking the prison/stronghold/gates of hell. The prophecy of God is good news! Hell will be (has been) conquered. There is a victory to both rejoice at right now and also work towards in the future. But there’s nothing to ultimately worry about. There might be a hell, but not in any way or sense which contradicts Gods sovereignty, power, love or goodness. Hell is a prison, and Jesus has just orchestrated the ultimate jailbreak. Not one soul remains left in the grave. All things, all people, become saved and glorified. O Death, where is your sting? O Hell, where is your victory?

That message sounds so much better and so much more “gospel” and so much more “good news” than anything anyone in the catholic church ever told me. Then again no one from any church told me that, I had to work it out myself through prayer and direct mystical insight. The messages of the churches are constantly mixed with this great lie that God isn’t good enough, or god isn’t powerful enough, or even if he IS good and powerful enough we simply don’t know whether he will act on his power and goodness, and therefore some/many/most people would burn in hell forever and ever and the ending of the story would be complete tragedy. No church ever explicitly says any of this, because if they were to do that they would be instantly recognised for the satanic hoax that they are. However pay attention to what they’re telling you and you should be able to discern this fundamental nihilism that permeates it.

Surely we all know on some level that can’t be right. But out of fear and obligation to “the church”(aka the priests, bishops, and other Pharisaical figures), we find ourselves defending this narrative again and again against those who are in the worst and most dire circumstances. Which do you reckon will energise them to fight the most? The idea that they, their friends and family will all probably be damned forever? The idea that God gives them the “opportunity” to be saved and now it’s up to them and their freedom to do the rest (hah! Good luck!)? Or the revolutionary “gospel” idea that because of the cross and resurrection, their eternal future is secure and there is ultimately nothing to be afraid of.

Maybe all of these “churches” are actually the whore of Babylon. The catholic church, the Mormon church, whatever. They are flirting with Satan and misleading people to hell. They keep mixing the “good news” of the gospel with this toxic pessimism and then wrongly invoking the authority of God over the false teaching in order to keep the people in fear and subservient to the prince of darkness himself. People end up blindly defending and serving the very thing that they thought they were fighting against.

Perhaps the solution is to be always listening. Look out for an individual who has a new, energising perspective. A prophet with fresh revelation. For example a Muhammad, or a Joseph Smith. God speaks to individuals well before he speaks to institutions. Listen out for the voice of the living prophets in our age: they may very well be prophesying your own doom and warning you to repent.

Can anything these prophets say actually contradict the truth? Of course not. The “mystical” church is the holy and infallible bride of Christ. But the “institutional” church is the harlot, drunk with the wine of adultery. Regardless of whether your church is called Mormon, Catholic, Anglican, Muslim, Reformed, Adventist or whatever; your church has fundamentally betrayed you. And to go on insisting otherwise is to simply be an agent of evil and to do the devils work for him.

The solution is throw off institutional shackles and human authorities: to pray harder and to seek guidance from God directly into your soul. I’m sure that if you pray about it, God will verify the essence of his Gospel: he sent his son in love, we murdered him in rejection, his son descended to the worst possible depths of hell and damnation, in order to rise again to resurrection and new life, and that this grand gospel narrative is a reassurance of the promise that our final future (heaven) is secure and there’s nothing we need to worry about. If only we would just trust that promise, the joys of heaven would be ours right at this very moment.

The surrounding details are optional: we can come to an agreement on whether the pope is the head of the church or Joseph Smith was a prophet later. What is essential for us to agree on right now is that the gospel really is “good news”: Jesus really has conquered evil, death, hell, sin and the powers of darkness. And until someone hears that message and believes it, they are just yet another soul thrashing about in hell while being under the illusion that they are devoutly serving God.

Praise God that the gates of hell wont prevail against the assault of his church. Praise God that eventually everyone will hear the message and respond to it with faith and true repentance. Praise God that in the eschaton, every knee shall bow, and every tongue confess that Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father, and neither principalities nor powers, hell; freedom or rebellion can prevent God from fulfilling his loving plans for us all.

Beautiful Heresy 101 – Reverse Pelagianism: “No, you are not free to choose Hell”

foxtrot-free-will1[1].jpgJust as it is a heresy to believe that you can freely save yourself, so too is it a heresy to claim that you can damn yourself. By claiming that man is “free” to choose whether or not to accept God’s love, the catholic ministers of the gospel of perdition elevate themselves above God and deny his sovereignty; their condemnation will be swift and just. Do not be so foolish as to think you can climb the ladder to heaven apart from grace, and do not be so presumptuous as to think that you have the “freedom” to hide from God in Hell forever. God loves you and intends your salvation; do you really think you can defeat his sovereign will by a stubborn refusal to submit and a childish denial of worship?

Beautiful Heresy 101 – An Impotent and/or Evil God: “Is Damnation Merely Everlasting or Entirely Irrevocable?”

rescue-the-perishing[1].jpgI don’t deny everlasting damnation. I deny irrevocable damnation. The idea that God would not or could not save souls who find themselves in Hell is the most outrageous blasphemy and unholy heresy of our age, regardless of what reasons are invoked to justify it. All those who insist on the irrevocability of damnation are possessed by dark and Satanic powers, and have fallen victim to the great apostasy of the Church, worshipping the god of this world rather than the one true Lord and King of the cosmos.

I will not hear you tell me that God respects a person’s freedom more than he desires the salvation of that person, giving up on trying to save them once they pass the threshold of death; I will not tolerate talk of God torturing a soul forever just so that he can show off his glory and justice; And I will not accept the irrational notion that our sovereign God desires the salvation of all but ultimately fails to achieve it.

It would be such a magnificent failure of God, if he went to all that trouble of dying and descending to Hell for the salvation of us all, only to have some, many or all of us spit in his face and refuse the offer. No, our freedom is not that powerful. God is good, loving and powerful, and he cares about his children more than he cares about his glory. All have been redeemed and all will be saved. Not even the fate of everlasting damnation can ultimately prevent our omnipotent God from rescuing all souls from the darkness and fulfilling his universal salvific plan.

Two Ways to Live: One True Gospel Edition – Christianity 101

Two ways to liveThe Anglicans in Sydney, Australia have a “Script” which they use to present their understanding of the Gospel to new investigators. Called “Two ways to live”, it gives a whirlwind tour of scripture in an attempt to convey a complete soteriology and quickly hammer home the idea that we are all sinners in need of a saviour and that the only way to escape destruction is to accept Christ as lord.

I thought I would put together my own version, which more accurately reflects the Christian message as I understand it. It follows the following sequence:

  1. Incarnation: The Eternal Battle between Good and Evil. The marriage between the created and the uncreated, God and the cosmos, Christ and his church.
  2. The Murder of God: Original sin, Mortal sin and the Unforgivable sin. The great divorce. Cosmic Tragedy, Total Defeat, Hell and Damnation.
  3. Resurrection: Gospel, Good news and a twist ending. Redemption, Atonement, Unconditional Promise, Predestination and Election.
  4. The Way of Salvation: Two ways to live; how will we freely respond to the gospel? The Sacraments.

I think that these four points fairly well capture the entire Gospel story in an easy to understand and remember way. And so here is my version of “Two ways to live”:

Two Ways to Live: Incarnation

Good and Evil

Genesis 1:1: In principio creavit Deus cælum et terram.

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.

Two ways to liveIn the beginning there was God and there was nothing else. And out of that nothingness, God brought forth the cosmos and all the myriad created things within that cosmos. God was good, and the creation was also good, as it reflected God’s goodness just as the moon reflects the light of the sun. However the nothingness from whence the creation came was pure evil.

Evil represents the polar opposite of everything that God is. God is the infinitude of being; Evil is the infinitesimal rejection of being, which we refer to as “nothing”. God is freedom and joy and bliss; Evil is darkness and despair and hatred. If God is masculine, then Evil is feminine. All opposites are encapsulated in this fundamental dichotomy between good and evil.

From all eternity and up to the present day and even into the far future, the story of history is the story of the everlasting battle between the good God and the Evil nothingness from which he has drawn out his creation.

Now, there is a fundamental distinction between God and the creation: God is simple, eternal, a perfect unity, infinite, necessary; whereas the creation is complex, temporal, contingent, imperfect, constantly tending back towards the dark and evil nothingness from whence it came. This fundamental duality manifests in all of our lives as two ways to live: do we pursue good or embrace evil?

The Divine Marriage of God and Cosmos

Genesis 2:24: Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh.

At this point in the story there is a twist. From before the foundation of the world, God chose to unite himself to every aspect and facet of his creation in the closest and most profound way possible: He decided to marry it. This divine marriage of created and uncreated realities has at it’s heart the λογος, or 道 of God.

Just as a husband and wife become one flesh in marriage, so too Creation and God become one essence and substance in the divine marriage of flesh and λογος.

John 1:1-4,14: In the beginning was the λογος, and the λογος was with God, and the λογος was God.He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made.In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

And the λογος became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father.

Two ways to liveThe λογος entered the world in the form of the man Jesus of Nazareth. In Jesus, Divinity and creation were united perfectly and intimately. Jesus was God, come to the creation in a way that the creation could understand and relate to. Jesus came as a bridegroom, and the entire creation was his bride to be. The New Testament refers to Jesus’ bride as “The Church”. The church is not merely a building; it is not merely a group of people; it is the entire cosmos, adorned with beauty and being prepared for the wedding feast after which God will receive it into the marriage bed he has prepared, and envelope it in an infinite love that is so wonderful and elevated that no poet or bard could possibly capture it in song or verse.

Ephesians 5:21-33: Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives, be subject to your husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Saviour. As the church is subject to Christ, so let wives also be subject in everything to their husbands. Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that he might present the church to himself in splendour, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. Even so husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no man ever hates his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This is a great mystery, and I mean in reference to Christ and the church; however, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.

So God came to us – his creation – in the form of a man, and proposed marriage. Like an inflamed, infatuate young lover, he sings to us “I love you with all my heart, soul and mind. So I pray from the depths of my being: Would you please return my love?”

The eternal battle between good and evil thus takes the form of an infatuation between the Lover and his loved. God tries to woo the world over, but how will the nervous, young and timid creation respond? There are two ways to live; will we choose the good path or the bad path?

Two Ways to Live: The Murder of God

Two ways to liveAs it turns out, the creation rejects God’s romantic overtures in the most definite way possible. God came to us with open arms and proclaimed his undying love, but we responded by torturing him, spitting on him, nailing him to a cross and leaving him to die.

This was the ultimate tragedy. This represented the defeat of God by his creation. The conclusion to the everlasting struggle between good and evil had been revealed: Evil won.

In the marriage of God and creation, God willingly bound his own fate to the fate of his lover, and the creation found itself united to God. They had become one flesh, so whatever happened to God happened to the creation, and whatever happened to the creation happened to God. And God had just been murdered, therefore the creation also became infected by death, decay, destruction, sin. The entire creation became destined for total annihilation and everlasting damnation.

Christ’s bride, terrified by God’s flaming love for her, rejected his overtures and flew away, hiding in the isolation of the outer darkness. This final and ultimate rejection of God’s love has many names: Mortal Sin, Original Sin, The Unforgivable Sin.

Two ways to live

It is the original sin because it was the one fault from which springs all the death and decay in the world, as well as our tendency towards the darkness and Hell which drags us down like magnetism and gravity.

It is the mortal sin, because it is the sin which leads to death. All men sin, and all men die. Every sin is a repetition of the crucifixion. Every sin represents the murder of God. God comes to us and says, “I love you, please love me back”, but we sin again and again, and in doing so, continue to drive the nails into his hands, feet and heart.

It is the unforgivable sin, because what could we possibly do to recover from such a sin? The only one who has the power to forgive us has been left hanging dead and helpless on a cross. God is dead, there is no other who remains to forgive us. God is dead and by the divine marriage we are doomed to die with him, cursed to pain and suffering and torment for all of our days as we spiral further and further down into the lake of fire and outer darkness, until at the very end of the torments we finally cease to exist altogether.

By killing God, we had judged him and sentenced him to the worst fate: the deepest depths of Hell, the most unspeakable tortures of the lake of fire, and the desolations of the outer darkness. At the end of it all we sentenced him to annihilation and non-existence. But our marriage to God means that all of us are doomed to the very same fate.

This sin represents the total defeat of the good, cosmic tragedy, the most brutal divorce, and the victory of Hell over our good and loving God. Nothing remains to look forward to. The future is bleak darkness, full of nothing but hatred, death and war. There were two ways to live, and we chose the bad one.

Two ways to live

Two Ways to Live: Resurrection

Two ways to live

But behold, there is a twist ending to the tale. Jesus rose from the dead! Death could not hold him and Hell could not contain him! He rose to new life, a new and glorified life from which he could never die again! Right as it seemed that evil and the demonic powers had achieved their victory over God, and right as God experienced the full depths of the consequences of our sin and rejection; he miraculously snatches victory from the jaws of defeat and turns the tables around completely.

This is called the “Gospel”, or “good news”. This is the core message that Christians proclaim. God is victorious! Hell has been defeated once and for all! The love of God is so powerful and seductive that ultimately the creation cannot escape it, even despite our most definite rejection.

O Death, where is your sting?
O Hell, where is your victory?

Christ is risen, and you are overthrown.
Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen.
Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice.
Christ is risen, and life reigns.
Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in the grave.

For Christ, being risen from the dead, is become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep.
To him be glory and dominion unto ages of ages. Amen.

We refer to this glorious event as the “Redemption”, because this is where God “bought back” his lost bride. God has paid the price that must be paid, in order to win back the affections of his bride. He loved us so much that he was willing to descend to Hell and the terror of non-existence for the sake of his marriage to his bride, the Church.

Two ways to live

This price being paid, we also refer to this event as the “Atonement”, because it is the event which restored all things to how they should be. Once again there is love and joy between God and his creation, because by his resurrection he has secured the rewards of eternal life for us all.

This was also the moment which secured the “Predestination” of all things to heavenly glory. We have moved from one of the two ways to live to the other: Where before all things were set on a path towards Hell, destruction, desolation, darkness and torment; now all things are set on a path towards Heaven, Joy, Bliss, Love, and divine Relationship. There is a single destination to which the entire creation moves: God himself, the bridegroom who eagerly awaits to consummate his marriage with his bride.

God became man so that man might become God

The entire creation and everything within it thus becomes “elect”. Just as Jesus became the reprobate man, the creation that dwells within him also experienced reprobation. However just as Jesus became elected to heaven and glory, the entire creation that dwells within him is also elected to heaven and glory and beatitude.

God will not abandon anyone or anything. His love for his bride is relentless. He intends the salvation of the entire cosmos and everyone and everything in it. He will not rest until every one in the creation has returned his love.

To seal the deal, God has prepared an unconditional promise of salvation, which he desires to speak to every individual soul. However he requires our cooperation in order to spread the message.

Two Ways to Live: The Way of Salvation

Sacrament and Struggle

God has prepared the sacraments as a concrete way for us to come to him and return his love. In baptism, he washes us clean from all our sins and promises us that he forgives us for our mortal, original, unforgivable sin against him. In confession, he reiterates that promise, because sometimes we forget God’s love and forgiveness as we go through life and need to be reminded. In confirmation, he seals us with his Holy Spirit, which serves as a promise and guarantee that he will never ever abandon us. In the Eucharist, he gives us the gift of eternal life and unites himself to us in a marriage feast in which we literally feed on him. In the Last Rites, he prepares us for our most dangerous journey; the journey from life to death, from this earthly life to the terrors of Gehenna.

Phillipians 2:12-13: Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling;for God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

Two ways to live

We are predestined to victory in the war, but we may yet fall in the battle. We still have free will; God will not force himself upon us despite his relentless, burning love. Even though he promises that he will love us forever and never abandon us, and even though he has infallibly secured the eternal glory of every creature, we may yet persist in our rejection. We may continue to drive the nails into Christ’s hands, we may continue to repeat and reiterate the mortal sin that doomed the world to damnation.

God calls us to repent of these sins, for we have been bought by his blood already. While it is true that one day everyone will achieve heaven, he is not going to carry us there against our will. God requires our free cooperation. So why wait? Why procrastinate the task of striving towards heaven? Why not repent and love God and Neighbour now? There are two ways to live: God draws lines in the sand, and one of those lines is death: If we haven’t responded to God’s love by the time we die, a fiery fate awaits us; the very same fiery fate that God himself endured to save us. It does no good to procrastinate the task of repentance. Far better to strive now, while we are alive. Salvation is guaranteed, but salvation is not automatic. God will not carry us to heaven, or force us to love him. We must walk the path on our own.

God will not save you without you

-St Augustine

Two ways to Live

Two ways to live

So finally we come to the classic two ways to live. Will you accept Christ as your Lord, saviour and bridegroom? Will you return the love of God? Will you do your best to submit to his guidance and strive for his holiness? Or will you instead continue living as your own king, pointlessly rebelling against the God who loves you? Such rebellion is indeed pointless, because it is foreordained that God will win you over in the end. So will you continue to procrastinate your repentance? Or will you seize the day and run the race to heaven?

God’s love has conquered, is conquering, and will conquer. Join the winning team; become a Christian today.

The World Mission Society Church of God: “I Spent a Night in the Apocalyptic Korean Cult of God the Mother”

Approaching The Lair of The World Mission Society Church of God

I spent a night with an apocalyptic cult – The World Mission Society Church of God. aka The cult of God the Mother.

One block away from St Barnabas Broadway Anglican church in the middle of Sydney sits the World Mission Society of God. Their building had nothing particularly interesting about it: it just looked like any other business centre full of small company offices that you might pass in that area of Sydney. There were no sinister vibes as I walked up to the front door.

What lay inside was a slightly different story.

world mission society church of godMy phone buzzed as it received an SMS: “Please call me or text me when you get in here. Thanks Alex.” Their enclave needed a swipe card to enter. After a short wait the Deacon of the Church came down to collect me.

This Deacon who I was talking to volunteers his time to evangelise, lead the service, run bible studies and so on. He claims to not be paid a cent by the organisation. He explained he works as a chef outside the “church”.

I’m not sure what the situation looks like the further you go up the hierarchy, but I assume that the big dogs at the top of the World Mission Society Church of God receive significant cash flow from the lower ranks, such as this small gathering I was about to witness.

Memories of Previous Encounters with The World Mission Society Church of God

I was ushered into the cult’s office, which is essentially a refurbished apartment.

I had been here once before, during my first extended bible study with these people. I remembered how at that first meeting, we flipped back and forth through scripture for 3 hours straight, as another Deacon took me on a grand tour of this cult’s unique interpretation of the bible. I recall how during that meeting it took 90 minutes for me to catch on to where the study was heading: I could tell that the deacon was eventually going to do the grand reveal and claim that the founder of his church is Jesus come again. I waited another 90 minutes with baited breath: “When is he going to say it? When is he going to say it?”

When he finally dropped the bomb, I was so battered and exhausted from flipping back and forth in his bible that I could barely register a response. A lethargic “that’s interesting, I’ll have to think about it”, is all I could muster. The Deacon stared at me earnestly, clearly praying hard silently, praising God that he had found someone so receptive, and imploring him to lead me to the right path (ie. praying that I would convert to their church).

After that first bible study, I started inviting representatives from this cult to come and visit my house and continue chatting with me. Over the weeks that followed they lead me through their unique positions. Certain doctrines stood out:

  • The Jewish Passover, eclectically fused with the Christian Lord’s Supper features prominently in their thinking. In their understanding, the end of the world is upon us and observing the Christian Lord’s Supper on the date of the Jewish Passover is the only way to escape the coming inferno.
  • They believe in a Modalist Trinity. They think that God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit are all the same person, just manifesting themselves in different ways at different times of history.
  • They believe in two distinct Gods. The first God is the Modalist amalgamation of the Trinitarian persons, who they generally refer to as “God the Father”. The second God is “God the Mother”. This cult escapes all the biblical commands to observe strict monotheism by invoking the principle in Genesis 2:24 that when man and woman are united in marriage they become “one flesh”.
  • They believe that both of their Gods have become incarnate one or more times. God the Father incarnated once 2000 years ago as Christ Jesus, and his second coming occurred on 13 January 1918, when he reincarnated as Christ Ahn Sahng-hong, a Korean minister of a breakaway Seventh Day Adventist church who died on 25 February 1985. God the mother incarnated on 29 October 1943 as a Korean woman called Jang Gil-ja who is still alive to this day.
  • The second coming of Christ is identified with the Holy Spirit, and this cult believes that Christ Ahn Sahng-hong is in actual fact the Holy Spirit.
  • They hold to a naive understanding of the classical protestant doctrine of “Sola Fide” – faith alone – and they have a particularly strange and seemingly arbitrary soteriology. They think that prior to Jesus’ coming a person had to believe in God the Father, by the name of YHWH, in order to be saved. They hold that once Jesus had come, we had transitioned from the age of the father to the age of the son, with the implication being that it is no longer sufficient to believe in the father alone in order to be saved, but you must believe in the son too. They believe that in 1918, with the birth of Ahn Sahng-hong, we entered into the age of the Holy Spirit, and of course it is now no longer sufficient to simply believe in Jesus; a person must confess Christ Ahn Sahng-hong in order to be saved. I have not yet been able to establish how such a wacky and naive “Faith alone” soteriology is compatible with the cult’s insistence that one must observe the Jewish Passover in order to be saved.

In between the bible studies with members from this cult, I would encounter missionaries on campus at the University of Sydney where I study. One particular missionary from Korea stands out in my memory. He struck me as incredibly stubborn, angry, fundamentalist and close minded, convinced that he had the truth and the rest of the world is lost and not to be trusted. I remember him blindly quoting scriptures at me during our brief discussion, attempting to shut me down by biblical fiat.

I asked him why I should trust the bible. He answered that it contains many prophecies, all of which have come true. I found this entirely disputable, but it didn’t seem like it would be fruitful to push him on the point. He insisted that his cult is the only church on earth today which observes the Passover. I rolled my eyes and responded that the Roman Catholic church observes it every single day, but he didn’t want to hear it and just resumed firing bible verses at me as if that would prove him right.

I concluded that he wasn’t actually trying to convince me of his position; he was trying to convince himself. His strategy of rote learning bible verses and regurgitating them during conversation was like a drug that would sustain the illusion that his position rested on solid ground.

I asked him if he realised that God the Mother was a living woman. He responded that yes he knew that, and he has even met her in person. I was intrigued and asked him what she was like; he leant back with an offended expression, superior posture and with an indignant voice stated “She was like God!” I was amused, and let the conversation flow onwards.

Research Into the Cult of God the Mother

world mission society church of god I began to do some research into the origins of their movement.

Who really was this Christ Ahn Sahng-hong character anyway? What I discovered didn’t exactly mesh with the information I was receiving from the cult first hand.

I discovered that Ahn Sahng-hong was simply a disillusioned parishioner of the Seventh Day Adventist church in Korea. In true protestant spirit, he simply got up, left, and started his own church. The church he founded was not all that different from the SDA church that he had abandoned. At no point during his life was he reported to have claimed that he was the second coming of Christ, and there is nothing in his extant writings which indicates he himself and his early followers thought of him as anything less than a simple preacher and teacher.

At one point while he was alive, some of the members of his church started worshipping a woman called Um Sooin, claiming that she was God the Mother and that Ahn Sahng-Hong was Jesus come again. These members were expelled from his church, and Ahn Sahng-Hong wrote a scathing critique and rebuttal of their views.

Upon his death in 1985, there was an immediate schism in the church he left behind. Some people wanted to conservatively follow the direction that he had set the church on before his death. Other people wanted to deify him as God and reintroduce the concept of God the Mother. The first group – lead by his son – split off as the “New Covenant Passover Church of God” the second, larger group went it’s own way and has adopted a variety of names, including “Witnesses of Ahn Sahng-hong Church of God” and “World Mission Society of God”.

A Brief Lesson Before the cult’s Liturgy

We entered the apartment, where there were rows of chairs arranged in the living room facing a pew and a television. A couple of people were sitting in the pews. We greeted each other and I was keen to chat, but I was whisked away to one of the bedrooms which had been done up as a little conference room. The Deacon sat down at the table and launched into a pre-prepared lesson.

“God’s people should fully observe the commandments of God”, he proclaimed. I immediately thought to myself “Sounds like some sort of spin on the old heresy of saving yourself via good works and keeping the law“. We began to go on another tour of scripture. It struck me that these people take the bible incredibly literally, and don’t pay much heed to the literary context of the verses that they focus on.

This particular study was all about idolatry, with a particular focus on Christian crosses being a most grievous violation of the second commandment. “The Cross does not save us, the Passover does” he said. This was the first of many times the Passover would be mentioned tonight. “Most Christians think that you must worship the cross to be saved” he said, making me wonder how he could be so deep in his own cults doctrines that he could be so misinformed as to what the wider Christian world believes.

We read 1 Corinthians 11:4-7, using the NIV translation. I noticed that this church only uses the NIV and enquired why. The Deacon responded that the NIV is optimal because it easy to understand. So much for sticking to the original Greek!

1 Corinthians 11:4-7 is a part of the new testament where Paul commands women to cover their hair during church services. Most Christian communities take that command to be a historical one – appropriate to a certain time and place – observance being optional today. However these guys take it literally and seriously.

“So wait, why exactly do you do this?” I asked, hoping that he would give me some actual logical reasons. “Because the bible says so.” is the only response I received. I internally shook my head.

We flicked to Revelation 14:1-3. He explained to me that 144000 people would be saved without having to die, whereas “the multitude” are those who are saved but die before the second (or should I say third?) coming of Christ, at which point they will resurrect. Apparently this special group of 144000 people will ascend to heaven bodily, just like Jesus did, and will have something the Deacon mysteriously referred to as “creation power”, as well as judge angels and demons.

The Deacon highlighted the fact that the 144000 saved people are said to be singing a “new song”. He claimed that their church knows this song, and regularly sings it. I was intrigued, as I had never heard any doctrine similar to this before.

The World Mission Society Church of God Service Starts

8pm had arrived, so we returned to the living room and I took a seat at the back, next to a Nepalese guy. I noticed that the congregation was strictly gender-segregated: All the women sat on the right and wore veils, while all the men sat on the left. There was a young looking boy sitting on the men’s side, he looked about 12 or 13.

world mission society church of god

The service started with everyone simultaneously reciting the “teachings of mother”

  1. It is more blessed to give love than to receive, as God always gives love.
  2. When we give glory to God, the glory returns to us.
  3. A beautiful mind has no hate, and brings forth a perfect love.
  4. As Abraham was blessed with the better when he gave in for his nephew Lot, so we are blessed more greatly when we give in for our brothers and sisters.
  5. Being arrogant means wanting to be served.
  6. Though others do not work, we should not complain but do our work faithfully. Having the mind of a master allows us to work with pleasure and ease.
  7. Arrogance comes from a mind full of complaint. When we serve God always with gratitude in our hearts, complaint and arrogance recede from us, and humility dwells in our hearts.
  8. When we praise brothers and sisters, the praise returns to us.
  9. As the sea receives all the dirt and purifies it, we should have a broad and beautiful mind enough to cover up even the faults of our brothers and sisters.
  10. Whoever wants to be led by the Lamb should become a lamb smaller than the Lamb.
  11. Sacrifice is needed to become a greater vessel.
  12. We should endure present sufferings, for the Kingdom of Heaven is waiting for us.
  13. Even God did not come to be served, but to serve. When we serve one another without wanting to be served, God will be pleased.

This was immediately followed by three hymns from their unique hymn book (302, 66 and 69), suspiciously labelled “A New Song” in reference to Revelation 14. I asked where I could obtain one of these hymn books and was told that they are reserved for members of the cult.

After the singing, the Deacon stood behind the pew at the front and launched into a long prayer. At first I couldn’t tell if it was formulaic or spontaneous prayer, however as he rambled on I realised that he was just making it up as he went along. Certain elements of the prayer contained hints of the cult’s apocalyptic nature, for example he referred to how most people are “deceived by Satan and the false prophet”, to which the congregation all murmured a hearty “amen!”. He concluded the prayer “in the name of Ahn Sahng-Hong yim” and everyone sat down.

The sermon began, although it turned out to be more like a bible study where the leader does all the talking, and the only interaction that the congregation has is to say “amen!” at regular intervals. The topic today was idolatry, “You shall have no other god’s before me”.

The preacher immediately revealed his naive understanding of Sola Fide. “Many Christians believe that you just have to have faith and you will be saved” he claimed. “The irony is that he’s not far from the truth” I thought to myself: most Christians DO believe that you just need to have faith and you will be saved. Most Christians don’t take the time to read up on the deep theology at the core of their tradition, and therefore never comprehend that their naive understanding of Sola Fide is actually deep and damnable heresy. This cult therefore rightly rejects the common distortion of the doctrine that the average Christian is peddling. “But alas,” I thought, “they don’t understand the true doctrine either”.

The preacher directed us to Matthew 22:35-38. He highlighted that the greatest commandment is “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” Then he flipped to 2 Kings 23:25, and noted that the only person who is spoken of as keeping all the commandments of God was King Josiah. Then we read 2 Kings 23:21-23 and once again the speaker emphasised the importance of keeping the Passover.

The speaker was drawing outrageous, creative, illogical links between concepts based on the verses we just read. “How do we keep the greatest commandment?” he rhetorically asked. “By keeping the Passover” he firmly answered. “Amen!” rumbled the congregation. “Is there any other way to be saved?” he asked. “NO!” exclaimed almost everyone in the room simultaneously, followed by lots more “Amen!”.

We jumped to Deuteronomy 6:4-8. The preacher seized on the language used in verse 5 “love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” Noticing the similarities between that and previous verses we had just read, the speaker concluded “The greatest commandment of God is to keep the Passover”.

We continued on a whirlwind tour of scripture following this same pattern again and again. First of all we would read a verse, then the preacher would ask some rhetorical question about what we need to do to be saved, and the answer would always be some variant on “we must keep the Passover” followed by lots of “Amen!” from the crowd.

At one point, the preacher asked “What happens to those who don’t keep the Passover?” and interestingly he completely waffled on the answer, rather than just being straight up and confessing that they will burn in hellfire forever and ever.

Hints of Extremism

About halfway through the sermon, things started to get weird.

“Who hates the Passover the most?” the preacher queried. “Satan” muttered the congregation. “How will Satan tell us not to keep Passover?” he asked. “Indirectly, through enticements and temptations” he immediately responded.

This was a prime example of brainwashing tactics. The preacher was convincing his flock that if anyone objects or disagrees with his doctrine, they are equivalent to Satan.

He flipped to Deuteronomy 13:1-5, and I started to get uncomfortable as he continued to take what it said dangerously literally. “What should we do with false prophets and those who disbelieve?” the preacher asked. “The bible says to kill them!” he confidently proclaimed. “Satan always tries to destroy the Passover” he claimed, “We can see it in history!” I was getting very edgy at this point, as the preaching seemed to be moving towards expounding extremist ideology.

We flipped to Isaiah 24:1-6, a classic Armageddon text which describes the chaos and terror as the world comes to an end. “Why were these people damned?” the preacher asked. “Because they broke the law and failed to keep the Passover” he staunchly stated.

I realised that these people are experiencing a dramatic tunnel vision, as they are utterly convinced that the world is about to go up in eschatalogical flames and they are freaking out trying to work out how to escape such a fate. They have a cult-level sense of urgency and are single-mindedly  convinced that following the Jewish Passover is the only way to escape the coming calamity. “We share the good news” the preacher intones, “because this is how we escape the destruction.”

The End of the Cult Service

The sermon concluded around 8:45, and we moved on to the tail end of their informal evangelical-esque liturgy. Another hymn was sung (song 70), as the collection bag was passed around and the congregation contributed their tithings.

After the tithing song, a sister was called to the front to deliver the closing prayer. Once again I couldn’t tell if it was spontaneous or formulaic, but the content was remarkable. Lots of petitions were addressed to both the father and the mother, I got Gnostic vibes as she repeated “Thanks for saving us from this sinful and evil world” twice. Some sort of doctrine of pre-existence was briefly hinted at.

As I listened to this prayer, I was struck by how simplistic, primitive and unsophisticated these people were. Their faith was not particularly reflective, and involved simply taking the bible as literally as possible.

After her prayer, the entire congregation together recited a formulaic prayer in Korean. Unfortunately I’m not sure what was said and don’t have access to the text or a translation. (Update 23/5/19: I discovered that it was the lords prayer, but slightly tweaked to reflect their worship of “God the Mother”)

With that, the service was finished. All of the women immediately removed their veils and people began to pack up and go home. The Deacon approached me and asked me to delete the photos I had taken inside the building that day. “What have they got to hide?” I wondered to myself.

I hung around for a little longer and tried to interact with some of the people, but they all seemed highly brainwashed and incapable of actually holding a conversation. Eventually I left and walked home. I made it home alive, happy that I managed to survive the experience. I intend to continue meeting with their missionaries, and hope to visit their main church out at Blacktown next time.

Appendix: Summary of the The World Mission Society Church of God liturgy

  1. Communal recitation of the 13 “Teachings of Mother”
  2. Three hymns, two sitting and one standing
  3. Deacon leads with an opening prayer in spontaneous format
  4. The core Bible study and sermon
  5. Hymn, and collection of tithings
  6. Sister delivers a closing prayer in spontaneous format
  7. Entire congregation recites a formulaic liturgical prayer in Korean

The songs that were sung were all heavily tailored to express the cults unique theology. Far more was sung about “Heavenly Mother” and “Christ Ahn Sahng-hong“, than was sung about the father, Yahweh or Jesus.

 

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

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

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

Speculations on Loving, Creating and Begetting

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

Surah Al-Ikhlas 112

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To talk in Anthropomorphic terms, any of the infinite persons of God could occupy the role “Lover” at one moment, “Loved” at the next, and “Love” at the moment after that. You can imagine these three roles as “boxes”, and the infinite persons of God as ghostly apparitions which float in and out of these boxes, and migrate between them at will.

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

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

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

An East/West Controversy

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

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

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

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

To Create is to Love and to Love is to Save

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

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

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

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

Incarnation as Trinitarian Identity

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

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

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

Final Implications

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Return to first article)

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

jesus-crucified-2[1]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hell

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

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

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

Purgatory

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

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

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

Heaven

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

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

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

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

Limbo

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

Eschaton

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

7 Myths About Universalism

Robin Parry holding a teacup

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Myth: Universalists don’t believe in hell

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

Nice rhyming but, alas, this is too simplistic.

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

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

Myth: Universalists don’t believe the Bible

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

So, are universalists really Bible-denying? No.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Myth: Universalists don’t think sin is very bad

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Myth: Universalists think that all roads lead to God

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Myth: Universalism undermines evangelism

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

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

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

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

Myth: Universalism undermines holy living

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

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

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

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