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

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

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If they say No:

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

“But those people deserve to be punished”

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

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

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

“But God can not be obligated to do anything”

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

If they say yes:

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

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

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

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

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If they say yes:

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

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

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

If they say no:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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If they say yes:

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

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

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

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

If they say no:

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Gospel as Unconditional Promise: “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach good news!”

good news

The Gospel is – at its’ core – an unconditional promise: “God loves you, unconditionally”, but this is merely a statement of abstract theological fact. It does not begin to become “Good news” without some sort of elaboration attached: “That’s all well and good, but what does it mean for ME?”

  • “God loves you, unconditionally, therefore he has sent his son to take a bullet for you; to heal you; to take your spiritual sickness upon himself, dive into the depths of Hell and annihilate it forever.”
  • “God loves you, unconditionally, therefore he will never leave you or reject you, even if you leave him or reject him.”
  • “God loves you, unconditionally, therefore he will not allow you to commit spiritual suicide.”
  • “God loves you, unconditionally, therefore your eternal future is secure and you need not fear an everlasting Hell.”

If this promise is never spoken – if the radical implications of this promise are never preached from the pulpit – the Gospel is simply never being proclaimed; some other language game is being played.

A question is raised: To whom does God speak this promise? The answer should be obvious after even a cursory survey of scripture: He speaks this promise to the entire creation. Christ died for everyone and everything. Nothing and no-one could be excluded from his sovereign love and salvific will. Hell has no place in the eschaton.

But as Paul says in Romans: How are men to call upon him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without a preacher? And how can men preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach good news!”

Many people in the present age are walking in darkness. They are already stuck in Hell. They are unaware that God’s love intends them, and that their future is secure. They fear the worst for themselves, their friends and their family. They are terrified that Hell may await for themselves and those whom they love. These people need to have the Gospel promise spoken to them, to liberate them from slavery to sin and free them for a life of love and thankfulness. This is why we must evangelise: God loves everyone, but not everyone knows it yet and until they do, God’s mission remains incomplete.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 – Agnostic to Christian

Testimonies often come across as mini-biographies or life stories. I am going to embrace this and start right at the beginning.

The Beginning

memumdad.jpgI was born in 1993. Both my parents are materialistic atheists, however my father did grow up in a nominally Catholic household. When I was two years old my parents had a divorce. There was fault and blame on both sides.  I currently get on just fine with Dad, even though I rarely see him as he now lives in California. When I was four Mum remarried to a Chinese Filipino guy who shares my name. Since then she has given birth to two more sons and three more daughters, so I now have quite a large family.

All of my brothers and sisters were baptised when they were babies, so as to more easily get us all into the Catholic education system. I was baptised along with my oldest younger brother when I was 10 years old. It didn’t mean anything to me for many years and it still means absolutely nothing to my brothers and sisters. They don’t understand the significance of the sacraments or believe that they have any intrinsic power. Later on – when I was transitioning back into the Catholic church from Protestantism – I was extremely thankful that my Mum had made me go through all the sacraments of initiation as it made it easier for me to rejoin the church.

My First Encounter with Powerful Drugs

Stimulant-drugs[1].jpgI was an incredibly troublesome and difficult child. Perhaps a large part of this was due to the fact that my father was entirely absent during my early years. In any case, I did not perform well at school and was always getting into trouble. When I was four years old my mother was driven to take me to a top notch psychiatrist in the city who scanned my brain and made me do all sorts of cognitive tests. The conclusion reached was that I was a super-intelligent child but my brain was dysfunctional and I suffered from ADHD. I was prescribed Methylphenidate and from that point forward I was much more well behaved and successful at school. As time went by my dose of Ritalin steadily increased. By the time I was 19 I was on the strongest dose of long acting Concerta on the market. I remember looking in the mirror and seeing the veins on my forehead visibly throbbing. This drug was incredibly powerful. It also had some incredibly negative side-effects; it completely destroyed my sense of humour; it made me feel completely blank and emotionless, like a machine or computer; it gave me intense social anxiety; I was incredibly sexually aroused to the point of hyper-sexuality much of the time (which led to an incredibly debilitating porn addiction throughout most of my teenage years and early 20s); it interfered with my sleep. Later on in life my mum would lament that I had experimented with psychedelics and experienced psychosis, trying to place all the blame on my shoulders; But I always maintain that Ritalin was my gateway drug and therefore her decision to pump me full of Methylphenidate from a young age was a significant contributing factor.

Early Years

From a young age I was pretty philosophically switched on. I remember when I was three or so asking Mum how I could know that she actually existed, or that she was conscious in the same way that I was. She had no idea what I was talking about, but it was important to me. I became a functional solipsist until right up to my teenage years, and remained that way until my flirtations with psychedelics finally gave me compelling evidence to think that other people are not mere philosophical zombies.

Matrixpill[1].jpgWhen I was seven or eight I saw the Matrix, and it quickly became a favourite film and had a profound influence on me. I very quickly became a staunch epistemological relativist who questioned the reality of everything (even my own existence) and as time went by I came to a point where I totally denied there was any such thing as objective truth. This was a defining feature of my thinking right up to my conversion to Christianity.

When I was about sixteen, I read a pulpy “Introduction to philosophy” book which presented it’s ideas in the light of science fiction films. This book quickly became my bible. One key thesis in the book is that all philosophical problems are simply expressions of the one grand philosophical problem articulated within the French philosophy of “Absurdity”. Put simply, this idea states that all big philosophical problems can be reduced to a conflict between our small, human, subjective perspective, and the big, eternal, objective perspective of God (assuming he exists). This idea of “Absurdity” became crucial to my understanding of life and reality all the way up to my conversion.

For most of my life (even my prepubescent days to a large degree) the meaning of my life revolved around girls and romance. I was always pining after some cute girl. I was never really interested in sex, and really was just searching for a loving relationship with someone of the opposite gender. Throughout my high school years I struck out as much as I could at a boys school and tried to experiment with relationships. I never quite got to the point of having a legitimate girlfriend, and I experienced many emotionally crushing set backs and failures which turned me cynical and bitter. By the time I was 18, I was completely cynical about relationships and had fallen in with the pick-up artist community. At this point I no longer cared about finding a girlfriend and my life revolved almost entirely around losing my virginity.

On my 17th birthday my Mum kicked me out of home. I had been a rebellious teenager, hanging out with girls and not coming home until late, refusing to call Mum and let her know where I am. Mum had had enough and booted me out. I went to live with my grandfather on the northern beaches of Sydney. In the end I achieved massive success in the HSC, with an ATAR of 97.15. How much this is due to me and how much this was due to Methylphenidate, I don’t know. My relationship with my Mum and immediate family was extremely strained, and it stayed that way right up until my conversion to Christianity.

Revelations of Hypocrisy

fc8[1].jpgWhen I was 18 I moved out and begun to live on campus at my university (The University of Technology, Sydney). It seemed like absolutely everyone was regularly drinking to excess and smoking weed non-stop. And yet despite that, these people seemed completely normal, great guys and girls, who were achieving significant academic success. This was a major shock to me: I had been brought up in an extremely sheltered environment in which any and all drugs were considered “Bad” and anyone who so much as smells a joint is automatically “addicted” and their life is instantly ruined forever. Suddenly the hypocrisy of the law came crashing down on me: How is it that such a powerful and soul-destroying drug such as Methylphenidate is legal and prescribed regularly, and yet something as harmless as Cannabis is illegal? I had experienced first hand the life-destroying effects of Ritalin and it absolutely baffled me that it was legal while Marijuana was not. This slow burning train of thought stuck with me for many months, and grew to encompass psychedelics, alcohol, and other substances.

Rock Bottom

From 2011 to mid 2012 I was still right into the pick up artist scene and dead-set on losing my virginity. My life revolved around this goal. In the back of my mind I still just wanted love and relationship, but the pick up artist manuals had convinced me that from an evolutionary perspective life is entirely about having as much sex as possible. I had various long term and short term targets who I was trying to get down and dirty with (which is ironically a classic rookie mistake according to the PUA community). Girls did not seem human to me. I was completely cynical about them and saw them simply as sex objects with a complicated social locking device standing between me and the poon. I enjoyed some limited social success as a pick up artist, but never quite managed to achieve what I was aiming for – the loss of my virginity.

I was not really happy or satisfied with life at this point. The only thing carrying me along was this goal of having sex with someone. The scene was set for me to hit rock bottom.

pr0nstashe.jpgI finally managed to get a girl into bed with me (twice), however my nervousness/excitement plus many years of porn addiction resulted in total erectile dysfunction. This was absolutely soul crushing and life destroying. My world was rocked and my ego was entirely shattered. I took my porn stash and physically ripped it in half (It has been stuck to my wall ever since as a reminder of my definitive decision to renounce porn). The entire purpose of my life had been thwarted – I had been in a situation where I could have easily lost my virginity and yet I was completely unable to perform. I felt like life had lost all meaning and I no longer had any purpose.

I had been flirting with the idea of taking a psychedelic drug for many months at this point. I had read much about these substances and they seemed completely fascinating. However there were still remains of my sheltered upbringing holding me back from taking the plunge and dropping tabs. After this life shattering failure to perform in bed I was finally in the mindset to give it a go. “What have I got to lose?” I thought to myself. Life really seemed meaningless all of a sudden and I was in a position where I was a wild card; I no longer cared about anything – I would potentially have even tried heroin or Methamphetamine at this point.

Friends and Enemies

Throughout my time living at UTS I had gotten to know a certain person, who I will call Albert. Albert was already right into all the drugs and was a very manipulative and selfish character. However he also had charisma and charm, and was able to smooth over conversation such that you don’t realise when he is manipulating you. He had been grooming me for about a year, trying to get me to come around to the idea of taking drugs. He had a strategy for doing this. Once he even directly told me his strategy and I was too stupid to realise that he was using it on me at that very moment. In the end I cannot speak to his motivations or judge his internal thought processes, but in retrospect I think he wanted to use me as a guinea pig to try out new drugs and check if they are safe before he did them himself. I had smoked weed and tobacco and been drinking with him a couple of times. He was also a bit of a pick up artist himself and had managed to enjoy some actual success, unlike me.

I thought he was a friend, and in my rock bottom state I found myself at his door. I had decided that I was finally going to give psychedelics a go and he was the guy to go to seeing as he had a large stash of all sorts of drugs. He was more than happy to oblige. We blocked out that Saturday to try a new, recently synthesised psychedelic known as 25i-NBOMe. At the time almost nothing whatsoever was known about this drug, but Albert had tried it a couple of times and found it enjoyable and safe enough, so I felt confident enough to give it a go myself. Since that time, there have been many reported deaths surrounding this drug. In retrospect I am extremely lucky to have survived.

The Tao that can be told is not the Eternal Tao

eyenowords[1].jpgOn Saturday, some time in July 2012, Albert and I met on the roof of Yura Mudang, the largest building in UTS housing. We stuck the tabs containing 25i-NBOMe to our gums and waited for the drug to kick in. During the come-up we just talked about life and shot the crap (talking about “assignments, uniwork, hot babes of housing etc” as I later described it to a friend). I was nervous and excited, wondering what was going to happen. I expected to hallucinate and see some beautiful colours and patterns, but in no way did I expect what actually took place.

The psychedelic experience is ineffable. It cannot be described with words, it can only be experienced. Once you have experienced it, you know. As such it would be futile for me to attempt to describe what happened. When you try to describe a psychedelic experience you end up saying crazy things like “I saw snakes riding cowboys” or “I saw a pink elephant dancing on the roof”. Of course you didn’t actually see anything like that, but these are the only words that you can find to describe what you saw, even though they are totally inadequate to capture the experience. I will elaborate on certain interesting aspects however, and if you have ever had a psychedelic experience you will know what I’m talking about.

When you are on psychedelics, time completely dissolves. You feel like you are in an eternal, everlasting moment. The only way to keep track of time is to have a stop watch or pocket watch which you can consult. This can be an experience of heavenly bliss, or hellish torment, depending on your state of mind. Furthermore, your identity completely evaporates. You try to locate your “I” and it is nowhere to be found. This leads to some interesting feelings; you feel like you are intimately connected to the universe and everything else. The boundary between you and the outside world breaks down and the two flow into each other and through each other. You are the universe and the universe is you. This is particularly profound when you take psychedelics with someone else; you feel as if you are intimately linked. Your empathy levels are raised to the point where you feel exactly what the other person is feeling, and you feel as if you can read their mind. They feel exactly the same way, and the result is a mingling of souls in which two people feel as if they are the same person, but sharing two bodies simultaneously. Your sense of free will completely evaporates, which can be both ecstatic and terrifying: You find yourself just going with the flow, and not exercising any agency at all. Questions of epistemology come crashing down on you: “Is any of this real? What is reality? What is real and what is not? Is there any difference?” These questions are always relevant, even when you’re not high on psychedelics, however they become particularly pronounced when you are tripping. This can be a dangerous state of mind to be in: when you spend all your time questioning reality to this extent, you might just get to a point where you find it reasonable to fly off a building or walk in front of a bus.

When you are tripping, everything is exactly the same, but everything is simultaneously totally different. It’s the same old buildings, the same old roads, the same old vehicles, the same old park, the same old sights and sounds. And yet you see them in a way in which you have never seen them before. You feel as if you fully understand everything, and yet simultaneously understand nothing at all. You come face to face with God and experience the most intimate communion, and simultaneously realise that he is impenetrably ineffable, mysterious and completely incomprehensible.

Revelations

During my first trip with Albert, he was something of a guide. While we were indeed both high, he had far more experience and was able to direct the trip and ensure that it never strayed into “bad trip” territory. I don’t know whether to be thankful or not, because in retrospect this was obviously a manifestation of his psychopathic, manipulative character. We walked from the roof of Yura Mudang to the outdoor balconies of the UTS tower. We walked from UTS to Victoria park. We walked all around Victoria park and USYD. Then we came back home and relaxed in my flat as the drug wore off. The visual effects were amazing; I recall looking up at the sky and seeing millions of shooting stars, and they were all different colours; green, red, orange, blue. The psychological revelations were profound – I felt like I had finally discovered the answers to all of life’s questions. And yet as the drug gradually wore off, my grasp of these important truths began to slip away.

23e2f2717ce8e472a676f6e08fee221c[1].jpgThe revelations were the most important part of the trip for me, whereas Albert was just in it for a good time and to see some visual patterns. I remember talking to him about the revelations and he responded with “My biggest revelation was when I realised that the revelations don’t mean anything”. Maybe he was right on some level, but I wasn’t buying it. After he went home and I was lying in bed trying (and failing) to sleep, I wondered at what I had just experienced. I felt like I had just been initiated into some secret society that has always been before my eyes but I had never seen it before. How many people knew what the psychedelic experience was like? It felt as if traffic light crossings and Victoria park had been designed especially for someone who is tripping. It was almost as if psychedelic drugs were the invisible driving force behind all of society. It became apparent that everything we do as a society boils down to making trips more pleasant. Psychedelic drugs were suddenly right at the centre of my world view.

My previous angst over being unable to get laid almost immediately dissolved. I had discovered something far more meaningful, mysterious and profound than simply striving after sex. I immediately purchased another 25 hits of 25i-NBOMe from Albert. I had decided that I was going to trip regularly and explore the psychedelic landscape further.

I also emailed one of my good old friends from high school, Charles (name changed for anonymity) . In the past we had chatted about experimenting with drugs. He had never gotten further than weed, but I recall he had mentioned he was keen to try all sorts of stuff (even ice). I was gushing to him and pontificating about how amazing the experience had been. I was like “you’ve got to try this dude”. He responded with “fuck yeah let’s do it ASAP” and we scheduled another trip for the following weekend.

Descent into Hell

The following weekend, Charles met up with me and I attempted to replicate the experience I had had the last weekend. We started on the roof of Yura Mudang, dropped tabs and begun to wait until the drug kicked in. It didn’t take long for things to go wrong and get out of hand.

Charles was incredibly nervous about the whole thing, even though he had not admitted this to me. Furthermore at the time I was an absolute autistic idiot with no real empathy, so I couldn’t see the signs on his face and in his way of talking that he was feeling uncomfortable. The idea of a “bad trip” was not something I really understood at this point; it was a foreign concept. I just assumed that taking psychedelics was always an extremely pleasant and profound experience.

a1221146842_10[1]The situation was dire: Charles was deep in the city, far away from home, in a building where he didn’t know anyone. This is not a good mindset to be in if you are going to drop tabs. Unfortunately from the way I was talking it was becoming more and more apparent that he didn’t really know me any more either. So from his perspective he was surrounded by a subtle darkness which was becoming more and more manifest as the drug kicked in.

As our mindsets began to change, he became increasingly terrified at the fact that he wasn’t thinking straight. Paradoxes were proliferating and things simply did not seem how they should seem. It was hard to follow a logical train of thought to it’s conclusion without getting distracted and muddled. Our free will disintegrated.

I went into crisis management mode: I was still in a familiar, comfortable environment so I was not feeling particularly bad in myself. However as described above, when you take a psychedelic the barriers between you and other people are washed away – you feel what they feel and they feel what you feel. As such, Charles’ panic and paranoia began to seep into my own consciousness and I began to panic too. I decided that the safest place to be was back in my flat.

At one point the idea came to me that Charles would be more comfortable if we could get him back to his own bed on the north shore. He agreed and we headed to the elevator. Right as the elevator had reached the bottom floor and the doors had opened, we looked at each other and I knew we were thinking exactly the same thing: “If we leave the building, we’re both going to be in trouble”. Sydney trains were not the place to be during a bad trip. We immediately retreated back to my room and tried to do damage control on a bad situation. “I can’t believe we almost left the building” Charles would later say.

hqdefault[1]We trekked back to my flat as fast as we could and Charles hid in my room. I tried to do everything I could to make him as comfortable as possible. I gave him my bed and he immediately rugged up and hid under the covers. I opened my window so that he could watch the stars move and the sun rise. I turned on the heater in order to keep the room cozy and snug. I offered to play whatever music he wanted through my speakers. He chose “Vivaldi – Concerto No. 6 Op. 3 in A minor RV356 for violin, strings & b.c. – 1. Allegro”. We listened to this piece of music on repeat through his phone for the entire night, right up until dawn and morning. The song was stuck in my head for many months after and I have been able to easily recall the tune at any time in the years since. It was truly burned into my brain during this traumatic night in Hell.

At one point Charles asked if there was a way to make it all stop. I recalled that Albert had said taking Xanax could calm you down during a bad trip and I made motions to contact him. Charles immediately became incredibly uncomfortable: he was not keen to take further unknown substances and meet more untrustworthy and unknown people. I took the hint and put my phone away.

Charles’ bad trip affected my trip, and I became hyper-aware of my heart beating. This was my mortality passing right before my eyes and it was terrifying. Time had completely dissolved and I felt as if I was in an eternal moment that consisted entirely of fear, pain, terror, suffering. I have since come to believe that this is what Hell and Purgatory feel like: pure, timeless terror. An interesting side point here is that while the suffering was subjectively everlasting, objectively it did indeed come to an end. I apply this principle to my universalist theology: Hell/Purgatory feels subjectively everlasting, but objectively it comes to an end.

The Journey Home

Eventually it got to a point where a basic level of trust had been re-established between me and Charles. He communicated to me that he was happy that we were “back on the same wavelength” and we began to somewhat enjoy the trip again, from the safety of my room. He told me about how he could see “snakes riding cowboys” and attempted to draw a graph of how he was feeling. I knew exactly what he was saying and talking about as I could see it too and I felt the same way.

The night carried on and eventually the sun rose, and the drug wore off. Now we were into the hangover, or “afterglow” period (psychedelic hangovers are usually incredibly pleasant). I cooked some sausages for breakfast (it felt like they took forever to cook). Charles emerged from my bedroom, still seeming entirely fragile and shaky. We ate and then ventured out into the world that had just awoken and started to go about it’s daily business. I took Charles on a walk up Broadway, through Victoria Park and around the University of Sydney, showing him what I had planned to show him during the trip, had it not gone entirely wrong.

1478572278926[1].jpgAfterwards I accompanied him on an express train to the north shore. We tried to rest and move on from what had just happened. I accompanied him almost the entire way to his front door. I remember telling him “Just say when you need me to leave”, and as we approached his house he turned to me and said “Now would probably be a good time to exeunt”. He went home and attempted to avoid his parents while I began the trek back to my apartment in the city, feeling a bit paranoid and vulnerable the entire time. I later found out that Charles descended into a deep and extended depression following our trip, whereas I entered into an extremely pleasant mania, which I will describe shortly.

The Great Awakening

Once I arrived back home, a deep seated, unconscious pride began to bubble to the surface. I thought to myself “I’m such a good guy, I managed to handle that situation like a pro. I got Charles home safely. I’m so amazing”. This pride stuck with me and grew more and more pronounced as the following week went by.

Pride like this is incredibly powerful, often coming with inflated self-confidence and self-importance. I had entered into a Manic state that was getting more and more intense as the days went by. Delusions of grandeur were blossoming in my mind. Towards the end, I actually thought that I was God; I don’t think pride can get any worse than this.

82163912-back-view-of-young-businessman-drawing-abstract-glowing-digital-business-hologram-on-concrete-roofro-Stock-Photo[1].jpgFollowing my bad trip, I entered into what has become the most amazing week of my life to that point and since. Armed with my newfound self-confidence, as well as the heightened sense of empathy which psychedelics bring about, all of a sudden I was the man. I knew everything about everything. I was able to command any conversation and predict what my interlocutor was going to say next. I felt as if I could read peoples minds. All of a sudden girls made sense. This was absolutely massive for me. I realised that girls are human too. It sounds so obvious now, but for 19 years of my life I really had no idea. Suddenly I was enjoying success with all the women in my life. All the information from my pick up artist manuals suddenly flooded my consciousness and I was able to analyse every social situation in the blink of an eye and remain in total control the entire time. I was thinking at top speed, like a super computer, and empathising to the point where I knew exactly how people were thinking and feeling. This was power. I felt omnipotent, as if I could manipulate my way into achieving whatever goals I desired. I was all of a sudden super-productive at work, getting far more done than I had ever before in the 12 months prior to this manic state. It was incredibly exciting.

I came to the delusional conclusion that I was God, and therefore did not need to sleep. I stayed awake for seven days straight, and begun to take much more Ritalin than I would have taken otherwise, to attempt to focus my mania and remain productive at work. In the evenings I would stay up all night thinking, philosophising, writing poetry and feeling amazing. This could not continue forever. At some point, I was going to crash.

“Pride Comes Before a Fall”

There is a biblical quote that is appropriate here:

Proverbs 16:18 RSV-CE

Pride goes before destruction,
    and a haughty spirit before a fall.

I was so completely full of pride, thinking that I was amazing, godlike, God himself. I thought I had discovered all the secrets of the universe: everything made sense to me. The French philosophy of Absurdity which was so dear to my heart seemed spot on and I could see it in action everywhere in life and reality.

However after 7 days straight of not sleeping and experiencing a severe and growing mania, I transitioned into a state of psychosis. Suddenly nothing made sense any more. Suddenly Absurdity seemed entirely contradictory. Suddenly my entire world-view was falling apart: I was grasping for something to hold on to and nothing came to my aid. I was not God; I was just some schmuck. My sanity was slipping between my fingers.

maxresdefault[1].jpg I was thinking to myself “I need help, who can I go to?” but no one was coming to mind. It was at this time that I became highly aware that I was completely surrounded by evil. I sent my thoughts out of my room and probed my flatmates. It seemed completely clear to me that all of my flatmates were evil, depraved and fundamentally untrustworthy. I extended my thoughts to the rest of my floor in UTS housing and came to the same conclusion: all of them were manipulative and selfish drug and sex addicts. Panicking, I extended my thoughts to the entire building: again, all I could find were evil, selfish people who would gladly sell me out if it meant they could get more sex and weed.

This was incredibly scary. I felt as if I were utterly surrounded by evil and there was nowhere I could run. Being an introvert, I decided to do what comes naturally to me: lock my door and hide in my room. Suddenly I thought back to all my interactions with Albert and I gasped as I realised that he had been playing me like a pipe. I had been his pawn as he manipulated me into doing drugs and used me as an unwitting wingman in his quest for sex. This was also incredibly scary – I felt as if I was caught in a giant spiders web spun by Albert and I felt as if he still had significant power over me. He started to seem like some sort of demonic incarnation in my mind. However things only got even more terrifying: I realised that I myself am also totally depraved, manipulative and selfish. I thought back to the previous 7 days of mania and assessed my behaviour: I had been manipulating people left, right and centre for personal gain and selfish reasons. I was just as evil as everyone else!

This was utterly traumatic and terrifying: there was nowhere I could run or hide – everyone was completely drenched to the core with evil, even me. I couldn’t run to my room, I couldn’t hide in my mind. No matter where I looked; no matter where I turned; all I could find was pure evil.

The Man in the Desert

2016024411desert_22_300[1]At this point of pure panic and terror, a strange idea suddenly lodged itself in my mind and would not go away: The story of Jesus in the desert, being tempted by the Devil. I had never seriously read the bible before, and I could barely remember the details of this story. However for some strange reason, it was firmly lodged in my mind and I knew with all my being that it was important: I needed to understand this story right now. I knew that it was somehow relevant to my current situation, but I was not sure in what way.

Still in a panic, I went to my bookshelf and found the NIV bible which my Christian mates had given me back in high school. I had a crude, basic knowledge of the structure of the biblical canon: I knew that the stories about Jesus are to be found in the New Testament, in the four Gospels. With this in mind I frantically flipped to the gospel of Matthew and began rapidly scanning the headings of the sections looking for the story about Jesus’ temptations in the desert. Thankfully, this story occurs early in the Gospel of Matthew and I was able to find it quickly. I ravenously read the story from beginning to end, and it made absolutely no sense to me whatsoever. I didn’t know how to apply it to my current situation. It may as well have been written in another language.

At this point I completely and utterly freaked out and broke down: It was absolutely essential that I understand this story right damn now, and yet it was completely impenetrable to me. There were tears in my eyes and I was shaking. I thought to myself, “I need someone to help me understand this”. This logically lead to the question “who would understand the bible?” The answer that came to me was “Christians! They wrote the book so of course they should understand it!”

I cast my mind towards all the friendships of my past, searching for someone who was Christian that I could go to for help. This was not easy; I had met many Christians during my life, but all of them were total hypocrites, just as evil as me and Albert and everyone else. I was searching for the light on the hill: A Christian who is worthy of the name. There was only a single person who came to mind; the only true and faithful Christian I had ever met, my good friend from high school: Alex Macdonald.

The Only Saint I Know

I sent a text message to Alex, trying to keep it together and not let him know that I’m totally falling apart. I no longer saw him regularly, but I had caught up with him some time in the previous two weeks. Still thinking of how he really is a good Christian and so is his entire family, I sent something along the lines of “Hey man, how are you? You’ve got a pretty cool family don’t you?” He responded with “Yeah, I’ve been heaps blessed with family. I’ve gotta run to a soccer game now, catch up soon!” I immediately freaked out and begun to send him a barrage of messages thinking to myself “NO! I need to talk to you right now! Don’t abandon me to this isolation”

1531658_1For 45 minutes I sent him message after message, pouring out my heart and talking about how I was in a really bad state. I was lamenting about the relationship with my mother and extended family, my failures with girls, and all sorts of other things. I was telling him what a wreck I was and how my life was totally messed up. I told him about how I was searching for meaning in life and couldn’t find it anywhere. I mentioned that I want to read the bible but I have no idea how to do it: I had an intuition that it contained the answers to all my problems but it was an entirely cryptic and mysterious book which I had no idea how to approach. I said to him “I don’t know how to pray, so please can you do it for me?”

Eventually the soccer game came to the half-time break and Alex checked his phone. I can only imagine what he was thinking as he looked at the barrage of messages I had just sent him. He responded succinctly, assuring me that he would indeed be praying for me and that I needed to come and meet him ASAP for a face-to-face chat. He also made it clear that I needed to meet with my Mum and tell her everything that has happened.

At this point I was at the end of my rope and willing to entrust myself entirely to whatever Alex recommended with no complaint, argument or resistance. He really embodied the “light on the hill” mandate of the bible; he was like a light shining in the darkness that surrounded me. I wanted to do nothing but latch on and trust him to take me to a better place, dragging me out of the pit of evil and the lake of darkness that I had found myself in.

Coming of Age

family-730320_960_720[1].jpgI boarded the train from central to Hornsby. By this time it was late afternoon. Being out in the world, surrounded by other, sane people put me back into a relatively composed state of mind. You become the company you keep, so I was no longer completely freaking out. This was a lull in my psychosis.

I arrived at my Mum’s house and knocked on the door. The effects of the various drugs I had taken in the week prior were still present: I was high on empathy and thinking incredibly quickly. I knew in half a second that mum had been crying and was trying to hold it together. Obviously Alex Macdonald had gotten in contact with her before I had arrived to let her know that I was coming and to expect me to be in a bad state. I was happy that he had done so. He had also gotten in contact with many of my other high school friends to let them know I was having a rough time and encourage them to reach out and make contact. On the way to the house I had received a variety of text messages from old friends asking how I was doing and saying that we should catch up.

Me and Mum sat down at the dinner table and I poured out everything. For the first time in my life I was completely honest and open with my Mother. We were both crying, and it was a beautiful reconciliation between us that has largely persisted to the present day. Ever since that evening I have had a massively improved relationship with Mum.

During my late teenage years, and the first few years in UTS housing I had wanted to distance myself from my family and set off on my own. However it was suddenly incredibly obvious that you can never escape family, and you really shouldn’t even try. They will always be there for you and are the most important relationships in your entire life. Family is everything. This has been a significant change in my thinking that has persisted to the present day.

It was at this point that the pride came back. I thought to myself “I just fixed my relationship with my mother: I am the shit.”

The whole family went to our local Japanese restaurant for dinner. It was packed. Once again I was manic and the man of the moment. I was telling jokes, stories, flirting with the waitresses and generally manipulating everyone into forgetting that I was technically in the middle of a psychotic episode.

At the end of the dinner I received a text from Alex Macdonald on my phone saying “Hey man, how are you doing? I still want to talk to you face to face; are you able to meet up?” I convinced my step father to drive me to Pennant Hills where I could meet Alex and have a chat. When I saw him I said “Thanks for meeting me man, I hope I’m not imposing too much” and he said “Don’t worry dude, I can talk all night!”

Thus began the most important hours of my life.

The Long Walk

2[1].jpgThe next 11 hours were spent walking and talking late into the night and early into the morning. We roamed around all the north shore suburbs, having an intense debate about all the most meaningful questions in life. It was quite surreal: at no point did we ever encounter any other people during our long walk. It was just me and him.

I had never before been honest with what I actually believed and thought about life with anyone, but I figured “If honesty could so easily fix my relationship with Mum, perhaps if I keep it up good things will happen here too”: for the first time I was completely honest and open about what I believed and how I thought.

The pride had returned and entrenched itself in my mind. I was convinced that Alex Macdonald was just a stupid Christian who doesn’t know how to think for himself and just believes whatever nonsense his church, family and bible tell him. I was convinced that Absurdity was the answer to all of life’s questions. Nevertheless I had this openness and honesty about me for the first time, so I was willing to put my world-view up for scrutiny and engage in open debate.

Me and Alex had a very intense back-and-forth dialogue. I would try to attack his position and Christian world-view, but no matter what I tried he was able to successfully defend his beliefs against my assault. His world-view was tight, consistent, coherent. I was completely unable to put a dent in his faith, even after throwing the most difficult apologetics issues at him. Whenever I brought up something he didn’t have an answer for he simply said “I don’t know the answer man, but I’m sure that there is an answer out there somewhere and I’m happy to go and find it for you”. This was completely infuriating for me.

At the same time as I was attacking Alex’s position, he was criticising mine. Unlike my attack on him, his attack on me was entirely successful. On point after point he was able to reveal inconsistencies in my understanding and highlight incoherence in my belief system. On issue after issue he was able to demonstrate how illogical my world-view actually is. This hurt. When someone is tearing apart everything you believe before your eyes it is incredibly painful. Even though he was doing it in the most loving and “Christian” way possible, it was still a very unnerving and psychologically painful experience. The foundations of my understanding of life and reality were being slowly pulled out from under me and I had nothing left to stand on. As he progressively tore apart my world view, I reflexively lashed back and attempted to do the same to him, but I was simply unable to put a dent in his faith.

By the end of the eleventh hour of this, I only had one idea left: the concept of Absurdity. I had never before told anyone about this belief of mine. I said to Alex Macdonald, “So far you have been able to show me why everything I believe is wrong. I only have one thing left, and if you show why it is wrong I will have nothing left. If you do this, I don’t know what is going to happen.” He responded calmly with “No dramas man, I trust God, let’s do it.” So I told Alex what I believed about absurdity, and it wasn’t long before he was able to find a significant hole in the theory, thus pulling that out from under me too. (If I remember correctly, the hole in the theory that he identified is that it claims to know what God’s perspective is, but no one can know what God’s perspective is except for God himself)

All of a sudden I had nothing left, and things got incredibly weird.

The Twelfth Hour

My life flashed before my eyes. I saw every little thing I had ever done and the guilt of all my sins came crashing down upon me all at once. The significance of every action I had ever performed was laid out before me: all the good things I had done as well as all the bad things I had done. I could see clearly how my actions had affected those around me. I was lost for words and gasping for air. I became unable to speak in complete sentences. I was like an animal.

nov16-10-hbr-marion-barraud-emotional-intel[1].jpgAt this point I also experienced something that the Cantonese have a succinct expression for: “A thousand emotions at once”. I was simultaneously happy and sad, full of love and full of hate; I both wanted to hug Alex and choke him to death. I was simultaneously laughing with happiness and crying tears of sadness. I felt completely calm and composed, and yet I also felt totally and utterly terrified. I felt jealousy and contentment, joy and despair all at the same time. I was experiencing the entire emotional spectrum all at once.

The Uncreated Light of Tabor

At this point I looked at Alex Macdonald for support and I could tell that he had no idea how to handle this. I recalled his promise at the beginning of the night: “Don’t worry man, I can talk all night!” but it was obvious that this situation was beyond his capacity. He had a scared and concerned look on his face which said “I really don’t know what to do”. He said to me “You’re not giving me much to work with here man” and I said back to him through my tears “Words! I need good words!”

He began to list off a whole bunch of Christian jargon: “Gospel, Love, Faith, Worship, Beauty.” Every time he said a word, it was as if I had been struck by lightning. It was just so plainly obvious to me that yes, these are good words! I gestured to him with my hands and cried “More! Give me more!” He continued listing off words: “Justification, Sanctification, Divinity, Holiness, Sacrifice.”

As he continued to say these good words, suddenly my mind’s eye was flooded with a brilliant mental light. Once again I was lost for words and gasping for air. For the first time I clearly perceived the love of God. John 3:16 came to me and I fully appreciated it. Jesus loved me. He died on that cross for me. He didn’t just die for “the world” in some generic collective sense; he actually died for me personally. He still would have gone to the cross even if I were the only other person who had ever existed. He loved me that much. I didn’t fully understand how it all worked; all the theology and doctrines of redemption and atonement. But what I did understand, and what was incredibly clear to me at this point, is that Jesus really and truly loved me. I realised that I couldn’t just shrug this off: love demands a response. How was I going to respond to this man who had died for me?

346c3aacbb35f3c0c639c72fb91f6f6e--jesus-pictures-jesus-on-the-cross-pictures[1].jpgAs I considered the love of Christ, suddenly the true nature of the mystical church came crashing down upon me. I realised that the church is not merely a building or group of people: the church is everyone throughout history who has devoted their life to following Christ and submitting to his leadership. A mental image clearly materialised in my mind’s eye, with Jesus as the centre and head of the church and billions of his followers surrounding him, trying to follow his leadership. I saw that in this way, Christians are the body of Christ; his hands and his feet in the world. Jesus is alive in the world today through his followers.

Again I was gasping for breath and completely stunned by what I was beholding. I was face to face with a supreme, incomprehensible love, and before my eyes it was as if I could see this love working through history via the church – the mystical body of Jesus Christ. I turned to look at Alex Macdonald and once again was completely blown away: As I looked at him, I could clearly perceive God. It was as if he was glowing with an invisible light. I have since come to learn that this was the uncreated light of Tabor that is so dear to Eastern Christians, as well as the image of God that all humanity bears; usually it is hard to detect, but on this night it was clear and obvious. I felt as if I was staring directly at the face of Jesus Christ himself, permeated and glowing with the fullness of divinity.

I turned my attention back to my interior state of mind, which was still experiencing the full force of a life review and a thousand emotions simultaneously, and it suddenly became incredibly obvious what was going on: This was the Holy Spirit wrestling with sins and demons for possession of my heart. The hatred and sadness were my sins while the love and joy were the Spirit. When I realised this, I instantly knew who I wanted to win the fight. I was praying “Come Holy Spirit!” as this epic struggle continued to unfold in my heart and mind.

Conversion

At this point of the early morning, when it was still dark we were walking back to my house along Pennant Hills road. For those who are unaware, Pennant Hills road is incredibly busy at all hours of the day and night, however in a surreal twist of fate, this night it was completely empty. Just me and Alex walking along the road alone with each other. I was still completely freaking out and experiencing the interior struggle between the Holy Spirit and my demons, and Alex was still doing his best to manage the walk home.

By the end of the night, it seemed that the demons and sins had won the fight: I was full only with negativity; All the positive emotions had gone away. I wanted to slaughter Alex there and then. I wanted to pounce on him and rip out his throat with my fingers, I wanted to pound him into a bloody pulp. I was verbally lashing out at him in the most immature, condescending way. I felt as if I were possessed by demons. Perhaps I was.

Louisville%20creative%20driveway%20and%20path%20lighting[1].jpgFinally we arrived out the front of my mum’s house. Both of us were completely exhausted. Alex said “Man, I’m wasted and I’ve really gotta sleep, but before I go I want to pray for you”. He stood underneath a street light, closed his eyes and prayed. I paced around him at the edge of the light, wanting with all my being to pounce on him and destroy him then and there. Something stopped me from doing so however. I remember thinking “Who does he think he’s talking to? Does he really believe in this God? What a fool!” Quickly after the prayer his father arrived in the family car and picked him up, taking him back home for sleep and rest.

I trudged down the driveway to Mum’s house, full of negativity. I knocked on the door and was let in and led to the bottom bunk in my brothers room. I lay there, rolling around in bed. I thought to myself “If I do not sleep now, I am going to die”. The negative part of me thought “Why don’t you just do it? Go ahead and die.” But thankfully it was not meant to be. My step father is a doctor. Something within me said “Go and ask your step dad for help”. I went downstairs and woke my step dad. In many words I conveyed that I was having a panic attack. He could tell in any case. He rummaged through his filing cabinet and found a Valium.

1b4c7887790f565a92287901a34cb77e--sheep-the-lord[1].jpgWe went back upstairs and I took the Valium. As I did so, the negativity all quickly vanished and I suddenly felt safe, protected, blissful, encompassed in a cloud of pure love. I was extremely excited, but this was different to the mania I had experienced in the prior week: it was more “pure” and “innocent”. There was not a hint of pride. I was full of humble energy. I chatted away to my exhausted step-father, who sat in the doorway playing on his iPhone while he waited for the Valium to take full effect. Every few minutes he would consult the Valium cheat sheet and ask me questions to see if the drug was working. “Do you feel a metallic taste on your tongue?” “Yep”. I looked at myself in the mirror and it was as if I was glowing and all my signs of fatigue were receding away. I felt completely at peace and enveloped in love. I was safe at last. Most importantly, I finally believed! Even though I didn’t know what it all meant and how it all fit together, I finally trusted Jesus. I remember the last thing I said before I fell into the first deep sleep I had had in eight days: “Ah, so this is what they are talking about when they say ‘born again’!”

When I woke up the next morning I was a Christian, and I have never looked back since.

(Go to “Testimony – Christian to Catholic”)

Beautiful Heresy 101 – The Gospel Creed

Nicaea_icon[1].jpgI believe in the gospel: the promise of the salvation of the entire cosmos, and of everything in it.

I believe in freedom: that all who repent, repent freely; that all who are damned embrace damnation with full knowledge and full consent; that no one is forced to be saved.

I believe in the universal scope of sin, total depravity and the massa damnata: that all souls with neither exception nor distinction are predestined to everlasting tortures, in the depths of the lowest hell, where the smoke of their torment rises forever and ever.

I believe in the perfect man, the Lord Jesus, and the perfect woman, the Holy Virgin Mother Mary. I confess that together they are one Christ, and as Christ they descended to the lowest and most infinitesimal circle of Hell, where they experienced the full force of damnation forever and ever and ever, unto the ages of ages, τον αιδιος και τον αιονιων, in saecula saeculorum. I confess that in doing so, they experienced the full chastisement for the sins of the world, and no punishment remains. I confess that they were resurrected immediately to the highest possible height of heaven, where they sit exalted at the right hand of God the father. I confess that they have come again, are coming again, and will come again, for the sake of the salvation of all souls.

I believe in the election of the damned and of all sinners; the predestination of Hitler* and of Satan and all of his demons.

I believe in epektasis: that Heaven is an everlasting struggle, in which we feel infinite pain as we become perfected in love and compassion towards the damned who wander in Hell.

I believe in the eschaton: the final moment – an eternity and a forever distant into the future – where all that ever was will be once again, and all who have ever lived will be raised to new life, resurrected into the fullness of perfection and glory. I confess that there will be no more sickness, tears, suffering, sadness, war, death, crime, murder, rape, sin, rebellion, Hell, or any other evil thing whatsoever.

I believe in the life of the final age; infinite joy, infinite satisfaction, divine bliss, immutability, impassibility, ineffability, omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence, omnibenevolence.

I confess that we may enter into this final age right now, through sincere faith in the good news and this promise. I confess that we will become one with the eschaton through love, and that ultimately not a single soul will fail in the struggle.

I affirm that after all the ages have passed – after we all have experienced an infinity of heavens and an infinity of hells – all things will come to the final, peaceful rest of nibbana. All things will return to the nothingness of God from whence they originally sprung forth; all sin will be extinguished and all virtue will be laid to rest; karma will cease and the cycle of samsara will come to it’s final conclusion.

I affirm that God is the Alpha and the Omega, and that therefore the end is but a new beginning, and after the final conclusion and timeless rest of nibbana, the cycle of samsara will start anew, all to the everlasting glory of God.

To the one who calls out to us from everlasting to everlasting, and whose burning heart relentlessly pursues us unto the ages of ages;

To him who embraces us as we burn forever and ever in this lake of fire, and who loves us without limit as we wander the edge of this outer darkness;

To the perfect lover in whom all of us live and move and have our being, and who will not cease sending grace until the last of us submits to sorrow and repentance;

To he who is eternally more eternal than eternity and infinitely more infinite than infinity; To the sovereign king who makes all things new and guarantees that all will be well with the world;

All praise, glory, honour, dominion and victory be yours, Until all sinners are restored to perfection, And the evil one himself has confessed you as lord, And the entire cosmos shines bright with your glorious love.

Amen

* Substitute the name of whoever is considered to be the most evil and hated figure of the day in your culture and community. Or if reciting this creed privately, substitute the name of the person you have the most trouble loving.

(Edited 27/7/2019)

Theodicy and The Problem of Evil – Speculations Concerning Origin and Destiny: “Why Did Satan Fall?”

The Problem of Evil

Problem of EvilThe Problem of Evil is probably the single most compelling objection that an Atheist can raise when confronted with an advocate for classical theism. If you believe in an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent God, the problem of evil has already locked on to you and loaded up an array of philosophical cruise missiles. Be prepared for an atomic blast; the problem of evil is one objection that has no easy answers.

The problem of evil is simply stated thus: How is it possible that there could be evil and suffering in a world where there is an all powerful, all knowing, totally loving God? Surely such a God would have the capacity to prevent such suffering and evil, as well as the wiles and power to do so.

In this post I propose to explore the problem of evil whilst drawing upon a variety of spiritual and philosophical traditions. Lets see where we end up.

The Origin of Evil

The usual Judeo-ChristianProblem of Evil explanation for the origins of evil is to be found in the early chapters of the book of Genesis. In summary, the claim is that humanity was originally created in a state of original innocence and bliss. However the serpent, representing the fallen angel Satan, tempted our first parents to disobey God. Adam and Eve succumbed to the temptation, and as a result were immediately infected with sin and evil to the core. As a result, all humans since then have been stained by sin and tend towards evil.

This account is unsatisfactory on many levels. It raises more questions than it answers. For example it is completely unable to account for natural evils such as earthquakes and tsunamis – are we supposed to believe that such natural disasters are caused by human rebellion? Furthermore, this story merely postpones the initial question: Sure, this was the point when evil was introduced to humanity, but how on earth did Satan become corrupted in the first place? If Satan had not been evil, then he would not have tempted our first parents, and presumably all would have been well in paradise forever.

Christians have speculated on this question of the fall of Satan and come up with some interesting theories: There is the extra-biblical narrative of the war in heaven, during which a third of the angels fell from grace and became demons, following Satan. An account of this war and events surrounding it can be found in John Milton’s epic poem, Paradise Lost. All of this is quite fascinating of course, however it still completely fails to solve the problem: Why was it that Satan was even able to fall and rebel against God in the first place? Didn’t God create everything in a state of perfection? If this is the case, how is it possible for anyone to turn against God?

Things start to sound even more suspicious and incoherent when you ponder the standard Christian eschatological views: allegedly we will be impeccable once we arrive in the perfection of heaven – if this is the case, then why were we not impeccable during our pre-fall perfect existence? What is different about perfection in the past and perfection in the future? If we could rebel in the beginning, then why can we not rebel in the end?

Why is it that Satan, a perfect angel, created with supreme knowledge of God, was able to make the irrational choice of evil? Where did that evil come from? How was he able to muster up such a bizarre choice? Why was evil even an option at all?

Ante Creatio Ex Nihilo

GoodEvil1[1].jpgWhere does evil come from? Why is it even an option at all? The Christian Tradition has not been forthcoming with answers to these questions about evil.

However there is a poignant teaching in the early church fathers that is relevant to the discussion: The idea is that evil has no existence or substance in and of itself. Instead all evil is merely the privation of good. Only good has true existence. At this point it is helpful to step back and draw on the Eastern Traditions of Philosophy, specifically, Taoism.

The second chapter of the Tao Te Ching is particularly illuminating:

When all the world recognises beauty as beauty, this in itself is ugliness.
When all the world recognises good as good, this in itself is evil.

Indeed, the hidden and the manifest give birth to each other.
Difficult and easy complement each other.
Long and short exhibit each other.
High and low set measure to each other.
Voice and sound harmonize each other.
Back and front follow each other.

Therefore, the Sage manages his affairs without ado,
And spreads his teaching without talking.
He denies nothing to the teeming things.
He rears them, but lays no claim to them.
He does his work, but sets no store by it.
He accomplishes his task, but does not dwell upon it.

And yet it is just because he does not dwell on it
That nobody can ever take it away from him.

The idea is that of the yin and yang. Good cannot be defined except as in opposition to evil. Existence cannot be defined except as in opposition to Nothingness. Big cannot be defined except as in opposition to small. Opposites depend on each other.

I argue, that this principle was in effect prior to creation. Before God had decided to create “out of nothing”, this principle of yin and yang was in effect. Call God the yin, so what was the yang?

Let’s list out some of the attributes of God. God – the yin  is:

  • Omnipresent
  • Omnibenevolent
  • Omnipotent
  • Omniscient
  • Self-Existent
  • Personal
  • Relational
  • Love
  • Simple
  • Impassable
  • Essential
  • Immutable

Now, lets negate all these attributes and see what happens. The yang is:

  • Nowhere
  • Omnimalevolent
  • Impotent
  • Ignorant
  • Non-Existent
  • Impersonal
  • Desolate
  • Hate
  • Complex
  • Passable
  • Nothingness
  • Mutable

The Taoist argument is that it is impossible for the attributes of God to exist, without there also being some sort of reality to the negations of those attributes. In this way, the perfections of God stand in opposition to the imperfections produced by their negation.

The classical Christian view, is that God created the universe “ex nihilo” – which is to say – “out of nothing”. Now I would like to ask; what was this “nothing”? It would seem that before the beginning of time, there was God, and there was “Nothing”. Does this not sound strikingly similar to the yin and yang dichotomy? After all, one of the attributes in that last list is “nothingness”. It sounds to me as though before the beginning God existed, but alongside his existence there was the “non-existence” of nothing. And it is only for this reason that God was able to create. He needed raw material to work with, and nothing is what he found.

So lets tweak the classical Christian narrative with this yin yang distinction in mind: Before the beginning, there was God, and there was nothing: yin and yang. God is loving, and powerful and all knowing, whereas the nothing is evil and powerless and non-existent. The story of creation is that in which God works on this “evil” nothingness. God naturally overflows with creative love, and the love flows over and pours into the “evil” void that has no existence in and of itself. God creates space in the void, and fills that space with light and love and other aspects of his self.

According to this narrative, evil has always “existed” alongside God, as a negation of his perfections. I put “existed” in inverted commas, because of course evil does not have any true existence in and of itself, seeing as it is a negation of God’s perfections, and God’s perfections alone have true existence. So evil was always a “reality”, even before creation, because God could not be perfectly good without that perfect goodness being identified in opposition to total evil.

What is evil?

According to the Taoist narrative, evil is simply the opposition to good which necessarily has a reality, even if it has no existence in and of itself. Combine this with the Christian narrative that in the beginning there was God and nothing – this can easily be rephrased as “in the beginning there was good and evil”. In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth “out of nothing” – bring the Taoist distinction to play and this sounds like “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth out of evil”.

In other words Evil/Nothingness is the raw material from which God has brought about creation. Evil did not come into being at some point in the history of creation: Evil has always been around. Evil pre-exists creation (again, insofar as something “non-existent” can be said to “exist”).

Now, the Christian narrative goes further. The Christian claim is that God has not yet finished creating: we are currently in the midst of his creative act. The creation will only come to completion in the eschaton, the end times. Right now, we are in the thick of the action. This provides – in my view – a compelling explanation as to the source and origin of evil, as well as a partial solution to the philosophical problem of evil.

johndemoAn analogy is prudent: Imagine creation as a canvas, and imagine God as a master painter. In the beginning, the creation was blank, void, formless, non-existent, and according to the Taoist insights developed above, it was evil. This state is represented by a blank canvas. However God begins to fill in the canvas with paint and life and colour. This represents his creative acts. Wherever he paints, life and love follow. As time goes by, the canvas begins to fill in, however there are still many blank spots on the canvas, which have not been touched by the master’s paint brush. These blank spots are the remains of the original “nothingness” from which God initially begun to paint. As such, these blank spots represent evil. What do these blank spots correspond to in creation? They correspond to evil actions, sins, natural disasters, pain, suffering.

In other words, my theory is that evil, suffering and sin simply represents a part of creation in which God has simply “not filled in the blank area” yet. Evil has always been present, but it is slowly receding as God continues to work out the story of creation.

The amazing eschatological promise that is so dear to universalism, is that eventually God will fill in ALL parts of the canvas. In other words, evil will be completely done away with. There will only be God, and his beautiful, glorious creation which has filled the nothingness and done away with the evil void.

A New Cosmic Christian narrative

The narrative looks something like this: Pre-creation, history, eschaton. Pre-creation and eschaton are eternal states, and history is a temporal process that moves from the first state to the final state. History can also be thought of as a “curtain” which separates the first eternal state from the last eternal state.

In the Pre-creation, there was God and there was Nothing. God was perfectly good and nothing was perfectly evil. At the beginning of History, God created a reflection of himself in the nothingness and out of the nothingness, transforming it into a “created something” which derives it’s existence from God himself. As history progresses, God continues to fill in the creation, slowly chipping away at the evil which he finds continuing to permeate it. This is where we find ourselves today: We are in the midst of history, experiencing the full battle between good and evil, between God and sin. Sometimes we experience wonderful, ecstatic, heavenly bliss and goodness and pleasure – all of which are gifts from God. Sometimes we experience depression, desolation, evil and sin, all of which are the remains of the nothingness which God is currently in the process of wiping out through his act of creation.

Eventually, at the end of history, we will arrive at the eschaton. The eschaton is a state in which not a hint of nothingness remains: God’s creation is exhaustive and supreme. There is only Joy, and happiness, just as within God himself. No more natural disasters, no more evil, no more pain, no more suffering, only bountiful and overflowing love, joy and happiness.

Problem of EvilIn this way, the entire history of creation is simply a move from the state of evil pre-creation to the state of glorified eschaton. The Zoroastrian image of an eternal struggle between good and evil is apt to represent the situation, however the Christian twist is that good is predestined to victory over evil! In the end times, God will be victorious over the powers of darkness. At the present time we find ourselves in the midst of the battle between good and evil, however in the eschaton the war will have come to it’s conclusion, and the forces of good will be victorious, as God’s creation will have arrived at it’s final glorified state. The master painter will have filled in all the gaps in his canvas. The problem of evil suddenly doesn’t seem so hard to solve.

The Problem of Evil Again

Let’s return to the original objection raised by our hypothetical Atheist: If God is all powerful and all-loving, why does he allow suffering and evil?

The answer to the question, in light of all the considerations above is: he doesn’t!

God does not allow suffering and evil. In fact, God is in the process of wiping them out. If it weren’t for God, suffering and evil would be all that we ever experience, all the time. God is in the process of moving the creation from a state of nothingness, suffering and evil, into a state of glorified perfection in which not a trace of evil remains. The problem for us is that we are currently experiencing this creation from the perspective of the middle of history, rather than enjoying the final product. The final product will indeed be free of evil, but from where we are right now, evil is all around us, as a remnant of the origins/the initial state. The abolition of evil is therefore an eschatological promise that we eagerly anticipate. Rather than experiencing the final state, we are experiencing the intermediate states through which creation must pass in order to arrive at the glorious eschaton.

Problem of EvilA question still remains: How was it that Satan was able to fall into sin in the first place? Based on the speculations in this post, it would seem that evil was always an option. God created angels and humans with free agency – the power to choose between alternatives. And yet God mysteriously created us in the midst of history rather than in the perfected eschaton. As such, as rational agents we are able to choose to do evil acts as well as good acts. Satan must have flirted with the darkness, the nothingness, the evil, and absorbed it’s omnimalevolence into his soul. This was always an option. But God is in the process of defeating this evil once and for all. In the eschaton all evil will have been dealt with. God and his goodness will permeate the creation and not a single speck of evil will remain. Hell will be abolished, as it would have served it’s purpose. The problem of evil is finally solved.

What of the Taoist requirement that perfections be defined in opposition to imperfections? Personally, I suspect that this situation was necessary in the beginning, prior to creation. However I do not expect it is necessary in the eschaton. In the eschaton there is no need for opposition. There will be no nothingness, no evil, no despair, no desolation, no hate, no death. There will only be love, rejoicing, grace, glory, life. The story of history – the story of creation – is a story of movement from evil and nothingness to good and glory. We eagerly await the final days, free of suffering and filled with goodness. Thanks be to our wonderful God and saviour. Praise his beautiful promises and the plans he employs to bring them about.

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

Catholic versus Protestant Funerals – Aeviternal Apokatastasis: “Where can we find Assurance of Salvation for those whom we have loved and lost?”

Catholic and Protestant Funerals

russian-orthodox-funeral[1]

The Catholic funeral is very sober and sombre. Much ritual is directed towards petitioning God to allow the departed soul a peaceful journey to heaven. The threat of temporal punishment for unrepented sin looms menacingly over the proceedings. Everyone follows the priest as he leads the gathered mourners in ever-hopeful, but never presumptuous prayer. The eulogy given will surely attempt to be optimistic, however it will be firmly grounded in the life of the deceased; the level of hope that is spoken of will be proportioned more or less to how loving, kind and gentle the deceased had been to God and neighbour during their time on earth. The unspoken assumption hovering at the back of everyone’s minds is that the dearly departed had not been perfected in love at the moment when they died, but neither were they totally depraved and in a state of stubborn rebellion against God’s grace, and therefore it’s a pretty safe bet that they are in neither Heaven nor Hell: They are in Purgatory. Their journey is not complete; it has only just begun. Their suffering did not end with their last breath; they have stepped out of the frying pan and into the fire. They need all the help they can get, and so prayers and petitions for swift deliverance from their future fiery trials are offered up to God.

The Protestant funeral, at a superficial level, is also serious and subdued. However unlike the Catholic funeral, there is a distinct undercurrent of Christian Joy running beneath the sadness. There will be no struggle to stay optimistic in the eulogy this time; it is guaranteed to be a happy, victorious, comforting, evangelical, assuring proclamation of God’s abundant and overflowing mercy towards those who trust in him and his promise of salvation. The deceased was well known by friends and family to have had a strong faith in Christ, and this simple fact will overshadow any sins, character faults and spiritual imperfections that they may have carried with them to the grave. Everybody present knows that none of this believer’s sins could possibly thwart God’s relentless, irresistible Grace. This particular soul has certainly ascended straight into Heaven, where they are enjoying a full and wholesome relationship with each person of the Trinity. Mingled with the grief at the loss of this friend and family member will be prayers of praise and thanksgiving, as the gathered mourners reflect on the wonderful gift of salvation. Sentiments along the lines of “She’s gone to a better place” will be shared, and not at all superficially. If these protestants happen to believe in the communion of the saints, they may even find it appropriate to ask the recently deceased to make use of their newfound close proximity to God to pray and intercede for those left behind.

Notice the conflict: At the Catholic funeral, it is not certain at all where exactly the soul of the recently deceased has departed to. The presumption is that they have ended up in Purgatory, where they will undergo fiery torments and torturous purifications. As such, we should pray for them, and hope that God may have mercy on the poor soul on account of our prayers. Whereas at the Protestant funeral, everyone is extremely confident that the dearly departed is in blissful repose somewhere up in Heaven and is watching over the funeral proceedings with great interest at this very moment. In this case it is not appropriate that we should be praying for them: instead we should be asking them to pray for us!

Temporal and Eternal

clock[1].jpg

Our experience of life is a Temporal one: we experience time. We are able to point backwards to the past and look forwards to the future, but most importantly we experience single moments in sequence, and we can point to this constantly changing single moment as the present. The present moment is the only moment – or slice of time – that we have direct access to and in which we are able to affect reality.

Compare this to God’s Eternal experience: God is omniscient (that is, he possesses all possible and impossible knowledge), and so he experiences all moments in time – past, present, future – simultaneously. In fact for him, there is no such thing as past, present or future, there is simply an “eternal now” that encompasses all possible moments. All these moments are always immediately and directly present to him: he does not have to remember them, or imagine them, or retrieve them from storage and place them on the workbench. Incidentally, this also applies to all of God’s knowledge: God cannot learn or forget – he is immutable (that is, incapable of change) – and so all of God’s knowledge is ever present to him. This idea of a single moment which perfectly and simultaneously encompasses moments is called Eternity. There is no time – past, present or future – in Eternity, to be eternal is to be immutable.

A person can experience one of two broad states: Life and Afterlife. Life is a temporal existence. But what about Afterlife? It is commonly accepted that time pertains to life, and that there is no time after death. However the existence of Purgatory indicates that despite a lack of time change is still possible in the afterlife. This “not quite temporal, not quite eternal” existence is called Aeviternity. To get a grasp on the idea, it is helpful to examine the tradition of the church with regards to indulgences.

Indulgences and Aeviternity

Johann-Tetzel-Selling-Indulgences[1]

Historically indulgences would be quantified by some amount of time. For example saying a certain pious prayer might reduce your time in Purgatory by “40 days”, or completing a certain pilgrimage might reduce your time in Purgatory by “10 years”.  Some of the indulgences became quite extravagant, with time reductions stretching up into the hundreds and thousands of years. Since Vatican II, the church has refrained from putting hard numbers on indulgences and instead offer Plenary and Partial indulgences. A Partial indulgence reduces the time a soul must spend in Purgatory, while a Plenary indulgence completely removes the need for a soul to experience Purgatory at all.

It is interesting to compare the pre and post Vatican II practices. Both of them are valid approaches to indulgences: despite how ridiculous it might seem to some, an indulgence which reduces your time in Purgatory by “5000 years” is entirely valid and in an important sense does exactly what it says. Subjectively Aeviternity is experienced as something analogous to time but which seems to be everlasting, which is to say it is experienced as an “infinite” stretch of time. Considering this, an indulgence which takes fifty thousand years off an infinite stretch of time isn’t even a drop in the ocean, nevertheless it is still worth fighting for because escaping Purgatory involves engaging your will by actively repenting until you are perfectly clean of sin; it is always better to strive towards this goal than not, as it is in no way an unachievable goal. The gift of a Plenary indulgence suddenly becomes clear too: you aren’t reducing your time in purgatory by a set number of days, months or years; you are wiping away the entire punishment!

So there is something akin to time and temporality in Purgatory: This is what happens when we try to map our temporal existence onto an experience of Aeviternity. There is something analogous to time in Purgatory, because there is change and progress. However the important thing to note is that whatever this time analog may be, it is not actually time. Aeviternity is just as timeless as is Eternity proper. So just as it is possible to experience Eternity as an “Eternal now”, with all moments directly and simultaneously accessible, so it is also possible with Aeviternity.

So how are we – as temporal creatures – supposed to approach those in the afterlife, who are experiencing an Aeviternal existence? How are we supposed to map our temporal experience to the Aeviternal reality of the beyond?

The link between Temporality and Aeviternity

The fact that we are temporal creatures during life in no way changes the fact that the afterlife is always and everywhere Aeviternal. In other words, the afterlife is always spiritually accessible as an “Eternal now” to us who still walk the earth: in our prayers we have access to every single moment in that one Aeviternal moment simultaneously. One second we can pray as if someone was halfway through their purgatorial journey, asking God to give them strength and resilience and help them to repent of whatever sins are still clinging to their soul; The next second we can pray and praise God as if that same person had just completed their purification and been admitted into heaven; And the second right after that we can pray as if that very same person had only just died and arrived on the doorstep of Purgatory, with a long and arduous mission of repentance ahead of them, involving much weeping and gnashing of teeth.

All of these moments are directly accessible to us temporal creatures: all of them are always and everywhere simultaneously connected to the present moment in which we live. In this way, it is paradoxically appropriate to praise God that someone is in Heaven while simultaneously petitioning him to help them on their way while they are in Purgatory. To us here on earth the fact that someone is in Heaven and that same someone is in Purgatory are simultaneous realities, because they are both Aeviternal moments

Understanding this, suddenly both the Protestant and the Catholic funerals make perfect sense: The Protestants are focusing on the “final” moment in the Aeviternity in which the soul has completed it’s purification in Purgatory and is being admitted into Heaven and immutable eternity proper, which is a wonderful, glorious, joyful event. On the other hand the Catholics are focusing on the “first” moment in the Aeviternity, which is very solemn and serious as the soul has just entered Purgatory and will have to undergo severe, painful, and what may even be experienced as everlasting purifications. Both these first and final moments in the “eternal now” of Aeviternity are completely valid moments to focus on at a funeral. Even more interestingly, this means that it is both appropriate to pray for a soul in purgatory, but also to simultaneously ask that soul to pray for you on the assumption that they are a Saint in Heaven.

What does Scripture say?

1 Corinthians 15:51-52

51 Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed— 52 in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.

2 Peter 3:8

But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day.

Protestants often refer to the 1 Corinthians passage to justify their disbelief in purgatory. They make a big fuss of the phrase “we will all be changed in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye“. They will say that this passage proves that afterlife sanctification is instantaneous and does not require the purgatorial process that Catholics insist upon. If we must take this passage as a reference to post-death sanctification rather than the parousia and resurrection, it in no way conflicts with the idea of Purgatory. It is simply honing in on the “eternal now” aspect of Aeviternity. It is true that Aeviternity is a process of change, however this process of change occurs “in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye” from our perspective here on earth. From our temporal perspective, the process of Purgatory is only just starting, but it is simultaneously already complete. It is the “eternal now”: everything present “in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye”

The 2 Peter passage is also good for illustrating what an “eternal now” is like. Time expands and contracts in the strangest ways: a day lasts for eternity but at the same time a thousand years can be over faster than you have time to blink. This helps to shed some light on what it’s like to experience “time” in Purgatory: Aeviternity is simultaneously “everlasting” and “instantaneous”. It is correct to think that our purification will be complete in the twinkling of an eye, but it is also simultaneously correct to think that it will involve a long long process of afterlife repentance and suffering

Funerals Revisited

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Consider again the Catholic funeral. This time the poor soul in question was a suicide. Moreover he had a terrible record of sinful indulgence. He was a rapist, a murderer, a terrorist. He died with blasphemies on his lips. It’s a great wonder that he has even been granted a Catholic funeral at all. The people gathered at this funeral – if there are any – would be fighting hard to muster dredges of hope for this dead maniac. They hope for purgatory at best, but really; all signs point to Hell. There is a mood of doom and gloom left behind in the wake of the deceased. People hesitate to pray for him, because it is almost a foregone conclusion that he has descended to Hell – from which there is no escape – and so prayers would be pointless. There is minimal hope that he has made it to the Aevum, most are resigned to the idea that he is suffering unspeakable, everlasting, eternal tortures in Hell. Some of his victims may even take some comfort in believing that this is the case.

Consider again the Protestant funeral. This time it is the apostate son of the local Pastor. Died during a drug overdose. He grew up knowing the truth, and then rejected it. Read this crushing word from Hebrews 6:

It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age and who have fallen away, to be brought back to repentance. To their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace.

“It is impossible” for him, haven fallen away “to be brought back to repentance”. Everyone at the funeral knows full well that this boy has abandoned the faith, to the perpetual disappointment and shame of his faithful and ministering mother and father. This is a prodigal son who never returned home; one who died in his sins, in a state of rebellion and spiritual poverty. The people gathered to mourn his passing may grasp at straws for some sort of hope. Some of them might be of the “Once saved always saved” persuasion. But undoubtedly everyone will be disheartened and discouraged by his being completely devoid of any evidence of saving faith, implicit or explicit at the point of his death. Deep down, everyone knows that he’s in Hell. Sure, during the eulogy his father may throw out some platitudes about God’s will being mysterious and how we can only trust in his mercy, but he’s had too good of a Calvinist theological training to honestly believe what he’s saying.

In both the funerals, despair is sovereign. There is no confident, hopeful assurance of salvation in either case. But why should this be so? Doesn’t it seem that the people are focusing on the sinners individual actions and life far more than on God’s Grace and mercy? They are making salvation depend on the response of the sinner. But the scriptures are emphatic that salvation is by Grace: God saves us, we don’t save ourselves. Surely these despairing responses reflect a failure to trust in God’s promise to save us? We forget that where sin abounds, Grace abounds all the more. These people’s sins should not cause us to consider them “eternally lost” and consign them to Hell. We should be ever rejoicing in the unconditional gift of salvation. God will leave the 99 sheep to find the 1 who is lost and bring it back to the flock. We should be able to stand at anyone’s funeral and confidently proclaim their entrance into Heaven, regardless of how they lived or died. We should also be able to attend anyone’s funeral and offer up prayers of petition that they be helped on their journey through the tortures of Purgatory towards Heaven. We should be able to go to any funeral and pray as if they have entered into Aeviternity. Never be distracted by the life and works of the sinner who stands under judgement. Heaven should always be assumed, never Hell. Strong hope and abundant Joy should always be experienced at every funeral, not despair and crippling depression. Always focus on the victory of Christ, the promise of the Spirit, and the Grace, Mercy and Love of the Father.