The Epistle to Elder Ritchie

Hi Elder Ritchie,

There’s a lot to say and it’s hard to know where to start, so I’ll just start with a definition of the Gospel.

“Gospel” is a loaded word which gets thrown around by Christians of every variety all the time, but it’s rare for people to actually slow down and ask “what exactly is the Gospel anyway?” There are many different gospels on offer (Including the LDS “restored Gospel”), and all of them are true, but some are more true than others. When evangelising, you need to be clear exactly which of these gospels you are trying to convey and impart, because how you convey a gospel depends on which gospel it actually is. It is important to remember that “Gospel” literally just means “Good news” or “Glad tidings”, and keeping this in mind can help you to spot whether someone’s gospel is not quite right, because invariably it won’t actually be “good news” if you analyse it closely.

You are already familiar with the LDS restored gospel (more familiar with it than I am). I’ll attempt to roughly summarise it (forgive me for butchering the nuances here):

Mankind was created good and innocent in the beginning, but our first parents rebelled against God and were condemned to death. Jesus came and atoned for our sins in the garden of Gethsemane. He founded a church which was meant to carry salvation to the world. Unfortunately that church apostatised and the true faith was lost until the 1800s when the church was restored by Joseph Smith. The good news (gospel) is that now it is possible to be saved by joining this restored church. All you need to do is be baptised, live a good life, be sealed in the temple, experience the endowment ordinance, follow the word of wisdom and so on. Failure to meet these conditions is akin to rejecting the offer of salvation, and may either reduce your heavenly glory to one of the lower kingdoms, or perhaps even condemn you to the outer darkness for all eternity with the sons of perdition.

You may have also encountered the “evangelical protestant gospel” in your time as a missionary. This gospel goes roughly something like the following:

Mankind was created good and innocent in the beginning, but our first parents rebelled against God and were condemned to death (or everlasting torture in Hell, depending on the temperament of the evangelical in question). However the good news (gospel) God sent Jesus to take the punishment in our place on the cross. Now, all you need to do to be saved is believe in Jesus! It doesn’t even matter whether you are a good person any more! However failure to believe in Jesus will result in the original punishment remaining over you and so if you don’t believe in Jesus before you die you will have to suffer death (or everlasting torture).

There are other gospels too. The catholic one is quite similar to the LDS one, just that the ordinances are a bit different.

Whereas the most true gospel that I’ve encountered goes something more like this:

We all experience evil, suffering and death. Sometimes it gets so bad that the word “Hell” is appropriate. This is the fundamental problem that needs to be solved, and WE have to solve it, because no one else will. However paradoxically, we are totally unable to solve it. The good news (gospel), is that there is a happy ending to the story: no matter how bad things get, we can have faith and hope in the promise that everything is moving towards God himself, and in God there is only light and no darkness, no evil, no suffering. God himself guarantees a happy ending for all of us. The gospel is basically this promise, with some qualifying attributes:

  1. Antinomianism: there’s nothing we really have to “do” in order to secure this happy ending, because God himself has already secured it on our behalf, and he promises it to us unconditionally. We don’t have to follow the word of wisdom, or sharia law, or Jewish law, or secular law, or any law.
  2. Universalism: God loves the entire creation and everyone and everything in it. His promise applies to everyone, regardless of whether they are a saint or a sinner, a Mormon or a Muslim, a Catholic or Protestant. God promises to save and glorify every single soul.
  3. Pluralism: All truth is God’s truth, and all religions and philosophies and world-views are 100% true in their domain. Islam is the one true faith, but so is Catholicism, Calvinism, Atheism, Islam and Mormonism. All religions are 100% true. Every aspect of every religion also contains the gospel promise embedded in it, and it is the evangelists job to extract it.

There are also some caveats, to balance out those three happy attributes

  1. Expensive Grace: God doesn’t just carry us to heaven while we are sleeping. He requires us to work extremely hard to bring it about. In order to walk the path to the promised happy ending, all of us have to be made perfect, and perfectly follow the divine law of love (i.e., Love God, Love neighbour, Love self). This is something we must do with our own free agency, however the good news (gospel) is that God guarantees that we will succeed, even though the task seems impossible. He promises that he will never leave us, no matter how dark it seems or how hard it gets or even if we end up in Hell or the outer darkness: God will stand by our side and never abandon us, giving us the strength to keep fighting even when all is eternally lost. The law of love is not written in books or church traditions or moral philosophy: it is written directly on our heart, and speaks to us through our conscience. If you listen to your conscience, God will speak and guide your actions from moment to moment. In this way you will know when you have done right and when you have done wrong and you won’t need any priest, pastor or bible to tell you it.
  2. Evangelism is essential: God is going to save the world, but he uses believers to do it. His promise needs to be spread to the ends of the earth, and all people need to hear it and trust it and become full of joy and love. “But how can they believe if they have not heard? and how can they hear if they have not been told? and how can they be told if no one is sent to them?” If we believe the gospel and are saved, but then don’t overflow with love and compassion for those who are still wandering in the darkness, this is the height of selfishness. If we are truly perfect in love, we need to spread that love to the world, starting with our own families, friends and community, and then all the way to the other side of the world.
  3. Great Apostasy: All religions and philosophies are 100% true, however every single one of them is missing the point. None of them teach the true gospel, because all of them are institutions, and the lifeblood of institutions is money, and money is the root of all evil. Imagine me standing out the front of the congregation and preaching this stuff. Many people would have hard hearts and be offended. “You don’t have to pay your tithe. You don’t actually have to follow the word of wisdom” etc. This message is the message that saves, but it is not in the interest of institutions. Furthermore, at the top of every institution is a demon (Paul talks about this in his letters). Fallen angels are the ones calling the shots right now. Every government, religion, and organisation is guided by a demon behind the scenes. We must respect the truths of all religions, while also remembering that not a single one of them clearly proclaims God’s divine promise unadulterated.

Based on all of this, here are some practical principles for living the gospel and spreading the gospel:

  1. Every law is good. Despite the fact that we don’t have to follow any law but the divine law of love, religious laws are still good and helpful, and if you follow them, you will receive unique blessings and graces. For example, the word of wisdom is good. If you refrain from tea and coffee, your life will be blessed, I guarantee it. Similarly, Sharia law requires you to abstain from pork, and this is a good thing to do, even if it isn’t obvious why at first. If you want to understand why refraining from pork is a blessing, you have to try it. It’s the same with abstaining from drugs, alcohol, tea, coffee. People who don’t do it don’t understand the amazing blessings and graces. The only way to understand is to take the plunge and dive into it. Basically you can take any list of “Do and do not” laws from any religion or governing authority, and there will be legitimate blessings from following those rules. However it is important to remember that our salvation in no way depends on following these rules, and they are therefore fundamentally optional.
  2. Become all things to all people. When spreading the gospel, you are not trying to “convert them to your religion”. You are simply proclaiming the divine promise, on behalf of God (and sometimes in the name of Jesus, if you are talking to a Christian). If they fail to trust the promise, then they remain in the darkness. However if they fail to trust the promise, it’s not their fault: it’s your fault, because you were unable to proclaim it to them in a way that penetrated to their heart and soul. The solution is to get into the other persons shoes as much as possible: If you want to save a catholic, you need to become a catholic. if you want to save a Muslim, you need to become a Muslim, and i mean that as literally as possible: you need to follow sharia law, pray five times a day, say the Shahada, honestly believe that Muhammad (pbuh) is the final prophet of God, etc.You need to pray the same way they pray, believe the same things they believe, do the same things they do, talk the way they talk. Because once you have done this, you are “one of them” and they will listen to you when you speak the promise. If you fail to do these things, the encounter will always be a combative one, because you are the Christian and they are the Buddhist, and there is no common ground between you, and then your proclamation of the promise will fall flat. The strategy i describe is exactly the strategy that Saint Paul used on his missionary journeys. He “became a Greek to the Greeks, so as to save the Greeks, and a Jew to the Jews, so as to save the Jews”. He also “put himself under the subjection of every law, so as to save those who are under those laws, even though he himself is not bound by any law but the divine law of God”. Remember when he was in Athens converting the Greeks? He didn’t quote bible verses at them; he quoted their own scriptures, poets and philosophers. In the same way, to proclaim the gospel to a Muslim, you have to quote the Quran, not the book of Mormon. But remember the gospel promise is pluralistic: It can be found everywhere once you have eyes to see it, and once you see it in Islam, you can lead Muslims to it using their own faith. Once you see it in Buddhism, you can lead Buddhists to it using their own faith. Besides, people are more likely to become Mormons if you are willing to convert to their religion first.
  3. Handling contradictions: Whenever you encounter a philosophy or world-view that appears to fundamentally contradict your own, follow the following rule: Seldom affirm, never deny, always distinguish. You should never, ever think in your heart “you are wrong” towards someone. You should instead always think “I don’t understand what you mean” and keep asking honest questions. Usually they are on to something and if you keep digging, you’ll be rewarded with wisdom and it always fits with what you already believe. This is also a practical implication of “become all things to all people”: how can you do that if you insist on disagreeing with someone? Basically, there is almost never any good reasons to disagree in a discussion. Instead you should always seek deeper understanding and keep asking questions until the link between your view and theirs becomes clear.

I have said a lot already, so in closing I’ll just ramble on a bit about the gospel promise a bit more.

The resurrected Christ IS the gospel promise and the gospel promise IS God. There is a strict equivalence. So whenever you proclaim the promise to someone, you are actually verbally giving God (Christ) to them. This is quite profound. Because if they truly trust the promise when you proclaim it, this just is faith in God. And consider what it would look like if you trusted such a promise: Infinite happiness, joy and bliss forever and ever, for you and all your loved ones. If you actually believe this, it changes how you see the world right now. It’s almost as if the lights come on throughout the whole creation. “I was blind but now I see”. When you trust the promise (i.e., believe in God) You taste the joy of the happy ending right now. You overflow with joy and become a light in the dark. Proclaiming the promise looks different in every case however, because every person is different. This is why we must become all things to all people. If i need to proclaim the promise to a Buddhist, it is essential that I am able to proclaim it in Buddhist language. If i am to proclaim it to a catholic, i need to be able to proclaim it in catholic terminology. And for this very reason, real evangelism occurs in the context of friendship. It’s not often possible to proclaim the promise correctly and save someone in a 5 minute conversation. You need to walk with them for a long time, together meditating on the promise and addressing each other’s doubts and concerns, learning from each other. We can do the best we can out on the street with random passers by, but the real deep conversions happen in long conversations between friends, over many years. Friendship is very important.

Anyway, i have to run off to class! Sorry for sending such a long email, but despite the pure beautiful simplicity of the gospel, it is always hard to put into words. But always a joy. Stay in touch!

Prophecy Fragment #7 – Unfinished poetry

Christians appear on the urban street
Preaching a Gospel to the heathen
Attempting to save us; quite the feat
A message for a privileged elite
I gaze with delight on their mission

I muse to myself; what do they want?
To save me from those infernal flames?
To lead me to that holiest font,
Where love, life overflow as they ought?
But I know the real truth of their games.

More about them; it’s not about me
If they could only score one convert-
How reassuring this is, you see?
And rubbing their hands, laughing with glee
They come and with me, attempt to flirt.

But I won’t have it, no not today
For I know truth; the essence of joy
Whilst they walk in darkness; lost, astray
I only want to show them the way
Their illusions I try to destroy

They ask, “To be saved, what must you do?”
I shake my head. They have no idea.
“It’s really quite simple: God loves you
And not just you, but your family too!”
As usual, love is conquered by fear.

“They don’t believe!”, they loudly protest
“They must be damned and destined for Hell”
“I’m not so sure”, I joke and I jest
“Of all Gods, is that really the best?
There is another, please let me tell.”

The God who is mighty, loving, good
The God who will not abandon us
He who is worthy, worship we should
He who could save us all if we would
And predestined it is to be thus.

For I only want to share my joy
And I do not want to convert you
My evangelism knows no ploy
My faith I treat as more than a toy
Blessed bliss is all I need to woo

And one day I know you’ll understand
That all will be won by hope and love
Secured by Christ, the perfect man
And so we fight with all that we can
And strive, flying to heaven above

Because none will remain in the grave
And Hell and Hades will be empty
And with broken chains, no longer slaves
From sin, death and Satan we are saved
Essence of the Gospel victory

Rejoice, sinner, your end is secure
For this is the core of God’s promise
He can’t fail and we all will be pure
All will be saved: not one soul fewer
Everyone will exit the darkness

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

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

Hell

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

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

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

Purgatory

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

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

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

Heaven

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

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

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

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

Limbo

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

Eschaton

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

7 Myths About Universalism

Robin Parry holding a teacup

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Myth: Universalists don’t believe in hell

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

Nice rhyming but, alas, this is too simplistic.

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

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

Myth: Universalists don’t believe the Bible

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

So, are universalists really Bible-denying? No.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Myth: Universalists don’t think sin is very bad

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Myth: Universalists think that all roads lead to God

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Myth: Universalism undermines evangelism

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

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

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

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

Myth: Universalism undermines holy living

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

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

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

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

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.

Salvation is a Promise, not an Offer

APOKATASTASIS - TravelQuaz.ComThe original Sola Fide rested on the conviction that salvation is a promise, not an offer. If it’s an offer, then it depends on us to accept it. The key phrase there is “it depends on us”; in other words it is a violation of Sola Gratia and Sola Fide. Whereas if salvation is a promise then it depends entirely on God, which is much more in accord with Monergistic Calvinism and Lutheranism, rather than Arminianism. If salvation is a promise, then it doesn’t depend on how much faith we have, or whether we even have any faith at all; instead it depends entirely on God’s love and sovereignty.

The only question left if you’re on board with all of this is “To whom does God speak this promise?” Luther’s answer was “Whoever has been baptised”; he was very sacramental. Whereas Calvin’s answer tended more towards “preaching as sacrament”; that is, whenever the preacher declares his congregation justified in the name of the risen Christ, the unconditional gospel promise has been spoken; the final judgement has taken place; and the congregation is divided into sheep and goats in that very moment; there are those who trust the promise and those who don’t; those who do are saved into the life of the age, while those who do not are condemned.

But the key point here is that the promise has been spoken, and at the end of the day this promise cannot fail, on account of the one who is really speaking it. If God – through me – declares you justified, then that’s damn well how it is, regardless of whether you trust the declaration or not. However, you won’t experience the salvation that Christ has won for you, and that is presently being declared to you, until you place your trust in that declaration.

So yes, if one does not have faith, they are not saved. But you are nevertheless elect, regardless of whether or not you have faith, because God declares that it is so, and the divine declaration of God completely and entirely trumps a person’s lack of faith.

APOKATASTASIS - TravelQuaz.ComThis is what bugs me about typical evangelical distortions of Sola Fide. They get everything totally back to front. They will claim that it’s only after we have faith that God declares us righteous. But this is just silly: How am I supposed to have faith in God’s declaration when God hasn’t even spoken that declaration to me?

This is why Luther put everything on baptism; because his interpretation of the sacraments was that they are the objective, tangible moment when the declaration of justification is made. They therefore give you something to anchor your faith on. Whereas the Evangelical construal requires me to have faith before I even have an object to anchor my faith on in the first place. This distortion of the doctrine of Sola Fide is clearly the work of Satan as he constantly battles and compromises the doctrines of the church.

So according to evangelicalism, I’m required to have faith in the declaration. But how can I place my faith in the declaration if the declaration is not even spoken until I have faith? It’s a chicken and egg impossibility.

Whereas the original Sola Fide went more like this: “Christ died for you, and therefore your future is secure” – None of this pointless speculation about who is elect and who is not. For you can be 100% assured and certain that you are saved by the blood of Christ, and this is not because of anything you’ve done – not even your faith.

Similarly, you can be 100% assured and certain that whoever it is you are talking to is also saved by the blood of Christ. This is because scripture clearly says so, and this therefore gives you the authority to proclaim the divine declaration of justification to that person as an unconditional promise, in the name of Christ and the good God on high.

Eternal damnation is always a completely abstract hypothetical. It’s for people who are not present, and this is why we must evangelise. We need to proclaim the declaration of righteousness to everyone, and help them to believe it. Remember Romans 10: “How can they believe if they have not heard? How can they hear if no one is sent to them?” etc etc

But remember: The moment your gospel preaching gets contaminated with conditions and “ifs”, you’re preaching some other gospel. “If you get circumcised”, “If you get baptised”, “If you go to confession”, “If you die without committing mortal sins”, “If you believe in Jesus” –  all of these are false gospels.

The one true gospel goes something more like this: “Christ died for you, and so I confidently promise you that your eternal destiny is secure”, and to go even further you could say “and if by chance you do end up in Hell, I promise you that I will come down there and help you to escape.”

Every false gospel preaches law in the form “If x then y”, whereas the true gospel preaches promise in the form “because a then b”.

Highway to Heaven – And the Words became BooksCompare “If you believe, Christ will save you”, to “Because Christ has saved you, you may now trust him and rejoice!!!” The first proclamation is law, it generates works or efforts or εργα, and as you know, we are not saved by works or efforts. Whereas the second proclamation is gospel, good news! The first proclamation places a massive burden on the hearer: they must try as hard as they can to fulfil the stated condition. But how on earth does one even begin to believe?

So the first proclamation will either produce despair, or a proud Pharisee: Despair, as the sinner realises he is completely incapable of meeting the required condition. Or a Pharisee, when he fools himself into thinking that he has successfully managed to do it. Whereas the second proclamation is liberating; it confronts the listener so completely that their only response can be a free faith or a heart that yearns to explode into that free faith but is enslaved by questions, objections and doubts – all of which will be dealt with in due time, if only they would be humble and patient.

This is the essence of faith alone: Once the gospel has been correctly spoken, faith is the only possible response. If the gospel is proclaimed and there is no faith, then the person doing the proclaiming simply hasn’t done the proclaiming correctly, and the saving word of the gospel was therefore never actually spoken. In this way, if someone ends up in hell, it’s actually not their fault; it’s my fault, because I wasn’t able to evangelise them effectively.

But thank God for his unconditional promise, and the fact that his word always achieves what it sets out to achieve, and that we are authorised to spread that promise to the entire world, and that it can’t ultimately fail: eventually all will hear it, all will understand it, all will believe it, all will be saved, and God’s final victory will be complete.

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.

The Law of Christ – Contextual Absolute Morality

A Science of Moral Judgements

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fundamental Principles

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

Example

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

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

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

The Mystery of Sin: Who is Culpable?

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

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

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

While one is damned, all are damned

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Final Word

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

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”)

The Scriptures of Mormonism, Catholicism and Orthodoxy: Questions of Canon and Ecumenism

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I remember being surprised, baffled and deeply intrigued when I discovered that there were different canons of scripture out in the world. As time went on, I began to wonder what the implications were for ecumenism. I began to wonder what the implications were for faith: If a community of confirmed, faithful Christians firmly believe that God is speaking to them through a book which has not been approved by the infallible magisterium of the Holy Catholic Church, what does it mean?

I would like to propose a brief solution. The idea is that there are inspired scriptures which are catholic, which is to say “universal”. Such scriptures are addressed by God to every individual who has ever lived. These scriptures must be received and respected by anyone who is attempting to engage in theology. They cannot be discarded or dismissed. The canon of the universal scriptures was dogmatically promulgated by the council of Trent, and canonically promulgated many times prior to that at local councils.

220px-Ethiopian_Madonna[1].jpgHowever, there are also inspired scriptures which are not catholic. That is to say, they are local, private, or specific to a specific time, place or group of people. A classic example would be the Ethiopian Orthodox canon of scripture. The Ethiopian tradition includes many books which are not to be found outside of that specific church. Are we to simply dismiss this as a theological error by the Ethiopians? How can we do this, when their bishops are all validly ordained, and therefore their received liturgies are just as inspired as the approved Catholic liturgies? In this situation, whatever scripture they have read and received in their liturgy would logically also be inspired. The solution to this problem is to say that these texts are indeed inspired, however they are only addressed to the Ethiopian church: people who are outside of this church need not pay any attention to these texts. It is similar to the doctrine of “private revelation” in the Catholic church. These revelations are private, addressed to discrete groups of people rather than the whole of humanity.

Another example concerns the Eastern Orthodox canon. The Eastern Orthodox include three extra books and one extra psalm in their canon. These additions could be ecumenically received as local inspired texts, rather than catholic inspired texts. As such, they are relevant to churches in the eastern tradition, because they have been received within that tradition, however people who are not immersed in that tradition and do not have any connection to it do not need to heed these books.

downloadThe principle could be applied and extended out wide in order to encompass other religions and cults. For example the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints have their own tradition within which certain scriptures have been received (for example, the Book of Mormon). If they were to one day come back into communion with the Holy Catholic Church, they could be permitted to retain their unique scriptures provided that they are understood to be local revelation rather than catholic revelation. Of course, it is to be assumed that their received scriptures are interpreted in a way that is consistent with the rest of the deposit of faith. In this particular case it would probably call for a purely allegorical interpretation of the Book of Mormon.

Potentially we could re-approach the Jews with this principle in mind. We could allow them to take the Hebrew old testament and apply it as they wish. Even though we know that the law is not binding on Christians, Jewish Christians may choose to follow the law regardless, as it is part of their tradition and heritage.

The Islamic traditions are also fair game. Potentially one day there will be an “Islamic Ordinariate” or a Sui Iuris church which traces it’s heritage to the Islamic world. Such a church would have a heavily Islamised liturgy, wherein the faithful pray the Salat towards the Eucharist set in a monstrance during adoration (for example). It would 220px-Mosque[1]potentially by acceptable for them to retain the Qu’ran as a local inspired text within this tradition, provided that the Qu’ran is understood and interpreted in a way that is consistent with the deposit of faith. Potentially an edited, “Christian” edition of the Qu’ran could be produced which edits and deals with troublesome passages, however this would not be optimal.

The same principle could be used to inculturate all cultures and religious traditions: Let the people retain as much of what they already have as is possible, including their scriptures. Just be careful to make it clear that any scripture they bring to the table is local revelation rather than catholic revelation: It’s authoritative for people within that specific community, but not binding on anyone else.

This principle is helpful in evangelism, as it accords well with Paul’s admonition to “be all things to all people”. Paul wants us to be a Jew to Jews, a Muslim to Muslims, a Buddhist to Buddhists and a Hindu to Hindus. As missionaries we should strive to be as thorough in this task as we can, adopting as much of the local religion as we can in good conscience and without compromising our principles, so as to win the people over to Christ.