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

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

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

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

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

Two Ways to Live: Incarnation

Good and Evil

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

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.

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

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

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

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

The Divine Marriage of God and Cosmos

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two Ways to Live: The Murder of God

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

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

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

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

Two ways to live

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

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

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

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

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

Two ways to live

Two Ways to Live: Resurrection

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two ways to live

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

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

God became man so that man might become God

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

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

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

Two Ways to Live: The Way of Salvation

Sacrament and Struggle

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

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

Two ways to live

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

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

God will not save you without you

-St Augustine

Two ways to Live

Two ways to live

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

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

Prophecy Fragment #9 – Impassable, Immutable Love

After the hour of None on the final day of Advent on the 2018th year since the incarnation of our Lord, the Spirit of God came to me and spoke:

I cannot force you to love me,
But I can promise you that I love you,
And that I will never stop loving you,
That I will never cease willing your good.

And I know myself perfectly,
So I know this love perfectly,
And I know that it cannot fail,
I know that it is omnipotent,
I know that it must and will conquer.

No matter how far you run from me,
I will pursue.
No matter where you might hide,
I will find you.
No matter how much you beat me and spit on me,
I will forgive you.

Who are you to think you can defeat such love?
Do you really think you can escape my embrace?
Do you really think you can reject my overtures?
Do you honestly believe that if you reject me, I will reject you?

I cannot force you to love me,
But I can guarantee that you will,
Because I promise that I love you,
And I am certain that I always will.

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

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

Hell

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

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

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

Purgatory

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

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

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

Heaven

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

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

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

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

Limbo

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

Eschaton

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

7 Myths About Universalism

Robin Parry holding a teacup

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Myth: Universalists don’t believe in hell

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

Nice rhyming but, alas, this is too simplistic.

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

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

Myth: Universalists don’t believe the Bible

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

So, are universalists really Bible-denying? No.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Myth: Universalists don’t think sin is very bad

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Myth: Universalists think that all roads lead to God

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Myth: Universalism undermines evangelism

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

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

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

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

Myth: Universalism undermines holy living

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

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

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

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

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

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

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If they say No:

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

“But those people deserve to be punished”

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

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

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

“But God can not be obligated to do anything”

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

If they say yes:

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

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

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

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

God-Religious-Facebook-Status-17581[1]

If they say yes:

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

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

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

If they say no:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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If they say yes:

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

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

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

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

If they say no:

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

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

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

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

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

 

Beautiful Heresy 101 – Protestantism, Reformed Christianity, Lutheranism and Imputed Righteousness: Justification as Declaration

The protestant concept of forensic justification is laughable. Are we really expected to believe that God simply ignores our sin and pretends to see Jesus when he looks at us? Are we truly supposed to believe that God simply “credits our sins to Christ’s account” and “credits Christ’s righteousness to our account”? It is all completely incoherent. And yet… perhaps if we look a bit closer at the Lutheran tradition and bring some eschatological theories to the discussion; things might start to make more sense from the protestant angle.

Eschatological Righteousness

In the previous post, justification was discussed in terms of “extrinsic righteousness” versus “intrinsic righteousness”. Perhaps there is a better way of conceptualising the issue.

justificationProtestants understand Justification to be defined as “to be declared righteous”. Lets roll with that for a moment. In what sense are we “declared” righteous? Obviously God can’t be declaring me righteous if I am still a totally depraved sinner at core, this would be a legal fiction and a total lie – God is incapable of behaving in such an illogical and contradictory way. But what if he was declaring me righteous in an eschatological sense? So rather than declaring “You are righteous”, God is promising “You will be righteous”. The declaration does not pertain to the current time, it instead pertains to the end times, the eschaton. Through his declaration of justification, God is guaranteeing that we will be righteous at the final day, the day of judgement. In no way are we righteous right now, but we here have a promise from God that on the final day we will be righteous! In this way, the declaration is more of a promise and a guarantee, than a statement of present reality.

Any talk of being “clothed in Jesus righteousness” or “double imputation” remains a load of incoherent, heretical horse crap. However the protestant understanding of justification is still salvageable if we understand it in these terms: Justification is indeed a declaration of righteousness, however it is not an empty declaration. When God declares something, it is guaranteed to come about, similar to how when he speaks creation comes into being. God does not make empty pronouncements: If he declares that I am righteous, then that is damn well what is going to happen! So it is appropriate to understand Justification as both being declared righteous as per the protestant understanding, but also as being made righteous as per the Catholic understanding.

The Lutheran doctrine of Sola Fide also comes into play here, because placing your trust in the eschatological promise of justification unleashes that justification into the present time. By trusting that you will be justified, you experience justification right now.

Revisiting Extrinsic and Intrinsic Righteousness

justificationGod sees as as we are, but he is omniscient and can therefore also see us as we will be. Now, if he speaks an eschatalogical promise of justification to us, this implies that he can already see us as righteous and glorified, just as we will be on the last day. So on what terms does he deal with us? Does he consider us primarily as the sinner that we are today, or does he see us as the glorified saint that we are predestined to become? I suspect that the latter is the case. So we are intrinsically sinful, but by appropriating God’s promise of justification, we become extrinsically righteous. This righteousness floods our soul and propels us towards the eschaton, wherein we will finally have the promised intrinsic righteousness.

God does not declare us righteous on the basis of some laughable exchange between us and Jesus wherein Jesus becomes a sinner and we get clothed in his righteousness. Such a doctrine is sickening. However the protestant understanding of justification as “being declared righteous” can be salvaged so long as the declaration is understood as being accompanied by a reality. God declares us righteous, because we will be righteous.

(Return to first article)

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Exploration of Certainty

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

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

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

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

Assurance: Are You Saved?

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

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

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

Assurance: Two Kinds of Certainty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anathema: What is actually being condemned?

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

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

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

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

Anathema: Two Kinds of Presumption

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

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

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

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

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

Assurance: We Should be Certain of Our Salvation

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

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

1 John 4:18 RSV-CE

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

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

1 John 5:13 RSV-CE

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

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

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

1 Corinthians 13:12 RSV-CE

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

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

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

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

The Problem of Evil

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

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

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

The Origin of Evil

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

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

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

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

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

Ante Creatio Ex Nihilo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is evil?

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

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

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

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

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

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

A New Cosmic Christian narrative

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

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

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

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

The Problem of Evil Again

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Hatred of Christ

Luke 14:25-26 RSV-CE:

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

Matthew 10:37-38 RSV-CE:

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

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

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

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

The Dark Night of the Soul – Salvation in Darkness

Dark Night of the Soul

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

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

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

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

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

Psalm 13:1-2 RSV-CE:

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

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

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

The Binding of Isaac – Abraham the Father of Faith

The Binding of Isaac

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

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

Genesis 22:1-19 RSV-CE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Agonising Trial of Job

Trial of Job

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

Job 1:1-5 RSV-CE:

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

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

Job 1:6-19 RSV-CE

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

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

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

Job 1:20-22 RSV-CE

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

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

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

 Job 2:1-8 RSV-CE

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

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

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

 Job 2:9-10 RSV-CE

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

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

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

Job 42:10-17 RSV-CE

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

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

Caritas Ex Nihilo

darknight.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

John Piper and the horror of Calvinism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

dawn-dusk[1]

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

“Are You Saved?” – The Essence of the Gospel

I was reading Eclectic Orthodoxy today and the latest post was a sermon by Met Kallistos Ware. He relates how he has been asked “Are you saved?” many times, and sets down his response to the question, which turns out to be quite long and involved.

“Are you saved?”: This extremely loaded question is commonly deployed by evangelicals when they are out and about evangelising, or if they encounter a Christian who attends a church or denomination different from their own. It is basically the most efficient litmus test for working out whether someone is a fellow believer or not.

However I think there is a better way of phrasing this question, which is able to elicit a fuller picture of what the person you are talking to believes. It basically boils down to 4 questions:

  1. Are you saved?
  2. Am I saved?
  3. Are Hitler/Satan/Judas/members of ISIS saved?
  4. For each of the above, Why or why not?

The Evangelical Answer

Now, the common evangelical answer to the above questions goes something like the following:

  1. Yes! Amen! Praise God!
  2. I’m not sure.
  3. Probably not.
  4. I am saved because I believe in Jesus. But I’m not sure if you believe in Jesus so I don’t know whether you are saved, and it doesn’t seem to me that Hitler and the rest of those people had faith so they’re all probably gonna roast in Hell for eternity.

Now, I find this response incredibly problematic, because it seems to be reducing salvation to works, law and legalism: “If you believe in Jesus, you will be saved. If you don’t believe in Jesus, you will be damned.” This attitude is a flagrant contradiction of the Gospel, which is that salvation comes entirely by grace, and not by law. It also just adds fuel to the fire of tribalism: The believers are “in” and the unbelievers are “out”. It just leads to a very “us and them” approach to Christianity, which is another thing strongly condemned in the pages of the New Testament (cf. Paul insisting that there are no relevant distinctions between Jews and Gentiles)

The Catholic Answer

How would a Catholic respond to the above questions?

  1. I dunno (but probably not)
  2. I dunno (but probably not)
  3. I dunno (but probably not)
  4. We simply can’t be sure about the salvation of anyone and are forced to remain agnostic and “hopeful”. This is because we have “freedom” and so it is therefore up to us to decide whether we are going to heaven or not, but we don’t know what decision we are going to make, and all signs point to the fact that we are dirty sinners destined for Hell.

The Catholic answer is tragic. I can’t tell whether it is better than the evangelical response or not. At least it doesn’t devolve into tribalism: God still loves everyone and wants to save everyone. But unfortunately all of us are “free” and tend to make the wrong choices again and again and again. So while we are called to “Hope” for salvation, we must necessarily end up being totally pessimistic about the whole enterprise. Pretty much everyone is gonna end up in Hell. There is a narrow gate that leads to life and a wide gate that leads to destruction. Most people pick the wide gate.

The Correct Answer

There is in actual fact a correct answer to the four questions. But before we get to that, we have to nuance the language being used: When someone asks “are you saved?” do they mean to ask “are you going to heaven in the future?” or do they mean to ask “are you in heaven right now?” because there’s a relevant difference of meaning there.

So, if “saved” is taken to mean “being in heaven right damn now”, then for a believer in the Gospel the correct answer to the questions would be:

  1. Yes!
  2. It depends who’s asking
  3. Probably not
  4. I am saved because I live and breath salvation in my day to day experience of life. I’m not sure if you’re saved because I can only know the content of my own experience, but I can make an informed guess by listening to how you talk and the way that you behave. And Hitler et al are probably not saved because they were clearly evil to the core and pitiful lost souls.

This answer is honest and true. There’s nothing to dispute here. But the question becomes much more interesting if we take the first definition of “Saved”, which is to say “Elect” and “Chosen” and “Predestined”.

If we take “saved” to mean “Your spot in heaven is secure”, then the answer to the four questions would be:

  1. Yes, of course!
  2. Yes, of course!
  3. Yes, of course!
  4. All people are saved, including you and me and Hitler (and even Satan!) because God is sovereign and God is loving: God intends the salvation of all people and his intentions cannot be thwarted by anything or anyone. God will save whom God wants to save, and he wants to save everyone.

This is the essence of the Gospel. God loves everyone and everything and has chosen all of us for his children, regardless of whether we are good or bad. This is cause for rejoicing and praising God. His Grace and Mercy are powerful and sovereign, and cannot fail to save the world that he has created and everything in it. God loves all and all will love God.

What are your answers to the questions?