Hermeneutics 101 – What is Everlasting Hell?: Eternal Punishments and Timeless Tortures

Aἰώνιον Punishment

Matthew 25:31-46RSV-CE

31 “When the Son of man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33 and he will place the sheep at his right hand, but the goats at the left. 34 Then the King will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink? 38 And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and clothe thee? 39 And when did we see thee sick or in prison and visit thee?’ 40 And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.’ 41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44 Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to thee?’ 45 Then he will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me.’ 46 And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”

And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” – These terrifying words of our lord are one of many scriptural passages commonly invoked to prove that the mainstream understanding of everlasting punishment and perpetual torments is clearly and explicitly taught by scripture.

Now, as has been discussed at length and in great detail by other people far more learned than me, the original Greek is not quite as clear cut as the English translation on this issue. In Greek, the original passage is simply ambiguous, and not necessarily as scary as it might at first appear. To summarise: the Greek word αἰώνιον, commonly translated as “everlasting” or “eternal”, more literally translates to “of the coming age”. As such, a far more literal translation of Matthew 25:46 reads “And they will go away into the punishment of the age to come, but the righteous into the life of the age to come.” Note that a literal translation such as this says absolutely nothing about the duration of the eternal punishment or the eternal life. The life may last forever; it may be temporary. So too with the everlasting punishment. The verse simply does not specify any durations.

everlasting hellIt is true that αἰώνιον can be translated as “everlasting” or “eternal”, however these two options do not exhaust the translational range of this word. There are other alternatives, which may arise in diverse contexts. As such, it is entirely within the realm of possibility that we could employ a literal translation so that αἰώνιον does not mean “eternal” in Matthew 25:46.

So much for the Greek. When arguing theology with a protestant who dogmatically follows the historical-critical method of hermeneutics, this argument can be employed to great effect. However following this line of argument with a knowledgeable Catholic might not have quite the same impact. As discussed previously on this blog, Catholics give just as much authority and weight to translations of scripture as they give to the original manuscripts written in the original languages. As such, a Catholic cannot simply dismiss the English translation of Matthew 25:46 with the wave of a historical-critical hand.

Catholics are stuck with an authoritative, magisterially approved translation of scripture which undeniably reads “everlasting punishment”. What are we Catholics who subscribe to the gospel of universal salvation to do?

Experience and Reality of Everlasting Punishment

So eschatalogical punishment is in some sense “everlasting”: what sense could it be? Assuming that the gospel message of universal salvation is true rules out the idea that the everlasting punishment of Hell is “objectively” everlasting. This would be a contradiction. Something has to give: either we abandon the gospel and resign ourselves to the depressing notion that there will be people who never make it to heaven, or we find a way to reinterpret the passage in question in order to harmonise it with the gospel message.

Everlasting PunishmentI would like to propose a way of understanding this passage which does not contradict the gospel: What if “eternal punishment” is not understood as an objective reality, but is instead understood as a description of a subjective experience? To elaborate: What if – in reality – the eternal punishment of the damned really does come to an end, and yet what that everlasting punishment actually feels like to someone who is experiencing it involves a sensation of timelessness and eternity? Those of you who have had a bad psychedelic trip before potentially know exactly what I am talking about. During a bad trip your sense of time completely dissolves: you do not have an intuitive perception of the passage of time; you feel as if you are stuck in a timeless, eternal, everlasting moment and it feels like Hell. Of course in reality time is indeed still passing by and the trip will eventually come to an end, but in the thick of the action and the heat of the moment you have no understanding of this idea and feel trapped in an eternal prison of terror, pain and suffering. If that’s not a description of Hellish torments I don’t know what is.

This actually makes sense according to traditional theological and philosophical presuppositions. It is widely accepted that there is no time in the afterlife. As such the afterlife is presumably experienced as a “timeless” moment, similar to the psychedelic experience. However there is also a firm traditional understanding that despite the lack of time, there is still change in the afterlife. If this were not the case, then it would not be possible to escape purgatory, but it is dogmatic fact that all who enter into purgatory will successfully escape. As such “Eternal punishment” in scripture could very easily be referring to the experience of purgatory.

So what if eternal punishment is just like a bad trip (although perhaps infinitely worse in intensity)? The eternal punishment does not literally “last forever”, it merely is experienced as “timeless”. This is still a completely terrifying prospect, and is not a fate that you would want to wish on anyone, however – unlike the standard understanding of objectively eternal torments – it is completely compatible with the gospel. Why should Hell have the final say? Does this not contradict the good news of the gospel? Hell is everlasting, but Christ can still defeat it and rescue the captives who are detained there. Gehenna is eternal, but God can still bust down the doors and liberate the sinners therein from their slavery to evil, death, and Satan. Hades is timeless, but Jesus can still trample down its gates and free all men from the clutches of sin and rebellion against love.

So timeless punishment is a subjective experience, it is not an objective reality. Christ will still have the victory and all who are cast into the lake of fire will eventually repent through the flames. God will be all in all. Amen

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

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

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

Which response sounds the most “Christian” to you?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Testimony – Christian to Catholic

(Go to part 1 – “Agnostic to Christian”)

Dawn of a New Day

I woke up the day after my conversion and was full of zeal to read the bible. The Valium that my stepfather had given me the previous night was obviously only a quick fix and not a long term solution to my mania. As I woke up I was incredibly edgy; I was dead set on trying to track down Alex Macdonald again to continue our discussion. My family tried to discourage me and get me to stay at home but I was adamant: I felt like I absolutely had to keep talking to Alex. I had so many questions: I believed in Jesus now, but I didn’t even know what that meant or implied! My head was swimming with religious concepts and ideas: I wanted nothing more than to put them all together and integrate them into my understanding of reality.

I left Mum’s house and began jogging back to Alex’s house, shooting him text messages as I went. My phone was incredibly low on battery and the text messages were not particularly sober. As I jogged, I was praying constantly in the only way that I knew how, and for the most minutely detailed things, for example that my phone would stay turned on for just long enough to send the next message. I behaved quite irrationally, taking shortcuts that I was unfamiliar with and getting lost on the way.

new-testament-psalms-kjv-thomas-nelson-vest-pocket-bound-book-gideons-national-0be10e7503f62a9003c7fb6867e51e4c[1].jpgEventually I arrived at Alex’s house and violently knocked on the door. I could tell someone was home because I could hear movement within the house, but no one answered the door. After some frustrating waiting, I went down the front steps and lay on the grass, reading a Gideon s pocket new testament that I had brought with me.

Hermeneutics was a concept that I had never been introduced to at this point, so as I read the New Testament I was filled with all sorts of wacky and wonderful eisegetical ideas and concepts. I turned back to the story of Jesus in the desert being tempted by the Devil and read it closely. I read the following passage:

Matthew 4:1-4RSV-CE

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And he fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterward he was hungry. And the tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written,

‘Man shall not live by bread alone,
but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.’”

72647261dcde7ac05e8264f247adf541[1]I looked down at my hands: I was holding some bread that I had brought with me from Mum’s house. I looked around Alex’s garden: there were many stones lying alongside the garden path. “Aha!” I thought to myself: “This is exactly what God is trying to tell me!” – I had made some psychotic link between the rocks in the garden, the bread in my hand, and this passage of scripture. Obviously the pattern recognition part of my brain was going into overdrive.

I continued lying on the grass, leafing through the little New Testament, until Alex arrived in the family car. He and his Dad had been driving around looking for me. Obviously Mum had got into a bit of a panic and so had Alex’s family. I was causing a lot of trouble.

Alex agreed to walk with me again, and we spoke about Christian, biblical and religious concepts as we walked around Pennant Hills. This walk was nowhere near as long as our walk the previous night, and Alex was clearly exhausted and out of his depth. I was buzzing and overflowing with all sorts of ideas and I was struggling to slow down enough to articulate them clearly.

In the Emergency Room

Soon enough our walk ended and my stepfather drove over and picked me up. My mania was in full swing again and I was feeling incredibly excited, bubbling and overflowing with amazing ideas. The connections between all sorts of things I’d learned in the past became super obvious and I was lost for words. My stepfather drove me to Hornsby hospital and we sat in the emergency ward, waiting for our turn.

350ml-Thankyou_2015_450W[1].pngI remember being highly aware of the power of empathy at the time. I was convinced that happiness and joy were infectious things, and that if I could only keep smiling and feeling good in myself, I might be able to “heal” some of the people who were in pain in the emergency department waiting room. To this day I believe that I was right, however in retrospect I recognise that I did not have quite the power to make any significant difference to these peoples mental states. I remember at one point my step dad got up to buy some water from a vending machine. It was the brand “Thank you water”. When he showed me the bottle I was very impressed, because thankfulness was a mindset that I could suddenly relate to incredibly well and it seemed like the ideal emotion to experience.

Eventually it was our turn to enter what can only be described as an interview room. I was talking non-stop, and incredibly excited, experiencing a constant state of awe as I pondered all sorts of deep and amazing ideas and concepts at top speed. My step dad just sat and listened to what I was saying. At the time it seemed like he was actually sincerely trying to make sense of what I was saying, and he had an incredibly humble and understanding demeanour.

Some female doctors entered the room and started talking to me, asking me questions. I was somewhat back in “manipulation mode” and was trying to anticipate what they would say and read the motivations and intentions behind their words. It all seemed like a game to me, and I decided that I would just play along.

cOubz.jpgThere was a fear at the back of my head that I had suffered some sort of brain damage, and I managed to convey this to everyone in the room. Eventually they drugged me up with some sort of extreme sedative, took a blood test and sat me in a wheel chair. At this point I recall all the mania dissipating completely, being replaced with an intense sluggishness and my being barely aware of my surroundings. My memory of what follows is incredibly vague. I do however have vague recollections of being jammed into an MRI or CAT scan tube and having my brain x-rayed.

As they wheeled me around in the wheelchair, I could barely keep my head up. I remember raising my head for long enough to say something like “THIS is what drugs do”: I was a classic “not even once” poster boy.

Into the Insane Asylum

I was wheeled to the hospital mental ward, and the following few days were a total blur. They put me in the acute psychosis ward, which was the most serious and highly monitored ward in the hospital. This was the ward where they had a locked and padded room for the really crazy and aggressive sorts (thankfully I never had to go in there).

not-the-messiah-624x260[1].jpgAt this time, all I can remember is a constant, bright light, and the overwhelming sensation that I myself was Jesus Christ. I suspect that I was enjoying some perverted and unsustainable form of theosis. I was so closely united to God that I was unable to distinguish between myself and Jesus. Obviously this all sounded like total crazy talk to the wardens, doctors and my family. To this day, my Mum likes to joke about the ordeal by quoting Monty Python’s Life of Brian: “He’s not the Messiah! He’s just a very naughty boy!”

I don’t know how long I spent in the acute ward. I have many memories of being in there, but I remember that I was not myself: I had lost track of my identity and was feeling generally blissful and protected within some sort of divine embrace. I recall feeling edgy: there was a scary guy in the ward called Warwick who wore Satanistic T-Shirts and had long punk rock hair. I didn’t trust him and he gave off evil vibes. I recall one time he was talking theories about the bible. He wrote up the letters that spell “bible” on the whiteboard and wrote next to each letter: “Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth”. This guy was weird. There was one point where I swear I saw him smuggling drugs into the ward with the assistance of one of his visitors. I reported him, and I don’t recall what happened next but I feared for my life.

maxresdefault[3].jpgEventually I was moved out of the acute ward into the “low maintenance” ward. I was held here for three weeks, but the three weeks felt like an eternity. Being in this part of the mental hospital was an extremely unique experience and felt like quite an ordeal. Everyone in this ward is trying as hard as they can to seem sane so that they can be discharged back to the real world, however this feels like an impossible task. The maxim “you become the company you keep” is incredibly profound and totally true. So of course, when you are surrounded by crazy and unstable people, you yourself soak up some of the craziness and instability. This makes actually getting out of the hospital almost impossible: you are trying to regain your sanity enough that the doctors feel safe discharging you, and yet you are constantly being dragged down by the other insane people in the Asylum. Just as you think you are doing alright, a totally bonkers lady from the ward next door gets introduced and brings you back down to where you started.

Eventually it got to the point where the doctors felt comfortable letting me out of the hospital for a few hours during the day. I immediately used the opportunity to collect some stuff to entertain myself while I was stuck in the hospital. I picked up my juggling balls and I collected my full bible. I spent the remainder of my time in hospital trying to learn how to juggle five balls at once and reading through the bible.

I read all of Genesis, all of Revelation, half of Exodus, and all of Matthew. Genesis was easy to read and made lots of sense. Revelation was incredibly difficult and made absolutely no sense.

bookmark.jpgThere were a surprising amount of Christians in the mental hospital. We banded together and hung out with each other. I remember sitting outside in the sun, on a stretch chair, with an older Christian called Matthew and a younger lady sitting next to me. Matthew encouraged me to keep reading the bible and assured me that the Christian life is the good life. The younger lady was happy to see that I was reading the bible and gifted me a Christian bookmark which I still have to this day. I vaguely remember someone coming up to us and trying to attack the faith, but we just laughed it off and continued to enjoy the sunshine.

During my time in hospital I was incredibly resistant to taking the drugs that they were using to keep the situation under control. Nevertheless I consistently took them (they threatened to force me to swallow if I didn’t comply, and I figured I’d rather not go through that embarrassing ordeal). I recall at one point sending a text to Alex Macdonald telling him how I don’t trust the doctors and don’t want to take the drugs. He responded saying that I should probably trust the doctors advice and assuring me that he and his family were praying for me. Who was I to argue with Alex Macdonald? I took the drugs.

A Quiet Six Months

Eventually, I managed to escape the hospital. They decided I had regained enough of my sanity to discharge me and I became an outpatient. I returned to UTS housing right as the next semester was starting and attempted to get back into the flow of life.

My zeal for reading the bible and other religious enterprises slowly receded and died away. I just tried to focus on my coursework. Unfortunately this semester was the semester during which my cohort was supposed to do “SDP” – a massive, double credit points software development project. I ended up in a team full of other scholarship students like myself, including my good friends Alex Eagles and Ryan Lansdowne. Unfortunately during this semester I was not quite “back to normal”; I was oversleeping due to the super sedating effects of the mood stabilisers and anti-psychotics that I had to take, and this was interfering with my coursework. By the end of semester I had contributed absolutely nothing to my SDP team, and was barely staying afloat in my other subjects. Amazingly, Alex Eagles stood up for me against the rest of the team, who wanted to fail me. Even though I really hadn’t contributed anything he still valued our friendship enough to defend me. In the end I failed SDP and just barely passed my other subjects that semester.

VicPark500[1].jpgDuring that semester, I had regular, weekly checkups with the EIPS team at Camperdown. They would write me prescriptions for the drugs that I was taking and just generally see how I’m doing. Getting from Ultimo to Camperdown involved a nice long walk up Broadway and through the University of Sydney. As I would go on this walk, it was a good time to philosophise and ponder the mysteries of the universe. Obviously one of the biggest things on my mind was my mania and psychosis: How was I supposed to interpret it? How should I integrate what happened into my understanding of life? I identified as a Christian now, but I really had absolutely no idea what that even meant: I didn’t know what I was supposed to do or what I was supposed to believe.

One day, while I was strolling through USyd and following this usual train of thought, two random people walked up to me and nervously asked if I wanted to join their bible study. I was amazed: I had literally at that very moment been thinking about how I want to learn more and understand Christianity, and then these two fellas rock up instantly and offer to answer my questions. I was so happy: this was almost like an answer to prayer. The older guy gave me a business card and we exchanged phone numbers. I was incredibly happy and excited.

Cult days

I quickly shot a message to Alex Macdonald, who I hadn’t spoken to regularly since mental hospital six months before. I excitedly told him about what had happened: I was walking through USyd, wondering about the bible and Christianity, and then these two guys came up to me and offered to read the bible with me! “How great is that!”

Alex Macdonald’s response surprised me: Rather than saying “That’s awesome man, let me know how it goes”, he immediately asked the question “Which church are they from?” I was about to be introduced to denominationalism and the existence of Christian cults. Up to this point, Christianity seemed like a monolithic religion to me. I knew of words like “Anglican”, “Lutheran”, “Presbyterian” and “Catholic”, but I didn’t discern any difference between them: they all seemed synonymous to “Christian” for me.

600x600bb[1].jpgI checked the business card that the older guy had given me. “Sydney Church of Christ” I responded. Alex Macdonald immediately shot back a message saying “Watch out man, I’ve heard about those guys, they’re a borderline cult. Be careful.” I was a little taken aback, but I thought that I was onto too much of a good thing to simply ignore what had happened. The offer to join a bible study did seem like an answer to prayer, didn’t it? Besides, I had already made an appointment with the two guys. I figured I would attend the study and see what happens, and if it ever got too weird I would eject myself and not look back.

The study came and went, and then we organised another session, and another, and another. It was all very exciting. I was totally open to whatever they were saying and I really enjoyed it as they took me on a tour of the bible and gave me the Jesus 101. I asked questions, they answered, and I felt really excited as for the first time I was actually growing in faith. I was getting a typically protestant theological grounding, mixed with some of the Church of Christ denomination theological distinctives: Sola Fide, Sola Scriptura, Sola Gratia, Baptismal Regeneration, the necessity of evangelism, the place of good works, and so on.

I went to some of their church events and met some of the other people in their church. At the time I didn’t notice anything weird, but in retrospect I should have realised that pretty much the entire congregation of the church consisted of university students. Everyone seemed incredibly happy and friendly, but there was a subtle undercurrent of falseness to it all, like they were really trying to be full of love, but it wasn’t coming to them naturally. Some of the guys who I spoke to seemed thoroughly indoctrinated and inebriated with Christian ideas: they were incredibly happy that they were going to be going to heaven.

It was at this church that I first had an introduction to the textual history of the bible. There was a talk about the history of scripture that was incredibly comprehensive. They spoke about the Vulgate, the Septuagint, some of the early heresies such as Gnosticism which drove the church to codify the canon of scripture and so on. I was utterly fascinated by this stuff and full of questions.

Soldier-Jesus[1].gifThis entire time, I had kept in mind Alex Macdonald’s warning that this church was a borderline cult. It wasn’t long before I started to see why. I remember the first few services of theirs that I went to. The music was all incredibly numbing and repetitive. The lyrics were banal. There was lots of clapping and “Amen!” and “Hallelujah!” – It all seemed a bit crazy to me. This was the first time I got cult vibes. The second time was during one of their sermons: The preacher was talking about the Greek word “okefelou”, commonly translated as “follow me”. This preacher claimed that “follow me” is not really a strong enough translation, and that the Greek word carries connotations of terrorism. He finished his sermon by saying “Christ wants you to be a terrorist! Be a terrorist for Christ!” I know he was trying to make an evangelical point, but his choice of words was kinda weird.

Things started to get even more weird. They started quoting scriptures which talk about “Hating your family” in order to try and convince me to cease communications with my non-Christian friends and family. I had always spoken highly of Alex Macdonald to them, but as it turns out they didn’t consider him to be a Christian. This shocked and appalled me: How could Alex Macdonald possibly not be a Christian? He’s the most Christian guy I know; He’s the entire reason I was there talking to these Church of Christ guys in the first place!

They were classic “Sola Scriptura” Christians, who rejected all the ancient creeds and only believed in the bible. As such, they felt the need to “prove everything from scripture”. One of the claims they were making was that their denomination was the one true church and all people who are part of other denominations are not really Christian at all. I was dubious but open minded, and humoured them as they attempted to prove this from the bible. They were completely unable to do so. They would quote obscure, ambiguous prophecies, make strange appeals to emotion, and totally misinterpret the letters of Paul. I really don’t know how you can pull “The Church of Christ is the one true church” out of Galatians 2:10, but believe me; they tried.

dsc_1085[1].jpgI was about ready to leave at this point. However they had convinced me of one thing: believers baptism. I was now a new believer, and even though I had already been baptised as a Catholic, these guys had successfully convinced me that my prior baptism was invalid and I needed to do it again. I was torn: These guys were seeming more and more cult-like by the day, and yet I really wanted to get re-baptised as a statement of my new-found “living and active” faith in Christ. It was a very stressful time, as I was tossing up between getting baptised, and leaving their community for good.

Escaping The Cult

Eventually the pot boiled over, and I decided it was time to eject myself from this weird cult. It was actually quite hard to do this, even though I was not deeply integrated into the group, because they had been so nice, loving and friendly towards me. I felt like I was betraying them to a degree. For a couple of years afterwards, I used to second guess my decision to leave, thinking “What if they were right? What if they really were the one true church?” But of course, it later became clear that I had made the right decision.

17201170_10212531452940163_5236575150923387689_n[1].jpgIt was around about this time – mid 2013 – that Alex Macdonald reached out, sending me a slick evangelical video and asking me what I thought of it. I responded saying “Yeah man, there’s nothing in that video which I don’t believe. I have no idea what it all means though”. Alex responded saying “Really? That’s awesome man. Hey how about we meet up and chat about it?” I was super keen.

That weekend I met up with Alex and we drove around Pennant Hills in his car, discussing life and the big questions. He parked at Pennant Hills oval so that he could focus more on the chatting and less on the driving. It was raining so we didn’t get out of the car. Eventually, after he asked a whole bunch of questions and we had spoken for a while, he whipped out a book of common prayer and flicked to the apostles creed. We went through clause by clause, and I told him that I affirm all of it, even though I don’t fully comprehend it. He slammed the book shut excitedly as he realised that I really was a Christian, and said “You have no idea how long I’ve been praying for this day to arrive”. It was an incredibly happy moment for both of us.

church060[1].jpgAfter leaving the cult, I was stuck for a church to attend, so I started going to Alex Macdonald’s church at West Pennant Hills, St Matthews. I was familiar with this church, as I had visited the youth group on and off throughout highschool, and I knew many of the people in the congregation already. I ended up experiencing my first Easter Vigil at this church, and it was incredibly exciting.

I still wanted to get baptised, so I spoke to the church leadership and inquired about it. However when they heard that I had been baptised as a child they backed away and refused to baptise me. They were familiar with the theological tradition which states that there is only one baptism, and they realised that it would be inappropriate to baptise me again.

Macquarie_Group_logo[1].jpgDuring this first half of 2013, I was working an internship at Macquarie Bank. It was an incredibly lonely experience. All of my co-workers were middle aged women who were getting married and having kids. I had no one who I could talk to or relate to. Every now and then I would walk down to Darling Harbour and have lunch with Alex Eagles, who was interning at American Express. Sometimes I would have lunch with Paul Nichols, the older brother of a friend of mine from St Matthews. In general I just sat alone at lunch time and read my bible. I was not comfortable being open with my Christianity at this point and generally kept it to myself, hiding my bible so people couldn’t see it, and waffling when people asked me what I got up to on the weekend.

NTE 2013

NTE13-DL-Flyer-front[1].jpgIn December 2013 Alex Macdonald sent me a message saying “Hey, sign up for this thing, it’ll be great”. He linked me to some conference called NTE – “National Training Event”. I had absolutely no idea what it was, but my operating principle at this stage of life was “If Alex Macdonald says to do something, trust him and do it”. So I deposited my $400 bucks and signed up. Not knowing what it was I was getting into.

Later that month, we drove to Canberra and I had a rude shock as I realised where I had found myself: A massive conference with what felt like every single Christian university student in all of Australia in a single place. The vibe was incredibly exciting. There were amazing songs and sermons, all very inspiring. There were workshops and small groups. I had no idea what to expect, but it turned out to be 5 days of amazing, edifying fun.

In the small groups, my mind was utterly blown when my leader informed me that I was already a new creation. I thought that that was something which was going to happen when Jesus came back, but apparently I am already in heaven right now. This was mind-boggling.

NTE_crowd_0[1].jpgAlso in the small groups, we learned about “Exegesis” and the Historical-Critical method of biblical hermeneutics. I felt like I had just discovered the holy grail: this was what I had been searching for. For the past year and a half I had been trying to learn how to read the bible correctly, and this was supposed to be the answer. The conference leadership were utterly convinced that Historical-Critical exegesis is the key to understanding what God is saying through the pages of holy writ. Later on in my Christian journey I came to reassess this perspective, however at the time it was like the most amazing gift of all time.

I attended a workshop focused on Islam and was half horrified, half impressed with what I heard. The speaker was making every effort to insult, smear, attack and tear apart Islam and the Qu’ran. He was using dirty, underhand tactics. I was shocked. When Atheists did this sort of stuff to us Christians, we would get outraged. Stuff like taking a verse out of context and setting up straw man arguments. I thought that it was incredibly hypocritical. Nevertheless the seminar was informative, and I approached the speaker afterwards to ask if he could help me buy a copy of the critical edition Qu’ran which he had displayed during his talk. Due largely to this talk, I was later driven to visit a Mosque to learn from the source about Islam and Muslims. I was convinced that these people could not all be bloodthirsty bandits, rapists and terrorists. I wanted to talk to them directly.

12107858_10153293505873131_4755215337540405378_n[1]One of the other key events that happened during NTE was that I was finally introduced to Credo – the campus evangelical club for my University, UTS. I remember a plump, extremely excited Indian girl called Maree coming up to me and saying hi. She was the evangelical extraordinaire on campus. During free time, she led me over to the UTS corner of the conference site and introduced me to all of the other Christians from UTS.

It was here that I finally got to meet one of my good friends, Poya Heidarishahi. At the time he was just emerging from a rough spot, much like myself, and had finally found some loving and accepting community in Credo. He was mega extroverted, talkative and sociable, but he was unfortunately lacking self confidence. We became friends instantly.

Credo Days and the Move to St Barnabas

It was early 2014. Alex Macdonald had informed me that he was planning to move churches, due to some theological disagreements with the leadership of St Matthews. However he was delaying his departure because he was so integrated into the St Matt’s community. For one thing, I was getting a lift to Church with him every Sunday, and he would drive me to Epping station after the service so that I could trek home to UTS Housing.

At some point – probably due to this announcement from Alex that he was going to change church – I decided to find a church closer to home too. There was a good Evangelical church just down the road on Broadway called St Barnabas. I got in contact with them and asked if they could hook me up with a bible study. I started attending this church rather than St Matthews, and eventually Alex Macdonald made the move to Trinity Chapel at Macquarie University, where he has been serving ever since.

I also became more involved in Credo at UTS, getting involved in campus bible studies, and serving in the FOCUS ministry, which focuses on evangelising international and exchange students (who in practice all turned out to be from Asian countries. But we did get the odd European or middle eastern visitor).

FB-92[1].jpgAround about Easter time, I went on the Credo conference, ETC – “Easter Time Convention”. This was another spiritual high, as I felt like I was hanging out in a temporary monastery, surrounded by other excited, faithful Christians. The “You become the company you keep” principle was in effect here too, as all of us were getting high on God’s word and smashed on God’s love (and drunk on God’s blood). It was at ETC that I met Jaison Jacob. Jaison is a super devout Evangelical Calvinist, familiar with the bible and the Westminster Confession. We instantly clicked and became friends, based on our mutual admiration for theology and deep concepts.

206631_1959400226354_3519722_n[1].jpgIt was round about this time that I started to think about getting married. The Evangelical culture has an unhealthy obsession with marriage that I had begun to soak up. I didn’t have a girlfriend at the time, but I was enjoying lots of success flirting with girls and had established many relationships that could easily have escalated to something more serious. I even had my eye on a certain girl from FOCUS, Clara, who I had a mind to pursue more seriously. I thought to myself “I’ll probably be married within the next two years”. I remember sharing this prediction with many of my friends, some of whom were amused while others were sceptical. I remember when I told my Catholic friend from High School, Dennis McCarthy that I thought I would be married within two years, he looked at me with a bemused smile and said “That’s a very bold prediction Herlihy!”

Theological Concerns Begin to Mount

SolaScriptura[1].jpgIt was around this time, when I was more familiar with core Christian ideas and concepts, that I began to be able to formulate some actual doctrinal questions. These questions began to seem more and more serious as time went by. I had many questions surrounding the doctrine of Sola Scriptura:

  • Why should I base my entire life on the bible when I have no guarantee that God is actually speaking through it?
  • What about the problem of interpretation? Christians insist that the bible is “clear” but no one seems to be able to agree on what it actually says or means.
  • What about the canon? Why should I trust these 66 books? Why not the Catholic bible, which has more books in it? Or the Orthodox bible – which has more books still? Or the Ethiopian bible – which seemingly has hundreds of books in it?
  • What about other religions and religious texts? Muslims make the same claims for the Qu’ran that Christians make for the Bible; it seems entirely arbitrary to believe the Christians and reject the Muslims.

I also became convinced that some sort of doctrine of purgatory was essential in order to make sense of the Christian faith. Why should it be that sanctification is a long, arduous life-long process while we are alive, but then when you die God just clicks his fingers and completes the process instantaneously? It didn’t make sense to me. I figured that if Sanctification is a process now, during life; it’s probably a process after we die too. Some sort of purification is necessary to bring us to perfection before we enter Heaven. I remember having passionate debates with Jaison about this. He would seemingly blindly quote the bible as if that settles the matter, but I was completely unimpressed with this line of argument. Purgatory simply seemed to make so much sense and Jaison’s attempts to dissuade my convictions were weak and ineffective.

still-looking-imputed-righteousness[1].jpgAnother point of contention that began to creep up on me was the reformed doctrine of “double imputation”. It honestly sounded like a fat steaming pile of nonsense. These guys were expecting me to believe that God simply ignores my sins, and when he looks at me he sees Jesus instead, and when God looks at Jesus he sees me and my sins. This smelt entirely fishy. It is what Catholics refer to as a “legal fiction”: I’m still a totally depraved sinner, but God just pretends that I’m not. I was completely unsatisfied with this sort of theology. It seemed clear to me that I have to be inherently righteous in order for God to accept me. “Being clothed in Jesus’ righteousness” was not going to do the trick if beneath the cloak, I’m still dirty to the core.

There were also still lingering concerns from my cult days: I believed that there was indeed a “One True Church”, but I didn’t know where to look to find it. I surveyed the protestant scene that I had found myself in and was unable to detect the sort of doctrinal consistency that you would expect from a “One True Church”.

Ironically, one of the things that the cult had drilled into me during my bible studies with them, was all of the passages which talk about being on the look out for false teachers. I was incredibly paranoid and would not trust anyone. The question was always lingering at the back of my mind “What if this guy is a false teacher?” I was willing to trust anyone, but only provisionally. In the end I had no clear reason to believe that they were not a false teacher. My Christian walk was wracked with severe doubt and uncertainty due to this.

evil-popes[1].jpgI remember around about this time having big unanswered questions. I remember going to Google and searching there. As I did so, one of the hits was the encyclical of Pope John Paul II, Fides et Ratio – “Faith and Reason”. I read it and soaked it up. It just made so much sense and resonated with me to the core. And yet the whole time I was freaking out thinking “God help me, this is written by a Catholic, and Catholics are evil.” – I had been indoctrinated by my Christian community into believing that Catholicism was an evil religion of works righteousness and that Catholics are not to be trusted. Oh how wrong I was.

To China!

I was able to put all of these theological concerns at the back of my mind for a time and just enjoy my life in the Evangelical community. I enjoyed serving in FOCUS, attending the campus bible studies, going to church, meeting new people, socialising and visiting other peoples churches. I was church hopping, and hadn’t really committed myself to any particular church. I didn’t attend the Sunday service consistently (Evangelicals do not have any convincing theological reason as to why it is necessary to go to church on Sunday).

china-2[1]During these months I was experiencing hypomania, and life felt amazing. I was flirting with all the girls, I was enjoying success at the gym and actually had some decent muscles for the first time in my life, I was having fun socialising and swimming. I was an attractive guy by any account. I caught the eye of Helen Yim, the Credo staffworker who oversaw the FOCUS ministry. She invited me to come on a mission trip to China during the mid year break. I was still operating under a “If a Christian asks me to do something: do it” attitude, so I agreed to come. It was during the preparation for this trip, and the weekly mission team meetings that I met my fiancée-to-be; Mindy Leng (name changed for anonymity)

Mindy had signed up for the mission as her ticket to get back to Hong Kong after the conclusion of her degree. She was to be the team interpreter, as she understood Mandarin, Cantonese and English. However during her time in Sydney she had basically just hung out with other Cantonese people and so her English was not quite up to scratch. When I first met her I put on all the charm and tried to be friendly, but she just laughed at me and ignored me. I later found out that she could not understand what I was saying because I talk so fast, and she didn’t want to be seen in that position because it would throw questions upon her competency as an interpreter. I also later found out that she had a bit of a racist streak and was not interested in white guys, and she was nonetheless unimpressed with me because it had come out during one of our meetings that I had been at uni for 7 years. “Why has this guy been studying so long?” she thought, and dismissed me as either lazy or stupid and entirely unworthy of being her friend or boyfriend.

10568733_10152630262094813_870665020_n.jpgHowever, during the China trip Mindy and I grew closer and closer together. Due to my hypomania, I was attracted to almost everyone and almost everyone was attracted to me. All the Chinese girls were all over me during the trip and I was loving it. Mindy fell under the spell of my charm and our hormones kicked in. At the conclusion of the trip I wrote her a love letter and then disappeared back to Australia. Mindy tracked down my email address and wrote back to me. The long distance relationship had begun.

I decided to take the plunge and actually commit to this relationship, even though it was long distance. I asked Mindy if she would be my girlfriend, and after a bit of wrangling she pretty much agreed, but on the condition that we get married within two years. I was knocked out of my seat at this, because I had been telling all my friends that I was going to get married within two years: this seemed to be a perfectly happy coincidence!

Driven Back to Catholicism

1426731_10151981780870091_339659697_n[1]Helen Yim had become a bit of a “spiritual mum” to me in this time. When I told her that I was starting up a relationship with Mindy, she rebuked me, saying “Alex! You gotta commit to a church first! You can’t just keep bouncing around different congregations every week! You have to settle down!”

I thought to myself “Ok, sure. So I’ve gotta find the right church.” And finally all those theological considerations which had been gnawing at me came to the surface and confronted me. It was time to deal with this: I couldn’t put it off any longer.

I began to voraciously read articles online. I wanted to work out which church was the true church; which church has the true teachers; which church was founded by Jesus; which church had the inspired tradition. During these investigations I ended up learning more and more about Catholicism. The Catholic religion didn’t seem so evil after all once you actually gave it a fair go. It was consistent, coherent, tight and appealing.

It was also at this time that I had a date with another BIT scholar, the beautiful Sarah Markowskei. During our conversation it came up that she was Catholic. I was intrigued and begun to ask her questions about her faith. She had great answers for everything! Catholicism started to make even more sense. I thought it was amazing how when you actually talk to a real Catholic, things seem so much more clear and reasonable than when you just soak up anti-catholic propaganda from the Evangelicals.

3c2a2c263fdf36662624c6db2d5fe454[1].jpgDuring my internet adventures, I stumbled across the Wikipedia article for “Apostolic Succession” and it immediately resonated with me. Finally: here was a solution to the problems I was wrestling with. How do you identify the true church? Look for the church which can trace a straight line from it’s leadership back to the Apostles and Jesus. There were only a couple of churches out there which could do this. The only two that I was aware of at the time were the Catholic church and the Orthodox church, and (I thought to myself) potentially the Anglican church.

I encountered the concept of the magisterium. This also resonated with me deeply, as it was an answer to pretty much all of my questions about why I should trust the bible and the biblical canon. Jesus founded a church, he did not write a book. The church which he founded is led by a Pope and bishops, all of whom can trace themselves back to Christ and the apostles via apostolic succession. This church has authority; In fact, it has the divine authority of Christ himself, and therefore must be submitted to. This church had identified certain books as inspired, and this is why I can trust the bible and the Catholic biblical canon. Meanwhile the Protestant canon seemed to me to remain completely baseless and unfounded.

I remember talking to Jaison about my concerns regularly, and he vehemently and irrationally attacked the Catholic position and attempted to dissuade me from going down that path. The more he attacked Catholicism, the more convinced I became of the Catholic position.

One day, while I was on a train with Jaison heading to his sub-continental bible study, I suddenly realised that I was Catholic. Jaison was mid-sentence and I remember cutting him off going “Dude, I’m a Catholic”. I remember he just stopped talking and had a concerned look on his face, as I moved away slightly and stood near the window in the train door.

flat,1000x1000,075,f.u2[1].jpgAt the time, I still didn’t know whether I should become Orthodox or Catholic. They both seemed like viable options and I found Orthodox theology (as I understood it) to be incredibly beautiful. However I decided to return to Catholicism out of convenience. It was pretty easy for me considering I had already been baptised and confirmed when I was a child. All I had to do was go to confession and then I would be allowed to start taking communion again. I did exactly this, and thus cemented my return to the nominal faith of my late primary school years.

I approached the altar and received communion for the first time in 10 years. I had finally swum the Tiber; I had finally returned home; I was finally a Catholic.

(Go to “Testimony: Catholic to Universalist”)

 

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.

Testimony – Agnostic to Christian

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

The Beginning

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

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

My First Encounter with Powerful Drugs

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

Early Years

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

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

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

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

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

Revelations of Hypocrisy

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

Rock Bottom

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

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

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

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

Friends and Enemies

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

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

The Tao that can be told is not the Eternal Tao

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

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

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

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

Revelations

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

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

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

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

Descent into Hell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Journey Home

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

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

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

The Great Awakening

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

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

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

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

“Pride Comes Before a Fall”

There is a biblical quote that is appropriate here:

Proverbs 16:18 RSV-CE

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Man in the Desert

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

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

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

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

The Only Saint I Know

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

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

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

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

Coming of Age

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thus began the most important hours of my life.

The Long Walk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Twelfth Hour

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

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

The Uncreated Light of Tabor

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conversion

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Go to “Testimony – Christian to Catholic”)

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

The Hatred of Christ

Luke 14:25-26 RSV-CE:

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

Matthew 10:37-38 RSV-CE:

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

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

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

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

The Dark Night of the Soul – Salvation in Darkness

Dark Night of the Soul

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

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

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

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

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

Psalm 13:1-2 RSV-CE:

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

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

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

The Binding of Isaac – Abraham the Father of Faith

The Binding of Isaac

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

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

Genesis 22:1-19 RSV-CE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Agonising Trial of Job

Trial of Job

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

Job 1:1-5 RSV-CE:

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

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

Job 1:6-19 RSV-CE

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

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

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

Job 1:20-22 RSV-CE

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

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

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

 Job 2:1-8 RSV-CE

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

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

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

 Job 2:9-10 RSV-CE

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

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

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

Job 42:10-17 RSV-CE

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

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

Caritas Ex Nihilo

darknight.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

John Piper and the horror of Calvinism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

dawn-dusk[1]

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

Orthodoxy 101 – Catholicism and Sola Fide: Understanding Indulgences

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

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

A Shift in Paradigm

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

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

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

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

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

Indulgences as Promise

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

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

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

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

Indulgences and Sacraments

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

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

“Earning” Indulgences?

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

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

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

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

The Final Assault of Satan

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

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

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

Penance is Supererogatory

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

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

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

Beautiful Promises

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

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

(Return to first article)

Orthodoxy 101 – Christianity and The Glorious Gospel

What is the Gospel?

hqdefault[1]

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Gospel Promise of Love

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Gospel Promise of Justice

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where people get the Gospel wrong

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

Arminians, Catholics and Orthodox

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

Calvinists

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

Evangelicals

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

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

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

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

The Gospel Promise of Grace

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

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

Baptism

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

Confirmation

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

Confession

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

Universalism is the only Gospel worthy of the name

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

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

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

(Go to “Understanding Indulgences”)

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

Catholic and Protestant Funerals

russian-orthodox-funeral[1]

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

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

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

Temporal and Eternal

clock[1].jpg

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

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

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

Indulgences and Aeviternity

Johann-Tetzel-Selling-Indulgences[1]

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

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

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

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

The link between Temporality and Aeviternity

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

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

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

What does Scripture say?

1 Corinthians 15:51-52

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

2 Peter 3:8

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

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

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

Funerals Revisited

christ-victorious[1].jpg

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

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

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

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

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

Ramblings Concerning Eschatology, Sin, Salvation and Everlasting Damnation, Aquinas and the Saints Rejoicing at the Sufferings of the Damned

Eternal and Temporal Punishments

hellfire-1000x480[1].jpgIn Catholic theology there is the idea that sin has a “double consequence”: committing a sin will lead to one or both of an eternal punishment, as well as a temporal punishment. Traditionally a distinction is made between mortal and venial sin: mortal sin is sin that is serious enough to result in both eternal and temporal punishment, whereas venial sin is not so bad and only leads to a temporal punishment. This eternal/temporal punishment distinction is commonly presented in a very simplistic way: the eternal and temporal punishments are considered to be pretty much the same, but the eternal punishment lasts forever while the temporal punishment does not. While not entirely wrong, this is a very naive view of the situation and the temporal/eternal and mortal/venial distinctions are worth exploring further.

First it helps to establish the actual nature of the punishments involved. Straight away it should be emphasised that eternal and temporal punishment are entirely different in nature. It’s not that both of them have you swimming in the flames of Hell, being physically and spiritually brutalized, but the temporal punishment comes to an end while the eternal punishment continues on into eternity. Not at all. The two punishments are completely different. So what are they? A concise summary of the punishments is that the eternal punishment consists of separation from God while the temporal punishment involves physical and spiritual punishment. Lets elaborate on these.

Eternal punishment is separation from God. Of course, it is metaphysically impossible to truly be separate from God. No matter where you go, God will be there. Even if it feels like God is distant, in reality he is right there with you, closer to you than you are to yourself. In order to remain in existence God has to constantly sustain you with his creative energies. Even if you disappear into the outer darkness or descend to the depths of hades, God will still be there with you, holding you in existence by his loving, creative power. If God were to withdraw his creative energies from you, you would simply cease to exist: You would in fact be annihilated. This is precisely what happens with the eternal punishment. The eternal consequence for sin consists of God withdrawing his love from the condemned sinner, which results in non-existence and annihilation. As such it is not actually possible to “experience” the eternal punishment for sin. Annihilation is not something that is experienced, because once the annihilation has occurred there is no longer any subject there to do the experiencing. There is no pain involved in the eternal punishment, but neither is there pleasure. And neither is there neutrality. There is no joy, no despair. There is just nothingness. This is impossible to describe or visualise, because it is impossible to truly imagine or visualise nothingness. It is as ineffable and mysterious as God himself.

The temporal consequence of sin however, consists of physical and spiritual punishment. This is pretty much the stereotypical “fire and brimstone” image of Hell that we have all come across many times during our lives. Unlike the eternal punishment – which is timeless and everlasting – the temporal punishment is something continuous and progressive. The image of people being tortured by demons in a red hellscape with lots of fire, smoke and brimstone turns out to be a quite helpful metaphor for visualising the temporal punishment. Sinners are marched from one punishment to the next, and these punishments are not abstract things, but concrete horrors, such as being tossed into a cauldron of boiling lava, or forced to swim through a lake of urine. At this point it would be prudent to point out that these punishments are not purely retributive. They have a purgative purpose as well. The punishments are designed such that once the punishment is complete, there will also be a genuine repentance present in the sinners heart for the particular sin that was being punished. Free will is involved at every step of the way: the punishment will continue for as long as the sinner refuses to repent of that particular sin. In theological discourse Catholics generally refer to this as “Hell” when they want to emphasise the punishment, and “Purgatory” when they want to emphasise it’s purifying purpose, however they are the same reality. Usually when a Catholic tries to describe the eternal punishment they end up describing the temporal punishment for sin instead. They try to describe Hell and end up describing purgatory. This is because as discussed earlier, it is impossible to describe the eternal punishment. The temporal punishment is often referred to as “the flames of Hell”. These flames are purifying flames and are in actual fact none other than the love of God. In this way the temporal punishment demonstrates both God’s love and his justice simultaneously: justice in that everyone is punished in the flames for their sins, and love in that everyone is purified in the flames from those same sins.

So eternal punishment consists of a withdrawal of God’s love from the sinner, which leads to annihilation or in other words, separation from God. Whereas temporal punishment consists of spiritual and physical tortures, which engage the sinners free will and elicit their repentance, leading to purification, purgation and a cleansing of the soul from sin.

The Catholic Universalist Gospel states that Jesus Christ died on the cross and descended into Hell, and while affirming the traditional interpretation that this means Jesus took a trip to the limbo of the fathers and broke them out of the prison, it also interprets this as meaning that Jesus Christ descended into eternal punishment. In other words, God himself was annihilated. However it was impossible for Jesus to be held back by this annihilation, and so by the power of the Holy Spirit he was resurrected from non-existence back to existence, and from death to life, with a new, perfect, glorified human nature. All of humanity is mystically united to Christ, and so all of humanity participates in this death and resurrection. As a result, all of humanity moves from “Condemned” to “Justified” as we are united to Christ, whose old and wounded human nature has been annihilated and replaced with a new and glorified human nature. It is important to note in this account of the Gospel that by his cross and resurrection Jesus saved humanity from the eternal consequence of sin – separation from God – but he has not saved humanity from the temporal consequence of sin, which consists of suffering, punishment, purification and purgation. This is why we continue to experience suffering in our lives.

Moving on now to the Mortal/Venial sin distinction. There is essentially only a single mortal sin: wilful rejection of God. However this sin takes many forms and there are some conditions that must be fulfilled: The particular sin must be grave matter, the sinner must be fully aware that the sin is grave matter, and the sinner must give full consent to the sin with their will. If a mortal sin is committed it constitutes an explicit rejection of a relationship with God, and so it merits the eternal punishment of separation from God. On the other hand venial sins are small imperfections, which do not constitute a willing and informed decision to walk away from God. Venial sins merit an increase in a soul’s temporal punishment, as they represent imperfections which need to be cleansed.

Sacraments and Soteriology

o-FORGIVENESS-facebook[1].jpgThe question is asked: how do we escape the eternal punishment, once a mortal sin has been committed? At this point we encounter a difference between the standard Catholic account of soteriology and the Universalist Catholic account. From the eternal perspective, all mortal sins were forgiven by the cross and Christ’s descent into Hell, and so strictly speaking nothing more is absolutely necessary in order for a person to be Justified. However sacramentally and temporally, baptism is necessary in order for a soul to participate in Christ’s death, resurrection and state of Justification. Baptism with water is not absolutely necessary, however it is temporally necessary  given our existence as temporal creatures. Contempt and disregard for baptism is a form of the mortal sin and so will also merit both the eternal punishment and a significant increase in temporal punishment. Baptism can only occur once, but the mortal sin may be committed many times. This necessitates another method for forgiving the mortal sin, and this is known as perfect contrition. Perfect contrition is a form of inner repentance where a soul feels sorrow for their sins because they love God, as opposed to other reasons like fear of Hell and punishment. Perfect contrition throws a soul back upon the eternal reality of their baptism and reapplies it to their life temporally. Perfect contrition is encapsulated in the sacrament of Confession.

It is important to note that Perfect contrition is absolutely essential for the mortal sin to be forgiven and the eternal punishment to be revoked. If there is no perfect contrition, there is no forgiveness. However the following principle must be stated: God’s mercy is such that he forgives us in anticipation of our future perfect contrition. In other words, so long as we have perfect contrition at some point in the future, God foresees this via his omniscience and so he forgives us now even if we are not presently perfectly contrite. In this way, the Catholic does not need to be filled with terror and dread at the prospect of eternal punishment when he commits a mortal sin, because God will forgive him immediately, so long as at some point in the future he has perfect contrition and gets to the sacrament of confession. Furthermore, the Christian who commits a mortal sin has a guarantee from God that they will indeed experience this necessary perfect contrition at some point in the future. This guarantee takes the form of the indwelling Holy Spirit, whom God gave to the Christian as a promise that he would one day be holy and perfect. Finally, in the Universalist account there is no time limit for attaining perfect contrition. If we die and we have not been perfectly contrite we will go to purgatory. It is predestined that at some point while we are there we will experience the necessary perfection contrition. Again, God foresees that we will be perfectly contrite in purgatory and so forgives us immediately on account of it.

In this way a Christian can be confident that he is always and everywhere forgiven of his mortal sin. He can have a hopeful assurance of salvation, resting in the knowledge that God is merciful, and has promised to work in the Christians soul to enable him to fulfil whatever conditions are necessary for salvation, whether during life or after death.

The Suffering of Sinners is the Pleasure of Saints

Carracci-Purgatory[1].jpgThere is a common opinion that is found across many theological traditions that the saints will take pleasure in the suffering of the damned. The logic is fairly straightforward: 1. The saints are in heaven. 2. Heaven is perfect and nothing can detract from it’s joy. 3. Nothing can detract from the joy of the saints, so they either don’t care about the suffering in Hell, or they take pleasure in it. Intuitively, this view is quite disgusting. However I don’t think it’s entirely inaccurate.

The saints do not experience a sadistic pleasure when they view the sufferings of the damned, but instead experience a salvific pleasure. The saints, being deified in heaven, can be said to share in God’s omniscience: They are intimately acquainted with the details of God’s will in a way that the sinners on earth and in Hell are not. In this way, the saints perfectly understand the exact way in which the sufferings of the damned are all part of God’s salvific plan. When they witness a sinner being tortured in Hell, they rejoice, not because they take pleasure in the sinners pain, but rather because God has granted them a clear understanding of exactly why that pain is necessary in order for the sinner to be saved. The people on earth and in Hell can only look on with horror at the intolerable pain that the sinners in Hell are made to experience, however the saints in heaven have a superior perspective and are able to see right through the pain to the final outcome, which is entirely glorious, mingled with love, wisdom and compassion. It all makes perfect sense to the saints, and so they praise and glorify God for the tortures, comprehending the exact way and precise details of how God will use the suffering for a greater good.

(Note, following many of the Church fathers, I use the term “Hell” loosely here to refer to the place of temporal punishment and purification, more commonly referred to as Purgatory)