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

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

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

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

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

Two Ways to Live: Incarnation

Good and Evil

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

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.

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

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

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

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

The Divine Marriage of God and Cosmos

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two Ways to Live: The Murder of God

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

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

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

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

Two ways to live

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

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

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

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

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

Two ways to live

Two Ways to Live: Resurrection

Two ways to live

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two ways to live

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

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

God became man so that man might become God

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

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

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

Two Ways to Live: The Way of Salvation

Sacrament and Struggle

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

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

Two ways to live

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

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

God will not save you without you

-St Augustine

Two ways to Live

Two ways to live

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

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

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

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

Hell

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

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

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

Purgatory

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

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

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

Heaven

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

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

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

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

Limbo

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

Eschaton

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

David Bentley Hart – That All Shall Be Saved

I’ve just read the recently released book length essay by David Bentley Hart concerning Universal Salvation – “That All Shall Be Saved”. I was pleasantly surprised to be struck with some insights regarding theodicy and the mystery of evil, which now seem completely obvious to me despite being elusive up to this point. Here they are in dot point form

  1. Contrary to popular educated Christian opinion, evil does have an identifiable reality and substance and essence; evil is not merely an illusion. The experience of pain is the essence and substance of evil. In this way, evil is a real and true component of the fabric of reality – and we are all intimately familiar with it – even if it is understood to be a privation and purely negative, parasitical phenomenon. For example when someone is tortured, both the act and the outcome are evil (although even in the case of a torture the intention is good, as in the case of torturing someone to obtain information which would prevent a destructive act of terrorism).
  2. God does not sovereignly determine evil acts and outcomes. He merely sovereignly permits them. The one single thing that God sovereignly determines is the glorious eschaton and a creation which is constructed in such a way that it infallibly arrives at this eschaton – this is the essence of predestination. The intermediate details are almost entirely determined by us and our autonomous agency (ie, free will) – putting aside direct and divine miraculous intervention.
  3. God does not control all things, but he does create all things. Everything that happens happens because God sustains it in existence and creates it – including our autonomous “free” choices. However God is not a puppet master; nothing is caused by God in the same sense that a puppeteer pulls strings to animate his puppet, or in the same sense that I cause a billiard ball to move by striking it. (For more on this point, search for “Double Agency” and “Synergism” and “The Causal Joint”)
  4. Evil is not part of God’s plan and God’s original design had no evil in it. If it were up to God, there would be no evil. God neither desired nor ordained the Holocaust, he merely permitted it. The holocaust is not an integral component of God’s plan, and he still would bring about the glorious apokatastasis even if the holocaust had never happened.
  5. Our freedom means that the possibility of evil is necessary, but the actuality of evil is not essential. In other words rapes, murders, tsunamis and genocides are not crucial components of God’s plan to bring us to the eschaton, even though rapes, murders and tsunamis are accounted for in that plan. In other words, God has built contingencies into evil, such that it always rubber-bands back to good, in both a temporary and ultimate sense, but his plan does not require evil in order for him to achieve his purposes.
  6. God does not play dice; he knew all possible outcomes of his act of creation before he created – to speak analogically – and yet he went ahead and created anyway. He arranged creation such that everything works together to bring about the glorious eschaton, regardless of whether evil occurs or not. This implies that regardless of how much or how little evil we commit, all things are predestined to the happy ending of the eschaton. To put it in a catchy sound bite, freedom pertains to history while sovereignty pertains to eschatology.
  7. It will not do to complain that the one true gospel of universal salvation renders all action meaningless, “so we may as well eat, drink, have sex and be merry, because it will all be ok in the end anyway regardless of how we behave”. This attitude is completely delusional. Evil is not a step towards the eschaton, it is always a step away from it. For this reason, so long as we remain in our sins, the eschaton is prevented from being actualised. You can’t “sin and still be saved”: So long as you go on sinning, the promised eschaton is prevented from being realised. However, God has created reality in such a way that eventually everyone will infallibly be enlightened as to the truth of things and cease from sinning.
  8. There are two relevant conceptions of Hell to entertain.
    • The first is where someone else holds us in the flames against our will (for example in the case of rape or torture) for sadistic ends. For example the Calvinist god (ie, Satan) wants to demonstrate his attributes and glory, so he damns people to hell and derives selfish glory from their tortures and takes sadistic pleasure in their pain, and all the while they are screaming for mercy and trying to escape. In this first conception, we are in Hell because someone has abducted us and carried us there and held us against our will. To escape from this damnation, some third party has to come and defeat the monstrous prison master and trample the gates of Hell, allowing everyone to escape to freedom. (cf, early “ransom” theories of atonement)
    • The second conception of Hell is where no one is actively holding us in the flames but our very own selves. In this second conception, to remain in the fire could only be due to slavery to ignorance and insanity. However unlike the first conception of Hell, in this conception we do retain our agency and autonomy and dignity, despite being enslaved to the powers of darkness and delusion. Under this second schema we retain the ability to make mistakes and learn from them, and as the ages go by it is inevitable that we will eventually make all the possible mistakes and learn all the possible lessons, and therefore eventually arrive at a state of being wherein we always make the right choices; it is only at this point that we truly can be said to be “free”, “liberated” and “saved”. In this second conception, the process of salvation is less of a “prisonbreak” and more of an education.
  9. People always seek God in everything that they do, it’s just that sometimes (often) they do it in entirely the wrong way. Even the sadistic rapist is not primarily trying to inflict harm on his victim; he is merely seeking pleasure, which is itself a good thing, but unfortunately in this case the pleasure is coming at the expense of the pain of a second person, and this pain is an evil thing. As such, the ultimate sin is to seek retribution: “You hurt me, so I will hurt you”, which only leads to “I hurt you, so you are going to hurt me” and this continues in a vicious circle forever, condemning all of us to an everlasting Hell. The only way to break free from this samsaric cycle of vengeance inflicted and vengeance suffered is to adopt an attitude of mercy, grace and true justice, which involves striving for love and unconditional forgiveness, rather than clinging on to a disordered desire for revenge and “justice”.
  10. It should be recognised that even the desire for revenge and retributive “justice” is in actual fact a desire for God, but it is a fundamentally disordered desire because it has conflated seeking heaven for oneself with inflicting Hell on someone else, and this will in actual fact only serve to perpetuate the current situation – which is a seemingly endless circle of evil, pain and suffering; something of a massa damnata. Retributive justice can only serve to postpone the glorious apokatastasis that we all ultimately crave. However at the point where everyone understands that always and unconditionally seeking the good for the other is the key to true happiness – rather than seeking revenge – the eschaton will have finally been inaugurated. Cue the second coming. Cue the final resurrection. Cue the glorification of Satan and his demons. God is finally all in all, and the glory is infinite and the rejoicing never ends. All are in love and love is in all, and all the evils we had suffered were worth enduring after all. Thanks be to God

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.

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

The Problem of Evil

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

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

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

The Origin of Evil

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

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

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

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

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

Ante Creatio Ex Nihilo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is evil?

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

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

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

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

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

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

A New Cosmic Christian narrative

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

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

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

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

The Problem of Evil Again

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Hatred of Christ

Luke 14:25-26 RSV-CE:

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

Matthew 10:37-38 RSV-CE:

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

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

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

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

The Dark Night of the Soul – Salvation in Darkness

Dark Night of the Soul

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

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

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

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

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

Psalm 13:1-2 RSV-CE:

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

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

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

The Binding of Isaac – Abraham the Father of Faith

The Binding of Isaac

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

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

Genesis 22:1-19 RSV-CE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Agonising Trial of Job

Trial of Job

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

Job 1:1-5 RSV-CE:

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

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

Job 1:6-19 RSV-CE

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

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

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

Job 1:20-22 RSV-CE

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

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

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

 Job 2:1-8 RSV-CE

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

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

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

 Job 2:9-10 RSV-CE

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

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

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

Job 42:10-17 RSV-CE

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

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

Caritas Ex Nihilo

darknight.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

John Piper and the horror of Calvinism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

dawn-dusk[1]

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