Is Free Will the Curse?

The Grand Inquisitor: with related chapters from The Brothers Karamazov (Hackett Classics)

In Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s “Grand Inquisitor”, the inquisitor blames Christ for the mess humans are in because God chose to give free will to humans and humans are not capable of making right decisions and thus because of God are doomed to hell.   The inquisitor accuses Christ of failing to take over human free will and by allowing us to choose love – or not—leaves humans with no real hope of attaining heaven because we seem incapable of using free will for the good.  Free will for the Inquisitor is a curse that God imposed on humans and so God is to blame for human sinfulness.  David Bentley Hart in That All Shall Be Saved sees the issue very differently.  This is the 4th post in a blog series reflecting on Hart’s book.  The previous post is An Eternal Hell?

For Hart, “Freedom is a being’s power to flourish as what it naturally is, to become ever more fully what it is”   (That All Shall Be Saved, Kindle Location 2386-2386).   What is also true is that all humans grow up in the world of the fall, and therefore never are fully free, but rather are tainted by all the effects that sin has on the world.  For God to hold us fully accountable for our choices would require that each of us really starts life in a fully potential position where we are not yet influenced by the world.  Since none of us can have that perfect potential, we are at a disadvantage from the moment we are conceived.   Hart believes God takes that into account when God judges us.   God does not hold against us what we cannot control or what we inherited, and recognizes that none of us is perfectly free.  God’s patience with us and mercy toward us is thus perfectly just.  God’s mercy is based both in God’s perfect love and God’s perfect justice.

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It is our imperfect condition which makes it impossible for us to fully and freely reject God.  Our understanding of God and our experience of God is already colored and distorted by our experience of the fallen world.  So we never reject God as God is, but always our image of God, which is distorted by our experience of the sinful world.  St Paul appeals to ignorance and unbelief in 1 Timothy 1:13 to explain why he rejected Christ – his understanding was incomplete and God did not hold this against him.  The same is true when Christ dying on the cross forgives his murderers because they didn’t know what they were doing.  St Paul in 1 Cor 2:8 says the rulers killed the King of Glory exactly because they didn’t understand who He was. He really is providing a defense for them that they are not guilty of deicide (though some Orthodox hymns say otherwise ignoring Christ’s forgiveness of them in the Gospel).

You can reject a glass of wine absolutely; you can even reject evil in its (insubstantial) totality without any remainder of intentionality. Neither of these things possesses more than a finite allure in itself. But you cannot reject God except defectively, by having failed to recognize him as the primordial object of all your deepest longings, the very source of their activity. We cannot choose between him and some other end in an absolute sense; we can choose only between better or worse approaches to his transcendence.  (Hart, That All Shall Be Saved, Kindle Location 2562-2565)

Hart feels this in itself makes an eternal hell as punishment for unbelievers as an injustice.  He believes if we really knew God, we would not reject God.  What we reject is our false ideas about God.   We can only attain a perfect understanding of God when we are able to set aside the effects of the fall on ourselves.   St. Peter Damaskos says:

“We are punished for our lack of repentance, and not because we had to struggle against temptation; otherwise most of us could not receive forgiveness until we had attained total dispassion. But as St John Klimakos again observes, ‘It is not possible for all to achieve dispassion, yet all can be saved and reconciled with God’”  (THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle Loc. 30139-43).  [St. John Climacus  (d. 649AD) wrote: “That all should attain to complete detachment is impossible.  But it is not impossible that all should be saved and reconciled to God ” (The Roots of Christian Mysticism, p 304). 

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Everyone could attain salvation, but what we cannot attain is that perfect state in which we could completely, freely choose to accept or reject God.  We are  born into the world of the fall, so our thinking is distorted by sin from the moment we are born.  God is just and so does not hold that against us but rather recognizes we are never free of the effects of the fall, of sin and evil.

There is another issue which Hart raises and that is our ideas about God treat God as one among many things in the universe rather than as the source of all things.

…certain modern Anglophone Christian philosophers, formed in the analytic tradition, to abandon the metaphysics of classical theism that Christian intellectual tradition has unanimously presumed from its early centuries, in favor of a frankly mythological picture of God: God conceived, that is, not as Being itself—the source and end of all reality, in which all things live and move and have their being (Acts 17:28)—but merely as one more being alongside all the beings who are, grander and older and more powerful than all the rest, but still merely a thing or a discrete entity. (Hart, That All Shall Be Saved, Kindle Location 2506-2510)

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Because God is being itself, we can never fully separate ourselves from God or completely reject God.  A belief that we have such power to reject God is based in a false idea of God to begin with.   It is not as if we can leave God’s presence or enter into God’s presence.  All we can do is make ourselves more or less aware of our relationship to the Creator.   We all live and move and have our being in God (Acts 17:28) – this is the very world in which we live, the atmosphere we breathe.   This is why even the old division between Jew and Gentile, between those who keep Torah and those who don’t fails to grasp what the human dilemma is.

Paul’s Adam as first human, who introduced universal sin and death, supports his contention that Jew and gentile are on the same footing and in need of the same Savior.  …  The resurrection of Christ showed that the real problem was Adam and the universal problem of the reigning power of sin and its nefarious partner, death. These were at work long before the law (Rom. 5:12–14), and so Christ’s resurrection—death’s reversal—was clearly a solution to a much deeper problem than the law. To say that the law is neither the real problem nor the solution is in effect saying that Israel’s story is not God’s sole focus. The main drama began with the first Adam and ended with the last Adam. That is why being a Jew or gentile is no longer the primary distinction among humans, but rather being or not being “in Christ” is. The heart of Jewish identity is therefore marginalized, and the God of Israel and his salvation are denationalized. Jews and gentiles share the same plight, and Jesus came to solve it. And all of this stems from Paul’s rereading of his Scripture in light of the central and prior conviction that God raised Jesus from the dead.   (Peter Enns, The Evolution of Adam, What the Bible Does and Doesn’t Say about Human Origins, Kindle Loc. 3055-56, 3066-73)

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All humans suffer from the same plight of growing up in a fallen world which distorts our experience or lack of experience of God.   Christ comes to heal that which is lacking in all of us.  Christ comes to unite all of us to God so that we will lacking nothing in our lives and God will become all in all (Ephesians 1:23).  Hart asks rhetorically,

Could there then be a final state of things in which God is all in all while yet there existed rational creatures whose inward worlds consisted in an eternal rejection of and rebellion against God as the sole and consuming and fulfilling end of the rational will’s most essential nature?   (Hart, That All Shall Be Saved, Kindle Location 2673-2675)

Hart does not think that is possible for it represents a contradiction in terms.  If the end of all things is God in all then how could there be an eternal hell in which God is absent?  How could anyone be someplace where God is not if God is all in all?    This can only happen if in fact God’s goal for creation is never fulfilled – and that for the omnipotent God is not possible.

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The existence of an eternal hell of torment for sinners, raises a question:  Is hell good or evil?  On the one hand, if hell is evil and accursed, then we should avoid it.  If it is evil, God could not have created it for God is not the source of evil.  So, if it is evil, it has no real existence but exists only in some parasitical form coming into existence only as the good creation was corrupted, and therefore itself is temporary, not eternal.  If God didn’t create it, then it has no eternal value.  If it is accursed, it will be done away with when Christ comes in His kingdom.    On the other hand, if hell is good because it is created by God, then to be sent there by God is to do God’s will.   One will not be punished for doing God’s will.   It will have some benefit and good value to it.  It will bring about God’s will, and God will fill it with Himself as well and make it a place where God is encountered and we are united to God.

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The notion of an eternal hell calls into question a basic idea in theology which Orthodoxy has treated as absolute and non-negotiable: God is love.  Everything God does is love.  Everything Christ did as the incarnate God, a human person, is for our salvation.  Everything including judgment!  These two aspects of dogmatic theology question whether God would from all eternity have planned an eternal hell or whether, rather, God’s eternal plan always is the same: love.  God’s plan is God’s action toward creation, not God’s reaction to creation.  Death, Hades, hell, all come into being only as part of creation (and the fallen world) – they are not eternal but serve a purpose of purging everyone from sin.  They too will accomplish their purpose.  God’s plan from the beginning has never changed – to unite all that God created to divinity, to share God’s love and life with all God creates.   As God heals creation and makes all things new and becomes all in all, those things which are not part of God’s eternal plan will disappear.   God’s plan will be realized.

Next: Salvation

Fulfilling the Command to Pray

“Every day call this prayer to mind, and repeat it to yourself as often as possible: ‘Lord, have mercy upon all who appear before thee today.’ For at every hour and every moment thousands of people depart from this earthly life and their souls appear before God – and how many of them depart in solitude, unknown to anyone, sad and dejected because no one feels sorrow for them or even cares whether they are alive or not! And then, perhaps, from the other end of the earth your prayer for the repose of their souls will rise up to God, although you never knew them nor they you.

How deeply moving it must be for a man’s soul, as he stands in fear and trembling before the Lord, to know at that very instant that there is someone to pray even for him, that there is still a fellow creature left on earth who loves him! And God will look on both of you more favorably if you have had so much pity on him, how much greater will God’s pity be, for God is infinitely more loving and merciful than you! And he will forgive him for your sake.”

(Fyodor Dostoevsky, from The Time of the Spirit: Readings Through the Christian Year, p. 45)

Condemned for Not Believing?

Mark 16:9-20 presents to us an interesting dilemma to consider.  Are unbelievers condemned for all eternity?    The text begins:

Now when Jesus rose early on the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, from whom he had cast out seven demons. She went and told those who had been with him, as they mourned and wept. But when they heard that he was alive and had been seen by her, they would not believe it. After this he appeared in another form to two of them, as they were walking into the country. And they went back and told the rest, but they did not believe them.

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The text indicates that the eleven remaining Apostles are twice told that Jesus has risen from the dead.  First Mary Magdalene, who in this text of Mark’s Gospel is the very first person to hear the Gospel of the resurrection, directly encounters the Risen Lord Himself.   She goes and tells the Apostles, but they refuse to believe.  Then two others encounter the Risen Christ and they too go to the Apostles to tell them that Jesus is alive.  Again the Apostles refuse to believe. What happens next is that Jesus Himself appears to the eleven Apostles:

Afterward he appeared to the eleven themselves as they sat at table; and he upbraided them for their unbelief and hardness of heart, because they had not believed those who saw him after he had risen.

Jesus chastises them for their unbelief – the Apostles had not believed the witness of those three people who had talked with Him after He had risen.  The Apostles were not a people unprepared for the Good News – they had spent the previous three years in intense personal training under the tutelage of our Lord, God and Savior Jesus Christ.  They were the most prepared people in the entire world to hear the Gospel, and yet they didn’t believe the Good News.

And he said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to the whole creation. He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned.

Now, comes the dilemma.  Jesus says those who do “not believe will be condemned.”  The Apostles themselves did not believe.  So do they stand condemned?   Their repentance for initially not believing is not recorded.  They eventually do go into the world and do as Jesus commands.  Their initial unbelief is not held against them.

And these signs will accompany those who believe: in my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up serpents, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.”   So then the Lord Jesus, after he had spoken to them, was taken up into heaven, and sat down at the right hand of God. And they went forth and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the message by the signs that attended it. Amen.

The Apostles who were hand-picked and discipled for three years by the Lord Jesus Himself, did not believe the Gospel when they first heard it proclaimed.  They even heard it twice and still disbelieved.  It is only when Jesus appears to them directly and upbraided them that they apparently believed.  They did not remain condemned forever despite twice disbelieving the Gospel proclaimed to them.

This is a great message of hope for the world that Jesus’ first reaction to disbelief will not be eternal condemnation, but a tongue lashing from the Lord.  If His hand-chosen disciples after three years of living with Jesus did not believe the message of the resurrection when they heard it proclaimed, perhaps it is reasonable that others who never met Jesus also disbelieve us and the Gospel.  Maybe they all will be given the same chance as the Apostles – to personally encounter the Risen Lord before any judgment or condemnation is actually pronounced.  The Apostles were shown great mercy despite failing after all the advantages they had by being personally trained by Jesus.  We can hope that Christ will be even more merciful to those who never met Him, let alone being discipled by Him, and who disbelieve.

When the Apostles heard the Good News, they were not people who had never heard of Jesus or the Gospel.  They were the best trained Christians on the planet, and yet they disbelieved.  Jesus still chose patience and mercy toward them.  Giving them power and opportunity to serve Him.

The Fear of God and God’s Love

In some cases, the sensitivity of the elders toward those who were lost in despair or confusion was such that they were willing to adopt whatever position necessary to lead the others out of their pain. In a story alluded to earlier, some old men who had heard of Abba Sisoes’s reputation for wisdom came to consult him on the matter of the coming judgement. This first two cited texts having to do with eternal judgement, and the third, obviously troubled by the thought of this, asked: “Father, what shall I do, for the remembrance of the outer darkness is killing me.” Sisoes himself was not troubled by these thoughts and tried to encourage the brothers by speaking of his own experience: “For my part, I do not keep in mind the remembrance of any of these things, for God is compassionate and I hope that he will show me his mercy.”

However, the old men were offended by this answer, which seemed to them to make light of the issue of the final judgement, and got up to leave. Realizing the effect that his response had had upon them, Sisoes quickly changed course, and said to them: “Blessed are you, my brothers; truly I envy you. The first speaks of the river of fire, the second of hell and the third of darkness. Now if your spirit is filled with such remembrances, it is impossible for you to sin. What shall I do then? I who am hard of heart and to whom it has not been granted so much as to know whether there is a punishment for men; no doubt it is because of this that I am sinning all the time.” They prostrated themselves before him and said, “Now we have seen exactly that of which we have heard tell.” One could argue that Sisoes was being disingenuous with these old men. Did he really believe what he was telling them in his second response?

In a sense he did – he knew that a constant awareness of one’s own sinfulness and the uncertainty of the judgement to come could kindle real moral acuity. Yet his response is more important for what it shows us about his capacity to empathize with his visitors’ concerns. His desire to reach them and draw them out of their paralyzing fear about the final judgement was stronger than his attachment to any particular position about that judgement. It was Siseos’s willingness to move toward his visitors in love which touched them most deeply. (Douglas Burton-Christie, The Word in the Desert, pp. 284-285)

The Parable of the Last Judgment (2019)

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Our life as Christians is and is supposed to be a journey.  Our life as Christians is a spiritual sojourn, which as Americans we tend to think is our personal journey, a very private one which doesn’t involve others much.  It’s just between me and God.   Yet all of the imagery and prayers of the Church portray the spiritual life as a community journeying together, like Israel did on its escape from Egypt and as it wandered the desert for 40 years.  We read the spiritual journey of that community in the book of Exodus and through most of the Torah.   Never was that a private journey for those involved, but they experienced all the events and they experienced God as a community.

You and I are part of that same community journey, we are traveling on a grand journey to the ultimate destination, the Kingdom of Heaven.  Like all journeys it can have moments that are arduous or difficult, at other times it might seem long and boring, and at times intense or exciting.  But it is meant to be experienced together as members of the Body of Christ.  From the moment we are baptized we are part of the Body of Christ – we are baptized into Christ, into His Body.   So at no time are we ever a Christian individual.  In the early Church they taught, “One Christian is no Christian.”    We only can practice the love that Jesus taught if there are others around us for us to love and serve.  Holy Communion carries the notion of community in it.  We pray “Our Father…”   We assemble together to show we are part of the community and to remind ourselves that we share a common life with all those who are in the Body of Christ.

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We are as a community approaching Great Lent, this is part of our journey together in which we especially think about our Lord’s words “to take up our cross daily, to deny ourselves and to follow Him.”

But this journey follows an unusual path, for on this sojourn we are asked to travel deep inside ourselves, to examine our own hearts and to let the light of Christ shine into our hearts, so that every part of our self can become light.  We are endeavoring to submit every aspect of our lives and every single thought of our minds, and each feeling in our hearts to the judgment and Lordship of Jesus Christ our God.  This is the journey we are about to embark on.  So this great journey to the Kingdom of Heaven which we take with all our fellow believers is also a journey into our hearts.  We each are to examine our hearts and then we open our hearts to another in confession to share what we find there, so that we can make room for Christ and to rid ourselves of all those things which separate us from God and from one another.

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We enter Great Lent together – next week on Forgiveness Sunday.  Forgiveness too shows us the journey is not individualistic for we need to forgive others and ask their forgiveness.  Being a Christian always involves other Christians.    Great Lent is not meant to be just a private journey, a free solo climb of a mountain, but rather it is a communal experience – we attend the same services, eat the same foods, say the same prayers, deny ourselves the same pleasures so that we have a common mind, the mind of Christ.

We fast to make our thoughts, our feelings, our cravings, our desires, our hearts, our minds and our bodies obedient to Christ.  Fasting is a tool to help us carry the cross of Christ and to be aware that we are in fact choosing to carry the cross of Christ.  As St Paul said in today’s epistle, “Certainly food will not bring us into God’s presence; if we do not eat we are none the worse, and if we do eat, we are none the better.”  (1 Cor 8:8)

We are learning how to sojourn together as Christian family.  We worship together, stand together, sit together, make the sign of the cross together, commune together to help us experience Christ which we can do only as the Body of Christ.

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And if we pay attention to the Gospel Parable of the Last Judgment (Matthew 25:31-46), we see it is nations which are assembled before God, not individuals.  We are judged in and part of a community, so we have a responsibility to make our community the right community for Christ for we share in the judgment that the entire community faces.

As you contemplate the Judgment as described in Matthew 25, consider these thoughts:

1]   We are going to be judged by whether we treated the least of Christ’s brothers and sisters with mercy, compassion, generosity, love.  We show love to Christ by showing love to the least of His brothers and sister.  Am I doing for others what I would do for Christ Himself?

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2]   St Basil the Great on blessings received:  “If you hoard them, you won’t have them, if you scatter them, you won’t lose them.”    Generosity is seed planting and we will benefit from the harvest.  Besides, by giving to the poor we make God indebted to us, at least so said many of the early saints.

3]  Offer hospitality and charity to the stranger in need, so that at the judgment you will not be counted by Christ as a stranger to Him, but rather He will speak to you as a cherished friend:  Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: for I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me.’  (Matt 25:34-36)

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A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”   (John 13:34-35)

 

The Fearful Judgment of Christ

When You, O God, shall come to earth with glory, all things shall tremble and the river of fire shall flow before Your judgment seat; the books shall be opened and the hidden things disclosed! Then deliver me from the unquenchable fire, and make me worthy to stand at Your right hand, righteous Judge!  (Hymn for the Sunday of the Last Judgment)

There are different images of the Day of Judgment presented in the Scriptures. Some are quite unique and strikingly different than often portrayed in art and hymnology.  The Gospel reading for the Sunday of the Last Judgment (Meatfare Sunday) – Matthew 25:31-46 – is a good example of a very different image of the Last Judgment.  This Gospel lesson occurs within a series of parables that Jesus tells.  In this case, the Lord Jesus presents a judgment not based on sins which violate God’s commandments, but rather based on whether people showed mercy to those in need.  We see in the Church, that diverse Scriptural images of the Last Judgment were readily combined together to form a picture of the Judgment Day.  So the hymn above speaks about the river of fire, though that is not mentioned in the Gospel lesson for the day.  The hymn for the day is based more on Revelation 20:11-15 than on Matthew 25.

Besides the various images of the Judgment Day we find in Scriptures, the church fathers provide a variety of interpretations of the Matthew 25 text of the Judgment.  St Simeon the New Theologian offered perhaps the most unusual interpretations of the text (see my blog series St Simeon the New Theologian on Matthew 25:31-46).  He was concerned that monastics might feel judged and excluded from Christ’s blessings for focusing their lives on repentance rather than on acts of mercy – so he radically reinterprets the parable to be about repentance not acts of mercy.  He has it that Christ is hungering for our repentance but we don’t repent and that Christ lies abandoned in the home of our hearts where we refuse to visit Him.

A more “traditional” interpretation can be found in the writings of St. John Chrysostom, who takes the failures of us beyond simply failing to minister to the least of Christ’s brothers and sisters by saying we even add to the suffering of the poor by chasing them away rather than helping them [Indeed, society is pretty successful in making sure that the poor remain invisible and that they are kept far away from ‘decent folk’.  I remember one couple who went on vacation to a 3rd world tropical island and was very offended that the beach hotels did not have the ‘decency’ to tear down the slum dwellings which were visible from the hotel.  Poverty ruined their vacation!]   Chrysostom does not soften the judgment for those who fail to minister to the least of Christ’s brothers and sisters – he envisions violent, physical torture which he is willing to detail even if Matthew 25 doesn’t:

If those who did not give nourishment to Christ when he was hungry are condemned with the devil to the fire that never dies, what about those who have reduced to famine choirs of monks and virgins, and have reduced to nakedness those who were clothed? And those who have not only not welcomed strangers but have chased them away; and those who have not only not cared for the sick but have afflicted them yet more; and those who have not only not visited the captives but have cast into prison those who had been free of chains? Imagine what torments they will suffer! Then, you will see them grilled, burning, enchained, weeping, their teeth gnashing, henceforth wailing futilely, and repenting uselessly and without recompense, just as that rich man. These same people will see you in the blessed state, crowned, chanting with the angels, reigning together with Christ; and they will cry out much, and wail, and repent of the inconsiderate words they said against you, addressing to you their supplications, and invoking your mercy and philanthropy. But all of this will be of no avail to them. ( Letters to Saint Olympia, p. 77)

For Chrysostom not only are the sinners going to experience eternal physical torments, but they will also be able to see the blessed ones rejoicing in the Kingdom and so will be fully cognizant of what they are missing – a double torture.  Additionally, they will realize how wrong they were and repent and experience grief for their sins but it will be of no benefit to them but will only add to their suffering.

All of the torments are easily avoided simply by showing mercy to those in need, for as Christ taught, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy” (Matthew 5:7).

Choosing Eternity

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There  was a man, could have been any one, who considered himself a decent sort of person, but who never put much thought into an afterlife.  There were too many things in life which occupied his attention, and which also allowed him to avoid thinking about the inevitable.  Unexpectedly – at least for him – his life dreamily ended.  He found himself in the place where all souls are said to be judged by God.   As it dawned on him about what had happened and where he was, he suddenly was terrified of what awaited him.

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An angel of the Lord approached him.  The angel’s appearance was awesome, and the man cringed and swallowed hard.  His mind was racing for what defense he might offer at his judgment.

The angel spoke in a harmonious voice, asking the man, “Are you now ready to choose your eternal destiny?”

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“Choose?”  The man was astounded at the question, for he had given no real thought to it in his lifetime and he couldn’t believe he had any real choice in the matter at this particular moment, considering where he was.  “Do you mean I even have a choice?”

“Of course you have a choice.” replied the angel  “You have to choose where you will spend your eternity.  Who did you think was going to do that for you?”

The man was at a loss for words, but for the first time in a long time, God came to mind.

The angel led the man to a room which had four doors in one wall.  The angel explained, “Behind one of these doors lies your eternal destiny.  But you have to choose which one you will enter.  Three of these doors open paths to heaven.  Only one of the doors leads to hell.  You have to choose what your fate will be. Choose wisely because whichever door you open is the one you must enter.”

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The man was now becoming concerned again.  “But . . . how do I know what door to choose?  Is it a trick . . .  or is it all left to chance?”

“There is no trick,”  The angel responded, “and it isn’t a matter of chance; it really is choice.  You have to decide which door you want to go through.  I’m even going to tell you a something about what is on the other side of  each of these doors.”

The man didn’t know whether to breathe a sigh of relief or whether this was going to be such a test that he would certainly fail.

“One of these doors leads to martyrdom and suffering for the Gospel, but you will find your way to heaven on that path.  One of these doors leads to people who are suffering terribly and it will require that you spend time to care for them, but it too leads to the Kingdom of Heaven.  Behind one door are all manners of poor people, beggars, the unwanted – and they will ask you to give them everything you own including the clothes off your back.  But this too is a path to the Kingdom.   Some of the saints thought this door with all the beggars is the easiest path to the kingdom because it requires no suffering – all you have to do is give everything you own away – let them lighten the load for you.  It is the easiest path to the kingdom but that door is the most difficult to choose.”

Then the angel said, “Only one door leads to hell.”

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The man was not a little glad that judgment was not in God’s hands. And in any case choosing heaven was three times more likely then choosing the path to hell.   His mind was whirling with his good fortune as he realized his fate was in his own hands.  He was overjoyed to hear that one door gave him easy access to heaven because he certainly assumed everyone chooses that door.

“How can I tell the doors apart?” the man asked.  “This is the trick . . . isn’t it?”

The angel again assured him that there was no trick.  “Just approach each door and listen carefully to what you hear,” the angel instructed.  The angel handed the man a well stocked backpack.  “You will need this on your journey – it will speed your on your way.”

As the man looked at the backpacks contents he noted medical supplies, analgesics, antiseptics, bandages, food, extra clothing, water, bedding, a tent.  The back pack was very heavy, but the man was feeling buoyant because of the care being shown to him and the provisions given him.  He put the pack on his back, feeling confident that he was now prepared to choose his destiny.

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The man hesitantly moved toward the first door, still fearful that maybe it was a trap.  But as he drew near to the door he could hear terrible screams from people on the other side of the door as if they were being tortured.  They cried out in horrible agony, begging for mercy.  It sounded like their bones were being snapped or as if they were being eaten alive.  Did he smell burning flesh from under the door?  The man was horrified and fearfully backed away from the door lest he somehow fall through it.  A shudder went down his spine as he moved more quickly to the second door.  At first he didn’t hear anything coming from behind the second door.  Carefully,  he put his ear to the door.  The sound on the other side of the door was the most pitiful moaning, people groaning in their suffering.  The piteous sighs of these people struck his heart with a dread – he did not want to find out what was causing their grief, nor did he feel that he wanted to deal with that suffering.   He felt oppressed by the thought of it.

He looked back over his shoulder.  The angel was watching expectantly, and the man felt encouraged.

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As he moved toward the third door, he could hear a loud clamor from the other side of the door before he got near it.   People were pounding on the door begging for help.  The man thought the door itself might burst open because of the crowd pushing against it.  There was a myriad of voices all begging for something to alleviate their need – medicines, clothes, food, water.  Amidst the din, he thought he heard someone shout out a warning  from the other side of the door – “Don’t open the door!  Those people are diseased and dangerous. You’ll unleash them on the world.”  He almost felt as if their arms were reaching through the door trying to pull him in.  His hands tightened their grip on the straps of his backpack.  He leaped back away from the door, thankful that he had escaped being dragged into that mess.

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He then cautiously moved toward the fourth door.  He stopped and listened but didn’t seem to hear anything.  He moved closer to the door.  He tentatively placed his ear against the door.  What he heard seemed so soothing to him.  For the sound was as if a running, bubbling river was passing by on the other side of the door.  There was no other noise.  The man liked the quiet, peaceful babbling.  It was so inviting, very much what he hoped heaven would be like.  He grabbed the door handle and pushed the door open and confidently stepped in.

The sound it turned out was not a river as he imagined it at all.  What was flowing past the door was a rapidly moving stream of sewage of the most foul kind.  There was no other sound because everything was quickly being swept away by the force of the flow.  The man’s back pack dragged him down into the sewage and he was carried directly to the mouth of hell.

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The man had chosen his eternal destiny.

The angel cringing, marveled at the man’s choice.

The man suddenly felt his neck snap, as his eyes popped open and his mind jolted awake as he heard the priest chanting:

And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” 

 

 

The Last Judgment: Don’t Be Surprised

When You, O God, shall come to earth with glory,  all things shall tremble and the river of fire shall flow before Your judgment seat; the books shall be opened and the hidden things disclosed!  Then deliver me from the unquenchable fire, and make me worthy to stand at Your right hand, righteous Judge!  (Hymn of the Last Judgement)

Sounds pretty frightening – and it is meant to be.  The Church in its hymns uses these words to describe the Last Judgment:

Dreaded

Awesome

Fearful

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What most bothers us as 21st Century Christians about the Judgment Day is not the thought that sinners will be condemned to the fires of hell and damned for all eternity – in fact on that point we tend to like retributive justice for sinners because they finally get what they deserve – what actually bothers us is that WE – each of us – You and me – are going to be held accountable for every thing we said and did in this life.  We are OK with others – the sinners – being held accountable, but why should we be judged?  That God might even think about judging you or me based on our behavior, that is hard to swallow – Let Him judge sinners, murderers, perverts, terrorists, criminals, liars and the lazy, and leave the rest of us alone.

Actually many of the Jews in Jesus’ day had a similar thought.  They were anxiously awaiting the Day of the Lord, because they believed on that day God would finally and completely condemn and annihilate all of Israel’s enemies and oppressors.  On that day God would judge and condemn to hell the Romans, Greeks, Egyptians, Babylonians, Persians, Philistines, Canannites.  The Jewish people would finally be avenged!

What these folk’s ignored was that the prophets had been warning that the Day of the Lord was also going to be a day of Judgment for God’s own people, and that God would start the judgment with Israel.   All of us who think God is going to judge “someone else” – we Orthodox or we Americans – also need to take the prophets’ message to heart – judgment begins with us.

And we might begin to feel a little hot under the collar about this.  All the porn we looked, all the times we were drunk, all the times we lied, all the times we were greedy, selfish, angry, enraged, sexually immoral, jealous, envious, bickering and contentious – for all of this we are going to be judged by God.  As St. Paul says all those who do such things shall not inherit the Kingdom of God.  It’s not just that we are going to have to give account for this behavior, we are going to be condemned for it at the Last Judgment.

Dreaded

Awesome

Fearful

Judgment

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But then the Lord Jesus shocked His followers when He spoke about the Last Judgment.  Jesus did not say that at the Judgment Seat all Jews or that all Christians will be declared righteous and everyone else will be condemned as sinners.

Saint and sinner will be assembled before God, and God will judge us based upon:

Our mercifulness

Our kindness

Our love for others

Our concern for the well being of others.

Jesus says we will be judged in the same way and by the same criteria we judged and criticized others.  If  we thought the poor and needy were not worthy of our time, our attention, our possessions, we will find ourselves so judged by God who will not share His time, attention and possessions – namely His Kingdom – with us.  The Kingdom belongs to Him, not to us.  Just like we think our possessions belong to us and not to some beggar.

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God’s judgment is a judgment of our hearts.  The proper defense before the dread Judgment Seat is loving others, being merciful to others, showing mercy to the least of Christ’s brothers and sisters.

A story from the lives of the saints:

St. Martin of Tours was a Roman Army Officer who was entering a city one cold, wet, wintry day.

1012martinoftoursA beggar asked him for money, but Martin had none with him.  But seeing the man shiver with cold, Martin came down off his horse, took his sword, and cut his soldier’s cloak in half.  His cloak was like a large warm poncho.  He wrapped the beggar in this half portion of his cloak.

That night, Martin had a dream in which he saw Christ standing in the wintery cold wearing an old tattered cloak. An angel approached Christ dismayed at how the Lord was dressed.  “Lord,” the angel said, “where did you get that old, torn cloak?”  Jesus responded, “My servant Martin gave it to me.”

Martin thought he gave his cloak to a beggar, but as today’s Gospel teaches us what we give to the least of the brothers and sisters of Christ, we give to the Lord Jesus Himself.

Note:  Martin didn’t give his whole cloak, he shared half of it with the beggar.  He didn’t impoverish himself, but provided for another from his means.

We each have that same chance to share what we can with those in need.  We don’t have to deprive ourselves of everything, but certainly can share some things by ministering to the Lord Himself.

There will be surprises for us on the Judgment Day as we see in the Gospel:

Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink?

And the wicked will say:  And Lord, when did we see you a stranger and not welcome you, or naked and not clothe you? (Matthew 25:37-41)

Both the blessed and cursed are going to be in for a surprise on Judgment day.  Don’t you be surprised!

 

Christ Alone? No, Christ in the Crowd

“Think of it: Jesus Christ, the Life of all, the Creator of the universe, the only One ever to have been born without sin, was all alone, left in a common grave, outside of Jerusalem. He was alone even among his closest friends, since they never really understood Him, and thus He asked them: Do you not perceive or understand? (Mk. 8.17) Have I been with you so long, and yet you do not know Me? (Jn. 14.9). At the time of His passion, His isolation became acute. In the garden of agony, when His sweat became like great drops of blood, His disciples drifted off into sleep (Lk. 22.44). One by one His friends deserted Him. He stood alone before the judgement seat of Pilate, alone on the cross, alone in the grave: everywhere alone. He went alone into Hell. Alone, always alone. Why? So that you might learn that you have to be alone with God in order to become His dwelling place.

Then the Lord will say, at the Last Judgement, to those on His left, whom He will send away into Gehenna, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels: “I was a stranger and you did not welcome me” (cf. Mt 25:33-41). Do you see? He’s a stranger, somebody who’s alone, who’s ignored: I was hungry and you gave me no food; I was alone in prison and you did not visit me (cf. Mt 25.42-43).

…For many of us, this can be a rude awakening: after beholding Christ in our dreams, we find it annoying to open our eyes on a world filled with other people. Immediately we say: “I wasn’t looking for you I want Christ,” forgetting that the stranger, the poor man, the prisoner, the sinner, and especially my enemy – especially the person who seeks to harm me – is Christ for me.”

(Archimandrite Aimilianos of Simonopetra, The Way of the Spirit, pp. 244-245, 254)

The Lord is Not Like Us

“No man of himself can know what God’s love is unless he be taught of the Holy Spirit; but God’s love is known in our Church through the Holy Spirit, and so we speak of this love.

The sinful soul which does not know the Lord fears death, thinking that the Lord will not forgive her sins. But this is because the soul does not know the Lord and how greatly He loves us. But if people knew this, then no man would despair, for the Lord not only forgives but rejoices exceedingly at the return of a sinner. Though you be at death’s door, believe firmly that the moment  you ask, you will receive forgiveness.

The Lord is not like us. He is passing meek, and merciful, and good; and when the soul knows Him she marvels greatly, and exclaims: ‘O what a Lord is ours!’

The Holy Spirit gave our Church to know how great is God’s mercy.”

(St. Silouan the Athonite, p. 363)

How unlike us humans is our God.  Human may never forgive or forget and can keep angry all their lives, but not so with the Lord.  Humans demand retributive justice and often want to treat people as they deserve, or even worse.  On the other hand, God, so the psalmist tells us is not like us.

The LORD is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. He will not always chide, nor will he keep his anger for ever. He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor requite us according to our iniquities.   (Psalm 103:8-10)