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

An Eternal Hell?

That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell, and Universal SalvationThis is the 3rd post in this blog series building upon David Bentley Hart’s That All Shall Be Saved.  The previous post is That All Shall Be Saved.

Central to Hart’s thinking is that the idea of an eternal hell where sinners will be tortured forever without hope of redemption is inconsistent with the very nature of God and with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  Hart does not argue against an idea that sinners will face judgment, but he holds to the notion that justice itself demands that punishment serve some redeeming purpose and that God’s love does not take away hope eternally.  Hart notes if heaven is really the place that individuals get to by their own efforts, then the logic of heaven turns out to be the ethos of hell.

…if we allow the possibility that even so much as a single soul might slip away unmourned into everlasting misery, the ethos of heaven turns out to be “every soul for itself”—which is also, curiously enough, precisely the ethos of hell.  (David Bentley Hart, That All Shall Be Saved, Kindle Location 2078-2080)

Certainly, some described hell as that place where no one can see the face of anyone else, where each person suffers because they are so isolated and alienated from all other people because it is the place in which there is no love for others.  Hart argues that ideas of an eternal hell come from Hellenic philosophy more than from Judaism:

In reality, the idea of eternal perdition for the wickedest of souls, in a place of unending suffering, appears to have been a Greek notion—mythological, religious, and philosophical—before it ever took (shallow) root in Jewish thought; it is certainly also an idea of only the most dubious “scriptural” authenticity.   (Hart, That All Shall Be Saved, Kindle Location  2219-2221)

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Some of the great thinkers of the early church struggled with the righteousness of an eternal hell:

It was precisely the absence of the banality of an eternal hell in Origen’s thought that allowed him to believe that all of life and all of creation have a meaning, one immeasurably richer and more ravishing than some tawdry final division between the winners and losers of the game of history: the fullness of reality that will be achieved when all being is perfectly united to God, and God is all in all.  (David Bentley Hart, That All Shall Be Saved, Kindle Location 2230-2233)

Hart posits St Augustine and the Western theologians who followed him as being the root cause for the acceptance of an eternal hell in Christian thought as it fit their theology and logic.

If the story really does end as Augustine and countless others over the centuries have claimed it must, with most—or, at any rate, very many … or, really, any—beings consigned to eternal torment, and if this story then also entails that God freely and needlessly created the world knowing that this would be the result, then Christianity has no “evangel”—no “good news”—to impart. There is only the hideous truth of a monstrous deity presiding over an evil world whose very existence is an act of cruelty, meaninglessly embellished with the additional narrative detail—almost parodic in its triviality—of the arbitrary salvation of a few select souls who are not even in any special sense deserving of the privilege (else grace were not grace, and absolute power were not absolute power). This is in fact the ghastliest possible “dysangel,” the direst tidings ever visited on a world already too much burdened by unmerited suffering.  (David Bentley Hart, That All Shall Be Saved, Kindle Location 2307-2314)

Many Christians hold to and even seem to relish that God created humans knowing they would burn in hell eternally or even created some for no other reason than that they would burn eternally in hell.  Hart finds this hard to accept that people would hold to these views especially if they really read the New Testament or knew anything about God.  Yet, some seem to find comfort in an order which requires some or many to spend an eternity in hell after a brief sojourn on a rather unhappy earth.  Even when Eve and Adam sinned against God opening the entire human race to the effects of the Fall, the consequence which God allows is simply death.  Genesis 2 and 3 make no mention of hell at all, let alone an eternal hell of torture for sinners.  One would think if anyone deserves being sent to hell, it would be Adam and Eve for their sin dooms the entire human race and all of the cosmos to death.  The effect of their sin has far more consequences than say those of Hitler since their sin effects all humankind.   Yet, in the Orthodox Tradition, Adam and Eve, who never properly repent in Scripture, are shown as being resurrected from the dead in Orthodox icons of the harrowing of hell.  Their resurrection from the dead is proclaimed every Pascha in the Orthodox Church as our salvation.  There is no eternal hell for them, so why do we so readily believe there is an eternal hell for those born into the world of the fall who never have all of the advantages that Adam and Eve had? [see also my blog series which begins with Hell No?]

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The man who wrote under the pseudonym of St. Dionysius the Areopagite offers us the following story to help us understand Christ’s attitude toward death and hell, and what we as His disciples should think about hell and Christ’s saving us from it:

 “One day I was in Crete.  The holy man Carpus welcomed me to his home. … he told me that one day he was exasperated by the infidelity of a man … (which)… had turned away from faith in God one of the members of his church… Carpus in his goodness should have been duty bound to pray for both of them. … Instead, Carpus for the first time in his life felt grieved and indignant.  It was in this state of mind that he went to bed and fell asleep.  In the middle of the night, at the hour when he was in the habit of waking of his own accord to sing the praises of God, he arose, still prey to unspiritual irritation, saying to himself that is was not right to let someone live . . . and he begged God to hurl his inexorable thunderbolt to put an end at a single stroke to the life of two unbelievers.  At that moment, he said, the house where he was suddenly seemed to rock this way and that, then to split in two from the roof down the middle.  A vivid flame appeared which came down on him; the sky was rent; Jesus revealed himself in the midst of a multitude of angels…    

Carpus lifted his eyes and stood astonished at what he saw.  Looking down, he told me, he watched the ground itself opening to make a black yawning abyss, and in front of him on the edge of the abyss the two men he had cursed, trembling and gradually losing their foothold.  From the bottom of the abyss he saw snakes crawling up and wrapping themselves round the men’s feet trying their utmost to drag them down.  The men seemed to be on the point of succumbing, partly despite themselves, partly quite willingly, since there were being assaulted and at the same time seduced by the Evil One.  Carpus was overjoyed, he told me, as he contemplated the spectacle beneath him.  Forgetting the vision above (Jesus), he was growing impatient and indignant that the unbelievers had not yet succumbed.  Several times he joined his efforts to those of the snakes…  

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In the end he lifted his eyes and saw again in the sky the same vision as shortly before.  But this time Jesus, moving with compassion, came down to the unbelievers and stretched out a hand to help them… then he said to Carpus, ‘Your hand is already raised.  It is I whom you should strike, for here I am to suffer again for the salvation of humanity…moreover you should consider whether you yourself should not stay in the abyss with the snakes, rather than live with God… ”

Olivier Clement comments on the story:

“Carpus’s vision convinces him that to wish to damn anyone is to attack Christ himself, to annul his Passion and so to compel him to undergo it again; similarly it is to throw oneself, by one’s own actions, in the abyss.”      (The Roots of Christian Mysticism by Oliver Clement, pp 300-301)

We see in this that some saints really did reject an idea of an eternal hell.  So a story in the desert fathers offers the same idea:

 “One day a soldier asked an elder whether God grants pardon to sinners. The elder answered, ‘Tell me, my good friend, if your cloak is torn do you throw it away?’ The soldier replied, ‘No. I mend it and continue to use it.’ The elder concluded, ‘If you take good care of your cloak, will not God be merciful to his own image?’ (Sayings of the Desert Fathers)

God in his love punishes, not to take revenge, far from it. He seeks the restoration of his own image and does not prolong his anger. (Issac of Nineveh)”  (Quoted in The Roots of Christian Mysticism by Oliver Clement, pg. 299)

It is the same lesson that the Prophet Jonah, the Prophet of the resurrection of Christ, had to learn about his enemies, the Ninevites:

And the LORD said, “You pity the plant, for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow, which came into being in a night, and perished in a night. And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?”  (Jonah 4:10-11)

Olivier Clement comments:

“The early Church with its gaze fixed wholly on the Parousia had no conception either of the present existence of souls definitely damned, nor of an already consummated beatitude for the saints (or even for Christ, according to Origen), nor again of a ‘purgatory’ in the strictest sense of the word, meaning penal ‘satisfaction’ of a juridical nature, such as developed in the mediaeval West.  What we find rather in the Fathers is the idea of a progressive purification and healing.”  (The Roots of Christian Mysticism, p 298)

Even God’s ‘punishment’ is for the healing of humanity, not for its eternal torture.

Next:  Is Free Will the Curse?

That All Shall Be Saved

That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell, and Universal SalvationDavid Bentley Hart in his book, That All Shall Be Saved, makes the case that the idea of universal salvation is strongly supported in the New Testament and in the Tradition of the Church.   This is the 2nd post in this series which began with the post And All Mankind.   What Hart really targets as misguided is a notion of an eternal hell where sinners are perpetually tortured for their sins.   This idea he argues is unworthy of the God of love and even illogical if one believes firmly in justice.  Punishment for wrong doing is one thing, but the idea that someone is eternally tortured for a finite sin goes beyond reason.  Additionally, true justice would have punishment as serving some redeemable value.  What good is punishment that never corrects or improves or helps a person?   How is that type of punishment consistent with the God who so loves the world?

Say to them, As I live, says the Lord GOD, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways; for why will you die, O house of Israel? (Ezekiel 33:11; see also Ezekiel 18:31-32)

St. Romanos the Melodist offers us Christian insight into Ezekiel‘s prophetic words:

“Now I shall make all known to you and I shall prophesy to you, All-Holy, unblemished.

For fall and resurrection,

your Son is set, the life and the redemption and the resurrection of all.

The Lord has not appeared so that some may fall while others rise,

for the All-Compassionate does not rejoice at the fall of mortals.

Nor has he now come to make those who stand fall,

but rather he is here hastening to raise those who have fallen,

ransoming from death what he himself fashioned,

the only lover of mankind.

(On the Life of Christ: Kontakia, p. 31)

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And from the desert fathers we find a very motherly and earthy understanding of the Ezekiel prophecy:

A brother asked Abba Macarius, “My father, I have fallen into a transgression.” Abba Macarius said to him, “It is written, my son, ‘I do not desire the death of a sinner as much as his repentance and his life’ [see 1 Tim 2:4 and 2 Pet 3:9].

Repent, therefore, my son; you will see him who is gentle, our Lord Jesus Christ, his face full of joy towards you, like a nursing mother whose face is full of joy for her child when he raises his hands and his face up to her. Even if he is full of all kinds of uncleanness, she does not turn away from that bad smell and excrement but takes pity on him and lifts him up and presses him to her breast, her face full of joy, and everything about him is sweet to her. If, then, this created person has pity for her child, how much greater is the love of the creator, our Lord Jesus Christ, for us!   (St. Macarius The Spirit Bearer: Coptic Texts Relating To Saint Macarius, Kindle Location 269-279)

The unconditional love of a mother for her child is a most exquisite image of God’s love for us.  God is not repulsed by the filth of our sins but desires to embrace us with God’s eternal love if only we will allow ourselves to be so embraced.

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It is true, of course, that for Paul the cross of Christ revealed the law’s wrath upon sin, in that it was an eminently legal murder; but it certainly revealed nothing about the will of God toward his creatures enslaved to death, and was in no sense a ransom paid to the Father to avert his wrath against us. For the earliest Christians, the story of salvation was entirely one of rescue, all the way through: the epic of God descending into the depths of human estrangement to release his creatures from bondage to death, penetrating even into the heart of hades to set the captives free and recall his prodigal children and restore a broken creation.  The sacrifice of Christ was not a “ransom” paid to the Father, but rather the “manumission fee” (λύτρον, lytron) given to purchase the release of slaves held in bondage in death’s household.  (Hart, That All Shall Be Saved, Kindle Location 342-349)

The Good News is that God wills to save His human creatures from bondage to sin and death, not to consign them to an eternity of hell.  Salvation is liberation from sin and death.  Salvation brings an end to the place of the dead, the place where humans are separated from God’s Kingdom.

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Basil of Caesarea (c. 329–379) once observed that, in his time, a large majority of his fellow Christians (at least, in the Greek-speaking Eastern Christian world that he knew) believed that hell was not everlasting, and that all in the end would attain salvation.   (Hart, That All Shall Be Saved, Kindle Location 45-47)

This same idea is common in the early church.

For the earliest and greatest of the church fathers in general, the story of salvation was really quite uncomplicated: We were born in bondage, in the house of a cruel master to whom we had been sold as slaves before we could choose for ourselves; we were born, moreover, not guilty or damnable in God’s eyes, but nonetheless corrupted and enchained by mortality, and so destined to sin through a congenital debility of will; we were ill, impaired, lost, dying; we were in hell already. But then Christ came to set us free, to buy us out of slavery, to heal us, to restore us to our true estate. In pursuit of those he loved, he invaded even the very depths of that hell we have made for ourselves and one another—in the cosmos, in history, in our own hearts—so as to drag us to himself (to use the actual language of John 12:32).  (Hart, That All Shall Be Saved, Kindle Location 358-364)

Hart is echoing the thoughts found in Patristic writings:

 “God is not One who requites evil, but he sets evil aright.   …  The majority of humankind will enter the kingdom of heaven without the experience of gehenna.”   (St. Isaac the SyrianTHE SPIRITUAL WORLD OF ISAAC THE SYRIAN, p 269)

“… there is no sin so great that it can conquer the munificence of the Master.” (St. John ChrysostomBAPTISMAL INSTRUCTIONS, p 32)

“Do not say that God is just…David may call him just and fair, but God’s own Son has revealed to us that he is before all things good and kind.  He is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked (Luke 6:34).  How can you call God just when you read the parable of the labourers in the vineyard and their wages?  ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong…I choose to give to this last as I give to you…do you begrudge my generosity?’ (Matthew 20:13).  Likewise how can you call God just when you read the parable of the prodigal son who squanders his father’s wealth in riotous living, and the moment he displays some nostalgia his father runs to him, throws his arms around his neck and gives him complete power over all his riches? 

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It is not someone else who has told us this about God, so that we might have doubts.  It is his own Son himself.   He bore this witness to God.  Where is God’s justice?  Here, in the fact that we were sinners and Christ died for us…  O the wonder of the grace of our Creator!  O the unfathomable goodness with which he has invested the existence of us sinners in order to create it afresh! … Anyone who has offended and blasphemed him he raises us again … Sin is to fail to understand the grace of the resurrection.  Where is the hell that could afflict us?  Where is the damnation that could make us afraid to the extent of overwhelming the joy of God’s love?  What is hell, face to face with the grace of the resurrection when he will rescue us from damnation, enable this corruptible body to put on incorruption and raise up fallen humanity from hell to glory? … Who will appreciate the wonder of our Creator’s grace as it deserves? … In place of what sinners justly deserve, he gives them resurrection.  In place of the bodies that have profaned his law, he clothes them anew in glory … See, Lord, I can no longer keep silent before the ocean of thy grace.  I no longer have any idea how to express the gratitude that I owe thee … Glory be to thee in both the worlds that thou hast created for our growth and delight, guiding us by the path of thy majestic works to the knowledge of thy glory!”   (St. Isaac of Ninevah  quoted in Olivier Clément’s  The Roots of Christian Mysticism, pgs 306-307)

Next:  An Eternal Hell?

And All Mankind

That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell, and Universal SalvationI recently read David Bentley Hart’s new book, That All Shall Be Saved.  Hart made a great and intellectual defense of so many things that I have believed and hoped were true.    I spent most of the last 40 years of my life calling people to pray, “Lord, have mercy.”  I have felt if God were not merciful, our liturgies in the Orthodox Church make no sense whatsoever.  Why call people to pray for God’s mercy if God has already decided not to be merciful but to condemn everyone to hell?  Is the Church a fraud and deceiving people to beg mercy from a ruthless, blood-thirsty and unforgiving tyrant who has already issued an irrevocable condemnation of sinners?   I have not believed that.  The Church seeks God’s mercy and forgiveness because She knows God to be forgiving, steadfast in love and abundant in mercy.   Christ’s coming into the world and dying for us wretchedly on the cross is the greatest sign of God’s loving-kindness.  And I don’t think God’s Word will return empty to Him as the Prophet Isaiah says:  “so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and prosper in the thing for which I sent it”  (Isaiah 55:11).   Christ’s death on the cross will bring resurrection to all and so accomplish God’s will for us.

I am no doubt among those misguided souls whom St Augustine criticized at the beginning of the 5th Century “as misericordes, ‘the merciful-hearted’  (Hart, That All Shall Be Saved, Kindle Location 38-40).   Yet, it seems to me it is exactly what our Lord Jesus called us to be.  And my reading through the history of Orthodoxy says I’m in good company as well.   For example I think St Silouan the Athonite is certainly a misericordes. I have written several blog series related to this topic and you can find two of those threads beginning with the posts Images of Salvation  or with Hell No?

You can read those blog series to see what things I’ve read that have shaped my thinking on these issues of salvation and damnation.  In this blog series I will be quoting some things I’ve mentioned before, but also am adding new material, and I will be weaving Hart’s comments into the posts.

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Hart who dismisses biblical proof-texting as a method of argumentation nevertheless offers an abundance of New Testament texts in support of his position:  Matthew 18:14; Luke 16:16;  John 3:17, 4:42, 12:32, 47, 17:2; Romans 5:18-19, 11:32; 1 Corinthians 15:22; 2 Corinthians 5:14,19; Ephesians 1:9-10; Colossians 1:27-28; Philippians 2:9-11; 1 Timothy 2:3-6, 4:10; Titus 2:11; Hebrews 2:9; 2 Peter 3:9;  1 John 2:2, 4:14.   He claims there are many more such texts and far more than support the position of those he disdainfully calls the “infernalists”– those who proclaim an eternal hell for sinners.  Hart’s overall appeal is not to proof texts, but to taking the whole of Scriptures into account and analyzing the ideas with reason and logic.  He offers an overview of the topic which includes the entirety of Scripture and Tradition and not just a few quotes wrested from the whole.  He has done the hard work of synthesizing the Tradition into a coherent framework.   For him it is not the number of quotes one can come up with but how they reveal God to us.  Taking St Paul as an example, Hart notes:

“If Paul means us to understand that there will also be yet another class—that of the eternally derelict—he does not say so.  … If he really believed that the alternative to life in Christ is eternal torment, it seems fairly careless of him to have omitted any mention of the fact. In every instance in which he names the stakes of our relation to Christ, he describes salvation as rescue from death, not from perpetual torture.”  (Hart, That All Shall Be Saved, Kindle Location 1474-1476)

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Paul indeed mentions the wrath and judgment of God, but does not according to Hart mention an eternal hell.  St John Chrysostom commenting on Romans 3:29 and being critical of a Jewish exclusivism says:

It is as if Paul said, “Why do you think it strange that all humans could be saved?” Could God be partial? They outrage the glory of God by insolence toward the Gentiles, refusing to allow God to be the Lord of all. If God is the Lord of all, then God cares for all. If God cares for all, then God saves all alike through faith. This is the reason Paul says, Is God the God of Jews only? Is God not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also.  For God is not partial but is shared by every person, unlike the gods in the myths of the  Greeks.  (St. John Chrysostom, Romans: Interpreted by Early Christian Commentators, Kindle Loc. 1804-8)

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Hart applies the same logic to Christian thinking as Chrysostom does to Jewish thought.  The same criticism can be leveled against Orthodox who hold to an exclusivist or exceptionalist perspective.   We can think about how we pray at the Divine Liturgy each time we celebrate it  (from the OCA translation):

You were pleased to ascend the cross in the flesh and deliver Your creatures from bondage to the enemy. (entrance prayer)

O God, our God, Who sent the heavenly Bread, the food of the whole world, our Lord and God, Jesus Christ,   (proskomedia)

have mercy on us and save us for He is good and loves mankind.

For the peace of the whole world, 

Your love for mankind is inexpressible

through Your inexpressible and boundless love for mankind, You became man, yet without change or alteration

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Who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven

We also offer You this reasonable worship: for the whole world

And all mankind.

and upon us all send forth Your mercies.

That our God, Who loves mankind

While certainly some of the prayers of the Liturgy are specifically for believers, for those who repent, for Orthodox Christians, the Liturgy has plenty of prayers for all of humankind and for the entire world.   The Liturgy is not exclusively exclusivist.  We pray constantly for the Lord to have mercy, for God to act according to God’s own nature, which is love, loving kindness, goodness and mercy.  We are to be like God in offering mercy to all.  And so we pray for everyone and work to be a light to the world, not a lamp hidden under an onion dome.

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“But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the selfish. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.   Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you; good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap. For the measure you give will be the measure you get back.”  (Luke 6:35-38)

“But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.  …  You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  (Matthew 5:44-48)

Orthodox perfection means to love as God loves us.   And God’s love is for the entire cosmos as well as for all humankind.

Next:  That All Shall Be Saved

Blessed Matrimony

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St. John Chrysostom writing on marriage says that marriage when it functions as it is designed to do restores humans to a paradisaical state.  Chrysostom seems to understand that the first humans were made complete, having both a male and female nature:

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.  (Genesis 1:27)

Among the divisions and separations caused by the fall were the separating out of male and female.  In marriage, where the two become one flesh, we have the ‘recreation’ of a whole human being – a human who is created male and female.  In Genesis 2 God creates the female out of the male but shows in this their interdependency – the two were created out of one flesh (Adam’s).   Marriage thus heals one of the wounds caused by sin.  Marriage is God joining together or reuniting the male and female which had become separated through the fall.   Chrysostom writes:

This love [eros] is deeply implanted within our inmost being. Unnoticed by us, it attracts the bodies of men and women to each other, because in the beginning woman came forth from man, and from man and woman other men and women proceed. Can you see now how close this union is, and how God providentially created it from a single nature? . . . He made the one man Adam to be the origin of all mankind, both male and female, and made it impossible for men and women to be self-sufficient. (Sermon 20, on Ephesians 5:22–33)

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The love of husband and wife is the force that welds society together. (Sermon 20, on Ephesians 5:22–33)

Chrysostom believes marriage is based in love.  No partner in marriage should live in fear of the other for it is love that binds them together.  If either spouse tries to dominate the other and make them afraid through threats or abuse, it is sinful and not Christian marriage.

What kind of marriage can there be when the wife is afraid of her husband? (Sermon 20, on Ephesians 5:22–33)

How difficult it is to have harmony when husband and wife are not bound together by the power of love! Fear is no substitute for this. (Sermon 20, on Ephesians 5:22–33)

How foolish are those who belittle marriage! If marriage were something to be condemned, Paul would never call Christ a Bridegroom and the Church a bride. (Sermon 20, on Ephesians 5:22–33).”

(A Patristic Treasury: Early Church Wisdom for Today, Kindle Loc. 4682-90)

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In the end Chrysostom argues that the very reason St Paul can use marriage as a metaphor or image  of the the relationship between Christ and the Church is because marriage is supposed to reflect perfect love.  Marriage becomes a means for us to live godlike love which is self sacrificing and works always for the good of the other.  Marriage is the right metaphor for the Christian’s relationship with Christ because we become one flesh with Christ in the Church through baptism and the eucharist, becoming one body in the Church.

Prayer is God

7342515708_983ca96522_mThe purpose of prayer is to enable our union with God.  It’s purpose is not to make all our wants, needs, desires, hopes and wishes known to God.  God already knows all of those things.  We can reduce prayer to a list of wants and needs, but then we miss the very purpose of prayer.  St Gregory of Sinai leads us into an ever deeper understand of what prayer is because it becomes obvious that for the Christian prayer is everything.  St Gregory writes:

Or again, prayer is

the preaching of the Apostles, an action of faith or, rather, faith itself, ‘that makes real for us the things for which we hope‘ (Heb. 11:1),

active love, angelic impulse,

the power of the bodiless spirits, their work and delight,

the Gospel of God, the heart’s assurance,

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hope of salvation, a sign of purity, a

token of holiness, knowledge of God,

baptism made manifest, purification in the water of regeneration,

a pledge of the Holy Spirit, the exultation of Jesus,

the soul’s delight, God’s mercy,

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a sign of reconciliation, the seal of Christ,

a ray of the noetic sun, the heart’s dawn-star,

the confirmation of the Christian faith,

the disclosure of reconciliation with God, God’s grace,

God’s wisdom or, rather, the origin of true and absolute Wisdom;

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the revelation of God,

the work of monks, the life of hesychasts, the source of stillness, and expression of the angelic state.

Why say more?

Prayer is God,

who accomplishes everything in everyone (cf. 1 Cor. 12:6), for there is a single action of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, activating all things through Christ Jesus.”  

THE PHILOKALIA, Kindle 41660-41675)

If Twelve Men Leavened the World, What Can An Entire Parish Do?

“For as the leaven converts the large quantity of meal into its own quality (cf. Mt. 13:33) even so shall you convert the whole world…Let nobody reprove us, therefore, for being few. For great is the power of the Gospel and what is once leavened becomes leaven in turn for the remainder…Now if twelve men leavened the whole world, imagine the extent of our weakness in that we cannot, in spite of our numbers, improve what is left. We who ought to be enough for ten thousand worlds and to become leaven to them. ‘But’, you object, ‘they were apostles’. So what! Were they not partakers with you? Were they not raised in cities? Did they not enjoy the same benefits? Did they not practice trades? What, were they angels? Did they come down from Heaven?

Nothing is more frigid than a Christian who does not care about the salvation of others. You cannot plead the excuse of poverty here; the widow who gave her two mites will stand to accuse you. Peter said, “Silver or gold I have none.” Paul was so poor he often when hungry, lacking the necessary food. You cannot plead lowliness. They were of low estate and so were their parents. You cannot allege lack of education or preparation. They were unlearned men. You cannot plead infirmity. Timothy was often laid low by sickness and the Apostle had to counsel him to take a little wine for his stomach. Every one can profit his neighbor if he will do what he can. 

Do not say, It is impossible for me to lead others to the faith. If you are a Christian, it is impossible for it not to be so. The natural properties of things cannot be denied. This witnessing to others is part of the very nature of being a Christian. It would be easier for the sun to cease to shine and give forth heat than for a Christian not to send forth light; easier for the light to be darkness than for this to be so.”  

(St. John Chrysostom, Daily Readings from the Writings of St. John Chrysostom, p. 115) 

Chrysostom says, “Now if twelve men leavened the whole world, imagine the extent of our weakness in that we cannot, in spite of our numbers, improve what is left. We who ought to be enough for ten thousand worlds and to become leaven to them.”    He was writing, of course, in a time when Christianity had ‘conquered’ the Roman Empire and was still growing throughout the world.   His words are beautiful and inspiring.  From a modern point of view, we might add “if twelve men leavened the whole world” … imagine if there were both men and women instead of just males doing the work.  Imagine if it was twelve men and their wives… imagine how much more would be accomplished.  The Church today is not limited to twelve men, or twelve clerics, or twelve apostles for that matter.  Today we have men and women, wives and husbands, grandparents, college students, PhDs, middle class, entrepreneurs, inventors, scientists, engineers, industrialists, computer geeks, skilled laborers and all kinds of people to work together to continue what twelve men began.  If we were being the Church and allowing everyone to use all the gifts the Holy Spirit bestows on everyone then indeed we would have more that enough to be leaven “for ten thousand worlds.”   It is we who need the eyes to see how much God has bestowed upon all of the people of the Church, and to recognize the gifts of the Spirit in all our members, not just in a few men whether monks or clergy.

The 21: A Journey into the Land of Coptic Martyrs

I found Martin Mosebach’s The 21: A Journey into the Land of Coptic Martyrs to be a worthy read.  There is of course that one learns a bit about these 21 Christians, all poor migrant workers, beheaded by ISIS militants on a Libyan beach.  They have been glorified by the Egyptian Coptic Orthodox Church as martyrs for the faith.  In their lives they seem to have been pious Orthodox Christians who were trying to eke out a living under difficult circumstances.  One also learns a great deal about the life of Coptic Christians in Egypt, an Orthodox Church which considers itself to be “the Church of the martyrs” based on its 2000 year history which has seen centuries of suffering and martyrdom. The Copts continue to be targeted by Muslim extremists and live perpetually in a state of being at risk for persecution, and yet their faith is strong.   Mosebach, a practicing traditionalist Catholic, writes about the Copts with sympathy and understanding.   He is not reluctant to express his skepticism about some of the things he learned.  It is obvious that even modern martyrs’ lives quickly are embellished with legend and miracles, as if their martyrdom itself is not sufficiently miraculous witness to the Lord.  As Mosebach writes it such embellishment is a normal part of Coptic history and faith.  Mosebach also makes it clear that to call these martyrs victims of terrorism is to completely miss the importance of their faith in their lives.  They are not victims of terrorism, but true witnesses to their undying faith in Jesus Christ.  As such they stand as a challenge to American Christian attitudes towards suffering, being in the minority or being in power and what Christ teaches us about martyrdom, enemies, suffering and power.  They have to carry the cross daily in a way American Christians are not willing to do.  As one Coptic priest said, “One cannot simply dismiss Muslims as hostile – regardless of religion, one can still be a good neighbor and express kindness and trust, especially in one’s prayer.”  Who is my neighbor?  The one to whom I can be neighborly as Jesus taught in the parable of the Good Samaritan.  The Copts have to choose to live the Gospel lessons daily.

Orthodox Theology and Quantum Theory (III)

Beyond These Horizons, Quantum Theory and Christian FaithThis is the 3rd and final post in this series building on the ideas that John Breck put into his book, BEYOND THESE HORIZONS: QUANTUM THEORY AND CHRISTIAN FAITH.  Breck begins a much needed dialogue between Orthodox theology, quantum theory and a theory of consciousness, attempting to fill a void that exists between Orthodox theology and modern science and philosophy.  The previous post is Quantum Theory and Orthodox Theology (II).   Quantum physics presents to us truth about the empirical world which may open a door for a dialogue between scientific theory and Orthodox theology by adding a dimension to Orthodox thinking.  Orthodoxy historically formed a great synthesis between theology and the dominant ideas from Hellenic culture.  Now Orthodoxy begins to speak to the world of scientific materialism by using concepts which quantum thinking has brought to light about the material world.

Breck points out that physicists recognize that “…two entangled photons behave as a single unity…. the interaction between the two renders them independent of time and free from the influence of ‘local’ or immediately surrounding conditions.” (BTH, p 122)   If physical reality can be free of time and locality, why is it impossible to accept a being, namely God, which is also free of these constraints?  It seems to me that quantum discoveries have opened a door to allow scientists to accept an immaterial/spiritual world since immaterial ‘things’ exist in the materialistic world of science!  The material world at the quantum level reveals that it behaves both like matter and like a wave.  Fields underlie the existence of everything, indicating an immaterial basis for reality.  This opens the possibility of bringing quantum physics to bear upon spiritual topics.

For example, if one wonders how the person of Jesus can somehow miraculously convey salvation to all, we can think about entanglement in the quantum world.  “Entanglement permits the instantaneous communication of information from one quantum element to another…” (BTH, p 122).   Salvation can be understood as information that is being conveyed from the incarnate Christ to all of the other elements of the universe.  Our bodies share a common existence with the rest of the universe and salvation is a cosmic event touching all that exists.  It turns out that the entire cosmos is entangled with the Creator and Savior God.  God shows that divinity can become incarnate (God becomes “not God”) as creation and Creator interface and blur all lines of separation.   The concept of theosis shows creation is capable of being united to divinity.

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Breck himself takes this notion of the shared common existence of all things and sees the hologram as offering a scientific paradigm or even an explanation for several theological claims.  The way in which a hologram works is already present in the universe as understood by Orthodox theology.  “The world is a Whole; everything is interconnected.  Like a hologram, every part and aspect of the world contains the whole of everything”  (BTH, p 93).  This becomes obvious in the writings of St Maximus the Confessor for whom both “…Scripture and the universe should be contemplated as a [hu]man ” (Lars Thunberg, MAN AND THE COSMOS, p 74).   The whole is contained in the part and the part in the whole, this is how the hologram forms its image.  The human is a microcosm of the universe.  So, if we come to understand the human we can come to understand the universe, but not only the universe but also the Scriptures, for each contains the other and is interconnected.

Lars Thunberg explains: “Here the Pauline trichotomy (St Paul speaks of man as consisting of body, soul, and spirit) is also inscribed in the system.  This means that the Church as a building is now seen as divided into three parts, organized according to their sacredness: to the spirit corresponds the altar, to the soul the sanctuary, and to the body the nave.  But what is important for Maximus is precisely the reciprocity between them: the Church reflects man in his constitution as the latter reflects and represents the Church in man.  Man is in fact a church in the world, and the Church is universal Man, what Maximus calls the makranthropos.” (MAN AND THE COSMOS, p 122)  If we look at the universe/Cosmos as a whole we will see how it reveals the human to us, and so too the human reveals the cosmos.  The Church also reflects the human and the human the church.  All are interconnected, revealing each other and each containing a revelation about the other.  This is where quantum physics opens the Church to science and the scientific way of understanding the world.  The quantum world and the experienced world come together in Christ.  The science of the hologram makes the theological claims of Maximus even more clear to us.

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As St Maximus says:

“The Logos, God by essence, became man and messenger of the divine will.  He let the most intimate ground of the goodness of the Father appear, if one may say so, and showed in Himself the goal for which created beings were created.  For it is for Christ, i.e. for the Christic mystery, that all time and all that is in time has received in Christ its beginning and its end.  The union between the determined and the indetermined, the finite and the infinite, the limited and the non-limited, and also between Creator and creature, between rest and movement was conceived before the times.” (Maximus in MAN AND THE COSMOS, p 79)

For Christians, it is in Christ that the quantum world and the experienced world interface and are united.  In Christ the beginning and the end, the spiritual and the physical, heaven and earth, the living and the dead, the finite and infinite, divinity and humanity, Creator and creation are united and understood.  The theory of everything so sought out by science will fall short until it recognizes something beyond mathematics unites all things.

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