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)

8187089248_f6598b37e4

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?]

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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…  

12801407024_3c0da9bc41

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?

The Oxymoron of Law and Love

Righteousness does not consist in correct behavior but in genuine co-suffering love…No deed has any moral value unless it proceeds from the heart motivated by love. Otherwise it is simply ethical or correct behavior according to one or another system of laws, a human work which anyone in any culture  with or without faith in God can attain to.

The Old Testament Law could help to preserve society but it could not save anyone, no matter how diligently they fulfilled it to the letter. Moreover, since it could not transform the heart, it could not even preserve the nation from falling constantly away from God. Our Lord Jesus Christ, the only one who fulfilled righteousness was motivated solely by love, co-suffering love.

And this is why our Lord Jesus Christ became our righteousness on the cross and imputed that righteousness to us through faith.

(Lazar Puhalo, For a Culture of Co-Suffering Love, p. 14)

The Sunday of the Loving Father

A connoisseur of fine wine pays attention to the details of the texture and flavor of the wine.  Because Jesus teaches us using parables, we have to become connoisseurs of the stories, noting the various hints and contours of what Christ has created for us in order for us to fully savor what He is revealing to us.  His parables are not meant to be guzzled or gulped down but rather are to be slowly imbibed in order to experience and enjoy the complex and deep lessons.

Though the Gospel text Luke 15:11-32 is commonly known as the Parable of the Prodigal Son, it probably is better termed the Parable of the Loving Father.  Note how Christ starts the parable:  “A certain man had two sons..” – the “man” of the parable, the father of the two sons, really is the central character in the story.  Christ doesn’t begin by saying  there were two brothers or that there was a man who had a father and an older brother.  Christ is telling a parable about the man, the father, the character who holds the whole parable together.  The story is like an icon triptych with the two brothers being the side panels, but the father being the central panel and the main focus of the triptych.

There are many details in the parable we could focus on to understand either of the two brothers, and in Orthodoxy the most frequent reference point is the younger brother coming to his senses and deciding to return to his father – an image of repentance in these pre-Lenten days.

One thing we might explore is how what the younger son asks from his father compares with the Lord’s prayer – both are addressed to the Father.  The younger son says: “Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.”  Contrast this with the Lord’s prayer in which we say:   “Our Father … thy will be done … give us this day our daily bread.”  In the Lord’s prayer, we ask for enough bread for the day not for everything our Father might give us in a lifetime in one day!   The Prodigal is not interested in his father’s will and certainly he is not concerned about having his needs met for the day, he just wants to self-indulge right now.

When the younger son returns to his father, he says:    ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight, and am no longer worthy (Greek: axios) to be called your son.’  The Prodigal Son acknowledges his own unworthiness to be called a son.  He uses the word “Axios” which is used of the candidate at an ordination service in the Orthodox Church.    We also see in this the son defining in his mind the nature of “sonship” – it is about worthiness, about earning the position (this actually is also going to be the same attitude as the older brother – both brothers misunderstand their father and his love and the nature of sonship!  They don’t see the father giving them his love, they see themselves as earning their way and thus deserving  his  gifts – they really both are hired servants).   The Prodigal realizes as a result of his own behavior,  he is not a very worthy child, certainly not worthy of his father’s favor.  He thinks that at least maybe he can be a hired employee of his father.  But he has a very distorted view of what it is to be child of his father.  He sees his father as the big daddy with the big bucks – the man who has all the power and he is trying to wrest some of that power to his own advantage.  This by the way is what many ancient people thought was how to approach the many gods who infested their world – manipulate them to get things from them.  They didn’t love their gods, they used them to get what they wanted from them, and so too the gods used the people for their own purposes and needs.  No love in that religion.

But note that the younger son does not ask for forgiveness from his father nor does he do anything to seek reconciliation with his father.  In his mind there is no way he can earn sonship back so he skips seeking reconciliation and looks to get hired on which is how he basically sees his father; besides he has already taken all the property and wealth that he could claim.   He fails to understand what it means to be a child.  What he still doesn’t understand is his father’s love is given freely, it is not earned, it is not deserved.  In the whole parable, the father has not run out of love for his son.  The son may have taken away half his father’s property and all the wealth he, the son, is entitled to, but he has not taken away all the father’s love nor could he ever squander all the love his father has.  The father is still full of love which he eagerly gives to the son.  That should be obvious in the parable. The father continues to treat the son as son and shows that for the father sonship is a relationship of love that can’t be lost or taken away.  If being a child is defined in terms of inheritable property this young man is in trouble, but this father has little concern for the property value which has been lost.  That is nothing compared to the relationship he has with his child.

Quite literally: The father has nothing but love for his child.  He has nothing but love to give to his child.

When the father talks to the slaves (Greek: doulos), he commands them as slaves (doulos) to dress the son and adorn him and prepare a feast for the son.  The father has plenty of slaves who have to obey him, but he is not interested in another obedient slave.  He wants a son, a child not another hired servant.  The father loves his son and the father clearly treats his slaves like slaves.  But the father wants this child to be his child, not just a hired servant.

The older brother also has trouble understanding what it is to be a child of his father.   First, I would note that the slaves in the parable do understand there is a difference between themselves and the brothers.   The slaves say, “your brother has returned”.  Your father is celebrating the return of your brother.  The servants know they are servants, but this missing child of the father, the prodigal, he still is his father’s son.  The slaves know there is a difference between themselves as servants and a child of the master, but the father’s own children don’t understand this distinction.  They act as if they are nothing more than hirelings themselves.

When the elder brother hears the party for his brother in full swing,he refuses to go into the father to talk to him but  rather, makes the father come out to him (In effect, he treats his father like his servant!  Come here, I want to talk to you!) (Note the father also went out to greet the prodigal on his return – the father is willing to leave his home, to leave everything behind, in order to maintain or restore the relationship with his children).  The elder brother says “these many years I have served (douleuo) you, I have never transgressed one of your commandments.”  The elder brother sees his years of living with his father as nothing more than servitude.  The elder brother whines that for all these years I have been your slave and totally obeyed you, though I resent it.   He has not been a son acting in love but a slave.  And it bears repeating, the father doesn’t want another obedient slave, he has plenty of those.   He wants a son, a child, one who shares his life, his love and all his earthly goods.   [St Symeon the New Theologian, in one of his poems has God saying this: “… ‹to learn› precisely that I am God creator of all things, (Sir 24.8) to know and understand that the person sitting in the deepest pit has been reconciled to Me, (Ps 87.7) and converses with Me without mediation like a friend to a friend, (Ex 33.11) having passed beyond the rank of hired servant and the fear of slavery, serving Me tirelessly, attending Me with love, associating with Me by obedience to the commandments. I do not mean those who serve Me as employees, nor again those who come to Me as slaves, but I speak of those who are my friends, familiars, and my sons by their actions.”   (Divine Eros, Kindle Location 9096-9108)   A very similar theme to what we see of the loving Father in the ‘Prodigal’ parable.]

The Elder brother harshly accuses the younger brother of consorting with prostitutes (15:30) yet early on (15:13) all the text says is that the younger son lived as a prodigal (wasteful, extravagant, excessive, self-indulgent) life.  The text doesn’t list any sins of the intemperate younger brother.  The older brother is sure that his younger brother is not merely foolish but a sinner and evil.

The father accepts his lost son back, but the elder son sounds just like the Pharisees at the beginning of this chapter in  Luke 15:1-6  –

Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. And the Pharisees and the scribes murmured, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.” So he told them this parable: “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness, and go after the one which is lost, until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost.’

The elder brother is a Pharisee – he accuses his father of receiving sinners and eating with them.  The father is the good shepherd who goes out to seek and find the lost and celebrate being reconciled with them, no matter why they left to begin with.

The father says to his elder son:  Child (teknon, child, but this time doesn’t call him  my son!), you are always with me and own everything  (note in vs 12 the father divided the proper and gave it to them (autois in the plural, not just to the younger son but to both sons!).  The father is saying,  you are my son, not my slave!   Be merry and rejoice!   I don’t want your obedience I want your love and joy.  I want to be with you.  The father says, by law all that I have is yours – but what he wants his son to have is love and joy which no law could make him accept or do!  The father wants a relationship with his child that is based in love not law.  The father is quite willing to do whatever the law requires, but his heart is in loving his children.

There are many lessons for us to learn from this parable and we can like wine connoisseurs savor the many lessons offered to us.   We might also think about applying the lessons to ourselves.  Which of three people in Christ’s parable are you?

The prodigal child – initially wasteful and foolish, who repents and begs mercy but who doesn’t believe he could ever be a child of the father because he is unworthy.  The father loves him anyway and embraces him despite his faults and despite the fact that he can’t buy or earn the father’s favor.

The elder son – diligent and hardworking, faithful, but lacking in mercy, love and forgiveness, but who also thinks the father’s love must be earned.  He too doesn’t s believe the father freely gives his love.  Thus he is angry that the father shows himself to be loving, merciful, forgiving and generous to both his undeserving brother and to himself.  He doesn’t believe in the father’s grace or love.  He won’t forgive his brother or his father or himself.  Really he rejects his father freely giving him or his brother good things.  The elder brother is saying, “I earned your favor, you aren’t giving me anything, I worked for it.”

The father –  full of hope, love, mercy, compassion, forgiveness who is ever striving to bring about reconciliation and unity and to uphold what he values so dearly for his family?  He gives freely and generously to those who are his children, and he holds no grudges, and he forgives all debts.

Jesus tells us to love one another as He has loved us.  He has loved us like the father in the parable loves his children.  Are we willing to do the same?

Sin as Mud Washed Away

“God has imprinted the image of the good things of His own nature on creation. But sin, in spreading out over the divine likeness, has caused this good to disappear, covering it with shameful garments. But if, by a life rightly led, you wash away the mud that has been put on your heart, then godlike (theoeides) beauty will again shine out in you. And so it is that he who is pure of heart merits to be called blessed, since in looking at his own beauty, he sees in it its model.

Just as he who looks at the sun in a mirror, even if he does not fix his eyes on the sky itself, nevertheless sees the sun in the mirror’s brightness, so you also even if you eyes could not bear the light, possess within yourselves what you desire, if you return to the grace of the image that was placed in you from the beginning. (Gregory of Nyssa, from Louis Bouyer’s The Spirit of the New Testament and the Fathers, pp. 365-366)

Numerous Fathers accept the image of sin as being a mud which has sullied us but has not become part of who we are.  Sin can be washed away by tears of repentance, by baptism, by living a godly life, by allowing the Light of God to enter into one’s life.  Sin at worst is a parasite living on us, but we never lose our connection to God, the image of God imprinted on our hearts.    These Fathers reject any idea of the total depravity of humanity or that humans are nothing but sin deserving God’s eternal damnation.   Humans are loved by God and Christ comes to us as a healer, to take away our sins, to restore us to full health, to make us human again.  The Hope diamond caked with layers of dried mud would look like a dirty rock.  Yet, beneath the layers of mud the diamond is as valuable as ever.  This is the situation of humans in the world and why God loves us and works so hard to save us.  God sees through the mud and knows the worth of every human person.

A Prayer for Those Who are Suffering or in Anguish

Going through old papers which I saved over the last 40 years,  I rediscovered this prayer attributed to St. Ephrem the Syrian in a folder.  Unfortunately, I don’t remember where the prayer came from, but share it for all who may be in need of just such a prayer – those being crushed by their own failures, mistakes, sins and sense of sinfulness.    The prayer makes several references to the Gospel parable of the Prodigal Son  from Luke 15:11-32, the text of which I have included at the bottom of this post just for reference.

I find this prayer a good balance or alternative to those prayers and piety which make us into nothing but a dung worm deserving being squashed by God before being tossed into hell.  It is a prayer intending to comfort and give hope like we find in the Akathist: Glory to God for All Things:   “No one can put together what has crumbled into dust, but You, Lord, can restore a conscience turned to ashes. You can restore to its former beauty a soul lost and without hope. With You, there is nothing that cannot be redeemed. You are love; You are Creator and Redeemer. We praise You, singing: Alleluia!”

St Ephrem’s Prayer for Those Who are Suffering or in Anguish

Do not lose heart, O soul, do not grieve.  Pronounce not over yourself a final judgement for the multitude of your sins.  Do not commit yourself to fire.  Do not say the Lord has cast me from His face.  Such words are not pleasing to God.  Can it be that one who is fallen cannot get up?  Can it be that he who is turned away cannot turn back again?  Do you not hear how kind the father is to a prodigal?  Do not be ashamed to turn back and say boldly, “I will arise and go to my father.”  Arise, and go!   He will accept you and not reproach you but rather rejoice at your return.  He awaits you, just do not be ashamed and do not hide from the face of God as Adam did. 

It was for your sake that Christ was crucified.  So will he cast you aside?  He knows who oppresses us.  He knows that we have no other help but him alone.  Christ knows that man is miserable.  Do not give yourself up in despair and apathy assuming that you have been prepared for the fire.  Christ derives no consolation from thrusting us into the fire.  He gains nothing if He sends us into the abyss to be tormented.  Imitate the prodigal son – leave the city that starves you.  Come and beseech Him and you shall behold the glory of God.  Your face shall be enlightened and you will rejoice in the sweetness of Paradise.  Glory to the Lord and lover of mankind who saves us!   Amen.

Then the Lord told this parable:

A certain man had two sons.  And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the portion of goods that falls to me.’ So he divided to them his livelihood.  And not many days after, the younger son gathered all together, journeyed to a far country, and there wasted his possessions with prodigal living.  But when he had spent all, there arose a severe famine in that land, and he began to be in want.  Then he went and joined himself to a citizen of that country, and he sent him into his fields to feed swine.  And he would gladly have filled his stomach with the pods that the swine ate, and no one gave him anything.  But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger!  I will arise and go to my father, and will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you, and I am no longer worthy to be called your son.  Make me like one of your hired servants.’  And he arose and came to his father.  But when he was still a great way off, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and fell on his neck and kissed him.And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight, and am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ 

But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet.  And bring the fatted calf here and kill it, and let us eat and be merry; for this my son was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ And they began to be merry.  Now his older son was in the field.  And as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing.  So he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant.  And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and because he has received him safe and sound, your father has killed the fatted calf.’  But he was angry and would not go in.

Therefore his father came out and pleaded with him.  So he answered and said to his father, ‘Lo, these many years I have been serving you; I never transgressed your commandment at any time; and yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might make merry with my friends.  ‘But as soon as this son of yours came, who has devoured your livelihood with harlots, you killed the fatted calf for him.’  And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that I have is yours.  It was right that we should make merry and be glad, for your brother was dead and is alive again, and was lost and is found.’ “   (Luke 15:11-32)

The Door Through Which Christ Passed

Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if any one hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.   (Revelation 3:20)

“The door through which Christ passed in order to come into the world was his love for man.  It is this divine love that St Symeon the New Theologian addresses, asking that it may be for us too a door bringing Christ close to us:

‘O divine love, where are you holding Christ?  Where are you hiding Him? …  Open even to us, unworthy though we are, a little door, that we may see Christ who suffered for us…  Open to us, since you have become the Door to His manifestation in the flesh; you have constrained the abundant and unforced compassion of our Master to bear the sins of us all…  Make your home in us, that for you the Master may come and visit us in our lowliness, as you go before us to meet Him.’

The door of love through which Christ passed in order to come into the world was opened by the Mother of God.  Her holiness attracted divine mercy to the human race.  Through her ministry in the mystery of the divine economy, the Mother of God became the ‘Gate that faces east’ (cf Ezek 46:1, 12); the ‘Gate that looks towards the east’  from which life dawned for men and scattered the darkness of death.”

(Hieromonk Gregorios, THE DIVINE LITURGY , p 36)

God’s Love for the Good and the Bad

…the divine love of the Sermon on the Mount, a love that shows its perfection in being directed toward good and bad alike. It is precisely this love, which draws no distinctions but loves all its fellow men equally – the distinctively Christian form of love (agape)…that is, for Maximus, the purest reflection of God, as he has revealed himself in his incarnate Son and in his Holy Spirit. So the unity that the Church realizes on earth is the first and most exalted image of God in the world, precisely as a unity of love.”

(Hans Urs von Balthasar, Cosmic Liturgy, p. 103)

God’s Love Means Our Salvation

“If a genuine righteousness were required of human beings, then only one in ten thousand would be able to enter the kingdom of heaven, continues Isaac. This is why God gave people repentance as a remedy, for it can heal a person from sin in a short time. Not wishing human beings to perish, God forgives everyone who repents with his whole heart. God is good by nature, and he ‘wishes to save everyone by all sorts of means’.

Isaac resented the widespread opinion that the majority of human beings will be punished in hell, while only a small group of the chosen will delight in paradise. He was convinced that, quite the contrary, the majority of people will find themselves in the kingdom of heaven, and only a few sinners will go to Gehenna, and even they only for the period of time necessary for their repentance and remission of sins:

By the device of grace the majority of humankind will enter the kingdom of heaven without the experience of Gehenna. But this is apart from those who, because of their hardness of heart and utter abandonment to wickedness and the lusts, fail to show remorse in suffering for their faults and their sins, and because these people have not been disciplined at all. For God’s holy nature is so good and so compassionate that it is always seeking to find some small means of putting us in the right: how he can forgive human beings their sins—like the case of the tax collector who was put in the right by the intensity of his prayer or like the case of a woman with two small coins or the man who received forgiveness on the cross. For God wishes our salvation, and not reasons to torment us.

Earthly life is given to everyone as a time of repentance. It is enough for a person to turn to God to ask forgiveness for his sins immediately to be forgiven. The token of this forgiveness is the Incarnation of the Word of God, who, when all creation had abandoned and forgotten God, came down to earth in order to redeem humankind and the whole universe by his death on the cross.”

(Hilarion Alfeyev, The Spiritual World of St. Isaac the Syrian, pp. 294-295)

Falling Asleep on the Cross

Christ … for my sake fell asleep on the cross  (Lenten hymn)

The imagery of some Orthodoxy hymns about the crucifixion of Christ, seem all too pleasant …  Jesus falls asleep on the Christ.  No mention of the agony and torture he would have suffered.  Many icons reflect that same calm demeanor.  It was Christian humanism of the Middle Ages which really took an interest in the suffering and agony of Christ and began to describe and portray the agony and torture which crucifixion is.  Read the biblical texts and we see that the bodily suffering of Christ is hardly mentioned.   It was the focus on Christ’s humanity which was seen as realism, that started Christians moving away from a focus on Jesus as the incarnate God.  Instead of seeing God, all that was seen was another human dying a painful death.

The image of Christ falling asleep on the cross is deeply rooted in the theology that God is passionless.  God is not moved by emotions and their visceral affects on us – God doesn’t have a body so does not experience emotions like we do.  God does not love us as a reaction to us for God is love.  God dying on the cross does not change His reaction to humans: He continues to love them.  And so Jesus says while dying on the cross, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.”  (Luke 23:34)  He came into the world because of divine love and dies on the cross for the same reason (John 3:16-17).  Christ doesn’t forgive in reaction to what his tormentors are doing for He came into the world as love in order to forgive humans.

God is love, and doesn’t wait to see what we will do before reacting to us.  God always acts towards us in love.  God becomes incarnate because God is love.  God dies on the cross because God is love.  The crucifixion does not change God’s relationship to the world.  Sin does not change God’s reaction to humans.  God forever acts in love toward humans no matter how humans behave.   As another Lenten hymn says:

In Your compassion You humbled Yourself, and were lifted on the cross raising up with Yourself the one who had fallen of old through eating from the tree.  Therefore, You are glorified, Lord, alone greatest in love, and we sing Your praises forever!

God loves humanity and accepts that love means God will suffer for us humans.  God suffers for us, with us and in us.   God does this for our salvation.  God is not changed by our sin, by our reaction to God, by our rejection of God, by our crucifying God’s Son.  God is love.  Thus the Passionless God suffers the passion as one of the great mysteries of God’s love.  And because it is God on the cross, the suffering is infinitely deep, yet God is still love and God continues to act toward us in love.  This is why the icon is so correct in portraying the sleeping Christ on the cross – divinity suffers in us and for us and with us in all eternity and yet this does not change God’s love for it is God’s love for us.

“He who does not love does not know God; for God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the expiation for our sins.”  (1 John 4:8-10)

God even takes on a human body and experiences all the pain, sorrow and torment of being human because this is God’s love for us.  It is a love infinitely and eternally deep – yet it is the love that God offers to us and invites us to share with Him so that our life, and our suffering, becomes our life in God.   God dying on the cross is still love, and still loving us.

Christ lives and dies for Adam, Eve and each of us.  The hymns of Lent often move from images of God dealing with Adam to God dealing with each of us.

I have fallen into the heavy sleep of sin through heedlessness, but, my Christ, Who for my sake fell asleep on the cross, awaken me, that the night of death not come on me.

Christ’s death on the cross is the sign of the blessed Sabbath Day on which the Lord rests for His work for us and for our salvation is complete.  Christ sleeps on the cross in order to awaken us from the sleep of death and to awaken us from our having fallen asleep in the world when we should be awake, alert and vigilant.  In Christ we awake from our sleep whether in this world or the world to come.

In Christ dying on the cross we see God’s love for us undisturbed by the sin of the world, encouraging us to unite ourselves to Him so that whether we live or die we belong to the Lord.

“If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living.”  (Romans 14:8-9)

See also my post Arising From Sleep.

 

What Was Christ’s Love Like?

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:5-9)

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, “For thy sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.(Romans 8:35-39)

St. Maria of Paris writes:

What was Christ’s love like?  Did it withhold anything? Did it observe or measure its own spiritual gifts? What did it regret? Where was it ever stingy? Christ’s humanity was spit upon, struck, crucified. Christ’s divinity was incarnate fully and to the end in his spit-upon, battered, humiliated and crucified humanity. The Cross — an instrument of shameful death — has become for the world a symbol of self-denying love. And at no time nor place — neither from Bethlehem to Golgotha, neither in sermons nor parables, nor in the miracles he performed — did Christ ever give any occasion to think that he did not sacrifice himself wholly and entirely for the salvation of the world, that there was in him something held back, some “holy of holies” which he did not want to offer or should not have offered.

He offered his own “holy of holies,” his own divinity, for the sins of the world, and this is precisely wherein lies his divine and perfect love in all its fullness. (Mother Maria Skobtsova: Essential Writings, pp. 179-180)