The Maker of Heaven and Earth

I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible. And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the only-begotten, begotten of the Father before all ages. Light of Light; true God of true God; begotten, not made; of one essence with the Father, by whom all things were made..  (Nicene Creed, emphases added)

In the Nicene Creed we profess a belief that God created everything and everyone.  St John Chrysostom says this fact has an implication for all of us and how we approach the created world we live in (as stewards entrusted with God’s property gifted to us) and how we approach all the people we encounter (as fellow neighbors sharing God’s earth).  For Chrysostom there is only one thing we really own – our good deeds.  Our deeds are our only true possession and the only thing we really can offer to God.

“… Chrysostom … felt that there was but one owner of all things in the world – God Himself, the Maker of all.  Strictly speaking, no private property should exist at all.  Everything belongs to God.  Everything is loaned rather than given by God in trust to man, for God’s purposes.  Chrysostom would add: Everything is God’s except the good deeds of man – it is the only thing that man can own.

As everything belongs to God, our common master, everything is given for common use.  Is it not true even of worldly things? Cities, market-places, streets – are they not a common possession?  God’s economy is  of the same kind.  Water, air sun and moon, and the rest of creation, are intended for common use.  Quarrels begin usually when people attempt to appropriate things which, by their very nature, were not intended for the private possession of some, to the exclusion of others. …

Chrysostom was after justice in defense of human dignity.  Was not every man created in God’s image?  Did God not wish salvation and conversion of every single man, regardless of his position in life, and even regardless of his behavior in the past?  All are called to repentance, and all can repent.  There was, however, no neglect of material things in his preaching.  Material goods come also from God, and they are not bad in themselves.  What is bad, is only the unjust use of goods, to the profit of some, while others are left starving.  The answer is love. Love is not selfish, ‘is not ambitious, is not self-seeking.‘ ” (Georges Florovsky, ASPECTS OF CHURCH HISTORY Vol 4, pp 84-85)


Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.  (1 Corinthians 13:4-7)

All Humans Belong to God

For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and bestows his riches upon all who call upon him.  (Romans 10:12)

“We, however, can also understand in another way what he [St Paul] says, ‘But if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to him’ (Romans 8:9).  For this really seems to be pronounced bluntly, to say that one who is not of character and stature such as to deserve to have the Spirit of Christ would immediately be repudiated as belonging to Christ,  even though in the Psalms it says, ‘All the wild animals of the forests are mine, the beasts on the mountains and oxen‘ (Psalm 50:10). And if the wild animals and beasts are his, how is it that human beings are not his?”  (Origen, COMMENTARY ON THE EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS Books 6-10, p 54)

Origen who was the great biblical exegete of the 3rd Century, uses scripture to interpret scripture.  So even though there are passages in the bible which make strong claims, Origen, reminds people that those passages have to be interpreted in the light of other claims of scripture.  One doesn’t get to pick and choose which verses to follow – one has to take all scripture into consideration to avoid coming to errant conclusions.  Some passages will seem to specifically support ideas we like, but that doesn’t give us permission to ignore the passages that don’t fit so easily with our interpretation or favorite verse.

Do you want to know that he [Christ, the Word of God] is present everywhere and is in the midst even of those who do not know him and do not confess him?  Listen to the very things John the Baptist testifies about him: ‘In your midst stands one whom you do not know, who comes after me‘ (John 1:26).  Therefore, he is in the midst even of those who do not know him, but he is potentially in their midst and not in actuality.  For they are capable of receiving him, but do not yet receive him.” (Origen, COMMENTARY ON THE EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS Books 6-10, p 139)

 

Seeing Salvation

… and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” (Luke 3:6)

“For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people…”  (Titus 2:11)

This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.”  (1 Timothy 2:3-4)

St. Peter Damaskos writing in THE PHILOKALIA 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.’”     (Kindle Loc. 30139-43, emphases not in original text)

[see also my post We Will Not Be Punished Because We Have Sinned, But Because We Didn’t Repent]

As St Simeon the God-receiver prays:

Now you let your servant depart in peace, Master, according to your word,

for my eyes have seen your salvation,

which you have prepared before the face of all peoples;

a light to enlighten the Gentiles,

and the glory of your people Israel.

(Luke 2:29-32, EOB, emphases added)

 

One in Adam, One in Christ

“I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all lowliness and meekness, with patience, forbearing one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all, who is above all and through all and in all.” (Ephesians 4:1-6)

St Paul came to the realization that God willed the salvation of the human race, not just the Jewish race.  He came to understand that the Law given to help humans do God’s will had not accomplished its goal and had in fact divided humanity with Jews believing they were to have nothing to do with Gentiles.  St Paul came to the startling conclusion that God was saving all humans and in so doing reuniting them all into one people, no longer two separated by the Law.  However, realizing this truth was one thing, actualizing it in community life proved to be quite a difficult challenge.  For St Paul was telling Jews to embrace Christ’s love and sit and eat with the Gentiles because all the rules for keeping Torah or keeping Kosher were not the way to salvation.  Salvation is love for God and neighbor which the Law cold never realize.

What drove Paul to see that Jew and gentile now constitute one people of God was not his own imagination or sense of social justice, and it certainly was not his “straight” reading of his Bible. If anything, putting Jew and non-Jew on the same level cuts against the Old Testament grain. What drove Paul to this revolutionary, countercultural conclusion was the reality of the resurrection of Christ.   (Peter Enns, The Evolution of Adam, What the Bible Does and Doesn’t Say about Human Origins, Kindle Loc. 2989-92)

What St Paul came to understand is the importance of Adam: Christ restores all humans to the one undivided humanity which existed before the Fall.  Adam is not mostly the 1st historical human but the type of all prefallen humans.  Adam is not about biological origins but truly falls to that level of a mere biological being through sin.   Christ comes to restore the full nature of humanity, to reunite the physical and the spiritual, created and Creator, humanity and divinity, the living and the dead, Gentile and Jew.

In [Romans] 1:14 he announces his universal focus when he states his obligation to both Greeks and non-Greeks (v. 14), claiming that the gospel is for the Jew first, but then also for the gentile (v. 16). This is not just a polite way to begin a letter, but an announcement of the letter’s focus: one gospel for two heretofore distinct peoples.  (Peter Enns, The Evolution of Adam, What the Bible Does and Doesn’t Say about Human Origins, Kindle Loc. 3008-11)

The sin of Adam and Eve led to the giving of the Law which resulted in a division in humanity between Jew and Gentile.  However, the Law was meant to give life to all humanity.  The fact that it had caused division rather than bringing about wholeness is in fact the limit of the Law.  The healing of humanity, the end of all separation and divisions, begins in Christ.

Salvation

That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell, and Universal SalvationDavid Bentley Hart’s That All Shall Be Saved inspired me to reflect a bit on salvation and how Christ’s coming into the world is good news indeed for all humankind.   His book brought to the forefront of my thinking the many reasons I joyfully embrace Christianity as my faith and experience of God.   This is the 5th and final post in this blog series which is looking at ideas from his book which have been an anchor to my faith.  The previous post is: Is Free Will the Curse?

The Gospel is and is meant to be good news for all of us who inhabit planet earth and struggle in life, who have to cope with evil and the effect of sin on our existence here.   And while the good news promises us salvation, it does not promise us life on earth will be easy, without suffering or temptation or death.  We are to be of good cheer because Christ has overcome all of these aspects of the world, and so they are proven to be limited, circumscribed, in their power.

In its dawn, the gospel was a proclamation principally of a divine victory that had been won over death and sin, and over the spiritual powers of rebellion against God that dwell on high, and here below, and under the earth. It announced itself truly as the “good tidings” of a campaign of divine rescue on the part of a loving God, who by the sending of his Son into the world, and even into the kingdom of death, had liberated his creatures from slavery to a false and merciless master, and had opened a way into the Kingdom of Heaven, in which all of creation would be glorified by the direct presence of God.

It was an announcement that came wrapped in all the religious and prophetic and eschatological imagery of its time and place, and armored in the whole metaphorical panoply of late antique religion, but with far less of the background and far fewer of the details filled in than later Christians would have found tolerable. It was, above all, a joyous proclamation, and a call to a lost people to find their true home at last, in their Father’s house. It did not initially make its appeal to human hearts by forcing them to revert to some childish or bestial cruelty latent in their natures; rather, it sought to awaken them to a new form of life, one whose premise was charity. Nor was it a religion offering only a psychological salve for individual anxieties regarding personal salvation. It was a summons to a new and corporate way of life, salvation by entry into a community of love. Hope in heaven and fear of hell were ever present, but also sublimely inchoate, and susceptible of elaboration in any number of conceptual shapes. Nothing as yet was fixed except the certainty that Jesus was now Lord over all things, and would ultimately yield all things up to the Father so that God might be all in all.  (Hart, That All Shall Be Saved, Kindle Location 2790-2803)

When the Lord Jesus came eating and drinking with sinners was He not enacting the very thing He proclaimed in His parables – that those invited to the wedding banquet did not wish to attend and so the banquet had been opened to all – undesirable people were invited, even compelled to come in and join the banquet even though they were undesireable?   Did not the Jesus’ own lifestyle and actions, especially His table fellowship, announce that the Kingdom of Heaven had come, that God had reconciled the world to Himself?   Yet, we see already in the New Testament a rejection of this reconciliation between God and God’s creation.  Pharisees, among others, rejected Christ’s message and condemn Him for His table fellowship with sinners.  A concern for judgment of sinners and unbelievers comes to the forefront of thinking as Christians see people not only rejecting the Gospel but also persecuting believers.   Being forgiven by God, reconciled to God, united to divinity was not enough good news for believers – they thirsted for triumph over enemies and retribution for sinners.  Rather than sorrowing that everyone did not embrace salvation, believers began persecuting those who didn’t believe.  The values of the Kingdom of Heaven were replaced by the values of worldly kingdoms.

However, the Church never lost sight of its message.  The Gospel shone through the centuries to those who would hear it.   St. Leo the Great (d. 461AD) writing in the 5th Century about the Nativity of Christ still captures the joyous message of salvation for everyone:

“Our Saviour, dearly beloved, is born today; rejoice!  For it is not fitting that we give any place to sadness when Life is born, the Life which, consuming the fear of death, has filled us with joy because of the eternity He promises.  No one is excluded from this gladness.  One reason for joy is common to all, since Our Lord, the destroyer of sin and death, as he found no one free from sin, came to deliver us all.  The saint is to exult, for he is nearing his palm.  The sinner is to rejoice, for he is invited to forgiveness.  The pagan is to take courage, for he is called to life… 

And so, dearly beloved, we are to give thanks to God the Father, through His Son, in the Holy Spirit, to Him who, in the abundant mercy with which He has loved us, has had pity on us, and ‘when we were dead in our sins, has brought us to life together with Christ’, so that we may be in Him a new creature, a new work.  Let us, then, take off the old man with his works, and become partakers in the generation of Christ, renouncing the works of the flesh.  O Christian, realize your dignity: you are associated with the divine nature, do not turn back to your past base condition by a degenerate way of life. Remember that you have been rescued from the power of darkness, you have been transported into the light and the kingdom of God. By the sacrament of Baptism, you have been made the temple of the Holy Spirit.  Do not make such a guest take flight by perverse actions nor submit yourself again to the devil’s slavery, for you have been redeemed by the blood of Christ, for He will judge you in truth, He who has redeemed you in mercy, He who lives and reigns with the Father and the Holy Spirit for ever and ever. Amen.”  (THE SPIRITUALITY OF THE NEW TESTAMENT & THE FATHERS by Louis Bouyer, p 530)

St. Symeon the New Theologian (d. 1022AD) writing five centuries after St Leo says:

“… He Himself, Who is able to do all things and is beneficent, undertook to accomplish this work through Himself.  For the man whom He had made by His own invisible hands according to His image and likeness He willed to raise up again, not be means of another but by Himself, so that indeed he might the more greatly honor and glorify our race by His being likened to us in every respect and become our equal by taking on our human condition.  O what unspeakable love for mankind!  The goodness of it!  That not only did He not punish us transgressors and sinners, but that He Himself accepted becoming such as we had become by reason of the Fall: corruptible man born of corruptible man, mortal born of a mortal, sin of him who had sinned, He Who is incorruptible and immortal and sinless.  He appeared in the world only in His deified flesh, and not in His naked divinity.  Why?  Because He did not, as He says Himself in His Gospels, wish to judge the world but to save it.”   ( ON THE MYSTICAL LIFE  Vol 1,  pp 144-145)

Christ did not become incarnate in order to condemn humans, but, rather, to save them.  God became human so that we humans might become god.   If He wanted to condemn sinners, He didn’t need to die on the cross.  That death is God’s love and will for humanity – God uniting Himself to humanity, not spurning humanity because it is fallen and sinful.  Why senselessly be tortured for humanity if your goal is punishment for sinners in the first place?  The life, death and resurrection of Christ are God’s continued effort to bring about God’s own plan: to unite heaven and earth, to reconcile humanity to God so that we humans might share in the divine love and life.

Writing 900 years after St Symeon, Archimandrite Sophrony  building upon the words of St Silouan the Athonite discusses the struggle with evil humanity has faced through the centuries:

“The history of the Orthodox Church, past and present, right up to our own day reveals frequent instances of a leaning towards the idea of physical combat against evil, though fortunately confined to individual prelates or ecclesiastical groups.  The Orthodox Church herself has not only declined to bless or to impose these measures but has always followed in the steps of the crucified Christ, Who took upon Himself the burden of the sins of the world.  The Staretz was profoundly and very precisely aware that only good can defeat evil – that using force simply means substituting one sort of violence for another.  We discussed this many a time.  He would remark, ‘The Gospel makes it plain that when the Samaritans did not wish to receive Christ, the disciples James and John wanted to bring down fire from heaven, to consume them, but the Lord rebuked them and said, “Ye know not what manner of spirit ye are of . . . I am come not to destroy men’s lives, but to save them”.’  And we, too, must have this one thought – that all should be saved.”     (ST. SILOUAN THE ATHONITE, p 226)

David Bentley Hart is in good company as he argues the purpose of God’s incarnation in Christ, His death and resurrection all were done for the salvation of the world not for condemning sinners to hell.   As previously noted, a message of universal salvation does not change the struggle which believers face in the world, does not deny that evil is real, does not take away the suffering undergone in this world by innocent people.  It does bring the Gospel to the forefront of the Christian message and says “God is love” is not an idea that can be negotiated or altered.  Rather it becomes the key to interpreting all of Scripture.  God’s purpose in creating the cosmos is to bring all things into communion with God.  This is God’s plan, unaltered by human sinfulness, which is being realized from creation to salvation in Christ to the kingdom of God.  God is both Creator and Savior because God’s will is that we should be united to God.   As Hart says:

… between God’s antecedent and consequent decrees: between, that is, his original will for a creation unmarred by sin (“Plan A,” so to speak) and his will for creation in light of the fall of humanity (“Plan B”). And it has usually been assumed that, whereas the former would have encompassed all of creation in a single good end, the latter merely provides for the rescue of only a tragically or arbitrarily select portion of the race. But why? Perhaps the only difference, really, between these antecedent and consequent divine decrees (assuming that such a distinction is worth making at all) is the manner by which God accomplishes the one thing he intends for creation from everlasting. Theologians and catechists may have concluded that God would ideally have willed only one purpose but must in practical terms now will two; but logic gives us no reason to think so.  Neither does scripture (at least, not when correctly read). After all, “our savior God,” as 1 Timothy 2:4 says, “intends all human beings to be saved and to come to a full knowledge of truth.”  (Hart, That All Shall Be Saved, Kindle Location

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