Taking the Bus to Hell


One by one the lost souls step off the bus to enjoy a Great Divorce holiday in Heaven . . . and one by one they decide to take the bus back to the other place. The choice is theirs. They are wel­come to stay, entreated to stay, but to re­main requires the surrender of every­thing they “prefer to joy.” Sadly, they are not prepared to make that sacrifice. Call it self-exclusion, self-alienation, self-damnation—the essential ele­ment of the libertarian model of hell is the creature’s free rejection of the divine gift of eternal life. The damned would rather endure the dreariness and boredom of the grey town than suffer the transformative love of the Father. The bus runs every day. The ride is free. The residents may avail them­selves of the holiday as many times as they wish. But repeatedly, perpetually, everlastingly, they decline the invitation to abide in the realm of Joy.

“But what of the poor Ghosts who never get into the omnibus at all?”

“Everyone who wishes it does,” replies the narrator’s guide. “Never fear.”

There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.” All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. To those who knock it is opened.1

So far the libertarian and universalist are in full agreement. But a question remains: If rejection of God brings ever-increasing diminishment of being (symbolized by C. S. Lewis as insubstantiality) and therefore ever-increasing suffering—for suffering there must be the further one distances oneself from the source of happiness—how can the damned sustain unyielding resistance to the never-withdrawn offer of Joy? Will not everyone eventually break? Philosopher Jerry Walls acknowledges the point: “We can only absorb so much pain, so if hell forcibly imposes ever-greater suffering, no one could resist forever.”2

One solution is to minimize the horror and privations of hell. Lewis’s grey town hardly resembles the inferno of Dante. The lost do not appear to be desperately unhappy. We might even imagine damnation as providing its own perverse pleasures and satisfactions, thus rendering the unbearable bearable.3

Several years ago an Orthodox priest emailed me and suggested that I had misunderstood the nature of damnation. It’s not all or nothing, he maintained. We should think of damna­tion as a continuum. When an unrighteous person dies, he is permanently established in his character. Some are very wicked, some moderately wicked, some mildly wicked. Did not Jesus tell us that his Father’s house has many mansions (John 14:2)? We may suppose that the very wicked will experience a torment far more intense than the mildly wicked. The torment, of course, is not externally imposed; it is the subjective response to the divine presence. As Alexandre Kalomiros writes:

God, like the sun, never stops shining on good or wicked alike; that rational creatures are, however, entirely free to accept or reject this grace and love; and that God in His genuine love does not force His creatures to accept Him, but respects absolutely their free decision. He does not withdraw His grace and love, but the attitude of the logical creatures toward this unceas­ing grace and love is the difference between paradise and hell. Those who love God are happy with Him, those who hate Him are extremely miserable by being obliged to live in His presence, and there is no place where one can escape the loving omnipresence of God.4

based-on-great-divorce-lewis.jpg~original.jpegHell is Heaven experienced differently, and according to the continuum model this experi­ence will vary from person to person in relative degrees. The proposal enjoys an initial plausi­bil­ity, as it accords with our experience of per­sonal relationships; but it seems to have little support either in Scripture or the liturgical hymnody of the Last Judgment, both of which present eschatological reprobation as the great­est tragedy imaginable for the human being. Instead of being condemned to experience the full consequences of their rejection of God, the damned are merely confirmed in that degree of blindness, selfish­ness, and malice in which they died. We might even imagine the lost remarking, “I suppose hell could be a lot worse. Certainly it’s better than having to listen to opera.”

We come back to our initial question: If God eternally offers forgiveness and salvation, how do we explain the obduracy of the damned? Lewis offers this explanation:

For a damned soul is nearly nothing: it is shrunk, shut up in itself. Good beats upon the damned incessantly as sound waves beat on the ears of the deaf, but they cannot receive it. Their fists are clenched, their teeth clenched, their eyes fast shut. First they will not, in the end they cannot, open their hands for gifts, or their mouth for food, or their eyes to see.5

Here is the conclusion of the perditional process: in their adamant rejection of Love, the condemned have become incapable of even the tiniest degree of repentance. They have lost their reason; they have lost their freedom; they have lost their desire for the Good. They have become their sin. There is only the agony of the inhuman. God, we may postulate, continues to desire the salvation of the lost, yet this desire must remain eternally unfulfilled.

The lost are shadows of their former selves. All that identifies them as human has been eaten away by the cancer of evil. There remains only ravenous lust, implacable rage, pathetic self-pity, inextinguishable greed. If we could look down from paradise into the place of punish­ment, we would see mere specters, ciphers straining to hold on to exis­tence. Their humanity, with its potential for love, knowledge, self-transcendence, joy and beatitude, has long since eroded away into almost-nothingness.

In The Great Divorce, Lewis provides an example of this horrible degradation—an old lady, soaked in self-pity, perpetually grumbling and whining. Her damnation consists of the fact that she was no longer a grumbler but only a grumble. As Lewis’ guide puts it:

The whole difficult of understanding Hell is that the thing to be understood is so nearly Nothing. But ye’ll have had experiences. It begins with a grumbling mood, and yourself still distinct from it: perhaps criticising it. And yourself, in a dark hour, may will that mood, embrace it. Ye can repent and come out of it again. But there may come a day when you can do that no longer. Then there will be no you left to criticise the mood, nor even to enjoy it, but just the grumble itself going on forever like a machine.6

The besetting sin may not be grumbling or self-pity. It could just as well be lust or anger or pride or a thousand other sins which smother the soul and consume its capacity for joy and repentance. But the final result is the same. Sin destroys the human soul, as fire destroys wood and reduces it to ashes. Looking at the pile of ash, one would never guess that it had once been an intricately carved statue. To quote Lewis again: “What is cast (or casts itself) into hell is not a man: it is ‘remains.'”7

It’s a profound vision of eternal damnation. But is it metaphysically possible, given the eternal act of creation? God is not just an Other. He is the ontological ground and source of all being, more intimate to us than we are to ourselves. As the psalmist asks, “Whither shall I go from thy spirit? or whither shall I flee from thy presence?” (Ps 139:7). There is no space we can create that excludes the divine presence, no wall we can build that omnipo­tent Love cannot pierce. Human beings can no more deafen themselves to the voice of the Savior than they can unilaterally unmake themselves.

In George MacDonald’s fantasy novel Lilith, we are presented with the story of the ultimate redemption of the queen of hell.8 The lesson she must learn is that she did not create herself and cannot decreate herself. As long as Lilith continues in the delusion that she is an autono­mous, independent, self-sufficient being, she remains a slave to the Shadow. As God seeps into her soul, her anguish grows. She cries out for annihilation.

“Unmake yourself, then,” she is told.

“Alas, I cannot!” she replies. “You know it, and mock me! How often have I not agonised to cease, but the tyrant keeps me being! I curse him!—Now let him kill me!”9

Lilith has been forced to acknowledge a fundamental truth of her existence: she is not her own Creator. This truth is agony to her, but it is also the doorway for her repentance.

Lewis’s vision requires us to believe that human beings can undo their creation as images of God, that they can alter who and what God made them to be. MacDonald saw the matter more truly. Sinners may dream of autonomy, may fantasize of being their own Creator and de-Creator, but this is no more than delusion. And every delusion can be shattered.

In my previous article I asked the reader, Can you imagine yourself as choosing, defini­tively and irrevocably, absolute misery over infinite happiness? I reiterate the question. Can you really? But perhaps you still can. Perhaps you do not find my arguments com­pelling. Then let me rephrase: Can you imagine the God and Father of Jesus Christ ever abandoning you to the absolute misery you have chosen? If you cannot, not really, then there within you is the blossoming of the universalist hope! It is a hope grounded not upon abstruse metaphys­ical schemes but the all-compassionate Creator—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—who died on the cross for the salvation of all.

The greater hope has been preserved in the Eastern tradition for two millennia. Fr Andrew Louth explains, beginning with the controversial Origen:

Origen hoped for the “restoration of all,” apokatastasis pantōn, and this was certainly one of the reasons for his condemnation. His conviction did not simply rest on a philosophical belief that “the end is like the beginning,” as he affirmed several times in his On First Principles. In one of his homilies on Leviticus, he asserted:

“We shall now see, how it is to be understood that our Savior will drink wine no more until he drinks it anew with the saints in the Kingdom of God. My Savior even now weeps over my sins. My Savior cannot rejoice, so long as I continue in iniquity. Why can he not? Because he himself is the advo­cate for my sins with the Father, as John his disciple says, ‘for if anyone sins, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ, and he is the propitiation for our sins.’ How, therefore, can he, who is the advocate for my sins, drink the wine of gladness, while I sadden him through my sinning? How could he be in gladness—he who draws near to the altar to offer sacrifice for me, a sinner; he, to whom sorrow returns without ceasing on account of my sins? I shall drink it with you, he says, in the Kingdom of my Father. So long as we do not act so as to ascend to the Kingdom, he cannot drink the wine alone, which he has promised to drink with us. He is there in sorrow, so long as I persist in error.”

This is the deeper reason for Origen’s conviction of final restoration for all: it is inconceivable that Christ is to remain in sorrow for all eternity, on account of the failure of any rational creature to respond to his love and to benefit from his sacrifice.10

Louth continues:

Whereas in Western theology, such a conviction rapidly dies out, in Ortho­dox theology hope in universal salvation, based on a conviction of the boundlessness of God’s love, has never gone away. St. Gregory of Nyssa interprets the words of the apostle Paul’s teaching that God will be “all in all’” (1 Cor. 15.28) to mean the “complete annihilation of evil.” St. Maximos the Confessor likewise holds out the hope of the salvation of all. The grounds for this are principally the long-suffering love of God for all creation, and also the conviction that evil is without substance, but is rather a corruption of distortion of what is good. These two motives find striking expression in St Maximos’ contemporary, St. Isaac the Syrian, who asserts that, “there exists within the Creator a single love and compassion which is spread out over all creation, a love which is without alteration, timeless and everlasting . . . No part belonging to any single one of all rational beings will be lost, as far as God is concerned, in the preparation of that supernal kingdom” and then adds, quoting Diodore of Tarsus, “not even the immense wickedness of the demons can overcome the measure of God’s goodness.” The pain of hell is the result of love: “those who are punished in Gehenna are scourged by the scourge of love . . . For the sorrow caused in the heart by sin against love is more poignant than any torment.” Evil and hell cannot be eternal: “Sin, Gehenna, and death do not exist at all with God, for they are effects, not substances. Sin is the fruit of free will. There was a time when sin did not exist, and there will be a time when it will not exist.”11

Nor should we think, insists Louth, that the hope for the salvation of all has disappeared in the modern Orthodox Church:

This conviction that there is nothing outside God’s loving care finds expres­sion in the prayers of the Orthodox Church. In the service of kneeling at Vespers on the evening of Pentecost, we pray “for those who are held fast in hell, granting us great hopes that there will be sent down from you to the departed repose and comfort from the pains which hold them.” This hope, amounting to a conviction, that there is nothing beyond the infinite love of God, that there is no limit to our hope in the power of his love, at least regards as a legitimate hope the universal salvation of all rational crea­tures, maybe even of the devil himself and his demons. Such a belief has found its defenders among modern Orthodox theologians, such as Olivier Clément, Metropolitan Kallistos Ware and Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev. It was also the conviction of one of the greatest Orthodox saints of recent times, St. Silouan of Athos, manifest in a conversation with another Athonite hermit, who declared “with evident satisfaction,”

“God will punish all atheists. They will burn in hell in everlasting fire.”
Obviously upset, the Staretz said,
“Tell me, supposing you went to paradise, and there looked down and saw somebody burning in hell-fire—would you feel happy?”
“It can’t be helped. It would be their own fault,” said the hermit.
The Staretz answered with a sorrowful countenance:
“Love could not bear that,” he said, “We must pray for all.”12

Yes, we must pray for all and hope for all, for Love intends the all. The Spirit will breathe upon the detritus of hell, and the inhuman will be reborn.

The glory of God is man fully alive,
and the life of man is the vision of God.
~St Irenaeus~

(3 March 2016; rev.)

Footnotes

[1] C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce, chap. 9.

[2] Jerry Walls, Heaven, Hell and Purgatory, p. 78.

[3] See “Is Hell a Place You’d Ever Want to Visit?

[4] Alexandre Kalomiros, “The River of Fire” (1980).

[5] Lewis, chap. 9.

[6] Ibid.

[7] C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, chap. 8.

[8] See my article “The Salvation of Lilith.”

[9] George MacDonald, Lilith, chap. XXXIX.

[10] Andrew Louth, Introducing Eastern Orthodox Theology (2013), pp. 157-158.

[11] Ibid., p. 158.

[12] Ibid., pp. 158-159. The conversation between St Silouan and the hermit may be found in Saint Silouan the Athonite (1 ed.), p. 48.

(Return to first article)

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“Let the Word of God move in you unhindered and give you a knowledge of his coming and of his mysteries”

“The word of God was addressed to John, son of Zechariah, in the desert, and he went through all the Jordan valley.”

Where else could he go but through the Jordan valley. Where there would be water at hand to baptize those wishing to amend their lives? Now the word Jordan means descent or coming down. Coming down and rushing in full flood is the river of God, the Lord our Savior, in whom we were baptized. This is the real, life-giving water, and the sins of those baptized in it are forgiven. So come, catechumens, and amend your lives so that you may have your sins forgiven in baptism. In baptism the sins of those who cease to sin are forgiven, but if anyone comes to be baptized while continuing to sin, that person’s sins are not forgiven.

This is why I urge you not to present yourselves for baptism without thinking very carefully, but to give some evidence that you really mean to change your way of living.

Spend some time living a good life. Cleanse yourselves from all impurity and avoid every sin. Then, when you yourselves have begun to despise your sins, they will be forgiven you. You will be forgiven your sins if you renounce them.

The teaching of the Old Testament is the same. We read in the prophet Isaiah: “A voice cries out in the desert: Prepare a way for the Lord. Build him a straight highway.”

What way shall we prepare for the Lord? A way by land? Could the Word of God travel such a road? Is it not rather a way within ourselves that we have to prepare for the Lord? Is it not a straight and level highway in our hearts that we are to make ready? Surely this is the way by which the Word of God enters, a way that exists in the spaciousness of the human body. The human heart is vast, broad, and capacious, if only it is pure. Would you like to know its length and breadth? See then what a vast amount of divine knowledge it can contain.

Solomon says:

He gave me knowledge of all that exists; he taught me about the structure of the universe and the properties of the elements, the beginning and the end of epochs and the periods between, the variations in the seasons and the succession of the months, the revolution of the year and the position of the stars, the nature of living things and the instincts of wild animals, the force of the winds and the thoughts of human beings, the various kinds of plants and the medicinal properties of roots. (Wisdom 7:17)

You must realize that the human heart is not small when it can contain all this. You ought to judge it not by its physical size but by its power to embrace such a vast amount of knowledge of the truth.

But so that I may convince you that the human heart is large by a simple example from daily life, let us consider this. Whatever city we may have passed through, we have in our minds. We remember its streets, walls, and buildings, what they were like and where they were situated. We have a mental picture of the roads we have traveled. In moments of quiet reflection our minds embrace the sea that we have crossed. So, as I said, the heart that can contain all this is not small!

Therefore, if what contains so much is not small, let a way be prepared in it for the Lord, a straight highway along which the Word and Wisdom of God may advance. Prepare a way for the Lord by living a good life and guard that way by good works. Let the Word of God move in you unhindered and give you a knowledge of his coming and of his mysteries. To him be glory and power for ever and ever. Amen.

Origen Adamantius

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God-damnation or Self-damnation?

bodleian_10310370513.gif~original.gif

“I am not going to try to prove the doctrine [of hell] tolerable,” writes C. S. Lewis in his book The Problem of Pain. “Let us make no mistake; it is not tolerable. But I think the doctrine can be shown to be moral.” Fr Lawrence Farley agrees. In “The Morality of Gehenna,” he offers an apology for eternal damnation. Making the doctrine “palatable is beyond my power or intention,” he writes, but perhaps it can be shown to be moral and just and thus recon­cil­able with belief in the love of God . . . or perhaps not.

One immediately notes a difference, though, in Fr Lawrence’s construal of eternal dam­na­tion. In his preceding article, “Christian Universalism,” Fr Lawrence claims that Holy Scrip­ture teaches a retributive model of damnation: “God is the judge of all the earth, and his punishing judgment and severity falls upon those who rebel against righteousness.” Jesus’ teaching on Gehenna but represents the eternalization of the divine retribution. Many of the early Church Fathers, ranging from St John Chrysostom to St Augustine, can be cited in support of this interpretation. In “The Morality of Gehenna,” however, Fr Law­rence quietly moves from a retributive model of damnation, in which God is the active agent of punish­ment, to a libertarian-abandonment model, in which God ratifies the fundamental orien­ta­tion of the self-damned and abandons them to the interior conse­quences of their sins. I do not object to this shift (who wouldn’t prefer Lewis’s The Great Divorce, where the damned can take a bus ride to heaven, to Jonathan Edwards’ famous sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”?), but I do have to ask: What is its biblical grounding? On what basis do we override the “clear” biblical witness to retributive pun­ish­ment for wrongdoings (a witness so strong, asserts Farley, that we must dismiss univer­sal­ist proposals without further ado) and affirm a view that lacks explicit biblical support? (Might we be seeing a bit of philosophical reasoning at work here?) I’m sure scriptural verses on behalf of the self-damnation model can be cited, just as one can provide them for absolute predestination, annihi­la­tionism, universal salvation; yet Fr Lawrence’s stated methodology requires that the less certain texts be interpreted through the dominant, unambiguous ones. Once again we are brought into the thicket of hermeneutics. Neither biblicism nor patristicism can resolve the challenge.1

The self-damnation model of damnation became the dominant understanding of eternal damna­tion in the second-half of the twentieth century. While one can still find proponents of the retributive model, their numbers are growing fewer. Across the denominational board, Christians have come to believe that eternal retribution is incompatible with the infinitely loving Father as revealed in and by the incarnate Son. George MacDonald’s meditation upon divine justice now seems prophetic : “I believe that justice and mercy are simply one and the same thing; without justice to the full there can be no mercy, and with­out mercy to the full there can be no justice.”2 How then do we justify eternal damnation? By reinterpreting eternal retribution as the creature’s irrevocable act of self-alienation from his Creator. The reprobate chooses perdition. God does not damn; the human being damns himself. The Father eternally offers sinners mercy and forgiveness; but those who exist in the state of perdition irrevocably refuse the offer. In the oft-quoted words of Lewis: “I willingly believe that the damned are, in one sense, successful, rebels to the end; that the doors of hell are locked on the inside.”3

But is this free-will construal of eternal damnation rationally coherent? I long thought that it was. The Great Divorce is one of my favorite spiritual books, and I have often used its argu­ments and stories in my preaching and catechesis. Yet the libertarian position has its weak­nesses. Philosopher Thomas Talbott has subjected the free-will model to incisive critique in several peer-reviewed essays, as well as in his book The Inescapable Love of God. His book is essential reading. I would even go so far as to declare that no one should publicly reject the universalist hope until they have first wrestled with and answered his arguments. Talbott’s argumentation is well complemented by the rigorous philosophical analysis of John Kronen and Eric Reitan in God’s Final Victory and David Bentley Hart’s penetrating reflections in That All Shall Be Saved. The latter works can be hard sledding, but Talbott’s writings are wonderfully accessible.

Can you imagine a human being eternally rejecting God?

“Absolutely,” you reply. “I do it all the time.”

Now let’s add misery into the equation. Can you imagine a human being freely choosing everlasting intolerable torment over God?

Now matters become a bit more complicated. Will you not do just about anything to avoid pain and suffering? You might temporarily sacrifice lesser goods in order to acquire what you believe to be a greater good, as a jewel thief might invest a great deal of time, energy, and money preparing for a lucrative heist. You might choose the immediate satisfaction and excitement of an adulterous encounter rather than remaining faithful to your spouse, whom you find boring and unattractive. But what if there’s no payoff, only interminable, ever-increasing torment?

“Yes, I’m forced to admit that doesn’t seem to make much sense. I always prefer happiness to unhappiness. That’s why I choose to sin. I want what I want and I want it now. I don’t want to wait for the future happiness the preacher promises me. I am satisfaction-driven. Even when I am spiteful and seek to injure another, it’s because it gives me some degree of perverted pleasure. So no, I suppose I can’t envision myself rationally and freely choosing the fire of Gehenna.”

Now we come to the critical Christian point: God, and God alone, is our consummate happiness, our supreme Good. We were created by God for God. While we may search for our happiness in temporal goods, while we may confuse apparent goods for genuine goods, while we may be tragically ignorant of the fundamental truth of our ultimate fulfillment, we are always searching for the Good who is our God and will never find abiding happiness and peace except through union with him. Lewis puts it this way:

What Satan put into the heads of our remote ancestors was the idea that they ‘could be like Gods’—could set up on their own as if they had created them­selves—be their own masters—invent some sort of happiness for themselves outside God, apart from God. And out of that hopeless attempt has come nearly all that we call human history—money, poverty, ambition, war, prostitution, classes, empires, slavery—the long, terrible story of man trying to find something other than God to make Him happy. The reason why it can never succeed is this. God made us: invented us as man made the engine. A car is made to run on gasoline, and it would not run properly on anything else. Now God designed the human machine to run on Himself. He Himself is the fuel our spirits were designed to feed on. There is no other. That is why it is just no good asking God to make us happy in our own way without bother­ing about religion. God cannot give us a happiness apart from Himself, because it is not there. There is no such thing.4

Our eternal Father has created us to enjoy him forever in the communion of the Son and Holy Spirit.

Given that God is our transcendent and perfect Good, can you imagine a genuinely informed human being freely choosing utter misery over eternal happiness with him? Can you imagine yourself doing so?

I respectfully suggest you cannot, not really. No doubt you can imagine yourself doing so under conditions of ignorance, delusion, addiction, mental illness and psychopathy, and enslavement to your disordered passions—all of which characterize our fallen existence—but in their absence, I submit, you cannot truly imagine yourself choosing absolute, unabating, unrelievable, intolerable agony, not if you possessed the freedom to choose otherwise. It would make no sense—a choice made for no reason or motive whatsoever. Talbott elaborates:

Let us now begin to explore what it might mean to say that someone freely rejects God forever. Is there in fact a coherent meaning here? Religious people sometimes speak of God as if he were just another human magis­trate who seeks his own glory and requires obedience for its own sake; they even speak as if we might reject the Creator and Father of our souls without rejecting ourselves, oppose his will for our lives without opposing, schizo­phrenically perhaps, our own will for our lives. [William Lane] Craig thus speaks of the “stubborn refusal to submit one’s will to that of another.” But if God is our loving Creator, then he wills for us exactly what, at the most fundamental level, we want for our­selves; he wills that we should experience supreme happiness, that our deepest yearnings should be satisfied, and that all of our needs should be met.5

The ultimate good we desire for ourselves and the good God desires for us are identical! When properly formulated and understood, therefore, definitive rejection of God ironically turns out to be the most “selfless” and irrational act conceivable—and that is why it is inconceivable. It would be to deny our deepest and truest self. It requires us to choose privation for privation’s sake, to choose misery for misery’s sake, to choose evil for evil’s sake—yet that is precisely what we cannot rationally do! St Thomas Aquinas plainly states the matter:

I answer that, Man like any other being has naturally an appetite for the good; and so if his appetite incline away to evil, this is due to corruption or disorder in some one of the principles of man: for it is thus that sin occurs in the actions of natural things. Now the principles of human acts are the intellect, and the appetite, both rational (i.e. the will) and sensitive. There­fore even as sin occurs in human acts, sometimes through a defect of the intellect, as when anyone sins through ignorance, and sometimes through a defect in the sensitive appetite, as when anyone sins through passion, so too does it occur through a defect consisting in a disorder of the will. Now the will is out of order when it loves more the lesser good. Again, the conse­quence of loving a thing less is that one chooses to suffer some hurt in its regard, in order to obtain a good that one loves more: as when a man, even knowingly, suffers the loss of a limb, that he may save his life which he loves more. Accordingly when an inordinate will loves some temporal good, e.g. riches or pleasure, more than the order of reason or Divine law, or Divine charity, or some such thing, it follows that it is willing to suffer the loss of some spiritual good, so that it may obtain possession of some tem­poral good. Now evil is merely the privation of some good; and so a man wishes knowingly a spiritual evil, which is evil simply, whereby he is deprived of a spiritual good, in order to possess a temporal good: where­fore he is said to sin through certain malice or on purpose, because he chooses evil knowingly.

Ignorance sometimes excludes the simple knowledge that a particular action is evil, and then man is said to sin through ignorance: sometimes it excludes the knowledge that a particular action is evil at this particular moment, as when he sins through passion: and sometimes it excludes the knowledge that a particular evil is not to be suffered for the sake of possessing a particular good, but not the simple knowledge that it is an evil: it is thus that a man is ignorant, when he sins through certain malice.

Evil cannot be intended by anyone for its own sake; but it can be intended for the sake of avoiding another evil, or obtaining another good, as stated above: and in this case anyone would choose to obtain a good intended for its own sake, without suffering loss of the other good; even as a lustful man would wish to enjoy a pleasure without offending God; but with the two set before him to choose from, he prefers sinning and thereby incurring God’s anger, to being deprived of the pleasure.6

2_1.jpg~original.jpegBut, replies Fr Lawrence, that is precisely what the Devil did! Hence all of this philo­sophical specu­la­tion proves empty. We know of at least one rational being who did the rationally impossible: “In the devil we find an abyss of unreason, a perverse fixity and com­mitment to rebellion, even when it is known to be futile and self-defeating and leads to damnation.” Lucifer was given a direct vision of God at the moment of his creation, and yet he rejected God and became the Satan. How then can anyone posit the inconceivability of self-damna­tion? “The sad truth,” Fr Lawrence concludes, “is that the human person is quite capable of misusing the inherently purposive, teleological, primor­dially oriented toward the good power of the will and perverting it into something entirely different.”

This counter-argument, however, is purely speculative and unconvincing. We know very little about the unholy spirits, beyond the fact that they are our enemy and must be re­nounced; nor has God revealed to us the details of the demonic fall. Of course, that has not stopped theo­lo­gians from speculating about their rebellion, but these speculations are predicated upon prior assent to the dogma of eternal perdition: if we know that the damned have freely chosen damnation, then we will naturally seek a rational explanation. Yet a rational explanation eludes us, so we posit the incomprehensible conundrum of primaeval evil. Once upon a time, the greatest of the archangels knows the goodness of God with crystalline clarity, knows God as his supreme and only Good, knows him as infinite Love and bliss; yet despite this perfect knowledge, he freely rejects eternal joy and instead chooses intolerable torment. But all of this is specula­tion, myth, and absurdity. God has not disclosed to us the whys and where­fores of the angelic rebellion. Paradise Lost is not Holy Scripture.7 Perhaps, just perhaps, God gave the angelic spirits an epis­temic distance analogous to that which he provided Adam and Eve for the development of their personhood—just perhaps. In any case, the claim that rational beings can freely reject the Good when apprehended in immediate and comprehensive vision must be deemed implausible if not impossible.

In his essay “God, Creation, and Evil,” David B. Hart discusses free will and argues for the impossibility of a definitive, irreversible decision against God. Man is created in the imago Dei and cannot destroy his transcendental orientation:

But, on any cogent account, free will is a power inherently purposive, teleological, primordially oriented toward the good, and shaped by that transcendental appetite to the degree that a soul can recognize the good for what it is. No one can freely will the evil as evil; one can take the evil for the good, but that does not alter the prior transcendental orientation that wakens all desire. To see the good truly is to desire it insatiably; not to desire it is not to have known it, and so never to have been free to choose it.8

Hart’s argument is not identical to Talbott’s, but both concur that the human being is intrinsically ordered to the Good. In reply to this argument, Fr Lawrence remarks: “Here the philosopher smacks up against the exegete. Philosophical arguments about what the human will is or is not capable of are interesting, but must take an epistemological back­seat to the teaching of Scripture—and the Fathers would agree.” This simply will not do. It is biblicism of the worst kind. Yes, Dr Hart is presenting a sophisticated, reasoned argu­ment, but it is an argument grounded in the Bible and patristic metaphysics. When­ever we exegete Holy Scripture, we are doing philosophy, no matter how rudimentary or unself­con­scious. To think we can cordon ourselves off from metaphysics, even in the simplest interpretive act, is naïve. The only question is whether we are doing good philosophy or bad philosophy.

(29 February 2016; rev.)

Footnotes

[1] For a comparative analysis of the principal models of damnation, with critique of the retributive model, see Jerry Walls, Hell: The Logic of Damnation, as well as the contri­bu­tions of Jonathan Kvanvig and Thomas Talbott to the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

[2] George MacDonald, “Justice,” Unspoken Sermons.

[3] C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, chap. 8.

[4] C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, chap. 3.

[5] Thomas Talbott, The Inescapable Love of God [2nd ed.], p. 172; emphasis mine.

[6] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae I/II.78.

[7] See Talbott’s discussion of Milton’s portrayal of Satan, pp. 173-175; also see my article “Rational Freedom and the Incoherence of Satan.”

[8] David Bentley Hart, “God, Creation, and Evil,” Radical Orthodoxy 3 (September 2015): 10; emphasis mine.

(Go to “Taking the Bus to Hell”)

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David B. Hart on Animals and Universal Restoration

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The Hermeneutics of Perdition: When Hell Trumps Gospel

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In his article “Christian Universalism: Will Everyone Finally Be Saved?” Fr Lawrence Farley invites us to examine Scripture closely, in the confidence that if we do so, we will see that the hope of final reconciliation is false—so perspicuous is the Bible in its literal meaning. For the Archpriest, eternal damnation functions as a kind of hermeneutical key. Is there a conflict between divine love and eternal punishment? No problem. Hell wins.

A belief in hell may or may not be consistent with love, but what is certain is that it is taught in the Scriptures, and this must be the deciding factor for us.

Is there a seeming conflict between the Apostle Paul’s teaching about eschatological punishment and his teaching on universal restoration? No problem. Hell wins.

Since this teaching about the eternity of hell is so unambiguous, Paul’s other words (which everyone acknowledges contain more ambiguity) must be interpreted in the light of them.

Not to do so, Fr Lawrence tells us, would pit Paul against Jesus.

Here, I suggest, is the critical flaw in Fr Lawrence’s presentation. Instead of interpreting the texts on Gehenna in light of the good news of the Paschal Mystery—Christ’s atoning death on the cross, his harrowing of Hades and glorious resurrection on Easter morning—Farley does the opposite. His fundamental mistake, in other words, is hermeneutical. He begins at the wrong place, namely, with Jesus’ purported beliefs regarding divine judg­ment and ever­lasting punishment and then proceeds to read the entire New Testament through this retrib­u­tive lens. Instead of interpreting the Bible through a hermeneutic of Pascha, Fr Lawrence reads it through a hermeneutic of perdition, with tragic conse­quences for preaching, evan­gelism, and the spiritual life. Hell trumps gospel; eternal retribution overwhelms the divine love and mercy; the joyful expectation for our Lord’s return becomes terror and dread; the good news is reduced to law.1 It’s but a short step to the fire-and-brimstone sermons of the revivalist tent meeting. In his semi-autobiograph­ical novel Robert Falconer, George MacDonald captures this inevitable reduction of the gospel: “In such a system, hell is invariably the deepest truth, and the love of God is not so deep as hell.”

The dominical teaching on Gehenna and final judgment can only be properly interpreted as comprehended within the entirety of Christ’s saving work, as elaborated in the apostolic testimony. The Paschal Christ is the hermeneutical norm of all eschatological and theological assertions. We begin with the final future and work backwards. Historical scholarship appropriately seeks to interpret the words of Jesus within their historical and cultural context, just as one would interpret the words of any other person of the past. The Christian theologian gratefully receives the scholarly work of the historian but refuses to be constrained by it. Jesus is more than memory. He is risen into the coming Kingdom, from which he rules Church and cosmos. Thomas F. Torrance provocatively makes the point:

It is to be remembered that Jesus himself was not a Christian, for a Chris­tian is one saved by Christ. Theology is not concerned, therefore, with Jesus’ own private religious understanding of God, but with that which he means us to have through his vicarious life and activity, i.e. the understanding which redeemed sinners have of the God and Father of Jesus Christ. This is the kind of understanding of God which took shape in the apostolic mind and which became embodied in the New Testament reports.2

In a very real sense, the words that Jesus spoke to his disciples and the crowds of Galilee could not be properly understood until he had finished his atoning work on the cross and been raised from the dead by his heavenly Father. We must apprehend by the Spirit the logos of the living Christ if we are to understand his lalia—such is the interrelationship between Word and biblical words.

Perhaps a New Testament scholar, bound to the criteria of historical exegesis, might con­clude that Jesus probably taught some form of everlasting damnation; but this conclusion need not be determinative, for the Church knows the living Christ in his paschal glory. The Lord intends us to interpret his words recorded in the gospels in the eschatological full­ness of his self-revelation. This is what I mean when I speak of a hermeneutic of Pascha. Pascha is new life and new creation, the triumph of the Kingdom over Satan and death, revelation of the absolute love, mercy, and forgiveness of the Creator. Pascha is promise of the con­sum­mation of the cosmos in the eternal life of the Trinity. God will be all in all. Every tongue shall confess that Jesus is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. The Easter Homily of St John Chrysostom powerfully states the gospel of the Resurrection:

Enjoy ye all the feast of faith: Receive ye all the riches of loving-kindness. let no one bewail his poverty, for the universal kingdom has been revealed. Let no one weep for his iniquities, for pardon has shown forth from the grave. Let no one fear death, for the Savior’s death has set us free. He that was held prisoner of it has annihilated it. By descending into Hell, He made Hell captive. He embittered it when it tasted of His flesh. And Isaiah, fore­telling this, did cry: Hell, said he, was embit­tered, when it encountered Thee in the lower regions. It was embittered, for it was abolished. It was embit­tered, for it was mocked. It was embittered, for it was slain. It was embit­tered, for it was overthrown. It was embittered, for it was fettered in chains. It took a body, and met God face to face. It took earth, and encoun­tered Heaven. It took that which was seen, and fell upon the unseen.

O Death, where is your sting? O Hell, where is your victory? Christ is risen, and you are overthrown. Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen. Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice. Christ is risen, and life reigns. Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in the grave. For Christ, being risen from the dead, is become the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. To Him be glory and dominion unto ages of ages. Amen.

The threat of damnation does not belong to the proclamation of the gospel. If an everlast­ing hell is a possibility, it is an impossible possibility that should and cannot be. We do not believe in hell; we believe in Jesus Christ. Heaven and hell do not stand on equal footing. Whatever place warnings of reprobation might have in Christian preaching, they do not qualify or mitigate the work of redemption accomplished in the incarnate Son. The gospel is not carrot and stick; it is not mere offer that may be subsequently withdrawn. We do not preach perdition. The gospel is unconditional promise and eschatological gift, sealed in the sacrifice of the risen Lord.

Christ is risen from the dead,
Trampling down death by death,
And upon those in the tombs
Bestowing life!

Apokatastasis is but the gospel of Christ’s absolute and unconditional love sung in an eschatological key.

If we could, therefore, plausibly establish that St Paul in fact preached apoka­tastasis in the name of the risen Christ, then we would need to regard Jesus’ judgment sayings as recon­cilable with the greater hope.3 I am not arguing that historical exegesis alone can demon­strate universal restoration—the data is open to multiple interpretations—but I am sug­gesting that historical exegesis alone cannot foreclose its possibility. Pascha overturns our religious and philosophical expectations and compels us to reenvision our understand­ing of the divine Creator and the telos of human existence. In Jesus Christ we now know God as not even ancient Israel could know him. As Archbishop Michael Ramsey memo­rably expressed it: “God is Christlike, and in him is no un-Christlikeness at all, and the glory of God in all eternity is that ceaseless self-giving love of which Calvary is the measure.”4

We begin with the Old Testament:

In the Old Testament we find the following consistent themes:

1. God loves everyone, even idolatrous Gentiles such as those of Nineveh (e.g. Jonah 4:11);

2. God hates sin and judges sinners (e.g. Psalms 11:5, 34:16);

3. God judges sin with some reluctance, preferring the repentance of the sinner to his destruction (e.g. Ezekiel 33:11).

In all of these themes (the Scriptural citations for each could easily be multiplied) we see that although God loves everyone and judges with reluctance, He does nonetheless judge with severity those who persist in sin because He is implacably hates sin. This binary theme of God as the lover of righteousness and hater of sin runs throughout the Old Testament. God is the judge of all the earth, and His punishing judgment and severity falls upon those who rebel against righteousness.

Fr Lawrence is not, of course, presenting a full portrait of God as revealed in the Old Testa­ment. He is highlighting a dimension of the divine character that he believes Christian universalists downplay or ignore, namely, the divine opposition to immorality and wicked­ness.5 The righteousness of YHWH manifests itself in holy wrath, judgment, and retribu­tion; and it is this retributive righteousness, now projected into eternity, that is ostensibly confirmed in the teaching of Jesus regarding Gehenna.

But before turning to Jesus, a preliminary comment: Fr Lawrence proceeds as if the options are restricted to apokatastasis and eternal damnation; but this is inaccurate. A growing num­ber of biblical scholars have begun to explore a third option, popularly known as annihilationism or conditional immortality. Annihilationists believe that the judgment texts of the New Testament are best understood as teaching the divine obliteration of the impeni­tent.6 This is the second death, these scholars tell us—nonexistence. Hence we should not too quickly jump to the conclusion that the dramatic dominical imagery of unquenchable fire and wailing and gnashing of teeth obviously refers to everlasting punishment and suffering.

Now on to Jesus. Farley continues:

The theme of the age to come of course comes to the fore in the New Testa­ment. And here, Christ speaks quite categorically: the punishments of Gehenna are eternal. He warns of the impenitent being bound hand and foot and cast into the outer darkness where men will weep and gnash their teeth (Matthew 8:12, 22:13, 25:30), and there is no suggestion that this punish­ment will be temporary. Indeed, He teaches that in Gehenna, the “unquench­able fire”, the “worm does not die and the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:43, 48). If the Universalists are correct, then the worm will indeed die and the fire will indeed be quenched, but Christ here says the opposite. In His parable about Lazarus and the rich man, Christ explicitly says that there is a great gulf fixed between paradise and the place of punishment, so that none may cross over from the place to punishment into paradise (Luke 16:26). Granted that this is a parable and not a behind the scenes peak at eternity, it remains an odd thing to say if in fact everyone in the place of punishment will indeed eventually cross over into paradise.

Also important to the discussion is the fact that Christ describes the two fates awaiting men after the final judgment either as “eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels”, and “eternal punishment”, or as “eternal life” (Matthew 25:41, 46). Note that the same word “eternal” (Greek aionion) is used in v. 46 to describe both the eternal life of the saved and the eternal punishment of the condemned. One can debate the meaning of the word aionion if one likes, but the word must have the same meaning in both halves of v. 46. It cannot mean, for example, “the unrighteous will go away into age-long punishment, but the righteous into eternal life”. If the life of the righteous is eternal, then so must be the punishment of the unrighteous. One may assert that St. Paul proclaims universalism, but no one has ever suggested that Christ did. All of His words about the fate of men in the age to come are emphatic that hell is eternal, and contain not a hint of univer­salism. One cannot bypass this fact when promoting universalism, as many seem to do, but must rather explain why it is that Christ is so uncompromis­ing in His words about hell.

It all sounds quite black and white. No other exegetical possibilities are deemed plausible. All one needs to do is to pick up one’s Bible, take a look at the relevant perditionist passages, and interpret the symbolic imagery as nonsymbolically as possible. One doesn’t, apparently, even have to ask how Jesus’ fellow Jews might have understood the “eternal” punishments of Gehenna. Did a uniform understanding of the Last Things exist in first century Palestin­ian Judaism? (The answer is no.7) Nor does Fr Lawrence attempt to interpret the Gehenna texts in light of the fullness of our Lord’s revelation of the character of God (what about the parable of the shepherd who leaves his flock to search for one lost sheep or the woman who cleans her house looking for a lost coin? what about Jesus’ table-fellowship with tax collectors and sinners or his disclosure of God as his Abba?), yet such interpretive work is essential if one is going to make historical claims about what Jesus did and did not teach about the final judgment. Did our Lord, for example, even intend to teach anything definite about Gehenna in his parables, or was he simply presupposing the popular understanding for purposes of his story-telling? The truth value of a parable does not lie in the details but in its evangelical and moral point. Fr Lawrence fails to acknowl­edge the exegetical and theological complexities of his position.

Referring to our Lord’s famous parable on the Last Judgment, Fr Lawrence argues: “One can debate the meaning of the word aionion if one likes, but the word must have the same meaning in both halves of v. 46,” the logical implication being that if eschatological life is everlasting, as we all agree that it is, then eschatological punishment must also endure everlastingly. Yet the argument is faulty. Aionion, in fact enjoys a wide semantic range in ancient Greek and typically refers to a limited or indeterminate period of time. It need not be rendered as “eternal.” Moreover, it also possesses both a quantitive and qualitative sense. Thus New Testament scholar Christopher Marshall:

The word “eternal” is used in both a qualitative and a quantitive sense in the Bible. It is sometimes urged that if eternal life in Matthew 25:46 is everlast­ing in duration, so too must be eternal punishment. But “eternal” in both phrases may simply designate that the realities in question pertain to the future age. Furthermore, inasmuch as life, by definition, is an ongoing state, “eternal life” includes the idea of everlasting existence. But punishment is a process rather than a state, and elsewhere when “eternal” describes an act or process, it is the consequences rather than the process that are everlasting (e.g., Heb. 6:2, “eternal judgment”; Heb. 9:12, “eternal redemption”; Mark 3:29, “eternal sin”; 2 Thess. 1:9, “eternal destruction”; Jude 7, “eternal fire”). Eternal punishment is therefore something that is ultimate in significance and everlasting in effect, not in duration.8

The translation of aionion as “eternal,” therefore, prejudges the question. As an adjective its meaning changes according to the noun it modifies. The critical verse cited, Matt 25:46, might just as reasonably be translated “And these will go to the chastening of that Age, but the just to the life of that Age” (as rendered by Hart in his translation of the New Testa­ment).9 It may be best, therefore, to simply transliterate the term and leave the interpreta­tion to informed readers: “Then they will go away to eonion chastise­ment, but the righteous to eonion life.” Sounds different from the English translations you have read, doesn’t it?

To repeat: the critical flaw of Fr Lawrence Farley’s reading of the New Testament is her­meneutical. He seeks to determine the meaning of the dominical sayings about Gehenna through (debatable) grammatical exegesis, without reference to the totality of the teach­ings of Jesus about God and the Kingdom or his saving work in death and resurrection. But more importantly, by failing to read the dominical words through a hermeneutic of Pascha, he has abstracted these sayings from the only context in which they can be gospel for the world.

For God sent the Son into the world,
not to condemn the world,

but that the world might be saved through him.
(John 3:17)

(15 February 2016; rev.)

Footnotes

[1] See my essay “Preaching Apokatastasis,” Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies 58 (2017): 197–213.

[2] Thomas F. Torrance, Space, Time and Resurrection, p. 13, n. 18.

[3] See Thomas Talbott, “How to Read the Bible From a Universalist Perspective.” Also see “What the Bible Teaches . . . and Doesn’t.

[4] A. Michael Ramsey, God, Christ and the World, p. 41; also see Brad Jersak, A More Christlike God and A More Christlike Word.

[5] Cf. Taylor Ross, “The Severity of Universal Savation.”

[6] See David J. Powys, Hell: A Hard Look at a Hard Question, and Edward Fudge, The Fire That Consumes.

[7] Brad Jersak presents some of the historical data in his book Her Gates Will Never Be Shut. Also see Chaim Milikowsky, “Which Gehenna?” New Testament Studies 34 (1988): 238-249.

[8] Christopher Marshall, Beyond Retribution, p. 186, n. 123 (emphasis mine); also see David Konstan & Ilaria Ramelli, Terms for Eternity, pp. 57-70).

[9] See “Sometimes Eternity Ain’t Forever.”

(Go to “God-damnation or Self-damnation?”)

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“The stones the Gnostics offered fitted the comers of many temples; only not of the City of Christendom”

The revolt against the Gnostic influence depended on two things. There was the capacity of individual anti-Gnostic writers, such as Irenaeus of Lyons. There was also—and far more important—the actual belief of the separate Church­es. It was on many points yet undefined; there were spec­ulative points on which it has not yet been defined. But all those groups in all those cities, founded in the apostolic doctrine, made it clear that they did not, in fact, believe what the Romantic philosophers declared; that this was not the Faith as they had received and held it. What did the Churches believe? They believed that Almighty God—the final Deity—had Itself created heaven and earth, and was, as the First and Only Cause of them, finally respon­sible for them. They believed that Jesus Christ was the Son of the Father—in that Deity—and had been materially born on earth ex Maria Virgine. They believed, that is, that the First and Only Cause initiated, operated, and concluded Redemption. They rejected, with great energy, the idea that cause belonged to a subordi­nate Demiurgus and the idea that there was a special kind of superior redemption for superior persons. No doubt there were prophets and speakers with tongues and teachers and so on; no doubt Almighty God operated peculiarly through certain individuals. But they repudiated any opposition between faith and vision. Faith was not a poor substitute for vision; it was rather the capacity for integrating the whole being with truth. It was a total disposition and a total act. By definition, all men were in need of salvation; therefore, of faith and repentance in faith. The Gnostic view left little room for the illuminati to practise love on this earth; “they live as though they were indifferent,” said Irenaeus. The Church anathematized the pseudo-Romantic heresies; there could be no superiority except in morals, in labour, in love. See, understand, enjoy, said the Gnostic; repent, believe, love, said the Church, and if you see anything by the way, say so.

In some sense, the Gnostics avoided any “scandal” to the mind and soul. The stones they offered fitted the comers of many temples; only not of the City of Christendom. God was not really responsible for the appalling putrescence of misery which we call the world. The soul and the body (so to divide them formally) were not responsible for each other. Men were not responsible for each other. The Gordian knot of the unity was cut, and the bits fell radically apart. Toothache, cancer, women’s periods, frustrated sex-love, these and other ills were without relation to the activity of the celestial spheres. “In the fifteenth year of Tiberius Caesar the Christ came down from heaven,” wrote Marcion, one of the last and one of the greatest of the Gnostics, but the orthodox answer was that, years earlier, he had been generated on earth: “the book of the generations of Jesus Christ.”

Charles Williams

Posted in Inklings & Company | 8 Comments

“Daily the world is oppressed by new and growing evils”

The Lord says, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” He means: “Nothing that is lasting in your world lasts for eternity without change; and everything that in me is perceived as passing away is kept firm, without passing away. My utterance, which passes away, expresses thoughts that endure without change.”

My friends, what we have heard is now clear. Daily the world is oppressed by new and growing evils. You see how few of you remain from a countless people; yet daily afflictions still oppress us, sudden disasters crush us, new and unforeseen misfortunes afflict us.

In youth the body is vigorous, the chest remains strong and healthy, the neck is straight, the arms muscular; in later years the body is bent, the neck scrawny and withered, the chest oppressed by difficult breathing, strength is failing, and speech is interrupted by wheezing. Weakness may not yet be present, but often in the case of the senses their healthy state is itself a malady. So too the world was strong in its early years, as in its youth: lusty in begetting offspring for the human race, green in its physical health, teeming with a wealth of resources. Now it is weighed down by its old age, and as troubles increase it is oppressed as if by the proximity of its demise.

Therefore, my friends, do not love what you see cannot long exist. Keep in mind the apostle’s precept, in which he counsels us “not to love the world or the things in the world, because if anyone loves the world the love of the Father is not in him.”

The day before yesterday, my friends, you heard that an old orchard was uprooted by a sudden hurricane, that homes were destroyed and churches knocked from their founda­tions. How many persons who were safe and unharmed in the evening, thinking of what they would do the next day, suddenly died that night, caught in a trap of destruction?

We must reflect that to bring these things about our unseen Judge caused the movement of a very slight breeze; he called a storm out of a single cloud and overthrew the earth, he struck the foundations of many buildings, causing them to fall.

What will that Judge do when he comes in person, when his anger is burning to punish sinners, if we cannot bear him when he strikes us with an insignificant cloud? What flesh will withstand the presence of his anger, if he moved the wind and overthrew the earth, stirred up the air and destroyed so many buildings?

Paul referred to this severity of the Judge who is to come and said: “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.”

Dearly beloved, keep that day before your eyes, and whatever you now believe to be burdensome will be light in comparison with it. The Lord says of this day through the prophet: “Yet once more and I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.”

You see how he moved the air, as I said, and the earth did not withstand it. Who then will bear it when he moves the sky? What shall we call these terrors we see but heralds of the wrath to come? We must reflect that these troubles are as much unlike the final one as the herald’s role is unlike the judge’s power.

Give hard thought to that day, dearly beloved; amend your lives, change your habits, resist and overcome your evil temptations. The more you now anticipate his severity by fear, the more securely will you behold the coming of your eternal Judge.

St Gregory the Great

Posted in Citations | 14 Comments

“Christianity is, always, the redemption of a point”

Christianity is, always, the redemption of a point, of one particular point. “Now is the accepted time; now is the day of salvation.” In this sense there is nothing but now; there is no duration. We have nothing to do with duration, and yet (being mortal) we have to do with nothing but dura­tion; between those contrasts also all the history and doc­trine of Christen­dom lies. . . .

The Epistles of St. Paul carry that Now to the highest point of exploration and of expression. But already in the Epistles themselves something else has come in. “It is!” they said, but then they had to go on Saying “It is!” Time existed, and time itself had, as it were to be converted, to be rededicated towards the thing out of time. Not only so, but it had to be converted in the case of every individual Christian. We have often been told how the Church expected the Second Coming of Christ immediately, and no doubt this was so in the ordinary literal sense. But it was certainly expected also in another sense. The converts in all the cities of Asia and (soon) of Europe where the small groups were founded had known, in their conversion, one way or another, a first Coming of their Redeemer. And then? And then! That was the consequent task and trouble—the then. He had come, and they adored and believed, they communicated and practised, and waited for his further exhibition of himself. The then lasted, and there seemed to be no farther equivalent Now. Time became the individual and Catholic problem. The Church had to become as catholic—as universal and as durable—as time.

Time has been said to be the great problem for philosophers; nor is it otherwise with the believers. How, and with what, do we fill time? How, and how far, do we pass out of time? The apostates are only those who abandon the problem; the saints are only those who solve it. The prayer for final perseverance which the Church so urgently recommends is but her passion for remaining faithful, at least, to the problem—of refusing to give it up. What are the relations between that Now and the consequent Then? what are the condi­tions of the relation–not what ought to be, but what are? “The conversion of time by the Holy Ghost” is the title of the grand activity of the Church.

In the first century, in the Apostolic age itself, that time which the Church was to redeem was already becoming the bane of the Church. The first division between the Church and what has been called the Kingdom began to exist. The Kingdom—or, apocalyptically, the City—is the state into which Christendom is called; but, except in vision, she is not yet the City. The City is the state which the Church is to become. In the impact of Messias, in the evocation of her elements, in the impact of the Spirit, in the promulgation of her unity, she for a moment, was one with her state. But she was too soon all but divided from her state. It was inevitable; had it not been so, she would have had no reason for existing. Her reason is not only in the error of the world; it is in her own error. Her error is her very opportu­nity for being. That is what she is about.

Time then existed, and she reconciled herself to it.

Charles Williams

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