“The Theotokos was the first to see the Lord after the resurrection and she had the joy to hear his voice first”

The resurrection of the Lord is the regeneration of human nature. It is the resuscitation and re-creation of the first Adam, whom sin led to death, and who because of death, again was made to retrace his steps on the earth from which he was made. The resurrection is the return to immortal life. Whereas no one saw that first man when he was created and given life—because no man existed yet at that time—woman was the first person to see him after he had received the breath of life by divine inbreathing. For after him, Eve was the first human being. Likewise no one saw the second Adam, who is the Lord, rise from the dead, for none of his followers were near by and the soldiers guarding the tomb were so shaken that they were like dead men. Following the resurrection, however, it was a woman who saw Him first before the others, as we have heard from Saint Mark’s Gospel today. “After his resurrec­tion Jesus appeared on the morning of the Lord’s Day to Mary Magdalene first.” It seems that the Evangelist is speaking clearly about the time of the Lord’s resurrection—that it was morning—that he appeared to Mary Magdalene, and that he appeared to her at the time of the resurrection. But, if we pay some attention it will become clear that this is not what he says. Earlier in this passage, in agreement with the other Evangelists, Saint Mark says that Mary Magdalene had come to the tomb earlier with the other Myrrhbearing women, and that she went away when she saw it empty. There­fore, the Lord had risen much earlier on the morning on which she saw him. But wishing to fix the time more exactly, he doesn’t say simply “morning,” as is the case here, but “very early in the morning.” Thus the expression “and the rising of the sun” as used there refers to that time when the slightest light precedes from the east on the horizon. This is what Saint John also wants to indicate when he says that Mary Magdalene came to the tomb in the morning while it was still dark and saw the stone pulled away from it.

According to Saint John, she did not come to the tomb alone, even though she left the tomb without yet having seen the Lord. For she ran to Peter and John, and instead of announcing to them that the Lord was risen, told them that he had been taken from the tomb. Therefore, she did not yet know about the resurrection. It is not Mary Magdalene’s claim that Christ appeared to her first but that he appeared after the actual beginning of the day. There is, of course, a certain shadow covering this matter on the part of the Evangelists that I shall, through your love, uncover. The good news of the resurrection of Christ was received from the Lord first, before all others, by the Theotokos. This is truly meet and right. She was the first to see him after the resurrection and she had to joy to hear his voice first. Moreover, she not only saw him with her eyes and heard him with her ears but with her hands she was the first and only one to touch his spotless feet, even if the Evangelists do not mention these things clearly. They do not want to present the mother’s witness so as not to give the nonbelievers a reason to be suspicious. In that now my words about the joy of the risen one are directed to believers, the opportunity of this feast moves us to explain what is relative to the Myrrhbearers. Justification is given by him who said: There is nothing hidden that shall not be made known, and this also will be made known.

The Myrrhbearers are all those women who followed with the mother of the Lord, stayed with her during those hours of the salvific passion, and with pathos anointed him with myrrh. After Joseph and Nicodemos asked for and received the body of the Lord from Pilate, they took it down from the cross, wrapped it in a cloth with strong spices, placed it in a carved out tomb, and closed the door of the tomb with a large stone. The Myrrh­bearers were close by and watched, and as the Evangelist Mark relates, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were seated opposite the grave. With the expression “and the other Mary” he means the mother of Christ without a doubt. She was also called the mother of Iakovos [James] and Joses, who were the children of Joseph, her betrothed. It was not only they who were watching the entombment of the Lord but also the other women. As Saint Luke relates:

And the women, also, who had come with him from Galilee, followed after, and beheld the sepulcher and how his body was laid. These women were Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of Iakovos, and the other women who were with them.

He writes that they went and bought spices and myrrh; for they did not yet clearly know that he is truly the perfume of life for those who approach him in faith, just as he is also the odor of death for those who remain unbelievers to the end. They did not yet clearly know that the odor of his clothes, the odor of his own body, is greater than all perfumes, that his name is like myrrh that is poured out to cover the world with his divine fragrance. For those who wanted to remain close by the body, the contrived an antidote of perfumes for the stench of decomposition and anointed it.

Thus they prepared the myrrh and the spices and rested on the Sabbath according to the commandment. For they had not yet experienced the true sabbath, nor did they understand that exceedingly blessed sabbath that transports us from the confines of hell to the perfec­tion of the bright and divine heights of heaven. Saint Luke says that “on the first day of the week, very early in the morning,” they came to the sepulchre bearing the spices that they had prepared. And Saint Matthew says that those who came “late on the Sabbath towards the dawn of the Lord’s day” were two in number. Saint John says that it was only Mary Magdalene who came, and that it was “morning, even though it was still dark.” But Saint Mark says that three women came very early in the morning on the first day of the week. By ”the first day of the week” all the Evangelists mean the Lord’s Day and they use expressions like “late on the Sabbath,” “early dawn,” “early dawn,” “early morning,” “morning,” and “even though it was still dark” [to refer to the Lord’s Day which is Sunday]. They mean the daybreaking hour when the darkness fights with the light and the hour when the eastern part of the horizon begins to become light as it presages the day. Observing from afar, one sees the light changing colors in the east at about the ninth hour of the night, which colors remain until the fulfillment of the day three hours later. It seems that the Evangelists disagree some—what concerning both the time of the visits and the number of women. This is attributable to the fact that, as we said, the myrrhbearers were many; that they did not come to the sepulchre one time only but two and three times, and not always in the same groups; that all the visits were at dawn but not at exactly the same hour. Mary Magdalene also came by herself without the others and stayed longer. Each of the Evangelists, therefore, relates one journey of some of the women and leaves the others. Consequently, by compar­ing all the Evangelists—and I said this before—I conclude that the Theotokos was the first who came to the grave of her son and God, together with Mary Magdalene. We are informed of this by the Evangelist Matthew who said: “In the end of the sabbath, as it began to dawn toward the first day of the week, came Mary Magdalene and the other Mary to see the sepulchre” (Matthew 28:1).

Mary Magdalene and the other Mary—who was, of course, the Mother of the Lord—went to look at the sepulchre. And behold there was a great earthquake: for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven, and came and rolled back the stone from the door of the tomb and sat upon it. His countenance was like lightening and his raiment white as snow. And for fear of him the guards did shake and become like dead men.

The other women came after the earthquake and the flight of the guards, and found the grave open and the stone rolled back. The Virgin Mother, however, was there when the quake occurred, when the stone was rolled back, when the grave opened, and while the guards were there, even though they were completely shaken with fear. That is why the guards immediately thought of fleeing when they came to from the earthquake but the Mother of God rejoiced without fear at what she saw. I believe that the life-bearing grave opened first for her. For her and by her grace all things were revealed for us, everything that is in heaven above and on the earth below. For her sake the angel shone so brightly so that, even though it was still dark, she saw by means of the bright angelic light not only the empty grave but also the burial garments carefully arranged and in an orderly fashion, thereby witnessing in many ways to the resurrection of the one who was entombed. He was, after all, that same angel of the Annunciation, Gabriel; he watched her proceed rapidly towards the grave and immediately descended. He who in the beginning had told her “fear not, Mary, you have found grace with God,” now directs the same exhortation to the Ever Virgin. He came to announce the resurrection from the dead to her who, with seedless conception, gave him birth; to raise the stone, to reveal the empty grave and the burial garments, so that in this manner the good news would be verified for her. He writes:

And the angel answered the women and said: fear not. Do you seek the Christ whom they crucified? He is risen. Here is the place where the Lord was placed. If you see the soldiers overcome with fear, do not be afraid. I know that you seek the Christ whom they crucified. He is risen. He is not here. For not only can He not be held by the keys, the bars, and the seals of hell, of death, and of the grave, but he is even the Lord of the immortal angels of heaven, and the only Lord of the whole world. See the place where the Lord lay. Go quickly and tell his disciples that he is risen from the dead.

And they departed, he says, with fear and great joy. At this point I am of the opinion that Mary Magdalene and the other women who had come up to that point were still frightened. For they did not understand the meaning of the angel’s powerful words nor could they contain to the end the power of the light so as to see and understand with exactitude. But I think that the Mother of God made this great joy her own, since she comprehended the words of the angel. Her whole person radiated from the light in that she was all pure and full of divine grace. She firmly appropriated all these signs and the truth and she believed the archangel, since, of course, he formerly had shown himself to be worthy of trust for her in other matters. And why shouldn’t the Virgin understand with divine wisdom. what had occurred in that she observed the events at first hand? She saw the great earthquake and the angel descending from heaven like lightening, she saw the guards fall as dead men, the removal of the stone, the emptying of the tomb, and the great miracle of the burial garments which were kept in place by smyrna and aloes, even though they contained no body. In addition to all of these things, she saw the joyous countenance of the angel and heard his joyful message. But Mary Magdalene, in responding to the annunciation, acted as if she had not heard the angel at all—he had not in fact spoken directly to her. She testifies only to the emptying of the tomb and says nothing about the burial garments, but runs directly to Peter and to the other disciples, as Saint John says. The Mother of God went back to the tomb again when she met the other women and, as Saint Matthew says, behold Jesus met them and told them to rejoice.

So you see that even before Mary Magdalene, the Mother of God saw Him who for our salvation suffered and was buried and rose again in the flesh.

And they approached, touched his feet and worshipped him.

St Gregory Palamas

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The Curious Doctrine of Aerial Toll Houses

Over the past couple of years, the doctrine of aerial toll houses has come under critical blog scrutiny, prompted especially by the publication of Departure of the Soul According to the Teaching of the Orthodox Church. The doctrine enjoys a long, interesting, and problematic history in the Eastern Church. On occasion, some Orthodox have sought to elevate it to the level of dogma, despite the absence of ecumenical consent and explicit attestation in Scripture.

The toll house teaching functions similarly to the Latin doctrine of retributive hell-fire: to inspire terror and summon to repentance. Both doctrines inevitably raise questions about the divine love of God as revealed in Jesus Christ. These questions do not go away when toll house defenders explain that the teaching should be interpreted as an allegory of the particular judgment.

Here are links to four articles you may find helpful on this topic.

Nor Height Nor Depth: On the Toll Houses” by David Bentley Hart

Aerial Toll Houses, Provisional Judgment, and the Orthodox Faith” by Stephen J. Shoemaker

“Orthodox Theologies of the Afterlife” by Paul Ladouceur

Aerial Toll-Houses” by Ambrose Andreano

On the Toll Houses Again” by Eirini Afentoulidou

For a scholarly discussion of Byzantine understandings of the intermediate state of souls, see “‘To Sleep, Perchance to Dream’: The Middle State of Souls in Patristic and Byzantine Literature” by Nicholas Constas. Dr Ladouceur’s above blog article is based on his review essay published in the St Vladimir’s Journal.

I also bring to your attention to my own series on toll houses:

Life After Death and the Demonic Gauntlet

Aerial Toll Houses—Dogma or Pious Belief?

White Walkers, Toll-Houses, and the Hermeneutic of Pascha

Personally, I like my titles better than the titles of the other guys. 😎

If you’d like to read articles that present the arguments in favor of the toll house teaching … well, that’s what Google is for.

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Flesh in the Devastation

“Fleshly creatures in the LORD’s image and likeness”—Paul J. Griffiths proposes this formula as a provisional definition of human beings (Decreation, p. 157). One could easily write a series of books unpacking this definition. In this post and the next, I will focus on Griffiths’s understanding of human flesh as lived in the Devastation.

Recall our glossary:

Flesh: “living or animate body extended continuously in timepsace, and in that distinct from other kinds of body, such as the inanimate, whether or not continuously extended in timespace, and the animate but discarnate.”

“Flesh,” in other words, signifies any and every living creature, excepting angels and discarnate souls. Fleshly beings are alive—in Christian language, ensouled bodies or informed by soul—and therefore are not inanimate beings. Nothing terribly profound here (though it may be terribly profound)—we immediately grasp the difference, even though some scientists, for example, may wonder whether self-replicating crystals qualify as animate or inanimate. Rocks, plywood, and quasars are not alive. The corpse of Uncle Frank is not alive. The Japanese Stilt Grass on my hillside is too alive and has overwhelmed the English Ivy (which I used to think was indestructible). “Distinguishing what lives from what doesn’t, flesh from body,” Griffiths writes, “comes for humans, easily and early, mostly by osmosis supplemented, when needed, by explicit catechesis” (Christian Flesh, p. 3). Yet as easy it is is for us to distinguish the animate and inanimate, when we consider all the varieties of the former (“mammalian flesh, fish flesh, avian flesh, insect flesh, and so on”), we find that they differ so profoundly from each other that “we cannot imagine in the least what ant-flesh or salmon-flesh is like” (Decreation, p. 159).

Fleshly bodies enjoy an intimate, symbiotic relationship with the world. Griffiths speaks of a porosity. The life of the flesh requires assimilation and exchange; inhalation and exhalation; ingestion, metabolism, egestion:

Bounded though bodies of flesh are, they’re also porous to the world in which they find themselves. They don’t only touch it and have contact with it; they also take it into themselves and disgorge their by-products, and sometimes also part of themselves, into it. Ingestion and leakage, that is, are properly characteristic of flesh: it receives the world into itself and gives itself outward into that same world. There’s a constant systole and diastole of exchange with the world without which no fleshly body can live. (CF, p. 14)

All fleshly beings in the Devastation are damaged and deformed. They are not what they could be or perhaps should be, for the world of which they are a part is not what it could be and should be. Flesh inhabits an ecology of violence. As Griffiths vividly puts it:

Mammalian lungs suck air; plants eat light; whales, open-mouthed, harvest phytoplankton; bats, sonar-guided, suck in bloodsucking mosquitoes; sharks, blood-inflamed, ingest even their own flesh when wounded; and humans eat often and indiscriminately, finding a high proportion of the world’s things suitable for ingestion … For most flesh—for all of it, in fact, other than most plants—ingestion is largely of still-living or recently dead flesh … This preference on the part of fleshly bodies for other fleshly bodies when eating means that the economy of the flesh is one of slaughter. (pp. 14-15)

Life consumes life. Needless to say, vegans and vegetarians too participate in the economy of slaughter—they only avoid its bloody aspect. As for the rest of us, we delight in broiled chicken and grilled rare steaks. We are red in tooth and claw:

Who trusted God was love indeed
And love Creation’s final law
Tho’ Nature, red in tooth and claw
With ravine, shriek’d against his creed

~ Tennyson

All bodies, animate and inanimate, are locatable according to their natures, if only by traces. This is what it means to be a body in timespace. This is true for human beings in all of its states. “Being enfleshed as humans,” states Griffiths, “locates us—gives us a place—in the world, whether in this devastated world, in the Edenic one, or in heaven itself. To be flesh is to be here, somewhere particular, not everywhere, and not somewhere else” (Decreation, p. 161). This is also true for inanimate material bodies, but there are differences. In the fallen world the locatedness of inanimate material bodies “is exclusively spatial, and a complete account can be given of it by specifying Cartesian coordinates of space” (p. 161). At first glance this would seem to be the case for human fleshly bodies as well. Wear an Apple Watch and its built-in GPS will place you on a map with perfect accuracy. “But,” Griffiths goes on to say, “locatedness, as flesh, means something more than this.” Something more …

(Go to “Eros and Flesh”)

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The Problem of Divine Hiddenness: It Even Gets Worse After Pascha

by Alexander Earl

Most people are familiar with the problem of evil: how could an all-good, all-knowing, and all-powerful God be consistent with the existence of evil? After all, if God is all-good he abhors evil, if he is all-knowing he is aware there is evil, and if he is all-powerful he is capable of putting a stop to evil. In short, he doesn’t want it, he knows it’s there, and he can do something about it. Nonetheless, evil abounds aplenty. Q.E.D. there is no God. Of course, we could also rehearse all the ways that the history of theology (and contemporary anglo­phone philosophy) has attempted to tackle this problem: Gnostic dualism, Platonic priva­tion, the overriding goodness of free will, the argument from cosmic plenitude, the benefits of a world oriented toward soul-making, speculation about possible worlds, the eschatolog­ical balancing of goods, universalism, or even pastoral redirections to the Cross; each can co-exist in endless mixture, and each in turn can occur within the nuanced distinction between theodicies and defenses.[i]

However, there is perhaps a less well-known dilemma, which is a sub-set of the problem of evil, known as the problem of Divine Hiddenness. It has received a vibrant buzz of scholarship for almost 30 years, which unsurprisingly has followed a similar course as its predecessor, which goes something like this: an atheist comes out swinging that belief in God is logically unsound and simply irrational, theists come to defend the logical possibility of faith, said atheist backtracks and reframes with a lighter touch by focusing on evidential problems, then the issue moves to ‘defense’ theories, and finally other ‘classical theists’ come to the table and try to muster the weight of traditional wisdom for guidance, and finally the debate dies down, or moves into some other direction, or what have you. That the debates take a similar course of argument is positively instructive; that we inevitably need to turn to the Holy Fathers for guidance, the Church’s rich tradition of reflection, and what dogmas she has on the matter, is not altogether surprising; that we need to be reminded to do so, I must admit, will never cease to be frustrating.

For some background, the contemporary debate over Divine Hiddenness takes off in 1993, when J.L. Schellenberg published Divine Hiddenness and Human Reason. Almost all of the literature has focused on a rejection of one of the premises of Schellenberg’s original argument, which is expressed in the following:

S1. If there is a God, God is perfectly loving.

S2. If a perfectly loving God exists, reasonable nonbelief does not occur.

S3. Reasonable nonbelief occurs.

S4. Therefore: No perfectly loving God exists.

S5. Therefore: there is no God.[ii]

Schellenberg’s reasoning seems to rely on two underlying commitments. The first, if God is perfectly loving, then God would seek explicit reciprocal relationships with all of his creatures and, given that fact, we might expect God’s existence to be a little more obvious than it is. In other words, Schellenberg claims that there is a direct connection between love and the willing of personal relationships and so, he insists, how much more so for perfect love. The second commitment is related to the first: one way in which we might expect God to produce said relationships—or at any rate one way in which God could produce them—is by providing a kind of religious experience. I consider this claim about the necessary connection between (a) perfect love and (b) religious experience to be foundational to the Schellenbergian argument. I will return to these commitments later.

To get a grasp of what this argument entails, start by just looking around. You will find unbelief in God a rather typical state of affairs. Should we infer that every single instance of that unbelief is unreasonable? Let’s presume that most people do not have good reasons for their unbelief; nonetheless, there have been some prominent intellectuals who have desperately desired to believe, but simply could not bring themselves to do so in light of the evidence. And surely we can imagine many who have suffered horrendous evils, with no presence of God to be found, having some good reasons for losing faith, right? Ivan’s tirade in The Brothers Karamazov always comes to mind as he recounts the Turks butchering infants out of mere whim; another example comes from Schellenberg himself, who tries to draw an analogy of God’s hiddenness to us: picture a child lost in the wilderness, surrounded by beasts of prey, sobbing for its mother to no avail. Maybe this child even has amnesia, isn’t quite sure it has a mother, but in its most desperate moments calls out anyway. Would a perfectly loving God let these events occur, leaving infants to bayonets and his children to sulk alone in a dangerous and darkened wood? It certainly raises some concern. But before getting too ahead of ourselves, let’s take stock of the debate up to this point.

Justin McBrayer and Philip Swenson provide a helpful summary of the debate and its various positions. To summarize, they split the positions into those that reject S2 and those that reject S3, demonstrate how they are inadequate responses, and then offer their own response known as skeptical theism. For our purposes, I only want to summarize what they consider as the ‘major contemporary defenses’ and what they propose as a solution.[iii]

Those positions that reject S2 are labeled as follows: The Coercion defense, the argument that God’s revealing himself would prove coercive and thus remove the possibility of free will, which is a morally significant good.[iv] The Goods defense, the argument that God’s hiddenness, for all we know, is necessary for bringing about certain goods, such as a respect for the will and desires of human beings, personal relationship, love and trust, humility, love of truth, and so on.[v] The Improper response defense, the argument that God’s revealing himself would prove explicitly harmful to some, i.e. they may respond negatively to such a revelation.[vi] As for those that reject S3, McBrayer and Swenson provide the following: Sin, the argument that human sin is to blame for our cognitive and moral failings, and if not for sin God’s existence would be obvious to us.[vii] And lastly, the G.E. Moore Shift, the argument that belief in S2 entails that S3 is false, for if a perfectly loving God exists, then supposed instances of reasonable nonbelief are in fact illusory, e.g. the mark of self-deception.[viii]

As for their own view, McBrayer and Swenson argue that, “we don’t think that atheists or theists can say with any serious degree of confidence why God does what he does or why he would or wouldn’t do a certain thing.”[ix] Moreover, their critique of the positions, as a totality, amounts to insisting that “they each assume that we can know too much.”[x] Given those assumptions, McBrayer and Swenson consider their position free from common objections, as well as embodying a kind of intellectual humility that is missing from the literature.

That’s wonderful as things go, intellectual humility is a must, and epistemic realism is admirable; but I’m not sure how this view doesn’t amount to a mere scholarly parry. It is what I frequently call a punt to mystery. Mysteries are conclusions to rigorous metaphysical reflection, not a comfortable premise that allows one to escape through the back door when things get messy.

So what’s gone wrong here, then? As alluded to above, where are the Fathers? Where are the Councils or the canons? Where is the liturgy with its fasts and feasts, its hymns and rhythms? More pertinently, what God is even under discussion here? Is it the God revealed in Christ who through the Spirit is present in the Church until the end of the age? Is it the God revealed in the singing of the psalms and the breaking of the bread and the sharing of the one cup? The real difficulty here is that the entire debate has lost sight of not only what the classical tradition means by God, but it has lost sight of God’s transcendence as it is revealed in Christ and encountered in the Eucharist, which is not a revelation opposed to hiddenness, but is rather the revelation of hiddenness. This neglect is purposeful. Schellen­berg explicitly denies that Christians have recourse to an argument from Divine transcen­dence, saying quite boldly that “theists […] are not in a position to think of God as absolutely transcendent”—a more bizarre claim could not be made.

Any cursory engagement with the Christian tradition demonstrates that it is absolutely and unequivocally a tradition of apophaticism, which means it is a tradition that engages God as the Absolute, the Transcendent, and the Simple cause of all; God’s ineffability logically follows from that reality. Schellenberg’s rationale for rejecting transcendence and apophaticism stems from the seeming performative contradiction of saying, “God is ineffable.” If God were ineffable, then I shouldn’t be able to say anything about him, either the putative title ‘God’ or an attribute like ‘ineffability’. However, Schellenberg argues, Christians are committed to saying quite a bit about God; thus, God must not be ineffable; therefore, God must not be absolutely transcendent.[xi] However, this train of thought fails to understand the dynamics of the apophatic tradition. We have to understand first principles, per Origen:

God therefore must not be thought to be any kind of body, nor exist in a body, but to be a simple intellectual existence, admitting in himself of no addition whatever, so that he cannot be believed to have in himself a more or a less, but is Unity, or if I may so say, Oneness throughout, and the mind and fount from which originates all intellectual existence or mind.

– Origen of Alexandria, On First Principles I.1

God must be absolutely simple, consisting of no parts whatsoever, even metaphysical parts. To be a composite entity is to have parts that are prior to the unity, and God can have no reality that is prior to himself. Moreover, to have parts is to raise the causal question of how those parts have come to exist as a unity, or how they can be meaningfully distinguished as parts of said unity. Since God is not caused, but is the source of all things, then no such causal question can emerge. Further, if God is absolutely simple, then there can be no intellection of him:

To tell of God is not possible, so my argument runs, but to know him is even less possible. For language may show the known if not adequately, at least faintly, to a person not totally deaf and dull of mind. But to mentally grasp so great a matter is utterly beyond real possibility…

– Gregory of Nazianzus, Oration 28.4

Intellection requires an object of intellection, and to know an object is to know it as one thing over against another, a this instead of a that. If God is the source of all things, then he is not one of them. The very categories of sameness and difference are posterior to him. It is for these reasons that there is a robust tradition of speaking about the encounter of God as the encounter of darkness:

What does it mean that Moses entered the darkness and then saw God in it? […] For leaving behind everything is observed, not only what sense comprehends but also what the intelligence thinks it sees, it keeps on penetrating deeper until by the intelligence’s yearning for understanding it gains access to the invisible and the incomprehensible, and there it sees God. This is the true knowledge of what is sought; this is the seeing that consists in not seeing, because that which is sought transcends all knowledge, being separated on all sides by incomprehensibility as by a kind of darkness […] knowledge of the divine essence is unattainable not only by men but also by every intelligent creature.

– Gregory of Nyssa, The Life of Moses 2.162-163

It is not as if God were a really big entity whose attributes are quantitatively superior to ours and so we politely say we cannot know him. On the contrary, he is absolutely unknowable, and that confession is not a pious platitude. In fact, that God is absolutely unknowable is the philosophical ground of the Judeo-Christian prohibition of idolatry. No image or conception of God can capture God, nothing can define him as a this and so limit him or, worse, control and manipulate him. We must protect against idolatry if we are to encounter the true and living God! So Evagrius of Pontus says, with a sheer simplicity of words to match the content:

God cannot be grasped by the mind. If he could be grasped, he would not be God.

– Evagrius of Pontus, PG 40:1275C

Contra Schellenberg, it would be a mistake to think that the insistence on God’s ineffability and unknowability is in flagrant contradiction to speaking about God. Theological language is irreducibly cataphatic (positive) and apophatic (negative). Nonetheless, the apophatic way, the via negativa, always takes precedence, but to speak of apophatic language in the truest sense is not to say God is known by negative language, but rather that we must transcend language altogether.

Since it is the Cause of all beings, we should posit and ascribe to it all the affirmations we make in regards to beings, and, more appropriately, we should negate all these affirmation, since it surpasses all being. Now we should not conclude that the negations are simply the opposites of the affirmations, but rather that the cause of all is considerably prior to this, beyond privations, beyond every denial, beyond every assertion.

– Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, Mystical Theology 100B-C

To know the world is to know it as caused, dependent, finite, limited, measured, and so on. But coming to that insight alone is to encounter the uncaused, absolute, infinite, unlimited, unmeasured. One can only do the former, that is, know reality qua finitude, if one somehow is in touch with the standard that judges it as such. Once we have rallied the full weight of creation to speak about God, we must understand that it points beyond itself, it speaks indeed; but its speech necessarily fails. Thus, the language manifests the hidden, but it manifests it as hidden. To know something as finite is simultaneously to see it as pointing to the infinite, but I cannot get beyond the finite to the infinite, I can only encounter the infinite in the finite, and I cannot reduce one to the other. To negate the negation, to successfully engage in the apophatic, is to hold the positive and negative language in a consistent tension to keep the mind from complacency in the created or lower God to the created. I must encounter God in creation by knowing the world as created. In short, God is the source of all genera, but is himself not a genus.

God is not essence, understood as either general or particular, even if he is principle; nor is he potency understood as either general or particular, even if he is means; he is not act, understood as either general or particular, even if he is end of essential movement discerned in potency. But he is a principle of being who is creative of essence and beyond essence, a ground who is creative of power but beyond power, the active and eternal condition of every act, and to speak briefly, the Creator of every essence, power, and act, as well as every beginning, middle, and end.

– Maximus the Confessor, Chapters on Knowledge I.4

In Aristotelian language, God is not a mix of potency and act, but neither is he one or the other absolutely. He is the condition of the possibility of all things. As condition, he is prior to them; yet as their very possibility, the power of their power, all things inevitably reflect his superabundant life. This dynamic is enshrined in Christian Orthodoxy; it cannot be conceived of as anything less than dogma:

The Divinity, then, is limitless and incomprehensible, and this His limitlessness and incomprehensibility is all that can be understood about Him. All that we state affirmatively about God does not show His nature, but only what relates to His nature.

– John of Damascus, On the Orthodox Faith I.4

I must be clear, this vision is not peculiar to the Greek East, just take two examples from the two pillars of the Latin tradition:

Have I said anything, solemnly uttered anything that is worthy of God? On the contrary, all I feel I have done is to wish to say something; but if I have said anything, it is not what I wished to say. How do I know this? I know it because God is inexpressible […] this battle of words should be avoided by keeping silent, rather than resolved by the use of speech. And yet, while nothing really worthy of God can be said about him, he has accepted the homage of human voices, and has wishes to rejoice in praising him with our words.

– Augustine of Hippo, On Teaching Christianity I.6

And even in that strenuous scholasticism that the East typically laments, we find a total commitment to God’s transcendence and ineffability:

Now, because we cannot know what God is, but rather what He is not, we have no means for considering how God is, but rather how He is not.

– Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae Ia Q. 3, preface

Notice the context of what Augustine has said (and even the context of Thomas’s Summa). It is the context of praise. The apophatic is not merely intellectualized faith, something akin to ‘the God of the philosophers’, a scholastic maxim, or the privileged view of analytic ‘theolo­gians.’ It is enshrined in the powerful principle of lex orandi, lex credendi (the law of prayer is the law of belief); it is the inheritance and experience of every baptized Christian, which is embodied in the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. Consider, the liturgy begins with a recognition of God’s transcendence and ineffability as the faithful gather together to begin—to use Dionysian language—their ascent toward the synaxis of the noetic altar:

O Lord our God, whose power is incomparable, whose glory is incomprehensible, whose mercy is immeasurable, and whose love for mankind is inexpressible…

– Prayer of the First Antiphon

From there plunging into ever-deepening layers of hiddenness and manifestation, reaching a heightened pitch at the Anaphora:

It is meet and right to hymn thee, to bless thee, to praise thee, to give thanks to thee, and to worship thee in every place of thy dominion, for thou are God ineffable, inconceivable, invisible, incomprehensible, ever-existing, and eternally the same…

– The Holy Anaphora of St. John Chrysostom

And here we arrive at the apophatic core: the Eucharist. Indeed, the Eucharist is not simply presence, immanence, and manifestation; it is simultaneously absence, transcendence, and hiddenness. Martin V. Nemoianu, a philosopher and professor at Loyola Marymount University, has made precisely this argument in the context of the problem of divine hiddenness by drawing on a most unlikely ally, Blaise Pascal. Nemoianu’s explanation is worth quoting in full:

Turning then to a broader consideration of the question, Pascal writes that the history of the world can be understood as the history of God entering ever more deeply into the particulars of nature and human experience (OC II, pp. 30–31). Seen from one side, God’s action may be understood as progressive concealment. God hides himself first of all in nature itself. He then veils himself in the words of scripture, and once more beneath the literal meaning of those words, in the mystical sense of the text. In time he hides himself within the visible human nature of Christ. Finally and most fully, he conceals himself beneath the homely species of the Eucharist.Pascal is quite in earnest when he refers to the divine entry into human history as hiding. “All things,” he says, “are veils which cover God” (OC II, p. 31), and he claims, strikingly, that God was easier to discern before the Incarnation, under the veil of nature generally, than afterward. Indeed, God’s presence in the species of the Eucharist is “the strangest and most obscure” concealment of all (OC II, p. 30).

And yet, Pascal argues that, taken from another side, God’s intentional hiding is progressive self-disclosure. Under each veil of natural and historical particulars, he is found by some. Past the appearances of the natural world, he is discovered by pagans, who, as St. Paul puts it, recognize an invisible God through visible nature. Beneath the words of scripture, in its literal sense, he is found by all the Jews, and, beneath this, in its mystical sense, by a smaller group. At the Incarnation, hidden in the human nature of Christ, God is found by all Christians. Lastly, concealed by the sacramental veil, he is recognized by all Catholics in the Eucharist.[xii]

If Nemoianu is right, which I believe he is, then reasonable non-belief does not occur, and so S3 is false. God’s existence is demonstrable from the things he has made, and the history of religious adherence (of all stripes), as well as the philosophical and theological reflection of over two millennia, make that fact abundantly clear; non-belief is an anomaly of the modern world. The atheist lacks the democracy of history and experience on their side. In which case, the burden of proof most certainly falls to them.

Further, the claim that a perfectly loving God would not allow such non-belief to occur is likewise false. For what we see in the problem of Divine hiddenness is precisely a demand for God to conform to human expectations and desires. It is an idolatrous demand on the part of humanity, not a failure of God to perfectly love his creation. To say so is to refuse to paint God as an obstinate protector of his fragile personality, as if he could do otherwise than he does. In brief, it is metaphysically impossible for God to be otherwise than he is, and that necessity is not imposed upon God as something external to God, but is the perfect freedom of the source of all being as the summum bonum.

Here we arrive at where I began. Schellenberg says that one way that God could manifest himself to all his creatures in order to combat non-belief, and fulfill the obligations of perfect love (which seeks explicit reciprocal relationships) is through a kind of religious experience. However, the religious experience he has in mind does not accord with the theological tradition, nor, as we can see, is it even possible: if you comprehend it, it is not God. To repeat, God is not some discrete object of experience. While it is true that there are different kinds of ‘extraordinary’ experiences available to us, and the scriptures are full of the experiences of angelic beings and other facets of reality beyond the material, these are experiences that come with proper receptivity and holiness. In other words, they are there for us whenever we become properly receptive to the Divine. Religious experience, in fact religion as such, is about attunement to reality and not about the arbitrary interventions of a massive being or attempts to coax that massive being into satisfying our will. To quote Maximus the Confessor: “voluntary movement, either in accord with the will and word of God or against the will and word of God, prepared each person to hear the divine voice” (Ambiguum 7.3 1085C). And just to demonstrate that this view is not unique to Christianity:

How then, since we possess such great things, do we not apprehend them[?] […] it is necessary, then, if there is to be apprehension of the things that are thus present, to turn that which apprehends inward, and pay attention to what is there. Just as, if someone waiting for a voice that he wants to hear, turning away from other voices, should arouse his ear toward the best of things heard, when it comes; so too, here, dismissing sensible sounds except as far as necessary, we must keep the soul’s power of apprehension pure and ready to hear the voices from above.

– Plotinus, Ennead V.1.12, 1-20

We do not need extraordinary religious experience to experience God, for the greatest religious experience is open to all through the levels of reality God has gifted to us through nature, scripture, incarnation, and eucharist. We must engage God as God has revealed himself. To encounter those realities in truth is to understand that Divine hiddenness is not a problem, it is the very context of the believer’s experience of God. It is a basic dogma of Orthodoxy. God reveals himself as hidden, and each revelation is a deepening of that hiddenness, not an annihilation of it. If you desire to encounter God, then enter a church. God is there in the nature encompassing the building and in the very matter of its foundations and its walls. God is there in the mystical reading of the scriptures. God is there in the hymns, the feasts and the fasts. God is there on the altar. He courses through the flesh and sinews of the communicants being formed in his likeness. He is declared in the radiant splendor of the halos encompassing the saints in the iconography. Yet, even there, amidst it all, you will encounter darkness. In fact, you are invited to know only darkness…

Taste and see that the Lord is good.



[i] The gist of the difference between a theodicy and a defense is that the former intends to provide the reasons God has for X, while the latter tries to consider possible reasons God might have for X.

[ii] Schellenberg has since reformulated his argument in terms of modality. For the argument’s development, see Schellenberg (1993, 1996, 2005, 2007, 2016) below. I’ve focused on the argument found in (1993), but as formulated by Michael Rea in Rea (2016). Rea, a professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, is perhaps one of the few major analytic philosophers attempting to argue from the historical tradition, to greater and lesser degrees of success. I would devote more attention to that fact if only time and space would allow.

J.L. Schellenberg (1993) Divine Hiddenness and Human Reason (Ithaca NY: Cornell University Press).

—(1996) ‘Response to Howard-Snyder,’ Canadian Journal of Philosophy, 26, 455-462

—(2005) ‘The hiddenness argument revisited’ Religious Studies, 41, 287-303

—(2007) The Wisdom to Doubt (Ithaca NY: Cornell University Press).

—(2016) ‘Divine hiddenness and human philosophy,’ in Hidden Divinity and Religious Belief: New Perspectives (Cambridge University Press), 13-32.

Michael C. Rea (2009) ‘Narrative, Liturgy, and the Hiddenness of God’ in Metaphysics and God: Essays in Honor of Eleanore Stump (NY: Routledge).

—(2011) ‘Deus Absconditus,’ in Philosophy of Religion: An Anthology (Stamdford CT: Cengage Learning), 369-392.

—(2016) ‘Hiddenness and transcendence,’ in Hidden Divinity and Religious Belief: New Perspectives (Cambridge University Press), 211-225.

[iii] McBrayer 142; Justin P. McBrayer & Philip Swenson (2012) ‘Scepticism about the argument from divine hiddenness,’ Religious Studies, 48, 129-150

[iv] ibid. 132-134

[v] ibid. 134-135

[vi] ibid. 135-138

[vii] ibid. 139-140

[viii] ibid. 141-142

[ix] ibid. 145

[x] ibid. 148

[xi] Schellenberg (1993), 46

[xii] Martin V. Nemoianu, ‘Pascal on Divine Hiddenness’ in the International Philosophical Quarterly vol. 55. No. 3, Issue 219 (September 2015) p. 341

* * *

Alexander Earl currently teaches Theology and History at a college-preparatory school in Santa Monica, California. He holds a Masters of Arts in Religion and Philosophical Theology from Yale Divinity School.

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Tom Belt Visits Fr Eclectic

Had a wonderful visit yesterday and today with long-time reader and contributor Tom Belt. Tom started commenting on Eclectic Orthodoxy back in early 2014, and for a while he was commenting frequently, before he restarted his blog, An Open Orthodoxy. Tom has also contributed a couple of articles to EO. I think my favorite is his “St Maximus the Confessor, Hell, and the Final Consummation.” Tom’s continuing and constructive presence here (despite his zillions of typos) has made this blog so much more intelligent than it would have been otherwise.

We have talked on the phone a few times over the years and exchanged many emails and texts. Hence it was a great joy that we could finally meet in person, sit out on my deck, and think deep thoughts together on theology (well, Tom thought deep thoughts; I just thought thoughts).

Thank you for visiting, Tom. It was a great blessing to Christine and me to meet you in person!

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“The resurrection of the Son is a new creation to the whole world, and the world is new on account of it and hence it is beyond sufferings”


The resurrection of the Son is a new creation to the whole world,
and the world is new on account of it and hence it is beyond sufferings.
From His resurrection life reigned over mortals,
and we have truly stripped off the old order by His death.
The Mighty One rose up and He made us,
those who were thrown down, rise up with Him.
He descended alone, but with many He ascended from the tomb.
The day before yesterday Scribes were mocking at Him, “Save Yourself,”
and today the watchers are kissing His tomb which He has left and gone out.
Yesterday the Dead One was lying concealed and silent in the habitation of Sheol,
but today He is alive and gives life to the dead and raises all to life.
The day before yesterday, lance, gall and vinegar and crucifixion,
but today glory and clamour of the watchers with praise.
The day before yesterday the Only-Begotten placed His soul in the hands of His Father,
but today He assumed it for He has authority as He commands all.
Yesterday He had mounted the wood of crucifixion,
but today there is strength, resurrection of the dead and power.
The day before yesterday Simon repeatedly renounced that he does not know Him,
but today he runs to see His tomb because He was raised up.
The Friday of the sufferings prepared ambushes for the apostolic group,
but on Sunday, a new vision and cheerfulness.
Yesterday the King was held in sleep in Sheol,
but today He woke up and stood like a man who has shaken off his wine.
The other day there were sufferings and sorrow for the women disciples,
but today exultation because they were seeing Him as the Gardener.
On the sorrowful Sabbath that Free-Born was among the dead,
but on Sunday He was escorted about by the companies of watchers.
Friday scattered the apostolic group in desolation,
but today has given joy to, and gathered together the company of the disciples.
Yesterday the apostles were lying in concealment,
but today they went out to see the resurrection with wonder.
The other day they had to flee, to be scattered, and to hide themselves,
but today to run, to be gathered together and to bring the tidings.

St Jacob of Sarug

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“The early Christians really did believe that they were living in the ‘age to come’ for which Israel had longed, the time of forgiveness of sins, the gift of the Spirit”

What then did the earliest Christians mean when they said that Jesus of Nazareth had been raised from the dead?

They cannot have meant that, though his body remained in a tomb, his spirit or soul was now safe in the hands of God, perhaps even given a place of honor. That was a perfectly reasonable Jewish thing to think about someone now dead, particularly a great leader or teacher, particularly one who had died a cruel death. There was normal Jewish language to express such a belief. If that had been what Jesus’ first believed about him, Jesus would have been on a par, in their eyes, with the Maccabean martyrs of the prophets of old.

Resurrection implies at the very least a coming back to something that had been forfeited, that is, bodily life. In the well-developed Jewish language for describing the continuing nonphysical existence of someone who had died there would be no question of “coming back” but only of going on, with a spiritual life in unbroken continuity with what had existed before. What the early church insisted about Jesus was that he had been well and truly physically dead and was now well and truly physically alive. If all they had meant was that he was now exalted to a place of honor with God, the language of dying and new life the other side of death would not have been appropriate.

Nor, I submit, would they have used the language of resurrection to describe a sense that Jesus was personally present with them. Such a thing would have been unprecedented, but if it occurred, the natural categories for them would have been angel, spirit, and so forth. In addition, had Jesus’ resurrection been simply a matter of people being aware of his presence, there would not have been a sense, as there clearly is in all our evidence, of a sequence of resurrection “appearances” that then stopped. Paul knows, and he knows that the Corinthi­ans know, that his seeing of Jesus was the last such event. His churches, not least the Corin­thians, had all kinds of wonderful spiritual experiences; they knew Jesus as their Lord in the power of the Spirit; but they had not seen him as Paul had.

Nor would they have drawn the conclusion that the new age had dawned. When a Jewish leader, teacher, or hero died violently at the hands of Israel’s enemies, this was the sign that the old age was still here, the new age had not yet come. Yet the early Christians not only said that Jesus had been raised from the dead; they concluded from this that God’s new age had indeed begun, however paradoxically.

This rules out as well the explanation that has recently been offered, that the early Christians received a ghostly visitation from their recently deceased leader. Such events are well known in the modern, as in the ancient world; the worried church thought they were receiving such a visit from Peter in Acts 11. “It must be his angel,” they said; that meant that Peter had been killed by Herod, and they would have to go and collect his body for burial. It would not mean that Peter had been “raised from the dead”; indeed, it would mean that he hadn’t been.

So why did the early Christians use the word resurrection to describe what they believed had happened to Jesus? The large package of heaven-sent renewal expected by many Jews, including the general resurrection, had not occurred. Pilate, Caiphas, and Herod were still ruling. Injustice, misery, oppression, and death were still features of life for Jews and everyone else. Nor were Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David, and the prophets alive again. From that point of view, “the resurrection” expected by Jesus’ contemporaries had obviously not occurred.

And yet they said that it had—and proceeded to build a new worldview, a significant variation from within contemporary Judaism, on this belief. “The resurrection,” as something that has already happened that must now determine life, faith, prayer, and thought, dominates a good deal of the New Testament: the early Christians really did believe that they were living in the “age to come” for which Israel had longed, the time of forgiveness of sins, the gift of the Spirit, when the Gentiles would be brought in to worship the one God of Israel. The “present age” was still continuing, but the “age to come” had been inaugurated.

We see the same pattern if we ask the vital question: why did the early church believe and declare that Jesus was the messiah? Other would-be messiahs executed by the authorities were thereby forever discredited: a messiah was supposed to lead Israel to liberation from the pagans and to rebuild the temple, not die in pagan hands, leaving the temple still in the grip of Israel’s oppressive pseudoaristocrats. Other groups whose messiah was killed faced a choice: either find a new messiah, or give up the revolution. We have evidence of both patterns. Declaring that God had raised one’s messiah from the dead was not an option. First-century Jews do not seem to have had time or mental energy to indulge in that peculiar twentieth-century phenomenon, cognitive dissonance, believing that something is still true when events have in fact disproved it. Life was too short and hard for fantasy.

Why, for instance, did the early church not decide that James, the brother of Jesus, was now the messiah? He was the central leader in the early church: holy man, wise teacher, man of prayer, man of God. He was known as the brother of the Lord. Other groups, faced with the death of their would-be messiah and the emergence of his brother as the natural new leader, would have been quick to put two and two together: the brother is the real messiah. But the early church did not. Jesus was the messiah; and the explanation was that God had vindi­cated him by raising him from the dead. Nor was this belief the mere granting of an hon­orific title to Jesus, a word with grandeur but little substance. Early Christianity was self-consciously a messianic movement, announcing Jesus as the true Lord of the world even at the risk of offending the existing lords of the world, Caesar included. And this political-religious affirmation grew clearly and visibly out of Jewish messianic beliefs, redefined around the person, agenda, and fate of Jesus of Nazareth.

The early Christians, in other words, affirmed not only that “the resurrection,” the great hope of Israel, had happened, but that it had happened in a way that nobody had imagined (a single human being raised within the middle of ongoing history). They reconstructed their worldview, their aims and agendas, around this belief so that it became, not merely an extra oddity, bolted onto the outside of the worldview they already had, but the transforming principle, the string that had pulled back the curtain, revealing God’s future as having already arrived in the present.

N. T. Wright

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