Hopko on the Wrath of God

SpeakingTheTruthI have a very high regard for the work and thought of Fr. Thomas Hopko, Dean Emeritus of St. Vladimir’s Theological Seminary. He has influenced much of my thought for a number of years both directly and indirectly. I am particularly pleased that Ancient Faith Radio offers two podcasts series by Fr. Tom. It is a great gift of the Church.

I have been listening recently to two podcasts on the subject of the Wrath of God (a topic on which I have written and done podcasts myself). Both are very worth hearing. In particular, I find that he is much more comfortable in his treatment of God’s wrath in both Scripture and human experience than I have been. I commend his podcasts to my readers and welcome any conversation they might engender.

Hopko – The Wrath of God

Hopko – The Wrath of God – Part 2

Glory to God for all things!

God’s Wrath

wrath-of-god

What shall we make of the wrath of God?

We have this quote from the Gospel of St. Luke:

And it came to pass, when the time was come that he should be received up, he stedfastly set his face to go to Jerusalem, And sent messengers before his face: and they went, and entered into a village of the Samaritans, to make ready for him. And they did not receive him, because his face was as though he would go to Jerusalem. And when his disciples James and John saw this, they said, Lord, wilt thou that we command fire to come down from heaven, and consume them, even as Elias did? But he turned, and rebuked them, and said, Ye know not what manner of spirit ye are of  (Luke 9:51-55).

In this passage, sending down fire from heaven, in the pattern of Elijah is rebuked as somehow belonging to “another spirit.”

Fans of New Testament wrath are quick to point out the passage in Acts concerning Ananias and Sapphira:

But a certain man named Ananias, with Sapphira his wife, sold a possession, And kept back part of the price, his wife also being privy to it, and brought a certain part, and laid it at the apostles’ feet. But Peter said, Ananias, why hath Satan filled thine heart to lie to the Holy Ghost, and to keep back part of the price of the land? Whiles it remained, was it not thine own? and after it was sold, was it not in thine own power? why hast thou conceived this thing in thine heart? thou hast not lied unto men, but unto God. And Ananias hearing these words fell down, and gave up the ghost: and great fear came on all them that heard these things. And the young men arose, wound him up, and carried him out, and buried him. And it was about the space of three hours after, when his wife, not knowing what was done, came in. And Peter answered unto her, Tell me whether ye sold the land for so much? And she said, Yea, for so much. Then Peter said unto her, How is it that ye have agreed together to tempt the Spirit of the Lord? behold, the feet of them which have buried thy husband are at the door, and shall carry thee out. Then fell she down straightway at his feet, and yielded up the ghost: and the young men came in, and found her dead, and, carrying her forth, buried her by her husband. And great fear came upon all the church, and upon as many as heard these things (Acts 5:1-11)

For accuracies’ sake, it must be noted that we are nowhere told that Ananias and Sapphira died as the result of the action of God. We are told that they fell down dead. This is not unimportant.

Of course the New Testament makes reference to the wrath of God. Indeed there are 45 verses which make reference to the wrath. It is little wonder that interpreters should want to make a theological point out of so common a reference. Of course many of those verses refer to our own wrath and tell us to put it away from us.

But of the wrath of God we read a typical passage:

Mortify therefore your members which are upon the earth; fornication, uncleanness, inordinate affection, evil concupiscence, and covetousness, which is idolatry: For which things’ sake the wrath of God cometh on the children of disobedience (Colossians 3:5-6).

A legitimate question has to be: has the Spirit “of which we are” changed between Luke 9 and Colossians 3? Or is there a deeper understanding at work?

With this I offer an Orthodox answer. First, Christ Himself is the definitive revelation of God and that revelation is not corrected by either an Old Testament reading (for “these are they which testify of me”) nor by an Epistle, for Christ as witnessed to in the gospels is the definitive revelation for interpreting even the Epistles. Of course my citation of Luke 9 is often countered with, “What about the moneychangers in the Temple?” To which I can only say that He “drove them out with a whip” which is not the same thing as saying that Christ beat them, nor did He call down fire from heaven to consume them.

For various reasons, some people are determined to make the economy of salvation to be linked with the Wrath of God. If you do not repent, then God will do thus and such…   I have always considered this representation of the gospel to be coercive and contrary to the love of God. I have heard convoluted ways in which this wrath is interpreted to be “the loving thing to do” but I do not buy it.

The common witness within Orthodox Tradition is that the wrath of God is a theological term which describes not God Himself, but a state of being in which are opposed to God. Thus the work of Kalomiros, The River of Fire, makes ample citation of the fathers in this matter. We may place ourselves in such a position that even the love of God seems to us as fire or wrath.

But it is essential in our witness to the God Who Is, to always relate the fact that He is a loving God, not willing that any should perish. He is not against us but for us. This is utterly essential to the correct proclamation of the Gospel. Those who insist on exalting His wrath as a threat, inevitably misportray God and use anthropormorphism as a substitute for the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Intricate theories of the atonement which involve the assuaging of the wrath of God are not worthy of the God and Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ. I can say it no plainer. Those who persist in such theological accounts do not know “what Spirit they are of.” It is not ever appropriate to exalt a Biblical system over the plain sense communicated to us in the Gospel. No matter the chain of verses and the rational explanations attached – we cannot portray God as other than as He has shown Himself to us in Jesus Christ. To do so makes the Bible greater than Christ.

 It is very difficult in our culture, where the wrathful God has been such an important part of the gospel story, to turn away from such portrayals – and yet it is necessary – both for faithfulness to the Scripture, the Fathers, and the revelation of God in Christ.

I commend the referenced work, the River of Fire, for its compliation of Patristic sources. I also beg other Christians to be done with their imagery of the wrathful God. They do not know the God of Whom they speak. Forgive me.

 

 

Honor, Subversion and the Kingdom of God

Many who read the New Testament see it as advocating for and supporting the oppressive structures of its time. They argue that it is patriarchal and pro-slavery. St. Paul’s instructions for slaves to obey their masters is thus seen as an endorsement of slavery as an institution. His admonition, though, belongs to a category of teachings known as the haustafeln (household rules). An example is found in Colossians:

Wives, submit to your own husbands, as is fitting in the Lord.
Husbands, love your wives and do not be bitter toward them.
Children, obey your parents in all things, for this is well pleasing to the Lord.
Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged.
Slaves, obey in all things your masters according to the flesh, not with eye-service, as men-pleasers, but in sincerity of heart, fearing God.
And whatever you do, do it heartily, as to the Lord and not to men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the reward of the inheritance; for you serve the Lord Christ.
But he who does wrong will be repaid for what he has done, and there is no partiality.
Masters, give your slaves what is just and fair, knowing that you also have a Master in heaven. (Col 3:18-4:1)

Such passages, as well as those giving instructions regarding the Emperor and the respect due to authorities, are often treated as a Christian support for the powers of this world. Romans 13, for example, is frequently cited as a model for a “two-kingdom” approach to things:

Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil. Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same. For he is God’s minister to you for good. But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil. Therefore you must be subject, not only because of wrath but also for conscience’ sake. For because of this you also pay taxes, for they are God’s ministers attending continually to this very thing. Render therefore to all their due: taxes to whom taxes are due, customs to whom customs, fear to whom fear, honor to whom honor. (Rom 13:1-7)

Indeed, this passage has even been used to suggest that those like Bonhoeffer who sought to kill Hitler were somehow opposing God’s plan.

All such treatments fail to understand the “upside-down” character of Christ’s actions and teachings and their continuation in the Apostolic writings. Christ does not teach us to love our enemies because our enemies are good or have somehow been ordained as our enemies. He teaches us to love our enemies because God is good. And that is a very different thing.

The household rules and the Romans sword passage are examples of Christian subversion: they are practical applications of the Cross to life in this world. They do not exist to uphold the powers that be, but to undermine them by asserting that God alone is Lord and His kingdom alone is the purpose of our life.

Consider this passage:

If it is possible, as much as depends on you, live peaceably with all men. Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath; for it is written, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,” says the Lord. Therefore “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; If he is thirsty, give him a drink; For in so doing you will heap coals of fire on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Rom 12:18-21)

“For in so doing you will heap coals of fire on his head…” These are not the words of an Apostolic endorsement of the structures of this world. It is the proclamation that the “vengeance of God” is brought forth by means of bearing the Cross. The way of the Cross is the way of life. Or, as the Elder Sophrony taught, “The way up is the way down.”

In all of these admonitions, the locus of the authority that is being observed is God Himself, not the thing we are honoring. Slaves do not obey their masters because their masters have a just right of ownership. Rather, it is a matter of doing all things “as to the Lord.” We are slaves of no man, but bondservants to God alone.

In one of the great historical ironies, slave-owners in the American South allowed their slaves to become Christians. The very Scriptures that they heard, over time, provided the hope of deliverance and revealed the coming wrath of God for those who mistreated them. Israel was once in bondage in Egypt and God heard them. In the Scriptures it is quite clear that God sides with the slaves over their masters. The lessons were not lost. African American resistance to systemic oppression has almost always had a profound connection to the gospel.

Christ Himself points to this subversive quality in his conversation with Pontius Pilate. Pilate threatens Him and reminds Him that he has the power to release Him or condemn Him.

You would have no power over me if it were not given to you from above. (Jn 19:11)

In that saying, Christ strips away every pretense of Roman imperial power. “You would have no authority…” Indeed, Christ could rightly have said, “You cannot do anything to me that I don’t want you to do.” It is an essential element of Christian teaching that Christ’s death was voluntary. “No man takes my life from me. I lay it down of my own free will.”

The same is true in all the household rules and the relationship with the powers of the state. The honor we offer, the obedience and service we render, are not offered out of obligation or by rightful demand. They are voluntary offerings of the Cross – “as unto the Lord.” I am able to lose my life because in Christ my life has already been redeemed and rescued. You can do nothing to me. I can obey you as my master, but in so doing I am heaping coals of fire on your head. Those coals are either the burning of God’s judgment or the burning away of sins. But the coals are a promise.

The early Christian martyrs frequently lived this subversion out in a manner that frustrated their persecutors. St. Lawrence, being fried on an iron griddle, is reported to have said, “Turn me over. I’m done on this side.” The desired result of violence was rendered empty and powerless through the courage of the Cross and the Christian refusal to treat death as though it were to be feared. In time, it brought the empire to the Baptismal font.

For the kingdom of God is not in word but in power. (1Co 4:20)

The Kingdom of God, inaugurated in the coming of Christ, is not weak (though it appears as such). Its power does not lie in persuasion or violence. The power of the Kingdom is made manifest in the Cross. Weakness overcomes strength. Honor overcomes dishonor. Service subverts oppression. Death begets life.

When Christians lose this singular vision, particularly when they agree to become a religious institution within the greater life of society, the Cross is discarded. We begin to think that our lives are found in the ballot box or shouting louder than those around us. The slave overthrows his master only to become a master over his own slaves. You don’t need a God to do the politics of this world.

“But be of good cheer,” Christ said. “I have overcome the world.”

Addendum: On Symphonia

I have heard numerous objections to this series of articles and their approach on the basis of the theory of symphonia, the cooperative work between Emperor and Church that became a primary vision of the Byzantine synthesis. Its legacy is the double-headed eagle that adorns both national flags and Church decoration to this day. Symphonia (two voices in harmony) represents an icon of the Kingdom of God in this world (though not the thing itself). It served as a guiding principle in Orthodox nations for many centuries, and then lingered like a precious lost object for centuries ever after.

It should be noted, first, that symphonia always sounded better in theory than in practice. Emperors rarely behaved themselves and acknowledged boundaries and limits to their power. As often as not, they resorted to the crude life violence. Many saw in Russia the continuation of Byzantium (the title “Tsar” is the Russian form of “Caesar”). Symphonia lived on as an icon and a promise. But that vision was repeatedly violated. From the time of Peter the Great forward, for example, Tsars sought to subjugate the Church in an effort to rationalize state control. The Patriarchate was abolished (thus cutting off one head of the double-eagle) and the Church was largely reduced to a department of state modeled after German Lutheranism (many Tsars admired German efficiency). The nadir of symphonia in Russia can be seen in the Nikonian reforms where the state became the persecutor of Christians in the name of reform with a bitter legacy that the Church has sought to heal in recent years.

The greatest problem of symphonia today is its use as a tool of modernity in contemporary Orthodox. Modernity is a project to refashion and build a better world (I refer the readers to many previous articles). It is a mindset, a drive to refashion, create, build in the name of an ideal. Its problem is not in its faulty ideals. Rather, it is the nature of the very project itself. Building a better world, even in the name of Orthodoxy, yields little more than a darkened version of the faith. The only means of Christian life is the Cross in the fullness of its self-emptying and brokenness.

O Lord, save Thy people! And bless Thine inheritance!
Grant victory to the Orthodox peoples, over their adversaries!
And by virtue of Thy Cross, preserve Thy habitation!

 

Grace and the Psychology of God

God-by-Michelangelo-BuonarrotiWe are human beings. We think, we feel. I like to think that my dog thinks and feels. The semi-imaginary conversations we have as we take our long, daily walks are entertaining for me, even though I have to supply his side of the dialog.

God is not a dog. But we supply His dialog as well and we impute to Him thoughts and feelings like our own. God is angry. God is pleased. God is gentle. God is stern. For many Christians, managing God’s emotions and thoughts can be at least as serious as the other many co-dependent struggles of their day.

“Will God hate me if I…?” I have heard this question more than once. It tells me nothing about God but it tells me a world about the inner torture of the one who asks it.

So I will be clear at the outset: God does not feel as we do. God does not think as we do. We use such language because we are human beings. But the poetic language of Scripture in such matters becomes something utterly misleading and delusional when codified into the principles of theology. And they can become the stuff of deep neurosis and psychotic delusion in the minds and hearts of the weak.

There is no psychology of the Divine.

When I was a child I was taught that grace was “God’s unmerited favor.” It sounded theological, and, understood in a certain manner, it was correct. But like all psychological descriptions of God, it fails to adequately say what must be said. God does not have an “attitude.” “Favor” and “disfavor” are images that carry a theological meaning, but they mislead if understood in a literal manner.

Orthodox teaching declares that grace is “uncreated.” By this it means that grace is nothing other than God Himself. It is God’s Life or the Divine Energies. Grace is the action of God in the world, in my life and within my being. And grace is not God’s actions apart from God (simple effects), but the acting of God in the world. And God is His acting.

When St. Paul writes that we are saved by grace through faith, he is not making reference to God’s attitude towards us. Nor when he says the “wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience” is he describing a change in God’s inner affect. The universe is not the playground of divine emotion.

The God whom we worship is the Creator of all that is. He is the author of our being. He sustains all things in their existence. He is the source of all good. The work of our salvation does not consist in bringing about desirable emotions in God. We are told that God “is not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.” If God did not immediately and relentlessly will good for us, then no one would even continue in existence. Being and existence are inherently good things. The very fact that we exist is itself a witness of God’s good will for us.

The Scriptures certainly use the language of emotion when speaking of God, but the language is figurative. Emotions are part of the human condition – and even at that – they are, more often than not, symptoms of our disordered existence.

Anger, for instance, is understood as one of the faculties or energies of the rational soul. It has a proper (unsinful) use in the human soul –  normally as a burst of energy associated with a quick and appropriate response to certain situations. But such an accurate description of human anger has no association with God. And though Christ, the Incarnate Son of God indeed has a human soul, its purpose is not to be understood as supplying the godhead with human emotions.

Wrath is cruel and anger a flood, But who is able to stand before jealousy? (Pro 27:4)

While this accurately describes human beings, and such words are applied to God, God in no way can be described as cruel, etc. Anger is metaphorical. Thus in St. Isaac of Syria:

That we should imagine that anger, wrath, jealousy or such like have anything to do with the divine Nature is something utterly abhorrent for us: no one in their right mind, no one who has any understanding (at all) can possibly come to such madness as to think anything of the sort about God.

(I have read at least one evaluation of St. Isaac’s thought that tried to dismiss it as coming from his supposed Nestorian tendencies. But this is simply incorrect. He speaks here of the Divine Nature and not of Christology. Besides, this is simply proper Orthodox theology.)

In our modern culture, Christian belief has become divorced from the Christian Church (this was an intended outcome of the Reformation). Thus people, self-identified as individuals, struggle to have a “relationship” with God in a manner that is analogous to their “relationships” with other individuals. The nature of these “contractual” events is largely perceived as psychological. How we feel about one another and what we think about one another is seen to be the basis of how we treat one another. And so in our cultural “social contract” we seek to control, even to legislate how we feel about one another. We imagine that eliminating “hate” and “prejudice,” “racism” and “sexism” will impact violence. But despite the unflagging efforts of modernity, violence not only continues but escalates.

With God the “contract” is often extended or renamed a “covenant,” an agreement between a human being and God that stipulates requirements and behaviors and outcomes. Grace, perceived as a divine emotion or attitude, is part of the contract, God’s promised manner of performance.

The result of this imaginary divine milieu has been the gradual decrease of the Church (or anything resembling it). The Church as sacrament and mystery has been replaced by the sentimentality of the individual. People attend Christian assemblies because they “like” them and they encourage them to “feel” good. Teaching is interpreted as learning to manage the “relationship” (contract, emotions, obligations) with God.

This is all interesting – but it is not Christianity. It is “Christian” in the sense that it makes reference to Jesus Christ and accords a divine status to Him. But it is not Christianity, the classical Church, the Pillar and Ground of Truth, nor is this in any way the same thing as the path traditionally described as “salvation.”

Salvation is not a contract.

Salvation is the work of God within us, transforming us from “glory to glory,” into the image of Christ. As the work of God, it is God Himself in us bringing about this transformation. Our are expected to cooperate with that process. We do this by keeping the commandments of Christ. We do this by living our lives in the communion (koinonia) of the Church. That communion is expressed in a community of love and action, nurtured through the Holy Mysteries of grace (Baptism, Eucharist, Chrismation, Repentance, Marriage, Unction, Ordination, etc.).

How we feel and what we think will often be “all over the map.” As disordered human beings, we frequently feel other than how we should and think other than how we should. This is particularly true given the disordered culture in which we live.

Our union with God is not based or grounded in a divine psychology or in human sentiment. It is grounded in the certain action and work of God. God became man. The “Word became flesh.” How Mary “felt” about that is not information given to us in Scripture, beyond her meek acceptance and adoration of God. We do not get a running commentary of the psychological development of Jesus as a child. Rather we are told simply that He “grew in stature and in wisdom.”

And though there are some revelations regarding the emotions experienced by Christ in His ministry – they are not the stuff of our salvation nor of the salvation of those around Him at the time.

Instead, we are told that the God/Man, Jesus Christ, suffered and died and was raised from the dead for our sake. And though we are told that He loved us (and loves us), it is the divine action of suffering, death and resurrection that save.

For if we have been united together in the likeness of His death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of His resurrection, (Rom 6:5)

And as this section in Romans makes clear – our union with Christ is through Holy Baptism.

I am not here saying that feelings and thoughts are nothing. The human will is certainly not nothing – it is vital. But the basis of our union with Christ is not at all like the basis of our modern, psychologized social contracts.

The path of true salvation will, in time, bring about the healing and repair of our emotions and thoughts – if we follow that path. That path is clearly presented in the Scriptures and in the Tradition of the Church. The Church is what salvation looks like. There is no “relationship” with God apart from the Church.

We are indeed saved by grace. But we are not saved by false teachings and disordered modern paradigms.

Get out of your mind. Come to your senses. Enter into the household of God.

Finding the God Within

OrthodoxyPopular New Age thought postulates that everyone has a “god within.” It’s a pleasant way of saying that we’re all special while making “god” to be rather banal. But there is a clear teaching of classical Christianity regarding Christ within us, and it is essential to the Orthodox way of life.

We should not understand our relationship with God to be an “external” matter, as if we were one individual and God another. Our union with God, birthed in us at Holy Baptism, is far more profound.

He who is joined to the Lord is one spirit with Him. (1Co 6:17)

God does not “help” us in the manner of encouraging us or simply arranging for things to work out. Rather, He is in us, working in union with our work. The mystery of ascesis (the practice of prayer, fasting, self-denial, etc.) only makes true sense in this context. Those who look at Orthodoxy from the outside often accuse us of practicing “works-righteousness,” meaning that we believe we can earn favor with God by doing good works. This is utterly false. God’s good favor is His gift and cannot be earned.

However, the Orthodox life is similar to the life of Christ Himself.

“Most assuredly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of Himself, but what He sees the Father do; for whatever He does, the Son also does in like manner.  (Joh 5:19)

and

“Most assuredly, I say to you, he who believes in Me, the works that I do he will do also; and greater works than these he will do, because I go to My Father. (Joh 14:12)

The “works” that a Christian does, are properly done in union with Christ, such that the works are not those of an individual, but of our common life with and in Christ. When we fast, it is Christ who fasts in us. When we pray, it is Christ who prays in us. When we give alms it is Christ who gives alms in us.

And we should understand that Christ-in-us longs to fast. Christ-in-us longs to pray. Christ-in-us longs to show mercy. The disciplines of the Church are not a prescription for behaving ourselves or a map of moral perfection. Rather, the commandments of Christ (as manifest in the life of the Church) are themselves a description, an icon of Christ Himself.

 Jesus answered and said to him, “If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our home with him.” (Joh 14:2)

Dumitru Staniloae notes:

At the beginning Christ is, so to speak, buried in the commandments and in us, in the measure in which we are committed to them, by His power which is in us. By this collaboration we gain the virtues as living traits; they reflect the image of the Lord, and Christ is raised even brighter from under these veils. (Orthodox Spirituality)

This way of “union” is the very heart of Orthodox faith and practice. Sadly, much of Christianity has created an “extrinsic” view of our relationship with God and the path of salvation. In this, God is seen as exterior to our life, our relationship with Him being analogous to the individualized contractual relationships of modern culture. As such the Christian relationship with God is reduced to psychology and morality.

It is reduced to psychology in that the concern is shifted to God’s “attitude” towards us. The psychologized atonement concerns itself with God’s wrath. It is reduced to morality in that our behavior is no more than our private efforts to conform to an external set of rules and norms. We are considered “good” or “bad” based on our performance, but without regard to the nature of that performance. St. Paul says that “whatsoever is not of faith is sin.” Only our lives-lived-in-union-with-Christ have the nature of true salvation, true humanity. This is the proper meaning of being “saved by grace.”

…for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure. (Phi 2:13)

and

You are of God, little children, and have overcome them, because He who is in you is greater than he who is in the world. (1Jo 4:4)

and

To them God willed to make known what are the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles: which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. (Col 1:27)

There is a second part of this mystery (Christ in us) that presses its importance upon us. This is the suffering of Christ within us. Fr. Staniloae writes:

Jesus takes part in all our sufferings, making them easier. He helps us with our struggle against temptations and sin; He strives with us in our quest for virtues: He uncovers our true nature from under the leaves of sin. St. Maximus comments: Until the end of the world He always suffers with us, secretly, because of His goodness according to [and in proportion to] the suffering found in each one.

The Cross recapitulates the suffering and sin of humanity, but it extends throughout the life and experience of all people. It is the foundation of Christ’s statement: “Inasmuch as you did it [did it not] unto the least of these my brethren, you did it [did it not] unto me.

The hypostatic union of the person of Christ extends into the life of every person. There is something of a perichoresis or coinherence in our daily relationship with Christ.

And if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; or if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it. (1Co 12:26)

This must be given  the strongest possible reading. If any one of us suffers, Christ suffers. There is no specific human suffering to which Christ is alien.

It is the moment-by-moment pressing into this commonality (koinonia) that is the foundation of Christian existence. It is the point of Baptism (buried with Him). It is the point of the Eucharist (“whosoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him”). It is the point of every action and thought.

It is the life of grace.

 

Wrath!

troy_achilles_brad_pittWrath!

This is the famous opening word of Homer’s Iliad. Many translations in English fail to sufficiently convey the power of the word and its place as the opening utterance in this ancient classic. For non-classicists, citing Homer’s Iliad might mean very little. The cultural knowledge of our modern world with regard to the ancient is abysmal (as is our knowledge of even the past half-century). Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey were in many ways, for ancient Greece, what the Scriptures were for Israel. They were not seen as Scripture, per se, but they were the most ancient writings known, embodying an epic tale from earlier times, and permeated with encounters and tales of the divine (or divinities). It was a writing whose stories would have been part of common cultural knowledge from about 100 B.C. to 1000 A.D. in the Mediterranean world. Educated persons of the period would have a wide take on its stories. Greeks and Romans, educated in various schools of philosophy, would have found the portrayal of the gods in Homer rather embarrassing. Their internal conflicts and base motivations were everything that a truly good life would have spurned. But the stories had a valued place in the culture – thus they were interpreted in a manner that made them useful. Allegory, as a literary tool, was a very natural way of treating these texts. That we see a similar use of allegory in handling of the Old Testament is thus not surprising.

But it is interesting to think of the wrath of God in a cultural context where wrath itself plays such a large part.

In the Iliad, Achilles wrath (μῆνις), is a dominant theme. It is his downfall. A related term in Greek is a form of delusion (ἄτη). It can be a form of madness sent to a man by the gods. The result is always catastrophic. The two images work together. The man who is the object of the gods’ wrath, is given over to madness (ἄτη) by the gods, and the drama (tragedy) plays itself out. That very idea of tragedy played a very large part in the Greek and Hellenistic world-view. It was a form of story that seemed to explain the rise and fall of fortunes in the world.

These images have been playing through my mind lately – as, strangely – I’ve been watching a couple of television series. Both have a Western theme (cowboy-style), though in contemporary settings. One is Longmire, the other, Justified. Both of the protagonists have problems with anger. The lead character in Justified says in the series pilot, “I’ve never thought of myself as an angry man.” His ex-wife says, “You’re the angriest man I’ve ever known.” If Sophocles were the author of series, you would know that the character was headed for ruin. In American television, however, anything is possible.

Real life, however, is much closer to Sophocles than television. Our rage, like that of Achilles, is often the beginning of catastrophe, both for ourselves and for those around us.  The wrath of God is more problematic.

The gods of Achilles’ world are fickle. They have their demands and expectations, but they also have their pettiness and vindictiveness. In some cases the gods are seen as subject to envy (it was never thought wise to be too beautiful, too brave, too excellent). There can even be competing waves of divine wrath – a cross-fire to be avoided at all costs!

The wrath of God in the Scriptures is singular – the God of Israel has no competition. And the wrath of God in Scripture is seen as righteous – it is not petty or vindictive. But it sometimes seems to have a similarity to the pagan stories. We are told that God “hardened Pharaoh’s heart.” Pharaoh’s actions are similar to those of Achilles. His rage drives him to repeatedly deny the requests of Moses. At last, in an insane act of folly he plunges his army headlong into the miraculously parted waters of the Red Sea. His drowning ranks with the great tragic stories of antiquity.

But we are troubled (rightly) by a God who sends such hardness on the human heart. For we are all the victims of our own rage from time to time.

If You, LORD, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? (Psa 130:3 NKJ)

Some of the fathers assure us that such wrath is not punishment, that it is not sent upon us to satisfy anything, not even the demand for justice. For them, the clear teaching is that every action of God towards us is ultimately for our healing and correction. Ultimately such a teaching is rooted in the goodness and love of God. The Christian revelation, in contrast to that of the ancient Greeks, is that human beings are part of the good creation of the good God. The goodness of creation (Gen. 1) is not a description of creation’s morality, but of its fundamental existence. God does not create and command, “Be good!” He creates and declares, “It is good.”

As such, the good creation (including humanity), is not created for destruction and torment. Our madness and the rage of sin draw us into the vortex of wrath – but the vortex of wrath draws us into the love of God. I recall a monastic once speaking about Pharaoh and his army beneath the waters of the sea. “Christ descended into the waters to bring them out again,” he said.

I volunteer one day at week at an alcohol and drug treatment center. I encounter many men and women (most of them young), whose lives have been brushed with the rage of sin. The destruction many of them have already experienced in their short lives is more than I would want in the whole of a lifetime. Many of them began their rageful journey in the backwash of other destructive lives. Sin is ancient and generational. On an individual basis, however, I witness, week in and week out, the transformation of wrath. The very destruction that has come upon a life becomes the means by which it is healed. “I had to become sick in order to become well,” is a common sentiment.

The drama in which I participate is not a tragedy. These children of Achilles are not beset with a rage sent to them from the gods of the Achaians. If they have encountered the wrath of God, then it has clearly been for their salvation.

I wonder at those who cannot see in such small events, the greater pattern of the redemption given to us in Christ.

If God be for us, who can be against us?

 

Thinking about the One God

ws_E=mc2_852x480There are many things Christians can learn from science – among them is how to think. In thought about the deeper matters of science (particle physics, mathematical theory, etc.), there are a number of accepted rules that are useful in theology as well. One of those is the requirement of “elegance” when constructing a plausible theory. It is understood within scientific and mathematical thought that what is true and accurate as explanation and theory should somehow be “elegant.” For example, there is a simple elegance in Einstein’s E=mc2. That something as universal as the relationship between matter and energy could be expressed in such a simple manner is indeed elegant. Doubtless there might be another manner to express this relationship, a more convoluted and complicated manner, but science would rule it out in favor of Einstein – elegance and simplicity are somehow more accurate as a description of reality. The continued search for a “unified field theory,” a theory that “explains everything,” is not a pipe-dream or figment of the scientific imagination. It is an instinct and understanding that reality is one, that it ultimately “makes sense,” and does so in a manner that can finally be understood and stated in an elegant manner.

There have been numerous theories throughout human history that gave an “account” of the world. Some of them were quite complex. I think of Ptolemy’s explanation of the movements of the planets, complete with “epicycles” injected into their overall movement to account for why planets sometimes seem to “move backwards.” Such movements, it turned out, were far more simply and elegantly explained once it was learned that the planets, like the earth, revolve around the sun. Their movements therefore appear different from those of the surrounding stars we see.

Christian theology, when done rightly and in a mature manner, has something of the same quality as good math and physics. Theology is, after all, speech or thought about the One God, and not about complexities and multiple theories. Christian theology is not, when rightly done, a collection of Trinitarian doctrine, Christology, soteriology, ecclesiology, sacramental theology, moral theology, etc. Such compartmentalization of Christian doctrine is a holdover from medieval scholasticism, perhaps the lowest point in the history of Christian thought.

The Protestant Reformation, though seen by some as the beginning of the modern period, must also be seen as a development within Christian scholasticism. Both Luther and Calvin were products of the scholastic model and their theologies (and particularly those of their successors) reflect this historical reality. Thus there are within the Christian movements founded by the reformers, the fragmentation and compartmentalization of medieval thought. Though the sacraments of Baptism and Eucharist have been fundamental realities of the Christian life since its beginning, many Christians can give no proper account for their significance. To say that they are “commandments” of Christ simply begs the question and leaves the sacraments as afterthoughts, Ptolemaic epicycles, glued to the surface of some scheme of justification, which is glued to Christology, which is glued to Trinity, all of them only lightly connected, even carrying within them mutual contradictions, held together only by some sense that they should all be there (perhaps because they are actually mentioned in the New Testament).

Such presentations of Christian thought lack elegance and simplicity. They present a confusing array of theories (complete with their own specialized jargon) but without unity or a proper sense of the unity of God and His relationship with His creation. It is little wonder that such fragmentation is often utterly powerless to answer the questions of the culture that surrounds it. A few isolated verses of Scripture are simply useless in the face of the “unified” theory of human sexuality and gender being offered by the modern world (to give but one example). A Christianity that cannot present a gospel that is, in fact, a truly complete world-view, is a neutered artifact, an antiquity that is both boring and sterile. It does not “preach.”

I embrace the traditional teaching of the Church on matters of gender and sexuality, but struggle to do so in a unified manner. Mere assertion of tradition is finally insufficient, a symptom of theology’s abandonment.

In the years that I have studied (and lived) Orthodox theology, among its most profound and enduring aspects is its inner unity. Orthodox theology is not a collection of thoughts – but rather a single thought which may been seen from various angles. In the centuries of the great councils, a common language of Trinity and Christology developed, such that we may speak of the Person of Christ (hypostasis) with regard to the Trinity, and the Person of Christ with regard to the Incarnation, using the same word, with the same word carrying the same meaning. Some refer to this as the “Neo-Chalcedonian” thought of the Cappadocian fathers (Basil the Great, Gregory the Theologian, etc.). It was the failure to embrace this completion of theological language that created the schism between the “Eastern” Orthodox and the “Oriental” Orthodox, the so-called “Monophysites.” The language of St. Cyril of Alexandria, championed by the Orientals, was correct in its place, but inadequate for the growing synthesis of expression that was giving a growing account of the fullness of the faith.

My experience has been that the whole of the Orthodox life, its theological expression, its understanding of moral activity, its sacraments and liturgy, are but one thing. I sometimes describe this one thing as union with God. It is certainly the only phrase I know that holds everything in its proper place and understanding. To stand within such a theological “structure,” is to be shielded from the fragmentation of the world and an undisciplined, scattered collection of doctrines. The One God is not readily perceived by a scattered mind, and is even more obscured if the theology of that scattered mind is itself a collection of discrete fragments.

It is in this context that I raise periodic objections to the penal substitution theory of the atonement. As epicycles go, it is a major gloss on the fabric of the Christian faith. When I read discussions of this theory I see a variety of fragmentations introduced. God’s holiness and its inability to endure sin; God’s justice and the necessity for equity; God’s mercy and love sometimes pictured as rivals of His holiness and justice. And all of these aspects of God stand divorced from the sacraments, Trinitarian thought, and other areas. Indeed penal substitution theory, at its worst, wreaks complete havoc on Trinitarian dogma. The Son is made subject to the Father’s wrath to such an extent (in some accounts) that He is utterly cut-off and separated from the Father. The Orthodox certainly confess that “One of the Trinity suffered in the flesh,” but in the same hymn declare, “Who without change didst become man and wast crucified, O Christ our God.” I was recently told by an Evangelical that the Incarnation represented a “change” in God (not to be confused, he said, with God’s immutability). It is just such compartmentalization that creates the confusion of much Protestant thought and occasionally absurd statements (similar sources have spoken to me about the beauty of hell and of the sinner’s condemnation).

The fragmented character of most non-Orthodox theology is a reflection of its poverty and the loss of a proper Christian vision. The unity and simplicity, even the intuition of the early fathers that such a unity should exist, are reflected in the Creeds and liturgies of the Church. St. Irenaeus of Lyon said, “Our doctrine agrees with the Eucharist and the Eucharist confirms our doctrine.” Such a statement makes no sense in the context of modern Christian thought.

Modern Christians attend Church, celebrate the Eucharist, are justified and are working on being sanctified. They think about various aspects of God. They are liberal or conservative, tough on sin or soft, Biblically-centered, or culturally sensitive. They are many things but never one thing. Thus when engaging them I have to ask, “Which of your gods are you now describing?”

God is One, and His creation is one. Good speech about either has this in mind. I have acquaintances who are “Young Earthers.” Unable to reconcile an old universe with the absence of evolution and literal readings of the Creation story, they build a box and a wall between themselves and much of modern science. They protect themselves by arguing, “It’s only a theory,” as though their various hermeneutical creations were somehow not theories and more reliable. But as theories go, theirs has little unity and is only a strange combination of confusing assertions.

True theology has no need to fear human science when it is done well. It does better to insist on elegance and simplicity and other hallmarks of the truth rather than to set forth medieval scholasticism of any sort. The world should, in turn, demand as much of Christians theologians.

 

 

 

Envy and the Fullness of God

In the Praises for Matins of Holy Wednesday, we read:

Oh, the wretchedness of Judas! He saw the harlot kiss the footsteps of Christ, but deceitfully he contemplated the kiss of betrayal. She loosed her hair while he bound himself with wrath. He offered the stench of wickedness instead of myrrh, for envy cannot distinguish value. Oh, the wretchedness of Judas! Deliver our souls from this, O God.

We are also told in Scripture that Pilate perceived that Christ was being handed over to him “for the sake of envy” (Matt. 27:18). Thus, it seemed important to me to offer this small meditation on envy, or at least one of its sources – for it is rooted in false beliefs about God and His world and the hardness of our heart that keeps us from seeing the truth. There is much more to say of this primal passion. But this will have to suffice for now.

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We stand mournfully around the grave, letting the strains of the hymn find their resolution in the final chord. The priest approaches the coffin, now closed and ready for lowering into the grave. The closing of the grave begins with a single handful of dirt. The priest tosses the dirt with the words: “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.”

Fullness seems strangely contradictory to the mood of a funeral. The pain of loss and the emptiness of a life that seems to have gone from the midst of us speak not of fullness but of scarcity. I will not hear that voice, hold you close to me or listen carefully for your footsteps.

No setting could be more stark in which to proclaim “fullness.”

But it is at the grave that we are perhaps most clearly confronted with the claims of our faith. For it is here at the grave that God made His own final assault on the myths and fears of a world dominated by death. This world of death always proclaimed the sovereignty of sorrow, the ascendency of scarcity.

From the abundance of Paradise man falls into a world in which thorns and thistles dominate:

Cursed is the ground for your sake; In toil you shall eat of it All the days of your life. Both thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you, And you shall eat the herb of the field. In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread Till you return to the ground (Genesis 3:17-19).

But now, standing at this funeral, the priest proclaims, “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.”

What fullness? Again it is the assault of God on the world man has made. The earth is not the kingdom of scarcity, but now the Kingdom of God. The grave is not the gate of Hades, but the gate of Paradise. Fullness can again be proclaimed for the grave has been ruptured and cannot hold its prey.

This struggle is a daily struggle. Is the world I live in one of scarcity or abundance? The answer to the question has much to do about almost every decision I make. The threat of scarcity tells me that whatever I have, like my own life, is limited. Nothing is ever enough. There is not enough money, enough food, enough love. The abundance enjoyed by another is always at the expense of myself and others because the world is governed by scarcity. Thus I must fight; I must wrestle to gain whatever I can and cling to it ’til death wrests it from my cold, dead fingers.

However, if the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof – if every good thing comes from God who is without limit – then scarcity has been defeated and abundance reigns within the Kingdom of God, now and always. In this abundance there is not just enough, but more than enough. I can share. I can give. I can love without fear that there will be too little to go around. The abundance enjoyed by another is not at my expense for those who have much are not the rulers of this world. Thus I need not fight; I do not need to gain or to cling. God knows “you have need of all these things.”

The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof. The emptiness of death has been filled with such an abundance of life that it has been trampled beneath the feet of those who walk the way of Christ. In this fullness we can do more than give – we can love even to the excess of forgiveness. My enemy has stolen nothing from the abundance that fills my life.

This proclamation of abundance has nothing in common with the prosperity gospel which is all too often driven by the fear of scarcity and the need to amass material things to prove the goodness of God.

Instead, as proclamation the abundance of the Kingdom needs no assurance greater than the resurrection of Christ. He is the abundance of Life.

In the world in which we live it is all too easy to create yet another scheme of the two-storey universe. The world we inhabit we assume to be defined and finite with scarcity as one of its leading boundaries. Abundance is shuttled off to a heaven somewhere else. But this is a failure to recognize what has happened in the world in the coming among us of the God-Man, Jesus Christ. As He Himself said:

Go and shew John again those things which ye do hear and see: The blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them. And blessed is he, whosoever shall not be offended in me.

In Biblical language, this was Christ’s proclamation of a Jubilee year – the great Jubilee Year – in which all debts are cancelled and righteousness is restored. He has extended this confidence of abundance even to the blind and the lame. They receive the abundance of sight and the ability to walk. Lepers, once trapped in the scarcity of their disease and shame, are cleansed and returned to the company of men. The world has changed. Christ did not do these miracles in a world removed from the one we inhabit. It was the blind and lame in the very midst of us and in this world who were healed. Thus it is with the same confidence that we proclaim the victory of His kingdom – in what we say and do.

What martyr disdained to live the abundance of this proclamation? What saint, in His poverty, declared God to be poor and this world to be bereft of its fullness? And yet in our own confidence in the material machine of modernity (not in God) we worry and are anxious about its limits. Modernity’s fullness has its limits for it is not the fullness of God but of man (and this as unredeemed). It offers a false promise. It’s fullness does not generally induce kindness and generosity but acquisition and envy.

True fullness will always beget generosity and kindness – it is a hallmark of the work of God. True fullness brought a cry of “the half of my goods I give to the poor” from the lips of the Publican Zachaeus. True fullness will always be marked by such cries – they are echoes of “Indeed, He is risen!”

The abundance found in the Kingdom of God is not the same as the abundance imagined by a planet enmeshed in its own cycle of scarcity and envy. The abundance proclaimed in the Kingdom of God in which the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof, is an abundance in which there is not enough to waste but more than enough to share. The abundance flows from the enlargement of our heart as we expand our very existence to include the other. A world constituted by love rather than the envy of individualism will always have more than enough.

Envy plays a large role in the events of Holy Week. Strangely, it is a passion which is rarely mentioned in our culture, even though the Fathers (at least some) thought of it as the root of all sin. We frequently think of pride as the root of all sin, but some of the Fathers note that pride, unlike envy, can be completely private, whereas envy always seeks harm for another.

Many times the sins we think of as pride, are, in fact, envy, insomuch as they are directed at other human beings. We envy their success, their “good fortune,” and many other such things. If we examine our heart carefully we will discover envy to be frequently at the root of anger, our sense of injustice and unfairness. The first murder, Abel’s death at the hand of his brother, is clearly the result of envy.

Even Judas is described as envious in the hymns of the Church, as well as the rulers of Israel by the Scriptures themselves. Sometimes in our “free-market” society, our failure and the envy it engenders gets turned against us and we condemn ourselves because we are not as clever as others. The basic inequalities of life become the source of either anger towards others of self-loathing depending on our own personality (and sometime a mixture of both).

The great difficulty with having a God is the fundamental requirement that we renounce envy. As one friend told me, “The most important thing to know about God is that you are not Him.” And this is something that I must learn to be content with. God is the Lord of the universe and not I. Things work together for good according to His own redemptive plan and not according to my secret machinations.

Envy is perhaps the most subtle of sins. Even in the desert where no one possesses anything, there is always something about another that we can find to envy. Our adversary, himself dominated by his envy of God, will always have envious suggestions to make to us.

To combat envy several things are necessary:

We must believe that God is good.

We must believe that God’s will for us in particular is good.

We must believe that God’s goodness is without limit.

We must believe that God’s goodness, shed upon someone else, does not come at our expense.

Thus we can “rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.” We can see that it is possible to turn our lives over completely to God and trust Him in all things. We can bless who we are and where we are (even if our own sins and limitations have made of our lives a difficulty). God is good. We need not envy. Further, we can give thanks for all things for they proceed from the fullness of God and His kindness to us. Even those things we perceive as “evil” occur in the context of the world we have entered through Baptism. We may give thanks despite all the troubles that afflict us – for God is good, and His mercy endures forever.

Envy has no place within the Christian life. It belongs to those who drive nails into the flesh of God and taunt Him with their perceived victory. When all is said, they will stand as mute as fish, unable to cry, “Alleluia.”

The Face of God

dsc_3274Orthodox Christians mark August 16 as the Feast of the Icon “Not Made With Hands,” the miraculous face of Christ first left on a cloth sent to King Abgar of Edessa. The stories of the icon are swathed in the mists of history – but the image (or representations of it on icons) remain among the most popular of Orthodox images. It is frequently the icon that graces the entrance of a Church.

On a deeper level, it is an icon that points to Christ as the image of God and the true image of man. When looking upon His face we see both what we are as creatures (created in the image of God) and what we shall be as the children of the kingdom (conformed to His image). His face is more than face – it is countenance – the very presence of God directed toward us.

The opening chapter of Genesis has the rich statement that we are created in the image of God, though the Old Testament makes no explanation or development of the statement. It does, however, refrain from extreme forms of iconoclasm (image-smashing). Although the 10 commandments inveigh that “thou shalt not make unto thyself any graven image,” the same law-giving God instructs that images of cherubim are to be carved above the mercy seat on the Ark of the Covenant, and that images of angels should be interwoven in the cloths that make up the Tent of Meeting.

Islam, on the other hand, tends towards an extreme iconoclasm, refraining from all images, and in some instances destroying images. Some interpretations of Islam would deny that man is the image of God altogether.

In Christianity the theology of the image moves to the forefront. Christ, St. Paul says, is the “image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15). The God who could not be imaged in the Old Testament now gives His very image, Christ (Who is indeed fully God and fully man). Not only is Christ the image of God – and thus the one by Whom God can be known – but He is also the true image of man – that image to which we are conformed in the life of salvation: “But we all, with open face, beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image, from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord” (2 Cor. 3:17).

The Orthodox devotion to icons is not to be found in some supposed likeness to pagan idolatry. It is rather to be found in the profound teaching of the New Testament and the fathers of the Church in which Christ, the image of God, encounters us “face to face,” and so conforms us to Himself. The Orthodox experience of icons is not an experience of wood and of paint, but rather of the “one who is represented.” Standing before an icon of Christ, the Orthodox Christian is aware of Christ – not as captured in the image – but as present to him in the image. Thus icons are called, “Windows to heaven.”

This same devotional habit – forged in the theology of the incarnation – reaches out towards all of creation. Thus St. Paul can say of the created world, “…for since the creation of the world [God’s] invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead…” (Romans 1:20). Thus the creation becomes a window to heaven, a reflection that “clearly” reveal God’s eternal power and Godhead. This does not confuse God’s eternal power and Godhead with the creation itself, anymore than an icon should be confused with what it represents.

But there is a proper theology of icons, of the image, within Christian theology. Iconoclasm, in the teaching of the fathers, is heresy, a denial of the truth of God’s incarnation.

The face of Christ is rightly the heart’s desire of every Christian. Albeit, those who oppose Christ, we are told, call out to the mountains and to the rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of Him that sitteth on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb…” (Rev. 6:15). And “this is the condemnation, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than the light, for their deeds were evil” (John 3:19).

Grant us, God, to see Thy face.

Loving an Angry God

death-for-dostoevsky1I am both opposed to theological systems that have at their heart an angry, wrathful God whose justice much be satisfied – but I am also understanding of those who, having been raised or nurtured in pious settings, take theHoly Scriptures pretty much at face value and are thus discomfited by people like myself who seek to give an account of God that does not include God angrily and wrathfully punishing the deserving (even though He does this in a “loving manner”).

Some of the contradiction between the God of love and the God of wrath first struck me at age 13 – and occasioned my first rejection of Christianity. I know from personal experience that these wrathful/loving accounts of God have their theological casualities.

I am also aware of attempts to treat the wrathful image under the rubrics of  a “Semitic” approach to God. Some of which come from Orthodox sources. However, I find that Semitic witnesses such as St. Isaac of Syria were not nearly so dominated by a so-called “Semitic” understanding.

There are several quotes I wish to offer from the Fathers:

From St. Anthony in the Philokalia (ch. 150, first volume):

God is good, dispassionate, and immutable. Now someone who thinks it reasonable and true to affirm that God does not change, may well ask how, in that case, it is possible to speak of God as rejoicing over those who are good and showing mercy to those who honor Him, and as turning away from the wicked and being angry with sinners. To this it must be answered that God neither rejoices nor grows angry, for to rejoice and to be offended are passions; nor is He won over by the gifts of those who honor Him, for that would mean He is swayed by pleasure. It is not right that the Divinity feel pleasure or displeasure from human conditions. He is good, and He only bestows blessings and never does harm, remaining always the same. We men, on the other hand, if we remain good through resembling God, are united to Him, but if we become evil through not resembling God, we are separated from Him. By living in holiness we cleave to God; but by becoming wicked we make Him our enemy. It is not that He grows angry with us in an arbitrary way, but it is our own sins that prevent God from shining within us and expose us to demons who torture us. And if through prayer and acts of compassion we gain release from our sins, this does not mean that we have won God over and made Him to change, but that through our actions and our turning to the Divinity, we have cured our wickedness and so once more have enjoyment of God’s goodness. Thus to say that God turns away from the wicked is like saying that the sun hides itself from the blind.

Many will say: “Does not Holy Scripture itself often speak about the anger of God? Is it not God Himself who says that He will punish us or that He will pardon us? Is it not written that ‘He is a rewarded of them that diligently seek Him’ (Heb. 11:6)?  Does He not say that vengeance is His and that He will requite the wickedness done to us? Is it not written that it is fearful to fall into the hands of the living God?”

In his discourse entitled That God is not the Cause of Evil, Saint Basil the Great writes the following:

“But one may say, if God is not responsible for evil things, why is it said in the book of Esaias, ‘I am He that prepared light and Who formed darkness, Who makes peace and Who creates evils’ (45:7).” And again, “There came down evils from the Lord upon the gates of Jerusalem” (Mich. 1:12). And, “Shall there be evil in the city which the Lord hath not wrought?” (Amos 3:6). And in the great Ode of Moses, “Behold, I am and there is no god beside Me. I will slay, and I will make to live; I will smite, and I will heal” (Deut. 32:39). But none of these citations, to him who understands the deeper meaning of the Holy Scriptures, casts any blame on God, as if He were the cause of evils and their creator, for He Who said, “I am the One Who makes light and darkness,” shows Himself as the Creator of the universe, not that He is the creator of any evil…. “He creates evils,” that means, “He fashions them again and brings them to a betterment, so that they leave their evilness, to take on the nature of good.”

As Saint Isaac the Syrian writes, “Very often many things are said by the Holy Scriptures and in it many names are used not in a literal sense… those who have a mind understand this” (Homily 83, p. 317).

I understand the care many have to give proper weight to the words of Scripture, and in their experience have only found enemies of the Scriptures who ever suggest alternatives to a more-or-less literal reading. But the sources I quote are great among the Fathers of the Church.

My concern as a brother Christian turns towards my heart and the hearts of others. I understand the intellectual satisfaction found in justice – but I do not find its place within the goodness of the heart. I cannot rejoice in the anger of God nor of anyone else. I weep – or more accurately – when I find that I rejoice in the anger of anyone it should be a cause for weeping. For I am a sinful man and I rejoice at things that should cause my heart to weep – so great is the darkness within it.

The Orthodox understanding of the wrath of God is not an endorsement of universalism. God alone knows who is saved. But it is a call for universal love. For there is nowhere (certainly within the New Testament) that we are commanded to hate. We are to love our enemies. And if that is to be anything more than lip-service then it must first be modeled in the Good God and grafted within us by His grace.

Strangely, I find our century (and the ones preceding it) not overburdened with love, but rather riddled with those who believe their hatreds to be justified. God save me from the man who believes Himself just. I do not stand a chance before him. Rather, number me with the harlots and the publicans – number me with the worst of sinners. Within that refuse of humanity I may find mercy and a heart kind enough to pray for a man as wicked as myself.

Scarcity, Abundance and the Kingdom of God – Thoughts for Holy Week

In the Praises for Matins of Holy Wednesday, we read:

Oh, the wretchedness of Judas! He saw the harlot kiss the footsteps of Christ, but deceitfully he contemplated the kiss of betrayal. She loosed her hair while he bound himself with wrath. He offered the stench of wickedness instead of myrrh, for envy cannot distinguish value. Oh, the wretchedness of Judas! Deliver our souls from this, O God.

We are also told in Scripture that Pilate perceived that Christ was being handed over to him “for the sake of envy” (Matt. 27:18). Thus, it seemed important to me to offer this small meditation on envy, or at least one of its sources – for it is rooted in false beliefs about God and His world and the hardness of our heart that keeps us from seeing the truth. There is much more to say of this primal passion. But this small reprint will have to suffice for now.

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We stand mournfully around the grave, letting the strains of the hymn find their resolution in the final chord. The priest approaches the coffin, now closed and ready for lowering into the grave. The closing of the grave begins with a single handful of dirt. The priest tosses the dirt with the words: “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.”

Fullness seems strangely contradictory to the mood of a funeral. The pain of loss and the emptiness of a life that seems to have gone from the midst of us speak not of fullness but now of scarcity. I will not hear that voice, hold you close to me or listen carefully for your footsteps.

No setting could be more stark in which to proclaim “fullness.”

But it is at the grave that we are perhaps the most clearly confronted with the claims of our faith. For it is here at the grave that God made His own final assault on the myths and fears of a world dominated by death. This world of death always proclaimed the sovereignty of sorrow, the ascendency of scarcity.

From the abundance of Paradise man falls into a world in which thorns and thistles dominate:

Cursed is the ground for your sake; In toil you shall eat of it All the days of your life. Both thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you, And you shall eat the herb of the field. In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread Till you return to the ground (Genesis 3:17-19).

But now, standing at this funeral, the priest proclaims, “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.”

What fullness? Again it is the assault of God on the world man has made. The earth is not the kingdom of scarcity, but now the Kingdom of God. The grave is not the gate of Hades, but the gate of paradise. Fullness can again be proclaimed for the grave has been ruptured and cannot hold its prey.

This struggle is a daily struggle. Is the world I live in one of scarcity or abundance? The answer to the question has much to do about almost every decision I make. The threat of scarcity tells me that whatever I have, like my own life, is limited. Nothing is ever enough. There is not enough money, enough food, enough love. The abundance enjoyed by another is always at the expense of myself and others because the world is governed by scarcity. Thus I must fight; I must wrestled to gain whatever I can and cling to it till death wrests it from my cold, dead fingers.

However, if the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof – if every good thing comes from God who is without limit – then scarcity has been defeated and abundance reigns within the Kingdom of God, now and always. In this abundance there is not just enough, but more than enough. I can share. I can give. I can love without fear that there will be too little to go around. The abundance enjoyed by another is not at my expense for those who have much are not the rulers of this world. Thus I need not fight; I do not need to gain or to cling. God knows I have need of all these things.

The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof. The emptiness of death has been filled with such an abundance of life that it has been trampled beneath the feet of those who walk the way of Christ. In this fullness we can do more than give – we can love even to the excess of forgiveness. My enemy has stolen nothing from the abundance that fills my life.

This proclamation of abundance has nothing in common with the prosperity gospel which is all too often driven by the fear of scarcity and the need to amass material things to prove the goodness of God.

Instead, as proclamation it needs no assurance greater than the resurrection of Christ. He is the abundance of life.

In the one-storey world in which we truly live it is all too easy to assume its boundaries are those set by geographically defined notions, and that, by definition, things are finite, hence scarce. But this is a failure to recognize what has happened in the world in the coming among us of the God-Man, Jesus Christ. As He Himself said:

Go and shew John again those things which ye do hear and see: The blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them. And blessed is he, whosoever shall not be offended in me.

In Biblical language, this was Christ’s proclamation of a Jubilee year – the great Jubilee Year – in which all debts are cancelled and righteousness is restored. He has extended this confidence of abundance even to the blind and the lame. Even they receive the abundance of sight and the ability to walk. Lepers, once trapped in the scarcity of their disease and shame, are cleansed and returned to the company of men. The world has changed. Christ did not do these miracles in a world removed from the one we inhabit. It was blind and lame in the very midst of us and in this world who were healed. Thus it is with the same confidence that we proclaim the victory of His kingdom – in what we say and do.

What martyr disdained to live the abundance of this proclamation? What saint, in His poverty, declared God to be poor and this world to be bereft of its fullness? And yet in our own confidence in the material machine of modernity (not in God) we worry and are anxious about its limits. Modernity’s fullness has its limits for it is not the fullness of God but of man (and this as unredeemed). It offers a false promise. It’s fullness does not generally induce kindness and generosity but acquisition and envy.

True fullness will always beget generosity and kindness – it is a hallmark of the work of God. True fullness brought a cry of “the half of my goods I give to the poor” from the lips of the Publican Zachaeus. True fullness will always be marked by such cries – they are echoes of “Indeed, He is risen!”

The Love of God and the Gospel of Christ

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I believe that the love of our enemies is utterly essential to the love of God. If we do not love our enemies, we will not know God, nor rightly love Him. Indeed, I believe that we only know God to the extent that we love our enemies. If anything, this points to the utter necessity of grace – for how else will we ever love our enemies? On the other hand, I believe that embracing an interpretation of Scripture in which God’s wrath is seen as literally true, not only undercuts other statements in Scripture concerning God’s love, but also the consensus of the Fathers (certainly in the East). But more directly, belief that God’s character is such that He hates some and loves others, finally makes loving our own enemies impossible. How could we love more than God loves? If God hates some, then how can we dare to be different? St. Luke has a passage which is pivotal for me:

Luke 6:32-36 “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. And if you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the selfish. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.

But, of course, if God is only merciful to some, then need I do more? It is absolutely foundational in the spiritual teaching of the Church that God is love and His mercy is towards all. Not only is His mercy towards all, but our mercy is to be the same. Thus the Church reads words such as “wrath” and “anger” metaphorically when they are applied to God – for God is not subject to human passions. It is not just foundational for understanding God – but foundational for our own salvation – our own conformity to the image of Christ. If we do not journey as far down the road towards the utter forgiveness of our enemies, we will have taken our hand from the plow, turned aside from the path God has set us.

I append a short conversation of St. Silouan of Mt. Athos which points towards how our attitude should be towards all – and how the gospel should be preached. Such stories are not an argument for those who are convinced that the Bible teaches that God is wrathful and angry with sinners. I can only take refuge in the received teaching of the Church and the received interpretation of Scripture. The proof, if there can be such, of its veracity can be found in the lives of the saints, whom God has given us in every age.

Father Silouan’s attitude towards those who differed from him was characterized by a sincere desire to see what was good in them, and not to offend them in anything they held sacred. He always remained himself; he was utterly convinced that ‘salvation lies in Christ-like humility’, and by virtue of this humility he strove with his whole soul to interpret every man at his best. He found his way to the heart of everyone – to his capacity for loving Christ.

I remember a conversation he had with a certain Archimandrite who was engaged in missionary work. This Archimandrite thought highly of the Staretz [Saint Silouan] and many a time went to see him during his visits to the Holy Mountain. the Staretz asked him what sort of sermons he preached to people. The Archimandrite, who was still young and inexperienced, gesticulated with his hands and swayed his whole body, and replied excitedly,

‘I tell them, Your faith is all wrong, perverted. There is nothing right, and if you don’t repent, there will be no salvation for you.’

The Staretz heard him out, then asked,

‘Tell me, Father Archimandrite, do they believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, that He is the true God?’

‘Yes, that they do believe.’

‘And do they revere the Mother of God?’

‘Yes, but they are not taught properly about her.’

‘And what about the Saints?’

‘Yes they honor them but since they have fallen away from the Church, what saints can they have?’

‘Do they celebrate the Divine Office in their churches? Do they read the Gospels?’

‘Yes, they do have churches and services but if you were to compare their services with ours – how cold and lifeless theirs are!’

‘Father Archimandrite, people feel in their souls when they are doing the proper thing, believing in Jesus Christ, revering the Mother of God and the Saints, whom they call upon in prayer, so if you condemn their faith they will not listen to you…. But if you were to confirm that they were doing well to believe in God and honor the Mother of God and the Saints; that they are right to go to church, and say their prayers at home, read the Divine word, and so on; and then gently point out their mistakes and show them what they ought to amend, then they would listen to you, and the Lord would rejoice over them. And this way by God’s mercy we shall all find salvation…. God is love, and therefore the preaching of His word must always proceed from love. Then both preacher and listener will profit. But if you do nothing but condemn, the soul of the people will not heed you, and no good will come of it.’

God’s Justice and the Fathers

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I am grateful for the responses yesterday that were posted on my article Once and For All, and particularly Ephrem’s passages from the Fathers on justice. I have certainly been among the Orthodox writers, speakers, etc., in America who have given short shrift to forensic (legal) imagery when thinking about God and how we understand Christ’s death on our behalf. I want to offer a short defense (for I think I have reason behind my approach to the faith in this regard) but I also want to look briefly at some of the passages from the Fathers that were quoted regarding the justice of God – for I think they are good and utterly worth attention (as if I should judge the Fathers).

First, the defense. I gave a talk a couple of years ago entitled, “Evangelism in the Burnt Over District.” It was a talk given at the annual Pastoral Conference of the OCA to an audience of priests. I did not speak about the Fathers, but about our American context in which we proclaim the Orthodox faith. The point I made there, and reiterate here, can be found in the image of the “Burnt Over District.”

Upstate New York, in and around the 1840’s had earned the nickname, “The Burnt Over District,” precisely because the number of “revivals” that had swept the area had left it “burnt over.” Today we would probably say, “burnt out.” Both the Great Awakenings, but particularly the Second, had their place in this area. By the time of the 1840’s the area was awash with religion, and interestingly became the hotbed of American religious cults (it was the home of Mormonism, the Millerites, etc.). What is there about the gospel that you can hear one too many times?

My contention was (and is) that the popular preaching of American Protestantism, had winnowed the gospel down to a few graphic images, easily preached and repeated. Those images were a caricature of the substitutionary atonement and a simplified version of Christian initiation (“accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior”) that came to be the stock of popular American evangelical preaching. Just think, American campuses were inundated with the “four” spiritual laws. Imagine trying to convey the Orthodox faith in four anything.

My further contention has been that what was once true of Upstate New York is now descriptive of an entire culture. America is the Burnt Over District. Most Americans, if they have heard a version of the gospel, have heard a very truncated, often caricatured version.

Problematic has been the dominance of an atonement metaphor (which is dogma for some) that portrays God as wrathful, vengeful and in need of appeasement. Often, at the heart of this image is an argument that God is “bound” by His justice and that His justice must be satisfied.

In 26 years of ordained ministry I have encountered more than my share of atheists. In the vast majority of cases the atheists, when questioned, have specifically rejected the problematic portrayal of God in popular preaching. It is correct and permissable, and well within the Tradition to speak of God’s justice, even of His wrath, but we have to be careful to whom we use such imagery and be aware of the baggage if often carries with it.

There are reasons the Church does not trumpet (and never has) its most cherished doctrines of the Theotokos. It is dogma, but not necessarily kerygma, to use the technical terms. It is the settled teaching of the faith (dogma), but not the most public preaching of the faith (kerygma). This is a distinction that is historically of importance in the Orthodox faith, and certainly rooted within the Fathers.

Professor Serge Verhovskoy, of blessed memory, is frequently cited as having given this definition of Orthodoxy: Orthodoxy is the absence of one-sidedness.

The Burnt-Over District is a prime example of “one-sidedness” and the bizarre effects it has on religious belief and practice. Thus, although Orthodoxy does use and has examples of forensic imagery, it is by no means dominant (as in having the prime position in the Divine Liturgy). It is not heresy (as is sometimes asserted in extreme reaction to its abuse). But it has been in long need of balance in the preaching of Christ in our culture. If Orthodox preaching today tends to emphasize images other than the substitionary atonement it may simply be a reasonable effort to contextualize the gospel in a culture that desperately needs to hear the good news.

 Now for the Fathers.

St. Cyril of Jerusalem on God’s justice:

For we were enemies of God through sin, and God had appointed the sinner to die. There must needs therefore have happened one of two things; either that God, in His truth, should destroy all men, or that in His loving-kindness He should cancel the sentence. But behold the wisdom of God; He preserved both the truth of His sentence, and the exercise of His loving-kindness. Christ took our sins in His body on the tree, that we by His death might die to sin, and live unto
righteousness.

Interestingly, St. Cyril does not portray a God who is bound by any abstract concept of justice. He has transposed the imagery of Adam’s death into a “sentence of death,” although St. Athanasius was careful to point out that God did not say that “in the day you eat of the fruit I will kill you,” but that death would be it’s result: not a sentence, but a falling back into non-being (this is in his arguments in On the Incarnation of God). St. Cyril has here used legal imagery, but carefully made God’s mercy triumphant. God found the way out for us by killing death. But this is far from the image of punishing his Son in order to pay a need for justice (as the caricature sometimes has it).

And St. Gregory Palamas:

The pre-eternal, uncircumscribed and almighty Word and omnipotent Son of God could clearly have saved man from mortality and servitude to the devil without Himself becoming man. He upholds all things by the word of His power and everything is subject to His divine authority. According to Job, He can do everything and nothing is impossible for Him. The strength of a created being cannot withstand the power of the Creator, and nothing is more powerful than the Almighty. But the incarnation of the Word of God was the method of deliverance most in keeping with our nature and weakness, and most appropriate for Him Who carried it out, for this method had justice on its side, and God does not act without justice. As the Psalmist and Prophet says, ‘God is righteous and loveth righteousness’, ‘and there is no unrighteousness in Him’. Man was justly abandoned by God in the beginning as he had first abandoned God. He had voluntarily approached the originator of evil, obeyed him when he treacherously advised the opposite of what God had commanded, and was justly given over to him. In this way, through the evil one’s envy and the good Lord’s just consent, death came into the world. Because of the devil’s overwhelming evil, death became twofold, for he brought about not just physical but also eternal death.

As we had been justly handed over to the devil’s service and subjection to death, it was clearly necessary that the human race’s return to freedom and life should be accomplished by God in a just way. Not only had man been surrendered to the envious devil by divine righteousness, but the devil had rejected righteousness and become wrongly enamoured of authority, arbitrary power and, above all, tyranny. He took up arms against justice and used his might against mankind. It pleased God that the devil be overcome first by the justice against which he continuously fought, then afterwards by power, through the Resurrection and the future Judgement. Justice before power is the best order of events, and that force should come after justice is the work of a truly divine and good Lord, not of a tyrant.

This very rich passage – though using the language of justice – is actually an example of the so-called Christus Victor model in which God triumphs over the devil and sets us free. Not every use of justice is a purely forensic metaphor.

Or St. John Chrysostom:

‘Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us’. In reality, the people were subject to another curse, which says, ‘Cursed is every man who continueth not in all the words of the law to do them’. To this curse, I say, people were subject, for none had continued in, or was a keeper of, the whole law; but Christ exchanged this curse for the other, ‘Cursed by God is everyone who is hanged on a tree’. And then both he who hanged on a tree, and he who transgresses the law, is cursed, and as it was necessary for him who is about to relieve from a curse himself to be loosed from it, but to receive another instead of it, therefore Christ took upon Him such another, and thereby loosed us from the curse. It was like an innocent man’s undertaking to die for another condemned to death, and so rescuing him from punishment. For Christ took upon Him not the curse of transgression, but the other curse, in order to remove that of others. For, ‘He practiced no iniquity, nor was craft in His mouth’. And as by dying He rescued from death those who were dying, so by taking upon Himself the curse, He delivered them from it.

This, indeed, is a good example of substitution being used in Orthodox teaching. But it differs in some ways from more popular usages of substitution in American preaching. Christ is taking a curse upon himself, putting Himself in our place, in order to free us from the curse. But this is a world away from taking a place required by the justice of a wrathful, vengeful God.

As I think we agreed yesterday, there is a very rich inheritance of images used in both Scripture and the Fathers – which is only natural since what is being described is more than any one image can begin to capture. Christ is the “fullness of the Godhead bodily,” and as the fullness, no few words or images could do more than offer an emptiness. He is the “recapitulation” of the entirety of God’s dispensation for us – or as the Scriptures say, “He fulfilled the Scriptures.”

I will endeavor myself to avoid “one-sidedness” and be careful in my speech. But I will also ask of my Orthodox readers to think carefully on the context in which we live and preach the gospel.

My (probably a cliche by now) stock question to most atheists is, “Tell me about the God you don’t believe in. I probably don’t believe in that one either.” It is an effort to disarm people who are often very angry about the God they don’t believe in, and an offer of hope that there is a God worthy of worship. We have to preach the truth in its fullness, but we also have to see some things “unpreached” if I may coin a word.

The hopefulness, the humanity, the utter generosity taught in the Fathers – particularly the Greek Fathers that are such a foundation of our Orthodox faith – is an almost unheard of word in our American religious life. That “He is a good God, and He loves mankind,” which concludes almost every service of the Church, is news to our religious nation. Many people believe this to be true, but do not know that it is in fact the teaching of the Orthodox faith.

When I first read Vladimir Lossky’s Mystical Theology of the Orthodox Church (when I was in college), I wept. I do not recommend it to others as the book to start with in exploring Orthodoxy. But I wept because it was the first time I had ever heard the good news that actually sounded like good news. I wept because I was discovering that everything I had always hoped was true was not only true but was actually the Orthodox faith. What I heard in Lossky was my first account of union with God as taught in the Fathers. It wasn’t the mystery of it, but the simple goodness of the teaching that God became what we are that we might become what He is. The imagery of union with Christ was largely new to me (having been raised in Southern one-sidedness).

What a joy it is to actually discuss the Fathers together in this format. May God enrich us all!

Let’s Get Out Of This Place

The Saturday before Palm Sunday is known as Lazarus Saturday among the Orthodox, and they celebrate Christ raising him from the dead just prior to His entrance into Jerusalem (gospel of John). It is a feast that offers something of a preview of Christ’s resurrection, and a foretaste of the General Resurrection at the End of the Age. Some years back I sat in a cave that is purported to be the grave of Lazarus. I could not help but think of him – but of him in Hades rather than the tomb. It is said in the Fathers that when Christ raised him from the dead, it was necessary for Him to say, “Lazarus, come forth!” For had He only said, “Come forth!” all of the dead would have risen before their time. It’s a thought that I like a lot.

 It is also, however, a thought that has occurred to Hades itself, at least in the hymnody of the Church:

 I implore you, Lazarus, said Hell, Rise up, depart quickly from my bonds and be gone. It is better for me to lament bitterly for the loss of one, rather than of all those whom I swallowed in my hunger.

 Why do you delay, Lazarus? cried Hell. Your Friend stands calling to you: ‘Come out.’ Go, then, and I too shall feel relief. For since I swallowed you, all other food is loathsome to me.

 O Lazarus, why do you not rise up swiftly? cried Hell below, lamenting. Why do you not run immediately from this place? Lest Christ take prisoner the others, after raising you. (From the Canon of Lazarus Saturday)

 It is as if when Christ says, “Come forth!” Hell cries, “Get out!”

 Most of the Orthodox hymns surrounding Christ’s death and resurrection (and Lazarus’ as well) center on the notion of the “Harrowing of Hell.” The object of the Cross is not the wrath of God, but the death and confinement of man. It is the virtual non-existence that holds us in death that is trampled down by the death of Christ.

The punishment theories of the atonement have a way of mixing moral themes into Christ’s death and resurrection. They are about Christ’s payment for the moral debt of our sins. Somehow, something is terribly askew in such meditations. The utter graciousness and even gratuitous character of Christ’s victory is overlooked.

I am aware of the Biblical passages that speak of the resurrection to damnation as well as the coming judgment. But I always have the sense that those who dwell on such things are somehow afraid that Christ might accidentally forgive someone who should not have been forgiven. Be careful! Someone might get away with something!

When I ponder the atonement, the work accomplished by Christ’s death and resurrection, I tend to think of the imagery of a prison break – a really BIG prison break. When the doors are opened every fellow-prisoner is your friend. You make a run for it because it’s your chance and the sudden generosity that has found you is likely to spill over to everyone and everything. It is like the childhood cry that ends the game of Hide and Seek: “Olly, Olly, Oxen free!”

In truth, despite all of our responsibility for sin, we are largely its victims. We do not begin our lives in Paradise, but in a world in which everyone is broken and distorted. Those who carry out crimes are most likely to have been victims first. We do to others what has been done to us. And sometimes it goes to horrendous extremes. We are psychopaths and sociopaths, addicts and sinners, the children of a world gone wrong.

And though there is help, even salvation for us in this life, many never seem to find it, or being found by it, fail to understand its significance. And now they lie among the dead, bound in their sins, brought down to Hades for their crimes.

It is this fellowship of criminals and sinners that the good bishop, Melito of Sardis, seems to have had in mind when he penned a Paschal homily around the year 160 ad. It is wonderfully primitive in its vision, speaking with a concern that continues to echo in the language of the Orthodox faith. It is hopeful and bold, though perhaps discouraging for those who fear that someone might get off too lightly. He says of Christ in Hades:

[Christ] rose up from the dead, and cried aloud with this voice: “Who is he who contends with me? Let him stand in opposition to me. I set the condemned man free; I gave the dead man life; I raised up the one who had been entombed. Who is my opponent?”

“I,” He says, “am the Christ. I am the one who destroyed death, and triumphed over the enemy, and trampled Hades under foot, and bound the strong one, and carried off man to the heights of heaven.

“I,” he says, “am the Christ.”

“Therefore, come, all families of men, you who have been befouled with sins, and receive forgiveness for your sins. I am your forgiveness. I am the passover of your salvation. I am the lamb which was sacrificed for you. I am your ransom. I am your light. I am your saviour. I am your resurrection. I am your king. I am leading you up to the heights of heaven. I will show you the eternal Father. I will raise you up by my right hand.”

This is the one who made the heavens and the earth, and who in the beginning created man, who was proclaimed through the law and prophets, who became human through the virgin, who was hanged upon a tree, who was buried in the earth, who was resurrected from the dead, and who ascended to the heights of heaven, who sits at the right hand of the Father, who has authority to judge and to save everything, through whom the Father created everything from the beginning of the world to the end of the age.

This is the alpha and the omega. This is the beginning and the end–an indescribable beginning and an incomprehensible end. This is the Christ. This is the king. This is Jesus. This is the general. This is the Lord. This is the one who rose up from the dead. This is the one who sits at the right hand of the Father. He bears the Father and is borne by the Father, to whom be the glory and the power forever. Amen.

Amen. Indeed.

 

 

 

 

Pentecost Is Not the Church’s Birthday

It is a commonplace in some circles to celebrate Pentecost as the Church’s “Birthday.” It is well-intentioned, perhaps even true in some sense, but tends to render the Church as something it is not. St. Paul calls the Church the “pillar and ground of truth.” The sort of institutional concept that would mark some date in 33 AD as a founding date (like the founding of Rome or Coca-Cola), would make St. Paul’s description beyond absurd. Paul gave ceaseless effort to the establishing of Christian communities, preaching, teaching, correcting, admonishing, encouraging, etc. The communities described in his letters would seem a very shaky thing to be described as the pillar and ground of anything. And yet, there it is. Indeed, it is right to say that the Church “cannot be shaken.”

I share a small passage from St. Porphyrios of Kavsokalyvia’s book, Wounded by Love. Here, the depth of the Scripture is made clear:

The Church is without beginning, without end and eternal, just as the Triune God, her founder, is without beginning, without end and eternal. She is uncreated just as God is uncreated. She existed before the ages, before the angels, before the creation of the world – before the foundation of the world as the Apostle Paul says. She is a divine institution and in her dwells the whole fullness of divinity. She is an expression of the richly varied wisdom of God. She is the mystery of mysteries. She was concealed and was revealed in the last of times. The Church remains unshaken because she is rooted in the love and wise providence of God.

The three persons of the Holy Trinity constitute the eternal Church.

It is worth reflecting on the fact that in the Russian tradition, the Day of Pentecost is celebrated as Troitsa (Троица), the Feast of the Holy Trinity. The icon most associated with that feast is the Hospitality of Abraham, which depicts the visit of the three angels described in Genesis 18.

The Church is the fulfillment of God’s eternal purpose, “that He might gather together in one, all things in Christ Jesus.” It is the place of union between heaven and earth, our union with God. It is our common life with God that is referenced when we say “Church.”

Our misunderstanding in all of this is driven by wrong-headed accounts of salvation. We were created for union with God. It’s for this purpose that we were created in His image and likeness. What is termed the “Fall” is a deviation from that single purpose, while salvation is the restoration of our true life. St. Paul describes this:

For he has made known to us in all wisdom and insight the mystery of his will, according to his purpose which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fulness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. In him, according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to the counsel of his will… (Eph. 1:9-11)

In place of this Biblical vision of salvation has been erected a lightly Christianized version of a pagan afterlife. Christ speaks of “eternal life,” and we falsely hear “a life without end.” “Eternal life” is the life of God Himself, not a mere extension of our created existence. In Holy Baptism, we receive a new mode of existence, not just a promise of an afterlife. That mode of existence is life-in-communion with God. We not only have life-in-communion with God, we become life-in-communion with God. St. Paul describes this as the “new man.”

Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth. For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory. Therefore put to death your members which are on the earth: fornication, uncleanness, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. Because of these things the wrath of God is coming upon the sons of disobedience, in which you yourselves once walked when you lived in them. But now you yourselves are to put off all these: anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy language out of your mouth. Do not lie to one another, since you have put off the old man with his deeds, and have put on the new man who is renewed in knowledge according to the image of Him who created him, (Col. 3:2-10)

And,

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new. (2 Cor. 5:17)

This “new” does not mean “getting a fresh start.” It means something that did not exist before. It is not a repair of the old, but the creation of a new – and this new is “according to the image of Him who created him.”

There are many cultural and historical forces that have transformed Christian understanding from this life-as-a-new-creation into a path to a pleasant afterlife. Our own fear of death is among the greatest culprits. When the death of the body becomes our dominant fear, the answer we seek is something that makes it not so bad. If I die and then go to heaven, then my fear is relieved. Sadly, we do not fear this present life, even though it is life-in-death and is passing away.

Much of what passes for a Christian life these days consists of trying to improve the behavior of our present existence. We want to be better persons and contribute to a better world. As commendable as this is (surely better than being a worse person and poisoning the world), it is not the point of our faith. This is what often sets saints apart from other Christians. It is not that saints are like us, only better. They are not like us. They are like God, having taken up a new mode of existence that transcends (and transforms) the world.

This new mode of existence is the manifestation in us of the very life of the Holy Trinity. That life is consistently described in the New Testament as “love.” We have diminished the meaning of this word, in which it becomes either a set of emotions or actions of kindness. Again, these are not bad things, but they are not the thing. In Christ, we see love as the actual mode of existence.

In the encounter with the woman at the well, Christ’s disciples are concerned that He has had nothing to eat. He says:

But He said to them, “I have food to eat of which you do not know.” Therefore the disciples said to one another, “Has anyone brought Him anything to eat?” Jesus said to them, “My food is to do the will of Him who sent Me, and to finish His work. (Jn. 4:32-34)

“Doing the will of the Father” is, in John’s gospel, a definition of love. It is more than a good action; it is able to sustain body and soul. It is the life of the age to come made manifest in human form.

“He who has My commandments and keeps them, it is he who loves Me. And he who loves Me will be loved by My Father, and I will love him and manifest Myself to him.” (Jn. 14:21)

It is this life of Divine love, the life of the Holy Trinity, that is given to us as the new mode of our existence in Christ. His commandments, rightly kept, become the pathway and manifestation of this love and its realization in our lives. And this is the life of the Church, its very heart and reality. It is this that prevails against the gates of hell and stands as the pillar and ground of truth.

It can have no birthday.

 

The Bridegroom and Judgment

Behold, the Bridegroom comes at midnight, and blessed is the servant whom He shall find watching; and again, unworthy is the servant whom He shall find heedless.  Beware, therefore, O my soul, do not be weighed down with sleep, lest you be given up to death and lest you be shut out of the Kingdom.  But rouse yourself crying: Holy, holy, holy, art Thou, O our God.  Through the Theotokos, have mercy on us.

+ Troparion of Bridegroom Matins

The services of the first few days of Orthodox Holy Week have a collective theme of judgment. The centerpiece of those days is the service known as “Bridegroom Matins,” so named for the icon of Christ the Bridegroom (pictured here), an interesting name for Christ depicted in His humiliation, crowned with thorns, robed in derision, with the rod of His chastisement in His hand. It is part of the “upside-down” character of Holy Week. Judgment is clearly one of the most upside-down characteristics of the events that unfold in Christ’s last earthly days.

I was nurtured on stories as a child that contrasted Christ’s “non-judging” (“Jesus, meek and mild”) with Christ the coming Judge (at His dread Second Coming). I was told that His second coming would be very unlike His first. There was a sense that Jesus, meek and mild, was something of a pretender, revealing His true and eternal character only later as the avenging Judge.

This, of course, is both distortion and heresy. The judgment of God is revealed in Holy Week. The crucified Christ is the fullness of the revelation of God. There is no further revelation to be made known, no unveiling of a wrath to come. The crucified Christ is what the wrath of God looks like.

The first three days of Holy Week are collectively known as the End. And it is this End that forms the character of judgment. The end of something always reveals the truth of a thing. As the popular saying has it, “Time will tell.” When the End is the end that is brought by God, then the true end of all things is revealed.

And this is the characteristic of the judgment made manifest in Holy Week. Christ is moving towards His end, the consummation of the Incarnation. As He is increasingly revealed, everything around Him is revealed as well. Things are shown to be more clearly what they are. Those who hate Him, begin to be revealed as plotters and murderers. What was once only thoughts and feelings of envy become plots and perjury. The power of Rome is unmasked for its injustice, mere people-pleasing. The High Priest is revealed to believe that the destruction of God is good for his nation. The weakness of the disciples and the empty boasting of Peter and the rest are shown for their true emptiness. The sin of the world is revealed in the death of God.

But this had been prophesied from the beginning:

Behold, this Child is destined for the fall and rising of many in Israel…that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed  (Luk 2:34-35).

But the righteous are revealed as well. The steadfast love of the Mother of God never wavered before the Cross. Her faithfulness is revealed. The kindness of Joseph of Arimathea is forever marked by an empty tomb. The tears of a harlot reveal the nature of love, even hidden beneath the deeds of her life. In the judgment of God, all things are simply shown to be what they truly are. Sin is seen to be sin. Love is seen to be love. There is clarity.

And in the judgment of God, His own love is shown to be what it truly is – self-sacrificing, forgiving, relentless in its mercy. It is not a love that pronounces forgiveness from the Cross only to pronounce destruction on another occasion. The crucified Christ is not a revelation that is succeeded by another.

For I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified. (1Co 2:2)

The Bridegroom comes. Judgment arrives. All things are revealed for what they truly are.

Thy bridal chamber I see adorned, O my Savior, and I have no wedding garment that I may enter. O Giver of Light, enlighten the vesture of my soul, and save me.

+ Exaposteilarion of Bridegroom Matins

The Death of Christ and the Life of Man

0915-olsorrowSeveral years ago, someone wrote and asked, “Why did Christ have to die on the Cross?” It is the question that prompted this article. Recently, we have been having a discussion regarding the atonement within the comments section of the blog. I have pointed out that the notion of Christ being punished by the wrath of God for our sakes is not, in fact, found in the Scriptures. Sin is not a breaking of the rules. This article, a reprint, covers some very basic ground about classical Orthodox teaching on the death of Christ, the nature of sin, and the meaning of salvation. I hope it is of help to readers.

Preliminary Thoughts

Part of the information accompanying the question was the experience (of Mary K) with teaching on the atonement that centered largely on the wrath and anger of God. (I paraphrase and summarize) We sinned  (both ourselves and Adam and Eve) – God punished us. God sent Christ whom He punished in our place. Now through faith in Christ we can escape the punishment we deserve. Along with this were a number of questions about the blood of Christ. How does it cleanse us from sin?

Of course such a question could be the occasion for a book. As is, it is the occasion for an answer of readable length (barely). Readers who feel that more should have been said about one thing or another are asked for patience. The heart of things, it seems to me, has to do with the primary images used to understand both what is wrong with humanity and creation (sin) and what it is about Christ that saves us and heals us (His death and resurrection). If there were only one way of speaking about this or thinking about this, then the question would not have been asked.

The truth is that Scripture, including within the work of a single writer, uses many images to describe the reality of what Christ has done. Some of those images are simply useful analogies or metaphors, others seem to have a more “literal” character about them – though nowhere do we find a definitive account that sets all others aside.

I want to also add a preliminary word (for our questioning reader) about the language of Scripture. Though many Christians would agree that the words of Scripture are “God-breathed” (inspired), this does not mean that every statement in Scripture is to be read literally. There are many things that are read figuratively, metaphorically, and otherwise. That is to say, the Scriptures cannot be read without help and a guide. This has always been true. For this reason the Scriptures, when read in a traditional Christian manner, must be read with Christians who themselves have been taught to read them in a traditional manner.

In this matter, you will find great diversity among Christians, for the interpretation of Scripture has been a major point of division between Christians for almost 500 years. Much of what was described in the background to the question that was posed are examples of modern, fundamentalist Christian interpretations (of which there are a variety). What I offer here is the general understanding of Eastern Orthodox Christianity.

The Problem

What is wrong with humanity, and creation, such that we are in need of anything from God? What is sin?

At its most fundamental level – sin is death. For the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23). The fact that we die is not a punishment sent to us from God but the result of our having broken fellowship (communion) with God. God is Life and the only source of life. Created things (humanity included) do not have life in themselves, it is not something we have as our possession and power. Rather, life is the gift of God. It is not just our life that is the gift of God – but our very existence and the existence of all that is. God is our Creator. The Scriptures say, “In Him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).

Genesis offers us the story of Adam and Eve in which we hear described their disobedience from God. He had warned them: “Do not eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.”

Many early commentators on Scripture were careful to note that God did not say, “In the day you eat of it I will kill you,” but “in the day you eat of it you shall die.” Rather we are told: “God did not create death, nor does he delight in the death of the living” (Wisdom 1:13).

St. Athanasius explains that when humanity chose to break its relationship with God (through disobedience) we cut ourselves off from the source of life. However God did not take life from us (He does not take back the gifts He gives) but we removed ourselves from it. And so we die. We not only die physically, but we have a process of death at work in us. St. Paul speaks of this process as “corruption.” This movement away from life and towards death and destruction reveals itself in the many broken things in our lives. We hurt and kill each other. We hurt and destroy creation. We are weak and easily enslaved to powerful things such as drugs and alcohol. We are dominated by greed, envy, lust, anger, etc. We cannot help ourselves in this matter because we do not have life within ourselves. Only God can give us the true life that alone can make us well.

The Answer

Above all else we should remember that “God is a good God and He loves mankind” (from the Orthodox dismissal). This we hear clearly in Scripture: “God is love” (1 John 4:8) and “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten son, that whosoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).

We hear this echoed in the words of the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom:

You [God] brought us into being out of nothing, and when we fell, You raised us up again. You did not cease doing everything until You led us to heaven and granted us Your kingdom to come.

This good God who loves mankind is not an angry God. He is not a vengeful God. He does not will us harm or punish us for our destruction. Though the Scriptures use these images, the Fathers of the Church have been consistent in understanding that this language is figurative and should not be understood literally. For instance, St. Anthony says:

God is good and is not controlled by passions. He does not change. Now someone who thinks it reasonable and true to affirm that God does not change, may well ask how, in that case, it is possible to speak of God as rejoicing over those who are good and showing mercy to those who honor Him, and as turning away from the wicked and being angry with sinners. To this it must be answered that God neither rejoices nor grows angry, for to rejoice and to be offended are passions; nor is He won over by the gifts of those who honor Him, for that would mean He is swayed by pleasure. It is not right that the Divinity feel pleasure or displeasure from human conditions. He is good, and He only bestows blessings and never does harm, remaining always the same. We men, on the other hand, if we remain good through resembling God, are united to Him, but if we become evil through not resembling God, we are separated from Him. By living in holiness we cleave to God; but by becoming wicked we make Him our enemy. It is not that He grows angry with us in an arbitrary way, but it is our own sins that prevent God from shining within us and expose us to demons who torture us. And if through prayer and acts of compassion we gain release from our sins, this does not mean that we have won God over and made Him to change, but that through our actions and our turning to the Divinity, we have cured our wickedness and so once more have enjoyment of God’s goodness. Thus to say that God turns away from the wicked is like saying that the sun hides itself from the blind.

There are many Christians who would handle Scriptures in a different manner – but I think they do not listen to the fathers of the Church and interpret Scripture according to their own opinions. In this, I think they are in error and should not be listened to.

This good God, the only Lord and giver of Life, had compassion on us when we fell away and became subject to death and corruption. In His compassion He sent His only Son who became one of us – taking our human nature upon Himself. Uniting us to Himself, He lived a life without sin (for He is Life), and taught us by word and deed the goodness and kindness of God and to become like God by loving even our enemies.

His love was so great, that He extended that love beyond the grave. He accepted death on the Cross, suffering the hatred and evil doings of those around Him.

And here, as we approach Christ’s death on the Cross, it is appropriate to ask, “Why death?”

There are many meditations on the death of Christ. Meditations that see Him as the Paschal Lamb sacrificed for us, as the “Serpent lifted in the wilderness,” and others. Here, temptation sets in and Christians seek to explain Christ’s death by comparing it to their own faulty understandings of lesser things. For it is not the shadow of things to come (Old Testament) that interprets the things to come – but rather the reality (New Testament) that interprets the shadow. It is Christ’s death that gives meaning to every type and foreshadowing and image of that death to be found in the Old Testament.

Thus it is more accurate to say that the Paschal Lamb in the time of Moses is like Christ’s sacrifice, rather than to say His sacrifice is like that which came before. As Christ said of Moses and the Prophets, “These are they which testify of me” (John 5:30).

One of the most common and helpful images in Scripture and the fathers of the Church is the image of Christ’s union with humanity. Christ became incarnate, taking to Himself our human nature. He became what we were, yet without sin. This union should be understood in more than a metaphorical manner. For Christ literally and truly became man. His humanity was not a new creation, but he took flesh “of the Virgin Mary.” He became a partaker of our humanity.

In becoming a partaker of our humanity, Christ opened the way for us to become partakers in His divinity. “For as He is, so are we in this world” (1 John 4:17). St. Paul uses this language as well in his explanation of Baptism:

Do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Jesus Christ were baptized into His death? Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death: that like as Christ was raised up from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. For if we have been planted together in the likeness of His death, we shall also be raised together in the likeness of His resurrection. Knowing this, that our old man is crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be destroyed, that we should no longer be the slaves of sin (Romans 6:3-6).

This imagery is common in St. Paul:

I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me. And the life that I now live in the flesh, I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me (Galatians 2:20).

If you are risen with Christ, seek those things that are above, where Christ sits on the right hand of God. Set your affection on things above, not on things on the earth. For you are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God. When Christ, who is our life, shall appear, then you shall also appear with Him in glory (Colossians 3:1-4).

These things only make sense because Christ has united Himself to us, and us to Him. We are united to His death and resurrection in our faith and in our Baptism. We become one flesh with Christ. We truly become a part of the Body of Christ.

And this goes to the heart of the answer to the question posed: why did Christ die? Christ died because we were dead. We were trapped in the lifeless death that is sin (which yields corruption and physical death as well). Christ is God who has come to rescue us from our prison of sin and death. He became what we are that we might have a share in what He is. We were created in the image and likeness of God – but our sin had marred us.

We did not inherit guilt and a legal penalty from Adam and Eve. We inherited a world dominated by death. In such a world we behaved as the slaves of sin and sought to live our lives apart from God Who alone is Life. God alone could rescue us from the place where we had confined ourselves. Christ enters death. Christ enters Hades and makes a way for us to follow Him into true life.

In our present life, this true life is made present within us in many ways. First, it is made present in our knowledge of God. “This is eternal life, that they might know Thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ Whom Thou hast sent” (John 17:3). We know God and have a true relationship and communion with Him. We also have within us the power to overcome sin. This is sometimes manifest as obedience to Christ’s commandments, and, as God pleases, it is sometimes manifest as physical healing in our bodies (and miracles in creation – Romans 8:21).

If the same Spirit which raised Christ from the dead dwell in you, He will make alive your mortal bodies (Romans 8:11).

The true life of humanity is a common life. It is common in the modern world to think of ourselves only in terms of discreet individuals. But the Scriptures and teaching of the Church bear witness to a common life in which we all partake. Thus, what happens to one of us effects all of us. This commonality is also an important part of our spiritual life and our salvation. The Church in particular is the place where Christians live their common life.

This common life is also the place where we come to understand the references to “Christ’s blood” (since this was part of the question posed). His blood carries a number of meanings. It is His death, His “life poured out for us.” It is also His life given to us in the sacrament of His Body and Blood. His blood cleanses us – just as Baptism cleanses us – for His death destroys death and makes the whole creation new. There are many links between the image of blood in the Old Testament and Christ’s blood in the New. However, it is easy to become overly detailed about his connection and miss the larger point of Christ’s death – by which He destroyed death and gave us eternal life.

There are many voices across the Christian world. Taken together – they are a madhouse of confusion. Confusion and contradiction is the only result of those who listen first to one teacher and then to another. No one will arrive at the truth by such a route.

Instead, I counsel anyone to take up the life of the Church. Be Baptized (or otherwise received into the Church) and stay put. Listen to a godly pastor who lives the Scriptures and respects the fathers of the Church. Those who have built private empires and practice ministries that are in submission to “no one except God” are frauds and live in delusion. They are scandals waiting to happen.

No Church, including the Orthodox Church, ever exists without scandal. But that scandal can be disciplined. True teaching can be found and life in union with the resurrected Lord can be lived.

A Short Word About Wrath and Anger

These are words, I believe, that are so charged and dangerous, that they must be used seldom and only with caution and careful nuance. Hate and anger and wrath are generally only experienced in a sinful manner by human beings and most people are deeply wounded already by such abuse. Those who preach such terms are often engaging in spiritual abuse and should stop. If someone who teaches or preaches the Christian gospel but cannot do so without reference to these words, then I think they need to stop and pray and see if there is not something fundamentally wrong with their understanding. I’m not trying to edit these things out of Scripture – simply to say that they are abused by most who read them. Imagine you are explaining the gospel to a 4 year old. Will the child misunderstand the concept of God’s wrath? I am rather sure of it. I have not found adults to be that much more emotionally mature. My challenge of these images (on the blog and in my writings) is, I hope, an occasion for other Christians, particularly Orthodox, to think carefully about these very powerful words. If we do that – then I’ll have done a little good.

[Of course, Scripture and the Fathers use the image of anger and wrath, generally with the understanding that such anger or wrath is an expression of an aspect of God’s love and not an effect created in God by our actions. A common example is the double aspect of fire – in which it is both heat and light, purification and illumination. Of course, the words “wrath” and “anger” are seldom used with such subtlety by many who preach or teach them and in so doing may be saying something that the Gospels do not teach.]

It is quite possible to give a very good account of the Christian gospel without the use of “wrath” and “anger.” St. John only uses the word wrath once in His entire Gospel. It is not an integral and necessary part of the theology of the Cross. To say that it is – is to make of an illustration and metaphor a matter of dogma. If you disagree, argue with St. John.

Conclusion

I pray that this answer is of help to the reader who posed the question. I also ask pardon of those readers who have been patient with me for the posting of this answer. It comes at the end of a busy week. May God give us all grace to hear the Holy Gospel.

Male and Female Created He Them – Part One

resurrectionicon

Please note that I have made some changes in this article, in listening to comments and observations.

Despite all social discussion to the contrary, the most irreducible level of our human existence is binary – we exist as male or female. This intuition, stated in the story of creation, has a profound place within the Christian gospel. The story of our salvation is revealed to us in terms that are male and female. Far from being grounded in some antiquated view of humanity, the Christian story, the story of Jesus, is a profoundly human story. It reveals that this most irreducible level of our humanity is neither incidental nor unnecessary. To be human can only be expressed in terms of male and female. Any other account of what it means to be human is a mere abstraction, ignoring the only way we can possibly know ourselves.

This imagery is woven into the Biblical narrative of our salvation, at least as it is related in the New Testament and preserved in the teaching of the Orthodox Church. Christ is born of a woman, the Virgin Mother of God. And this portion of the story is not incidental to our salvation. It is not a mere dramatic device to get the story rolling. The story of Christ’s conception is of a piece with the whole account of Jesus.

The story of the human fall from communion with God is a male and female story – including the somewhat comical note of both Adam and Eve seeking to pass the blame on to someone else. But, just as we are created male and female, so we fall, male and female. And just as we fall male and female, so the story of our salvation is told, male and female.

Mary is the New or Second Eve, in the words of the Fathers. Christ is not incarnate apart from her “yes.” Her self-emptying answer to the angel, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord, be it done unto me according to your word,” is the New Testament counterpart to Eve’s disobedience. An even greater role involves the very heart of her existence as woman. As we say in the Creed, “He became incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary.” The flesh, the whole of the human nature that is united with the divine in Christ, is a gift from the Virgin. Christ’s humanity is Mary’s gift, not a special creation within the womb.

Every woman who gives birth, gives of her humanity (just as every man who is united to a woman gives of his humanity). To be human is to be the gift of a man and a woman, through the mercy of God. In the case of Christ, we confess that there is no human father. Christ is born of a Virgin.

Our salvation, when the story is rightly told, is the work of God and Man, the work of the God/Man Jesus Christ. As the Fathers repeatedly said, “God became what we are that we might become what He is.” The Orthodox account of Christianity is the story of a union: first a union in the womb of Mary, but also a union on the Cross and a union in the Resurrection and the Ascension. There is no genderless version of the Christian gospel that is orthodox.

Tragically, the role of male and female has largely been removed in contemporary versions of Christianity. In an overreaction to Roman Catholicism, Protestant Christianity increasingly told the story of our salvation with minimal reference to Mary. For many contemporary Protestants, Mary’s womb is but a borrowed space, her role quite secondary. Our salvation is related as a payment, a death that assuages the wrath of God and allows God to see us as though we were righteous. There is no union. Baptism becomes but a token symbol, the Eucharist a mere memorial. The entire human story, that can only rightly be told with reference to male and female, is transformed into a story of contract and payment, a sexlessly neutral theological event.

This account of salvation provided the groundwork for the modern view of humanity. Gender in the modern world is but a biological inconvenience, something to be minimized if possible, reimagined when necessary. What matters about human beings in the modern world is that they produce and consume. We exist for the economy. Career trumps child-bearing. Gender expectations and traditional roles are dismissed as patriarchal nonsense that prevents people from fulfilling their dreams and vocations.

This modern account of what it means to be human is deeply flawed. It is driven by modern economics and makes being human into an abstraction, divorced from reality. Our technology allows us to ignore the realities of our biology – and thus to live make-believe lives. We are able through technology to pretend that sexual intimacy is about pleasure and self-fulfillment and not about procreation. Any account of what it means to be human that requires the wide-spread intervention of technology is simply delusional. It is a lie.

In Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, procreation has been moved to the laboratory and artificial wombs. All human beings practice birth control and perceive sex as a purely recreational activity. Through a series of accidents, one of the characters is removed from this technological world and becomes pregnant. She sees this as tragic. What was once seen as science fiction has now come to resemble many aspects of our times. We are living in a fantasy novel.

The reality of the gendered account of the gospel is carried over into the life of the Church. The Body of Christ, the Church itself, is spoken of as the “Bride of Christ,” and its final union with Him at the close of the age as the “Wedding Banquet.” The imagery of marriage (with its implied conjugal union) is a primary way the Church speaks about the human relationship with God. The relationship between a man and a woman is not something incidental to our existence, a side-show for pleasure, it is somehow of a piece with our complete destiny in God. Every celebration of the Eucharist is a marriage feast, brought forth from the Bridal Chamber.

The modern view of human beings is that we are  autonomous centers of consciousness whose choices and decisions bring about self-actualization. Male and female have nothing to do with our humanness in this view. Being human is about choice, decision-making, freedom and autonomy. The givenness of gender is therefore an obstacle to our fantasy existence. The lofty words of choice and freedom, enshrined in the laws and philosophy of our land, are actually just disguises for saying that we are producers and consumers. When a human being’s ability to choose is impaired, we despair that they have somehow lost their personhood. To produce and to shop are the core of our being.

This modern account represents a wholesale attack on the true dignity and worth of human beings. We become subservient to nothing more than economic interests, a disguised way of saying “survival.” Survival is the role of a beast, not a human being. “Man shall not live by bread alone,” we are told.

Our salvation is a Divine/Human event. But to be Divine/Human, it must be at least truly human. Humanity viewed as nothing more than a survival strategy cannot be saved. “You cannot serve God and mammon.”

This directs our attention back to the truth of our existence. From the beginning we have existed as male and female. That human beings continue in existence is wholly dependent upon our being male and female. There is no other way to be.

The most authoritative definition of male and female in the Tradition is found in the work of St. Maximus the Confessor. He states that male and female are “energies” of our human nature. That is a way of saying that male and female are not something that exists on the level of choice – they are the very mode of our existence. Male and female are the normative expressions of our humanity.

We have become aware in modern culture, that not everyone experiences that “mode” of existence in the same way. The reasons for this are complex. There are certainly physical, genetic and environmental factors that disrupt that normative expression. It must be remembered that all experience of our humanity is, at present, tragic (tragic=fallen). There should be no triumphalism for those whose experience is perceived as “normative.” The Church grounds the sexual expression of our gendered mode of existence in marriage and procreation. The wisdom of Scripture is not rightly viewed as an uninformed, antiquated understanding of what it means to be human. However broken male and female marriage has been at different points of history, it remains foundational for child-rearing and the well-being of society.

The grounding of our sexual existence in the confines of a life-long union of man and woman is the foundation of human culture. It predates any notion of government or the State. The many experiments with other treatments of sexual existence have proven to be dysfunctional and disastrous for the most fundamental tasks of our existence. If it is not so in every instance, it is so in the aggregate. The commandments we have in this regard are for our well-being.

The frustration of modern culture with the Christian tradition of being human is with the limits it places on choice and freedom. We demand that every choice we can imagine should be available for us to realize. The Church fully and completely understands the nature of this demand. We call it “sin.” Human existence must not be grounded in consumption, much less in unfettered consumption. When it is – we ultimately consume one another and ourselves. It is also the case that our modern paradigm has little place for the tragic – we do not suffer well nor do we help others to bear their suffering well.

The roles of women and men in the life of the Church, though varied in many ways, are nevertheless grounded in this primary understanding of a truly human, gendered existence. That the ordained priesthood is expressed in men rather than women (for example) is an affirmation that gender matters and is of consequence. Male and female are not interchangeable.

The burdens that we encounter in our gendered existence (most of which are created by the false expectations of the modern view of humanity) are no different than the burdens of having a body. I am not what I imagine myself to be – I am a human being and I am what my body says I am.  Existence is inherently given, not invented.

The autonomy and choice demanded in the modern model are in deep conflict with the traditional understanding of what it means to be human. In this conflict, the Church rightly points to Christ. He is the example of what it means to be fully human. The shopping-careered humans of the modern world are sad caricatures of that Christ-like existence. Self-defined, self-designed, self-authenticating, self-affirming – self, self, self, self, is no way to exist.

 

Get Out of Hell Free

The Saturday before Palm Sunday is known as Lazarus Saturday among the Orthodox, and they celebrate Christ raising him from the dead just prior to His entrance into Jerusalem (gospel of John). It is a feast that offers something of a preview of Christ’s resurrection, and a foretaste of the General Resurrection at the End of the Age. Some years back I sat in a cave that is purported to be the grave of Lazarus. I could not help but think of him – but of him in Hades rather than the tomb. It is said in the Fathers that when Christ raised him from the dead, it was necessary for Him to say, “Lazarus, come forth!” For had He only said, “Come forth!” all of the dead would have risen before their time. It’s a thought that I like a lot.

 It is also, however, a thought that has occurred to Hades itself, at least in the hymnody of the Church:

 I implore you, Lazarus, said Hell, Rise up, depart quickly from my bonds and be gone. It is better for me to lament bitterly for the loss of one, rather than of all those whom I swallowed in my hunger.

 Why do you delay, Lazarus? cried Hell. Your Friend stands calling to you: ‘Come out.’ Go, then, and I too shall feel relief. For since I swallowed you, all other food is loathsome to me.

 O Lazarus, why do you not rise up swiftly? cried Hell below, lamenting. Why do you not run immediately from this place? Lest Christ take prisoner the others, after raising you. (From the Canon of Lazarus Saturday)

 It is as if when Christ says, “Come forth!” Hell cries, “Get out!”

 Most of the Orthodox hymns surrounding Christ’s death and resurrection (and Lazarus’ as well) center on the notion of the “Harrowing of Hell.” The object of the Cross is not the wrath of God, but the death and confinement of man. It is the virtual non-existence that holds us in death that is trampled down by the death of Christ.

The punishment theories of the atonement have a way of mixing moral themes into Christ’s death and resurrection. They are about Christ’s payment for the moral debt of our sins. Somehow, something is terribly askew in such meditations. The utter graciousness and even gratuitous character of Christ’s victory is overlooked.

I am aware of the Biblical passages that speak of the resurrection to damnation as well as the coming judgment. But I always have the sense that those who dwell on such things are somehow afraid that Christ might accidentally forgive someone who should not have been forgiven. Be careful! Someone might get away with something!

When I ponder the atonement, the work accomplished by Christ’s death and resurrection, I tend to think of the imagery of a prison break – a really BIG prison break. When the doors are opened every fellow-prisoner is your friend. You make a run for it because it’s your chance and the sudden generosity that has found you is likely to spill over to everyone and everything. It is like the childhood cry that ends the game of Hide and Seek: “Olly, Olly, Oxen free!”

In truth, despite all of our responsibility for sin, we are largely its victims. We do not begin our lives in Paradise, but in a world in which everyone is broken and distorted. Those who carry out crimes are most likely to have been victims first. We do to others what has been done to us. And sometimes it goes to horrendous extremes. We are psychopaths and sociopaths, addicts and sinners, the children of a world gone wrong.

And though there is help, even salvation for us in this life, many never seem to find it, or being found by it, fail to understand its significance. And now they lie among the dead, bound in their sins, brought down to Hades for their crimes.

It is this fellowship of criminals and sinners that the good bishop, Melito of Sardis, seems to have had in mind when he penned a Paschal homily around the year 160 ad. It is wonderfully primitive in its vision, speaking with a concern that continues to echo in the language of the Orthodox faith. It is hopeful and bold, though perhaps discouraging for those who fear that someone might get off too lightly. He says of Christ in Hades:

[Christ] rose up from the dead, and cried aloud with this voice: “Who is he who contends with me? Let him stand in opposition to me. I set the condemned man free; I gave the dead man life; I raised up the one who had been entombed. Who is my opponent?”

“I,” He says, “am the Christ. I am the one who destroyed death, and triumphed over the enemy, and trampled Hades under foot, and bound the strong one, and carried off man to the heights of heaven.

“I,” he says, “am the Christ.”

“Therefore, come, all families of men, you who have been befouled with sins, and receive forgiveness for your sins. I am your forgiveness. I am the passover of your salvation. I am the lamb which was sacrificed for you. I am your ransom. I am your light. I am your saviour. I am your resurrection. I am your king. I am leading you up to the heights of heaven. I will show you the eternal Father. I will raise you up by my right hand.”

This is the one who made the heavens and the earth, and who in the beginning created man, who was proclaimed through the law and prophets, who became human through the virgin, who was hanged upon a tree, who was buried in the earth, who was resurrected from the dead, and who ascended to the heights of heaven, who sits at the right hand of the Father, who has authority to judge and to save everything, through whom the Father created everything from the beginning of the world to the end of the age.

This is the alpha and the omega. This is the beginning and the end–an indescribable beginning and an incomprehensible end. This is the Christ. This is the king. This is Jesus. This is the general. This is the Lord. This is the one who rose up from the dead. This is the one who sits at the right hand of the Father. He bears the Father and is borne by the Father, to whom be the glory and the power forever. Amen.

Amen. Indeed.

 

 

 

 

The Scope of Passover and Penal Substitution Theory

trinity-cruifixionOne of the terms used in the early fathers when interpreting the Scriptures was the “scope” of Scripture. By this they meant backing away from the detail of the text to see the larger picture, the “scope” of a broad reading. This technique was particularly valued in the so-called Antiochene School of interpretation, which is usually associated with a more historical/literal reading of Scripture. The failure to see the “scope” of the text all too easily exalts stray details to an unwarranted position. You cannot understand a tree until you see its place in the forest. This understanding of the “scope” of Scripture is particularly devastating to the penal-substitionary atonement theory.

Penal substitionary atonement argues that Christ, by his own sacrificial choice, was punished (penalised) in the place of sinners (substitution), thus satisfying the demands of justice so God can justly forgive their sins. It is thus a specific understanding of substitutionary atonement, where the substitutionary nature of Jesus’ death is understood in the sense of a substitutionary punishment.

I have written previously about the lack of Scriptural warrant for this teaching, as well as its creation of a false image of a wrathful God who must be satisfied in order to be reconciled to man. I will point out here that this theory falls outside the scope of the New Testament, particularly the gospels where a definitive scope can be discerned: that of Christ as our Passover.

As noted in my previous article, a central theme of Christ’s suffering, death and resurrection is found associated with the feast of Passover. At Passover, the Jews celebrate and remember their deliverance from Egypt by the miraculous intervention of God.

“So you shall observe the Feast of Unleavened Bread, for on this same day I will have brought your armies out of the land of Egypt. Therefore you shall observe this day throughout your generations as an everlasting ordinance. In the first month, on the fourteenth day of the month at evening, you shall eat unleavened bread, until the twenty-first day of the month at evening. For seven days no leaven shall be found in your houses, since whoever eats what is leavened, that same person shall be cut off from the congregation of Israel, whether he is a stranger or a native of the land. You shall eat nothing leavened; in all your dwellings you shall eat unleavened bread.”

Then Moses called for all the elders of Israel and said to them, “Pick out and take lambs for yourselves according to your families, and kill the Passover lamb. And you shall take a bunch of hyssop, dip it in the blood that is in the basin, and strike the lintel and the two doorposts with the blood that is in the basin. And none of you shall go out of the door of his house until morning. For the LORD will pass through to strike the Egyptians; and when He sees the blood on the lintel and on the two doorposts, the LORD will pass over the door and not allow the destroyer to come into your houses to strike you. And you shall observe this thing as an ordinance for you and your sons forever.” (Exo 12:17-24)

It was during this festival in Jerusalem that Christ was crucified. For the Primitive Christian community, it was clear that Christ is Himself now our Passover. He is the Passover Lamb. His blood saves us from death and hell (the destroyer). And like the earlier Passover, this miraculous intervention of God is remembered with a meal. The Eucharist is the New Passover, the New Covenant. It is not kept annually, but weekly (if not more often). And it is kept weekly on Sunday, the day of Christ’s resurrection.

This change in worship is a radical departure from the mainstream life of 1st century Judaism. There is mention in the book of Acts that the early community continued to go to the Temple in Jerusalem to pray. But it also says:

 And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ teaching and communion, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers. (Acts 2:42)

The gospels reflect an understanding of Christ as the New Passover that supersedes the Old. This is so dominant that it results in a changed pattern of worship – the primacy of Sunday (now called “the Lord’s Day”) as well as the eating of a new, weekly Passover meal (the Eucharist) as the center of worship.

The Penal Substitionary model of the atonement simply has no place within this scope. The blood of the lamb applied to the doorposts of Israel is not an atoning blood. It is not an offering or sacrifice of substitution. It belongs uniquely to Israel as the people of God. Only the children of Israel may eat of the meal (the lamb) – it is a meal of belonging and communion – in which no forensic or legal imagery plays a part. Strangers in the land, in years to come, are allowed to eat of the meal, only if they submit to the law of circumcision (and thus “become” part of Israel).

The essential imagery of the Passover is of an oppressed people. Their deliverance does not hinge on how they found themselves to be in bondage. “Let my people go,” is God’s word to Egypt. In essence: “They don’t belong to you – they belong to Me.”

This same imagery is at work in the New Passover. The people of God are in bondage (to sin and death). Christ constantly intervenes in their lives, healing them, setting them free and forgiving their sins.

Matthew (9:2ff) describes Christ’s healing of a paralytic. In that action He begins by forgiving the man’s sins. When those standing around question His authority to forgive, He says to the man, “Arise, take up your bed and walk.” And He explains that He has done this in order to show that the “Son of Man has power on earth to forgive sins.”

In the Penal model of the atonement, we would have to ask how Christ could forgive this man since no justice has been satisfied. Is the man healed as a loan from a payment that will be made at a later point?

In the Scriptures, we do not have a legal problem. Sin is not a legal debt or an infraction demanding the satisfaction of justice. Sin is death (Romans 6:21-23). Sin is a life lived out of communion with God, the Lord and giver of life. As such, it is a spiritual entropy, a life that is collapsing. It is slavery and bondage to a growing process of nothingness.

For the gospel writers and the early Church, nothing describes this slavery better than the imagery of Israel’s bondage in Egypt. Their deliverance does not flow from a balance of accounts nor the satisfaction of divine justice. It is the love of God for His people. This imagery continues throughout the early Church, preserved especially in the Christian East. St. Basil’s Eucharistic prayer offers this summary:

Releasing us from the delusions of idolatry, He brought us to knowledge of You, the true God and Father. He obtained us for Himself, to be a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation. Having cleansed us in water, and sanctified us with the Holy Spirit, He gave Himself as a ransom to death, in which we were held captive, sold under sin. Descending through the Cross into Hades that He might fill all things with Himself, He destroyed the torments of death. And rising on the third day, He made a path for all flesh to the resurrection from the dead, since it was not possible for the Author of Life to be overcome by corruption.

This is the story of the New Exodus. Baptism is the new Red Sea. In it are destroyed all of the enemies of God’s people.

St. Basil uses the language that is often described as belonging to a “ransom theory” of the atonement. I think this overplays but a single part of the “scope” of his imagery. The “ransom” is simply a ransom “to death.” It is a counterpart to the imagery of our being “sold under sin.” The scope of St. Basil’s account is that we were held captive and God sent His only Son to come and get us. And since we were held captive by death, He entered death itself to get us out. Christ’s resurrection is indeed the New Exodus, making a “path for all flesh from the dead.” Death is the ultimate Egypt, the last bondage.

St. Basil additionally makes this statement:

He emptied Himself, taking the form of a servant, being conformed to the body of our lowliness, that He might conform us to the image of His glory.

It is a use of Philippians 2 which Basil extends into the language of Divine solidarity. God has become what we are, that we might become what He is. In this New Passover, God Himself becomes the Lamb. God Himself enters into our bondage and death. God Himself leads us triumphantly back from the dead (through the Red Sea, etc.).

And now the meal, the feast of the Passover, is God Himself: “This is my body…this is my blood.” The first Passover was but a shadow of the second (and last). In in this account of Christ’s work, there is simply no imagery of a legal payment, a propitiation of the wrath of God. God is not the enemy of man.

A weakness of penal substitutionary theory is its inherently pagan character. The God who must be satisfied (whether we chalk this up to His justice or not) is a diminished God, rather than the Ground of All Being revealed in Christ.

All atonement theory makes use of imagery, and imagery always falls somehow short of reality. But imagery that actually distorts reality is another question. The Passover imagery of our deliverance was a long-standing theme of Jewish thought. It was and is central to Jewish identity. However, the justice-hungry God of propitiatory sacrifice actually has no history whatsoever in Jewish thought (including the OT temple sacrifices). If anything, there is material in the Old Testament in which God “despises” Israel’s sacrifices.

If I were hungry, I would not tell you; For the world is Mine, and all its fullness. Will I eat the flesh of bulls, or drink the blood of goats? (Psa 50:12-13)

Another prominent set of images within the Old Testament are deeply reflected within the New Testament treatment of Christ’s suffering and death: those of the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 53. Its words are deeply familiar:

Surely He has borne our griefs And carried our sorrows; Yet we esteemed Him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; The chastisement for our peace was upon Him, And by His stripes we are healed. (Isa 53:4-5)

This passage (and its accompanying verses) have played a prominent part in theories of Penal Substitution. But that reading, assuming the passage into a sacrificial scheme is nowhere required or indicated by the passage itself. Instead, within the New Testament context, particularly that of the gospels, it should be conflated and read together with the Passover imagery. It is, above all, part of the “ironic” character of the Passover victory of God.

That Divine Irony is especially seen in Christ’s repeated identification of His coming crucifixion with His glorification.

But Jesus answered them, saying, “The hour has come that the Son of Man should be glorified. “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it produces much grain. “He who loves his life will lose it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. (Joh 12:23-25)

And at the very moment of His betrayal:

Having received the piece of bread, he [Judas] then went out immediately. And it was night. So, when he had gone out, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man is glorified, and God is glorified in Him.” (Joh 13:30-31)

This Divine Irony is present in the Old Testament Passover story as well and there, too, it is described as “glorification.” The perceived weakness and helplessness of God (and His people) become the very means by which God draws His enemies into their defeat. In the Exodus account, God clearly directs Israel into an impossible position in order for the wonder (glory) of His victory over Pharoah to be seen yet more clearly. It is glorious precisely because it is revealed at the moment of most complete weakness.

The same is true in Christ’s glorification (crucifixion). He is silent before Pilate and Herod, making no defense for Himself. His quiet submission to the insults and charges leveled against Him are also tokens of His voluntary suffering.

As a sheep led to the slaughter, or a blameless lamb before His shearers is mute, so He opened not His mouth. (Isaiah 53:7).

That “we esteemed Him stricken and smitten by God” (Is. 53:4) is not a description of the Father pouring His wrath upon Him, but a reflection of the confusion voiced by the bystanders of Christ’s suffering:

He trusted in God; let Him deliver Him now, if He will have Him. (Matt. 27:43).

The envy and ignorance of those witnessing Christ’s humiliation is utterly ironic – for what Christ does – He does for them!

But He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; (Isa 53:5)

The language of Isaiah meshes seamlessly with that of the Passover, adding depth and insight into the saving work of God. It is not a framework for penal imagery.

Penal imagery represents one of the most serious deformations of Christian thought, a sad detour for theology. That it has now passed into fixed dogma within some circles should be of great concern to all Christians. Those who hold to this dogma would do well to return to the fathers and consider the scope of Scripture. The labyrinth of proof-texts that are often assembled to argue for the penal model are but isolates. They belong in no over-arching theme of Scripture or central story of the faith. They are foreign to the sacramental life of the Church as it lives its life in union with Christ.

Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us.

The Bridegroom and Judgment

bridegroomBehold, the Bridegroom comes at midnight, and blessed is the servant whom He shall find watching; and again, unworthy is the servant whom He shall find heedless.  Beware, therefore, O my soul, do not be weighed down with sleep, lest you be given up to death and lest you be shut out of the Kingdom.  But rouse yourself crying: Holy, holy, holy, art Thou, O our God.  Through the Theotokos, have mercy on us.

+ Troparion of Bridegroom Matins

The services of the first few days of Orthodox Holy Week have a collective theme of judgment. The centerpiece of those days is the service known as “Bridegroom Matins,” so named for the icon of Christ the Bridegroom (pictured here), an interesting name for Christ depicted in His humiliation, crowned with thorns, robed in derision, with the rod of His chastisement in His hand. It is part of the “upside-down” character of Holy Week. Judgment is clearly one of the most upside-down characteristics of the events that unfold in Christ’s last earthly days.

I was nurtured on stories as a child that contrasted Christ’s “non-judging” (“Jesus, meek and mild”) with Christ the coming Judge (at His dread Second Coming). I was told that His second coming would be very unlike His first. There was a sense that Jesus, meek and mild, was something of a pretender, revealing His true and eternal character only later as the avenging Judge.

This, of course, is both distortion and heresy. The judgment of God is revealed in Holy Week. The crucified Christ is the fullness of the revelation of God. There is no further revelation to be made known, no unveiling of a wrath to come. The crucified Christ is what the wrath of God looks like.

The first three days of Holy Week are collectively known as the End. And it is this End that forms the character of judgment. The end of something always reveals the truth of a thing. As the popular saying has it, “Time will tell.” When the End is the end that is brought by God, then the true end of all things is revealed.

And this is the characteristic of the judgment made manifest in Holy Week. Christ is moving towards His end, the consummation of the Incarnation. As He is increasingly revealed, everything around Him is revealed as well. Things are shown to be more clearly what they are. Those who hate Him, begin to be revealed as plotters and murderers. What was once only thoughts and feelings of envy become plots and perjury. The power of Rome is unmasked for its injustice, mere people-pleasing. The High Priest is revealed to believe that the destruction of God is good for his nation. The weakness of the disciples and the empty boasting of Peter and the rest are shown for their true emptiness. The sin of the world is revealed in the death of God.

But this had been prophesied from the beginning:

Behold, this Child is destined for the fall and rising of many in Israel…that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed  (Luk 2:34-35).

But the righteous are revealed as well. The steadfast love of the Mother of God never wavered before the Cross. Her faithfulness is revealed. The kindness of Joseph of Arimathea is forever marked by an empty tomb. The tears of a harlot reveal the nature of love, even hidden beneath the deeds of her life. In the judgment of God, all things are simply shown to be what they truly are. Sin is seen to be sin. Love is seen to be love. There is clarity.

And in the judgment of God, His own love is shown to be what it truly is – self-sacrificing, forgiving, relentless in its mercy. It is not a love that pronounces forgiveness from the Cross only to pronounce destruction on another occasion. The crucified Christ is not a revelation that is succeeded by another.

For I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified. (1Co 2:2)

The Bridegroom comes. Judgment arrives. All things are revealed for what they truly are.

Thy bridal chamber I see adorned, O my Savior, and I have no wedding garment that I may enter. O Giver of Light, enlighten the vesture of my soul, and save me.

+ Exaposteilarion of Bridegroom Matins

 

Therapeutic Substitutionary Atonement

ats20379_Christ1For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures… (1 Cor. 15:3-4)

No statement is more central to the Christian faith than St. Paul’s rehearsal of the Apostolic Tradition – for his words “delivered…received…” are specifically the words that describe the handing over of Tradition. His words represent what is already the received teaching of the faith – the Apostolic deposit. The Christian faith is not just that Christ died and was raised from the dead, but that He “died for our sins according to the Scriptures.” The death of Christ is somehow “for our sins.” This is the very heart of the Gospel – the most primitive preaching of the Church.

But it is at this most primitive point that essential questions must be asked: how is it that Christ’s death is “for our sins?” How is it that His death and resurrection is “according to the Scriptures?” For though Christ clearly taught the disciples that He would be crucified and would rise on the third day, this was not understood by them. It was not understood because it was not a part of the received Jewish expectation of the Messiah. That Christ died for our sins and according to the Scriptures is an article of the faith that was made known only after the resurrection: it is not a derived Tradition, but a teaching of the risen Lord Himself.

This is a place where disagreement has begun to manifest itself in recent years. For some, Christ’s death on the Cross represents the payment for a debt owed to God, the debt of Adam’s sin. In another account, Christ’s death on the Cross is a blood sacrifice to appease the wrath of God, incurred through Adam’s sin. For still others, Christ’s death is the destruction of Hades and death itself, the healing of the corruption of sin. There are yet other views, but the disagreement has largely been between advocates of one version or another of these accounts.

The first two accounts generally fall into a category of “forensic” models. In these, there is a debt or a divine consequence (wrath) that must be paid or turned aside. In various ways it is noted that only a perfect Man could pay the debt (or appease the wrath). Since all men sin, only God could meet the requirements. Thus God became man, so that God, as man, could accomplish what man alone could not.

In the second model, sin and death are more or less synonymous. Rather than being forensic (legal) in character, they are ontological (a matter of being and existence). Sin is the disease of corruption, the movement from true existence toward non-being. The destructive chaos that it leaves in its wake is more like “symptoms” than legal problems. God in His mercy becomes man, and as the God/Man enters the depths of death and Hades, the depths of ontological corruption and destroys them. In His resurrection (which is a necessary aspect of this model – unlike the others), our ontological corruption is destroyed or rather “put to death” and we receive new life – the eternal life of the resurrection (which is a quality and not merely longevity). In this model, there is a participation and communion. Christ becomes sin, that we might become righteous. He dies that we might live. He takes on our death, that we might take on His life.

In both models, there is a reality of substitution – Christ assumes the place of man. But the nature of that substitution, and therefore the nature of salvation itself, is quite different. In the forensic models, Christ accepts the punishment that was incurred by man: Christ is punished instead of man. It is certainly a demonstration of the love of God, though the debt owed or the wrath appeased belong to God as well. Christ’s acceptance of man’s due consequences instead of man, goes to the very heart of the forensic model – at least to the heart of what makes it most distinctive from the ontological accounts.

Christ’s substitution in the forensic models removes man from redeeming action. Man is not punished but forgiven. The wrath of God is appeased and man is not condemned to hell. Christ accepts these things on man’s behalf. Justification is extrinsic – it happens outside of man and apart from man. By faith, man acknowledges Christ’s gift on his behalf and accepts the gift of forgiveness that could not have been his in any other way.

The substitution in the second (ontological) model is different in character. Christ steps into the life and situation of man (the human race), but does not remove man from the equation. The Cross is not foreign to man – it is the fullness of the consequence of human sin. The substitution of Christ in the ontological models is not a replacement, but a union. Christ unites Himself with man (the Incarnation) and in so doing takes upon Himself, and into Himself the fullness of our humanity (excepting sin – which is foreign to our nature). Importantly, however, just as Christ takes upon Himself our humanity, so He also unites Himself to us, we take on His divinity. As God and man Christ enters death, Hades, the full consequence of our separation from God. As God and as man, Christ destroys death and unites man victoriously to His resurrection. He is the true mediator, having restored us to the union with God for which we were created.

It would be possible to argue that this second model is not a true substitution. I agree, if the term, substitution, is meant as “replacement.” But the problems within the notion of substitution are found in the idea of Christ as “replacement.” Christ as replacement creates a “theology of absence.” If Christ simply “takes our place,” then salvation is merely forensic (legal) and something which happens outside of us. If God simply declares us to be “just,” “forgiven,” or “made whole,” then the Incarnation, Crucifixion and Resurrection become something of an abstraction. Their “necessity,” would only exist within God Himself, who might otherwise have “declared” us to be righteous without all the bother. Indeed, there can be no necessity within God, whether it is predicated of His justice, or anything else. God is free and has no necessity.

However, there is a necessity which exists within us. We are indeed broken, unrighteous, sinful, in need of healing and subject to death and corruption. If our healing required only a word, then why not speak the word long before?

The necessity within salvation lies within us. Christ’s Incarnation, Crucifixion and Resurrection are acts of freedom. It is with complete freedom and cooperation that He is Incarnate of the Virgin. His death is a “voluntary” death: “No one takes my life from me….” (John 10:18). Nor does our salvation violate our freedom. We must freely accept the gift of God given to us in Christ. The synergy of salvation is God’s respect for the freedom which allows us to exist as persons. It is this same freedom that lies at the heart of the mystery of the “fullness of time.” Christ entered history at the critical moment of man’s freedom.

Christ’s “substitution” is not a replacement. Christ does not “replace” our humanity, but “assumes” it. In Christ, every man is on the Cross. The Second Adam “recapitulates” the First Adam and the whole of humanity. There is in the Cross (and whole economy of salvation) an exchange, a coinherence, a perichoresis (περιχώρησις). The term “perichoresis” was used by St. Gregory the Theologian to describe the relationship between the Divine and Human natures in Christ. It is this same relationship (or one that can be similarly described) that is manifest in our salvation. Christ dies on the Cross. We die on the Cross.

I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me (Galatians 2:20).

St. Paul is not describing an “ethical” or “moral” transaction, but a mystical and true exchange in which the life of Christ and our lives coinhere. His life, death and resurrection become our life, death and resurrection.

Or do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. For if we have been united together in the likeness of His death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin. For he who has died has been freed from sin. Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him, knowing that Christ, having been raised from the dead, dies no more. Death no longer has dominion over Him. For the death that He died, He died to sin once for all; but the life that He lives, He lives to God (Romans 6:3-10).

A substitution which represents our absence on the Cross does violence to passages such as this. We would need to go back and edit St. Paul, inserting the words “would be as if” repeatedly into the text:

Do you not know that our Baptism makes it such that it would be as if we had been crucified with Christ? etc.

Such violence disrupts the realism of our salvation and turns the Christian life into a moral abstraction. The sacraments become empty mental exercises.

There are additional weaknesses within the forensic models, but I leave them for now. The Lenten journey is not an annual community remembrance of a legal event. Rather it is the mystical embrace of the true life which coinheres in every believer. Baptized into the death and resurrection of Christ, we journey to the common ground of our Golgotha. There we suffer and die with Christ, having shared in His fast and preparation. Dying with Him, we rejoice in His/our victory over death and Hades and join in the festal shout as death is trampled down by what is now our common death.

This is the great mystery of our faith. Those who eat the flesh and drink the blood of the Crucified and Risen Christ, abide in Him as He abides in them and become partakers (those who have a true share) in all that is His. This is the great exchange, that God became what we are that we might become what He is.

Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures..

 

 

 

Stumbling Toward Salvation

On occasion I have written on topics that seem to scandalize readers, or certainly cause difficulty for many. Some of those topics have been articles on the wrath of God; the radical forgiveness of everyone for everything; the commonality of our life and our salvation; and various posts on giving thanks always for all things (there are others as well). I am not intentionally contrarian – I do not write in order to create any sensation (sort of). But I have a heart-felt instinct about the path of salvation and the part played by skandalon (a cause of stumbling).

Behold, I lay in Zion a stumbling stone and rock of offense, And whoever believes on Him will not be put to shame (Romans 9:33).

There is something about the Kingdom of God that causes us to stumble. The Kingdom is marked by scandal. Such a stumbling is inherent in the contradiction of the Kingdom. Christ’s Kingdom is “not of this world.” As such, this world stumbles as it comes in contact with the Kingdom.

I believe that the first and great skandalon is Pascha itself: Christ’s death on the Cross, His descent into Hades, and His resurrection. Indeed St. Paul describes Christ crucified as a skandalon (1 Cor. 1:23). What haunts my thoughts, however, is the rather tame shape taken by the Cross and resurrection in the mind of most Christians. Why are these things not a stumbling block for so many? Why do we so easily track our way through Christian doctrine, finding our own moral failings to be the only “stumbling” within our life? The taming of the Christian faith makes it harmless and without offense. I suspect that this phenomenon marks the conversion of Christianity into a religion – a pious activity that saves none.

Pascha runs utterly contrary to this world: from death comes Life. But this “principle” of Pascha is manifest in many other ways: we lose so that we might gain; we forgive that we might be forgiven; we love those who hate us; we give thanks where no thanks would be expected, etc. All of these actions make sense only in the light of Pascha. They are no less radical, no less scandalous.

It is this “contrarian” nature of Pascha that forms its skandalon. The “Jews” would not have found Christ’s crucifixion to be a stumbling-block (St. Paul’s description), nor the Greeks found his crucifixion to be “foolishness,” were they not contrary to all that these great cultural stalwarts expected. Pascha is not the work of man, but of God. It is the work that undoes death, hell, hatred and greed. “Let us forgive all by the resurrection” (Pascha hymn).

By the same token, the way of the Cross is the way of Pascha, the way of “contradiction” so far as the wisdom and rationality of this world are concerned. The Cross is the rationality of the Kingdom of God.

Without this contrary element, this skandalon, Christianity may be noble or kind, but it falls short of the kingdom. Our faith must not only be about doctrines concerning Christ and what He has done for us (which can easily be reduced to mere religion): our faith must be a way of living that is itself a manifestation of the Cross and resurrection of Christ – a contradiction to the world and an affirmation of the Kingdom of God.

Thus it is that I find myself drawn to those practical instances in which the Kingdom transports us into this “way of contradiction.” The radical demand that we “forgive everyone for everything” is a manifestation of Pascha, a contradiction of the way of retaliation, a proclamation that something has occurred that destroys all such debts. The same is true in the commandment to love those who hate us – nothing could be more contradictory to that which seems reasonable – but it bears witness to the “reason” of Pascha. To give thanks for all things, will take us to a place of contradiction, a place where the goodness of God is utterly triumphant, despite the deep tragedies that confront our lives.

All such gospel actions bring the skandalon of the Kingdom into true focus within our lives. They are invariably the signs that accompany the saints and the invitation to every believer to embrace the Cross and become a witness of the Kingdom.

No idea, no doctrine, no words can replace such actions – united as they are with the actions of Christ and God’s holy Pascha.

There is another rationality of our faith – but it is largely expressed in ideas and words. It’s struggle is to believe one thing and not another. But as such, it reduces our faith to simply one belief system among a world of competing belief systems. The Pascha of Christ is the end of all belief systems. With His crucifixion all human efforts to explain or understand are brought to an end. Indeed, Christ’s Pascha is the end of all things. To walk into Christ’s Pascha, is to walk into the great skandalon, the contradiction of religion and the negation of the reason of this world.

I cannot do more than to suggest such points within the gospel and then struggle to walk in them. The contradiction which we find within such points, I believe, is the very call of the gospel – that which caused Apostles to hesitate. But these very points are the points of salvation. They are the gospel birthed yet again into the world.

The Scandal of Salvation

On occasion I have written on topics that seem to scandalize readers, or certainly cause difficulty for many. Some of those topics have been my treatment of the wrath of God; the radical forgiveness of everyone for everything; the commonality of our life and our salvation; and most recently my posting on giving thanks always for all things (there are others as well). I am not a purposeful contrarian – I do not write in order to create any sensation. But I have an inherent instinct about the path of salvation and the part played by skandalon (a cause of stumbling).

Behold, I lay in Zion a stumbling stone and rock of offense, And whoever believes on Him will not be put to shame (Romans 9:33).

I believe that the first and great skandalon is Pascha itself: Christ’s death on the Cross, His descent into Hades, and His resurrection. Indeed St. Paul describes Christ crucified as a skandalon (1 Cor. 1:23). What haunts my thoughts is the question, “How are these things a “stumbling block” for us. Why do we so easily track our way through Christian doctrine finding our own moral failings as the only “stumble” within our life. It is as though the Christian faith has been “tamed,” brought into a religious system and lost all scandal. I suspect that this phenomenon (even among the Orthodox) to be the conversion of Christianity into a religion – a pious activity that saves none.

Pascha runs utterly contrary to this world: from death comes Life. But this “principle” of Pascha is manifest in many other ways: we lose so that we might gain; we forgive that we might be forgiven; we love those who hate us; we give thanks where no thanks would be expected, etc.

It is this “contrarian” nature of Pascha that forms is skandalon. The “Jews” would not have found Christ crucifixion to be a stumbling-block, nor the Greeks found his crucifixion to be “foolishness,” were they not contrary to all that these great cultural stalwarts expected. Pascha is not the work of man, but of God.

By the same token, the way of the Cross, is the way of Pascha, the way of “contradiction” so far as the wisdom and rationality of this world are concerned. It is the rationality of the Kingdom of God.

Without this contrary element, this skandalon, Christianity may be noble or kind, but it falls short of the kingdom. Our faith must not be only about doctrines concerning Christ and what He has done for us (which easily becomes reduced to mere religion). Our faith must be a way of living that is itself a manifestation of the Cross of Christ – a contradiction to the world and an affirmation of the Kingdom of God.

Thus it is that I find myself drawn to those practical instances in which the Kingdom transports us into this “way of contradiction.” The radical demand that we “forgive everyone for everything” is a manifestation of Pascha, a contradiction of the way of retaliation, a proclamation that something has occurred that destroys all such debts. The same is true in the commandment to love those who hate us – nothing could be more contradictory to that which seems reasonable – but it bears witness to the “reason” of Pascha. To give thanks for all things, will take us to a place of contradiction, a place where the goodness of God is utterly triumphant, despite the deep tragedies that confront our lives.

All such gospel actions bring the skandalon of the Kingdom into true focus within our lives. They are invariably the signs that accompany the saints and the invitation to every believer to embrace the Cross and become a witness of the Kingdom.

No idea, no doctrine, no words can replace such actions – united as they are with the actions of Christ and God’s holy Pascha.

There is another rationality of our faith – but it is largely expressed in ideas and words. It’s struggle is to believe one thing and not another. But as such, it reduces our faith as simply one belief system among a world of competing belief systems. The Pascha of Christ is the end of all belief systems. With His crucifixion all human efforts to explain or understand are brought to an end. Indeed, it is the end of all things. To walk into Christ’s Pascha, is to walk into the great skandalon, the contradiction of religion and the negation of the reason of this world.

I cannot do more than to suggest such points within the gospel and then to walk in them. The contradiction which we find within such points, I believe, is the very call of the gospel – that which caused Apostles to hesitate. But these very points are the points of salvation. They are the gospel birthed yet again into the world.

The Mystery of Goodness

Beloved, follow not that which is evil, but that which is good. He that doeth good is of God: but he that doeth evil hath not seen God (3John 1:11).

One of the most common affirmations in Orthodox services is the goodness of God. Many services conclude with the blessing: “For He is a good God and loves mankind.” The goodness of God is utterly foundational to our faith – and yet that goodness is itself a mystery: it is not always apparent and remains a conundrum to those who are outside of the faith. The so-called “problem of evil” with which non-believers frequently assault belief in the existence of a good God points to the problematic character of goodness.

God is good – but not in a way that is obvious. The goodness of God can be known – as God can be known. Neither, however, are readily apparent.

In some of the early patristic writings, particularly those that can be described as “apophatic” (“unable to be spoken”) God is not only affirmed as good but as “hyper-good,” that is, His goodness is beyond anything we know – it is a transcendent goodness. The God made known in the Incarnation of Christ is indeed “unknowable.” It is the Incarnation of Christ that has made Him known.

No one has seen God at any time. The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him (John 1:18).

All things have been delivered to Me by My Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father. Nor does anyone know the Father except the Son, and the one to whom the Son wills to reveal Him (Matt. 11:27).

We come to know the attributes of God in the same manner. The goodness of God is the goodness we see in the Incarnation of Christ; the power of God is the power we see in Christ; the kindness of God is the kindness we see in Christ; the love of God is precisely revealed in Christ.

St. Paul writes of the “attributes” of God being clearly seen through the things He created – but the passage is not necessarily the grounds for a “natural” theology (a knowledge of God derived from contemplating nature).

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because what may be known of God is manifest in them, for God has shown it to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse, because, although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools, and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like corruptible man—and birds and four-footed animals and creeping things. (Romans 1:18-23).

St. Paul, I believe, is here describing the “fall” of man and the ignorance of God which it brought. The passage is consistently placed in the past tense. “Although they knew God,” etc. This is much different than saying that “knowing God” they are not thankful, etc. Instead he describes the long history of mankind before Christ as people who have become “futile” in their thoughts, and having their “foolish hearts darkened.”

However, it does seem to suggest that this knowledge can be restored as our hearts are enlightened – which is an inherent part of our living communion with Christ. But this knowledge is one that is seen only through an enlightened heart, again made possible only in the Incarnation of Christ.

It is important to approach the mystery of goodness in such a manner. The goodness of God is a goodness made known in Christ and not an intellectual category or philosophical concept that can be described apart from Christ. Such a separate concept is the secularization of goodness – ultimately a blasphemous approach (“There is none good but One, that is, God” – Luke 18:19).

The mystery of God’s goodness is most especially to be found in the mystery of the Cross. In the gospels Christ is described as “going about doing good” as well as healing the diseases of people. But the depth of that mystery is found in His death and resurrection.

The mystery of the Cross is the triumph of foolishness over man-made wisdom; the triumph of weakness of man’s perceived power; the ultimate victory of good over evil. The most common image of the death and resurrection of Christ in the Eastern Church is the icon of Christ’s Descent into Hell – for it is this icon that carries the fullest expression of the theological content and reality of His death and resurrection. It not only depicts his victory over death and evil (shown as the devil bound in chains), but also show the cosmic and timeless element of His victory as He grasps the hands of Adam and Eve to lead them out of the bondage of sin and death.

The Christian definition of good is the goodness of God. In the world in which we live we do not see that goodness in abstraction but in the fullness of its conflict with evil and its ultimate triumph. The Gospel presumes and acknowledges the presence of evil while at the same time affirming that goodness, in Christ, overcomes that evil.

In the classical teaching of the Fathers, evil is not a something, a force or a presence: it is an action driven by a distorted will. It is an opposition to God, but without meaning or substance except as an opposition. Evil is thus not a presence, but a tragic movement towards absence. It is not communion with God but a self-ward movement towards non-being.

The great struggle within our world, as presently constituted, is not between ourselves and the forces of a blind and rudderless nature, but a struggle with the consequences of that relentless challenge. The Cross is not an image that excludes the brutal forces of wicked powers – it is the triumph of love and forgiveness in the very heart of those struggles.

Goodness cannot be abstracted from the human tragedy – it is known and experienced within the very context of that tragedy in the fullness of the Cross of Christ. This is a radical departure from the philosophical discussion of the problem of evil. Christianity is not a set of ideas that compete on the playing field of philosophical systems. It is event and relationship neither imaginary nor abstract. This occasionally leaves classical Christianity at a disadvantage – unwilling to grant the givens of an alien philosophy – and thus seeming silent or weak in the face of a serious intellectual challenge. But Christianity is a language that is spoken in the tongue of the Logos, whose incarnation, death and resurrection speak with the eloquence of the true and living God.

St. Paul recognized that his preaching of the Cross of Christ would either make him seem weak or foolish. It is a weakness and a foolishness that modern Christians should not disdain. For the weakness of God is stronger than death. The foolishness of God is wiser than all men.

At the Last Battle

The Scriptures end with the description of a battle that is truly “apocalyptic” in its scale: all the forces of evil arrayed against all the forces of good. It is grand theater, having caught the imagination of countless generations (and even Hollywood). I do not know quite what to make of the description. That it describes a reality, I do not doubt. What that reality will look like to its bystanders (if any there be) is another question entirely. Things that seem hidden now will surely be made manifest – but will that manifestation have to await the completion of things? My own suspicion is that the answer is ‘yes’ –  we’ll see it all quite clearly when it is all quite clear.

There is another vision – something that also has a hidden aspect.

In The Brothers Karamazov, one of the most devastating diatribes ever launched against the Christian faith comes from the lips of Ivan Karamazov in the chapters “Rebellion,” and “The Grand Inquisitor.” His argument is largely based on the so-called “problem of evil.” He does not dismiss the existence of God – instead he dismisses God Himself – preferring to have no part of a justice that would ever allow for the torment of a single child. The answer to that diatribe in the pages of Dostoevsky’s great novel is not a counter argument, but the person of the Elder Zossima, a monastic who lives in the Tradition of the Holy Elders of the Orthodox faith. He is a character in the mold of such elders as St. Silouan, St. Seraphim of Sarov, the Elder Sophrony, and a host of others. Their lives, frequently hidden from the larger view of the world, are the continuing manifestation of the Kingdom of God in our midst – fellows of the sufferings of Christ – who freely and voluntarily bear with Christ the weight of all humanity. It is this secret bearing that forms the very foundation of the world – a foundation without which the world would long ago have perished into nothing. It is the emptiness of Christ, also shared in its depths by His saints, that is the vessel of the fullness of God, the source of all life and being. We can search for nothing greater.

“Their lives frequently hidden from the larger view” … is the point which seems worth pondering here. Why should those who are having the greatest impact on the world  not be the one’s who seem most hidden? Christ Himself came to us in a way that, though manifest, was all but hidden from the view of the world of that time. Galilee. Really.

Met. Kallistos Ware relates this story:

In one of his letters, St. Barsanuphios of Gaza (sixth century) says in passing that, at the present time, there are three person whose prayers protect this wicked and sinful generation from the wrath of God, and because of these three persons and their prayers, the world continues in being. And then he mentions their names. John, he says is one them; Elias is the second; and the third is a person in the province of Jerusalem. Now the third person, presumably, designates himself, living in Gaza. But the first two, John and Elias, are otherwise totally unknown to us. So here we have the word of a saint, gifted with insight, that the people who were preserving the world from destruction in his day were three persons, two of whom are entirely unknown to history and the third of whom was a hermit in the desert.

The things which seem important are often of little true consequence. Does it matter that the President of the United States had a beer with two men? Does it matter that a hollywood figure dies tragically and suddenly? Does almost anything most people treat as important matter at all?

Who sustains the universe and why does it exist?

The difficulty with political schemes and grand plans is that even at their greatest moment – they have done very little. It may be that everything they have done carries less weight than the prayers of a hermit in the desert.

And so we are called to pray – to stand quietly before that “still point of nothingness” that “disposes all things” (in the words of Thomas Merton).

Such things seem quite hidden – unless the definition of “manifest” means “what God sees.” Perhaps prayer is not about my “prayer life.” Perhaps prayer holds the entire universe in existence.

The last battle may be fought quietly in a human heart that stands sentinel before God and says, “Lord, have mercy.”

Revisiting the Great Crisis

IMG_1085As a companion to the recent post on the Death of Christ – the Life of Man – I offer this reprint of a short article on “the Great Crisis.” The Great Crisis, if I can coin a term, is the threat of non-existence, or relative non-existence. Classical Orthodoxy, following St. Athanasius, does not see humanity threatened with pure non-existence, but with a dynamic movement towards a “relative” non-existence, which some have described as a “meontic” existence (to get a little technical).

[If you want more on the word, just enter meontic in the search box on the blog and it will take you to more articles that involve this topic, as well as some good discussions.]

This same Great Crisis is the absolute epitome of what the Orthodox faith understands to be sin, or the root of sin. Sin and death are deeply intertwined. As stated in my recent article: Christ died because we are dead.

The Great Crisis is therefore not at all the same thing as an impending punishment from an angry God. This is not our fate. Rather it is the continued living in increasing modes of non-existence as we refuse to live in communion with the Only True God Who is the Lord and Giver of Life. It is this increasing mode of non-existence that is the “wrath of God,” though it is something we do to ourselves.

It is for this same reason that everything within the Orthodox Christian life is understood as a means to living more fully in communion with the One, True God. Every action of the Christian life exists for that purpose.

Because this is true, every work of our salvation begins in communion with God, continues in communion with God, and is fulfilled in communion with God. Thus our lives can never be defined extrinsically (from the outside), but only mystically and existentially. The mystery of our communion with God is not always manifested outwardly, but it will be, inevitably, because it becomes the true source and character of our existence. Thus we look towards the resurrection of the dead, and find nothing odd about the miraculous things associated with the bodies and relics of saints who have “fallen asleep” in the Lord. Nor are we surprised that God uses the material world as a means of communion with us, for all things are being gathered together in one, into Christ Jesus (Ephesians 1:10).

And, of course, I only use the term “Orthodox” in describing these things, to note that there is and has always been a living, continual witness to this fullness of life in Christ, in full historical continuity with the Apostolic Church, proclaiming and living the same, one, true Life. This is the Orthodox Church.

The Great Crisis is answered in Pascha (the fullness of Christ’s resurrection) and has never been answered in any other manner. All things that seek to make themselves alien to Pascha, unite themselves to the Great Crisis.

The Great Crisis is not a problem peculiar to the modern world, nor any other period, but has always been present since the moment of man’s rebellion. It is manifest in many ways throughout human life and history, but is always the same – an abandonment of communion with the true and living God.

May God bring us all into the fullness of His Life.

The Last Battle

IMG_0740The Scriptures end with the description of a battle that is truly “apocalyptic” in its scale: all the forces of evil arrayed against all the forces of good. It is grand theater, having caught the imagination of countless generations (and even Hollywood). I do not know quite what to make of the description. That it describes a reality, I do not doubt. What that reality will look like to its bystanders (if any there be) is another question entirely. Things that seem hidden now will surely be made manifest – but will that manifestation have to await the completion of things? My own suspicion is that the answer is yes. We’ll see it all quite clearly when it is all quite clear.

Another vision is cited in my earlier post and is worth a short ponder:

The answer to that diatribe [the argument against God and the goodness of His work] is not a counter argument, but the person of the Elder Zossima, who lives in the Tradition of the Holy Elders of the Faith such as St. Silouan, St. Seraphim of Sarov, the Elder Sophrony, and a host of others. Their lives, frequently hidden from the larger view of the world, are the continuing manifestation of the Kingdom of God in our midst – fellows of the sufferings of Christ – who freely and voluntarily bear with Christ the weight of all humanity. It is this secret bearing that forms the very foundation of the world – a foundation without which the world would long ago have perished into nothing. It is the emptiness of Christ, also shared in its depths by His saints, that is the vessel of the fullness of God, the source of all life and being. We can search for nothing greater.

“Their lives frequently hidden from the larger view” … is the point which seems worth pondering. Why should not those who are having the greatest impact on the world be the one’s who seem most hidden? Christ Himself came to us in a way, though manifest, that was all but hidden from the view of the world of that time. Galilee. Really.

Met. Kallistos Ware relates this story:

In one of his letters, St. Barsanuphios of Gaza (sixth century) says in passing that, at the present time, there are three person whose prayers protect this wicked and sinful generation from the wrath of God, and because of these three persons and their prayers, the world continues in being. And then he mentions their names. John, he says is one them; Elias is the second; and the third is a person in the province of Jerusalem. Now the third person, presumably, designates himself, living in Gaza. But the first two, John and Elias, are otherwise totally unknown to us. So here we have the word of a saint, gifted with insight, that the people who were preserving the world from destruction in his day were three persons, two of whom are entirely unknown to history and the third of whom was a hermit in the desert.

The things which seem important are often of little true consequence. Does it matter that the President of the United States had a beer with two men? Does it matter that a hollywood figure dies tragically and suddenly? Does almost anything most people treat as important matter at all?

Who sustains the universe and why does it exist?

The difficulty with political schemes and grand plans is that even at their greatest moment – they have done very little. It may be that everything they have done carries less weight than the prayers of a hermit in the desert.

And so we are called to pray – to stand quietly before that “still point of nothingness” that “disposes all things.”

Such things seem quite hidden – unless the definition of “manifest” means “what God sees.” Perhaps prayer is not about my “prayer life.” Perhaps prayer holds the entire universe in existence.

The last battle may be fought quietly in a human heart that stands sentinel before God and says, “Lord, have mercy.”

The River of Fire – Kalomiros

The River of Fire Copyright 1980 St. Nectarios Press

THE RIVER OF FIRE
by
ALEXANDRE KALOMIROS

As presented at the
1980 ORTHODOX CONFERENCE
sponsored by St. Nectarios American Orthodox Church
Seattle, Washington

A reply to the questions: (1) Is God really good? (2) Did God create hell?

+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

Reverend fathers, dear brothers and sisters:

    There is no doubt that we are living in the age of apostasy predicted for the last days. In practice, most people are atheists, although many of them theoretically still believe. Indifference and the spirit of this world prevail everywhere.

    What is the reason for this state?

    The reason is the cooling of love. Love for God no more burns in human hearts, and in consequence, love between us is dead, too.

    What is the cause of this waning of men’s love for God? The answer, certainly, is sin. Sin is the dark cloud which does not permit God’s light to reach our eyes.

    But sin always did exist. So how did we arrive at the point of not simply ignoring God, but of actually hating Him? Man’s attitude toward God today is not really ignorance, or really indifference. If you examine men carefully you will notice that their ignorance or indifference is tainted by a deep hate. But nobody hates anything that does not exist.

    I have the suspicion that men today believe in God more than at any other time in human history. Men know the gospel, the teaching of the Church, and God’s creation better than at any other time. They have a profound consciousness of His existence. Their atheism is not a real disbelief. It is rather an aversion toward somebody we know very well but whom we hate with all our heart, exactly as the demons do.

    We hate God, that is why we ignore Him, overlooking Him as if we did not see Him, and pretending to be atheists. In reality we consider Him our enemy par excellence. Our negation is our vengeance, our atheism is our revenge.

    But why do men hate God? They hate Him not only because their deeds are dark while God is light, but also because they consider Him as a menace, as an imminent and eternal danger, as an adversary in court, as an opponent at law, as a public prosecutor and an eternal persecutor. To them, God is no more the almighty physician who came to save them from illness and death, but rather a cruel judge and a vengeful inquisitor.

    You see, the devil managed to make men believe that God does not really love us, that He really only loves Himself, and that He accepts us only if we behave as He wants us to behave; that He hates us if we do not behave as He ordered us to behave, and is offended by our insubordination to such a degree that we must pay for it by eternal tortures, created by Him for that purpose.

    Who can love a torturer? Even those who try hard to save themselves from the wrath of God cannot really love Him. They love only themselves, trying to escape God’s vengeance and to achieve eternal bliss by managing to please this fearsome and extremely dangerous Creator.

    Do you perceive the devil’s slander of our all loving, all kind, and absolutely good God? That is why in Greek the devil was given the name DIABOLOS, “the slanderer”.

II

    But what was the instrument of the devil’s slandering of God? What means did he use in order to convince humanity, in order to pervert human thought?

    He used “theology”. He first introduced a slight alteration in theology which, once it was accepted, he managed to increase more and more to the degree that Christianity became completely unrecognizable. This is what we call “Western theology”.

    Did you ever try to pinpoint what is the principal characteristic of Western theology? Well, its principal characteristic is that it considers God as the real cause of all evil.

    What is evil? Is it not the estrangement from God Who is Life? 1 Is it not death? What does Western theology teach about death? All Roman Catholics and most Protestants consider death as a punishment from God. God considered all men guilty of Adam’s sin and punished them by death, that is by cutting them away from Himself; depriving them of His live giving energy, and so killing them spiritually at first and later bodily, by some sort of spiritual starvation. Augustine interprets the passage in Genesis “If you eat of the fruit of this tree, you will die the death” as “If you eat of the fruit of this tree, I will kill you”.

    Some Protestants consider death not as a punishment but as something natural. But. is not God the creator of all natural things? So in both cases, God — for them — is the real cause of death.

    And this is true not only for the death of the body. It is equally true for the death of the soul. Do not Western theologians consider hell, the eternal spiritual death of man, as a punishment from God? And do they not consider the devil as a minister of God for the eternal punishment of men in hell?

    The “God” of the West is an offended and angry God, full of wrath for the disobedience of men, who desires in His destructive passion to torment all humanity unto eternity for their sins, unless He receives an infinite satisfaction for His offended pride.

    What is the Western dogma of salvation? Did not God kill God in order to satisfy His pride, which the Westerners euphemistically call justice? And is it not by this infinite satisfaction that He deigns to accept the salvation of some of us?

    What is salvation for Western theology? Is it not salvation from the wrath of God? 2

    Do you see, then, that Western theology teaches that our real danger and our real enemy is our Creator and God? Salvation, for Westerners, is to be saved from the hands of God!

    How can one love such a God? How can we have faith in someone we detest? Faith in its deeper essence is a product of love, therefore, it would be our desire that one who threatens us not even exist, especially when this threat is eternal.

    Even if there exists a means of escaping the eternal wrath of this omnipotent but wicked Being (the death of His Son in our stead), it would be much better if this Being did not exist. This was the most logical conclusion of the mind and of the heart of the Western peoples, because even eternal Paradise would be abhorrent with such a cruel God. Thus was atheisrn born, and this is why the West was its birthplace. Atheism was unknown in Eastern Christianity until Western theology was introduced there, too. Atheism is the consequence of Western theology. 3 Atheism is the denial, the negation of an evil God. Men became atheists in order to be saved from God, hiding their head and closing their eyes like an ostrich. Atheism, my brothers, is the negation of the Roman Catholic and Protestant God. Atheism is not our real enemy. The real enemy is that falsified and distorted “Christianity”.

III    Westerners speak frequently of the “Good God”(E.g., in France le bon dieu is almost always used when speaking of God.). Western Europe and America, however, were never convinced that such a Good God existed. On the contrary, they were calling God good in the way Greeks called the curse and malediction of smallpox, EULOGIA , that is, a blessing, a benediction, in order to exorcise it and charm it away. For the same reason, the Black Sea was called Eu xeinoV PontoV — the hospitable sea — although it was, in fact, a dreadful and treacherous sea. Deep inside the Western soul, God was felt to be the wicked Judge, Who never forgot even the smallest offense done to Him in our transgressions of His laws.

    This juridical conception of God, this completely distorted interpretation of God’s justice, was nothing else than the projection of human passions on theology. It was a return to the pagan process of humanizing God and deifying man. Men are vexed and angered when not taken seriously and consider it a humiliation which only vengeance can remove, whether it is by crime or by duel. This was the worldly, passionate conception of justice prevailing in the minds of a so-called “Christian” society.

    Western Christians thought about God’s justice in the same way also; God, the infinite Being, was infinitely insulted by Adam’s disobedience. He decided that the guilt of Adam’s disobedience descended equally to all His children, and that all were to be sentenced to death for Adam’s sin, which they did not commit. God’s justice for Westerners operated like a vendetta. Not only the man who insulted you, but also all his family must die. And what was tragic for men, to the point of hopelessness, was that no man, nor even all humanity, could appease God’s insulted dignity, even if all men in history were to be sacrificed. God’s dignity could be saved only if He could punish someone of the same dignity as He. So in order to save both God’s dignity and mankind, there was no other solution than the incarnation of His Son, so that a man of godly dignity could be sacrificed to save God’s honor.

IV

    This paganistic conception of God’s justice which demands infinite sacrifices in order to be appeased clearly makes God our real enemy and the cause of all our misfortunes. Moreover, it is a justice which is not at all just since it punishes and demands satisfaction from persons which were not at all responsible for the sin of their forefathers 4 In other words, what Westerners call justice ought rather to be called resentment and vengeance of the worst kind. Even Christ’s love and sacrifice loses its significance and logic in this schizoid notion of a God who kills God in order to satisfy the so-called justice of God.

    Does this conception of justice have anything to do with the justice that God revealed to us? Does the phrase “justice of God” have this meaning in the Old and New Testaments?

    Perhaps the beginning of the mistaken interpretation of the word justice in the Holy Scriptures was its translation by the Greek word DIKAIWSUNH. Not that it is a mistaken translation, but because this word, being a word of the pagan, humanistic, Greek civilization, was charged with human notions which could easily lead to misunderstandings.

    First of all, the wordDIKAIWSUNHbrings to mind an equal distribution. This is why it is represented by a balance. The good are rewarded and the bad are punished by human society in a fair way. This is human justice, the one which takes place in court.

    Is this the meaning of God’s justice, however?

    The word DIKAIWSUNH,“justice”, is a translation of the Hebraic word tsedaka. This word means “the divine energy which accomplishes man’s salvation”. It is parallel and almost synonymous to the other Hebraic word, hesed which means “mercy”, “compassion”, “love”, and to the word, emeth which means “fidelity”, “truth”. This, as you see, gives a completely other dimension to what we usually conceive as justice.5 This is how the Church understood God’s justice. This is what the Fathers of the Church taught of it. “How can you call God just”, writes Saint Isaac the Syrian, “when you read the passage on the wage given to the workers? ‘Friend, I do thee no wrong; I will give unto this last even as unto thee who worked for me from the first hour. Is thine eye evil, because I am good?'” “How can a man call God just”, continues Saint Isaac, “when he comes across the passage on the prodigal son, who wasted his wealth in riotous living, and yet only for the contrition which he showed, the father ran and fell upon his neck, and gave him authority over all his wealth? None other but His very Son said these things concerning Him lest we doubt it, and thus He bare witness concerning Him. Where, then, is God’s justice, for whilst we were sinners, Christ died for us!” 6

    So we see that God is not just, with the human meaning of this word, but we see that His justice means His goodness and love, which are given in an unjust manner, that is, God always gives without taking anything in return, and He gives to persons like us who are not worthy of receiving. That is why Saint Isaac teaches us: “Do not call God just, for His justice is not manifest in the things concerning you. And if David calls Him just and upright, His Son revealed to us that He is good and kind. ‘He is good,’ He says, ‘to the evil and impious'”.7

    God is good, loving, and kind toward those who disregard, disobey, and ignore Him.8 He never returns evil for evil, He never takes vengeance. 9 His punishments are loving means of correction, as long as anything can be corrected and healed in this life.10 They never extend to eternity. He created everything good.11 The wild beasts recognize as their master the Christian who through humility has gained the likeness of God. They draw near to him, not with fear, but with joy, in grateful and loving submission; they wag their heads and lick his hands and serve him with gratitude. The irrational beasts know that their Master and God is not evil and wicked and vengeful, but rather full of love. (See also St. Isaac of Syria, SWZOMENA ASKHTIKA [Athens, 1871], pp. 95-96.) He protected and saved us when we fell. The eternally evil has nothing to do with God. It comes rather from the will of His free, logical creatures, and this will He respects. 12

    Death was not inflicted upon us by God 13 We fell into it by our revolt. God is Life and Life is God. We revolted against God, we closed our gates to His life-giving grace. 14 “For as much as he departed from life”, wrote Saint Basil, “by so much did he draw nearer to death. For God is Life, deprivation of life is death”. 15 “God did not create death”, continues Saint Basil, “but we brought it upon ourselves”. “Not at all, however, did He hinder the dissolution… so that He would not make the infirmity immortal in us”. 16 As Saint Irenaeus puts it: “Separation from God is death, separation from light is darkness… and it is not the light which brings upon them the punishment of blindness”. 17

    “Death”, says Saint Maximus the Confessor, “is principally the separation from God, from which followed necessarily the death of the body. Life is principally He who said, ‘I am the Life'”.18 And why did death come upon the whole of humanity? Why did those who did not sin with Adam die as did Adam? Here is the reply of Saint Anastasius the Sinaite: “We became the inheritors of the curse in Adam. We were not punished as if we had disobeyed that divine commandment along with Adam; but because Adam became mortal, he transmitted sin to his posterity. We became mortal since we were born from a mortal”.19  And Saint Gregory Palamas makes this point: “[God] did not say to Adam: return to whence thou wast taken; but He said to him: Earth thou art and unto the earth thou shall return…. He did not say: ‘in whatsoever day ye shall eat of it, die!’ but, ‘in whatsoever day ye shall eat of it, ye shall surely die.’ Nor did He afterwards say: ‘return now unto the earth,’ but He said, ‘thou shalt return,’ in this manner forewarning, justly permitting and not obstructing what shall come to pass”. 20 We see that death did not come at the behest of God but as a consequence of Adam’s severing his relations with the source of Life, by his disobedience; and God in His kindness did only warn him of it.

    “The tree of knowledge itself,” says Theophilus of Antic, “was good, and its fruit was good. For it was not the tree, as some think, that had death in it, but the disobedience which had death in it; for there was nothing else in the fruit but knowledge alone, and knowledge is good when one uses it properly.” 21  The Fathers teach us that the prohibition to taste the tree of knowledge was not absolute but temporary. Adam was a spiritual infant. Not all foods are good for infants. Some foods may even kill them although adults would find them wholesome. The tree of knowledge was planted by God for man. It was good and nourishing. But it was solid food, while Adam was able to digest only milk.

V

    So in the language of the Holy Scriptures, “just” means good and loving. We speak of the just men of the Old Testament. That does not mean that they were good judges but that they were kind and God-loving people. When we say that God is just, we do not mean that He is a good judge Who knows how to punish men equitably according to the gravity of their crimes, but on the contrary, we mean that He is kind and loving, forgiving all transgressions and disobediences, and that He wants to save us by all means, and never requites evil for evil. 22  In the first volume of the Philokalia there is a magnificent text of Saint Anthony which I must read to you here:

God is good, dispassionate, and immutable. Now someone who thinks it reasonable and true to affirm that God does not change, may well ask how, in that case, it is possible to speak of God as rejoicing over those who are good and showing mercy to those who honor Him, and as turning away from the wicked and being angry with sinners. To this it must be answered that God neither rejoices nor grows angry, for to rejoice and to be offended are passions; nor is He won over by the gifts of those who honor Him, for that would mean He is swayed by pleasure. It is not right that the Divinity feel pleasure or displeasure from human conditions. He is good, and He only bestows blessings and never does harm, remaining always the same. We men, on the other hand, if we remain good through resembling God, are united to Him, but if we become evil through not resembling God, we are separated from Him. By living in holiness we cleave to God; but by becoming wicked we make Him our enemy. It is not that He grows angry with us in an arbitrary way, but it is our own sins that prevent God from shining within us and expose us to demons who torture us. And if through prayer and acts of compassion we gain release from our sins, this does not mean that we have won God over and made Him to change, but that through our actions and our turning to the Divinity, we have cured our wickedness and so once more have enjoyment of God’s goodness. Thus to say that God turns away from the wicked is like saying that the sun hides itself from the blind.23  [Chap. 150]

VI    You see now, I hope, how God was slandered by Western theology. Augustine, Anselm, Thomas Aquinas and all their pupils contributed to this “theological” calumny. And they are the foundations of Western theology, whether Papist or Protestant. Certainly these theologians do not say expressly and clearly that God is a wicked and passionate being. They rather consider God as being chained by a superior force, by a gloomy and implacable Necessity like the one which governed the pagan gods. This Necessity obliges Him to return evil for evil and does not permit Him to pardon and to forget the evil done against His will, unless an infinite satisfaction is offered to Him.

    We open here the great question of pagan, Greek influence on Christianity.

    The pagan mentality was in the foundation of all heresies. It was very strong in the East, because the East was the crossroad of all philosophical and religious currents. But as we read in the New Testament, “where sin abounded, grace did much more abound”. So when heresies flourished, Orthodoxy flourished also, and although it was persecuted by the mighty of this world, it always survived victorious. In the West, on the contrary, the pagan Greek mentality entered in unobtrusively, without taking the aspect of heresy. It entered in through the multitude of Latin texts dictated by Augustine, bishop of Hippo. Saint John Cassian who was living then in the West understood the poison that was in Augustine’s teachings, and fought against it. But the fact that Augustine’s books were written in Latin and the fact that they were extremely lengthy did not permit their study by the other Fathers of the Church, and so they were never condemned as Origen’s works were condemned in the East. This fact permitted them to exercise a strong influence later in Western thought and theology. In the West, little by little knowledge of the Greek language vanished, and Augustine’s texts were the only books available dating from ancient times in a language understood there. So the West received as Christian a teaching which was in many of its aspects pagan. Caesaro-papist developments in Rome did not permit any healthy reaction to this state of affairs, and so the West was drowned in the humanistic, pagan thought which prevails to this day.24

    So we have the East on the one side which, speaking and writing Greek, remained essentially the New Israel with Israelitic thought and sacred tradition, and the West on the other side which having forgotten the Greek language and having been cut off from the Eastern state, inherited pagan Greek thought and its mentality, and formed with it an adulterated Christian teaching.

    In reality, the opposition between Orthodoxy and Western Christianity is nothing else but the perpetuation of the opposition between Israel and Hellas.

    We must never forget that the Fathers of the Church considered themselves to be the true spiritual children of Abraham, that the Church considered itself to be the New Israel, and that the Orthodox peoples, whether Greek, Russian, Bulgarian, Serbian, Romanian, etc., were conscious of being like Nathaniel, true Israelites, the People of God. And while this was the real consciousness of Eastern Christianity, the West became more and more a child of pagan, humanistic Greece and Rome.

VII    What were the principal characteristics of this difference of thought between Israel and paganism? I call your attention to this very important matter.

    Israel believes in God.

    Paganism believes in creation. That is to say, in paganism creation is deified. For the pagans, God and creation are one and the same thing. God is impersonal, personified in a multitude of gods.

    Israel (and when we speak of Israel we mean the true Israel, the spiritual sons of Abraham, those who have the faith given by God to His chosen people, not those who have abandoned this faith, The real sons of Abraham are the Church of Christ, and not those carnal descendants, the Jewish race), Israel knows that God and creation are two radically different kinds of existence. God is self existent, personal, eternal, immortal, Life and the Source of life, Existence and the Source of existence; God is the only real Existence: O WN, the Existing, the Only Existing; this is the meaning of the article ‘O. 25

    Creation, on the contrary, has no self-existence. It is totally dependent on the will of God. It exists only so long as God wants it to exist. It is not eternal. It had no existence. It was null, it was completely nothing. It was created out of nothingness. 26  By itself it has no force of existence; it is kept in existence by God’s Energy. If this loving Energy of God ever stops, creation and all created beings, intellectual or non-intellectual, rational or irrational will vanish into non-existence. We know that God’s love for His creation is eternal. We know from Him that He will never let us fall into non-existence, from which He brought us into being. This is our hope and God is true in His promises. We, created beings, angels, and men, will live in eternity, not because we have in us the power of eternity, but because this is the will of God Who loves us. By ourselves we are nothing. We have not the least energy of life and of existence in our nature; that which we have comes entirely from God; nothing is ours. We are dirt of the earth, and when we forgot it, God in His mercy permitted that we return to what we are, in order that we remain humble and have exact knowledge of our nothingness. 27  “God,” says Saint John Damascene elsewhere, “can do all that He wills, even though He does not will all things that He can do — for He can destroy creation, but He does not will to do so. (Ibid. I, 14) 28

In the Great Euchologion (Venice, 1862), a fundamental liturgical book of the Church, we read:

“O God, the great and most high, Thou Who alone hast immortality”

[7th prayer of Vespers, p. 15]

“Thou Who alone art life-giving by nature… O only immortal”

[Ode 5, Funeral Canon for Laymen, p. 410]

“Thou art the only immortal” [p.  410]“The only One Who is immortal because of His godly nature”

[Ode 1, Funeral Canon for Laymen, p. 471]

    This is the faith of Israel.

    What is the teaching of paganism? Paganism is the consequence of the loss of contact with God. The multitude of the sins of humanity made men incapable of receiving the divine light and of having any union with the Living God. The consequence was to consider as something divine the creation which they saw before them every day.

    Paganism considers creation as being something self-existent and immortal, something that always existed and will always exist. In paganism the gods are part of creation. They did not create it from nothingness, they only formed the existing matter. Matter can take different forms. Forms come into existence and vanish, but matter itself is eternal. Angels, demons, and the souls of men are the real gods. Eternal by their nature, as is matter itself, they are, however, higher than matter. They might take different material forms in a sequence of material existences but they remain essentially spiritual.

    So in paganism we see two fundamental characteristics: (1) An attributing of the characteristics of godhood to the whole of creation, that is: eternity, immortality, self-existence. (2) A distinction between the spiritual and the material and an antagonism between the two as between something higher and something lower.

    Paganism and humanism are one and the same thing. In paganism, man is god because he is eternal by nature. This is why paganism is always haughty. It is narcissism. It is self-adoration. In Greece, the gods had human characteristics. Greek religion was the pagan adoration of man. The soul of man was considered his real being, and was immortal by nature.

    So we see that in paganism the devil succeeded in creating a universal belief that men were gods and so did not need God. This is why pride was so high in Greece and why humility was inconceivable. In his work The Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle writes the following words: “Not to resent offenses is the mark of a base and slavish man.” The man who is convinced by the devil to believe in the error that his soul is eternal by nature, can never be humble and can never really believe in God, because he does not need God, being God himself, as his error makes him believe.

    This is why, from the very first, the Fathers of the Church, understanding the danger of this stupid error, warned the Christians of the fact that, as Saint Irenaeus puts it: “The teaching that the human soul is naturally immortal is from the devil” (Proof of the Apostolic Preaching, III, 20. 1). We find the same warning in Saint Justin (Dialogue with Trypho 6. 1-2), in Theophilus of Antioch (To Autolycus 2. 97), in Tatian (To the Greeks 13), etc.

    Saint Justin explains the fundamental atheism which exists in the belief of the natural eternity and immortality of the human soul. He writes: “There are some others who, having supposed that the soul is immortal and immaterial, believe though they have committed evil they will not suffer punishment (for that which is immaterial is also insensible), and that the soul, in consequence of its immorality needs nothing from God” (Dialogue with Trypho 1).

    Paganism is ignorance of the true God, an erroneous belief that His creation is divine, really a god. This god, however, who is Nature, is impersonal, a blind force, above all personal gods, and is called Necessity (anagkhç). In reality, this Necessity is the projection of human reason, as a mathematical necessity governing the world, It is a projection of rationalism upon nature. This rationalistic Necessity is the true, supreme blind god of the pagans. The pagan gods are parts of the world, and they are immortal because of the immortality of nature which is their essence. In this pagan mentality, man is also god like the others, because for the pagans the real man is only his soul, 29 and they believe that man’s soul is immortal in itself, since it is part of the essence of the universe, which is considered immortal in itself and self-existent. So man also is god and a measure of all things.

    But the gods are not free. They are governed by Necessity which is impersonal.

VIII

    It is this pagan way of thought that was mixed with the Christian teaching by the various heresies. This is what happened in the West, too. They began to distinguish not between God and His creation, but between spirit and matter. 30 They began to think of the soul of man as of something eternal in itself, and began to consider the condition of man after death not as a sleep in the hands of God, but as the real life of man, 31  to which the resurrection of the dead had nothing to add and even the need of the resurrection was doubtful. The feast of the Resurrection of our Lord, which is the culmination of all feasts in Orthodoxy, began to fall into second place, because its need was as incomprehensible to the Western Christians as it was to the Athenians who heard the sermon of the Apostle Paul.

    But what is more important for our subject, they began to feel that God was subject to Necessity, to this rationalistic Necessity which was nothing else but human logic. They declared Him incapable of coming into contact with inferior beings like men, because their rationalistic, philosophical conceptions did not permit it, and it was this belief which was the foundation of the hesychast disputes; it had already begun with Augustine who taught that it was not God Who spoke to Moses but an angel instead.

    It is in this context of Necessity, which even gods obey, that we must understand the Western juridical conception of God’s justice. It was necessary for God to punish man’s disobedience. It was impossible for Him to pardon; a superior Necessity demanded vengeance. Even if God was in reality good and loving, He was not able to act lovingly. He was obliged to act contrary to His love; the only thing He could do, in order to save humanity, was to punish His Son in the place of men, and by this means was Necessity satisfied.

IX

    This is the triumph of Hellenistic thought in Christianity. As a Hellenist, Origen had arrived at the same conclusions. God was a judge by necessity. He was obliged to punish, to avenge, to send people to hell. Hell was God’s creation. It was a punishment demanded by justice. This demand of justice was a necessity. God was obliged to submit to it. He was not permitted to forgive. There was a superior force, a Necessity which did not permit Him to love unconditionally.

    However, Origen was also a Christian and he knew that God was full of love. How is it possible to acknowledge a loving God Who keeps people in torment eternally? If God is the cause of hell, by necessity then there must be an end to it, otherwise we cannot concede that God is good and loving. This juridical conception of God as a instrument of a superior, impersonal force or deity named Necessity, leads logically to apokatastasis, “the restoration of all things and the destruction of hell,” otherwise we must admit that God is cruel.

    The pagan Greek mentality could not comprehend that the cause of hell was not God but His logical creatures. If God was not really free, since He was governed by Necessity, how could His creatures be free? God could not give something which He did not possess Himself. Moreover, the pagan Greek mentality could not conceive of disinterested love. Freedom, however, is the highest gift that God could give to a creature, because freedom makes the logical creatures like God. This was an inconceivable gift for pagan Greeks. They could not imagine a creature which could say “no” to an almighty God. If God was almighty, creatures could not say “no” to Him. So if God gave men His grace, men could not reject it. Otherwise God would not be almighty. If we admit that God is almighty, then His grace must be irresistible. Men cannot escape from it. That means that those men who are deprived of God’s grace are deprived because God did not give His grace to them. So the loss of God s grace, which is eternal, spiritual death, in other words, hell, is in reality an act totally dependent on God. It is God Who is punishing these people by depriving them of His grace, by not permitting it to shine upon them. So God is the cause of the eternal, spiritual death of those who are damned. Damnation is an act of God, an act of God’s justice, an act of necessity or cruelty. As a result, Origen thought that if we are to remain Christians, if we are to continue to believe that God is really good, we must believe that hell is not eternal, but will have an end, in spite of all that is written in the Holy Scriptures and of what the Church believes. This is the fatal, perfectly logical conclusion. If God is the cause of hell, hell must have an end, or else God is an evil God.

X

    Origen, and all rationalists who are like him, was not able to understand that the acceptance or the rejection of God’s grace depends entirely on the rational creatures; that 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. 32  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.

    Paradise or hell depends on how we will accept God’s love. Will we return love for love, or will we respond to His love with hate? This is the critical difference. And this difference depends entirely on us, on our freedom, on our innermost free choice, on a perfectly free attitude which is not influenced by external conditions or internal factors of our material and psychological nature, because it is not an external act but an interior attitude coming from the bottom of our heart, conditioning not our sins, but the way we think about our sins, as it is clearly seen in the case of the publican and the Pharisee and in the case of the two robbers crucified with Christ. This freedom, this choice, this inner attitude toward our Creator is the innermost core of our eternal personality, it is the most profound of our characteristics, it is what makes us that which we are, it is our eternal face — bright or dark, loving or hating.

    No, my brothers, unhappily for us, paradise or hell does not depend on God. If it depended on God, we would have nothing to fear. We have nothing to fear from Love. But it does not depend on God. It depends entirely upon us, and this is the whole tragedy. God wants us to be in His image, eternally free. He respects us absolutely. This is love. Without respect, we cannot speak of love. We are men because we are free. If we were not free, we would be clever animals, not men. God will never take back this gift of freedom which renders us what we are. This means that we will always be what we want to be, friends or enemies of God, and there is no changing in this our deepest self. In this life, there are profound or superficial changes in our life, in our character, in our beliefs, but all these changes are only the expression in time of our deepest eternal self. This deep eternal self is eternal, with all the meaning of the word. This is why paradise and hell are also eternal. There is no changing in what we really are. Our temporal characteristics and our history in life depend on many superficial things ‘which vanish with death, but our real personality is not superficial and does not depend on changing and vanishing things. It is our real self. It remains with us when we sleep in the grave, and will be our real face in the resurrection. It is eternal.

XI

    Saint John of the Ladder says somewhere in his work that “before our fall the demons say to us that God is a friend of man; but after our fall, they say that He is inexorable.” This is the cunning lie of the devil: to convince us that any harm in our life has as its cause God s disposition; that it is God Who will forgive us or Who will punish us. Wishing to throw us into sin and then to make us lose any hope of freeing ourselves from it, they seek to present God as sometimes forgiving all sins, and sometimes as inexorable. Most Christians, even Orthodox Christians, have fallen into this pit. They consider God responsible for our being pardoned or our being punished. This, my brothers, is a terrible falsehood which makes most men lose eternal life, principally because in considering God s love, they convince themselves that God, in His love, will pardon them. God is always loving, He is always pardoning, He is always a friend of man. However, that which never pardons, that which never is a friend of man, is sin, and we never think of it as we ought to. Sin destroys our soul independently of the love of God, because sin is precisely the road which leads away from God, because sin erects a wall which separates us from God, because sin destroys our spiritual eyes and makes us unable to see God’s light. The demons want to make us always think of our salvation or our eternal spiritual death in juridical terms. They want us to think that either salvation or eternal death is a question of God’s decision. No, my brothers, we must awaken in order not to be lost. Our salvation or our eternal death is not a question of God s decision, but it is a question of our decision, it is a question of the decision of our free will which God respects absolutely. Let us not fool ourselves with confidence in God’s love. The danger does not come from God; it comes from our own self.

XII    Many will say: “Does not Holy Scripture itself often speak about the anger of God? Is it not God Himself who says that He will punish us or that He will pardon us? Is it not written that ‘He is a rewarded of them that diligently seek Him’ (Heb. 11:6)? 33  Does He not say that vengeance is His and that He will requite the wickedness done to us? Is it not written that it is fearful to fall into the hands of the living God?” 34

    In his discourse entitled That God is not the Cause of Evil, Saint Basil the Great writes the following: “But one may say, if God is not responsible for evil things, why is it said in the book of Esaias, ‘I am He that prepared light and Who formed darkness, Who makes peace and Who creates evils’ (45:7).” And again, “There came down evils from the Lord upon the gates of Jerusalem” (Mich. 1:12). And, “Shall there be evil in the city which the Lord hath not wrought?” (Amos 3:6). And in the great Ode of Moses, “Behold, I am and there is no god beside Me. I will slay, and I will make to live; I will smite, and I will heal” (Deut. 32:39). But none of these citations, to him who understands the deeper meaning of the Holy Scriptures, casts any blame on God, as if He were the cause of evils and their creator, for He Who said, “I am the One Who makes light and darkness,” shows Himself as the Creator of the universe, not that He is the creator of any evil…. “He creates evils,” that means, “He fashions them again and brings them to a betterment, so that they leave their evilness, to take on the nature of good.” 35

    As Saint Isaac the Syrian writes, “Very often many things are said by the Holy Scriptures and in it many names are used not in a literal sense… those who have a mind understand this” (Homily 83, p. 317).

    Saint Basil in the same discourse 36 gives the explanation of these expressions of the Holy Scriptures: “It is because fear,” says he, “edifies simpler people,” and this is true not only for simple people but for all of us. After our fall, we need fear in order to do any profitable thing and any good to ourselves or to others. In order to understand the Holy Scriptures, say the Fathers, we must have in mind their purpose which is to save us, and to bring us little by little to an understanding of our Creator God and of our wretched condition.

    But the same Holy Scriptures in other places explain to us more accurately who is the real cause of our evils. In Jeremias 2:17, 19 we read: “Hath not thy forsaking Me brought these things upon thee? saith the Lord thy God…. Thine apostasy shall chastise thee and thy wickedness shall reprove thee; know then, and see that thy forsaking Me hath been bitter to thee, saith the Lord thy God.”

    The Holy Scriptures speak our language, the language which we understand in our fallen state. As Saint Gregory the Theologian says, “For according to our own comprehension, we have given names from our own attributes to those of God.” 37 And Saint John Damascene explains further that what in the Holy Scriptures “is said of God as if He had a body, is said symbolically… [it contains] some hidden meaning, which through things corresponding to our nature, teaches us things which exceed our nature.” 38

XIII

    However, there are punishments imposed upon us by God, or rather evils done to us by the devil and permitted by God. But these punishments are what we call pedagogical punishments. They have as their aim our correction in this life, or at least the correction of others who would take a lesson from our example and correct themselves by fear. There are also punishments which do not have the purpose of correcting anybody but simply put an end to evil by putting an end to those who are propagating it, so that the earth may be saved from perpetual corruption and total destruction; such was the case in the flood during Noe’s time, and in Sodom’s destruction.39

    All these punishments operate and have their purpose in this corrupted state of things; they do not extend beyond this corrupted life. Their purpose is to correct what can be corrected, and to change things toward a better condition, while things can still change in this changing world. After the Common Resurrection no change whatever can take place. Eternity and incorruptibility are the state of unchangeable things; no alterations whatever happen then, only developments in the state chosen by free personalities; eternal and infinite developments but no changing, no alteration of direction, no going back. The changing world we see around us is changing because it is corruptible. The eternal New Heavens and New Earth which God will bring about in His Second Coming are incorruptible, that means, not changing. So in this New World there can be no correction whatever; therefore, pedagogical punishments are no longer necessary. Any punishment from God in this New World of Resurrection would be clearly and without a doubt a revengeful act, inappropriate and motivated by hate, without any good intention or purpose.

    If we consider hell as a punishment from God, we must admit that it is a senseless punishment, unless we admit that God is an infinitely wicked being.

    As Saint Isaac the Syrian says: “He who applies pedagogical punishments in order to give health, is punishing with love, but he who is looking for vengeance, is devoid of love. God punishes with love, not defending Himself — far be it — but He wants to heal His image, and He does not keep His wrath for long. This way of love is the way of uprightness, and it does not change with passion to a defense. A man who is just and wise is like God because he never chastises a man in revenge for wickedness, but only in order to correct him or that others be afraid” (Homily 73).

    So we see that God punishes as long as there is hope for correction. After the Common Resurrection there is no question of any punishment from God. Hell is not a punishment from God but a self condemnation. As Saint Basil the Great says, “The evils in hell do not have God as their cause, but ourselves.” 40

XIV

    One could insist, however, that the Sacred Scriptures and the Fathers always speak of God as the Great Judge who will reward those who were obedient to Him and will punish those who were disobedient, in the day of the Great Judgment (II Tim. 4:6-8). How are we to understand this judgment if we are to understand the divine words not in a human but in a divine manner’? What is God’s judgment?

    God is Truth and Light. God’s judgment is nothing else than our coming into contact with truth and light. In the day of the Great Judgment all men will appear naked before this penetrating light of truth. The “books” will be opened. What are these “books”? They are our hearts. Our hearts will be opened by the penetrating light of God, and what is in these hearts will be revealed. If in those hearts there is love for God, those hearts will rejoice seeing God’s light. If, on the contrary, there is hatred for God in those hearts, these men will suffer by receiving on their opened hearts this penetrating light of truth which they detested all their life.

    So that which will differentiate between one man and another will not be a decision of God, a reward or a punishment from Him, but that which was in each one’s heart; what was there during all our life will be revealed in the Day of Judgment. If there is a reward and a punishment in this revelation — and there really is — it does not come from God but from the love or hate which reigns in our heart. Love has bliss in it, hatred has despair, bitterness, grief, affliction, wickedness, agitation, confusion, darkness, and all the other interior conditions which compose hell (I Cor. 4:6).

    The Light of Truth, God’s Energy, God’s grace which will fall on men unhindered by corrupt conditions in the Day of Judgment, will be the same to all men. There will be no distinction whatever. All the difference lies in those who receive, not in Him Who gives. The sun shines on healthy and diseased eyes alike, without any distinction. Healthy eyes enjoy light and because of it see clearly the beauty which surrounds them. Diseased eyes feel pain, they hurt, suffer, and want to hide from this same light which brings such great happiness to those who have healthy eyes.

    But alas, there is no longer any possibility of escaping God’s light. During this life there was. In the New Creation of the Resurrection, God will be everywhere and in everything. His light and love will embrace all. There will be no place hidden from God, as was the case during our corrupt life in the kingdom of the prince of this world. 41 The devil’s kingdom will be despoiled by the Common Resurrection and God will take possession again of His creation. 42 Love will enrobe everything with its sacred Fire which will flow like a river from the throne of God and will irrigate paradise. But this same river of Love — for those who have hate in their hearts — will suffocate and burn.

    “For our God is a consuming fire”, (Heb. 12:29). The very fire which purifies gold, also consumes wood. Precious metals shine in it like the sun, rubbish burns with black smoke. All are in the same fire of Love. Some shine and others become black and dark. In the same furnace steel shines like the sun, whereas clay turns dark and is hardened like stone. The difference is in man, not in God.

    The difference is conditioned by the free choice of man, which God respects absolutely. God’s judgment is the revelation of the reality which is in man.

XV

    Thus Saint Macarius writes, “And as the kingdom of darkness, and sin, are hidden in the soul until the Day of Resurrection, when the bodies also of sinners shall be covered with the darkness that is now hidden in the soul, so also the Kingdom of Light, and the Heavenly Image, Jesus Christ, now mystically enlighten the soul, and reign in the soul of the saints, but are hidden from the eyes of men… until the Day of Resurrection; but then the body also shall be covered and glorified with the Light of the Lord, which is now in the man’s soul [from this earthly life], that the body also may reign with the soul which from now receives the Kingdom of Christ and rests and is enlightened with eternal light” (Homily 2).

    Saint Symeon the New Theologian says that it is not what man does which counts in eternal life but what he is, whether he is like Jesus Christ our Lord, or whether he is different and unlike Him. He says, “In the future life the Christian is not examined if he has renounced the whole world for Christ’s love, or if he has distributed his riches to the poor or if he fasted or kept vigil or prayed, or if he wept and lamented for his sins, or if he has done any other good in this life, but he is examined attentively if he has any similitude with Christ, as a son does with his father.”

XVI

    Saint Peter the Damascene writes: “We all receive God’s blessings equally. But some of us, receiving God’s fire, that is, His word, become soft like beeswax, while the others like clay become hard as stone. And if we do not want Him, He does not force any of us, but like the sun He sends His rays and illuminates the whole world, and he who wants to see Him, sees Him, whereas the one who does not want to see Him, is not forced by Him. And no one is responsible for this privation of light except the one who does not want to have it. God created the sun and the eye. Man is free to receive the sun’s light or not. The same is true here. God sends the light of knowledge like rays to all, but He also gave us faith like an eye. The one who wants to receive knowledge through faith, keeps it by his works, and so God gives him more willingness, knowledge, and power” (Philokalia, vol. 3, p. 8).

XVII

    I think that by now we have reached the point of understanding correctly what eternal hell and eternal paradise really are, and who is in reality responsible for the difference.

    In the icon of the Last Judgment we see Our Lord Jesus Christ seated on a throne. On His right we see His friends, the blessed men and women who lived by His love. On His left we see His enemies, all those who passed their life hating Him, even if they appeared to be pious and reverent. And there, in the midst of the two, springing from Christ’s throne, we see a river of fire coming toward us. What is this river of fire? Is it an instrument of torture? Is it an energy of vengeance coming out from God in order to vanquish His enemies?

    No, nothing of the sort. This river of fire is the river which “came out from Eden to water the paradise” of old (Gen. 2:10). It is the river of the grace of God which irrigated God’s saints from the beginning. In a word, it is the out-pouring of God’s love for His creatures. Love is fire. Anyone who loves knows this. God is Love, so God is Fire. And fire consumes all those who are not fire themselves, and renders bright and shining all those who are fire themselves (Heb. 12:29).

    God many times appeared as fire: To Abraham, to Moses in the burning bush, to the people of Israel showing them the way in the desert as a column of fire by night and as a shining cloud by day when He covered the tabernacle with His glory (Exod. 40:28, 32), and when He rained fire on the summit of Mount Sinai. God was revealed as fire on the mountain of Transfiguration, and He said that He came “to put fire upon the earth” (Luke 12:49), that is to say, love, because as Saint John of the Ladder says, “Love is the source of fire” (Step 30, 18).

    The Greek writer, Fotis Kontoglou said somewhere that “Faith is fire, and gives warmth to the heart. The Holy Spirit came down upon the heads of the apostles in the form of tongues of fire. The two disciples, when the Lord was revealed to them, said ‘Did not our heart burn within us, while He talked with us in the way?’ Christ compares faith to a ‘burning candle.’ Saint John the Forerunner said in his sermons that Christ will baptize men ‘in the Holy Spirit and fire.’ And truly, the Lord said, ‘I am come to send fire on the earth and what will I if it be already kindled? Well, the most tangible characteristic of faith is warmth; this is why they speak about ‘warm faith,’ or ‘faith provoking warmth.’ And even as the distinctive mark of faith is warmth, the sure mark of unbelief is coldness.

    “Do you want to know how to understand if a man has faith or unbelief? If you feel warmth coming out of him — from his eyes, from his words, from his manners — be certain that he has faith in his heart. If again you feel cold coming out of his whole being, that means that he has not faith, whatever he may say. He may kneel down, he may bend his head humbly, he may utter all sorts of moral teachings with a humble voice, but all these will breathe forth a chilling breath which falls upon you to numb you with cold.”  43 Saint Isaac the Syrian says that “Paradise is the love of God, in which the bliss of all the beatitudes is contained,” and that “the tree of life is the love of God” (Homily 72).

    “Do not deceive yourself,” says Saint Symeon the New Theologian, “God is fire and when He came into the world, and became man, He sent fire on the earth, as He Himself says; this fire turns about searching to find material — that is a disposition and an intention that is good — to fall into and to kindle; and for those in whom this fire will ignite, it becomes a great flame, which reaches Heaven…. this flame at first purifies us from the pollution of passions and then it becomes in us food and drink and light and joy, and renders us light ourselves because we participate in His light” (Discourse 78).

    God is a loving fire, and He is a loving fire for all: good or bad. There is, however, a great difference in the way people receive this loving fire of God. Saint Basil says that “the sword of fire was placed at the gate of paradise to guard the approach to the tree of life; it was terrible and burning toward infidels, but kindly accessible toward the faithful, bringing to them the light of day.” 44 The same loving fire brings the day to those who respond to love with love, and burns those who respond to love with hatred.

    Paradise and hell are one and the same River of God, a loving fire which embraces and covers all with the same beneficial will, without any difference or discrimination. The same vivifying water is life eternal for the faithful and death eternal for the infidels; for the first it is their element of life, for the second it is the instrument of their eternal suffocation; paradise for the one is hell for the other. Do not consider this strange. The son who loves his father will feel happy in his father’s arms, but if he does not love him, his father’s loving embrace will be a torment to him. This also is why when we love the man who hates us, it is likened to pouring lighted coals and hot embers on his head.

    “I say,” writes Saint Isaac the Syrian, “that those who are suffering in hell, are suffering in being scourged by love…. It is totally false to think that the sinners in hell are deprived of God’s love. Love is a child of the knowledge of truth, and is unquestionably given commonly to all. But love’s power acts in two ways: it torments sinners, while at the same time it delights those who have lived in accord with it” (Homily 84).

    God is love. If we really believe this truth, we know that God never hates, never punishes, never takes vengeance. As Abba Ammonas says, “Love never hates anyone, never reproves anyone, never condemns anyone, never grieves anyone, never abhors anyone, neither faithful nor infidel nor stranger nor sinner nor fornicator, nor anyone impure, but instead it is precisely sinners, and weak and negligent souls that it loves more, and feels pain for them and grieves and laments, and it feels sympathy for the wicked and sinners, more than for the good, imitating Christ Who called sinners, and ate and drank with them. For this reason, showing what real love is, He taught saying, ‘Become good and merciful like your Father in Heaven,’ and as He rains on bad and good and makes the sun to rise on just and unjust alike, so also is the one who has real love, and has compassion, and prays for all.”  45

XVIII    Now if anyone is perplexed and does not understand how it is possible for God’s love to render anyone pitifully wretched and miserable and even burning as it were in flames, let him consider the elder brother of the prodigal son. Was he not in his father’s estate? Did not everything in it belong to him? Did he not have his father’s love? Did his father not come himself to entreat and beseech him to come and take part in the joyous banquet? What rendered him miserable and burned him with inner bitterness and hate? Who refused him anything? Why was he not joyous at his brother’s return? Why did he not have love either toward his father or toward his brother? Was it not because of his wicked, inner disposition? Did he not remain in hell because of that? And what was this hell? Was it any separate place? Were there any instruments of torture? Did he not continue to live in his father’s house? What separated him from all the joyous people in the house if not his own hate and his own bitterness? Did his father, or even his brother, stop loving him? Was it not precisely this very love which hardened his heart more and more? Was it not the joy that made him sad? Was not hatred burning in his heart, hatred for his father and his brother, hatred for the love of his father toward his brother and for the love of his brother toward his father? This is hell: the negation of love; the return of hate for love; bitterness at seeing innocent joy; to be surrounded by love and to have hate in one’s heart. This is the eternal condition of all the damned. They are all dearly loved. They are all invited to the joyous banquet. They are all living in God’s Kingdom, in the New Earth and the New Heavens. No one expels them. Even if they wanted to go away they could not flee from God’s New Creation, nor hide from God’s tenderly loving omnipresence. Their only alternative would be, perhaps, to go away from their brothers and search for a bitter isolation from them, but they could never depart from God and His love. And what is more terrible is that in this eternal life, in this New Creation, God is everything to His creatures. As Saint Gregory of Nyssa says, “In the present life the things we have relations with are numerous, for instance: time, air, locality, food and drink, clothing, sunlight, lamplight, and other necessities of life, none of which, many though they be, are God; that blessed state which we hope for is in need of none of these things, but the Divine Being will become all, and in the stead of all to us, distributing Himself proportionately to every need of that existence. It is plain, too, from the Holy Scriptures that God becomes to those who deserve it, locality and home and clothing and food and drink and light and riches and kingdom, and everything that can be thought of and named that goes to make our life happy” (On the Soul and the Resurrection). 46

    In the new eternal life, God will be everything to His creatures, not only to the good but also to the wicked, not only to those who love Him, but likewise to those who hate Him. But how will those who hate Him endure to have everything from the hands of Him Whom they detest? Oh, what an eternal torment is this, what an eternal fire, what a gnashing of teeth!

    Depart from Me, ye cursed, into the everlasting inner fire of hatred,” 47 saith the Lord, because I was thirsty for your love and you did not give it to Me, I was hungry for your blessedness and you did not offer it to Me, I was imprisoned in My human nature and you did not come to visit Me in My church; you are free to go where your wicked desire wishes, away from Me, in the torturing hatred of your hearts which is foreign to My loving heart which knows no hatred for anyone. Depart freely from love to the everlasting torture of hate, unknown and foreign to Me and to those who are with Me, but prepared by freedom for the devil, from the days I created My free, rational creatures. But wherever you go in the darkness of your hating hearts, My love will follow you like a river of fire, because no matter what your heart has chosen, you are and you will eternally continue to be, My children.

Amen.


NOTES

1 “This is evil: estrangement from God.” St. Basil the Great, That God is Not the Cause of Evils,ELLHNES PATERES THS EKKLHSIAS” [Greek Fathers of the Church) 7, 112 (hereafter cited as EPE). “As many… as stand apart in their will from God, He brings upon them separation from Himself; and separation from God is death.” St. Irenaeus Against Heresies 5. 27.2. “Men, rejecting eternal things and through the counsel of the devil turning toward the things of corruption, became the cause to themselves of the corruption in death.” St. Athanasius the Great On the Incarnation 5 (Migne, PG 25. 104-105). “For as much as he departed from life, just so much did he draw nearer to death. For life is God; deprivation of life is death. So Adam was the author of death to himself through his departure from God.” St. Basil the Great (PG 31. 945).

2  “The redemptive sacrifice… was accomplished in order to re-establish the formerly harmonious relation be-tween heaven and earth which sin had overturned, to atone for the flaunted moral law, to satisfy the affronted justice of God.” Encyclical Letter for Pascha 1980 of Ecumenical Patriarch Demetrios, Episkepsis (in Greek), no. 229, 15 April 1980.

3 “Truly foolish, therefore, and lacking all understanding and mind is he who says there is no God. Alongside him no less in this madness is he who says that God is the cause of evils. I consider their sins to be of equal gravity because each one similarly denies the good; the former denies that He exists at all, while the latter defines Him as not being good; for if he is the cause of evils, He is clearly not good; so from both sides there is a denial of God.” St. Basil the Great, EPE, op. cit., 7, 90.

4 “But someone will say, verily Adam fell, and by disregarding the divine commandment he was condemned to corruption and death, but how were the many made sinful on his account? What do his transgressions have to do with us? How is it that we who were not even born were condemned along with him, and yet God says, ‘The fathers shall not be put to death for the children and the sons shall not be put to death for the fathers; everyone shall die in his own sin’? (Deut. 24:18). Surely, then, that soul that sins shall die; but we became sinners through the disobedience of Adam in this way: For Adam was created for incorruption and life, and his life in the Paradise of delight was holy, his whole mind was continually caught up in divine visions, and his body was tranquil and serene, since every shameful pleasure was calmed, for there was no disturbance of intemperate emotions in him. However, since he fell under sin and sank into corruption, thence pleasures and pollutions penetrated into the nature of the flesh, and so there was planted in our members a savage law. Nature became diseased with sin through the disobedience of the one, i.e., Adam; thus the many also became sinners, not as transgressing together with Adam ? for they did not exist at all ? but as being from his nature which had fallen under the law of sin… because of disobedience, human nature in Adam became infirm with corruption, and so the passions were introduced into it….” St. Cyril of Alexandria Interpretation of the Epistle to the Romans (PG 74. 788-789). “And furthermore, if they who were born from Adam became sinners on account of his sinning, in all justice, they are not liable, for they did not become sinners of themselves; therefore the term “sinners” is used instead of “mortals” because death is the penalty of sin. Since in the first-fashioned man nature became mortal, all they who share in the nature of the forefather consequently share mortality also.” Euthymios Zigabenos, Interpretation of the Epistle to the Romans, 5:19.

5 It means something totally different from what we customarily mean by the term “justice.” This ignorance has caused us to consider as touchstones of Orthodoxy some very strange theories, most particularly the juridical conception of salvation which is based upon a justice that resembles the Necessity (ANAGKH) of the ancients, and oppresses not only man but God also, and gives a gloomy aspect to Christianity. See the relevant study of S. Lynonnett “La Soteriologie Paulienne,” Introduction a la Bible Il, (Belgium: Desclees Bc Bower), p. 840.

6 “If a man readily and joyfully accepts a loss for the sake of God, he is inwardly pure. And if he does not look down upon any man because of his defects, in very truth he is free. If a man is not pleased with someone who honors him, nor displeased with someone who dishonors him, he is dead to the world and to this life. The watchfulness of discernment is superior to every discipline of men accomplished in any way to any degree.

    “Do not hate the sinner. For we are all laden with guilt. If for the sake of God you are moved to oppose him, weep over him. Why do you hate him? Hate his sins md pray for him, that you may imitate Christ Who was not wroth with sinners, but interceded for them. Do you not see how He wept over Jerusalem? We are mocked by the devil in many instances, so why should we hate the man who is mocked by him who mocks us also? Why, O man, do you hate the sinner? Could it be because he is not so righteous as you? But where is your righteousness when you have no love? Why do you not shed tears over him? But you persecute him. In ignorance some are moved with anger, presuming themselves to be discerners of the works of sinners.

    “Be a herald of God’s goodness, for God rules over you, unworthy though you are; for although your debt to Him is so great, yet He is not seen exacting payment from you, and from the small works you do, He bestows great rewards upon you. Do not call God just, for His justice is not manifest in the things concerning you. And if David calls Him just and upright (cf. Ps. 24:8, 144:17), His Son revealed to us that He is good and kind. ‘He is good,’ He says, ‘to the evil and to the impious’ (cf. Luke 6:35). How can you call God just when you come across the Scriptural passage on the wage given to the workers? ‘Friend, I do thee no wrong: I will give unto this last even as unto thee. Is thine eye evil because I am good?’ (Matt. 20:12-15). How can a man call God just when he comes across the passage on the prodigal son who wasted his wealth with riotous living, how for the compunction alone which he showed, the father ran and fell upon his neck and gave him authority over all his wealth? (Luke 15:11 ff.). None other but His very Son said these things concerning Him, lest we doubt it; and thus He bare witness concern-ing Him. Where, then, is God’s justice, for whilst we are sinners Christ died for us! (cf. Rom. 5:8). But if here He is merciful, we may believe that He will not change [i.e., as regards the state after death, which St. Isaac mentions again a little below].

    “Far be it that we should ever think such an iniquity that God could become unmerciful! For the property of Divinity does not change as do mortals. God does not acquire something which He does not have, nor lose what He has, nor supplement what He does have, as do created beings. But what God has from the beginning, He will have and has until the [uneoding] end, as the blest Cyril wrote in his commentary on Genesis. Fear God, he says, out of love for Him, and not for the austere name that He has been given. Love Him as you ought to love Him; not for what He will give you in the future, but for what we have received, and for this world alone which He has created for us. Who is the man that can repay Him? Where is His repayment to be found in our works? Who persuaded Him in the beginning to bring us into being Who intercedes for us before Him, when we shall possess no [faculty of] memory, as though we never existed? Who will awake this our body [Syriac: our corruption] for that life? Again, whence descends the notion of knowledge into dust? O the wondrous mercy of God! O the astonishment at the bounty of our God and Creator! O might for which all is possible! O the immeasurable goodness that brings our nature again, sinners though we be, to His regeneration and rest! Who is sufficient to glorify Him? He raises up the transgressor and blasphemer, he renews dust unendowed with reason, making it rational and comprehending and the scattered and insensible dust and the scattered senses He makes a rational nature worthy of thought. The sinner is unable to comprehend the grace of His resurrection. Where is gehenna, that can afflict us? Where is perdition, that terrifies us in many ways and quenches the joy of His love? And what is gehenna as compared with the grace of His resurrection, when He will raise us from Hades and cause our corruptible nature to be clad in incorruption, and raise up in glory him that has fallen into Hades?

    “Come, men of discernment, and be filled with wonder! Whose mind is sufficiently wise and marvelous to wonder worthily at the bounty of our Creator? His recompense of sinners is, that instead of a just recompense, He rewards them with resurrection, and instead of those bodies with which they trampled upon His law, He enrobes them with perfect glory and incorruption. [St. Isaac speaks here of those who have repented, as is evident from other similar passages in his book.) That grace whereby we are resurrected after we have sinned is greater than the grace which brought us into being when we were not. Glory be to Thine immeasurable grace, O Lord! Behold, Lord, the waves of Thy grace close my mouth with silence, and there is not a thought left in me before the face of Thy thanksgiving. What mouths can confess Thy praise, O good King, Thou Who lovest our life? Glory be to Thee for the two worlds which Thou hast created for our growth and delight, leading us by all things which Thou didst fashion to the knowledge of Thy glory, from now and unto the ages. Amen.” St. Isaac the Syrian, Homily 60.

7 Ibid.

8  “‘For God so loved the world as to give His Only-begotten Son unto death for it.’ Not that He could not have redeemed us by another means, but He wished to manifest to us His boundless love, and to draw us near Him through the death of His Only-begotten Son. Indeed, if He had anything more precious than His Son, He would have given it for our sakes, in order that through it our race would be found nigh to Him. Out of His abundant love, He was not pleased to do violence to our freedom, although it was possible for Him to do so; but He let it be in order that we would draw nigh to Him with the love and volition of our own will.” St. Isaac the Syrian, Homily 81.

9  “In times of despondency, never fail to bear in mind the Lord’s commandment to Peter, to forgive a person who sins seventy times seven, For He who gave this command to another will Himself do far more.” St. John Climacus, Ladder of Divine Ascent, Step 26, (Boston: Holy Transfiguration Monastery, 1978), p. 147.

10  “A man who is just and wise is like God because he never chastises a man in revenge for wickedness, but only in order to correct him, or that others be afraid.” St. Isaac the Syrian, Homily 73. “God granted this great benefit to man: that he not abide in sin unto eternity.” Theophilus of Antioch To Autolycus 2.26.

11 “And God saw all the things that He had made, and behold, they were very good.” Genesis 1,31. “[God) created everything which has good qualities, but the profligacy of the demons has made use of the productions of nature for evil purposes, and the appearance of evil which these wear is from them and not from the perfect God.” Tatian Address to the Greeks 17. “The construction of the world is good, but the life men live m it is bad.” Ibid. 19. “For nothing from the first was made evil by God, but all things good, yea, very good.” Theophilus of Antioch To Autolycus 2. 17. “Pour l’hebreau, le sensible n’est pas mauvais, ni fautif. Le mal ne vient pas de la matiere. Le monde est tres bon.” [ “For the Hebrew, perceptible things are not evil, nor are they deceptive (lit., erroneous). Evil does not come from matter. The world is ‘very good.'”] C. Tresmontant, Essai sur la Pensee Hebraique (Paris, 1953). “There is nothing that exists which does not partake of the beautiful and the good.” St, Dionysius the Areopagite On the Divine Names (PG 3. 704). “For even if the reasons why some things come about escapes us, let that dogma be certain in our souls, that nothing evil is done by the good.” St. BasiI the Great,EPE, 7, 112. “For it is not the part of a god to incite to things against nature…. But God, being perfectly good, is eternally doing good.” Athenagoras, Embassy, 26.

12 “The devil is evil in such wise, that he is evil in disposition, but not that his nature is opposed to good.” St. Basil the Great, EPE, 7, 112. “Since God is good, whatever He does, He does for man’s sake. But whatever man does, he does for his own sake, both what is good and what is evil.” Philokalia, vol. 1, chap. 121, St. Anthony the Great.

13 “For God made not death, neither hath He pleasure in the destruction of the living; for He created aIl things that they might have their being, and the generations of the world were healthful; and there is no poison of destruction in them, nor the kingdom of Hades upon the earth.” Wisdom of Solomon 1:13-14. “For God created man to be immortal and made him to be an image of His own eternity. Nevertheless, through envy of the devil came death into the world.” Wisdom of Solomon 2:23-24.

14 “And so he who was made in the likeness of God, since the more powerful spirit [the Holy Spirit] is separated from him, becomes mortal.” Tatian Address to the Greeks 7.

15 “For as much as he departed from life, just so much did he draw nearer to death. For God is life; depriva-tion of life is death. So Adam was the author of death to himself through his departure from God, in accordance with the scripture which says: ‘For behold, they that remove themselves from Thee shall perish.'” Psalm 72: 27.

16 “Thus God did not create death, but we brought it upon ourselves out of an evil disposition. Nevertheless, He did not hinder the dissolution on account of the aforementioned causes, so that He would not make the infirmity immortal in us.” St. Basil the Great (PG 31. 345).

17 “But as many as depart from God by their own choice, He inflicts that separation from Himself which they have chosen of their own accord. But separation from God is death, and separation from light is darkness,… It is not, however, that the light has inflicted upon them the penalty of darkness.” St. Irenaeus Against Heresies 5. 27:2. “But others shun the light and separate themselves from God….” Ibid., 5. 28:1.

18 Philokalia, vol. 2, p. 27 (Greek edition), St. Maximus the Confessor.

19 “We became the inheritors of the curse in Adam. Certainly we were not punished as though we had disobeyed that command along with him, but because he became mortal, he transmitted the sin to his seed; we were born mortals from a mortal.” St. Anastasius the Sinaite, 19. Vide I.N. Karmirh, SUNOYIS THS DOGMATKHS THS ORQODOXOU EKKLHSIAS, s. 38.

20 “Man’s transgression against the Creator’s righteousness brought the soul’s death sentence into effect; for when our forefathers forsook God and chose to do their own will, He abandoned them, not subjecting them to constraint. And for the reasons we have stated above, God lovingly forewarned them of this sentence. But he forbore and delayed in executing the sentence of death upon the body; and while He pronounced it, He relegated its fruition to the future in the abyss of His wisdom and the superabundance of His love for man. He did not say to Adam: ‘return to whence thou wast taken,’ but ‘earth thou art, and unto earth thou shalt return’ (Gen. 3:19). Those who hear this with understanding can also comprehend from these words that God ‘did not make death’ (Wisdom 1:13), either the soul’s or the body’s. For when He first gave the command, He did not say: ‘in whatsoever day ye shall eat of it, die!,’ but ‘In whatsoever day ye shall eat of it, ye shall surely die’ (Gen. 2:17). Nor did He afterwards say: ‘return now unto earth,’ but “Thou shalt return’ (Gen. 3:19), in his manner forewarning, justly permitting and not obstructing what should come to pass.” St. Gregory Palamas Physical Theological Moral and Practical Chapters 51 (PG 1157-1160).

21 “The tree of knowledge itself was good, and its fruit was good. For it was not the tree that had death in it, as some think, but the disobedience which had death in it; for there was nothing else in the fruit but knowledge alone; but knowledge is good when one uses it properly.” Theophilus of Antioch To Autolycus 2. 25. “The tree did not engender death, for God did not create death; but death was the consequence of disobedience.” St. John Damascene Homily on Holy Saturday 10 (PG 96. 612a).

22 “‘And what is a merciful heart?’ It is the heart’s burning for the sake of the entire creation, for men, for birds, for animals, for demons and for every created thing; and by the recollection and sight of them the eyes of a merciful man pour forth abundant tears. From the strong and vehement mercy which grips his heart and from his great compassion, his heart is humbled and he cannot bear to hear or to see any injury or slight sorrow in creation. For this reason he continually offers up tearful prayer, even for irrational beasts, for the enemies of the truth and for those who harm him, that they be protected and receive mercy. And in like manner he even prays for the family of reptiles because of the great compassion that burns in his heart without measure in the likeness of God.” St. Isaac the Syrian, Homily 81.

23 “It is not God who is hostile, but we; for God is never hostile.” St. John Chrysostom (PG 61. 478).

24 Vide.I.S. RWMANIDHS, TO PROPATORIKON AMARTHMA, (Athens, 1957).

25 “Therefore, we believe in one God: one principle, without beginning, uncreated, unbegotten, indestructible and immortal, eternal, unlimited, uncircumscribed, unbounded, infinite in power, simple, uncompounded, incorporeal, unchanging, unaffected, unchangeable, inalterate, invisible, source of goodness and justice, light intellectual and inaccessible; power which no measure can give any idea of but which is measured only by His own will, for He can do all things whatsoever He pleases; Maker of all things both visible and invisible, holding together all things and conserving them, Provider for all, governing and dominating and ruling over all in unending and immortal reign; without contradiction, filling all things, contained by nothing, but Himself containing all things, being their Conserver and first Possessor; pervading all substances without being defiled, removed far beyond all things and every substance as being supersubstantial and surpassing all, super-eminently divine and good and replete; appointing all the principalities and orders, set above every principality and order, above essence and life and speech and concept; light itself and goodness and being insofar as having neither being, nor anything else that is derived from any other; the very source of being for all things that are, of life to the living, of speech to the articulate, and the cause of all good things for all; knowing all things before they begin to be; one substance, one godhead, one virtue, one will, one operation, one principality, one power, one domination, one kingdom; known in three perfect Persons and adored with one adoration, believed in and worshipped by every rational creature, united without confusion and distinct without separation, which is beyond understanding. We believe in Father and Son and Holy Spirit in Whom we have been baptized. For it is thus that the Lord enjoined the apostles: ‘Baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” St. ]John Damascene Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith 1. 8.

26 “He created without matter.” St, John Chrysostom (PG 59. 308).

27 St. John Damascene, op. cit. 1. 14.

28  St. John Damascene, op. cit. 1. 8.

29  “The soul without the body can do nothing, whether good or evil. The visions which some see concerning those things that are yonder are shown to them by God as a dispensation for their profit. Just as the lyre remains useless and silent if there is no one to play, so the soul and body, when they are separated, can do nothing.” St. Athanasius the Great.

30  “For each of these, after its kind, is a body, be it angel, or soul, or devil. Subtle though they are, still in substance, character, and image according to the subtlety of their respective natures they are subtle bodies.” St. Macarius the Great, Fifty Spiritual Homilies, 4, 9.

31  “Let us go and behold in the tombs that man is bare bones, food for worms and a stench.” Great Euchologion, (Venice, 1862), p. 415. “For just as the light when it sets in the evening is not lost, so man also is given over to the grave as if setting; yet he is preserved for the dawn of the resurrection.” St. John Chrysostom.

32  “He who berates the Creator for not making us sinless by nature, does naught but esteem the irrational nature above the rational.” St. Basil the Great, EPE, 7, 110.

33  Also, “Cast not away therefore your confidence, which hath great recompense of reward.” Hebrews 10:35.

34  “For if we sin willfully after that we have received the knowledge of the truth, there remaineth no more sacrifice for sins, but a certain fearful looking for of judgment and fiery indignation, which shall devour the adversaries, He that despised Moses’ law died without mercy under two or three witnesses: Of how much sorer punishment, suppose ye, shall he be thought worthy, who hath trodden under foot the Son of God, and hath counted the blood of the covenant, wherewith he was sanctified, an unholy thing, and hath done despite unto the Spirit of grace? For we know him that hath said, Vengeance belongeth unto me, I will recompense, saith the Lord. And again, The Lord shall judge his people. It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. Hebrews 10:26-31.

35  St. Basil the Great, op. cit. 7, 94-96. In this particular passage, St. Basil carefully makes a distinction between the Greek verbs ktizw and dhmiourgew, both of which are generally translated into English as “create.” However, ktizw has a long history, beginning with the Sanskrit kshi, which, as in early Greek, meant “to people a country,” “to build houses and cities,” “to colonize.” Later, in Greek, the word came to mean “to establish,” “to build up and develop,” and finally, “to produce,” “create,” “bring about.” Having in mind these other connotations of the verb ktizw, St. Basil discerned the proper implication of the word in this context and hence made a point of emphasizing this distinction.

36 Ibid. 7.98.

37 St. Gregory the Theologian Fifth Theological Oration 22 (PG 36. 15 7).

38  St. John Damascene, op. cit. 1.11.

39  “Famines and droughts and floods are common plagues of cities and nations which check the excess of evil. Therefore, just as the physician is a benefactor even if he should cause pain or suffering to the body (for he strives with the disease, and not with the sufferer), so in the same manner God is good Who administers salvation to everyone through the means of particular chastisements. But you, not only do you not speak evilly of the physician who cuts some members, cauterizes others, and excises others again completely from the body, but you even give him money and address him as savior because he confines the disease to a small area before the infirmity can claim the whole body. However, when you see a city crushing its inhabitants in an earthquake, or a ship going down at sea with all hands, you do not shrink from wagging a blasphemous tongue against the true Physician and Savior.” St. Basil the Great, op. cit. 7, 94. “And you may accept the phrase ‘I kill and I will make to live’ (Deut. 32:39) literally, if you wish, since fear edifies the more simple. ‘I will smite and I will heal’ (Deut. 32:39). It is profitable to also understand this phrase literally; for the smiting engenders fear, while the healing incites to love. It is permitted you, nonetheless, to attain to a loftier understanding of the utterance. I will slay through sin and make to live through righteousness. ‘But though our outward man perish, yet the inward man is renewed day by day’ (II Cor. 4:16). Therefore, He does not slay one, and give life to another, but through the means which He slays, He gives life to a man, and He heals a man with that which He smites him, according to the proverb which says, ‘For thou shalt beat him with the rod, and shalt deliver his soul from death’ (Prov. 23:14). So the flesh is chastised for the soul to be healed, and sin is put to death for righteousness to live…. When you hear ‘There shall be no evil in a city which the Lord hath not wrought’ (cf. Amos 3:6), understand by the noun ‘evil’ that the word intimates the tribulation brought upon sinners for the correction of offenses. For Scripture says, ‘For I afflicted thee and straitened thee, to do good to thee’ (cf. Deut. 8:3); so too is evil terminated before it spills out unhindered, as a strong dike or wall holds back a river.

    “For these reasons, diseases of cities and nations, droughts, barrenness of the earth, and the more difficult conditions in the life of each, cut off the increase of wickedness. Thus, such evils come from God so as to uproot the true evils, for the tribulations of the body and all painful things from without have been devised for the restraining of sin. God, therefore, excises evil; never is evil from God…. The razing of cities, earthquakes and floods, the destruction of armies, shipwrecks and all catastrophes with many casualties which occur from earth or sea or air or fire or whatever cause, happen for the sobering of the survivors, because God chastises public evil with general scourges.

    “The principal evil, therefore, which is sin, and which is especially worthy of the appellation of evil, depends upon our disposition; it depends upon us either to abstain from evil or to be in misery.

    “Of the other evils, some are shown to be struggles for the proving of courage… while some are for the healing of sins… and some are for an example to make other men sober.” St. Basil the Great, op. cit. 7, 98-102.

40 Ibid. 7, 92.

41  “The devil became the ‘Prince of matter.'” Athenagoras, Embassy, 24, 25. “They [the demons] afterwards subdued the human race to themselves… and… sowed all wickedness. Whence also the poets and mythologists, not knowing that it was the angels and those demons who had been begotten by them that did these things to men, and women, and cities, and nations which they related, ascribed them to God Himself.” St. Justin Martyr Second Apology 5.

42  “For this purpose the Son of God was manifested, that He might destroy the works of the devil.” I John 3:8.

43 Fotis Kontoglou, “EKKLHSIASTIKA HMEROLOGIA, OrqodoxoV TupoV,“Church Calendars,” Orthodoxos Typos] 131 (Athens), 1 January 1971.

44 St. Basil the Great, Homily 13. 2, Exhortation to Holy Baptism (PG 31. 428 and 95, 1272).

45BIBLIOQHKH ELLHNWN PATERWN” [Library of Greek Fathers], vol. 40, pp. 60-61.

46  “‘I am father, I am brother, I am bridegroom, I am dwelling place, I am food, I am raiment, I am root, I am foundation, all whatsoever thou willest, I am.’ ‘Be thou in need of nothing, I will be even a servant, for I came to minister, not to be ministered unto; I am friend, and member, and head, and brother, and sister, and mother; I am all; only cling thou closely to me. I was poor for thee, and a wanderer for thee, on the Cross for thee, in the tomb for thee, above I intercede for thee to the Father; on earth I am come for thy sake an ambassador from my Father. Thou art all things to me, brother, and joint heir, and friend, and member.’ What wouldest thou more?” St. John Chrysostom, Homily 76 on the Gospel of Matthew (PG 58. 700).

47  “‘The end of the world’ signifies not the annihilation of the world, but its transformation. Everything will be transformed suddenly, in the twinkling of an eye…. And the Lord will appear in glory on the clouds. Trumpets will sound, and loud, with power! They will sound in the soul and conscience! All will become clear to the human conscience. The Prophet Daniel, speaking of the Last Judgment, relates how the Ancient of Days, the Judge, sits on His throne, and before Him is a fiery stream (Dan. 7:9-10). Fire is a purifying element; it burns sins. Woe to a man if sin has become a part of his nature: then the fire will burn the man himself. This fire will be kindled within a man; seeing the Cross, some will rejoice, but others will fall into confusion, terror, and despair. Thus will men be divided instantly. The very state of a man’s soul casts him to one side or the other, to right or to left.

    “The more consciously and persistently a man strives toward God in his life, the greater will be his joy when he hears: ‘Come unto Me, ye blessed.’ And conversely: the same words will call the fire of horror and torture on those who did not desire Him, who fled and fought or blasphemed Him during their lifetime!

    “The Last Judgment knows of no witnesses or written protocols! Everything is inscribed in the souls of men and these records, these ‘books’, are opened at the Judgment. Everything becomes clear to all and to oneself.

    “And some will go to joy, while others — to horror.

    “When ‘the books are opened,’ it will become clear that the roots of all vices lie in the human soul. Here is a drunkard or a lecher: when the body has died, some may think that sin is dead too. No! There was an inclination to sin in the soul, and that sin was sweet to the soul, and if the soul has not repented of the sin and has not freed itself from it, it will come to the Last Judgment also with the same desire for sin. It will never satisfy that desire and in that soul there will be the suffering of hatred. It will accuse everyone and everything in its tortured condition, it will hate everyone and everything. ‘There will be gnashing of teeth’ of powerless malice and the unquenchable fire of hatred.

    “A ‘fiery gehenna’ — such is the inner fire. ‘Here there will be wailing and gnashing of teeth.’ Such is the state of hell.” Archbishop John Maximovitch, “The Last Judgment,” Orthodox Word (November- December, 1966): 177-78.

Global Cooling

The following is a reprint of an article I published back in December. Thought I’d offer it again. The reference to “Global Cooling” is a play on Kalomiros’ description of the coldness of the modern heart.

I have been listening to a tape of the talk, “The River of Fire,” given by Dr. Alexander Kalomiros in 1980. By now it has become a very frequently cited and discussed document within the modern Orthodox world. Despite the occasional stridency of its tone, I cannot mkae myself disagree with its conclusions. The following is from the opening remarks of the talk – and speak eloquently of the “Christian Atheism” I have written about elsewhere. The greatest enemy of the Christian faith is the distortion of the Christian faith. Orthodox Christians can have no greater task than to live and teach in accordance with the truth – without this the human heart will continue to grow cold – as it turns away from the caricatures of God so often portrayed in our modern world. May God give us grace. The full text of the talk may be found here.

There is no doubt that we are living in the age of apostasy predicted for the last days. In practice, most people are atheists, although many of them theoretically still believe. Indifference and the spirit of this world prevail everywhere.

What is the reason for this state?

The reason is the cooling of love. Love for God no more burns in human hearts, and in consequence, love between us is dead, too.

What is the cause of this waning of men’s love for God? The answer, certainly, is sin. Sin is the dark cloud which does not permit God’s light to reach our eyes.

But sin always did exist. So how did we arrive at the point of not simply ignoring God, but of actually hating Him? Man’s attitude toward God today is not really ignorance, or really indifference. If you examine men carefully you will notice that their ignorance or indifference is tainted by a deep hate. But nobody hates anything that does not exist.

I have the suspicion that men today believe in God more than at any other time in human history. Men know the gospel, the teaching of the Church, and God’s creation better than at any other time. They have a profound consciousness of His existence. Their atheism is not a real disbelief. It is rather an aversion toward somebody we know very well but whom we hate with all our heart, exactly as the demons do.

We hate God, that is why we ignore Him, overlooking Him as if we did not see Him, and pretending to be atheists. In reality we consider Him our enemy par excellence. Our negation is our vengeance, our atheism is our revenge.

But why do men hate God? They hate Him not only because their deeds are dark while God is light, but also because they consider Him as a menace, as an imminent and eternal danger, as an adversary in court, as an opponent at law, as a public prosecutor and an eternal persecutor. To them, God is no more the almighty physician who came to save them from illness and death, but rather a cruel judge and a vengeful inquisitor.

You see, the devil managed to make men believe that God does not really love us, that He really only loves Himself, and that He accepts us only if we behave as He wants us to behave; that He hates us if we do not behave as He ordered us to behave, and is offended by our insubordination to such a degree that we must pay for it by eternal tortures, created by Him for that purpose. Who can love a torturer? Even those who try hard to save themselves from the wrath of God cannot really love Him. They love only themselves, trying to escape God’s vengeance and to achieve eternal bliss by managing to please this fearsome and extremely dangerous Creator. Do you perceive the devil’s slander of our all-loving, all-kind, and absolutely good God? That is why in Greek the devil was given the name of diabolos, “the slanderer.”

The Passion to Consume – Revisited

This article first appeared last March. It seems to bear reprinting at least for a fuller discussion of the passions.

I have mentioned the role that the passions play in our consumer culture. I would like to write in greater depth about that phenomenon. It permeates our culture – and yet, strangely, I do not find it to be a dominant concern of people when they think about their sins or when they think of our culture and its sins. In that sense it reminds me of a study I did several years ago on the subject of envy, a passion which many of the Fathers of the Church thought was the “original sin,” but in my recollection had never been the subject of a sermon that I had ever given or heard. I preached the first of my sermons on the topic following that and have included that passion much more thoroughly in my map of the human heart than I once did. The same should be true of the passions that work in our consumerist culture.

I should say at the first that I am not opposed to shopping, or buying or owning things. I live in a house that I’m buying with furniture and furnishings like most of America. I went through a 2 or 3 year phase of communal living in my early twenties – so that I know what it is to consciously opt out of the consumer culture. But since my marriage in 1975, that has not been my way of living.

To say that I am not opposed to shopping, etc., is also to confess that I am not immune to the passions that come into play in our consumerism. I know what it is to want what I can’t have. I know what it is to abuse a credit card on an impulse purchase. Some years ago (many years ago now, I realize) when I was a “tie-wearing” man (priest in cassocks don’t wear ties), I remember wondering how ties that had once seemed so fashionable (think of the really wide ties of the early 70’s) overnight seemed so terrible (think skinny ties of the 1980’s). The question that came to my mind was, “When did I ever make a decision about how a tie actually looks – how wide it should be, etc.?” The answer, of course, is that I never did make such a decision. Those decisions were made in fashion houses miles from me and in the marketing departments of the fashion industry. What disturbed me then (and now) was that it was clearly the case that “how I saw the world” (at least as measured by ties) had nothing to do with reason, decision, preference, etc. It was “planted in my brain” to quote Paul Simon, and I never noticed the operation.

The question that followed was, “How many other things are there in our world-view, that exist within us through the same process?” The answer, of course, is, “Far more than we know.”

To be fully human does not include becoming a passive receptacle to marketing forces (ideas are as marketable as ties). To be a person of virtue includes not being a slave to any of the passions. Struggling with the passions (greed, envy, lust, gluttony, etc.) is an everyday struggle for Christians and should be part of the agenda of every Christian who intends to be obedient to Scripture.

Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. On account of these the wrath of God is coming. In these you once walked, when you lived in them. But now put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and foul talk from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old nature with its practices and have put on the new nature, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator (Colossians 3:5).

The list of the passions is not exhausted in St. Paul’s admonition. But we are commanded to join the battle. The passions are inherently strong in every human being. To a degree, some are completely natural and have a proper place within us. Hunger is natural and necessary. Gluttony is hunger in a disordered form. Sexual desire has its proper place as well as its disordered form.

Many human cultures, particularly those in which Christian spiritual teaching had a dominant role, actively sought to discourage the reign of the passions. There are certainly failures and even coercive nightmares to be recounted in that history – but few ages have lived as we do now in which the passions are actively used as a means to maintain the very affluence of the culture.

From time to time the masters of the media will decide to promote something they decide is virtuous. You can hardly watch a children’s show today that is not at the same time a propaganda piece for environmentalism. Perhaps that is a good thing. I make no judgement. Lip-service is paid to “less violence” but it remains. Children are sexualized at earlier and earlier ages.

I recall an event in my family from years ago. Two of my children were watching Saturday morning television. I sat quietly behind them and during one of the more tantalizing commercials I whispered: “All they want is your money.” I thought I was being very subtle and helpful. One child heard my warning and reeled in abhorrence as she saw the truth of it. The other smiled at me and said, “How much?” We’re all wired differently when it comes to the struggle with the passions. But the struggle remains.

We are at a great disadvantage today – for we are all being studied like lab rats. Research groups are wiring us up and testing even the speeches of politicians so that what we are being told about our civic life is itself shaped to our passions. Can freedom survive in such a setting? Or what kind of freedom is it that we have in such a setting? It is little wonder that political passions run as strongly as they do and that we are so divided. That’s just the problem: they are political passions.

Christ has come to set us free and to change us into the likeness of His image – to make us fully human and united to God. Slavery to the passions is not part of the plan. The Church must be a place where this struggle is taught and nurtured. It is the last place where the passions should be manipulated and used for any end.

I add this short technical note on the passions from Dmitru Staniloae’s Orthodox Spirituality:

The objects which the passions look for can’t satisfy them because objects are finite and as such don’t correspond to the unlimited thirst of the passions. Or as St. Maximus puts it, the passionate person finds himself in a continuous preoccupation with nothing; he tries to appease his infinite thirst with the nothingness of his passions, and the objects which is gobbling up become nothing, by their very nature. In fact, a passion by its very nature searches for objects, and it seeks them only because they can be completely under the control of the ego, and at its mercy. But objects by nature are finite, both as sources of satisfaction and in regard to duration; they pass easily into nonexistence, by consumption. Even thwn the passion also needs the human person in order to be satisfied, it likewise, reduces him or her to an object, or sees and uses only the objective side; the unfathomable depths hidden in the subjective side escape him.

Either we believe in a good God who is working good for His world, or we don’t. Either we turn ourselves towards the infinite God who alone can fill the infinite need of our soul or we perish. I am not surprised by the actions of unbelievers. As Dostoevsky said, “If there is no God, all things are permitted.” But if there is a God (and there is), then some things are not permitted. A Christian should know the difference.

Orthodoxy and the Apocalypse

And Christ said unto them, “It is not for you to know the times or the seasons, which the Father hath put in his own power” (Acts 1:7)

We live in difficult times, and for some of us the times are more difficult than others. We also live in a culture of apocalypticism, in which numerous movies, made from many angles, use imagery drawn from one Christian corner or another to create excitement and horror.

We live in a time when the headlines of the media themselves seem apocalyptic. There are always “wars and rumors of wars,” unspeakable crimes against children, sometimes even perpetrated by their parents.

We live in a time when the “hearts of many have grown cold.” In some cultures the Church is not only disdained but openly hated (this has not yet manifested itself so much in America as in certain places within the world where open assaults on Christianity are more tolerated within the culture). Often this hatred is driven by the Church’s uncompromising stand on certain moral issues and its renewed witness in certain parts of the world.

And yet, all of these events added together do not make for the time of the Apocalypse. Though it is always true that every day brings the end of history nearer to us, Christians are not bidden to live as the prisoners of history. Rather, having been translated from this world “into the Kingdom of His dear Son” (Colossians 1:13), we have transcended the prison of history and live increasingly in the freedom of the age to come. Every sacrament of the Church, and the Church herself, is a participation in the age to come. Thus the gates of hell cannot prevail against the Church because in Christ, we have already prevailed against those gates ourselves. Pascha cannot be undone.

Having said this, we cannot make the culture to cease its efforts to sell Christians fear and to market the Apocalypse like any other horror genre.

We are assured in Scripture that:

But ye, brethren, are not in darkness, that that day should overtake you as a thief. Ye are all the children of light, and the children of the day: we are not of the night, nor of darkness. Therefore let us not sleep, as do others; but let us watch and be sober. For they that sleep sleep in the night; and they that be drunken are drunken in the night. But let us, who are of the day, be sober, putting on the breastplate of faith and love; and for an helmet, the hope of salvation. For God hath not appointed us to wrath, but to obtain salvation by our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Thess. 5:1-9)…

Modern evangelical tradition has taken this verse as an excuse to support its morbid fascination with constant wrangling over the meaning of various Biblical prophecies, with the idea that we are not overtaken as theives in the coming of our Lord, because we have grasped some rational scheme of Biblical interpretation.

In truth, we are not overtaken as theives because we are children of the light and children of the day – that is we already to an extent live in the age to come. It is only the light of that Day that can illumine in us the reality of its coming, which is why we may arm ourselves with faith and love and the hope of salvation, being assured by the brightness of that Day which shines in our hearts that God has not appointed us to wrath.

These things are spiritually (noetically) known and are not revealed by mere rationality.

None of us should be surprised when darkness behaves as darkness – what else can it do? There is a clear teaching in Scripture that darkness becomes even more dark as that Day approaches, but it only becomes more dark because the Light of Christ is drawing near. Darkness has no “darkness” of its own, only a hatred of the Light. The wrath of God is not a punishment sent on the world, but the world’s own fomenting of anger against the light, because its deeds are dark.

Thus we are cautioned in Scripture:

Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful; and let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near (Hebrews 10:23-25).

The connection between our meeting together and the Day drawing near is clear. The gathering (synaxis) of the Church is an eschatological moment – it belongs to the age to come. Where else would we rather be as that Day draws near, than standing in that Day itself? In the Light of Christ and the mystical banquet we stand far removed from the wrath of God, but rather yield ourselves to our only sure hope. We give ourselves to the perfect love which casts out fear.

Orthodoxy would do well to avoid the temptations set before us by the marketers of fear, no matter how well meaning they may be. We are not of the darkness but of the day, and we do not need to be afraid of the dark.

The Passion to Consume

selljesus.jpg

I have mentioned the role that the passions play in our consumer culture. I would like to write in greater depth about that phenomenon. It permeates our culture – and yet, strangely, I do not find it to be a dominant concern of people when they think about their sins or when they think of our culture and its sins. In that sense it reminds me of a study I did several years ago on the subject of envy, a passion which many of the Fathers of the Church thought was the “original sin,” but in my recollection had never been the subject of a sermon that I had ever given or heard. I preached the first of my sermons on the topic following that and have included that passion much more thoroughly in my map of the human heart than I once did. The same should be true of the passions that work in our consumerist culture.

I should say at the first that I am not opposed to shopping, or buying or owning things. I live in a house that I’m buying with furniture and furnishings like most of America. I went through a 2 or 3 year phase of communal living in my early twenties – so that I know what it is to consciously opt out of the consumer culture. But since my marriage in 1975, that has not been my way of living.

To say that I am not opposed to shopping, etc., is also to confess that I am not immune to the passions that come into play in our consumerism. I know what it is to want what I can’t have. I know what it is to abuse a credit card on an impulse purchase. Some years ago (many years ago now, I realize) when I was a “tie-wearing” man (priest in cassocks don’t wear ties), I remember wondering how ties that had once seemed so fashionable (think of the really wide ties of the early 70’s) overnight seemed so terrible (think skinny ties of the 1980’s). The question that came to my mind was, “When did I ever make a decision about how a tie actually looks – how wide it should be, etc.?” The answer, of course, is that I never did make such a decision. Those decisions were made in fashion houses miles from me and in the marketing departments of the fashion industry. What disturbed me then (and now) was that it was clearly the case that “how I saw the world” (at least as measured by ties) had nothing to do with reason, decision, preference, etc. It was “planted in my brain” to quote Paul Simon, and I never noticed the operation.

The question that followed was, “How many other things are there in our world-view, that exist within us through the same process?” The answer, of course, is, “Far more than we know.”

To be fully human does not include becoming a passive receptacle to marketing forces (ideas are as marketable as ties). To be a person of virtue includes not being a slave to any of the passions. Struggling with the passions (greed, envy, lust, gluttony, etc.) is an everyday struggle for Christians and should be part of the agenda of every Christian who intends to be obedient to Scripture.

Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. On account of these the wrath of God is coming. In these you once walked, when you lived in them. But now put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and foul talk from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old nature with its practices and have put on the new nature, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator (Colossians 3:5).

The list of the passions is not exhausted in St. Paul’s admonition. But we are commanded to join the battle. The passions are inherently strong in every human being. To a degree, some are completely natural and have a proper place within us. Hunger is natural and necessary. Gluttony is hunger in a disordered form. Sexual desire has its proper place as well as its disordered form.

Many human cultures, particularly those in which Christian spiritual teaching had a dominant role, actively sought to discourage the reign of the passions. There are certainly failures and even coercive nightmares to be recounted in that history – but few ages have lived as we do now in which the passions are actively used as a means to maintain the very affluence of the culture.

From time to time the masters of the media will decide to promote something they decide is virtuous. You can hardly watch a children’s show today that is not at the same time a propaganda piece for environmentalism. Perhaps that is a good thing. I make no judgement. Lip-service is paid to “less violence” but it remains. Children are sexualized at earlier and earlier ages.

I recall an event in my family from years ago. Two of my children were watching Saturday morning television. I sat quietly behind them and during one of the more tantalizing commercials I whispered: “All they want is your money.” I thought I was being very subtle and helpful. One child heard my warning and reeled in abhorrence as she saw the truth of it. The other smiled at me and said, “How much?” We’re all wired differently when it comes to the struggle with the passions. But the struggle remains.

We are at a great disadvantage today – for we are all being studied like lab rats. Research groups are wiring us up and testing even the speeches of politicians so that what we are being told about our civic life is itself shaped to our passions. Can freedom survive in such a setting? Or what kind of freedom is it that we have in such a setting? It is little wonder that political passions run as strongly as they do and that we are so divided. That’s just the problem: they are political passions.

Christ has come to set us free and to change us into the likeness of His image – to make us fully human and united to God. Slavery to the passions is not part of the plan. The Church must be a place where this struggle is taught and nurtured. It is the last place where the passions should be manipulated and used for any end.

I add this short technical note on the passions from Dmitru Staniloae’s Orthodox Spirituality:

The objects which the passions look for can’t satisfy them because objects are finite and as such don’t correspond to the unlimited thirst of the passions. Or as St. Maximus puts it, the passionate person finds himself in a continuous preoccupation with nothing; he tries to appease his infinite thirst with the nothingness of his passions, and the objects which is gobbling up become nothing, by their very nature. In fact, a passion by its very nature searches for objects, and it seeks them only because they can be completely under the control of the ego, and at its mercy. But objects by nature are finite, both as sources of satisfaction and in regard to duration; they pass easily into nonexistence, by consumption. Even thwn the passion also needs the human person in order to be satisfied, it likewise, reduces him or her to an object, or sees and uses only the objective side; the unfathomable depths hidden in the subjective side escape him.

Either we believe in a good God who is working good for His world, or we don’t. Either we turn ourselves towards the infinite God who alone can fill the infinite need of our soul or we perish. I am not surprised by the actions of unbelievers. As Dostoevsky said, “If there is no God, all things are permitted.” But if there is a God (and there is), then some things are not permitted. A Christian should know the difference.

Modern Man and Coldness of Heart

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I have been listening to a tape of the talk, “The River of Fire,” given by Dr. Alexander Kalomiros in 1980. By now it has become a very frequently cited and discussed document within the modern Orthodox world. Despite the occasional stridency of its tone, I cannot mkae myself disagree with its conclusions. The following is from the opening remarks of the talk – and speak eloquently of the “Christian Atheism” I have written about elsewhere. The greatest enemy of the Christian faith is the distortion of the Christian faith. Orthodox Christians can have no greater task than to live and teach in accordance with the truth – without this the human heart will continue to grow cold – as it turns away from the caricatures of God so often portrayed in our modern world. May God give us grace. The full text of the talk may be found here.

There is no doubt that we are living in the age of apostasy predicted for the last days. In practice, most people are atheists, although many of them theoretically still believe. Indifference and the spirit of this world prevail everywhere.

What is the reason for this state?

The reason is the cooling of love. Love for God no more burns in human hearts, and in consequence, love between us is dead, too.

What is the cause of this waning of men’s love for God? The answer, certainly, is sin. Sin is the dark cloud which does not permit God’s light to reach our eyes.

But sin always did exist. So how did we arrive at the point of not simply ignoring God, but of actually hating Him? Man’s attitude toward God today is not really ignorance, or really indifference. If you examine men carefully you will notice that their ignorance or indifference is tainted by a deep hate. But nobody hates anything that does not exist.

I have the suspicion that men today believe in God more than at any other time in human history. Men know the gospel, the teaching of the Church, and God’s creation better than at any other time. They have a profound consciousness of His existence. Their atheism is not a real disbelief. It is rather an aversion toward somebody we know very well but whom we hate with all our heart, exactly as the demons do.

We hate God, that is why we ignore Him, overlooking Him as if we did not see Him, and pretending to be atheists. In reality we consider Him our enemy par excellence. Our negation is our vengeance, our atheism is our revenge.

But why do men hate God? They hate Him not only because their deeds are dark while God is light, but also because they consider Him as a menace, as an imminent and eternal danger, as an adversary in court, as an opponent at law, as a public prosecutor and an eternal persecutor. To them, God is no more the almighty physician who came to save them from illness and death, but rather a cruel judge and a vengeful inquisitor.

You see, the devil managed to make men believe that God does not really love us, that He really only loves Himself, and that He accepts us only if we behave as He wants us to behave; that He hates us if we do not behave as He ordered us to behave, and is offended by our insubordination to such a degree that we must pay for it by eternal tortures, created by Him for that purpose. Who can love a torturer? Even those who try hard to save themselves from the wrath of God cannot really love Him. They love only themselves, trying to escape God’s vengeance and to achieve eternal bliss by managing to please this fearsome and extremely dangerous Creator. Do you perceive the devil’s slander of our all-loving, all-kind, and absolutely good God? That is why in Greek the devil was given the name of diabolos, “the slanderer.”

What’s At Stake in the Atonement

One of the more common topics both on this blog and on a number of other Orthodox sites are questions about the Atonement. In general the Atonement refers to how it is we understand that Christ reconciled us to God. When we say, “Christ died for our sins,” what does it mean?

The questions of the Orthodox tend to center around the doctrine of the Substitutionary Atonement, which in conservative Evangelical circles is often made a touchstone of Christian orthodoxy. It is referenced in many Christian schools’ statement of faith – required of teachers and students on a par with the Resurrection of Christ.

Questions of the Atonement seem significant from a Protestant direction (in classical terms) based on Reformation debates with Roman Catholics. In those debates Protestants tended to hear Catholics say that there was something that could be added to the “merits” of Christ’s death – something that made His death on the cross less than sufficient. This is an historical argument. Generally Catholics did not mean what Protestants accused them of saying and neither group was interested in finding common ground. The purpose of debate was to prove the other wrong.

The ground shifted on Atonement doctrine during the 20th century when liberal Protestants began to question Atonement theory, in some cases making reference to Christ’s “death” where traditional texts had read “blood.” This was famously the case in some verses of the RSV translation of the Scriptures which was a translation sponsored by the National Council of Churches, and thus dominated by liberal Bible scholarship. Though the intention on the part of the translators was probably not to deny anything about the blood of Christ, the hue and cry of conservative Protestants was, “Nothing but the blood of Jesus!” (The same translation rendered the Greek hilasterion as expiation rather than propitiation, again alarming conservative Protestants that Christ’s atoning death was being denied.) 

Orthodoxy comes late to this entire discussion, having been completely absent at the Reformation, and not a party to the debates between liberal and conservative Protestants in the 20th century. The understanding of Christ’s atoning death developed in a very different manner in the Eastern Church. Untouched by the debates of the Reformation, alien to the metaphors that came to dominate in the Latin-Germanic West in the Middle Ages, the atonement never became a matter of debate or conciliar doctrine in the East. The language used in the prayers of the Liturgy were probably the most eloquent statements of Christ’s atoning death, but generally made no mention of the ideas found in the Substitionary model.

Today, those ideas have occasionally come under sharp attack from some Eastern Orthodox (Kalomiros’ River of Fire is probably the most commonly cited screed), though elements of the Substitutionary model can be found in a number of Orthodox prayers or catechisms of the more modern period. It can be argued that these examples are largely borrowings from Protestant writings rather than developments from within Orthodox patristic thought.

The clearest Orthodox complaint about Substitionary imagery is the role played within it by the Justice of God and the Wrath of God. In classical Substitionary doctrine, God’s justice is understood to have been offended by the sin of man (in Anselm it is not so much justice as “God’s honor.”) Indeed, God’s justice or honor is “infinitely” offended in most classical treatments. Thus, man is infinitely deserving of infinite punishment. However, God’s love responds with infinite mercy and, in Christ’s death on the cross, He offers His only Son as a substitute for man, Christ Himself bearing the burden of the wrath of God on behalf of all humanity. In accepting His substitution on our behalf (by faith) man comes into a saving relationship with God.

There is no Orthodox complaint with the mercy of God, nor with Christ’s death as God’s saving act for mankind. The primary complaint is with the imagery of God’s wrath being raised to the point of dogma – that is to a place where the whole turn of a central doctrine of the faith depends upon this image. Equally problematic is the language about God’s justice, which is frequently described as “requiring satisfaction.”

The Orthodox problem with these images is that they are just that: images. Orthodoxy teaches that, through Christ, we can know God, though God in His essence is unknowable. The mystery which surrounds God and even our knowledge of Him is essential in Orthodox understanding. There is always a warning within Orthodox theology when we speak very plainly about God – that we know only what God has made known to us – and though we know Him, that knowledge is itself frequently a mystery – something that cannot be expressed sufficiently in words.

Thus to speak of God’s wrath (as the Scriptures certainly do) is not to say that God is angry in any way comparable to the anger of man. To speak of God’s wrath is a theological statement about the rupture in our relationship with Him and should not be confused with a statement about how God feels. Much use of the imagery of wrath in modern conservative Protestantism is often used in this literal manner, coming dangerously close (and in some cases crossing the line) of saying things about God that are simply untrue and deeply offensive. These literal uses give rise to caricature on the part of some (Monty Python comes quickly to mind) or rejection of God on the part of others (I have had conversations with many atheists and agnostics whose background was conservative Protestant and whose present rejection of God is primarily a rejection of the God of Wrath).

There are as well problems with speaking of God’s justice in terms that are all too human. St. Isaac of Syria famously remarks that “we know nothing of God’s justice, only His mercy.” His argument is drawn from examples such as the parable of the workers in the vineyard – those who begin work late in the day are paid the same as those who work all day. There we see only God’s mercy, not His justice (the Saint says). That God is just is not a point of argument – what it means to say that God is just, however, remains largely a mystery. Anyone who claims to know what he means when he speaks of God’s justice is delusional.

Of course, raising such questions can sound like an echo of liberal Protestant attacks on Scripture and its reliability. Orthodox do not question the reliability of Scripture, only its misuse or misinterpretation. In general, Orthodoxy is uncomfortable with a dogma that seems new or foreign to its own continual usage. If it is central then why does it find no place in the Creeds or the Councils?

Of course, Orthodoxy did not face the same opponents as the West has had within its own internal life. Conservative Protestants, having been wearied by the constant shifts and changes and chimeric positions of liberal Protestants, are justifiably cautious when things that seem so certain for them are questioned by anyone.

A proper Orthodox answer is probably not to “come out fighting,” but to reassure that Orthodoxy has never wavered on the atoning death of Christ, nor questioned that His blood was shed for us, nor that He is the only way to the Father. The language of Orthodoxy has been shaped in the crucible of the great doctrinal debates surrounding the Trinity and the Doctrine of Christ – as well as within the spiritual world of apophatic theology, in which great care is taken not to assert of God what cannot be asserted. This language and this world have preserved a spiritual Tradition that has not wandered from the Truth nor lost its mooring in the reality of God. Conservative Protestants can be understood in their anxieties, but their anxieties cannot be justified in the face of Orthodox faithfulness.

Orthodox questions about Substitionary Atonement language and imagery are a worthy discussion for Protestants. It is the voice of Christian Tradition, rooted in the Fathers that calls for carefulness when speaking of God and circumspection when asserting something as dogma. Orthodoxy is no stranger to dogma and holds it in the highest regard (you can’t imagine), but just so, it questions a dogma when it cannot find it within its own two-thousand year history of councils and canons. Those questions should give pause to any Christian of good will.

Being Saved – The Ontological Approach

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I cannot begin to count the number of times I wished there were a simple, felicitous word for “ontological.” I dislike writing theology with words that have to be explained – that is, words whose meanings are not immediately obvious. But, alas, I have found no substitute and will, therefore, beg my reader’s indulgence for dragging such a word into our conversations.

From the earliest times in the Church, but especially beginning with St. Athanasius in the 4th century as the great Ecumenical Councils took shape, the doctrines of the Church have been expressed and debated within the terms related to being itself. For example, St. Athanasius says that in creating us, God gave us “being” (existence), with a view that we should move towards “well-being,” and with the end of “eternal being” (salvation). That three-fold scheme is a very common theme in patristic thought, championed and used again in the work of St. Maximus the Confessor with great precision, as he matured the thought of the Church as affirmed in the 5th Council.

At the same time, this language of being was used to speak about the nature and character of salvation, the same terms and imagery were being used to speak about the Trinity and the two natures of Christ. That language continues up through the Seventh Council and is the language used to define the doctrine of the veneration of the Holy Icons. Conciliar thought, carried on within the terms of being (being, non-being, nature, person, existence, hypostatic representation, essence, energies, etc.) can be described as speaking in the language of “ontology.” Ontology is the technical name for things having to do with being (“onto” as a prefix in Greek means “being”). There is a “seamless garment” of theological exposition that can be discerned across the range of the Councils. It is ontological in character.

Tremendous work and discussion on the part of the fathers resulted in a common language for speaking about all of these questions. Thus, the term “person” (an aspect of “being”) is used both for speaking about the Trinity as well as speaking about human persons and the one person of Christ in two natures. It is the primary “grammar” of Orthodox conciliar thought. No other imagery or language receives the kind of imprimatur as the terms raised up into the formal declarations of the Church’s teaching. To a degree, everything else is commentary.

Many other images have been used alongside the ontological work of the Councils. The Church teaches and a good teacher draws on anything at hand to enlighten its students. Nevertheless, the dogmatic language of the Church has been that of “being.”

So what constitutes an “ontological” approach to salvation?

Here is an example. “Morality” is a word and concept that applies to behavior and an adherence to rules and laws. “Immorality” is the breaking of those laws. You can write about sin (and thus salvation) in the language of morality and never make reference to the language of being. But what is created becomes a sort of separate thing from the conciliar language of the Church. Over the centuries, this has often happened in theology, particularly Western theology (Protestant and Catholic). The result is various “departments” of thought, without a common connection. It can lead to confusion and contradiction.

There is within Orthodoxy, an argument that says we are on the strongest ground when we speak in the language of the Councils. The language of “being” comes closer to accurately expressing what is actually taking place. Though all language has a “metaphoric” character, the language of being is, I think, the least metaphorical. It is about “what is.”

Back to the imagery of morality. If you speak of right and wrong in terms of being, it is generally expressed as either moving towards the path of well-being-eternal-being, or moving away from it, that is, taking a path towards non-being. What does the path of non-being look like? It looks like disintegration, a progressive “falling apart” of existence. The New Testament uses the term phthora (“corruption”) to describe this. Phthora is what happens to a body when it dies. Death, in the New Testament, is often linked to sin (“sin and death”). It is the result of moving away from God, destroying our communion with Him.

For most modern people, death is seen as simply a fact of life, a morally neutral thing. It can’t be a moral question, we think, because you can’t help dying. But, in the New Testament and the Scriptures, death is quite synonymous with sin. When Adam and Eve sin, they are told that it will result in death (a very ontological problem). A moral approach to that fact tends to see “sin” as the defining term and death as merely the punishment. The ontological approach sees death itself as the issue and the term that defines the meaning of sin. Sin is death. Death is sin.

And so, the language of the Church emphasizes that Christ “trampled down death by death.” In the language of ontology, that simple statement says everything. “He trampled down death by death and upon those in the tombs bestowed life.” This includes the destruction of sin, freedom from the devil, forgiveness of sins, etc. But all of those things are included in the words of “death” and “life.”

An advantage in speaking in this manner can again be seen in comparing it to a simple moral approach. Morality is about actions, obedience, and disobedience. It says nothing about the person actually doing those things (or it can certainly avoid that topic). It can mislead people into thinking that being and existence are neutral sorts of things and that what matters is how we behave. This can be coupled with the modern heresy of secularism in which it is asserted that things have an existence apart from God, that the universe is just a “neutral no-man’s land.” The ontological approach denies this and affirms that God upholds everything in existence, moment by moment. It affirms that existence itself is a good thing and an expression of God’s goodness. It says as well that it is the purpose of all things that exist to be in communion with God and move towards eternal being. It is the fullness of salvation expressed in Romans 8:21-22.

Moral imagery also tends to see the world as disconnected. We are simply a collection of independent moral agents, being judged on our behavior. What I do is what I do, and what you do is what you do, and there is nothing particularly connected about any of it. The language of being is quite different. Everything in creation that exists shares in the commonality of created being. What happens to any one thing effects everything else. There is true communion at the very root of existence.

And it is this communion of being that the fathers use when they speak of Christ’s Incarnation and our salvation. When the Creed says, “Who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven and was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became man,” it is speaking about salvation. It does not say, “Who, in order to pay the penalty that was due…” Such language can be used and has been used, but it is not at the heart of the Conciliar words of the Church. It is not recited every Sunday.

So how does Christ save us in terms of being? In essence (no pun intended), He became what we were in order to make us what He is. He became man, entering and restoring the full communion which we had broken. The Lord and Giver of Life, the Author of our Being entered into dying humanity. He took our dying humanity on Himself and entered into the very depths of that death (“suffered death and was buried”). He then raised that same dying humanity into His own eternal life. This is our forgiveness of sins. If sin is death, then resurrection is forgiveness. Thus we sing at Pascha:

“Let us call brothers even those that hate us and forgive all by the resurrection.” That sentence only makes sense in terms of the ontological language in which it is written.

We do bad things (immoral things) because we have broken communion with God. “Sins” are the symptoms and signs of death, decay, corruption, and disintegration at work in the soul. If left unattended, it will drag us into the very depths of near non-being in what can properly be described as hell. This is reflected in the Psalm verse, “The dead do not praise the LORD, Nor any who go down into silence.” (Psa 115:17)

In Holy Baptism, we are asked, “Do you unite yourself to Christ?” This is the language of being and communion. St. Paul tells us that in Baptism we are united to Christ in His death and raised in the likeness of His resurrection. He then adds that we should “walk in newness of life.” That union with Christ and infusion of His Life creates a moral change that can be described in the language of being.

The unity of language, I believe, is very helpful and salutary. It is easy for modern believers, nurtured in the language of morality, to hear teachings about the Trinity and the two natures of Christ, etc., and think, “What has any of that got to do with my life?” That is a natural conclusion when salvation is expressed in a language that is separated from the language of the doctrinal foundations of the Church.

There are some who have pushed the moral language into the language of the Trinity, such that what is important is the Son’s propitiation of the Father’s wrath. Such terms find no place within the Conciliar thought of the Church and can (and have) created problems. It is not that such terms have no use nor that they have never been used by any of the Fathers at any time. But they have a long history of being misused and distorting and obscuring the foundational doctrines of the Church.

In my own life, I personally found the language of being, when applied to my salvation, to explain the meaning of Scripture more thoroughly and connect my daily life and actions to the most fundamental doctrines of the Church. It allowed me to read St. Athanasius, St. Basil, St. Gregory, St. Maximus and a host of others without feeling that I had come to something foreign. It more than adequately addresses moral questions, whereas moral language cannot address anything else and creates problems and heresies when it is imported into the language of the Trinity. I should add that I have worked within this for nearly 30 years and have found nothing within Scripture than cannot be understood within the ontological understanding and that doing so frequently takes you deeper into understanding what is actually going on. It also forces you to ask the questions of “how does this relate to everything else?”

I hope this little introductory train of thought is helpful for those who are thinking about these things. It should explain why I see this as important and something that goes to the very heart of the Orthodox faith.

With Envy and Justice for All

evil_eye_by_vintagexxrose-d5fxqy8We use many words and concepts in our daily lives without bothering to consider their true content. In my experience, few words are less examined than “justice.” It is a word that is foundational in the modern world with deep roots in religious tradition. Most people would agree that the desire for justice is virtually innate in human beings. However, it has a dark side of which very few seem to be aware.

In the religious tradition, justice is usually grounded within God Himself. Some associate this justice with God’s demand for right conduct from His creation. There is also the sense that justice has a way of “balancing the scales.” An evil done brings an evil reward (punishment) while good brings blessings. In theory, at least, justice plays a role in the legal systems of almost all cultures. We desire to make things right.

Or so we tell ourselves.

There is a darker desire that masks itself as justice – and I would contend that it is this desire that most people experience when they speak of justice. It’s name is envy.

Envy is not the desire to have what someone else has – that desire is named covetousness. Envy is the desire we have for the other to “get what’s coming to him.” It does not mean that things will, in fact, be made right. But there is a feeling that wants the other to suffer, to be deprived, to be shamed, to be punished, to be plundered or suffer loss. All of these things are the work of envy.

In the Tradition, envy is considered by some to be the primary sin. The Scriptures say that Christ was put to death on account of envy (Matt. 27:18).

Envy is also associated with what is popularly called the “evil eye.” Though many of the things associated with the “evil eye” are purely superstitious, the evil eye itself is quite real. It is referenced by Christ Himself (Matt. 6:23). Pagan cultures of antiquity believed that the eye emitted something like “rays” or “influence.” Thus a wrong look could cause harm to another. This was rejected by Christianity and Judaism. Christ describes the eye as something which “receives” rather than “projects.” Thus the “evil eye” does its primary harm to the one who is doing the looking. Nevertheless the envy of others is quite dangerous and we do well to pray for protection.

Our instinct for equality (even children complain when someone is not sharing) is easily translated into envy. We no longer look for equality. If you will not share with me, then I will at least be satisfied if what you have is taken away from you.

In the course of our day we see the world through this lens of envy. Someone annoys us and we quietly, even secretly wish them harm. A pro-football player makes public remarks that seem arrogant. We quietly think that it would be quite fitting if he would fail in his game and be shamed before all.

This desire for the failure and shaming of others, however, is often interpreted as “justice.” When we say that someone has gotten what they deserve – we perceive this as justice and we do not see ourselves as doing anything wrong in having such thoughts.

Here is the full quote of Christ regarding the evil eye is worth noting:

The lamp of the body is the eye. If therefore your eye is good, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eye is bad [ἐὰν δὲ ὁ ὀφθαλμός σου πονηρὸς ᾖ], your whole body will be full of darkness. If therefore the light that is in you is darkness, how great is that darkness! (Mat 6:22-23 NKJ)

How we see the other is essential. The only manner of seeing the world that is commanded by God is to see the world with blessing. Everything else is born of sin. And sin, when properly understood, is not about the breaking of rules and legal or moral debt. It is always about death – our own death – physical and spiritual.

When we see the other as the object of our desire (other than the desire for blessing) that desiring quickly becomes envy. We want them to get what they deserve. We want them to do what pleases us. Even our desire for others “to behave” is frequently still a form of envy. And these desires darken the eye. They harden our hearts.

The eye is the “lamp of the body.” The look of envy darkens the soul and makes true discernment impossible. It is in this lack of discernment that people fall into the delusion of “justice.”

Those who call for the “justice” (or “wrath” etc.) of God to fall on others only succeed in darkening their own eye. I have noted that few in our culture refrain from such pronouncements – they differ only in the nature of the crimes for which they call for justice to fall.

The path to the light is difficult. We refrain from judging not simply because it’s “wrong.” We refrain from judging because it darkens our very soul. I would suggest as well, that Christians who ground their view of our relationship with God in ideas of justice to seriously reconsider. It is a theological pathway that will darken the soul. Rather than revealing the true and living God, it will distort our understanding.

In the words of St. Isaac of Syria: “We know nothing of God’s justice.”

 

The Sins of a Nation

Can a nation ever sin? If so, how can it be forgiven?

The stories and prophetic writings of the Old Testament are replete with examples of national sin. There are certainly stories of God dealing with individuals, but, on the whole, His attention seems to be directed to Israel and other nations as a whole. The promises and pledges are made to a collective people and the chastisement falls on the whole nation as well. Our modern sensibilities, rooted in a fundamental commitment to individualism, recoil from this collective treatment. And we are not the first to complain.

In Genesis 18, Abraham argues with God about the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. The Lord has threatened to destroy the cities on account of their sins. Abraham raises the troubling question:

“Would You also destroy the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there were fifty righteous within the city; would You also destroy the place and not spare it for the fifty righteous that were in it? Far be it from You to do such a thing as this, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous should be as the wicked; far be it from You! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Gen 18:23-25)

Thus, this question has had a prominent place in the thoughts of the faithful since the very beginning. In Abraham’s conversation with God, he asks if God would spare those cities even if only fifty righteous were found. God agrees. With continued pleading, Abraham takes the the number down to 10 righteous (and stops). And the Lord says that He would spare the cities for the sake of just 10. Alas, less than ten were found. But we do not upbraid God that He was willing to spare the unrighteous for the sake of a mere handful.

There is a mystery contained within the entire exercise of that conversation. For the truth is, none of us stands alone. No one stands free of the actions of others. Our lives are deeply connected. We are ourselves the offspring of many generations, and we carry within us ever so much that was not of our own choosing. Our inheritance is tainted – both for good and for ill.

Fr. Thomas Hopko describes some of this as “generational” sin. To understand this requires that we remember that sin is not a legal problem. It is not about what is fair or unfair. It is about a mystical burden that we experience as debt, hindrance, oppositional weight, weakness, brokenness and corruption, or just the starting place of our lives. Virtually everything in our lives is gifted to us, and there are many “gifts” that we would prefer never to have received. It is part of our incarnational existence. We are the offspring of others. To have an embodied existence in space and time is to have a body burdened with the DNA of eons and a family and culture that is both the product and carrier of history. Our own existence is a consequence of everything that has come before us. We cannot rightly suggest that such a contingent existence comes free.

Of course, many historical burdens become the targets of political attention. No human being, no ethnic or national group is without sin. Some sins are more recent and obvious than others. But our accusers can never plead innocence. Acknowledging this does nothing to remove our burdens.

In the 20th century, there have been some notable national crimes that have, in some way, been acknowledged. Japan renounced its military in response to the atrocities and errors of the Second World War. Germany paid reparations to Israel and enacted numerous laws renouncing and restricting the scourge of Nazism. Many war criminals were punished. The Russian government, with no outside political pressure, not only acknowledged many of the crimes of its Communist past, but also built memorials and rebuilt churches (often returning properties that had been taken away) in an effort of public repentance.

It has rightly been noted that “history is written by the victors.” It is therefore the case that we more easily repent for the sins of history’s vanquished and leave the writing to the victorious. But the burden of sin as historical reality remains. Unaddressed, the sins of the past become the problems of the present. Many of the most enduring conflicts in the modern world represent centuries of unresolved issues and the inherited burden of our ancestral legacy.

Often the legacy of history is carried on in competing narratives. We do not always know or rightly remember the details of what happened, but we know all too well the emotional burden of its trauma. Hatred can be a very ancient thing.

And it is to trauma that I want to direct our attention. Trauma is a word for the damage we suffer in extreme circumstances. It can occur as a result of natural disaster, or war – any time and place in which we are endangered, injured, or exposed to terrible actions. People do not experience war and then walk away as though nothing had happened. The war stops outwardly, but it continues inwardly. This experience is as old as mankind itself. Trauma sometimes leaves people emotionally and even physically crippled.

Among ancient peoples, the trauma of life was met with liturgy – rituals, both public and private that sought to restore them to their right minds, to appease the wrath of the gods or the spirits of their enemies. The collective psyche of a whole people was set right through various actions and beliefs that worked to make peace and re-establish righteousness.

Modernity has very few such rituals. The secular state, presiding over competing and disparate groups has almost nothing to which it can appeal that serves as catharsis or repentance, or even thanksgiving. Sport (such as the Super Bowl) comes closest to public liturgy in modern America, but it serves nothing transcendent, nothing permanent. It cannot heal or speak to the needs of a nation.

The outcome of this lack is an inability for nations and often individuals to be healed of their trauma. The wounds of lost wars or historical sins remain unaddressed, erupting from time to time as renewed trauma in the national psyche.

Studying parish ministry in seminary, I was introduced to the phrase, “recurrent latent cycling.” It was meant to describe a struggle within the life of a parish that erupts periodically, that is, in fact, the same struggle. It might be around a new presenting issue – but it was still the same struggle. Healing the parish required a discernment of what was actually going on – to bring something that was latent into the light of day.

Nations (and individuals) who ignore their wounds and griefs do not leave them behind – they bring them forward and repeat their battles endlessly. Subsequent generations who never knew the first cause, become the unwitting bearers of the latent violence and destruction that they have inherited.

Though Orthodoxy does not generally use the term “original sin,” it doesn’t thereby deny the reality of the inherited burden of sin. The growing study of epigenetics would suggest that we may even inherit such burdens genetically.

The medicine we have received from Holy Tradition for this on-going sickness is repentance. Of course, it is very difficult for nations to repent, though there would easily be services for such in the Orthodox tradition. However, the shame associated with national or collective sin is often denied or retold in other ways. Without repentance, nations are doomed to relive, repeat or act out the bitterness of their trauma.

There is, of course, another way. It was first expressed in the prophetic words of the High Priest Caiaphas as he contemplated the Jesus problem:

“You know nothing at all, nor do you consider that it is expedient for us that one man should die for the people, and not that the whole nation should perish.” (Joh 11:49-50)

The death of Christ on the Cross becomes the public liturgy for the sin burden of Israel. Of course, He was the public liturgy for the sin burden of the whole world. But there was a principle articulated in His sacrifice – that one man could die for the whole. This is not a substitutionary legal event. Rather, it is the mystery of coinherence and koinonia. “He became what we are that we might become what He is,” the Fathers said. It has also been the knowledge of the Church that we are invited into that selfsame sacrifice. Buried into His death in Baptism, we are united to His very crucifixion. United with Him in the grave, we journey with Him into Hades, and there, brave souls make intercession for the sins of the whole world, and with Him set souls free. The Elder Sophrony describes such brave souls as Christ’s “friends.”

For at least as long as the days of Abraham, we have had intercessors who saved the cities and nations of the wicked. Their prayers were effective because they prayed in union with the one mediator and true advocate, Christ our God.

Abraham was God’s friend. As God visited with him, He said:

“Shall I hide from Abraham what I am doing, since Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him?” (Gen 18:17-18)

This is God’s inauguration of Abraham as an intercessor for the nations. The greatest friends of God have always taken up this same intercessory role. Through Christ and the prayers of our holy fathers, God preserves the world and saves the nations from the full brunt and weight of their history.

There are thus two kinds of people: those who are the weight of history, and those who join themselves to Christ in their repentance and bear the weight of history. This latter role is the true life of the Church and the heart of her who prays, “On behalf of all, and for all.”

To See Him Face to Face

 

“The self resides in the face.” – Psychological Theorist, Sylvan Tompkins

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There is a thread running throughout the Scriptures that can be described as a “theology of the face.” In the Old Testament we hear a frequent refrain of “before Thy face,” and similar expressions. There are prayers beseeching God not to “hide His face.” Very clearly in Exodus, God tells Moses that “no one may see my face and live.” In the New Testament, there is a clear shift. The accounts of Christ’s transfiguration describe His face as shining. St. Paul speaks of seeing God “in the face of Jesus Christ.” He also speaks of us gazing steadily on Christ “with unveiled faces.” Orthodox Christianity has a very particular understanding of the face, modeled in the holy icons. It is worth some thought and reflection.

In both Latin and Greek, the word translated as “person,” actually refers to the face, or a mask (as a depiction of the face). The face is not only our primary presentation to the world, and our primary means of relationship, it is also, somehow, that which is most definitively identified with our existence as persons. Developmental psychologists say that the face-to-face gazing of mother and child in the act of nursing is an essential building block in the development of personality and the ability to relate to others.

It should be of note that the Holy Icons are always depicted facing us, with some few, turned ever so slightly. Those “turned” faces are found on icons whose placement would have originally been on an iconostasis and are slightly turned so as to be acknowledging the Christ icon. The only figures portrayed in profile are Judas Iscariot and the demons (or those who are fulfilling those roles). In the art of the Renaissance, and subsequent, this treatment of the face disappears. The human figure is simply studied for itself, as art, the relational function of the icon having been forgotten.

The Orthodox understanding of salvation is reflected in this treatment of icons. St. Paul’s description of being transformed as we behold the face of Christ is an expression of true personhood. Our “face” becomes more properly what it should be as we behold the face of Christ. This “looking” is, to a degree, what we today would call a “relationship,” though, I think, it has more insight and import. “Relationship” has become a word that is almost completely vacuous, lacking in substance. I cringe these days when I hear conversations about our “relationship” with God.

With the face, and its implications for personhood, much more can be said. I cannot see the face of another without looking at them. To see your face, I must reveal my face. That face-to-face encounter is pretty much the deepest and oldest experience we have as human beings (first experienced with our mother in nursing). For the whole of our lives, our faces are the primary points of experience and reaction. We cannot truly know the other without encountering them face-to-face.

It is probably significant that art turned away from the face and toward the figure. The language of salvation as “not going to hell” or “going to heaven,” is, strangely, impersonal. The same is true of justification and the like. It easily sounds like a medical procedure, a treatment of the body (or worse).

Similar to the face is the treatment of names. In Revelation, the image of salvation is the giving of a new name. In the Old Testament, this same thing happens to Abram (Abraham) and Jacob (Israel). In their cases, a new name signals a change in them and a change in their status before God. By the same token, it has always struck me as deeply personal and touching that Christ sometimes had nicknames for his disciples: “Peter” (“Rock”) and “Boanerges” for James and John (the “Sons of Thunder”). I suspect there were others. In the Orthodox tradition, a child is named on the eighth day after birth, or, if later, at Baptism. The giving of a name at Baptism is also a very ancient part of Baptism in the West.

In these things, we must understand that we are “known.” We are known uniquely and not by reputation or reference. We are not in a category, nor are we the “objects” of God’s love. That we are being changed by beholding the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ suggests that we have to look at him – directly. This is very much part of the meaning of true communion.

Psychologists describe the bonding between mother and child in nursing (and face-to-face) as communion:

Identification begins as a visual process, but quickly becomes an internal imagery process, encompassing visual, auditory, and kinesthetic scenes. It is that universal scene of communion between mother and infant, accomplished through facial gazing in the midst of holding and rocking during breast or bottle feedings, that creates the infant’s sense of oceanic oneness or union. (Psychology of Shame, Kaufman, pg 31)

I was somewhat staggered to find such a theologically compatible statement in a work of technical psychology. Sometimes scientific observation is simply spot-on.

As we grow older, we never again gaze into the eyes of a person as we once did with our mothers. Lovers are often drawn to the eyes of the beloved, and find a measure of communion, but wounds and injuries eventually interrupt the initial innocence of such eyes. The same is at least as true with regard to God.

Regarding the face of God, there is this very telling passage in Revelation:

 And the kings of the earth, the great men, the rich men, the commanders, the mighty men, every slave and every free man, hid themselves in the caves and in the rocks of the mountains, and said to the mountains and rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of Him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb! (Rev. 6:16)

It is of note that Revelation does not simply speak of the wrath of the Lamb, nor merely of His presence. It is specifically a fear of His face. Our experience of the face is an experience of nakedness and vulnerability. On the positive side, the result is identification, communion and oneness. On the negative side, it is the pain of shame and the felt need to hide. I can think of nothing else in nature that so closely parallels and reveals the fundamental character of our relationship with God. Salvation is communion. Sin is an enduring shame.

It is into this existential/ontological reality of sin/shame that Christ enters in His Incarnation, suffering and death. The depths of hell are everlasting shame and yet, He doesn’t hesitate to enter there in order to rescue us. Christ’s rescue of Adam and Eve in Hades are a final echo of the encounter in the Garden. They hid in shame, but He came looking for them. Then, He covered them with the skins of animals, but now He covers them in the righteousness of the Lamb who was slain. Then they were expelled from Paradise; now they are restored. Then, they fled from before His face; now they behold Him face to face – and rejoice.

When I pray before the icon of Christ, I notice that His gaze never changes. He does not hide Himself from my shame – but He bids me return my gaze to His. Unashamed, painless. You can find paradise in those eyes!

 

Interceding for Sodom – The Sins of a Nation

abrahamxThis year, some will discuss/argue politics, and many will be lost in their anger. Whatever the outcome, the nation has reached a frightful point in its history. Many will shout and many will curse. But some few will stand before God and intercede for mercy. Will you join me and repent for America? You don’t have to be American. Abraham was not a citizen of Sodom or Gomorrah. 

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Can a nation ever sin? If so, how can it be forgiven?

The stories and prophetic writings of the Old Testament are replete with examples of national sin. There are certainly stories of God dealing with individuals, but, on the whole, His attention seems to be directed to Israel and other nations as a whole. The promises and pledges are made to a collective people and the chastisement falls on the whole nation as well. Our modern sensibilities, rooted in a fundamental commitment to individualism, recoil from this collective treatment. And we are not the first to complain.

In Genesis 18, Abraham argues with God about the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. The Lord has threatened to destroy the cities on account of their sins. Abraham raises the troubling question:

“Would You also destroy the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there were fifty righteous within the city; would You also destroy the place and not spare it for the fifty righteous that were in it? Far be it from You to do such a thing as this, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous should be as the wicked; far be it from You! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Gen 18:23-25)

Thus, this question has had a prominent place in the thoughts of the faithful since the very beginning. In Abraham’s conversation with God, he asks if God would spare those cities even if only fifty righteous were found. God agrees. With continued pleading, Abraham takes the the number down to 10 righteous (and stops). And the Lord says that He would spare the cities for the sake of just 10. Alas, less than ten were found. But we do not upbraid God that He was willing to spare the unrighteous for the sake of a mere handful.

There is a mystery contained within the entire exercise of that conversation. For the truth is, none of us stands alone. No one stands free of the actions of others. Our lives are deeply connected. We are ourselves the offspring of many generations, and we carry within us ever so much that was not of our own choosing. Our inheritance is tainted – both for good and for ill.

Fr. Thomas Hopko describes some of this as “generational” sin. To understand this requires that we remember that sin is not a legal problem. It is not about what is fair or unfair. It is about a mystical burden that we experience as debt, hindrance, oppositional weight, weakness, brokenness and corruption, or just the starting place of our lives. Virtually everything in our lives is gifted to us, and there are many “gifts” that we would prefer never to have received. It is part of our incarnational existence. We are the offspring of others. To have an embodied existence in space and time is to have a body burdened with the DNA of eons and a family and culture that is both the product and carrier of history. Our own existence is a consequence of everything that has come before us. We cannot rightly suggest that such a contingent existence comes free.

Of course, many historical burdens become the targets of political attention. No human being, no ethnic or national group is without sin. Some sins are more recent and obvious than others. But our accusers can never plead innocence. Acknowledging this does nothing to remove our burdens.

In the 20th century, there have been some notable national crimes that have, in some way, been acknowledged. Japan renounced its military in response to the atrocities and errors of the Second World War. Germany paid reparations to Israel and enacted numerous laws renouncing and restricting the scourge of Nazism. Many war criminals were punished. The Russian government, with no outside political pressure, not only acknowledged many of the crimes of its Communist past, but also built memorials and rebuilt churches (often returning properties that had been taken away) in an effort of public repentance.

It has rightly been noted that “history is written by the victors.” It is therefore the case that we more easily repent for the sins of history’s vanquished and leave the writing to the victorious. But the burden of sin as historical reality remains. Unaddressed, the sins of the past become the problems of the present. Many of the most enduring conflicts in the modern world represent centuries of unresolved issues and the inherited burden of our ancestral legacy.

Often the legacy of history is carried on in competing narratives. We do not always know or rightly remember the details of what happened, but we know all too well the emotional burden of its trauma. Hatred can be a very ancient thing.

And it is to trauma that I want to direct our attention. Trauma is a word for the damage we suffer in extreme circumstances. It can occur as a result of natural disaster, or war – any time and place in which we are endangered, injured, or exposed to terrible actions. People do not experience war and then walk away as though nothing had happened. The war stops outwardly, but it continues inwardly. This experience is as old as mankind itself. Trauma sometimes leaves people emotionally and even physically crippled.

Among ancient peoples, the trauma of life was met with liturgy – rituals, both public and private that sought to restore them to their right minds, to appease the wrath of the gods or the spirits of their enemies. The collective psyche of a whole people was set right through various actions and beliefs that worked to make peace and re-establish righteousness.

Modernity has very few such rituals. The secular state, presiding over competing and disparate groups has almost nothing to which it can appeal that serves as catharsis or repentance, or even thanksgiving. Sport (such as the Super Bowl) comes closest to public liturgy in modern America, but it serves nothing transcendent, nothing permanent. It cannot heal or speak to the needs of a nation.

The outcome of this lack is an inability for nations and often individuals to be healed of their trauma. The wounds of lost wars or historical sins remain unaddressed, erupting from time to time as renewed trauma in the national psyche.

Studying parish ministry in seminary, I was introduced to the phrase, “recurrent latent cycling.” It was meant to describe a struggle within the life of a parish that erupts periodically, that is, in fact, the same struggle. It might be around a new presenting issue – but it was still the same struggle. Healing the parish required a discernment of what was actually going on – to bring something that was latent into the light of day.

Nations (and individuals) who ignore their wounds and griefs do not leave them behind – they bring them forward and repeat their battles endlessly. Subsequent generations who never knew the first cause, become the unwitting bearers of the latent violence and destruction that they have inherited.

Though Orthodoxy does not generally use the term “original sin,” it doesn’t thereby deny the reality of the inherited burden of sin. The growing study of epigenetics would suggest that we may even inherit such burdens genetically.

The medicine we have received from Holy Tradition for this on-going sickness is repentance. Of course, it is very difficult for nations to repent, though there would easily be services for such in the Orthodox tradition. However, the shame associated with national or collective sin is often denied or retold in other ways. Without repentance, nations are doomed to relive, repeat or act out the bitterness of their trauma.

There is, of course, another way. It was first expressed in the prophetic words of the High Priest Caiaphas as he contemplated the Jesus problem:

“You know nothing at all, nor do you consider that it is expedient for us that one man should die for the people, and not that the whole nation should perish.” (Joh 11:49-50)

The death of Christ on the Cross becomes the public liturgy for the sin burden of Israel. Of course, He was the public liturgy for the sin burden of the whole world. But there was a principle articulated in His sacrifice – that one man could die for the whole. This is not a substitutionary legal event. Rather, it is the mystery of coinherence and koinonia. “He became what we are that we might become what He is,” the Fathers said. It has also been the knowledge of the Church that we are invited into that selfsame sacrifice. Buried into His death in Baptism, we are united to His very crucifixion. United with Him in the grave, we journey with Him into Hades, and there, brave souls make intercession for the sins of the whole world, and with Him set souls free. The Elder Sophrony describes such brave souls as Christ’s “friends.”

For at least as long as the days of Abraham, we have had intercessors who saved the cities and nations of the wicked. Their prayers were effective because they prayed in union with the one mediator and true advocate, Christ our God.

Abraham was God’s friend. As God visited with him, He said:

“Shall I hide from Abraham what I am doing, since Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him?” (Gen 18:17-18)

This is God’s inauguration of Abraham as an intercessor for the nations. The greatest friends of God have always taken up this same intercessory role. Through Christ and the prayers of our holy fathers, God preserves the world and saves the nations from the full brunt and weight of their history.

There are thus two kinds of people: those who are the weight of history, and those who join themselves to Christ in their repentance and bear the weight of history. This latter role is the true life of the Church and the heart of her who prays, “On behalf of all, and for all.”

Passionately Drunk

drunk-girls-passion-motivation-gets-you-started-ha1_2The Philokalia, that wonderful collection of writings by the fathers on prayer of the heart, has as its full title, The Philokalia of the Neptic Saints gathered from our Holy Theophoric Fathers, through which, by means of the philosophy of ascetic practice and contemplation, the intellect is purified, illumined, and made perfect. Little wonder it is known popularly as the Philokalia. That word, Philokalia, means “the love of beautiful things.” It is not a reference to expensive, decorative items, but to the things which are made beautiful by their union with God. All things are beautiful inasmuch as they are united to God, Who is Beauty itself.

Another important word in the title is the adjective, “Neptic” (νηπτικός). It has a variety of translations: sober, watchful, vigilant. It refers to those who, having their earthly senses purified, have become truly aware of God and dwell in Him. This title is especially used to describe the fathers of the Hesychast tradition in Orthodoxy, the tradition of ceaseless prayer and inner stillness associated with the monastic life.

To describe these fathers as “sober,” is very insightful. For our experience with the passions, the disordered desires of our body and soul, is often an experience of drunkenness.

For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk are drunk at night. But let us who are of the day be sober, putting on the breastplate of faith and love, and as a helmet the hope of salvation. For God did not appoint us to wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, that whether we wake or sleep, we should live together with Him (1 Thess. 5:7-10).

The man who is drunk is famously unaware of his surroundings. He stumbles physically, mentally and spiritually, barely aware of his own imbalance. The passions have the same ability to blind us. In anger we are aware primarily of our own anger. What we see, we see through the haze of the energy that pulses through our mind and body.

All of the passions have this property. They consume us and become the primary lens through which we see the world and with which we react. Thus we are described as in “delusion.” Those who see the world through their passions do not see the truth of things. They see their own passions.

There is a social aspect to the passions – they are not restricted to an individual’s experience. Whole societies, or significant segments within it, can be drunk with the same passions. Thus a whole society can be drunk with the passion of racism (a mixture of ignorance, superstition, fear, anger, etc.). Such a passion is reinforced by being repeatedly affirmed by those around us. Many aspects of culture are simply a communion of the passions.

We live in an age where the passions are carefully studied and used as the objects of marketing. Those things that are sold to us (even those that supposedly appeal to our intellect) are marketed to our passions. Apple computer famously researches the “feel” of its packaging, presenting a sensual experience that is associated with quality, precision and value. It is a successful strategy across the whole of our culture.

However, those who are “drunk” with the passions also yield themselves as victims to their intoxication. Political parties pour massive amounts of money into their campaigns simply to create and nurture the passions by which people vote. We are not governed by reason or informed decisions. Most of what you or I think about political subjects is a description of the passions to which we are enslaved. The political cynicism of many is, to a degree, a recognition of our disgust with the politics of passion.

By the same token, most of the opinions we nurture are equally the product of our passions. We think, we believe, we decide, we act largely in accord with the passions to which we are enthralled. Theological debates are generally arguments between one person’s passions and another’s. It is a conversation between drunks.

And so the Church values the holy, sober fathers. These are the men and women who have walked the narrow way of salvation, “putting to death the deeds of the body.” Inner stillness is the state of freedom from disordered passions. The neptic fathers do not cease to desire (they are not Buddhists). But their desires have been purified and healed – restored to proper order. Sobriety means desiring the right thing in the right way at the right time. Traditionally, this purification and healing come as a result of a life of repentance, fasting and prayer. It slays demons and heals the wounds of the soul. All things are brought into obedience to Christ.

It is the life that Scripture enjoins:

Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom he my devour. Rsist him, steadfast in the faith, knowing that the same sufferings are experienced by your brotherhood in the world (1 Peter 5:8-9).

There is a story in the desert fathers that illustrates such vigilance. A community of monks once heard a rumor that one of their number was harboring a woman in his cell. They went to the elder and complained. While they became yet more agitated, the elder slipped away to the cell of the erring monk. Finding the woman there, he hid her in a large earthen vessel. He placed the lid on the vessel and sat on it. Soon the angry monks arrived at the cell and began to search for the woman. Out of respect for the elder they overlooked the vessel on which he was sitting. Finding nothing, they apologized to the erring monk and left. The elder, rose from his seat and said to the monk, “Pay attention to yourself.”

It is a call to sobriety. The angry monks were drunk with their own self-righteousness. Their sin was at least as great as the erring monk. The elder alone was sober. His sobriety hid the sin of a man from those who would have harmed him, and revealed the sin to the one who needed to be healed. The word of healing was kind and without judgment. “Pay attention to yourself.” It is the simple word of St. Peter, “Be sober.”

For all of us, in every moment of the day with regard to all things and all people, it is good to pay proper attention to ourselves.

This prayer of St. Isaac of Syria, great among the neptic fathers, is one of my favorites:

I knock at the door of Thy compassion, Lord: send aid to my scattered impulses which are drunk with the multitude of the passions and the power of darkness.

Thou canst see my sores hidden within me: stir up contrition – though not corresponding to the weight of my sins, for if I receive full awareness of the extent of my sins, Lord, my soul would be consumed by the bitter pain from them.

Assist my feeble stirrings on the path to true repentance, and may I find relief from the vehemence of sins through the contrition that comes of Thy gift, for without the power of Thy grace I am quite unable to enter within myself, become aware of my stains, and so, at the sight of them, be able to be still from great distraction.

Being Saved – The Ontological Approach

angry-god

I cannot begin to count the number of times I wished there were a simple, felicitous word for “ontological.” I dislike writing theology with words that have to be explained – that is, words whose meanings are not immediately obvious. But, alas, I have found no substitute and will, therefore, beg my reader’s indulgence for dragging such a word into our conversations.

From the earliest times in the Church, but especially beginning with St. Athanasius in the 4th century as the great Ecumenical Councils took shape, the doctrines of the Church have been expressed and debated within the terms related to being itself. For example, St. Athanasius says that in creating us, God gave us “being” (existence), with a view that we should move towards “well-being,” and with the end of “eternal being” (salvation). That three-fold scheme is a very common theme in patristic thought, championed and used again in the work of St. Maximus the Confessor with great precision, as he matured the thought of the Church as affirmed in the 5th Council.

At the same time, this language of being was used to speak about the nature and character of salvation, the same terms and imagery were being used to speak about the Trinity and the two natures of Christ. That language continues up through the Seventh Council and is the language used to define the doctrine of the veneration of the Holy Icons. Conciliar thought, carried on within the terms of being (being, non-being, nature, person, existence, hypostatic representation, essence, energies, etc.) can be described as speaking in the language of “ontology.” Ontology is the technical name for things having to do with being (“onto” as a prefix in Greek means “being”). There is a “seamless garment” of theological exposition that can be discerned across the range of the Councils. It is ontological in character.

Tremendous work and discussion on the part of the fathers resulted in a common language for speaking about all of these questions. Thus, the term “person” (an aspect of “being”) is used both for speaking about the Trinity as well as speaking about human persons and the one person of Christ in two natures. It is the primary “grammar” of Orthodox conciliar thought. No other imagery or language receives the kind of imprimatur as the terms raised up into the formal declarations of the Church’s teaching. To a degree, everything else is commentary.

Many other images have been used alongside the ontological work of the Councils. The Church teaches and a good teacher draws on anything at hand to enlighten its students. Nevertheless, the dogmatic language of the Church has been that of “being.”

So what constitutes an “ontological” approach to salvation?

Here is an example. “Morality” is a word and concept that applies to behavior and an adherence to rules and laws. “Immorality” is the breaking of those laws. You can write about sin (and thus salvation) in the language of morality and never make reference to the language of being. But what is created becomes a sort of separate thing from the conciliar language of the Church. Over the centuries, this has often happened in theology, particularly Western theology (Protestant and Catholic). The result is various “departments” of thought, without a common connection. It can lead to confusion and contradiction.

There is within Orthodoxy, an argument that says we are on the strongest ground when we speak in the language of the Councils. The language of “being” comes closer to accurately expressing what is actually taking place. Though all language has a “metaphoric” character, the language of being is, I think, the least metaphorical. It is about “what is.”

Back to the imagery of morality. If you speak of right and wrong in terms of being, it is generally expressed as either moving towards the path of well-being-eternal-being, or moving away from it, that is, taking a path towards non-being. What does the path of non-being look like? It looks like disintegration, a progressive “falling apart” of existence. The New Testament uses the term phthora (“corruption”) to describe this. Phthora is what happens to a body when it dies. Death, in the New Testament, is often linked to sin (“sin and death”). It is the result of moving away from God, destroying our communion with Him.

For most modern people, death is seen as simply a fact of life, a morally neutral thing. It can’t be a moral question, we think, because you can’t help dying. But, in the New Testament and the Scriptures, death is quite synonymous with sin. When Adam and Eve sin, they are told that it will result in death (a very ontological problem). A moral approach to that fact tends to see “sin” as the defining term and death as merely the punishment. The ontological approach sees death itself as the issue and the term that defines the meaning of sin. Sin is death. Death is sin.

And so, the language of the Church emphasizes that Christ “trampled down death by death.” In the language of ontology, that simple statement says everything. “He trampled down death by death and upon those in the tombs bestowed life.” This includes the destruction of sin, freedom from the devil, forgiveness of sins, etc. But all of those things are included in the words of “death” and “life.”

An advantage in speaking in this manner can again be seen in comparing it to a simple moral approach. Morality is about actions, obedience, and disobedience. It says nothing about the person actually doing those things (or it can certainly avoid that topic). It can mislead people into thinking that being and existence are neutral sorts of things and that what matters is how we behave. This can be coupled with the modern heresy of secularism in which it is asserted that things have an existence apart from God, that the universe is just a “neutral no-man’s land.” The ontological approach denies this and affirms that God upholds everything in existence, moment by moment. It affirms that existence itself is a good thing and an expression of God’s goodness. It says as well that it is the purpose of all things that exist to be in communion with God and move towards eternal being. It is the fullness of salvation expressed in Romans 8:21-22.

Moral imagery also tends to see the world as disconnected. We are simply a collection of independent moral agents, being judged on our behavior. What I do is what I do, and what you do is what you do, and there is nothing particularly connected about any of it. The language of being is quite different. Everything in creation that exists shares in the commonality of created being. What happens to any one thing effects everything else. There is true communion at the very root of existence.

And it is this communion of being that the fathers use when they speak of Christ’s Incarnation and our salvation. When the Creed says, “Who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven and was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became man,” it is speaking about salvation. It does not say, “Who, in order to pay the penalty that was due…” Such language can be used and has been used, but it is not at the heart of the Conciliar words of the Church. It is not recited every Sunday.

So how does Christ save us in terms of being? In essence (no pun intended), He became what we were in order to make us what He is. He became man, entering and restoring the full communion which we had broken. The Lord and Giver of Life, the Author of our Being entered into dying humanity. He took our dying humanity on Himself and entered into the very depths of that death (“suffered death and was buried”). He then raised that same dying humanity into His own eternal life. This is our forgiveness of sins. If sin is death, then resurrection is forgiveness. Thus we sing at Pascha:

“Let us call brothers even those that hate us and forgive all by the resurrection.” That sentence only makes sense in terms of the ontological language in which it is written.

We do bad things (immoral things) because we have broken communion with God. “Sins” are the symptoms and signs of death, decay, corruption, and disintegration at work in the soul. If left unattended, it will drag us into the very depths of near non-being in what can properly be described as hell. This is reflected in the Psalm verse, “The dead do not praise the LORD, Nor any who go down into silence.” (Psa 115:17)

In Holy Baptism, we are asked, “Do you unite yourself to Christ?” This is the language of being and communion. St. Paul tells us that in Baptism we are united to Christ in His death and raised in the likeness of His resurrection. He then adds that we should “walk in newness of life.” That union with Christ and infusion of His Life creates a moral change that can be described in the language of being.

The unity of language, I believe, is very helpful and salutary. It is easy for modern believers, nurtured in the language of morality, to hear teachings about the Trinity and the two natures of Christ, etc., and think, “What has any of that got to do with my life?” That is a natural conclusion when salvation is expressed in a language that is separated from the language of the doctrinal foundations of the Church.

There are some who have pushed the moral language into the language of the Trinity, such that what is important is the Son’s propitiation of the Father’s wrath. Such terms find no place within the Conciliar thought of the Church and can (and have) created problems. It is not that such terms have no use nor that they have never been used by any of the Fathers at any time. But they have a long history of being misused and distorting and obscuring the foundational doctrines of the Church.

In my own life, I personally found the language of being, when applied to my salvation, to explain the meaning of Scripture more thoroughly and connect my daily life and actions to the most fundamental doctrines of the Church. It allowed me to read St. Athanasius, St. Basil, St. Gregory, St. Maximus and a host of others without feeling that I had come to something foreign. It more than adequately addresses moral questions, whereas moral language cannot address anything else and creates problems and heresies when it is imported into the language of the Trinity. I should add that I have worked within this for nearly 30 years and have found nothing within Scripture than cannot be understood within the ontological understanding and that doing so frequently takes you deeper into understanding what is actually going on. It also forces you to ask the questions of “how does this relate to everything else?”

I hope this little introductory train of thought is helpful for those who are thinking about these things. It should explain why I see this as important and something that goes to the very heart of the Orthodox faith.

Good News – Your Debt is Being Cancelled

BrokenChains-500x285Recent conversations on the blog have bounced around the imagery of debt in the Scriptures. Contemporary Protestant thought often likes to express the notion of a “sin debt.” The idea runs that God’s righteousness and justice have proper demands. When we fail to keep the commandments, we create a debt for which God’s justice demands payment. Christ’s innocent self-offering on the Cross is seen as the payment for that debt. This imagery is absent from Orthodox thought. Indeed, I believe it is absent from the New Testament itself. It is, instead, an image that was created apart from the Scriptures themselves (originating as an atonement theory), and has been read back into the Scriptures, repeatedly misconstruing the actual meaning of the text. This reading has been a dominant part of modern Evangelical thought, and has been mined and minted so thoroughly, that many within the Evangelical mainstream treat it as a touchstone of Christian orthodoxy. It is not only not Orthodox, it is not orthodox. It is a false teaching.

First, a few thoughts about atonement theory.

The atonement treats the question of how it is that Christ’s death and resurrection are “for us.” What is it about them that frees us from sin and reconciles us? The word “atonement,” is uniquely English. It is a hybrid word, consisting of  three words: “at-one-ment.” It is that understanding of what it is that makes us one with God. But, as a hybrid English word, it is not found in the Scriptures. The closest thing in the Scriptures might be the word “reconciliation” (καταλλαγή). One of my favorite renderings of “atonement” is the German “wiedergutmachung,” literally, “making good again.”

Atonement theory refers to the story and explanation of how it is we are reconciled. It necessarily includes a theory of the nature of sin and human responsibility. It also includes a theory of why God would want to reconcile us in the first place. In short, atonement theory is the story of what is wrong with us and how God fixes it. For a newcomer to this conversation, it might seem surprising that the answer to such a basic thing isn’t obvious or clearly covered somewhere in the Scriptures. The truth is that the entire New Testament could be seen as an extended presentation of atonement theory. However, a short, neat description is simply nowhere to be found. Instead, there are multiple references, describing or inferring a “back-story,” that more-or-less form a theory of the atonement.

The Eastern Church, which means the Church whose history was rooted in the early Roman and later Byzantine Empire, is often described as having never developed an atonement theory. Of course, the notion that the Church of the first thousand years of Christian history had no explanation how what was wrong with human beings and how God fixes it, is patently absurd. There were a number of images used in the writings of the fathers and the liturgical prayers of the Church. But no one of them came to utterly dominate. What was not present, however, was the notion that sin creates a debt with God or His justice that must be paid.

The word “debt” and its cognates (“debtor,” “owe,” etc.) is actually quite rare in the New Testament. It occurs in Matthew’s version of the Lord’s Prayer (“forgive us our debts”). It occurs in the parables where a servant’s debt is forgiven by his master. It also occurs (depending on the translation you use) in Galatians 5:3 (“For I testify again to every man that is circumcised, that he is a debtor to do the whole law” King James Version). However that verse is far more accurately and euphoniously translated: “For I testify again that every man who is circumcised is bound to do the whole law.” The concept of debt in that context would be extremely abstruse.

That’s it.

What is clear is that this almost no mention at all. The parable regarding debt is a classic use of the rabbinical kal vachomer (וחומר קל) argument, which is called the “light to heavy.” Its logic is simple: If this is the case, then how much more should this be the case. In the parables, a man is released from a massive debt, but refuses to let a tiny debt to someone else go. When his master, who had released him from the massive debt heard this, he was angry and had him thrown into prison. It is a straightforward teaching. If someone does you an enormous kindness, you should certainly not refuse to extend small kindnesses to others. The parable in no way establishes some primary story for interpreting the whole of the gospel message. To claim that it does is absurd, and an abuse of the parable.

If you were looking for images that shape a mature, overarching account of how God reconciles us to Himself, you would certainly look for something that has a presence beyond an unrelated parable and a badly translated verse. The historical fact is that the God-as-Creditor (penal substitution) theory of the atonement is not Scriptural. It was a theory put forward first (more or less) by Anselm around the year 1000. His version used Medieval feudalism as its basis (without any pretense of being a Scriptural model). Anselm said that God’s honor had been offended and had to be compensated. In the feudal world of Europe where honor was the basis of government and war, it was, perhaps, an unsurprising fiction. Anselm’s fiction, however, was gradually changed into the penal/substitution model of the Reformation, in which mankind’s sin creates an infinite debt to the righteous judgment of God, deserving of wrath. Christ bears the wrath of the Father as payment of the debt we owe. However, this is a development of Anselm’s theory, not a reading of Scripture. Worth noting that at the same time holding debt was being elevated by Protestant teaching to a Divine attribute, Protestant teachers and rulers were abolishing the condemnation on usury that had been in place since the earliest Christian tradition. Debt is Divine and good business!

There are a couple of concepts involving debt-like matters that are worth examining. In one, Christ says “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. (Joh 8:34). This concept or image is not isolated. We are not made debtors to God, but we are enslaved by Sin. It is common in the New Testament to see Sin treated as though it were a person. Sometimes it almost seems to be synonymous with the devil himself, though we should not draw that conclusion. But it is seen as an adversary, one who enslaves us. Many people, influenced by the moralistic teachings of contemporary Christianity, are puzzled by this description of sin. For them, sin is simply something we have done wrong. They do not see it as somehow separate from themselves. But it is (cf. “You Are Not Your Sin”). St. Paul distinguishes between himself and “sin that dwells in me” (Ro. 7).

This bondage or slavery to sin is also similar to language applied to the devil:

Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same nature, that through death he might destroy him who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage. (Heb 2:14-15 RSV)

St. Paul elsewhere says that the “wages of sin is death.”  St. Paul places sin, death, the devil, all in this category of that which holds us in bondage.

This collection, sin, death, the devil, is not the imagery of debt, per se. Rather, it is the category to which debt itself belongs. Debt is something that binds us. Debt is an evil thing that God sets clear boundaries around lest it destroy His people. And, as we shall see, it is something He abolishes (He doesn’t pay it. He abolishes it!).

There are other passages that use this imagery of bondage:

While we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death. But now we are discharged from the law, dead to that which held us captive (Rom 7:5-6).

The law is something from which we are discharged. And we accomplish this by dying. We die with Christ. St. Paul says, “He who has died is free from sin” (Ro. 6:7). St. Paul describes Christ as leading “captivity captive” (Eph. 4:8). That which held us prisoner is itself led as a prisoner. Sin, death and the devil and debt are trampled down by the death and resurrection of Christ. Christ does not set us free by paying our debt. He sets us free by dying and trampling down death. And this becomes effective in our lives because we, too, die, being “buried with Him in Baptism” (Romans 6:3). To bring the notion of a debt payment into the conversation of being Baptized into Christ’s death is just weird. It doesn’t fit or make sense in any manner.

Some might struggle with the personification of sin, of our being held in bondage by it and sin being destroyed, etc. But that is the consistent imagery of Scripture. Debt can be placed into that category and treated in that manner. But there is simply no Biblical imagery of God paying our debts.

In the Old Testament, the system of the Sabbath (Sabbath Day, Sabbath Year, Jubilee Year) was a system of abolishing debt. You could hold a slave for only seven years, then he had to be set free. No one paid for them. Land could be bought from someone, but all land and debts had to be cancelled in the 50th (Jubilee) year, at the end of seven cycles of Sabbath years.

On the Sabbath day in Nazareth, Christ takes up the scroll of Isaiah in the synagogue and reads this:

“The Spirit of the LORD is upon Me, Because He has anointed Me To preach the gospel to the poor; He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, To proclaim liberty to the captives And recovery of sight to the blind, To set at liberty those who are oppressed; To proclaim the acceptable year of the LORD.” (Luke 4:18-19)

The “acceptable year of the Lord,” is a reference to the Jubilee year, which Isaiah raises to a cosmic level. There will come the “Day of the Lord,” and all debts will be cancelled. The captives will be set free. This is the heart (in its full cosmic sense) of what Christ means when he preaches, “Repent! For the Kingdom of God is at hand.” The coming of the Kingdom is nothing less than the Day of the Lord. Interestingly, the Jubilee year begins with the sound of a trumpet. It is that very thing that signals Christ’s triumphant return, “Then the trump will sound…”

But nowhere in this rich Biblical imagery, is there a notion of anything being paid. Christ doesn’t pay our debt, He destroys it! This is deeply important. The penal substitution theory runs the risk of treating the holding of debt to be a good thing, reducing debtors to the cast of evil doers. This is utterly contrary to Scripture where the opposite is true.

Look at this one last example of the destruction of a “debt.” Interestingly, it is a passage frequently abused in the penal substitution theory:

And you, being dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He has made alive together with Him, having forgiven you all trespasses, having wiped out the handwriting of requirements that was against us, which was contrary to us. And He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross. Having disarmed principalities and powers, He made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them in it. (Col 2:13-15)

I have heard this passage interpreted as Christ writing “Paid!” on our bill of debt and nailing it to the Cross. But, again, this is simply an abuse. The “handwriting” is the requirements of the Law, which have begun to work death in us because of Sin. Here, Christ nails them to the Cross. The handwriting isn’t a debt being paid. It is a bondage being “disarmed” like the principalities and powers over which He triumphed. Perhaps the most tragic aspect of the penal substitutionary theory is its habit of misusing one thing and ignoring another. This passage in Colossians is clearly about one thing, the destruction of what holds us in bondage.

Debt belongs to the realm of death, sin, slavery and bondage. Christ has come to destroy all of these things and lead us into His kingdom. You are free.

Glory forever!

Getting Your Mind Right

cool-hand-luke-egg-sceneIn the classic movie, Cool Hand Luke (1967), the lead character struggles in a Deep South prison chain-gang setting. Very cool towards authority, he is finally, at the Warden’s direction, beaten by the guards. There is a memorable bit of dialog:

Luke (lying in a grave he’s been forced to dig): Oh God! Oh God! I pray to God you don’t hit me anymore. I’ll do anything you say, but I can’t take anymore.

Workboss: You got your mind right, Luke?

Luke: Yeah, I got it right. Oh, I got it right, Boss.

Workboss: Suppose you was to backslide on us? Suppose you was to back-sass?

Luke is in a hostile universe whose only reason to exist is to produce docile cooperation in the cheap labor of the chain gang. Some tiny modicum of peace (though no dignity) is promised, if only you get your mind right. In the end, Luke cannot do what is asked of him.

The character is one of the classic anti-heroes, typical of its decade.  After a time of seeming docility, Luke makes a break for it and even runs the dogs to death! Of course, he dies. Shot unnecessarily in order to make the warden’s point.

Luke is something of a Christ figure, a symbol of a truly free mind to those who remain imprisoned . “He was a world beater!” one of the men declares.

“Getting your mind right,” has remained a very active image for me over the years. It is the abiding threat of a world that promises rewards to those who no longer mind. “Going along with things” is bad enough. However, to “go along” because you have actually yielded your heart and your will is soul crushing. Something properly human is lost.

In a strange way, I see this at work within the ranks of many Christians. And here I do not refer to getting your mind right and agreeing with the world. Instead, I mean getting your mind right and agreeing that God and His justice is the author of our worst fears.

When God meets with Moses on the Holy Mount, the people become distracted and demand that a golden calf be created so they can worship it. God becomes angry and says to Moses:

“I have seen this people, and behold, it is a stiff-necked people; now therefore let me alone, that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; but of you I will make a great nation.”

But Moses begged the LORD his God, and said, “O LORD, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you have brought forth out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, ‘With evil intent did he bring them forth, to slay them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce wrath, and repent of this evil against your people.

Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, to whom you swore by your own self, and said to them, ‘I will multiply your descendants as the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it for ever.'”

And the LORD repented of the evil which he thought to do to his people. (Exo 32:9-14)

Of course, this is a very strange passage and has perplexed generations. “The Lord repented of the evil which He thought to do…” But, rather than getting lost in idle speculation, the text points to something absolutely essential. Moses does not “get his mind right” and agree to go along with the wholesale destruction of the people of Israel. He pleads their case before God.

Moses is not alone is such actions. Abraham famously does something similar when the Lord tells him of the coming destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. But we are all too lacking in the likes of Moses and Abraham.

What I see, all too frequently, is a willingness both to argue why it is right for God to destroy His people or to eliminate whole cities from the globe. Some go so far as to assert that it is not only right but actually necessary. “God is a holy God. He cannot deny His justice,” they say.

I think I understand the nature of the argument. There is a concern that something within the Scriptures might be violated. There is a concern that gainsaying the punishments of God is just one more effort of modernity to set aside the teaching of the faith. But what is not seen, I think, is just what is happening to the heart of a Christian when he gets his mind right and makes peace with the “punishments” of God.

First, he parts ways with Moses and Abraham. It is not only Moses and Abraham who are lost, but the whole heart of the Orthodox tradition. For that heart is clearly heard in the words of Moses and Abraham. They do not argue theology with God. But neither do they stand aside and say, “My heart must be wrong.” They do not get their minds right.

I believe that God didn’t want them to get their minds right. In the merciful pleading of Abraham and the rebuke of Moses, God heard the echo of His own heart. He can say of Abraham, “This is a man after my own heart.” Moses is the “friend of God.”

When such a heart is absent, we simply become functionaries, explaining to others why things must be as they are. We become apologists for the very thing that Moses and Abraham resisted.

In modern conversations, the topic of God’s punishments seems to turn on what is necessary or right and wrong. Those are interesting questions, but they are beside the true point. The point is found in the heart of the matter. Will we plead for God’s mercy for all? Will we argue with Him and take the side of those who deserve punishment? Will we beg for another year’s mercy for the fig tree so that it may be tended and cared for yet again?

I have written before that the story of Christ’s Pascha is the central core of the Christian faith and the reality that must shape all of our understanding. The position of Moses and Abraham is paschal in nature. Moses stands over an idolatrous people, deserving of destruction and pleads for them. He is Christ-like, descending into a desert Hades to lead his people out…even if he has to rebuke God in order to do so. Abraham delays the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah as he argues with God.

Christ came for the unrighteous. He seemed to go looking for harlots and tax collectors. Christ is the revelation of the heart of God. It is a heart that “broods” over Jerusalem like a mother hen gathering her chicks. He rebukes the disciples when they eagerly ask to call down fire from heaven to consume an entire village.

There are mistakes of the heart to be made in the other direction, as well. It is possible to substitute some interpretive position that all will be well, in such a way that the argument and the rebuke disappear. In this, there is no Moses, no Abraham, just the universe going about its way while we blissfully go about ours.

St. Silouan said, “My brother is my life,” and then he prayed as though he believed it. There certainly is a judgment, and there certainly is a hell. Many suffer, both just and unjust. We have not been appointed to construct a metaphysics that we find pleasing or satisfying. We must never “get our minds right.”

To use the imagery of the movie (which are highly paschal), the world and its present arrangement are a road prison. Our job is never to become apologists for the Warden and the guards. The “justice” of their world is no justice at all. We await, not a new, just Warden, but the abolition of the prison itself. We dare not justify the sufferings of this life, much less extend them into the age to come. We have been appointed to intercede for the world, to argue and to rebuke. The martyrs in heaven beneath the throne of God complain. The widow importunes the judge. The Samaritan woman begs for her son’s life like a little doggie at the master’s table. And it is there that we find our true heart and become the friends of God.

 

 

The Way of Shame and the Way of Thanksgiving

0915-olsorrowThe language of “self-emptying” can have a sort of Buddhist ring. It sounds as we are referencing a move towards becoming a vessel without content – the non-self. Given our multicultural world, such a reference is understandable. It is, however, unfortunate and requires that we visit the true nature of Christian self-emptying. Our self-emptying is deeply tied to shame and the Crucified Christ. As a touchstone, I cite the primary passage (Philippians 2) that undergirds the notion of self-emptying:

5Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
6 who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
7 but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
8   he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.

The passage is not a random choice. It is, as St. Paul states, a description of the very nature of the mind that should be in us. It describes how we are to live and think. Considering Christ, we can see that He emptied Himself of Divine Prerogatives and humbly accepted death on the Cross. But what is the “mind” of this self-emptying? What is it that we are emptying when we empty the self? And how is it an “emptying?”

There is nothing precise that we can identify as the “self” in such a manner that we “empty it.” We could identify desires, thoughts, plans, wealth, energy, and the like as things that we might choose to deny or give up. And this has been a well-worn path in asceticism and monastic life through the centuries. But it still concentrates our efforts on an absence, leaving us with nothing within. Such an absence is ultimately a misunderstanding of self-emptying.

Like many things in the Christian life, “emptying” is a paradoxical phrase. We do not and cannot “empty” the self without reference to another. Christ’s own offering on the Cross was not an act of isolated renunciation. It was profoundly an act of love in which He emptied Himself but also filled Himself in union with our brokenness. A key to understanding Christ’s self-emptying is found in Hebrews. In many ways the passage is a parallel to the Philippians passage.

[Christ], for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. (Heb 12:2)

Our own self-emptying has the same characteristic. Christ, who is our joy, is found in the union of the Cross, as we ourselves “despise the shame,” and sit with Him in His throne at the right hand of God. This “despising the shame” is the equivalent of “bearing shame,” in which we acknowledge the brokenness of our own selves, without turning away, uniting ourselves with the Crucified Christ.

Shame is the “unbearable” emotion. It is the deep pain we feel in association with “who we are.” It is an extreme vulnerability and nakedness. Our deepest instinct in the face of shame is to hide. That is precisely what Adam and Eve do after their sin in the Garden:

So the man said, “I heard Your voice in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; and I hid myself.” (Gen 3:10)

God Himself does not shame the man and woman. Indeed, in the conversation with Adam, God directs Adam’s attention to what he has done (guilt): “Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat?” Adam’s attention is on his shame (nakedness). And his shame is a distraction.

God’s direct attention is to the action and the need to understand and deal with its consequences. But even when Adam and Eve are expelled from the Garden, God covers their nakedness, providing them “tunics of skin.” God covers their shame.

This theme of “covering” continues throughout the stories of Scripture. Even our daily clothing is associated with shame. Shame is always about identity and character (“who I am”). We use clothing to hide vulnerable aspects of our lives, or to signal belonging, or competency, or beauty, all of the many things that hide who we are, the nakedness of our shame.

However, the Cross is a return to primordial nakedness. Christ is “naked and unashamed.” There is a shame associated with the Cross: the shame of humanity’s brokenness and sin. And it is this shame that Christ accepts in the self-empyting of the Cross, described by Hebrews as “despising the shame.” The word translated “despise” (καταφρονήσας) simply means to “have little consideration for.”

Stated positively, Christ “bears our shame.” Isaiah has this prophetic description:

I gave My back to those who struck Me, And My cheeks to those who plucked out the beard; I did not hide My face from shame and spitting. (Isa 50:6)

Our own self-emptying has a similar action. We “bear a little shame,” in the words of the Elder Sophrony. This is reflected in the language of beholding Christ “face to face.” For it is primarily in the face that we experience shame. When shamed, our instinctive reaction is to lower our eyes or hide our face. We can only see Christ face to face when we unite ourselves to him and “bear a little shame.”

In Revelation, the fear of shame is experienced as a judgment:

And the kings of the earth, the great men, the rich men, the commanders, the mighty men, every slave and every free man, hid themselves in the caves and in the rocks of the mountains, and said to the mountains and rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of Him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb! “For the great day of His wrath has come, and who is able to stand?” (Rev 6:15-17)

So this “bearing a little shame” is one form of our self-emptying. Another takes a very positive, though equally difficult path. It is the giving of thanks – always and for all things. Its similarity to bearing a little shame comes particularly in the “always and for all things.” Everyone can give thanks for the things they enjoy and that give them pleasure. Even unbelievers are thankful in such situations despite their inability to figure out whom they should thank. But it is the “always and for all things” that brings us face to face with Christ, particularly at those points where we would rather turn our faces away.

Although it is not readily apparent, we experience disappointments and hardships first as shame. It is only after the experience of shame that these experiences become occasions of anger and depression. We find the shame too hard to bear and so it is very quickly translated into anger or depression. We experience these things as shame because we feel in ourselves that disappointments and hardships declare our unworthiness, incompetence, inadequacy, etc. The same is true of the sins in our lives. It is not our guilt that is hard to bear – it is our shame – how our sins make us feel about ourselves.

St. Paul emphasizes that we are saved in our weakness rather than our strength. Our strength offers us no shame (quite the opposite), and, as such, offers us no solidarity with the self-emptying of Christ. We are not only saved from our sins, we are saved only through our sins, as we thankfully behold Christ face to face.

The giving of thanks, always and for all things, brings us face to face with Christ. To give thanks in the middle of our shame, is a primary means of “bearing” our shame. It embraces the fullness of Christ’s offering on our behalf, and unites us with that same offering. It is in the giving of thanks always and for all things that we find self-emptying as fullness. It is there that the Cross of shame becomes the “joy set before us.”

It is essential that we understand that the bearing of shame must be voluntary and never coerced. Shame that is placed on us by others is generally toxic in nature. God never shames us. This is frequently misunderstood. Many experience Christianity as a deeply shaming way of life. This is a fundamental distortion and a spiritual poison.

A very good example can be found in the liturgical prayers offered in preparation for communion. This prayer of St. John Chrysostom is typical:

Lord and Master, I am not worthy or sufficiently pleasing for You enter under the roof of the house of my soul. Since You, the Lover of mankind, wish to dwell in me, I boldly approach. Command me, and I shall open the doors, which You yourself have made. In your constant love for mankind You may enter in and enlighten my darkened mind. I believe You will do this, for You did not send away the harlot who came to you in tears or the publican who repented. You did not refuse the thief who acknowledged Your kingdom, or the penitent persecutor, Paul, to continue in his ways. Rather, You numbered among Your friends all those who came to You in penitence, for You alone are blessed always, now and ever and to ages of ages. Amen.

Many (if not most) people misunderstand such prayers. What they hear is God saying, “You are not worthy or sufficiently pleasing for me to enter under the roof of your house…” But this is utterly false. His words are very much in opposition to this. The origin of this prayer is found in Christ’s encounter with a Centurion whose servant was sick. Christ made as to go to the Centurion’s home, but was told by the Centurion, “I am not worthy for you to enter under the roof of my house, but say the word only and my servant will be healed.” The Centurion bore a little shame. Christ recognizes in this the Centurion’s union with His own suffering and sees the Centurion as a friend. He announces, “I have not seen such faith in all of Israel!”

The language of prayer, often expressed in similar terms of self-emptying, is not the language of toxic shame. It is, or should be, the language of voluntary union with the shame-bearing self-emptying of Christ. It is, at its very heart, the balm that heals us from the wounds of our shame. We bear our nakedness – and Christ clothes us in His righteousness.

Archimandrite Zacharias of Essex makes this observation:

It was through the Cross of shame that He saved us; so, when we bear a little shame for His sake, in order to repent and come to confession, He considers it as a thanksgiving to Him, and in return He gives us the comfort of the “Comforter”. (The Enlargement of the Heart, Kindle 1712).

Like the Cross of Christ, this is a voluntary offering and cannot be otherwise.

Therefore My Father loves Me, because I lay down My life that I may take it again. No one takes it from Me, but I lay it down of Myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again. This command I have received from My Father. (Joh 10:17-18)

The whole of this action, our grateful thanksgiving, always and for all things, in which we bear a little shame, unites us with the self-emptying life of Christ and becomes the gate of paradise and salvation. This is the very heart of repentance, and the secret of its joy. Chrysostom’s prayer, quoted earlier, reminds us of this joy:

You numbered among Your friends all those who came to You in penitence.

Friends of God in transfiguring joy, unashamed and unafraid, we behold Him face to face.

 

 

 

The Sins of a Nation

abrahamxCan a nation ever sin? If so, how can it be forgiven?

The stories and prophetic writings of the Old Testament are replete with examples of national sin. There are certainly stories of God dealing with individuals, but, on the whole, His attention seems to be directed to Israel and other nations as a whole. The promises and pledges are made to a collective people and the chastisement falls on the whole nation as well. Our modern sensibilities, rooted in a fundamental commitment to individualism, recoil from this collective treatment. And we are not the first to complain.

In Genesis 18, Abraham argues with God about the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. The Lord has threatened to destroy the cities on account of their sins. Abraham raises the troubling question:

“Would You also destroy the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there were fifty righteous within the city; would You also destroy the place and not spare it for the fifty righteous that were in it? Far be it from You to do such a thing as this, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous should be as the wicked; far be it from You! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Gen 18:23-25)

Thus, this question has had a prominent place in the thoughts of the faithful since the very beginning. In Abraham’s conversation with God, he asks if God would spare those cities even if only fifty righteous were found. God agrees. With continued pleading, Abraham takes the the number down to 10 righteous (and stops). And the Lord says that He would spare the cities for the sake of just 10. Alas, less than ten were found. But we do not upbraid God that He was willing to spare the unrighteous for the sake of a mere handful.

There is a mystery contained within the entire exercise of that conversation. For the truth is, none of us stands alone. No one stands free of the actions of others. Our lives are deeply connected. We are ourselves the offspring of many generations, and we carry within us ever so much that was not of our own choosing. Our inheritance is tainted – both for good and for ill.

Fr. Thomas Hopko describes some of this as “generational” sin. To understand this requires that we remember that sin is not a legal problem. It is not about what is fair or unfair. It is about a mystical burden that we experience as debt, hindrance, oppositional weight, weakness, brokenness and corruption, or just the starting place of our lives. Virtually everything in our lives is gifted to us, and there are many “gifts” that we would prefer never to have received. It is part of our incarnational existence. We are the offspring of others. To have an embodied existence in space and time is to have a body burdened with the DNA of eons and a family and culture that is both the product and carrier of history. Our own existence is a consequence of everything that has come before us. We cannot rightly suggest that such a contingent existence comes free.

Of course, many historical burdens become the targets of political attention. No human being, no ethnic or national group is without sin. Some sins are more recent and obvious than others. But our accusers can never plead innocence. Acknowledging this does nothing to remove our burdens.

In the 20th century, there have been some notable national crimes that have, in some way, been acknowledged. Japan renounced its military in response to the atrocities and errors of the Second World War. Germany paid reparations to Israel and enacted numerous laws renouncing and restricting the scourge of Nazism. Many war criminals were punished. The Russian government, with no outside political pressure, not only acknowledged many of the crimes of its Communist past, but also built memorials and rebuilt churches (often returning properties that had been taken away) in an effort of public repentance.

It has rightly been noted that “history is written by the victors.” It is therefore the case that we more easily repent for the sins of history’s vanquished and leave the writing to the victorious. But the burden of sin as historical reality remains. Unaddressed, the sins of the past become the problems of the present. Many of the most enduring conflicts in the modern world represent centuries of unresolved issues and the inherited burden of our ancestral legacy.

Often the legacy of history is carried on in competing narratives. We do not always know or rightly remember the details of what happened, but we know all too well the emotional burden of its trauma. Hatred can be a very ancient thing.

And it is to trauma that I want to direct our attention. Trauma is a word for the damage we suffer in extreme circumstances. It can occur as a result of natural disaster, or war – any time and place in which we are endangered, injured, or exposed to terrible actions. People do not experience war and then walk away as though nothing had happened. The war stops outwardly, but it continues inwardly. This experience is as old as mankind itself. Trauma sometimes leaves people emotionally and even physically crippled.

Among ancient peoples, the trauma of life was met with liturgy – rituals, both public and private that sought to restore them to their right minds, to appease the wrath of the gods or the spirits of their enemies. The collective psyche of a whole people was set right through various actions and beliefs that worked to make peace and re-establish righteousness.

Modernity has very few such rituals. The secular state, presiding over competing and disparate groups has almost nothing to which it can appeal that serves as catharsis or repentance, or even thanksgiving. Sport (such as the Super Bowl) comes closest to public liturgy in modern America, but it serves nothing transcendent, nothing permanent. It cannot heal or speak to the needs of a nation.

The outcome of this lack is an inability for nations and often individuals to be healed of their trauma. The wounds of lost wars or historical sins remain unaddressed, erupting from time to time as renewed trauma in the national psyche.

Studying parish ministry in seminary, I was introduced to the phrase, “recurrent latent cycling.” It was meant to describe a struggle within the life of a parish that erupts periodically, that is, in fact, the same struggle. It might be around a new presenting issue – but it was still the same struggle. Healing the parish required a discernment of what was actually going on – to bring something that was latent into the light of day.

Nations (and individuals) who ignore their wounds and griefs do not leave them behind – they bring them forward and repeat their battles endlessly. Subsequent generations who never knew the first cause, become the unwitting bearers of the latent violence and destruction that they have inherited.

Though Orthodoxy does not generally use the term “original sin,” it doesn’t thereby deny the reality of the inherited burden of sin. The growing study of epigenetics would suggest that we may even inherit such burdens genetically.

The medicine we have received from Holy Tradition for this on-going sickness is repentance. Of course, it is very difficult for nations to repent, though there would easily be services for such in the Orthodox tradition. However, the shame associated with national or collective sin is often denied or retold in other ways. Without repentance, nations are doomed to relive, repeat or act out the bitterness of their trauma.

There is, of course, another way. It was first expressed in the prophetic words of the High Priest Caiaphas as he contemplated the Jesus problem:

“You know nothing at all, nor do you consider that it is expedient for us that one man should die for the people, and not that the whole nation should perish.” (Joh 11:49-50)

The death of Christ on the Cross becomes the public liturgy for the sin burden of Israel. Of course, He was the public liturgy for the sin burden of the whole world. But there was a principle articulated in His sacrifice – that one man could die for the whole. This is not a substitutionary legal event. Rather, it is the mystery of coinherence and koinonia. “He became what we are that we might become what He is,” the Fathers said. It has also been the knowledge of the Church that we are invited into that selfsame sacrifice. Buried into His death in Baptism, we are united to His very crucifixion. United with Him in the grave, we journey with Him into Hades, and there, brave souls make intercession for the sins of the whole world, and with Him set souls free. The Elder Sophrony describes such brave souls as Christ’s “friends.”

For at least as long as the days of Abraham, we have had intercessors who saved the cities and nations of the wicked. Their prayers were effective because they prayed in union with the one mediator and true advocate, Christ our God.

Abraham was God’s friend. As God visited with him, He said:

“Shall I hide from Abraham what I am doing, since Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him?” (Gen 18:17-18)

This is God’s inauguration of Abraham as an intercessor for the nations. The greatest friends of God have always taken up this same intercessory role. Through Christ and the prayers of our holy fathers, God preserves the world and saves the nations from the full brunt and weight of their history.

There are thus two kinds of people: those who are the weight of history, and those who join themselves to Christ in their repentance and bear the weight of history. This latter role is the true life of the Church and the heart of her who prays, “On behalf of all, and for all.”

Judas Loves Money

JudasJudas has always presented a problem for movie-makers. How do you create a believable character who carries out the greatest betrayal of all time? Some movies use a political motivation – this usually has Judas “accidentally” betraying Jesus in an attempt help Him politically. Others puzzle with him in other ways. The Scriptures are quite clear about the nature of Judas betrayal: he was a thief and he did it for money.

Then one of His disciples, Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, who would betray Him, said, “Why was this fragrant oil not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?” This he said, not that he cared for the poor, but because he was a thief, and had the money box; and he used to take what was put in it. (Joh 12:4-6 NKJ)

It’s fairly banal and prosaic. People do bad stuff for money all the time. The most common motive for betrayal of one’s country is – money. We often compromise our beliefs and practices for money, whether it is at work or elsewhere. If values cost us money, they quickly become too expensive for our taste. Righteousness is a luxury for most – one they can ill afford.

I also think that it goes far to explain Judas. No one usually starts out with full-blown betrayal – we have to work our way up to it. Every act of pilfering from the common fund was an act of betrayal, but easily justified. “It’s not much…I deserve it…I’ll put it back…”

A hymn from the Bridegroom Matins of Holy Week says, “Judas loved money with his mind (nous).” This declares a relationship that goes beyond the mere yielding to temptation. Judas became obsessed with money. Mammon was his God.

Thus, when the extravagance of the woman’s gift of an alabaster box of ointment poured over the feet of Jesus provokes Judas’ wrath, he was protesting on behalf of his God.

“Why was this fragrant oil not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?”

It is very striking throughout the gospels how often the question of money comes up. Christ offers very little comfort on the topic. He generally says one of two things: share, or give it away.

He warns that we cannot serve God and mammon (money). We see the example of the Rich Young Ruler for whom money becomes a stumbling block – he cannot follow Jesus if in doing so he must give away his money.

What did Judas need money for? He traveled with Christ and the other disciples. From what we can tell, they bought almost nothing, living hand to mouth. Did Judas have a retirement plan? Was he building up his portfolio? But as the Church sings, “Judas loved money with his mind.” It’s a spiritual disease.

Who doesn’t love money? Perhaps our attitude towards money would change if we noted that the fingerprints of Judas are on every penny. Caesar (in all his guises) has his face displayed – but Judas goes to the very heart of it all. If you search your heart for the place where the desire for money resides – then you’ll find the face of Judas staring back.

Money is the anti-Eucharist. Like the Eucharist, it is a way of life. The Eucharist is the way of giving thanks. Money can only be marked by thanksgiving when it is shared or given away. Unless shared, it always becomes an end in itself – the opposite of giving thanks. And unless money is shared, becoming eucharistic, then it becomes the currency of betrayal, spent in the Gardens of our lives (Eden, Gethsemane).

Christ gives His disciples the Eucharist on the “night in which He was betrayed.” Judas loves money. Christ loves the Father – and all that the Father has given to Him. The bread that Christ gives is life, and life more abundantly. The bread of Judas is money – and it is death. God give us life!

More Thoughts on Hell

hell_joyceIn my recent article on hell, I offered what I called a “lesson in ontology” (the study of being). It was a way of understanding what it means to say something is real and true, and the nature of existence as a gift.

But in describing hell as not “real,” many readers immediately concluded that I was saying that there is no such thing as hell. This occasioned legitimate questions about those verses in Scripture that speak of hell and judgment. Is there truly a judgment? Does it matter what we do with our lives?

The one figure in Scripture who says the most about hell and judgment is Christ Himself. Though many like to think of St. Paul as the “bad guy” of the New Testament (because of things he says about women, sexual activity, etc.), it is actually Jesus who speaks of “hell fire,” the “worm that does not die,” “outer darkness,” and such things. I have been asked to write specifically to these references.

But again, some basics.

Sin is not a legal problem. If we understand sin as the breaking of a rule, even a Divine commandment, then we will fail to understand the whole of our life with God, including salvation, heaven – everything.

Legal problems, however real we might perceive them, are not real. If I break a rule (say in civil society) then there is no problem unless and until someone enforces the rule and extracts a penalty. If I break the speed limit and no one sees me, there is no legal problem. If I break the speed limit and the police officer gives me a warning, there is no legal problem. If I break the speed limit and the police officer accepts a bribe, there is no legal problem.

And even if the legal problem is enforced, my problem, at its worst, is not legal. I might have a money problem (a fine), or a jail problem (incarceration), etc., but “legal” is simply a word that describes the nature of my relationship with those in charge of extracting money from me at the point of a gun (or other forms of violence). We permit such forms of violence through a social contract (the state).

But none of this has anything to do with God. To use legal understandings to speak of the Kingdom of God produces a caricature and only promotes deep misunderstanding (even heresies).

The Law of God is not a legal fiction. Instead, it describes the actual nature of things. The commandments of God describe how things are, such that consequences are quite “natural.”

The Law of Gravity is not a legal problem:

“I didn’t mean to walk off the cliff.”

“Then legally you shouldn’t have died.”

The same is true of sin. Sin is not a legal problem. In the Garden, when God warns Adam and Eve concerning the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, He says, “In the day that you eat of it, you will surely die.” This is not a legal statement. Were that the case, God would have said, “In the day you eat of it, I will kill you.” But the consequence is not legal but natural – it is inherent – intrinsic to the very nature of things.

Adam and Eve die, not as punishment, but because they have broken communion with God who alone is the Lord and Giver of Life, the source of our very being. Death is not punishment, but the natural state of a human being who moves in a direction away from God.

Much of the imagery (and thought) that surround judgment and hell are rife with legal imagery. Some of this is completely natural (doing no damage to the text) but much of it is from a centuries’ long habit of reading legal imagery into almost everything (such is our cultural heritage).

But sin, and its punishment, are not legal in nature. Were our punishment of a legal nature, then there would be no disagreement about hell as a temporary matter. For if our sins are finite in nature, then surely our punishment would be finite as well.

I have listened to hours and hours of explanations of how humanity’s sin is infinite and how the offense against God’s honor (or justice or righteousness) is infinite – but this is all “after the fact,” a poor human effort to justify an image of an eternal, infinite, punishing hell-fire.

Again, our problem is not legal in nature.

Sin is ontological – it goes to the very heart of our being and existence. St. Paul uses the word “corruption” (phthora) in a number of places to describe the work of sin:

For he who sows to his flesh will of the flesh reap corruption, but he who sows to the Spirit will of the Spirit reap everlasting life. (Gal 6:8 NKJ)

Corruption is the word for what the body does when it dies – it rots. It is also a description of what happens in our lives when we live out of communion with God – things rot – they fall apart – they dissolve ever more completely – morally, spiritually, physically. It is like a disease process. It can only be arrested (and healed) by grace.

Every attempt to describe sin and hell with legal/penal imagery fails to do justice to the inward, ontological nature of our fall. It reduces the consequences of sin to externally imposed penalties and runs the risk of ignoring the entire body of Scripture (and human experience) that bear witness to a deeply organic character of sin and consequence.

Justice models tend to major in external imagery. Thus the fires of hell (as external punishing flames) and hell as a place become very important. The teaching of the Orthodox Church, as expressed famously by St. Mark of Ephesus, holds that the fires of hell are immaterial. The fathers of the Church often pierce the flames of hell with discernment and wisdom revealing their inner meaning rather than dwelling on crude images of torture and punishment. Thus St. Ambrose:

That gnashing is not of bodily teeth, nor is that perpetual fire made up of physical flames, nor is the worm a bodily one. These things are spoken of, however, because, just as worms are born of massive overeating and fevers, so too, if anyone does not boil away his sins…he will be burned up in his own worms. Whence also Isaias says: “Walk in the light of your fire, and the flame which you have ignited” (Isaiah 50:11). It is a fire which gloominess of sins generates. It is a worm insofar as irrational sins of the soul stab at mind and heart and eat the guts out of your conscience.(Commentary on Luke, 7, 205)

St. Isaac of Syria says that the fires of hell are nothing other than the love of God:

As for me I say that those who are tormented in hell are tormented by the invasion of love. What is there more bitter and violent than the pains of love? Those who feel they have sinned against love bear in themselves a damnation much heavier than the most dreaded punishments. The suffering with which sinning against love afflicts the heart is more keenly felt than any other torment. It is absurd to assume that the sinners in hell are deprived of God’s love. Love is offered impartially. But by its very power it acts in two ways. It torments sinners, as happens here on earth when we are tormented by the presence of a friend to whom we have been unfaithful. And it gives joy to those who have been faithful.

St. Isaac’s words are very helpful. The “punishment” is nothing other than love. But the tormenting character of God’s love is produced by the state of the soul, not by the external character of the love itself. It is a consequence of our own making.

When understood in such an intrinsic manner, hell does not cease to be a “threat” (as some fear), but the threat becomes more immediate and does not rest on the external action of a punishing God. It is a reflection of something already begun within us:

For the time has come for judgment to begin at the house of God; and if it begins with us first, what will be the end of those who do not obey the gospel of God? (1Pe 4:17 NKJ)

However, the nature of our inner corruption often makes us blind to the very judgment at work within us. I often think of the character in Lewis’ gray town (The Great Divorce), who though in hell, has a small theological discussion group and needs to leave his excursion in heaven in order to return to present a paper. Its irony is too true to be humorous.

The caricatured wrathful, punishing God is the product of poor theological reflection (or none at all). His hell, no matter how justified, does not serve the intended purpose of its defenders (provoking sinners to repentance). It instead provokes skeptics to unbelief.

The subtleties of the inner torment and corruption of the soul may fail to satisfy those who prefer the punishing God. But they would do well to tend to the subtleties of their own souls and the corruption worked by envy and the joy at the punishment of others.

Judgment has indeed begun in the house of God.

 

Saving the Atonement

6a00d8341c511c53ef01127946ed5928a4-800wiI am speaking this week in Mississippi, in a place where Orthodoxy is thriving, but not a place where you would expect to find it. The parish (a former Presbyterian facility) has a sign with variable letters, where a changing “message” can be displayed. It reads something like, “Father Stephen Freeman speaking Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday on Salvation, Heaven and Hell.” Those are indeed the topics, but the sign fits so well in the culture of Mississippi that it brought a smile to my face.

I spoke this evening on “Saving the Atonement.” I was not discussing how to fix a doctrine, but rather how to speak to a culture that increasingly doesn’t care about the Scriptures or even know them. I suggested that we are more like St. Paul in ancient Athens than St Paul in Jerusalem. The arguments that spoke well several generations back fall empty today.

And it may seem strange to think of Orthodoxy in such a context – a world that has become a stranger to the gospel encountering the Church that wrote the gospels. But that is precisely where I think we are. My experience of Orthodoxy has not been with a new way of arguing the same old things (though it is possible to force it into such a position). Rather, reading and praying the fathers has been a path back to something prior to all of the arguments.

I used passages from St. Athanasius to guide my thoughts tonight – and was struck particularly by something he said in On the Incarnation of the Word: “Man was in danger of disappearing.”

He was describing the existential position of the human race after the fall. Refusing communion with the only truly existing God, we began to fall back towards the nothing from which we were created. Either we are sustained by grace and flourish, or we increasingly cease to exist.

I can see that human life is almost always in such a danger. I have lived all of my life under the shadow of complete, planetary destruction. Mine was the first generation to live with such a possibility. The end of the world has never just been a cosmic theory. It has always been a clear and present danger. I have also lived during a time when Western culture has been rushing headlong towards a changing future that appears less “human” somehow, such that “man” in a primary sense is in danger of disappearing. C.S. Lewis described this as “men without chests” (an image that never quite made sense to me).

But these and other forms of disappearance have felt palpable and real for me. And as I age, the same disappearance becomes quite personal. I can see rather clearly a personal end that I once only imagined. It is not frightening nor morbid, but sobering and concrete. The existence which matters for me cannot be those things that once mattered to a younger man: my job, my family, my place in the community, my writing. And now I’ve learned that my ego itself is not so precious and that if something of me is to exist it is not the “me” I prize so deeply.

Crucified with Christ, a different me now lives, and if I am to live at all I must find that me and unite myself to Him, or disappear completely. Though I suspect that the finding of that “me” comes in finally disappearing. “For it does not yet appear what we shall be…”

And so I’ve been speaking on “saving the atonement,” finding a way to understand our reconciliation with God that is not the same set of arguments (wrath, debt, justice, etc.), working from the same set of tired, misused Bible verses. What has God done in order for us to not disappear? What does it mean to disappear? What would it mean that we should appear?

And to all of these things Orthodoxy bears a rich witness. And the richness of that witness is beautiful. For, as Pavel Florensky rightly wrote, “Beauty is the criterion of truth.” For the first tell-tale signs of disappearing come in the forms of ugliness. For our existence, from the beginning, came in the form of the image of God, the truly good and beautiful.

God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, who took upon Himself our ugliness that we should take upon ourselves His beauty. It is a tell-tale sign of my sinfulness that I would be satisfied (I lie) with an existence that is mere appearance – that I should merely not disappear. But God will not be satisfied (and this is the true satisfaction theory) with anything less than my appearance in beauty and truth, for to exist in anything less than beauty is to begin to disappear.

And knowing this is part of “saving” the atonement. For hearts everywhere cry for beauty even as they pursue something less. Something less always has the nature of idolatry (which is why the icons are not idols). Though the culture shifts and forgets its original roots in a Christian view of the world, man himself does not shift. He abides (God is merciful). And the disappearing man knows and fears that he is disappearing even as he rushes headlong towards it.

His knowledge and his fear are gifts from God, echoes and memories of paradise. Saving the atonement is changing idols into icons. Just as Christ the Pantokrator saved Zeus, and the Theotokos saved a thousand variations of the Mother with her child.

It is the greatest irony that God made Him to be sin who knew no sin that we might become the righteousness of Christ. And richer irony that even the shape of our sin never completely obscures Christ Himself for He Himself has entered sin that He might reshape us. Strange wonder, the Atonement saving the atonement.