αποκαταστασις: ευαγγελιον! Universal Salvation: Good news! The Forgotten Essence of the Gospel

Doctrinal Definition

Literally, the word apokatastasis means “restitution” or “restoration”. There are many different construals of the doctrine of apokatastasis, some being closer to the orthodoxy that we recognise today (eg, St Gregory of Nyssa) and some being much more alien and exotic (eg, the fantastical theology of St Origen1). This paper cannot hope to comprehensively cover all the different varieties and nuances of Apokatastasis that are extant in the tradition.

Merriam-Webster provides the following minimal working definition of Apokatastasis:

The doctrine of the final restoration of all sinful beings to God and to the state of blessedness2

A more fleshed out definition – to which I will be adhering for the purpose of this paper – would be:

That by his incarnation, sinless life, passion, crucifixion and resurrection, Christ achieved complete and entire victory over Hell, Death, Sin, Evil, Satan and Suffering, such that they no longer have any power to enslave or damn anyone, and therefore all souls will be saved.

Scriptural Support

The idea of apokatastasis permeates throughout scripture and can be discovered at the level of both systematic analysis and low-level proof texting. A plenitude of scriptures could be cited, but I will limit myself to Paul’s letters, particularly Romans, 1 Corinthians and Phillipians.

In Romans 1-8, the broad argument of Paul is that all of mankind exists in a state of total depravity, as the result of original sin. This is most clearly expressed in chapter three which reads as follows:

None is righteous, no, not one;
no one understands, no one seeks for God.
All have turned aside, together they have gone wrong;
no one does good, not even one.”3

In chapter five, Paul balances this picture of total depravity with a Christocentric universal salvation. He claims that just as in Adam all die and suffer damnation, so too in Christ all are made alive, justified and saved.

Therefore as sin came into the world through one man and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all men sinned— sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law. Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sins were not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come.

But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if the many died through one man’s trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for the many. And the free gift is not like the effect of that one man’s sin. For the judgement following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brings justification. If, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ.

Then as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to acquittal and life for all men. For as by one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by one man’s obedience the many will be justified. Law came in, to increase the trespass; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.4

Note that the RSVCE (and many other English translations) renders “the many” without the definite article, thus slightly taking the edge off of the universalising thrust of Paul’s argument as written in the original Koine. I have slightly modified the translation to include articles where they are usually dropped, so as to better bring out Paul’s universalism.

In Chapter eight, Paul talks about the certain and infallible assurance of salvation that comes with faith in Christ’s apokatastasis:

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.5

In Chapter 9, Paul raises the question “If Christ has saved everyone, then why are the Jews rejecting him?”

I am speaking the truth in Christ, I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit, that I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brethren, my kinsmen by race. They are Israelites, and to them belong the sonship, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and of their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ, who is God over all, blessed for ever. Amen.6

After three chapters of painful reflections, Paul reaffirms the theology which he had already sketched out in chapter 5: All of the Jews will indeed be saved, but every individual gentile must be saved first in order to make Israel jealous:

Lest you be wise in your own conceits, I want you to understand this mystery, brethren: a hardening has come upon part of Israel, until the full totality; every individual Gentile has come in, and so all Israel will be saved; as it is written7

During the painful reflections of chapters 9-11, Paul poses an important, relevant and disturbing hypothetical: “Do we worship the sort of God who creates some people for salvation and other people for damnation?”:

What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience the vessels of wrath made for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for the vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory?8

Many people don’t notice that Paul is asking a question here, and wrongly believe that he is providing an actual description of the character and temperament of God. However by the time we get to chapter 11, Paul has answered his hypothetical question in the negative, by reaffirming the foundational universalist theology he had already sketched out in chapter 5. All are simultaneously vessels of wrath and vessels of mercy:

For God has consigned all men to disobedience, that he may have mercy upon all.9

Paul’s doctrine of apokatastasis also crops up in 1 Corinthians 15, in the letters conclusion wherein Paul is aiming to concisely summarise the entire gospel. He claims that the whole creation and everything in it will eventually be ruled over by Christ, and finally God will permeate everything:

But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. “For God has put all things in subjection under his feet.” But when it says, “All things are put in subjection under him,” it is plain that he is excepted who put all things under him. When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things under him, that God may be all in all.10

In Phillipians 2, Paul again outlines his vision of apokatastasis:

Have this mind among yourselves, which was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should freely bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue lovingly confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.11

The word Paul uses for “confess” is ἐξομολογήσηται, which has the connotation of a confession which is made “freely” and “lovingly”. There’s no sense of anyone being forced or coerced to confess that Christ is Lord in this passage. Christ is not being portrayed as a violent and tyrannical king who forces his subjects to bow down to him. The people who are bowing their knees and confessing Christ as lord are doing it freely and lovingly here. Paul is once again outlining a vision of the Apokatastasis.

Patristic Support

Throughout the 2000 years of Catholic and Orthodox tradition, there have always been three competing eschatological traditions: Universalist, Infernalist, and Annihilationist. Russian Orthodox priest Fr Sergius Bulgakov – a dogmatic theologian, patristics scholar, and a firm believer in apokatastasis – offers the following reflection:

The Church has not yet established a single universally obligatory dogmatic definition in the domain of eschatology, if we do not count the brief testimony of the Nicaeno-Constantinopolitan Creed concerning the second coming (“He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and His kingdom will have no end”), as well as concerning the resurrection of the dead and the life of the future age. These dogmas of the faith, attested to by the Creed and based on the express promises of the Lord, have not, all the same, been developed by theology. They are considered to be self-evident for the dogmatic consciousness, although that is not, in reality, the case. All the rest, referring to various aspects of eschatology, has not been defined dogmatically; it is an object of dogmatic doctrine that has yet to undergo free theological investigation.

If it is maintained that the absence of an ecclesial definition is compensated by the existence of a firm ecclesial tradition, patristic and other, one must call such an assertion inaccurate or even completely erroneous. Aside from the fact that this tradition is insufficient and disparate, the most important thing here is the absence of a single tradition. Instead, we have at least two completely different variants: on the one hand, a doctrine originating in Origen and stabilized in the teaching of St. Gregory of Nyssa and his tacit and open followers; and, on the other hand, a widespread doctrine that has had many adherents but none equal in power of theological thought to those mentioned above. (Perhaps in this group we can put Augustine, the greatest teacher of the Western Church, but the originality of his worldview sets him apart in general, especially for Eastern theology.) As regards both particular patristic doctrines and the systematization of biblical texts, an inquiry that would precede dogmatization has yet to be carried out.

Given such a situation, it would be erroneous to maintain that the dogmatic doctrine expounded in the scholastic manuals represents the authoritative and obligatory dogmas of the Church, and to demand subordination to them as such. In response to such a demand it is necessary to established decisively and definitively that this is an exaggeration and a misunderstanding. The doctrine expounded in the manuals can by no means be accepted without inquiry and verification. It only expresses the opinion of the majority, corresponding to the current status of theological thought on this subject, not more. Characteristic of a specific period of the past, this doctrine is losing its authority more and more at the present time and at the very least requires revision. There is insufficient justification to accept theological opinions as the dogmatic definitions of the Church, especially when these opinions are proper to only one type of thought. Eschatological theology remains open to inquiry even at the present time.12

Eastern Orthodox author and theologian Brad Jersak – another firm adherent to the Gospel of apokatastasis – has this to say:

Our obsessive attempts to harmonize the Scriptures into artificially coherent, stackable propositions—as if they required us to contend for their reliability or authority—actually do violence to their richness.13

Eclectic Eastern Orthodox priest Fr Alvin Kimel adds the following comment:

One finds within the Bible specific texts that may be reasonably interpreted to support each of the three major construals of eschatological destiny—infernalist, annihilationist, and universalist. Perhaps we need to hear all three voices.14

Catholic patristics scholar Ilaria Rameli offers the following outline of church fathers who were favourable towards the doctrine of apokatastasis:

The main Patristic supporters of the apokatastasis theory, such as Bardaisan, Clement, Origin, Didymus, St. Anthony, St. Pamphilus Martyr, Methodius, St. Macrina, St. Gregory of Nyssa (and probably the two other Cappadocians), St. Evagrius Ponticus, Diodore of Tarsus, Theodore of Mopsuestia, St. John of Jerusalem, Rufinus, St. Jerome and St. Augustine (at least initially) … Cassian, St. Issac of Nineveh, St. John of Dalyatha, Ps. Dionysius the Areopagite, probably St. Maximus the Confessor, up to John the Scot Eriugena, and many others, grounded their Christian doctrine of apokatastasis first of all in the Bible. 15

Dogmatic Standing

There is a common misconception among Catholic and Orthodox Christians that Apokatastasis has been dogmatically condemned by the church. This misunderstanding is encountered at all levels of the hierarchy: there are those who deny the doctrine on the basis of ecclesial authority among priests, bishops, laypeople and theologians.

When first presented with the universalist hope, many Orthodox and Roman Catholics immediately invoke the authority of the Fifth Ecumenical Council (A.D. 553), citing the fifteen anti-Origenist anathemas: “Apokatastasis has been dogmatically defined by the Church as heresy—see canon 1 … case closed.”16

Father Kimel of Eclectic Orthodoxy outlines why this is a mistaken assumption. In summary, the scholarly consensus is that the anathemas against Origenism and apokatastasis were not actually promulgated by the council17, which raises questions as to their dogmatic status. Do they still carry full dogmatic weight if they were not really approved by the bishops of the council? Are they magisterially authoritative purely on the basis that later tradition received them as if the canons had really been promulgated? Fr Kimel calls this the as if approach to fundamental theology:

The following passage from the life of St Sabbas was read to the assembly by Cosmas: “At the fifth holy General Council held at Constantinople, Origen and Theodore of Mopsuestia, together with the speculations of Evagrius and Didymus concerning the pre-existence and restitution of all things, were all subjected to one common and Catholic anathema all the four Patriarchs being present and consistent thereto.” Hence it is clear that by A.D. 787 the wider Church had accepted the attribution of the fifteen anathemas to the Second Council of Constantinople.

Perhaps we might call this the “as if” theory of dogmatic reception: the Church has received the anti-Origienist anathemas as if they had been officially promulgated by an ecumenical council and as if they condemned the universalist views of Origen, St Gregory Nyssen, and St Isaac the Syrian. Rejection of apokatastasis, after all, has been the standard teaching of Latin and Eastern Christianity for almost a millennium and a half. Doesn’t that qualify as ecumenical dogma, even if initially based upon a historical blunder? If we believe hard and long enough that an ecumenical council has dogmatically condemned all forms of universal salvation, then surely it must have. “Fifty million Frenchmen can’t be wrong,” as the saying goes.18

This mindset is quite common among Catholic and Orthodox Christians: “We all believe that apokatastasis is heresy because we have always believed it to have been condemned, regardless of whether or not it actually was”. Father Kimel questions this attitude and firmly rebukes it:

How and when does a doctrinal teaching achieve irreformable dogmatic status? Does it need to be formally defined by an ecumenical council? How long does it take for a doctrine to be properly received, and what are the criteria for reception? May the Church revisit either a dogmatic definition or a long-standing doctrine for compelling theological, historical, and pastoral reasons? Ask Orthodox theologians these and other related questions and one will received multiple, and often contradictory, answers. Hence we should not be surprised when internet apologists, parish priests, and even respected theologians who should know better dismiss the hope of universal salvation with the mere wave of a dogmatic hand. “The Fifth Ecumenical Council settled that long ago,” some tell us. “The Synodikon has infallibly anathematized the universalist hope,” others pontificate. But dogma is too important to be so superficially treated. And the universalist hope is too important to be so cavalierly and hastily dismissed. Substantive and important arguments have been raised against the traditional doctrine of everlasting damnation. They can only be addressed head-on, not dismissed by lazy appeals to authority. And if these arguments should prove compelling, then the question of apokatastasis must also be reopened, for nothing less than the gospel of Jesus Christ is at stake. 19

However, someone may hear all of this and be emotionally committed to the idea that the council really did condemn apokatastasis. They would dismiss all of this historical criticism of the tradition as disrespectful and blasphemous sophistry. “We believe what we have received, and we have received the anathemas of this council. These anathemas cannot be questioned by historical criticism. Science cannot trump tradition”. Fr Kimel responds:

Catholic Christendom came to believe that the fifteen anti-Origenist anathemas had been promulgated by the Fifth Ecumenical Council (for a brief summary of the evidence, see Green, pp. 42-46).

Let us therefore assume that the council did officially publish them. There still remains—and this is the crucial issue—the challenge of interpretation and application. Not all universalisms are the same. Just as there are both heretical and orthodox construals of, say, the atonement or the Incarnation, so there are heretical and orthodox construals of the larger hope. The apokatastasis advanced by St Gregory of Nyssa, for example, differs in decisive ways from the sixth-century theories against which the anathemas were directed. The latter appear to have belonged to an esoteric metaphysical system cut loose from the Scriptures, as even a cursory reading reveals. The chasm between the two is enormous.20

Even if the council did condemn apokatastasis, this does not give one the authority and power to silence those who remain in favour of the idea.

We simply cannot take a dogmatic definition or conciliar anathema and make it apply to whatever views we disapprove. We must interpret it within its historical, cultural, and theological context. Not to do so would be a kind of conciliar fundamentalism, akin to someone who rips a commandment from the book of Leviticus and then insists that it remains obligatory upon Gentile Christians today.21

Hermeneutics is unavoidable, and everyone has an individual responsibility to engage with it, especially theologians. While we must respect the authority of the magisterium and the tradition, we nevertheless have a responsibility to engage in interpretation of the deposit of faith independently. We cannot offload our responsibility for wrestling with the truth to the church or the bible: the church can guide us, but ultimately we also have the responsibility to do it for ourselves.

Conclusion

Apokatastasis is a beautiful and life-giving doctrine, and once all is said and done, the gospel can’t really be said to be “good news” without it. While a certain construal of Apokatastasis may have been condemned at the fifth ecumenical council, the doctrine of Apokatastasis per se remains a legitimate expression of Orthodox and Catholic faith. Let us respond to apokatastasis as St Paul responds; with rapture and doxology:

For God has consigned all men to disobedience, that he may have mercy upon all. O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! “For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor? Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?” For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory for ever. Amen.22

Bibliography

Bulgakov, Sergius. The Bride of the Lamb. Grand Rapids, MI, United States: William B Eerdmans, 2001

Hart, David B. “Saint Origen,” First Things, October 2015. https://www.firstthings.com/article/2015/10/saint-origen

Jersak, Bradley. Her Gates Will Never Be Shut: Hell, Hope, and the New Jerusalem. Eugene, United States: Wipf & Stock, 2005

Kimel, Alvin F. “Readings in Universalism” Eclectic Orthodoxy (blog). WordPress.com, May 15, 2015 https://afkimel.wordpress.com/essential-readings-on-universalism/

Kimel, Alvin F. “Apocatastasis: The Heresy That Never Was” Eclectic Orthodoxy (blog). WordPress.com, October 29, 2019. https://afkimel.wordpress.com/2019/10/29/apocatastasis-the-heresy-that-maybe-never-was/

Rameli, Ilaria. The Christian Doctrine of Apokatastasis : A Critical Assessment from the New Testament to Eriugena. Leiden, Netherlands: BRILL, 2013

1David B. Hart, “Saint Origen,” First Things, October 2015. https://www.firstthings.com/article/2015/10/saint-origen, While not being officially recognised as a saint by either the Catholic or Eastern Orthodox churches, Saint Origen was infallibly and dogmatically canonised on the heavenly and magisterial authority of the glorious and omniscient theologian, Dr David Bentley Hart, in the October 2015 edition of First Things.

2Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, s.v. “apocatastasis,” accessed May 19, 2020, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/apocatastasis.

3Rom 3:10-12 (RSVCE)

4Rom 5:12-21 (RSVCE, slightly altered)

5Rom 8:35,38-39 (RSVCE)

6Rom 9:1-5 (RSVCE)

7Rom 11:25-26 (RSVCE, slightly altered)

8Rom 9:22-23 (RSVCE)

9Rom 11:32 (RSVCE)

101 Cor 15:20-28 (RSVCE, slightly altered)

11Phil 2:5-11 (RSVCE, slightly altered)

12Sergius Bulgakov, The Bride of the Lamb (Grand Rapids, MI, United States: William B Eerdmans, 2001), 379-380

13Bradley Jersak. Her Gates Will Never Be Shut (Eugene, United States: Wipf & Stock, 2005)

14Alvin F. Kimel. “Readings in Universalism” Eclectic Orthodoxy (blog). WordPress.com, May 15, 2015. https://afkimel.wordpress.com/essential-readings-on-universalism/

15Ilaria Rameli, The Christian Doctrine of Apokatastasis (Leiden, Netherlands: BRILL, 2013),

This is not an exhaustive list; there are a multitude of other church fathers who can be cited in favour of the doctrine. Refer to the book for a comprehensive survey of the entire patristic tradition

16Alvin F. Kimel. “Apocatastasis: The Heresy That Never Was” Eclectic Orthodoxy (blog). WordPress.com, October 29, 2019. https://afkimel.wordpress.com/2019/10/29/apocatastasis-the-heresy-that-maybe-never-was/

17Kimel, “Heresy That Never Was”

18Kimel, “Heresy That Never Was”

19Kimel, “Heresy That Never Was”

20Kimel, “Heresy That Never Was”

21Kimel, “Heresy That Never Was”

22Rom 11:32-36 (RSVCE)

Father Roberts (OP, SJ) Homily for Tuesday of the 6th week of Eastertide

Tuesday of the 6th week of Eastertide

Daily Readings

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Entrance Antiphon – Revelation 19: 7, 6

Let us rejoice and be glad and give glory to God, for the Lord our God the Almighty reigns, alleluia.

Collect

Grant, almighty and merciful God, that we may in truth receive a share in the Resurrection of Christ your Son. Who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.

First reading – Acts 16:22-34

The crowd joined in and showed their hostility to Paul and Silas, so the magistrates had them stripped and ordered them to be flogged. They were given many lashes and then thrown into prison, and the gaoler was told to keep a close watch on them. So, following his instructions, he threw them into the inner prison and fastened their feet in the stocks.

Late that night Paul and Silas were praying and singing God’s praises, while the other prisoners listened. Suddenly there was an earthquake that shook the prison to its foundations. All the doors flew open and the chains fell from all the prisoners. When the gaoler woke and saw the doors wide open he drew his sword and was about to commit suicide, presuming that the prisoners had escaped. But Paul shouted at the top of his voice, ‘Don’t do yourself any harm; we are all here.’ The gaoler called for lights, then rushed in, threw himself trembling at the feet of Paul and Silas, and escorted them out, saying, ‘Sirs, what must I do to be saved?’ They told him, ‘Become a believer in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, and your household too.’ Then they preached the word of the Lord to him and to all his family. Late as it was, he took them to wash their wounds, and was baptised then and there with all his household. Afterwards he took them home and gave them a meal, and the whole family celebrated their conversion to belief in God.

Responsorial Psalm – Psalm 137(138):1-3,7-8

Your right hand has saved me, O Lord.

I thank you, Lord, with all my heart: you have heard the words of my mouth. In the presence of the angels I will bless you. I will adore before your holy temple.

I thank you for your faithfulness and love, which excel all we ever knew of you. On the day I called, you answered; you increased the strength of my soul.

You stretch out your hand and save me, your hand will do all things for me. Your love, O Lord, is eternal, discard not the work of your hands.

Alleluia.

Gospel Acclamation – John 16:7,13

Alleluia, alleluia!

I will send you the Spirit of truth, says the Lord; he will lead you to the whole truth.

Alleluia!

Gospel – John 16:5-11

Jesus said to his disciples: ‘Now I am going to the one who sent me. Not one of you has asked, “Where are you going?” Yet you are sad at heart because I have told you this. Still, I must tell you the truth: it is for your own good that I am going because unless I go, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I do go, I will send him to you. And when he comes, he will show the world how wrong it was, about sin, and about who was in the right, and about judgement: about sin: proved by their refusal to believe in me; about who was in the right: proved by my going to the Father and your seeing me no more; about judgement: proved by the prince of this world being already condemned.’

Prayer over the Offerings

Grant, we pray, O Lord, that we may always find delight in these paschal mysteries, so that the renewal constantly at work within us may be the cause of our unending joy. Through Christ our Lord.

Communion Antiphon – Luke 24: 46, 26

The Christ had to suffer and rise from the dead, and so enter into his glory, alleluia.

Prayer after Communion

Hear, O Lord, our prayers, that this most holy exchange, by which you have redeemed us, may bring your help in this present life and ensure for us eternal gladness. Through Christ our Lord.

Homily

We see in today’s reading from the book of Acts the pain and torture that were suffered by the Apostle Paul during his missionary travels. I tell you now, all who trust the Gospel should expect the same persecution. Whether it comes in the form of flogging and physical torture or psychological torment is besides the point: at the end of the day we who believe the promise of the salvation of the cosmos and all who wander within it must expect to suffer intense pain for our faith.

But just as Christ on the cross experienced brutal torments without suffering, so too we will experience pain while laughing for joy. For witness what the biblical author reports Paul and his companion Silas doing immediately after they suffered such unspeakable tortures and were tossed into prison: They prayed and sung Gods praises! See how no torture could rob these men of their joy? Why is it not the same with you? When pain and persecutions come your way do you doubt God, or do you revel in the chance to be a martyr for Christ? When someone slanders you for your faith do you fall silent and stare at your feet? Or do you stand tall and confidently proclaim the certain victory of the eschaton? When someone asks you “Are you saved?”, do you retreat into agnosticism and stammer out some half baked excuse about free will and uncertainty, or do you joyfully sing “Amen”?

Behold the divine madness and holy insanity that Paul displays in this tale: A miraculous earthquake frees him and the other prisoners from their cells and shackles, but Paul is so full of the divine love that he refuses to seize the opportunity to escape, and instead remains in the cell for the sake of the gaoler, who would most certainly be tortured and executed for allowing his prisoners to abscond. This action flowed from a holy insanity, but it was such a bold demonstration that even the gaoler could not fight being overcome with faith in the promise of salvation. Presumably he had heard all the songs that Paul, Silas and the other prisoners were all singing. Presumably all the other prisoners came to believe in the Gospel promise too.

Perhaps Paul and Silas were singing today’s Psalm? It seems like a particularly joyous and exuberant song. Paul thanks the Lord with all his heart: for God heard the words of his mouth. In the presence of the angels Paul will blesses him. Paul thanks God for his faithfulness and love. God increases the strength of Paul’s soul.

Today’s Gospel continues the theme of yesterday’s Gospel: The coming of the Spirit. As mentioned yesterday, the Spirit gives us the power to proclaim the resurrection in such a way that it efficaciously converts all who hear the promise. Those who are unable to convert crowds by their preaching are devoid of the charisms of the Spirit. Today the Resurrected Christ speaks to us, letting us know that the Spirit will guide us into all truth.

How do we know that we have the spirit? Because of our baptism and confirmation! But how do we know if the spirit is active in our lives? This is harder to determine. You must examine yourself for the fruits of the spirit. If you believe that you are right and others are wrong, your heart is hard and the spirit does not dwell in you. If you believe that other Christians are heretics who are destined for the eternal hellfire, then you have not understood the Gospel promise. If you think that Muslims are deceived and are worshipping some other God, you are still walking in the darkness. If you think that it is your faith that saves you, or your baptism, or your confession; you have missed the point of the message.

If you confidently affirm the universal salvation of all souls and the entire cosmos, you have done well. Christ will call you a good and faithful servant on the last day. If you affirm the fundamental truth, goodness and equality before God of all religions, traditions, philosophies and theologies; you will be rewarded highly on the last day.

Anyone who denies the salvation of all people already stands condemned, and the spirit has not penetrated their heart. If that is you, then read the scriptures closely and pray like your life depends on it, for to die without believing the promise is the worst possible fate – worse than anything any of us could imagine.

God’s word achieves what it sets out to achieve, and God’s promise secures the salvation that it promises. So none of us need fear for either ourselves or our neighbour: All will infallibly be saved. Whatever needs to be done, God will see to it that it be done. Nothing can stand between us and the love of Christ. Do not attempt to exclude people from his love, for this is the height of foolishness.

But God’s love will hunt you down and save you, I guarantee it. God guarantees it. Who are you, O man, to run away from God? He is the sovereign lord of the universe, and he desires to save you: are you really so presumptuous that you believe you have the power and “freedom” to escape his romantic overtures? God is the perfect gentleman: he will not force himself on us, but it is guaranteed that we will eventually fall for him and his overwhelming beauty. No one will fail to achieve salvation. This is what Christ represents. Christ is salvation incarnate. Find yourself in his face, and you will pass beyond the final judgement, even while you remain here on earth.

Praise God for his glorious grace, and the joys of the eschaton to come.

Father Alex Roberts (OP, SJ)

Saint Origen of Alexandria

Biography1

Origen2 was born in the mid 180s in Alexandria, Egypt. His father was an upper class professor of literature and a committed Christian, who raised Origen in the faith and taught him to memorise scripture passages every day.

When Origen was in his late teens, there was a violent persecution throughout the Roman empire put in motion by the Emperor Severus. During this time Origen’s father was imprisoned and eventually executed via beheading. Origen was zealous for martyrdom and desired to turn himself in to the persecuting authorities, but his mother prevented him from doing so by hiding all of his clothes at the crucial moment, thus preventing him from leaving his house and turning himself in.

At the age of 18, Origen found work as a catechist at the Alexandrian Catechetical school. This was a means by which he could support his family, who were in need of a new breadwinner seeing as his father had been executed. Origen’s routine at this time consisted of spending the daylight hours teaching, and then staying up late into the night writing theological works. At this period of his life he refused to drink alcohol and refused to eat meat.3

Around this time Origen managed to convert a wealthy man named Ambrose to the faith. Ambrose showed his gratitude to Origen by supplying him with funding and all the material resources required to live out his academic vocation.

Apart from teaching, Origen was also a student and it is reported by Eusebius that he studied under another renowned church father, Clement of Alexandria. Origen also studied at the various other philosophical schools in Alexandria, giving him both wide and deep exposure to the broader tradition of Hellenistic thought.

Tradition holds that Origen castrated himself sometime during this youthful Alexandrian period. This was on account of his holding to a literal interpretation of Matthew 19:12. There is an ongoing dispute among historians as to whether this actually happened, and one alternative theory is that the story was concocted by his enemies as a false rumour in order to tarnish his reputation and get him into trouble with the Roman authorities.

In his 20s, Origen travelled around Asia Minor and the Mediterranean, including visits to Rome and Arabia. During this time he had a tense relationship with Demetrius, the bishop of Alexandria, who had jurisdiction over him. At a certain point on his travels, Origen was illicitly ordained a priest by one of the bishops at Caesarea, which worsened the tension between Origen and Demetrius. Origen opted to remain in Caesarea rather than return to Alexandria. Meanwhile Demetrius started to actively oppose Origen by spreading rumours and generating scandal and outrage towards Origen’s more speculative ideas (such as apokatastasis). However ultimately the attempt to tarnish Origen’s name was unsuccessful, and during his stay in Caesarea, he acquired a reputation as the premier Christian theologian of the day.

Origen continued teaching up until 250, when the Decian persecution occurred. Origen was captured and his captors brutally tormented him in an attempt to force him to renounce his faith. Origen endured the torture for two years without succumbing to the temptation to apostatise. He lived out the short remainder of his life severely crippled, finally dying at the age of 69.

Major Works and Key Themes

According to Epiphanius, Origen wrote around 6000 treatises and other works, while St Jerome gives a more modest estimate which puts the number around 2000.4 Unfortunately the majority of his literary corpus has been lost, but nevertheless what remains extant is substantial. He wrote commentaries on all of the scriptural books, as well as numerous homilies and letters dealing with theological themes. Arguably the most important of his writings that we still possess today is Περι Αρχων (On First Principles)5, which is a (relatively) short systematic theology touching upon every important theological point, including protology, christology, anthropology, pure theology, eschatology, soteriology and so on.

Origen’s teachings constitute a single systematic theology which can only be understood as a unified whole; while he did cover the whole territory and have something to say about all the different areas of Christian theology, attempting to divide his theology into separate and isolated domains risks misrepresenting him. However, there are three key themes which today stand out as unique in his thinking and writings: Pre-existence, Samsara and Apokatastasis, and these three are intimately intertwined with each other.

Samsara is a sanskrit word which names the foundational philosophical concept underlying all Indian and eastern philosophy, theology, and religion. In terms of importance and centrality to Indian thought, it occupies a place and prestige akin to that which Tawhid6 holds in Islam and to which the Trinity holds in Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. Samsara also features in the wings of the western tradition, with some of the Greek philosophers holding to it, and it also featured for a time in the Christian tradition via Origen and those whom he influenced.

Common to all conceptions of samsara is the idea that nature, reality, existence and history are essentially cyclical.7 However beyond this broad definition, different schools differ significantly on the details. As a point of comparison, the Indian (and ancient Greek) schools8 broadly teach that a human may live through their life, and then on the basis of the karma9 they have accrued at their point of death, the human person may be reborn as one of either: another human, an animal, a plant, an inanimate object such as a rock a god10 or even an angel or demon.11 Generally this rebirth is understood to occur at some subsequent point on the same historical timeline as the previous life12. In this way a soul (or “empty being” in the case of Buddhism) may live many distinct and loosely connected lives one after another, sometimes living as a human, sometimes as an animal, sometimes as a plant. During one life the soul may reside within the body of a beautiful Chinese woman, the next life it may make its home in the body of an evil African dictator.13 The only thing linking different lives together is that the actions undertaken in a previous life will at some point produce an (positive or negative) effect in one or another of the subsequent lives.

In contrast, Origen’s account of samsara firmly denies the transmigration of souls as just described.14 Origen’s version of samsara is more analogous to the movie “Groundhog Day.”15 Rather than being reborn “as some other person”, Origen maintained that a person is resurrected as the same person they were in their previous life, with the same body, same parents, same cultural and historical context and so on. The Stoic school of Greek philosophy also affirmed this, however where the Stoics believed in an infinitely repeating cycle which plays out exactly the same in every detail every time,16 Origen firmly held to a doctrine of free will,17 which implies that every cycle will be different as it is affected by the choices that persons make during their many lifetimes. Just as in Groundhog day, the purpose of living the same life over and over again is in order to be spiritually educated and one day “get it right”, thus breaking out of the cycle of death and rebirth, and finally arriving permanently in the heavenly eschaton.18

In Indian thought samsara is without beginning or end; the cycle of life, death and rebirth has been going on for all eternity and it will continue to go on forever. Whereas in Origen’s account of samsara the history of the cosmos has a beginning and an end; the cycle of life, death and rebirth began with the fall of mankind at the beginning (αρχη) of history19, and it will come to an end (τελος) once all persons have achieved salvation and arrived safely in the eschaton20. Origen’s claim is that the beginning is the same as the end: Just as all persons existed in happiness and harmony in the beginning, so too all persons will exist in happiness and harmony in the end.21 So whereas in Indian construals of the doctrine, samsara is unbounded and infinite, in Origen’s understanding samsara is bounded by the fall as the beginning of the cycle and the restoration at the end of the cycle.22

This brings us to Origen’s teaching of pre-existence. This is the most misunderstood23 and controversial aspect of his teaching, and was historically a major cause of his condemnation at the fifth ecumenical council24 and his subsequent loss of reputation and standing in the church – a reputation which he has only recently begun to recapitulate.25

Origen is commonly criticised as teaching that souls pre-exist their bodies26, which is nonsensical according to Aristotelian and Thomistic construals of the soul as “the form of the body”. However when analysed closely, one discovers that Origen actually teaches the pre-existence of whole persons, including both soul and body27. Following St Paul, Origen teaches that there is both a samsaric physical body and a resurrected spiritual body.

Οὕτως καὶ ἡ ἀνάστασις τῶν νεκρῶν. σπείρεται ἐν φθορᾷ, ἐγείρεται ἐν ἀφθαρσίᾳ· σπείρεται ἐν ἀτιμίᾳ, ἐγείρεται ἐν δόξῃ· σπείρεται ἐν ἀσθενείᾳ, ἐγείρεται ἐν δυνάμει· σπείρεται σῶμα ψυχικόν, ἐγείρεται σῶμα πνευματικόν. Εἰ ἔστιν σῶμα ψυχικόν, ἔστιν καὶ πνευματικόν. οὕτως καὶ γέγραπται· Ἐγένετο ὁ πρῶτος ἄνθρωπος Ἀδὰμ εἰς ψυχὴν ζῶσαν· ὁ ἔσχατος Ἀδὰμ εἰς πνεῦμα ζῳοποιοῦν. ἀλλ’ οὐ πρῶτον τὸ πνευματικὸν ἀλλὰ τὸ ψυχικόν, ἔπειτα τὸ πνευματικόν. ὁ πρῶτος ἄνθρωπος ἐκ γῆς χοϊκός, ὁ δεύτερος ἄνθρωπος ἐξ οὐρανοῦ. οἷος ὁ χοϊκός, τοιοῦτοι καὶ οἱ χοϊκοί, καὶ οἷος ὁ ἐπουράνιος, τοιοῦτοι καὶ οἱ ἐπουράνιοι· καὶ καθὼς ἐφορέσαμεν τὴν εἰκόνα τοῦ χοϊκοῦ, φορέσομεν καὶ τὴν εἰκόνα τοῦ ἐπουρανίου. Τοῦτο δέ φημι, ἀδελφοί, ὅτι σὰρξ καὶ αἷμα βασιλείαν θεοῦ κληρονομῆσαι οὐ δύναται, οὐδὲ ἡ φθορὰ τὴν ἀφθαρσίαν κληρονομεῖ.28

So is it with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonour, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body. Thus it is written, “The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. But it is not the spiritual which is first but the physical, and then the spiritual. The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. As was the man of dust, so are those who are of the dust; and as is the man of heaven, so are those who are of heaven. Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven. I tell you this, brethren: flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.29

However Origen is more explicit than St Paul in that he teaches that the resurrected, spiritual body and soul which are raised up at the end of samsara are literally the same body and soul which existed in the garden of Eden at the beginning of samsara30. Origen teaches that there is continuity of identity between our physical bodies and souls and our spiritual body and soul31, however our physical bodies only exist during our pilgrimage through samsara, so in the resurrection to eternal life at the end of samsara we will have no more need of these physical bodies and will exist with only our spiritual bodies.

Origen explains that the fundamental difference between the spiritual body/soul and the physical body/soul is that the physical body/soul exists temporally and therefore undergoes change, whereas the spiritual body/soul represents the sum of all of a persons’ physical bodies, but existing as an eternal, immutable and immortal unity. St Gregory of Nyssa later developed this theme to its’ logical conclusion: it is not just a single body that experiences resurrection, but a whole stream of bodies32 (embryo, baby, toddler, child, adult, old man and everything in between).33 Furthermore, because the resurrected spiritual body and soul are eternal, they must necessarily be without beginning or end, and this logically implies that they pre-exist the physical body and soul.

Origen understood samsara to be divisible into discrete ages or worlds.34 Every cycle of samsara ends with Christ returning as judge, weighing up everyone’s sins and virtues, and then annihilating the cosmos and starting the whole cycle again from the beginning. However in the next age/world, the sins and virtues of people during their life in the previous age “come back” to them in a way superficially similar to Indian construals of karma. Those who abused their freedom and were lazy and sinful in the last age are punished in the next, while those who were virtuous are rewarded.35

As previously mentioned, Origen believed that samsara would come to an end. After a long succession of ages, eventually we will arrive at “the age of the ages”, or “the final age”.36 This refers to the apokatastasic eschaton, which is the eternal age standing at the backward and forward horizons of samsara. Immediately prior to the inauguration of this final age, there will be the final judgement. However the outcome of this final judgement is known in advance: all will pass the judgement because by this point, after many (perhaps uncountable) ages, all will have been freely refined in the samsaric fire of death and rebirth to the point where no sin remains to weigh people down and keep them trapped in the cycle.37 At this point there is no more need for further ages, because all people will have freely been baptised, accepted Christ, chosen God, trusted in the Gospel and so on, and therefore all people without exception or distinction will be admitted back to everlasting bliss in the heavenly eschaton where the whole story started in the first place.

Influence on Later Doctrinal Developments

Origen’s impact on both Catholicism specifically and Christianity more broadly has been incredibly vast and multifaceted. It is not possible to exhaustively survey his influence in a paper as short as this. However, one key theme in his thinking that has been vitally influential in development of doctrine in the church is that of the Trinity.

Origen’s Trinitarian theology was neatly integrated into his systematic theology as a whole, however it was sufficiently generic that it was able to be cited in favour of the positions put forward by all parties in the Christological debates that rocked the church in subsequent years. Just as everyone was seemingly able to deploy the New Testament in defence of their own positions, so too Arians and Monarchists, Trinitarians and Subordinationists all equally found support for their views in Origen’s writings.

As they forged what came to be accepted as the central Trinitarian dogma, both Athanasius and the Cappadocian fathers (Gregory Nyssa, Gregory Nazianzen, Basil of Caesarea) all heavily relied on the doctrinal foundations and theological path which Origen had already blazed ahead of them. Similarly, Arius and various other heretics leaned on Origen as they constructed their unorthodox theological frameworks.

The fact that Origen contributed so intimately to the cause of the heretics came to overshadow the fact that he had equally well contributed to the foundations of orthodoxy, and by the time of the fifth ecumenical council he was considered by the authorities of the church to be a heretic himself. He was posthumously condemned, as well as his teachings, however by this point the doctrine of the Trinity had been so thoroughly developed and was so deeply integrated into the liturgy and consciousness of the church that it (thankfully) was not to be stomped out. Unfortunately this did not hold for many of his other beautiful teachings, (such as apokatastasis) and it remains an ongoing task today to recover these forgotten aspects of Origen’s thinking in a manner that is compatible with and palatable to the orthodoxy of the present day.

Bibliography

Eusebius, The History of the Church, trans. G. A. Williamson, Camberwell: Penguin Books Australia, 1989. Amazon

Hart, David B. “Saint Origen,” First Things, October 2015. https://www.firstthings.com/article/2015/10/saint-origen

Kimel, Alvin F. “Apocatastasis: The Heresy That Never Was” Eclectic Orthodoxy (blog). WordPress.com, October 29, 2019. https://afkimel.wordpress.com/2019/10/29/apocatastasis-the-heresy-that-maybe-never-was/

Lapidge, Michael. “Stoic Cosmology.” In The Stoics, edited by John M. Rish, 180-184. Cambridge University Press, 1978.

McGuckin, John Anthony. “The Westminster Handbook to Origen”. Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004

“Mountains and Waters Discourse by Eihei Dogen”, https://terebess.hu/zen/dogen/KS-Tanahashi.html#sansuia

Ramelli, Ilaria L.E. “’Preexistence of Souls’? The αρχη and τελος of Rational Creatures in Origen and Some Origenians,” Studia Patristica, no. 56 (2013): 167-226

Swami, Jayadvaita. “Vanity Karma: Ecclesiastes, the Bhagavad-gita, and the meaning of life”, United States: The Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, 2015

Appendix

The difference between more mainstream/common accounts of samsara and the account of samsara as articulated in the theology of Origen and his theological successors can be illustrated with a mathematical analogy. The Indian account of samsara is analogous to an irregular sign wave stretching backwards and forwards infinitely in both directions on the x-axis, representing time. The amplitude of the wave represents the sum total of the souls karma at any given point in time. Sometimes the karma is negative, sometimes it is positive, and this corresponds to the degree of suffering and pleasure the soul experiences as it moves through its’ many lives. There is no limit to how high the wave can go and no limit to how low it can go, which illustrates that infinite punishments and rewards are possible. There are certain points along the curve which are marked out at roughly (but not exactly) regular intervals. These points represent the transition from one life to another life. The fact that these points never overlap with each other illustrates the fact that there is fundamentally no continuity of identity between rebirths (ie, a soul can be a dog in one life, a flower in the next, a demigod in the following life, a human after that, and so on). The fact that the curve is continuous, indicates that the continuity between births is nothing more than that the reward and punishment which flows from karma picks up in the next life exactly where the last life left off.

The Origenistic account of samsara is better illustrated by a path traced by a conical pendulum around the origin of a Cartesian plane. As in the Indian analogy, the x-axis represents time. When the pendulum is moving above the x-axis this represents time spent alive and while it is below the x-axis this represents time spent dead. The higher the pendulum goes on the y-axis, the more perfect and virtuous the soul is and the longer is the life that it leads. The fact that the pendulum eventually reaches a maximum height on the y-axis and begins to swing back towards the x-axis represents the effect of sin as a dampener on our lives, and how sin drags us back down to death. When the pendulum crosses the x-axis, this represents the death of the soul (and thus the end of the age). The pendulum will then continue to curve around and move “backwards in time” towards where it started. As it moves below the x-axis, this corresponds to time spent in the “intermediate state” (heaven, hell, purgatory, limbo, sheol or what have you). Eventually it crosses the x-axis again, very close to where it begun the circuit last time, corresponding to the recreation of the age and the “resurrection” of the same person in a very similar state and condition to that which it experienced in the last cycle/age. In this model, it is possible for the pendulum to swing such that it traces out a circle with an infinite radius. This would work out to be a line which just keeps travelling vertically, which would correspond to a sinless existence and “eternal life”, effectively breaking the cycle by transforming the path of the pendulum into one that is linear. In a similar way it is also possible for the pendulum to swing such that it traces a horizontal line below the x-axis. This would correspond to traditional notions of “everlasting damnation”.

1My primary source while writing this section was Eusebius, “The History of the Church”

2David B. Hart, “Saint Origen,” First Things, October 2015. https://www.firstthings.com/article/2015/10/saint-origen, While not being officially recognised as a saint by either the Catholic or Eastern Orthodox churches, Saint Origen was infallibly and dogmatically canonised on the heavenly and magisterial authority of the glorious and omniscient theologian, Dr David Bentley Hart, in the October 2015 edition of First Things.

3Area for future research: Does the fact that he was a teetotaller in any way reflect on the liturgy of the time? This is especially curious considering that – with very few known exceptions throughout history – the Eucharist has involved alcoholic wine being consumed by a celebrant (at minimum), with the congregation often participating too.

4John Anthony McGuckin, The Westminster Handbook to Origen, (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), 26

5But alas, we only have a “complete” version in the form of a dubious Latin translation by one of his later admirers, Rufinus

6The absolute oneness and unity of God

7A Jewish Hare Krishna devotee has written a wonderful commentary on the book of Ecclesiastes in which he powerfully makes the case that the cyclical nature of reality is a core teaching of the book. See Jayadvaita Swami, Vanity Karma: Ecclesiastes, the Bhagavad-gita, and the meaning of life (United States: The Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, 2015)

8These broadly being Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism

9A loose working definition of karma being “the running total of your good (virtuous/meritorious) and evil (sinful) works”

10“god” here with a lowercase G to indicate the idea of anthropomorphic “gods” as are encountered in the various and colourful mythologies of world religions throughout history, as opposed to the more philosophical/theological idea of the one true God which sophisticated theologians across all religious traditions love to speculate on.

11Curiously, according to certain schools of Buddhism, it’s even possible to be reborn as a mountain, an ocean or an entire forest. See “Mountains and Waters Discourse by Eihei Dogen”, https://terebess.hu/zen/dogen/KS-Tanahashi.html#sansuia

12Some thinkers speculate on the idea of being reborn “backwards” in time, or even into alternate or fictional realities. In this way one might be reborn as Hitler, Jesus, the Buddha, Zeus, Thor. The more mainstream understanding limits the rebirth phenomenon such that it occurs “in step” with the movement of time and excludes the possibility of being reborn in fictional worlds.

13This phenomenon of a soul jumping from one physical body to another completely unrelated body is refereed to as “transmigration” (μετεμψυχωσις).

14Ilaria L.E. Ramelli, “’Preexistence of Souls’? The αρχη and τελος of Rational Creatures in Origen and Some Origenians,”, Studia Patristica, no. 56 (2013): 168

15For those unfamiliar with the film, the premise is that a cynical bastard of a man (played by Bill Murray) finds himself trapped in a time loop, where he is forced to live the same day over and over again until he “gets it right” by becoming a better person to such an extent that he is able to live a perfect day and thus earn the right to exit the cycle.

16Michael Lapidge, “Stoic Cosmology,” in The Stoics, ed. John M. Rish (Cambridge University Press, 1978), 180-184

17Ramelli, “Preexistence of Souls”, 181

18Ramelli, “Preexistence of Souls”, 192

19As described in Genesis 1-3

20Ramelli, “Preexistence of Souls”, 192. This is the “final restoration”: αποκαταστασις

21Ramelli, “Preexistence of Souls”, 192

22The difference between the Indian and Origenistic accounts of samsara can be illustrated with a locus analagy. Indian samsara is cyclical in a similar sense to the way in which a sign wave is cyclical: the soul oscillates between local minima and maxima (representing good and bad rebirths), and the locus point is forever moving forward along the axis (which represents time) towards infinity and never going backwards. In comparison, Origenistic samsara is cyclical in a similar fashion to the way in which a conical pendulum exhibits cyclical behaviour: a projection onto a plane of the path traced by the pendulum will reveal it to approximate a circle: the pendulum is always returning to pass close by to the point where it began (representing the transition between the end of one age and the beginning of the next). For the benefit of those rare, blessed, holy and worthy souls to whom God has sovereignly elected to bestow the ultimate gift, the highest grace and the most supreme virtue of a mathematical mind, an appendix has been appended to the end of this paper wherein these magnificent and illustrious readers – if they are interested in seeing how far the analogy can be pushed – are welcome to explore further. Those who take up the offer are most certainly predestined to beatitude, for there is no surer guarantee of salvation than the ability to understand this author’s eclectic mathematical analogies deployed in the attempt to illustrate obscure theological heresies.

23Ramelli, “Preexistence of Souls”, 167-226

24More accurately, his pseudo-condemnation. For a comprehensive discussion and analysis of the controversy, see Alvin F. Kimel. “Apocatastasis: The Heresy That Never Was” Eclectic Orthodoxy (blog). WordPress.com, October 29, 2019. https://afkimel.wordpress.com/2019/10/29/apocatastasis-the-heresy-that-maybe-never-was/

25Hart, “Saint Origen”

26Ramelli, “Preexistence of Souls”, 168

27Ramelli, “Preexistence of Souls”, 170

281 Cor 15:42-50 (SBLGNT)

291 Cor 15:42-50 (RSVCE, mildly edited to conform with Australian English spelling standards)

30Ramelli, “Preexistence of Souls”, 172

31Ramelli, “Preexistence of Souls”, 178

32Ramelli, “Preexistence of Souls”, 200

33Incidentally, this may relate to why the glorified Christ still had holes in his hands after his resurrection: It may be argued that the resurrected Christ chose to return to earth in a body that retained the marks of his passion, presumably so that the disciples would recognise him and appreciate the cosmic weight of what had just occurred. However seeing as Christs entire stream of bodies from infancy to adult-hood was resurrected, he could have appeared to the disciples as a young man, as a baby, as a wise old man who had lived 1000 years, or potentially even as a glorified Jesus who hadn’t even ever been crucified in the first place. Entertaining this last possibility may indicate a solution to the mystery of why the disciples sometimes did not immediately recognise their risen Lord; namely, in those particular appearances where he was not instantly recognised he was appearing without his wounds, while in other resurrection appearances, he chose to retain them.

34αεον” in Greek, “saecula” in Latin.

35All of this lines up straightforwardly with scriptural talk of “reward and punishment in the next life”. To cite just one scriptural example, the parable of the Sheep and the Goats in Matthew 25.

36In Latin the phrase used is “in saecula saeculorum”; in English, “world without end”.

37Ramelli, “Preexistence of Souls”, 192

Article Review: Senses of Scripture in the Second Century

Summary of Article

In his paper, Bingham argues against the traditional understanding of the development of the New Testament scriptural canon.1 Specifically, he argues against the view that certain books (such as The Shepherd of Hermas) were considered by Christians to be inspired and authoritative early in the history of the faith, only to lose this standing (to be “decanonized”) later on. Bingham’s method involves a close examination of the way in which St Irenaeus refers to different scriptural texts (both those which were later received as canonical and those which were not) in his writings.2

Bingham discovers a pattern in Irenaeus in which the saint tends to identify his scriptural quotations as being either prophet, apostle, lord, or a more generic scripture.3 He argues that while a quotation identified under the name of prophet, apostle or lord always refers to a text Irenaeus considered to be canonical, a quotation identified as scripture (γραφη) sometimes refers to texts which Irenaeus considered to be inspired and authoritative and other times does not.4 Bingham then constructs elaborate and detailed arguments in an attempt to demonstrate that despite the fact St Irenaeus appears to quote extracanonical texts as if they are equal in authority to canonical ones, he actually more or less accepted exactly the same New Testament canon that Christians accept today.5

Academic Comment

Bingham correctly identifies that there are different sub categories of “scripture”, but his mistake is to assume that these different sub-categories can ultimately be sorted into the two broad categories of “canonical” and “non-canonical”. It seems far more reasonable to assume that for Irenaeus (and other church fathers of the time), all the scriptures that they quote were considered by them to be authoritative and canonical. This can be easily and simply demonstrated by the mere fact that Iranaeus deploys these quotes to illustrate and prove the points that he is trying to make. What would be the point of quoting from a text which is non-authoritative in order to prove an argument? Clearly either Irenaeus or his audience (most likely both) considered all of the texts that he was quoting to hold authority, otherwise he would not have bothered to reference them at all.

Bingham’s argument suffers from an ideological (specifically an Evangelical Protestant) commitment to the idea that there has always been one single canon of authoritative and inspired scriptures, even if the church did not fully recognise it until later on in history. He attempts to read this presupposition back into history and is forced to employ labyrinth and convoluted arguments in an attempt to shoehorn Irenaeus to fit this narrative.

Bingham attempts to argue that the texts later received by the church as canonical are the exact same texts that Irenaeus received as canonical in his day; he attempts to argue that the texts later rejected by the church were likewise never considered to have canonical authority by Irenaeus. His argument is unconvincing because it is overly complex. But even assuming that he were correct, a big problem with his argument is that it is constructed entirely on the basis of a single church father. Bingham tries to draw sweeping conclusions about the doctrine and beliefs of the early church purely based on his analysis of Irenaeus.

This is problematic because Christianity has never been one uniform faith. From the beginning up to the present day, there are many and various scriptural canons in use throughout the Christian world. There has never at any point in history been one single scriptural canon which all Christians everywhere agree on. Furthermore, certain quarters of Christianity have more rigidly defined their canons than others. Catholicism dogmatically defined its scriptural canon at the council of Trent, whereas Irenaeus in his day was merely working with the scriptures that he had received. This being the case, it seems far more simple and reasonable to assume that Irenaeus understood all of the scriptures he was quoting to be inspired and authoritative at minimum, while the question of whether or not he understood them to be “canonical” is something of an anachronism as the idea of “canonicity” had not really been fleshed out in his day.

Counter Thesis

Bingham’s argument depends heavily on the definition and bounds of the word “γραφη”. To get a better understanding of the scope this word as it was used during apostolic and new testament times, it’s helpful to analyse the New Testament itself.

In discussions of inspiration, authority and scriptural canonicity, Protestants and Catholics alike often refer to 2 Timothy 3:14-17:

σὺ δὲ μένε ἐν οἷς ἔμαθες καὶ ἐπιστώθης, εἰδὼς παρὰ τίνων ἔμαθες, καὶ ὅτι ἀπὸ βρέφους ἱερὰ γράμματα οἶδας, τὰ δυνάμενά σε σοφίσαι εἰς σωτηρίαν διὰ πίστεως τῆς ἐν Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ· πᾶσα γραφὴ θεόπνευστος καὶ ὠφέλιμος πρὸς διδασκαλίαν, πρὸς ἐλεγμόν, πρὸς ἐπανόρθωσιν, πρὸς παιδείαν τὴν ἐν δικαιοσύνῃ, ἵνα ἄρτιος ᾖ ὁ τοῦ θεοῦ ἄνθρωπος, πρὸς πᾶν ἔργον ἀγαθὸν ἐξηρτισμένος.6

But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with sacred writings which are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.7

When asked to prove that the bible is inspired, the average Evangelical will flip to this passage and quote it as a proof text while saying something along the lines of “See? ‘All scripture is God-breathed’; The bible claims itself to be inspired”.8 This argument is problematic on so many levels. Firstly, it is blatantly circular reasoning.9 Secondly, strictly speaking, this passage does not say “the 66 books of the protestant canon are inspired”, neither does it say “the old testament is inspired” (as many will try to argue when the previous objections are pointed out to them). Literally, it says all scripture is inspired.

Now, the common move at this point is to argue about the definition and bounds of the word “scripture” (γραφη). Apologists and theologians will attempt via various interesting means to argue that “scripture” is a word which here refers to their canon of inspired texts, and not to some other competing scriptural canon. This may be a valid eisegesis, but it is worlds away from being a valid exegesis.

Let us attempt a brief exegesis to try and extract the true limits and bounds of the word γραφη as used in this passage (and by extension also gain some insight into how St Irenaeus understands the word). Three important premises must be established:

  1. According to tradition, the author of the letter was Saint Paul10

  2. In verse 15, Paul describes Timothy as being acquainted with “sacred writings” “from childhood”

  3. Timothy was a gentile, not a Jew.

It follows from these observations that when Paul refers to the “holy scriptures” (γραφη) which Timothy grew up with, he is not referring to the bible, or even to the old testament. As a gentile, Timothy would have grown up immersed in pagan culture and literature. It is therefore far more probably that the scriptures which Timothy was exposed to growing up included things such as Homer’s Illiad and Odyssey, perhaps even Ovid’s metamorphoses or Virgil’s Aenid. While it is certainly possible to make an argument that Timothy grew up reading the Torah, it is implausible, and the more plausible proposition is that the writings Timothy grew up reading were pagan in origin.

This theory becomes even more compelling when St Paul is accepted as the author of the letter. In the book of Acts, when Paul travels to Athens and preaches to the Greeks, he quotes the Greek poets and philosophers while making his arguments, and he pointedly does not quote the Jewish scriptures.11 If anything, this shows that Paul acknowledges some degree of authority and usefulness in the pagan Greek sources which he employs to bolster his arguments and preaching.

Paul clarifies his evangelistic approach in the letter of 1 Corinthians:

For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to all, that I might win the more. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews; to those under the law I became as one under the law—though not being myself under the law—that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law—not being without law toward God but under the law of Christ—that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.12

This indicates that when preaching, Paul would adopt the dogmatic framework and canonical scriptures of whichever people he was preaching to. When he was preaching the Gospel to Jews, he would quote the Torah, Psalms and Prophets. When he was preaching to pagans, he would utilise the scriptural and traditional authorities which those pagans respected.

Presumably if Paul was around and evangelising today in a cosmopolitan city like Sydney, he would quote the Qu’ran and Hadith to any Muslims he encountered; he would reference the Vedas, the Ramayana, the Mahabharata to any Hindus he came across; he would cite the Book of Mormon and the Doctrine and Covenants while preaching to Mormon Christians; and he would make reference to the Catechism and the many Papal encyclicals when disputing with Catholics.

In light of Paul’s own description of his evangelistic method, 2 Timothy 3:14-17 makes much more sense. When Paul says “all scripture” is inspired, he literally means all scripture. He’s not trying to make some statement about the inspiration of a limited canon of scriptural books as received by Jews, Catholics or Protestants today; he is instead affirming the value and usefulness of all scripture. To spell it out bluntly, when Paul says all scripture, he is thinking not only of the Old Testament, but also of all of the pagan literature which Timothy was exposed to growing up, as well as the sacred texts of every culture, tradition and religion throughout the entire world. Not only the Bible, but also the Bhagavad Gita, the Qu’ran and the Dao De Jing are “inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” and such texts “are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.“

Thus, Paul is not here making an apologetic argument for the inspiration of the Protestant or Catholic biblical canon, but he is instead affirming the supreme and abiding value of all scripture in the fullest and most inclusive sense.

Conclusion

Given that the word “scripture” (γραφη) as employed by St Paul was so wide as to include the cultural texts (both sacred and mundane) of every culture the entire world over, this should help us understand how St Irenaeus approached the issues of scripture, canon and authority. St Irenaeus evidently respected and employed a wide variety of scriptural texts to make his theological points. There is no reason to assume that he understood the texts he was quoting to be anything other than inspired and authoritative. Binghams’ argument is driven by modern evangelical ideological commitments which he then reads back into the historical record. The result is an extremely convoluted and involved argument which is hard to follow. A simpler solution is just to assume that when Paul says “all scripture” he literally means all scripture. And so when St Irenaeus refers to “scripture” (γραφη) he is most likely using the word in a similarly loose and inclusive way.

Bibliography

Catholic Answers. “According to Scripture. Why the ‘Bible Alone’ is an unworkable rule of faith.” Accessed June 9, 2020. https://www.catholic.com/magazine/print-edition/according-to-scripture

Compelling Truth. “Is the Bible really the Word of God? Accessed June 9, 2020, https://www.compellingtruth.org/Bible-Word-of-God.html.

D. Jeffrey Bingham, “Senses of Scripture in the Second Century: Irenaeus, Scripture, and Noncanonical Christian Texts,” The Journal of Religion Vol. 97 (2017): 26-55

Genesis Park. “Evidence that the Bible is God’s Word.” Accessed June 9, 2020, https://www.genesispark.com/essays/gods-word/

Got Questions. “Is the Bible truly God’s Word?”, accessed June 9, 2020, https://www.gotquestions.org/Bible-God-Word.html.

1D. Jeffrey Bingham, “Senses of Scripture in the Second Century: Irenaeus, Scripture, and Noncanonical Christian Texts,” The Journal of Religion Vol. 97 (2017): 26.

2Bingham, “Senses of Scripture”, 27

3Bingham, “Senses of Scripture”, 31

4Bingham, “Senses of Scripture”, 32

5Bingham, “Senses of Scripture”, 33-52

61 Tim 3:14-17 (SBLGNT)

71 Tim 3:14-17 (RSVCE, mildly edited)

8Three examples of this phenomenon were discovered within 60 seconds of a google search with the terms “prove that the bible is gods word”: “Is the Bible truly God’s Word?”, Got Questions, accessed June 9, 2020, https://www.gotquestions.org/Bible-God-Word.html. “Is the Bible really the Word of God?, Compelling Truth, accessed June 9, 2020, https://www.compellingtruth.org/Bible-Word-of-God.html. “Evidence that the Bible is God’s Word”, Genesis Park, accessed June 9, 2020, https://www.genesispark.com/essays/gods-word/

9“According to Scripture. Why the ‘Bible Alone’ is an unworkable rule of faith”, Catholic Answers, accessed June 9, 2020. https://www.catholic.com/magazine/print-edition/according-to-scripture

10Critical scholarship sometimes disputes Pauline authorship, but there is no academic consensus that the traditional attribution of 2 Timothy to Paul is spurious.

11Cf Acts 17:16-34

121 Cor 9:19-23 (RSVCE)

 

Ethics and the Image of God: Review

Summary

In his article, Pinckaers briefly surveys the idea of the Image of God in Christian theology, with particular focus on what St. Thomas Aquinas had to say on the issue. The crucial point that Pinckaers makes is that in more traditional theology (as exemplified by St. Thomas), the idea of the Image of God is intimately wrapped up with a classical notion of Free Will. Pinckaers briefly touches on the fact that the modern, voluntarist notion of freedom which many have adopted today is fundamentally opposed to this classical understanding which is rooted in the idea that man is the image of God.

Academic Comment

In the classical understanding of the relationship between intellect and will, man is fundamentally oriented towards God in the core of his being. St. Maximus the Confessor calls this fundamental orientation the natural will, and it is this natural will of man with which the image of God is identified. The natural will is permanently fixed on God as it’s object and cannot be moved from its’ orientation towards the good. To put it loosely, the natural will always chooses the best possible option, namely, God.

However the fall wounded mankind by plunging us into a state of ignorance and introducing another will into our being which often comes into conflict with our natural orientation towards God; a will which, due to human ignorance, fluctuates and deliberates between options, assessing which options are better than others, and selecting certain options to the exclusion of others. St. Maximus refers to this will as the gnomic will, or deliberative will, because it is the human faculty whereby we deliberate between alternative courses of action and choose to follow one rather than another. This will can (and often does) make mistakes, by choosing a lesser good rather than the highest good, and this is the essence of sin.

So according to St. Maximus, fallen man has two wills; his natural will, with which he always yearns for God in everything that he does, and his deliberative will, with which he weighs up alternatives and makes a probabilistic decision in an attempt to satisfy his natural will.

Now, both popular Catholic theology and the voluntarist understanding of free will differ from this account in fundamental ways. Firstly, the voluntarist understanding of freedom simply denies that man has a natural will, and reduces the will solely to the gnomic will. In this understanding, man has to decide for himself what the best course of action is, and God merely steers his choices by imposing external commandments and laws upon him, complete with consequences of punishment for failing to observe those laws. Freedom here reduces to what Pinckaers calls freedom of indifference. Freedom is understood essentially to be a will with no external constrains imposed on it, and with such an understanding of freedom, Atheism follows.

On the other hand, while Catholic theology more or less accepts the idea of the natural and gnomic wills (while using the categories of Western scholasticism rather than Eastern theological language to express them), it differs from the classical understanding of freedom because it introduces the idea that a person will not always obey the conclusions of their gnomic will with respect to what the highest good in any given situation is. When this happens, it is called mortal sin.

According to St. Maximus, human beings are created by God in such a way that a person will always follow the best course of action that is presented to her by the deliberations of her gnomic will. The gnomic will may be mistaken in it’s conclusion as to what the best course of action is, and so when the person follows through with this mistaken judgement they would have sinned in doing so. However crucially for St. Maximus, they would not be culpable for this sin, because they were simply doing what they thought was best.

In contrast to this, Latin theology claims that it is possible for a person to ignore the promptings of both their gnomic will and their natural will and so choose a lesser good (ie, sin) with full knowledge that they are doing so. In other words, they have fully assessed the situation, know exactly and totally what the best course of action is, and then nevertheless wilfully refuse to follow that course of action. Catholic theology refers to this as mortal sin.

Eastern Orthodox scholar David Bentley Hart argues in his recent book “That All Shall Be Saved” that this understanding of mortal sin is contradictory, in that if someone has “full knowledge” in a situation, they are essentially rendered totally non potest peccare (ie. totally unable to sin). He argues (in line with St Maximus) that all sin proceeds from ignorance, and to be free from ignorance (ie to possess full knowledge) would make it inevitable that a person would choose the highest good. All of this is according to exactly the same logic by which Catholic Christianity explains that the glorified saints in heaven are unable to sin.

According to this classical understanding (as articulated by Hart and St. Maximus), the essence of freedom is to be liberated from all ignorance, delusion and insanity which act as malign influences over a persons will. A person is only free when God has opened their eyes to see the truth clearly, and once this person can see the truth freely, they are irresistibly drawn to it and are rendered incapable of sin. In other words, true freedom excludes the possibility of sin, and so long as it remains possible for a person to sin, that person is not free in the classical sense.

This classical understanding would appear to contradict with popular Catholicism at a surface reading, in that modern Catholic apologetics makes heavy use of the “free will defence” when attempting to explain that Hell consists of unending and inescapable torment. According to this apologetic, the possibility of Hell is explained by the power of a human will to make the choice to freely reject God. Hart and St. Maximus would say that this is fundamentally incoherent and contradictory, because if a person chooses to dwell in Hell, it would not be a free choice; it would indeed be a choice that the person has truly made via their own agency, but it would be a choice that is enslaved to either insanity or ignorance, and is therefore not free. Either the person does not have full knowledge, in which case their choice of Hell is born of ignorance, or the person does have full knowledge, in which case their choice of Hell is an act of sheer insanity (and most likely influenced by demonic powers); In either case, the choice of Hell is not a free choice.

To conclude on a soteriological and eschatological note: according to the classical understanding of freedom, God is in the business of liberating us from the limitations of our gnomic will, such that we are rendered incapable of sin, and this is the essence of both true freedom and salvation itself. Throughout a lifetime, God slowly annihilates our gnomic will by illuminating our intellects and thereby abolishing our ignorance. In this way our choices and actions become more and more perfectly in line with our natural will, and we are rendered incapable of sin, which is in fact the highest freedom, indeed, the divine freedom of Christ himself.1 It is at this point that the image of God is fully restored to the soul and with it, a truly free will. However so long as we remain under the alien influence of the deliberations of the gnomic will, and the possibility of choosing to sin remains, we are not free. Contrary to popular opinion, the classical understanding of freedom precludes the possibility of sin and so long as sin remains a possibility for a person, that person is enslaved rather than free. Freedom is when the soul is unable to sin, and so long as the soul can sin, it is not free.

Bibliography

Servais Pinckaers, “Ethics and the Image of God,” in The Pinckaers Reader (Catholic University of America Press, 2005): 130-143.

Hart, David Bentley. That All Shall Be Saved. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2019.

1Crucial to the Christology of St. Maximus is the idea that Christ, being fully human, did not possess a gnomic will (otherwise it would have been possible for him to sin, but this is incoherent)

Father Roberts (OP, SJ) Homily for Monday of the 6th week of Eastertide

Monday of the 6th week of Eastertide – Feast of Saint Augustine of Canterbury, Bishop

Daily Readings

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Entrance Antiphon Romans 6: 9

Christ, having risen from the dead, dies now no more; death will no longer have dominion over him, alleluia.

Collect

Grant, O merciful God, that we may experience at all times the fruit produced by the paschal observances.

Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.

First reading – Acts 16:11-15

Sailing from Troas we made a straight run for Samothrace; the next day for Neapolis, and from there for Philippi, a Roman colony and the principal city of that particular district of Macedonia. After a few days in this city we went along the river outside the gates as it was the sabbath and this was a customary place for prayer. We sat down and preached to the women who had come to the meeting. One of these women was called Lydia, a devout woman from the town of Thyatira who was in the purple-dye trade. She listened to us, and the Lord opened her heart to accept what Paul was saying. After she and her household had been baptised she sent us an invitation: ‘If you really think me a true believer in the Lord,’ she said ‘come and stay with us’; and she would take no refusal.

Responsorial Psalm – Psalm 149:1-6,9

The Lord takes delight in his people.

Sing a new song to the Lord,  his praise in the assembly of the faithful. Let Israel rejoice in its Maker, let Zion’s sons exult in their king.

Let them praise his name with dancing and make music with timbrel and harp. For the Lord takes delight in his people.  He crowns the poor with salvation.

Let the faithful rejoice in their glory,  shout for joy and take their rest. Let the praise of God be on their lips: this honour is for all his faithful.

Alleluia.

Gospel Acclamation – John 15:26,27

Alleluia, alleluia!

The Spirit of truth will bear witness to me, says the Lord, and you also will be my witnesses.

Alleluia.

Gospel – John 15:26-16:4

Jesus said to his disciples: ‘When the Advocate comes, whom I shall send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who issues from the Father, he will be my witness. And you too will be witnesses, because you have been with me from the outset. ‘I have told you all this that your faith may not be shaken. They will expel you from the synagogues, and indeed the hour is coming when anyone who kills you will think he is doing a holy duty for God. They will do these things because they have never known either the Father or myself. But I have told you all this, so that when the time for it comes you may remember that I told you.’

Prayer over the Offerings

Receive, O Lord, we pray, these offerings of your exultant Church, and, as you have given her cause for such great gladness, grant also that the gifts we bring may bear fruit in perpetual happiness. Through Christ our Lord.

Communion Antiphon – John 20: 19

Jesus stood in the midst of his disciples and said to them: Peace be with you, alleluia.

Prayer after Communion

Look with kindness upon your people, O Lord, and grant, we pray, that those you were pleased to renew by eternal mysteries may attain in their flesh the incorruptible glory of the resurrection. Through Christ our Lord.

Homily

ResurrectionWe see today in the reading from the book of Acts, the drastic lengths that the Apostle Paul was willing to go to in order to spread the Gospel: He travelled all around the known world, whether by boat, horse, or on foot. Such was his zeal to spread the good news of the Gospel. For what a wonderful message it is: in the thick of depression, darkness, war, sickness, famine, defeat and death a surprising promise of victory is spoken. A promise of salvation. And while this promise was spoken by Paul to Lydia and her household, it was not meant only for her. For the same promise that was spoken to Lydia by Paul is today spoken by me to you. You are in Heaven, if only you would open your eyes to see it!

And furthermore, this is a promise that is intended towards the entire world and everyone in it. This is why Paul travelled as far and wide as he did; this is why he went to great pains to spread the message to the ends of the earth. And the content of this promise is why he was so completely fearless in his evangelistic endeavour: “Christ has risen!”

But what is the significance of the fact that this man, Jesus of Nazareth has risen from the dead? What does it mean for me? What does it mean for you? Why exactly is it good news?

It is good news because it was not only Jesus who resurrected on that glorious morning of Easter Sunday. No, it was you. It was me. It was all of us. It was everyone you love, everyone you care about. The entire human race was resurrected on Easter Sunday. The Entire Human race defeated death on Easter Sunday. The entire cosmos stepped out of the tomb, in the form of the divine λογος made flesh: the resurrected Christ.

That is why this is good news, and that was the message that Paul proclaimed. It was not merely “Jesus has defeated death”, it was far more personal and powerful than that: “YOU have defeated death: you need never fear damnation again, for this day is the day of your salvation.” Let the demons tremble at the victory of the son of God, for there is not one left under the power of Satan; all have been freed and liberated, and all that remains is the love that drives the cosmos to it’s destiny.

And so as we see in the Psalm today, now is the time to sing a new song to the lord, for he has redeemed us, saved us, glorified us. He has held his breath and dived head first into the dark depths of this Hell on earth that we have made for ourselves, grabbing us by our hair with his grace and dragging us up to the surface and the light of the sun. Let us praise the name of God with dancing and make music with all of our many and various instruments . For the Lord takes delight in us, the people he has won for himself.  We are poor, lowly sinners, but he is the immensely good and infinitely gracious God who delights in crowning poor sinners with salvation. We are the faithful and we rejoice in our glory,  we shout for joy and enter into our rest. Let the praise of God be on all our lips: for this honour is for all you.

But this is not a promise that can be spoken by just anyone. Only those who have allowed the Holy Spirit to penetrate deep into their soul are able to proclaim it. For the Holy Spirit is always knocking at the door of our hearts, but most of us only let him halfway in. We must instead allow him to flood our minds with his omniscience and foresight, allowing us to penetrate into the mists of the distant future and confidently proclaim the glorious destiny that lies in store for us all. This is what we affirm in our Gospel Acclamation today: Whoever proclaims the risen Christ does so by the spirit.

But the proclamation of the risen Christ is more than just words spoken and heard. The full, drastic, offensive, beautiful implications of the promise incarnate must be understood. Firstly: No one will ultimately fail to achieve salvation! Secondly: There is nothing whatsoever you can do to earn this salvation. Neither belief, nor works; not even being a Christian will make a difference. It is only by the indwelling spirit that we are able to confidently proclaim, “Christ is risen and your future is secure. You are already in heaven. You are finally free to repent, believe and love”

Jesus himself prophesies in today’s Gospel that we will suffer persecution for the sake of the promise. We will be cast out of churches, driven out of mosques, chased out of temples and synagogues. But do not fear: for the promise is effective, regardless of the response of the listener. All people will be saved, no matter how hard people deny it and no matter what reasoning they invoke to escape it.

And so let us finish by pondering the final prayer of today’s mass, where we ask God to look with kindness upon the people of the world, and sovereignly grant that all people be renewed by the eternal mysteries of the faith, and attain in their flesh the incorruptible glory of the resurrection.

There is no better hope than this: that death has no hold over us, for we have already encountered our resurrected selves, and there is absolutely nothing remaining which could possibly prevent us from arriving safely in the glories and salvation of the Eschaton.

Let us praise God for his glorious grace and immeasurable goodness.

Father Alex Roberts (OP, SJ)

Sola Fide and the Eucharist

Introduction

The popular understanding of “sola fide” among both Catholics and Evangelicals is that it is the dogmatic and definitive Protestant answer to the question “What must I do to be saved?” According to Catholics, this question has quite a complicated answer, involving faith, love, works of charity, the sacramental life and final perseverance (ie, dying in the state of grace). In comparison, Evangelicals boil down the entire Catholic list of requirements for salvation to one: Faith alone.

“Just believe in Jesus and your place in heaven will be secured” exhorts the Evangelical minister. Ironically, this is a complete and utter misreading of the original Lutheran doctrine of sola fide, and both Catholics and Evangelicals together have failed to understand both the doctrine itself and its driving motivation. The original doctrine was not intended to be an answer to the question “What must I do to be saved?” rather, it was intended to be an answer to the question “How should we proclaim the Gospel?” The original sola fide was intended to be a guiding principle for preaching homilies and understanding the sacraments and it was never intended to be an alternative ordo salutis in rivalry with the traditional Catholic ordo. In this paper I will first properly articulate and explain the sola fide doctrine and suggest that – when correctly understood – it need not pose any threat to traditional Catholic doctrine. I will then show how the original sola fide is an incredibly sacramental doctrine, and thus has particular relevance for teasing out a robust and profound interpretation of the Eucharistic liturgy.

The Grammar of Homiletics

Understanding the distinction between “preaching law” and “preaching gospel” is crucial to come to a correct understanding of the original sola fide doctrine, and the distinction is as close to a dogma as you will find in the Lutheran denominations. In short, the distinction is between any form of preaching which generates works, efforts or striving in the listeners – which is preaching law – and any form of preaching which generates either faith or outrage in the listeners – and this is preaching gospel. It is important here to comprehensively explain the distinction.

Preaching Law

Consider the following statements:1

If you get straight HDs this semester, I’ll buy you the latest iPhone.

If you avoid missing your rent for three years straight, your credit rating will improve.

If you make five sales this week, I will promote you.

These statements reflect the standard, everyday, contractual language of secular life. A condition is stated, and something is promised as a reward for fulfilling the conditions. Someone hearing these statements will either disregard the promises because they don’t particularly care about the reward, or they will work and strive to fulfil the conditions because they want to obtain the reward. Notice that all of the statements are framed in terms of condition and reward. It is common to find contractual promises posed in the negative mode of transgression and punishment:

If you get caught speeding, you will be fined $200.

If you do not manage to make a sale this week, you will be fired.

If you do not take this pill and kill yourself, I will murder your daughter.

In these cases, it is fear of the negative consequence which drives the listener to work and strive to avoid the conditions. Notice that just as in the previous set of statements, the language is conditional and contractual, and tends to generate either effort or apathy.

This contractual and conditional style of preaching occurs in Christian contexts all the time. Lets look at some examples:

If you repent and believe in Jesus, you will be saved and go to heaven after you die.

Notice that the reward promised for fulfilling the conditions is highly desirable; under most definitions of the word “heaven,” the reward here is something that anyone should definitely be willing to chase after. But a question is raised: will it be easy or hard for me to repent and believe in Jesus? Most confessing evangelicals today would probably claim to find it fairly easy, because they have already been convinced by the various apologetics they have heard in favour of Christianity. Furthermore, someone might hear this promise and think to themselves “I’m not such a bad person; I don’t steal, murder or take drugs. I just need to watch my language and change the music I listen to.” However what might seem simple and straightforward to one might be completely soul crushing and impossible for another. What about the struggling Christian who really wants to believe but is racked with doubts? Suddenly “Just believing in Jesus” doesn’t seem so easy. What about an addict who is utterly enslaved to her vice? Telling her to “repent” will come across as an impossible demand, and generate despair. After looking at the issue closer, it turns out that when “faith” is understood with its full theological and scriptural weight, this statement presents us with a contractual reward which seems more and more impossible to attain the more you chase after it.

If you donate all of your wealth to the poor, sell all of your possessions, renounce marriage and become a missionary in China, you will be blessed with eternal life.

Someone hearing such a statement might respond like so: “Things are getting more serious. Do I really have to do all of that in order to please God and go to heaven? I want to get married and have kids, and my IT career is currently on fire; does God really need me to give all of that up ‘for the sake of the kingdom?’ I suppose it is possible to fulfil these conditions, but it sounds incredibly difficult.”

If you do not obey the moral law perfectly, Almighty God will condemn you to everlasting perdition.

Someone hearing this promise might respond like so: “Oh no. This is the most terrible thing anyone has ever told me. I complain about Pope Francis regularly. I can’t stand praying the rosary. I spend too much money on whiskey and don’t give enough to the homeless people at the bus stop (what is enough?). I smoke too much. I am a slave to vice. I’m definitely going to Hell.

Variations of these statements are regularly preached from the pulpit in both Catholic and Protestant circles. Catholics tend towards moral exhortations to works of charity, while Protestants tend towards exhortations to “believe harder!” The key thing uniting all these statements is that they have an “If … then …” conditional grammatical structure, and all of them – when spoken – generate either apathy, despair, or works in the listeners. This is the essence of what it means to preach law.

Preaching Gospel

Now consider the following statements:

Because you have scored straight HDs at Uni this year, I’m giving you a month-long holiday to Europe!

Because I love you, I am going to wine and dine you at Opera Bar tonight.

Because you are struggling with your Latin so much, I’m going to spend an hour with you every night for the next month to help you pass your tests.

Notice how differently these statements hit home: In these cases, the burden for fulfilling the condition falls on the speaker rather than the listener. The person to whom these promises are spoken has only two possible responses: Trust the promise or not give a damn. But the crucial point is that the burden for fulfilling the promise falls on the speaker; the listener has no real say in the matter: “I love you and I’m going to spoil you” depends on the person saying it for fulfilment, rather than the person hearing it. Such language thus generates either faith alone, or apathy. This contrasts with the law-flavoured examples from earlier all of which generate effort and works.

Now consider the following “Christian” flavoured unconditional promises:2

Because God is unconditional love, therefore all of your sins are completely and forever forgiven. You may therefore let go all of your guilt and self-condemnation.

Because God is unconditional love, therefore you can stop trying to earn your way into God’s good graces. You are already accepted by him.

Because God is unconditional love, therefore you are assured a place in the kingdom. His love will triumph over your disbelief and sin.

This style of Christian proclamation is kerygmatic, in that when proclaimed from the pulpit, it will infallibly generate either faith or apathy in the people in the pews. No other alternative responses are open to a listener; either they will simply trust the promise (have faith), or their curiosity will be aroused towards such trust with relevant questions, or they will become angry, outraged and disbelieving: “How dare you contradict my freedom like that” a Catholic might object: “Who are you to say whether or not I’m elect” a Calvinist might fume.

The Sola Fide doctrine is simply a claim that all kerygmatic preaching must follow the “Because … therefore … ” grammatical structure in order to be effective. Any conditional preaching will always generate works and striving as a response, while unconditional preaching of this sort simply cannot generate striving/works/efforts, but rather must always generate either faith alone, or a living damnation of disbelief and outrage. Such preaching is thus understood to be an unleashing of the final judgement into the present moment: will you trust God in this moment as he declares his unconditional love for you and your certainly assured salvation? Or will you instead find some reason to object and disbelieve in anger and outrage?

There is much that could be written on this theme, but hopefully these examples are sufficient to demonstrate the law/gospel dichotomy when it comes to proclaiming the gospel and preaching homilies. The Lutheran conviction is that Christ is the kerygmatic word incarnate, and whenever one believer unconditionally promises salvation to someone in the name of Christ, Christ himself is there in the words that are spoken and the moment becomes a final judgement unleashed into the here and now for that person: If they trust the spoken word of unconditionally promised salvation, they experience the joy of the kingdom right here and right now. If they object to the promise and find reasons to deny it, they plunge into a experience of Hell and damnation right here and now.

A final note on this theme: The unconditional gospel promise must always be personalised to individual situations in order to be effective. Here are some more specific and practical examples of such kerygmatic “faith alone” preaching:3

Because Jesus has promised that your life is and will be fulfilled in his coming kingdom, you may give generously toward the feeding and sheltering of the poor.

Because Jesus was faithful to you unto death and beyond death, you may be faithful to your marital vows.

Because the cross of Jesus is the way of peace and life, you may stop abusing your spouse.

Because Jesus will provide for both you and your baby, no matter what hardship you may have to endure, you may unequivocally renounce the killing of your unborn child.

Because Christ is your food unto everlasting life, you may fast and embrace the ascetical disciplines

To conclude this section, I would like to draw attention to the fact that nothing said here is meant as an ordo salutis. The question sola fide answers is not “How do I get saved?” but rather “How do I preach the Gospel?” and therefore all of this is compatible with the Catholic sacramental economy. Luther himself understood this, which is why he strongly insisted on the importance of confession, baptism and the Eucharist. I will discuss how it is relevant to the Eucharist next.

Exegesis and analysis of the Roman Canon

Sola fide is not only a rule for preaching, but also a way of understanding what happens during the sacraments. In the seven sacraments, the unconditional kerygmatic promise is being spoken in shorthand via the sacramental words and at various other moments in the relevant sacramental liturgies. It is possible to analyse all of the sacraments – and even minor sacramentals and indulgences – under a sola fide lens to great result; Luther himself had wonderful things to say on this theme with respect to the sacraments of Confession, Baptism and Eucharist. Here I will restrict my analysis to the Eucharist. I have chosen to analyse the mass according to the 1962 missal, as this is more representative of deeper Catholic tradition and more closely reflects the liturgy as it would have been around the time of the reformation.

During the Confiteor, the priest and the servers alternate in a short liturgy of confession and absolution which runs like so:

Priest: Confiteor Deo omnipotenti, beatae Mariae semper Virgini, beato Michaeli Archangelo, beato Joanni Baptistae, sanctis Apostolis Petro et Paulo, omnibus Sanctis, et tibi Pater: quia peccavi nimis cogitatione, verbo, et opere: mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. Ideo precor beatam Mariam semper Virginem, beatum Michaelem Archangelum, beatum Joannem Baptistam, sanctos Apostolos Petrum et Paulum, omnes Sanctos, et te Pater, orare pro me ad Dominum Deum nostrum.

Server: Misereatur vestri omnipotens Deus, et dimissis peccatis vestris, perducat vos ad vitam aeternam.

Priest: I confess to almighty God, to the blessed Mary ever Virgin, blessed Michael the Archangel, blessed John the Baptist, the holy Apostles Peter and Paul, to all the Saints, and to you, Father, that I have sinned exceedingly in thought, word and deed, through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault. Therefore I beseech the blessed Mary, ever Virgin, blessed Michael the Archangel, blessed John the Baptist, the holy Apostles Peter and Paul, all the Saints, and you, Father, to pray to the Lord our God for me.

Server: May almighty God be merciful unto you, and forgiving you your sins, bring you to everlasting life.

This section of the liturgy is interesting and relevant for an analysis according to the grammar of sola fide. Here we have the priest and the server each confessing their sinfulness, and each absolving each other of sin. This hints at the “Gospel of unconditional forgiveness” as mentioned in the previous section. It could be argued however that it doesn’t quite hold up because the absolution is done with a subjunctive verb, rather than an indicative/declarative one. Rather than proclaiming forgiveness to each other as a given fact, the priest and server absolve each other by means of a petition to God. I propose that this early exchange sets the scene for what is about to take place during the course of the liturgy. The priest and the server confess their sins and together pray for forgiveness, and then together they embark on the work of the liturgy, by the end of which their prayers will be answered.

One other curious thing to note before moving on is the following concluding prayer for absolution that the priest offers:

Indulgentiam, absolutionem, et remissionem peccatorum nostrorum, tribuat nobis omnipotens et misericors Dominus.

May the almighty and merciful Lord grant us pardon, absolution, and remission of our sins.

The interesting thing here is that the priest is “speaking the gospel to himself.” Although again, the fact that it is a subjunctive clause rather than an indicative one weakens the point.

The next point in the liturgy to stop and dwell is the prayers at the consecration, particularly the oblation of the Victim to God (the Hanc Igitur):

Hanc igitur oblationem servitutis nostrae, sed et cunctae familiae tuae, quaesumus Domine, ut placatus accipias: diesque nostros in tua pace disponas, atque ab aeterna damnatione nos eripi, et in electorum tuorum jubeas grege numerari: Per Christum Dominum nostrum. Amen.

We therefore, beseech Thee, O Lord, to be appeased and accept this oblation of our service, as also of Thy whole family; and to dispose our days in Thy peace, preserve us from eternal damnation, and rank us in the number of Thine Elect. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.

There is a presumption that these prayers are efficacious in the context of the mass, and that they therefore state the agenda for what the priest and congregation are aiming to achieve by their liturgy. With this in mind, it’s important to take note of the fact that the priest prays that all who are present would be “ranked in the number of the elect.” This is highly relevant to the gospel promise of unconditional predestination, election and final perseverance. All of the prayers being racked up during the buildup to the consummation at the climax of the mass are a description of what Christs sacrifice efficaciously achieves, and therefore the entire mass could be understood simply a long and elaborate description of what Christ’s sacrifice has achieved. Here, we see that it has achieved the election of the congregation; the faithful attending mass are being promised by means of the mass that they are elect.4 As we will see shortly, this long list of prayers and petitions are transformed into promises at the climax of the liturgy, when all that the alter-christus has prayed for is secured and guaranteed by the consummation.

We arrive at the words of institution:

Hoc est enim Corpus meum. Hic est enim Calix Sanguinis mei, novi et aeterni Testamenti: Mysterium fidei: qui pro vobis et pro multis effundetur in remissionem peccatorum.

For this is My Body. For this is the Chalice of My Blood of the new and eternal Testament, the Mystery of Faith; which shall be shed for you and for the many unto the remission of sins.

Luther located the core of the gospel as “promise” in these words, and saw them as the basis and guarantee of the real, substantial presence of Christ in the host. Specifically, when the priest says “This is my body,” these are Christs own words being repeated again in his name and person. The same promise of sacramental presence spoken by Christ himself on Holy Thursday is repeated by him again at this moment of the mass. To have faith in these words is to have faith in the unconditional gospel. Crucially, the words are unconditional. They are – for example – not “If you believe, then this is my body” or “If you are in the state of grace, then this is my body.” Rather, the words are plain, simple and unconditional. Christ is claiming identity with what appears to us as bread and wine, and this is simply the fact and reality of the matter regardless of how we think or feel about it. The correct response is to trust the words and believe in the real presence. Incorrect responses include over-theologizing about it or flatly denying it. One last thing to note about these words is the latin pro vobis et pro multis. Many people twist this part of the sacramental words in order to argue against universalism, claiming that “many” is a different word to “all” and therefore universalism is false. A whole paper could be written showing how stupid and short-sighted this argument is, however I’ll just quickly note two points of refutation. Firstly, Latin is a language which lacks articles, and in Greek – the original language of the mass – the words would be rendered with a definite article and would therefore translate as “the many” which is in actual fact an idiom for “everyone.” Secondly, the context of the mass should be enough to understand the statement. Christ is saying “this is the cup of my blood which is shed for your (ie, everyone present during this particularly liturgy, the saved, the elect) salvation, and also for their salvation (ie, those who are not present during this particular liturgy, aka the damned, the reprobates).” The vobis is a promise addressed to those believers present in the pews, and the multis is that same promise addressed to the souls wandering in the darkness outside the portal of the church where this mass is taking place. These words therefore have a missionary connotation: Christ speaks his promise of salvation to all who are present at his sacrifice (who as we have established, are the elect), but he also desires to speak that same promise to those who remain wandering in the darkness of the κοσμος (ie, the multis; the damned, the lost). In the Novus Ordo, this point is driven home by the dismissal “[You have been saved just now, so] Go and announce the Gospel of the lord [to the damned outside the church who need to hear it (Aka, invite all your friends to mass next Sunday)]” The work of Christ isn’t complete until the final eschatological liturgy where all of the multis have been brought in and become addressed as vobis. At this point, when literally everyone is gathered before the altar and addressed as vobis, universal salvation will finally be a reality, rather than a mere heresy. Until then, masses and missionary activity to the damned must continue.

Moving on to the final part of the mass. The promise has been spoken, but when will the promise be fulfilled? In one sense, only at the end of an eternity. But in the context of the mass, the promises are fulfilled shortly after being spoken, when the priest and the faithful consume the host. At this point, the priest makes what is perhaps the most explicit proclamation of the promise so far:

Corpus Domini nostri Jesu Christi custodiat animam tuam in vitam aeternam. Amen.

The Body of our Lord Jesus Christ preserve thy soul unto life everlasting. Amen.

Here, the verb is neither subjunctive nor indicative, it is imperative. The theological linguistics here are incredibly dense and profound. This statement is simultaneously a prayer, a promise and a command. Salvation becomes personal and efficacious at this point, and immediately after the “amen” the communicant receives their salvation – the divine Christ himself – onto their tongue. To someone without the eyes of faith, it is just a moment where you have to chew on a tasteless wafer. But for those with the eyes of faith, this moment is loaded with eschatological significance, as it is the moment when all of the many prayers and petitions and promises that have been rumbled thus far during the liturgy are sealed, achieved, guaranteed and brought to final fulfilment. At the point where the teeth and tongue consume Christ, the communicant is receiving the fullness of their heavenly inheritance and knows (or at least, should know!) that they are elect and predestined to heaven. All fear and doubt melts away and all that remains is love, joy and blissful blessedness.

Conclusion

It might seem anticlimactic that we don’t just find ourselves whisked away to heaven, the beatific vision and the resurrection at the moment we receive our host.5 But Christ clearly has other plans for us. Just as he descends to Hell to save the damned on Holy Saturday, the end of the mass is also a new beginning for us, and arguably this is the significance of the fact that the final prayer is the prologue of John’s gospel, which is a description of the very beginning of the entire story. As the mass ends we are sent back into the darkness outside the church doors to announce the Gospel to those who haven’t heard it, and entice them to “come and see” Christ for themselves, and hear his promise for themselves. The mass ends and we leave the church to return to the darkness of the κοσμος because there are still a multitude of lost souls out there who need to hear the unconditional kerygma, and we are the ones who have to tell them. The vobis have already heard the kerygmatic gospel promise, but the multis are yet to hear and trust it. But as Saint Origen always knew, the ending is in the beginning, and so we finish the mass with the following words of victorious and salvific promise:

In principio erat Verbum, et Verbum erat apud Deum, et Deus erat Verbum. Hoc erat in principio apud Deum. Omnia per ipsum facta sunt: et sine ipso facum est nihil quod factum est: in ipso vita erat, et vita erat lux hominum: et lux in tenebris lucet, et tenebrae eam non comprehenderunt.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by Him, and without Him was made nothing that was made: in Him was life, and the life was the Light of men; and the Light shineth in the darkness, and the darkness can never conquer it.

1These and the other statements I will use were heavily inspired by Fr. Al. Kimel’s writings on similar themes. However I believe I have refashioned and repurposed them sufficiently that fine-grained citations are not essential.

2These examples have been taken verbatim from Fr Al. Kimel.

3These examples also have been taken from Fr Al. Kimel.

4One might want to dispute this analysis, but to do so would be tantamount to claiming that the sacrament of the Eucharist and the prayers of the mass are not efficacious, as if the things which Jesus tells us to pray for during mass will ultimately not be granted by the Father. It seems more reasonable to me to have faith that everything we pray for during the liturgy will be (indeed, has been) granted, including election and the grace of final perseverance.

5But then again, perhaps we do?

Babette’s Feast: Reflection

There are two Christ-figures in this movie: Firstly, the Pietist minister who is also the father of Martine and Phillippa, and secondly, Babette herself.

Christ Figure: The Minister

In the early scenes of the movie – set during Martine and Phillippa’s youth – all seems to be well in the Jutland village, as their father the respected minister holds together the community. This idyllic atmosphere juxtaposes dissonantly with the scenes set chronologically later, when the minister has been dead for quite some time and the community has become old and bitter, with the townsfolk holding deep grudges against each other and constantly quarrelling, despite the efforts of Martine and Phillippa to maintain peace and faith. This juxtaposition evokes a similar situation in the history of the Church: While Christ was present, there was an explosion of faith and unity among the apostles and disciples, however ever since Christ ascended to heaven time has marched on, and over the subsequent two millennia the history of Christianity has been a slow and vicious descent into toxic schisms and brutal antagonisms between all of the various Christian communions and denominations. So the minister is similar to Christ in the sense that he was a tangible focal point of unity for his community, and in his absence things slowly fall apart.

Another way in which the minister comes across as “Christlike” is when – during the feast itself – one of the ladies remembers and shares a story with the dinner guests about a time when the minister “walked on water,” evoking the biblical episode where Jesus does the same in Matthew 14. Admittedly, in this case the miracle is different: the minister promises to walk on water, and then right on schedule there is a flash storm and the water freezes, making the feat possible. In this case the miracle is the conveniently timed freezing of the water, rather than the “walking” itself, however the analogy between the minister and Christ is still pointed.

During the feast itself, the villagers remember and share many more stories about the minister. One gets the impression they haven’t engaged in such remembering and sharing for quite some time, and this act of “remembering” has the obvious effect of injecting some joy and mirth into the feast, as well as healing the sin and brokenness that has come to divide the villagers. There is an analogy here with the eucharist; just as the villagers remember their departed master and this breathes life into their community, so too the mass is a memorial where the faithful recall the person and miraculous exploits of Jesus.1

John Paul II in his encyclical “Ecclesia De Eucharistia” says the following:

19. The eschatological tension kindled by the Eucharist expresses and reinforces our communion with the Church in heaven.

This can be applied to the feast, because during the feast the minister who had long been departed was made present again. It is similar to how during the mass all of the angels and saints are truly present in a spiritual sense even if physically absent.

Christ Figure: Babette

The obvious parallel between Christ and Babette is their respective “total gifts of self;” Christ lays down his life and suffers on behalf of the entire world, for the sake of winning salvation for humanity and the cosmos; and Babette spends literally all of her material wealth on preparing a lavish feast to give thanks to the villagers who have received her into their community and the sisters who have received her into their home.

John Paul II in his encyclical “Ecclesia De Eucharistia” says the following:

47. Reading the account of the institution of the Eucharist in the Synoptic Gospels, we are struck by the simplicity and the “solemnity” with which Jesus, on the evening of the Last Supper, instituted this great sacrament. There is an episode which in some way serves as its prelude: the anointing at Bethany. A woman, whom John identifies as Mary the sister of Lazarus, pours a flask of costly ointment over Jesus’ head, which provokes from the disciples – and from Judas in particular (cf. Mt 26:8; Mk 14:4; Jn 12:4) – an indignant response, as if this act, in light of the needs of the poor, represented an intolerable “waste”. But Jesus’ own reaction is completely different. While in no way detracting from the duty of charity towards the needy, for whom the disciples must always show special care – “the poor you will always have with you” (Mt 26, 11; Mk 14:7; cf. Jn 12:8) – he looks towards his imminent death and burial, and sees this act of anointing as an anticipation of the honour which his body will continue to merit even after his death, indissolubly bound as it is to the mystery of his person.

There is a parallel to be drawn between the episode of Christ being lavished with perfume and oil, and the fact that Babette spends literally all of her money on the sisters. The sisters are shocked and worry that Babette has spent all of her wealth of them in an extravagant waste. However just as Jesus praises Mary for her devoted spoiling of the king of the universe, Babette explains to Phillippa and Martina that “An artist is never poor,” and that she finds more joy in bringing happiness to the village with her money, rather than spending it on herself.

There are however further – less obvious – parallels. For example, Babette does not only bless the villagers through her special feast, but in other ways too. At one point Martine exclaims “Since Babette came, we have more money than before!” There is an analogy here with Christ’s many miracles, particularly the miraculous catch of fish2 and also his many miracles of healing: such miracles are tangible blessings which Christ brought to those around him during his time on earth, and there is an analogy with how Babette’s presence in the community brings material blessings to the sisters.

There are also interesting parallels between Babette and Christ in terms of kenosis. Babette does not broadcast her past achievements and status to the villagers, and they are unaware that they have the most prestigious and famous chef in Europe living amongst them. Similarly, Christ is the king of the universe and God in the flesh, but during his earthly life he was very careful in how he revealed this fact, and many understood him to be nothing more than “the carpenters son.” Babette’s kenosis is made particularly obvious in the scene with the ale bread, where the sisters teach Babette how to cook the local cuisine (which is particularly penitential and unappetising – basically bread dipped in some sort of edible sludge). The sisters are clearly completely unaware who they are talking to. This is similar to the kenosis of Christ: Christ is the omniscient God himself, but he humbled himself such that he lived the stages of human life from newborn to toddler to child to adolescent to adult. Christ had to study the Torah just like everyone else, even though -unknown to his teachers – Jesus was literally the author of the very same scriptures he was being made to study. There is a moment where Babette herself eats the village gruel, which is a humiliation analogous to the humiliation Christ had to endure in his passion, or even in the fact that he lived a human life like everyone else, complete with tiredness and trips to the toilet. The kenosis of Babette concludes with her final revelation of her true identity at the end of the film, which is a particularly powerful moment. There are analogies with Christ, for example the revelation of his identity in Mark 8, or his resurrection appearances.

At one point during the dinner, Lorenz reminisces about the time he dined at the Cafe Anglais: This head chef, this woman, had the ability to turn a dinner into a kind of love affair. A love affair that made no distinction between bodily appetite and spiritual appetite,” which is a good segue to the feast itself.

The Feast

At one point in the movie Phillippa and Martine are trying to lead the villagers in song, but during the singing the villagers keep quarrelling and squabbling with each other, to the dismay of the sisters. Curiously, during the feast, there is a moment where two of the male villagers repeat their prior angry exchange with each other more or less verbatim, but this time with smiles and laughter rather than angst and condemnation: the strife which had been a point of contention earlier has become a joke to laugh about. There is an analogy here with the healing grace of God: God can change our minds3 such that we see things in a different and more positive light. Babette’s feast and the remembering of the minister is a means for such a change of perspective, just as the Eucharist and the memorial liturgy are means by which God’s grace can touch our hearts and imbue us with a more loving disposition towards each other.

It is interesting to note that all of the village folk choose to wear black to the feast. This could be interpreted as symbolic of their being in a state of spiritual death; entirely lacking love for each other. This in turn hints at the “resurrection” that is to come during the feast. After Phillippa has a nightmare about the sinfulness of the feast to come, the village folk agree that they will all refuse to enjoy the feast; merely eating it but refusing to taste it and take pleasure in it. There is an analogy here with damnation, where a soul wilfully rejects God’s delightful gift of grace. But as it turns out, the food Babette prepares is so amazing and tasty that the villagers will to resist is overpowered. This is clearly a commentary on the irresistible nature of Grace: God forces no one to love him, but he is so infinitely beautiful and so entirely desirable that ultimately his grace shatters all the defences we dare to throw up against him: we can’t help but love the Christ revealed in us, and we can’t help but love ourselves revealed in Christ.

One interesting analogy between the meal and the mass is that they both are able to unite all sorts of people from all quarters of society around the same table. Babette’s dinner brings someone with the royal dignity of General Lorenz, and sits him among the common folk of the village, where they all share in the same wonderful meal. There is an analogy here with how the Eucharist unites kings, presidents and prime ministers with the poor and the middle class; with all standing as equals before the sacrificial altar of Christ.4

John Paul II in his encyclical “Ecclesia De Eucharistia” says the following:

43. In considering the Eucharist as the sacrament of ecclesial communion, there is one subject which, due to its importance, must not be overlooked: I am referring to the relationship of the Eucharist to ecumenical activity. We should all give thanks to the Blessed Trinity for the many members of the faithful throughout the world who in recent decades have felt an ardent desire for unity among all Christians. The Second Vatican Council, at the beginning of its Decree on Ecumenism, sees this as a special gift of God. It was an efficacious grace which inspired us, the sons and daughters of the Catholic Church and our brothers and sisters from other Churches and Ecclesial Communities, to set forth on the path of ecumenism.

There are fundamental links here with the ecumenism of Babette’s feast. Firstly, despite being about a Protestant community, it is the Catholic Pope Francis’ favourite film. Secondly, Babette herself is assumed to be Catholic, but she is the servant of the protestant village community. Finally, Achille Papin explicitly identifies himself as Catholic to the – protestant – minister, however the minister charitably welcomes him despite the difference of cult. The movie therefore has subtle but important ecumenical themes.

Lorenz

General Lorenz makes many soliloquies and speeches throughout the story which provides most of the theological substance of the film. There is a pointed juxtaposition between the conclusion of young Lorenz’ stay in the village early in the film, with the conclusion of his visit for the feast. The first time, Lorenz delivers the following pessimistic speech:

I am going away forever and I shall never never see you again. For I have learned here that life is hard and cruel and that in this world there are things that are … impossible. I will forget what happened on the Jutland coast. From now I shall look forward not backward. I will think of nothing but my career, and some day… I will cut a brilliant figure in the world of prestige.

Immediately prior to the feast, we are introduced to a much older Lorenz who has succeeded in his mission to chase worldly fame and fortune. He is depressed and spiritually empty, imagining his younger, more idealistic self sitting in a chair before him, and saying the following:

Vanity. Vanity. All… is vanity. I have found everything you dreamed of and satisfied your ambition. But to what purpose? Tonight we two shall settle our scores. You must prove to me that the choice I made was the right one.

After the feast concludes and he is departing the village, the old Lorenz has finally “seen the light,” and delivers a speech to Phillippa more or less exactly opposite to the one he delivered earlier in the film:

I have been with you every day of my life. Tell me you know that. Yes, I know it. You must also know that I shall be with you every day that is granted to me from now on. Every evening I shall sit down to dine with you. Not with my body which is of no importance, but with my soul. Because this evening I have learned, my dear, that in this beautiful world of ours, all things are possible.

Lorenz could be taken as a reflection of the rich young man who approaches Jesus asking how to be saved. Lorenz renounces the simple joys of love and romance with a soulmate in order to pursue secular success and material wealth. He comes to learn that he made the wrong choice, but nevertheless leaves the feast feeling restored and happy.5

1This occurs most particularly during the gospel reading, but also in a sense during the other readings and the entire liturgy.

2Luke 5:1-11

3The literal meaning of “repentance.”

4Depending on your theological temperament, you might even admit that “both sinners and saints stand equal before the altar”

5Perhaps there is a point to be made here about how the free-will defence of Hell is utter nonsense: God does not – with negligent abandon – “respect” our self-destructive choices to reject him. Instead, God’s grace is able to overcome our refusal to love and lift us up into salvation regardless of what choices we make in life. The theological moral of the story is the classic evangelical principle that salvation depends on God, not on us (or our choices). The general chased riches rather than love, and it is explicitly pointed out many times that he “made the wrong choice,” yet by the end of the movie he had been saved by the feast regardless.

Sermon and Homily: We should not desire to pass through Hell on our way to Heaven. Strive to Enter Through the Narrow Gate

gateway-to-hell-982x750[1].jpgWe might be predestined to victory in the war but we are not predestined to victory in the battle. We may fall, fail and surrender, and as long as we keep failing and falling the war will continue, leading to much loss, tragedy and destruction. We must fight every fight as if our souls depend on it, and indeed they do: we hang suspended in the midst of two eternal flames, one that brings unspeakable terror, complete darkness and utter destruction, the other burning love, blinding light and perfect ecstasy. We float between these two flames on a cloud, a cloud which is in every way constructed to carry us higher and higher into heaven and the warm embrace of God, and yet is ultimately steered by our consent. Do we say yes to the devils, demons, temptations and vices that constantly claw at us, trying to drag us down further into the terrifying void below; the pit of torturous wrath which churns away and threatens to tear us asunder? Or do we kick away these things of darkness, throw ourselves upon the cloud and pray “Fiat! Thy will be done”?

Alas, the vast majority of us do not heed the call to battle. We allow ourselves to be pulled down into Hell. We ruin our lives in the pursuit of illusions and fantasies. We search for temporary pleasures rather than eternal satisfaction. Most of humanity confusedly yet willingly descends into this damnation, surrendering to the dark powers in exchange for a lie. The tortures and torments which are heaped upon us grow and grow, the fire burns hotter and hotter, the pain continually increases, our minds give way to confusion, insanity and psychosis. The darkness and depression of non-existence envelops us. Demons taunt us and we taunt each other. There is no love, no hope, only despair and hardened hearts.

But that cloud comes with us into the inferno. The further we fall the more it resists the descent. At any point we could repent and let it carry us out of this flaming prison. There are battles still to be won and lost, but no matter how far we fall, that cloud will always follow. In this way the outcome of the war is assured: There can only be victory in the end. For no one can irreparably harm themselves in rebellion against God forever.

As we fling ourselves upon the cloud and begin the long ascent towards the light, the situation begins to become clearer: the unspeakable tortures we experienced were in fact educative, serving to bring us to an acceptance of the truth and inspire true repentance. We look back and see that there were not two flames, but only one. This flame is love, justice and God himself. As we ascend higher into the flame we grow brighter and brighter as it penetrates and purifies us. Looking around we see that every single thing that has ever been created is assembled and glowing with divine energy, singing praises and doxologies. We see that the demons and devils have rejoined the angels in their divine dance of love around the throne of God.

We fall down in joyful worship as waves of truth and life wash over us and we finally come face to face with our ultimate reward and gift – God himself.

 

But that day has not yet arrived. The war for our souls rages on. We should not desire to pass through Hell on our way to Heaven, so take up your arms against the adversary in the here and now! Fight for faith, love, justice, truth and ultimate freedom. Finally, remember never to lose hope: for that cloud of grace will always be with you and no matter how long you resist it, eventually it will carry you to God.

The Immigration Policy of Paradise: How and why Heaven should secure its border with Hell

Thought Experiment

You go to Heaven but your family goes to Hell. How do you feel?

  1. The traditional option: Nothing can subtract from the joy of heaven, and everything you experience can only increase that joy. Furthermore, you participate in God’s omniscience and have a direct and intimate knowledge of your family being tormented across the southern border. For these reasons, you experience sublime delight and sadistic pleasure as you witness your family burn. You rejoice at God’s justice and glory, crying tears of ecstatic joy as you watch your loved ones brutally torn asunder before your eyes for all eternity: Dignum et Iustum est. You consider it strictly essential to build and maintain an unbridgeable chasm between heaven and hell,1 and in the upcoming 2021 divine election you will only vote for an angelic candidate who runs his campaign on the promise that he will force the damned to pay for said chasm.

  2. The heroin addiction option: You are so entirely overwhelmed by God’s glorious presence that you cease to be aware of anything else. Your family ceases to matter to you: You simply do not care about them any more. God’s love is just so enticing and addictive that you no longer care about anything other than your own pleasure and bliss. Nothing can be allowed to subtract from your hard-earned heavenly reward, and therefore you happily consent to undergo a spiritual lobotomy so as to remain completely unaware of those who were not so fortunate. Ignorance is bliss; bliss is heaven. No need to for you to worry about the fate of your family, let alone all those other riff-raff clamouring at the border for St. Peter to allow them through the gates of paradise.

  3. The loving and charitable option: You love your family so much that you are aghast and horrified as you witness them burn. The joy of heaven cannot be complete unless they too are saved. With this in mind, you organise a mission to Hell, descending into the darkness to minister to the lost souls who are trapped there and doing everything you can to help them repent and escape their terrible fate.

Which response sounds the most Christian to you?

Introduction

Options 1, 2 and 3 correspond to popular positions on the issue in Catholicism, Evangelicalism and Mormonism2 respectively. Option 1 in particular was famously formulated by St. Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologica:3

It is written: “The just shall rejoice when he shall see the revenge.” Further, it is written: “They shall satiate the sight of all flesh.” Now satiety denotes refreshment of the mind. Therefore the blessed will rejoice in the punishment of the wicked.

A thing may be a matter of rejoicing in two ways. First directly, when one rejoices in a thing as such: and thus the saints will not rejoice in the punishment of the wicked. Secondly, indirectly, by reason namely of something annexed to it: and in this way the saints will rejoice in the punishment of the wicked, by considering therein the order of Divine justice and their own deliverance, which will fill them with joy. And thus the Divine justice and their own deliverance will be the direct cause of the joy of the blessed: and the punishment of the damned will cause their joy indirectly.4

Due to the high prestige enjoyed by Aquinas and the quasi-magisterial status which contemporary Catholics tend to bestow on his writings, this stance on the diplomatic relations between Heaven and Hell has garnered significant support among theologically astute lay people, clerics and theologians.

The second option is a common position taken by evangelicals, considered broadly, however some Calvinists also tend towards the first alternative. I will not dwell on this option in this paper.

The third option has a precedent in the Orthodox and Catholic tradition in the form of Christ’s harrowing of Hell on Holy Saturday – and I will meditate on this further below – however it has received its most full and robust expression in the official theology of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

In this paper I will examine the Latter Day Saint doctrine of “Afterlife ministry” and argue that – despite its seeming novelty to non-Mormons – it is the logical offspring of two mainline Christian doctrines: The Harrowing of Hell and Salvation as Theosis.

The Latter Day Saint Doctrine of Afterlife Ministry

The core scriptural basis in the LDS canon for the doctrine of afterlife ministry is to be found in the Doctrine and Covenants, section 138. There have also been many other LDS magisterial writings and pronouncements on the topic, however for this paper I will restrict my survey to the LDS standard works.

The 6th President of the LDS Church – Joseph F. Smith5 – recalls how he was reflecting on Holy Saturday (specifically the minimal account as described in the second Petrine Epistle), and wondering how Christ could have possibly preached to all the spirits in prison:

And I wondered at the words of Peter—wherein he said that the Son of God preached unto the spirits in prison, who sometime were disobedient, when once the long-suffering of God waited in the days of Noah—and how it was possible for him to preach to those spirits and perform the necessary labor among them in so short a time. And as I wondered, my eyes were opened, and my understanding quickened, and I perceived that the Lord went not in person among the wicked and the disobedient who had rejected the truth, to teach them; But behold, from among the righteous, he organized his forces and appointed messengers, clothed with power and authority, and commissioned them to go forth and carry the light of the gospel to them that were in darkness, even to fall the spirits of men; and thus was the gospel preached to the dead.6

As can be seen in verse 30, Joseph Smith recounts how his “eyes were opened” and he “perceived” that Christ sent missionaries to the damned. Smith here records an understanding that Christ was not alone in his mission to “the spirits in prison.” Rather, Christ “organized his forces and appointed messengers, clothed with power and authority … to go forth and carry the light of the gospel to them that were in darkness.” Smith goes on to elaborate:

And the chosen messengers went forth to declare the acceptable day of the Lord and proclaim liberty to the captives who were bound, even unto all who would repent of their sins and receive the gospel. Thus was the gospel preached to those who had died in their sins, without a knowledge of the truth, or in transgression, having rejected the prophets. These were taught faith in God, repentance from sin, vicarious baptism for the remission of sins, the gift of the Holy Ghost by the laying on of hands, And all other principles of the gospel that were necessary for them to know in order to qualify themselves that they might be judged according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit.7

Smith here fleshes out the details of what exactly the missionary activity to the damned involves. It apparently involves – among other things – a robust education in correct doctrine.

And so it was made known among the dead, both small and great, the unrighteous as well as the faithful, that redemption had been wrought through the sacrifice of the Son of God upon the cross. Thus was it made known that our Redeemer spent his time during his sojourn in the world of spirits, instructing and preparing the faithful spirits of the prophets who had testified of him in the flesh; That they might carry the message of redemption unto all the dead, unto whom he could not go personally, because of their rebellion and transgression, that they through the ministration of his servants might also hear his words.8

Smith continues to describe how – as a result of this afterlife ministry – all people (both righteous and unrighteous) are provided with all that they need to know in order to make an informed choice for or against Christ.

The dead who repent will be redeemed, through obedience to the ordinances of the house of God, And after they have paid the penalty of their transgressions, and are washed clean, shall receive a reward according to their works, for they are heirs of salvation. Thus was the vision of the redemption of the dead revealed to me, and I bear record, and I know that this record is true, through the blessing of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, even so. Amen.9

Finally, Smith makes it clear that just as salvation requires obedience during this life, so too salvation requires obedience in the afterlife. This is important for Latter Day Saints due to their strong emphasis on the doctrine of free agency. Mormons and Catholics alike are united in the conviction that God can not and will not force anyone to be saved, and that salvation is an offer that must be freely accepted.

So in summary, the LDS doctrine is that in the afterlife the righteous saints who successfully made it to heaven will be organised by Christ into missionary squads, after which they will descend into Hell/Purgatory and proclaim the gospel to both those who are invincibly ignorant (ie, those who never received a theological education sufficient to make an informed decision for or against Christ) as well as those who have rejected Christ. In this way, the gospel is preached to all, and all receive another chance after death – even the damned are ministered to.10

The doctrine might sound strange to Catholic ears, but arguably it is compatible with the more mainstream and traditional expressions of Christian doctrine, such as found in Catholicism. To pursue that lead, we turn to a meditation on Theosis.

Theosis

Salvation in the eastern churches is conceptualised in terms of theosis. In the western churches this concept is often referred to by the term “divinization,” but it is not a commonly known doctrine in the west, and it is eastern Christendom which has most fully developed the idea. Theosis is neatly summed up by a couplet attributed to various of the church fathers: “God became man so that man might become God.” There is a sense in which salvation consists of becoming God. However theologians are careful to emphasise that we become God by participation in the life of the Trinity; we do not become God by alteration of our nature. In an analogous way to how Christ had a totally divine nature and a totally human nature, it can be argued that we too will have both divine and human natures once we are saved.11

There are different levels of theosis, just as there are different levels of participation in the life of the Trinity. What does it mean to share in the life of the Trinity? I propose that this is simply to experience a finite share in the infinite attributes of God. A saint shares in God’s power, knowledge, presence, benevolence and so on, but to a finite degree.

However, more importantly for this paper, theosis is arguably a participation in and reflection of Christ himself. To be like God is to be like Christ, and in the Gospels Christ invites us to follow him, and outlines his method in order for us to do so. Famously, Christ tells us to “take up our cross,” just as he takes up his cross. To die a Christlike death is therefore arguably one tangible expression of theosis. In Catholic theology, Christ is often spoken of as “Prophet, Priest and King,” and it is emphasised that every Christian participates in these three offices. Just as Christ is a prophet, Christians are called to be prophets; just as Christ is a priest, Christians are called to be a kingdom of priests; and just as Christ is a king, every Christian is called to participate in his reign. The exact details of how individual Christians manifest their participation in these offices are different from case to case.

I would now like to propose that Christians are called to participate in all aspects of Christ’s life and ministry, and that therefore, Christians are called to participate in Holy Saturday, aka The Harrowing of Hades. But first, what exactly is this doctrine?

Harrowing of Hell

The contemporary Catholic position on the doctrine of Christ’s descent to Hell is discussed in the Catechism paragraphs 631 to 637:

Scripture calls the abode of the dead, to which the dead Christ went down, “hell” – Sheol in Hebrew or Hades in Greek – because those who are there are deprived of the vision of God. Such is the case for all the dead, whether evil or righteous, while they await the Redeemer: which does not mean that their lot is identical, as Jesus shows through the parable of the poor man Lazarus who was received into “Abraham’s bosom”: “It is precisely these holy souls, who awaited their Savior in Abraham’s bosom, whom Christ the Lord delivered when he descended into hell.” Jesus did not descend into hell to deliver the damned, nor to destroy the hell of damnation, but to free the just who had gone before him.12

As can be clearly seen in this paragraph, the Catholic church explicitly13 teaches that Christ’s descent to Hell was not a rescue mission directed towards the damned, and Christ supposedly only descended to Hell in order to rescue only the righteous who lived prior to Christ; those “Holy souls, who await their saviour in Abraham’s bosom.” So in a dramatic twist the Catholic church appears to be teaching the exact opposite of what Christ himself claims in Luke 5:31-32.14 Further, in this basic understanding of the descent, Holy Saturday was nothing more than a one time event – Christ descended just to tie up some loose ends – and under this understanding the doctrine of the decensus ad infernum does not appear to have much – if any – relevance for Catholics today.

The Catechism also outlines the other popular interpretation of the doctrine; namely, Christ’s salvific work was already complete by the time of the descent and therefore the only possible purpose of the descent would be for Christ to announce his victory to the dead:

The frequent New Testament affirmations that Jesus was “raised from the dead” presuppose that the crucified one sojourned in the realm of the dead prior to his resurrection. This was the first meaning given in the apostolic preaching to Christ’s descent into hell: that Jesus, like all men, experienced death and in his soul joined the others in the realm of the dead. But he descended there as Savior, proclaiming the Good News to the spirits imprisoned there.15

So the standard Catholic teaching is more or less that Christ descended to the dead only once, for the purpose of rescuing righteous pagans and the holy fathers and patriarchs of Israel that lived before Christ. Beyond this, the doctrine has no real significance for a Christian today.16

As it turns out, the earliest fathers (particularly in the east) had a more profound take on the doctrine of the descensus. For example, examine the following extract from St. John Chrysostom’s famous Easter homily – which has been officially incorporated into the Byzantine Divine Liturgy:

Let no one fear death, for the Savior’s death has set us free: he that was held prisoner of it has annihilated it. By descending into hell, he made hell captive. He embittered it when it tasted of his flesh. And Isaiah, foretelling this, cried: “Hell was embittered when it encountered thee in the lower regions.” It was embittered, for it was abolished.

It was embittered, for it was mocked. It was embittered, for it was slain. It was embittered, for it was overthrown. It was embittered, for it was fettered in chains. It took a body, and met God face to face. It took earth, and encountered heaven. It took that which was seen, and fell upon the unseen.

O Death, where is your sting? O Hell, where is your victory?

Christ is risen, and you are overthrown. Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen. Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice. Christ is risen, and life reigns. Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in the grave.

For Christ, being risen from the dead, is become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep. To him be glory and dominion unto ages of ages. Amen.17

Notice the highlighted sections of the homily. Chrysostom (and any Christian attending a church which prays the Byzantine Liturgy) quite clearly and powerfully proclaims here that Hell was completely abolished by Christ’s descent. This text clearly states that not one dead remains in the grave. It is usual for Catholics that are committed to a final distinction between saved and damned to push back against this with an attempt to water down the rhetoric; they will claim that the text is only referring to the universal resurrection, and Christ is not spoken of here as saving the damned. This is however extremely unlikely in light of the completely and utterly triumphant tone of the homily; it would be quite strange for the preacher to be proclaiming the universal resurrection in such a victorious tone if in actual fact some/most/many of the souls rescued from the grave are simplybeing resurrected to a fate worse than death.

It seems far more reasonable to take the homily at face value: Christ descended to Hell for the purpose of saving everyone; he descended to the grave so as to completely empty it of both saints and sinners. The descent was indeed the proclamation of Christ’s victory, but this proclamation is kerygmatic and therefore able to save those who hear it. The descent was not Christ gloating at sinners by proclaiming to them a salvation which they will never access; rather the descent was a rescue mission. Furthermore, there is reason to believe that the descent was not a one time event, but rather has a timeless dimension to it. Arguably all who die – whether before Christ or after – are affected by Holy Saturday; Arguably this is exactly why St. Chrysostom’s homily is read every Easter in the Byzantine churches; Holy Saturday is a reality right here and now, and rather than being restricted to a handful of righteous pagans and Jews who lived before Christ, the descent has relevance for all people; both sinners and saints, both the living and the dead.

Conclusion

Lets now tie all of this together. If the doctrine of theosis implies both that saints experience a finite participation in the divine attributes, and also that they participate directly in Christ himself by reflecting and continuing his mission, then surely this implies that all Christian saints participate in Holy Saturday, and therefore all Christian saints are called to participate in the descent to Hell. If Christians are called to die as Christ died and live as Christ lived; and if Christians are called by Jesus to “take up your cross and follow me;”18 might not this divine calling to become Christ-like also encompass a personal descent to Hell for each Christian? Further, if Christ’s descent to Hell was indeed a rescue mission to save both the righteous and the damned, surely each individual Christian saint is obliged by their salvific theosis to participate in that same rescue mission.

Look at this famous “Catholic” passage from scripture:

And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of Hell shall not prevail against it.19

In usual discussion of this verse, it is assumed that the “Church” is a fortress and the powers of Hell are laying siege to it. However a more literal translation brings out the original nuances:

And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will gather my assembly, and the gates of Hell shall not prevail against it.20

In this rendition, it is clear that things are the other way around: Hell is the prison fortress, and the church is an assembly: an army. When Christ says he is going to build his church and the gates of Hell will not prevail against it, the image is more accurately that of Christ the king, Peter the general, and a vast and growing army of saints, all of them together orchestrating a holy war against the forces of Hell and laying siege to the front gates of the infernal prison.

This more direct interpretation lines up quite nicely with the doctrine of Holy Saturday, and the Mormon doctrine of afterlife ministry. Christ has built – and is still building – an army of saints. This army of saints is waging warfare against Hell, and attempting to orchestrate a cosmic prison break. The damned souls who are stuck behind the gates of Hell can do nothing to save themselves, and can only prayerfully wait for Christ and his army of saints to break down the gates of their hellish prison and rescue them. But there is good news: Christ proclaims that the gates of hell will not prevail, and this is cause for great hope.

It can therefore be seen how the Mormon doctrine of afterlife ministry is not so far-fetched after all. Christ is building his army of saints, and both he and his army are on a rescue mission to break into Hell and rescue everyone from the clutches of the demonic prison masters. But the gates of Hell will not prevail, and in fact there is a powerful sense in which the universal rescue mission is guaranteed to be a success. As Chrysostom preached:

O Death, where is your sting? O Hell, where is your victory? Christ is risen, and you are overthrown. Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen. Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice. Christ is risen, and life reigns. Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in Hell.

Bibliography

Aquinas, Thomas. Summa Theologica. Translated by Fathers of the English Dominican Province. New York: Benziger Brothers, 1911-1925.

Catechism of the Catholic Church. 2nd ed. Vatican City: Vatican Press, 1997.

1Luke 16:19-31

2Officially “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints”

3Admittedly St. Thomas’ formulation is more technical and less emotive than the version I outlined earlier, which apparently quite successfully takes the edge off its inherent ugliness in the eyes of many Catholics

4Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologica, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province (New York: Benziger Brothers, 1911-1925), IIIa Suppl. q. 94, arts 3.

5As opposed to the Prophet Joseph Smith who started the Latter Day Saint movement as a whole

6D&C 138:28-30

7D&C 138:31-34

8D&C 138:35-37

9D&C 138:58-60

10As an aside, there are strong parallels with the bodhisattva vow made by some Mahayana Buddhists. Such Buddhists promise to descend back into saṃsāra to rescue all who are trapped in the clutches of worldly passion, vice and suffering. These spiritual warriors vow to refrain from dissolving into the bliss of mahāparinirvāṇa until universal salvation has been achieved. They promise to continue to descend back into the world again and again to teach divine love and compassion to those in darkness, until all have finally been saved.

11Important to note that Christ is essentially divine and only secondarily human, whereas we would be essentially human and only secondarily divine. The common ablative tossed around is that we will be divine by participation.

12Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd ed. (Vatican City: Vatican Press, 1997), 633.

13Although arguably not dogmatically

14“Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have not come to save the righteous, but sinners.

15Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd ed. (Vatican City: Vatican Press, 1997), 632.

16It should also be mentioned that there is a minority report among Catholics – influenced by Reformed thinkers – which claims that Christ’s descent to Hell was a suffering descent, wherein Christ actually suffered the full penalty for all sins ever committed. In the Catholic camp this position is primarily associated with Hans Urs Von Balthasar. It is a theologumenon with much merit, and any serious theologian who wants to construct a contemporary dogmatics of Holy Saturday should wrestle with Von Balthasar’s thought.

17St. John Chrysostom, Paschal Homily.

18Matt 16:24

19Matt 16:18

20Matt 16:18