“Are You Saved?” – The Essence of the Gospel

I was reading Eclectic Orthodoxy today and the latest post was a sermon by Met Kallistos Ware. He relates how he has been asked “Are you saved?” many times, and sets down his response to the question, which turns out to be quite long and involved.

“Are you saved?”: This extremely loaded question is commonly deployed by evangelicals when they are out and about evangelising, or if they encounter a Christian who attends a church or denomination different from their own. It is basically the most efficient litmus test for working out whether someone is a fellow believer or not.

However I think there is a better way of phrasing this question, which is able to elicit a fuller picture of what the person you are talking to believes. It basically boils down to 4 questions:

  1. Are you saved?
  2. Am I saved?
  3. Are Hitler/Satan/Judas/members of ISIS saved?
  4. For each of the above, Why or why not?

The Evangelical Answer

Now, the common evangelical answer to the above questions goes something like the following:

  1. Yes! Amen! Praise God!
  2. I’m not sure.
  3. Probably not.
  4. I am saved because I believe in Jesus. But I’m not sure if you believe in Jesus so I don’t know whether you are saved, and it doesn’t seem to me that Hitler and the rest of those people had faith so they’re all probably gonna roast in Hell for eternity.

Now, I find this response incredibly problematic, because it seems to be reducing salvation to works, law and legalism: “If you believe in Jesus, you will be saved. If you don’t believe in Jesus, you will be damned.” This attitude is a flagrant contradiction of the Gospel, which is that salvation comes entirely by grace, and not by law. It also just adds fuel to the fire of tribalism: The believers are “in” and the unbelievers are “out”. It just leads to a very “us and them” approach to Christianity, which is another thing strongly condemned in the pages of the New Testament (cf. Paul insisting that there are no relevant distinctions between Jews and Gentiles)

The Catholic Answer

How would a Catholic respond to the above questions?

  1. I dunno (but probably not)
  2. I dunno (but probably not)
  3. I dunno (but probably not)
  4. We simply can’t be sure about the salvation of anyone and are forced to remain agnostic and “hopeful”. This is because we have “freedom” and so it is therefore up to us to decide whether we are going to heaven or not, but we don’t know what decision we are going to make, and all signs point to the fact that we are dirty sinners destined for Hell.

The Catholic answer is tragic. I can’t tell whether it is better than the evangelical response or not. At least it doesn’t devolve into tribalism: God still loves everyone and wants to save everyone. But unfortunately all of us are “free” and tend to make the wrong choices again and again and again. So while we are called to “Hope” for salvation, we must necessarily end up being totally pessimistic about the whole enterprise. Pretty much everyone is gonna end up in Hell. There is a narrow gate that leads to life and a wide gate that leads to destruction. Most people pick the wide gate.

The Correct Answer

There is in actual fact a correct answer to the four questions. But before we get to that, we have to nuance the language being used: When someone asks “are you saved?” do they mean to ask “are you going to heaven in the future?” or do they mean to ask “are you in heaven right now?” because there’s a relevant difference of meaning there.

So, if “saved” is taken to mean “being in heaven right damn now”, then for a believer in the Gospel the correct answer to the questions would be:

  1. Yes!
  2. It depends who’s asking
  3. Probably not
  4. I am saved because I live and breath salvation in my day to day experience of life. I’m not sure if you’re saved because I can only know the content of my own experience, but I can make an informed guess by listening to how you talk and the way that you behave. And Hitler et al are probably not saved because they were clearly evil to the core and pitiful lost souls.

This answer is honest and true. There’s nothing to dispute here. But the question becomes much more interesting if we take the first definition of “Saved”, which is to say “Elect” and “Chosen” and “Predestined”.

If we take “saved” to mean “Your spot in heaven is secure”, then the answer to the four questions would be:

  1. Yes, of course!
  2. Yes, of course!
  3. Yes, of course!
  4. All people are saved, including you and me and Hitler (and even Satan!) because God is sovereign and God is loving: God intends the salvation of all people and his intentions cannot be thwarted by anything or anyone. God will save whom God wants to save, and he wants to save everyone.

This is the essence of the Gospel. God loves everyone and everything and has chosen all of us for his children, regardless of whether we are good or bad. This is cause for rejoicing and praising God. His Grace and Mercy are powerful and sovereign, and cannot fail to save the world that he has created and everything in it. God loves all and all will love God.

What are your answers to the questions?

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)

 

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

Salvation is a Promise, not an Offer

APOKATASTASIS - TravelQuaz.ComThe original Sola Fide rested on the conviction that salvation is a promise, not an offer. If it’s an offer, then it depends on us to accept it. The key phrase there is “it depends on us”; in other words it is a violation of Sola Gratia and Sola Fide. Whereas if salvation is a promise then it depends entirely on God, which is much more in accord with Monergistic Calvinism and Lutheranism, rather than Arminianism. If salvation is a promise, then it doesn’t depend on how much faith we have, or whether we even have any faith at all; instead it depends entirely on God’s love and sovereignty.

The only question left if you’re on board with all of this is “To whom does God speak this promise?” Luther’s answer was “Whoever has been baptised”; he was very sacramental. Whereas Calvin’s answer tended more towards “preaching as sacrament”; that is, whenever the preacher declares his congregation justified in the name of the risen Christ, the unconditional gospel promise has been spoken; the final judgement has taken place; and the congregation is divided into sheep and goats in that very moment; there are those who trust the promise and those who don’t; those who do are saved into the life of the age, while those who do not are condemned.

But the key point here is that the promise has been spoken, and at the end of the day this promise cannot fail, on account of the one who is really speaking it. If God – through me – declares you justified, then that’s damn well how it is, regardless of whether you trust the declaration or not. However, you won’t experience the salvation that Christ has won for you, and that is presently being declared to you, until you place your trust in that declaration.

So yes, if one does not have faith, they are not saved. But you are nevertheless elect, regardless of whether or not you have faith, because God declares that it is so, and the divine declaration of God completely and entirely trumps a person’s lack of faith.

APOKATASTASIS - TravelQuaz.ComThis is what bugs me about typical evangelical distortions of Sola Fide. They get everything totally back to front. They will claim that it’s only after we have faith that God declares us righteous. But this is just silly: How am I supposed to have faith in God’s declaration when God hasn’t even spoken that declaration to me?

This is why Luther put everything on baptism; because his interpretation of the sacraments was that they are the objective, tangible moment when the declaration of justification is made. They therefore give you something to anchor your faith on. Whereas the Evangelical construal requires me to have faith before I even have an object to anchor my faith on in the first place. This distortion of the doctrine of Sola Fide is clearly the work of Satan as he constantly battles and compromises the doctrines of the church.

So according to evangelicalism, I’m required to have faith in the declaration. But how can I place my faith in the declaration if the declaration is not even spoken until I have faith? It’s a chicken and egg impossibility.

Whereas the original Sola Fide went more like this: “Christ died for you, and therefore your future is secure” – None of this pointless speculation about who is elect and who is not. For you can be 100% assured and certain that you are saved by the blood of Christ, and this is not because of anything you’ve done – not even your faith.

Similarly, you can be 100% assured and certain that whoever it is you are talking to is also saved by the blood of Christ. This is because scripture clearly says so, and this therefore gives you the authority to proclaim the divine declaration of justification to that person as an unconditional promise, in the name of Christ and the good God on high.

Eternal damnation is always a completely abstract hypothetical. It’s for people who are not present, and this is why we must evangelise. We need to proclaim the declaration of righteousness to everyone, and help them to believe it. Remember Romans 10: “How can they believe if they have not heard? How can they hear if no one is sent to them?” etc etc

But remember: The moment your gospel preaching gets contaminated with conditions and “ifs”, you’re preaching some other gospel. “If you get circumcised”, “If you get baptised”, “If you go to confession”, “If you die without committing mortal sins”, “If you believe in Jesus” –  all of these are false gospels.

The one true gospel goes something more like this: “Christ died for you, and so I confidently promise you that your eternal destiny is secure”, and to go even further you could say “and if by chance you do end up in Hell, I promise you that I will come down there and help you to escape.”

Every false gospel preaches law in the form “If x then y”, whereas the true gospel preaches promise in the form “because a then b”.

Highway to Heaven – And the Words became BooksCompare “If you believe, Christ will save you”, to “Because Christ has saved you, you may now trust him and rejoice!!!” The first proclamation is law, it generates works or efforts or εργα, and as you know, we are not saved by works or efforts. Whereas the second proclamation is gospel, good news! The first proclamation places a massive burden on the hearer: they must try as hard as they can to fulfil the stated condition. But how on earth does one even begin to believe?

So the first proclamation will either produce despair, or a proud Pharisee: Despair, as the sinner realises he is completely incapable of meeting the required condition. Or a Pharisee, when he fools himself into thinking that he has successfully managed to do it. Whereas the second proclamation is liberating; it confronts the listener so completely that their only response can be a free faith or a heart that yearns to explode into that free faith but is enslaved by questions, objections and doubts – all of which will be dealt with in due time, if only they would be humble and patient.

This is the essence of faith alone: Once the gospel has been correctly spoken, faith is the only possible response. If the gospel is proclaimed and there is no faith, then the person doing the proclaiming simply hasn’t done the proclaiming correctly, and the saving word of the gospel was therefore never actually spoken. In this way, if someone ends up in hell, it’s actually not their fault; it’s my fault, because I wasn’t able to evangelise them effectively.

But thank God for his unconditional promise, and the fact that his word always achieves what it sets out to achieve, and that we are authorised to spread that promise to the entire world, and that it can’t ultimately fail: eventually all will hear it, all will understand it, all will believe it, all will be saved, and God’s final victory will be complete.