The Law of Christ – Contextual Absolute Morality

A Science of Moral Judgements

The law of Christ written on our hearts judges any given course of action according to the following categories:

  1. Must
  2. Should
  3. Omittable
  4. May
  5. Permissible
  6. Should not
  7. Must not

Failure to perform an action in the “Must” category, and the performance of an action in the “Must not” category are both mortal sins. Failure to perform an action in the “Should” category, and the performance of an action in the “Should not” category are both venial sins.

An action in the “Omittable” category is good to do but not obligatory, similarly an action in the “Permissible” category is good to avoid but not forbidden. As such, neither performing “Permissible” actions nor refraining from “Omittable” actions are sinful. Performing “Omittable” actions and avoiding “Permissible” actions is referred to as “Doing penance”. An action in the “May” category is morally neutral.

Performing actions in the “Must” and “Should” categories merits an increase in eschatological rewards, while failing to perform such actions merits a decrease. Similarly avoiding actions in the “Should not” and “Must not” categories merits a decrease in eschatological punishment, while indulging in such actions merits an increase.

Performing an “Omittable” action merits an increase in eschatological rewards and a decrease in eschatological punishment, while failure to perform the action is neutral. Similarly, performing a “Permissible” action is neutral, but avoiding such actions merits an increase in eschatological rewards and a decrease in eschatological punishment.

Fundamental Principles

  1. It is never permissible to do evil, even though good will come as a result. Which is to say, one must never perform an action in the “Must not” category, and one must never fail to perform an action in the “Must” category. This also implies that it is good to avoid actions in the “Should not” category, and good to perform actions in the “Should” category, however failure to do these things is not necessarily evil.
  2. The absolute moral categories of “Must” and “Must not” only arise in actual, concrete, present tense and real-life situations, and only from the first-person perspective. It is not possible to determine with certainty what an agent’s moral responsibilities are if the situation being examined is hypothetical, is distant in space and time, or if it is being analysed from the second or third person perspective; in this case it is only possible to make a probabilistic judgement and assign an action a value between “Should” and “Should not”, while the absolute categories of “Must” and “Must not” are excluded.
  3. No action is 100% good or evil when considered in the abstract. Actions only become totally good or totally evil in an actual, concrete, first person, present tense, real-life context. Apart from such a context, we can only make probabilistic judgements about the rightness or wrongness of an action.

Example

Killing is in the “should not” category. But if it is in self-defence then killing moves to the “should” category. However, if you also have other means of defending yourself available then it swings back to the “should not” category. But if those other means of defending yourself would lead to the death of multiple innocent bystanders then the killing returns once again to the “should” category. But if you somehow can see into the future and know that those innocent bystanders are going to be the catalyst for a future nuclear Armageddon in which all humanity is exterminated, then the straightforward act of killing becomes “should not” again. However, if, all of this considered, it would turn out that allowing the person to live would somehow lead to metaphysical oblivion for the entire universe, then the killing swings right back to “should” once more, etc etc etc

You can see in this example how it is always possible to add more information to a hypothetical situation, thus swinging the action in question back and forth between “should” and “should not”. Therefore, it is imperative to avoid being entrapped in schemas of rigid law and abstract absolute morality. When one is required to follow an abstract absolutist commandment such as “You must never kill”, then, despite the fact that it is “lawful”, the observance of such a commandment will be wrong and immoral in very many situations.

Absolute morality is important, but only in concrete, real situations, not in abstract hypothetical ones. Furthermore, the true absolute moral code cannot be captured within the schemas and broad strokes of religious or secular laws, or the sacred frameworks produced by the many and varied schools of religious and secular jurisprudence that exist in the world. In the end, it is up to the individual to always be prayerfully aware of the Holy Spirit speaking to their conscience, and in thus doing so, intimately come to know the law of Christ that is written on their heart, and so always do the right thing in every situation.

The Mystery of Sin: Who is Culpable?

So why do we sin? Why is it that we often perform actions in the “Should not” and “Must not” categories, whilst failing to live up to our obligations in the “Must” and “Should” categories?

There are questions of culpability in play here: If a woman’s conscience informs her that seeking an abortion is in the “Should not” category, but out of fear and terror she goes ahead and does it anyway, is it really her fault? She did indeed sin, by disobeying her conscience, but the fear and terror mitigates her culpability. But why did this fear and terror arise in the first place? Who is responsible for the fear and terror? In this case, the culpability for the fear and terror falls entirely on the community surrounding the woman, and by extension the culpability for the sin itself also falls onto the community. The community failed to offer and to provide the necessary support and care and love that would enable the woman to do the right thing. If we consider the community as a single moral agent, then providing such care, love and support would fall into the “Should” category. As such, the failure of the community to live up to its obligations is the direct cause of the woman failing to live up to hers.

In this way responsibility for sin and good works is a communal affair, not a personal one. The fear and terror of this woman proceed from a lack of trust that God would provide and take care of her and her child, but the way God does this providing is through the wider community, so if the wider community is not forthcoming with this divine love, then the woman is unlikely to be overflowing with the faith necessary to obey her conscience. The general moral principle here is that when one person either sins or does a good work, the entire community is ultimately responsible and culpable for the act.

While one is damned, all are damned

But this applies to soteriology. Universalist leaning philosophers and theologians love to speculate about how it is impossible to “freely” choose Hell and the eternal, everlasting damnation of the age, because such a choice is utterly irrational and insane, and therefore hardly qualifies as “free”. But this is a similar situation to the abortion hypothetical proposed above. Someone’s conscience may clearly reveal to them that “Choosing God” is in the “Must” category, which implies that they have full knowledge of what is right and wrong in this case, and failure to follow their conscience here would indeed be a mortal sin which leads to Hell and damnation. But due to terror, fear, scepticism, insanity, or whatever else, they may decide to disobey this clear, unambiguous command written on their heart. In this way, they truly did “choose” Hell, with the full consent of their will and a fully informed knowledge in their conscience. However, the factors motivating this choice were terror, fear, scepticism, misinformation, wrong impressions and so on. So, what caused those factors? If we dig a little bit deeper into the story of this person’s life, we discover that they had been taught lies about God, had been indoctrinated into a faulty theology, had been abused and betrayed by all their Christian friends etc. In this way, we discover that it’s ultimately not the individual who is at fault for choosing Hell, it’s instead the wider community’s fault.

This all has important implications for evangelism. If the people you are evangelising are not responding favourably then you shouldn’t judge and condemn them as if it is their fault, because if anything it is YOUR fault for not proclaiming the gospel correctly. Furthermore, when someone dies in unbelief and rebellion against God, it simply will not do to wash your hands of their blood and claim that it’s their own fault and they are merely getting what they deserve. Because if they really did reject God and end up in Hell, then it’s not their fault, it’s YOUR fault, and if you don’t do something about it fast you will be heading for the same fate.

The blood of the unevangelised stains all of our hands, especially if we aren’t praying regularly for them or actively trying to announce the gospel to them and assist them in coming to faith and repentance. Do not expect to escape punishment yourself, while the vast majority of the world languishes in Hell. Salvation doesn’t work like that. Some like to say, “Once saved, always saved”, but I prefer to say “One saved, all saved”: or, we’re all in this together. The promise of Christ to the world is “I will not be saved without you”, and we should be sincerely speaking this same promise to each other every single day, because so long as we don’t, the entire creation remains chained in darkness, unrepentance, unbelief and ignorance, and it remains devoid of love.

Most Christians these days seem to think “As long as I’m saved, it doesn’t ultimately make a difference to me whether or not you go to Hell”: this is the essence of false assurance and ignorance. So long as Christians maintain this attitude, the damned will remain in Hell. But as soon as we realise that our eschatological happiness depends on the salvation of the damned, we will all storm the gates of Hell with our prayers and armies of angels, liberating the captives and loving them all up into salvation. For a person doesn’t end up in Hell due to lacking love in their own soul; a person ends up in Hell due to everyone else lacking love towards that person.

When people die in unbelief, we should be asking forgiveness for both our souls and their soul: our souls because we are ultimately responsible for that person’s damnation, and their soul because no one is ever completely beyond redemption.

All of this is felt clearly whenever we are confronted with a suicide victim. The sense is always that we failed to help the person who died, not that they themselves are at fault. This intuition is correct, and if it applies to the sin of suicide, how much more does it apply to the mortal sin of totally rejecting God! But in reality, it applies to every sin. Every sin without exception committed by an individual is in fact the collective fault of the entire community.

The Final Word

But God is in the process of liberating us all from the chains that prevent us from fulfilling the requirements of the law written on our hearts. By slowly pouring out his love – which is to say, himself – upon us all, he is wiping away the darkness and filling us all up with light. As we love each other more and more, we lift each other up out of Hell and we all collectively rise up to Heaven. And in the end, not one person will remain separate from God, and all will always do good, and never do evil, and the requirements of the law will be fulfilled in us all, and God will be all in all, and there will be no more Hell, no more damnation, only joy, bliss, faith, hope and love.

Beautiful Heresy 101 – The Gospel Creed

Nicaea_icon[1].jpgI believe in the gospel: the promise of the salvation of the entire cosmos, and of everything in it.

I believe in freedom: that all who repent, repent freely; that all who are damned embrace damnation with full knowledge and full consent; that no one is forced to be saved.

I believe in the universal scope of sin, total depravity and the massa damnata: that all souls with neither exception nor distinction are predestined to everlasting tortures, in the depths of the lowest hell, where the smoke of their torment rises forever and ever.

I believe in the perfect man, the Lord Jesus, and the perfect woman, the Holy Virgin Mother Mary. I confess that together they are one Christ, and as Christ they descended to the lowest and most infinitesimal circle of Hell, where they experienced the full force of damnation forever and ever and ever, unto the ages of ages, τον αιδιος και τον αιονιων, in saecula saeculorum. I confess that in doing so, they experienced the full chastisement for the sins of the world, and no punishment remains. I confess that they were resurrected immediately to the highest possible height of heaven, where they sit exalted at the right hand of God the father. I confess that they have come again, are coming again, and will come again, for the sake of the salvation of all souls.

I believe in the election of the damned and of all sinners; the predestination of Hitler* and of Satan and all of his demons.

I believe in epektasis: that Heaven is an everlasting struggle, in which we feel infinite pain as we become perfected in love and compassion towards the damned who wander in Hell.

I believe in the eschaton: the final moment – an eternity and a forever distant into the future – where all that ever was will be once again, and all who have ever lived will be raised to new life, resurrected into the fullness of perfection and glory. I confess that there will be no more sickness, tears, suffering, sadness, war, death, crime, murder, rape, sin, rebellion, Hell, or any other evil thing whatsoever.

I believe in the life of the final age; infinite joy, infinite satisfaction, divine bliss, immutability, impassibility, ineffability, omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence, omnibenevolence.

I confess that we may enter into this final age right now, through sincere faith in the good news and this promise. I confess that we will become one with the eschaton through love, and that ultimately not a single soul will fail in the struggle.

I affirm that after all the ages have passed – after we all have experienced an infinity of heavens and an infinity of hells – all things will come to the final, peaceful rest of nibbana. All things will return to the nothingness of God from whence they originally sprung forth; all sin will be extinguished and all virtue will be laid to rest; karma will cease and the cycle of samsara will come to it’s final conclusion.

I affirm that God is the Alpha and the Omega, and that therefore the end is but a new beginning, and after the final conclusion and timeless rest of nibbana, the cycle of samsara will start anew, all to the everlasting glory of God.

To the one who calls out to us from everlasting to everlasting, and whose burning heart relentlessly pursues us unto the ages of ages;

To him who embraces us as we burn forever and ever in this lake of fire, and who loves us without limit as we wander the edge of this outer darkness;

To the perfect lover in whom all of us live and move and have our being, and who will not cease sending grace until the last of us submits to sorrow and repentance;

To he who is eternally more eternal than eternity and infinitely more infinite than infinity; To the sovereign king who makes all things new and guarantees that all will be well with the world;

All praise, glory, honour, dominion and victory be yours, Until all sinners are restored to perfection, And the evil one himself has confessed you as lord, And the entire cosmos shines bright with your glorious love.

Amen

* Substitute the name of whoever is considered to be the most evil and hated figure of the day in your culture and community. Or if reciting this creed privately, substitute the name of the person you have the most trouble loving.

(Edited 27/7/2019)

Theodicy and The Problem of Evil – Speculations Concerning Origin and Destiny: “Why Did Satan Fall?”

The Problem of Evil

Problem of EvilThe Problem of Evil is probably the single most compelling objection that an Atheist can raise when confronted with an advocate for classical theism. If you believe in an omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent God, the problem of evil has already locked on to you and loaded up an array of philosophical cruise missiles. Be prepared for an atomic blast; the problem of evil is one objection that has no easy answers.

The problem of evil is simply stated thus: How is it possible that there could be evil and suffering in a world where there is an all powerful, all knowing, totally loving God? Surely such a God would have the capacity to prevent such suffering and evil, as well as the wiles and power to do so.

In this post I propose to explore the problem of evil whilst drawing upon a variety of spiritual and philosophical traditions. Lets see where we end up.

The Origin of Evil

The usual Judeo-ChristianProblem of Evil explanation for the origins of evil is to be found in the early chapters of the book of Genesis. In summary, the claim is that humanity was originally created in a state of original innocence and bliss. However the serpent, representing the fallen angel Satan, tempted our first parents to disobey God. Adam and Eve succumbed to the temptation, and as a result were immediately infected with sin and evil to the core. As a result, all humans since then have been stained by sin and tend towards evil.

This account is unsatisfactory on many levels. It raises more questions than it answers. For example it is completely unable to account for natural evils such as earthquakes and tsunamis – are we supposed to believe that such natural disasters are caused by human rebellion? Furthermore, this story merely postpones the initial question: Sure, this was the point when evil was introduced to humanity, but how on earth did Satan become corrupted in the first place? If Satan had not been evil, then he would not have tempted our first parents, and presumably all would have been well in paradise forever.

Christians have speculated on this question of the fall of Satan and come up with some interesting theories: There is the extra-biblical narrative of the war in heaven, during which a third of the angels fell from grace and became demons, following Satan. An account of this war and events surrounding it can be found in John Milton’s epic poem, Paradise Lost. All of this is quite fascinating of course, however it still completely fails to solve the problem: Why was it that Satan was even able to fall and rebel against God in the first place? Didn’t God create everything in a state of perfection? If this is the case, how is it possible for anyone to turn against God?

Things start to sound even more suspicious and incoherent when you ponder the standard Christian eschatological views: allegedly we will be impeccable once we arrive in the perfection of heaven – if this is the case, then why were we not impeccable during our pre-fall perfect existence? What is different about perfection in the past and perfection in the future? If we could rebel in the beginning, then why can we not rebel in the end?

Why is it that Satan, a perfect angel, created with supreme knowledge of God, was able to make the irrational choice of evil? Where did that evil come from? How was he able to muster up such a bizarre choice? Why was evil even an option at all?

Ante Creatio Ex Nihilo

GoodEvil1[1].jpgWhere does evil come from? Why is it even an option at all? The Christian Tradition has not been forthcoming with answers to these questions about evil.

However there is a poignant teaching in the early church fathers that is relevant to the discussion: The idea is that evil has no existence or substance in and of itself. Instead all evil is merely the privation of good. Only good has true existence. At this point it is helpful to step back and draw on the Eastern Traditions of Philosophy, specifically, Taoism.

The second chapter of the Tao Te Ching is particularly illuminating:

When all the world recognises beauty as beauty, this in itself is ugliness.
When all the world recognises good as good, this in itself is evil.

Indeed, the hidden and the manifest give birth to each other.
Difficult and easy complement each other.
Long and short exhibit each other.
High and low set measure to each other.
Voice and sound harmonize each other.
Back and front follow each other.

Therefore, the Sage manages his affairs without ado,
And spreads his teaching without talking.
He denies nothing to the teeming things.
He rears them, but lays no claim to them.
He does his work, but sets no store by it.
He accomplishes his task, but does not dwell upon it.

And yet it is just because he does not dwell on it
That nobody can ever take it away from him.

The idea is that of the yin and yang. Good cannot be defined except as in opposition to evil. Existence cannot be defined except as in opposition to Nothingness. Big cannot be defined except as in opposition to small. Opposites depend on each other.

I argue, that this principle was in effect prior to creation. Before God had decided to create “out of nothing”, this principle of yin and yang was in effect. Call God the yin, so what was the yang?

Let’s list out some of the attributes of God. God – the yin  is:

  • Omnipresent
  • Omnibenevolent
  • Omnipotent
  • Omniscient
  • Self-Existent
  • Personal
  • Relational
  • Love
  • Simple
  • Impassable
  • Essential
  • Immutable

Now, lets negate all these attributes and see what happens. The yang is:

  • Nowhere
  • Omnimalevolent
  • Impotent
  • Ignorant
  • Non-Existent
  • Impersonal
  • Desolate
  • Hate
  • Complex
  • Passable
  • Nothingness
  • Mutable

The Taoist argument is that it is impossible for the attributes of God to exist, without there also being some sort of reality to the negations of those attributes. In this way, the perfections of God stand in opposition to the imperfections produced by their negation.

The classical Christian view, is that God created the universe “ex nihilo” – which is to say – “out of nothing”. Now I would like to ask; what was this “nothing”? It would seem that before the beginning of time, there was God, and there was “Nothing”. Does this not sound strikingly similar to the yin and yang dichotomy? After all, one of the attributes in that last list is “nothingness”. It sounds to me as though before the beginning God existed, but alongside his existence there was the “non-existence” of nothing. And it is only for this reason that God was able to create. He needed raw material to work with, and nothing is what he found.

So lets tweak the classical Christian narrative with this yin yang distinction in mind: Before the beginning, there was God, and there was nothing: yin and yang. God is loving, and powerful and all knowing, whereas the nothing is evil and powerless and non-existent. The story of creation is that in which God works on this “evil” nothingness. God naturally overflows with creative love, and the love flows over and pours into the “evil” void that has no existence in and of itself. God creates space in the void, and fills that space with light and love and other aspects of his self.

According to this narrative, evil has always “existed” alongside God, as a negation of his perfections. I put “existed” in inverted commas, because of course evil does not have any true existence in and of itself, seeing as it is a negation of God’s perfections, and God’s perfections alone have true existence. So evil was always a “reality”, even before creation, because God could not be perfectly good without that perfect goodness being identified in opposition to total evil.

What is evil?

According to the Taoist narrative, evil is simply the opposition to good which necessarily has a reality, even if it has no existence in and of itself. Combine this with the Christian narrative that in the beginning there was God and nothing – this can easily be rephrased as “in the beginning there was good and evil”. In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth “out of nothing” – bring the Taoist distinction to play and this sounds like “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth out of evil”.

In other words Evil/Nothingness is the raw material from which God has brought about creation. Evil did not come into being at some point in the history of creation: Evil has always been around. Evil pre-exists creation (again, insofar as something “non-existent” can be said to “exist”).

Now, the Christian narrative goes further. The Christian claim is that God has not yet finished creating: we are currently in the midst of his creative act. The creation will only come to completion in the eschaton, the end times. Right now, we are in the thick of the action. This provides – in my view – a compelling explanation as to the source and origin of evil, as well as a partial solution to the philosophical problem of evil.

johndemoAn analogy is prudent: Imagine creation as a canvas, and imagine God as a master painter. In the beginning, the creation was blank, void, formless, non-existent, and according to the Taoist insights developed above, it was evil. This state is represented by a blank canvas. However God begins to fill in the canvas with paint and life and colour. This represents his creative acts. Wherever he paints, life and love follow. As time goes by, the canvas begins to fill in, however there are still many blank spots on the canvas, which have not been touched by the master’s paint brush. These blank spots are the remains of the original “nothingness” from which God initially begun to paint. As such, these blank spots represent evil. What do these blank spots correspond to in creation? They correspond to evil actions, sins, natural disasters, pain, suffering.

In other words, my theory is that evil, suffering and sin simply represents a part of creation in which God has simply “not filled in the blank area” yet. Evil has always been present, but it is slowly receding as God continues to work out the story of creation.

The amazing eschatological promise that is so dear to universalism, is that eventually God will fill in ALL parts of the canvas. In other words, evil will be completely done away with. There will only be God, and his beautiful, glorious creation which has filled the nothingness and done away with the evil void.

A New Cosmic Christian narrative

The narrative looks something like this: Pre-creation, history, eschaton. Pre-creation and eschaton are eternal states, and history is a temporal process that moves from the first state to the final state. History can also be thought of as a “curtain” which separates the first eternal state from the last eternal state.

In the Pre-creation, there was God and there was Nothing. God was perfectly good and nothing was perfectly evil. At the beginning of History, God created a reflection of himself in the nothingness and out of the nothingness, transforming it into a “created something” which derives it’s existence from God himself. As history progresses, God continues to fill in the creation, slowly chipping away at the evil which he finds continuing to permeate it. This is where we find ourselves today: We are in the midst of history, experiencing the full battle between good and evil, between God and sin. Sometimes we experience wonderful, ecstatic, heavenly bliss and goodness and pleasure – all of which are gifts from God. Sometimes we experience depression, desolation, evil and sin, all of which are the remains of the nothingness which God is currently in the process of wiping out through his act of creation.

Eventually, at the end of history, we will arrive at the eschaton. The eschaton is a state in which not a hint of nothingness remains: God’s creation is exhaustive and supreme. There is only Joy, and happiness, just as within God himself. No more natural disasters, no more evil, no more pain, no more suffering, only bountiful and overflowing love, joy and happiness.

Problem of EvilIn this way, the entire history of creation is simply a move from the state of evil pre-creation to the state of glorified eschaton. The Zoroastrian image of an eternal struggle between good and evil is apt to represent the situation, however the Christian twist is that good is predestined to victory over evil! In the end times, God will be victorious over the powers of darkness. At the present time we find ourselves in the midst of the battle between good and evil, however in the eschaton the war will have come to it’s conclusion, and the forces of good will be victorious, as God’s creation will have arrived at it’s final glorified state. The master painter will have filled in all the gaps in his canvas. The problem of evil suddenly doesn’t seem so hard to solve.

The Problem of Evil Again

Let’s return to the original objection raised by our hypothetical Atheist: If God is all powerful and all-loving, why does he allow suffering and evil?

The answer to the question, in light of all the considerations above is: he doesn’t!

God does not allow suffering and evil. In fact, God is in the process of wiping them out. If it weren’t for God, suffering and evil would be all that we ever experience, all the time. God is in the process of moving the creation from a state of nothingness, suffering and evil, into a state of glorified perfection in which not a trace of evil remains. The problem for us is that we are currently experiencing this creation from the perspective of the middle of history, rather than enjoying the final product. The final product will indeed be free of evil, but from where we are right now, evil is all around us, as a remnant of the origins/the initial state. The abolition of evil is therefore an eschatological promise that we eagerly anticipate. Rather than experiencing the final state, we are experiencing the intermediate states through which creation must pass in order to arrive at the glorious eschaton.

Problem of EvilA question still remains: How was it that Satan was able to fall into sin in the first place? Based on the speculations in this post, it would seem that evil was always an option. God created angels and humans with free agency – the power to choose between alternatives. And yet God mysteriously created us in the midst of history rather than in the perfected eschaton. As such, as rational agents we are able to choose to do evil acts as well as good acts. Satan must have flirted with the darkness, the nothingness, the evil, and absorbed it’s omnimalevolence into his soul. This was always an option. But God is in the process of defeating this evil once and for all. In the eschaton all evil will have been dealt with. God and his goodness will permeate the creation and not a single speck of evil will remain. Hell will be abolished, as it would have served it’s purpose. The problem of evil is finally solved.

What of the Taoist requirement that perfections be defined in opposition to imperfections? Personally, I suspect that this situation was necessary in the beginning, prior to creation. However I do not expect it is necessary in the eschaton. In the eschaton there is no need for opposition. There will be no nothingness, no evil, no despair, no desolation, no hate, no death. There will only be love, rejoicing, grace, glory, life. The story of history – the story of creation – is a story of movement from evil and nothingness to good and glory. We eagerly await the final days, free of suffering and filled with goodness. Thanks be to our wonderful God and saviour. Praise his beautiful promises and the plans he employs to bring them about.

The Paschal Homily of Saint John Chrysostom: “O Death, Where is Your Sting? O Hell, Where is Your Victory?”

The-Harrowing-of-Hell-by-jimforest-1[1].pngIf any man be devout and love God, let him enjoy this fair and radiant triumphal feast.
If any man be a wise servant, let him enter rejoicing into the joy of his Lord.
If any have laboured long in fasting, let him now receive his recompense.
If any have wrought from the first hour, let him today receive his just reward.
If any have come at the third hour, let him with thankfulness keep the feast.
If any have arrived at the sixth hour, let him have no misgivings, because he shall in no wise be deprived.
If any have delayed until the ninth hour, let him draw near, fearing nothing.
If any have tarried even until the eleventh hour, let him also be not alarmed at his tardiness; for the Lord, who is jealous of his honour, will accept the last even as the first; he gives rest unto him who comes at the eleventh hour, even as unto him who has worked from the first hour.

And He shows mercy upon the last, and cares for the first; and to the one he gives, and upon the other he bestows gifts.
And he both accepts the deeds, and welcomes the intention, and honours the acts and praises the offering.

Wherefore, enter ye all into the joy of your Lord, and receive your reward, both the first and likewise the second.

You rich and poor together, hold high festival.
You sober and you heedless, honour the day.

Rejoice today, both you who have fasted and you who have disregarded the fast.
The table is fully laden; feast sumptuously.
The calf is fatted; let no one go hungry away.
Enjoy the feast of faith; receive all the riches of loving-kindness.

Let no one bewail his poverty, for the universal kingdom has been revealed.
Let no one weep for his iniquities, for pardon has shone forth from the grave.
Let no one fear death, for the Savior’s death has set us free: he that was held prisoner of it has annihilated it.

By descending into hell, he made hell captive.
He embittered it when it tasted of his flesh.
And Isaiah, foretelling this, 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.

St. John Chrysostom

Orthodoxy 101 – The Calvinist and Arminian Debate: Meditations on Freedom of the Will

In the fascinating debate between Calvinists and Arminians, the issue of “Freedom” is key. For Arminians, nothing could be more obvious than the reality of free will, and they find evidence to back up this intuition in the pages of scripture; while for Calvinists, nothing could be more obvious than the bondage and enslavery of our wills to sin and evil, and the bible clearly backs up this conviction.

I recently came to an understanding of both sides of the issue, and I suspect that the two parties are simply talking past each other: When they use the word “Freedom”, they are talking about two different things. When Arminians assert that we are free, they mean to say that we are “free agents”, who have the power of self-determination, control over our own actions, and the power to choose between alternatives. Whereas when Calvinists assert that we are not free, they do not necessarily mean to deny that we have free agency and self-determination; what they mean to say is that our wills are enslaved to sin and evil, such that – if it weren’t for the liberating grace of God – we would always perform evil actions and make sinful choices.

Arminians – Freedom as the Power of Contrary Choice

Fruits3[1].jpgThe Arminian (and Catholic and Orthodox) conviction that we possess libertarian freedom rests on the idea that in order to truly love, we must not be coerced into doing so in any way or on any metaphysical level. If we love, it is because we freely choose to do so, and not because God forces us to do so.

This conviction flows on into more philosophical territory. Arminians wish to assert that we have free/libertarian “agency”: that is to say, God’s sovereignty does not determine our actions and choices. Neither are our actions and choices determined by prior causes as per the philosophy of hard determinism. Instead, the principle which determines our actions and choices rests entirely within ourselves as individuals.

An example to illustrate the idea: A person is offered a variety of fruits at lunch time and informed that they can only choose one. The person deliberates and then chooses between one of the alternatives on offer, for example, a banana. This choice is neither random nor determined by outside forces – it is solely the person himself who brings about the choice of fruit – a banana rather than an apple or orange.

Some Calvinists take an extreme view of God’s sovereignty and blow the maxim “God is in control” way out of proportion. Such Calvinists would disagree with the Arminian analysis of the prior example and would instead claim that it is God who determines the choice of fruit, not the individual person. This would indeed amount to a flat denial of self-determination, free agency and the power of contrary choice. However not all Calvinists share this extreme view of God’s sovereignty.

Calvinists: “We have no Freedom” – The Bondage of the Will

Slavery-and-Sin-300x225[1]Most Calvinists, when pressed, would probably agree that humans possess free agency as defined above. However they would also emphasise their firm conviction that we do not possess free will. Instead of our will being free, our will is enslaved to sin, evil and the powers of darkness. The shorthand term “total depravity” is apt to summarise the situation. If it were not for God continually sending grace to us, we would always freely choose to sin rather than to love and do good. The more we sin, the more we become enslaved to that sin. And so if it were not for the action of God, we would simply descend further and further into evil and spiritual deformity.

Luther argued powerfully that our free agency, unassisted by grace, is unable to do good. Our free agency, left to it’s own devices, will always tend towards doing evil. Catholics dogmatically agree with this concept in the doctrine of concupiscence. Our wills are enslaved to sin. Our wills are in bondage to evil. The more we sin, the tighter the chains bind us.

In this way, humanity does not possess free will. We may very well have a free agency as the Arminians insist, in that our actions are not determined by God and our choices arise from within ourselves rather than being determined via divine sovereignty. Nevertheless our will is in a state of bondage. One component of the good news of the gospel is that God promises to liberate us from this slavery, and is in fact in the process of doing so. In the eschaton, our wills will be free again! In the end-times, our wills will be liberated from their slavery to Satan and the powers of darkness. However right now we are in the middle of the struggle, and this is why we sometimes sin and sometimes do good. The conviction here is that we are not free when we sin; instead, sin is a demonstration of our being in bondage to evil. On the other hand, when we love and do good, this is indeed a demonstration of a free will, or perhaps what is more accurately described as a liberated will.

Talking Past Each Other

p02yy74b[1].jpgWhen sacred scripture talks about freedom, it talks about it in these terms – bondage, slavery, liberation. It does not talk about it in philosophical categories of agency and determinism, regardless of whether or not those categories are true and useful. According to revelation, we are free when we do good and enslaved when we do bad.

Arminians often take their doctrine of freedom too far and end up insisting that humans have such a supreme and unassailable dignity to the point where absolutely nothing can have any influence on our choices, including the biblical concept of slavery to sin. The truth of the matter is that being enslaved to sin and suffering from total depravity does not nullify the fact that we are self-determining creatures who have the power to make distinct choices. All that it means is that the pool of choices that present themselves to us are always evil and sinful in nature, and this is the essence of the bondage of the will.

Whereas Calvinists sometimes push their doctrine of an enslaved will too far and end up denying that mankind has any free agency whatsoever. Such Calvinists put all their eggs in the “God is sovereign” basket and end up claiming that any experience of free agency is entirely illusory, because God himself is the one who is calling all the shots – including my “free” choices. Such Calvinists don’t understand that divine sovereignty does not necessarily contradict libertarian freedom. God is indeed in control, and he will succeed at bringing about the promised eschaton; nevertheless, he gives us true freedom and true agency, so that we can truly love him. He is not a divine puppet master pulling our strings.

A Middle Way

A middle path between the two extremes of Arminian “inviolable freedom” and Calvinist “Deterministic hyper-sovereignty” is helpful to examine. In this view of things, mankind does indeed possess the power of self-determination and free agency, as the Arminians insist, however our wills are also indeed enslaved to sin, as the Calvinists insist. All that this means is that we have free agency to choose between alternatives, however all of the alternatives that present themselves to us are sinful. In more traditional language, this is called “concupiscence” and “total depravity”.

FreedomNow, obviously the picture thus described does not accord with our experience of life and reality. The clear objection that presents itself is “I do not always sin, some times I love, sometimes I do good. I am clearly not totally depraved.” – This is quite true, and so some qualifications need to be introduced. Firstly, it is true that we do not always sin, however this reflects more on God than it does on us. The only reason we do not descend into a complete and entire depravity, is because our God is a God who delights in rescuing captives and freeing slaves. As such, God is always and everywhere sending us the sufficient grace we need in order to climb out of the pit of our sinto climb out of the pit of our sin and throw off the shackles that bind us to evil. The further we descend into depravity and evil, the greater the quantity of grace that God sends us. He is always giving us the opportunity and the means to turn from our sinful ways and repent, and all we need to do is give our consent.

What happens when we turn from sin and instead strive to do good? We become liberated. We finally possess the promised free will. God himself takes hold of us and shatters the chains that tie our wills to darkness and evil. Until God does this, our will is not free. The more and more that we consent to this liberation, and the more and more we cooperate with God’s grace, the more and more free we become. This freedom and liberation from sin could almost be seen as a slavery of another sort – instead of being slaves to sin, darkness, death, evil and the devil; we become slaves of love, righteousness, goodness, light and God himself. The theological traditions generally agree that in the end, we will be so enraptured by love that we will be impeccable – incapable of sinning. This is a paradoxical slavery opposed to the one in which we started, and interestingly, we call it the highest, most supreme form of freedom.

The Promise of Freedom

All of this considered, “free will” actually is just another eschatological promise that God makes to us. God promises us “freedom” as in “liberation”. Due to the fall, humanity would naturally be enslaved to sin. But God has always been fighting against this tendency, and he has always been attempting to liberate us from this slavery to sin. Insofar as we sin, we demonstrate slavery to sin, but insofar as we love, we demonstrate freedom to love. The promise of God is that one day we will be perfected in freedom; in other words, one day we will possess such a total liberation from slavery to sin that we will be impeccable. To the extent that we have faith in this promise, the promise actualises in our experience of life right here and now.

Of course, we still sin now, and this is evidence that God’s plans have not yet come to completion: Our God is a God who delights in rescuing captives from slavery, and he is in the process of doing this, and yet the fact that we still sin is evidence that God has not yet completed this process of liberation. The question is raised: can God fail to save us? Can God fail to deliver us from slavery? Can God fail to give us the freedom that he promises us?

FreedomThe answer that the Catholic Universalist gives is a firm and resounding NO! God’s promises cannot be thwarted. If God promises us true freedom and impeccability in the eschaton, then that is damn well what is going to happen. We are all of us in the midst of a battle at the present time; a battle between Satan and Christ; a battle in which we are all partially enslaved to sin and partially liberated for love. Sometimes we are made more or less enslaved. Sometimes we are made more or less liberated. But the promise of God is that in the end-times he will be victorious: No one will be enslaved to sin; everyone will be completely and entirely liberated for love. Israel will exit Egypt and find it’s way to the promised land, even if it takes 40 years of wandering in the desert to get there. So too, we will all have our freedom from bondage to sin, no matter how long it takes and even at the greatest cost to God – If Christ was willing to endure a crucifixion and descent into Hell for the sake of the world, how could he leave any one of us behind? All without exception will be liberated from slavery to sin. All without exception will be made righteous. All without exception will be cleaned from spiritual dirtiness. All without exception will walk out of the darkness and into the light. All without exception will see the gates of heaven and enter, singing joyous hymns and doxologies to our good and glorious God.

God gives us freedom so that we can love him, he did not give us freedom so that we could damn ourselves. Freedom is good news. Freedom is salvation. Freedom is Gospel. Let us pray for the salvation of all and praise God for his beautiful promises of liberation. Amen.

(Return to first article)

The Binding of Isaac, The Agony of Job, and The Dark Night of the Soul

The Hatred of Christ

Luke 14:25-26 RSV-CE:

25 Now great multitudes accompanied him; and he turned and said to them, 26 “If any one comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.

Matthew 10:37-38 RSV-CE:

37 He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; 38 and he who does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 

gulag+vorkuta[1].jpgThese are harsh words from our lord and saviour. What could he possibly mean? We have to hate our families in order to follow Jesus to heaven? Doesn’t this contradict his commands (found elsewhere) to love our neighbour?

I have encountered certain bible commentaries in my time which have attempted to take the edge off of these passages. The Greek word translated “hate”, they say, really shouldn’t be understood as meaning “hate”; it should instead be understood as preferring one thing over another. So we shouldn’t actually hate our families; we should simply prefer God over them. Maybe there’s some truth to this exegesis, but honestly just taking the English at face value: “hate” is far different in nature to a simple preference of one thing over another.

We will return to these passages later, but for now I want to propose that rather than being too strong a choice of words, the word “hate” is in actual fact not strong enough to convey what Jesus was actually saying. We should not merely hate our families; we should be willing to see them cast headlong into everlasting damnation if that is what God wills. We should be willing to lovingly and devotedly follow Gods commands wherever they may lead, even if those commands make us uncomfortable and apparently contradict the love that God has poured into our hearts.

The Dark Night of the Soul – Salvation in Darkness

Dark Night of the Soul

St John of the Cross is a western saint and mystic who is probably most remembered as the man who formulated the theology that has since been referred to by the shorthand “Dark night of the soul”. I will briefly outline the essence of this unique idea.

God is a good, kind, and loving God who enjoys lavishing good gifts upon us. He does this to everyone: young and old, believer and non-believer, Christians, Atheists, Muslims; everyone. Such gifts include good, tasty food and drink, good health, success in study, sport and romance, a bed to sleep in each night, clean water, breathable air, rain and sun to grow crops, familial love, friendship and so on. The Calvinists like to call this aspect of God’s loving disposition “Common Grace”, because these are gifts that are lavished upon all people without exception or distinction. Even a starving African child can detect such gifts from God in their life.

Now, when someone initially comes to faith in God, these gifts will seem to multiply exponentially: All of a sudden the soul is full of supreme and invincible joy as it contemplates the salvation that has been won for it in Christ through the cross. The soul seems to overflow with a pleasurable love for God and neighbour. The soul will seem so completely happy and content. Life will suddenly be full of purpose and meaning. The world seems far more colourful than it ever did before. Smiles and laughter will surround this soul.

But in a short time, the trials and tests will arrive thick and fast. The Christian is warned to expect persecution and suffering; how will they respond when it actually arrives? This is where the Dark night of the soul begins: some people are plunged deep into the dark night; most only experience a taste of it, presumably because God in his wisdom has decided that they are not strong enough to handle further trials.

What happens at this point, is that God progressively withdraws his gifts. Where before the soul was overflowing with joy and enjoying the wonderful gifts that God was bestowing on them, now the soul is receiving fewer and fewer gifts. The soul is being plunged into a darkness of sorts: most particularly, the soul experiences an “absence of God”. With the eyes of faith, the soul may know that God is indeed still there, but nevertheless he is unable to “feel” this presence. The words of the psalmist become apt to describe the experience:

Psalm 13:1-2 RSV-CE:

1 How long, O Lord? Wilt thou forget me for ever?
    How long wilt thou hide thy face from me?
How long must I bear pain in my soul,
    and have sorrow in my heart all the day?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?

Why does God withdraw his gifts? It is to test us. God is peering into the depths of our heart and asking: “Do you truly love me? Or do you only love my gifts? If I withdraw my gifts, will you still love me?” So God progressively withdraws more and more of his gifts, and the Darkest night possible is when he withdraws all of his gifts: Your family hates you, your friends have abandoned you, you are starving, you are sick, you are dying and the question God is asking is, “Despite all this hardship, do you still love me?”

The good news is that this testing does come to an end. The end of the dark night of the soul is the bright dawn of salvation. Once the dark and fiery trials have concluded, God lavishes his gifts upon the soul to an even greater degree than before the dark night had begun. And in the case of a ascetic mystic who has walked the path of darkness to the very end, the ultimate and final gift of God is bestowed: The fullness of salvation: Theosis. The soul becomes perfectly united with God, such that it is hard to distinguish between them.

The Binding of Isaac – Abraham the Father of Faith

The Binding of Isaac

One biblical figure who experienced this dark night of the soul is the father of faith: Abraham. The Dark night of the Soul is clearly manifest in the story of the Binding of Isaac.

To establish some context: Abraham and Sarah have been praying and hoping for a child for most of their adult life. Even when they arrive at old age and still have not yet had a baby, they continue to hope and await the fulfilment of God’s promises to them that they will have a child. The day finally arrives, and despite Sarah’s old age and barrenness, Isaac is miraculously born. In Abraham’s time, children were considered one of the highest blessings and most wonderful gifts of God, and a son (rather than a daughter) was an even more special reason to rejoice. So Isaac would be considered one of the most precious, if not the most precious gift that God had given to Abraham. Now with this in mind, consider the following passage:

Genesis 22:1-19 RSV-CE

22 After these things God tested Abraham, and said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here am I.” He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Mori′ah, and offer him there as a burnt offering upon one of the mountains of which I shall tell you.” So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his ass, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; and he cut the wood for the burnt offering, and arose and went to the place of which God had told him. On the third day Abraham lifted up his eyes and saw the place afar off. Then Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the ass; I and the lad will go yonder and worship, and come again to you.” And Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering, and laid it on Isaac his son; and he took in his hand the fire and the knife. So they went both of them together. And Isaac said to his father Abraham, “My father!” And he said, “Here am I, my son.” He said, “Behold, the fire and the wood; but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Abraham said, “God will provide himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So they went both of them together.

When they came to the place of which God had told him, Abraham built an altar there, and laid the wood in order, and bound Isaac his son, and laid him on the altar, upon the wood. 10 Then Abraham put forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son. 11 But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here am I.” 12 He said, “Do not lay your hand on the lad or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” 13 And Abraham lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, behind him was a ram, caught in a thicket by his horns; and Abraham went and took the ram, and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. 14 So Abraham called the name of that place The Lord will provide; as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.”

15 And the angel of the Lord called to Abraham a second time from heaven, 16 and said, “By myself I have sworn, says the Lord, because you have done this, and have not withheld your son, your only son, 17 I will indeed bless you, and I will multiply your descendants as the stars of heaven and as the sand which is on the seashore. And your descendants shall possess the gate of their enemies, 18 and by your descendants shall all the nations of the earth bless themselves, because you have obeyed my voice.” 19 So Abraham returned to his young men, and they arose and went together to Beer-sheba; and Abraham dwelt at Beer-sheba.

After many years of painful waiting, God finally bestows Abraham with his heart’s deepest desire: a son to carry on the family legacy. Abraham and Sarah would have rejoiced and been full to exploding point with happiness when Isaac finally arrived, praising God and thanking him for his overwhelming goodness.

But behold; Abrahams personal dark night arrives. God says, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and offer him as a burnt offering”. God is commanding Abraham to renounce his greatest wordly attachment: his love for his son. God is testing Abraham, just like he tests everyone who goes through the dark night of the soul. God is asking Abraham “Do you really love me? Or do you only love my gifts? Would you still love me if those gifts were taken away? Are you willing to sacrifice that which you hold dear? Are you willing to kill your son if I command you to?” And amazingly, Abraham essentially responds with “Thy will be done lord. If you command me to kill my son, this will I do. I love you above all else. I trust you. My faith is unwavering.”

The scene is tense, Abraham practically has the knife against Isaacs throat. Imagine what is going through his mind and his heart. Sometimes I think we imagine saints and biblical figures as being superhuman, not feeling emotions the same way that we do, but this is inaccurate: Abraham was most likely suffering the full force of a particularly violent dark night; he was probably wiping away tears of agony and anguish as he approached the alter; he was willing to follow Gods commands whatever they may be, but he would have been crying out in anger, confusion and despair. He is thinking that he is about to lose his son forever, his most treasured relationship on earth, the son he had waited for for all of his life, moreover he has already accepted this fact and is already dealing with life in those terms: Isaac is already dead to him. Abraham is already mourning the death.

And right as he is about to perform the fatal blow, a messenger from God swoops in and says “Stop!!! You have proved your faith: God does not ask any more of you than this, you are willing to sacrifice your son, and for this reason you do not have to.” This is followed up with one of the most important promises in all of scripture:

I will indeed bless you, and I will multiply your descendants as the stars of heaven and as the sand which is on the seashore. And your descendants shall possess the gate of their enemies, and by your descendants shall all the nations of the earth bless themselves, because you have obeyed my voice.”

This narrative contains all the elements of an intense dark night of the soul: the initial gifts (The birth of Isaac), the purification in the darkness (The sacrifice of Isaac) and the final gift (The rescue of Isaac and an eshatological salvific promise)

The Agonising Trial of Job

Trial of Job

Another biblical figure who suffered a particular profound dark night of the soul is Job. The prologue to the book of Job reveals that God had lavished many gifts upon him. Job was practically swimming in Common Grace. He had it all: A large, devoted family, health, wealth, property, servants, land etc. Furthermore Job responds to this love with love: he is a purely righteous soul who never sins and always does what is right.

Job 1:1-5 RSV-CE:

There was a man in the land of Uz, whose name was Job; and that man was blameless and upright, one who feared God, and turned away from evil. There were born to him seven sons and three daughters. He had seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred yoke of oxen, and five hundred she-asses, and very many servants; so that this man was the greatest of all the people of the east. His sons used to go and hold a feast in the house of each on his day; and they would send and invite their three sisters to eat and drink with them. And when the days of the feast had run their course, Job would send and sanctify them, and he would rise early in the morning and offer burnt offerings according to the number of them all; for Job said, “It may be that my sons have sinned, and cursed God in their hearts.” Thus Job did continually.

But God decides to test Job. Scripture reveals that Satan makes a wager with God that he is able to tempt Job towards sin if God would only plunge Job into a dark night. God permits Satan to drag Job into the darkness and see whether or not he cracks under the pressure:

Job 1:6-19 RSV-CE

Now there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came among them. The Lord said to Satan, “Whence have you come?” Satan answered the Lord, “From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it.” And the Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil?” Then Satan answered the Lord, “Does Job fear God for nought? 10 Hast thou not put a hedge about him and his house and all that he has, on every side? Thou hast blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land. 11 But put forth thy hand now, and touch all that he has, and he will curse thee to thy face.” 12 And the Lord said to Satan, “Behold, all that he has is in your power; only upon himself do not put forth your hand.” So Satan went forth from the presence of the Lord.

13 Now there was a day when his sons and daughters were eating and drinking wine in their eldest brother’s house; 14 and there came a messenger to Job, and said, “The oxen were ploughing and the asses feeding beside them; 15 and the Sabe′ans fell upon them and took them, and slew the servants with the edge of the sword; and I alone have escaped to tell you.” 16 While he was yet speaking, there came another, and said, “The fire of God fell from heaven and burned up the sheep and the servants, and consumed them; and I alone have escaped to tell you.” 17 While he was yet speaking, there came another, and said, “The Chalde′ans formed three companies, and made a raid upon the camels and took them, and slew the servants with the edge of the sword; and I alone have escaped to tell you.” 18 While he was yet speaking, there came another, and said, “Your sons and daughters were eating and drinking wine in their eldest brother’s house; 19 and behold, a great wind came across the wilderness, and struck the four corners of the house, and it fell upon the young people, and they are dead; and I alone have escaped to tell you.”

But despite being plunged head first into a dark night, and having all his good gifts taken away from him; Job remains faithful and does not crack:

Job 1:20-22 RSV-CE

20 Then Job arose, and rent his robe, and shaved his head, and fell upon the ground, and worshipped. 21 And he said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”

22 In all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrong.

Satan returns to the heavenly assembly and God quizzes him, saying “See? Despite withdrawing all my gifts from Job, he still loves me.” Satan responds with “That is because you have not harmed his body. So long as he has his good health, he will continue to love you, but take away this, and he will hate and despise you. He will renounce you.”

 Job 2:1-8 RSV-CE

1 Again there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came among them to present himself before the LordAnd the Lord said to Satan, “Whence have you come?” Satan answered the Lord, “From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it.” And the Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil? He still holds fast his integrity, although you moved me against him, to destroy him without cause.” Then Satan answered the Lord, “Skin for skin! All that a man has he will give for his life. But put forth thy hand now, and touch his bone and his flesh, and he will curse thee to thy face.” And the Lord said to Satan, “Behold, he is in your power; only spare his life.”

So Satan went forth from the presence of the Lord, and afflicted Job with loathsome sores from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head. And he took a potsherd with which to scrape himself, and sat among the ashes.

Jobs wife comes up to him and expresses her astonishment that Job continues to love and worship a God who is so clearly callous and evil. But Job remains steadfast in his faith and refuses to renounce his good lord:

 Job 2:9-10 RSV-CE

Then his wife said to him, “Do you still hold fast your integrity? Curse God, and die.” 10 But he said to her, “You speak as one of the foolish women would speak. Shall we receive good at the hand of God, and shall we not receive evil?” In all this Job did not sin with his lips.

The rest of the book is brilliant poetry, in which Job and his three friends dialogue on matters of sin, justice, punishment, salvation, mystery, goodness. Job wonders out loud why God has allowed this misfortune to befall him: he is particularly confused because he knows in his heart that he has not sinned in any way. He wonders why it is that the righteous suffer and the unrighteous are able to get away with iniquity unpunished. The truth of the matter is that God has plunged Job into a particularly dark night of the soul in order to purify him into a shining, glorious saint. God has taken away all of these gifts so as to test Job’s love. Amazingly, Job remains steadfast in his faith through the entire ordeal: he questions God, and cries out for God to provide some sort of explanation for the suffering he has had to endure, but at no point does he curse God or renounce his love for his creator.

And just as in any dark night of the soul, when Job emerges out the other side God bestows even more gifts and grace upon him than he had in the first place!

Job 42:10-17 RSV-CE

10 And the Lord restored the fortunes of Job, when he had prayed for his friends; and the Lord gave Job twice as much as he had before. 11 Then came to him all his brothers and sisters and all who had known him before, and ate bread with him in his house; and they showed him sympathy and comforted him for all the evil that the Lord had brought upon him; and each of them gave him a piece of money and a ring of gold. 12 And the Lord blessed the latter days of Job more than his beginning; and he had fourteen thousand sheep, six thousand camels, a thousand yoke of oxen, and a thousand she-asses. 13 He had also seven sons and three daughters. 14 And he called the name of the first Jemi′mah; and the name of the second Kezi′ah; and the name of the third Ker′en-hap′puch. 15 And in all the land there were no women so fair as Job’s daughters; and their father gave them inheritance among their brothers. 16 And after this Job lived a hundred and forty years, and saw his sons, and his sons’ sons, four generations. 17 And Job died, an old man, and full of days.

So once again we have a classic case of a dark night of the soul: The initial gifts (Job’s great wealth, health and love), the plunging into darkness (The testing by Satan and loss of Job’s entire fortune), and the emergence from the darkness as a purified, tested, victorious saint (Job’s restoration of health, wealth and love as well as his long life and happy death)

Caritas Ex Nihilo

darknight.jpg

Lets put all of this together. Each of us is called to enter the dark night at some point of our lives. God is going to test every single one of us, just as he tested Job and Abraham. He is going to refine us with suffering until we are able to love him even in the absence of his gifts. But lets consider just how difficult this is going to be and what this is going to involve. Consider again the words of Christ, quoted at the beginning of this post:

“If any one comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.

“He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me”

When Jesus says “Hate”, he really does mean hate. If we desire to love him, we must be willing to trust him and follow his commands even when they contradict the love for our families that God has already gifted us with. Just as Abraham was willing to sacrifice his son Isaac, we too must be willing to see our families sacrificed if that is what God commands. We have to be willing to truly hate our families and desire their eternal, everlasting torture in the endless ocean of fire that is Hell if this is what God asks of us. God does not ask us to enjoy this prospect, he does not ask us to be happy about doing this, he does not ask us to take sadistic pleasure in the torture of our families, however he does ask us to have a rock solid faith in him and a perfect obedience to his commandments. Just as Abraham was crying as he ascended the mountain to the altar and pressed his knife against his sons throat, so too we are permitted to grieve at the eternal loss of our families, but nevertheless; we must be willing to accept this loss, all for the sake of the love of God. As Jesus says: Whoever loses his life will save it. We must renounce ALL worldly attachments and cast them into the dark flame, and this includes our closest relationships: Husband, Wife, Mother, Father, Sister, Brother, Son, Daughter. We must be willing to see everyone in our life damned, all for the sake of loving God.

The darkest night of the soul is pitch black: bleak like the trial of Job. All of Gods gifts are removed and he demands that we sacrifice everything for his sake. If this was the end of the story, it would be incredibly depressing and entirely bittersweet: we gain God, but at what cost?

Thankfully this is not the grand finalé to the tale. Recall how the narrative of the dark night of the soul always plays out. First of all there are the abundant gifts of God – in this particular case the amazing unconditional love that is found within a family. Second, there is the removal of these gifts, as a testing of darkness and a refining of fire – in this case, this consists of a renouncing of familial love in order to pursue the greater love of God. It consists of hating your family to the point where you are willing to see them damned if that is what God decrees. But there is always a happy ending. Finally, the dark night of the soul always ends in joy: the gifts are returned a thousandfold more than they were in the beginning. In this case, our families are not actually damned for God desires all people to be saved. Just as it was revealed to Abraham that he didn’t really have to kill Isaac, and just as Job had all of his wealth, health and loving relationships returned to him, so too we will see those whom we love come to salvation: we never really had to be sad at the prospect that God would damn them, because this is not on his heart. The good news of the Gospel is that God desires the salvation of all and he has the power to bring this about.

John Piper and the horror of Calvinism

61P45+ToLrL._UX250_[1]John Piper is a famous Calvinist teacher and preacher, living today. I find his views and theology to be shocking and disgusting for the most part. He believes that God desires the damnation of multitudes and that this somehow gives God “Glory”. He is happy to worship a God who would damn members of his family. For the longest time I found this to be completely weird and skewed, but after the reflections I have set down in this post concerning the dark night of the soul, I suppose I have uncovered a window into how people like him think.

In the end it is true that John Piper has an amazing, invincible faith and trust in God, just like Abraham did: He is willing to see his sons burn in Hell for eternity if that is what God commands. He does not revel at the thought; he does not take pleasure in the prospect, but nevertheless he has come to an acceptance that “if this is what God wants, this is what I will do”. The following quote is representative of his thinking:

“I have three sons. Every night after they are asleep I turn on the hall light, open their bedroom door, and walk from bed to bed, laying my hands on them and praying. Often I am moved to tears of joy and longing. I pray that Karsten Luke become a great physician of the soul, that Benjamin John become the beloved son of my right hand in the gospel, and that Abraham Christian give glory to God as he grows strong in his faith.

But I am not ignorant that God may not have chosen my sons for his sons. And, though I think I would give my life for their salvation, if they should be lost to me, I would not rail against the Almighty. He is God. I am but a man. The potter has absolute rights over the clay. Mine is to bow before his unimpeachable character and believe that the Judge of all the earth has ever and always will do right.”

I used to read this and be completely appalled. How could he be so unloving towards his sons? And yet… now I see where he is coming from. He is just like Abraham, standing on the mountain with the knife raised above his head; ready to bring it down and plunge it into Isaac’s heart if only God would give the order. He is not happy about this. He does not take some sort of sadistic pleasure in the sacrifice of his sons. Nevertheless he is willing to follow God anywhere. It is a sobering faith, but it is nevertheless a strong and true faith.

What John Piper does not seem to realise, however, is that the Gospel is “Good news” and as such there is always a happy ending to the tale. While he is to be commended on his strong and invincible faith in the face of the prospect of God sending his children to damnation, he does not have to fear this as if it were a live possibility. God always wants the best for everyone, John Pipers children included. It is admirable to be willing to sacrifice your sons, but it is even more admirable to rest in the confident Gospel Hope that you will never have to do this, for the dark night of the soul always concludes with happiness and joy, and not a bitter-sweet victory of tears, sighing and sadness.

“The night is darkest before the dawn, but the dawn is entirely glorious”

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In summary, we have to be willing to see our closest loved ones eternally damned for the sake of the love of God, however we do not have to fear that God will ever truly demand this of us. We know that there is always a happy ending: no matter how tense it gets; no matter how dark things seem; there will always be an angel swooping in at the last minute to stop us from slitting our sons throats, just as it was with Abraham. God’s demands are intense and exhausting, but Christ’s yoke is easy and his burden is light: we can always trust that God has our best interests at heart, as well of those of everyone we love; our friends; our families; and even our enemies! God loves everyone without distinction and without exception. This is what we have to keep in mind at all times, for this is the faith that will carry us through the dark night of the soul. When everything seems dark and Satan is tempting us to give up Hope and wallow in despair: remember the unlimited, unconditional salvific will of God and remain steadfast in faith. The reward at the other end of the tunnel is theosis: supreme Joy, the fullness of salvation and eternal satisfaction. Press on for this prize. We have to be prepared to pass through Hell on the way to Heaven; pray that God would give us strength, faith and resolve for the journey. All praise be to Christ the victorious redeemer, who has saved the world, is saving the world, and promises to save the world to come. Amen

Prophecy Fragment #13 – Prabhupada’s Anniversary

Dear Prabhupada, thank you so much for bringing the grace and bhakti of Krishna and Caitanya to the outer darkness of the western world. While the light of all other spiritual masters and incarnations dwindles and flickers, you renounced everything to descend to the darkest corner of samsara and reignite the flame of divine love. Thank you for teaching us all the joy of chanting the holy names, and thank you for all the friends and devotees that come to us through the ecstasy of kirtan. We look forward to dancing forever and ever, in ever newer and newer ways, with you and Bhagavan and all your beloved Jivas in the sacred eleventh chapter. Hare Krishna!

Orthodoxy 101 – The Calvinist and Arminian Debate: Idolatry of the Freedom of the Will

In Catholic, Orthodox and Arminian circles, “Freedom” often seems to be pushed as the central dogma of the faith. More important than the divinity of Christ; More important than the victory of the cross; More important than the all powerful, completely loving, salvation-intending will of God; Human “Freedom” reigns supreme. If we are not free to reject salvation, how can we truly love God? If we are not free to reject God’s loving, salvific overtures, where is our dignity as human beings? If we are not free to choose Hell, anathema sit.

My conviction and contention is that this popular view of “supreme libertarian freedom” essentially constitutes an idolatry of freedom and a perversion of Catholic dogma. I hate to see myself admitting it, but I suspect the Augustinian/Calvinist tradition actually has it mostly right when it comes to this matter of freedom.

In my own reading, I have encountered many authors who invite us to imagine freedom as a “scale”: One side of the scale represents a choice to perform some loving work, while the other side of the scale represents a choice to perform a perverse and sinful action. This image is incredibly useful for illustrating a variety of views on freedom.

Arminian / Catholic / Orthodox – Unimpeded Libertarian Freedom

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In the popular Catholic mind, humans possess a supreme and unassailable dignity in that we are free. When presented with a choice between good and evil, it is entirely up to the freedom of human subject to determine which alternative will be chosen. The human is completely impartial; his choice is completely uninfluenced; whatever choice is chosen will be determined by that persons freedom, and nothing else. The image is that of the scale previously described, in which one side of the scale is equally as appealing as the other side of the scale, and therefore the choice that is eventually chosen is determined purely by the whimsy of the human will.

This is libertarian freedom. When someone makes a choice, this choice is not determined by outside influences; it is determined purely by the agent who makes the choice. The interesting thing is that this libertarian view would appear to contradict Catholic dogma at a cursory reading.

Augustinian / Calvinist – The biased scale of Freedom

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It is a Catholic dogma that the fall lead to something called concupiscence in every human being who has ever lived. Concupiscence is essentially a tendency towards sin. Despite the fact that we are free, our human natures have been wounded such that we tend towards sin in everything that we do. It is an important philosophical point to establish that this tendency towards sin is not an external influence upon us; it instead arises from within ourselves, and proceeds from our very nature as human beings, and therefore it is not something that could be said to nullify freedom. As the Calvinists say: we are free to behave according to our natures, and if our natures are wounded and tend towards sin, then we are free to behave according to that nature and accordingly, we will almost certainly sin.

The image is that of the scale of freedom, as before, however that scale is now biased. Given any choice between good and evil we do indeed have the power and freedom to choose the good, however because of our wounded nature, the scale is biased such that we will in most cases tend towards choosing evil. The scale has a weight underneath the cup that represents the choice for evil; so while it is indeed possible for us to defeat this bias and do good, this is incredibly difficult to achieve due to the opposition we face via the bias given to the evil choice.

So in a sense we retain our libertarian freedom, because no outside influence is able to determine the choices we make. However that libertarian freedom is not “neutral”: it is instead biased towards sin from within due to our wounded human natures. This bias towards sin is called concupiscence within the Catholic tradition.

Arminian Grace – Equalising the Scale of Freedom

Kronk-listening-to-his-shoulder-devil.jpgThe Arminian account of the plan of salvation (as I understand it) is thus: Human beings were originally created with complete libertarian freedom, which is to say we were able to choose to sin or not to sin and this choice was not determined by any force outside of ourselves. However our first parents chose to sin by eating the forbidden fruit. One of the effects of eating the fruit was that we lost our libertarian freedom: now instead of being able to choose between sin and love, we always choose sin. Arminians (and Calvinists) call this “total depravity“. Our scales of freedom are biased towards sin. However the good news of the Gospel is that God has sent us his Holy Spirit, and this Holy Spirit is able to act as a counterweight on the scale of freedom, equalising the scale such that we regain our libertarian freedom. Now we are once again in our pre-lapsarian condition: we are able to exercise our freedom and choose between good and evil, unimpeded by any bias towards one choice or another. So the essential good news of the Gospel is not that God has saved us, it is that he has restored our freedom and therefore restored the opportunity for salvation.

Step back for a moment and consider the situation: It could easily be described as schizophrenic. The image is that of the demon and the angel sitting on each of the human’s shoulders, whispering into his ears and trying to influence him. The Holy Spirit acts as an equal counterweight to concupiscence. Yes, we have neutral libertarian freedom again, but only as a result of two competing vectors of equal magnitude pulling in opposite directions and equalising to a null vector. The human subject finds himself pulled in every direction at once, and as a result ends up going nowhere, with the final destination being determined purely by his will.

The end result is that both salvation and damnation appear equally appealing: The human subject has no compulsion to choose either way. As such, his choice is apparently “free”, although I would prefer to say that the choice is random, and randomness does not constitute freedom.

Calvinist / Augustinian Grace – Biasing the Scale Towards Good

saint-michael.jpgCompare this with the Augustinian/Calvinist understanding of the Gospel. In this account of events, the fall lead to a wounding of our human nature such that we tend towards sin. In other words, our scales of freedom are biased towards sin rather than good. However the good news of the gospel is that God has sent his Holy Spirit – not to equalise the scales of freedom, but instead to change the bias. So now instead of being biased towards evil, we are biased towards good! Technically we retain our libertarian freedom, because no outside influences are able to determine the choices we make, however the Holy Spirit has healed our nature, and not only healed it, but glorified it, such that rather than tending towards evil, we tend towards good.

The image is close to that of the Arminian account: There is an angel and a demon sitting on each shoulder of the human subject, whispering into his ear. However the angel is ultimately more persuasive, and tends to defeat the demon in debate. As such, the human person tends towards doing good rather than evil. Calvinists have historically referred to this as irresistible grace.

Universalism – A more nuanced view

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A common charge against universalism is that it nullifies freedom. I contend that universalism implies no such thing. I draw on the Calvinist/Augustinian understanding to explain my case.

We are free to behave according to our natures. If our natures are sinful, we will tend towards sin, but if our natures are glorified we will tend towards love and good works. The good news of the Gospel is that God is in the process of healing our natures, and not just healing, but glorifying them. That is to say, God is attempting to make us impeccable – incapable of sin. This is not to say that God is trying to take away our freedom to sin, instead he is simply removing any impulse within us which would tend towards sin. In other words we will retain our freedom, however we will never abuse our freedom.

The Universalist eschatalogical vision is that in the end times God will have successfully defeated sin whilst safeguarding freedom. This is to say, we will all retain our freedom, however we will never abuse our freedom. As such, we will only ever do good. However in the present time a battle is still raging – the Arminian vision of a devil on one shoulder and an angel on another is apt to represent the situation. We are in the midst of a battle between good and evil. Evil is powerful and will put up a fight, however we have a promise from God that God will have the victory.

The end result is that yes, in the present time we have neutral libertarian freedom: The spirit is battling with sin/concupiscence and it seems that they are equally matched. However the eschatalogical vision is that God will win the fight. Eventually we all will choose him, freely. Moreover, at that point, our natures will be completely healed and glorified – which is to say we will be impeccable; even though we are free to sin, we simply wont do it, and will instead always choose the good.

This vision is entirely glorious. God will not force us to choose him, but nevertheless we will choose him. Our freedom is safeguarded, our salvation is safeguarded. No one will be damned. Confronted with such a vision of the future, what can we do but explode in faith and hope, praising God and petitioning him to bring it all about? Let us love God and love his plans, praying for them and working towards them in love. God really is that wonderful; Salvation really is that beautiful. Thanks be to Christ for the total victory which he wrought at the cross. Amen

(Go to “Meditations on Freedom”)

Orthodoxy 101 – Catholicism and Sola Fide: Understanding Indulgences

IndulgencesIndulgences—speak the word and Protestants will immediately shake their heads in disapproval. Here we have a doctrine that definitively undermines the good news of God’s gift of salvation through Jesus Christ. The Anglican Articles of Religion describe indulgences as “repugnant to the Word of God.” The Westminster Confession describes them as a “cunningly devised fable, invented by designing men to impose upon the credulous, and to fill their own treasures.” In the Smalcald Articles, Martin Luther states that “purgatory, and every solemnity, rite, and commerce connected with it, is to be regarded as nothing but a specter of the devil.”

It is plain to be seen that indulgences have acquired a terrible reputation. However they need not be so quickly rejected. The problem with indulgences is that they are almost entirely misunderstood. And not just by their opponents! Even many Catholic proponents of the doctrine often get indulgences wrong and end up pronouncing theology which does indeed serve to nullify the good news of the Gospel. I propose that the best way to interpret indulgences, is to look at them through the lens of reformation theology, specifically the doctrine of Sola Fide, and so interpret indulgences as merely another expression or aspect of God’s unconditional, salvific promise.

A Shift in Paradigm

IndulgencesAn Indulgences is defined in the Catholic Catechism as “a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven, which the faithful Christian who is duly disposed gains under certain prescribed conditions“. This definition betrays a very medieval understanding of theology, in that is talks about temporal “punishment”. The focus is very much on God’s justice here: sin leads to punishment but this punishment can be waived. It’s all very “legalistic” and the scene of a courtroom is apt to represent the situation.

In recent years, the doctrine of purgatory has shifted from a “satisfaction” model to a “sanctification” model in the popular mind. This shift is reflective of a more broad movement in Catholic theology away from the retributive paradigm of “Sin as a crime which deserves punishment” to a more remedial paradigm of “Sin as a sickness which requires healing”. In short, no longer are we thought to “pay for our sins” in purgatory; instead we are thought to be “purified of the spiritual dirtiness which has clung to our soul as a result of sin”. This is a welcome change, as it is more in accord with the image of God as a loving father who desires the best for his children, rather than the image of God as a wrathful and angry judge who demands justice in the form of brutal punishment for sin.

However this shift in the understanding of purgatory demands a corresponding shift in the understanding of indulgences. It simply does not make sense to say that “My soul is drenched in sin, however I have gained an indulgence, which means I don’t have to go through the hassle of purification and cleansing. My ‘temporal punishment’ has been remitted: God accepts me just as I am, warts and all”. This is nonsensical and contradicts the clear biblical principle that “nothing unclean will enter heaven”. The solution to this problem lies in the doctrine of the communion of the saints.

The doctrine of the communion of the saints states that we are all mystically joined to Christ and each other. This union is much closer than we realise in our day to day experience. The union is in actual fact so close, that the purifying effects of my penances flow between all the members of the church, such that they do not purify my soul alone, but instead serve to purify all of humanity. Likewise, the infinite penances of Christ, Mary, and the saints flow around the entire church. In this way, my soul can be cleansed by the penances of other people. I do not have to personally make temporal atonement for my sins; I do not have to clean myself; instead, Christ has the ability to clean me directly apart from any penances which I may attempt, by simply applying the infinite penances of the communion of saints to my soul. All that I need to do to allow this to happen is to willingly consent to the cleansing through faith.

With this in mind, Indulgences can be reinterpreted as “A soul being cleansed of it’s sinful dirtiness directly by Christ, through the superabundant penances of the communion of the saints, apart from any penance directly undertaken by that soul”

Indulgences as Promise

13729201_1197343756962644_642610664857631023_n.jpgWe have already seen in this series that God makes a variety of unconditional promises to humanity (or one single promise with many aspects). A summary:

  1. God promises us that we are Righteous (Justified), right here and now, because Christ lives within us. And therefore we need not fret and feel spiritual angst about being a bad person.
  2. God promises that all of our sins are forgiven, both past sins and future sins. Therefore we do not need to feel guilty about any of our moral failings
  3. God promises that we are predestined to heaven. Therefore we do not need to fear being stuck in a state of alienation from God forever. We do not need to despair at the prospect of walking in darkness for eternity. We can have an invincible Hope that we will eventually achieve beatitude.

Now, it seems to me that indulgences are just another unconditional promise that God makes to us. This promise states “You are clean, because Christ has cleaned you; You are perfect, because Christ has purified you; No temporal punishment for sin remains”. In biblical language, we have been washed in Christ’s blood, which is to say that the superabundant sufferings of Christ function as a penance which are applied to all souls in order to cleanse them from all stain of sin. Mary and the saints are able to add their penances to Christ’s sufferings and in this way participate in his passion, however this is not strictly necessary because Christ’s blood is sufficient to clean the souls of the entire world, nevertheless it is a great honour to be united to Christ in such a way that we participate in his salvific work and mission.

It is important to note, that just like the other three promises, the promise of indulgence is Universal and Unconditional. That is to say, God implicitly speaks the promise to every individual who has ever lived, even if they do not explicitly hear the promise spoken to them during life. Again, like the other promises, it is helpful to have this Universal promise personalised and spoken directly to someone. This is where the idea of “Indulgences as promise” intersects with the traditional doctrine.

Indulgences and Sacraments

Extreme_Unction_LACMA_AC1994.171.5-56a1083c3df78cafdaa83428[1]Sacramentally, the promise of a plenary indulgence is spoken during Baptism and Last Rites. When we are baptised, we are “washed completely clean”. This is an indulgence by another name. Just as with the other promises of God, this promise of indulgence is received “by faith alone”. The degree to which the promise takes effect in my subjective experience of life, is determined by the degree to which I respond to this promise in faith. God says “You are clean”, and I believe, and therefore I experience cleanliness. On the other hand God says “You are clean” and I doubt, and therefore I experience dirtiness.

This experiential situation carries on into the afterlife and takes the name “purgatory”. If you have a perfect faith in the promise of Indulgence, then when you die you will not experience purification, because the promise of God is that there is nothing left to purify: he has already purified you. In this way you “escape the punishment of Hell”. If however you die with an imperfect faith in the promise of Indulgence, then you will enter into the Hellish torments of Purgatory. The degree to which you doubt the promise is the degree to which you are tormented. As all the sins of your life are laid out before you during the particular judgement, you behold your past crimes and perceive them as staining your soul. You are tormented by your sins. All that needs to be done to escape this situation is to hear the promise of Indulgence and throw yourself upon it completely in faith. You must repent by turning away from these sins and trusting the promise of Christ that “you are already clean”. Once you realise that you are already clean, the torments will cease and be revealed to have been completely illusory the entire time.

“Earning” Indulgences?

IndulgencesSimilarly to how it is useful as life goes on to have the promise of Justification which was spoken in Baptism reiterated in the Sacrament of Confession, so as to more easily place our faith in it; so too it is useful to have the promise of Indulgence reiterated many times throughout our life, so that we can more easily place our faith in it. This is where the traditional system of “Indulgences attached to works and prayers” comes into play.

To recap: a perpetual plenary indulgence is granted to everyone at all times and in all places. This indulgence takes the form of the scriptural promise that “we have been washed and sanctified by the blood of the lamb. We are completely clean, right now”. However it is useful to have this promise spoken to us personally, so as to allow us to receive it in faith. This is why there are many prayers and actions which are attached to the idea of indulgences.

The most important of these actions are the sacraments of Baptism and Last Rites. However there are many minor prayers, actions and pilgrimages which have indulgences attached. These need to be understood not as “doing a work so as to earn an indulgence”, instead they need to be understood as “demonstrating faith in the promise of Indulgence by concrete actions”. An example: someone who goes on a spiritual retreat for three full days is granted a Plenary indulgence. This does not mean that this person has “earned” the indulgence, instead it means that this person has demonstrated faith in the promise of Indulgence by his actions. At the end of the retreat, the promise of Indulgence is explicitly spoken. It was always implicitly spoken, however it is useful to have this promise explicitly reiterated, so that we may more easily anchor our faith in it. In this way indulgences are similar in purpose to the sacraments.

To summarise, the Promise of Indulgence is unconditional, universal, and perpetual. The works attached to indulgences do not “earn” indulgences, they are simply concrete ways in which faith in this promise is demonstrated. If you do a work or say a prayer with a “partial indulgence” attached, this simply means that you have demonstrated a “partial faith” in the promise. If you do a work or say a prayer with a “plenary indulgence” attached, this simply means that you have demonstrated a total faith in the promise.

The Final Assault of Satan

220px-Hieronymus_Bosch_013[1].jpgThe main purpose of Last Rites, or Extreme Unction, is to sacramentally speak the promise of Plenary Indulgence to a soul right when they need to hear that promise most. The soul is about to go through the process of dying. As we pray in the Hail Mary, “Pray for us sinners now, and at the hour of our death“. It is a common theological opinion that Satan will make a final assault on a soul who is dying, in the last moments of their life, while they are at their weakest. He will try to drag the soul down into doubt and despair concerning the promises of God. The Devil will do his best to tempt the soul into a state of subjective damnation by attacking their faith. Meanwhile Mary, Christ and all the angels and saints are praying and interceding and doing intense battle with the Devil and his demons. Spiritual warfare is waged over the dying soul.

The sacrament of Last Rites prepares us for this final battle by reiterating the promise of Indulgence to us so that it is fresh in our memory. The last thing that we hear before slipping away into this terrifying process of dying is the promise of God that we are clean. This is essential. Because the Devil is going to swoop in in those last moments and taunt us by saying “You are dirty. You are Guilty. Look at all of your sins. You are going to be damned for sure”. In the face of these taunts, we need to be able to throw ourselves upon the promises of God which instead say “You are clean. You are perfect. You are righteous. Christ lives within you. You are predestined to Heaven”: it is much easier to do this if we have the promises fresh in our memory.

In this way the sacrament of last rites gives us strength to face the process of dying, by reiterating the unconditional promise of God right when we need to hear it most.

Penance is Supererogatory

IndulgencesSomeone who depends on penance on order to be clean is simply doing it wrong. This is another manifestation of the “salvation by works” mindset. Objectively, their works of penance do indeed contribute to the cleansing of themselves as well as the other members of the church via the mystical union in the communion of the saints. However, if they do not have faith in the promise of Indulgence that they “are clean, right now, and have been completely washed by the blood of Christ”, then subjectively they are going to experience dirtiness, damnation and condemnation. In this way it is once again a case of “salvation by faith alone”. The way in which the promise becomes active in their subjective experience of life is through faith in that promise. People do not experience cleanliness by doing works of penance, people experience cleanliness by completely trusting in the promise of Indulgence.

An important consequence of these reflections on Indulgences, is that they make penance completely supererogatory (An action is supererogatory if it is good to do but unnecessary). When someone goes to the sacrament of confession and receives absolution, the priest will also specify some penance that needs to be performed. Strictly speaking, this penance is unnecessary and all that is really required in order for the soul to be clean is for that person to place their trust in Christ’s perpetual promise of Indulgence. However the church in her wisdom has decided that penance is spiritually beneficial. In this way, even though penance is a supererogatory act, the church mandates that we do some penance after confession of our sins.

Interestingly, all penance is supererogatory, because Christ’s passion was enough to secure a cleansing of the entire human race. Nevertheless it is a beneficial spiritual exercise to engage in acts of penance. The harm comes when people think that they must perform acts of penance in order to be saved. This will lead to spiritual angst and there are many testimonies of ex-priests and ex-monks who experienced exactly this spiritual angst and it drove them to abandon the faith. Instead we must understand all penance as being supererogatory: Our salvation and escape from the fires of Hell/Purgatory does not depend on the amount of penance we do. Instead it depends entirely on Christ and is subjectively apprehended by faith in Christ’s promise of Indulgence. Faith is the key to a subjective experience of salvation in every respect.

Beautiful Promises

christus-victor[1].jpgTo summarise, an Indulgence is not something which you earn by works and prayers. Indulgence is instead the promise of God that “you are totally clean, right now”. This promise is apprehended by faith alone, and that faith is demonstrated by the works and prayers which have indulgences “attached” to them. In this way, you do not need to work your way out of Hell or Purgatory by many and varied acts of penance: Christ has already done that for you and all you need to do is trust him.

God makes a variety of wonderful promises. “You are clean, you are righteous, you are Justified, you are forgiven, you are predestined, you will persevere”. He speaks these promises to us personally in the sacraments. We apprehend these promises by faith alone and by faith these promises invade our life and enrich it, leading to an experience of heaven on earth; salvation here and now. These promises are unconditional, which is to say they depend on God rather than us for their fulfilment. And God, being omnipotent and omniscient, is able to actualise these promises despite any resistance we might throw at him. In this way we can have invincible faith, confident hope, overflowing joy and untameable love: we can experience salvation right now. All praise be to Christ the king, who was victorious over Hell, abolished death, defeated the Devil, conquered sin. We have an amazing future to look forward to, hope for and pray for. God promises it and God guarantees it. What else can we do but have faith and rejoice?

(Return to first article)