Sunday, November 29, 2009

Contemplations in Theology: #12

Hell is fundamentally an expression of God's love and mercy.

Most Christians would treat eternal damnation as a pretty clear instance of divine justice. God is perfect; we are not. If we are not redeemed by Christ's sacrifice, we are therefore outcasts from the Kingdom and doomed to eternal punishment.

This is all well and good, until we try to understand this doctrine in the context of a loving God. Questions abound: What sort of loving God would even allow for eternal punishment of His children? What sort of forgiving God would base such punishment on the choices we made based on incomplete knowledge in an imperfect world? Where is the justice in eternal consequences for choices made in a single lifetime? Wouldn't annihilation be more loving and more just than eternal damnation: finite suffering for finite sin?

I don't imagine I can satisfactorily answer these questions, but that is not my goal. I want to develop a positive, systematic doctrine of Hell, rather than a negative, piecemeal response to the doctrine's critics.

I can hardly keep myself from smiling when I consider some of the worship songs we sing regularly in the Christian community. Is it not laughably ironic that we sing about the "Refiner's Fire" in a major harmonic chord? I would imagine a rendition by Underoath or a screamo band would be more appropriate: something harsh, raspy, and unpleasant. After all, this is as close to a doctrine of Purgatory as most Protestants come: we are brought into the Presence of God and our sins and impurities are burnt out of us. Can we fathom the pain of this restoration? No, of course not, any more than we can fathom the joy and relief of coming out on the other side as new creatures who will judge angels and fully reflect the image of God.

Let us take this as our starting point: when we enter the Presence of God, we will be purified.

Some will object that this ignores the blood and sacrifice of Jesus Christ, a sacrifice that was sufficient to redeem us from sin, and restore us to a life with the Father through the Holy Spirit. Truly we have been made new creations. Yet it is no heresy to state that we are daily put to the test, that we walk through trial and tribulation, and that our faith is purified by fire and water. Therefore, I believe that the doctrine of Purgatory -- however we view it, whether in life or after death -- is no heresy, but falls squarely within our experience of our journey of faith. We will be purified.

Why do we endure these labor pangs of the afterlife? Because of our love for our Creator, because of the hope of salvation, because of the Joy of His Presence that is promised to us as children of God.

Yet Christ promised us that there will be some who reject Him, who are herded to His left with the goats. We must accept that some individuals are morally degenerate, others who are moral cowards, and some who are simply apathetic. There are heretics and nihilists, epicures and materialists, and a vast number of people who Just Don't Care. These individuals will not accept our reasons for accepting the pain of His Presence. They do not hold to the hope of salvation, and will not assent to the pain of purification. They do not participate in our love for God and each other, and will not pay the price of admission into His Presence. What happens to them?

Will Christ force them to endure the 'refining fire'? Will He drag them against their will, kicking and screaming, across the threshold of Paradise? Heaven forbid! My loving God is no tyrant; this bait-and-switch of salvation by faith supplanted by divine fiat is unworthy of a just God. True divine love dictates that, having given humans the dignity of free will, God allows them the freedom to exercise it and face the consequences of their decisions.

If we continue to defy God and resist submitting to Him with the words "Thy will be done," the day will come when God grants us our wish and says to us, "Thy will be done."

It is an expression of love that God grants us the dignity of creatures bearing His image. It is an expression of justice that God requires us to be purified before fully entering His presence. It is an expression of mercy that God allows us to choose an eternity of self-will outside of His presence.

For that is Hell: an existence outside of His Presence. God withdraws Himself sufficiently to allow these individuals respite from His Presence. It is a worse fate than we can imagine, for all the evil we can ever experience is tainted by the original goodness of Creation, and by the sustaining Presence of God.

It is also a mystery deeper than we can fathom, for God is the Substance and sustainer of reality, and nothing exists outside of Him. Evil is the negation of God, and has no substance; yet those damned (cast away from the Presence) continue to exist and enjoy the privileges of existing only within themselves. Perhaps this is due to the original creation of humanity, on whom God bestowed the image of God. God has given us unilaterally and unconditionally part of Himself. It is this image of God that allows us to see and seek God; it is the image of God that allows us to continue existing even outside of His Presence; it is the image of God that causes the torment and anguish of Hell, of an eternity separated from Him yet desiring the completion of His Presence and aware of the distance and pain between oneself and that completion. The fires of Hell are the fires of evil, of self-will, and of being divorced from oneself and from God finally and completely and without respite.

And this is mercy.

Only damnation honors us with the dignity of moral will and causation. Universalism conflicts with God's justice and annihilation would defy God's original love in bestowing His image on humble humanity. Hell is the most challenging of all expressions of love and mercy, but it is perhaps the fullest expression of that mercy as well.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Commentary on Scripture: Philemon

To Philemon our beloved brother and fellow worker... and to the church in your house: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Phil. 1-3 ~~ Paul's letter to Philemon was written at the same time as his letter to church at Colossae, and was delivered to Colossae by the same messengers: Tychicus and Onesimus (Colossians 4:7-9).

Phil. 4-10 ~~ Paul does not immediately mention the purpose of the letter, but tries to build rapport as a pastoral and apostolic authority over Philemon as a believer.

Phil. 4-5 ~~ Paul's spirit of thanksgiving arises out of Philemon's love "toward the Lord Jesus and toward all the saints."

Phil. 6 ~~ Fellowship of Christian faith becomes "effective through the knowledge of every good thing which is in in you for Christ's sake." Fellowship and Christian community is reinforced and made complete not only by recognition of the value of others, but also by the recognition of the value of oneself ("every good thing which is in you")!

Phil. 8-9 ~~ Paul clearly states that he has "enough confidence in Christ" (i.e., enough moral confidence in his beliefs) to demand and order a certain course of action, "yet for love's sake I rather appeal to you." Paul returns to this theme in verses 14 and 21, speaking of his desire that Philemon will obey freely without coercion from a spiritual authority. Paul restates in verse 19 his authority to demand obedience ("you owe to me even your own soul as well").

Phil. 10 ~~ Paul finally comes to the point of this personal letter: "I appeal to you for my child Onesimus." This direct appeal comes only after Paul had build up his own credibility (ethos), and is followed by passages that demonstrate the logic of his request (logos) and that reach out to Philemon's conscience and heart (pathos). Paul was a well-educated Pharisee, who was familiar with the Hellenistic culture. The epistle to Philemon is a clear instance of classical rhetoric as developed by Plato and Aristotle.

Phil. 11 ~~ Paul makes a lighthearted pun on the meaning of Onesimus' name ("useful"). Wordplay was a common feature in classical rhetoric.

Phil. 12-14 ~~ Paul's reasons for sending Onesimus back: "without your consent I did not want to do anything, so that your goodness would not be, in effect, by compulsion but of your own free will." This sounds noble, but is incredibly problematic. Paul is delivering Onesimus, a runaway slave, to the estate of his master Philemon, to face probable execution under Roman law. In sending a fellow Christian to the very teeth of persecution without security and only hope. Paul doesn't even exercise what leverage he has to ensure the safety of Onesimus. Paul expresses only his love for Philemon as reasons for his actions, but if that were the sole consideration for his actions, Paul would have failed to act lovingly towards Onesimus. Onesimus must have been consulted, and must have agreed to return to Philemon; otherwise, Paul's actions are indefensible.

Phil. 15 ~~ Paul contrasts the temporary deprivation of a servant with the eternal gain of a brother. "Perhaps he was for this reason separated from you for a while, that you would have him back forward."

Phil. 16 ~~ Paul requests that Onesimus be accepted back and his offenses forgiven, and that Philemon treat this runaway with all of the consideration and love he would regularly extend to his fellow believers. Paul does not directly request Onesimus' freedom, but only his forgiveness ("no longer as a slave, but more than a slave, a beloved brother.") As with similar passages in Ephesians and other NT epistles, Paul's emphasis is to redeem rather than replace social institutions. Paul addressed the individuals within the system and give them guidance to acting with virtue.

Phil. 17-21 ~~ Paul makes an emotional appeal to Philemon, appealing to feelings of gratitude, honor, and even Philemon's sense of pride.

Phil. 19 ~~ Paul restates his ability to command and demand obedience ("you owe to me even your own self") but appeals not to Philemon's humility but to his gratitude and to his trust ("I will repay it").

Phil. 20-21 ~~ Paul appeals to Philemon's sense of pride, not only in being in a position to "refresh [Paul's] heart in Christ," but also in being entrusted with Paul's confidence that he would exceed every expectation on his virtue. Sins and errors are dangerous in proportion to the value and impact of the virtue or truth they distort. Humans struggle with pride so often because the underlying virtue is so foundational: we were created in the image of God, and shall be raised to glory with Christ.

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Contemplations in Theology: #11

Evil does not exist.

This at least was the assertion of St. Augustine, and I'm inclined to agree. In Platonic philosophy, God is identified with the Form of the Good, the realized Ideal. In Christian theology, God is viewed as perfectly good, a loving and benevolent deity. "God is love" is a foundational statement of our Christian faith.

The doctrine of the Trinity arose to rationally explain how the virtue of divine love can be found at the very heart or essence of God. For divine love is not self-love (we cannot say that God loves Himself), but the sacrificial love of oneself unto another (therefore we speak of the Three Persons of the Trinity, each of which participate in the perichoresis or divine dance, with the love of one for three and three for one). The doctrine of the Trinity is the defining characteristic of orthodox Christianity; therefore, we must assert that the doctrine of the benevolent and loving God is essential to Christian thought.

In Aristotelian philosophy, God is identified with the First Cause, the source and creative agency behind the universe. The relationship between Creator and Creation is sometimes treated in a deistic way by orthodox Christian monotheists. God exists above and beyond nature; He created it and then let it run freely, even if that means allowing sin to crop up. This treatment seems to diminish the sovereignty of God, not to mention His omnipresence (another essential doctrine of the Church).

Taking the doctrine of omnipresence seriously brings us to a theology closer to that of the Eastern Orthodox church, sometimes called 'panentheism' (though the term is quite problematic). Relying on such passages as Ephesians 4:6 (God "is over all and through all and in all") this doctrine asserts that God is the ultimate Substance ("sub-stance" = "that was stands below") underlying all reality, and that His Presence is required for anything and everything to exist.

God exists in the world, and the world cannot exist without Him.

Here is a separate tangential point, but an important one. If God is present within Creation, and God is love, then Creation must bear the fingerprints of its Creator. Therefore, Augustine argued against the Manichean heresy and asserted that nature and physical reality is first and foremost good.

This too is a core doctrine: nature is essentially good, and will be included in God's redemption.

But these arguments naturally leads to the problem of evil. How can evil be explained? For if God is both perfectly good and absolutely powerful (another essential Christian doctrine), evil should not exist. The existence of evil in the world demonstrates that either God is not perfectly good (for he is not willing to destroy evil) or God is not absolutely powerful (for he is unable to destroy evil). How shall we answer this syllogism?

Some choose to answer it by resorting to free will. God loves us and desires that we love Him, and therefore allows our free choice to obey or disobey, which leads to the existence of evil and sin and the corruption of nature. But while this answers the original dichotomy (God is perfectly good, but He expresses love in a different way than the philosophers would expect), it cannot answer a much more challenging question.

How can evil exist within the Presence of God? For if we take the doctrine of omnipresence seriously, and believe that God sustains all things in His being, then we cannot solve the problem of evil by resorting to free will. For even if God could passively allow evil to temporarily exist out of his love for us as creatures made in His image, no orthodox Christian could accept the doctrine that God sustains evil within His Presence. God is perfection; God is justice. Evil is fundamentally incompatible with God's being. How then shall we answer the problem of evil?

Augustine's answer is beautiful in its simplicity. He converted to Christianity after a brief fling with Manicheanism, which saw the spiritual Kingdom of Light and the material Kingdom of Darkness as the two cosmic force that would fight for all eternity. Augustine rebelled against this heresy, and argued that evil does not exist independently of the good, but is the negation of it.

Just as darkness exists only in the absence of light, so too evil can be said to 'exist' only where God does not. It is the absence of God. Evil is the vacuum in the fabric of space-time, the vortex in the middle of the sea. And if God is the ultimate Substance, the Presence that undergirds and sustains all that we know as reality, then evil does not exist. This does not mean that we do not feel its effects ; it only means that it has no independent substance and therefore will not endure. This is our source of hope and our hope for salvation; the good shall triumph and evil shall not exist.

This understanding will lead us to a doctrine of Hell, a doctrine that I (and, I imagine, most orthodox Christians) have wrestled with for quite some time. But with all mysteries, satisfaction can be found; with all challenges, growth follows. God is good, indeed.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Commentary on Scripture: Colossians

Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, and Timothy our brother. To the saints and faithful brethren in Christ who are at Colossae: Grace to you and peace from God our Father.

1:4-5 ~~ faith in Christ and love for the Christian community are the products of "the hope laid up for you in heaven"

1:8 ~~ the phrase "your love in the Spirit" indicates that obedience to the will of God is itself a gift from God, for we are empowered to follow God through the workings of the Holy Spirit. This doesn't negate the concept of free will, but hints at a reconciliation between our will in following Christ, and Christ's sovereignty in redeeming us.

1:9 ~~ Paul prays that "you may be filled with the knowledge of His will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding" so that "you will walk in a manner worthy of the Lord" etc.

1:9-12 ~~ Paul lists the products of Godly wisdom, which correspond to the medieval Intelligence. "Knowledge of His will" (Mercury)... "bearing fruit in every good work" (Venus)... "strengthened with all power" (Mars) "according to His glorious might" (Jupiter) "for the attaining of all steadfastness and patience" (Saturn). This list hints at the relationship between these Intelligences. Mercury is the foundation ("wisdom and understand so that...") of the other virtues, especially Venus (beauty and charitable love). Mars (strength and courage) is the first and greatest servant and imitator of Jupiter (majesty and glory), but both exist and lead to Saturn (patience and humility).

1:11-12 ~~ the final item of the list "joyously giving thanks to the Father" corresponds to the symbol of the Sun, symbolizing Joy (the Presence of God) and its effect of us (a spirit of thanksgiving, redemption from sin, and shared inheritance "of saints in Light").

1:15 ~~ "He is the image of the invisible God" (cf. Genesis 1:27) "the firstborn of all Creation" (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:22)

1:16-22 ~~ fairly comprehensive statement of Christology as it relates to the creation, humanity, the church, the nature of the resurrection, the anointing and mutual interpenetration of Father-Spirit-Son, the nature of the passion, the nature of personal conversion, the nature of salvation, and the Final Judgement.

1:23 ~~ reaffirmation of free will especially in light of Christ's soveriegnty.

1:25-26 ~~ word of God = a mystery previously hidden but manifested in the saints.

1:26-27 ~~ "riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory." (cf. Colossians 1:15; Christ is the firstborn of all Creation, heralding the redemption and exaltation of humanity).

2:2-4 ~~ a poetic, rhetorical appeal for truth, to inoculate against error (following Plato's conception of a noble use of rhetoric, developed in the Gorgias and the Phaedrus).

2:8 ~~ "See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the traditions of men, according to the elementary [first; or, secret] principles of the world." Traditions and wisdom, without God, is hollow and hollowing (cf. Heb. 5:12, "first principles" are systematized, and sin and theology are correlated).

2:17 ~~ "shadow" v. "substances" (OT laws are a shadow of the 'body of Christ').

2:23 ~~ "appearance of wisdom" in self-made religion, especially those that tend towards self-abasement and severe treatment of the body.

3:1-2 ~~ "keep seeking the things above, where Christ is... set your mind on the things above." Instead of denigrating the body and training our souls through our own will, our focus should be on Christ (the 'firstborn of Creation') who is the redemption of the flesh and restoration of the soul.

3:5 ~~ "immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed, which is idolatry."

3:8 ~~ "put them all aside: anger wrath malice, slander, and abusive speech from your mouth." The command to change one's attitude is treated in the same list as the command to change one's words and actions.

3:9-10 ~~ "you laid aside the old self with its evil practices, and have put on the new self, who is bing renewed to the true knowledge according to the image of the One who created him."

3:12 ~~ "chosen by God, holy and blameless" (signs of the elect); "heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience."

3:14 ~~ "love, which is the perfect bond of unity."

3:15 ~~ "Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which you were indeed called in one body; and be thankful."

3:16 ~~ "Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you" -- in wisdom, instruct and admonish; "with thankfulness in your hearts to God" sing with psalms and hymns.

3:17 ~~ "Whatever you do in word and deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks through Him to God the Father."

3:18-22 ~~ list of virtues involved in family life (for wives, husbands, children, fathers, slaves, and masters) including submission, love, obedience, patience, sincerity, fear of the LORD, and love of justice and fairness.

3:24 ~~ "from the Lord you will receive the reward of the inheritance."

4:1 ~~ reaffirmation of the meaning of hierarchy (masters act justly to slaves, thereby justified to their Master in heaven).

4:6 ~~ "speech always be with grace, [as though] seasoned with salt." See also Ephesians 4:29 ("no unwholesome word," edifying speech, "give grace to those who hear") and Isaiah 6:5-7 (grace to words, and "purification" of the lips -- salt was used as an antiseptic).

4:9 ~~ Paul sends Onesimus to Colossae (the letter of Philemon was sent privately alongside the letter to the Colossian church).