Soteriology

I have felt a little “low” these past few days, but I know that we all have to make progress in both our service to our Churches and our own intimate spiritual lives in whatever way we live them.

The other day, I quoted Israel’s No: Jews and Jesus in an Unredeemed World by Jurgen Moltmann and remembered what Pope Benedict XVI said on visiting Auschwitz in May 2006:

How many questions arise in this place!  Constantly the question comes up: Where was God in those days?  Why was he silent?  How could he permit this endless slaughter, this triumph of evil?  The words of Psalm 44 come to mind, Israel’s lament for its woes: “You have broken us in the haunt of jackals, and covered us with deep darkness … because of you we are being killed all day long, and accounted as sheep for the slaughter.   Rouse yourself!  Why do you sleep, O Lord?  Awake, do not cast us off forever!  Why do you hide your face?  Why do you forget our affliction and oppression?  For we sink down to the dust; our bodies cling to the ground.  Rise up, come to our help!  Redeem us for the sake of your steadfast love!” (Ps 44:19, 22-26).  This cry of anguish, which Israel raised to God in its suffering, at moments of deep distress, is also the cry for help raised by all those who in every age – yesterday, today and tomorrow – suffer for the love of God, for the love of truth and goodness.  How many they are, even in our own day!

The tears well up as I find myself tempted to doubt the Redemption or at least ask serious questions about the meaning of that word. I did not begin my life until fourteen years after the end of the war, but I have seen the films of the Nuremberg Trials and the concentration camps. I have visited Oradour-sur-Glane and Dachau. I have seen the film Schindler’s List and others. Seeing these horrors of man’s inhumanity to man is like being strapped to a table, skinned alive and the raw flesh being slowly cooked by a jet of steam!

Is this the humanity that God came to save?

The main source of conflict between groups of Christians is the question of “who will be saved” – all, many, a few or even none. What does “not being saved” mean. The usual answer is – You go to eternal hell. Some time ago, I wrote Hell and Salvation in which I expressed a fairly “universalist” kind of position.

No one is going to get off scot free for living an evil life or being a crass materialist or whatever. I do believe there are conditions in which souls will suffer atrociously for aeons, reaping what they sowed by cruelty, selfishness, hypocrisy or whatever. But, I do believe that the notion of eternal hell, as eternal as God and goodness, is nonsense.

The notion of salvation is necessarily in relation to the notion of what happens to “unsaved” souls. These are the thoughts going through my mind as I was confronted with the double predestination theories of Calvin and others, albeit based on St Augustine. In many ways, I share Augustine’s pessimism and see daily examples of man’s evil and moral weakness in the newspapers, television and the internet. I am then uplifted by the poetry of William Blake, the music of Bach and our crowning artistic achievements in the gothic cathedrals of Europe.

What Jesus changed is above all interior. He gave us hope against ourselves and the kind of evil that overwhelms us. It is above all that, that spark of divinity within us all that brings each one of us genius, inspiration and knowledge from experience.

Our hope is that evil men are powerless in their ambition to spread their nefarious seed beyond this world.

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13 Responses to Soteriology

  1. Michael Frost says:

    Dying, death, hell, and eternal damnation certainly aren’t popular topics. Nor are they ones that are supposed to make us feel comfortable. That is why there is Law and Gospel. And the call to repent! There is no other way.

    I forget where the thought comes from within EO, but I’ve never forgotten it: the gates of hell are locked from the inside. The presence of God is painful to those who hate him.

    And in Dante the damned willingly, freely, and excitedly confess their sins to Minos as he wraps his tail around them and then consigns them to their proper place, where they know they belong.

    • Interesting idea about the gates of hell being “locked from the inside”. Those souls would stay there until they are ready to accept God’s mercy. See this “version” of the Dark Plane, admittedly a little “New Age” but of interest. On the “eternity” of hell – according to this passage, the key is on the inside of the door.

      The denizens of the realms of darkness have, by their lives on earth, condemned themselves, each and every one, to the state in which they now find themselves. It is the inevitable law of cause and effect; as sure as night follows day upon the earth-plane. Of what avail to cry for mercy? The spirit world is a world of strict justice, a justice that cannot be tampered with, a justice which we all mete out to ourselves. Strict justice and mercy cannot go together. However wholeheartedly and sincerely we may forgive the wrong that has been done to us, mercy is not given to us to dispense in the spirit world. Every bad action must be accounted for by the one who commits it. It is a personal matter which must be done alone even as the actual event of death of the physical body must be gone through alone. No one can do it for us, but by the great dispensation upon which this and all worlds are founded, we can, and do, have ready and able assistance in our tribulation. Every soul who dwells in these dreadful dark realms has the power within himself to rise up out of the foulness into the light. He must make the individual effort himself, he must work out his own redemption. None can do it for him. Every inch of the way he must toil himself. There is no mercy awaiting him, but stern justice.

      Perhaps the possibility of there being an end to the torments of hell would make the whole thing better represent justice, for simply saying “I’m sorry” isn’t enough. Justice has to be purged, and this makes it that much more frightening for all of us, whether we are Hitler or someone who has been cruel or selfish in a lesser way.

      Of course, the link I quote has no authority as a “revelation”, but it does give us another slant on the question to think about. And it takes salvation out of human control!

      • Michael Frost says:

        It is interesting that the first fall involved the angels. And we have no trouble accepting their eternal damnation. Because that is how they now are, ontologically speaking, to their very core. Their essence is evil. And evil exists, even if it is a form of nothingness. The human damned likely share in this. That is the meaning of being unrepentant. And being in a “place” where there is no grace, love, or mercy. Without that, can there be any redemptive change? It doesn’t appear so. Though I guess all we can do is remember the awful and awesome words of Christ about Lazarus and the rich man? And heed the warning. Repent…

      • Certainly, we heed the warning – Repent! The fear of God is the beginning of wisdom. That being said, I am inclined to think that the Devil himself would have his chance should he return to God (Origen believed this), and some of the things we read gives souls the other side of death the possibility to repent and find redemption. We don’t know, but it is a thought.

      • Dale says:

        Interestingly, this same imagery can be found in C.S. Lewis’s “The Great Divorce”; those who are in hell are there because they wish to be; and even if given the chance to “escape” to heaven, most will decline. One can easily see precedent in Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” as well.

        Hint: I do know that “The Cave” predates “The Great Divorce.”

  2. ed pacht says:

    Such things are beyond my ken. Eschatology is problematic in the extreme in that it consists of thinking about what cannot be known or understood. Is there time when we leave this life? What is time? Is eternity an infinite progression of time (such is what we tend to think) or is it rather an escape from the bonds of this created thing called time? If the Eternal God who IS, and was, and will be is outside of time, how does this define eternity? In His sight, what then are past. present, and future? What exactly does “forever” mean? Origen wrestled with that question and seems never to have been happy with any of his own thoughts (that, at least, is my impression). Will we be within “time” when we have entered “eternity”? Or will we too be outside this aspect of creation? What would that mean? I find myself in what I think of as a blessed tangle every time I begin to ask these questions, and have come to realize that all my speculations (and speculating is indeed fun) inevitably fail. Infinite reality is far more than can be stuffed into a finite mind.

    I know this: that I, personally, need to be saved from myself, that the world I inhabit certainly needs to be saved from itself, that Jesus came to do this savings (whatever precisely it means), and that the work, by His own word, is finished.. This salvation is available for “whosoever will”. As for “whosoever won’t” — I just can’t answer that. God is merciful and loves us enough to set us free. What if He chooses us, but we don’t choose Him? I can think of nothing more horrible.

  3. Francis says:

    Father,

    With all due respect, what I personally find troubling is the singling out of certain specific episodes of human history as climatic examples of the evil that humans may commit, and building whole theological/philosophical architectonics out of them. Human history is full of these examples of inhuman atrocity. What is the lesson? What are the ethical consequences to be drawn from them? The worst perpetrations of Nazism and Soviet Communism are instances of the the actuality of the evil potential of unredeemed humanity. It is from this perspective that we may perhaps approach these historical phenomena. Nazism, in and of itself, as much as Soviet Communism, had notions of a telos, of an eschaton which they purported to realise in the concreteness of history. Here, is a double danger: 1. both Nazism and Communism had a notion of the good which was exclusive of certain expressions (racial, economical, etc) of humanity – hence, the elimination of the variations, of the deviations: Jews, Aristocrats, etc. 2. both Nazism and Communism relied upon the notion of the sovereignty of the state, ultimately, of the people to “immanentise the eschaton”, in the memorable formulation of Eric Voegelin.

    In a human community which has lost an authoritative and common notion of telos, any political enunciation of a telos is potentially dangerous as it is potentially beneficial. That is why political expressions of the good, such as is contained in all ideologies, liberal, conservative, etc, are inherently liable to perversion. It is not for nothing that Socrates cautioned us against the Sophists, or Christ against the Scribes. Thus, the Prayer to the “Great God Pan” at the end of the Phaedrus, is according to me, the one thing in antiquity most in tune with the whole tenour of the Gospel: Make me beautiful, i.e. more sober, more knowledgeable, more just, within, that is, in my soul, there, where the politicians, the sophists cannot reach

    The tragedies of the Holocaust and of the Holodomor should not lead me to question God, but to question the State, or any Power, which we have substituted for God, and which we take for granted and worship unconsciously.

    • Your comment is really thought-provoking, and you really seem to have identified the problem. The problem is not God or the credibility of the Redemption, but political ideology and false eschatology. It also that churchmen also make their churches into miniature totalitarian states and begin again the process of constructing a political kingdom whilst using the language of the Scriptures and church Tradition. This is the problem of “liberation theology” – Marxism using religious language.

      We seem to be called to grin and bear it in our established churches and godless secular countries and go where no one can reach us. We are at a point of history that some call “post-modern”, where we as humans have broken our links with each other. We don’t trust each other any more, individually or socially. In such a situation, the notion of “church” and “communion” can seem to be somewhat academic. What can reverse that, a return to the ideologies? Certainly not – Communism and Fascism (in the wider meaning) caused our post-modern malaise. The idea of going back to the 1950’s, old-fashioned Conservatism, patriotism, bringing back respect for authority (bring back hanging for murderers and whacking in schools), make a man do an honest day’s work is tempting – but it won’t work.

      We seem to be having to come to terms with the end of our civilisation and a long living death in darkness. We say Maranatha – come, Lord Jesus, we wait for World War III, the Plague or the killer comet from space. In previous times of transitions between civilisations, there was some idea about what was coming next. Perhaps our great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandchildren will be building cathedrals!

    • Michael Frost says:

      The various tragedies and the wide variety of human suffering done by man to man points out the real nature of the fall and our fallen state. Evil is real. It is part of our world. It is not something we as men can defeat on our own. Nor is it something that can be defeated in total before the end times. The depravity of man is horrible and our need for redemption is dire. God can use human sin and suffering as part of his redemptive process. But what he does, why he does it, and how he does it remains rather mysterious to us at most times.

      The evils at the foundation of ideologies like communism and fascism are the same evils that have always plagued us, everywhere and for everyone…Pride, envy, lust, greed, etc. The ideologies just attempt to mask the evil that lurks within the hearts of their founders. So both the communist and fascist take from those they hate and use their ideology to justify both the hatred and the taking. Make look more interesting, but were they really that much different from rampaging rapacious barbarians or ancient empires that devoured what they wanted? When it comes to evil, is there ever anything new under the sun?

    • Dale says:

      Francis, very astute observations. I think that we all tend to think that the greatest crimes against humanity have only happened within our own, limited, human memory whilst the reality is that such crimes seem to be reoccurring events. The Mongol invasions come to mind. Perhaps the difference is that in the past such horrors often turned men’s minds more and more to God and the questions of the Everlasting, whilst in more modern times the opposite has been the reaction.

  4. A great post, Francis. Thank you.

  5. Patricius says:

    A few days ago I wrote an email to an atheist friend of mine, well not exactly a friend but a work colleague (a botanist, you might say), in which I wrote about the “problem of pain.” Confessedly it becomes rather boring when people say “if your god is so good, why do people suffer?” The only thing you can say to that is that Christ suffered, Christ was rejected by his people, betrayed by his followers, had himself hideously tortured and died in agony upon a gibbet and was mocked thereon by the people. I always took Christ’s call out Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani? to mean that even God could not look at him, bearing the immense weight of our sins. And yet dying he was victorious, and he reigned in truth from the Cross. I went onto say that God is both just and merciful. There is a Scripture that says “for God will bring every work into judgement, with every secret thing, whether it be good or evil,” and another, “vengeance is mine, saith the Lord, I will repay.”

    Secretly I have always looked forward to Doomsday, from a selfish, proud perspective. In a word, saying to my enemies, “ha ha ha, look at you now, having all your secret peccadillos revealed before all Creation. May you get no mercy whatever.” But I daresay it won’t work like that at all, and we shall all be in terror of death and eternal humiliation. And what I wouldn’t do to have a fresh start and to have knowledge of all my past mistakes and be given grace not to repeat them.

    • Patrick, you have a very direct way of seeing things, and it can sometimes not be very good for our lives and psychic balance (I talk of myself). Of course, Doomsday is as close as the death of each of us. On Monday my mother was there at home, doing her washing and getting on with life, and on Tuesday after the frenzied attempts of the paramedics to restart her heart, she was gone. I don’t think any of us will gloat over anyone. We all have our self-preservation instinct. We also have a great nostalgia for the lost paradise, and we get a shadow of that experience when joy, wonder and the enjoyment of beauty are ours for the brief moments when they happen.

      On the other hand, we will be free of the limits of this world and we will be where our energy frequency puts us, anywhere from the realms of darkness to the Seventh Heaven with and through Christ, with every opportunity to progress, evolve and rise, and we will understand the meaning of our present life – the meaning that largely eludes us at present.

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