Is Hell Real? And Reading the Real Bible

Posted: July 13th, 2013 | Author: | Filed under: Personal | Tags: , , , | Comments Off on Is Hell Real? And Reading the Real Bible

Fr. Stephen has posted two excellent posts. The first poses the question, “Is Hell Real?” I’ve made some effort to address that question in my own series on the topic which you can find in the sidebar under Hell. But Fr. Stephen drives right to the heart of the matter. And then he posted a longer commentary on the flat, literalistic reading of the Bible today and what we mean when we call something real. I strongly urge anyone who reads my blog to read those two posts if you haven’t already read them.


Are You Saved?

Posted: June 26th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Faith | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

I listened to the following from Molly Sabourin in one of her podcasts quite a while back. Somebody uploaded it to youtube with visuals. It’s timeless and beautiful.

Molly’s words require no elaboration from me. They are haunting and beautiful and stand easily on their own. Still, I have sought for words to express how I reacted when I first heard this in her podcast. There was a profound sense of affirmation and proper orientation. My heart sighed, “Yes!” as tension I had carried for so long melted away. I’ve had many interactions with Christians and experiences with Christianity, both positive and negative, throughout my life. All of those were “legitimate” in the sense that they all infomed the first thirty years of my process of conversion. I don’t discount one in favor of another. The events and decisions that led to my Baptism at age six or seven were not somehow false or invalid because my identity did not begin to truly become intertwined with Jesus of Nazareth until my early thirties when I generally consider the process of my journey to have reached the point where the language of conversion is the only language that fits.

However, as many Americans who wind their way into or within Christianity often do, I reached that point in my journey in a tradition which attempts to reduce the broad, rich, and varied use of the concept of “salvation” within Christianity to a single event at one specific point in time. They want to use the metaphor of a wedding rather than the biblical metaphor of a marriage. They want to make salvation about an intellectual decision that you make fervently and sincerely enough for it to stick in that instant. And as far as I’ve been able to discern, “salvation” is reduced to an answer to the question, “What happens when I die?”

That was never a particular concern of mine. To the extent that I considered it at all, I was perfectly satisfied with my childhood and adult belief in the transmigration of souls blended with a later developing belief that some might remain pure spirit as a form of kami. I wasn’t worried about the caricature of “hell” you encounter in American culture in general and more seriously in evangelicalism because I didn’t believe in it. (I still don’t believe in either the funny cultural parody or the more serious evangelical caricature of hell which the culture rightly parodies. But that’s a discussion for another day. I do believe in the power of death (hades) which Christ has defeated. And I do believe in the reality of the experience described by the metaphor of gehenna that flows from the eschaton of the narrative of the Christian story. Pick which you mean by the English word drawn from the name and realm of the goddess Hel.)

As N.T. Wright and others have pointed out in detail, the Holy Scriptures also say fairly little about what happens in the interim period between the time our bodies sleep and the resurrection of the dead. There are just a few words here and there. Instead of the deep and multi-faceted concepts of salvation found in our Holy Scriptures, much of evangelicalism has reduced salvation to a single facet that does not ever seem to be the primary focus of the New Testament. And in so doing they have crafted a framework in which my own personal story simply won’t fit.

Molly captures in her words so much of the way the story and person of Jesus of Nazareth had reshaped and reformed my own personal story and identity in something more like the full richness of the scriptural usage of the concepts of salvation. In one sense, all humanity was saved when Jesus united the human and divine natures fully, in their entirety, and lived the life of a faithful human being; was crucified by the powers as our ransom; and broke the power of death over humanity in his Resurrection. Because of Jesus, it is no longer the nature of man to die. In Christ we find our salvation.

In another sense, I am working out my salvation today in this life with fear and trembling. I see as though through a mirror, darkly. But as best as I am able I am pressing forward, running the race, and trying to learn to obey the commands of Jesus as I try to follow him. In this sense, I can hardly say I was saved at some earlier point in my life. I’m still alive. While it seems incredible to me at this moment that I would ever do anything but follow Christ, it was once just as incredible to me that I would. If over the course of my life I turned to a different spiritual path and followed other gods, in what sense would I be “saved” in the particular Christian sense? I continue to be in the process of being saved. As with marriage, this is a process and a life. We follow a personal God of perfect relationship. How could it be anything else?

And finally, in another broad scriptural sense, I will one day stand before God with my true self fully revealed in his light to myself and all others. There is no account of that final judgment in the Holy Scriptures that does not describe it as a judgment over the totality of our lives — over who we are with no lies and no deception. God is love and light, but so pure that no shadow of darkness can persist in his unveiled presence. The question will not ultimately be about what God thinks of me. The ultimate answer to that question was the Cross. God loves me. The question will be, “Do I love God?” I pray that I grow in the grace and love of God so that through Jesus my answer is, “Yes!” For this reason I pray, “Lord have mercy.” But a lasting life in a resurrected body continuous, yet discontinuous, with my present body and in some sense like our Lord’s in his Resurrection working within a restored and healed creation that has been made new and is overflowing with the unveiled glory of the Lord marks the fullness of the Christian story of salvation.

That is our hope. Nothing less.


Mercy and Justice

Posted: June 16th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Faith, Personal | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Father Stephen Freeman wrote two fantastic interrelated posts today. Take a moment to read them both before reading my feeble thoughts on them.

St. Isaac – Mercy and Justice

More on the “Justice” of God

I had read a fair amount of St. Isaac the Syrian and others like him even before I had heard of Orthodoxy. It’s probably one of the things that always made me such a poor evangelical (and frankly, a poor Western Christian). But I was thirsty to know more about this God I had encountered and couldn’t shake. I read Scripture, but the more modern voices I encountered mostly did not match the things I saw in the Holy Scriptures or the God who had met me. The ancient authors I read more often did. I have not read Abba Ammonas before, but the short snippet makes me want to track down more by him.

I echo what Father Stephen says in his opening paragraph. I’ve often said that Western Christianity attributes a problem with forgiveness to God. The way he puts it might be better. Western Christianity speaks as though God’s justice constrains God. I’ve never understood how anyone could immerse themselves in the story of God and walk away with anything other than a picture of a God overflowing with mercy, forgiveness, and love. Even Jonah understood that much about God. It pissed him off royally. He didn’t like it one bit. But he understood God. It’s a struggle in the West to find voices that even seem to know God at all.

God doesn’t achieve justice by punishing the evildoer. He achieves justice by bringing good from the evil, by ultimately undoing the wrong, and, if at possible, by saving both the victim and the evildoer through his boundless mercy and love. St. Isaac could not imagine that any human being could become so hardened that they could resist the love of God forever. I am perhaps a bit more pessimistic. I fear that human beings can so distort themselves that they can trap themselves in a state unable to ever experience the light and love of God as anything but searing fire. But I hope St. Isaac is right.

In some ways I’m reminded of the scene in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? where Mrs. Prentice tells Matt Drayton this.

I believe that men grow old. And when the — when sexual things no longer matter to them, they forget it all. Forget what true passion is. If you ever felt what my son feels for your daughter, you’ve forgotten everything about it.

My husband too.

You knew once, but that was a long time ago. Now the two of you don’t know.

And the strange thing, for your wife and me, is that you don’t even remember.

If you did how could you do what you are doing?

That’s what Western Christianity feels like to me these days. They knew about the love and mercy of God once upon a time. But now they don’t even remember. If they did, how could they do and say the things they do — about God and about other human beings? Eastern Christianity is like the wives. It remembers. It has never forgotten.

I strongly agree with Father Stephen’s closing statement in the first post. When somebody can show me where God’s mercy ends, I’ll be willing to consider where something else — anything else — begins. Until then, let’s talk about his mercy, pray for his mercy, live within his mercy, and live out his mercy to others.

If anything, Father Stephen’s followup post strikes even closer to home. Those who know me at all well know that I and those I love have experienced “injustice” — even evil. Ultimately, the cry for “justice”, where it is not merely a code word for revenge, is a deep cry from the depth of my being for the evil to have never happened. That is the only true justice.

But we desire justice only for others. For ourselves, if we are honest, we desire mercy. We not believe we will receive mercy, but it is what we desire. If God is willing to have mercy on us, how we can possibly believe his mercy toward anyone else is limited in any way? We are all hypocrites of the worst sort. We are the whitewashed tombs.

And yet God loves us.

That is the mystery at the center of reality.