Who Am I?

Heaven & Earth (& Hell) 6 – Resurrection

Posted: June 28th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Hell | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Now that I’ve discussed death and the abode of the death, it seems appropriate to interject the Christian belief in resurrection, certainly one of the most central tenets of our faith. (If you missed my post on Rob Bell’s Resurrection video, now’s a good time to pause and check it out.) Resurrection means and has always meant a physical, earthly life with a body that is in some sense continuous with our present body. There seems to be a lot of confusion on that point today. As far as I can tell, prior to Christ’s resurrection, the idea of any sort of resurrection was unique to the Jewish people. And their belief was far from universal even among themselves and markedly different in a number of key ways from what became the Christian confession in light of Jesus’ resurrection.

I’ve practiced a number of non-Christian religions and explored many more than I’ve actually practiced. I’ve also studied a bit of ancient history. I’m not aware of any religion outside Judaism and Christianity whose beliefs include resurrection. Resurrection is certainly a central part of the view of reality that drew me deeper into Christian faith and which keeps me in it. There are a few facets of the Christian confession which I know with certainty if I ceased to believe they were true, I would abandon this faith and move on to something else instead. Resurrection is one of those key facets. I’m frankly shocked that Resurrection seems more like an afterthought or something peripheral to many Christians today. It’s not. It’s right at the very center of our faith. Without resurrection nothing about Christianity is appealing or even makes sense.

In Christ’s Resurrection, which is the first fruit of our own future resurrection, death was destroyed. Humanity was in bondage to death and God had to rescue us from the vice of its relentless grip. Moreover, death was the ultimate tool that Satan and the Powers used to enslave us. And in and through that dark power, sin swirled around and within us. One of the many images used by the Christian Fathers was the image of a baited trap. Death thought it had swallowed a man in Jesus of  Nazareth and discovered too late that it had swallowed God. Sheol/Hades was burst open from the inside and death was destroyed. The icon of the harrowing of Hades speaks louder than words. The abode of the dead now stands empty with its gates burst asunder.

It was only a part of the story and purpose of the Incarnation, but in his death and resurrection Jesus of Nazareth, Son of God, healed the wound of death in the nature of mankind. It is no longer our nature to die! We see that in the language of the Church. In the NT, those who have died are said to have fallen asleep in the Lord. God has accomplished all that he needed to accomplish in order to rescue us. Jesus has joined our nature with God’s and flowing from him are rivers of healing water. We are no longer subject to death and we live within the reality of the forgiveness of sins.

But God will not force himself on us. Jesus has truly done it all and offers us the power of grace, which is to say himself, in and through the Spirit for our healing. It’s in and through the mystery of the Incarnation that God can join himself with each of us. But in order to be healed, we must cooperate and participate with the Great Physician. We have to want God. Or at the least, we have to want to want God. (Sometimes that’s the best we are able to do. Not to worry, God came to us in the Incarnation and he will keep coming to us wherever we stand.) And thus we live in this interim period where the fullness of the work of Christ remains veiled.

Christianity has relatively little to say about what happens to us when we die or our “life after death.” Off-hand, I can think of only three places where it’s mentioned in the NT with virtually no detail offered. Our faith, however, has a great deal to say about resurrection, new creation, and re-creation. I like Bishop N.T. Wright’s phrase “life after life after death.” The Christian story is that we do not die. God sustains us somehow until that time when all humanity is resurrected as Christ is resurrected.

In light of that reality, perhaps it’s clear why I chose to place the post on Resurrection at this spot in the series. Sheol/Hades are no more. So where “hell” in Scripture is used to translate either of those words, it must in some sense be understood as referring to an aspect of reality that ended with the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. The enormity of just that one piece of Christ’s work is overwhelming to me.

Truly we can now shout, “Death, where is thy sting?


Heaven & Earth (& Hell) 5 – Hades

Posted: June 25th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Hell | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Anyone familiar with Greek Mythology will instantly recognize Hades as both the name of the Greek god of the underworld or the depths and the name of the abode of the dead over which he ruled. As such, it was the natural word for the Septuagint translators to choose for Sheol when the Jewish Scriptures were translated into Greek a couple of centuries before the birth of Christ. Moreover, it’s one of the words used in the Christian Holy Scriptures of the New Testament that is translated Hell.

In both instances, Hades should also be understood as referencing the abode of the dead or even death itself. That’s an important distinction. I would also suggest that “hell” is the appropriate english word for translating both Sheol and Hades. Hell (in various spellings) entered Old English through its Germanic influences. The words from which it came described various pagan concepts of an underworld or abode of the dead. The pre-Germanic languages may have also been influenced by Old Norse, in which Hel was both the goddess of the abode of the dead and sometimes one of the names for the abode itself (though “misty places” was its more common name).

Death holds a prominent place in the Christian understanding of reality, as I’ll explore later in this series. As such, it’s important to understand that Sheol (or Hades in Greek translation) was understood almost as a synonym for death itself. Hold that thought for the next post.


Funeral Reflections

Posted: April 30th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Personal, Resurrection | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Lately I’ve attended too many funerals and seen too many people in our family’s extended circle of relatives and friends die. You could respond that even one such death is too many and I wouldn’t disagree with you. I’ve recognized death as the enemy from that day long ago when my eight year old self watched my beloved stepfather’s lifeless body wheeled out to a waiting ambulance and my reconstructed life fell apart again. But as I’ve listened to and read the things people tend to say today when faced with death, I’ve reflected on what I would want said at my funeral.

There are a number of things I know beyond any shadow of a doubt that I don’t want said. I don’t want those who might be grieving for me told that my body is not me, that it’s just a discarded shell. My body is most certainly part and parcel of who I am and is the only part of me with which anyone has directly interacted. No, I do not believe I am merely my body, but I also do not believe that my identity can somehow be extricated or separated from my body. I have believed things like that in the past, when I believed in the transmigration of souls, but that is not what I believe today.

Notably, I am not and have never been a Platonist, which is what too many modern Christians sound like. I forget who told the story, but I remember hearing one about a professor at a prestigious university. He was a thorough-going Platonist and, for example, would not say, “I am going for a walk.” Instead he would say, “I am taking my body for a walk.” When Christians speak of our bodies as vehicles that we discard and trade up for better models, that is exactly the sort of thing they are saying.

I also do not want my loved ones told that death is a natural stage of life, that I am happy now, and basically that it’s their own selfish pain and sense of loss causing them to grieve. Standing outside Lazarus’ tomb, Jesus not only wept, we are twice told that he was “groaning in his spirit”. He faced death and embodied God’s sorrow and anger at the death of the image-bearer. If anyone has loved me and is grieving, I want them to know that God grieves with them — that this isn’t how things are meant to be. We do not grieve as those who have no hope, but we do still grieve in the face of death.

I want everyone to hear somebody give voice to the story of God’s victory over death. I want Resurrection proclaimed! However, the words alone are not enough today. The uniquely Christian understanding of resurrection has become so distorted and obscured that most people don’t even know what it actually is anymore.

Christian resurrection does not involve trading in our physical body for some spiritual body after death in another realm of existence. That sort of story was common in the pagan world and would have posed no threat to Rome. It would not have been a “scandal to the Jews and foolishness to the Greeks.” It would have just been another story about what happened to you when you died.

No, resurrection means the resurrection of this body in this world. Yes, the body will be transformed (as will the world), but it will be recognizably continuous with the body I have now. After all, the message of Easter is that the tomb was empty, not that Jesus left his old body behind and got a new one in a place called “Heaven”. Although Jesus was certainly different in resurrection and was not always recognized until he willed it, those who had followed him did indeed recognize him. His body still bore the marks of the nails and the spear. And once again, the tomb was empty! It was that same body which had hung on the cross and been buried that was raised and transformed. And the promise of Scripture is that as he was raised, so shall all humanity be raised. In the Resurrection of Jesus death, the last enemy, was forever defeated. The gates of Hades were burst asunder.

Moreover, Christianity does not proclaim some two-story universe with a basement. That’s a variation of some of the old (and new) pagan stories about the nature of reality. No, heaven and earth are overlapping and interlocking aspects of our one reality. Heaven and earth are not intended to be separate, but for our salvation a veil currently stands between the two dimensions of reality. But heaven is never more than a breath away. And in places where worship has been valid, the veil can be thin indeed. In the divine liturgy, the Orthodox would say it has been pierced. One day the veil will be dropped entirely and the glory of the fire of God’s consuming love will be fully revealed as all in all.

As such, “heaven” is emphatically not our final destination. Yes, God sustains us in the interim between our deaths and the final resurrection. Yes, as John 14 says, Jesus has prepared rooms for us. But those are not our permanent homes. The Greek word used is the one for a temporary dwelling place, like a room in an inn. It’s a way station in our journey.

The language of Christian Scripture for death is the language of sleep. Our bodies repose until God awakens us again in resurrection. In the interim, God somehow provides himself to sustain us in lieu of our bodies. But that’s a temporary measure and one that Scripture says very little about. And in the context of the eschaton, the language of Scripture is also as clear as I find any of the Jewish apocalyptic writings. The city of God, the New Jerusalem, is seen coming from heaven to earth. And we have work to do healing and caring for creation. (The leaves of the trees are for the healing of the nations.)

Our permanent home is here, on this earth. And our bodies on this earth will, however transformed, be continuous with our current bodies. Once again, it is this body which is resurrected in this reality. That is the truly and uniquely Christian hope of resurrection. That is what was (and is) foolishness to the Greeks. If that is not true then, as Paul says, my faith has been in vain. I remain Christian because of its promise of resurrection. If there is no true resurrection, then I’ve been wasting my time.

I want Resurrection proclaimed at my funeral. I want everyone to hear about the life after life after death. But I’m not sure there will be anyone available who can or will do it.


Original Sin 27 – Ancestral Sin

Posted: March 22nd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Original Sin | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Original Sin 27 – Ancestral Sin

Ancestral sin is the term the Orthodox sometimes use to describe the biblical account of Adam. But there is no single term or description in the Eastern Church like we find in the West. No single idea came to dominate the East the way that Augustine’s idea of original sin as inherited guilt came to dominate Western thought and belief. That’s one of the reasons why, toward the beginning of this series I described my encounter with Eastern theology as a discovery that what I already believed about original sin fit within the spectrum of Eastern belief.

There is no way I can trace all the strains and strands of thought on this topic over the past twenty centuries in the Eastern Church. I’m sure I don’t even know them all myself. However, they do generally share a number of common elements and I’ll spend a little bit of time examining a few of them.

Before we begin to examine the ancestral sin, though, I think I want to start with one of the basic lens through which the Eastern Church views reality. Exploring it properly would take a series of its own, but it seems to me that an understanding of the ancestral sin is deeply linked to how you understand mankind’s fundamental problem which, by extension, is also creation’s problem.

In the West, mankind’s problem is seen primarily as guilt before God. We have broken some sort of law and as a result have besmirched God’s infinite honor or owe God an infinite debt. The controlling metaphor becomes the metaphor of the court, though when you push the metaphor you reach its limits pretty quickly and it begins to fall apart. Augustinian original sin, then, becomes a way to explain how every person is born guilty before God, for it is certainly true that we all share in the common plight of mankind from the moment of our birth.

In the East, however, mankind’s primary problem has always been recognized in our mortality and resulting bondage to the passions. Humanity’s problem is that we are enslaved to death and sin. Moreover, our bondage is not merely to a passive or impersonal force. The “prince of the power of the air” and all the other powers actively use the power of death and sin to rule us. The controlling metaphor is the metaphor of disease and slavery. The Church is the hospital for the sick. And Jesus is the one who liberated mankind from the bondage of sin and death. (This is, of course, why Moses is read as a type of Christ throughout the NT.)

As a result, the same sort of all-encompassing explanation that is needed in the West in order to explain how we can all be born guilty has never been needed in the East. We are, after all, born human. We are born mortal into a creation disordered by sin. That is almost self-evident. No other special condition is required.

In that light, the story of Adam can simply be read and understood the way that St. Paul reads it in Romans 5 — typologically. Adam is the type, in a negative sense, of Christ. And he represents (as his name indicates) mankind itself. We are born in Adam. We are born subject to death. We are reborn in Christ, with whom our life is hid in God.

Most notably, Christ was not paying a debt we owed to God on the Cross. Here, I believe it’s important to reflect on the words of St. Gregory the Theologian.

The question is: to whom was offered the blood that was shed for us, and why was it offered, this precious and glorious blood of our God, our high priest, our sacrifice? We were held captive by the evil one, for we had been ‘sold into the bondage of sin’ (Romans 7:14), and our wickedness was the price we paid for our pleasure. Now, a ransom is normally paid only to the captor, and so the question is: To whom was the ransom offered, and why? To the evil one? What an outrage! If it is supposed not merely that the thief received a ransom from God, but that the ransom is God himself – a payment for his act of arbitrary power so excessive that it certainly justified releasing us! If it was paid to the Father, I ask first, why? We were not held captive by him. Secondly, what reason can be given why the blood of the Only-begotten should be pleasing to the Father? For He did not accept even Isaac when he was offered by his father, but He gave a substitute for the sacrifice, a lamb to take the place of the human victim. Is it not clear that the Father accepts the sacrifice, not because He demanded or needed it, but because this was the part of the divine plan, since man had to be sanctified by the humanity of God; so that he might rescue us by overcoming the tyrant by force, and bring us back to Himself through the mediation of the Son, who carried out this divine plan to the honor of the Father, to whom he clearly delivers up all things. We have said just so much about Christ. There are many more things which must be passed over in silence…

A ransom is paid to a captor and we were enslaved by death. On the Cross, death thought it had swallowed a man and discovered it had swallowed God. The grave was burst asunder. Hades was emptied!

It’s a different lens through which to interpret reality than the dominant Western lens. As a result, the question of Adam’s “original sin” does not have the same prominence beyond its relatively straightforward typological meaning.


Original Sin 7 – God & Man in the Creation Narratives

Posted: February 28th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Original Sin | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Original Sin 7 – God & Man in the Creation Narratives

This post is not going to be one that covers the few prooftexts in Scripture that generally tend to be the focus in discussions on the topic of original sin. I wanted to make sure at the outset that nobody reading this post did so with the wrong expectations. I will look at those specific texts later as I explore the historical context for the development of the idea of inherited guilt within some segments of Christianity. That’s where that particular discussion fits in my personal narrative and I think that’s the best context in which to discuss those few texts.

In this post I’m going to explore a few things about the God I found in the Holy Scriptures as I began to try to grasp the uniquely Christian narrative of God, Man, and their relation to each other. The Scriptures are an ancient text and that tends to make them a little harder for a modern American to read and truly understand. But these were hardly the first ancient texts or the first sacred writings I had ever explored and tried to understand. I recognized the challenge and knew that I would have to have a better grasp of both ancient and second temple Jewish culture. And to understand the new Testament, I would have to then perceive that culture’s interaction (in light of Christ) with the ancient Greco-Roman world (with which I already had a fair degree of familiarity).

So I read the Gospels (the obvious place to start) several times, trying to absorb what they said about Jesus of Nazareth. And I noticed something that caught my attention. Jesus insists, in more than one place, that the Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings speak of him. It’s particularly dramatic in Luke on the road to Emmaus, but that’s hardly the only place. And so I began to gather the impression that it was not enough to simply have some understanding of ancient Jewish culture and historical context in order to read what we call the Old Testament. From a Christian perspective, it had to be read and interpreted through the lens of Christ, which means that a Jewish and a Christian reading of a text might very well be entirely different. I was also reading other ancient Christian writings and their authors confirmed my impression. Any and every Christian reading of our Holy Scriptures must first and foremost be christological in nature. The text is illuminated in and through Christ. I explain that because it conditions the way I read and understand the Holy Scriptures and thus necessarily frames the narrative arc I see in the text.

The best place to start, perhaps, is at the beginning. In the West, Genesis 3 is typically read as a story of legal violation and condemnation. The first man and woman are tempted. The first man and woman knowingly break God’s inviolable and holy law. The first man and woman are “separated” (now there’s a concept that requires very careful nuance and unfortunately rarely receives it) from God. The first man and woman are condemned by God to death and punishment and eternal torment in hell for their guilt for breaking God’s law. (And tied into that usually runs a thread that creates a problem for God either with his honor or his ability to forgive. Basically, you usually end up with a God who is either overly concerned about his honor or a God who cannot forgive an offense without payment. Now, that does not correlate very well at all with the God we find in scripture and it oversimplifies mankind’s problem and the measures necessary to save us. But that’s an entirely different series. Not this one.) And then their descendants, all of humanity, inherit from that first couple the guilt for their one violation of God’s command.

The problem with that narrative is that Genesis 3 simply doesn’t read that way without some serious distortion. That part of the narrative opens with the serpent telling the woman that she would not “die by death” from eating of the fruit. Instead, they would become like gods — a short and easy path to deification. (Ironically, God had created humanity in his image to bless creation and to grow and mature into communion with God. But the proper path was through obedience and faithfulness rather than disobedience and faithlessness. The serpent tempted the first couple with a false path toward the goal for which they were intended in their creation.) When they eat, their eyes are opened and they know shame, something they had never previously known.

So now they are condemned by God and “separated” from him, right? So then why is it that the next twist in the story is that God comes looking for them? They have tried to turn from God. They have moved away from their only source of life. In effect, they are seeking a non-existence they have no power to attain (since everything is sustained by and contingent on God who is everywhere present and filling all things). Hiding from their only source of life, they are mortal and are now ruled by death. But God does not permit that separation. And in this first turn of the story, we immediately see Jesus, also called Immanuel — God with us. We hide. God comes to us.

And what does God do? He curses the serpent. But the man and the woman suffer the natural consequences for their choices. Moreover, all creation is cursed, not by God (read it carefully), but by us. And God tells us that we are formed from the earth, and it is only when the clay is joined with God’s breath that we become a living soul. So, having turned from God’s breath, from God’s life, we are dust returning to dust. And yet, we are also eikons of God — a God who does not begrudge any of his creation existence — and as images of God, however damaged, we have no means of completely ceasing to exist. (That’s the source of the description of death as Sheol, Hades, or Hel — in Jewish and Christian rather than pagan terms. We became ruled by death and descended into it, but were unable to pass completely into non-existence. That was mankind’s ultimate plight from which we needed rescue. That’s why our problem required a solution as utterly amazing and unimagined as the Incarnation.)

And then God clothes the man and the woman. He covers their shame. But in that act, I also see a prefiguration of the Incarnation. Jesus takes on our nature in order to clothe the nature of man with the divine nature and through that union to heal and transform the nature of man.

And finally, lest we bind ourselves forever in ever corrupting flesh, God seals us from any other path to a sort of fleshly immortality that would not heal our corrupted nature and bodies. It’s clear in the story that he does this as an act of love and mercy on our behalf.

So tell me, where in this story is man truly “separated” from God. Yes, we try to turn from God. We try to hide from God. But God searches for us. God clothes us. God protects us. We have created a sort of separation from God our source of life within ourselves. That is true. But God never draws away from man in the story.

And where does God condemn man? Yes, he describes the consequences humanity will suffer flowing from our turn from him. And God describes how through that turn from him, we have cursed creation and creation will therefore no longer exist in harmony with us. And yet even as he describes the consequences, he gives the first promise that he is working to solve the problem. The promised seed of the woman is Christ. In the story, God does not condemn us. Instead, he immediately promises to rescue us from our own folly.

The God in our text, the God revealed to us in Jesus, is not a God of condemnation. He is not a stiff and unforgiving God. He is a God who overflows with mercy, a God who is slow to anger and quick to forgive, a God whose justice is love. We’ll look more at that God in the arc of scripture tomorrow. I don’t know a whole lot about our sacred text. I still feel woefully ignorant. But nowhere do I see the story of the sort of God who condemns all of humanity for the inherited guilt of a single act by a single pair of distant ancestors.


On the Incarnation of the Word 45 – The Whole Earth Filled With the Knowledge of the Lord

Posted: October 26th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Incarnation of the Word | Tags: , , , , | Comments Off on On the Incarnation of the Word 45 – The Whole Earth Filled With the Knowledge of the Lord

This section invokes one of my favorite quotes from Isaiah 11 ( especially as held in tension with Isaiah 6). It’s something affirmed again in Habakkuk. One day the whole earth, already filled with God’s glory, will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord. There is no place that is not so filled. There is no place of eternal separation from God as many Protestants like to proclaim.

But if a man is gone down even to Hades, and stands in awe of the heroes who have descended thither, regarding them as gods, yet he may see the fact of Christ’s Resurrection and victory over death, and infer that among them also Christ alone is true God and Lord.

Not even Hades, or death, is a place that is not filled with Christ’s victory and presence.

By these arguments, then, on grounds of reason, the Gentiles in their turn will fairly be put to shame by us. But if they deem the arguments insufficient to shame them, let them be assured of what we are saying at any rate by facts obvious to the sight of all.

Christ is revealed in all. There is no other reality.


On the Incarnation of the Word 29 – We Live in the Daylight of the Cross

Posted: September 27th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Incarnation of the Word | Tags: , , , , | Comments Off on On the Incarnation of the Word 29 – We Live in the Daylight of the Cross

In this section, Athanasius continues to hammer the strength and perpiscuity of Christ’s defeat of death on the Cross.

Now if by the sign of the Cross, and by faith in Christ, death is trampled down, it must be evident before the tribunal of truth that it is none other than Christ Himself that has displayed trophies and triumphs over death, and made him lose all his strength. And if, while previously death was strong, and for that reason terrible, now after the sojourn of the Saviour and the death and Resurrection of His body it is despised, it must be evident that death has been brought to nought and conquered by the very Christ that ascended the Cross. For as, if after night-time the sun rises, and the whole region of earth is illumined by him, it is at any rate not open to doubt that it is the sun who has revealed his light everywhere, that has also driven away the dark and given light to all things; so, now that death has come into contempt, and been trodden under foot, from the time when the Saviour’s saving manifestation in the flesh and His death on the Cross took place, it must be quite plain that it is the very Saviour that also appeared in the body, Who has brought death to nought, and Who displays the signs of victory over him day by day in His own disciples.

And again, the strength of Christ’s victory can be seen by the despite in which Christ’s people hold death.

For when one sees men, weak by nature, leaping forward to death, and not fearing its corruption nor frightened of the descent into Hades, but with eager soul challenging it; and not flinching from torture, but on the contrary, for Christ’s sake electing to rush upon death in preference to life upon earth, or even if one be an eye-witness of men and females and young children rushing and leaping upon death for the sake of Christ’s religion; who is so silly, or who is so incredulous, or who so maimed in his mind, as not to see and infer that Christ, to Whom the people witness, Himself supplies and gives to each the victory over death, depriving him of all his power in each one of them that hold His faith and bear the sign of the Cross. For he that sees the serpent trodden under foot, especially knowing his former fierceness no longer doubts that he is dead and has quite lost his strength, unless he is perverted in mind and has not even his bodily senses sound. For who that sees a lion, either, made sport of by children, fails to see that he is either dead or has lost all his power? Just as, then, it is possible to see with the eyes the truth of all this, so, now that death is made sport of and despised by believers in Christ let none any longer doubt, nor any prove incredulous, of death having been brought to nought by Christ, and the corruption of death destroyed and stayed.