Big Salvation Words: Judgment

In one of his more surprising insights, Karl Barth claims that the Fall of Adam and Eve, the root of their sin, was an act of judgment on their part. Adam and Eve “become sinners in trying to be as God: a judge” (CD IV/1 231). Barth says that to be human in the world as we know it (that is, hostile to God) is to be the “pseudo-sovereign creature” who believes its “most sacred duty [is] to have knowledge of good and evil.” Furthermore, we use that “knowledge” to “be a judge, to want to be able and competent to pronounce ourselves free and righteous and others more or less guilty.”

Unfortunately we are terrible judges. Our standard of righteousness, rather than matching reality, is a sliding scale that puts us into the best possible light. Judgment becomes an instrument of value, making us more valuable in our own eyes while making others less valuable, on (again) a sliding scale that allows me to dehumanize you and others that I especially want to dismiss.

Real judgment is something altogether different. Real judgment establishes our true and indelible humanity (and thus our worthiness as creatures of God) and distinguishes our true self from our failures, allowing God to transform us into what we might becomes. As Barth says, “In [God’s] hand there lies this solemn and powerful and redemptive instrument. In ours there is only a copy, a foolish and dangerous but ultimately ineffective toy” (p. 232)

Because of our confusion about judgment as it is exercised in human hands, it is also necessary to say that judgment does not grow out of anger or divine honor, or a need for cosmic justice. It is rather a relational act. “This is undoubtedly the mystery of the divine mercy. God acted in this way because He grieved over His people, because He did not will to abandon the world in its unreconciled state and therefore on the way which leads to destruction, because He willed to show to it an unmerited faithfulness as the Creator, because in His own inconceivable way He loved it” (p 237). We don’t typically think of judgment as an outgrowth of grief and loss, but true judgment is just that.

Finally, we need to understand that divine judgment is merciful because it is final. Much of our life is spent with a shadow of guilt darkening it. Our experience of being judged is that if I am judged unworthy today, the same will happen tomorrow. Human judgment is too often not an act, but an ongoing attitude or devaluing of the other person. Divine judgment is nothing like this belittling action which we often confuse with judgment. The divine sort is “a judgment beside and after and beyond which there need be no further fear of judgment; a judgment which concludes once and for all with redemption and salvation …” (p. 222).

This is not to say that judgment is pleasant, something to look forward to with longing, or any other such nonsense. But it is equally nonsensical to dread it because we tend to equate judgment with condemnation. Judgment, in the mystery of the divine economy, is the evaluation (or, the revelation of who we truly are in our inmost secret self) that makes grace possible. It is the first step in our rescue from despair. It is indeed the “solemn and powerful redemptive instrument” that God uses to bring us sinful humans to himself.

Barth on Judgment and Humiliation

One theme in the book Compassion (see this post for a review of the book) was the centrality of obedience and humility and even the necessity of humiliation. That chapter (entitled “Obedience”) was largely based on the first subsection of §59 of Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics entitled, “The Way of the Son of God into the Far Country” (IV/1, pp157-210). It is in this subsection that Barth explores, among many other things, the humiliation of Jesus Christ.

In the book group where we are considering the book that word “humiliation” was a significant stumbling block for some. Humble? That’s a good word. Humility? That too is a good word. But “humiliation” was a step too far. It was thought that it implies a stripping away of the basic dignity that is owed all humans. Humility is an excellent virtue. Humiliation, on the other hand, chips away at our very humanity.

If all we have to go on is the one chapter from the book Compassion, I would have some sympathy for this objection. But ever since reading that book, I’ve been once again plugging away at §59 of the Dogmatics. I feel like I’m back in seminary!) I just got started on the second subsection, which is about judgment (entitled, “The Judge Judged in our Place”), and it becomes quite clear why Barth chose that uncomfortable word “humiliation.” The remainder of this essay will be extensive quotes from the second subsection.

We have seen that in its root and origin sin is the arrogance in which man [sic] wants to be his own and his neighbour’s judge. According to Gen. 3:5 the temptation which involves man’s disobedience to God’s commandment is the evil desire to know what is good and evil. He ought to leave this knowledge to God, to see his freedom in his ability to adhere to God’s decisions in his own decisions. He becomes a sinner in trying to be as God: himself a judge. To be a man – in the world which is hostile to God and unreconciled with Him – is to be the pseudo-sovereign creature which finds its dignity and pride in regarding it as its highest good and most sacred duty to have knowledge of good and evil and to inform itself about it (in relation to itself and others). To be a man means to practice to want to be a judge, to want to be able and competent to pronounce ourselves free and righteous and others more or less guilty. [p 231] …

The event of redemption in Jesus Christ not only compromises this position, not only attacks this safe stronghold of man. It is not merely a moral accusation against the pride of man. It is not merely an intellectual exposure of the error which has led him into it. It is the fact by which the position of man [as judge] is taken away, by which it is made impossible and untenable, by which the safe stronghold is breached. Jesus Christ … has penetrated to that place where every man is in his inner being supremely by and for himself. This sanctuary [now] belongs to [Christ] and not to man. [p. 232] …

It is by this action that we are now removed from the judge’s seat, by the fact that Jesus Christ did for us what we wanted to do for ourselves.  … In His hand there lies this solemn and powerful and redemptive instrument [ie, being Judge]. In ours there is only a copy, a foolish and dangerous but ultimately ineffective toy. [p. 232] …

Abasement by an abstract “god” [ie, our conceptions of God, and even our conception of the pre-incarnate God that we might get from the Old Testament] is a safe enough matter which we can turn to our own glory. But abasement by God in the flesh, in the person of this fellow-man is a dangerous matter. It is a real and concrete abasement. If this man is my divine Judge, I myself cannot be judge any longer. I have forfeited the claim to be it and the enjoyment of being it. … Where does our own judgment always lead? To the place where we pronounce ourselves innocent, and where, on account of their venial or mortal sins, and with more or less indulgence and understanding or severity and inflexibility, we pronounce others guilty. That is how we live. And that is how we can no longer live in the humiliating power of what took place in Jesus Christ. We are threatened by it because there is a complete turning of the tables. [p. 233]

The other [side of the coin] is that the fact that Jesus Christ judges in our place means an immeasurable liberation and hope. The loss which we always bewail and which we seem to suffer means in reality that a heavy and indeed oppressive burden is lifted from us when Jesus Christ becomes our Judge. It is a nuisance, and at the bottom an intolerable nuisance, to have to be the man who gives sentence.  It is a constraint always to have to be convincing ourselves that we are innocent , we are in the right. It is similarly an affliction always to have to make it clear to ourselves so that we can cling to it that others are in one way or another in the wrong, and to have to rack our brains how we can [234] make it clear to them, and either bring them to an amendment of their ways or give them up as hopeless, withdrawing from them or fighting against them as the enemies of all that is good and true and beautiful. It is a terrible thing to know good and evil if only in this ostensible and ineffective way, and to have to live with this doubtful knowledge. It agrees quite simply with what is written in Gen. 2:17, that if we eat of this tree we must die. We are all in process of dying from this office of judge which we have arrogated to ourselves. It is, therefore, a liberation that it has come to pass in Jesus Christ that we are deposed and dismissed from this office because He has come to exercise it in our place. [pp 233f]

The Trinity as Life instead of Doctrine

There’s currently quite a little tempest going on among Evangelicals about Trinitarianism. Certain high profile Evangelical professor types have gone astray of Trinitarian orthodoxy (specifically in relation to the doctrine of subordinationism) and are seemingly unrepentant. Of course, Evangelicals have no disciplinary structures to speak of, so all that remains for the remaining orthodox Evangelical sorts is to huff and puff with little consequence … oh and offer that little 33 question “Are You A Trinitarian?” test that Tim Challies put together.

A relative of mine posted it on Facebook. I took the quiz because I figured I might flunk it, since I confess and believe the Nicene Creed as it was written and approved by the ancient councils, and not with the “and the Son” phrase that the Western Church has added in order to defend the double procession doctrine. Turns out this little test didn’t touch on the subject of the procession of the Holy Spirit, so I am safely Trinitarian according to this little quiz. (Whew! You can’t believe how relieved I am!! Winking smile)

Beyond the “Are you a Trinitarian?” question is the follow-up question of “So what?” Here is Challies “So what?” answer (from Q31):

Redemption is illogical and impossible without Trinitarian distinctions. For example, in order for the Father to pour out his wrath on his Son and for the Father to accept Christ’s sacrifice on our behalf, the persons must be distinct. That the Son is infinite God also explain how his death can be infinitely valuable and thus able to pay the just penalty of eternity in hell for all those he redeems.

I used to be Presbyterian, so I get that a Presbyterian is going to put emphasis on a juridical framework for salvation, but I was left wondering, “Is that actually all you’ve got?” This is certainly not why Trinitarian doctrine is vital to salvation. I will explain:

We are spiritually dead and Trinitarian doctrine, with all it’s arcane details about oneness, threeness, Jesus’ full humanity and full deity, procession, etc., explains how it is possible for Creator God to enter into creation and offer spiritually dead humans the Source of True Life for now and eternity.

Our physical life is not unlike a cut flower which is beautiful and seemingly alive for days and even weeks. But since it has been snipped from its source of life, it will eventually wilt and die. We too are cut off from our only possible source of life, which is the life-giving Trinity.

Trinitarian teachings show us that it is possible for us to be united, or “made one” with Christ through the Holy Spirit, and thus to be made one with the life-giving Trinity because Christ is actually and truly God. Christ, fully God and fully human, participates in our life even to the extent of dying a humiliating cross death. This participation by God with us and as us in turn allows us to participate in God’s life. All of this talk of judgment is certainly biblical, but it is a side-bar to the content of the Gospel: the mysterious life-giving power of the life-giving Trinity who, in Christ, is fully united with humanity, thus giving humans the gracious opportunity to drink deeply and forever of the actual source of life.

To reduce the doctrine of the Trinity to a riff on divine wrath, divine judgment, and Christ’s sacrifice as a solution to judgment rather than as the more fundamental issue of how we actually access the life that is offered to us through Christ’s participation, is a pyrrhic Trinitarian victory. It is the essence of what we find in 2 Timothy 3:5. “… holding to the outward form of godliness but denying its power.” It is the conceit of knowledge (v. 4) without proper application of that knowledge to the actual problem: we’re dead … still pretty as we stand tall in the vase but decaying and wilting fast. If we don’t want to get thrown out and replaced by tomorrow’s bouquet (ie, judgment), we need to “put off [the] old nature which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful lusts and to be renewed in the spirit of your [nous] (not “minds” as intellectual endeavors, but our true inner being). Eph. 4:22f.

Good doctrine either improperly applied or only partially applied is not a lot different than bad doctrine. Even the demons believe, as James reminds us (2:19). Being a Trinitarian Christian is not a matter of good doctrine, it is rather a matter of understanding how to properly apply it and the will to do so (ie, the putting off) and the humility to allow it to be done to us (ie, the being renewed in the spirit of our nous).

The Desolation of Smug

The juxtaposition of Sunday’s daily lectionary Old Testament and New Testament readings is striking. In the Old Testament Job is getting his lecture from God in Job 38. God is telling him that Job does not know God’s ways and neither could he accomplish God’s tasks if he did.

  • Do you know the dwelling place of light and dark?
  • Have you entered the storehouses of snow and hail?
  • Oh yeah, and thunderstorms, do you understand them?
  • Etc.

I had just paged through the trending podcasts on my pod catcher prior to reading these texts and one that I had never heard of was high the list. Its list of guests includes Brian Cox, Susan Jacoby, Richard Dawkins, Eugenie Scott (I know, she’s dead, but that’s what it said), Bill Nye, etc. That’s a who’s who of atheist intellectuals who are so utterly self-absorbed in their own grasp of the truth it’s mind boggling. At least Brian Cox has the grace to be amusing about it. But my immediate thought was, “Wow, that must be one of the most smug podcasts going today.”

As I read the Job text I couldn’t help but think that this group would have had the arrogance to answer God on each of these points, because, after all, this group actually understands all this stuff.

In contrast to this text is the reading from Revelation 18:1-8. “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great!” Babylon is the symbol par excellence of the hubris and excess of the world system.

There’s a long history of empires fading from the scene. In the case of Babylon, it practically happened overnight. Rome, on the other hand, and the Ottoman empire faded over a very long period of time. As is discussed in many places, not the least being Isaac Asimov’s brilliant and fifty year old Foundation series, the American Empire is showing alarming signs of wear and there is no clear indication what may replace it. We may be looking at yet another “regime change” in the not-so-distant future.

In contrast to this, I was on the phone this week with a now retired representative of the Antiochian Archdiocese (sort of like my denomination). The occasion was the aftermath of the centennial of St. Thomas Orthodox Church, which was celebrated last weekend. The subject of some recent trouble in the Archdiocese came up, but the person I was talking to dismissed it out of hand. “We’ve weathered this stuff for 2,000 years and we’ll weather this too,” was the comment. There is some real meat in the comment. Antioch, after all has been an important Christian center for all of Christian history. The first Bishop of Antioch was Peter. The second was Evodius, who is less well known, but the third Bishop, who served that office from 70 to 107 was the well known Ignatius, who was martyred by the Romans. There is an unbroken line of bishops (some of them outstanding, some of them traitors, some of them heretics, but an unbroken line – with schisms and plenty of weirdness mixed in) from Peter to John, who has served since 2012.

On the other hand there was certainly a sense of smugness in the 2,000 year comment, but there is also a sense of history that says, “God will remain faithful to the church, even when the church is not faithful to God,” when you look at the history of Antioch, the place where followers of the way of Christ were first called “Christians.”

Babylon: a symbol of the ephemeral that looks permanent. Antioch: a symbol of obscurity which has actually endured.

I confess that I am generally a huge fan of the current crop of radical atheists, although many of my favorites are now dead. Richard Feynman is hands down my favorite physicist and world traveler. I am also an unabashed fan of Douglas Adams, who regularly used his fame associated with The Hitchhiker’s Guide to bash Christianity and other religions. I find Richard Dawkins to be an utter bore – an unforgivable sin if you are going to be an outspoken critic of the cultural norm. On the other hand, I’m an avid listener to The Infinite Monkey Cage, Brian Cox’s podcast and bully pulpit to tear down Christianity when he doesn’t have his handful of clerics on as guests.

I like these guys because in all their smugness they seem to recognize that they are also court jesters (with the obvious exception of Dawkins and certainly the once utterly earnest Eugenie Scott) pointing out in amusing ways that the emperor has no clothes.

But in reading the Daily Lectionary today it occurred to me that it is a dangerous game to actually laugh at the jester because they play a dangerous game. I will continue to listen to Monkey Cage and grin with the rest of the audience, but ultimately these people really don’t know what they’re talking about because they are only dealing with a small slice of reality, and one day, this whole world system that has given us smart phones to listen to podcasts, the unimaginable wealth to afford these shiny toys, and the leisure to even bother with it, is going to come crashing down. “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great!”

“And then I heard another voice from heaven saying, ‘Come out of her, my people, so that you do not take part in her sins, and so that you do not share in her plagues; for her sins are heaped high as heaven, and God has remembered her iniquities” (Rev. 18: 4f).

Someday there will be a Desolation of Smug. Both the church and our culture will one day reap the consequences of our sins. It’s an excellent reason to take the earbuds out, turn off the podcast, and get down to the business of the life of repentance that we’re called to.

The Story of King Midas and The Gospel of Mark

After studying Tuomo Mannermaa and Galatians and Romans for the last couple of months I needed to get away from that particular narrow slice of Christian theology and focus on something else. I decided to turn my attention to the Gospel according to Mark (the oldest of the four gospels).

I was immediately struck by the fact that Jesus (you know, “fully human and fully God”) had no problem rubbing shoulders with sin and debauchery.

There is a theory promoted by numerous systematic theologies over the centuries (but most closely associated with Anselm, if you want a good historical reference point) that God’s holiness is of such a character that it cannot stand to be around sin and debauchery. If you only read the Old Testament an excellent case can be made for this theory.

Growing out of this theory of holiness is the idea that Jesus had to become human and die a brutal and horrible death in order to assuage the anger (or wrath) of God toward sin and evil. In short, God was really angry, he took it all out on Jesus, the result is that now Holy God can invite us into his presence as long as we accept what Jesus did on our behalf.

Reading through Mark’s Gospel, the idea kept coming to my mind that this picture of God is completely wrong because Jesus (who is fully God) had no problem rubbing shoulders with sin and debauchery. While not said explicitly, the implication is clear: The problem in this relationship is not on the divine side, it’s on the human side.

In both ancient Christian theology and contemporary Eastern Christian theology it is commonplace to say that love and judgment (or righteousness and wrath, to use Paul’s terminology) are essentially the same thing. Divine love is a consuming fire, and if we are not pure and were to attempt to approach God’s essence, that burning divine love would consume all that is not pure, which is pretty much all of our being. Thus, we experience divine love as wrath and judgment in much the same way a straw bale experiences a warm and merry hearth fire as a holocaust.

Imagine the “fully human” part of Jesus Christ functions as a very special permeable material that allows what we might call the “love” portion of holiness through while turning back what we might call the “consuming fire” portion of holiness. Thus in Jesus, who is fully God and fully human, the sinners of all sorts (Pharisees and prostitutes, Scribes and tax collectors) could approach and touch Fully-God-Jesus without getting consumed and destroyed by the fire of holiness.

In the ancient Greek myth, King Midas was given the gift/curse of being able to turn stuff to gold. Everything he touched (loved ones, food, etc.) turned to solid gold. But what if Midas had a special glove that did not turn to gold when he put it on that allowed him to touch that which he truly loved and desired without immediately and destructively purifying those loved ones into gold?

That’s the incarnation! Jesus’ humanity is that glove that allows God to come and rub shoulders and be with those he truly loves (Pharisees and prostitutes, Scribes and tax collectors). But because the burning brightness of holiness is veiled (i.e., gloved, but not absent), we are not immediately destroyed in the loving divine embrace.

That is the Good News of Mark in a nutshell (or in this case, a glove)! Thanks be to God.

Failures, Bad Habits, and Addictions: From Shameful Baggage to Holy Gifts

“Devoted to the Lord for destruction.” Now that’s an interesting phrase! and it’s in Joshua:

For the Lord has given you the city. The city and all that is in it shall be devoted to the Lord for destruction. Only Rahab the prostitute and all who are with her in her house shall live, because she hid the messengers we sent. As for you, keep away from the things devoted to destruction, so as not to covet and take any of the devoted things and make the camp of Israel an object for destruction, bringing trouble upon it. (Jos 6:16b-18)

“Devoted to destruction” is how the NRSV translates haram or cherem (alt. transliterations of the Hebrew root hrm). It is the word used in the Old Testament when God commands the utter destruction of something, most commonly, Israel’s enemies as they were conquering the Promised Land. In the conservative Protestant tradition, which celebrates the wrath of God, and interprets it in a very modern, post-Freudian way to mean anger, or fury, or just generally being pissed, this Hebrew idea was proof positive that (as the 1970s bumper sticker read, managing to be simultaneously offensive and amusing) “Jesus is coming again … and this time he’s really mad!”

So,if that’s not the point, what do we do with the haram of Jericho? God told Joshua that “the city and all that is in it shall be devoted to the Lord for destruction.” The NRSV insets that word “devoted” because haram has both a negative and positive usage. Positively, it refers to something that is set aside to the Lord. In order to make the parallel clear, the NRSV translates the positive use as “devoted to the Lord” or something similar.

The idea of the Hebrew term haram is that of a gift. But the receiver is not physically there to receive it, so the giver sets it aside to use it exclusively on behalf of the receiver. In the modern context things like the chalice and paten would be haram. It would be unthinkable to use them for coke and pizza at a Saturday night dance. They are “set aside” for a specific liturgical use. Thus the word “holy” (qadosh), while not etymologically related to haram, is quite similar in usage. The chalice and paten are qadosh (holy: what they represent metaphysically) and therefore they are haram (set apart: what we do with them physically).

But haram also has a negative sense. And to help us understand the negative sense we should consider the Hebrew sacrificial system. Certain things brought to the altar were haram and were given to God completely as true sacrifices. This “giving to God completely” was done by burning the whole sacrifice on the altar. Other gifts were “offerings” rather than “sacrifices.” A symbolic portion of the offerings were burned on the altar, but most of it was reserved for the priests’ and Levites’ use (analogous to clergy salary and building upkeep today).

God told Joshua that Jericho would be haram, and therefore destroyed completely. It was not an offering, it was a sacrifice given to God. This is the negative sense of haram.  Furthermore, those who tried to rebuild it – to bring it back “from the ashes” to use the imagery of the altar – would be cursed because Jericho was haram.

Let’s acknowledge that the story is deeply disturbing to modern sensibilities. If we treat it as a war story and apply contemporary rules of war, it’s a shocking scene where noncombatants are slaughtered and where there is no sense of proportionality. Put into the larger context of the conquest and haram of Palestine, we’re also dealing with intended genocide. But the story is thousands of years old and  moral superiority and the resulting condemnation based on a few thousand years of hindsight puts us into a sort of “mote and beam” quagmire from which we’ll never extricate ourselves, due our self-congratulatory modern moral superiority, so the Church has wisely bracketed the historical events as beyond full comprehension and focused on a christological/allegorical reading.

The Orthodox don’t worry so much about the literal/historical arc of the Old Testament. It’s not that it’s unimportant (for it is the necessary strong foundation for an Orthodox reading of scripture) or dismissed as faintly ridiculous (as in a liberal Protestant reading); it’s rather that the best way to mine the spiritual depths of the Old Testament is to read it christologically (Athanasius, et. al.) and thus allegorically, as Paul teaches us to read the Old Testament in his epistles. The literal historical reading may develop one’s intellect but does little for one’s spiritual development. The Christological/allegorical method, on the other hand, is all about Christian transformation.

So, how does this text apply to us today allegorically? One of the great difficulties in spiritual growth is what to do about the bad stuff. We want to give God our very best, but we are beset by failures, bad habits, and on occasion, even addictions. These can be shameful things and we tend to hide them from God. We may also worry that God will be angry or even judge us because we can’t get our act together.

So we need to change the model. We need to take seriously God’s charge to the Israelites: The Promised Land is haram. The gold, silver, and bronze are to be devoted to the Lord (positive haram). The rest is to be devoted to the Lord for destruction (negative haram). And thus our failures, habits, and even our addictions can be “gifts” from us that are devoted to God. If we understand that these sins are not primarily something to be ashamed of, but rather human corruption that are to be devoted to the Lord for destruction, then they can even become, in a sense, “holy” gifts. They are not holy in and of themselves, but the attitude with which we offer them to God, through confession, is indeed holy.

I suppose this is precisely one of the points of confession in the Orthodox tradition. Confession is not about admitting shameful secrets and groveling for absolution, it is rather coming to understand the human condition and devoting it to the Lord so that our very beings can be transformed from the ashes. And this is why we can enter boldly into God’s presence (Heb 19:10). We are not bound for destruction. We have things that need to be utterly destroyed or banished, but they are not weights dragging us down to the pit, they are haram that we can give to God, “devote to God for destruction.” Even our worst can be transformed into the best for God. Thanks be to him. Amen.

Salvation as Descent

As Holy Week approaches and we solemnly observe the downward (upward) spiral of events that inevitably is leading to Jesus’ crucifixion (leading to Jesus’ victory), I am reminded of the juxtaposition of the movements of ascent and descent in the Christian gospel. Jesus’ victory is not the resurrection (which is the announcement of his victory) but the cross and his descent into Hades. In that movement he finally fully identified with humanity and was therefore, having embraced the full human experience, able to lead the human race from death to life and from alienation to communion with the God who longs for us to join him.

Similarly for us, true winning is losing, ascending to heaven is descending to the depths, the greatest among us are the least, and the poor are the richest of all. Reflecting on the 4th Sundy of Lent (what is popularly called the Sunday of the Ladder of Divine Ascent, based on the book by John Climacus, who is the saint of the day), Stephen Freeman observed that we in contemporary Western culture get the image of our ascending to the Divine completely backwards. “We simply are not saved by getting better; it is a false image and a false goal.”

John Climacus himself, describing how we ascend to God, said, “You cannot escape shame except by shame.” His point was that we have to embrace our sins (and our shame). This doesn’t mean that we “sin more so that grace may abound” (Rom. 6:1), but rather that we don’t pretend we’re not what we are. Self-improvement (the modern concept of works) simply pushes our sin and shame to the side. Thus, when God enters into us and transforms us, the sin is not actually dealt with because it still lurks around the edges. But when we embrace our sin and shame (which is a side-effect of our spiritual death), then we can descend with Christ into the place of death (Hades) and, from that proper starting point, be raised with Christ to new life.

In the prior essay I described the effort required to truly allow the Spirit to fully enter our heart so that we could enter into the unity with Christ we are promised. Here’s one more reason this holy effort is the opposite of the Covenant of Works. We are not working to improve ourselves so that we are acceptable to God; the work involved is rather opposite, embracing all in us that is unacceptable. Or, in John’s words, “embracing our shame.”

“My failure is both the gate of Hades and the Gate of Paradise,” says Fr Stephen. “My failure becomes the failure of God (2 Cor. 5:21). It does not separate me from Christ, but, ironically, unites me to Him in the paradox that is the very heart of our salvation.”

This is not only counter-intuitive, it is offensive to our sensibilities. But this is the drama of Holy Week, and the very reason that sanctification is so hard. And as we enter into the Holy Week Fast, it is the path we must take if we are to share Christ’s joy and victory, when we cry out, “Christ is risen!” on the far side of Hades.

Jesus Doesn’t Judge; Words Judge

In yesterday’s Daily Common Lectionary reading (Jn 12:44-50), Jesus says, “I do not judge anyone who hears my words and does not keep them, for I came not to judge the world, but to save the world.” If Jesus (who is God, after all) doesn’t judge and judgment is real (the Bible is full of that affirmation!), then who does the judging?

I smell a contradiction!!!

Turns out there is no contradiction. In the next verse Jesus continues, “The one who rejects me and does not receive my word has a judge; on the last day the word that I have spoken will serve as judge.” It took some time for the import of these two sentences to sink in.

There was a gospel song that folks in the church in which I grew up loved to sing. It began, “Sing them over again to me, Wonderful words of Life. Let me more of their beauty see, Wonderful words of Life.” But what if you reject those words? Then the words cease to be wonderful and become judgment. Jesus’ statement in Jn 12:47-48 parallels one of my favorite two verse in scripture: Rom 1:17-18. “For in [the gospel] the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, ‘The one who is righteous will live by faith’. [18] For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth.” In this remarkable bit of parallelism, Paul seems to equate divine righteousness and divine wrath.

And on this Paul and John agree. Life giving words are the same thing as words of judgment (John). Righteousness is the same thing as wrath (Paul). The Eastern Orthodox commonly teach that heaven and hell are the same place. What believers experience as the warm light of love (because by faith they love God and have been purged of all chaff) the non-believers experience as the hot fire of judgment.

God doesn’t send anyone to hell (in this common Orthodox teaching), rather those who reject God experience the heavenly light of love as a burning hell. Righteousness is wrath. The wonderful words of life will judge us. So indeed Christ does not judge; he’s here to offer salvation! Judgment is all in how we respond to Jesus’ good words.

A Follow-up on Judgment and Repentance

After posting my previous essay, I listened to this installment of Praying in the Rain (also available in essay form here) with Fr Michael Gillis. He is able to explain certain aspects of how the ancient church and contemporary Christian East understand heaven and hell better than I can. If you are interested in further reading or listening, I recommend it.

A Science Fiction Author Meditates on Judgment and Repentance

I am currently listening to a SciFi audio book (Abaddon’s Gate, by James S. A. Corey) that features a very bad young woman (Clarissa) who was pushed over the edge by the arrest of her father and her denial of just how evil her father’s actions were. She kills lots (lots!) of people in her hope of revenge.

Once all the shooting is done and there’s time for reflection, the questions of forgiveness and redemption vs judgment become key themes in the book. This part of the book is amazingly insightful. (Okay, maybe I’m selling SciFi short, but I typically don’t turn to this genre for deep insights into theological themes.) It has me doing a lot of thinking about judgment and forgiveness.

I inhabit two very different worlds when it comes to this subject. Protestantism (the faith of my youth and pastoral ministry) contends that God’s primordial reaction to sin is wrath. God is holy and a holy God cannot abide the presence of sin. This puts God into a posture of wrath (and note that wrath is not an emotion, it’s an existential reality in opposition to that which is not holy) until the sin problem can be solved.

I am no longer Protestant and am now Eastern Orthodox. The Orthodox argue that this view of holiness is fundamentally flawed. It’s not God who cannot stand the presence of evil; God wants to stand in the midst of evil, to be present “to, with, and for” all his creation. Jesus’ favorite people were not the religious folks; he preferred the company of sinners and tax collectors. Thus, God’s primordial reaction to sin is not wrath, it is sorrow and longing for reunion. Wrath is a sinful human’s interpretation of what happens when we brush up against holiness; it’s not actually an attribute of God.

The two starting points are, from what I can see, diametrically opposed to each other, and these two radically different starting points lead to subtly different perceptions of judgment. From the Protestant perspective, since the “problem of holiness” is a divine problem (that is, a holy God cannot look upon sin), then judgment is inevitable unless extraordinary measures are taken. Those measures are the death of God’s Son which (from within this “juridical model” as it’s often called) is necessary to appease God’s wrath, and the sinner’s acceptance by faith the free gift of forgiveness which can now be offered by God because of the death of Jesus Christ.

From an Eastern Orthodox perspective, the problem is death (or separation from God, who is the source of life) and the sin which comes about because of the corroding effects of death. The life-giving connection between God and his creation was broken because of Adam’s sin. Without that life-giving connection, creation is slowly dying. The incarnation (God becoming human) re-linked God and his creation allowing divine life to flow back into creation. Humans, created as God’s priests on earth, are the means of that re-linking. Certainly the person must participate in the life-giving gift through faith. The person must repent and go to the work of assuming the proper posture that will allow this divine transformation to take place. But the ultimate goal is not to save the sinner, it is the transformation of the entire creation through the very life of God.

These two views on the matter of God’s relation to the world lead to subtly different views of judgment and what happens after death. The author of the Letter to the Hebrews says,  “And just as it is appointed for men to die once, and after that comes judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him” (Heb 9:27f). For Protestants (and more specifically, for Evangelicals) the question is, “Did a person accept Christ as their Savior, or in the words of Hebrews, are they eagerly waiting for him?” The judgment hinges on that question and will determine whether you go to heaven or hell. For the Orthodox, the question is, “What is the state of the deep heart?” If one’s true self recognizes that I cannot help myself and is not fundamentally antagonistic toward Christ, the judgment will reveal that, no matter what one’s outward actions look like. One might have never made a conscious decision to become a committed follower of Christ and even appear to be antagonistic to Christ while their deep and hidden heart recognizes the hopelessness and eagerly awaits salvation offered in Christ. The heart, often ineffable to humans, will be fully revealed to Jesus Christ.

Another judgment text that is every bit as important as Hebrews 9 is 1 John 3:2 and it speaks to this. “Beloved, we are God’s children now; it does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.” What we look like and act like is not the actual determination of who we truly are. The judgment therefore isn’t a ruling of “you’re in” or “you’re out” it is rather a discernment of what truly is and what is only ephemeral.

All of us need to admit that we don’t know exactly what happens after death. Eternity is described in broad strokes (the judgment, we will be changed) or in fascinating metaphor (the Banquet of the Lamb, the Lake of Fire). Beyond this, scripture is mostly silent on the specifics. In my experience as a Protestant, I would say that Protestants think in terms of instantaneous change. When I get to heaven, I will immediately be perfected and purified. The Orthodox tend more toward seeing what happens after death as a process. Death itself marks a moment of no return; the die is cast in terms of your ultimate circumstance. But the process from my current state to my ultimate union with God will remain a process, even after death.

Jesus used the image of gold and its impurities. The heat and light of holiness will purify gold while burning away the impurities. If we lived a life of repentance and purgation, that process will be relatively painless in heaven under the discerning eye of our loving Father who longs for us to unite with him. If, on the other hand, I did little with my talents (to use the imagery of a different parable) and did not live a life of repentance and purgation, that process of fully entering into the Kingdom and becoming one with God might be quite a lot more painful as the chaff is stripped and burned away. This is not judgment in a moment, but judgment as a process of revealing my true self and allowing the “what we shall become” to finally appear through all the junk.

Although it is certainly not official Orthodox teaching, a surprising number of Orthodox theologians, bishops, and faithful suspect that in the end everyone will be saved. This is not a dismissal of the seriousness of sin and evil in the world. It rather begins with the assumption (described in some detail above) that divine wrath is certainly not a divine attribute but rather a sinful human perception of holiness. With that assumption in mind some people are able to discern the spark of repentance and possibility of forgiveness in even the most recalcitrant sinners they have met. This leads to speculation (and let’s be clear, this is not a dogmatic position, but only a counterfactual speculation) that all people may actually be open to entering into union with God once it is revealed who they truly are.

Again, let me reiterate, this speculation among some Orthodox that all might be saved is not a denial of the necessity of the Incarnation and Cross, nor is it a denial of God’s abhorrence of sin and evil. It’s not even a way of letting sinners off the hook because repentance and purification toward holiness will be an ongoing process in heaven, not an instantaneous transformation. It is rather a meditation on what it means to be created in the image of God and the fact that the divine image is never completely obliterated in sinful humanity. It is an attitude of confidence that Gen. 1:31 is literal beyond our comprehension when it says, “and behold, [God’s creation] was very good! And there was evening and there was morning, a sixth day.”

At this point I want to return to the novel. Clarissa, having returned to herself after the insane and all-consuming rage, is lost in despair for the evil things she has done. She is almost catatonic with grief. She only wishes that they would quickly find her guilty and execute her, for that is what she deserves. Anna, a minister of the Gospel who is working with Clarissa, seeks desperately to postpone the trial and the execution that is certain to follow. She fervently believes that there is something deep within Clarissa that can accept forgiveness. She is afraid that if Clarissa dies before she discovers that hope deep within, she will indeed be lost forever.

This interplay is remarkably Orthodox in its sensibilities. Even in the face of ineffable evil, Anna, the Christian, can find the goodness of God’s creation and believes in the reality of forgiveness and transformation. Paradoxically it is a perspective that should cause us to fear divine judgment even more. (It would be a fearful thing to be Clarissa, even a repenting Clarissa, before the penetrating eye of God.) God will look deeply into us and not just make the bad stuff disappear as if all that sin stuff was a mistake, giving me a pass directly to perfection, rather he will see me for what I truly am and proceed to burn away the chaff and transform me into what I was truly meant to become. This is the glory … and terror … of true faith in Jesus Christ’s perfect offer of salvation. Amen.