Sunday, April 19, 2015

Moulin Rouge! (2001)

I recently watched Moulin Rouge! for my Theology and Film class, and I quite liked it. I would consider this to be one of my ten very favorite movies. It is exceptionally well acted, and its highly stylized visuals are accomplished and powerful. It takes place at the turn of the nineteenth century. The story is simple enough, and for that reason it is universally relevant: a poor writer named Christian has left home in England to lead a Bohemian lifestyle in a morally questionable quarter of Paris. There he is chosen to be the writer of a play to be performed at the Moulin Rouge, a local cabaret which is in danger of closing down. He falls in love with the most famous courtesan and dancer there, Satine (played by the beautiful Nicole Kidman). They fall in love after some resistance on the part of Satine, but the Duke funding the play (and in this way preserving the future of the Moulin Rouge) is also interested in the lady Satine. They must keep their love a secret, while the Duke's advances are becoming more and more difficult to avoid. He demands a night with Satine, but Satine knows that jealousy will destroy Christian if she goes through with it.

It is a musical, and all the music in the film is pop music on the theme of love from roughly the last sixty years. The music is anachronistic, which bothered some of the persons in my class. I think the idea here is to show that the sentiments expressed in these songs are universal and transcendental: they fit in as much in this play taking place in 1899 in a poor Parisian neighborhood, sung by paupers and prostitutes, as in our own day and age. The experience of love is a fundamentally human one, which may be expressed just as well in contemporary parlance as in ancient languages. My favorite lines from any of the songs are these: I hope you don't mind that I put down in words how wonderful life is now you're in the world.

That is what it is like to be in love! The world is wonderful, now that the other person is present. But do the characters love each other? Some persons in my class were less than convinced. They thought that the sentiments between Christian and Satine were properly characterized as lust, not love, because there was no sacrifice involved, no giving up of personal ego, etc. Is this quite right?

I don't think so. I think Christian and Satine love one another. IN the first place, they do sacrifice for one another. Satine, knowing that the Duke will have Christian killed if they remain together, is willing to sacrifice in the following way: she tries to convince Christian, painful as it may be and contrary to the truth, that she doesn't love him; in this way, he will leave heartbroken and his life will be spared. Beyond this, there is also the point that the story had not yet developed to the point in which certain significant sacrifices can be made. Their love is still young, nascent, in the early stages.

Now what sort of a thing is love? The characters in Moulin Rouge! are self-described Bohemians. Their live is a sensual one, lived in the freedom and pursuit of the passions. For them, love is evidently not a rational or cerebral thing, but an irrational one. Why would the courtesan in their play "Spectacular Spectacular" prefer the company of the poor sitar player, rather than that of the maharajah? Why would Satine prefer the penniless Christian, rather than the rich and powerful Duke? Christian says at one point during the movie: Because she doesn't love you! Love is not a rational, predictable, intelligible thing; it simply appears between people, and when it does, it guides everything for them.

More over, love is the very most important thing in the world. Christian says that love is like oxygen, and that it is the thing he cares about the most. It is the subject of his poetry, the subject of his writing, and the subject of his play. Love is what makes life worth living; love is what changes a person like Satine, who despaired of life and who was always otherwise filmed in a cold blue light, and brings her to life, bathing her in warm red colors.


Interestingly, one might complain that love in Moulin Rouge! is not connected to family life and reproduction. There is never any hint that Christian and Satine might some day get married and begin a family; indeed, this would seem radically out of character for Bohemians who reject the Christianity and traditions of past generations. But those things are not so easily rejected as that. Suppose Christian and Satine live together for some time, and the flames which they feel during the movie die down as they realize the other person is not perfect. What then? Do they make commitments to one another, or do they split when things get tough? If they have children, their break-up will prove quite harmful; if they don't, it will nevertheless be difficult simply to leave the person who played so significant and important a role in their lives and development as persons. Love is too heavy and profound a thing -- as all the songs and the tenor of the entire film demonstrate -- simply to leave behind when adversity strikes. Christian tradition and its emphasis upon marriage is to my mind reasonable and conducive to flourishing: both parties are called to make efforts to love even when the same sentiments are not there, even when things are very difficult, even when one feels the impulse to leave.This means that love is action beyond sentiment.

Not that the film would disagree with this! It is out of love that Satine tries to convince Christian that she doesn't love him. This is painful to her, painful to him, and contrary to the truth. Yet, despite the fact that she doesn't want to do this, nevertheless she goes through with it for Christian's good, even if it harms him and even if it troubles her. To my mind, then, the Bohemians in our film, in spite of their worldly philosophy, nevertheless find that the true experience of love moves them to live in precisely the way the Christian tradition they reject dictates.

Monday, April 13, 2015

The saints pray for everyone

First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone [ὑπὲρ πάντων ἀνθρώπων] . . . This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved [πάντας ἀνθρώπους θέλει σωθῆναι] and to come to the knowledge of the truth (1 Tim 2.1, 3-4).

In light of this passage and command by the apostle Paul, I understand that it is the responsibility and calling of everyone who assumes the name of Christian to pray for the salvation of the whole world. Paul's language is rather unambiguous here: God desires the enlightenment and salvation of all human persons, and this is to be accomplished at least in part through the prayers of God's saints. In the way that the calling of Israel was to be a light unto the nations, that God's salvation should reach the ends of the earth (Isa 49.6), so also Christians are called to pray that this salvation continue to spread, until all persons are captured by it.

Catherine of Siena, aflame with ardent desire for the salvation of others, was captivated by God's love as demonstrated in his sending his son for our sins:

O supreme eternal Good! What moved you, infinite God, to enlighten me, your finite creature, with the light of your truth? You yourself, the very fire of life, you yourself are the reason. For it always has been and always is love that constrains you to create us in your own image and likeness, and to show us mercy by giving your creatures infinite and immeasurable graces.

O Goodness surpassing all goodness! You alone are supremely good, yet you gave us the Word, your only-begotten Son, to keep company with us, though we are filth and darksomeness. What was the reason for this? Love. For you loved us before we existed, O good, O eternal greatness, you made yourself lowly and small to make us great. No matter where I turn, I find nothing but your deep burning charity (Dialogue 134, in In Her Words, p. 201).

So impressed by God's great love, her heart immediately turns towards those who do not know him yet:

Therefore it is my will, ineffable Fire, joyous Love, eternal Father, that my desire should never weary for longing for your honor and the salvation of souls. . . . 

Now, I beg you, be merciful to the world and to holy Church. I am asking you to grant what you are making me ask. Alas for my wretched sorrowful soul, the cause of all evil! Do not delay any longer in granting your mercy to the world; bow down and fulfill the longing of your servants. Alas! It is you who make them cry out: so listen to their voices. Your Truth said that we should call and we would be answered, that we should knock and the door would be opened for us, that we should ask and it would be given to us. O eternal Father, your servants are calling to you for mercy. Answer them then. I know well that mercy is proper to you, so you cannot resist giving it to whoever asks you for it. Your servants are knocking at the door of your Truth . . . because in your Truth, your only-begotten Son, they have come to know your unspeakable love for humankind. Therefore your burning charity neither can nor should hold back from opening to those who knock with perseverance.

Open, then, and unlock and shatter the hardened hearts of your creatures. If you will not do it for their failure to knock, do it because of your infinite goodness and for love of your servants who are knocking at your door for them. Grant it, eternal Father, beacuse you see how they stand at the door of your truth and ask. . . .They are asking you through this blood [of Christ] to be merciful to the world and make holy Church blossom again with the grant flowers of good holy shepherds whose perfume will dispel the stench of the putrid evil flowers.

You said, eternal Father, that because of your love for your creatures, and through the prayers and innocent sufferings of your servants, you would be merciful to the world and reform holy Church, and thus give us refreshment. Do not wait any longer, then, to turn the eye of your mercy. . . .

Open the door of your immeasurable charity, which you have given us in the door of the Word. Yes, I know that you open before we knock, because your servants knock and call out to you with the very love and affection you gave them, seeking your honor and the salvation of souls. Give them then the bread of life, the fruit of the blood of your only-begotten Son, which they are begging of you for the glory and praise of your name and for the salvation fo souls. For it would seem you would receive more glory and praise by saving so many people than by letting them stubbornly persist in their hardness. To you, eternal Father, everything is possible. Though you created us without our help, it is not your will to save us without our help. So I beg you to force their wills and dispose them to want what they do not want. I ask this of your infinite mercy. You created us out of nothing. So, now that we exist, be merciful and remake the vessels you created and formed in your image and likeness; re-form them to grace in the mercy and blood of your Son (In Her Words, pp. 202-3).

Catherine's fervent prayers here are wonderful and provocative. She makes a number of very suggestive points: first, that her prayers for the salvation of all persons are commanded by God, and therefore he will fulfill them; God is more honored and glorified in the salvation of a human person than in her damnation; and God should even change the wills of persons heading towards damnation, if they should obstinately refuse to repent on their own, out of his mercy for them. Better that, than that God's creation should come to nothing.

An essential point I want to emphasize here is this: God's command that we pray for all persons everywhere has to transform our characters. We must go from being mere servants, repeating words which our master demands of us, to persons such as Catherine who fervently, ardently, compassionately desire the salvation of all persons, just as we pray. The command becomes character: we begin to love human person with the love that God had for them in Christ, increasingly so even if imperfectly.

Now a provocative and difficult question for some: does God form us into such persons only to disappoint us in the end? Do his actions work contrary to his commands?

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Being one with God in his humanity

I read this passage from Hadewijch of Brabant when doing some readings for my church history course. It is spot-on:

But today, instead of loving God's will, everyone loves himself: it is everyone's will to have peace and rest, to live with God in riches and might, and to be one with Him in His joy and glory. We all want to be God along with God; but God knows that there are few of us who want to be man with Him in His humanity, to carry His Cross with Him, to hang upon it with Him, to pay with Him the debt of human kind. If we look at ourselves we can see that this is true: we will not suffer anything, we will not endure. Just let our hearts be stabbed by the slightest grief, just let someone say a scornful or slanderous word about us, let anyone act against our reputation or our peace or our will, and at once we are mortally injured: we know exactly what we want and what we do not want, there are so many things which give us pleasure or pain, now we want this and now we want that, our joy today is our sorrow tomorrow, we would like to be here, we would like to be there, we do not want something and then we want it, and in everything all we are thinking of is our own satisfaction and how we can best seek it.

This is why we are still unenlightened in our thinking, unstable in all our being, uncertain in our reasoning and understanding. This is why we suffer so, poor and wretched exiled beggars, painfully travelling through a foreign land, and there would be no need for this, were it not that all our thinking is false; and how false it is we plainly show when we do not live with Christ as He lived, do not abandon all as He did, are not abandoned by all as He was (from In Her Words: Women's Writings in the History of Christian Thought, pp. 118-9).

This is exactly right. I know from personal experience that this concern for self, an unwillingness to be insulted and to swallow one's pride, an unwillingness not to please ourselves in our dealings with others (cf. Rom 15.3) is a cause of much interminable conflict and problems. This is certainly a cause of many problems I see in my own church, for instance.

Christ shows us what a human person ought to live like: in sacrifice. Christ did not please himself (Rom 15.3) -- that is what Paul teaches, and that is the essence of the Christian message, to my mind. Shusaku Endo captured this perfectly at the end of his masterpiece novel Silence, when Christ speaks to Rodriguez from the wooden icon: Trample! It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into this world. It was to share men's pain that I carried my cross (p. 171).

If we pretend to be Christians, we ought to learn from Christ what it is like to be a true human person in the world. We cannot be one with God in his divinity, free from all pain and suffering, immutably glorious and to be honored. We are humans, and we have to be one with God in his humanity. This means bearing the cross and suffering out of love, just as Christ did.

Monday, April 6, 2015

The Glory and the Humanity

My friend Paul Manata attempts here to reconcile the Augustinian belief that God creates and ordains all things for his glory, including the deservedly eternal damnation of some sinners, with the principle that one ought never to treat other human persons as mere means.

He appeals to a modified version of the Kantian principle, according to which we must only treat other persons in ways to which they could rationally accept. His suggestion, drawing from a line of argument I have used against Jerry Walls, is that God could give adequate evidence to those who are in hell that their suffering and punishment is for a greater good, namely the greater good of the demonstration of God's justice for the benefit of the elect. He suggests that the damned could in principle rationally consent to their punishment on these grounds, and thus God does not treat them as mere means in an objectionable way.

You can't say Paul isn't clever. Still, I think there are some problems with his argument. Some comments in response:

First, I agree that there need not be any conflict between these two affirmations; God ordains and does all things for the sake of his glory, which means for the demonstration of his character for the felicity of those who know him; God never treats human beings as mere means. The problem only seems to arises if we suppose that a part of God's character is this commitment to retributive justice, and furthermore that retribution for sin requires an infinite, unending punishment.

Theodore of Mopsuestia and Diodore of Tarsus, appealing to Luke 12.47-8, argued that those in hell will be punished to various extents in keeping with the desert of their sins. They did not suppose that sin against God demanded unending punishment, and so they envisioned that sinners would eventually leave hell and reconcile to God. They can affirm that God has a commitment to retribution, that he treats persons according to their deserts, and nevertheless all are saved because no one could deserve infinite punishment.

I say that the problem only seems to arise because Christ's crucifixion and resurrection seem to provide a counterexample. There are some textual reasons to suppose that Christ's own death involved suffering the eschatological punishment of God: he warns, for instance, that sinners will be cast into the outer darkness whereas Christ suffers outside the city as darkness covers the land, after which he cries out in a sentiment of abandonment. Yet Christ, suffering this eschatological punishment, was nevertheless raised from the dead afterwards. Perhaps it is the same way with sinners in hell. Origen cited Ps 78.34: When he killed them, they sought for him; they repented and sought God earnestly. It might be that those in hell suffer infinite punishment in some temporally limited amount of time, that they are "killed" somehow, after which they are restored to life. Origen cites the example of Paul: the informant, accuser, persecutor is killed and the apostle of Jesus Christ is brought to life.

Second, I think there is a problem with the modification of the Kantian principle to which Paul appeals. There is an ambiguity in the word "could." Paul grants for the sake of argument that God only treats persons in such a way as they could rationally consent to being treated. Thus, God could convince those persons in hell that their damnation is for a greater good, and the damned could rationally consent to being damned. But how do we understand this "could"? They could if they were ideally rational, or they could granted the character and dispositions that they actually have?

Sin in the New Testament is largely characterized by inordinate love of self: idolatry, greed, adultery, hatred, unforgiveness, licentiousness, etc. On the other hand, the characteristics of the person in whom the Holy Spirit dwells and who has the wisdom from above are paradigmatically selfless and self-sacrificing and concerned for the other: gentleness, peaceableness, kindness, willingness to yield, mercifulness, patience, etc. For a damned sinner to consent to being damned for the felicity of the elect seems to require a selflessness as could only be had by someone in whom the Spirit of God dwelled, thus compromising her status as damned. I think it implausible, indeed impossible, to suppose that a damned person, sinful as she is, could consent to being damned for the greater good, given her actual character.

On the other hand, I don't know what an ideally rational agent would do, and probably neither does Paul, because we haven't seen one. My impression is that it is never rational to engage in ultimate self-sacrifice without some kind of promise or hope of reward or subsequent restoration (which would not make it ultimate self-sacrifice). Even Christ gave himself for our sins knowing that he has the power to take up his life again once it has been taken from him. So I am doubtful that the damned, if ideally rational, could consent to being damned for the greater good.

But more importantly, I think that this variation of the Kantian principle fails to capture its essence. We have to treat people to a great extent as we find them, not as they could be. Suppose a fat man could, if ideally rational, consent to being pushed off a bridge to save the lives of five other men on a railroad track below. As things actually stand, however, he would not consent to being pushed, because he loves his life too much to do such a thing. I think pushing him and attempting to justify your act by appeal to Paul's modified Kantian principle would be unconvincing at best and downright malicious at worst. To a great extent, it is necessary for us actually to acquire the consent of those whom we intend to use as means. Yet Scripture nowhere envisions that God will actually get the consent of those persons who are in hell; on the contrary, by my lights, it paints the picture that they'd like just as soon to get out (e.g., Mt 25.11-2).

On the other hand, I think it would be immoral to use someone as a mere means to an end from which they could not benefit, even if they rationally consent to being so used. It would be immoral to kill and eat the organs of a person, even if she rationally consented to this and even wanted me to do it. In this case, there is a lack of respect and reverence for the human person. I think human persons are valuable, so much so that we can neither use them as mere means to an end from which they cannot benefit, nor may we offer ourselves up to be used as mere means to an end from which we cannot benefit. Doing this would display a lack of respect for ourselves. Of course, self-sacrifice is possible and even demanded by God, but God simultaneously promises reward for those who do what he asks. The self-sacrifice is not ideal but necessary to reflect God's character or to accomplish his purposes in the present state of things.

Resurrection Sunday sermon

I preached last Christmas, and I got the opportunity to preach this Resurrection Sunday, as well. Here is a rough draft of my sermon.


Today is Resurrection Sunday, and for Christians worldwide, it should be a day of great rejoicing and happiness. There is no room for a somber countenance today; there is no excuse for a morose demeanor, because today is a day of celebration of great victory -- the victory of God in Jesus Christ over death, doom, destruction, and all the forces of evil. I call it "Resurrection Sunday" and not "Easter," because Easter is a public holiday with no meaning and no significance. In any case, long before anyone ever used the word "Easter," Christians were celebrating the Resurrection of the Lord on a day such as ours. That is what we are celebrating today -- not bunnies and eggs and chocolates, not an opportunity for our families to gather, but the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.

Importantly, we are celebrating this Resurrection as a real event which took place in history. We are not bringing to mind some empty mythology, some story which unnamed persons made up in keeping with some understanding or philosophy. There are mythologies and stories about dying and rising gods from a number of different cultures in the world. We are not celebrating a mythology, however, but we are celebrating an event for which we have the testimony of eyewitnesses. 

The apostles tell us that they were eyewitnesses of his resurrection from the dead (Acts 2.32). Jesus appeared to the women who had gone to his tomb to take care of his body; there they found the tomb empty (Mt 28.1-10). He appeared to Cleopas and a companion of his as they were walking from Jerusalem to Emmaus (Luke 24.13-35). Jesus appeared to his apostles and they touched his body, checking the wounds in his hands and legs from his crucifixion. He even ate with them (Luke 24.36-43; John 21.9-14). From the very beginning, the apostles told the story about Jesus' death and resurrection -- not as mythology, taking place in some indefinite past in a land to which no one has any access; rather, these things took place here, in the real world, during the time of Pontius Pilate. They insist on this point in everything they wrote: 

We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us— we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ (1 John 1.1-3).

Some persons think that the disciples were speaking about a kind of "spiritual" resurrection, not a physical resurrection of his body from the dead. But that is contradicted by what they say: they felt his body, felt his wounds, saw him eat with them, saw the fish and bread disappear from the table as he was eating. Others say that the disciples were hallucinating. This too is nonsense: Luke tells us that the disciples did not believe that they were really seeing him, and even after they felt his wounds and gave him food to eat, they were still amazed at what was happening (Luke 24.36-42). Furthermore, an hallucination cannot eat your fish and drink your water! The Jews who did not believe said that the disciples had stolen the body (Mt 28.11-5), an allegation which confirms that the tomb of Jesus was empty. But they did not steal the body, since they went on preaching the gospel of Christ's resurrection even when they were heavily persecuted and some of them were killed. They would not persist in their lie if it meant their lives -- they would have nothing to gain. But they were able to continue preaching Christ, even if it meant death, because Christ conquered death and his resurrection transformed their very understanding of life and death entirely. Moreover, the Holy Spirit would not have been given to those who believed, if Christ was not at the right hand of the Father to baptize them.

So we are celebrating Christ's resurrection on the basis of the firm and reliable testimony of his apostles. We know that Christ was risen from the dead, because they tell us so, and their testimony is a good one. Indeed, Ioan Alexandru, a Romanian poet and theologian, said this: I am more certain of the resurrection of Christ than of my own existence, because it changed my life. That is the testimony of everyone who is a Christian, and who today is full of joy at the celebration of Christ's resurrection.

But what is so significant about Christ's resurrection? What is worth celebrating about it? It is certainly a fascinating, wonderful surprise, but what more could it mean than that?

In the first place, Christ's resurrection is the solution to the problem of evil. If you talk to atheists and agnostics and ask them why they do not believe in God, very likely they will tell you: there's too much evil and suffering in the world; if God exists and is good, why would he allow everything that we see? Some persons take their protest even further. They are angry at God for creating the world the way it is, and even if God exists, and even if he threatens them with eternal hellfire, they will refuse to worship and acknowledge him -- so great and horrific are the evils in the world.

Permit me to submit that this is certainly a problem for those who believe in God but do not believe in Jesus Christ. If you do not accept the Christian teaching about God's incarnation, death, and resurrection in Jesus Christ, then you will have a very hard time accounting for the preponderance of evil in the world. If God does not get involved with the evil in the world in some way, he stands far off, aloof from our sufferings, then he would seem not to be good at all.

But the Christian teaching about Christ provides a solution to this problem. In Jesus Christ, God himself had taken on human nature, had lived as a human and had suffered everything that is common to human persons in the world as we know it. He knew what it was to get hungry, to get thirsty, to be burned by the sun, to suffer the cold, to be rejected and mocked by other people, to have his family members taunt and abuse him, to hear lies and slander spread about him. Finally, he knew what it was to die a miserable death at the hands of evil people -- being crucified, even though he was innocent. If the story ended here, it would seem that there's nothing particularly good about it. But the resurrection of Christ changes all of that.

In the Resurrection, we learn a lesson about God and about the world. We learn that evil cannot triumph over good; that death cannot stand in the way of God's purposes for the life of the world. We learn that evil people will not have the ultimately final word over the good. We learn that darkness cannot overcome the light, but rather that light always overcomes darkness in the end. Even death -- the most powerful, irresistible, irreversible force we know -- cannot resist God's purposes of good and salvation in the world. 

The gospel teaches us a lesson about the problem of evil. There is evil in the world and suffering because of sin. Human sin estranges us from God, and because of this sin, we find ourselves faced with inevitable doom and death. Yet because God is good, and because it would be unworthy of his goodness to permit that his creatures, created in his image, be destroyed by sin and death, consequently he came among us. He was a human just like us, except that he was without sin, and he offered himself to die in our place, the righteous for the unrighteous. He dies, suffering the death to which humanity had been condemned. But in his resurrection, he promises us life after death.

The resurrection of Christ is a promise of the resurrection and life of all human persons. Paul says in 1 Cor 15.22 that as all die in Adam, so also all will  be made alive in Christ. Because Christ was united to us, and because he rose from the dead, so also will we rise from the dead. Thus we see that God has solved the problem of evil in the world through Jesus Christ: he dies for the sins of humanity, so that humanity can have life. He has not stood far off, he has not remained aloof, he has not ignored the evil in the word; rather, he comes into our world and takes evil head-on, defeating it forever in his conquest of death. Because Christ was risen from the dead to life, therefore death and no evil can have the final word; the final word is God's life and mercy.

What is more, Christ's resurrection gives us a way of understanding our own sufferings in the world. We see in Christ's death and resurrection a new way of interpreting the things that happen to us. Our sufferings in the world, the evils we face, the trials and travails which afflict us are just recreations of Christ's crucifixion scene. When we suffer, it is like Christ is being crucified again. But we know, and today we remind ourselves, that after every crucifixion comes a Resurrection. The last word is not death but life, not sin but righteousness, not evil but good. Paul says that if we suffer with Christ, we will be glorified with him as well (Rom 8.17).

We can follow Christ's commands because we know that good has the final word. I can love unconditionally, I can forgive, I can sacrifice and give myself to the service of others because I know that my pains are temporary. If I am crucified now, I know that on the third day I will rise from the dead to be with Christ forever. I can make the great sacrifices that Christ calls on me to do, because his resurrection gives me hope beyond this present life. 

Let me think of a specific example: forgiveness. Forgiveness is a way of being crucified. You do wrong to me, and before you make up for it, before you make any kind of atonement, while you are still guilty, I determine to take the damage in myself and to treat you with kindness and love anyway. In a real way, forgiveness is difficult to make sense of. For people in the world, forgiveness is nonsense, something only a sucker would do who has no self-respect, someone with no backbone. And yet Christ tells us that if we don't forgive others, God himself won't forgive us (Mt 6.14-5). 

Christ's resurrection gives us power to forgive. Because I know that death cannot triumph over life, that evil cannot vanquish good, that darkness cannot defeat light, because I know that God's goodness and justice have the final word, therefore I can forgive you when you do wrong to me. I can ignore slights, I can ignore insults, I can forgive even grave offenses and injustices. When Christ was being crucified, he prayed: Father, forgive them, for they don't know what they are doing (Luke 23.34). So also, I can forgive you even if it means being crucified, because I know that the final word belongs to resurrection, to light, to good, to God. Amen.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Resurrection Sunday and the problem of evil

This is the Sunday in which we celebrate Jesus of Nazareth's resurrection, the central and most important claim of Christian teaching (cf. 1 Cor 15.14, 17). His apostles and disciples were eyewitnesses of his resurrection, and at the behest of Christ himself, they went about the entire world preaching this message, leading Jews and Gentiles alike to the true worship of God (Acts 2.32-8). Apart from this resurrection, faith and trust in Jesus and his teachings is a colossal waste of time, a misrepresentation of God, and a bitter delusion (1 Cor 15.14, 17).

What I want to emphasize is this: the resurrection of Christ is the solution to the problem of evil.

For most people who do not believe in God on intellectual grounds, the existence and preponderance of evil and suffering in the world provide almost compelling reason to suppose that God does not exist. My friend Peter Lupu, a good traditional Jewish atheist, once was asked: "What are you going to do when you die and you appear before God, and he is going to ask you what you've done with your life?" Peter's response was: "What have you done with your life, God?" If God exists and is good, whence all the evil in the world?

The events of Christ's death and resurrection provide a partial but definitive answer to this question. I cannot tell you with any certain why God allowed that evil should exist in the first place. I don't know; I know he must have had a good reason, but I don't know and perhaps can't know what that reason is. God is far above and beyond the ability of any human person to understand, let alone my own ability. But what God reveals in Jesus Christ and the apostolic testimony of his teaching is this: far from standing idly by, far and aloof from a world of suffering, God entered into it through the incarnation of Jesus Christ, and died for the sins of humanity, and rose again for the deliverance of all human persons from sin, evil, and death. What Christ has accomplished is nothing less than this: the deliverance of one human person from all evil and death, but this was done for the sake of all, so that the deliverance of all is likewise guaranteed.

Jesus Christ died, but in virtue of a special union that exists between himself and the rest of humanity, in some way all of humanity is involved in his death. Thus Paul writes: One died for all, and therefore all have died (2 Cor 5.14); Christ has united all of humanity in himself and has reconciled it to God (Eph 2.14-6); whereas Adam's sin accomplished death and condemnation for all of humanity, in Christ all will be made alive (1 Cor 15.22) and Christ's obedience unto death leads to justification and life for all (Rom 5.18). The whole world will be made new (Rev 21.5), suffering will be put to an end as God will wipe every tear from their eyes (Rev 21.4), and -- what is most glorious and mysterious of all -- all of creation will be united in some profound way as God will be all in all (1 Cor 15.28).

St. Athanasius, writing about the incarnation of the Logos in Jesus Christ, said:

through this union of the immortal Son of God with our human nature, all men were clothed with incorruption in the promise of the resurrection. For the solidarity of mankind is such that, by virtue of the Word's indwelling in a single human body, the corruption which goes with death has lost its power over all. You know how it is when some great king enters a large city and dwells in one of its houses; because of his dwelling in that single house, the whole city is honored, and enemies and robbers cease to molest it. Even so is it with the King of all; He has come into our country and dwelt in one body amidst the many, and in consequence the designs of the enemy against mankind have been foiled and the corruption of death, which formerly held them in its power, has simply ceased to be. For the human race would have perished utterly had not the Lord and Savior of all, the Son of God, come among us to put an end to death (On the Incarnation, 9).

And Eusebius said also:

The Saviour of the whole universe [ὁ τῶν ὅλων σωτήρ], who loves humanity, having liberated the souls of the human beings from death … removed every tear from every face … impeding the perdition of so many souls of his love for humanity (quoted in Ramelli 2013, 320).

In the present world there is suffering and death and disease and the rest because of human sin and estrangement from God. It is a difficult answer to accept, but this is what we learn. In a way, we might understand the world with evil as embodied and represented in the crucifixion of Christ. But following the crucifixion of Christ came the resurrection of Christ -- to immortality and to life to God (Rom 6.8-10). So also we expect a resurrection and restoration of all things, a dissolution of all evil, a disappearance of all suffering, and a filling of all things with God.

What about hell? It is certainly true that some persons will be punished, and the language used to describe it is not particularly appealing -- darkness, fire, weeping and gnashing of teeth. But even here, we know that God's promise that God will be all in all (1 Cor 15.28) cannot be done. God's purpose in everything is to bring all things to unity in Christ; such was the revelation to the apostles (Eph 1.8-9). And we know the Bible says that God's mercy triumphs over judgment (cf. Jas 2.13). The prophet Jeremiah was experiencing the hellish consequences of Judah's punishment by God for their abandonment of the covenant, the very curse promised in the Law upon all who disobey God (Deut 28), when he wrote these lines:

Although he causes grief, he will have compassion
    according to the abundance of his steadfast love;
for he does not willingly afflict
    or grieve anyone (Lam 3.32-33).

The same lesson is celebrated in the psalms:

The Lord is merciful and gracious,
    slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
He will not always accuse,
    nor will he keep his anger forever (Ps 103.8-9).

Hell, I think, is the final act of God in defeating evil. It is not without reason that Paul calls it destruction (2 Thess 1.9): the sinful person who opposed God's will and who refused to repent will find herself destroyed. Yet this is in the same way that Saul the accuser, informant, and persecutor was destroyed to make room for Saul/Paul the apostle and slave of Jesus Christ.

In the gospels, we find two different ways of depicting Christ's crucifixion and death scene. Mark and Matthew paint Jesus as desperate, terrified, abandoned by God; Luke and John paint him as victorious and faithful to the end, never wavering with regards to God's love and faithfulness. I think these are the two ways people will find themselves experiencing death and entry into God's kingdom: for the unrepentant, it will be hellish and terrifying; for the faithful, it will be confident and hopeful. But in any case, the truth remains that after suffering the abandonment of God (Mark 15.34) and the curse and death to which humanity was condemned (Gal 3.13), nevertheless Christ rose from the dead. And through his union with us, we too will rise to be with God.


This is what we celebrate on Resurrection Sunday: the resurrection of Christ which promises the restoration of the whole world. It teaches us that no evil is insurmountable, no suffering and pain and punishment is final. God's grace and omnipotent benevolence have the final word over all the powers of evil. It teaches us to look forward, beyond the pains of the present moment, to a time of glorious restoration of all things (Acts 2.38), and to live in the present world in the light of that hope and promise. The resurrection of Christ is the vindication of God in the eyes of all those who object to the evil in the world: he too hates it, and though all of humanity was doomed to suffer it and to die, in Christ that death is taken upon himself, and the resurrection guarantees life for all.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Hope in abandonment on Good Friday

According to two of the gospels, Christ quotes the opening words of Ps 22 at his death: My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? (Mark 15.34; Mt 27.46). With these words Jesus expresses the sentiment of divine abandonment which was a result of his taking upon himself the curse of the Israelites as well as of all humanity (cf. 2 Cor 5.14; Gal 3.13; 1 John 2.2). But contained in these words is a glimmer of hope and trust in God, as well.

The psalm Jesus quoted ends with words like these:

I will tell of your name to my brothers and sisters;
    in the midst of the congregation I will praise you:
You who fear the Lord, praise him!
    All you offspring of Jacob, glorify him;
    stand in awe of him, all you offspring of Israel!
For he did not despise or abhor
    the affliction of the afflicted;
he did not hide his face from me,
    but heard when I cried to him (Ps 22.22-4).

In the mouth of Christ, these words would anticipate his resurrection. Christ knew he had to die, but he knew also that he would rise from the dead in accordance with the Scriptures (e.g. Mark 8.31). As Peter says, Christ entrusted himself to God:  When he was abused, he did not return abuse; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he entrusted himself to the one who judges justly (1 Pet 2.23). Though darkness would come for a moment, the light would overpower it and would eventually triumph. Thus in Christ's recitation of the beginning of the psalm, he already anticipates the middle verses, in which God's deliverance of his servant is promised.

But there is more than that. This deliverance by God will have global consequences:

All the ends of the earth shall remember
    and turn to the Lord;
and all the families of the nations
    shall worship before him.
For dominion belongs to the Lord,
    and he rules over the nations (vv. 27-8).

This act of the resurrection of Christ, the redemption of the LORD's servant, will result in the conversion of all the families of the nations. The world itself will remember and turn to the LORD. Thus Christ told his disciples: I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself (John 12.32).

Good Friday is a time to reflect upon the sacrifice of Christ, who gave himself for our sins (1 Cor 15.3; Eph 5.2). This sacrifice won deliverance from sin and death and destruction. His resurrection, on the other hand, began a new trajectory of the universe, one guided towards heaven by the upward call of God (τῆς ἄνω κλήσεως τοῦ θεοῦ, Phil 3.14).

Thursday, April 2, 2015

The value of a human person

One of the important conceptual disputes between Augustinians and the classical universalists is the manner in which divine-human relations are understood.

For Augustinians, human beings are not always treated by God as ends in themselves. Some persons exist for the purpose of the expression of God's justice at their expense through their deserved eternal damnation. It might be wrong for humans to treat other humans merely as means, but it would not be wrong for God to do so, since he is in a higher ontological class than humans are.

The classical universalists, on the other hand, were convinced that God always treated humans as ends in themselves, because he loved them. The divine philanthropia, love of humanity, is what motivates everything God does -- whether punishment or blessing or whatever. On the other hand, for God to create some persons for the express purpose of damning them is morally abhorrent. St. Isaac in Ascetical Homilies II/39, 2 says that such a position is "unspeakably blasphemous," a product of "infantile thinking," and a calumny against God.

Who is right?

For Athanasius in On the Incarnation, 6 it is the reality of the image and likeness of the divine Logos in human beings that confers upon them inestimable value. Because they are made in the likeness of the Logos, reasonable and rational, it would be (in his words) "supremely unfitting," "monstrous," and "unworthy of God's goodness" that his creatures be destroyed -- whether deservedly or not. There is obviously room in Athanasius' theology for the punishment of the wicked, but evidently not in such a manner as would preclude treating humans as ends in themselves. The fact that humans have a piece of God in them precludes God, in his goodness, from destroying them or leaving them to perish.

Jesus said, Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are than the birds! 

Can we plausibly add to this statement: ... Indeed, you are much more valuable, but not so much more valuable that God could never make an example of you by predestining you to eternal damnation for your sins, so that others might know God's justice and appreciate their salvation even more ? My sense is that this would too radically compromise the strength of Jesus' exhortation not to worry.

Thomas Aquinas wrote:

And just as He does not enlighten all the blind, or heal all who are infirm, in order that the working of His power may be evident in the case of those whom He heals, and in the case of the others the order of nature may be observed, so also, He does not assist with His help all who impede grace, so that they may be turned away from evil and toward the good, but only some, in whom He desires His mercy to appear, so that the order of justice may be manifested in the other cases (Summa contra gentiles III/161, 1).

We have to ask the question whether this is plausible. I grant that justice or fairness is a good thing understood abstractly, but is punitive justice -- the deserved punishment of the wicked -- a good thing in itself, something to be desired for its own sake? To my mind this is not plausible. Punitive justice is something we want only on the condition that people are committing evil. It's a conditioned good thing; it's a good thing that can come out of a bad situation. But it makes no sense to my mind to suppose that punitive justice is something that you would want for its own sake, even if it could be avoided altogether. Punishment of crime is something we have to plan for because it is inevitable, given the fallen condition of the world and of human persons. I don't see why a person would plan punishment for crime if there were no necessity or chance that crime take place at all. Human persons are more valuable than that; they are to valuable to be created solely for the purpose of being made an example.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Jerry Walls on persuasion in hell

Thomas Talbott argued that those persons who are in hell will be persuaded by their experiences there to repent and to reconcile with God. He thinks that the horrors of hell will provide compelling evidence that their choice to refuse God's offer of salvation is the wrong one. Jerry Walls doesn't accept this. In his most recent Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory (2014), he writes:

I am very dubious, however, that evidence is ever compelling, strictly speaking. This is especially so when we are dealing with matters as controversial as religious beliefs. The reason this is so is because belief is far more than a matter of the intellect. Our emotions, will, and desires are also involved. And if we are unwilling to repent, we cannot be compelled to do by evidence (81).

Now in a previous post, a wildly popular one relative to the kind of hits my blog normally gets, I argued that Walls has a dilemma on his hands. So long as he accepts ethical intellectualism, so long as he accepts that intellect precedes will, he has to grant that God could give those in hell adequate evidence that they are making the wrong choice. Thus they will fail to see any good in rejecting God's offer, recognizing it as evil, and will repent freely. But if intellect is not preceded by will, then by Wall's own terms, he fails to make intelligible the choice to stay in hell forever. He grants himself that there must be something about the subjective experience of choosing hell over God that makes it intelligible; the agent must see something to be gained by remaining in hell, rather than leaving. This presumes a priority of intellect to will. A blind act of will with no connection to intellect, to reasons, is not free.

He might reply to this objection along the lines I quoted above: no evidence is compelling because more than intellect is involved in belief; there are desires, emotions, and will to be considered, also. My rejoinder is two-fold.

In the first place, the evidence that provides doesn't have to be compelling; it just has to be adequate. It has to be enough to convince the damned person to leave. Consider the story of Krzysztof Kieslowski's Dekalog I. An atheist professor of linguistics named Krzysztof believes only in what is measurable and quantifiable by the methods of the physical sciences; there is no soul, no afterlife, no God. One winter day his son dies when the ice of the town take breaks, and the boy falls under, drowning. This happened despite the fact that, according to the calculations his father had performed, the ice should have been able to support the weight of someone three times the size of his son --  a fact which he personally verified the night before, walking onto the ice and jumping on it himself. After this inexplicable tragedy, Krzysztof goes into the cathedral under construction in his city, and after knocking over the unfinished altar, he attempts to cross himself with frozen holy water. What it took for Krzysztof to come to God was not some absolutely compelling piece of evidence, but it was enough for him to repent; it was evidence adequate to the agent it involved. So also, mutatis mutandis, with those in hell.

But secondly, the same dilemma applies in this case as before. Are these emotions, will, and desires which motivate the unrepentance of the damned ultimately grounded in intellect or not? If they are, then the intellectual concern can be addressed and the obstacles to repentance taken away. But if they are not, then it is difficult to see how the choice to remain in hell is a free one. How can a free choice be made on the basis of an irrational, groundless impulse in a deadly direction, a disposition with no intellectual content whatsoever? An intelligible choice, by Walls's own admission, must be made in connection with intellect. A blind desire or emotion cannot be the basis of a free choice; it hardly even seems a choice to act on such a thing. Anyway, blind desires and emotions seem to me to be an impossibility: we cannot desire a thing without understanding it to be good in at least some way; we cannot have an emotion that has no connection whatsoever to our understanding of the world around us or of ourselves.

So Walls's dilemma stands.