Thursday, June 25, 2015

Eschatology and the fruit of the Spirit

I find there is a close connection between Christian ethics and eschatology. For example, Christians are called to pray for the salvation of all people, because this is what God himself desires (1 Tim 2.1-4). It would be strange for God to be calling on his people to pray for the salvation of all, only for God to destroy wicked unbelievers forever in Gehenna. Thus insofar as we have an ethical imperative to pray for all, and our characters are to be formed in this direction, it is reasonable to suppose that God will answer these prayers affirmatively.

There is also another connection between eschatology and the fruit of the Spirit. When the Holy Spirit of God lives within a person, the human is transformed and given a certain character. She is made loving, joyful, peaceful, patient, kind, generous, faithful, gentle, and self-controlled (cf. Gal 5.22-3). The reason she is made like this is because God himself is like this, and his presence within the Christian's heart transforms her into his likeness. Christian ethics as godlikeness is a regular theme of Paul's writings. For example, he tells the Ephesians: clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness (Eph 4.24).

Now I ask a question. How does a gentle, generous, peaceful, loving, kind, patient, self-controlled person deal with sinners and offenders? If these traits are motivating and informing her actions, how does she act towards those who have done wrong? Suppose, furthermore, that such a person is wise enough and powerful enough to act so that the wrongdoer will eventually repent, come to see the error of her ways, and be restored to the community in peace. Is it not perfectly obvious that a person full of the fruit of the Spirit would act for the other person's benefit? After all, the essence of these character traits are a sensitivity and concern for the other's good in our interactions with her. If you are gentle, generous, loving, kind, etc., then you are concerned to act for the benefit of the other person.

If we are made like God by the fruit of the Spirit, then God has all these things naturally. These are a part of his essence, a part of his existence as such. Consequently they inform everything he does. It should be no different when we approach eschatological texts dealing with hell, punishment in Gehenna, etc. God does not become a different person when he punishes people than he was previously. There may be rhetorical purposes in making the threats of punishments sound as terrible as possible, but we cannot plausibly interpret them in such a manner as to compromise God's very character.

This is perhaps my fundamental objection to traditionalist and annihilationist doctrines of hell. Whether God punishes the damned continuously, or else he annihilates them after a limited time of punishment, it seems in either case that his character is compromised. If he could save everyone and does not, if he treats the wicked so mercilessly, it is difficult to see how he can simultaneously be gentle, kind, patient, loving, generous, etc.

It is no surprise that some classical universalists argued that the traditionalist position attributes to God actions that even a virtuous human person would never undertake. Isaac the Syrian writes:

That we should imagine that anger, wrath, jealousy or the such like have anything to do with the divine Nature is something utterly abhorrent for us: no one in their right mind, no one who has any understanding (at all) can possibly come to such madness as to think anything of the sort about God. Nor again can we possibly say that He acts thus out of retribution, even though the Scriptures may on the outer surface posit this. Even to think this of God and to suppose that retribution for evil acts is to be found with Him is abominable. By implying that He makes use of such a great and difficult thing [of Gehenna] out of retribution we are attributing a weakness to the (divine) Nature. We cannot even believe such a thing can be found in those human beings who live a virtuous and upright life and whose thoughts are entirely in accord with the divine will -- let alone (believe it) of God, that He has done something out of retribution for anticipated evil acts in connection with those whose nature He had brought into being with honour and great love. Knowing thema nd all their conduct, the flow of His grace did not dry up from them: not even after they (started) living amid many evil deeds did He withhold His care for them, even for a moment.

If someone says that [God] has put with [sinners] here (on earth) in order that His patience may be known -- with the idea that He would punish them there mercilessly, such a person thinks in an unspeakably blasphemous way about God, due to his infantile way of thinking: he is removing from God His kindness, goodness and compassion, (all) the things because of which He truly bears with sinners and wicked men. Such a person is attributing to (God) enslavement to passion, (supposing) that He has not consented to their being chastised here, seeing that He has prepared them for a much greater misfortune, in exchange for a short-lived patience. Not only does such a person fail to attribute something praiseworthy to God, but he also calumniates Him (The Second Part 39, 2).

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