If Christianity-by which I mean orthodox, classical Christianity-was a product it wouldn’t sell very well in contemporary America. Think about what the man from Nazareth offers. Eternal life, the freedom of the Truth, paradise-all very good things (if somewhat ethereal). But along with this, we are invited to take up our cross and follow him, that we must lose our lives for his sake to find life, that we must leave the dead of the world to bury their own. The “deal” of Christianity is to join the Lord in his suffering, to share in his kenosis (kenosis is theosis). We quickly forget that the first man Christ took with him into paradise was being crucified at the time (he was also a terrorist but that’s another story).
In the age when Joel Osteen can blind those around him when light reflects off of his pearly white teeth, we could stand to reflect a bit on a quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer that I shared a few days ago:
Man is summoned to share in God’s suffering at the hands of a godless world.
Something tells me most of would prefer Osteen-smarmy and smug though he may be-over Bonhoeffer any day of the week.
The irony here is so thick you can barely see through it. As a friend of mine remarked recently:
Funny thing about Christianity-Christ’s yoke may be easy, but his cross will kill you.”
Without giving it much thought I responded with
Although in fairness, he did warn us about that.
We have forgotten what a commanding and demanding figure the Nazarene is. An acquaintance of mine recently bristled with indignation at calling Jesus “Our Lord,” saying that he preferred to think of Christ as our “Elder Brother” (in good Unitarian form). We hear much chatter about today about the “tolerant, loving, inclusive” Jesus, but the picture the New Testament gives us (and it is the only picture we have) is far more complex than that. Another acquaintance of mine-who actually is a Unitarian-observed that the demanding sayings of Jesus (you must lose your life for my sake; you must renounce your family for me, etc.) are comparable to the statements made by the leaders of cults.
I’d say this was a sage observation, but it really wasn’t: my acquaintance was doing something that most people today apparently don’t do: actually reading the text of the Gospels. The “hard sayings” are right there in black and white (or red in some versions). One of course is free to follow the example of Thomas Jefferson and scissor out the hard sayings, so that one is left with the benign “Elder Brother,” but we do this at our peril. For better or worse, the Jesus recorded in the Gospels is a paradoxical, contradictory, enigmatic, complex, and-in some respects-terrifying figure. No ideological camp can claim him unconditionally. No one is entirely comfortable in his presence. There is love and forgiveness, yes, grace aplenty. But there is also severity and uncompromising demandingness, the man who asks the impossible and (to us) insane.
In my view, the strangest thing about Christianity is that so many people throughout history have chosen to the strange “deal” Our Lord offers us. In a way, it is a miracle that anyone would chose to accept such an offer. At the risk of using a barrage of caricatures, one can understand the attraction of a spirituality that promises wealth and prestige (*ducks to avoid the light beams from Osteen’s teeth*), or for that matter, clear promises of a jubilant hereafter (perhaps populated with virgins). But self-abasement, asceticism, forgiving one’s enemies, being prepared to give one’s life for an itinerant Jewish preacher (a nobody)? Something has prompted people to accept this deal.
[In fairness, the world’s great religions all recognize that sacrifice and dying to self are essential to any true spirituality-the Prophet of the same religion that promises a paradise of virgins is also reported to have said “Die before you die,” a recognition of a basic spiritual truth, a simple fact of metaphysics. Even Marcus Borg, God rest his soul, acknowledged the universality of this principle, and that it may even be the sine qua non of true spirituality]
A clue to why so many have chosen to accept Our Lord’s offer may be found in the words of St. Peter. After a large crowd had deserted Jesus, unable to accept the demands of “the deal” (there is a refreshing honesty in such a response-it appears no one in the crowd believed inclusion was the raison d’etre for Jesus’s preaching), Jesus effectively gave his disciples an “out.” Speaking for the other disciples, both those gathered there and the rest of us spread out over time and space, St. Peter responded simply with “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” It is truism of Catholicism that for all his epic bumbling, St. Peter got to be the “boss” because he “got” what so many others have missed.
And so it is. For most of us, even those Catholics who are as appallingly weak as myself (whether measured in the devotion of our prayer life, the intensity of our spiritual experiences, our fulfillment of the commandments, or our nonexistent ascetic life), we find there is nowhere else to go. What are the alternatives? The supercilious spirituality of Joel Osteen? The wishful thinking that fills the bookshelves of the New Age, and most of the “Christian Life” sections of Barnes & Noble? As the kids say today, “***** please.” Genuine Vedanta, or Buddhism, perhaps. And yet, for those of us who have seen the depths of Christianity, the other world religions can’t help but seem incomplete, provisional, to us.
There is one more topic I need to broach here, namely universalism. The question of universal reconciliation has received a surprising amount of attention in recent years. From Rob Bell’s Love Wins (which garnered an article in Time) to Dr. Benjamin Carson’s Seventh Day Adventist beliefs (which do not include eternal damnation), the question of universal salvation has been in the media spotlight. It has also received a fair amount of attention in Eastern Orthodox circles (see recent posts by Father Freeman here and here, particularly the comments sections). The question cannot easily be written off. As Father Freeman himself has written of Hell:
Christ enters whatever you call it to get us out. If human beings can go there, then He is there.
One of the difficulties about heaven/hell etc. in Orthodoxy is that this is not really much of an issue for us. It was a huge issue between Catholic and Protestant during the Reformation/Counter-Reformation, and so both tended to refine their readings and statements on these things. Orthodoxy didn’t have a dog in that fight, thus we never found it necessary or interesting to become quite so refined about these things. In fact, Orthodoxy is quite “sloppy” about all of this.
Traditionally, Catholics and Protestants argued with each other while Orthodox jumped up and down sang and danced that “Christ has trampled down death by death and upon those in the tombs bestowed life.”
If someone is in hell (whatever it is), we pray for them and tell stories from the lives of the saints about how it was revealed that so-and-so was released from hell through the prayers of St. so-and-so. Again, it’s doctrinally sloppy, but existentially compelling and centered convincingly on the certainty of Christ’s triumph.
I think we have the better end of the deal.
I also think that we do well to stay out of the West’s fights.
I myself remain something of a “hopeful universalist,” though I admit to taking far less of an interest in the matter than I once did. As I say often, my faith rests on the trust that God will do what is right (Genesis 18:25) and that is enough for me. It is not enough for others, however, and I am beginning to see how the disturbingly simplistic “debate” over Hell in some quarters of the Church is enough to discredit Christianity entirely in the eyes of many.
Consider, for instance, this meme:
Now, as I have often noted, we are a generation that practically thinks in Facebook memes. And I also grant that memes of this sort are generally produced in rebellion against a particular form of Christianity, namely a particularly toxic form of fundamentalist Protestantism, that has exercised destructive influence in the lives of many (there is an equally virulent, though not quite identical, strain of Catholicism that was once equally influential of course). For someone such as myself, who did not grow up under such spiritual oppression and today is an adherent to classical Christianity, that has remarkably little in common with American style fundamentalism, this whole conversation seems irrelevant.
It isn’t, of course. The matter needs to be dealt with. But while the excesses of “hellfire-and-brimstone” preaching indeed slander Christianity, simplistic universalist “critiques” of the doctrine of Hell do not do justice to the paradoxical figure of the man from Nazareth, nor do they account for the nature of the “deal” he offered us. By simplistic critiques I mean things like the following:
- A loving God would never damn anyone!
- As a father I could never do that to any of my own children! Only a sadist could torture people forever and ever!
- Hell is really just a mechanism to control people! [The documentary Hellbound,, which was really one long ad hominem attack on evangelicals, kept repeating this particular line in an endless loop]
A facile belief gives rise to a facile rejection of that belief. This back-and-forth is taking place in the shallow end of the theological pool; the real question of Hell requires one to be prepared to descend to great-and disturbing-depths. The Scriptures and Tradition do not speak with as clear a voice as we would like on the subject of damnation-at times, admittedly, there are hints of an all-encompassing redemption, but at others, the language and imagery of damnation is unmistakable. We must live with this paradoxical tension, as we live with the paradoxical tension of Christ Himself.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains:
1036 The affirmations of Sacred Scripture and the teachings of the Church on the subject of hell are a call to the responsibility incumbent upon man to make use of his freedom in view of his eternal destiny. They are at the same time an urgent call to conversion: “Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few.”618
1037 God predestines no one to go to hell;620 for this, a willful turning away from God (a mortal sin) is necessary, and persistence in it until the end. In the Eucharistic liturgy and in the daily prayers of her faithful, the Church implores the mercy of God, who does not want “any to perish, but all to come to repentance”:621
Of mortal sin the Catechism states:
1861 Mortal sin is a radical possibility of human freedom, as is love itself. It results in the loss of charity and the privation of sanctifying grace, that is, of the state of grace. If it is not redeemed by repentance and God’s forgiveness, it causes exclusion from Christ’s kingdom and the eternal death of hell, for our freedom has the power to make choices for ever, with no turning back. However, although we can judge that an act is in itself a grave offense, we must entrust judgment of persons to the justice and mercy of God.
My goal here is not defend the “legalistic” tenor of Catholic teaching on sin-though I believe that schema is actually quite helpful (then again, I am an attorney, so I hardly expect others to share this sentiment). The point is the Catholic teaching, in accordance with the Great Tradition as a whole, emphasizes that damnation is a consequence of human freedom-one cannot be damned without willfully turning away from God. I have noted many times before that when looks closely at Catholic teaching one sees that committing a mortal sin is more difficult than one would think-the Catechism refers to mortal sin (and by extension damnation) as a “radical possibility.” The Pope Emeritus expounded on this a bit in Spe Salvi, as part of his reflections on purgatory:
45. This early Jewish idea of an intermediate state includes the view that these souls are not simply in a sort of temporary custody but, as the parable of the rich man illustrates, are already being punished or are experiencing a provisional form of bliss. There is also the idea that this state can involve purification and healing which mature the soul for communion with God. The early Church took up these concepts, and in the Western Church they gradually developed into the doctrine of Purgatory. We do not need to examine here the complex historical paths of this development; it is enough to ask what it actually means. With death, our life-choice becomes definitive—our life stands before the judge. Our choice, which in the course of an entire life takes on a certain shape, can have a variety of forms. There can be people who have totally destroyed their desire for truth and readiness to love, people for whom everything has become a lie, people who have lived for hatred and have suppressed all love within themselves. This is a terrifying thought, but alarming profiles of this type can be seen in certain figures of our own history. In such people all would be beyond remedy and the destruction of good would be irrevocable: this is what we mean by the word Hell. On the other hand there can be people who are utterly pure, completely permeated by God, and thus fully open to their neighbours—people for whom communion with God even now gives direction to their entire being and whose journey towards God only brings to fulfilment what they already are.
46. Yet we know from experience that neither case is normal in human life. For the great majority of people—we may suppose—there remains in the depths of their being an ultimate interior openness to truth, to love, to God. In the concrete choices of life, however, it is covered over by ever new compromises with evil—much filth covers purity, but the thirst for purity remains and it still constantly re-emerges from all that is base and remains present in the soul. What happens to such individuals when they appear before the Judge? Will all the impurity they have amassed through life suddenly cease to matter? What else might occur? Saint Paul, in his First Letter to the Corinthians, gives us an idea of the differing impact of God’s judgement according to each person’s particular circumstances. He does this using images which in some way try to express the invisible, without it being possible for us to conceptualize these images—simply because we can neither see into the world beyond death nor do we have any experience of it. Paul begins by saying that Christian life is built upon a common foundation: Jesus Christ. This foundation endures. If we have stood firm on this foundation and built our life upon it, we know that it cannot be taken away from us even in death. Then Paul continues: “Now if any one builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw—each man’s work will become manifest; for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work which any man has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire” (1 Cor 3:12-15). In this text, it is in any case evident that our salvation can take different forms, that some of what is built may be burned down, that in order to be saved we personally have to pass through “fire” so as to become fully open to receiving God and able to take our place at the table of the eternal marriage-feast.
Benedict’s teaching, which is (appropriately) cautiously optimistic, reflects the position of classical Christianity, which is far more humane than the punching bag in Hellbound. What we call “Hell” is a necessary extension-the other side of the coin-of human freedom. As the Catechism puts it, damnation and love are BOTH radical possibilities of human freedom. This view has become somewhat unfashionable today, in part because the idea of human free will has become quite unfashionable. Richard Beck, for instance, thinks the concept of free will has been rendered moot by a “post-Cartesian theology,” and Rev. Rutledge has raised some interesting points about free will in her newest book.
I am not interested here in debating the merits of free will vs. determinism, though I think the latter is philosophically untenable. I will say that the Christian tradition has a more complicated understanding of free will than Beck’s caricature allows for. Rev. Rutledge’s views converge in many respects with the view articulated in the Catechism, and the Orthodox too have a more nuanced understanding of “choice,” as Father Freeman notes. Nonetheless, human free will-however understood-is an essential part of the Great Tradition, and cannot simply be written out without Christianity collapsing. As I wrote recently, the Great Tradition takes seriously that human choices really matter-and that every choice is also a renunciation. The very nature of life itself is that one cannot have everything, one must make choices. A rejection of free will is irreconcilable with life.
This isn’t to say that the reality of free will is comfortable for us, by any means. Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamoz depicts this vividly in the parable of the Grand Inquisitor-in fact, the Inquisitor’s primary charge against Christ is that the freedom He extended to human beings is too great a burden. In the words of David Bentley Hart:
Indeed, the tale of the Grand Inquisitor is in some ways a curious hymn of adoration to Christ as the one who is himself the truest “rebel,” entering human history with a divine disregard for its internal economies, disrupting it in fact at the deepest level by sowing freedom with almost profligate abandon among creatures who-with very few exceptions-are incapable of receiving it.
Freedom, of course, is a discipline and a dynamic-not static-state of reality. It is something very few of us truly want, for the same reason that no one really wants to choose anything-we have to renounce other things. And so, we circle back to the figure of Christ. The matter of Hell cannot be separated from the “deal” Christ offers us. We are offered a very serious-ultimate-choice. We need to understand Christ to understand the choice he offers us. In the words of the Pope Emeritus:
The Jesus who makes everything OK for everyone is a phantom, a dream, not a real figure. The Jesus of the Gospels is certainly not convenient for us. But it is precisely in this way that he answers the deepest question of our existence, which-whether we want to or not-keeps us on the lookout for God, for a gratification that is limitless, for the infinite.
The answers we seek, the water that quenches our thirst, the satisfaction for our longing, is found only in the paradoxical, terrifying figure of the Crucified Nazarene, who places upon us a burden that seems unbearable. Indeed, the burden is unbearable-we couldn’t take it up were it not for God’s grace. The words of St. Peter remain with us, however: where else would we go?
I offer, in conclusion, two short meditations. First, from Gaudium et Spes:
Certainly, the Christian is faced with the necessity, and the duty, of fighting against evil through many trials, and of undergoing death. But by entering into the paschal mystery and being made like Christ in death, he will look forward, strong in hope, to the resurrection.
This is true not only of Christians but also of all men of good will in whose heart grace is invisibly at work. Since Christ died for all men, and the ultimate vocation of man is in fact one, that is, a divine vocation, we must hold that the Holy Spirit offers to all the possibility of being united with this paschal mystery in a way known only to God.
Such is the great mystery of man, enlightening believers through the Christian revelation. Through Christ and in Christ light is thrown on the enigma of pain and death which overwhelms us without his Gospel to teach us. Christ has risen, destroying death by his own death; he has given us the free gift of life so that as sons in the Son we may cry out in the Spirit, saying: Abba, Father!
Second, from Thomas Aquinas:
Why did the Son of God have to suffer for us? There was a great need, and it can be considered in a twofold way: in the first place, as a remedy for sin, and secondly, as an example of how to act.
It is a remedy, for, in the face of all the evils which we incur on account of our sins, we have found relief through the passion of Christ. Yet, it is no less an example, for the passion of Christ completely suffices to fashion our lives. Whoever wishes to live perfectly should do nothing but disdain what Christ disdained on the cross and desire what he desired, for the cross exemplifies every virtue.
If you seek the example of love: Greater love than this no man has, than to lay down his life for his friends. Such a man was Christ on the cross. And if he gave his life for us, then it should not be difficult to bear whatever hardships arise for his sake.
If you seek patience, you will find no better example than the cross. Great patience occurs in two ways: either when one patiently suffers much, or when one suffers things which one is able to avoid and yet does not avoid. Christ endured much on the cross, and did so patiently, because when he suffered he did not threaten; he was led like a sheep to the slaughter and he did not open his mouth. Therefore Christ’s patience on the cross was great. In patience let us run for the prize set before us, looking upon Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith who, for the joy set before him, bore his cross and despised the shame.
If you seek an example of humility, look upon the crucified one, for God wished to be judged by Pontius Pilate and to die.
If you seek an example of obedience, follow him who became obedient to the Father even unto death. For just as by the disobedience of one man, namely, Adam, many were made sinners, so by the obedience of one man, many were made righteous.
If you seek an example of despising earthly things, follow him who is the King of kings and the Lord of lords, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. Upon the cross he was stripped, mocked, spat upon, struck, crowned with thorns, and given only vinegar and gall to drink.
Do not be attached, therefore, to clothing and riches, because they divided my garments among themselves. Nor to honors, for he experienced harsh words and scourgings. Nor to greatness of rank, for weaving a crown of thorns they placed it on my head. Nor to anything delightful, for in my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink.
This, as they say, is the “real deal.”