Dear Theophilus , (Letter 87. )
I think the time has come to again summarize what our story is about the universe, about us and about eternity.
Let me start off by reviewing what has come to be the default position in explaining our faith. At some point in time, many years ago, a human pair disobeyed a divine restriction on eating a certain forbidden fruit. They were expelled from an idyllic paradise and through this fall, humanity languished, and continues to languish, in misery, suffering and death. This is a commonly held view of what Christianity is supposed to teach.
There is, however, another, and more ancient interpretation of the message that Christianity brings and this is something I want to look at now. I would like to point out that it is the concept of the judgement of man by God that has been a bone of contention for many who see in it injustice and unfairness.
Before we go any further in our discussion, I want to lay down some guidelines, which we will keep to. We will not entertain any arguments that are contrary to what is expressed in scripture or deny their validity. We will attempt to reflect the position of the Church especially through its Fathers in terms of the validity of certain teachings. The goal will not be to come up with some personally held novel opinion but to reflect the views expressed within the Church. This will all become a lot clearer when we get into the actual facts instead of just considering generalities.
What is the goal of creation? Why is there something that has come into being? If one were an atheist, one would answer by stating that nothing really came into being – it has always been there. Matter (pardon the pun) closed.
But this is not really an answer; it is an evasion from an answer and does not satisfy man’s curiosity and search for an answer.
Within our faith it is accepted that the whole cosmos came into being out of nothing and prior to this, it did not exist. The universe is not eternal and neither is any component of the universe eternal, including us. Thus mortality – the return into the nothingness from which we came – is a possibility for us and this is expressed through death. Death is an innate component of all that is created and this physical death was not introduced by someone many years ago who through some improper behavior brought mortality to creation. Consequently, biological death is nothing else than the return to the non-being of the pre-creation state. It is something embedded into the nature of all that is created. Created and mortal are two sides of the same coin.
Non-believers often raise the point of a cruel god who condemns mankind to death and suffering and even threatens them with eternal punishment in hell. And this, unfortunately, has been the narrative proclaimed by a wide spectrum of Christianity. But there is another way of looking at things and this is something that we will attempt to navigate.
In the West, the predominant view has seen the problem of the world as a moral problem in which a commandment has been transgressed and this has brought on the response to this transgression – punishment. In this view, Christ’s central work is on Calvary and the redemptive work that has been accomplished there. The East does not challenge this view but it says there is something more fundamental to salvation and redemption than the remission of sins. For the East, what is of paramount importance is the Resurrection of Christ because man’s basic problem is not moral but ontological. What ontological means is pertaining to the very being of man – man has to be changed in his very depths, in the very ‘stuff’ of his being, in order to be saved. The problem faced by man, and in fact, all of creation, is the problem of an existence that is mortal and hence, temporary. Our existence, in light of what has been said above, is temporary and ends in a return to non-existence by virtue of its createdness. A point that has been stated quite jarringly by some Fathers is that man’s chief sin is death.
The question is often posed by non-believers: why didn’t God simply forgive Adam and we would have had the problem resolved. But the story is not so simple and the offer of forgiveness forgets some important points. Lest we think this is a modern question allow me to quote one of the Fathers of the Church, Athanasius the Great:
“For the transgression of the commandment turned them back to the state in accordance with their nature; so that just as they had come into being out of non-being, so were they now deservedly on the way to returning, through corruption, to non-being again. For if men, who by nature once were called into being by the presence and loving-kindness of the Word, it follows that, deprived of the knowledge of God and turned towards things which do not exist…they should be deprived of the benefit of existing forever; in other words, that they should be disintegrated and abide in death and corruption. Man is mortal by nature, since he is made out of nothing.”
Athanasius writes that God could have simply said to Adam, who did repent, that he was forgiven, but that would not have addressed man’s fundamental problem of mortality. Thus forgiveness was not what the Incarnation is mainly or exclusively about. The Incarnation does not aim at forgiveness or the satisfaction of divine justice as its main goal, although remission of sins is a component of it. The main goal of the Incarnation and the Resurrection is the overcoming of death, granting to man what only belongs to God – immortality and eternal life. And these are not achieved through a virtuous life or following of commandments. By morality creation improves itself but it does not save itself from death, and salvation is exactly this – the freeing of mankind, and in fact the whole cosmos, from death.
Athanasius asks: if it was not the danger of creation’s perdition that made the Word take flesh, what was it? The remission of sins? But forgiveness would have been enough. The only answer to the salvation of all of creation was the Incarnation and the Resurrection because through this man becomes fundamentally different – he becomes ‘born again’.
God will not allow His creation to perish. He could have conferred immortality from the moment of creation but how then would creation know that God loves it? And there is another underlying problem with simply conferring immortality on man. By so doing, God would deprive man of freedom – man would not be able to opt for God and show his love for God. The underlying basis of creation is freedom and not justice. Man has freedom and the option of metaphysical suicide is still open to him and we will consider this more deeply when we look at the concept of hell.
I just want to say a few words about freedom. We are told that creation came into being ex nihilo, that is, out of nothing. An important conclusion of this is that God does not need to create, He is not obliged to create. Creation could have not come about – in other words, creation is contingent. One of the crucial things about God is that He is free to do as he wishes – He is not constrained because otherwise he would not be God. And, since man is made in the image and likeness of God, man is also endowed with the gift of freedom and God respects this in His dealings with man.
Our idea of freedom is quite different from the idea of freedom that is spoken of within our faith. We often equate freedom with the ability to choose from an offering of possibilities. From this you can already see the limitations of this type of freedom – man is given the options from which he is to choose and this selection is already a limitation of his freedom. The concept of freedom that is applied to God and that is a gift that man strives for is different. Freedom, essentially, means the ability to love and this ability is not limited by the properties of that which is being loved. Thus, we are told that God loves even sinners. Love is neither emotionalism nor good intentions but the supreme struggle for that self-transcendence that is called holiness and love.
As a result of the Incarnation and the Resurrection of the word, we no longer die as people condemned, but as those who are rising from the dead and await the general resurrection of all. But you could ask, as many others have: what has changed? All this talk of what Christ has brought is just illusion to hide from us the tragic world that we live in. The world continues as before with death roaming the earth and misfortune, illness, and suffering still widespread. And here we turn to something that I have mentioned above – the question of freedom and how is man, and all of creation redeemed and saved.
We will soon see.