I am really appreciative of all the comments I have received on my recent series on the satan. Many posters are really struggling with me on the demystification of the devil. So far the biggest issue seems to be that how the concept of ‘person’ is understood.
We have been mired for so long, first in the metaphysics of Plato who divided the person into three discrete categories of body, soul and spirit and then in the Renaissance influenced and Enlightenment notion of the person as an autonomous free moral agent that it is difficult to be set free from these definitions. The shift from a ‘faculty’ approach to the human to a relational one is one that has been a hundred years in the making and still continues now with research on the human brain, the emotional states of cognition and the role of mirror neurons that enable us to live and learn by imitation.
The older philosophical debates about mind, will, choice, emotions and rationality have all been challenged by these recent shifts and discoveries. One important thing to keep in mind is that the church (the people in the pews) are about one hundred years behind what is being taught in the seminaries and the universities. A hundred years from now most of what I am suggesting will be ‘normal’ in the church, but for now my goal is bring the average person into the present and to be liberated from now useless ways of conceiving humanity. Our old ways have led only to violence, war, exclusion, scapegoating and other forms of making the ‘other’ out to be the enemy. We have too long lived with theologies that draw lines where there ought not to be lines.
Theology has always been an evolving science. Change is essential. I am sometimes asked if I believe in progressive revelation. My answer is no, but I do believe in progressive understanding; I think that as a species we are finally getting the message about God’s love in Jesus, how the character of God has been reframed by Jesus away from our tendency to make God in our own image as a Janus-faced (or two-faced) God. This is harder than it seems for many if not most of Christianity has emotionally invested itself in a god that is just like them, angry, belligerent, sacrificial and demanding tit-for-tat justice. The message of the gospel as I understand it is that God is wholly other (Barth) than we are and that God is only love. God’s character is revealed completely in the ministry of Jesus as one of compassion, mercy, inclusion and forgiveness.
Even if we quibble about the satan as a ‘person’ the fact remains, the satan is defeated. Jesus has cast down the satan as a principle by renouncing violence and retribution in his own life and ministry. Yes, evil is very real, yes it sometimes manifests itself in ways that seem incredulous, nevertheless, there are ways of understanding these manifestations in a rational way that does not require us to posit some supernatural metaphysical entity. I think we are best served when we are willing to rethink everything, that is when we are willing to change our ways of thinking about anything and everything (this is what metanoeo ‘to repent’ means). We need not fear change. Jesus doesn’t change (Heb 13:8) but we are constantly in need of transformation and this is the beautiful work of the Holy Spirit in us.
So, as we continue our discussions in the coming weeks on evil, the satan and how Jesus has overcome these blights on our history and species (and indeed creation itself), let us rejoice! For we all know that this ‘old lion who seeks to devour us’ has no teeth and can only use fear to stop us in our tracks and keep us from making our way down the road that is Jesus.
Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev, in his book Christ the Conqueror of Hell, makes this observation concerning Christ’s descent into Hades:
The Octoechos’ teaching can be systematized by the following questions:
Who benefited from Christ’s saving accomplishments?
To whom was his preaching in hell addressed?
Whom did he resurrect from the dead?
Whom did he free from the power of hell, and whom did he lead to paradise?
The Church Fathers answered these questions differently. St Gregory Nazianzen did not answer the question: “Will Christ save all or just the faithful?” (Homily 45,24).St. Amphilochius of Iconium believed that ALL those who were in hell followed Christ after his descent and preaching. (Homily 6, Against Heretics). Theologians of the Alexandrian Tradition were inclined to believe that God “redeemed and led ALL OF US out of hell, or rather, the entire human race from death.” (Paschal Epistle 10,10.) Clement even numbered the pagans among the saved (Stromateis 6,6). St. Romanos the Melodist and St Ephrem the Syrian maintained that after Christ’s descent into Hades “ALL TOMBS were opened, and ALL the dead came out of them and rejoiced.” (Kontakion 45,17).
Hilarion mentions that there were also saints who contradicted this view and narrowed the preaching in Hades only to the “souls of the saints” (On Christ and the AntiChrist [ St. Hippolystus of Rome]) and St. Cyril of Jerusalem believed only the righteous were redeemed. (Catachetical Homily 14,19)
A careful study of the writings in the hymns of the Octoechos demonstrates that in about ‘five out of one hundred cases’ only the “pious, and righteous” are among the only people delivered from hades. Even more rarely in the Octoechos ‘possibly in two or three out of one hundred cases’ Christ grants salvation to all the “faithful”. But this offers not specifics if the “faithful” are those who believed in God during their lives or if it is those who believed after Christ’s preaching in hell.
Othering is the process of casting a group, an individual or an object into the role of the 'other' and establishing one's own identity through opposition to and, frequently, vilification of this Other.
Taken at face value, we present ourselves as committed dualists. In nearly every situation, there is an either/or, with no room for adjustment or both/and. And the greater part of growing up—and especially growing up into the meat of that message we so flippantly call “the gospel”—is learning to nuance our arguments in such a manner as to be able to sit across the table from our opponent and find that neither of us reaches for our knife. In other words, a shared cup of sacramental wine amongst enemies might be the closest thing to heaven we’ll know this side of eternity, and is thus why we’re commanded to unashamedly open the table. This is what makes Jesus so scandalous. That we are presented with such a love that enemies become neighbors, and neighbors become friends, and that friendship itself is something more close than kinship, and thus, we ourselves are; friends of God.
"And the LORD said, My spirit shall not always strive with man, for that he also is flesh: yet his days shall be an hundred and twenty years." Genesis 6:3
"For the LORD is good; His lovingkindness is everlasting and His faithfulness to all generations." Psalm 100:5
"O give thanks unto the LORD; for he is good: for his mercy endureth forever." Psalm 136:1
Question: If God's Spirit "shall not always strive with man" (Genesis 6:3), then what are the limits of God's mercy? David proclaims God's mercy as enduring forever and his lovingkindness as everlasting. But doesn't his patience run out? Doesn't the story of Noah, for example, show that God is patient and long-suffering, but that he also has his limits ... limits that ended in world-destruction through the flood? Doesn't Peter imagine God's wrath being stored up for a final incineration of this world? (2 Peter 3:10). And what about the Book of Revelation? Doesn't it teach that the love and grace of Jesus Christ extend throughout this age, but culminate in a second-coming marked by Christ's violent overthrow of the powers and its people? (Revelation 19). Does this mean his lovingkindness is only forever for believers or the elect? Response: The best way to resolve this tension, in my view, is to locate the limits of God's mercy elsewhere than duration (because mercy is rooted in his eternal nature, which is love). Even in Jeremiah's Lamentations, the prophet insists, "Because of the LORD'S great love, we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail" (3:22). That's a lot of faith for someone's whose city was under siege and would in fact be consumed. Moreover, Peter describes how the mercy of God towards those who perished in the flood even outlasted their deaths. His first epistle (chapters 3-4) describes a God who never gives up, even on the prototypical wicked. The divine Word assumes perishable flesh so that Jesus Christ can pursue them even into the underworld, where the "gospel was preached also to those who are dead, that they might be judged according to men in the flesh, but live according to God in the spirit" (4:6). If the limit of God's mercy is neither death nor duration, then what? I would propose that divine mercy finds its limits at coercion. When the Bible says his restraining Spirit "will not strive forever," it means that when our defiance escalates to critical mass, it is not that God's mercy ends--it's that he will not rescue us by coercion. As I've written elsewhere, "he gives us over" to the self-destructive consequences of our choices rather than forcing us to obey. That is, his striving stops short of violent intervention, but he never ceases to wait in love for our eventual return home. In A More Christlike GodI describe how this "giving over" reality can metaphorically be called "wrath." But in fact, if we persist in refusing God's striving call home, sin itself destroys us (not God, directly) ... and even then, God's mercy is not exhausted. It remains forever, outlasting our willful rejection, out-waiting our self-destructive choices and even outliving death itself. So the limits of this mercy are not gauged by a patience that gets weary, but instead, a love that wins by love, but never will-violating force. Not that the limits of mercy (shy of coercion) are anemic or powerless. Illumination can seem very forceful ... recall the Apostle Paul's conversion! The commitment of God to turning Paul's heart did not come in half-measures. But even there, if we hear Paul's analysis in 2 Corinthians 4, God did not shackle him into submission, but instead, unshackled him for redemption. God's patience--the Spirit's willingness to strive with Paul--was to the extreme, even giving Paul over to his murderous ways. But his wickedness did not outlast God's mercy and did not require God's coercion (if only barely). The point is, for there to be no contradiction between a striving that ceases and a mercy that endures, we set the limits of mercy at coercive force while counting on everlasting (limitless) love, which means even beyond the grave. "We look forward to the resurrection of the dead and to the LIFE of the age to come!" (Nicene Creed).
In describing my journey of rethinking Christianity over the past twelve years I’ve used a couple of metaphors. One I call “End of the Line.” I first used this metaphor when speaking to the staff of Charisma Publishing six years ago. Later I wrote an op-ed piece on this metaphor which was published in Charisma magazine in May of 2010. In that piece I introduced the metaphor like this:
“I’m reminded of the times I’ve been in Paris and traveling across the city on the metro system. If I want to travel from Notre Dame to Montmartre I can’t do it on one train. At some point I have to disembark, find the correct platform and catch another train. If you’ve never done it before it can be confusing. This may be a prophetic analogy for the confusion evangelicals feel in the first part of the 21st century. We’ve reached a terminus. We need to find another platform. We need to catch a new train. And we’re not quite sure what it is. But of this we can be quite certain: the train we have been on will not carry Christianity into the 21st century in a compelling and engaging way — no matter how enthusiastically we sing ‘give me that old time religion’ while we sit on a motionless train. What is this train stuck at the station? I think it can be summed up as ‘Christianity characterized by protest.’ We need to face the reality that the protest train has come to the end of the line.”