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Fortinbras Armstrong

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Gender: Male
Hometown: Suburban Chicago
Home country: UK
Current location: Suburban Chicago
Member since: Thu Apr 12, 2012, 09:54 AM
Number of posts: 4,473

About Me

Retired computer security expert/programmer. Married for 40 years, three sons, two dogs. Interested in history, music, religion -- mostly Catholic -- and cooking. MA in History of Religion (Harvard) and MS in Computer Science (U of Wisconsin).

Journal Archives

It's an old question

This is taken from an essay I wrote in graduate school.

The classic New Testament account of judgment is Matthew 25:31-46. This is full of apocalyptic imagery, with Jesus as judge. He is arbiter of the fate of those who appear before him; and their attitude towards him determines their fate. Elsewhere, peopleís destiny hinges on their faith in Jesus, on their witness to him, and on their fraternal love. Here, however, charity towards the needy is love for Jesus himself. While the wording suggests that the text originally referred to members of the Christian community, the context extends it to the whole world. Matthew 25 is central to the notion of "anonymous Christians," those who, never having heard the Gospel, nevertheless struggle to live its ideals.

The earlier Jewish writings have nothing similar to the punishments associated with hell. In the Old Testament, the spirits of both good and bad people inhabit a nether world, Sheol, in a pallid, shadowy existence. Punishment for Israel's enemies was an old idea, but this was a direct, immediate, and earthly punishment. The idea that there would be retribution for all the wicked came later, during the Hellenistic period, when personal immortality was accepted.

Then, the image of everlasting fire came to describe the punishment of the wicked. The apochryphal book of Judith has "Woe to the nations that rise against my people! The Lord Almighty will requite them; on the day of judgment he will punish them: He will send fire and worms into their flesh, and they shall burn and suffer forever." The New Testament picks up this imagery: "Anyone whose name was not found in the book of life was hurled into the pool of burning fire." (Revelation 20:15) In the second century, Justin Martyr argued that hell fire is eternal, otherwise there would be no sanctions regulating one's life.

In the third century, Origen maintained the opposite view. He denied hell, feeling that it frustrates God's plan of universal salvation, and thus is repugnant to a God of love. Origen's central idea is the restoration of all things in Christ. At death, the souls of sinners enter a purifying fire where they are cleansed and restored. Although Origen taught that when this restoration occurred, it would be the result of the sinnerís conversion; his ideas were repeatedly condemned.

Origenís "universalism" -- all people are saved -- is at best a minority opinion, at worst considered heresy. Many Church fathers in the East and West, medieval theologians, and Catholics and Protestants from the Reformation to the present held that most are damned. Augustine in particular championed this view, maintaining that original sin condemns us all. He cited texts such as "Many are called, few are chosen" (Matthew 22:14) and "Many Ö will try to enter and will be unable." (Luke 13:24) See Augustine's The City of God, book 11.

Modern theologians are less eager to condemn everyone. Some present a version of universalism; while others, who accept an eternal hell, question if anyone is actually there. The late Anglican Bishop John A T Robinson acknowledges that judgment is necessary, but argues that its only function is to show God's mercy, which thus renders judgment superfluous. That a human could resist divine love and frustrate Godís will is unthinkable. To admit the possibility that some persons may be lost is for Robinson an impossible concession to a power outside God.

It is hard to reconcile this with human freedom. Free will implies the choice of eternal separation from God. If God overrides our free decisions, then freedom is a sham. If there is a connection between our acts in this world and our fate in the next, we must be allowed to make even a wrong choice in something so definitive as our final destiny. The late Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner gives the common position when he says that a time comes when each person either ratifies or reverses the fundamental choice lived throughout life, and accepts the consequences. C S Lewis agrees: "There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, 'Thy will be done,í and those to whom God says, 'Thy will be done.' All that are in Hell, choose it." (The Great Divorce, p 69)

Whatever the torments of hell may be (fire is obviously a metaphor), they are not tortures imposed by a vindictive judge. Modern psychology is more helpful than medieval penology in understanding the suffering of the damned. Hell is a projection of the person, not a punishment imposed for sins (perhaps) bitterly and belatedly regretted. Hell is an extreme narcissism turning the sinner in on self and causing unending turmoil and frustration. Hell is estrangement from God and alienation from the created universe -- a renunciation of love. The suffering of hell is compounded, according to Augustine, because God continues to love the sinner, who is not able to return this love.

Although modern theologians differ on the possibility of an eternal hell, they generally agree that God wills to save all humanity. This is a departure from the Augustinian tradition of salvation only for the few. Jesus said at the Last Supper: "This is my blood, the blood of the covenant, to be poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins." (Matthew 26:28) The reference to the "many" must be interpreted in the broader context of Paulís classic witness to Godís will: "I urge that petitions, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgiving be offered for all men Ö Prayer of this kind is good, and God our savior is pleased with it, for he wants all men to be saved and to come and know the truth. And the truth is this: God is one, one also is the mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all." (1 Timothy 2:1, 3-6)

Would the coming of the Son of Man represent a triumph over sin and hell in any significant way if most of the human race is lost?
Posted by Fortinbras Armstrong | Mon Mar 25, 2013, 11:53 AM (0 replies)

Well, I won't bash atheism

Indeed, I can well understand why some people are atheists. If I wanted to, I could write a really forceful book on exactly what is wrong with the Catholic Church.

Is there much to dislike about the Catholic Church? Certainly. I could recommend Garry Wills' Papal Sin: Structures of Deceit for some examples. (I know Garry, and while I don't agree with everything he says -- and I have discussed his book with him at length -- I do agree with much of it.)

As a Catholic, I am just as outraged as anyone else about pedophile priests and the bishops who cover up their crimes. But how can I let the horrific actions of a few drive me from a tradition I find that, at its core, has beauty?

Do the actions of corrupt politicians shake my faith in democracy, whose core idea is that every person has a voice in government? No. I have more faith in it than that. When the economy dips, do I pull my money out of the bank and hide it in my mattress? No. I have more faith in the process than that.

The very basic core of the Catholic tradition is this: The Creator, something bigger and grander than us, who made the sunsets and the mountains and the stars (whether directly or through natural processes... it doesn't matter) looks upon imperfect humans, who kill and hurt each other, greedily locking ourselves away instead of sharing our talents and resources with everyone for the greater good, have the potential to possess a beauty within us. God looked upon that beauty with a love incomprehensible and decided to insert himself into human history by sending his son to live, suffer, and die just like one of us. He did that so that we could feel that love with the Creator for all of eternity. He told us that we could live forever in those loving arms of the Father if only we embrace that love not only for him, but for each other as well. I believe it was that love that gave life back to this Jesus of Nazareth.

That's my paraphrase. Note that there is nothing in there about popes or bishops or priests. But ask any pope or bishop or priest, or any of us who find that beautiful hope real, and we will tell you the same (more or less. Many will just quote John 3:16 from the Bible, but it's much the same message). It is that beauty and hope of that love that makes me a believer.

It is also a reality that nobody is perfect. Some are even down right monstrous. But that core message never changes. My faith in that message rides out the bumpy times, like when I ride out the bumpiness in the economy, or the times when my trust in my fellow humans falters, as when a corrupt politician is uncovered. Deep down, the core message of love and freedom is pure and true for me.

When I am angry, I yell and shout. I hold errant priests and bishops responsible for their acts. But nothing they do can shake the fact that I still view that love and beauty between myself and my God. It makes me angry that the arrogance of a few to hold on to power. Most of us Catholics simply separate the crap from the beauty, and go on, like we have for nearly two millennia, recognizing the crap (and we Catholics have produced a LOT of crap) but trying every day to celebrate the beautiful things with each other.

For those who would have me go elsewhere, I respond with Peter, "Lord, where shall we go?" My trust, my faith, my love is in Jesus, the sacraments, the traditions of the Catholic Church. It is a faith that calls me. Yes, there are evil people in it. Evil people get into everything. The Catholic Church is an oligarchy. It is not that I love.

But how can I give up Ignatius Loyola and his spiritual exercises? How can I give up Francis of Assisi's love for the poor and all of God's creation? How can I give up the beauty I see in Theresa of Avila's writing? Or turn my back on Cardinal Newman? If I give up Roman Catholicism, I give up all that and much more.

Yes, I know that Cardinal Law et al have acted in ways that disgrace the Church. Many of the current leaders of the Institutional Church are corrupt thugs, from the parish right up to the Vatican.

This is nothing new. Torquemada torturing people to save their souls, popes preaching crusades, Pius XII remaining silent on the Holocaust and then pretending he wasn't, the whole career of St Cyril of Alexandria, the blatant anti-Semitism of St John Chrysostom, etc, etc, etc ad nauseam. The Church is subject to the mischievousness, sinfulness, and frailty of its members and leaders.

But the Church is more than just the institution. It is a fellowship of the people of God, the Body of Christ. Vatican II's document on the Church has a helpful phrase, "The Church, or in other words, the kingdom of Christ now in mystery, grows visibly in the world through the power of God." The Church is, in T S Eliot's phrase from "The Dry Salvages", "The point of intersection of the timeless with time."

In the Nicene Creed, we proclaim that the Church is "holy". This refers to the power of sanctification that heals and justifies in the face of our unholiness. The medieval theologian Albert the Great, commenting on this part of the Creed, said

This article must therefore be traced back to the work of the Holy Spirit, that is, to "I believe in the Holy Spirit", not in himself alone ... but also as far as his work is concerned, which is to make the Church holy. He communicates that holiness in the sacraments, the virtues, and the gifts that he distributes in order to bring holiness about, and finally in the miracles and graces of a charismatic type such as wisdom, knowledge, faith, the discernment of spirits, healing, prophecy, and everything else that the Spirit gives in order to make the holiness of the Church manifest. Thus, the Church does not claim holiness because its members, individually or collectively, are holy. The Church's holiness is an expression of divine love that will not be defeated by our willfulness and weakness. God's covenant is not a contractual arrangement that ceases when we sin, it abides despite everything.

Ephesians 2:20-22 describes the Church as "members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is held together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God."

The Church as Body of Christ makes the holiness of God a reality in the world. The Church's holiness is inseparable from Jesus' holiness, and the Church manifests its holiness in much the same way in which Jesus manifested his. Living in the world, Jesus drew sinners -- tax collectors, prostitutes, fishermen, thieves -- to himself. Although they were not always fully able to respond to Jesus' call for repentance, they were attracted to his promise of mercy and forgiveness. The taproot of the Church's holiness is not to be found in its attempts to flee from the world into some never-never land untouched by impurity, compromise, or corruption. Rather, it is in embracing Jesus, through whom God embraces the world.

To I agree with Martin Luther, Hier stehe ich, ich kann nicht anders. Gott hilfe mir! -- "Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise. God help me!"
Posted by Fortinbras Armstrong | Sat Mar 16, 2013, 06:12 PM (1 replies)
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