Wednesday, January 31, 2024

The Holiness of God and the End of Evil

What does the holiness of God finally require? Is it the everlasting punishment of sinners, as some have imagined, a view that has been known as the Eternal Conscious Torment position? That has several serious problems — biblical, linguistic, theological, moral, and philosophical — but the one I want to  focus on today, and the point of comparison in this little article, is the final disposition of evil.

At the cross, God did not condemn sinners, nor Christ in the place of sinners. But God condemned sin itself. “For God achieved what the law could not do because it was weakened through the flesh. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and concerning sin, he condemned sin in the flesh” (Romans 8:3).

Should we suppose that God condemned sin through the death of Christ only to let it forever remain in some corner of creation? That would make no sense. Yet that is what the idea of Eternal Conscious Torment logically leads to. If it were true, then sin would never be finally dealt with; it would always exist in the world, in the hearts of rebellious sinners, and would forever be a blight on God’s good creation.

The Annihilationist view, that the wicked are destroyed after a period of punishment, at least sees the final elimination of sin and evil, and so it is at least a more coherent view. But it also sees the elimination of part of God’s creation, of beings created in the image of God. What a terrible cost that would be. And to the extent that God allows his own creation to be destroyed at the hands of evil, would that not be a defeat for God, for Christ, and for the cross?

Either view would mean that where sin abounded, grace did not abound and was not even equal to the task. Yet, Paul declares the opposite, that where sin abounded, grace much more abounded: “Now the law came in so that the transgression may increase, but where sin increased, grace multiplied all the more, so that just as sin reigned in death, so also grace will reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 5:20-21). Paul uses a Hebrew rhetorical device here, expressed in Hebrew as qal va-homer, “how much more,” arguing from the lesser to the greater. In this case, it means that where sin increased, how much more did grace abound! 

But what does the holiness of God require? Nothing short of the condemnation and removal of sin and evil, so that there are finally no more rebellious sinners, but all will have become saints through our Lord Jesus Christ, holy before the Lord. It means that God will be “All in All.”

“Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. For he ‘has put everything under his feet.’ Now when it says that ‘everything’ has been put under him, it is clear that this does not include God himself, who put everything under Christ. When he has done this, then the Son himself will be made subject to him who put everything under him, so that God may be all in all.” (1 Corinthians 15:24-28)

The only view that sees sin and evil finally and thoroughly rid from the created cosmos, without the final destruction of any of God’s creation, is Christian universalism; also known as universal reconciliation, or universal restoration, or in Greek, Apocatastasis.

Sunday, January 28, 2024

Neither Payment Nor Penalty

The Cross was not about a debt paid or a penalty satisfied, though some have taken passages such as Colossians 2:14, as teaching such. But this passage does not describe some cosmic debt service or penal satisfaction. Rather, it shows us the obliteration of all written charges against us; not by payment but by crucifying them, putting them to death. They were simply removed from all consideration. Why? Because as Paul shows in verse 13, though we were dead in our transgressions and in the “uncircumcision” of our flesh, Christ nevertheless made us alive with him, having forgiven all our sins.

And even though you were dead in your transgressions and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, he nevertheless made you alive with him, having forgiven all your transgressions. He has destroyed what was against us, a certificate of indebtedness expressed in decrees opposed to us. He has taken it away by nailing it to the cross. Disarming the rulers and authorities, he has made a public disgrace of them, triumphing over them by the cross. (Colossians 1:13-15 NET)

This forgiveness was not the result of the Cross but was the cause of it. The Cross did not win God’s forgiveness for us but revealed God’s forgiveness to us. We see this also in Romans 5:8. “But God demonstrates his own love for us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

If the Cross reveals God’s forgiveness, then it is not about payment of debt. There is either debt payment or debt forgiveness. If a debt is forgiven, then it is not paid; if the debt is paid then it has not been forgiven but paid. There is no such thing as a debt that has been forgiven yet still must be paid.

So, what happened at the Cross was not about a debt paid or a penalty satisfied before God could forgive us. Rather, it was the greatest revelation of God’s forgiveness.

The Cross was about destroying everything that was against us. Not only the indictment, which was not satisfied but, quite the opposite, completely set aside, but also the “principalities and powers,” the “rulers and authorities,” the dark spiritual entities behind human institutions and powers, which rise up against God to enslave us. They have been completely disarmed and no longer have any power or authority to hold us in bondage. They have been put to open shame by the Triumph of the Cross. The author of Hebrews puts it this way: 

Therefore, since the children share in flesh and blood, he likewise shared in their humanity, so that through death he could destroy the one who holds the power of death (that is, the devil), and set free those who were held in slavery all their lives by their fear of death. (Hebrews 2:14-15)

The power of death has been destroyed, so also the one who held the power of death (which was not God but the devil). And so also the fear of death which so long held humankind in slavery to sin. We no longer have to fear death; we no longer have to be in bondage to sin, to our desires, to our passions. Now we can, as Paul says, reckon ourselves dead to sin and alive to God (Romans 6:11).

This is the work of the Cross and the meaning of the gospel. Not the payment of some penalty to satisfy God, but deliverance from, and the destruction of, all those things that worked together to destroy us.

Monday, January 15, 2024

The Cross, Creation and the End of Evil

Why is there evil and suffering in the world? Here is a different take that comes to me the more I meditate on how central Christ crucified and risen is to everything. Here it is for your consideration, and it goes like this:

First, understand that evil is not a thing in itself, and has no existence in itself. Evil is nothing more than the lack of good, therefore the lack of thingness. For Christ, the Creator of all things, creates only the good. So, the evil we see is the void, the nothingness into which Christ, the Logos, speaks the world into existence. 

Christ crucified and risen is both the beginning and the completion of all creation. For he who is the firstborn of the dead is the firstborn of all creation (Colossians 1). The cross is the very center of time and eternity, yet it encompasses time and eternity. Christ crucified and risen is the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End.

When we see the Cross, we are witnessing evil, the darkness and chaos of non-being, doing the very worst it can do to God, even to the point of crucifying Christ. But the moment of the Cross and Resurrection is the very undoing of all evil, chaos and darkness. It is the very moment of Christ creating the heavens and the earth, the moment of humankind being made in the image of God, to be like God.

So, if we want to know what the creation of the world looks like, look to the cross, to Christ crucified and risen. If we want to know what the end or consummation of the world looks like, look to Christ crucified and risen. If we want to see what the defeat of all evil looks like, look to Christ crucified and risen. 

It is all accomplished there, certainly in eternity, but also in time. For the Incarnation of Christ is the union of eternity with time. We can see, in time, where it is all done in eternity. We can point to it and say, “There it is, right there!” We can be immersed in it and taste it on our tongues in the sacraments. Everything in time, both forward and backward, is worked out from the Cross.

The Cross means that we no longer have to understand time as neverending cycles, or in linear fashion, with “before” and “after,” for our eternal Lord Jesus Christ has united himself with time. Now we can see the consummation of all time and the unveiling of history right there at the Cross, in Christ crucified and risen. 

This, I believe, is the point of the book of Revelation, the Apocalypsis, the Unveiling that “pulls away the curtain” to show us the Lamb of God, slain from the foundation of the world, seated upon the Throne, making all things new. And this is why we find, in Revelation, the most exquisite worship, because it is in worship of the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world that we behold everything — the Beginning and the End, all fulfilled in our Lord Jesus Christ.

“The darkness is passing away,” John the Elder tells us, “and the True Light is already shining” (1 John 2:8). At the Cross, we can simultaneously witness the passing away of darkness and evil, and the shining of the Light of Christ, who is the True Light that gives Light to everyone in the world (John 1:9).

Sunday, January 14, 2024

The Problem of the Will

The problem of the human will is not that of wills that are free but must somehow be persuaded to choose God and the good. Rather, the problem is that of the human will bound in darkness and the fear of death — until the love of God penetrates and sets it free.

Freedom of will is not the ability to choose between good and evil, based on nothing inherent in the chooser. Otherwise, there would be nothing to differentiate the exercise of the will from random events.

Rather, freedom of will is the ability to act according to one’s true inherent nature. The true and inherent nature of humans is that of persons created in the image of God and to be like God. Being thus created, our true and inherent will is to seek God and the good — that is when the will is competent. A will that is competent is one that is fully developed, fully informed, and not beset by hindering factors. But where one is not mature, or has been deceived, or is bound, we cannot say that their will is free.

So, for example, Lord Jesus said that whoever sins is a slave to sin (John 8:34). One who is a slave to sin does not have free will, for their will is in bondage, and not able to act according to their inherent nature. For another example, from the cross, Lord Jesus prayed for those who were crucifying him (which would include us all), “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” Their will was not free because it was not fully informed.

In the case of Adam and Eve in the garden, their will was not competent because they were deceived, bound by the deception of the devil. St. Irenaeus of Lyon, one of the Church Fathers from the 2nd century, taught that Adam and Eve were deceived because they were not yet mature.

God’s plan of salvation, enacted through Christ, does not require that God ignore, override, or otherwise cancel out the free will of anyone. Quite the opposite, Christ has come to set free our human will, so that we may act according to our true nature as persons created to bear the image of God and to be like God.

In the Incarnation, God and humankind are united in Jesus Christ (this is why the Cross and the Resurrection are effective for our salvation). So, Christ himself is our true nature. The love of the Father, the life of Christ in us, and the ministry of the Holy Spirit work in us to free us — mind, heart and will — from the deceits of the devil and the fear of death, so that we may may be and act as we truly are in Christ.