The Big Ask
Fr. Gregory Hallam · February 23, 2012
The Fathers of the Church are very clear that it is not God who separates himself from sinners and punishes them but rather sinners themselves who, through their own bad choices, separate themselves from the Lord and experience in that separation the sufferings of hell, darkness and despair.
“But as many as depart from God by their own choice, He inflicts that separation from Himself which they have chosen of their own accord. But separation from God is death, and separation from light is darkness,... It is not, however, that the Light has inflicted upon them the penalty of darkness.” —St. Irenaeus Against Heresies 5. 27:2.
So said St Irenaeus concerning the Last Judgement. The Fathers of the Church are very clear that it is not God who separates himself from sinners and punishes them but rather sinners themselves who, through their own bad choices, separate themselves from the Lord and experience in that separation the sufferings of hell, darkness and despair.
In Western Christianity in the second millennium a crazy idea developed that God had to punish sinners Himself through the death of a righteous man in order that the dishonour done to Him could be discharged. In this heresy, Christ becomes the righteous man who, as God himself, saves man from God. Arguably it was Anselm in the West who popularised this notion in the context of feudalism. The language used is that of satisfaction. Feudalism, you may recall, is little more than institutional slavery with a feudal lord exacting retributive justice on his peasants whenever they stepped out of line. Christ then, according to Anselm, sacrificed himself in order to appease God the Father for the sins of mankind, taking upon himself the punishment of mankind in our place. This is called in the West - “substitutionary atonement” - for it supposes that Christ is punished by the Father instead of us, vicariously granting us forgiveness by the death of Christ. Notice how God is obliged to punish and kill to fulfil the requirements of his justice and holiness. How this could ever be described as an act of love beats me. Moreover does it not lead people to hate the God that can only forgive in this way?
Alexander Kalomiros, a lay theologian of the Orthodox Church, in 1980 delivered a lecture about this to a youth conference in America and this was later published and has gained wide circulation in the Orthodox world. The quotation from St Irenaeus with which I began this sermon was quoted by him together with many other patristic sources, in order to show how much of the atheism which afflicts the West at this time is not born out of an indifference to God but rather out of an active hatred for a malicious deity. The aforementioned “River of Fire” is a short, provocative yet insightful and well researched talk that is well worth reading. It is in our Library. In the light of substitutionary atonement, Kalomiros’ argument is persuasive, especially when we consider that the new atheists today are very often rejecting heretical Christianity, not Orthodox Christianity. Orthodoxy is largely unknown to them, as it is to the vast majority of others whose atheism is not born out of conviction but out of rather lazy thinking and the following of fashionable trends.
Anyway, let us return to St Irenaeus in order that we might have a true and godly understanding of the Last Judgement on this Meatfare Sunday as Orthodox Christians. Let us listen to this again and pay particular attention to his phrasing. As with the Scriptures and the Fathers of the Church generally, every word counts and no word is chosen ildly.
“But as many as depart from God by their own choice, He inflicts that separation from Himself which they have chosen of their own accord. But separation from God is death, and separation from light is darkness,... It is not, however, that the Light has inflicted upon them the penalty of darkness.”
Notice the phrasing “by their own choice” and “of their own accord.” If human beings are separated from God it is of by their own choice and by their own accord that such a separation is made. God does not desire it, nor does He inflict such separation upon these forlorn souls as a punishment. Still less does He punish them for the sins of their ancestors all the way back to Adam, the pernicious doctrine of original sin and transmissible guilt, which finds no warrant in Scripture or the Tradition of the Church. Moreover, since it is our own choice that leads us to a self-imposed heaven or hell, respectively with or without God, it is definitely not God Himself who chooses to reward the righteous in heaven and punish the wicked in hell. Even to say that in a post-Christian Western society sounds totally shocking to Western ears, so accustomed are people to the idea that God is a vengeful lawgiver, out for blood due to the dishonour done to his Name by sins that allegedly have collectively burdened every human soul from prehistory to the present.
It is precisely the point of this heresy then that there can be no freedom to choose in respect of sin or virtue, for we all utterly corrupted and paralysed by inherited sins and sinfulness to the point of losing our freedom, were it not for intervening grace. Yet, St Irenaeus and the Fathers are clear ... we are certainly not robbed of our freedom to choose no matter how dire our sins are. We always have an effective choice. It is we ourselves then who choose whether or not to love God and our neighbours as ourselves and, of course, experience the consequences of those choices. We do not live in a predetermined state of salvation or damnation based, as St Augustine supposed, on whether or not God has Himself chosen either option as our fate. This is yet another reason not to blame and hate God for something for which we are not responsible. We choose. With God there is only heaven; it is we ourselves who have dug out the infernal pits of hell and despair.
Returning to St Irenaeus, he reminds his hearers that separation from God is death and darkness and then proceeds to punch home that great and outstanding insight from the very gospel itself:- “It is not, however, that the Light has inflicted upon them the penalty of darkness.” Turn to the Light therefore and you shall see and not be blinded. Darkness comes when you turn away from the Light. Before death you will have opportunities over and over to turn to the Light, to receive the Light as the Paschal hymn invites. And when the Last Judgement comes beyond our death the Big Ask from God will be:- “Did you turn to the Light through repentance? Did you turn to the Light through acts of love and mercy? Did you turn to the Light even when you let sin and darkness overcome you to restore your vision and guide your way?
And doubtless we shall respond in the manner of today’s gospel: “Lord how did we ever do such things?” And he will point to love above all things as the proof for Love is the very nature and being and life of the Blessed Trinity. When we choose loving even to the point of death we choose God and live eternally. When we choose the passions, selfishness and the hatred of others, we choose hell by our own choice, by our own accord. So let us choose wisely and well. Let us choose love.