Bookends and the Resurrection

A series of recent conversations with a parishioner turned up the problem of “bookends,” that is, questions of the beginning and the end. It is only natural in our day and age to attack problems in this manner. “How did it start?” is  a way of saying, “What is it?” The end, of course, is not so obvious, other than its connection with our insatiable desire to know how things will turn out. These questions, thrust into the mix of Christian thought, have come to dominate a certain way of thinking about God. They are also very misleading. For though the Christian faith has something to say about the beginning and the end, it does not do so in the manner that we imagine.

Genesis is and is not about the beginning of the universe. However, what Genesis does not do is set forth a problem that must be solved. We read it in that manner, but only after the fact. That the primal stories in Genesis receive almost no attention whatsoever in the remainder of the Old Testament is itself an indicator that Jewish tradition did not see Genesis in this manner. Our modern habits of thought are quite linear, reducing the world to cause and effect in a long chain of historical events. With that in mind, we go to Genesis to see if we can find the cause of all later events. And there it is! We see mankind’s sin in the Garden and the punishment of death. There, we believe, is the cause of the Jesus story.

This reading creates terrible problems for many Christians when various scientific accounts of early humanity make the story in the Garden somewhat problematic. For example, I have been told that if Adam and Eve are not literal characters, then the entire account of Christian salvation falls apart. This is only true if you’re stuck in the problem of “bookends.” This same anxiety often drives an anti-science bias among believers. They feel threatened.

The Orthodox writer, George Gabriel, makes this observation:

The fathers say that neither the course of human events nor necessity of any kind forced the Uncreated One to join to Himself a creaturely mode of existence. God did not become flesh because some actions of the devil or of man made it necessary, but because it was the divine plan and mystery from before the ages. Despite the works of Satan and the coming of sin into the world, the eternal will of God was undeterred, and it moved forward.

This echoes St. Maximus:

He who apprehends the mystery of the cross and the burial apprehends the inward essences of created things: while he who is initiated into the inexpressible power of the resurrection apprehends the purpose for which God first established everything.

The “bookends” approach to Christian theology creates false problems – precisely because it assumes that the cause of things is found within history itself, and therefore “in the beginning.” However, the cause of all things is the Incarnation of Christ, encompassing both His death and resurrection. This alone is the “starting point” of the faith and of creation. The Incarnation of Christ is the beginning.

It is difficult for our reasoning habits to grasp this. Most people read such statements as nothing more than an exaggerated way of saying that the Incarnation is important. But the Scriptures witness that Christ is the “Lamb slain from the foundation of the world.” Difficult as well to understand is that the Crucified Christ (“Lamb slain”) somehow exists before the creation of the world.

Our thinking about time and creation, about what we call “history,” is secular for the most part. We think of history as something that unfolds outside of God and into which He must choose to enter. In point of fact, we think that what takes place at any moment of time depends solely on what took place at the moment just preceding. The historical reasoning that searches for causation in a linear fashion is modern secularism, and the larger portion of Christians reasons in just such a manner.

Another way to describe this is to say that true eschatology (the study of “final things”) has been lost to modern Christians. The only ending that is presently considered [and it’s a major industry] is some final product of history itself. We falsely imagine ourselves capable of “making the world a better place” because we think of ourselves as the actors and creators of history. The proper way to understand things is to see that the beginning and the end are to be found in the same place and are utterly similar in character. The Incarnate Christ Himself is the “Beginning and the End, the Alpha and Omega.”

Of course, it is just as difficult to imagine the end of things being “in the midst” of history as it is to understand the beginning to be there as well. Such understanding only comes with the “renewing of our minds” (Ro 12:2). It is the gradual perception of Christ as central to all things, that “in Him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). In the Divine Liturgy, we speak of the end of things in the past tense, so strong is the patristic grasp of eschatology. The meal we eat in Holy Communion is the actual, real and true Marriage Supper of the Lamb, that we share with Him in the Kingdom. We say to God,

“…and when we had fallen away You raised us up again, and did not cease to do all things until You had brought us up to heaven, and had endowed us with Your kingdom which is to come.”

Such a strange mix of tenses! He did not cease…until He had brought us up…and endowed…which is to come! In our salvation, we are given now, that which shall be. This destroys the linear thought of the secular mind and initiates us into the mind of the Kingdom of God.

We struggle with the commandments of Christ because our minds are mired in the secular, historicized view of the world. We fear the future, nurse our anxieties, and worry about what might happen if we actually practiced what Christ teaches. What happens if I forgive my enemies? What happens if I give without expecting in return? What happens if I turn the other cheek? Christ speaks as He does because, in Him, the Kingdom of God has come. Those who are in Christ are already “seated in the heavens.”

…even when we were dead in trespasses, [God] made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up together, and made us sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, (Eph. 2:5-6 NKJ)

The secular historicization of the faith has distorted Christian believing. We treat the death and resurrection of Christ as past events and imagine that our accepting them as historically true is the nature of faith. But they are not merely historical in the secular sense. They are present and real now. As the beginning and the end, they are also always present. By historicizing them, we dismiss them and relegate them to the collection of historical “facts” (things done). They are rather present tense “facientes” (“things being done”). Our present tense actions, done in union with that present tense reality, alone constitute faith. We do not live in the past or because of the past. We live only in and by the death and resurrection of Christ. Because of these things, the commandments of Christ not only make sense, they alone constitute a sane course of behavior.

Christ says:

…If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed. And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free. (Jn. 8:31-32 )

The truth of Christ’s word, His commandments, is only revealed as we abide in them (keep them). When that truth is known, then we will then (and only then) see the freedom that is ours in Him. We are not the creatures of history, but of Christ.

Christ is risen!

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.



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58 responses to “Bookends and the Resurrection”

  1. Nicholas Stephen Griswold Avatar
    Nicholas Stephen Griswold

    Interesting post Father. You are quite correct that our linear view of time, cause and effect is a serious impediment to faith. I noted in the past that our view of history creates contradictions in our faith. By adopting the Ancients views on history, these contradictions disappear.

  2. Byron Avatar

    This is one to read over again! Shaking out of a linear view of time and the world is a very difficult thing. Glory to God for All Things! Christ is Risen!

  3. David Waite f/k/a Learning to be still Avatar
    David Waite f/k/a Learning to be still

    The sentence, “We think of history as something that unfolds outside of God and into which He must choose to enter,” confuses me, because I thought that is how the Orthodox think of history.

    History exists in space and time, but God transcends space and time. By his grace, he chose to enter space and time – history- through the Incarnation.

    What am I getting wrong?

  4. Roman Glass Avatar
    Roman Glass

    Indeed He is risen! Glory to God for all things!

  5. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    There is a relationship between God and the material world (space/time) that would be understood under the heading of the Divine Energies. Every aspect of Divine Providence is an aspect of the Divine Energies. There is no non-contingent material existence – existence is always contingent.

  6. Esmée La Fleur Avatar

    Absolutely fascinating…. Thank you!

  7. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Father one product of the secular version is the incredibly damaging perdictions of when the world will end (this month according to the latest such stupidity).
    David, even when a human being creates something he is always part of it and it apart of him. We are not able to join with our creations though. But Jesus is. He was slain before the foundation of the world, I think, in order to pour out His life for us always.

    We have never been separate. But we were not yet married. Now we are(or can be).

    Thus the Bridegroom Hymn: I behold the Bridal Chamber. Richly adorned for my Savior. But I have no bridal garment to worthily enter. Make radiant the garment of my soul, O giver of Light and save me.”

    We are saved when we enter into the Bridal Chamber (the tomb) and unite with Him. Not the other way round.

    My favorite line from Star Trek, Deep Space Nine: “The Sisco is too linear”

    It was when I realized that history is not linear (a gift from my parents) that I began to see God and to understand that He always has/is/will be seeing me. He is in the midst of us no matter the time the place or the occurrence.

    He reveals Himself most completely in the communion of the Orthodox Church.

  8. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    The Liturical greeting: “Christ is in our midst”and the response:. “He is and always shall be.” Shows a part of that mystery.

  9. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Fr Stephen,
    Thank you so much for this reflection. Recently I’ve been asked for an explanation for my observation of “Christ’s Death trampling down death” within ‘real-time’ data of the Higgs potential energy field. The thinking presented to me was this: “Christ’s death happened in the past, so how could you see it in this is new data?” This article provides a wonderful answer to that question.

    There is a developing science and new theories that are emerging from explorations into the Higgs field that are quite interesting and offers an additional facet of light on your reflections (not that your article needs more ‘light’).

    One such situation is this: there are ever more questions about the ‘history tradition’ of the Big Bang theory. By ‘tradition’ I mean to describe the usual way the ‘story’ of the Big Bang is told, which is typically described in a secular way and as presenting a cosmological ‘history’. I beg forgiveness once again for I’m about to make a reference to a ‘Modernist’ spin on science thinking:

    Scientists can’t always escape the cultural imprint of ‘Modernist’ thinking, even when they attempt to rid themselves of cultural influences, that would hinder their work. Fr Stephen, l know you’ve written a great deal on the subject of the philosophy of modernity, and how it arose. From my perspective, it influenced how theories are framed in science as much as it influenced how theology was ‘framed’ in Western Christianity. Unfortunately I can hear the ‘voice’ of modernity within some Orthodox people’s understanding of Christ and His Cross and Resurrection, as well, even among the ‘cradle Orthodox’, who are brought up in this culture. It is only by Providence in my early cultural circumstances that enabled me to learn science without so much influence of modernity encumbering me. Although I know well I haven’t dodged that bullet entirely. And metaphorically speaking, I can also say I continue to ‘bleed’ where I’ve been so wounded.

    David, it is wonderful to address you by your given name. I’m so delighted you are now in the Orthodox faith. Welcome new and dear brother in Christ!! I am grateful that you participate in this blog and raise your questions. Would it be inappropriate to ask what area of science you’ve been in? I will completely respect your privacy if you don’t want to answer this question.

  10. Christine Avatar

    Father, this answered a few questions I had on the relationship between God’s time and ours, and was far more thorough than I could have hoped. It brings to mind a rather strange question I’ve been wondering about: the saints, and all who are victorious in Christ, are present with us, even if undetected by us, aiding us…so I’ve been wondering, if eternity is already here now, and all of earthly time is present to Heaven, is there a future self (or perhaps it woukd be better to ask about an eternal self) that is a part of that cloud of witnesses? I apologize if this verges on science fiction.

  11. Janine Avatar

    Thanks, Father. Time and space clearly don’t apply in the absolute reality of Christ (the experience on the Mount of Transfiguration comes to mind with its indications of such).

    As such, I can also accept that the Incarnation “always was” the center of history, and was not contingent on human choice. But here’s the question: where does human choice come into it? I suppose we can’t say whether or not the sinfulness or fallenness (if you will) of mankind would inevitably have been so. But, at any rate, where does that come into the story? And one wonders how it has affected the story. Linked to that is also the problem of evil. Where and how does it come into the story?

  12. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    It’s a very pertinent question. I think our choice and our will play a role in the unfolding of God’s creation. That the Lamb was slain from the foundation of the world, for me, indicates that God always foresaw what our freedom would entail – and created us anyway. Our “end” in Christ is to be “partakers of the Divine Nature,” or, put more bluntly, to become “gods.” For myself, I have come to look at the whole of creation and all that takes place in it as what is required, by love, to turn dirt into a god, in freedom and in love.

    Christ’s entrance into death and hell, we should note, is an action of self-emptying, not “self-assertion.” It is a love that does not force. So, God’s creative action in our lives leaves us utterly free – it is He who is “compelled” to act, not us. And the compulsion does not come from us, or from circumstances, but from His own love.

  13. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I think that question is above my pay-grade.

  14. Janine Avatar

    Thank you very much Father! That is a wonderful answer, I’ll take it 🙂 I’ll have to think about it quite a bit … ! God’s blessings!

  15. Sophia Avatar

    Christine’s question sounds similar to one of my own, though I haven’t gone as far as to assume an eternal self. If The Kingdom is here now, and all of time has culminated in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, is that to say that the Second Coming has already happened as well? Is it all merely semantics? Which is allegory, what parts are metaphorical, what’s to be taken at face value, which stories are historical and which are parable, aside from those outrightly labeled so?

  16. Janine Avatar

    Just thinking about your response — perhaps the Incarnation “always was” but I am wondering if its form (especially crucifixion) was necessitated by human action. After all, what was not assumed would not be healed, so the assumption of all of the conditions of our lives, with all the attendant afflictions, was necessary.

  17. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    I think Sahakespear said it best: “If it be now, ’tis not to come; if it is not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come; the readiness is all”

    Watch and pray. Rejoice in the Lord always. The evil of the day is sufficient there to.

  18. David Avatar

    Father Stephen –
    Here I had just finished reading your article here when I came upon the following words from Father Matthew the Poor:
    “The awesome meaning of the incarnation is that we were born the day Christ was born, we were baptized the day he was baptized by John the Baptist in the river, died through his death on the cross, and rose through his resurrection to become one in him. He is our God, and his Father is our Heavenly Father.” ( from “Guidelines for Prayer”).

  19. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    When you suggest that the Second Coming has already happened, it is saying something in historical terms. Historically, the Second Coming has not happened. In terms of the Kingdom of God (such as when we are in the Liturgy), the Second Coming is sometimes spoken of in the past tense (St. John Chrysostom does this at a certain point).

    It’s by no means merely semantics. Nor is it the case that we should develop some sort of historical anxiety – wondering about what is precisely historical or not. Sometimes it’s a both/and.

  20. Mihai Avatar

    Father Stephen,

    Christ is risen!

    The attempt to trivialize historical reality or to describe it as of no importance by focusing only on the mystical and eternal side of the issue is an error in the opposite direction of historicism and leads to other kind of distortions.
    If linear time can be rightly described as a line within a greater sphere, this does not diminish the reality of the line, nor of its importance in our existence. While God’s economy, in its essence, is not influenced in any way by events in time and space, its mode of operation does take them into account- otherwise our very lives would have no reason of existing. If the Cross is the mystery which is before the foundation of the world, the way it manifested (in the violent death of Christ) in the historical moment known to us as 33 AD (or 27 AD, or whatever) is certainly a direct consequence of the fall.

    Yes, the fall of man from its primordial edenic state is the cause of all the nefarious events to come- the slaying of Abel by Cain, the flood and so on down the line.
    The fall (even though not always addressed by this name- another red herring) is an essential part of the traditional Christian/Orthodox dogmatic and ascetical tradition. It is even an essential part of the Liturgical prayer you quoted above.

    Those who observe this do not necessarily have a bias against science, but against scientism, that is ideology disguised as science.

    “This reading creates terrible problems for many Christians when various scientific accounts of early humanity make the story in the Garden somewhat problematic”

    Those “various scientific accounts” which are nothing other than evolutionism or a variation of it are not scientific, but ideological. They represent a profoundly anti-Christian philosophy in which death is the beginning and end of all things.
    Either death was the result of the fall (however we think of it), thus a direct disruption in the natural order which was created good by God, or it was from the beginning created by God, making it a natural part of the cosmos- through which everything “evolves” and becomes ever more complex and developed.
    It is that simple.

    Somehow modern Christians close their ears the second someone mentions that many things they have been told are “hard science” are nothing more than ideology.
    I am sometimes amazed at the amount of double-thinking required to hold such contradictory views.

    Forgive me if my comment sounds somewhat harsh, but I really think you should examine this matter a little more.

  21. biermonk Avatar

    Fr John Behr said it like this: “Jesus was not ‘Plan B’ “.

  22. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I appreciate your thoughts. I do not want to dismiss the linear-time thing, but I think it’s problem lies in its tendency towards a secularized historicism. That said, it’s quite difficult to do this without seeming to have dismissed it or overly minimized it.

    By the same token, science frequently (almost always) works in a secularized/historical manner – and that becomes problematic. It’s not just problematic because the science is bad or debateable – but it’s treated as a closed system that is less than true.

    What I have written, however, is consistent with the fathers – particularly St. Maximus, as noted. A proper eschatology is not “mystical” or “eternal.” I’m simply working to bring this into the field of our understanding rather than pushing it “upstairs” to some two-storey reading of the theology of the Church.

  23. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Time is real but it is not supreme nor constant. It is created and so it is interpenetrated by the personal, the uncreated and the infinite. What Father is pointing out, I think, is the false eschatology at the heart of the modern project that as you rightly point out is both focused on and dependent on death and determined by time. ( Interesting that it is called progress)

    It is not an either/or. What is revealed in the Church about time and eternity is both/and. The constant interplay between the created and the uncreated in which death is overcome and time itself is redeemed, measured not by death and decay but in moving from glory to glory–transformation within God’s restored order. True timelessness would only exist in the entropic state. What time is not is two dimensional and causative.

    A good primer on time and the human experience of it is William Faulker’s “The Sound and the Fury”

  24. Mihai Avatar

    Yes, I too agree with your view of eschatology, but we must be aware not to create false dichotomies.
    Historicism is an error. A linear historical perspective on events is a legitimate way to look at things from a certain point of view and it influences our existence to a great extent, though it is by no means the whole of the story. Actually this is what Christ seeks to liberate us from- from this cosmic determinism into which we have fallen.

    What I said about God’s economy is quite similar to Janine’s understanding above. This idea I got from Father Stăniloaie, in a passage where he interprets the very quote from St Maximos you have written in the article. The Incarnation, the Crucifixion, the Resurrection- these are NOT some historical accidents necessitated by human sin. They are essential to God’s plan of the Cosmos, but they would have manifested in a different way had humanity not fallen- that is they would have had a more mystical character rather than the one they actually had in these fallen conditions.
    So the essence is unchanged, but the mode is influenced by human freedom and actions.

    So if I don’t heed God’s call from the first, but decide to do my own will instead, I will get myself in loads of trouble and create insurmountable problems that will bar my way to salvation. God’s initial plan with me will not change because of this, but He will have to act in a different way than He intended at first and I, myself, will have to bear a lot more suffering and effort in order to get passed the obstacles I have created for myself.

    The point of this is to point out that, from a certain angle, from a certain point of view, the Crucifixion does depend on events narrated in Genesis 3.

  25. Drewster2000 Avatar

    I have always found that this concept of being outside of time and space and how Jesus is the “Lamb that was slain from the foundation of the world” is very difficult for human beings to grasp. It could be that only Modern people struggle with it, I don’t know.

    But I share here the mental picture which has helped me: God is looking down at a shoe string that is pulled taut between His two hands. The string of course represents chronological time. The picture of course incomplete; it doesn’t show how God is also IN each moment, and it is troublesome to some who will react by saying that all has already been decided and nothing we decide really matters. This isn’t true but could be construed from my picture.

    I think Fr. Stephen said it well: “For myself, I have come to look at the whole of creation and all that takes place in it as what is required, by love, to turn dirt into a god, in freedom and in love.”

    Another thing worth mentioning is that we all have limits to what we can understand and comprehend. If thoughts about being outside time and space are too much for us, then we should simply remember our role as His children and just ask Him for what we need in regards to this and all matters.

  26. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    IMO, one reason many people have difficulty with Mary is because from a linear time-space perspective she is a conundrum. “Her womb became more spacious than the heavens and contained the uncontainable God”.

  27. Greg Storey Avatar
    Greg Storey

    Father Stephen-I believe St. Maximos the Confessor said that “by grace” we can become “Uncreated”. Does this mean that “by grace” in the “future” (?) we will be without beginning or end? If we are “potentially” the creatures he describes doesn’t this this further disorient our relationship to linear time?

  28. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I would say that the events in Genesis 3 depend on the Crucifixion. God is not the cause of sin, but He did not create a universe incapable of the fall. The historical character of the early Genesis chapters is not at all clear – they are not written in a historical manner. That side of the text is somewhat opaque. Their veracity and reliability are found in their relationship to the historical/cosmic event of the death and resurrection of Christ.

    I could imagine that had there been no fall, these things would have manifested themselves in a different manner. Frankly, with all apologies to the giants of theology and the fathers who have speculated on “what would have been,” or “what things were like before the fall,” I find such thoughts to be pure speculation, without a basis in what has been revealed. It can, at times, make for some very strange thoughts. Reading some of the Fathers ideas on procreation if there had not been a fall is among the strangest things in theological literature – and has sometimes created unnecessary problems – again, not grounded in what has been revealed but in speculation alone.

    The fact is, we know nothing of a universe that is unfallen, nor of humanity that is unfallen – except for the singular example of Christ Himself. It is with Christ Himself we must begin (and end) in our thoughts about this, rather than beginning with a speculation about an unfallen state and what the “Lamb slain from the foundation of the world” might have been. The linear approach in which we live by necessity – does not make for the best theology.

    I say this with fear and trembling and the deepest and most profound respect for Fr. Staniloaie – one of the true giants of the 20th century.

  29. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Add to that the Elder Sophrony’s thoughts on the fullness of personhood – which would include some sort of infinite being. These things, I suspect, were discussed with St. Paul when he was caught up to the third heaven – and they were “unlawful” to be spoken. It is certainly not to be shouted from the rooftops. I can read such things, and then become very silent. There is no other response.

  30. Sophia Avatar

    Bless Father.

    I’m very relieved it’s not. Anxiety just happens to be my middle name and I tend to project it onto everything I don’t understand. I haven’t moved past my initial fear of never seeing my dead loved ones again, and into Christ’s love, and doing what I should do out of love, so the anxiety is overwhelming.

  31. David Avatar

    For me, there are several things that I take as a given: I accept the world is as it is without judgment, that the cross is the way to life, and that when I look at the cross I see the essential nature of all things.

    I accept the world as it is without judgment. In other words, I just don’t see how referring to the world as “fallen” helps me understand anything at all—not the tragedies that occur, the pain, nothing. Saying that the world is fallen doesn’t help us make sense of anything. In fact, this whole notion of a fallen universe derives from reading Genesis as history and taking it literal. If we are eschewing that, then why would we regard the universe as fallen? Because things don’t go our way? For myself, the universe is simply a place of contingency and we are contingent beings. That seems to go without saying. But, it necessarily entails the possibility that things will go sideways. That an all-together contingent universe gives rise to disintegration, confusion, and passions in in the hearts of sentient beings doesn’t surprise me and—I may be going out on a limb here—it probably didn’t surprise God either. But, we’re judgmental creatures. And when things hurt us or get in the way of eliciting pleasant sensations from our nervous system…well, that’s “bad.”

    The cross is the way of life. I think that Divine kenosis is the kernel or fundamental dynamic that lies at the core of existence.

    The cross reveals the essential nature of all things. In John 12 Jesus says “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it produces much grain.” Most people see this as referring to the historical event of the cross. But, if the cross is in some sense timeless, then this passage has a timeless component. What this verse and the cross teach me is that there is a kenotic dimension in all that God does: He empties himself to make room for the other. The Father is not the Son and is not the Spirit, there is something kenotic about that. There is kenotic action in creation.

    At the end of the day, bookends aren’t my concern or my business. Here we are. Now what are we going to do about it? Prayer, repentance, liturgy, and love our families. Don’t judge anyone.

  32. David Avatar


    You say that, “Those “various scientific accounts” which are nothing other than evolutionism or a variation of it are not scientific, but ideological. They represent a profoundly anti-Christian philosophy in which death is the beginning and end of all things.”

    I won’t say anything else except that I don’t think that comment is fair.

  33. Paula Avatar

    Father Bless!
    How I am very much drawn to your approach to the “mystical”! This is what actually locked me in to your blog. It is an answer to many questions I have and demonstrates why I was so perplexed living as a “flatlander”.
    I repeat what Drewster said, that we all have limits in our understanding. Because of my limits, I tend to get impatient (forgive me) with lengthy, extended thoughts of “this says that, and that this, it is this way, and that is final…”. I also get impatient (again…) when people tell you that you have to be careful, as if you are presenting misinformation. Your knowledge of the “mystical” and of the whole of Orthodoxy comes from experience, years of it, as a Priest, no less. I can tell by the way you explain things that it is not an opinion, but the very reality of existence. And I know this because you draw from our Tradition.

    The challenge with the “mystical” is that it is beyond the thought patterns of our trained brains. I’d like to get past that. However, many times I quickly come to an impasse. I can not “make” myself understand all the “mystical” but I believe in time, if I just “watch” and let it be, things become clearer.
    At this point, I understand when we speak of God’s foreknowledge, and His plan for our salvation before the foundations of the world. I understand the freedom He’s given us and the synergy we speak of. I see where the past, present and future are spoken of in scripture and in the Liturgy, and how it disrupts our linear view of time. I have done some reading on the concept of time as well. Most helpful has been moving away from a strictly literal interpretation of scripture where I held a very narrow view.
    Having said all this, I have a peculiar question for you, Father. If you would, I’d like to know your pattern of thought as you go about everyday life that causes you to react as, and are a reflection of, living in the “now”? Does this turn of thought come about gradually, through attendance in Liturgy, the sacraments, prayer, study, contemplation, etc.? In other words, through what I understand as “praxis”? Above all, what I am asking is in what way are your thoughts that cause you to act, different from my linear thoughts that lead me to react a certain way. (I think you touched on this in the “what ifs” in choosing to follow the commandments of Christ)
    One more question, similar to the one above. If it is true that through attention and practice we begin to see past the linear flatland to the other ever present dimension, is this simultaneously a reflection of the inner transformation (moving toward, saying yes to, God), sought through acetic practice? I’m thinking here of the healing of the soul. Because as I see it, it is one thing to know in the mind and another thing for the mind to be renewed. It takes time (and patience!), doesn’t it…and trust that God is working all things for our salvation, no?
    Thank you Father. Your gifts you share with us are ever so helpful. Especially those of us new in the faith.

  34. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    To your question, yes. I think both things go hand in hand. I would add this caveat: Just as the greater dimension of things is often hidden, so, too, is the work within the soul. I often think that we focus on our own agenda for the soul and have our own expectations. That agenda and expectations might not be terribly important to what God is doing. Our salvation is itself “eschatological” and “apocalyptic.” It is ever present, and it will also be revealed at the end of all things. This beautiful passage in Wisdom describes this revelation of the righteous:

    But the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and no torment will ever touch them. In the eyes of the foolish they seemed to have died, and their departure was thought to be an affliction, and their going from us to be their destruction; but they are at peace. For though in the sight of men they were punished, their hope is full of immortality. Having been disciplined a little, they will receive great good, because God tested them and found them worthy of himself; like gold in the furnace he tried them, and like a sacrificial burnt offering he accepted them. In the time of their visitation they will shine forth, and will run like sparks through the stubble. (Wis. 3:1-7 RSV)

    It is frequently noted in the lives of the saints – those for whom we have some information about their perception of things – that they actually and truly see themselves as the worst of sinners. Their salvation is not apparent to them. What is apparent, instead, is the goodness of God – and not as a concept but as reality. They long for God; they hunger for Him. And I think they will be surprised by the revelation of their righteousness. A sweet surprise, to be sure!

  35. Esmée La Fleur Avatar

    David –

    You said, “At the end of the day, bookends aren’t my concern or my business. Here we are. Now what are we going to do about it? Prayer, repentance, liturgy, and love our families. Don’t judge anyone.”

    I am an extremely left-brained rational person and this was the greatest impediment to me in embracing Christ and Orthodoxy, as there are so many parts of the “story” that are difficult for a modern, secular, historical perspective to accept as legitimately “true.” Yet God has been good to me and graced me with enough personal “miracles” to help me sort of “step over” the details and embrace Christ anyway. It was a pivotal moment for me when I finally realized that the only thing really important for me as a Christian is that I strive to love God and love my neighbor to the best of my ability in each and every moment. That is the beginning and end of all things. That is my only “business.”

    Thank you for your insights.

  36. Paula Avatar

    Thank you Father. I am glad you spoke about the hidden work of the soul, as that was on my mind as well. The caveat you mention is surely the linchpin. You are so right about focus and expectation. I could do with some adjusting. So yes, the hidden work is the work of God. My part is simply to say “yes” to Him, and thank Him, in all things, through all circumstances.
    The verse from Wisdom is beautiful and so very edifying, as well as the resolve of the Saints.
    Again, I thank you for your thoughtful response.

  37. Janine Avatar

    Father, you wrote: “Our salvation is itself ‘eschatological’ and ‘apocalyptic.’ It is ever present, and it will also be revealed at the end of all things.” It makes sense to me because, after all, we seek a union of love with an eternal being. Well, it is also said that the soul is immortal. So our love of God should unify us to what is timeless. Does that make sense? But again we run up against our iwn timebound limitations. That interplay is quite fascinating to ponder. Still thinking about suffering and the Cross

  38. John Chiladakis Avatar
    John Chiladakis

    Our salvation is itself “eschatological” and “apocalyptic” to be “partakers of the Divine Nature” -in every moment, in every action ( εἰ γὰρ δοκεῖ τις εἶναί τι μηδὲν ὤν, ἑαυτὸν φρεναπατᾷ).
    Thank You Father

  39. Mihai Avatar

    I don’t want to keep this going on forever, but I really have to ask those who do not attach any importance as to the question of the veracity of anything other than the Resurrection: why believe in the Resurrection? Why couldn’t it be itself relegated to the level of an “opaque” detail or read simply for the sake of “theological edification” not some event that should be believed literally? What I am asking is: once we start tossing out whole parts that are an organic part of our Tradition, where do we stop? Why stop at the Resurrection and not go full way?

    Someone above said that we don’t need to regard our present state as “fallen”. Then what have the Fathers, the Liturgical tradition of the Church, the hymnography etc. talked about this whole time?
    Christ entered humanity at a specific point in time, and though He is the Cause of all there is- of all that existed prior to the Incarnation and after It- He nonetheless became- through the Virgin Mary- part of a certain genealogy, that is from the human point of view he took flesh from a Woman who was herself an “effect”of the marriage of Joachim and Anna, themselves “effects” of their parents and so on.
    The Ruler of time became subject to time and all which is contained within time, except for personal sin- that is a basic teaching of our Church.
    I sometimes fear that we are becoming some sort of Protestantism, where everybody has the luxury of constructing his own narrative based on personal taste.

  40. Janine Avatar

    Hello Mihai, Probably I don’t know all that you are referring to, but it seems to me the Cross has always been about exchange of one life for another, exemplifying salvation and even that sacrifice is a part of love. We certainly couldn’t leave it out

  41. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    If it were the case as you say, I think it would indeed be a problem.

    but I really have to ask those who do not attach any importance as to the question of the veracity of anything other than the Resurrection: why believe in the Resurrection?

    However, you have stated the case in the extreme, making me say what I have not said. Our present state is fallen, no doubt – I think the statement was made in a very nuanced sense. And, it certainly reflects some of Paul’s strange “already present” statements about our lives. But, yes, we are fallen.

    History matters. I would readily agree that most of what we read in Scripture reflects history, even though what we read is a theologically shaped account – it is Scripture, after all, and not a history book.

    You are correct about Christ entering time. That the Lamb is slain from the Foundation of the world doesn’t mean that the Lamb need not be slain at a point in time in history.

    It is rather – if I can press this one more time – that history (and everything else) is relative to the event of the Death and Resurrection of Christ, and gets its meaning and value from that event. We do not have meaning in-and-of ourselves – nor does creation stand apart from God. The modern way of thinking about history places its meaning within history itself and there is the beginning of many problems.

    When Christians think in that manner, when the Death and Resurrection of Christ become just two events among all other events, then something is lost. We also subject our faith to all of the pseudo-scientific historical arguments that are a hallmark of the modern era.

    If I am speaking to a skeptic – and in the modern world that is our primary audience – then do I have to persuade them about the veracity of every historical detail? The truth is, because the Scriptures are a theological account of historical events, we are often in trouble in that arena. The single, critical, essential, sine qua non of the Christian faith is the Incarnation, the death and resurrection of Christ. Because everything else is relative to that – it is the place to begin. This doesn’t mean that everything else doesn’t matter – but nothing matters in the manner that this matters.

    So, we settle that matter of faith and work out from there. I do not believe in the Resurrection because we have a record of a conversation between Abraham and God that took place maybe 2000 years earlier, but wasn’t written down for centuries, etc. (just to give an example). Rather that conversation, as handed down, is important because Christ is raised from the dead. If someone tests me and says, “Prove that this conversation is true,” I would have nothing to say. I couldn’t “prove” it in a modern, historical manner.

    If they ask me, “Prove the resurrection of Christ,” I would point them to 1Cor. 15 as a place to begin – the most reliable, persuasive list of historical eyewitnesses. Alone, it doesn’t “prove.” But it is a very reliable place to begin. Only walking in the commandments of Christ ultimately reveals the truth of these things, allowing faith to grow and flourish.

    We do not have the luxury of constructing our own narrative. As Christians, we rightly walk in the Tradition as it has been handed down to us. But we think about that Tradition, enter into it in many ways as we make it our own.

    For what it’s worth, I write with a primary readership in mind: those who are coming out of modernity into the faith. They come from a place of dark skepticism and many other things born within that mindset. It takes lots of time and many, many efforts to help nurture someone from modernity into the mind of the Church. Nothing in the Tradition is devalued here or dismissed, though, I think it is necessary to understand the Tradition in a thoughtful manner. But this is a work God has given me. My caveat would be not to describe it in extreme terms or to suggest that it is saying something that it isn’t.

    Christ is risen!

  42. Mihai Avatar

    Ok, I can understand the point of view you are writing from and the audience to whom it is intended.
    I also have no qualms about non-linear/ vertical causality, where a later event is the archetypal cause of an earlier one. That is not really the problem. But I have stated in which way and from what angle the horizontal causal chain is also true. I clearly stated that it is not the end of the story, but that it is a matter nonetheless ever present in our lives. You actually state this quite clearly each time you write against atomistic individualism, where you show that we are a product of many things that precede us.

    My problem, though, is that people all too easily dismiss as “merely allegorical” that which the Tradition clearly says it is not. Going back to the events of Genesis – just look at the Triodion, as an example. You have literally tens and hundreds of pages making this connection between the wood of the Cross and the wood of the Tree that lead to Adam’s downfall. The latter is regarded as real event- by real meaning that it corresponds to an actual ocurrance, albeit in a world, or a state, entirely different from our own which we can barely conceive in this present state. Am I to stand in Church on Cheesefare Sunday, for example, and try to convince myself that it is all merely poetry, which doesn’t really have to correspond to anything real other than some metaphor?

    And this is what is most saddening for me: each time contemporary Christians hear modern academia say that “science” or “modern research” has “disproven” Christianity they do not for a second stop and examine such claims and try to discern what they are about. Instead they immediately start engaging in mental acrobatics, trying to re-interpret Christianity in a way that fits the latest intellectual fashions, thus causing major distortions .

    Indeed He is risen!

  43. Melaniya Avatar

    Thank you, Fr. Stephen, for this important topic.
    I think a teleological vision of life is essential in order to live in God and to comprehend His “dimension.” The Church is, in the words of Fr. George Florovsky, “the image of eternity in time”. Alexei Nesteruk, who has done so much work on the subject of time and space, affirms: “Insofar as the act of creation is impossible to achieve as an act in time, it represents a constant, ‘eternal’ process, which, speaking metaphysically, is co-eternal with all time, for example with each period of the evolution of the universe.” In other words, the end of time and the act of creation are completely inseparable things; the act of creation is eternal and occurs at any moment in time and space. Therefore the incarnation, the transfiguration, and man’s unification with God in theanthropic striving toward His pure uncreated likeness and participation in God’s glory – this is the purpose: the vision of God’s glory, not the expectation of a second parousia, but everlasting life itself. When one transfers Christ from the place of speculative knowledge to the place of an actualising spiritual life, to the realm of the self-evident, to the foundation of life itself, then one can say, as did Paul, “In me lives Christ.”

  44. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Yes. I get your point. I think, for argument’s sake, that citing the wood of the Cross/wood of the tree in a liturgical hymn, etc., is not an argument for the literal necessity/character of the tree. I understand the logic of the argument – but I think it is flawed. That is not to say the Tree is not literal – only that your argument does not actually require it.

    We sing (in the Psalms for example) of the firmament, and the waters above, etc., which invokes an ancient Mesopotamian understanding of the structure of the world. We do not think in those terms – but we have no trouble singing them. Because we sing them, or read them out loud, does not make them literal. At some point, perhaps, an early author likely did think of them in something like that manner – but that doesn’t make it literal, nor require us to think in that manner. They still have meaning that we can come to understand.

    I do not want to argue about the character of the early Genesis chapters. The vast majority of the Fathers, the liturgy, etc., speaks of them in the form they are given to us – how could they speak otherwise? But the pure historical/literal nature of things is, I think, a modern problem and not an ancient one. It is born of the various crises of modernity. I think, to a large extent, we need not have a dog in that fight.

    St. Irenaeus has this to say about an allegorical reading of the OT:

    If anyone, therefore, reads the Scriptures this way, he will find in them the Word concerning Christ, and a foreshadowing of the new calling. For Christ[1] is the ‘treasure which was hidden in the field’ [Matt. 13:44], that is, in this world – for ‘the field is the world’ [Matt. 13:38] – [a treasure] hidden in the Scriptures, for he was indicated by means of types and parables, which could not be understood by human beings prior to the consummation of those things which had been predicted, that is, the advent of the Lord. And therefore it was said to Daniel the prophet, ‘Shut up the words, and seal the book, until the time of the consummation, until many learn and knowledge abounds. For, when the dispersion shall be accomplished, they shall know all these things’ [Dan. 12:4, 7]. And Jeremiah also says, ‘In the last days they shall understand these things’ [Jer. 23:20]. For every prophecy, before its fulfilment, is nothing but an enigma and ambiguity to human beings; but when the time has arrived, and the prediction has come to pass, then it has an exact exposition [ἐξήγησις]. And for this reason, when at this present time the Law is read by the Jews, it is like a myth [mythos], for they do not possess the explanation [ἐξήγησις] of all things which pertain to the human advent of the Son of God; but when it is read by Christians, it is a treasure, hid in a field, but brought to light by the Cross of Christ, and explained, both enriching the understanding of human beings, and showing forth the wisdom of God, and making known his economies with regard to the human being, and prefiguring the kingdom of Christ, and preaching in anticipation the good news of the inheritance of the holy Jerusalem, and proclaiming beforehand that the human being who loves God shall advance so far as even to see God, and hear his Word, and be glorified, from hearing his speech, to such an extent, that others will not be able to behold his glorious countenance [cf. 2 Cor. 3:7], as was said by Daniel, ‘Those who understand shall shine as the brightness of the firmament, and many of the righteous as the stars for ever and ever’ [Dan. 12:3]. In this manner, then, I have shown it to be, if anyone read the Scriptures. (haer. 4.26.1)

    I think it is an incorrect reading of the Patristic understanding of allegory (excluding the Nestorians in Antioch) to say “mere” allegory, etc. That which is allegorical in proper sense is also real, in a greater and deeper manner. It does not obliterate the “literal” where the literal is actually historical, but it does indeed give substance to the “letter” even when the “letter” does not precisely represent the historical.

    I have lived my life surrounded by American Evangelical fundamentalists (the real things – i.e. Bob Jones University, et al). They used a literal/historical approach that was and is a dead end. I too often hear their arguments when I see “if it’s quoted then it must be literal” kind of thing. Perhaps this represents a wound in my understanding. But their insistence on certain things seems flawed to me – including their never-ending battle with science (no matter the flaws in science).

    I have spent time with many leading figures in Orthodoxy today – academics, monastics, etc. Some of them would be rather literal about early Genesis, others not. However, when arguments are constructed that suggest that those who do not treat those texts as literal (though authoritative, nonetheless), I think I am encountering an idea that is ultimately foreign to Orthodoxy, and actually borrowed from American 19th century Evangelicalism.

    I think that this conversation would not have taken place before about 1700. It’s a modern problem. I have never written to suggest that the early chapters of Genesis cannot be read in a literal manner. I think there will be problems with that – but it’s still possible. I do say that such is not necessary – either by logic, tradition or the teaching of the Church.

    Understanding how this can be so is difficult for many in the modern world because they only think in historical/literal terms and think that any other way of approaching something is “mere” symbolism, etc. It is not – not if it is rightly understood. I think it is necessary to understand it in order to understand a number of things in the Fathers and in the Tradition. There is no “mere”

  45. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I am not familiar with Nesteruk. I’m not sure I would express those thoughts in that way.

  46. Paula Avatar

    Mihai, you are part of this audience and we’re all swimming in the same sea. Father is ultimately speaking to all, new or long in the faith. All of us are effected by modernity.
    Earlier you said you fear we are becoming some sort of Protestantism. But why is it so obvious to me that your literal view of the historical is exactly what the Protestants believe?! They say exactly what you’ve said…that if we throw away the literal account of Genesis then how can we say the rest of the Bible is true. When I read your words Mihai, I see the influence of Protestantism speaking. We do not construct our own narrative based on personal taste. The foundation of our belief is apostolic tradition…not my or anyone else’s, but the one handed down to us. I am trying to get away from a mixing of the Protestant view as I learn about the Faith.
    I am also one of those “new converts” that tend to annoy those who are well established. And worse, I can not hide my zeal and tend to the extremes. So when I see a clear contradiction, a mixing of, and adding to, the Tradition, alarm bells sound. The Faith does not need to be changed, lest it be watered down. It does not need to conform, lest it deviate from the truth. Converts embraced Orthodoxy because we recognized it’s purity. God forbid it be changed or influenced by modern, western standards….”Americanized”, as one recent news article boasted a branch of Orthodoxy is doing. God forbid!

  47. David Avatar


    I would like to empasize that my point above was that I don’t need to believe that the Universe is fallen in order to understand our need for Christ and the Cross. Is the world fallen? Rocks, dirt, stars, and galaxies? These are all fallen? What does an unfallen rock look like? If you tell me they are falken, then I guess they are…if you say so. But, that isn’t obvious to me and saying that doesn’t explain anything to me. My day-to-day life isnt made more clear to me by saying “Well, that’s because I live in a fallen world.”

    What is more, I don’t need to believe you or anyone else is fallen to know I AM FALLEN. Your fallenness isn’t any of my business.

    Jesus didn’t come because humanty fell. He wasn’t a backup plan or an insurance policy or a plan B just in case things went wrong. Which means that whatever else you might believe about Christ came and why Christ bore the Cross it wasn’t BECAUSE we are fallen.

    My point is that that particular belief adds nothing to my desire to pick up the Cross and bear that with Christ into hell. I see that humanity needs help. How we got this way doesn’t matter to me. I take the world as given. I’m interested in focusing on the solution.

  48. David Avatar

    It seems to that what strikes the Saints the most is their own fallenness. That is what stands out to them not the fallenness of the world.

  49. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    David, Mihai,
    Strictly speaking, “fallen” is not the right term for creation. “Subject to futility” is St. Paul’s term, or we could say “subject to corruption” (meaning death, decay, entropy, etc.). It does not have the character that it will have in the resurrection – all of creation will participate in the resurrection.

    When we say that creation is “fallen” it gives the impression that creation is somehow “sinful” or morally corrupt. It is not. It is simply subject to death and corruption. According to St. Paul, God subjected creation to this corruption and death in light of our sin. “Fall” and “fallen” are actually not in Scripture at all – and are mostly taken from Western theology.

    Again, all of this easily becomes a “bookend” question and becomes misleading. We start “in the middle.”

  50. David Avatar

    I couldn’t agree more.

  51. David Waite Avatar
    David Waite

    Christ is risen, y’all. I trust in the Fathers to explain the rest, remembering, as Drewster2000 said, that there are limits to what I can understand and comprehend. When the thoughts of the Fathers – or the things I read in my Bible – are too much for me, then I try to remember my role is to just ask God for what what I need, trust in Him, and move on.

    I do not know what I do not know. Thanks be to God,

  52. Reid Avatar

    Fr Stephen, you speak of the beginning and end of things lying in the midst of history. Do we see something analogous in the telling of a story? That is, a storyteller tells a story in such a way that the events of the story produce its climax in a cause-and-effect fashion. But in reality the order is reversed: the storyteller has a climax in mind and crafts events as a context in which the climax makes sense and has the meaning he intends.

    For instance, Romeo and Juliet do not die tragically because of foiled plans, undelivered messages, and the hostility between their families. Rather, Shakespeare’s desire to tell a story of the tragic death of two young lovers provokes him to provide a context of foiled plans, undelivered messages, and familial hostility in which their deaths make sense and possess the desired weight of tragedy. Thus what appears to be the consequence of the events turns out to be their cause and purpose—their beginning and their end, if I may say it reverently.

    The OT story of Joseph has a similar feel. His older brothers are trying to tell a cause-and-effect story of ridding themselves of their hated younger brother. Various other grievous evils befall him, and yet somehow they all cause the remarkable effect that Joseph becomes ruler of Egypt. But God announces beforehand (by dream) and afterward (by Joseph himself) His real purpose, namely the exaltation of Joseph and the saving of many lives. And in retrospect we see that this purpose causes all the events that accomplish its fulfillment–not that the Lord causes Joseph’s brothers to sin so terribly, but that the Lord’s purpose subsume their evil deed into its fulfillment, making the cruciform story of Joseph all the more glorious.

  53. Sbdcn. Barnabas Avatar
    Sbdcn. Barnabas

    Thank you Father! I’ve been rethinking my former fundamentalist Protestant interpretations of Genesis, and also trying to reconcile faith and science, as I also believe that a proper understanding of both must be in harmony. I’m wondering (beyond what you said in your response to David, Mihai) if you could expand on an Orthodox explanation of Romans 5 that could work with a non-literal Adam, and death before “the Fall”? That might even be a good topic for a separate post? Any further help with that passage would be greatly appreciated!

  54. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Forgive me as I return to this post. In the latest post when bookends was brought up, I was confused a bit about the focus. Sometimes it seemed that we weren’t talking about the content of questions (the beginning of things and the end of things) , but the manner of a question, ie whether it was a ‘closed’ type question or an “open” type question. A closed question could be answered yes or no or some other succinct answer. But an open question usually requires a discussion. In the latter approach, typically to come to some satisfactory (not necessarily final) conclusion, requires not only deliberation, but a practice of inductive reasoning, a form of synthesis of various available kinds of information. Also such an approach is enriched by multiple ‘voices’.

    Thank you Father, and other commentators for your patience, and for your help in my understanding.

  55. Carla Avatar

    Father Stephen, a whole lot of things in your texts on this website make sense to me. When I’ve read about the Christian faith of early medieval times, I often feel “why don’t we just go back there, before Anselm of Canterbury “. Orthodoxy may not be exactly the faith of Western Europe in early middle ages, but appears to me as not affected by a whole bunch of the problems the Western church has created for itself. The various theories of atonement, for starters.

    A looser concept of biblical canon is something I have accounted before, regarding orthodoxy, and it has made sense to me. The Bible as a book, which we typically read from beginning to end, is wrong concept. I’m with you there. Of course also the Catholics would agree with you on a lot of things here.

    Regarding historical linearity, though, I am somewhat confused. It is often said that the idea of linear time is a very specifically judeo-christian contribution to the history of ideas. Are you saying this is wrong?

    or, perhaps, that the proper Christian understanding, in your view, laborates with (at least) two different understandings of time, simultanously? while in the process that created modernity, we lost all but the linear perspective?

  56. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I think that the claim that historical linearity is a specifically Judeo-Christian contribution to the history of ideas is a modern thought and a fallacy. The linearity of history is a hallmark of modernity and has created any number of problems. It’s also just not true – not even in physics.

  57. Carla Avatar


    We do have a way of constructing the past in ways that suit us. In your view then, it’s an opinion matching the “bookends” view. Mhm.


  58. Roy Vick Avatar

    Thank you, Fr Stephen. And I thank Fr Steve Zorzos for publishing your writings in our daily meditations. As I try to toss aside history and linear time, I can grasp the concept that Christ is always present and the celebration in the Divine Liturgy is not a remembrance or a recreation of the past, but is us being present at the Mystical Supper.

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