I recently had a question put to me that made me think about “where we start” when we think about the things of God. The question was this:
“A friend of mine who is familiar with Jewish beliefs told me that the Jewish Sheol was self-emptying. It was a purgatory-like place where people lamented and repented of their sins and when they were ready they left on their own. He said that Jesus wasn’t needed to release these captives because it was self-emptying.”
My response was to note that Jewish thought was extremely diverse at the time of Christ (it still is). Be that as it may, is was a question that had a certain similarity to various conversations among Christians. Those conversations are essentially framed by what we take to be metaphysical certainties. We describe the shape and mechanics of hell and heaven and explain salvation as the solution to their problems. This is, I believe, a fundamental theological error. It begins with what we do not really know in order to describe the few things that we really should know. What follows in this article are some observations that seem worth sharing. Perhaps they will be of interest.
This is my suggestion: do not start with what you do not know.
I have long intended to avoid the turmoil of after-life debates (universalists vs. infernalists, or whatever we should label the positions) with something that approaches a kind of agnosticism. When the question, “Shall all be saved?” is asked, I demur to the fact that I don’t know. I can speak of what I hope, but not of what I know. I have read everybody’s arguments (I do not exaggerate). Invariably, the answers turn on what we do not know. The evidence is slim – scattered verses of Scripture, some of which seem contradictory. I am often surprised by the certitude that surrounds various positions.
There is such a thing as a saving certitude:
“…nevertheless I am not ashamed, for I know whom I have believed and am persuaded that He is able to keep what I have committed to Him until that Day.” (2 Tim. 1:12)
It is of note (to me) that St. Paul’s statement is prefaced by “I am not ashamed.” Much of what passes for certitude in the world is little more than the shame of ignorance – we cannot or will not face what we do not know. Our ignorance threatens to unveil the existential nakedness of our being. We construct worlds of “knowing,” explanatory structures that protect us from the darkness of our minds. Of course, that we do not know all things does not mean that we know nothing. God gives us knowledge of Himself.
Years ago, when I converted to Orthodox Christianity, I heard a common explanation that passed a number of folks. They said that “Stephen could not deal with modern uncertainty and has run away to hide inside Orthodoxy.” On the one hand, nothing was more “certain” among them than the platitudes of modernity. My rejection needed an explanation. The reality was that I was abandoning the false certitudes of mainline American Protestantism for the frightening journey of the soul into the mystery of Christ that lies at the heart of the Orthodox faith. Orthodoxy is not a bastion of answered questions. Rather, it is a way of life, whose teachings are the abiding testimony of those who have walked that path and borne witness to what they found. Indeed, apophatic theology, the preferred manner of Orthodox thought, draws us towards the nakedness of our ignorance and dares to stand in that state before the wonder of God.
I am not suggesting that we elevate ignorance to the exalted position it holds in the panoply of anti-Christian rhetoric (for our adversaries hide from their own ignorance). Indeed, I do not suggest beginning with our ignorance at all. Rather, I suggest that we begin with what we know and move towards its depths.
What do I know.
In some manner, I profess with St. Paul that I know Christ. I do not know Him exhaustively (who could?). St. Paul longed to “know, even as I am known.” My first glimmers of Christ came from reading the gospels – what He said and what He did. It came secondly through reading those who had chosen to follow Him and were seen as exemplars (the saints). Along with these external witnesses was my own internal witness that has been unfolding for most of my life. It is what happens if we keep His commandments:
“He who has My commandments and keeps them, it is he who loves Me. And he who loves Me will be loved by My Father, and I will love him and manifest Myself to him.” (John 14:21)
“If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our home with him.” (John 14:23)
This knowledge does not belong to the category of objects. We do not and cannot know God as an object. Knowing God is closer to knowing ourselves than it is to knowing objects outside of ourselves. We can note, over time, that our inner knowledge of Christ resembles the inner knowledge described by others and consistently confirms the truth of His commandments. It is more than mere subjectivity.
Were I to engage someone in debate who asked me to prove that I exist – I suspect I would be at a loss for words (perhaps if I smacked them on the nose my argument would be most effective). I’ve read treatises on such questions which mostly serve to prove the silliness of such treatises. I often feel much the same way when asked to “prove” the existence of God. We do not “prove” God – we bear witness to what we know. And there we must leave it.
And this brings me back to my initial statement. The Scriptures give us the promise of knowing Christ. They also give us the reality that even the greatest of saints long to know Him yet more:
“Yet indeed I also count all things loss for the excellence of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having my own righteousness, which is from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith;that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death, if, by any means, I may attain to the resurrection from the dead.” (Phil. 3:8–11)
My experience has been that such knowledge comes by following Christ in the paths of the heart. As St. Macarius the Great taught:
“The heart is but a small vessel; and yet dragons and lions are there, and there likewise are poisonous creatures and all the treasures of wickedness; rough, uneven paths are there, and gaping chasms. There also is God, there are the angels, there life and the Kingdom, there light and the apostles, the heavenly cities and the treasures of grace: all things are there.”
What little I know of hell, I have found within my own heart. The same is true of heaven and paradise. I also see the shame of my own naked ignorance and beg Christ to clothe me with Himself. We do no harm to one another when we speak of what we know or when we confess our ignorance. There is irony and paradox in all of this. One of the hymns on “Lord, I call,” for Thomas Sunday said:
O most wonderful doubt of Thomas!
It brought the hearts of the faithful to knowledge.//
And with fear he cried: “My Lord and my God, glory to You!”
The Church gathers us together on the day of resurrection each week, teaching us to sing and to wonder in the presence of God. The risen Lord gives Himself as food for our souls and invites us to follow Him into the depths of hell, only to follow Him into the heights of heaven. It is all real and all true – but you have to go there to know that.