Nowhere do theological systems more obviously divorce God’s will from His commandments, rendering the notion of both Divine love and Divine justice into an absurdity, than in matters to do with eschatology and with predestination.
Fr. Robert Hart
Albert Einstein explained that nothing can travel faster than light in a vacuum, 300,000 kilometers, which is 186,000 miles, per second. In Physics this is the Universal Speed Limit, the speed of light. I propose that there is also a limit to the potential of human moral growth, a limit to how far one can progress in acquiring the virtues. We catch a glimpse of this limit from the Psalmist:
Indeed, apart from revelation the human race has always speculated about gods or God, relying on the imagination, on traditions, and on shamans and holy men. The gods of human imagination are very much like those who make the images, and the effect of this likeness is reciprocal over time. Because such gods are like those who make them, the human capacity for knowledge and goodness becomes more limited in return. “They that make them are like unto them.”
At the end of his first Epistle, St. John warns us, “Little children, keep yourselves from idols.” Idols are images, and therefore begin in the mind, the imagination. This is why true knowledge of God requires revelation: We say that our faith is “revealed religion.” It was not first in the imagination of any people or culture and is not a human creation. It was received and it is passed on through teaching the content of that revelation. In the Bible this is what makes the man Abraham the father of all who believe. His name is forever connected to faith and to the very concept of divine revelation. He did not, in the Genesis narrative, fashion any image of any god, but instead believed what was revealed to him.
The opposite is “They that make them,” those who make idols; those who speculate on what constitutes a god. And the Psalmist tells us that such have nothing to say, no ability to see, nor to hear, nor to breathe the spirit of life. There is a limit to what they can perceive. Their trust in idols is of no value, and no truth or wisdom can be derived from it. Therefore, to know anything about God we must set the bar as high as heaven itself. The understanding must come from there: We must rely solely on revelation.
“And this is life in the Age: that they might know you, the sole true God, and him whom you sent, Jesus the Anointed (John 17:3).” It is essential that we know God truly, and that requires putting away speculations from the carnal mind. For we shall proceed to no greater moral understanding, nor acquire any virtue, which makes us morally better than what we perceive God to be. It is humanly impossible, because it is psychologically impossible, to advance in virtues that make us morally superior to what we worship with our minds. It is certain that the thirteenth chapter of St. Paul’s first Epistle to the Corinthians describes the highest of the virtues, charity, that love of God that is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit (Romans 5:5). The Apostle tells us, in that famous thirteenth chapter, that without this love we are nothing. No amount of knowledge, understanding, good works, or spiritual gifts, have any ultimate value unless we acquire the virtue of charity. Elsewhere he calls it “the bond of perfectness (Colossians 3:14).”
If we are to be more than nothing, therefore, and attain to charity, we must exceed this psychologically imposed morality limit, or the virtue limit: We must have a true understanding of God as He has revealed Himself in Jesus Christ. This runs up against a very serious theological problem for many people who are by affiliation Christians. If we believe a theological system in which God’s most important revealed attribute is power, or in which he had a plan to be somehow glorified by the perpetual suffering of the lost, or in which our flawed notion of justice that so quickly lends itself to simple revenge (no matter how tortured or refined the rationalization) is reinforced to our satisfaction, or in which God’s will can be divorced from his commandments to love him and to love our neighbor, then we make God into nothing: For we imagine him as without charity. In Jesus Christ we see that the charity of which the Apostle Paul wrote is the character of God as revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of his Son. “God is love (I John 4:8,16).” This is why we must cleanse all false notions of God from our imaginations and renew our minds with true knowledge. Unless we know that God is Love we cannot grow in the acquisition of virtues.
I will not pretend that what I am saying is easy, because I am denouncing as false elements in various systems of theology that millions of people have embraced for centuries, and that they conflate wrongly with the meaning of Scripture and the teaching of the Apostles.
Eschatology and Predestination
We come now to the first problem. To believe in a theological system that separates the will of God from the commandments of God automatically imposes the Virtue Limit on one’s spiritual progress. Every system of this kind will put the acquisition of charity beyond one’s reach; indeed, it is likely to prevent one from seeing any need, or having any desire, to acquire the virtue of charity, so the reach itself will not be attempted. The dichotomy it places on the mind is to believe that the God who commands us to love Him fully, and to love our neighbor, wills something other than obedience to His own commandments. This Orwellian “Doublethink” produces serious instability in a person (James 1:8). If God is Love, and if Jesus correctly identified the two greatest commandments of the Law, then to divorce His will from His commandments is bad theology, perhaps the worst kind; yet many persist in this error, and they conflate it with orthodox faith.
It also creates unhealthy speculations about specific matters. One example of that recently put me in mind of the “theatre of the Absurd:” In a news clip I saw a well-known and thoroughly corrupt Televangelist confidently affirm that the vaccines that have been released to combat COVID-19 are “the mark of the Beast.” His reference to the thirteenth chapter of the Book of Revelation contained the notion that someone can act in good faith out of love for neighbor only to be damned in the last judgment because, as we see in the next chapter (by such sloppy interpretation), they made a terribly fatal error in judgment that results in damnation, no matter how pure their motives might have been. They will go to hell simply for having made an honest mistake, receiving a specific tattoo.
Poor interpretation of scripture is always problematic, but nowhere more nonsensical than when applied to the eschatology that has been popular among Evangelicals and Fundamentalists for many decades. Here they are able to read a passage and come up with an interpretation in which moral reasoning plays no role in Divine justice. The obvious meaning of the Beast and his mark, considering that the number of his name is clearly identified as Nero Caesar, is that slavish obedience to the state is morally evil. Nero Caesar’s name, though he had been long dead when the Book of Revelation was composed, is forever linked to the persecution Christians endured when Christianity itself was illegal, and when to practice it was a capital crime. Throughout history, including modern history in such times as, for example, the rule of the Nazi Party in Germany, many have rendered unto Caesar the things which are God’s: Above all, their very conscience. Willfully violating all true morality and justice, they have perpetrated evils at the command of tyrants. Now, that, which I have just stated, is an example of an interpretation of “the mark of the Beast” in which Divine justice is not divorced from moral consideration.
Nowhere do theological systems more obviously divorce God’s will from His commandments, rendering the notion of both Divine love and Divine justice into an absurdity, than in matters to do with eschatology and with predestination. These systems are a far cry from the healthy and true link between eschatology and predestination that was spelled out so well by Saint Gregory of Nyssa. We miss the mark greatly if we can speak of predestination without considering that God has forever willed the end from the beginning, and that, in the creation, the genesis of his work and its end, are all one work. This was very well summarized by my brother, Dr. David Bentley Hart, in his book That All Shall be Saved (Yale University Press).
Perhaps the first theological insight I learned from Gregory of Nyssa is
that the Christian doctrine of creatio ex nihilo is not merely a
cosmological or metaphysical claim, but also an eschatological claim
about the world’s relation to God, and for that reason a moral claim
about the nature of God in himself. (p.68)
For our purposes, namely, the psychological virtue limit, nothing is more relevant than a moral claim about the nature of God in himself. For, again, the virtue limit is how we perceive God; we cannot become morally better or more virtuous than what we worship as God. So, to acquire the virtue of charity we cannot afford to get this wrong.
To be sure, to speak of the commandments of God is to speak of love. Jesus Christ made this absolutely clear in what we call the Summary of the Law, the two greatest commandments of love for God and for neighbor. Jesus taught the way, and he also showed the way. He committed no violence. He never took anything from anyone, but rather always gave. When confronted with human deprivation he was always “moved with compassion.” When asked for mercy He healed. When faced with the hypocrisy and enmity of his adversaries he always spoke boldly the words they needed to hear, knowing it would lead to his own death at their hands. When Judas entered the garden to betray him, Jesus called him “friend” – “Friend, wherefore art thou come (Matthew 26:50)?” Why did Jesus call his betrayer “friend?” It is because the Son of Man had come to seek and to save the lost: This is the Divine perspective, the unchanging love that is without passions. When his enemies were delighting in his suffering, enjoying the sight of his death agonies, his first words from the cross were “Father forgive them; for they know not what they do (Luke 23:34).” It is one thing to know that as God, safely above all hurt and harm, on His Father’s throne, he forgives. But on that Friday, he was actually being harmed, tortured, mocked, and slowly killed. If God were in our place – ah, but the same person who is the Logos was in our place; he was suffering cruelty as a man. His forgiveness was spontaneous, reflexive because love is who he is. To know Christ is to know the Father: To see Christ is to see the Father (John 14:7-9). In considering Christ’s great mercy and compassion we come to know the true heart of God. This makes the acquisition of charity possible even for us.
The bar is indeed as high as heaven itself. Many a kind of love can give way to hostility. Various kinds of love can disappear; some varieties of love can be subdued by anger. Different kinds of love tend to be capricious and highly selective, indeed, exclusive in nature and practice. But charity, agape, is the very character of God himself. It is impassible, and not subject to change. It is constant and consistent; it is never a reaction. That is why Jesus called his betrayer “friend” at the very moment of the offense, while the betrayal was actually being committed. To believe in the Divine nature of the Person of the Son of God is to know that his love, not the nails, were what kept him on the cross until his perfect work was finished.
Is what we see in Jesus, especially at the time of his betrayal and death, at all consistent with the treatment of eschatology and predestination that is so precious to so many in their theology? Is it at all consistent with a notion of God that includes an inscrutable plan in which evil is necessary, and in which suffering is both forever and inescapable, and in which his own commandments, summarized by love, contradict the outworking of his will? For anyone to attain to charity, to actual holiness, it is necessary to get this right.
Here it is that shallow and poor theology prevents one from acquiring charity. On the subject of predestination we come across a problem that appears in how one reads two stories: The story of Joseph and his brothers, and the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. These stories are somewhat misread due to the very unfortunate doctrinal development, especially in the West, that emphasizes, among the revealed attributes of God, will and power above love. The result on eschatological reasoning has been to make a clear separation between matters having to do with “God’s plan” – so to speak -from serious theological principles, especially anything to do with the unchanging nature of God. As people collect various ideas about fulfillment of predictive prophecy, pulling facts from history just a little here and there, or from current events (with heavy speculation about seemingly inevitable future developments), they create an entire system of biblical interpretation and doctrine in which unchanging and eternal principles of theology have no place.
This emphasis of divine will and power over divine love is obvious in the resulting dichotomy that such doctrines create between the will of God and the commandments of God. This can be traced back through many centuries. It must be seen clearly for what it is: It is a destructive problem that often corrupts the minds of Christians about God and about all matters of ethics and morality. It is thoroughly interwoven into many systems of theology that have achieved the utmost respectability. Let us see, for example how it distorts basic truths of the Gospel itself.
Can it be denied that Jesus, in all four of the Gospel books, sees His death on the cross as the will of God? Can it be denied that He quite willingly pursues that very death because it is His Father’s will? Indeed, He does. The cross for him, in his human nature, is the crowning act of obedience to God (Phil. 2 :1-11). And, in his divine nature it is as much his own will, as the Logos and only begotten Son, as it is the will of his Father (due to divine love, Gal.2:20).
Right at this point, however, we come to a crossroads (no pun intended). One of two interpretations must govern how we understand the cross, and thereby how we understand the will of God, and thereby how we think of God, and thereby how we understand every moral and ethical question. Also, at this point we must get the answer right, or else we can never attain to the highest of all virtues, charity (I Cor. 13:13). We simply cannot afford to misinterpret this.
The famous “Love Chapter,” that thirteenth chapter of First Corinthians, speaks of the ultimate good to which we are called, the highest virtue we are meant to acquire. It clearly teaches that growth into perfect love, the love of God that only the Holy Spirit can create and nurture within the human heart, is, for each disciple of Jesus, the revealed will of God. In order to learn this we have to see that the will of God is always made known to us in His commandments. We must face this simple sentence for all that it means: “[Love] does not rejoice in injustice, but rejoices with the truth (v.6).” In terms of consistent theological principle, and what has been revealed to be the unchanging nature of God as himself the revealed abiding reality of that love (“God is love” I John 4:8, 16), we have to be clear in our thinking as to what this means concerning the details of the crucifixion of our Lord. In what way were the betrayal of Judas, the false condemnation by the Sanhedrin, the brutality of the Roman soldiers, and all of the human sins committed that resulted in the cruel death of Jesus Christ, the will of God?
“For in truth both Herod and Pilate, along with the gentiles and peoples of Israel, conspired in this city against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, to do what your hand and your counsel designated should happen in advance…(Acts 26:27, 28).” That echoes the words of the patriarch Joseph, concerning the callous sin of his own brothers who had sold him many years earlier into slavery in Egypt: “And Joseph said unto them, ‘Fear not: for am I in the place of God? But as for you, ye thought evil against me; but God meant it unto good, to bring to pass, as it is this day, to save much people alive. Now therefore fear ye not: I will nourish you, and your little ones.’ And he comforted them, and spake kindly unto them (Gen. 50:19, 20 KJV).”
In both the crucifixion of Christ, with its details of grievous sins, and in the sin of Joseph’s brothers, we come across God accomplishing his will through the evil acts of men. If we take this to mean that God predestined each of those human sins to be perpetrated, that is that those sins were the will of God, and that the men who committed them had no free will to choose otherwise, then we must live with that dichotomy between God’s will and God’s commandments, that dichotomy that is rooted in placing divine will and power over divine love. A belief system that contains this very dichotomy has produced many tragic results because it cannot fail to create seriously flawed ethical and moral reasoning, rooted in a distorted mental image of God that denies His impassibility and the consistency of divine simplicity. Such a view cannot contribute to a saintly life, for divine love has to be removed or greatly relegated to make way for some sort of supposedly higher considerations within a complex and even varied divine nature, one inconsistent with the agape St. Paul had so eloquently described to the Church of Corinth.
If that is the case, then what can we mean by saying that God is good? Can divine love have, within itself, hatred? Was St. Paul wrong? Does light indeed have fellowship with darkness? Did God’s “hand and counsel designate” such malicious sins themselves? In the eternal will of God, did Judas have to betray the Lord? Did the Sanhedrin have to perpetrate injustice to the point of judicial murder? Did the soldiers have to crown Jesus with thorns and mock him? Did the brothers of Joseph have to hate him, and sell him? The answer that many Christians have been taught to accept is “Yes.” In other words, each of the sins committed to bring about these ends was the will of the same God whose commandments were clearly violated. How do we then read the same scriptural passages with the ability to free our minds from centuries of interpretive baggage that has become, to many, interwoven with the text itself in their minds?
They take literally the words from Malachi: “Jacob have I loved, Esau have I hated (Mal.1:3).” Although such language merely used a Semitic idiom to say that God chose Jacob and rejected Esau, I have come across those who interpret this in a thoroughly modern western emotional sense, ignoring the true meaning (and the theological issue of what Jacob was chosen for, that is, the place of Israel in the large Messianic theme of Salvation History, as any thorough reading of Romans chapters nine through eleven should make clear – once the mind is freed from the preexisting condition of the erroneous theology under discussion here, and its consequential wrong interpretation). For them God hated Esau, so he predestined him to go to hell, making sure he would never receive divine mercy and salvation. And, so too, for them the cross teaches both divine love and a distorted picture of what must be called, honestly, divine cruelty – at best divine indifference. In this system God wills that people indulge in sin as part of his eternal plan, in which case he has no love for those individuals; in which interpretive prison it can never be understood why Jesus called Judas “friend” in the garden that night.
So, if we accept this doctrinal paradigm, light must have fellowship with darkness, hatred must have fellowship with love, and specific sins must actually be the outworking of God’s will. How can this completely distorted doctrine help but cause an image of a schizoid god divided within himself, preventing the believer from approaching any question of morality on the firm basis of consistent theological principle, and thus render the attainment of charity always beyond one’s reach? For, no one can rise to a higher moral level than what one worships as God. Again, it is psychologically impossible.
However, what if the reality of what God’s eternal counsel and will determined was something other than, even excluding, the actual sins? Getting back to the question I posited above, “In what way were the betrayal of Judas, the false condemnation by the Sanhedrin, the cruelty of the Roman soldiers, etc., the Will of God?” The answer is that those sins were not at all the will of God. God has revealed his commandments in no uncertain terms, simply stated in the Summary of the Law to love God with one’s whole heart, mind and strength, and one’s neighbor as oneself. God’s will is revealed in those commandments, and anything contrary to them is not the will of God, never has been the will of God, and never can be the will of God.
But God foresaw, and made use of, the outworking of history. God’s will was to save Israel and preserve them in the time of famine. So, when the brothers of Joseph did what was inevitable, foreseen by the God who knows all things, Providence produced what was good. In no way could their evil acts prevent the will of God; indeed, because He “enacts all things in accord with the counsel of his will (Eph. 1:11),” even the most sinful acts have to result in bringing about the good purpose of Almighty God. It was never the will of God for Judas to betray Christ, nor for the Sanhedrin to falsely convict Him, nor for the Romans to go about their violent and murderous acts with such schadenfreude. But, as a master of Chess makes use of every move by his opponent, God works providentially. In the worst of these theological systems Providence is a misunderstood concept. In these systems his wisdom and power must be limited, for why else would their notion of predestination rule out even the very existence of free will? I do not mean the doctrine that man cannot choose God without his grace, for that is sound in itself (especially when one considers that existence itself is a gift, that is, grace). In the extreme forms of Augustinianism, Thomism, and Calvinism everything has been predetermined by God.
Now, it was the will of God for the Son to offer Himself willingly for the sins of the whole world. It was the will of God for Jesus to surrender himself as the obedient suffering servant. The inevitable evil of a world hostile to God and to all goodness was very much within the foresight of the Almighty. Carrying out his will, to do good, was not prevented by human evil; indeed, whatever evil men do, God has the almighty power, nonetheless, to turn it to good. Therefore, inasmuch as he cannot be defeated, even evil acts result in his good will being accomplished. But, to believe that God must rob man of the freewill that is inherent in the creation of the human race (else, the “image of God” becomes meaningless), and therefore that our Creator wills any sinful act as something divinely “predestined,” must cause all of the theological confusion, and therefore moral confusion, I have described above.
You will not find the genuine revelation in revealed religion unless you reject such intricate, and therefore fragile, designs of the human mind – or worse. The fifty-fifth chapter of Isaiah is often misquoted to give the impression that God’s will is an insolvable problem, as confusing as a physics formula on a chalkboard to the uninitiated. But the passage is not about the secret things; it is about those things that are revealed (Deut. 29:29). The details of that famous passage in the Book of Isaiah are overlooked; for what it states is that God’s ways and thoughts are too high for the wicked and unrighteous man; but they should be the ways and thoughts of each one of us because the thoughts and ways of God have come down to us like the rain and snow. “So shall my word be that goeth forth out of my mouth.” God has made his will known. He has commanded you to love him and to love your neighbor. It is never God’s will for you to do otherwise.
(New Testament quotations are by David Bentley Hart in his translation for Yale University Press.)