Friday, June 5, 2009

The Second Coming

Excerpt from: The last things and the last events

by Archpriest George Florovsky (1893-1979)

The notion of "the end" - of an ultimate end - is a paradoxical notion. An "end" both belongs to the chain or series, and breaks it. It is both "an event" and "the end of all events." It belongs to the dimension of history, and yet it dismisses the whole dimension. The notion of "the beginning" - first and radical - is also a paradoxical notion. As St. Basil has said once, "the beginning of time is not yet time, but precisely the beginning of it" (Hexaem. 1.6). It is both an "instant" and more than that.

Of the future we can speak but in images and parables. This was the language of the Scripture. This imagery cannot be adequately deciphered now, and should not be taken literally. But in no sense should it be simply and bluntly "demythologized." Brunner is formal at this point. The expected Parousia [the appearance]of Christ must be regarded as "an event." The character of this event is unimaginable. Better symbols or images can be hardly found than those used in the Bible. "Whatever the form of this event may be, the whole point lies in the fact that it will happen" (Brunner, Eternal Hope, p. 138). The Christian kerygma is decisive at this point: "the ultimate redemptive synthesis has the character of an event." In other words, the Parousia belongs to the chain of historic "happenings," which it is expected to conclude and to close. "A Christian faith without expectation of the Parousia is like a ladder which leads nowhere but ends in the void." At one point, in any case, we can go beyond images: it is Christ that is coming. The Parousia is a "return," as much as it is an ultimate novelty. "The Last Events" are centered around the person of Christ.

The end will come "suddenly." And yet it is, in a certain sense, prepared inside of history. As Brunner says, "the history of man disclose radically apocalyptic traits." At this point he indulges in metaphysical speculations. "The swing of the pendulum becomes ever faster." This acceleration of the tempo of human life may reach the point at which it can go no further. History may simply explode suddenly. On the other hand, and on the deeper level, disharmonies of human existence are steadily increasing: there is "an everwidening split in the human consciousness." Of course, these suggestions have no more than a subsidiary or hypothetical value. Brunner tries to commend the paradoxical concept of the end to the modern mind. But they are also characteristic of his own vision of human reality. History is ever ready to explode, it is vexed and overburdened with unresolved tensions. Some years ago a Russian religious philosopher, Vladimir Th. Ern, suggested that human history was a kind of "catastrophical progress," a steady progression toward an end. Yet the end was to come from above, in a Parousia. Accordingly, it was to be more than just a "catastrophe," or an immanent or internal "judgment" - a disclosure of inherent contradictions or tensions. It was to be an absolute judgment, the Judgment of God.

Now, what is judgment? It is no less "an event" than the Parousia. It is an ultimate encounter between the sinful humanity and the Holy God. First of all, it will be an ultimate disclosure or manifestation of the true state of every man and of the whole mankind. Nothing will be left hidden. Thus, judgment will terminate that state of confusion and ambiguity, of inconclusiveness, as Brunner puts it, which has been characteristic of the whole historic stage of human destiny. This implies an ultimate and final "discrimination" - in the light of Christ. It will be an ultimate and final challenge. The will of God must be finally done. The will of God must be ultimately enforced. Otherwise, in the phrase of Brunner, "all talk of responsibility is idle chatter." Indeed, man is granted freedom, but it is not a freedom of indifference. Man's freedom is essentially a responsive freedom - a freedom to accept God's will. "Pure freedom" can be professed only by atheists. "To man is entrusted, of man is expected, merely the echo, the subsequent completion, of a decision which God has already made about him and for him" (Ibid, p. 178). There is but one fair option for man - to obey; there is no real dilemma. Man's purpose and goal are fixed by God.

All this is perfectly true. Yet, at this very point, the vexing question arises. Will actually all men accept, at the Last Judgment, God's will? Is there any room for radical and irreversible resistance? Can man's revolt continue beyond judgment? Can any creaturely being, endowed with freedom, persist in estrangement from God, which has been persistently practiced before, that is - to pursue its own will? Can such a being still "exist" - in the state of revolt and opposition, against the saving will of God, outside God's saving purpose? Is it possible for man to persevere in rebellion, in spite of the call and challenge of God? Is the Scriptural picture of separation - between the sheep and the goats - the last word about man's ultimate destiny? What is the ultimate status of creaturely "freedom?" What does it mean that finally the will of God must and will prevail? These are queer and searching questions. But they cannot be avoided. They are not dictated only by speculative curiosity. They are "existential" questions. Indeed, the Last Judgment is an awful mystery, which cannot, and should not, be rationalized, which passes all knowledge and understanding. Yet, it is a mystery of our own existence, which we cannot escape, even if we fail to comprehend or understand it intellectually.

Brunner emphatically dismisses the "terrible theologoumenon" of double predestination, as incompatible with the mind of the Bible. There is no eternal discrimination in God's creative design. God calls all men to salvation, and for that purpose He calls them into existence. Salvation is the only purpose of God. But the crucial paradox is not yet resolved. The crucial problem is, whether this only purpose of God will be actually accomplished, in all its fullness and comprehensiveness, as it is admitted and postulated in the theory of universal salvation, for which one may allege Scriptural evidence. Brunner rejects the doctrine of the Apokatastasis, as a "dangerous heresy." It is wrong as a doctrine. It implies a wrong security for men - all ways lead ultimately to the same end, there is no real tension, no real danger. And yet, Brunner admits that the doctrine of the forgiving grace, and of the justification by faith, leads logically to the concept of an universal redemption. Can the will of the omnipotent God be really resisted or, as it were, overruled by the obstinacy of feeble creatures? The paradox can be solved only dialectically - in faith. One cannot know God theoretically. One has to trust His love.

It is characteristic that Brunner discusses the whole problem exclusively in the perspective of the divine will. For that reason he misses the very point of the paradox. He simply ignores the human aspect of the problem. Indeed, "eternal damnation" is not inflicted by "the angry God." God is not the author of Hell. "Damnation" is a self-inflicted penalty, the consequence and the implication of the rebellious opposition to God and to His will. Brunner admits that there is a real possibility of damnation and perdition. It is dangerous and erroneous to ignore that real possibility.

But one should hope that it will never be realized. Now, hope itself must be realistic and sober. We are facing the alternative: either, at the Last Judgment, unbelievers and unrepentant sinners are finally moved by the divine challenge, and are "freely" converted - this was the hypothesis of St. Gregory of Nyssa; or their obstinacy is simply overruled by the divine Omnipotence and they are saved by the constraint of the divine mercy and will - without their own free and conscious assent. The second solution implies contradiction, unless we understand "salvation" in a forensic and formalistic manner. Indeed, criminals may be exonerated in the court of justice, even if they did not repent and persevere in their perversion. They only escape punishment. But we cannot interpret the Last Judgment in this manner. In any case, "salvation" involves conversion, involves an act of faith. It cannot be imposed on anyone. Is the first solution more convincing? Of course, the possibility of a late "conversion" - in "the eleventh hour," or even after - cannot be theoretically ruled out, and the impact of the divine love is infinite. But this chance or possibility of conversion, before the Judgment-Seat of Christ, sitting in glory, cannot be discussed in abstracto, as a general case. After all, the question of salvation, as also the decision of faith, is a personal problem, which can be put and faced only in the context of concrete and individual existence. Persons are saved, or perish. And each personal case must be studied individually. The main weakness of Brunner's scheme is in that he always speaks in general terms. He always speaks of the human condition and never of living persons.

The problem of man is for Brunner essentially the problem of sinful condition. He is afraid of all "ontic" categories. Indeed, man is sinner, but he is, first of all, man. It is true, again, that the true stature of genuine manhood has been exhibited only in Christ, who was more than man, and not a man. But in Christ we are given not only forgiveness, but also the power to be, or to become, children of God, that is - to be what we are designed to be. Of course, Brunner admits that believers can be in communion with God even now, in this present life. But then comes death. Does faith, or - actually - one's being en Christo, make any difference at this point? Is the communion with Christ, once established by faith (and, indeed, in sacraments), broken by death? Is it true that human life is "a being unto death." Physical death is the limit of physical life. But Brunner speaks of the death of human persons, of the "I." He claims that it is a mystery, an impenetrable mystery, of which rational man cannot know anything at all. But, in fact, the concept of this "personal death" is no more than a metaphysical assumption, derived from certain philosophical presuppositions, and in no way a datum of any actual or possible experience, including the experience of faith. "Death" of a person is only in the estrangement from God, but even in this case it does not mean annihilation. In a sense, death means a disintegration of human personality, because man is not designed to be immaterial. The bodily death reduces the integrity of the human person. Man dies, and yet survives - in the expectation of the general end. The ancient doctrine of the Communion of Saints points to the victory of Christ: In Him, through faith (and sacraments), even the dead are alive, and share - in anticipation, but really - the everlasting life. Communio Sanctorum is an important eschatological topic. Brunner simply ignores it altogether - surely not by accident but quite consistently. He speaks of the condition of death, not of personal cases. The concept of an immortal soul may be a Platonic accretion, but the notion of an "indestructible person" is an integral part of the Gospel. Indeed, only in this case there is room for a general or universal judgment, at which all historic persons, of all ages and of all nations, are to appear - not as a confused mass of frail and unprofitable sinners, but as a congregation of responsive and responsible persons, each in his distinctive character, congenital and acquired. Death is a catastrophe. But persons survive, and those in Christ are still alive - even in the state of death. The faithful not only hope for life to come, but are already alive, although all are waiting for Resurrection. Brunner, of course, is fully aware of this. In his own phrase, those who believe "will not die into nothingness but into Christ." Does it mean that those who do not believe "die into nothingness?" And what is "nothingness" - "the outer darkness" (which is probably the case) or actual "nonbeing?"

It is also true that full integrity of personal existence, distorted and reduced by death, will be restored in the general Resurrection. Brunner emphasizes the personal character of the Resurrection. "The New Testament faith knows of no other sort of eternal life except that of the individual persons" (Ibid, p. 148). The flesh will not rise. But some kind of corporeality is implied in the Resurrection. All will rise, because Christ is risen. Now, Resurrection is at once a Resurrection unto life - in Christ, and a Resurrection - to Judgment. Brunner discusses the general Resurrection in the context of faith, forgiveness, and life. But what is the status of those who did not believe, who did not ask for forgiveness, and never knew of the redemptive love of Christ, or probably have obstinately denounced and rejected it as a myth, as a fraud, as a deceit, or as an offense for the autonomous personality ?

And this brings us back again to the paradox of the judgment. Strangely enough, at this point Brunner speaks more as a philosopher than as a theologian, precisely because he tries to avoid metaphysical inquiry, and all problems which have been suppressed reappear in disguise. Brunner puts the question in this way: how can we reconcile divine Omnipotence and human freedom, or - on a deeper level - divine holiness (or justice) and divine merry and love. It is a strictly metaphysical problem, even if it is discussed on the scriptural basis. The actual theological problem is, on the other hand: what is the existential status of unbelievers - in the sight of God, and in the perspective of the human destiny? The actual problem is existential - the status and destiny of individual persons. For Brunner the problem is obscured by his initial choice - his sweeping bracketing together of all men as sinners, without any real ontic or existential discrimination between the righteous and the unrighteous. Indeed, all are under the judgment, but, obviously, not in the same sense. Brunner himself distinguishes between those who fail being tempted, and those who choose to tempt others and to seduce. He knows of deliberate perversion. But he does not ask, how an individual human person may be affected, in his inner and intimate structure, by deliberate and obstinate perversion, apostasy and "love for evil." There is a real difference between weakness and wickedness, between frailty and godlessness. Can all sins be forgiven, even the non-avowed and non-repented? Is not forgiveness received only in humility and in faith? In other words, is "condemnation" just a "penalty," in the forensic sense, or a kind of negative "reward?" Or is it simply a manifestation of what is hidden - or rather quite open and conspicuous in those who have chosen, by an abuse of "freedom," that wide path which leads into Gehenna.

There is no chapter on Hell in any of Brunner's books. But Hell is not just a "mythical" figure of speech. Nor is it just a dark prospect, which - one wants to hope - may never be realized. Horribile dictu - it is a reality, to which many human beings are even now committed, by their own will, or at least - by their own choice and decision, which may mean, in the last resort, bondage, but is usually mistaken for freedom. "Hell" is an internal state, not a "place." It is a state of personal disintegration, which is mistaken for self-assertion - with certain reason, since this disintegration is grounded in pride. It is a state of self-confinement, of isolation and alienation, of proud solitude. The state of sin itself is "hellish," although it may be, by an illusion of selfish imagination, mistaken for "Paradise." For that reason sinners chose "sin," the proud attitude, the Promethean pose. One may make of "Hell" an ideal, and pursue it - deliberately and persistently.

Indeed, ultimately, it is but an illusion, an aberration, a violence, and a mistake. But the sting of sin is precisely in the denial of the divinely instituted reality, in the attempt to establish another order or regime, which is, in contrast with the true divine order, a radical disorder, but to which one may give, in selfish exaltation, ultimate preference. Now, sin has been destroyed and abrogated - it can not be said that "sin" has been redeemed, only persons may be redeemed. But it is not enough to acknowledge, by faith, the deed of the divine redemption - one has to be born anew. The whole personality must be cleansed and healed. Forgiveness must be accepted and assessed in freedom. It cannot be imputed - apart from an act of faith and gratitude, an act of love. Paradoxically, nobody can be saved by love divine alone, unless it is responded to by grateful love of human persons. Indeed, there is always an abstract possibility of "repentance" and "conversion" in the course of this earthly or historic life. Can we admit that this possibility continues after death? Brunner will hardly accept the idea of a "Purgatory." But even in the concept of Purgatory no chance of radical conversion is implied. Purgatory includes but believers, those of good intentions, pledged to Christ, but deficient in growth and achievement. Human personality is made and shaped in this life - at least, it is oriented in this life. The difficulty of universal salvation is not on the divine side - indeed, God wants every man "to be saved," not so much, probably, in order that His will should be accomplished and His Holiness secured, as in order that man's existence may be complete and blessed. Yet, insuperable difficulties may be erected on the creaturely side. After all, is "ultimate resistance" a greater paradox, and a greater offense, than any resistance or revolt, which actually did pervert the whole order of Creation, did handicap the deed of redemption? Only when we commit ourselves to a Docetic view of history and deny the possibility of ultimate decisions in history, in this life, under the pretext that it is temporal, can we evade the paradox of ultimate resistance.

St. Gregory of Nyssa anticipated a kind of universal conversion of souls in the afterlife, when the Truth of God will be revealed and manifested with compelling evidence. Just at that point the limitation of the Hellenic mind is obvious. Evidence seemed to it to be the decisive motive for the will, as if "sin" were merely ignorance. The Hellenic mind had to pass through a long and hard experience of asceticism, of ascetic self-examination and self-control, in order to overcome this intellectualistic naïveté and illusion and discover a dark abyss in the fallen soul. Only in St. Maximus the Confessor, after some centuries of ascetic preparation, do we find a new and deepened interpretation of the Apokatastasis. Indeed, the order of creation will be fully restored in the last days. But the dead souls will still be insensitive to the very revelation of Light. The Light Divine will shine to all, but those who once have chosen darkness will be still unwilling and unable to enjoy the eternal bliss. They will still cling to the nocturnal darkness of selfishness. They will be unable precisely to enjoy. They will stay "outside" - because union with God, which is the essence of salvation, presupposes and requires the determination of will. Human will is irrational and its motives cannot be rationalized. Even "evidence" may fail to impress and move it.

Eschatology is a realm of antinomies. These antinomies are rooted and grounded in the basic mystery of Creation. How can anything else exist alongside of God, if God is the plenitude of Being? One has attempted to solve the paradox, or rather to escape it, by alleging the motives of Creation, sometimes to such an extent and in such a manner as to compromise the absoluteness and sovereignty of God. Yet, God creates in perfect freedom, ex mera liberalitate, that is, without any "sufficient reasons." Creation is a free gift of unfathomable love. Moreover, man in Creation is granted this mysterious and enigmatic authority of free decision, in which the most enigmatic is not the possibility of failure or resistance, but the very possibility of assent. Is not the will of God of such a dimension that it should be simply obeyed without any real, that is, free and responsible, assent? The mystery is in the reality of creaturely freedom. Why should it be wanted in the world created and ruled by God, by His infinite wisdom and love? In order to be real, human response must be more than a mere resonance. It must be a personal act, an inward commitment. In any case, the shape of human life - and now we may probably add, the shape and destiny of the cosmos - depends upon the synergism or conflict of the two wills, divine and creaturely. Many things are happening which God abhors - in the world which is His work and His subject. Strangely enough, God respects human freedom, as St. Irenaeus once said, although, in fact, the most conspicuous manifestation of this freedom was revolt and disorder. Are we entitled to expect that finally human disobedience will be disregarded and "dis-respected" by God, and His Holy Will shall be enforced, regardless of any assent? Or it would make a dreadful "masquerade" of human history? What is the meaning of this dreadful story of sin, perversion, and rebellion, if finally everything will be smoothed down and reconciled by the exercise of divine Omnipotence?

Indeed, the existence of Hell, that is, of radical opposition, implies, as it were, some partial "unsuccess" of the creative design. Yet, it was more than just a design, a plan, a pattern. It was the calling to existence, or even "to being," of living persons. One speaks sometimes of the "divine risk," says Jean Guitton. It is probably a better word than kenosis. Indeed, it is a mystery, which cannot be rationalized - it is the primordial mystery of creaturely existence.

Brunner takes the possibility of Hell quite seriously. There is no security of "universal salvation," although this is, abstractly speaking, still possible - for the omnipotent God of Love. But Brunner still hopes that there will be no Hell. The trouble is that there is Hell already. Its existence does not depend upon divine decision. God never sends anyone to Hell. Hell is made by creatures themselves. It is human creation, outside, as it were, of "the order of creation."

The Last Judgment remains a mystery.