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On morality, hell, salvation and eschatology

This is a response to some questions Billy Kangas asks on his excellent blog The Orant (or possibly TheoRant). It grew too long for a blog comment so I’ll put it here.

When does morality fall into the realm of heresy?

Morality becomes a heresy and a form of idolatry when we imagine it as an absolute. God is uncreated; He’s the I AM. Creation exists contingently, because God is and sustains it (and Athanasius would say it persists without fading away from the effects of sin only because God is now a part of His own creation thanks to His incarnation.) But unlike the uncreated God or the created universe, morality hasn’t got any ontology: It isn’t a thing; as a concept, it exists only in our heads.

Scripture notes that people have a basic built-in understanding that hurting each other is bad and unfair (or, for 2-year-olds and sociopaths, hurting me is bad and unfair). As individuals and cultures we build moralities. But of course people go ahead and do what they believe to be wrong all the time; that suggests any human morality is just opinion. We are rationalizing beings, so despite our moralities in fact we do whatever we want and sell it to ourselves as being for the best, or allowable this once, or not so bad anyway.

For the Christian, in place of absolute morality, there’s a Person who defines right and good by what He is. If God were subject to some external, objective moral system, then He wouldn’t be almighty, sovereign, or the creator of all.

Morality becomes an idol and a heresy when it stops being about the image and likeness of God, and starts becoming a way to manipulate and control others; when it stops being an inner check on what I may do, and starts being a judgment on what you do.

What makes the eastern Orthodox understanding of Sin and Hell “different”? Is Atheism a rejection of the Western God, not just disbelief in God?

For both of these I’d point you toward “The River of Fire” by Dr Alexander Kalomiros. As you read it, bear in mind it’s written by an Orthodox Greek, trying to explain and rebut his understanding of western Christianity, and he’s more polemic about it than I’d like. Even as he’s being a little offensive in his presentation, he’s still presenting some core Orthodox understandings.

Here’s a related piece that I began writing as a Protestant and finished later when I’d become Orthodox, which draws a similar conclusion from Scripture: The River of God.

Is Atheism a rejection of the Western God, not just disbelief in God?

That’s probably an overbroad statement. But certainly most of the angry atheists I run into are vehement disbelievers in a specific thing they call “god” which bears little resemblance to the Person the Church worships.

Is the co-suffering of God opposed to a juridical understanding of soteriology? What do you think of his comment that Augustine of Hypo took people down the “wrong path”

Augustine takes a lot of flack from Orthodox people, but it’s partly because he deserves it. His understanding of Original Sin is alien to the east’s understanding of man’s condition, because to Augustine, Eden was where man committed a crime and became guilty; to him, if man’s problem is legal guilt, then the solution has to be a legal one as well. Augustine’s monergism is a one-sided view that was formed at least partly in response to Pelagius. If Pelagius is alleged to say man can be good without grace, Augustine responds by saying man is so corrupt he can never do good. Augustine almost seems to be saying Christ failed: the human race was not united to God and made free in Christ. For Orthodox Christians it’s a given that the nature of man has been saved, so what remains is to work out the salvation of our person — and “God gives grace to the humble” so it’s not possible to speak of repentance happening in one’s own strength apart from grace. “God is at work in you both to will and to do” so both the desire to do good and the ability to do it are from God. Pelagianism isn’t so much wrong as it is impossible and irrelevant.

There’s a reason the natures and Person of Christ were so hotly debated for centuries: Christology is soteriology. By understanding the facts and implications of God’s incarnation and the deification of Christ’s own humanity, we learn what our own salvation is.

What do you think he means by “Liturgy is always eschatological”?

In Isaiah and Revelation we see an eternal liturgy always worshiping God. The prophets talk about the Day of the Lord — not just the date of Christ’s return, but the eternal kingdom. In eschatological prayers like the Our Father, and the preaching of the kingdom, we bring the laws of that Day into effect here and now. Here’s an excellent article on that: Time Traveler.

In our worship here and now, we participate in that eternal Liturgy. Just after “Take, drink, this is my blood…” the priest says: “Therefore, remembering this command of the Savior, and all that has come to pass for our sake: the cross, the tomb, the resurrection on the third day, the ascension into heaven, the enthronement at the right hand of the Father, and the second and glorious coming: Thine own, of Thine own, we offer unto Thee, on behalf of all and for all.” In Hebrews 12 we see some images of the cosmic significance and context of Christian worship: In Christ we have already come to the unshakable kingdom.

Liturgy ought to be a reality-check for people who too easily forget we are strangers in this country, citizens of another kingdom, and subject to its laws.

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