40 Questions to Ask a Christian: An Orthodox Response (Part 4)

It’s time to pick up where I left off in my response to Thomas Swan’s 40 Questions post on hubpages.com.  At this point, we’re getting into questions regarding what he calls the “Characteristics of God”.  It starts at question #14.

14.  “An all-knowing God can read your mind, so why does he require you to demonstrate your faith by worshiping him?”

The Orthodox take a very different view of God and worship than most Westerners are used to.  On top of the basic question here of “what’s the point” in worshiping God if He already knows whether or not you believe in Him, there’s another implied point that God is perhaps a bit egoistic or insecure and therefore requires worship from His creatures.  Then, of course, there’s the question of the omniscience of God implied here – does God really need people to openly express their admiration and loyalty in order to figure out who’s on Team Jesus?

To be fair, I think there is some room for this critique when it is applied to Western Christian thought.  The Western Christian God (or god, I should say), actually is petty and at times downright unstable and can come off as needy or insecure – this is particularly true when one examines the Old Testament in light of the dominant evangelical Protestant view of the Bible as the inerrant, infallible, and (in some cases) divinely dictated Word of God.

For Orthodox, worship is more about us than it is about God.  God doesn’t need anything from us.  Indeed, we are God’s prized creation, but we are still creatures and, as such, anything we give back to God ultimately belongs to Him.  So why is worship more about us, as human beings?  Orthodox see humans as basically good and still bearing the image of God, but we fall short of our calling to be like God because of sin, which is considered to be a disease rather than the breaking of arbitrary rules.  Orthodox see the relationship between God and man as a doctor-patient relationship – not a judge-defendant relationship.  God knows more about us than we know about ourselves.  He created us, after all.  So that includes our innermost thoughts and secrets.  What God wants is for us to be healed – to be made whole so that we can be ready for Paradise in the fullness of time.  God is calling us to maturity – to live up to our potential – but we can’t do that so long as we are slaves to our favorite sins.  Worship in the Orthodox Church is liturgical and symbolic – it reminds us of who we truly are and calls us to prepare ourselves for Paradise or for direct fellowship with God.  Worship is part divine revelation (of who God is and who we are) and part strong spiritual medicine.  Through the spiritual hospital that is the Church, we are invited to participate in the Holy Mysteries (or sacraments) so that we might be healed of our selfish tendencies and be filled with the cosuffering love of God.  Finally, it is an invitation to step, at least for a while, beyond space and time and take part in worshiping God alongside the angels and saints around the world and in the Heavens.  Through the Church, the whole universe divinely sings of God’s glory and of His victory over death and sin and the principalities of hell.

Try finding anything like that in Western Christendom.

15. “If God is all-knowing, why do holy books describe him as surprised or angered by the actions of humans? He should have known what was going to happen.”

Excellent point.  This is a good critique of fundamentalists, which dominate evangelical Protestantism.  Sadly, these Christian fundamentalists can be found in virtually every Christian tradition – they are even present among Orthodox.

Fortunately, though, I think Orthodox have the best answer to this question.  If one truly understands Orthodox theology and its existential nature, one can deal with contradictions in scripture.  Holding on to fundamentalism will not achieve anything except maybe run people away from Christianity.  Orthodox (and Roman Catholics) are not bound to fundamentalism, as the majority of Protestants are.  For the Protestants, if they admit to any problems in scripture, the game is over.  The ancient Catholic traditions (Orthodox and Roman), however, do not rely on scripture as the epistemological bedrock of Christianity and therefore don’t have to take each passage in a literal fashion.  We have, for example, the saints, Church Fathers, councils, etc.  So we are free to look at scripture in its proper perspective in that it is part of the sacred tradition of Christianity, but it is certainly not the whole of it.  I think the existential nature of Orthodoxy provides a bit more flexibility, but Catholics can avoid this problem as well if they wish.  If there are a few inconsistencies or historical errors in the Bible, then it’s not a big deal.  The essence of scripture is what we are concerned with.  In other words, on the whole and in light of the Gospel, what does it reveal about man, or God, or the relationship between humanity and God?

As for the specific question of God being surprised or angry, I think it’s best to look to the Eastern Fathers of the Church.  The Eastern Fathers hold that God is never angry or surprised.  He is “passionless”, as they say.  For specifics, I would recommend the writing of St. Anthony the Great, who explains very clearly that we are not to take these passages in scripture where God is angry or surprised in a literal way.  They are part of the biblical narrative.  God Himself is beyond emotion as we know it and we know that God is love – perfect, unselfish love.  If God were to exhibit passions, as we creatures do, then He would be no God at all and the perfect harmony of the Trinity would be impossible, as each Person would be subject to His own ego and liable to come into conflict with another Person.

16. “An all-knowing God knows who will ultimately reject him. Why does God create people who he knows will end up in hell?”

This is perhaps one of the most important questions.  And it’s a question that has stirred up a great deal of controversy in the evangelical Protestant community of late.  The reason why I mention evangelicals is because there is a massive split between the traditional evangelicals – who hold that God will ultimately condemn the vast majority of humanity to an eternal torture chamber called “hell” – and evangelicals led by Rob Bell, who has dared to question the evangelical Narrative.  Rob Bell is the author of two very important books: “Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived” and “What We Talk About When We Talk About God”.  It was “Love Wins” that set off a hysterical, almost rabid, counterattack from traditional evangelicals (though it was done in the classical passive-aggressive evangelical tone) and made thousands of people – if not more – question what they were taught in their Southern Baptist congregations.

The reason why I think Bell’s work is so important is because, though he may not know it, his view of heaven and hell is extremely close to the ancient, Orthodox teaching on heaven and hell.  I intend to write a book or two about this.

According to the Orthodox Church (and Bell, for the most part), God will not condemn the vast majority of people to an eternal torture chamber.  Quite the contrary.  Instead of being tossed into the pits of hell to be tortured by fire and demons forever, every human being will spend eternity with God.  The Eastern Fathers have written extensively on the subject and the difference between the typical, Western view and the Eastern view comes down to what it means to be saved.  For the West, salvation is perceived in a more juridical sense.  For the East, salvation is seen in a therapeutic sense – it’s a process of being saved and one that is completely voluntary.  One can opt out of taking one’s medicine at any point.  But when a person’s life comes to an end and they are finally in the Presence of God – radiating pure, unselfish, perfect love – how will he or she handle it?

In the Orthodox view, there is no such thing as “hell” in the sense of it being a separate “place”.  Rather, hell is being in God’s divine Presence and knowing that you’ve spent your whole life rejecting pure, perfect love.  You had an opportunity to be healed and you finally get to see what you’ve turned down.  Regret and the judgment by one’s own conscience is what will burn people who choose to not repent in this life.  Having passed from this world still addicted to power, anger, lust, money, or any other harmful passion, one will try to get away from the Light that they had once turned away and find no place to hide from it.  There will be nothing available to feed one’s former addictions.  God will eternally be reaching out in love, but the unrepentant person will find themselves unable – unwilling – to accept it.  This is the meaning of hell – to be “at the party, but unable to enjoy it” as Rob Bell put it in “Love Wins”.  God’s uncreated energies will be like suffocating fire to the unrepentant, but to those who have been healed of their selfishness, it will be like cool light.

In order to better understand this, there are two Western writers who I would recommend before moving into the Orthodox literature.  The first is, of course, Rob Bell – the two books I mentioned earlier are an excellent starting point and they are beautifully written, quick reads.  The second writer I’d recommend is none other than C.S. Lewis – specifically, his book “The Great Divorce” in which we see a conception of heaven and hell as being one in which people in hell choose to be there and are not ready for the “reality” of heaven… even though they are welcome to come to heaven at any time.  Lewis understood the ancient Christian teaching that hell is locked from the inside very well indeed.

Christ has already opened the Gates to Paradise.  The question is, do you want to join Him there?

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