Helluva Christmas Present

helluva christmas present cartoon by nakedpastor david hayward

“Helluva Christmas Present”

The mental gymnastics we will perform to make some theology work are amazing. Olympic worthy!

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21 Responses

  1. Jennifer F. says:

    Hi, David. I’ve been enjoying your drawings for sometime now, thank you! My journey with God led me to stop attending church 3 1/2 years ago and it has been quite a ride, questioning things and allowing God to show me what is true about Him and trading religion for relationship. It’s hard to give up certain doctrines or ways of thinking that you spent over 30 years believing to be true. I have had trouble with the idea of hell the past couple of years fitting in with the God I have come to know and love. Yet, I see it spoken about in scripture. I am wondering if, as a former pastor, you could give me your beliefs about hell and what you believe the Bible speaks about it. Thanks so much!

  2. Steve Martin says:

    Forget about church. Forget about God and hell. Just have a good time. And really enjoy your life here. It may be the only one you are going to get.

  3. Jennifer F. says:

    Steve, I respect your opinion and beliefs. For me, the relationship I’ve found with God outside of religion these past few years is the greatest good time and I have no desire to give it up. Of course, I’m not sure what you mean by “just have a good time.” What many people define as a good time has no appeal to me.
    As for forgetting church, I’ve pretty much done that as it was a huge hindrance to finding my freedom in Christ. I don’t believe the church today is what Jesus has in mind at all.

    Thanks for your thoughts. :)

  4. nakedpastor says:

    Hi Jennifer. This cartoon of mine is the most succinct of my explanations about hell: http://www.nakedpastor.com/2011/03/23/cartoon-literally-hell/ … that being said… I don’t write about hell much. I don’t waste my time on it. I really don’t care what the bible says about it because, with all due respect to the bible (and I mean that sincerely)… it is an ancient collection of documents composed from an ancient mentality in which hell made perfect sense. If hell is a place where there is the absence of the Divine, I think that means now that where people abuse the earth and animals and people not recognizing the Divine in all things. Hell is a negative and false reality imposed by a small mind.

  5. Kris says:

    I think we can make Heaven or Hell here on Earth, so I agree with you David.

  6. It is interesting to read apologetics on hell. It is still believed that the eternal torments of the damned will be a subject of eternal praise among the redeemed.

    Rather than seeing the obvious injustice of this, through the authority of scripture, it is argued that suffering is an object of praise.

    To me this is evidence of a disconnect by some Christians with empathy. And, to me, empathy is the basis of morality and values. It would seem that even Jesus agreed with this in his statements to do unto others as you would have them do unto you, and yet in the book of Revelation Jesus is praised for maintaining the eternal torment of the wicked.

    This shows a disconnect with both empathy and rational concepts of fairness. This is why I consider Christianity a harmful belief system. It sets up, through authority, not reason, a belief system that forces people to exist in two minds. And this ultimately creates insanity.

  7. nakedpastor says:

    It makes you wonder, doesn’t it Richard?, what came first: the theology encourages and creates the lack of empathy, or if theology endorses the lack of empathy people already have in their hearts.

  8. It is interesting to look at studies of empathy among animals. It appears that many mammals exhibit advanced understanding of empathy. This would suggest that empathy is a natural instinct. As a reference for this you may want to watch this TED talk Frans de Waal.

  9. Brigitte says:

    what came first: the theology encourages and creates the lack of empathy, or if theology endorses the lack of empathy people already have in their hearts.

    It is always amazing when people who will have no judgment pronounced on themselves have no problem judging others. Sorry, NP, you must see the irony in this. Everything has consequences. Your church of the mall, yesterday, illustrates this. The mall can be seen as a microcosm of the things we do. There we frequently do nothing but shopping to make ourselves feel better and the whole western world is drowning in personal, municipal and national debt. We eat at the food court, nothing but junky fast food, usually, and practically the entire boomer generation and its children and grandchildren are in danger of diabetes 2. That combined with the addiction to pleasure and video games, etc. I’ll stop here, because by some kind of law of nature we suffer all kinds of punishments and results for our stupidities and missteps. And usually we only smarten up when it is just about too late or already too late. Nothing without a little bit adrenalin and pressure. In our hearts we all feel this existential guilt because we are so incurably self-centered, even when trying our best at empathy. Something is wrong with me and with all of us, even when we’ve not done something terrible. We feel it and the other person, whom you are trying to be empathetic with, feels it, too.

    If there were no teaching about God and heaven and hell and demons, for whom hell was made, not men and women, there would also be no salvation, and we would be stuck with this existential guilt. Peace is for those who deal with this all or let themselves have it dealt with, and not push it under the carpet or lash out at those who believe differently.

  10. Carol says:

    Steve, why do you assume that people without a formal religion are faithless and selfish?

    “Plenty of kind, decent, caring people have no religious beliefs, and they act out of the goodness of their hearts. Conversely, plenty of people who profess to be religious, even those whoworship regularly, show no particular interest in the world beyond themselves.”
    -John Danforth, priest, ambassador, senator (b. 1936)

    “My parents spoke of piety, of love and of humility. I have really tried hard. But as long as there was a God in my world, I couldn’t even get close to my goals. My humility was not humble enough. My love remained nonetheless far less than the love of Christ or of the saints or even my own mother’s love. And my piety was forever poisoned by grave doubts. Now that God is gone, I feel that all this is mine; piety toward life, humility before my meaningless fate and love for the other children who are afraid, who are ill, who are cruel.” –Ingmar Bergman

    “One of our biggest mistaken assumptions is that everyone thinks like me. So most of the decisions that we make are based on the way we think. This of course leads us to assume that what’s good for us is good for everyone else. So when we jump to a particular conclusion about something, it is based on what we want it to be and this is the definition of an egocentric person.” ~Theresa Borchard

  11. Carol says:

    Brigitte, there are no rewards or punishments in nature; only consequences.

    Sound moral theology teaches that for guilt to be incurred there must be cognition and volition (knowing and willing) or, in other words malicious intent.

    Most unkindness, even cruelties, are the result of ignorance or weakness rather than malice; therefor, no guilt. However, guilt or not we are RESPONSIBLE for the affects of our behavior on others or ourselves.

    I really wish more Christians would stop confusing guilt with ressponsibility. Guilt-tripping is psychological abuse. It is also less likely to affect a transforming change in people because it only makes them feel misunderstood and defensive.

    Your pessimism about our humanity would lead me to nihilism.

    If I really thought that we were so hopelessly evil as you say, then I could only assume that Jesus was a bit of a sentimental fool for his sacrificial act. Maybe God should have just done another “Flood thing” without any survivors and just have another go at this “Creation thing.”

    As it is, I see in the Mystery of the Incarnation the greatest affirmation of our humanity to be found in any Religious Tradition.

    I also see that *sin* is NOT intrinsic to our humanity; but is an aberration.

    If *sin* was intrinsic to our humanity, Jesus could not be BOTH truly human AND sinless. Do you not see how your confounding of *sin* with our humanity is a fundamental denial of the Mystery of the Incarnation?

  12. BW says:

    Steve and Brigette sitting in a tree, K I S S I N G…oh, sorry off topic…

    But you guys drive me crazy.

  13. Carol says:

    BW, I was fortunate enough to come to faith in a Missouri Synod Lutheran Church that was slightly less fundamentalist than most as an ADULT from a relatively healthy unchurched family.

    There was a schism in the MSLC a few years after I was confirmed that was horribly brutal. Family relationships were literally destroyed by differences of theological belief.

    I can still remember one day after the worship service the shock of realizing that, if it weren’t for the protection of the secular government, there were people in that church that would probably try to kill me for what I had come to believe by interpreting my Bible from a non-cradle-MS Lutheran perspective.

    It helped me understand from an emotional, not just an historical perspective, the horror of the religious wars in Europe during and after the Reformation/Schism that our Nation’s Founders were so determined to prevent by the separation of Church (institutionalized religion) and State clause in our Constitution even though they felt that a sense of accountability to a “Higher Power” was necessary in a democratic country.

    If you or I had been raised like Steve and Brigitte, we might be very much like them. Cultural conditioning is a very powerful influence on how our core beliefs evolve. For them to change those beliefs would not be much different from the conversion of a conservative committed Jew to the Christian faith. The loss of family and community support is one of the most painful experiences that a person can experience. Rejection and shunning by the life-long source of one’s psychological and social support can be a fate more painful to contemplate than death, a sort of living death.

  14. BW says:

    Carol, as always, I very much appreciate your perspective and tone. However, I too was culturally conditioned from birth. I was a member of the LCMS church – and it is from there that I left organized religion. I did change my beliefs by allowing myself to form and then ask questions. And I listened to the answers and weighed them thoughtfully. (Key word = LISTEN) I sought – and continue to seek – various sources for reflection. I have no problem with anyone’s individual beliefs – I do have a problem with the forceful delivery of said beliefs. Perhaps because I came from a similar background that Steve and Brigette do, it hits more close to home for me. I experienced many like them in the church I left.

  15. Carol says:

    BW, yes, your pain was greater than mine by far; although mine was bad enough.

    The greater the pain the longer the “hot button” lasts, even after we have forgiven. I know that from other experiences, also.

    I also know that we are to leave take our pain to the Cross and leave it there rather than pass it on. Breaking the cycle of cruelty and pain is what the Christian vocation is all about.

    My prayer life is more cathartic than pious. What the Cross of Christ says to me is that God loves ALL of us so much that S/He would rather we pour out our pain and rage on her/him than on each other. As a parent I can identify wanting to suffer in my child’s place. Sometimes it is difficult to practice the “tough love” necessary for a child to learn from its own mistakes. In the long run, being enabled to escape the consequences of our own mistakes is no kindness; but even knowing that, it is still very hard not to try to spare the child any suffering.

  16. Caryn LeMur says:

    Carol: thank you for your posting about the church split. It helped me to realize again the pain that church people feel when they touch some thought that may lead to rejection by their church.

    For the group: Concerning hell: After studying Jesus’ words, and Revelation, I believe the weight of evidence shows there is a final ‘lake of fire’ that is not a good location. I hope I am wrong.

    However, after studying Matt 25’s Parable of the Sheep and Goats, I believe I understand Jesus’ priorities that will be extended on that Last Judgment. Therefore, my focus is not on the Lake/hell, but upon investing in the things that matter to the Final Judge, Jesus.

    Much love in Christ always and unconditionally; Caryn

  17. Carol says:

    Caryn, Fr. Richard addresses the difference between formal religion and an intuitive faith in today’s Advent Meditation:

    WE PREPARE FOR THE MESSIAH

    Paul, a good Jew, quotes Deuteronomy, “The Word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart” (Romans 10:8), and adds a challenge that I would repeat today, “Do not tell yourself that you have to bring Christ down!” (10:6). He knew that God had overcome the human-divine gap in the Christ Mystery. The issues of space and time have been overcome once and for all. God is here, not there.

    The mystery of the Incarnation is precisely the repositioning of God in the material world once and forever. Continual top-down religion often creates very passive, and even passive-dependent and passive-aggressive Christians. I know this as a Catholic priest for over 40 years. Bottom-up, or incarnational religion, offers a God we can experience for ourselves. We have nothing to fight or prove, just something to know for ourselves. This is what we are about to celebrate at Christmas.

    Adapted from Things Hidden: Scripture as Spirituality, p. 121

    Prayer:
    Come, Lord Jesus!

    The 16th century Reformers created religious traditions that were just as much limited by scholastic theology as the Catholics whose scholaticism they were protesting against. The Calvinist and Lutheran Confessions are scholastic documents–the beliefs may differ; but the form remains the same, encouraging the substitution of ontological knowledge ABOUT God for experiential trust IN God as the definition of faith. The result is that religion becomes a defense against God or, at least, a defense against a deeply intimate experince of God that challenges us to become what we are–image bears of God, called to become sacraments of Divine Love in this world, not just waiting for God to “come down” and do the transforming work FOR us instead of THROUGH us.

    Baptists take pride in having no written Confessions; but they have an unwritten, de facto tradition that is every bit as scholastic as the formal de jure traditions of the Confessional denominations.

    We do not have to think alike to love alike, which is why the Scriptures plainly state that Christians are to be known by their selfless service to others, not by their orthodox beliefs.

    “First-hand religion is based on direct experience of the sacred, also called mystical experience. Second-hand religion is based on another’s experience, authority, or dogma. This distinction is often framed as the difference between spirituality (first-hand) and religion. (second-hand).” –John Davis

    “The institutions of Churchianity are not Christianity. An institution is a good thing if it is second; immediately an institution recognizes itself it becomes the dominating factor.” — Oswald Chambers

    “Many have gone back because they are afraid of looking at things from God’s standpoint. The great crisis comes spiritually when a man has to emerge a bit farther on than the creed he has accepted.” –Oswald Chambers

    “In mysticism that love of truth which we saw as the beginning of all philosophy leaves the merely intellectual sphere, and takes on the
    assured aspect of a personal passion. Where the philosopher guesses and argues, the mystic lives and looks; and speaks, consequently, the
    disconcerting language of first-hand experience, not the neat dialectic of the schools. Hence whilst the Absolute of the metaphysicians remains a diagram – impersonal and unattainable –the Absolute of the mystics is lovable, attainable, alive. — by Evelyn Underhill – MYSTICISM (Chapter One)

    “My good children, a theologian is one who converses with God and not one who studies theology.” – Elder Ephraim of Katounakia

    “When I was a child, the stories of Jesus’ birth captured my imagination. But as a young man growing up in the Catholic faith, the mystery of Christmas was mostly lost on me. As I grew, the Nativity story seemed fixed in centuries long past and spoke to realities that I assumed were long gone from the face of the earth. When I began studying theology, I learned to categorize the infancy narratives as myths, imaginative stories written to convey hidden truths but easily dismissed by the intellect. The Incarnation, God’s love poured out “in the flesh” of Jesus, remained an abstraction, a doctrine that needed to be understood and explained, certainly, but hardly something one would live.” ~ Christopher Pramuk

    “Are you willing to believe that love is the strongest thing in the world–stronger than hate, stronger than evil, stronger than death–and that the blessed life which began in Bethlehem nineteen hundred years ago is the image of the brightness of the Eternal Love? Then you can keep Christmas.” ~Henry Van Dyke

    The tragedy in Connecticut reminds me of Herod’s Slaughter of Innocents after Jesus’ birth:

    “The great teachers tell us not to stay on the circumference of our lives too long or we will never know ourselves or God. The two knowings, of both our center and our circumference, move forward together. This full movement is called conversion, transformation, or growth in holiness.
    The conscious self must say yes, but the deep unconscious must be healed too, or there is no real transformation. Too often we have settled for a mere change of external behavior, “while the inside is full of dead men’s bones” (Matthew 23:27).
    You cannot make this journey in your head—or even in the perfection of moral response. Full transformation is finally resolved in you, when you agree to bear the mystery of God: God’s suffering for the world and God’s ecstasy in the world at the same time. The joyous birth of three days ago is followed today by the story of a tragic killing of innocent children (Matthew 2:13). Agreeing to love and trust this history of absurdity, death, and contradictions is much harder, I’m afraid, than just trying to be ‘good.’” ~Richard Rohr

  18. Carol says:

    Whether secular or religious, a person would have to be very self-absorbed not to be deeply affected by the tragedy in Connecticut.

    This article explains the Eastern Orthodox teaching on the Death of Innocents:

    An Orthodox Response To the Death of the Innocent
    Posted: 15 Dec 2012 06:18 AM PST

    Whenever tragedies like yesterdays shooting in Connecticut take place, unfortunate acts of violence against innocent children, people begin to have existential questions focusing on why this happened and for what purpose. I specifically got a few emails yesterday from people who question their faith, because these tragedies hit too close for comfort, even though similar tragedies occur around the world every day and have been going on for centuries. One person specifically wrote me: “There can be no Divine lesson in this!” One of the sources for my response comes from a short work by St. Gregory of Nyssa titled “Concerning Infants Snatched Away Prematurely”. Though the children in yesterdays tragedy were not infants, I believe it can be similarly applied. Below I present an analysis of the text by Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos from his book Life After Death.
    By Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos

    There is a small treatise by St. Gregory of Nyssa titled “Concerning Infants Snatched Away Prematurely”, that is to say, taken from life before they had tasted the life for which they were born. The treatise was written for Governor Hierios of Cappadocia, who had asked St. Gregory of Nyssa what we ought to know about those who depart from life very early, whose death is joined with their birth.

    In setting out to elaborate this theme, St. Gregory of Nyssa takes the opportunity to praise the governor in fine words, calling him an “excellent” and “esteemed head”. Beyond the expressions of polite address, it appears from the introduction that the Governor of Cappadocia had many qualities and gifts. He was distinguished by an indifference to material wealth as well as by an interest in men’ s souls, which he held in the treasury of his love. In other words, he loved people and was not characterized by self-seeking.

    Likewise it appears from the introduction to the text that at the time of writing this treatise St. Gregory of Nyssa was advanced in years. He likens himself to an old horse that is staying outside the racing stadium. However, he declares that he will strain his attention to answer the Governor’s request.

    Among Hieros’s other gifts was that he sought to be informed about the working of divine economy. He was asking why one person’s life extends into old age while another’s is finished just as he is entering life.

    The problem is really existential. St. Gregory puts it very beautifully. At his birth a human being enters on the scene of life, draws a breath of air, beginning the process of living with a cry of pain, pays the tribute of a tear to Nature, just tastes life’s sorrows before any sweets have been his, and before his joints have consolidated, tender as he is, he dies, perhaps because he was left exposed as a newborn child, or because he has suffocated, or because some illness has suddenly put a stop to his life. Along with this fact, the question is also put as to whether the infant will be judged by the Judge like other people, whether he will receive a reward cooled by the dew of benediction, or whether he will be burned in the purifying fire. And this uncertainty arises because the child has done nothing in his life, neither bad nor good. For where there is no giving, there is no giving in return. Consequently, if there is no action an d choice in infants, there is no reason for them to earn what we are hoping for. If the infant enters the Kingdom of Heaven in spite of this, then it is in a more advantageous position than those who have lived and struggled in their lives. If we think in this way, everyone is better off not to live long.

    After having pinpointed the questions and problems, he goes on to give an exhaustive answer. Of course he confesses from the start that these great topics belong to the unsearchable thoughts of God, and therefore he exclaims with the Apostle: “How rich and deep are the wisdom and knowledge of God! How inscrutable are his judgements, how undiscoverable his ways! Who has ever known the mind of the Lord?” (Rom. 11:34-35). Nevertheless he proceeds to the matter at hand, because he believes in the divine grace which illumines all who have it. Without presenting his thoughts rhetorically in antithetical words, he proceeds to deal with the topic by a rational sequence.

    The first point he makes is that human nature comes from God. Furthermore, the cause of the origin of all beings is in God and not in themselves. Uncreated nature, which is God’s, surpasses every sense of dimension; it neither increases nor decreases, and indeed it is beyond any definition. By constrast, created nature is changeable, that is to say it increases and decreases. Human nature is composite, made up of heterogeneous elements, the noetic and the sensible, and it is a living image of the divine and transcendent power. Noetic nature belongs to the angelic and bodiless powers, which dwell in supramundane space, because that space is the most suitable for their bodiless nature. Here St. Gregory is speaking about the body which angels have, which he calls “a heavenly body subtle and light and ever-moving”, because noetic nature is fine, pure, weightless and ever-moving. By contrast, sensible nature is not analogous to the no etic. Therefore in order that the earth might not be unfortunate and lack an inheritance from noetic nature, God created mankind, so that the noetic and the sensible might be united in his nature. In other words, man is a summing up of the whole creation, since he is composed of noetic and sensible.

    The second point is that the aim of the creation of man is that God should be glorified by noetic nature in the whole creation. Just as the body is maintained in life by the foods of the earth precisely because it is earthly, so there exists also an intelligible life by which our noetic nature is maintained. Just as the food going in and out of our body leaves a power in it, so also the noetic is given life by its participation in essential being.

    Therefore the life suitable for noetic nature is participation in God. Each thing has its appropriate organ. The appropriate organ for the enjoyment of light is man’s eye and not his finger or any other member of the human body. So it is that vision of God takes place through the noetic in man. Therefore life is participation and communion with God. And naturally this participation is knowledge of God at the depth at which the soul is able to contain it. Ignorance of God, of course, means non-participation in God.

    Withdrawal from this life is a fall and ignorance. Since the fall of man, God has been working to cure the evil in us. It is evil to be withdrawn from God and to have no communion with Him, and the cure for this is to return into life again and attain communion with God. What is good then is to cure the noetic aspect of the soul, and of course whoever does not turn to the mystery of the Gospel word is ignorant of how to cure it.

    What St. Gregory of Nyssa is pointing out here – and I think it is very important – is that the appropriate instrument for communing with God is the noetic part of the soul. It is through this that man participates in God and acquires knowledge of Him, which is life for him. But because the fall is man’s alienation from life and his illness, which is also his death, the noetic part of his soul needs to be cured so that it may see the Light and attain participation with God.

    Human nature was formed by God so that it might hope for this life and be brought towards it. This is the purpose for which man was created, to be united with God. Thus the enjoyment of this life and the fulfilment of man’s purpose, which is theosis, is not a repayment and a reward, but a natural condition. And not to participate in God is not a punishment, but an illness of man’s soul and of his whole being.

    St. Gregory takes our eyes as an example. The capacity of our eyes to see is not a prize and a reward, but a natural condition of healthy eyes. And the inability to participate in vision is not a condemnation and the result of punishment, but a man’s illness. Therefore the happy life is innate and proper “to those who have purified their senses”. But those who have spiritually unclean eyes and do not know God do not participate in God. This is not a punishment, but a natural state of illness of the noetic part of their souls.

    The third point, which is connected with the preceding ones, is that the good which is hoped for is by nature proper to the human race. And naturally this pleasure is, in one way, called a repayment. Enjoyment of this life is not a matter of justice, but a natural state of health of the soul. St. Gregory says this because of the way the question was put: How will the infant be judged or where he will be sent, since he did neither evil nor good in his life? St. Gregory says that the problem is not to be put in this way since it is not a matter of justice, but of a natural state of the health or illness of human nature.

    This can be understood by the use of an example. Let us suppose that two men have an eye disease, and one of them submits to the cure and takes whatever medical science advises, even if it is disagreeable, while the other not only does not accept any advice from the doctor, but also lives intemperately. The first, for a natural reason, will enjoy his light, while the second, for a natural reason, will be deprived of his light.

    This example shows clearly that it is proper to human nature to enjoy that life, while the illness of ignorance prevails in those who live according to the flesh. The person who cures and purifies his spiritual eyes and washes away the ignorance, which is the impurity of his soul’s spiritual perception, attains this natural life. The other, since he evades purification and lives with illusory pleasures, making the illness difficult to cure, is estranged from the natural, lives a life contrary to nature and becomes a nonparticipant in this natural life which is communion with God.

    If this is the natural course and natural ending of a man, in whom, according to his way of life, the eye of his soul is either cured or not, the case is somehow different with the infant. Since he has not had the illness in the first place and does not need to be purified and cured, he is living according to nature and therefore, as he is inexperienced in evil, he is not prevented by any illness of the soul from enjoying participation in the Light.

    This teaching of St. Gregory of Nyssa gives us the opportunity of underlining here that the soul of man is not impure at birth, but pure. Man from his birth experiences illumination of the nous. Therefore we see that even infants can have noetic prayer, corresponding of course to the images and representations of their age. When a person is created, his nous is in a state of illumination. We have observed many times that there are infants who pray, even in their sleep. A monk of the Holy Mountain says that when small children turn their attention in some direction and laugh without a reason, it means that they see their angel. What happens in the lives of saints, for whom it is altogether natural to be with the angels, happens in little children.

    Therefore Orthodox theology does not teach what theology in the West says, that man inherits the guilt of the ancestral sin. For we believe that at birth a person has a pure nous: his nous is illuminated, which is the natural state. The inheritance of ancestral sin, as we said in another place, lies in the fact that the body inherits corruptibility and mortality, which, with the passage of time, and as the child grows and passions develop, darkens the noetic part of his soul. Indeed the developed passions linked with corruptibility and mortality and darkness of the environment darken the noetic part of the souls of children.

    There is the problem of what happens at holy Baptism. That is to say, since infants have a pure nous which is in a state of illumination, and they have noetic prayer, then why do we baptize them?

    The answer, as we see in the whole patristic tradition, is that by holy Baptism we are not getting rid of guilt from ancestral sin, but we are being grafted on to the Body of Christ, the Church, and are acquiring the power to conquer death. This is how we understand the baptism of babies. We baptize them so that they may become members of the Church, members of the Body of Christ, that they may pass over death, overcome the garments of skin, decay and mortality. That is to say that as they grow, whenever the nous becomes darkened by passions and the darkness of the surroundings, they may have the ability to conquer death in Christ, to overcome the passions and to purify the noetic part of their souls once more.

    If Baptism works in infants in this way, adults are prepared for Baptism by purification of the heart from passions. Then, through holy Chrism, illumination of the nous is received. Furthermore, through holy Baptism they become members of the Church and, being united with Christ and participating in the sacraments, they acquire the power to defeat death and attain deification. The deepest purpose of Baptism for both infants and adults is to attain deification, which is achieved only in Christ and in the Church.

    Since this point is quite crucial, I may be permitted to quote the words of St. Gregory of Nyssa about the purity of the souls of infants: “Whereas the innocent babe has no such plague before its soul’s eyes obscuring its measure of light, it continues to exist in that natural life; it does not need the soundness that comes from purgation, because it never admitted the plague into its soul at all”. The infant’s nous is pure, it has not been ill, it is distinguished by health and the natural state and therefore is not prevented at all from partaking of the divine Light.

    St. Gregory of Nyssa always makes use of examples from the present life to explain the life which is to come. He states that there is an analogy between the present way of life and that of the future. Just as infants are suckled and fed with milk at first, but later are fed with other foods one after the other at the appropriate time, it is the same with the soul. It always takes part in life in the fitting order and sequence. This was said by the Apostle Paul, who first fed the Corinthians with milk and then gave solid food to those who reached the intelligible age.

    There is a difference between the infant and the mature man in what pleases them. The man is pleased by his enterprises, by social recognition, by gifts and honors from others, by family life, by entertainments, shows, hunting, and so on, while the infant is pleased by milk, the nurse’s embrace, and the gentle rocking which brings peaceful sleep.

    The same is the case with spiritual age, in relation to spiritual blessings. Those who have nourished their souls with virtues in this life will in the future life enjoy divine comfort in proportion to the habit which they have acquired in this life. However, the soul which has not tasted virtue but is also not sickened with evil can also share the good to the depth to which it can contain the eternal blessings, empowered by the vision of Him Who is.

    Thus infants, although inexperienced in evil, will share in divine knowledge, divine Light, empowered by the vision of God, by divine grace; and naturally with the vision of God they will advance to more perfect knowledge. Actually God manifests Himself to all, “giving himself as much as the person in question accepts”.

    St. Gregory of Nyssa’s thought is that the soul by its nature is led towards the good, towards participating in the divine Light. According to his receptivity a person receives divine grace and divine enrichment. This is independent of his physical age and the abundance or nonexistence of virtues. It is within this perspective that one should see a person’s future state, and not compare the virtuous life of the mature person with the life of the infant and the immature person. He who undertakes such a comparison is himself immature, for he shows that he does not have theological arguments.

    The fourth point which St. Gregory analyzes is why God permits a baby to die at such an age. Having analyzed previously that as far as participation in the divine Light is concerned, the number of years which we have lived does not play a great role, he now goes on to explain why God permits sudden departure from this life.

    In answer to this question he says that no one can put the blame on God in cases where women murder their children because of illicit pregnancy. But as to the cases in which infants leave this world through some infirmity even though their parents have cared for them and prayed for them, we must look at them within God’s Providence. For perfect providence is that which does not simply heal the sufferings which have taken place, but it protects the person from even tasting things which would happen in the future. Whoever knows the future, as is the case with God, will naturally prevent the baby from growing up, so that he will not be brought to a bad end. Thus in the latter cases it is precisely because He sees the infant’s bad future that God does not permit him to live. God does this out of love and charity, without essentially depriving him of any of the future blessings, as we have seen.

    In order to make this economy of God understandable, St. Gregory offers a beautiful and descriptive example. Let us suppose that there is a rich table with many appetizing foods. Let us go on to suppose that there is a supervisor who, on the one hand knows the qualities of each food – which one is harmful and unsuitable and which is suitable for eating – and on the other hand is very familiar with the temperament of each dinner guest. Let us still further suppose that this supervisor has absolute authority to permit one person to eat the food and prevent another, so that each one will eat what is suitable for his temperament and the sick person will therefore not be tormented nor the healthy one fall into loathing because of excess of food. If the supervisor should find out that one person had become drunk from much food and drink, or another was beginning to be drunk, he would get him out of that particular place. There is the case of a man who was put out of that place and turned against the supervisor, to accuse him of depriving him of the good things through envy. But if he were to look carefully at those who remained and suffered from sickness and headaches because of drunkenness, and expressed themselves with ugly words, then he would thank the supervisor for saving him from the pain of overeating.

    This example matches human life. Human life is a table at which there are abundant foods. Life, however, is not sweet as honey, but also has various disagreeable foods such as salt and vinegar, which make human life difficult. Some foods arouse boasting, others make those who share them go into a frenzy, losing their heads, and in others they cause sickness. The supervisor of the table, who is God, takes away from that table promptly him who behaved properly in order not to be like those who suffer from excess of pleasure because of their gluttony.

    In this way Divine Providence cures illnesses before they are yet manifest. Since God, with His prognostic power, knows that the newborn child will make bad use of the world when he grows up, He removes him from the banquet of life. The newborn child is detached from life so that he will not use his gluttony at the table of this life. On this point too we see the great love and philanthropy of God.

    The fifth point, which results from the foregoing, is the question of why God makes a distinction in His choice, why he takes one away providentially, while he lets the other become so bad that we wish that he had never been born. Why is the baby taken from this life providentially while his father is left, who drinks at the banquet until his old age, strewing his evil dregs on himself as well as on his fellow-drinkers?

    In answer to this question he says that what it means is a word “to the most grateful”, to those who are thankful to God and, naturally, are well disposed. Besides, these are mysteries which man’s reason cannot grasp, precisely because God’s “reason” is different from man’s reason.

    St. Gregory maintains that what God arranges is not fortuitous and without reason. God is reason, wisdom, virtue and truth, and He will not accept what is unrelated to virtue and truth. Thus sometimes, for reasons which we have mentioned, babies are snatched from life early, and sometimes God permits something different, because He has a better end in view.

    It is also permitted and granted by God that evil people should remain in life so that some benefits may be derived. Referring to the Israelites, he says that God permitted Egypt to oppress them in order to teach the Israelite people, just as He also brought the Israelites out of Egypt so that they would not become like the Egyptians and acquire their customs. With poundings on the anvil even the hardest iron, which does not soften in fire, can take the form of a useful tool.

    Another argument is dealt with as well. Some people maintain that not all people in this life have banished the fruits of wickedness, nor have the virtuous benefited from the sweating labours of virtue. To this St. Gregory of Nyssa replies that the virtuous will also rejoice in the next life, comparing their own blessings with the loss suffered by those condemned. This is said from the point of view that the comparison of opposites becomes “an addition of pleasure and an increase for the virtuous”. To be sure, it does not mean that they rejoice at the condemnation of other men, but they thank God for their salvation, because they are experiencing the happiness of virtue in contrast to the unhappiness of sin and the passions.

    Therefore infants are snatched away from life prema¬turely in order that they do not fall into more dreadful evils. If some live and become evil, this has other reasons which are in the Providence and Wisdom of God. Nevertheless some benefits will come, since God does not do anything without a reason and a purpose.

    The fact is that the infants who depart from life prematurely neither find themselves in a painful state nor become equal to those who have struggled to be purified by every virtue. They are in God’s Providence. Anyway, the journey to God and participation in the uncreated Light is a natural state of the soul, and infants cannot be deprived of this, because by the power of divine grace they can attain deification.

    Read also: A LETTER OF CONSOLATION TO THE BEREAVED
    http://www.johnsanidopoulos.com/2009/09/letter-of-consolation-to-bereaved.html
    A LETTER OF C ONSOLATION TO THE BEREAVED
    Rachel weeping for her children
    A LETTER OF CONSOLATION TO THE BEREAVED

    “The Jews of the Old Testament wept for Jacob and for Moses for forty days. Today, however, during the funeral of the faithful, the Church raises hymns and prayers and psalms. We glorify and thank God, because ‘He crowned the departing,’ because ‘He relieved the pains,’ because ‘He expelled the fear,’ and has the deceased believer near Him. This is why the hymns and psalms reveal that in the event of death there is pleasure and joy following the glorious Resurrection of the Savior Jesus Christ. For the psalms and hymns are symbols of joy. According to the Apostolic word: ‘Is any cheerful? Let him sing praises’ (James 5:13). This is why we sing psalms over the dead—psalms which move us to have courage and not to despair over the death of our brother.” -St. John Chrysostom

    My Beloved,

    Today, a member of your family has departed from this transitory and imperfect world. Your loved one was with you for many years. You had unforgettable days together, days of joy and days of sorrow. You would have wanted to be together longer, but even if you had been together for a thousand years, it would not have been long enough. Time passes quickly and death comes, it cannot be avoided. Who lives and will not face death? So death came and your beloved one has been taken from your loving embrace. There is a new grave in your family’s burial ground and you now mourn at the graveside. Your beloved one no longer exists.

    What did I say? No longer exists? NO! That is not true! Your beloved one whose funeral was conducted, and who was buried today with the prayers of the Church, does indeed exist! You ask, how? An ancient Greek philosopher – indeed the greatest philosopher of all – Socrates, spoke with his followers shortly before his death. He told them not to grieve over his forthcoming death and not to be overly concerned with where and how they would bury him, because that which will be buried is not Socrates, but only his body. “Socrates,” he told them, “is a spirit which will never die. At the time of death the immortal soul will depart, just as the imprisoned bird flies away when the door to the cage opens. The Socrates over whom you would weep will, at that time, be experiencing great joy. He will have left this world of injustice and will have gone to another world where righteousness prevails. The justice which has been denied him here on earth, he will find in the heavens…”

    These were the words spoken by the philosopher moments before he died. Socrates, even though he lived four hundred years before Christ, believed in the immortality of the soul. He faced death with courage and offered comfort to his followers.

    And we who live after Christ, if we do not believe that the soul is immortal and that there is another life beyond the grave, we are totally self-condemned by our faithlessness. For it wasn’t a philosopher, who being human can be in error, but God Himself who become man – our Lord Jesus Christ the God-Man, the Fountain of Truth, the essence of Truth itself – who assured us concerning these things. He preached in the most explicit manner that we have an immortal soul. “For what shall it profit a man if he gains the whole world, and forfeits his soul? For what can a man give in exchange for his soul?” (Mark 8:36-37). And not only did Christ preach immortality of the soul, he verified this fundamental truth with miracles, by raising the dead. He resurrected the daughter of Jairus, the son of the widow from Nain, and Lazarus. The resurrection of Lazarus is described in detail in the eleventh chapter of the Gospel according to Saint John. As soon as you return home from the funeral of your dearly departed, open your Gospel and study this chapter. Read it, not only once but several times. There are no more comforting words than those in the Gospel. What happened to Lazarus will happen to everyone. The Lord who raised Lazarus will resurrect all the dead. The Lord’s command, ‘Lazarus, come forth!’ – this almighty command which caused his soul to return to the dead body and Lazarus to emerge from his tomb – this same command will be heard by all who have died. In every tomb the voice will be heard, ‘O dead, come out of your tombs!’ Their souls will return and everyone will appear again, not with the bodies they have today, bodies subject to sickness, death and decay, but with bodies that are incorrupt. We are not capable of imagining what we will be like when we raise from the dead.

    But the greatest proof that we will be resurrected and that we who believe and live in accordance with the will of God will not simply be resurrected, but will live a life of unimaginable beauty and gladness – the greatest proof of the resurrection of the dead and the life to come is the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ. Yes! Let the faithless materialistic ones say what they will. It is true, it is an historic event, the greatest even in the history of the world, that Christ conquered death. He rose from the dead! And as the greatest of the Apostles proclaimed, “Christ is risen from the dead and has become the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep” (I Corinthians 15:20). And just as Christ arose, so shall all the dead arise. This is our faith, the very foundation of our faith.

    When people believe, death is not a calamity that plunges them into an extended sadness, melancholy or despair. Believers weep, certainly, at the death of a loved one, but it is not the same as the wailing of pagans, idolaters and disbelievers. The death of a Christian who had lived and witnessed Christ used to be celebrated like a birthday. For it was recognized that we are born twice – once when we emerge from the darkness of our mother’s womb to face the sweet light of the sun, and again when we leave the darkness of the present life, which is like a mother’s womb, to face the blessed light of eternity. The person who emerges from the mother’s womb is not harmed, for a new life is gained, far better than that within the womb.

    Similarly, the person who by death leaves this world is not harmed, for a new life is gained, infinitely superior to the present one. According to Christian belief, death is gain, not a loss or calamity (Philippians 1:21). That is what the Christians of the first centuries believed, when the death of a believer was celebrated as a birthday. They sang hymns of the Resurrection and said to the ‘traveler,’ “Blessed is the way on which you go today, for a place of rest has been prepared for you.” But where is the faith today? Alas, today, faithlessness reigns. Today the people – most people – do not believe in the Lord who was crucified and raised for us, who ascended into heaven, and who will come again to judge the living and the dead. They do not believe in the immortality of the soul. They live without faith, and they die without faith. And so death terrorizes them. They weep and they wail over relatives who have died as though they no longer exist. Then, when someone speaks to them about the immortality of the soul, the resurrection of the dead and the life to come, they laugh and mock his seriousness. In order to believe, they say they want proofs, they want miracles.

    They want miracles and proofs! Well, miracles and proofs concerning the resurrection exist not only in Holy Scripture, but also in another book written by our All-wise and Almighty God. This book was written so that it can be read by, and so that it can provide lessons to, even the most unschooled. And this book is nature. In this book we find beautiful images of the Resurrection.

    Consider the sun. Someone seeing the sun set for the first time, seeing it disappear over the horizon, seeing the darkness of night spread across the earth, would lament and cry: ‘The sun has died!’ Assurances that the sun will rise again would not be believed. But even though the sun appears to be extinguished every evening, it isn’t so. It is rising in another part of the world and it is continuing to spread its sweet light. The rising and the setting of the sun are a single icon of life and death. As the poet says, ‘What we see as the setting of the sun has the sweetness of dawn ahead; and instead of night without sunrise, the day dawns which will have no sunset.’

    Consider another image from the book of nature. When it is wintertime the trees are bare, the mountains are covered with snow, and the birds have gone far away. Nature seems to be dead. But spring comes, the snows melt, trees blossom, seeds planted in the mud come to life, they sprout, fields turn green, gardens become fragrant and the nightingales sing. Spring! God’s joy! Resurrection! God, who provides the energy that enables a dead nature to emerge in new life at springtime, God, the All-wise and powerful, will use His unlimited power to resurrect all dead bodies to a new life, as He has assured us. “The dead shall rise, and those in the tombs shall rise, and those on earth shall be joyous,” said the Prophet Isaiah (26:19). Yes, the dead will rise, ‘For with God nothing is impossible’ (Luke 1:37). Why then do you not believe? Do you need another example? Are you a father or a mother? When you see your beloved child fall asleep, in bed or in your arms, you don’t start crying, you don’t say your child is dead. You know that in a few hours the child will awaken, and then be more lively and happier than before falling asleep. Similarly, the person over whom you are mourning is not dead, only sleeping. Yes, sleeping. Because according to the teaching of Scripture, death is sleep, a prolonged sleep which will eventually end, and then the bodies of the dead will reawaken as they are reunited with their immortal souls. Saint Paul refers to the dead as ‘Those who have fallen asleep,’ and tells us that Christians must not grieve at the death of their beloved ones as unbelievers and idolaters. Listen to his words: “I do not want you to be ignorant brethren, concerning those who have fallen asleep, lest you sorrow as others who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who sleep in Jesus” (I Thessalonians 4:13-14). Saint Cosmas Aitolos, consoling those grieving over the deaths of their loved ones, said, “Do we not clearly see the resurrection? When we fall asleep, are we not like the dead? What is sleep, but a small death; and what is death, but a great sleep. And as the grain of wheat which falls to the ground will not grow if there is no rain to decay it and make it pulpy, so we who die and are buried would not receive the water of eternal life and resurrection if Christ had not first been buried in his tomb. Don’t you clearly see how God raises the plants from the soil each year?”

    In accordance with what has been written above, in accordance with the words of the true philosophy, in accordance with the examples and images of nature and above all, in accordance with the testimony of Holy Scripture and the unchallengeable Logos of God in which we must have absolute confidence, your love one has not disappeared, is not lost, has not become zero. Don’t say that! It is blasphemy. And don’t mourn disconsolately. That is a sin. We ask you, do you mourn and cry without comfort when a relative leaves for Australia or America? Of course not. You know that there your relative will have a happier life and you hope to meet again. Similarly, your love one, whom death has today taken from your side, lives, although in another world. Never doubt that this other world exists! As surely as Australia and America exist, you can be certain, you can be ever more certain, that there is other life, eternal life.

    If a voice could be raised from that other world where your beloved now is, what would you hear? “My dear ones, don’t weep for me. I live. I am here in another world which is beyond your imagination. It is as terrible place only for those who did not believe during their life on earth, who did not live according to the will of God. For those who believed in Christ and lived in accordance with His Gospel it is a world far more beautiful than you can envision. Its beauty is beyond description. And so please hear me. Do not listen to the unbelievers; close your ears to their words. There is Paradise. There is eternal life. Believe in Jesus Christ, study His Gospel, carry out His holy commandments, repent and weep only for your sins, for in Hades there is no repentance.”

    Death does not break the connection between those living on earth with those who have passed on to the other world. Preserve these bonds. Commemorate those who have gone to the world of eternity. Maintain the sacred memorial services in which they are remembered. And do not celebrate them idolatrously, but as Christians, as we have advised you. Above all, remember that the greatest offering that you can make for the souls of those who have fallen asleep is your almsgiving, your charity to the poor and the suffering.

    Dear friends, as your bishop, I share your sorrow on the death of your beloved one. I would have preferred to visit you in your home, to personally express my condolences, and try to comfort you with the immortal teaching of the Gospel, but since this is not manageable, I am sending you this letter through your parish priest. I ask that you neither ignore it, nor destroy it. Please read it attentively and keep it as a remembrance, bound with the memory of your beloved, who this day has departed for Heaven. ‘A blessed reunion,’ shouts the soul of your beloved from beyond, where it has gone from the present vain life. ‘Let us all have a blessed reunion, my brothers and sisters, in eternity.’

    Through the intercessions of our most holy Theotokos and all the Saints who have pleased God throughout the centuries, may the end of our lives be Christian, without suffering, unashamed, and may we have a good account to present of ourselves at the awesome judgment seat of our Lord Jesus, when he comes to judge the living and the dead.

    + BISHOP AUGOUSTINOS
    Metropolitan of Florina, Greece

  19. Carol says:

    Brigitte, most of the people I know aren’t wondering if there is life hereafter, instead they are asking if there is life BEFORE death.

    I remember standing in a slow line at the Murphy’s Mart about two decades ago and saying, “There must be more to life than this.” From someone in the line behind me came the reply, “No there isn’t.”

    Best laugh I’d had all week!

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