“O, Thou that in the heavens dost dwell
Who as it pleases best Thysel
Send one to heasven and ten to hell
All for Thy glory
And no’ for any guid or ill
They’ve done before Thee”
Robert Burns wrote that stanza to introduce his satire poem ‘Holy Willie’s Prayer’. Holy Willie is a Calvinist; a man who believes in a predestination set in place by God of the election to Paradise of His saints. These saints are few amongst the general run of men and women; and like travellers on old-fashioned train schedules they are presumed to have guaranteed connections so that they will not miss the train Heavenwards.
Calvinism’s most fierce expression is perhaps seen in what is termed Antinomianism; which is a creed which adds to this Calvinist exclusivity of places reserved in Heaven a further rider which allows that once a saint is elect and so certain of Heaven there is nothing on earth or in the heavens which is able to alter this status of election. (See the novel ‘The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner’ by James Hogg; a chilling fictionalised account of the ultimate upshots of such belief in an absolute and certain predestined passage into Heaven)
Now all this predestination and selectivity and certainty of election has its supports here and there to be found in scripture – excepting perhaps the immovable guarantee of heaven once one is elect.
The Book of Job is a very powerful dramatisation of God’s ultimate and apparently to us humans arbitrary will and power over us; Job is ‘knocked back’ and ‘put in his place’ by God at the Book’s close; and the justifications for God’s afflicting Job so heavily amount to little more than Jeremiah’s song:
‘You are the potter; I am the clay; do with me what you will’
St Paul in Ephesians is clear about predestination of an elect being laid down by God and about this predestination extending back to a time before the making of the worlds by God. Jesus himself is know widely to have utter sayings such as:
“Many are called; but few are chosen”
“Strait is the gate and few it is who find entry therein”
At best the jury is out on the subject of a surety for Paradise once one is elect; at least from the points of view the Bible presents such a belief to us. On the whole the Bible warns more heavily that a person is able to ‘fall away’ from Grace; and in The Letter to The Hebrews in particular a person fallen away from such Grace is said to be not eligible for another chance at Redemption. But as far as my knowledge of the Bible extends there is little said or asserted about once one is elect there is no way for a person elect to fall away.
The logic of predestined election; and maybe even the logic of the unalterable elected state for a person; is an impeccable logic when the theology of The Book of Job and of prominent parts of St Paul’s writings are taken into consideration; although some parts of St Paul’s work have to be taken somewhat in isolation without the whole of a bigger picture of St Paul’s impinging completely upon it, before one can obtain predestination of an elect as an acceptable feature belonging point-blank definitively to St Paul’s thought . (In other places in his writings St Paul comes close to an opposing view; that all persons are eligible, if not preferred, to elect status and that therefore all are able to/shall be saved; although most people might say this is perhaps an accidental and not a mainstream theme of Paul’s works?)
This exclusivity of an elect espoused by Calvinists and by some other Christian types, in its human consequences pans out to be a harsh and disastrous issue for people in general. Robert Burns sums it up very humorously in his stanza of verse set above heading-up my words here. There’s not much funny though about 90% of humanity ending up ‘upon the burning lake’ under the sceptre of Satan for an eternity; or in some versions of The Parousia, until God obliterates hell and all who dwell in it at the coming of the end of times.
Many people reading this stuff might think to themselves; especially when such persons are not religious people, what on earth ahs all this metaphysical speculation and putative paraphernalia of heaven and hell got to do with actual life here and now? Here then is something written for those of you who feel this redundancy of interest.
Imagine you are working for a boss or a company owned and managed by Calvinists or by Antinomian Calvinists – there are such things and such people – you’d be surprised. You yourself professedly not religious, maybe not hostile, perhaps hostile, but yet nonetheless outside the pale. No matter how hard such bosses and management might apply in their dealings with you the commandments to Christian love towards all others, which are Christ’s essence, they cannot but see you ultimately as an unregenerate and as destined for the fire. Is there no way in which such a vision of theirs for you will not affect their dealings with you? Especially since such strict types of believer tend to espouse such creeds for the sake of their hard-headed logical formality and harmony; Calvinists are not noted ‘happy-clappy’ hail-fellow-well-met types; their reputation is for dour and austere outlooks, and an old-fashionedness; even in Burns’ day. Nowadays this parodied and mocked ‘blood and thunder’ associated with Christian religious extremes stemmed very much from the harsh outlooks and talk and behaviours of the stricter non-conformists. And quite a few built thriving and yet thriving businesses in USA and in UK during the course of The Industrial Revolution.
“Love” is not a word used to describe Calvinists very often. Nor in fact do you find it in their literature much used.
However the arguments for an elect few; which are found most fiercely stated in The Old Testament for instance as being ‘God’s remnant’ (Isaiah, Jeremiah) like the outcome of The Book of Job, although impeccably logical, they say a few very hard things to accept about any God who might have set up things in such a way. Can such a God be called in His essential nature a God of love, when He is one who dispenses nine tenths of his creatures He made for His good pleasure and in His own image to a hell of everlasting fire? This is a very strong objection to the exclusive nature of Calvinist election and to any selective predetermination to Heaven and to hell. The question at stake here seems to be: Is God a God who prioritises love over strict rationality or is He One who prefers close logic over open and free Grace for humanity?
The human choice will always be for the former for most people; those with tidy and perhaps less empathetic minds will prefer the latter maybe? I believe most people would be right.
Without doubt the primacy of unrestricted love is the quintessence of Jesus and of His life, Word , Incarnation; and of the history of mankind as interpreted by way of Jesus’ Person. No less than St Paul’s remarkable and justly renowned Hymn to Charity in 1 Corinthians 13 is the witness of The Holy Spirit to this fact of love’s primacy.
“Unless I have love I am nothing”
“Even though I be burned in fire” so the hymn has it, in our context almost ironically.
Robert Burns was so far from assurance about the probity and estimation of that Holy Willie whom he lampoons for his Calvinism in his poem “Holy Willie’s Prayer’ that he depicts that Holy Willie as the hypocrite through and through; and justly so because Burns knew as well the next man or woman also knows in his/her heart of hearts that we all of us are through and through hypocrites who are unable to stand before the glory and the light of the Person of Christ. “Not worthy to tie His shoe latchets” says John the Baptist.
Now I have written elsewhere how I believe that most people in the world are not ‘fully awake’. I have written about how certain thinkers have called the “common people” “The Children of The State” and as such they are wards to be looked after like children by The State. Whether or not one subscribes to such views is maybe not the issue; the issue is rather perhaps that it is a fact that most people do not or are not able to escape from that view of life seen at the back of Plato’s cavern or from The Sleep in “The Matrix” and which are the lives they are seemingly happy to lead.
This sleep of life, or a life sustained mainly upon illusions, and lived as the life of “children” is a life of far greater innocence than those who claim special consciousness or any form of elect status; and to that extent it remains a life not culpable. The poet T S Eliot understood that only those who claim higher awareness have capacity to do good and/or evil; and in great measure.
Jesus our Lord Himself says;
“From whom much is given much is expected”
The onus without doubt rests on those most gifted, most privileged who are to serve the law of love in doing what John Donne described as Charity;
“doing what one can; all one can”
And St Paul tells us with some good reason that our works are those good deeds provided by God for us to do as witness to our faith which is a faith which saves us. Thus good deeds are not brownie points awarded to us but are duties placed upon us in love so as to be signs to those not yet in the Christian fold that God is present in the world and is working beneficently using us as his instruments.
And so, if most persons indeed are more or less innocents before God in comparison with those of us who claim to know Him more nearly; consider this passage spoken by Jesus:
“Jesus said, For judgement I am come into this world, that they which see not might see; and that they which see might be made blind. And some of the Pharisees which were with him heard these words, and said unto him, Are we blind also? Jesus said unto them, If ye were blind, ye should have no sin: but now ye say, We see; therefore your sin remaineth.”
Innocents (by comparison) for them to be predetermined to be destined for hell eternally is a dreadful thing to believe will occur; a thing hardly sustainable by Scripture and one akin to being yet another purgation of the peoples by use of genocide as is seen in our illustrious human history; especially upon novel scales in recent human histories.
What then might be a more just and merciful proportion for placing such innocents in any schema God might have for us hereafter? (I must remember Job’s plaints here and so be careful not put myself forward in an attempt to stand in the shoes of God himself in what I claim and say here next)
And should they be considered included in the numbers of those who receive redemption from God; what then might be the especial role or purpose be, if any, set aside by God, for those who perhaps a little presumptuously claim better to know of God and to know God a little better than do remainder; i.e. than do The Children of The State?
Universalism is an idea that holds God does not refuse anyone His Grace and redemption at the last hurdle of their life. Universalism is not liked by many Christians because it is indiscriminate and inclusive of everyone without exception; meaning that even persons like Adolf Hitler, Poll Pot; Joseph Stalin; Jack the Ripper; Genghis Khan; Sennacherib; Lucretia Borgia; and so on are there and ready to meet and greet you in Heaven once you arrive. This envisaged situation seems unpalatable to many persons; unacceptable.
Yet we have seen the difference between God’s indiscriminate choice of election of whom he chooses and the indiscriminate inclusiveness of Universalism wherein ‘everyone has won and all must have prizes’; is that the second option is more merciful and loving, more forgiving and reconciliatory of even, of especially, enemies; that is more in keeping with God’s character as we know Him to be from His revelation; than is the former.
The situation is that we have before us a God whose essence is love; love unlimited; whom we are to believe (say the Calvinists) suddenly upon a person’s death shuts the gate to peace and reconciliation, to grace and forgiveness; a gate which has been open and welcoming hitherto; and he does this just as if He were a human parent whose patience has suddenly run out and exasperatedly he has grounded his child for eternity. The question to raise here is why should God provide such a regime whereby when one beats the clock; regardless of whether formerly in early life one was a Hitler or a Stalin; one is welcomed into the fold before death; whereas the person who has done very little harm and who has acted reasonably sensibly in life is excluded from bliss because death caught up with him before he realised that bliss was available to him?
What is it endues death with such a watershed quality for entry to heaven or hell in this scheme of things? Is a wholly loving God able to suddenly turn nasty upon the advent of a non-believer’s death? And especially as, say many theologians, one is unable to enter into Heaven by one’s own good deeds or by one’s own means; and that all is grace and mercy because one had faith in one’s God upon one’s day of death.
Can it be anything but reasonable and just, merciful and forgiving, that those who in life did not find faith in God may not be punished for their bad deeds likewise; just as it is argued to be the case that no good deed might get a believer into Heaven; thus no bad deed may get a non-believer into hell? God surely is not like our politicians who take credit for all good things that happen under their watch; but yet will palm off and disown anything to do with bad news of bad things happening in their patches?
This suggested logic of ‘everyone sings’ in the scenario of Universalism which it supports throws up in a person when accepted by him/her strong concerns about ‘what’s it all for then; this life of ours; if everyone gets through The Pearly Gates and no evil person gets punished? I am about to venture an unorthodox answer to this apparent conundrum.
I would suggest that there is evidence, not least in the testimony left by many, many thoughtful and deeply sensitive thinking persons, that indeed life for some few indeed ‘is for learning’ and that for these few ‘God childeth them” in order to refine them of further dross into purer metals; but yet for those whose sufferings would appear existentially to be aimless and without point; for those not counted amongst the world’s faithful believers, then for these people it can justly be said that nonetheless they have yet suffered and they have yet felt God’s heavy hand upon them regardless; and so in this respect perhaps their journey has not been wasted?
How might this be? How might apparent aimless pointless suffering not represent waste? Aimless and pointless to you and to me and to the person suffering yes; but to God perhaps not so; to God perhaps representing some token of significance?
The resolution to these thoughts of mind might be stated in question format: Is it possible to see our lives here; all our lives, and for better or for worse; and for the good and for the bad persons amongst us; for the select and for the rest; for the faithful and for the unbelieving also; as having primarily an universal and Divine Purgatorial purpose? So that even when persons suffer apparently pointlessly (as one could say, non-believers) there is no loss no waste and some gainful upshot.
The role of those who take upon themselves to be assured they know something of God better than most because of their standing as believers; that few from whom much has been given much is expected; for them to be perhaps the appointed ‘carriers of the Word’ whose work is to continue the awareness amongst humankind of the presence of the Spirit of God in Christ at work in the world. And this because, as says Jacques Ellul in his work ‘The Subversion of Christianity’:
“No recognisable revelation exists apart from the life and witness of those who bear it” (page 6.)
In short The Light of the World is shining on and using as reflectors those whom He has touched with a Spirit to be that presence and witness of Him in the world, to Him to the world, and who are those who carry this burden like a torch from generation to generation. So that even though another does not believe; does not seek to bear witness; perhaps that other is yet made aware of The Presence by way of this bearing of witness by believers being made around about them; and thus of a possibility Heavenwards nonetheless?
Politically one might see this plea of mine for understanding life as essentially purgatorial for allcomers, as representing a very contemporary sort of angst; and that in another age the problem would not have been so barbed and unsettling? This age is one very assured of the right and appropriateness of democracy as the definitive desirable political regime for humans to live under; and hence perhaps in such a light Universalism and having ‘everyone included’ seems thus to be the right and appropriate doctrinal approach to an afterlife to us?
Yet we have St Paul in an age of Empire and based on privilege and status, saying quite candidly that there is ‘a natural understanding’ in some persons who have never heard of Jesus or of the God of the Hebrews; a natural understanding of the law of love; of what is right conduct and what is wrong conduct; and that these people do this law because it ‘is written on their hearts’. No question St Paul says this in Romans.
Jeremiah and Isaiah say similarly in their respective prophesies; in their separate ages which were typified by an universal mortal dread of the utter savagery of a Sennacherib or of an Ashurbanipal.
Undoubtedly in Christian thought throughout the ages has been a powerful tension expressed concerning finding a balance between punishment and mercy; justice and forgiveness; conciliation and rejection; and so on. God’s ways are beyond us, it seems very likely; we might only guess and place hope in and faith in the attributes by which He defines Himself and thus we leave the inquiry and all its outcomes to his unsearchable wisdom
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