Earlier this week I posted a link to a blog post by Anthony Sacramone condemning the idea of double predestination (i.e. that some people are born for heaven, others for hell). As you might expect, his post set off a firestorm of angry comments in response. Today Sacramone posted a response to some of the comments. Once again, it’s well worth reading.
I really appreciate the way Sacramone repeats, “I don’t know the answer.” It’s a vital acknowledgment. In the New Church I think we have a tendency to say, “Now that we have the Writings, we don’t have to say that anymore – we DO know the answers.” To some extent, that’s true – the Writings provide answers to some key questions. But the New Church motto, taken from Swedenborg’s vision of “Nunc Licet” temple recorded in True Christian Religion n. 508, is “Now it is permitted to enter with understanding into the mysteries of faith.” We’re permitted to enter in – we haven’t eliminated mystery altogether. You can’t even see that other famous heavenly temple, the Temple of Wisdom, unless you “see from the light of heaven that what [you] know, understand, and are wise in, is so little in comparison with what [you] do not know and understand, and in which [you are] not wise, as to be like a drop to the ocean, consequently as almost nothing” (True Christian Religion n. 387).
Some specific points from the article that I wanted to quote and comment on. First of all, Sacramone responds to those who say that it is not unjust for God to send everyone but a select few to hell since people can’t help but be sinners, and the just punishment for sin is hell. He writes:
One could argue, as has been done, that no one is forced to commit any one particular sin, and that, as the rules are written, it takes only a single sin to separate oneself from a holy God. This is meaningful only in a grammatical sense. That one cannot not sin is the point. The game is rigged against everyone if it is admitted from the get-go that there is nothing we can do about our fate.
If you can’t help but sin, and once you’ve sinned the only way out of damnation is faith, and there’s nothing you can do of your free will to accept faith, then God has not given you an option of salvation. You were condemned before you were born.
Further on, Sacramone raises the question of the eternity of hell:
That there are some who will be separated from God when their life’s sojourn is complete, I believe as well. But punishment can be remedial, intended to change a person’s behavior; preventative, intended to literally restrain the person from doing it again; and/or retributive—a just punishment for a given infraction. And so I also believe that whether punishment after this life is eternal or temporary—acknowledging that notions of the temporal become meaningless in the afterlife—is an open question. Which is just my way of saying I don’t know—and neither do you.
Does New Church theology allow for the idea of retributive justice? I don’t think it does – there’s nothing inherently just in punishment. Here we depart drastically from the majority of the Christian world. The Writings are pretty clear that punishments in hell happen for the sake of protection and reform. For example, Heaven and Hell n. 509
Evil spirits are punished for the reason that the fear of punishment is the sole means of subduing evils in this state. Exhortation is no longer of any avail, neither is instruction or fear of the law and of the loss of reputation, since everyone then acts from his nature; and that nature can be restrained and broken only by punishments.
The goal of the punishments is to keep evil spirits from harming others – and eventually they do reach the point where they no longer hurt others, but this is not from a love of good, but from fear of being punished anymore:
But those who are being cast into hell suffer bad experiences, both then and afterwards – experiences which become repeatedly grimmer, till they reach the point at which they do not dare to inflict harm on another. And after they have been cast into hell they remain there forever. They cannot be released from there because no desire for someone else’s good can be imparted to them, only a refusal to do harm to someone, from fear of punishment; for the desire to do it will never forsake them. (Arcana Coelestia n. 7541)
Here I think that those who believe in the Writings as Divine Revelation can know the answer to the question of whether hell is eternal, despite Sacramone’s assertion otherwise. It may not be eternal punishment, but once a person confirms himself in evil love, he’s not going to change it after death. Still, this has been debated even among sincere New Church believers, so I still wouldn’t say my reading of it is the absolute final word.
Finally, I thought the statement about two contrasting notions of salvation by faith was interesting – and I think the New Church offers a third way:
Whether faith is a gift or whether the fact that we need only believe to be reconciled to a holy God is the gift is also an open question. I don’t know. And neither do you. You may know what you believe, as do I, but that’s not the same thing. (But you know that.)
Is a faith a free gift? Or is the “free gift” the fact that all we have to do to be saved is believe? I would say, from a New Church perspective, the answer is both and neither. True faith – my favourite definition being “an internal acknowledgment of truth” (from Doctrine of Faith) – is a gift from the Lord. And those who have faith are saved. But we open ourselves up to that faith by a way of living. True Christian Religion n. 2 contains a startling statement: “Those are saved who believe in the Lord from eternity, who is Jehovah [and Who] came into the world to subjugate the hells and glorify His Human.” This sounds a lot like the faith alone doctrine that the Writings so regularly condemn. But later on the same passage says,
The universal principle of faith on man’s part is that he should believe in the Lord; for by believing in Him there is conjunction with Him and thereby salvation. To believe in the Lord is to have confidence that He saves; and as only those who live rightly can have this confidence, this, too, is meant by believing in Him. (emphasis mine)
Salvation by faith is a gift, but we receive the gift by living by the Two Great Commandments: you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind; and your neighbour as yourself. To some that doesn’t sound like a “gift” at all – but that’s a whole nother discussion.