by Fr Alvin Kimel
It was just a routine medical procedure, one that is encouraged for all who reach my “advanced” age. Yet the pre-surgical instruction contained this warning: “It is extremely rare, but death remains a remote possibility.” And so the morning of the procedure I privately offered to God my confession and asked for his forgiveness. When the anesthesiologist asked me to take five deep breaths, I recited to God the prayer of my Lord: “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.” And I fell asleep.
No fear. No apprehension. No concern that I might awaken to find myself in Hell or even in one of the horrifying medieval visions of purgatorial fire. None of the terrors that Protestant apologists tell me that we Catholics should and must experience because of our theological understanding of justification, final judgment according to works, purgatory, indulgences, and the temporal penalties of sin. Certainly I am under no illusion that I am too good a person to be damned. My need for both infinite mercy and radical sanctification is all too apparent, both to myself and to all who know me.
Miserere mei, Deus, secundum magnam misericordiam tuam.
I am a sinner, a man who struggles with disbelief, selfishness, and evil every moment of his waking existence. I know my unworthiness, and the despair of unworthiness, too well; yet as I contemplated my possible, albeit unlikely, death, I became very much aware that I do not dread the final judgment. Perhaps I should. Perhaps I will when my death seems imminent. But on that day of surgery I did not. At this moment I do not.
I do not because of who I believe God to be.
And I do not because of who I do not believe God to be.
I do not believe God to be the absolute predestinarian of Augustine, Calvin, Beza, and Bañez. I do not believe God to be a God who has eternally decreed, before prevision of irrevocable rejection of divine love and forgiveness, the eternal salvation of some and the eternal reprobation of the rest. I am convinced that for all of his greatness, St Augustine went tragically astray on this matter of predestination and that his theory has had pernicious repercussions on the spiritual lives of Western Christians. The theory of absolute predestination calls into question, at the most fundamental level, the identity and character of God as revealed in Jesus Christ.
I realize the sweeping nature of this judgment. To those who disagree, all I can say is go back and reread the New Testament. If you still disagree, then consider what it means for God to be an eternal trinitarian community of absolute and infinite love. Consider what it means that the eternal Son of God should assume human nature, should bear the sins of humanity unto suffering and death, should rise again as the New Adam and ascend to the right hand of the Father. And then go back and reread the New Testament.
The God and Father of Jesus Christ intends the eternal salvation of every human being he has made and will make, without exception. If God did not die on the cross for the sins of mankind, then he does not truly desire “all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” and the Apostle Paul is made a liar (1 Tim 2:4). If God has unconditionally reprobated just one person, then God is not absolute love. If God has chosen to rescue from the damnable mass of humanity only some but not all, then he is not Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
I have heard all the counter-arguments. I have read the predestinarian exegesis of the controverted biblical texts. I have listened to the rhetoric about how God is glorified by the reprobation of the ungodly, that his decision to elect some but “pass over” the rest must be truly just, though we cannot presently fathom its justice. Not only am I not persuaded but I am offended to the core of my being. John Wesley described the doctrine of absolute predestination as blasphemy, and surely that is what it is:
Such blasphemy this, as one would think might make the ears of a Christian to tingle! But there is yet more behind; for just as it honours the Son, so doth this doctrine honour the Father. It destroys all his attributes at once: It overturns both his justice, mercy, and truth; yea, it represents the most holy God as worse than the devil, as both more false, more cruel, and more unjust. More false; because the devil, liar as he is, hath never said, “He willeth all men to be saved:” More unjust; because the devil cannot, if he would, be guilty of such injustice as you ascribe to God, when you say that God condemned millions of souls to everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels, for continuing in sin, which, for want of that grace he will not give them, they cannot avoid: And more cruel; because that unhappy spirit “seeketh rest and findeth none;” so that his own restless misery is a kind of temptation to him to tempt others. But God resteth in his high and holy place; so that to suppose him, of his own mere motion, of his pure will and pleasure, happy as he is, to doom his creatures, whether they will or no, to endless misery, is to impute such cruelty to him as we cannot impute even to the great enemy of God and man. It is to represent the high God (he that hath ears to hear let him hear!) as more cruel, false, and unjust than the devil!
Why do Western Christians fear God? Might not it be because the God who saves and damns in absolute, inscrutable determination still haunts our imaginations? When confronted with such a deity, we will always urgently ask the question “How can I get a gracious God?” Hidden deep below all conscious thought lies the knowledge that perhaps, just perhaps, God has abandoned us, abandoned “me,” unto perdition. And so God himself becomes our enemy. The holy Creator becomes Satan!
But even if the hard predestinarianism is pushed into the theological and homiletical background, it continues to do its insidious work. If we are unsure, even to the tiniest degree, that God wills the good of every human being—if “I” am uncertain that he wills “my” good—then we must find ways to negotiate with him. Hence the rise of that quid pro quo transactionalism that often characterized late medieval spirituality and church life, against which Martin Luther so powerfully protested. To what extent does this transactionalism still shape the spiritual lives of Catholics and Protestants today?
I know that I traduce the vast theological work of St Augustine. Augustine speaks profoundly of the love and mercy of God throughout his homilies and tractates. In his De Trinitate he brilliantly unfolds the mystery of the triune God who is infinite love. But the controversy with the Pelagians forced him to subtly divorce love and grace. Augustine did not explicitly draw the conclusion of double predestination, yet how close he came. Driven by the logic of irresistible grace, he found himself incapable of affirming the universality of the salvific will of the Creator. But for anyone of sensitive conscience, the fine distinction between reprobation and preterition hardly matters. The damage is done. Both positions call into question the truth and reality of God’s love for the individual sinner. Am I the object of divine love or divine hatred?
There are many days, too many days, when I do not know if I believe in God, when I do not know if God exists. But I do know whom I struggle to believe. He is the God made known in Jesus Christ. He is the God who is a holy communion of absolute love and gladness. He is the God who searches for the one lost sheep and upon finding it hoists it upon his shoulder and restores it to the flock. He is the God who turns his house upside down until he finds the one silver coin he has lost. He is the God who was wounded for our transgressions, bruised for our inquities; by his stripes we are healed. This is the only God worthy of our belief. This is the only God deserving of our faith and adoration. In the words of Hans Urs von Balthsar:
Love alone is credible; nothing else can be believed, and nothing else ought to be believed. This is the achievement, the “work” of faith: to recognize this absolute prius, which nothing else can surpass; to believe that there is such a thing as love, absolute love, and that there is nothing higher or greater than it; to believe against all the evidence of experience (“credere contra fidem” like “sperare contra spem“), against every “rational” concept of God, which things of him in terms of impassibility or, at best, totally pure goodness, but not in terms of this inconceivable and senseless act of love.
I do not fear the God who is Holy Trinity. I fear my own freedom to turn from this God, to hide myself in an impenetrable egotism and despair which will forever close me to the roar of his love. I fear that my self-will will ultimately triumph over my desire for the supreme and ultimate Good. I fear that I am becoming, have become, a person who declares to infinite Love, “My will, not thine, be done.” I fear also the purifying suffering that I must endure, both in this life and beyond, to free me from my bondage to self and the goods of this world. But I do not fear the God of Jesus Christ. I know that if God does truly exist, then at the moment of my death he will meet me as the Crucified, still bearing the marks of his sacrifice on his hands. Judge and Judged, Priest and Victim, absolver of sins and victor over death—to this Jesus I entrust my future; to his Father I commend my spirit. Amen.