Thursday, July 20, 2006

In God's Presence

A few sessions ago, our professor showed us this icon, which is on the interior of the dome of her church. It is of the last judgment, with the sheep to Jesus' right hand and the goats to his left. She pointed out to us that the goats remain in the presence of Jesus, even though they are miserable there. According to her, those who live according to God's will find his presence blissful; those who have not will find his presence - that light - tormenting. There is no place where God's light is not, so there cannot be a place in the universe without God. Hell therefore is being pained by God's presence, not absence. And she asked us to think about hell being not the absence of God, but rather God's presence. Hell could be not God sending people to eternal damnation, but rather the way we feel in the company of Someone so loving and holy. And we bring that on ourselves, my friends. It's got nothing to do with God's vengeance. God just loves us. How we feel about and react to that makes the difference in our experience.

Imagine how you'd feel watching some heinous act - a rape of a child, for instance, or a real enaction of one of these lovely movies come out recently (Saw, Hostel, etc). You couldn't stand it - it would repulse you and make you absolutely miserable. We can't abide the presence great evil.

So the one who has rejected God feels similarly in the presence of God. She or he can't abide such great goodness. It actually would hurt.

One of my books insisted that God's love has a "dark side," and hell is the jealous wrath of God toward those who rejected his love or harmed the community of humans with one another, Godself, and creation. This author insisted that hell is the absence of God, the eternal banishment from the comforting love of the Almighty into a place of utter isolation and loneliness.

Anyway, these days I tend more towards universalism, so I have trouble with that admittedly orthodox viewpoint. Yet I really like my prof's explanation. It wasn't something I'd thought about before. And the icon got me thinking about several things.

I was wondering who could feel terrible in the presence of such wide all-encompassing love? Who would actually be miserable? Apart from the utter evil person my professor talked about, which is obvious. I think it could only be a person who believes God's love should not be as wide or open as it is. One who hates God's mercy on those who are not what they consider worthy. A person who doesn't believe in the truly forgiving, graceful love of God (toward everyone - even gay people, abortion doctors, African bishops, you name it) would reject that love and be uncomfortable watching it lavished on others.

I fear that many who call themselves Christians will be uncomfortable - or pained - by it.

J also mentioned that if you see how much God loves you, but you don't love yourself, you won't be able to stand it. Your shame will overtake you.

See, there are a lot of ways to think about God's presence not being blissful. But they all depend on us and our reaction, not on who God is.

But I wonder: could the love of God, being in that presence, eventually stop hurting? After eons of time spent bathed in light, eventually would you stop being pained by it and maybe accept it? Would our own judgment on ourselves eventually drop away and we'd accept God's love and mercy?

Again, that's universalism. But if eternity is really the long time we think it's going to be, then I wonder whether we limit God's power by saying it's resistible for all time.

Of course, if you believe you don't have a chance to change after death, then this isn't applicable. But you have to ask yourself what kind of sense it makes for this blip on the face of history to count for all eternity? I know it's the traditional position, you only get one shot, it can be too late. But really, nobody knows for sure.


Anonymous said...


My small internet connection couldn't download the icon, but I take it that it is a representation of Matthew Chapter 25. If you read that pericope, you would encounter

v. 41 "Then He will say to those on His left, 'DEPART FROM ME, YOU ACCURSED, into the eternal fire..."


v. 46 "And THESE WILL GO OFF to eternal punishment..."

[my emphasis]

Interpreting an icon in opposition to its Biblical meaning is truly misinterpretation.


Stasi said...

Well, the icon is pretty clear. The rays of light from Jesus' throne go out to both the sheep and the goats. They all stand in the presence. Perhaps it's just the judgment and not the eternity. I'm just trusting my professor. It's in her church, so I assume she knows more about it than you or I do.

Anonymous said...

I can tell you exactly who would feel pain at God's love. Severely depressed people who think "unworthy" is their middle name.