A Brief Christian History of the Cosmos (with Some Defense and Exposition)

“Earendil and Elwing” from a book cover illustration by Linda and Roger Garland for The Shaping of Middle-Earth.

Christians claim that we live in a damaged world, although it still reveals to us an undamaged reality beyond and within. Growing up in a Christian home, I lived constantly with the idea that our brokenness is obvious and that all the beauty and wonder of this world speaks to us ceaselessly of a goodness from which we are somehow estranged. Despite this upbringing, it surprised me recently to read that we cannot recognize the fallenness of our world without a revelation given to us from outside our frame of reference. As I’ve grown older, however, I see that I don’t always live as if this world is incomplete. Instead, I act as if this world commands my full allegiance—as if what I can acquire and achieve is all that matters. I treat the world around me as all that I have or as the full picture of reality.

Recently, however, I’ve come to reflect on some Christian claims that place us even more deeply within a tragically reduced creation than I would have previously understood or expressed. I’m considering that even our experience of time has fallen so that the fullness of reality does not fit within our temporal history and even our fall itself is beyond our immediate grasp as a specific point within the timeline of our past. This remoteness of our own fall leaves us with the powerful illusion that we know our own story and the full scope of what exists. In fact, however, we are heavily blinded and “we see through a glass, darkly” (1 Cor. 13:12). We are easily inclined to live and act as if evil and death are normal and as if there is nothing fundamentally wrong with ourselves and our world. In response, this supratemporal understanding of the fall has challenged me to consider just how separated we are from the fullness of reality—cut off in ways that leave us blinded to who we truly are as God’s children.

Even during this life, God’s presence within a quieted heart allows us to begin seeing the true nature of ourselves and our world. We have God fully revealed to us within human history in the person of Jesus Christ, and he reveals a strange relationship to sin, evil, suffering and death:

If it is from Christ that we to learn how God relates himself to sin, suffering, evil and death, it would seem that he provides us little evidence of anything other than a regal, relentless and miraculous enmity. Sin he forgives, suffering he heals, evil he casts out, and death he conquers. And absolutely nowhere does Christ act as if any of these things are a part of the eternal work or purposes of God, which it is well to remember.

From The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami? by David Bentley Hart, chapter 9.

It is not an easy thing to live as if sin, suffering, evil and death are not a part of the eternal realities of our world. Ultimately, this requires going to the cross and communing there with our loving God “who was slain before the foundations of the world” (Revelation 13:8). We find in this communion a courage and joy that is far from a reliance on great emotions or great ideas. It is a beautiful relationship with what is true and good. This all requires learning to live with our fears and sufferings as part of what we carry now but ultimately as falsehoods that will be overcome by the true gifts that our loving God offers to us with His presence.

C.S. Lewis writes in Mere Christianity and several other places about the ache of joy as a sign to us that we are all clearly “made for another world.” J.R.R. Tolkien wrote stories of a Straight Road kept open only for the Elves so that they could continue to sail their ships along the pathway of the once-flat sea and into what is now our sky. The bending of our world into its current reduced shape took place in Tolkien’s stories at the downfall of Númenor. This shrinking of our current world cut us off from Aman and the realm of the Valar (see “Akallabêth: The Downfall of Númenor” in The Silmarillion for one depiction of this by Tolkien). In the “The Ballad of the White Horse,” G.K. Chesterton writes: “For the end of the world was long ago, / And all we dwell to-day / As children of some second birth, / Like a strange people left on earth / After a judgment day.”

These ideas from Chesterton, Tolkien and Lewis (who I have read since childhood) are clearly of a piece with other claims about the fall that I have read more recently as a summary of ancient Christian teaching:

The fall of rational creation and the conquest of the cosmos by death is something that appears to us nowhere within the course of nature or history; it comes from before and beyond both. We cannot search it out within the closed totality of the damaged world because it belongs to another frame of time, another kind of time, one more real than the time of death.

…It may seem a fabulous claim that we exist in the long grim aftermath of a primaeval catastrophe—that this is a broken and wounded world, that cosmic time is a phantom of true time, that we live in an umbratile interval between creation in its fullness and the nothingness from which it was called, and that the universe languishes in bondage to the “powers” and “principalities” of this age, which never cease in their enmity toward the kingdom of God—but it is not a claim that Christians are free to surrender.

From “The Devil’s March: Creatio ex Nihilo, the Problem of Evil, and a Few Dostoyevskian Meditations” by David Bentley Hart, published in Theological Territories: A David Bentley Hart Digest.

Many ancient Christian teachers have said that our entire cosmos exists within a weakened and reduced condition of space and time. Our access to reality is obstructed by our current fallen condition. Time, as we now know it, does not contain all that is true about time in its fullness. Human history and our entire physical universe exists within an incomplete form of time and space. Our fall cut us off from access to our true selves, our true history and from the fullness of the realities to which we still belong but from which we are estranged.

Speaking about the history of how all of this happened is not fully possible within our current temporal categories. Ancient myths and great stories point toward this history over and over in images and language that help us to see beyond our current condition. In The Silmarillion, Tolkien describes the Ainur as the first living beings kindled by Eru Ilúvatar with love for the Flame Imperishable and who therefore had the power of creativity. Ilúvatar taught each of them to sing, and they slowly began to make music on their own and in small groups. Hearing and observing each other singing taught the Ainur more and more about the mind of Ilúvatar, increasing their “unity and harmony.” Eventually, their creator gathered all of the Ainur and told them that he would guide them in a song so great and complex that every one of them would participate together. At first the Ainur were so amazed at this idea, that they bowed before Eru Ilúvatar in silence. When they began to sing, their voices filled the depths and heights of sound “beyond hearing” and filled even the Void so that it “was not void.” Their singing then went through multiple themes with it’s first theme increasing their unity, harmony and their knowledge of Ilúvatar. However, discord was eventually introduced by the voice of Melkor who drew other voices with him so that Ilúvatar needed to introduce a theme that would eventually enfold and resolve the discord of Melkor (a theme involving sacrifice and eucatastrophe). As you read further in Tolkien’s stories, his entire mythic history of Middle Earth is depicted as existing within these powerful but temporary discords of Melkor.

As ancient storytellers and Tolkien understood, any attempt to give a brief history of the cosmos must somehow transcend time as we now experience it. To go to the beginning, requires a look into the life of God. However, to consider God’s life, we can only begin with what we know about our lives together. We all know that admiring something good in another person satisfies us deeply. In the Christian teaching of Imago Dei, to admire goodness in someone else is also to see God revealed in them. Seeing two other persons find this kind of satisfaction in each other likewise invites us to admire each of them in return. This kind of fellowship between three or more people is described in clear and simple terms by C.S. Lewis:

In each of my friends there is something that only some other friend can fully bring out. By myself I am not large enough to call the whole man into activity; I want other lights than my own to show all his facets. Now that Charles is dead, I shall never again see Ronald’s reaction to a specifically Charles joke. Far from having more of Ronald, having him ‘to myself’ now that Charles is away, I have less of Ronald.

From The Four Loves.

Although not relatable within our terms of finitude and need, Jesus Christ reveals God to us as a timeless community of three persons sharing one perfect nature. Christianity maintains that everything is founded upon the love of these three persons within the life of God. Dante references an ancient classical and Christian tradition with his lines about how it is “love that moves the sun and other stars” (The Divine Comedy, Paradiso, XXXIII.145).

In fact, not only all movement but all existence is a result of God’s love. Everything that exists only exists as a response to this life and love shared between these three persons as they enjoy the same complete goodness in each other but manifest and appreciate this goodness each in their own distinct ways. For its own sake, our cosmos exists in response to this fullness of God’s life and love. He needs no goodness added to his own, but his superabundant goodness calls for our response so that we too might enjoy it.

Before our cosmos began to suffer, however, and even before our place as humans within the cosmos was shaped by God’s superabundance of life and love, many other ranks of free and glorious spirits first came to be in response to God. In this uncorrupted time and space, a community of heavenly life exists continually where mighty living lights move in a dance filled with awe and joy, breathing out their songs around the throne of God. In a passage about the heavenly life at the end of time, C.S. Lewis describes a dynamic that is true from the beginning and that remains unchanged around the throne of God even throughout all the tumult of our human history:

Friendship exhibits a glorious ‘nearness by resemblance’ to heaven itself where the very multitude of the blessed (which no man can number) increases the fruition which each of us has of God. For every soul, seeing Him in her own way, doubtless communicates that unique vision to all the rest. That, says an old author, is why the Seraphim in Isaiah’s vision are crying ‘Holy, Holy, Holy’ to one another (Isaiah 6:3). The more we thus share the Heavenly Bread between us, the more we shall have.

Again from The Four Loves.

Out of this harmonious life with God, God called forth yet another form of life. Humans were like children wearing garments of light and placed to grow up within a well-watered garden of beautiful plants and animals. Our cosmos was already shaped long before humanity was placed into it, and our cosmos was filled from the start with powerful lights that danced and sang from out of the darkness. These great spirits made up the mighty household of God, and their dances and voices formed the great harmonious movements that exist still as the metaphysical foundation of our cosmos. Remember Dante’s claim (echoing Augustine and many others) that it is “love that moves the sun and other stars.”

Plato taught us this about the stars as well, i.e. that they are moved (as are all things) by unseen realities and that their visible movements (although imperfect like all the rest of the visible world) reveal perfect realities. Alan Scott has an excellent summary of Plato’s teaching on the stars in Origen and the Life of the Stars: A History of an Idea by (Oxford Early Christian Studies, Clarendon Press, 1994):

True astronomy is not concerned merely with what is seen in heaven but with the understanding of what lies behind what is seen. …To the mind which understood properly, there was true harmony in heaven even if this was not possible for the material bodies of heaven, even as there is exactness in geometry though it is not part of any merely visible diagram. …Just as Plato accepts elements of the latest astronomical research but not the philosophical and religious implications it was sometimes thought to have, so too before his later writings he can accept the popular veneration of the heavens without taking it altogether seriously. In the Republic, Plato does say that the craftsman of heaven, like Daedalus, fashioned the courses of the stars with the greatest beauty possible, and at one point Plato even goes so far as to refer casually to ‘the gods in heaven’, one of which is the sun, and yet he also openly doubts that the visible stars are eternal and immutable.

…The author of [Epinomis] tells us as Plato did that most people regard the stars as lifeless because of their uniform motion, but that this is in fact a clear sign of their intelligence. [As an aside, this claim that uniform motion is a sign of intelligence is brilliantly expanded and defended here by G.K. Chesterton.]

Scripture has many passages where “the hosts of heaven” can just as well be translated with either “stars” or “angels.” What we see as the movements of the stars does ultimately reflect the life of God and his entire creation. However, what we see of everything in this world equally reflects God’s life—from earthly weather patterns to cellular life. But I’ve wandered far away from the storyline again. Back to the arrival of humanity.

Some Christian sages have said that when God made humans amid this great assembly, a few powerful voices in the heavens grew jealous or proud. There is something glorious (imponderable to some degree) about the introduction of humans into creation. Most early Christian teachers took it for granted that God created humanity after the pattern of the second person of the Trinity—the eternal Son of God—as a first step in God’s own incarnation. Our creation was the means for God to participate fully within the life of all his creation. In a way that should be understood as related to our image-bearing and incarnational intent, human life is made to tend, protect and call into harmonious voice all the beauties of the entire cosmos around us. Job says that the stars sang as the earth was made (even before humans were here), and yet humans are placed upon the earth so that we can call upon the stars themselves to sing (as we do in several of the Psalms). There is something mysterious (and easily offensive) about this sequence of events within God’s divine plan.

Some time not too long after God makes humans, we come to a critical and obscure detail within the story. There is a forbidden tree within the garden. This in and of itself is not an issue as it is simply understood by most ancient scholars of the Bible to indicate that humans were made to mature. We were not created fully developed in our moral and relational capacities. This tree of the knowledge of good and evil is not for the young and untested. More messy is the fact that there is a tempter. Some scholars point out that the instructions to “care for the garden” would have been read by ancient people as “guard,” and that our first parents should have prevented the serpent from entering. This may be the case. Alternatively, the snake was part of God’s first household and there was already some discord within that house. In this case, the fallenness of humanity and our world is wrapped up to some degree with a fall of some variety among powerful spirits who were made before us. This point cannot be taken too far, however, because humanity is clearly held responsible for the current condition of our cosmos. We see this in Romans 8:19-23, for example, where we read that “the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God …for we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now.”

All Christian theologians agree to a remarkable degree that humanity provides a vital link between God and this new creation (again tied to the incarnational purpose of our creation from the start). David Bentley Hart summarizes it this way: “Human beings—constituting what Maximus the Confessor called the priestly ‘methorios’ (the boundary or frontier) between the physical and the spiritual realms—severed the bond between God’s eternity and cosmic time when they fell” (from “The Devil’s March” again). Both pagan and Christian sages throughout history have spoken of each human person as a microcosm of the whole cosmos. Great women and men of prayer and contemplation have repeatedly insisted that there is a powerful connection between the depths of the human heart and the central throne of God. In some sense, each human heart is the center of all that God has made (creating what we call a “place”), and each human heart also touches every other place because each heart stands directly before God. To see God as well as the places that we occupy, requires that what the ancient Greeks called our “nous” (intuitive apprehension) be given a complete and quiet authority within our heart (which is the only location from which the nous can see God and reality directly). To get back to the point (and to repeat once more), all of this means that humanity displays God to the world in some central way and also receives the gifts of God from all of the world surrounding us. We are each a living sacramental or eucharistic center of seeing, receiving and thanksgiving (making our bodies temples of the Holy Spirit as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 6:19). When our relationship to God is broken, it is not just (or even primarily) an individual tragedy. Each human’s broken relationship to God is a cosmic tragedy with extremely real and terrible implications. Likewise, for any human to live in restored communion with God means that all of creation and every fellow human may witness and share, to some degree, a substantial return to the true and intended arrangement of things. Holiness is this participation of particular persons and things with this original purpose of communicating God’s presence.

Whatever might be made of these glorious claims surrounding humanity and the serious implications of our fall, we have a divinely inspired story that clearly makes our fall the essential reason for cosmic suffering. It is tempting to identify the exact temporal sequence of these events. However, it seems that angelic rebellion and the human fall took place before our current time and space were fractured and reduced to an incomplete existence that can no longer contain any of the points in heavenly time at which any of these events took place. In other words, the actual account of our own fall does not fit within our current experiences of time and space. If this is true, then our fall is something that transcends our time. It may have happened in some kind of sequence within a kind of heavenly time, but it can’t be located within earthly time. One quality of a higher dimension in math (to use one easy analogy) is that it can “contain” all of a lesser dimension (as a sphere contains many circles). In an analogous way, every one of our personal lives may be contained within the single event of the human fall. We may each be an active participant in the fall of our first parents.

There are clearly other events within human history that transcend our standard understandings of time according to the biblical accounts. Consider the exodus as well as the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We see this kind of supratemporal reality clearly described within this passage about a prayer from the Apostolic Tradition of Hippolytus (“a little book with prayers for the Eucharist, baptism, ordination, and other rites reflecting practice in Rome at the end of the second century”) in Robert Louis Wilken’s The Spirit of Early Christian Thought: Seeking the Face of God (32-36):

It is apparent from the wording of the prayers that something more is at work here than recalling ancient history. After reciting the history of salvation leading up to the “night on which he was betrayed,” the prayer continues as follows: “And we sinners make remembrance of his life-giving sufferings, his death, and resurrection on the third day from the dead and ascension to the right hand of You, his God and Father, and his second glorious and fearful coming.” The key term here is the Greek word anamnesis, usually translated “remembrance,” which in this context means “recall by making present.”

There are parallels between this sense of remembrance and the way the Exodus out of Egypt is remembered in the Jewish Passover. In the Mishnah, the collection of Jewish law from the early third century, it is reported that Rabbi Gamaliel used to say, “…In every generation a man must so regard himself as if he came forth himself out of Egypt, for it is written, ‘And you shall tell your son on that day saying, “It is because of that which the Lord did for me when I came forth out of Egypt.”’ Those who celebrate Pesach are not spectators, they are participants. “It is I who came forth out of Egypt,” says Rabbi Gamaliel. Remembrance is more than mental recall, and in the Eucharist the life-giving events of Christ’s death and Resurrection escape the restrictions of time and become what the early church called mysteries, ritual actions by which Christ’s saving work is re-presented under the veil of the consecrated bread and wine. Speaking of the Christian paschal celebration Origen wrote, “The Passover still takes place today” and “Those who sacrifice Christ come out of Egypt, cross the Red Sea, and see Pharaoh engulfed.” What was once accomplished in Palestine is now made present in the action of the liturgy, as the prayers indicate: “We offer to You O Lord, this awesome and unbloody sacrifice, beseeching You to deal with us not according to our sins.” Liturgy is always in the present tense. The past becomes a present presence that opens a new future.

What is being claimed about the human fall is different then what is being claimed about the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Our fall did not take place in human history, it was in some sense the start of cosmic history as we know it (that is as a broken and reduced experience). God’s great actions in human history (with Jesus Christ fulfilling all of these) are both historic events and transcendent events. They have a particular place in history but also touch every other point in history (as a transcendent event). Our fall, as I’m explaining it also touches every other point in history, but it cannot also be located within human history as we can locate Jesus Christ.

With these explanations in place, the history of our cosmos can be told briefly:

  1. God’s joyous, free and self-sufficient life as three persons brought many great and diverse spirits to a free yet contingent life so that they could share in and enjoy the life of God.
  2. This household of free and sub-creative spirits rejoiced as God’s life continued to invite more life into newly shaped space and time. God made a beautiful cosmos and then brought humanity into it as those showing forth God’s image within this new realm of spirits whose creation would be fulfilled with the incarnation of God’s Son among them.
  3. God warned his new children that great and mysterious powers were still beyond their reach and that their own pursuit of this knowledge would bring terrible damage, destruction and death.
  4. Evidently, however, some in God’s first household did not simply rejoice at the creation of this second household. They invited humans to forgo growth and maturation, to grasp on their own for goals and ends that they were not yet developed enough to see clearly or to understand. As humans followed these promptings, bitterness, mistrust and fear resulted. As God had warned them, they fled from God and faced death.
  5. Many ancient accounts of the expulsion from the garden note that God was protecting humanity from the tree of life, not punishing them. Our first parents would cause more damage to themselves and their world in their fallen condition if they had been given continued access to the tree of life.
  6. We might say that a reduced cosmic history began here, but we would need to recognize that our entire history to which we have any conceivable access is a reduced history. We lost all access to the kind of time and space in which we were initially created, and our entire story as well as the entire story of our current cosmos became a story characterized by death and suffering from beginning to end.
  7. Taking compassion on us in our fallen condition, God clothed our first parents in garments of skin (with many ancient accounts saying that this covered or replaced their original garments which had been made of light), and God commanded members of his first household to attend and help fallen humanity within the sad confines of our now reduced and limited history.
  8. Our fall, however, left a great vacuum in our hearts and therefore in all of the cosmos so that members of God’s first household could abuse us and our world, claiming it as their own dominion. Humanity followed much of this abuse in our own lust for power as well as in fear, and we neglected our life as God’s image bearers and caretakers more and more for the sake of desperate ventures and false worship.
  9. Amid the ravages and terror of this sad history, Jesus Christ nonetheless fulfilled God’s original intention for us and revealed that God could unite his life even to death and to the grave itself, shattering them from within and offering us the life of God (the fruit of the tree of life as his own body) in communion with our own sufferings and deaths.
  10. After this astounding victory and revelation, Jesus Christ returned to God’s throne where he now offers his own body to us as our bread and where he remains who he was revealed to be upon the Cross: the Lamb slain from before the foundation of the world and our bread of life.
  11. God has united himself and his life to us once again from his own real and eternal kingdom. In Jesus Christ, our broken and incomplete cosmos has been opened up and brought back into contact with the life of God.
  12. This history is not over, but we now can see, through Jesus Christ, that the entire history of our cosmos has a beginning and an end that is not currently visible to us, and that all things must truly be made new so that we live now as heavenly citizens but also as future inheritors of a new heavens and an a new earth. United with Christ in his death now as we feed upon his incorruptible body, our own deaths will not hold us captive but will give way to Christ’s death and therefore also to his life.

This exercise has shown me, again, that there are good reasons why these truths are related in great stories and powerful images. They ring shallow and false when reduced to truisms and propositions. Nonetheless, I hope that some of these foolish babblings, for anyone desperate enough to have read them, might have pointed you toward something of the life of God in which “we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).

Detail from “The Grey Havens” by John Howe.

Note: this article was also share here by Mercy On All.

the colors and the sheen that call to mind the past that made them

Some passages from In Praise of Shadows by Japanese novelist Junichiro Tanizaki (1886-1965). This is from he translation by Thomas Harper and Edward Seidensticker.

As a general matter we find it hard to be really at home with things that shine and glitter. The Westerner uses silver and steel and nickel tableware, and polishes it to a fine brilliance, but we object to the practice. While we do sometimes indeed use silver for tea kettles, decanters, or saké cups, we prefer not to polish it. On the contrary, we begin to enjoy it only when the luster has worn off, when it has begun to take on a dark, smoky patina.

…Of course this ‘sheen of antiquity’ of which we hear so much is in fact the glow of grime. In both Chinese and Iapanese the words denoting this glow describe a polish that comes of being touched over and over again, a sheen produced by the oils that naturally permeate an object over long years of handling. …For better or for worse we do love things that bear the marks of grime, soot, and weather, and we love the colors and the sheen that call to mind the past that made them. Living in these old houses among these old objects is in some mysterious way a source of peace and repose.

…Lacquerware decorated in gold is not something to be seen in a brilliant light, to be taken in at a single glance; it should be left in the dark, a part here and a part there picked up by a faint light. Its florid patterns recede into the darkness, conjuring in their stead an inexpressible aura of depth and mystery, of overtones but partly suggested. The sheen of the lacquer, set out in the night, reflects the wavering candlelight, announcing the drafts that find their way from time to time into the quiet room, luring one into a state of reverie. …Indeed the thin, impalpable, faltering light, picked up as though little rivers were running through the room, collecting little pools here and there, lacquers a pattern on the surface of the night itself.

Tanizaki and Gerard Manley Hopkins share some ground with the lines “wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil” (from “God’s Grandeur”) as Hopkins words at this point turn toward a positive longing to feel the dark soil with bared feet and even to wear its smudge.

a non-existent country, with laws alien to earth and man

The Return of the Exile

George Seferis (translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard)

‘My old friend, what are you looking for?
After years abroad you’ve come back
with images you’ve nourished
under foreign skies
far from you own country.’

‘I’m looking for my old garden;
the trees come to my waist
and the hills resemble terraces
yet as a child
I used to play on the grass
under great shadows
and I would run for hours
breathless over the slopes.’

‘My old friend, rest,
you’ll get used to it little by little;
together we will climb
the paths you once knew,
we will sit together
under the plane trees’ dome.
They’ll come back to you little by little,
your garden and your slopes.’

‘I’m looking for my old house,
the tall windows
darkened by ivy;
I’m looking for the ancient column
known to sailors.
How can I get into this coop?
The roof comes to my shoulders
and however far I look
I see men on their knees
as though saying their prayers.’

‘My old friend, don’t you hear me?
You’ll get used to it little by little.
Your house is the one you see
and soon friends and relatives
will come knocking at the door
to welcome you back tenderly.’

‘Why is your voice so distant?
Raise your head a little
so that I understand you.
As you speak you grow
gradually smaller
as though you’re sinking into the ground.’

‘My old friend, stop a moment and think:
you’ll get used to it little by little.
Your nostalgia has created
a non-existent country, with laws
alien to earth and man.’

‘Now I can’t hear a sound.
My last friend has sunk.
Strange how from time to time
they level everything down.
Here a thousand scythe-bearing chariots go past
and mow everything down.’

those who know how to conquer invisibly

S.O.S. 1995

Leonard Cohen

Take a long time with your anger,
sleepy head.
Don’t waste it in riots.
Don’t tangle it with ideas.
The Devil won’t let me speak,
will only let me hint
that you are a slave,
your misery a deliberate policy
of those in whose thrall you suffer,
and who are sustained
by your misfortune.
The atrocities over there,
the interior paralysis over here—
Pleased with the better deal?
You are clamped down.
You are being bred for pain.
The Devil ties my tongue.
I’m speaking to you,
‘friend of my scribbled life’.
You have been conquered by those
who know how to conquer invisibly.
The curtains move so beautifully,
lace curtains of some 
sweet old intrigue:
the Devil tempting me
to turn away from alarming you.
So I must say it quickly.
Whoever is in your life,
those who harm you,
those who help you;
those whom you know
and those whom you do not know—
let them off the hook,
help them off the hook.
Recognize the hook.
You are listening to Radio Resistance.

perceiving and embracing our finitude

Loving God means standing naked in the truth of what we are, and that means perceiving and embracing our finitude, our contingency, and our absolute dependency upon God who calls us into being ‘ex nihilo’. That truth of that ‘nothingness’ (the Void) has to be acknowledged before God. It’s an essential aspect of who and what we are.

Tom Belt from a conversation in an online “David B. Hart Reading Group.”

an abstraction does not need a Mother

In her very person as a Jewish girl become the mother of the Messiah, Mary binds together, in a living and indissoluble way, the old and the new People of God, Israel and Christianity, synagogue and church. She is, as it were, the connecting link without which the Faith (as is happening today) runs the risk of losing its balance by either forsaking the New Testament for the Old or dispensing with the Old. In her, instead, we can live the unity of sacred Scripture in its entirety.

To use the very formulations of Vatican II, Mary is ‘figure,’ ‘image’ and ‘model’ of the Church. Beholding her the Church is shielded against the aforementioned masculinized model that views her as an instrument for a program of social–political action. In Mary, as figure and archetype, the Church again finds her own visage as Mother and cannot degenerate into the complexity of a party, an organization or a pressure group in the service of human interests, even the noblest. If Mary no longer finds a place in many theologies and ecclesiologies, the reason is obvious: they have reduced faith to an abstraction. And an abstraction does not need a Mother.

From Rapporto Sulla Fede, a series of 1985 interviews given by Pope Benedict XVI to Vittorio Messori.

when the whole fullness of our nature has been perfected

God has one goal: when the whole fullness of our nature has been perfected in each man, some straightway even in this life purified from evil, others healed hereafter through fire for the appropriate length of time, and others ignorant of the experience equally of good and of evil in the life here, God intends to set before everyone the participation of the good things in Him, which the Scripture says eye has not seen nor ear heard, nor thought attained. …The difference between a life of virtue and a life of wickedness will appear hereafter chiefly in allowing us to participate earlier or later in the blessedness which we hope for. The duration of the healing process will undoubtedly be in proportion to the measure of evil which has entered each person.

St. Macrina the Younger quoted by her brother St. Gregory Nyssa from On the Soul and the Resurrection.

the fall of rational creation and the conquest of the cosmos by death is something that appears to us nowhere within the course of nature or history

The moral apostasy of rational beings from the proper love of God is somehow the reason for the reign of death and suffering in the cosmos, that human beings—constituting what Maximus the Confessor called the priestly “methorios” (the boundary or frontier) between the physical and the spiritual realms—severed the bond between God’s eternity and cosmic time when they fell. Thus we may say, as fantastic as it seems—and as fantastic as it truly is when reduced to fundamentalist literalism regarding the myth of Eden—that all suffering, sadness, and death, however deeply woven into the fabric of earthly existence, is the consequence of the depravities of rational creatures, not of God’s intentions. Not that we can locate the time, the place, or the conditions of that event. That ours is a fallen world is not a truth demonstrable to those who do not believe; Christians can see it only within the story of Christ, in the light cast back from his saving action in history upon the whole of time. The fall of rational creation and the conquest of the cosmos by death is something that appears to us nowhere within the course of nature or history; it comes from before and beyond both. We cannot search it out within the closed totality of the damaged world because it belongs to another frame of time, another kind of time, one more real than the time of death—perhaps the divine or angelic aeon beyond the corruptible sub-sidereal world of chronos, or perhaps the Drcamtime or the supcrcclcstial realm of the pure forms or the Origcnist heaven of the primordial intelligences, or what have you. In any event, this (or something roughly like it) is the story that orthodox Christianity tells, and it can tell no other.

…It may seem a fabulous claim that we exist in the long grim aftermath of a primaeval catastrophe—that this is a broken and wounded world, that cosmic time is a phantom of true time, that we live in an umbratile interval between creation in its fullness and the nothingness from which it was called, and that the universe languishes in bondage to the “powers” and “principalities” of this age, which never cease in their enmity toward the kingdom of God—but it is not a claim that Christians are free to surrender. There is a kind of “provisional” cosmic dualism within the New Testament that simply cannot be evaded: not an ultimate dualism, of course, between two equal principles, but certainly a conflict between, on the one hand, a sphere of created autonomy that strives against God and, on the other, the saving love of God in time.

The explicit claim of Christian scripture is that God’s will can be resisted by a real and (by his grace) autonomous force of defiance, and that his purposes can be hidden from us by the history of cosmic corruption, and that the final realization of the good he intends in all things has the form—not simply as a dramatic fiction, for our edification or his glory, nor simply as a pedagogical device on his part, but in truth—of a divine victory.

From “The Devil’s March” by David Bentley Hart.

There is a lot in this echoing Chesterton who writes that we are “the survivors of a wreck, the crew of a golden ship that had gone down before the beginning of the world” (more here) and that “the end of the world was long ago, / And all we dwell to-day / As children of some second birth, / Like a strange people left on earth / After a judgment day” (citation here).

a regal, relentless and miraculous enmity

We are to be guided by the full character of what is revealed of God in Christ. For after all, if it is from Christ that we to learn how God relates himself to sin, suffering, evil and death, it would seem that he provides us little evidence of anything other than a regal, relentless and miraculous enmity. Sin he forgives, suffering he heals, evil he casts out, and death he conquers. And absolutely nowhere does Christ act as if any of these things are a part of the eternal work or purposes of God, which it is well to remember.

From chapter 9 of The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami? by David Bentley Hart. [Transcribed from the audible book version with my own punctuation.]

Notes on Dr. Michael S. Heiser’s The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible

Book cover.

Dr. Heiser’s book The Unseen Realm opens with the story of an uncomfortable realization after church one Sunday. A friend and fellow Hebrew language graduate student asked about Psalm 82’s description of a large council of gods responsible for the care of various nations and over which the God of Israel presided. Within American Christianity, we only tend to talk about one real God. The gods of other nations are not supposed to be characters in the biblical story who have played a major role in the course of human history. However, with all of his expertise as a student of ancient Hebrew, Heiser saw no other way to read the passages in Psalm 82, and it immediately started to suggest equally uncomfortable readings of many other biblical accounts. This growing list of Bible passages came together for Heiser over the next few years to describe human history in terms of a clear storyline about God’s ongoing interactions with humans alongside a vast but unseen realm of divine and angelic creatures.

Most modern commentaries on Psalm 82 obscure the clear references to the God of Israel interacting with a council of lesser gods who were commissioned to “defend the cause of the weak and fatherless” and to “maintain the rights of the poor and oppressed” throughout all the nations of the earth. In this psalm, these gods are condemned by God for having failed at these assignments that God gave. God tells them that they must now “die like mere men” while He and His people take up the care of all the helpless inhabitants of every nation.

Over the course of his book, Heiser weaves a compelling and grand narrative about God’s creation of an angelic and then a human divine household (intended to function ultimately as a ruling council) and of their multi-stage rebellions and interactions that culminate in God’s restoration of His rule with the life, death and ascension of Jesus Christ. To give an overly simplistic summary off the top of my head:

  1. God created a household of angelic beings who were a council of lesser gods intended to care for all of God’s creation.
  2. There is some indication that all was not well in this first household, and that creation was far from perfect even before the creation of humans. (However, this is not entirely clear to me from Heiser’s reading as he seems to say some things both affirming and denying this idea of a pre-human fall. Heiser clearly seems to reject an angelic fall but also to suggest that the council of lesser gods was already out of order in some way.)
  3. God created a second household of humans to join his first household as additional members of his council.
  4. God brought these humans into his first sanctuary of Eden (which was a temple, highplace, garden, palace and household), and the lesser gods were jealous of the new divine image bearers and household members (the humans).
  5. The serpent was a lesser god and member of the first divine council in Eden who invited the young humans into a state of rebellion and war with God.
  6. Eventually, some members of the first household had children with some humans.
  7. These children were heroes and powerful leaders (Nephilim and a later race of humans perceived as giants) among humans and further led the world into selfishness, rebellion and chaos.
  8. As these children died (in the flood among other punishments), their spirits became the demons of later human history and continued to interact with the lesser gods who God would put over the nations. To be clear, Heiser does not specifically support this idea, but he seems to deny that demons are fallen angels and to point toward this wide-spread and ancient belief (that demons are the disembodied souls or spirits of dead Nephilim) without denying it.
  9. After the flood and the Tower of Babel, God places at least some members of the first divine council (the lesser gods) over each of the nations of the earth with the charge to care for these banished and wandering human clans.
  10. God takes upon Himself to care for one nation that He calls out from among all the other nations in order to prepare a way to restore humanity to God.
  11. God often interacts with his nation of Israel in the celestial body of an angel, and Israel calls this manifestation of God “the Angel of the Lord” or “the Angle of Yahweh.” Heiser makes a strong case for the fact that this incarnation of God as an angel in the Old Testament is intended to be identified in the New Testament with the Son of God who is incarnate as the human person Jesus Christ (and identified as the second person of the Trinity by the early church).
  12. The gods of the other nations are not faithful to God and do not care for the poor and the weak. Instead, they seek power and continue to defy the God of Israel.
  13. God eventually condemns these other gods to die and says that they will be removed from power. (Psalm 82 is one reference to this.)
  14. God fulfills His plan for the restoration of humanity by becoming the human Jesus Christ and overcoming all the rebellious powers of this world including sin and death. Jesus Christ overcomes death with a glorified (celestial) human body and takes the throne at the right hand of God the Father in order to rule over an everlasting Kingdom that will include His entire human family. [Heiser does not give much detail regarding his ideas about the church era or the “end times.” On a separate note, while Heiser does note that Jesus Christ is the prototype for humanity as the perfect image of God, he does not seem to pick up on an idea prominent among the early church fathers of Jesus Christ as the “first full human” or the one in whom the creation of humans is finished (both the beginning and the end in God’s work of creating humans).]

With this off-the-cuff summary, I’ve certainly missed some critical details and misrepresented some points that Heiser made clear. This narrative is outlined a few times in the book with many recapitulations and deeper dives into specific periods and thematic points. While having some topical sub-structures, the book is organized chronologically overall, and it follows the story of God’s people across the biblical canons of the Old and New Testaments.

Heiser’s scriptural exegesis is specific and convincing, and his narrative is detailed yet coherent. Nonetheless, there are few specific answers to the many related topics and questions that are encountered along the way. Questions about metaphysics, eschatology or the nature of the afterlife are all raised in his book with few specific resolutions or suggestions provided. For example, Heiser mentions near the end that he does not subscribe to any current escatological systems. At the same time, he makes no attempt to outline his own escatological system. Likewise, in the first section of the last chapter (42, “Describing the Indescribable”), he has a section on “Celestial Flesh” that describes the bodies of glorified humanity following the general resurrection. However, nowhere in this account does he suggest how we should understand the relationship between the categories of spiritual and fleshly bodies that are under discussion. Apart from one brief allusion to the fact that Paul’s metaphysics have some points of similarity as well as difference with the Stoics, there is no analysis of Paul’s language and arguments within the thought categories of Paul’s own day. Nor is there any attempt to say what the implications of these biblical categories might be for our own modern categories of thought regarding celestial vs. earthly bodies. In this section, Heiser also points back to a portion of Chapter 20 called “Heirs of the Cosmos” in which he addresses the idea of angelic bodies along with the idea in scripture that humans are intended to become “as the stars.” Again, there is almost no help given to moderns regarding how to understand such alien language. Finally, there is not even a basic survey given in the book of the parallels between humanity, stars and angels despite the fact that this set of parallels is made by many biblical authors (as well as their extra-biblical counterparts within surrounding cultures) during the course of several millennia and the fact that Heiser’s entire thesis is about the relationship between lesser deities and humans within God’s salvation history.

Perhaps I was seeking too much from one book. Heiser does provide excellent footnotes throughout. For example, on the topic of becoming “as the stars,” Heiser points to the article “‘So Shall Your Seed Be’: Paul’s Use of Genesis 15:5 in Romans 4:18 in Light of Early Jewish Deification Traditions” by David Burnettin in The Journal for the Study of Paul and His Letters, vol. 5 no. 2 (2015). This is an excellent study under the tutelage of N.T. Wright among others. I cite this one sample passage:

Philo of Alexandria and the Saying “So Shall Your Seed Be”

In commenting on Gen 15:5 in Who Is the Heir? 86–87, Philo states:

When the Lord led him outside He said “Look up into heaven and count the stars, if thou canst count their sum. So shall be thy seed.” Well does the text say “so (οὕτως ἔσται)” not “so many (τοσοῦτον)” that is, “of equal number to the stars.” For He wishes to suggest not number merely, but a multitude of other things, such as tend to happiness perfect and complete. The “seed shall be (οὕτως οὖν ἔσται),” He says, as the ethereal sight spread out before him, celestial as that is, full of light unshadowed and pure as that is, for night is banished from heaven and darkness from ether. It shall be the very likeness of the stars.

Here, Philo argues from the grammar of LXX Gen 15:5 that the adverb οὕτως should be understood not merely quantitatively but qualitatively as well, suggesting that the promise to become as the very likeness of the stars was the original intention of the scribe. The promise of Gen 15:5 for Philo entails being transformed into beings full of light, being in the “very likeness of the stars,” and participating in their celestial life.

In Questions and Answers on Genesis, Philo similarly comments on the patriarchal promise of star-like seed as it was retold to Isaac in Gen 26:4a:

What is the meaning of the words, “I will multiply thy seed as the stars of heaven?” Two things are indicated, in which the nature of all things in general consists, (namely) quantity and quality—quantity in “I will multiply,” and quality in “as the stars.” So may (thy descendants) be pure and far-shining and always be ranged in order and obey their leader and may they behave like the luciform (stars) which everywhere with the splendour of  ethereal brightness also illumine all other things. (QG 4.181)

Philo here again sees implicit within the language “so may thy descendants be” the promise of the ethereal life of the stars. In Gen 26:5, Abraham’s seed will be multiplied as the stars of heaven and be given all these lands “because Abraham obeyed my voice.” For Philo, Abraham acts as the stars act who are always “ranged in order and obey their leader.” In both of these texts, Philo seems to axiomatically employ the phrase “so shall your seed be (οὕτως ἔσται τὸ σπέρμα σου)” as though it were to be taken as a kind of adage that was intended to denote celestial immortality.

Two other articles referenced positively in the footnotes and yielding excellent reading were: “Becoming Like God: An Evangelical Doctrine of Theosis” by Robert V. Rakestraw (1997) and “When Did Angels Become Demons?” by Dale Martin (2010).

Despite these rich footnotes, however, I cannot forgive one gap in Heiser’s book. It would have been strengthened by clearly acknowledging the need for an alternative to our standard modern and materialist metaphysics—the need for a way of seeing and talking about ourselves and the world that goes beyond Enlightenment’s spiritual vs. material dichotomy. With his idea of an “unseen realm” in his title, Heiser clearly seeks to find some alternative language for expressing the reality of a thick and substantial world of life and beings who are so easily dismissed by us moderns. Generally speaking, however, Heiser simply uses the standard modern categories of spiritual (and therefore invisible) vs. material (and therefore visible) in order to describe these two realms. In using these standard categories, Heiser seems unaware of the ways in which he repeatedly reinforces the Cartesian dualism that dominates our modern way of approaching the world and that separates our senses and bodies so hopelessly from what is (to the ancient mind) most real and substantial within everything that surrounds us during each waking moment.

To be clear, Heiser is not defending a Cartesian dualism. He speaks repeatedly of the unseen realm being closely intertwined with our everyday world of physical bodies. However, he fails to acknowledge how Cartesian dualism hides the primary nature of mental and spiritual realities from us and therefore isolates us within a material world that is somehow “more real.” Heiser sees no need to offer alternative ways of understanding our relationship to ultimate realities, and he leaves his readers having to imagine a spiritual world that, at best, parallels our visible and material world in some intangible or abstract way. We moderns cannot read any language about “spiritual and material realms” without defaulting to the idea that the material world is ultimately independent of the invisible world and entirely capable of functioning without it rather than recognizing the material world (as all of ancients would have understood it) to be completely dependent on the realm of mind and spirit for its very existence. This leads to my main concern: it would be easy to read the whole of Heiser’s book earnestly and carefully while thinking that the “unseen realm” was only important given its profound connections to the story of salvation and not because we humans are all blind participants in the unseen realm and utterly dependent upon this realm for all the daily details of our own lives and all the basic workings of our material existence.

Only someone already deeply interested in the biblical account of salvation history would find Heiser’s book challenging. He does connect the unseen realm powerfully and convincingly into the Christian story of salvation which is a helpful achievement. However, for any Christians who already tend to understand salvation as mostly being about our future “rescue” and “removal” out of this world, Heiser’s account may achieve nothing more than to further abstract the salvation story from any contact with our current daily lives and the visible world around us. Such readers may care about their future places in the unseen realm. They may also be fascinated to learn that their own salvation in Jesus Christ is somehow connected to this wild narrative about a pantheon of gods who are installed and then removed by the God of Israel. However, this will have no clear connection to how they eat their supper, mow their grass or treat their children later today. Such abstract and sweeping concerns, however, takes me far outside any response to Heiser’s book, however, and into a critique of modernity and American Christianity.

To refocus on Heiser’s book, I will mention two more minor weaknesses before listing a few additional points that I found noteworthy and that Heiser did an excellent job of presenting and defending. These two minor weaknesses are related. First, Heiser was stronger in the Hebrew world of thought than in the Greek. Second, Heiser maintains a fairly focused Protestant and American Evangelical set of categories in his analysis of the Bible, and he therefore missed some of the benefits and insights offered by other traditions. For example, in the first section of chapter 7 (“Earth Was Not Eden”), he blames the early church fathers for spreading the misconception that the earth was created in a state of perfection. The earliest of the church fathers (writing in Greek) actually tended to note that Eden was separate from the rest of the world and also to recognize that the rest of the world had already fallen before Eden was set apart by God. These fathers also describe the state of Eden itself as immature and innocent rather than as perfect (like a seed or a child filled with potential but not yet developed). Even Augustine (writing much later and in Latin) made some of these distinctions and did not simply equate Eden with perfection at the start of the world. In another example, when Heiser argues that the imaging status of humans (created as “images of God”) is shared with other creatures who were made before humans, Heiser does not note that earlier theologians (such as John of Damascus) have made this same case long ago.

With all my complaining out of the way, I want to reiterate that I was impressed with Heiser’s careful and open scholarship, his clear reverence for God and the Bible and his many insights based on extensive reading and research. His book is filled with thought-provoking connections. Here are just a few of the points that I noted for further reading and reflection while listening to the book:

  1. Yahweh, whenever embodied, is the Angel of Yahweh (implying, among other things, that angels have bodies in comparison to God, which is also a point made by John of Damascus and many earlier church fathers).
  2. Elohim is a term for any inhabitant of the spiritual realm (spanning the gulf from God to the spirits of deceased humans—a range that includes multiple other categories of creatures). This term often refers to the divine council of gods over whom God presides as creator and source of all life.
  3. Animals have soul (nephesh), and Heiser says that nephesh is interchangeable with rûach (spirit) in biblical Heberew.
  4. Eden is called “the seat of the gods” by Ezekiel.
  5. Jesus speaks of the “Gates of Hell” near Caesarea Philippi because it was situated near a mountainous region (containing Mount Hermon) that had many ancient associations with evil powers in the unseen realm. Form an online article by Heiser on this topic: “In the Old Testament, this region was known as Bashan [‘the place of the serpent’]. This was a region controlled by two kings—Sihon and Og—who were associated with the ancient giant clans: the Rephaim and the Anakim. These cities and their Rephaim inhabitants are mentioned by name in Canaanite (Ugaritic) cuneiform tablets. The people of Ugarit believed the Rephaim were the spirits of dead warrior-kings. They also believed that the cities of Ashtaroth and Edrei were the entryway to the Underworld—the gates of Sheol. Also, during Israel’s divided kingdom period, Jereboam built a pagan religious center at Dan—just south of Mount Hermon—where the Israelites worshiped Baal instead of Yahweh. For the disciples, Bashan was an evil, otherworldly domain. But they had two other reasons to feel queasy about where they were standing. According to Jewish tradition, Mount Hermon was the location where the divine sons of God had descended from heaven—ultimately corrupting humankind via their offspring with human women (see Gen 6:1–4). These offspring were known as Nephilim, ancestors of the Anakim and the Rephaim (Num 13:30–33). In Jewish theology, the spirits of these giants were demons (1 Enoch 15:1–12).”
  6. Armageddon is described as taking place in Jerusalem and not Megiddo (a position for which Heiser cites some early church fathers in defense and that is also advocated by amillennialist Meridith Kline—although Heiser clarifies that he is not an amillennialist like Kline).
  7. Finally, Heiser talks in several places within his book about the people of Jesus Christ as the new “holy ground.” Heiser is referencing the temple language that is used to describe the bodies of believers and of the church as a whole (and as the body of Christ). These reflections on the nature of Eden, the Promised Land, the Old Testament temples and then the New Testament church are a rich theme in the book that carry great insights into the nature of sacred space and the way in which God works. This may have been one of my favorite motifs out of many within the book, and I hope to find more by Heiser on the topic.

I hope that this “random sampling” convinces you that there is much value in Heiser’s book. If you want to find more without getting his book, he has shared generously over the years in many online formats as well. After finishing this book, I’m tempted to try an assimilation of what I’ve learned about the unseen realm in Heiser’s work with what I read earlier in Naming the Powers (1984) by Walter Wink (see here), in The Corinthian Body (Yale, 1995) by Dale Martin (see here), in Origen and the Life of the Stars: A History of an Idea (Oxford, 1994) by Alan Scott (see here) and in Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith (book II, chapter 3, “Concerning angels”) by Saint John of Damascus (see here). However, I have another book or two that I hope to read before any such compilation of my own thoughts on the unseen realm (which will be tentative thoughts on a subject not to be overly concerned with regardless of what has been read).

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