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September 14th is the Great Feast of the Exaltation of the Precious and Life-Giving Cross.

 

One of the most unpleasant heresies that has crept into some parts (but by no means all) of Western Christianity in the last 500 years is something called "penal substitutionary atonement".  This idea is that God's sense of justice is so outraged by the sins of humankind that His only option is to die as a sacrifice for them, since no sacrifice offered by a human could ever be sufficient, before he is able to bestow His mercy.  This idea is strange - abhorrent - to Orthodox Christian teaching.  It is absent from the Gospel.  It is absent from the New Testament.  It discussed by a few of the Fathers, almost all of whom then reject it outright.  It has its roots, unfortunately, in Augustine's idea of "original sin", an idea from the East that was rejected by the Early Church, and came into the West because some of the leaders of the Protestant Revolution either misunderstood or  ignored the Tradition that comes to us from the Apostles.

Why is this a problem?  Because it is in direct opposition to what we hear in St John's Gospel.  In particular (from the Gospel of the Sunday before the Feast), the last two verses: "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.  For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him." (John 3:16-17)

Elsewhere in the Gospels, we have heard Christ our God tell us that the two greatest commandments are: "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your mind, and with all your soul, and with all your strength; and you shall love your neighbour as yourself.  On these two rest the whole of the Law and the Prophets".  What we know, then, is that love is both the foundation and the completion of the Law.

Throughout the Gospels Christ makes it absolutely clear: His mission is salvation, not condemnation.  The Israelites in the desert were commanded by God to look upon a bronze serpent which Moses had lifted up in the camp, so that they might be saved from the plague of snakes.  Christ prophecies that He will also be lifted up on the Cross, so that all might be saved.  There is no indication that He is offering Himself in order to pacify an angry god.

There is a short animated cartoon that has been around for decades.   In the cartoon, a bearded old man with a vengeful expression, is sitting on a cloud and watching people going about their daily lives.  Each time one of those people makes the tiniest mistake, he shoots a bolt of lightening from his hand, incinerating the sinner.  "Gotcha!" he says, as he chalks up another point on his scorecard.  It is to OUR lasting shame, that people have this idea of God.  They have it because they have not received the Good News from us.

It is worth remembering that throughout the Gospels, Christ never condemns a person or a race or culture.  He has strong words to say about individual morality, and even stronger words to say about cultural attitudes that have turned the Law of Love into something harsh and judgmental.  But Christ never anathematises the sinner - only the sins.  Even of Judas, Christ only says that "it were better had he not been born":  He pities, rather than condemns His betrayer.

So what of hell, then?  Is there anyone in it?  The answer to that is, "who knows?"

What we do know is that God does not condemn anyone to hell: we can do that all by ourselves.  Hell is the eternal separation of a person from God - and we can see from a quick look at the news that this is something which happens on Earth just as easily as can happen after death.  It has been said that "the gates of hell can be locked from the inside".  If you think about that for a while, you'll understand exactly what hell is.

But we know that Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death and upon those in the tombs bestowing life!  Death has no dominion, and there is nobody eternally condemned who did not actually chose that separation for his or herself.

Soon we will celebrate the Great Feast of the Exaltation of the Precious and Life-Giving Cross.  God took a symbol of horrible, gruesome death, and turned it into a symbol of all-embracing, triumphant Life.  And He did it all without a word of condemnation.