What is it like to live the life everlasting that is promised to Christians? The question has arisen in the last few days both over at View from the Right, where Lawrence Auster is contemplating his own incipient death with awesome magnanimity and serenity, and at Charlton’s Miscellany. Both Charlton and Auster make important points. I had reactions to both posts, so I figure it makes most sense to consolidate them here.
Charlton points out that in Romans 8:14-21, Galatians 4:3-7, and Ephesians 1:3-6, Christians are promised adoption as sons of God, and wonders, first, why Christian apologists and evangelists have made so little of this promise, which would seem to subsume and transcend every other that the faith makes; and, second, what the promise means, concretely.
Christianity promises to the faithful, not just that their sins will be forgiven and that they will be righteous and, therefore, OK with God, and as a result extremely happy, but that they will be adopted as his children and fellow heirs with Jesus Christ, the incarnate Logos and Second Person of the Trinity. It promises, that is, that they will become sons of God; or, to put it baldly, will become gods, simpliciter; for in the ancient Near East, “son of God” was just a way of saying “god” (in just the way that to call a man the son of a bitch is to call him a dog). In the religion of ancient Israel, the sons of God, the members of the Heavenly family and council, were the angels. The angels were not at all themselves the same sort of thing as the Eternal One, God the Father, El Elyon, God the Most High, the Ancient of Days; for while they shared certain properties with him – as being, e.g., immortal – they were created, subsidiary beings. Nor were they mere aspects or emanations of El Elyon, or icons, or appearances, although insofar as they were faithful to him, and ergo inspired by him, and their wills at one with his, they were indeed at least these things. Rather, they were really separate, actual created beings, with lives different than that of their Father, lives that had begun but that would never end. As his obedient messengers and ambassadors and agents, the angels could speak and act for God, and in perfect unanimity with him, so that he spoke and acted through them. But they were disparate beings, who could disobey God if they so chose, as indeed Satan and his minions did do.
YHWH was different from all the other angels, in that he alone was begotten of El Elyon, and thus co-eternal with him, rather than created. His natural sonship meant that he was naturally and essentially the image of his Father, and therefore shared his Father’s essential being and nature. This meant that YHWH was God before he was a god. While he had an angelic nature, he was not just a god among gods, but also God himself, and therefore the God of the angels, whom they worshipped. This made him the King of the Angels, Captain of Sabaoth, the Heavenly Host, and President of the Heavenly Council. As the image of the Father, YHWH was identified (by the Alexandrian Platonist Philo Judaeorum) both with the Stoic Logos that ordered and ordained all things, and (by Saint John) with the Platonic Demiurge, without whom was nothing made that was made. His angelic nature was, not a diminution of his eternal transcendent nature, but a particular concrete instantiation of it. Thus it was not the case that his angelic being was all there was to him, as was so for Gabriel or Michael. Rather, his angelic nature was one among many manifestations of his infinite, manifold actuality.
For a Christian man to become a son of God, then, meant that he would take on an angelic nature, in addition to his merely human nature; or, rather, that his humanity would be divinized. There is an analogy here with the way that the Logos takes on an angelic nature. Just as the Logos did not lose his Godhood when he took up angelic nature, so when a man becomes a son of God, he takes up the angelic nature without divesting himself of his human nature.
We see the same sort of thing happening all the time, on a lesser scale but no less mysteriously. For example, I have taken on the nature of a father, in addition to the nature of a man. That we are so accustomed to such transitions that we find them unremarkable does not at all mean that we understand them. How is it, exactly, that I am able to change from non-father into father, while remaining myself? It is not an easy question, and while I think I have learnt an answer, I am not altogether satisfied with it.
I have taken on all sorts of other natures, too: brother, husband, blogger, financial guy, outdoorsman, chorister. None of these changes detracted from my character as a human male. On the contrary, they were each in their different ways a florescence of manhood. Likewise, for me to take on an angelic nature would not be for me to become a different sort of being altogether, any more than being an investment guy makes me something other than a man. If I were to take on the nature of a carburetor, I could no longer be a man. But there is nothing incompatible, apparently, between being a man and being a god. Indeed, if Saint Paul is right, to be fully and completely a man would seem to be the same thing as to be a god. The Christian promise is not that we will become a completely different sort of being than we now are, but rather that we will become perfectly the sort of being that we now are.
Why is this amazingly attractive potential career seldom mentioned as an important sequela of Christian faith?
The only explanation I can come up with is that it might be embarrassing to Christians – and indeed, to Jews, as it has been since roughly 600 BC – because the religion of Israel to which we all ascribe insists that only God is God, and that the gods or angels are a completely different sort of being altogether, and not therefore worthy of worship – admiration, veneration, yes; worship, no. God is the God even of the gods; the primary activity in the courts of Heaven is the angelic worship of God Almighty. So, talk of godhood for Christians – of theosis, as it has been called from the very beginning – might confuse this distinction, and open the door to idolatry, that ubiquitous temptation. Preachers therefore avoided it, or referred to it only obliquely.
Yet the faith has always taught that we are ultimately destined to godhood, and that only the disobedience of Adam has – temporarily – frustrated our arrival at that destination. The whole point of the Incarnation, Passion and Atonement was to put us back on track. “God became man,” said St. Athanasius – the ostended author of the Athanasian Creed, and prime mover in the composition of the Nicene Creed – “that men might become gods.”
The whole point of the Incarnation, then, is by atoning for the sin of Adam to make it possible again for us to become gods. And the point of the Christian religion is to take advantage of that renewed opportunity to become gods by participating in the redemption offered to us by God.
Now, back in the days when Athanasius was writing, and for thousands of years before him, the process of theosis was widely understood. It was a basic aspect of the sacrificial cults that everywhere pervaded the ancient world, of which Christianity is the apotheosis, perfection and fulfillment. As consecrated to the god, the sacrificial victim effectually became his avatar, his Presence, his Face (prosopon, persona, mask, vestment, vicar, image), and his being was subsumed in the being of the god to whom the meat of his body was offered as food, in rather the way that the particles of the food we eat become parts of us without ever losing their particular characters. The sacrificial victim was worshipped, and expected to take his place after death in the Heavens as a god, embodied in a star. This was how all those Greek heroes – Herakles, Dionysus, Adonis – became demi-gods. They died.
Martyrdom is the same procedure, in Judaism and Christianity. The martyrs who sacrifice their lives for the sake of YHWH are glorious – they glow with the uncreate light of the Father in Heaven. And they are routinely resurrected. See, for example, the stories of the seven sleepers of Ephesus, the pickled boys brought back to life by Saint Nicholas (another palmary exponent of the Nicene Creed), the story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, and so forth. Resurrection is a recurrent theme in the Old Testament as well as the New: Lazarus, Isaac, Ishmael, Joseph, Daniel, Elijah’s resurrection of the widow’s son in Kings, the Prodigal Son, and the repeated resurrection of Israel herself may be adduced in support of this notion. The same goes for what happened to the body of Jesus in the Transfiguration – Moses had to cover himself with a veil when he came down from his mountaintop conferences with YHWH, so that the Israelites would not be terrified at his glorious face – and Ascension – viz., e.g., Enoch and Elijah. Indeed, the Heavenly Ascent and a Transfiguration to an angelic nature was the objective and lure of Israelite Merkavah mysticism, as practiced in the schools of the prophets. In Heaven, the mystic was clothed in the raiment of the angels – he took off the clothing of his mortal body of death and put on the clothing of his resurrection body – and was given all the knowledge of all the ages of all the worlds. The Ascent could happen in this life, or in the next; so, likewise, for Descent. Theosis, then, is possible to us here below, as sanctification; and the fact that Christians called each other “the saints” shows that theosis was taken to be a basic aspect of Christian life, however imperfectly realized. To be a Christian at all is to be a little tiny bit saintly, a little tiny bit evangelic (literally, “goodly angelic;” Satan and his host of demons are dysangelic: still angels, but no longer good).
Theosis, then, was well understood by the ancients as the procedure whereby a man left behind the defective bits of his creaturely predicaments and assumed the perfection of his nature in Heaven, there to enjoy the knowledge and power we here below ascribe to the gods and angels, but that are there revealed as quite natural to us.
Charlton points out that, “in order for humans to be adopted as Sons of God and joint-heirs with Christ, it would seem that we must be of the same order of being as God and Christ – the same kind of entity. How else could we be adopted and become heirs? This cannot happen to beings of a different basic order. (You cannot adopt a lower animal as heir – a dog or a mouse – it makes no sense.) Thus, these passages imply – by common sense interpretation – that God, Christ, Men are of the same type, or species.”
But while Christ and men are of the same species – being, all, men – God and men are not. God as Incarnate in the man Jesus of Nazareth does not express the being of God exhaustively, for there is more to God than just Jesus. So, while God is indeed man in Christ Jesus, it is not the case that God is nothing but a man. In the Incarnation, God takes up human nature in exactly the same sort of procedure (albeit on an entirely different scale) by which I took up a paternal nature. In so doing, I did not leave behind my nature as a son, brother, husband, outdoorsman, and so forth, but rather added to those natures. So likewise God as incarnate in Jesus does not obviate God as eternal, omniscient, omnipotent, immense, and so forth. At the Incarnation, God did not stop being God in order to become a man. Likewise, we will not stop being men when we take up an angelic nature.
Communicating the gist of the notion of theosis to those unschooled in theology and metaphysics, as Dr. Charlton rightly thinks to be important for our evangelical purposes, is really pretty straightforward. Christians believe that the destiny of every human being is to become a god like Dionysus, or if you like an angel like Michael (albeit of a far lower order than either Dionysos or Michael), but with our own beings – our own souls and, eventually, our spirits and bodies – perfected and healed of all their defects. All it takes to become a god is a decision to be a saint, starting now: to follow, trust, and obey God in Christ, acknowledging him as the Lord of your life, and to welcome into the operations of your heart the Holy Spirit, the Comforter, the Spirit of Truth – which is to say, the Spirit of the Logos, who is himself the Way, the Truth, and the Light. Then you will be inspired by God more and more, until eventually you leave behind your mortal body of death altogether and put on your immortal resurrection body. That transfiguration can begin now; it can be completed at the end of this created order, when this world will be resurrected, with all its defects cured.
While he expresses a wonderful confidence in our ultimate destiny, and a fitting, and indeed thrilling hope for his own, Auster writes of the impossibility of comprehending, from our perspective as damaged, defective, sinful creatures here below, what our life everlasting might be like. In this he agrees with St. Paul (1 Corinthians 13:12). It follows that any creedal statements we might devise to communicate what we are so far able to understand of everlasting life are inadequate to the reality they describe; indeed, such inadequacy is inherent in statements, per se, and about anything. By definition, models do not suffice to their phenomenal referents.
What is it like to be a human god? How the heck could we yet know? Nevertheless, as Auster indicates, the Nicene Creed gives us quite a good indication of what to expect, without trying to be too specific: “we look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.” I.e., we look for a new world, with a life, an economy of actual beings interacting with each other, where we will live an embodied life as we do now, but perfected. The 21st chapter of the Apocalypse of that Platonist, St. John, gives more detail:
And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away; and there was no more sea.
And I John saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.
And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God [i.e., Jesus] is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself [i.e., the Logos] shall be with them, and be their God.
And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.
And he that sat upon the throne said, Behold, I make all things new.