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Friday, 11 January 2019

Perfect love drives out all fear

Here is the reflection I shared in Wednesday's Choral Eucharist at St Martin-in-the-Fields:

There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love (1 John 4. 11 – 18).

The writer of the first letter of John sees no place in Christianity for fear because fear has to do with punishment and Christianity has nothing to do with punishment. Yet the idea of eternal damnation through 'the endless, bloodthirsty torment of body, mind and spirit in Hell' captured the Christian imagination over many centuries and is 'the stuff of nightmares, graveyard humour and revivalist preaching.' It is an idea wholly based on fear.

Our Vicar Sam Wells has noted two major objections to the traditional understanding of hell - the moral objection and the sovereignty problem. The existence of hell implies that God isn’t all loving, otherwise he couldn’t consign parts of his creation to eternal damnation, and that God isn’t all powerful, otherwise he’d be able to bring their torment to an end whenever he saw fit. But there is also an objection thrown up by today’s Epistle which is not primarily to do with God and is instead to do with us; that is, how genuine is our love of God if it generated primarily by fear of Hell?

The writer of the first letter of John says that love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgement, because as he is, so are we in this world. What removes fear and gives boldness on the day of judgement is a process of change by which Christ takes on our humanity, and in exchange gives us a share in his divinity. We become like him; as he is, so are we!

Christmas reveals the mystery of this "marvellous exchange", the Creator becomes a human being, born of the Virgin. We are made sharers in the divinity of Christ who humbled himself to share our humanity. Christ takes what is ours and gives us what is his. In this “wonderful exchange', Christ assumes our place and gives us his place. According to Thomas F. Torrance (possibly the most important British academic theologian of the 20th century), the “wonderful exchange” embedded in the incarnation is: “the redemptive translation of [humanity] from one state into another brought about by Christ who in his self-abnegating love took our place that we might have his place, becoming what we are that we might become what he is.”

This change is both a state of being and a daily process of renewal in Christ. The daily process of renewal is, in essence, a refining and reforming process which then leads us to a different understanding of the biblical imagery of fiery furnaces, lakes of fire and its contents of burning sulphur; all traditionally understood as forming the fear inducing fires of Hell. Sam Wells has contributed an alternative understanding based on those same texts and images, with the key being words spoken by the prophet Malachi: “Who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner's fire and like fullers' soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the descendants of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness”.

'Think about this picture of a refiner’s fire. Imagine that there is indeed a fire which burns, not eternally, but until the last day. And that after we die, every little piece of us that has not turned to the glory of God, every tiny part of our history or character, every word or thought or deed that shrinks from God’s grace is burned off by the refiner’s fire. And that means that when that process is finished not all of our earthly self gets to heaven. But not none of it, either, even among the worst that humanity has produced. Out of such as remains from the refiner’s fire, God remakes a heavenly body fit for worship, friendship and eating with him forever. So, Hell is not an eternal horror that abides forever as a scar on the face of God’s glory. Hell is a refiner’s fire, from which that in us that has been soaked in God’s forgiveness and transforming sanctification moves on quite rapidly, but in which that in us that has turned away from the glory of God remains being prepared to meet God for as long as it takes until the job is done.'

This is a picture of hell that stays true to the scriptural imagery, stays true to our faith in the self-giving and loving character of God, and stays true to our belief in the almightiness of God. Most importantly, it takes fear of Hell out of the equation leaving us free to do what the writer of the first letter of John wants, to love God for God’s own sake, not for fear of punishment. It leaves us able to pray:

Loving God, if I love thee for hope of heaven, then deny me heaven; if I love thee for fear of hell, then give me hell; but if I love thee for thyself alone, then give me thyself alone. Amen.


Arvo Pärt - Stabat Mater.

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