Knowing God’s Essence

The danger with the traditional arguments for God is that they impart the epistemological skepticism upon which they rely as normative. The reason that attains God in the ontological argument (on the basis of an incomparable difference) is deployed by Descartes, critiqued but confirmed by Kant, so that the gap between a thinker and his thought, between the noumena and phenomena, or between God and the world, is as good as it gets. (To tell the story as if it is the fault of the philosophical arguments or the philosophers, is a slight miss-telling, as it presumes philosophy or philosophers are the movers and shakers in society when they may simply be the markers of a general failure.) It is not that the arguments or their purveyors generate this dualistic epistemology, but the gap, difference, or alienation, inherent to a common understanding, articulated and explained by Kant, presumed by Hegel, followed by Heidegger, becomes the epistemological frame for generations of theologians. The dichotomy between spheres of knowledge (science/humanities, sociology/religion, theory/practice, etc.) marks modern theology, which even at its best is modern because it presumes the mind is stuck in apriori Kantian spatio-temporal categories. Biblical studies focused on the historical critical method (whether of a liberal or fundamentalist bent), or theology focused on satisfying the mind of God, going to heaven, the apophatic, or the God beyond being, all betray this dualistic epistemology. Whatever else it might have spawned (e.g. the Enlightenment, the Protestant Reformation etc.) the modern is this shared epistemological starting point presumed to be more basic than religion or particular convictions about God. It is presumed that people know in the same basic way; it is just that they have journeyed to different places along the same road. Thus, the philosophical arguments (to say nothing of Christianity so engendered) do not challenge, but utilize what everyone knows to be the case (as the arguments explicitly state it).

Natural theology as the theological prolegomena (the philosophical arguments about God serve to introduce classical forms of theology and it was this beginning point Barth was attempting to sidestep), indicate that this problem is not external but internal to the modern theological project. Given the epistemology of the philosophical arguments, as Kant saw it, Christ is simply a prototype of what can be accomplished by reason and reason cannot get us to either the noumenal or to God. Though most theologians would not want to state it so bluntly, Jean-Luc Marion’s notion that God is unknowable is the theological conclusion to working within the Kantian framework (God is without being and beyond knowing). His is only one example of a long line of theological systems which would seal off God’s essence from the incarnation (cordoning off the economic Trinity from the immanent Trinity, or disconnecting the pre-incarnate Logos from the incarnate Christ, or suggesting, with Barth, that human language is inadequate, though it can be specially appropriated for and by revelation).

The solution (let’s not go there but start elsewhere), may seem to be no solution at all in its unwillingness to engage the starting point, but my understanding is that Christianity begins elsewhere. The fittingness of the world as a dwelling place for God is where the Bible begins (creation, God walking in the garden) and ends (heaven come to earth) and it is the point of the incarnation (Emmanuel – God with us). There is no inherent incommensurateness, no gap, no duality, no noumenal/phenomenal split, as creation, language, the world, are perfectly suited to revealing God in his essence.

As I have described it elsewhere (here), we identify who God is through incarnation because this is really who God is. The Logos is the incarnate Christ and, though we can ask other questions and raise other issues, the main point (God is with us in Christ) should not be subjected to some other mode of understanding or some other speculative questioning. We may ask after the pre-incarnate Christ, but the Bible and the early Church fathers equate the Word, of John’s prologue, with the Word of the Cross and the Word of the Gospel. It is not that the Word became incarnate and then suffered on the cross, but rather the One on the cross is the identity of the Word. The mystery of God revealed as Trinity does not unfold from a fleshless (asarkos) heavenly realm but from the Word of the Gospel (the crucified and risen Lord and not the Word of God somehow devoid of the content of the Gospel). We begin as believers with the presumption that we encounter God a se (in his essence) in Christ, and this presumption tells us what sort of world we live in and what sort of creatures we are, who bear the image of God.

As Katherine Sonderegger describes it, in her “theological compatibilism,” God’s being is not remote but is known in “our earthly words and world and signs.” In what she considers a paradigmatic case, the appearance of God to Moses, “The bush burns with divine fire; yet the bush remains unconsumed. . . This event and truth simply is the mystery of the cosmos itself. . . This is the gospel. And every reflection upon epistemology and metaphysics must be in its turn gospel, rendered in formal analysis.”[1] God has revealed his nature and his name in an unapproachable light (Moses both sees the light and turns away), that both reveals and conceals God. To call this revelatory theophany a “paradox” would be to impose a prior framework, while what is unfolding in this event fits no frame. It is not idolatry, it is not an affirmation of absolute transcendence, and it is not some sort of paradoxical contradiction, but provides its own frame of understanding. God’s transcendence does not preclude his immanence as, on many occasions culminating in Christ, God is present, without mediation, without distance, without analogy, in creation.

God manifests himself in the world and this need not be balanced out, as Aquinas would have it, with negative concepts extrapolated from his transcendence. Aquinas reasons that humans can speak of God on the basis of the divine name (Ex. 3:14) but this negativity falls short of apprehending God in his simplicity, indicated by the name. As Matthew Wilcoxen describes it, Aquinas strips away false understandings of God’s being so that his existence is shorn of all composition. No relation to creation (inclusive of the elements of human understanding) can penetrate or approach divine simplicity – God’s essence within his self-relation.[2] This will become such standard fare in theology that it nearly goes without saying. Aquinas will set the stage for apprehending God through both the way of negation and the positive mode of revelation, and of course, subsequent to Thomas, these will become competing modes in which philosophical negation and certainty will co-opt the faith of Christ.

Understanding Jesus as Logos (as opposed to a pre-existent Christ) and recognizing with Sonderegger, God has chosen in his transcendence to be immanent/present in human history and human language, means that the world is perfectly adequate to reveal God in his essence. Humans, in their sinfulness, may not be up to this adequacy and may prefer to cling to dualism, antagonism, and a violent epistemology, but this human failure is not a delimiting factor for God. This is the point of the incarnation (the life, death, and resurrection of Christ). God does not need protecting or defending through mediating categories which preserve his transcendence. Christ is truly human and divine.  Certainly, this does not mean that we know all of God in Christ or even all of Christ in Jesus. It does mean we can really know God in his essence as revealed in Christ which, in turn, points to divine hiddenness and transcendence. However, this hiddenness is forever being revealed and this transcendence is not an impassable barrier. As Sonderegger puts it, “We are never done with this invisibility and hiddenness, never done with this exceeding light, never far from this scorching fire. It is communicated to our hearts and to our intellects; yet never identified with them.”[3]

As she maintains, we do not need to be able to spell out how God can be poured into our world and into our understanding, it is enough to report that he has and to extrapolate from his act (in Christ) how we are to interpret and receive this mighty deed.[4] There is no end to the theological quest, no end to the questions and applications, given this compatible epistemological starting point, which forecloses on Anselm’s incomparable difference (the end point of his cosmological argument and the starting point of his ontological argument), which bequeathed to the world, not only philosophical arguments for God, but an epistemology devoid of the essence of God.  


[1] Sonderegger, Systematic Theology, vol 1, pp. 81-83. I am quoting from the Dissertation, Morally Perfect Being Theology: A Doctrine of Divine Humility by Matthew A. Wilcoxen.

[2] Wilcoxen, p. 182.

[3] Sonderegger, Systematic Theology, vol 1, pp. 87-88.

[4] Ibid, p. 127.

The Limitations of Infernalism, Annihilationism, and Universalism

It is not entirely clear how justice might be rendered and the world set right but this is the Christian hope. By “not clear” I mean that the proper understanding of the biblical images of a narrow way, cosmic redemption, punishment of the wicked, eternal fire, the defeat of sin and death, etc., does not resolve into anything approaching full explanation and, I presume, is not supposed to. Part of what hope consists of, in its admitted (and by definition) incapacity to see, is that there are impenetrable categories posing resolutions to overwhelming problems that escape finite imagination and articulation. Biblical imagery of heaven, hell, and the intermediate state of the dead, is simply that – imagery not meant to serve as exhaustive explanation. It is not only that the abyss runs white hot and cold (outer darkness) or that its opposite includes the entire cosmos (all, everyone, everything) narrowed down to a few select individuals, but these categories made to bear too heavy a weight corrupt the explanation, clarity, and primary point of the Gospel. The New Testament is focused on a practical, present tense explanation of salvation, inclusive of an ethic – life in the body – and an insight into the human predicament, which is evacuated of meaning when the primary focus is put on future categories whatever they might be (which is not to deny the necessity of better understanding these categories).  This is clearest in the case of infernalism (eternal, conscious, torturous existence) but the same point holds for every position regarding the future estate.

Infernalism is connected to various images (it is mistakenly connected to hades – which is the place of the dead) but usually with gehenna or the lake of fire. The problem is, the New Testament nowhere describes the Cross as addressing the category of gehenna or the lake of fire. Yet conceived as the primary human problem, Christ is thought to bear eternal suffering in hell on the Cross.  This makes suffering and death otherworldly spiritual categories, and since Christ’s suffering in this understanding is inward (eternal, heavenly/hellish suffering for and before God) he could undergo this spiritual suffering without incarnation. To follow this logic will land one just short of the antiChrist position of denying that Christ came in the flesh – here he simply need not have come in the flesh.

Though the innate immortality of the soul need not be posited along with infernalism it usually is, for obvious (and less so) reasons.  To imagine God simultaneously sustaining and torturing in hell forever may be disturbing to those not weaned on Calvin’s understanding that God’s love is an anthropomorphism of the saved, trumped by his hate toward the damned.  Indestructibility is apparently our fall back position as portrayed in both the Bible and psychology. Though the serpent or Satan is behind the idea (in Genesis, Hebrews, Romans), better (so goes the lie) to bear a spark of immortality rather than to imagine God alone is immortal (though Paul says as much to Timothy). Freud maintained there is no mortality in the human unconscious.

Infernalism displaces the biblical focus on Christ’s actual death and his encounter with real world evil of the human kind (that killed him). Salvation, love, heaven, election, or nearly any other key biblical term will bear a very different semantic load if God is eternally angry and salvation is from his wrath for a few luckily chosen or choosing individuals. The goodness of this God is suspect and the redemption proposed would be blissful only for those who delight in the torture of others.  In hell, as eternal torturous existence, wrath is on a continuum in the divine nature coexisting forever with love, though Scripture tells us just the opposite.[1]

Annihilationism is an improvement, in many respects, over infernalism: Jesus speaks of a final judgment primarily employing metaphors of annihilation like the “burning of chaff or brambles in ovens,” or the “final destruction of body and soul in the Valley of Hinnom.” Paul indicates as much: “Do you not know that you are a temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? If any man destroys the temple of God, God will destroy him” (1 Co 3:11–17). Peter concurs: “But these, as natural brute beasts, made to be taken and destroyed, speak evil of the things that they understand not; and shall utterly perish in their own corruption” (2 Peter 2:12, KJV). The predominant O.T. picture is of the wicked being brought to nothing (a few examples must suffice): “For they will wither quickly like the grass and fade like the green herb” (Psalm 37:2). “Evildoers will be cut off . . . the wicked will perish . . . They vanish—like smoke they vanish away” (Psalm 37:9,20).” “‘For behold, the day is coming, burning like a furnace; and all the arrogant and every evildoer will be chaff; and the day that is coming will set them ablaze,’ says the Lord of hosts, ‘so that it will leave them neither root nor branch’” (Malachi 4:1).

Annihilationism fits into a continuum with the living death of sin, with death as a visible result of the Fall – finalized in the annihilation of judgment and Christ’s defeat of death. Infernalism creates a cosmological dualism in which the victory of Christ brings resolution for some but leaves evil and rebellion in place in hell. The eternally burning inferno would seem, as Calvin supposed, to make God’s wrath primary and to throw into question the “cosmic” fullness of Christ’s victory. Augustine proposes that it was a necessity to have an eternal torturous hell so that one could understand the difference of being in heaven. Tertullian, before him, speaks of the saved relishing the sight of the destruction of the reprobate.  Aquinas asserts that the vision of hellish torments increases the beatitude of the redeemed. As Augustine describes it, looking upon the punishments they have evaded helps the redeemed to more richly realize divine grace. It seems there is no place for mercy, pity, empathy, or human decency in a heaven dependent upon hell. Strangely, none note that it is precisely this knowledge built on difference (the knowledge of good and evil) that is fallen.

 With annihilationism, death as being cut off from life with God, has its definitive end in Christ’s defeat of death or in the obliteration of dying. Is there a contradiction though, in saying death is definitively defeated if some are dead forever? One might object that annihilation partly shares in the problem of infernalism, in that Christ’s victory cannot be said to be decisive and complete for all. God might be said to be “all in all” (I Cor. 15:28) but not for all. Perhaps nonexistence is not a counter to all in that it is a discontinuous category, though this doesn’t seem to quite work.

This leaves the option of universalism, which would seem to have its support in the continual New Testament refrain that salvation has come to all: God is the savior of all people (I Timothy 4:10). “For God has shut up all in disobedience so that He may show mercy to all” (Romans 11:32). “So then as through one transgression there resulted condemnation to all men, even so through one act of righteousness there resulted justification of life to all men” (Romans 5:18). “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all men” (Titus 2:11). “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive” (I Corinthians 15:22). “And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to Myself” (John 12:32). “. . . making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (Ephesians 1:9-10, ESV). There are some 40 verses that clearly indicate the cosmic, universal, all-inclusive nature of salvation. Some form of universalism would seem to be undeniable, and I do not mean those forms that squeeze “all” down to a few. 

The danger with universalism is that it would seem to reduce to insignificance the struggles, suffering, choices, and injustices, involved in the reality of life. Certainly, a fluffy, cheap universalism, which would overlook the oppressive nature of evil for bromides of sentimental morality reduces the Christian religion to chicken soup for the soul. Wouldn’t it have been better to save the candle of human struggle if the flame of salvation brightens all? What is the point, the explanation, the reason? Universalism may set forth some sort of soul-making explanation – a grand lesson with no real consequences – but this will not do.

My point with annihilationism and universalism is not to simply dismiss them as inadequate. Infernalism, annihilationism, or universalism (either the cotton candy gnostic kind, or a morally responsible kind), are certainly not equal and need to be sorted out, but the danger is that the imagery of future things is made to bear explanatory weight where the New Testament offers imagery and not explanation. There is progress to be made in recognizing the perversion entailed in infernalism, the role of annihilation, and the clear teaching of a cosmic/universal salvation. The danger though, is to confuse a more just biblical imagery of future eternal categories with explanation. A better understanding may explain more but it is not the role of any image of the future estate of the damned and saved to sum up explanation and understanding.  In fact, a key criterion in arriving at the best understanding is that it allows for the fulness of the biblical focus on a lived salvation.

The end of discussion on the teaching of the New Testament about the intermediate state of the dead, future rewards and punishment, the extent of salvation, should not confuse a better understanding with a full understanding or imagine that this sums up the focus of the New Testament. For example, it may be that one concludes that annihilation is the primary teaching of the New Testament and better fits a loving image of God and best explains biblical imagery of final destruction. This may be a better explanation, but does annihilation provide final resolution to issues of justice or play the role of a theodicy? Does universalism serve any better? The death of six million Jews in Hitler’s gas chambers is not going to be explained, justified, or understood, whatever future estate you might imagine for Adolph, be it conscious torture in hell forever, annihilation, or redemption. Meningitis, rat lung worms, tooth decay, cancer, the suffering of the innocent, the existence of evil, or Hitler, do not fall within the spectrum of understanding and practical action which is the primary explanatory point of the New Testament – though it may touch on all of these issues. Of course, this practical salvation is best served by correctly delineating end time imagery but this image does not serve in place of a lived deliverance from the shackles of sin.


[1] “For a brief moment I forsook you, but with great compassion I will gather you. He will not always chide: neither will he keep his anger forever” (Isaiah 54:7-8). “In an outburst of anger, I hid My face from you for a moment, but with everlasting lovingkindness I will have compassion on you” (Psalm 103:9,17). “He will revive us after two days; He will raise us up on the third day, that we may live before Him” (Hosea 6:2).