Question 32

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January 14


In the modern world The Christian Gospel of Wrath presents a stark choice: accept salvation or incur damnation.  How does this theology of wrath explain the relationship between God and human beings prior to the incarnation of Jesus, prior to the Old Testament, prior to the Ten Commandments?  Was anyone being saved ‘in the beginning’? If so, on what basis?




In the Beginning



Dear GQ,


One of the pillars of Christian theology is the doctrine of Original Sin. Over the coming months we will examine how specific Christian denominations in the modern world have distanced themselves from Original Sin and the Gospel of Wrath, but to understand the modifications it is necessary to grasp the underlying doctrine.


Original Sin, as established by Augustine and subsequently revived by Luther and Calvin, proposed that the entire universe was perfect in every way prior to the Garden of Eden.  No evil was present, not even natural evil such as hurricanes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions or meteor collisions.   Evil, sin, suffering and death only entered the world due to human rebellion in the Garden of Eden. This event is traditionally situated in 4,000 BC.   


In 4th century Roman Empire, when Augustine established the doctrine of Original Sin, there was no reason to believe it was not a literal interpretation of the Biblical Genesis stories.  Even in the 16th century, when Luther and Calvin revived Original Sin, there was no scientific evidence to challenge the belief that evil, sin, suffering and death had been unknown prior to 4,000 BC.  The doctrine of Original Sin was established in this context.  In the modern world, the clash between fundamentalist Christians and scientific evidence is a direct result of protecting Original Sin. This doctrine forms the backbone of the Gospel of Wrath narrative outlined below.



All Christian theology begins with the belief that the God of Creation is perfectly good and perfectly just.  Many forms of Christianity also believe that God is in absolute control of every aspect of the universe, from determining the number of stars in the heavens down to minute details such as the life and death of individual sparrows. This set of beliefs creates a paradox. If God is perfectly good and infinitely powerful, why do evil, suffering and death blight creation?   Augustine provided a simple and remarkably durable explanation in the doctrine of Original Sin.


1) Does the universe exist for a purpose?  If so, what is it? The universe was created as a perfect expression of God’s goodness.    


2) If creation was ‘perfectly good,’ why is the natural world plagued with catastrophic events?   Original Sin attributes the existence of all evil directly to human rebellion in Eden.  Therefore, prior to Eden natural evil such as earthquakes, hurricanes, floods and famines did not occur, animals were not carnivorous, and suffering and death were absent.  


3) Do human beings exist for a purpose? If so, what is it? Man was created so that he could have dominion over all creation and all creatures. (Genesis 1:26) In God’s perfect plan, animals would have remained docile and herbivorous; humans would have remained obedient, innocent and sinless.


4) Why did a God of perfect goodness create - or permit - evil?   God created perfection.  Man unleashed evil upon the world by sinning against God’s laws.  The first act of sin triggered all suffering, evil and death in the world.  Natural disasters began to inflict suffering upon all creation. Animals became carnivorous.  Death became the universal penalty for human sin.  (Genesis 1:15)



5)  Why does human nature appear to be a mixture of good and evil?  God created Adam and Eve perfectly good.  Their sin corrupted their human nature. Adam and Eve were driven from paradise for their sin and all offspring of Adam and Eve were born slaves to sin.  Therefore all human beings incur the wrath of a perfectly just God and the penalty of death.


6) What form of religion was known to ancient cavemen such as Neanderthals? How did they know it? Original Sin denies that any human beings existed prior to Adam and Eve in 4,000 BC. The Biblical account of Eden describes the relationship between God and the first humans.  They were created as free moral agents, innocent of the knowledge of evil.  (Genesis chapter two) The first humans were given a single commandment:  Do not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  The law was simple, clear and uncompromising.  A single violation was a sin against God.  The God of perfect goodness hates sin. The God of perfect justice punishes sin. 


The Bible states that during the period between the Fall and the revelation of written Laws and Commandments all humans were obliged to make offerings. God revealed this personally, as shown in Genesis chapter four.  God blessed the obedient offering of Abel and rejected the disobedient offering of Cain, who subsequently demonstrated the depths of his sinful nature by murdering his brother.  This principle is reaffirmed in the story of Noah, who obediently built a large ship, while the rest of the human race indulged in rebellious, sinful behaviour (Genesis chapter six). God hates sin, and so all life on earth – with the exception of the saved few upon the ark – had to be destroyed.   The same principle is revealed in the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis chapter 19).  Divine love blesses the righteous and punishes the unrighteous.  There can be no justice unless the wrath of God punishes sin.


7)  How did a God of perfect justice reveal Laws and Commandments to all the peoples of the earth? The Bible does mention the ancient people of Asia, Europe, Africa or the Americas explicitly but it implies that the righteousness knowledge of Noah had been transmitted to all his descendants after the flood. The Bible relates that God chose for his people the seed of a single righteous man named Abraham.  The Law was revealed to Abraham’s descendant Moses.  The first of the Ten Commandments states, ‘You shall have no other gods before Me.’ The greatest sin of the human race is to worship other gods. All descendants of Noah had been warned of the false religions that provoked divine wrath in the Flood. They were without excuse for choosing to place other gods before the True God. This principle is revealed in the conquest of the Promised Land by the Chosen People. The armies of the Israelites were ordered to destroy every living thing, ‘man, women, young and old, cattle, sheep and donkeys’ ( Joshua 6:21).  The destruction of nations that worshipped false gods was as complete as the destruction of the flood.  


8) Did the Laws and Commandments of the Old Testament reconcile the righteous to God?  Original Sin states that due to the sin of Adam, all humans are born with a depraved and rebellious nature. No one is righteous.  (Romans 3:10-18).   The principle of Eden still applies: a single violation of divine law incurs divine wrath.  All are lawbreakers and sinners.  The law does not procure freedom from sin, it makes the sinner conscious of sin. (Romans 3:19-20) The Law reveals the guilt of law-breakers and justifies divine wrath (Romans 4:15). 


9) What is required for salvation to occur?  Jesus was sent into the world as a perfect offering to pay the penalty for sin.  Only the perfect, sinless Son of God was an acceptable offering.  The blood of Jesus paid for all sins of the entire human race.  Just as sin and death entered the world through one man, Adam, the penalty for sin was paid for by one man, Jesus, who restored righteousness and eternal life. (Romans 5:12-20) For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whosoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16)


10) Who is saved?  All who believe that Jesus is the Saviour shall not perish but shall have eternal life.  Augustine defined the process of salvation somewhat differently than Luther and Calvin would during the Protestant revival of Original Sin.


Augustine decreed that belief was demonstrated by submitting to the sacrament of baptism, which symbolically washed away sins and purified the born-again Christian.  Augustine lived at a critical period in history when the Pagans and Christians of the Roman Empire were engaged in a life-and-death clash of civilizations.  After generations of shifting power struggles, Augustine and his fellow Bishops convinced Emperor Theodosius to make Christianity the official religion of the Empire.  To practice paganism was made a criminal offence, punishable by civil penalties.  To make Pagans an offer they could not refuse, Augustine added the penalty of eternal damnation for everyone who refused to be baptised.  Original Sin was designed as a weapon of mass conversion and no exceptions to the rule were permitted. Augustine adamantly and ruthlessly proclaimed that if a baby died unbaptized it would also be denied salvation. Given the high rates of infant mortality, this was a powerful incentive to have babies baptized into the Christian faith at the first possible moment.  Within a generation the combination of civil penalties and threat of damnation convinced almost the entire Pagan population to be baptized as Christians.


Luther and Calvin defined the process of salvation somewhat differently than Augustine. They rejected the sacraments, traditions and authority of the Catholic Church.  Luther and Calvin denied that priests had the power to baptise anyone unto salvation. For Reformation Protestants, God alone determined who was saved.  Salvation could not be earned by works such as submitting to baptism.  Salvation was an unearned and undeserved gift determined by the grace of God alone. 


11)  Does divine love and justice ensure that salvation is available to all?   Augustine not only wanted – but insisted – that every citizen of the Roman Empire must submit to baptism.  Salvation via baptism was offered to the entire Roman Empire, which encompassed the known civilized world and hundreds of millions of souls.  Baptism did not exclude anyone for lack of knowledge or wealth or for being born in the wrong time and place; even a Pagan baby could be baptized unto salvation.  Augustine was fighting a war to the death with Pagans, who vastly outnumbered Christians. The struggle to save Christianity was his only concern.  He could not explain how the many generations who lived prior to Jesus had been saved; he did not have to explain how barbarians outside the Roman Empire might be saved.  Augustine had implicit faith that whatever means of salvation had been available in ancient times was still available to barbarians outside the Empire.  Augustine’s only concern was to convince Pagans within the Roman Empire to accept Christian baptism. In this he was gloriously successful.


Luther and Calvin did not see their Reformed Christianity lacking divine love or justice. They started with the principle that the entire human race was totally depraved and enslaved to sin, the God of perfect justice must condemn each and every human without exception.  Therefore no one at any time or place could accuse God of acting without love or justice, even if every single human being were condemned to eternal wrath.  The infinite generosity of God’s love was made manifest by paying the price for human sin with the blood offering of His own perfectly sinless son and providing salvation for undeserving sinners as a free gift of grace.  Punishment for sin displayed divine justice; unmerited grace displayed divine love. God choose to save anyone he wanted, anywhere in the world, so his love was perfectly universal.   


12)  What role does human freewill play in salvation?  Augustine, Luther and Calvin all agreed that God created Adam and Eve as free moral agents. They were given full responsible for choosing a blessed life of eternal obedience or to rebel and receive the curse of death. By choosing rebellion they had caused the human will to become totally depraved.   


Augustine believed that the human will was severally damaged by sin.   Just as it was necessary for parents to carry a handicapped child to a doctor, it was necessary for parents to carry their infant to church to be baptized.  Augustine had believed in freewill as a young man, but to accommodate the doctrine of Original Sin he came to view freewill as a heresy. For more than 20 years Augustine waged war against a monk named Pelagius who was a strong advocate of freewill and personal responsibility.  Augustine and his followers made Original Sin a cornerstone of Christian theology and declared Pelagius a heretic for preaching freewill.  Augustine knew that to deprive humans of freewill means that God alone chooses who will be saved.  In the absence of personal merit, the only logical conclusion is that God predestines who will be saved. Augustine avoided the full implications of predestination.  


Luther and Calvin declared that human nature was so totally depraved that the only freedom remaining for depraved sinners was more sin.  Luther and Calvin compared the human will to a falling stone under the inexorable influence of gravity. The stone might believe it is free to fly where it wills, but its only freedom is to fall in a single, unalterable direction.  Luther and Calvin declared that the natural state of fallen man was to be at war with God.  The only way to break the bondage of sin was for God alone to reach out and save an elect few through no merit of their own.   


Luther and Calvin embraced predestination as the purest and highest manifestation of God’s perfect will. Nothing happened by accident or chance.  Before the dawn of creation, God had determined who would be saved and who would be damned.  Calvin admitted that predestination was a horrible doctrine, which was incomprehensible to human definitions of justice, but Calvin was convinced that divine standards of justice were served and that God had predestined some to salvation and others to damnation ‘for His own pleasure.’


Calvinists encapsulated their theology in five points. Memorizing the five points was assisted by the acrostic TULIP.

  1. Total Depravity.  All descendants of Adam are born totally depraved and blind to God. 
  2. Unconditional Election.  God alone chooses the elect without any consideration for merit, effort or desire to be saved.
  3. Limited Atonement. Jesus did not die for all mankind, just the elect.
  4. Irresistible Grace.  Those who are elected and called to salvation cannot resist. The controlling will is divine not human. 
  5. Perseverance of the Saints. The saved cannot subsequently reject salvation or fall from grace. Once saved, always saved.


Original Sin made it impossible for the vast majority of humanity to be saved. They were simply not predestined for salvation. The elect few were the happiest of souls. Their salvation was eternally sealed and guaranteed no matter how often they succumbed to the lusts of the flesh and the temptations of sin.


13)  How does salvation enable us to escape from the suffering caused by sin and death?  Augustine realized that baptism pardons Original Sin but leaves the problem of personal sin unresolved.  The Early Church had believed that the process of salvation would be completed during a 1,000 year resurrection of the dead (Revelation chapter 20).   Augustine made it a heresy to believe in a literal, future resurrection of the dead.  Eliminating a transitional period between mortal life and eternity caused a serious theological problem.  How could imperfect sinners enter into the presence of a perfect God who hates sin?  Both logic and scripture agree that this is impossible.  Augustine solved the problem by introducing the transitional state of Purgatory.  Souls of the dead enter Purgatory stained with residual sin and remain in Purgatory until every trace of sin is removed.


Luther’s initial complaint against the Pope had involved Purgatory and ’Indulgences’ which reduced the period of purgation in exchange for money paid to the Vatican.   Luther said, ‘If the Pope has the power to free souls from the torments of purgatory for money, why will he not do it for love?’  Luther and Calvin rejected the theological innovations of Purgatory and Limbo.


Reformed theology was eminently simple: God alone determined salvation by grace alone.  Since freewill was not a factor in salvation it had no place in sanctification.  God would choose an elect few and would purify their hearts and minds, despite their rebellion and without their cooperation.   Luther and Calvin agreed with Augustine that there would be no literal, future resurrection of the dead.  That had only been a necessary state for the Early Church which had believed in freewill, which requires time and personal effort to attain righteousness.   


Luther and Calvin strongly encouraged believers to live self-disciplined and holy lives. The great paradox of Reformed Original Sin was that no sinner could chose to be saved because God alone predestined who to elect without any consideration for merit. Therefore no sinner could be absolutely certain he had been saved.  Believers could find reassurance if their minds and behaviour were progressively sanctified, and they could take warning if their sinful nature remained unchanged. But salvation was not conditional upon person goodness or righteousness and the final process of complete purification and sanctification would be entirely in the hands of God who provided complete, irresistible grace.


14) Does supernatural power intervene in the natural world to answer prayer?  The God of Original Sin intervenes continually in the natural world: blessing and correcting the righteous; punishing and restraining the wicked. God answers all prayers of the righteous: the answer may be ‘yes’, ‘no’ or ‘not now.’  The prayers of sinners are not answered, and unrepented sin in the life of believers will prevent God from answering their prayers.     


15) What is the eternal state?   Augustine taught that baptized Christians who had completed their time in Purgatory would spend eternity in paradise in the presence of God.  The transitional state of Purgatory was restricted to baptised Christians who died in a state of grace.  All citizens of the Roman Empire were baptized but notorious, unrepentant sinners were denied both Purgatory and Paradise. 


Notorious, unrepentant Christian sinners and all unbaptized non-Christians were condemned to Hell for eternity.  The official doctrine was: Outside the Church, No Salvation.   Augustine included unbaptized babies in this exclusion, but subsequent theologians allowed that babies should be assigned to an intermediary state called Limbo, which lacked the eternal bliss of paradise but also lacked the explicit pains of hell.


Luther and Calvin taught that the elect few who were predestined to receive the gift of grace would be saved, sanctified, justified and glorified in paradise for all eternity. The multitudes who were not predestined for salvation would be condemned to eternal torment.


Original Sin, as defined by Augustine and subsequently reformed by Luther and Calvin, created a Gospel of Wrath that predestined multitudes of pagans, savages and barbarians to eternal damnation simply for being born.  As Calvin admitted, this is incomprehensible by human concepts of justice.  The Gospel of Wrath taught Christians to see non-Christians are depraved sinners and enemies of God.  This has led to centuries of persecution, inquisitions, crusades, genocide and, finally, devastating religious wars between Catholics and Protestants.  Modern Christians like to believe that these horrors are all part of the distant past. Next week we will examine where the Gospel of Wrath is still very much alive in the modern world, confronting ‘sinners’ with the stark choice of accepting salvation or incurring eternal damnation. The week after we will examine the Gospel of Lose that had been taught by Jesus and believed by the Early Church prior to Augustine’s theological revolution. Over the coming months we will examine how specific Christian denominations have distanced themselves from Original Sin and the Gospel of Wrath.


Comment or Question?