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The MOST Theological Collection: Catholic Apologetics Today: Answers to Modern Critics

"Chapter 24: We Have Here No Lasting City"


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In Chapter 5, the question was posed: "If there is a good God, how can there be such evils in the world?" We were able to give only a partial answer then, since we could not use Scripture until we had shown that Scripture can be trusted, and is even inspired. But now we can return to more completely address the question.

It was established that evil is not a positive thing, a substance; it is a negative, a lack of what should be there. So evil does not need or have a Creator.

The worst evils are moral evils. These are permitted by God in an indirect way; that is, the very gift of free will makes such things possible. He could have created a race similar to ours, but lacking free will. But it would not be human, and we really would not want to be without freedom.

With regard to moral evil, nature itself strikes those who do wrong with automatic penalties. For example, if someone gets drunk, nature imposes a hangover. If someone grows up being completely self-indulgent, never having discipline, never denying self-such a person will be immature.

Marriage is not for children. If one immature person is part of a marriage, that marriage is very apt to fail. Again, the biochemistry of sex can cause feelings of tenderness-but these are not real love. Real love is a deep concern or desire (in the spiritual will) for the well-being and happiness of the other. Chemistry fools people into thinking they have such a concern-but they really do not. They may think they can cheat, by violating moral laws, which only spell out what our nature needs-and later wake up to find themselves locked into a marriage without love. Again, nature strikes, without mercy. God is merciful but nature is not. A failed marriage is one of the greatest tragedies in life.

Something else about the immature and the self-indulgent must be added. They not only are likely to fail at marriage, but they cannot really enjoy life in other respects. And, if they go very far into their self-indulgence, they may pay a dear penalty at the hands of nature. The great pagan Roman historian, Tacitus, quotes for us part of a letter from the Emperor Tiberius to the Senate. It was written near the end, when Tiberius had corrupted himself in all sorts of terrible excesses. Tiberius wrote, "If I know what to write to you at this time, senators, or how to write it, or what not to write-may the gods sink me into even a worse ruin than I feel overtaking me daily!"183

Imagine, an all-powerful despot, able to gratify his every whim, feeling this way! Tacitus continues and explains, "Not in vain was the wisest of men wont to affirm that the souls of despots if uncovered would show manglings and wounds, tearings left on the spirit, like lash-marks on a body, by cruelty, lust, and malevolence. Neither Tiberius' power nor isolation could save him from confessing the inner torments of heart which were his penalty." That "wisest of men" to whom Tacitus refers was Socrates, who, in Plato's Theatetus says, "They [people who try to get away with wrongdoing] do not know the penalty of wickedness [is] ... not beatings and death... which evil-doers often escape, but a penalty that cannot be escaped ... that they lead a life that matches the pattern to which they are growing like."184

We have been talking thus far about moral evils. But there are also physical evils, such as sickness, hardships, death. What of these? Many today have lost sight of, or have never known, a tremendous perspective which alone can explain physical evils. St. Paul knew it well. In 1 Corinthians 7:17-24, he was explaining to his converts that the fact they had become Christians did not require a change in the externals of their lives (except, of course, things that were sinful). In that context he makes a statement that is very surprising: "Were you called [to the faith] as a slave? Let it not concern you. But even if you are able to become free, rather use [it]."185 The words "use it" are ambiguous.

They could either advise using the chance to become free, or to use the chance for humility as a slave. The fact that Paul is developing the idea that the fact one becomes Christian does not have to mean a change in the externals of his life, strongly suggests Paul means that one should stay a slave. When we see his attitudes on this subject elsewhere, this view is somewhat strengthened. In Colossians 3:22-24 (and Eph. 6:5-8) he tells slaves to obey not only when their masters are watching, but even when they are not looking, and they will be rewarded by Christ.

Paul could talk this way because he saw a great vista which most people do not see. It becomes clearer in Phillippians 3:7-8: "But the things that were gain to me, these I have considered as loss on account of Christ. Furthermore I count all things to be but loss for the outstandingness of the knowledge of Christ Jesus My Lord; for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but as dung, that I may gain Christ." He means that in comparison to having Christ, everything else is worthless, is mere dung. For St. Paul knew that we are saved and made holy if, and to the extent that we are not only members of Christ, but like Him. Now in the life of Christ there were two phases. First there was a hard life, suffering, and death; second, eternal glory. St. Paul knew the more we are like Him in the first phase, the more we will be like Him in the second, in glory.

In such a perspective, St. Paul, without meaning to approve slavery, could still think it of little moment.

But now we must ask why Christ chose such a life-for He, in His divine nature, could and did choose every detail of His earthly life. The answer is twofold: Such things are good for us, and are needed for reparation of sin.

Why needed for us? Human nature includes both body and soul, and within each there are many drives and needs. They are legitimate in themselves, but the problem is that each drive operates without considering the other's needs; each one is automatic, blind. So, to keep ourselves in good condition-needed even for happiness in the present life we must tame these drives. If we have a piece of springy steel, we cannot just push it once to straight position; it must be bent many times over to make it finally stay straight. So it is with our nature. It needs a lot of straightening. Acceptance of difficult things, whether permitted by God, or taken on voluntarily, is the way to real freedom, to wholeness, to the ability to enjoy even this life.

So Jesus took on a heavy measure of these things to induce us to do what is good for us, and as a reparation for sin.

But there is more: St. Paul knew we need these things for the present life, but we need them still more for the life to come because greater likeness to Christ here means greater likeness to His glory.

How satisfactory is this present life? At best it is short, and includes many things that are unpleasant. Suppose we think back to second grade: How long did a school year seem then, compared to a year now? So it is for all normal persons; as we age, time picks up speed. A span of fifty years seems long before we start it, but when it is over, it seems like little. Further, we contrast this short, and not too satisfactory life with an unending span, including satisfaction and happiness beyond our ability to imagine it! No wonder St. Paul took the attitude: Why worry about your situation here-the important thing is to get the best possible in the future life. For St. Paul knew that thanks to the goodness of God, these present evils, which human frailty and a material world make inevitable, can be turned into pure gold for that unending glorious life.

The very "Fatherliness" of God leads Him to give us this training and preparation (earthly parents who are always indulgent to children do them ill service because they stay immature and are unable to enjoy life as they should. They are in danger of failed marriages, and of eternal misery.) In the Book of Proverbs in the Old Testament we read (3:11-12), "My son, reject not the correction of the Lord: and do not faint when you are chastised by him: For whom the Lord loves, he chastises: and as a father in the son he takes pleasure." So difficulties are really a sign of special love: God is preparing us the more fully, the more surely, for that life that really counts. The Epistle to the Hebrews says the same thing (12:6), "For whom the Lord loves, he chastises; and he scourges every son whom he accepts."

Further, on the more positive side, St. Paul tells us that even small, difficult things now bring a reward all out of proportion later: "For that which is at present momentary and light of our troubles is working beyond all measure an eternal weight of glory for us." (2 Cor. 4:17). And again in Romans 8:18," For I judge that the sufferings of this time are not worthy to be compared with the glory to come, that shall be revealed to us."

St. Augustine, in his Confessions, spoke to God saying, "You have made us for yourself, and restless is our heart until it rests in you."186 Augustine knew this because he tried illegitimate pleasures to excess, yet found none of them really satisfying. How many times have we looked forward to an event, only to be let down or disappointed after its arrival? Somehow, the reality is less than our anticipation of it and does not fully satisfy. No earthly pleasure provides the "happily ever after" we seek. Even sex, the most intense of pleasures, becomes routine and people try to recapture lost intensity through sex manuals or unnatural perversions.

The only thing that can really fill us, make us utterly happy, and will never grow old or monotonous is the sharing in the life of God Himself. For each animal, God has provided satisfaction proper to its species. But for men, He was not content to provide a merely human kind of happiness. He made us to enjoy being part divine. This phrase, "part divine" is not rhetoric, poetry, or exaggeration. It is most strictly true. The Second Epistle of St. Peter (1:4) says we are, "partakers of the divine nature." The First Epistle of St. John speaks similarly (1 Jn. 3:2), "We are now the sons of God; and it has not yet appeared what we shall be. We know, that, when he shall appear, we shall be like to him: because we shall see him as he is."

We are His children by adoption. In human adoption, a good couple takes in a child and treats it as if it were a natural member of the family. Yet they cannot give the child any of their genes or blood. It is only by a legal document that he is called their child. But what human couples cannot do, God can and does. He not only calls us His sons, He gives us a share in His own life, very literally.

St. Cyril of Jerusalem, a great Father of the Church, compared this transformation of our souls by grace to a piece of iron in a blacksmith's forge.187 At first the iron is cold and dark, but then it warms up in the fire, and finally glows so that it seems to have turned into fire. Another good example is of a diamond that could float in the air in the brilliant noontime summer sun, so that it would seem to have been changed into the sun.

But these are only comparisons and do not get to the literal heart of the matter. St. Paul told the Corinthians (1 Cor. 13:12), "We see now through a mirror, dimly, but then face to face." Mirrors then did not have the brilliance of ours. Similarly, in this life we know God only in a dark manner, through the mirror of creation. Whatever good there is must be in Him in the supreme degree, for He made it. But in the world to come we will see Him "face to face." That is, of course, a figure of speech. What does it mean literally? When I see you, I do not take you into my head, I take in an image of you. Now an image is finite or limited; but so are you. Hence, an image can let me see you well. But no image-since images have to be finite-could let me see God. Hence, Pope Benedict XII defined that when we see God, there is no image at all in between Him and us.188 How can that be? St. Thomas Aquinas made the obvious addition: If there is no image, then God must join Himself directly to our intellect to do the work of an image.189 That really is seeing "face to face."

Now, this sort of vision is possible only for a creature that is part divine. Within the Blessed Trinity there are two infinite streams of knowledge and love. Chapter I of St. John's Gospel tells us that the Father speaks a Word. That Word is not the quickly passing vibration of the air that our words are. No, it is substantial and it fully expresses Him. It is a Divine Person, the Word, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity. That is the infinite stream of knowledge, that IS a Divine Person. Between these Divine Persons there arises equally infinite love. Again, that love is no mere vibration, it is substantial, it is, again, a Person, the Holy Spirit, who IS the love of the Father for the Son, and the Son for the Father.

Can it ever become dull, as events in daily life, in these infinite streams? Of course not-we are finite, they are infinite, and hence inexhaustible. A modern writer, J. P. Arendzen, gives us a comparison that is helpful: "God, then, remains unfathomable even to the greatest of His saints. They see Him, but none can see to the very depths of His divine being. God is a world, a wide universe, which none of the Blessed has ever totally explored. Even after millions of cycles of ages, neither Mary, the Queen of Heaven, nor Michael, the Prince of the heavenly host, shall exhaust the greatness of the divine Majesty. It is an ocean on which the little craft of created intelligences can forever press forward in all directions, for it is a sea without a shore."190

It is necessary to note too that we are finite vessels trying to take in the Infinite. But these vessels, our souls, can be enlarged to be capable of taking in God more and more fully, even though no one can exhaust the vision. Each soul will be completely full and satisfied, having all it can "contain." Yet some can contain more than others. To make us capable of containing more is the work of suffering in this life.

Thus, if our Father gives us more difficult tasks, it means He wants us to have ever greater joy forever. And, to return to St. Paul, His generosity is such that whatever is "light and momentary in our troubles is working beyond all measure an eternal weight of glory for us," (2 Cor. 4:17), so that "the sufferings of this time are not worthy to be compared with the glory to come, that shall be revealed to us." (Romans 8:18).

The marvelous story of a modern woman illustrates this: Marthe Robin was a simple peasant woman in Southern France, who died on February 6, 1981. For more than fifty years she had been blind and paralyzed, unable to move in her bed. In 1930, she had received the sacred stigmata, and she went through the Passion every Friday. She never ate anything, or even drank a drop of water for more than fifty years. Although difficult for us to believe, she lived solely on the Holy Eucharist. In spite of her afflictions, she was always patient, gentle, peaceful, humble, joyful, charitable, self-giving, and interested in others. She really could say with St. Paul, "Now I rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up those things that are wanting of the sufferings of Christ, in my flesh, for his body, which is the Church." (Col. 1:24). If what is light and momentary in affliction works an eternal weight of glory- what of such a soul? Her sufferings were a privilege for her and for the Church.191

The sane man sees things as they are and reacts appropriately; the insane man sees things as they are not. He may think someone is chasing him, or that he is Napoleon, etc. Within this framework, who is the sanest of men? He, who sees this world as it is, as no lasting city, but as the waiting room where we await our flight to our real home. This person is not too concerned with affairs in the waiting room, or with accumulating all sorts of baggage. No, his concern is to get home, to enjoy home most fully. Hence it is that the saints were the sanest people, the only totally sane people; because they saw this world as it is and reacted appropriately. St. Paul said that in comparison to what is to come, this world is mere "dung" (Phil. 3:3), on which we should set no store, knowing that "the sufferings of this time are not worthy to be compared with the glory to come, that shall be revealed to us." (Rom. 8:18).


183 Tacitus, Annals 6.6.
184 Plato, Theatetus 176-77.
185 My version.
186 St. Augustine, Confessions 1.1.
187 St. Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechesis 17.14.
188 DS 1000.
189 St. Thomas, Summa, Suppl. 92.1.
190 J. P. Arendzen, Purgatory and Heaven, TAN, Rockford, Ill., 1972, p. 60.
191 In Lay Witness, April, 1982, p. 7.

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