The Absence of Communion with God as the Status of the World: Sin as Hell

Being born into sin is akin to being born into hell. The Apostle Paul writes: “And you He made alive, who were dead in trespasses and sins, in which you once walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, the spirit who now works in the sons of disobedience, among whom also we all once conducted ourselves in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, just as the others.” Being spiritually dead, which of course is what Paul is referring to, has both spiritual and bodily consequences; ultimately, the final consequence is “for men to die once, but after this the judgment . . . .” Even while being born into a mode of “hell” the person, by God’s grace, has the opportunity to experience new life, the resurrected, ascended life in Jesus Christ: “ so Christ was offered once to bear the sins of many. To those who eagerly wait for Him He will appear a second time, apart from sin, for salvation.” But for those who insist on persisting in the original life they were born into, this hope finally slips through their fingers, and what once was escapable becomes the consummate or actualized realization in the eschatological life of final judgment.

John Calvin, according to Julie Canlis, emphasized the idea of being in sin, as being in hell. He saw this as the experience, indeed, the objective status of all humanity who are intent on living in the ruptured state they fell into as they were first conceived in sin in their mothers’ wombs.

This situation is nothing short of hell on earth, a qualitative state of misery and alienation. Fallen humanity is alienated from the Word — its source of life — and hence lives in a state of death.:

We must also see what is the cause of death, namely alienation from God. Thence, it follows, that under the name of death is comprehended all those miseries in which Adam involved himself by his defection; for as soon as he revolted from God, the fountain of life, he was cast down from his former state, in order that he might perceive the life of man without God to be wretched and lost, and therefore differing nothing from death.

William Bouwsma has opened our eyes in new ways to the relation between the culture of fear in which Calvin lived, and to his own fears of the “abyss” and “labyrinth.” What perhaps needs more attention is how Calvin specifically describes the Fall as a fall into fear. Calvin says that creation is designed so that humanity should see the goodness of God and “from it pass over to eternal life and perfect felicity.” Instead, “[a]fter man’s rebellion, our eyes — wherever they turn — encounter God’s curse” (II.6.i). This new state of sin is the grand inversion. We now misinterpret those very things “by which he would draw us to himself”; “so greatly are we are variance with him, that, regarding him as adverse to us, we, in our turn, flee from his presence.” Broken communion brings not just alienation but terror. “But who might reach to him? Any one of Adam’s children? No, like their father, all of them were terrified at the sight of God [Gen. 3:8]” (II.12.i). Hell becomes not so much location as condition, occurring not at life’s end but throughout every moment lived out of communion.[1]

For Calvin, as Canlis treated prior to our reading, sin wasn’t as much forensic loss, but relational, communion with God that was lost. As such, when sin is understood in these terms, as the primary frame, the antidote to escaping the hellish existence of communion lost is, indeed, God’s presence for us, in the world, in the resurrected person, Jesus Christ. He exculpates fallen humanity from its chalice of hell — the status of being born into sin — by becoming hell for us. In this impoverished status, the enhypostatic humanity of God delves into the fires of the abyss, what we inhabit daily as sinners, and from the inner-recesses of this lagoon of blackness, he sets us on the new ground of the Heavenly Kingdom as that is given foundation in the resurrected blood flowing through the veins of God’s elect humanity for the world in Jesus Christ. As Canlis underscores elsewhere, for Calvin, salvation from the consequences of sin, or hell, comes for the person as they are participatio Christi (in participation with Christ). He alone is the human who inhabits eternity bodily, and in this ascended life for us (pro nobis), it is here where alienation from God, and thus hell, is vanquished by the parousia of Christ (presence of Christ), both now, by the Holy Spirit’s ministry of koinonial presencing Christ’s body for us, and in the eschaton, by the Holy Spirit’s ministry of realized presencing of Christ’s body for us as we come to finally see and touch the body of Christ; not just in the Eucharistic anticipation, but in the fulsome and glorified beatific vision of the blessed Lord in all His immortal ineffability, even as that is concretized in the continuous bearing of His scars for us.

The Evangel is that while we ‘who were dead in trespasses and sins’ no longer must abide such obstinacy and alienation from God. We no longer must inhabit the ravishes of hell and the destroyed life this world knows, and can only know, as it loves the darkness rather than the light. Calvin’s message, as a kerygmatic message, is not one of final loss and palpable gloom, but his is a message of the Good News! The world, insofar as we properly understand God’s election for the world in the vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ, no longer is one defined by hell, but heaven. Heaven is the great reversal the sinful human heart could never, and would never imagine, simply because it lives in an alienated status of self-love and dis-communion with the living God. This is why, in order for humanity to become the humanity it was originally created for, must be gifted to it ecstatically from the Father’s Right Hand. This is the imago Dei from whence genuine humanity was created; from the humanity of God, that God freely chose as He first chose to be human for the world in the particular humanity of the man from Nazareth (Deus incarnandus). This is the hope and the longing fulfilled for a sinful humanity that said humanity needs. And so we proclaim that Jesus is Lord!

[1] Julie Canlis, Calvin’s Ladder: A Spiritual Theology Of Ascent And Ascension (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2010), loc 942, 946, 952.

4 thoughts on “The Absence of Communion with God as the Status of the World: Sin as Hell

  1. Amen!… and, profoundly, truth/reality as it actually is apart from the obedience of faith. Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!

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