Wednesday, September 30, 2009

"If Thine Eye Offend Thee": Reflections on this week's reading, continued

"And if thy hand offend thee, cut it off: it is better for thee to enter into life maimed, than having two hands to go into hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched: Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched. And if thy foot offend thee, cut it off: it is better for thee to enter halt into life, than having two feet to be cast into hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched: Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched. And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out: it is better for thee to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye, than having two eyes to be cast into hell fire: Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched."

As Rachael said in our Bible study on Tuesday, "Bummer."

When I was on the path to becoming a Christian, one of the major stumbling blocks was the doctrine of hell. This is a stumbling block for many people, probably the biggest thing that leads so many people to consider Christianity and then reject it. Which is sad.

Let's start with the most obvious question about hell- I don't think, and nor do the Catholic, Anglican, Orthodox, or other major churches today, think that only Christians can be saved. Far from it. "Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven" (Matthew 7:21). I think that all of us will have the opportunity to experience God, and the Logos, after we die. Some of us may not believe in God, or in Jesus, during our lives but have devoted our lives to serving our fellow man, and to trying to better our world, and to live in a spirit of love. Others of us may be deeply imperfect and flawed people but place our trust in Christ to help us become better. I think that both kinds of people have used their lives to prepare for the world beyond, and both of them, when they die, will be ready to know and love Christ. Belief in Christ, or even in a God, is certainly not a necessity to enter heaven. I think there's an Orthodox saying: we know where Christ is, but we do not know where He is not. He works through many kinds of people, Christians and non-Christians, believers and atheists, in His own way.

There will be a hell, no doubt, and we can hope that relatively few people will be in it. Some think, or hope, that in time Christ may have mercy even on them. Origen believed this (he was the Church Father who took literally the line about 'if your eye offend thee..." and castrated himself with a clam shell). And we can be confident that ultimately, no one who really longs for the Love of God will be denied it: as it is said, "Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you: For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened" (Matthew 7:7-9). As long as free will exists, however, it's possible that some will choose separation from God, even for eternity: "And the smoke of their torment ascendeth up for ever and ever" (Revelation 14:11). If we are free to choose good, then we are also free to choose evil.

But what will that horrible, unspeakable state of separation be like? Jesus gives a hint, in the word he uses for hell, "Gehenna". A couple years ago a short but grisly videotape was released, of Saddam Husayn's preparation for death by hanging. Though I turned it off before the actual execution, I saw enough to hear him being taunted by Shia guardsmen, partisans of his mortal enemy Muqtada al-Sadr, who shout, "Ila Jahannam"- go to hell. "Jahannam" is the same as the Aramaic 'Gei Hinnom', and the Greek 'Gehenna', and they all refer to the same thing. The Valley of Hinnom outside Jerusalem, where the Canaanites, before the Jewish conquest, would offer human (specifically, child) sacrifices to the god Molech, pictured as a man with the head of a bull.

Yes, I mean it. The Canaanites (and their Phoenician and later Carthaginian coreligionists) would sacrifice their own infants to Molech, by roasting them alive. The whole valley was inflamed with huge fires, whose smoke and flames would reach to the skies; drums would drown out the cries of the sacrificial victims: and in the midst of it all stood the great idol, the bull-headed Molech, called Baal or Tophet, whose metal structure would convert the screams of the victims into roars. Our human race has a great capacity for evil, and the abomination of child sacrifice which took place at Hinnom was one of them. During those dark days, which were briefly brought back under Manasseh, who abandoned Judaism for Phoenician religion and sent his own son to the fire, the valley of Hinnom became like a little hell on earth, complete with flames, screams and roars, and Jesus uses this evocative and chilling image to give us a foretaste of what separation from Godwill be like. "Depart from me, ye cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels" (Matthew 25:41-42).

Many people ask "How can a just God impose torture on His enemies in Hell?" But to ask that, I think, is to miss the point. It's by no means clear, first of all, that hell was made by God to begin with. The Nicene creed says that God is "the maker of heaven and earth"; it doesn't say that He made hell, and I don't think He did. I think that Gehenna is the creation of the enemy, the evil power that Christ calls the 'ruler of this world' (John 14:30), and that an early Christian visionary called 'the lord of this world that has ruled it from the beginning", and it is the place- the only place in our universe- from which God, and His influence, are entirely absent (or nearly so- I'll get to that). God doesn't want anyone to be in hell. He 'preached to the spirits in prison' once, and He may do it again (1 Peter 3:18). The only souls to enter hell will be those who have chosen, knowing what God and the truth are, to reject them: not out of ignorance, but out of malice, and who have chosen to prefer something else other than God.

By using the image of Gehenna, Jesus connotes not just a place of suffering, but a place of hatred. The horrors that took place in the Valley of Hinnom were not acts of God, or of His angels: they were things that people did to each other. Jesus didn't simply analogize hell to a flood, or a fire, or an earthquake, or a plague or other natural evils: he analogized it to a place in which the only torments are those we imposed on each other. Similarly, I believe that whatever the torments of Gehenna may be, they are first and foremost torments imposed by the lost on each other. I don't think that God, himself, or His angels, torment anyone. They aren't _in_ hell; so how could they take on administrative or punitive roles there? The most powerful, and most chilling image of Gehenna I've seen is in the later chapters of Dante's Inferno, in which Dante and Virgil are making their way across the frozen lake of the ninth circle, the circle of the Traitors, populated by men like . Frozen in ice, gnawing on each other's flesh, are the Cannibal Count Ugolino of Pisa and his mortal enemy Archbishop Ruggiero. Imagine what Gehenna is like: a place where pairs of history's great villains, mortal enemies if there ever were, endlessly tear at each other's flesh. Hitler and Stalin, Pilate and Caiaphas, Al Capone and Bugs Moran, Saddam Husayn and Osama bin Laden. I have no idea if any of these people are actually there, but it gives you an idea. The other interesting thing is that the lost souls in Dante's hell are generally incapable of talking about anything except themselves and their past history on earth. While this is interesting for the reader, it also points to the truth that in Gehenna, any sense of mutuality and of love is absent.

Because the nature of Gehenna- of any place from which God is absent- is that it's a place without friendship, without love, without companionship, without affection. When we are separated from God in life, we still have our friends, family and people we care about. Not in Gehenna. Because love, friendship, affection, and all those good things come from and have their roots in him. If the lost could love, they wouldn't be in Gehenna: "Every one that loveth is born of God, and knoweth God. He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love" (1 John 4:7-8). We can cultivate them but we can't create them. They are from God, and a place from which God was absent would be a place where love, friendship, affection and beauty were also absent. Because if anyone in Gehenna had any love left, even the smallest spark, God would work with it. God cares more for rescuing one lost sheep than for all the 99 that were never in trouble (Luke 15:7) and He can do it, even after we die. He and his helpers would blow on that spark until it was a fire. But everyone, even in life, is busy at work making themselves into a better, more loving person or a worse, more self-interested one. That process is usually imperceptible in daily life, but after we die it continues, more and more, until it reaches one of two endpoints. We either become full of the love of God, or full of the love of self: either full of love, or empty of it. A child of God, or a child of Gehenna.

In "The Brothers Karamazov" by Dostoyevsky, we find the story of a wicked peasant woman who dies and goes to Hell. Out of mercy, her guardian angel tries to think of the good she has done in her life, but can't think of anything- she has done almost nothing good. Then the angel remembers, and pleads before God, that she once gave an onion from her garden to a beggar woman. God says that if the angel can give her the onion skin and pull her out of the "lake of fire" (Revelation 20:14) , she can enter Heaven. And so the angel gives her the onion, and starts pulling. And miraculously, the onion is strong enough to support her and she starts rising into heaven. But the other lost souls in the lake of fire see this, and they grab her ankles and try to be pulled out as well, crying "Save us!" The old woman is furious and kicks them away, saying, "I'm saved, not you! It's my onion, not yours!" And the moment she says that, the skin of the onion breaks and she falls back into the lake of fire, where she remains to this day.

The power of this story, like the power of the Gospel reading, lies in the fact that it shows us God's love as well as the terrible consequences of evil. God is so loving that he will rescue a totally corrupt woman from Gehenna, for the sake of the one tiny deed of compassion she did in her life. For the sake of that one onion, He was willing to give her a second chance, even after death. That is the kind of love that God has for each one of us. God the Son shed His blood for us, and surely He will give us the opportunity to repent if we really want it. But the terror of this story is that it shows that some people don't really want it. They may say that they want salvation, and that they love God, but in truth they love themselves and their pride more, and they would rather stay in Gehenna, alone and self sufficient, than enter heaven along with their fellows. "It's my onion, not yours". This is the fundamental creed and premise of Hell. This is the dark side of free will: that there will always be those who use it to choose evil, and who choose selfishness rather than love. Even when God in his power extends mercy to us and allow us to be pulled into heaven by the skin of an onion, some of us may choose to stay in Gehenna and lord it over our fellows. Our free will is strong enough to break that onion skin that God of his own power would not allow to be broken.

"What is Hell?" asks Father Zossima in "The Brothers Karamazov" (which you all should read: a brilliant book by a tortured genius). And he answers, "It is the condition of being unable to love". Indeed. That is why Christ uses the immage of the Valley of Hinnom. Because Gehenna, like the Hinnom Valley, is first and foremost a place without love. It isn't just a place of suffering (Earth has plenty of that, as does the cleansing fire). Nor is it just a place where God is absent. First and foremost, it is a place where love is absent. And that, truly, would be the most terrible place it's possible to conceive.

But let's never forget that this isn't the fault of God. He wishes, more than almost anything else, that no one be in Hell. The only ones there will be, in the end, those who have chosen it. And he doesn't add to their torment. If anything, he makes it milder and gentler than it would be otherwise.

There are many apocryphal writings, visions of Heaven and Hell, from the early Christian and medieval eras, some of which I looked into once for a paper for a lit class in college. In a number of them, some figure- either St. Paul, or the Virgin Mary, or one of the saints- entreats Christ to have mercy on the lost souls, and He does. Some visions see Christ bringing their suffering to an end- this is what Origen believed would happen. Others see him allowing some repentant souls into heaven- there is a tradition that He did this for people like Emperor Trajan after he died. Some envision- including the fourth century poet Prudentius- the lost souls being granted temporary ‘vacations’ from Gehenna, and apparently there were medieval legends of saints who claimed to encounter Judas on such a ‘vacation’. Some see him granting a respite from suffering for the lost souls, for a day and a night every Easter. As the fourth century “Apocalypse of Paul” describes it, Christ says to the souls of the lost,

“Yet now because of Michael the archangel of my covenant and the angels that are with him, and because of Paul my dearly beloved whom I would not grieve, and because of your brethren that are in the world and do offer oblations, and because of your sons, for in them are my commandments, and yet more because of mine own goodness: on that day whereon I rose from the dead I grant unto all you that are in torment refreshment for a day and a night for ever.”

An vision called the ‘Descent into Hell of the Mother of God' (again quoted in the "Brothers Karamazov") says something similar, except here it is the Blessed Virgin Mary who pleads for the lost, and the lost souls are allowed two months of refreshment every year, from Good Friday to Trinity Sunday. Whatever the truth of such visions and legends is, and whatever core of genuine mystical experience there is, I think these are more than just pure fictions. I think there is something to the idea, and that in some way God through whatever residue of His influence continues to operate in Gehenna, makes it less horrible than it would otherwise be, and will save all who truly desire it. For His mercy can never truly end, even against those who hate him, whatever form that mercy finally takes. And if His mercy can reach, in small part, even to Gehenna, how much more will it infuse every aspect of life in heaven?

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

"Whoever Is Not Against Us Is For Us: A Promise"

The Gospel reading from the lectionary this Sunday was Mark 9:38-48. It's a fascinating one: inspiring and chilling, and most of all paradoxical. How could it begin in such a spirit of light, welcome and ecumenism, and end with such a dark and terrifying vision of hell? Let's look at it closely.

"And John answered him, saying, Master, we saw one casting out devils in thy name, and he followeth not us: and we forbad him, because he followeth not us."

One of the most interesting things about Jesus was the change that He worked in His apostles, turning them into something quite opposed to what they had been before. Thomas the semi-Dualist, who had a dim view of the body (read the apocryphal Gospel and Acts of Thomas for more on this) became inadvertently the most important witness to the physical resurrection of Christ's body. Peter, weak-willed and so timid he denied Christ three times, became the administrator of what was to be the largest and greatest of all the Christian churches (whether or not you accept its claim to be also the _truest_ expression of Christianity). Paul, the persecutor of the apostles, became the apostle to the Gentiles. And John, who here shows himself to be intolerant, became the preacher of Love.

"But Jesus said, Forbid him not: for there is no man which shall do a miracle in my name, that can lightly speak evil of me."

The Latin phrasing here differs from the English, lit. "Nemo enim est qui virtutem faciat in nomine meo...": i.e. "there is no man which shall do a virtuous act in my name..." Jesus isn't talking about only those who drive out demons, or prophecy, or do other miraculous signs in the name of Christ. He is talking about anyone who does a virtuous act in the name of Christ. Those who, in Christ's name, heal the sick, and feed the hungry , and help the poor overcome the economic poverty that oppresses them, and who work towards a more just society, and plant trees and care for the natural world, in His name: all these are Christians, and the specific details of their theology, while important in themselves, should not make us despise each other over them. "In my house there are many mansions..." (John 14:2) Here Christ was saying, I think, that there isn't just one single branch of the Christian church, that there would be many expressions of the Christian faith, and that men could love and serve Christ- and come to know the truth- outside the structure that the Apostles set up. This verse is a proof that even during the lifetime of Christ himself there were multiple different Christianities, including Christians who were outside the apostolic fellowship. And Jesus seems to have been fine with that. Which should give us pause. Christ works predominantly, I think, through the apostolic church that He set up, and which later divided into Catholic, Armenian, Syrian, Orthodox and other branches (including later the Anglicans). But that doesn't prevent Him from working outside the church too. Sometimes He does- He did even during his own life, after all- and sometimes the orthodox can learn from the 'heretic', and the church as a whole from the light of individual reason and personal revelation.

"For whosoever shall give you a cup of water to drink in my name, because ye belong to Christ, verily I say unto you, he shall not lose his reward."

In the desert Middle East, where this story unfolds, water meant the difference between life and death. I've lived in such an environment, in the drylands of western Madagascar. A drink of water is something precious and special, the more so because water was so hard to get. There are fewer things nicer and more pleasant on a hot, dry day then a cup of water. Christ makes a point of using this example because water was so important: the very source of life. Literally, as well: today we know that water is the indispensable compound on which all organic chemistry and all life depends. Certain kinds of life can survive without oxygen, without organic food, even without light, but nothing can survive without water. Christ invokes our need and thirst for water, and then repeats the phraseology from His Sermon on the Mount, "They have their reward."

"And whosoever shall offend one of these little ones that believe in me, it is better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and he were cast into the sea..."

Interesting, Christ suddenly shifts from the promise of something good to the warnings of something terrible. I could talk more about this metaphor, and sometime I'm sure I will, but let's skip to the end....

To be continued.....

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Reflections on the Anniversary of World War II: "The Man of Lawlessness"

A few weeks ago marked the 70th anniversary of the Second World War. On August 31, 1939 the Germans invaded Poland, and two days later France and Britain declared war on Germany. Just a week or so earlier had come the infamous Molotov-Ribbentrop pact by which Stalin's Russia, betraying everything that communism was supposed to stand for, signed a non-aggression pact with Hitler and agreed to divide up Poland and the Baltic region between them. Dark days, indeed, and a period in history that more and more of us today seem on the verge of forgetting, and using as a cheap and irresponsible insult to hurl at our political enemies. In an age where American political commentators seriously compare Barack Obama to Hitler, where the government of Iran cheerfully denies the Holocaust, and where Pat Buchanan thinks it was a mistake to fight the Second World War, we appear to have learned nothing from that horrible era of history, which makes it more likely those horrors will return.

These events marked the beginning of a six-year global conflict that would drag in more and more countries, and be fought from the jungles of the Philippines to the frozen seas of Murmansk, and from the deserts of Egypt to the mountains of Norway. It would be fought with unimaginable savagery, against some of the most quintessentially evil forces that human history has ever seen, and the traditional restraints of war would go by the wayside. It would see Hitler's regime in Germany gradually show more and more of its true colors: a demonic state that made brutality, domination, torture and murder its primary values, and that replaced love and mercy with hatred and sadism. It would eventually draw together a bizarre alliance, including men as different as Marshal Tito, President Roosevelt, Charles de Gaulle, Marshal Zhukov, Kimon Georgiev, Chiang Kai-Shek, Mahatma Gandhi, George Grivas, Menachem who believed in very different things, had nothing in common, would happily have slit each other's throats, but were united by just one thing, that they realized that Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan were mortal threats to them. The war would see the majority of Europe's Jewish population murdered in the largest act of cold-blooded genocide in human history. It would see over 50 million people killed, half of them in the Soviet Union alone, and so many atrocities and horrors that we became used to hearing about them and no longer shocked. It would end with dropping of nuclear bombs on two Japanese cities, resulting in the horrible deaths of over 200,000 people (mostly civilians, and it's a testament to how bloody World War II was that that seems like just a minor footnote), and with the emergence of a world dominated by the rivalry between two powers that hated and feared each other, Moscow and Washington, and that fought a four-decade Cold War in which they both tried to export their ideology across the world by any means necessary. It was, all in all, one of the darkest chapters in the history of man's inhumanity to man. But inasmuch as good consists largely in the resistance and struggle against evil, it was also a time of a great deal of heroism and sacrifice, and a world in which people gave their lives to try to destroy one of the greatest evils the world had ever seen.

There has been a lot of ink spilled and words exchanged over the last 70 years trying to explain Hitler. The Communists accused him of being the logical outgrowth of capitalism and of its reduction of human beings to mere economic resources; conservative capitalists accused him of being the logical outgrowth of socialism and its impulse to centralization. Christians accused him of being the logical outcome of atheist antinomianism; atheists accused him of being the heir of Christian anti-Semitism. Catholics and Lutherans accused each other of being responsible for the German anti-semitism that Hitler inherited. Republicans accused him of inheriting the most brutal tendencies of the Second German Reich; monarchists accused him of being the logical outcome of the popular will untrammeled by tradition.In all of this urge to blame the Nazis on someone else, we too often forget that they were the incarnation of something deep within us, and deep within the world.

Perhaps the closest thing written in recent years about the truth of Nazism was Mr. Norman Mailer's book "The Castle in the Forest". Mailer believed, very strongly, in the reality of a personal, evil spiritual being only slightly less powerful than God. Call it the Devil if you like, though Mailer wasn't an orthodox Christian- or call that power Lucifer, Satan, Ahriman, Ptahil, or any of the numerous other names that various religions have given to the power of evil. Mailer's book imagined that Hitler's birth and life had been literally presided over by the devil, just as the lives of numerous prophets and saints had been presided over by God. And if you think about it, that's not such a bad way to think about a man whose life embodied hatred, cruelty, and domination to the extent of Hitler's.

What could inspire someone, after all, to cold-bloodedly decide to put to death twelve million people- men, women and children, young and old, mostly Jews but with many homosexuals, Gypsies, and political prisoners as well. What could inspire someone to eliminate an entire ethnic group from the face of the globe (and if he failed, it wasn't for lack of trying). Through the most cruel and barbaric means imaginable: through poison gas, through injections, through freezing, boiling alive, working to death, starvation, disease. What could make someone do that? It wasn't merely the desire for something easily understandable that he was pursuing at the expense of other people. We can, to some extent, understand people who do evil things in pursuit of food, sex, money, comfort, or even deeper motives like passion or revenge. But this went beyond that. The Nazis were, quintessentially, a movement that was built on celebrating evil for its own sake, on reversing all that is highest and best in human nature- love, mercy, justice- and turning us into cruel and bestial animals. They worshiped, and craved, power and cruelty for their own sakes.

I remember once hearing a story from a friend. He was of Austrian descent, with some circumstantial evidence of Jewish ancestors, including a suggestive family name, but if they were ever Jewish they had converted to Catholicism generations ago. One of his relatives was in Vienna at the time of the Holocaust (the rest of the family had long since emigrated) and was investigated by the Nazis after the annexation of Austria. They couldn't verify that she was Jewish, and couldn't send her to a death camp, but they thought they might as well get rid of her anyway. They smashed her insulin, and left her to die a painful death from a diabetic coma, lingering for months while she gradually used up her remaining medicine, knowing that ultimately she was going to die.

What could lead men to do that, to so completely lose any sense of love, mercy, or kindness towards another human being? We would do well to remember this kind of thing happens in our age, too. A Liberian warlord, within the last fifteen years, killed about 20,000 people and practiced ritual sacrifice and cannibalism of children before going into battle. The German nation itself, less than fifty years before Hitler, committed genocide against the Herero and Nama people of German Southwest Africa: driving them into the desert, poisoning the wells, and abandoning them to a slow death from thirst. In the postwar period we have seen a grisly chronicle of one atrocity after another- in Cambodia, in China, in Rwanda, in Central America, in the Middle East. There is something literally inhuman about all this: something beyond humanity, and beyond nature. In these glimpses of man at his worst, just as it the glimpses of man at his best, we see something outside man and outside the physical universe: a brooding, dark power that thrives on hatred, evil, self-love, and cruelty, not as means to an end but for their own sakes. The Zoroastrians, in their sacred writings, identify the nature of this evil power as just this love of cruelty and destruction for its own sake:

"I will not depart, I will not provide assistance for thy creatures, I will not offer praise among thy creatures, and I am not of the same opinion with thee as to good things. I will destroy thy creatures for ever and everlasting; moreover, I will force all thy creatures into disaffection to thee and affection for myself" (Bundahishn 1:14).

I think the reason our age still hasn't come to terms with the legacy of the second world war is because we don't really believe in the reality of evil in the same sense as our ancestors did. They knew that such an evil power existed, though they weren't sure quite what to make of it- most of all, they weren't sure how evil had originated, and what the nature of evil was. But they were wise enough to know what our century came near to forgetting: that evil is very real, very personal, and very powerful.

Perhaps the most powerful prediction of the Nazi era was this, written almost 20 centuries ago:

"Let no man deceive you by any means: for that day shall not come, except there come a falling away first, and that man of sin be revealed, the son of perdition; Who opposeth and exalteth himself above all that is called God, or that is worshipped; so that he as God sitteth in the temple of God, shewing himself that he is God..... For the mystery of iniquity doth already work: only he who now restraineth will restrain, until he be taken out of the way" (2 Thessalonians 2:3-7).

The identity of that person or force that St. Paul refers to as the "Restrainer" has been a matter of debate over the centuries. During the Middle Ages it was often taken to refer to the Roman Empire, and by inheritance to the Holy Roman Empire which governed central Europe, and which had its last capital in Vienna until it finally fell in 1806. About 80 years later, not far from Vienna, was born the child who would grow up to be history's greatest villain and mass murderer. St. Paul's prophecy is of course an apocalyptic one, but then I don't believe that the apocalypse is merely something that happens once, at the end of the world. I think that the visions of apocalypse given to us by Daniel, Paul, Christ, St. John, and various apocryphal sources are attempts to dramatize- not in detail but in essence- the eternal conflict of good and evil, and refer to a struggle that repeats itself in every age. Those visions apply to the end of the world but they also apply to the world of AD 70, of AD 476, and of AD 1933.

The Holy Roman Empire, and the medieval world of which it was an integral part, had many evils. But this can be said for it: that it restrained us, both for evil and for good. It set limits on humanity's capacity to accomplish good things and evil things: some of them were set by the lack of technological advancement, and some were set by the constraints of religion and tradition. The same dead hand of tradition and the lack of scientific knowledge that made it impossible to cure the plague or to avoid famines, also made it impossible to carry out or even to envision genocide of an entire people. There were plenty of pogroms and massacres in the medieval world, but at critical times men like Aquinas or Pope Clement VI, with the authority of scripture and tradition behind them, spoke out on behalf of the Jews to stop them from engulfing all of Christendom. As J.B.S. Haldane said, our world is greater in its capacities for good as well as evil than the world of the Middle Ages presided over by St. Paul's "Restrainer". A doctor can do so much more good today than a medieval doctor, and a scientist can discover so much more: and by the same token, a tyrant can do so much more evil. The leaders of the twentieth century claimed power over nature itself and over human bei The early modern world was shocked by the massacre of Glencoe in which a dissident Scottish clan of thirty people were wiped out by King William: they couldn't even think of the unimaginable horrors that were to arise in the twentieth century, in the name of Capitalism, Socialism, Civilization, Equality, Order, the Master Race, Freedom, Democracy, Progress, Security, and God, in which slaughters would involve not thirty but thirty thousand people at a time.

That restrained world, the world of the past, when our horizons were low and our visions were narrow, and our capacity to dream of both good and evil, began dying with the rise of modernity, and one pillar of that world ended in 1806 in Vienna. So many of the men of the Enlightenment dreamed that the new world would be a better one, that it would be a world of ease, comfort and leisure, that machines could do the work of men, that rationality would replace superstition, that prosperity would mean that material struggles were pointless and secularism would mean that spiritual struggles were unnecessary. How wrong they were. In Hitler we saw, as George Orwell puts it, the rise of "all the witch doctors and warlords in history rolled into one", and in Germany we saw "the tools of science at the disposal of ideas from the Stone Age". That combination of the worst aspects of the ancient- cruel and militant barbarism- with the worst aspects of the modern- the cool and reasoned application of the methods of science to ghoulish and demonic ends- made it difficult for people at the time, and since, to know what to make of the Nazis. Were they ancient, or were they modern? The answer of course is that they were both. In the first century the belief was widespread that the 'man of lawlessness' would be Nero risen from the dead: and this image of a spectral dead man risen from the grave, marching like a horde of zombies out of the past into the present, is a striking symbol for the Nazis' resurrection of all the barbarism of the ancient world in the middle of the twentieth century, empowered by modern science and philosophy. As new as the invention of mustard gas and the Haber process for fixing nitrogen: and as old as the ancient slave-empires which had carried out trade in " beasts, and sheep, and horses, and chariots, and slaves, and souls of men", in the chilling words of St. John (Revelation 18:13). For this prediction, too, was upheld, that the Nazi empire would bring back forced labor in the heart of Europe, where it had not been seen for centuries.

An early second-century apocryphal vision of the apocalypse goes into more detail about the 'man of lawlessness', and seems strikingly applicable as a prediction of the twentieth century:

"After it is consummated, Beliar the great ruler, the king of this world, will descend, who hath ruled it since it came into being; yea, he will descent from his firmament in the likeness of a man, a lawless king, the slayer of his mother: who himself (even) this king, will persecute the plant which the Twelve Apostles of the Beloved have planted. Of the Twelve one will be delivered into his hands. This ruler in the form of that king will come and there will come with him all the powers of this world, and they will hearken unto him in all that he desires. And at his word the sun will rise at night and he will make the moon to appear at the sixth hour. And all that he hath desired he will do in the world: he will do and speak like the Beloved and he will say: "I am God and before me there has been none. And all the people in the world will believe in him. And they will sacrifice to him and they will serve him saying: "This is God and beside him there is no other." And they greater number of those who shall have been associated together in order to receive the Beloved, he will turn aside after him." (Ascension of Isaiah 4:2-9).

Indeed. The twentienth century tyrants, Hitler among them, attracted to them much of the same adulation and veneration that in the medieval world had been given to God and to the supernatural. In a world in which religion and God no longer seemed relevant, huge numbers of people found in political tyrants and demagogues objects for worship and self-sacrifice. The tyrants of the modern age boasted of their 'scientific, modern' capabilities: if they didn't promise to make the sun rise at night, they promised many other miracles of technology- better infrastructure, better agriculture, better medicine, and in time even the power to split the atom. "And he doeth great wonders, so that he maketh fire come down from heaven on the earth in the sight of men..." (Revelation 13:13). They saw in themselves replacements for the religions of the past, destined to take the place of 'the Beloved" in men's hearts: particularly in Russia, where Stalin raised the cult of the embalmed Lenin to a virtual religion, and referred to his paid propagandists as 'engineers of human souls'. They appeared invincible in war, indomitable in the power over nature and over history, and for millions of people around mid-century it seemed reasonable to ask, "Who is like unto the beast? who is able to make war with him?" (Revelation 13:4). The apocryphal vision cited above further suggests that even the Church itself, those 'associated together in order to receive the Beloved", would become complicit in the crimes of the great modern tyrants, and indeed the Second World War saw all too many Catholic, Lutheran, Calvinist and other Christian leaders silent and weak in the face of the greatest evil in modern times.

These are the lessons of a horror-ridden twentieth century, that seven decades later we can look back upon and try to learn from. Have we learned from them? Maybe, and maybe not. As I said above, I think history repeats itself, and the struggle of good against evil repeats itself, in every age. But the stakes keep getting bigger and bigger. Every turn of the wheel good is more and more good, evil is more and more evil, and the struggle between the two is more cataclysmic. I don't know who the next embodiment of evil will be in the future, or what the next great global struggle will be, but I do know that if we don't keep the reality of human and superhuman evil always in our hearts and minds, and stay on guard against it, we will once again be faced with something too great and horrible in its evil to imagine.