Every early church father that I have found (Justin Martyr, Chrysostom and Origen) understands Christ in Matthew 10:28 to be saying that God can destroy body and soul (or breath) in hell (Vale of Hinnom). Only a tiny minority of recent scholars think that Christ is talking about Satan in Matthew 10:28. According to Peter Kreeft, N.T. Wright and Ben Witherington, Christ is saying that Rome is not the real enemy because Rome can only destroy your body, while Satan can destroy body and soul.
Reading over the passage some more, “fear” appears four times within a few verses: “do not fear” (them) twice in verses 26 and 28 followed by “instead fear” (the one) in verse 28 and finally “do not be afraid” (of my Father) almost immediately again in verse 31. This makes it clear that the overall message of Christ to his disciples is that they do not need to fear those who can kill them now and that their Father in heaven cares for every sparrow that falls and every hair on their heads and will honor this care for them despite their calling now to pick up their own cross and to suffer with Christ.
Finally, Christ speaks positively about the loss of our soul (or breath) just a couple verses later: “whoever loses his soul for my sake will gain it” (verse 39). Paul also says that our “soulish body” must die in order for us to receive our “spiritual body” (1 Corinthians 15:44-45). The same Greek word for soul (or breath) is used twice by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15 that Christ uses in Matthew 10:28 and 39, with both Christ and Paul indicating that our soul must be lost in order to inherit the fullness of life with God (having received what Paul calls a “spiritual body”). [As an aside, N. T. Wright and David Bentley Hart had an exchange a few years back over this passage from 1 Corinthians 15.]
Taking all of this together surrounding Matthew 10:28, a good case can be made for understanding Christ to be saying:
Don’t be afraid of the Romans who can kill your body because the real threat is Satan who can kill body and soul. My Father in heaven, however, cares for every sparrow that falls and every hair on your head, and you therefore have no reason to be afraid. I will recognize you as my own before my Father if you have recognized me as your own by giving up your life for me when terrible persecutions will come upon you. In fact, you need to be willing to give up your body and your soul for my sake in order to gain eternal life with me for your soul.
However, the vast majority of Christians from the earliest years understood Christ to be saying something more like:
Don’t be afraid of the Romans who can kill your body. Only God has the power to destroy your body and your soul in the final refuse heap. Do not fear my Father in heaven, however, who cares for every sparrow that falls and every hair on your head. I will recognize you as my own before my Father if you have recognized me as your own by giving up your life for me when terrible persecutions will come upon you. In fact, you need to be willing to give up your body and your soul for my sake in order to gain eternal life with me for your soul.
Here are a variety of resources that I found on Matthew 10:28 from various places:
Peter Kreeft makes the same claim “Satan not God” as the destroyer of souls in his book Practical Theology.
The earliest commentary I could find, takes the position that has been the strong majority understanding throughout Christian history:
“Fear not them that kill you, and after that can do no more; but fear Him who after death is able to cast both soul and body into hell.” Matthew 10:28. And hell is a place where those are to be punished who have lived wickedly, and who do not believe that those things which God has taught us by Christ will come to pass.
Justin Martyr in The First Apology, Chapter 19
When Origen comments on Matthew 10:28 (and Luke 12:45), he admits that it is God who ‘can destroy both the body and the soul in Gehenna’ but emphasizes that while the text speaks of human beings who do in fact kill, it says of God only that God can destroy the sinner. How could God actually do such a thing, he wonders, ‘since the Savior has come to seek and save those who perished’? In view of Christ’s saving act, Origen seems inclined to doubt the eternal character of divine punishment, If there are some texts in which he speaks of Gehenna as a definitive state, there are many others which seem to view it as a purifying chastisement.
“Apocatastasis in Patristic Theology” by John R. Sachs, S.J., Weston School of Theology. Theological Studies 54 (1993).
In “Homily 34 on Matthew,” Saint John Chrysostom makes the case that Christ in the 10:28 passage is giving his disciples the ultimate confidence against persecution:
Then, because He had lifted them up on high, He again gives warning of the perils also, adding wings to their mind, and exalting them high above all. For what says He? Fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul. Matthew 10:28 Do you see how He set them far above all things, persuading them to despise not anxiety only and calumny, dangers and plots, but even that which is esteemed of all things most terrible, death? And not death alone, but by violence too? And He said not, you shall be slain, but with the dignity that became Him, He set this before them, saying, Fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul; but rather fear Him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell; bringing round the argument, as He ever does, to its opposite. For what? Is your fear, says He, of death? And are you therefore slow to preach? Nay for this very cause I bid you preach, that you fear death: for this shall deliver you from that which is really death. What though they shall slay you? Yet over the better part they shall not prevail, though they strive ten thousand ways. Therefore He said not, Who do not kill the soul, but, who are not able to kill. For wish it as they may, they shall not prevail. Wherefore, if you fear punishment, fear that, the more grievous by far.
Do you see how again He does not promise them deliverance from death, but permits them to die, granting them more than if He had not allowed them to suffer it? Because deliverance from death is not near so great as persuading men to despise death. You see now, He does not push them into dangers, but sets them above dangers, and in a short sentence fixes in their mind the doctrines that relate to the immortality of the soul, and having in two or three words implanted a saving doctrine, He comforts them also by other considerations.
Thus, lest they should think, when killed and butchered, that as men forsaken they suffered this, He introduces again the argument of God’s providence, saying on this wise: Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? And one of them shall not fall into a snare without your Father. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Matthew 10:29-30 For what is viler than they? says He; nevertheless, not even these shall be taken without God’s knowledge. For He means not this, by His operation they fall, for this were unworthy of God; but, nothing that is done is hid from Him. If then He is not ignorant of anything that befalls us, and loves us more truly than a father, and so loves us, as to have numbered our very hairs; we ought not to be afraid. And this He said, not that God numbers our hairs, but that He might indicate His perfect knowledge, and His great providence over them. If therefore He both knows all the things that are done, and is able to save you, and willing; whatever ye may have to suffer, think not that as persons forsaken ye suffer. For neither is it His will to deliver you from the terrors, but to persuade you to despise them, since this is, more than anything, deliverance from the terrors.
Finally, here is the passage form Matthew’s Gospel with context (from a recent translation of the New Testament by David Bentley Hart):
13And if in-deed the household should be worthy, may your ‘Peace’ come upon it; but if it should be unworthy, may your ‘Peace’ revert back to you. 14And whoever should not welcome you, or should not listen to your words, on departing outside that household or that city shake the dust off your feet. 15Amen, I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that city. 16See: I send you forth as sheep into the midst of wolves; so be as wise as serpents and as guileless as doves. 17And beware of men; for they will deliver you up to councils, and they will flog you in their syna-gogues; 18And you will be led before leaders and even kings for my sake, as a witness to them and to the gentiles. 19But when they deliver you up do not worry over how or what you might speak; for whatever you might say will be given to you in that hour; 20For you are not the ones speaking, but rather the Spirit of your Father is speaking in you. 21And brother will deliver up brother to death, and father child, and children will rise up against parents and put them to death. 22And you will be hated by all on account of my name; but whoever endures to the end, that one will be saved. 23And when they persecute you in one city, flee to another; for, amen, I tell you, you will most certainly not have finished with the cities of Israel before the Son of Man arrives. 24A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a slave above his lord. 25It suffices that the disciple become as his teacher, and the slave as his lord. If they have arraigned the master of the household as ‘Beelzebul,’ how much more so those who belong to his household? 26Therefore, do not fear them; for there is nothing that has been veiled that will not be unveiled, and nothing hidden that will not be made known. 27What I say to you in the dark, speak in the light; and what you hear in your ear, proclaim upon the house-tops. 28And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; but rather fear the one who can destroy both soul and body in the Vale of Hinnom. 29Are not two sparrows sold for the smallest pittance? And not one of them will fall to earth without your Father. 30But even the hairs of your head have all been numbered. 31So do not be afraid; you are of greater worth than a great many sparrows. 32Therefore, everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge him before my Father in the heavens; 33And whoever denies me before men, I also will deny him before my Father in the heavens. 34Do not suppose that I have come to impose peace upon the earth; I came to impose not peace but a sword. 35For I came to divide a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a bride against her mother-in-law-36And a man’s enemies: the members of his house-hold. 37Whoever cherishes father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever cher-ishes son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. 38And whoever does not take up his cross and follow after me is not worthy of me. 39Whoever gains his soul will lose it, and whoever loses his soul for my sake will gain it. 40Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who has sent me forth. 41Whoever welcomes a prophet because he is called prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and whoever welcomes a just man because he is called just will receive a just man’s reward. 42And whoever gives one of these humble ones a cup of cold water solely because he is called disciple, amen, I tell you, he most certainly will not lose his reward.
David Bentley Hart’s translation of this passage (Yale UP, 2017).
For I saw very surely that our substance is in God, and I also saw that God is in our sensuality, for in the same instant and place in which our soul is made sensual, in that same instant and place exists the city of God, ordained from him without beginning. He comes into this city and will never depart from it, for God is never out of the soul, in which he will dwell blessedly without end.
From the sermons of Meister Eckhart. Sermon One (Pf 1, Q 101, QT 57):
Here, in time, we are celebrating the eternal birth which God the Father bore and bears unceasingly in eternity, because this same birth is now born in time, in human nature. St. Augustine says, ‘What does it avail me that this birth is always happening, if it does not happen in me? That it should happen in me is what matters.’ We shall therefore speak of this birth, of how it may take place in us and be consummated in the virtuous soul, whenever God the Father speaks His eternal Word in the perfect soul. For what I say here is to be understood of the good and perfected man who has walked and is still walking in the ways of God; not of the natural, undisciplined man, for he is entirely remote from, and totally ignorant of this birth. There is a saying of the wise man, “When all things lay in the midst of silence, then there descended down into me from on high, from the royal throne, a secret word.” This sermon is about that Word.
…Now I say, as I said before, that these words and this act are only for the good and perfected people, who have so absorbed and assimilated the essence of all virtues that these virtues emanate from them naturally, without their seeking; and above all there must dwell in them the worthy life and lofty teachings of our Lord Jesus Christ. They must know that the very best and noblest attainment in this life is to be silent and let God work and speak within.
…Now observe the use and the fruit of this secret Word and this darkness. The Son of the heavenly Father is not born alone in this darkness, which is his own: you too can be born a child of the same heavenly Father and of none other, and to you too He will give power. Now observe how great the use is! For all the truth learned by all the masters by their own intellect and understanding, or ever to be learned till Doomsday, they never had the slightest inkling of this knowledge and this ground. Though it may be called a nescience, an unknowing, yet there is in it more than in all knowing and under standing without it, for this unknowing lures and attracts you from all understood things, and from yourself as well. This is what Christ meant when he said, “Whoever will not deny himself and will not leave his father and mother, and is not estranged from all these, is not worthy of me” (Matt. 10:37), as though he were to say, he who does not abandon creaturely externals can be neither conceived nor born in this divine birth. But divesting yourself of yourself and of everything external does truly give it to you. And in very truth I believe, nay, I am sure, that the man who is established in this cannot in any way ever be separated from God. I say he can in no way lapse into mortal sin. He would rather suffer the most shameful death, as the saints have done before him, than commit the least of mortal sins. I say such people cannot willingly commit or consent to even a venial sin in themselves or in others if they can stop it. So strongly are they lured and drawn and accustomed to that, that they can never turn to any other way; to this way are directed all their senses, all their powers.
May the God who has been born again as man assist us to this birth, eternally helping us, weak men, to be born in him again as God. Amen.
Sermon Two (Pf 2, Q 102, QT 58):
“Where is he who is born king of the Jews?” Now observe, as regards this birth, where it takes place: “Where is he who is born?” Now I say as I have often said before, that this eternal birth occurs in the soul precisely as it does in eternity, no more and no less, for it is one birth, and this birth occurs in the essence and ground of the soul.
…Your heart is often moved and turned away from the world. How could that be but by this illumination? It is so charming and delightful that you become weary of all things that are not God or God’s. It draws you to God and you become aware of many a prompting to do good, though ignorant of whence it comes. This inward inclination i s in n o way due to creatures o r their bidding, for what creatures direct or effect always comes from without. But by this work it is only the ground (of the soul) that is stirred, and the freer you keep yourself the more light, truth, and discernment you will find. Thus no man ever went astray for any other reason than that he first departed from this, and then sought too much to cling to outward things. St. Augustine says there are many who sought light and truth, but only outside where it was not to be found. Finally they go out so far that they never get back home or find their way in again. Thus they have not found the truth, for truth is within, in the ground, and not without. So he who would see light to discern all truth, let him watch and become aware of this birth within, in the ground. Then all his powers will be illuminated, and the outer man as well. For as soon as God inwardly stirs the ground with truth, its light darts into his powers, and that man knows at times more than anyone could teach him. As the prophet says, “I have gained greater understanding than all who ever taught me.” You see then, because this light cannot shine or lighten in sinners, that is why this birth cannot possibly occur in them. This birth cannot coexist with the darkness of sin, even though it takes place, not in the powers, but in the essence and ground of the soul.
…The blessed see God in a single image, and in that image, they discern all things. God too sees Himself thus, perceiving all things in Himself. He need not turn from one thing to another, as we do. Suppose in this life we always had a mirror before us, in which we saw all things at a glance and recognized them in a single image, then neither action nor knowledge would be any hindrance to us. But we have to turn from one thing to another, and so we can only attend to one thing at the expense of another. For the soul is so firmly attached to the powers that she has to flow with them wherever they flow, because in every task they perform the soul must be present and attentive, or they could not work at all. If she is dissipated by attending to outward acts, this is bound to weaken her inward work. For at this birth God needs and must have a vacant free and unencumbered soul, containing nothing but Himself alone, and which looks to nothing and nobody but Him. As to this, Christ says, “Whoever loves anything but me, whoever loves father and mother or many other things is not worthy of me. I did not come upon earth to bring peace but a sword, to cut away all things, to part you from sister, brother, mother, child, and friend that in truth are your foes” (Matt. 10:34-36; d. 19:28). For whatever is familiar to you is your foe. If your eye wanted to see all things, and your ear to hear all things and your heart to remember all things, then indeed your soul would be dissipated in all these things.
Accordingly a master says, ‘To achieve an interior act, a man must collect all his powers as if into a corner of his soul where, hiding away from all images and forms, he can get to work.’ Here, he must come to a forgetting and an unknowing. There must be a stillness and a silence for this Word to make itself heard. We cannot serve this Word better than in stillness and in silence: there we can hear it, and there too we will understand it aright – in the unknowing. To him who knows nothing it appears and reveals itself.
…Here we must come to a transformed knowledge, and this un knowing must not come from ignorance, but rather from knowing we must get to this unknowing.6 Then we shall become knowing with divine knowing, and our unknowing will be ennobled and adorned with supernatural knowing. And through holding ourselves passive in this, we are more perfect than if we were active.
…Our bliss lies not in our activity, but in being passive to God. For just as God is more excellent than creatures, by so much is God’s work more excellent than mine. It was from His immeasurable love that God set our happiness in suffering/ for we undergo more than we act, and receive incomparably more than we give; and each gift that we receive prepares us to receive yet another gift, indeed a greater one, and every divine gift further increases our receptivity and the desire to receive something yet higher and greater. Therefore some teachers say that it is in this respect the soul is commensurate with God. For just as God is boundless in giving, so too the soul is boundless in receiving or conceiving. And just as God is omnipotent to act, so too the soul is no less profound to suffer; and thus she is transformed with God and in God.8 God must act and the soul must suffer, He must know and love Himself in her; she must know with His knowledge and love with His love, and thus she is far more with what is His than with her own, and so too her bliss is more dependent on His action than on her own.
…In this way your unknowing is not a lack but your chief perfection, and your suffering your highest activity. And so in this way you must cast aside all your deeds and silence your faculties, if you really wish to experience this birth in you. If you would find the newborn king, you must outstrip and abandon all else that you might find. That we may outstrip and cast behind us all things unpleasing to the newborn king, may He help us who became a human child in order that we might become the children of God. Amen.
These passages are from The Complete Mystical Works of Meister Eckhart, translated and edited by Maurice O’C. Walshe (revised with a foreword by Bernard McGinn). Taken from an edition by Crossroad Publishing Company, copyrighted 2009 by The English Sangha Trust, this work is a reissue of the three-volume Meister Eckhart: Sermons and Treatises translated and edited by M. O’C. Walshe. Sermon three in this collection continues to speak of this birth in us while continuing into the childhood of Jesus Christ with an exposition of “I must be about my Father’s business.”
I came across these sermons when seeking to find the source of this passage that is attributed to Meister Eckhart in many places (but without any full citation that I can find beyond “as quoted in Christianity by Joe Jenkins, 1995, p. 27″):
We are all meant to be mothers of God. What good is it to me if this eternal birth of the divine Son takes place unceasingly, but does not take place within myself? And, what good is it to me if Mary is full of grace if I am not also full of grace? What good is it to me for the Creator to give birth to His Son if I do not also give birth to Him in my time and my culture? This, then, is the fullness of time: When the Son of Man is begotten in us.
J.R.R. Tolkien (or Christopher?) in his notes on “Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth” (see more here).
Finrod, however, sees now that, as things were, no created thing or being in Arda, or in all Eä, was powerful enough to counteract or heal Evil: that is to subdue Melkor (in his present person, reduced though that was) and the Evil that he had dissipated and sent out from himself into the very structure of the world.
Only Eru himself could do this. Therefore, since it was unthinkable that Eru would abandon the world to the ultimate triumph and domination of Melkor (which could mean its ruin and reduction to chaos), Eru Himself must at some time come to oppose Melkor. But Eru could not enter wholly into the world and its history, which is, however great, only a finite Drama. He must as Author always remain ‘outside’ the Drama, even though that Drama depends on His design and His will for its beginning and continuance, in every detail and moment. Finrod therefore thinks that He will, when He comes have to be both ‘outside’ and inside and so he glimpses the possibility of complexity or of distinctions in the nature of Eru which nonetheless leaves Him ‘The One’.
Since Finrod had already guessed that the redemptive function was originally, specially assigned to Men, he probably proceeded to the expectation that ‘the coming of Eru’, if it took place, would be specially and primarily concerned with Men: that is to an imaginative guess or vision that Eru would come incarnated in human form. This, however, does not appear in the Athrabeth.
We are here dealing with Elvish thought at an early period, when the Eldar were still fully ‘physical’ in bodily form. Much later when the process (already glimpsed by Finrod) called ‘waning’ or ‘fading’ had become more effective, their views of the End of Arda, so far as it affected themselves, must have been modified. But there are few records of any contacts of Elvish and Human thought in such latter days. They eventually became housed, if it can be called that, not in actual visible and tangible hröar, but only in the memory of the fëa of its bodily form and its desire for it and therefore not dependent for mere existence upon the material of Arda.* But they appear to have held, and indeed still to hold, that this desire for the hröa shows that their later (and present) condition is not natural to them, and they remain in estel that Eru will heal it. ‘Not natural’, whether it is due wholly, as they earlier thought, to the weakening of the hröa (derived from the debility introduced by Melkor into the substance of Arda upon which it must feed), or partly to the inevitable working of a dominant fëa upon a material hröa through many ages. (In the latter case ‘natural’ can refer only to an ideal state, in which unmarred matter could for ever endure the indwelling of a perfectly adapted fëa. It cannot refer to the actual design of Eru, since the Themes of the Children were introduced after the arising of the discords of Melkor. The ‘waning’ of the Elvish hröar must therefore be part of the History of Arda as envisaged by Eru, and the mode in which the Elves were to make way for the Dominion of Men. The Elves find their supersession by Men a mystery, and a cause of grief; for they say that Men, at least so largely governed as they are by the evil of Melkor, have less and less love for Arda in itself, and are largely. busy in destroying it in the attempt to dominate it. They still believe that Eru’s healing of all the griefs of Arda will come now by or through Men; but the Elves’ part in the healing or redemption will be chiefly in the restoration of the love of Arda, to which their memory of the Past and understanding of what might have been will contribute. Arda they say will be destroyed by wicked Men (or the wickedness in Men); but healed through the goodness in Men. The wickedness, the domineering lovelessness, the Elves will offset. By the holiness of good men—their direct attachment to Eru, before and above all Eru’s works—the Elves may be delivered from the last of their griefs: sadness; the sadness that must come even from the unselfish love of anything less than Eru.
Desire. The Elves insisted that ‘desires’, especially such fundamental desires as are here dealt with, were to be taken as indications of the true natures of the Incarnates, and of the direction in which their unmarred fulfillment must lie. They distinguished between desire of the fëa (perception that something right or necessary is not present, leading to desire or hope for it); wish, or personal wish (the feeling of the lack of something, the force of which primarily concerns oneself, and which may have little or no reference to the general fitness of things); illusion, the refusal to recognize that things are not as they should be, leading to the delusion that they are as one would desire them to be, when they are not so. (The last might now be called ‘wishful thinking’, legitimately; but this term, the Elves would say, is quite illegitimate when applied to the first. The last can be disproved by reference to facts. The first not so. Unless desirability is held to be always delusory, and the sole basis for the hope of amendment. But desires of the fëa may often be shown to be reasonable by arguments quite unconnected with personal wish. The fact that they accord with ‘desire’, or even with personal wish, does not invalidate them. Actually the Elves believed that the ‘lightening of the heart’ or the ‘stirring of joy’ (to which they often refer), which may accompany the hearing of a proposition or an argument, is not an indication of its falsity but of the recognition by the fëa that it is on the path of truth.)
When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe. One fancies a heart like our own must be beating in every crystal and cell, and we feel like stopping to speak to the plants and animals as friendly fellow mountaineers. Nature as a poet, an enthusiastic workingman, becomes more and more visible the farther and higher we go; for the mountains are fountains — beginning places, however related to sources beyond mortal ken.
…I have never yet happened upon a trace of evidence that seemed to show that any one animal was ever made for another as much as it was made for itself. Not that Nature manifests any such thing as selfish isolation. In the making of every animal the presence of every other animal has been recognized. Indeed, every atom in creation may be said to be acquainted with and married to every other, but with universal union there is a division sufficient in degree for the purposes of the most intense individuality; no matter, therefore, what may be the note which any creature forms in the song of existence, it is made first for itself, then more and more remotely for all the world and worlds.
…The scenery of the ocean, however sublime in vast expanse, seems far less beautiful to us dry-shod animals than that of the land seen only in comparatively small patches; but when we contemplate the whole globe as one great dewdrop, striped and dotted with continents and islands, flying through space with other stars all singing and shining together as one, the whole universe appears as an infinite storm of beauty.
I’m reminded of Gerard Manley Hopkins in “As Kingfishers Catch Fire” where he writes:
Each mortal thing does one thing and the same: / Deals out that being indoors each one dwells; / Selves — goes itself; myself it speaks and spells, / Crying Whát I dó is me: for that I came.
As modern Western people, our dichotomized categories and preconceived notions about body, soul, matter, and spirit are tragically inadequate to the task of engaging with the full mystery and beauty of reality. Ancient people understood reality in ways that we have lost the ability to understand: its full dimensionality, interiority, and microcosmic qualities. As a modern myself, I’m not able to see just how far short our concepts come from being able to appreciate what is truly around us. Moderns have flattened the creation into just a few simple dualities such as: energy and matter, time and space, or (the ugliest reduction of all) supply and demand. In this simplified and demystified world, we’ve blinded ourselves to both the true beauty and meaning of the world outside as well as to the power of the same world as it also exists within ourselves. For human beings, the material world is supposed to be a powerful portal into the realities of life and beauty, into full communion with our Creator. Instead, we have lost this capacity, and we have allowed the material world to become a curtain that hides the rest of reality from our eyes. To undo this, requires long practice. However, there is also some value in trying to understand the categories of thought that blind our minds. This essay is my attempt to share how my own categories of thought have begun to shift.
Ancient Christians (and all ancient peoples in many essential ways) understood the world to be multi-layered, with simultaneous aspects of the same things coexisting within or across space and time. For example, stars and angels were often understood as the same thing but with multiple aspects: changeless cosmic bodies moving in a stately pattern according to the highest laws and mighty spiritual powers who are both conducting a sacred dance and waging a heavenly war.
The “heavenly hosts” made famous by English translations of the Bible have two distinct meanings: one is a reference to the stars; the other to God’s celestial armies, presumably of angels. Sometimes the two references seem to merge. In fact, the two meanings of the Hebrew phrase for “host of heaven” … reflect a probable association between angels and stars and planets in the Hebrew imagination. The heavenly hosts of stars, moreover, sometimes have associations of idolatry, since surrounding pagan nations were given to astrology and worship of the heavenly bodies. [Dictionary of Biblical Imagery by Leland Ryken, Jim Wilhoit and Tremper Longman, page 372.]
C.S. Lewis makes this same point in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (chapter 14):
“I am Ramandu. But I see that you stare at one another and have not heard this name. And no wonder, for the days when I was a star had ceased long before any of you knew this world, and all the constellations have changed.”
“Golly,” said Edmund under his breath. “He’s a retired star.”
“…In our world,” said Eustace, “a star is a huge ball of flaming gas.”
“Even in your world, my son, that is not what a star is but only what it is made of.”
Ancients also saw the world as microcosmic or structured like fractals, with the whole complex pattern recurring at progressively smaller or larger scales. The entire cosmos existed at multiple levels simultaneously:
Many ancient philosophers as well as the Bible taught that each individual human person is a replica of the whole cosmic pattern, a particular union of heaven and earth, and a complete temple to God.
Likewise, the tabernacle/temple is a miniature presentation of the entire cosmos.
Finally, the entire cosmos itself is a temple modeled after God’s heavenly temple and throne room (with humanity as the priest and the divine image who makes God present within all of creation).
This kind of teaching is taken for granted throughout the scripture. For example, when Christ said that the kingdom of God is within us (Luke 17:20-21). Ancient Christian authors also reflected often on this theme. For example, Augustine wrote:
These things do I within, in that vast chamber of my memory. For there are near me heaven, earth, sea. …Therefore is the mind too narrow to contain itself. And where should that be which it does not contain of itself? …Men go forth to wonder at the heights of mountains, the huge waves of the sea, the broad flow of the rivers, the extent of the ocean, and the courses of the stars, and omit to wonder at themselves. …Where in my memory do You abide, O Lord? …What manner of chamber have You there formed for Yourself? What sort of sanctuary have You erected for Yourself? You have granted this honour to my memory, to take up Your abode in it. [Confessions (Book X)]
Ancient people understood the heavenly realm or the spiritual world to be both inside and above the physical world or earthly realm. Each of these spatial analogies are true, and both are metaphorical. As moderns, we have only kept a distorted understanding of the idea that the heavenly world is “above” the earthly realm, and this idea only makes it easier for us to reject the relevance or the reality of the heavenly world. Ancients believed that the spiritual world was “within” all of the physical world because the spiritual or heavenly realm expresses deeper truths about us and our world. Heaven, as it exists inside each thing around us, can shows us how each thing is made and what each thing truly is (at the core of its being). Finally, these more essential realities are said to be “inside” because they tend to be “hidden” or “mysterious” to us. We cannot as easily see, take, and try to possess or control the heavenly realities that surround us within the material world. This presumption of possession and control is a terrible mistake that we make constantly as modern people. It blinds us more profoundly than anything else to the true beauty and value of all that surrounds us. Thinking of the world in simply material terms, we make the world less sacred, and we make is more easy for us to think that we can “have” or “use” the things around us. As we try to “make use of” the material things surrounding us to increase our power and comfort, we become completely ignorant of the more powerful and uncontrollable spiritual qualities that are internal to these things. We utilize material things without realizing the spiritual death that we are bringing upon ourselves. We are like orcs chopping down trees while heedless of the ents.
Walter Wink’s book Naming the Powers does an excellent job of unpacking the old idea of heavenly or spiritual realities being “within” all earthly or material realities. Although recommending the book highly, I am critical of his implication that the “internal” metaphor can be an almost complete explanatory category. Heavenly and spiritual realities are neither “above” or “within” in any complete or literal sense. Wink would agree with this, but his ideas rely heavily on the “‘withinness” of all spiritual realities.
One more way that we moderns have demystified the world is by splitting the world into material and spiritual realities that do not have any vital need to coexist. In the ancient mind, heaven and earth depended upon each other in a wide variety of complex ways. The spatial metaphor of “above” did teach that heavenly realities were more meaningful, substantial, or vital (“higher” in some sense). However, this idea of heaven being above the earth did not mean that heaven is in any sense distant from the earth. Heaven was always understood to be close at hand. We are in both heaven and earth at the same time every day, and heaven only becomes distant as a result of our own blindness and sin. Paul and other New Testament writers talk repeatedly about us being seated in heaven and carrying out vital activities in heaven at the same time as we are on the earth. We are clearly understood to be in both places. However, the heavenly Jerusalem still needs to “come down to earth” and be married to the earth in a wedding celebration that will heal the rift that has opened between heaven and earth as a result of our human rebellion and blindness:
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man.” [Revelation 21:1-3a]
Earthly and heavenly realities are created to be complementary (as are material and spiritual realities by extension). Each aspect of the world offers something to the other. Earthly things are good and offer to us a relationship or contact point with heavenly things. Likewise, heavenly things are good and can show us the true nature and value of earthly things. As embodied creatures, our communion with heaven is clearly intended to be mediated by a right relationship with the material world (understood as the good and revelatory gift of God that it always is).
To regain contact with reality as a marriage of both the earthly and the heavenly, we must go back into the history of terms such as “body” and “soul” or “spirit” and “matter.” There are well over a thousand years of profound Christian writings (and even more importantly, practices) regarding a whole host of terms about our human abilities and parts. As just a few examples: heart, spirit, soul, body, strength, will, passions, flesh, and nous (“understanding” is a good translation, but we generally just don’t get this term today). Of course, these terms are all rich Greek and New Testament concepts, several with deep Hebrew roots as well. Regaining the good use of these (and several other such terms) should start with word studies, and these words have very physical (enfleshed) roots, particularly in Hebrew. Word studies are not abstractions, because language is always grounded in concrete metaphors from the bodily experiences of human persons. “Spirit,” for example is “breath” or “wind” in Hebrew, which is both remarkably tangible but also impossible to fully see or constrain.
To get at what “spiritual” and “heavenly” mean, it is critical to keep both the earthy word origins as well as the earthly target clearly in view. As the Lord’s prayer says: “on earth as it is in heaven.” As humans, our wholeness is primary, and we cannot separate any part of ourselves fully out from the rest of us or place any part of ourselves into competition with other parts. Ultimately, our spirit, soul and body are mutually dependant entities, and we must start with our bodily experiences as the basis of our spiritual lives.
Another fact that keeps the study of these terms profoundly practical and embodied (vs. abstract or theoretical), is that all of these terms were first developed and debated in the context of learning to worship and pray (by Jews and later by Christians). We don’t realize today that virtually all arguments over the technicalities of terms such as “will” or “nous” or over the human nature of Christ (as well as over trinitarian doctrines and the hypostatic union of Christ’s divine and human natures) were grounded in the daily practices of worship and prayer. Christ prayed “not my will but your will be done,” and Maximus the Confessor had his tongue ripped out and his right hand cut off because he insisted that Christ had a fully human will. Maximus was a scholar, but his scholarship was grounded in practices of prayer that imitated Christ’s prayer in Gethsemane as well as practices that relied upon Christ’s restoration of our human will to freely cooperate with the will of God. The emperor who ordered that Maximus to be rendered incapable of speaking and writing was actually the one obsessed with pure abstractions. He was intellectually offended at the idea of Christ having a human will. Maximus, however, was motivated by his own experiences of prayer and of striving to be unified with God’s will.
From my little reading in the monastic traditions (desert fathers and mothers), it seems that “nous” and “passions” are the two most seriously lost or misunderstood terms. I won’t try to write about “nous” other than to say that I think it has something to do with having our perceptions wide open to God’s presence. My focus hear, however, is the interrelationship of seeming dualities such as matter and spirit or body and soul. In this context I will say more about the passions, but first I must back up to talk about our bodies.
Monastics systematically subdued and trained their bodies in order to regain their bodies as an essential and powerful means for communion with their loving Creator. They loved their bodies and wanted their bodies back from the tyranny of the passions, and that is why they pushed their bodies to the point of ruination. A weak body that worked powerfully as a mediator and conduit of God’s presence in all of the created world (the original purpose of our bodies) was far more healthy and delightful than a strong body that was enslaved and insensible to God’s presence.
Saints bodies are precious to themselves and likewise precious to those who love the saint. Christ’s body, even dead, was precious to the myrrh-bearing women. Christ’s body, even dead, was a means of God’s presence and communion with us. This is why the Orthodox still treasure and honor the bodies and even the cloths of saints. Elijah’s mantle carried his holiness, and Elisha’s ancient bones brought a dead man to life. Even since God’s Spirit brooded like a mother bird over the surface of the primordial waters and ever since this Spirit indwelt the clay of our first parents, this Spirit has been deeply involved with material things. Our human bodies both make manifest God’s presence (as does all matter) and also bring that presence to us via all five senses.
Paul seems to use “flesh” to denote the desire for things other than God. “Fleshly” and “worldly” vs. “heavenly” in Paul’s writings are not actually about material vs. immaterial. Platonists and Gnostics despised material things. In Plato’s cave, the shadow world had to be left far behind. This is not the Christian message. God’s material creation is good, and it is a powerful tool for communion with God. Paul’s terms “flesh” and “world” do not denigrate the human body or the material world. “Fleshly” and “heavenly” indicate purposes or orientations (specifically, realms of power and authority), with the same good material things being subject to different purposes and powers. Material things are “heavenly” insofar as we allow them to mediate God’s presence and God’s communion with us. These same material things are “fleshly” or “worldly” insofar as we abuse them to serve as distractions, alternatives, or barriers to God’s presence with us.
In a similar way, “passions” (within the writings of the monastics) were not simply strong feelings or bodily desires. This term, again, has to do with orientation or purpose. Within a long and profoundly practical tradition of writing and teaching about Christian prayer, the “passions” came to mean all of the habitual needs and desires that we develop for anything other than God. Feelings that do not control us or draw us away from God are not evil. However, we tend to need much work to learn to desire God, and our strong desires are often cruel taskmasters that work against our ability to love and long after God. Death is sometimes called the greatest passion because all of our desires for things other than God lead naturally to death. Christ’s death is also called his passion. In a remarkable reversal, St. Maximus the Confessor argues that Christ turned death from the most powerful weapon against our human natures (threatening to destroy them) into our most powerful weapon against sin (setting free our human natures). Christ made our passions and death itself a means of our salvation.
At this point, I want to close with a series of reflections that draw primarily on my personal experience. I find that it is delightful and profoundly comforting to be able to recognize and respond throughout my day to Christ’s presence with us in human history—to be able to enjoy (with my own body) the material results (or relics) of his incarnation as a man among us. What I mean is to be able to venerate his image, his cross, the bodies of his ministers and saints, the chalice from which I receive his body and blood. The Seventh Ecumenical Council restored the use of icons to the church after sophisticated thinkers (who wanted to make Christianity as spiritually and philosophically tidy and impressive as Islam) had taken the icons away.
St. John of Damascus wrote beautifully in defense of icons. Adam and Eve were the first icons (same word as images and idols) of God, and God told humans not to make any images of God because God did not want humans to replace themselves as the image of God. The tabernacle and temple were full of images. However, the mercy seat appeared empty (although filled with the fire and cloud of Spirit glory at key times), and the priest was the primary image or mediator of God’s presence. With Jesus Christ, the image of God in humanity is perfectly restored, and all images of the human Jesus Christ are images of God. Jesus Christ brings together the glory-cloud and the priest at His transfiguration. Also, all images of Christ’s saints are primarily icons of Jesus (including his living icons—us the church militant).
Now that Christ has come to live a perfect life among us, participating fully in our material existence, the only way to combat idolatry is to reverence, cherish, kiss, and adore every material thing that points to Jesus Christ (which turns out to be just about every single particle of matter that surrounds us). The only way to learn to worship the true God is to venerate all of the icons, images, and holy object that have been taken up into the celebration and worship of Jesus Christ over the thousands of years since his life among us. I love the line from Winks book: “We discover our body as ‘temple’ by going to a temple.” I would add that we also discover all of creation as a temple (it’s clear purpose throughout the Bible).
Here’s a little from St. John of Damascus (7th century):
I honor all matter, and venerate it. Through it, filled, as it were, with a divine power and grace, my salvation has come to me. Was the three-times happy and blessed wood of the Cross not matter? Was the sacred and holy mountain of Calvary not matter? What of the life-giving rock, the Holy Tomb, the source of our resurrection — was it not matter? Is the holy book of the Gospels not matter? Is the blessed table which gives us the Bread of Life not matter? Are the gold and silver, out of which crosses and altar-plate and chalices are made not matter? And before all these things, is not the body and blood of our Lord matter? Either stop venerating all these things, or submit to the tradition of the Church in the venerating of images, honoring God and his friends, and following in this the grace of the Holy Spirit. Do not despise matter, for it is not despicable. Nothing that God has made is. Only that which does not come from God is despicable — our own invention, the spontaneous decision to disregard the law of human nature, i.e., sin.
Even when we can’t see or feel it, we are blessed by having any small sign of Christ’s presence tangibly offered to us. Here is an extract from The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (a short scene described from memory by Prince Myshkin, the title character, when he is pressed to suggest a subject for a painting):
There is a ladder to the scaffold. Suddenly at the foot of the ladder he began to cry, and he was a strong, manly fellow; he had been a great criminal, I was told. The priest never left him for a moment; he drove with him in the cart and talked with him all the while. I doubt whether he heard; he might have begun listening but not have understood more than two words. So it must have been. At last he began going up the ladder; his legs were fettered so that he could move with only short steps. The priest, who must have been an intelligent man, left off speaking and only gave him the cross to kiss. At the foot of the ladder he was very pale, and when he was at the top and standing on the scaffold, he became as white as paper, as white as writing paper. His legs must have grown weak and wooden, and I expect he felt sick as though something were choking him and that made a sort of tickling in his throat. Have you ever felt that when you were frightened, or in awful moments when all your reason is left, but it has no power? I think that if one is faced by inevitable destruction—if a house is falling upon you, for instance—one must feel a great longing to sit down, close one’s eyes and wait, come what may…When that weakness was beginning, the priest with a rapid movement hastily put the cross to his lips—a little plain silver cross—he kept putting it to his lips every minute. And every time the cross touched his lips, he opened his eyes and seemed for a few seconds to come to life again, and his legs moved. He kissed the cross greedily; he made haste to kiss, as though in haste not to forget to provide himself with something in case of need; but I doubt whether he had any religious feeling at the time. And so it was till he was laid on the plank…It’s strange that people rarely faint at these last moments. On the contrary, the brain is extraordinarily lively and must be working at a tremendous rate—at a tremendous rate, like a machine at full speed. I fancy that there is a continual throbbing of ideas of all sorts, always unfinished and perhaps absurd too, quite irrelevant ideas—‘That man is looking at me. He has a wart on his forehead. One of the executioner’s buttons is rusty.’—and yet all the while one knows and remembers everything. There is one point which can never be forgotten, and one can’t faint, and everything moves and turns about it, about that point. And only think that it must be like that up to the last quarter of a second, when his head lies on the block and he waits and…knows, and suddenly hears above him the clang of the iron! He must hear that! If I were lying there, I should listen on purpose and hear. It may last only the tenth part of a second, but one would be sure to hear it. And only fancy, it’s still disputed whether, when the head is cut off, it knows for a second after that it has been cut off! What a thought! And what if it knows it for five seconds!
Paint the scaffold so that only the last step can be distinctly seen in the foreground and the criminal having just stepped on it; his head, his face as white as paper; the priest holding up the cross, the man greedily putting forward his blue lips and looking—and aware of everything. The cross and the head—that’s the picture. The priest’s face and the executioner’s, his two attendants and a few heads and eyes below might be painted in the background, in half light, as the setting…That’s the picture!
Since reading this passage, my life now maps in many ways to this prisoner on the way to the executioner’s block. I’m offered the little cross to kiss (in daily and weekly prayers and sacraments), and I’m recalled to life long enough to take one more step, to get up and move forward for one more day or week or minute. Although, in day-to-day living, I am only occasionally aware of my needs to this extent.
To close with a few images that resonate more regularly in day-to-day life, Saint Macarius (4th century) describes the human heart this way:
Within the heart are unfathomable depths. . . . It is but a small vessel: and yet dragons and lions are there, and there poisonous creatures and all the treasures of wickedness; rough, uneven paths are there, and gaping chasms. There likewise is God, there are the angels, there life and the Kingdom, there light and the Apostles, the heavenly cities and the treasures of grace: all things are there. [The Fifty Spiritual Homilies, Homily 15.32]
Outside of ourselves, Chesterton has lovely passages about our “cosy little cosmos,” and how it should feel like a warm and welcoming home (rather than a vast and uninhabitable universe). Chesterton captures the idea of the whole material cosmos as conveying the presence of our Creator and Father in heaven. Gerard Manley Hopkins also does this remarkably in many of his poems (for example, when he describes the stars as our glimpse into the home of “Christ and his mother and all his hallows“). Finally, I’m reminded of Robert Kirk’s claim (in The Secret Commonwealth) that there is “no place nor creature but is supposed to have other animals (greater or lesser) living in or upon it as inhabitants; and no such thing as a pure wilderness in the whole universe.” Taken together, these images of the universe from Chesterton, Hopkins, and Kirk suggest that the physical sciences of astronomy and atomic physics are both exploring the domains of human and angelic life. Madeline L’Engle is another author who makes this point that microscopes and telescopes both point into the realm of heavenly powers. This is the entire premise of A Wind in the Door, and Meg’s battle cry at the end of that story captures much of this:
Be caterpillar and comet,
be porcupine and planet,
sea sand and solar system,
sing with us,
dance with us,
rejoice with us,
for the glory of creation,
sea gulls and seraphim,
angle worms and angel host,
chrysanthemum and cherubim
Sing for the glory
of the living and the loving
the ﬂaming of creation
Even Disney Studios has given it’s own voice to this ancient understanding of our entire cosmos as the home of us and our ancestors:
Pumbaa: Timon, ever wonder what those sparkly dots are up there?
Timon: Pumbaa, I don’t wonder; I know.
Pumbaa: Oh. What are they?
Timon: They’re fireflies. Fireflies that, uh… got stuck up on that big bluish-black thing.
Pumbaa: Oh. Gee. I always thought that they were balls of gas burning billions of miles away.
Timon: Pumbaa, wit’ you, everything’s gas.
Pumbaa: Simba, what do you think?
Simba: Well, I don’t know…
Pumbaa: Aw come on. Give, give, give… Well, come on, Simba, we told you ours… pleeeease?
Simba: …Well, somebody once told me that the great kings of the past are up there, watching over us.
Timon: You mean a bunch of royal dead guys are watching us?
Pumbaa: Who told you something like that?
Timon: What mook made that up?
Simba: Yeah. Pretty dumb, huh?
There are no one-to-one corollaries between the material and the heavenly realms. The connections between “earthy things” and “ethereal things” work like language—like metaphors and the etymologies of words—with multiple clusters of association and with rooted histories branching back into the past. Scientific knowledge is wonderful. However, when we think of knowledge as the exploration of how matter and energy interact (or any other reductions), we impoverish our understanding of the world that we seek to know. True knowledge is always a form of love. The starting point, therefore, is simply to honor all matter—from galaxies to nuclei—to love both their stories and their structures as beautiful and mysterious revelations.
We must regain ways of seeing and talking aboutGod (and all of God’s creatures) within all of Creation. This is simply learning to “pray without ceasing” during every type of work throughout our daily lives. This means learning to have a different consciousness of the physical world and of our own bodies. Our modern lives do not teach us this. Ancient prayer practices did teach this greater consciousness of ourselves and our surroundings. In addition, all of the natural processes of maturation and suffering (such as losing a loved one) still do teach us these ways of understanding. We simply have many distractions in our current ways of living. We have to move slowly but deliberately to recover these older ways of seeing.
When Christ ascended to heaven to be hidden behind a cloud (and enthroned beside God the Father in glory until his return), Christ was hidden from view like the sun—just veiled by the clouds. Many ancient hymns draw close parallels between Christ and the sun (reigning victorious from heaven and giving light to all). I often tell my children that Jesus is not far away. Although he has a glorified body in heaven that we cannot see, I emphasized that his heavenly body is “as close as the sun.” It is just hidden by clouds for now, not immediately visible but close at hand, still indirectly seen and felt. I also remind my children that the body and blood of Jesus are given to us in the chalice from the altar—as food and drink that we take into our bodies. We know Jesus Christ through many different things and in many different ways, including this sunlight and this bread and wine. His closeness to us is profound.
Note: here are two books that I felt were particularly helpful to me with some of this a few years ago:
The Spirit of Early Christian Thought: Seeking the Face of God by Robert Louis Wilken.
Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation by James K.A. Smith.
I’m also drawing (very ineptly) upon my understandings of many other writers such as G.K. Chesterton, C.S. Lewis, David Bentley Hart, and Fr. Stephen Freeman.
The moon looks wonderful in this warm evening light, just as a candle flame looks beautiful in the light of morning. Light within light. It seems like a metaphor for something. So much does. Ralph Waldo Emerson is excellent on this point.
It seems to me to be a metaphor for the human soul, the singular light within the great general light of existence. Or it seems like poetry within language. Perhaps wisdom within experience. Or marriage within friendship and love.
A NOISELESS, patient spider,
I mark’d, where, on a little promontory, it stood, isolated;
Mark’d how, to explore the vacant, vast surrounding,
It launch’d forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself;
Ever unreeling them—ever tirelessly speeding them.
And you, O my Soul, where you stand,
Surrounded, surrounded, in measureless oceans of space,
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing,—seeking the spheres, to connect them;
Till the bridge you will need, be form’d—till the ductile anchor hold;
Till the gossamer thread you fling, catch somewhere, O my Soul.
The arts are not a way of making a living. They are a very human way of making life more bearable. Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven’s sake. Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you possibly can. You will get an enormous reward. You will have created something.
From A Man Without a Country (2005) by Kurt Vonnegut.