Archive for October 26th, 2006

The Icon as Proof of God’s Existence

October 26, 2006


God “adorns himself in magnificence and clothes himself with beauty.” Man stands amazed and contemplates the glory whose light causes a hymn of praise to burst forth from the heart of every creature. The Testamentum Domini gives us the following prayer: “Let them be filled with the Holy Spirit…so they can sing a doxology and give you praise and glory forever.” An icon is the same kind of doxology but in a different form. It radiates joy and sings the glory of God in its own way. True beauty does not need proof. The icon does not prove anything; it simply lets true beauty shine forth. In itself, the icon is shining proof of God’s existence, according to a “kalokagathic” argument.

Paul Evdokimov in The Art of the Icon


“Kalokagathic” – what a wonderful word! It’s is a Greek coinage, combining the word for beautiful(kalos) and the word for good (agathos). To see an icon is so very far removed from viewing an art object. First off, an icon is never an object. Faces in an icon are never in profile, but look at us face to face. To rightly see an icon is to see it in relationship, that is, to see it personally. And the person whom we see is not the wood and paint, but the one whom the image on the wood and paint represents. It is this encounter that makes it possible to speak of an iconographic proof of the existence of God. I know there is a God because I have seen His image.

In the most perfect sense of this understanding, Christ is the proof of the Father’s existence, because He is the “image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15). Thus Christ is the visible of the invisible. “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father,” (John 14:9).

It is also true that man is created in the image and likeness of God – though only in Christ, the perfect man (and perfect God), is the image and likeness truly realized. But Christ Himself extends the image – gathering into Himself, “the least of these my brethren” (Matthew 25:40). Thus every human being offers the opportunity of an encounter with God – if we have the eyes to see. Every human being is proof, poor though it may be, of the existence of God.

Pavel Florensky in his wonderful book Iconostasis, says that “Rublev’s icon of the Holy Trinity exists, therefore God exists.” The first time I read the statement I was brought up short. It took time to see what he meant and to see that it was true. A couple of years later one of my daughters was visiting Moscow. She sent a postcard say, “I have seen Rublev’s Trinity. It’s true.” What a marvelous witness!

The Descent into Hades

October 26, 2006


Charles Williams, one of C.S. Lewis’ circle of friends, once wrote a book entitled, The Descent into Hell. In it he chronicles the slow inexorable damnation of a soul. Choices made or not made – a chronicle more of spiritual ennui than of willful rebellion – it is a very sobering novel.

There is an understanding of hell that goes far beyond the typical lake of fire and burning Gehenna. Those images, though Biblical, frequently do not speak to the full existential character of hell. Thus it becomes something of a commonplace in our time to think of hell much like heaven – just one of the alternatives we face in life after death. Neither are considered alternatives within the present or having anything to do with daily life other than as eventual consequences.

This is a tragedy, both for its failure to give a more compelling account of the “nowness” of the Kingdom of God (which Christ certainly preached – Luke 17:21), and for its frequent caricature of hell which falls far short of describing the emptiness of humanity apart from God.

The Orthodox faith, particularly in its liturgical cycle, makes much of the descent of Christ into Hades. The service on Holy Saturday is very much about this descent noting that the victory of Christ over death and hell, begins first in hell (I am using “hell” and “hades” interchangeably at this point – a common practice within Church language).

The closest thing to a definition of hell given in Scripture is not the imagery of burning gehenna, but in a statement Christ makes in the Gospel of John. “This is condemnation, that Light has come into the world, and men preferred darkness to the Light” (John 3:19). This image is, for me, far more poignant than the lake of fire and such. The weakness found in the frightening, graphic imagery of the fire, gnashing of teeth, etc., are their passive character. It is easily translated into something that is done to us. It might even imply that one would have wanted things to be different.

The verse in John implies just the opposite – hell (condemnation) is what it is – only because we want it so. As a priest this portrayal of condemnation has been by far the most helpful approach in dealing pastorally with people. It is not the threat of what someone (God) may do to them, but the existential reality of what you are doing to yourself – even now.

For some, thinking about hell as a choice sounds absurd. They reason within themselves, “Who would willingly choose hell?” I think to myself, “Plenty of people – I meet them all the time and sometimes I am one of them.”

In the gospel the story of the rich young ruler is the story of someone who meets Christ, is loved by Christ, and is invited into the intimacy of discipleship by Christ himself! The cost, however, is everything he owns. And we are told he went away sad because he was rich. He went away sad, but he went away. Human beings frequently choose something other than God – even though it makes them sad – because they love darkness more than they love the light.

That is the story of our descent into Hell. It is a movement away from God, away from the light and a descent into darkness, alienation, and self-love. It is a hell that infects our hearts even in the present and has the potential for becoming the very definition of the state of our souls beyond the grave.

But this is where the liturgical celebration of Christ’s descent into hell becomes particularly joyful. The love of God is such that He entered into hell – into the depths of darkness where we had plunged ourselves. “The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light,” refers not only to the Gentiles who can now hear the gospel, but to those souls in Hades who behold the Light of Christ in the midst of that great darkness.

“Hell was embittered!” is the refrain in St. John Chrysostom’s Paschal homily. The darkness did not want to give up its captives.

St. Silouan of Mt. Athos (+1938) heard from God, “Keep your mind in hell and despair not.” It ranks among the most peculiar sayings in the lives of any of the saints. For him it meant that he was to enter into the despair and darkness of others, in prayer, but not to despair himself. He was to pray for the world as though we were responsible for the sins of all. He was, like Christ, to follow love to its complete conclusion and extend his love to the uttermost. This is the love that we see on the Cross – the love of God that reaches even to the depths of hell.

If we are not bound by forensic imagery, but instead understand heaven and hell as the state of the soul before God, then we can see far more clearly the extent of the love of God. “Lo, if I make my bed in hell, Thou art there” (Psalm 139:8). It also is the measure of the love that is expected of us. Thus we are commanded to forgive even our enemies.

On a day to day basis we are called to descend into the darkness of those about us and pray. We should pray for Light, for forgiveness for grace to do whatever mysterious work it does in creating a clean heart. To follow the path of Christ always leads us to the Cross – but we should see that the Cross stands firmly in the midst of man’s darkness. Glory to God who has shown us the Light!


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