Why did God allow for the striking-down of people in the Old Testament? How is this reconciled with the dogma of a loving God?
Protestants and modern-day “Jews” don’t have an answer for this — one beyond dualism or “mystery”, I mean. But the Church does.
There is mortal sin, and there is venial sin (1 John 5:17). Mortal sin — willful and of grave nature — separates one from God, practically killing the soul. Venial sin — all other — must simply be cleansed, and it does not eternally separate us from Him. And this distinction is shown in the Old Testament.
Among mortal sins punished: irreverence (2 Samuel 6:1-7), despair/disbelief (Numbers 11:1-3), and false claims of authority (Numbers 16). These crimes have always been condemned.
Why did punishment change from body-centric to soul-centric? First, it didn’t, because unrighteous people were also kept from entering the Limbo of the Patriarchs, which, after Christ’s Sacrifice, later led to Heaven. Second, temporal punishment was the only way to get at the Jews’ consciences: As liberal scholars love to point out, the majority of Jews did not believe in an afterlife!
God does not desire death, though it can be used to give us the best chance at salvation (2 Peter 3). (I think here of St. Rita and her sons.) Even in the old days, He merely wanted a contrite heart (Psalm 51:17), and He wanted devotion.
There is no change in principle: God is immutable.
The Church is my greatest weight. Of course, the weight of over a billion souls would likely be rather large, especially post-McDonald’s, so I suppose that nothing else is really comparable.
What does this mean? In an age of moral relativism, instability, and self-gratification, much like the age of the Roman Empire prior to its Christian conversion, I found myself alone and empty after a scarring experience. So, I sought the counsel of philosophy and history – surely, men had answered my questions before! – and I was, after seemingly endless struggles with myself and others, eventually comforted. The Church became vindicated in my heart.
The more I study, the more I am forced to accept Catholicism as the true Faith. The depth and size of it, as well as its impacts on culture, force any serious student to step back and pay at least a bit of attention. It took me a while to overcome my initial ambivalence toward any religion in particular – though I was always appreciative of God and enamored with the subject in general – but once I had crossed the proverbial Tiber, there was no going back.
I was baptized Catholic, and I vaguely recall some crossing with holy water and lighting prayer candles, but I was hardly raised to practice the Faith. In high school, I dug into a box of things from my infancy. I spotted a rosary within it, along with a note saying that it belonged to my great-grandmother. I mentioned it to a Catholic friend, and he gave me some information about it. That set of events started the arduous process of reconciliation.
Later, at the urging of the aforementioned friend, I casually flipped through the writings of the Church Fathers (prominent ancient Christian leaders). I quickly became impressed. I only did this, originally, to assuage my ego. I had made a theological speculation, and he answered me with, “Well, did the early Christians believe that?” I did not know. Anyway, he was right, and I was wrong.
My advice for anyone that wishes to be a Protestant is to avoid the Church Fathers like one would avoid a plague. I once remarked to a professor that introducing the former to the latter is like shaking a baby: it might teach them a lesson, but it also might kill them.
In my search for the Truth (capital ‘T’ intended), I asked a long series of questions.
On the Magisterium (teaching authority) of the Church, I asked: Does God still reveal things to us, or does His message end with the Bible? What would He reveal things through?
The idea that God arbitrarily ended His message with the Bible and deliberately chose to allow confusion over doctrine became untenable to me, especially in light of verses like Deuteronomy 31:6 (He will never leave us) and John 17:11 (He requests Christian unity). The Protestant position on this (Sola Scriptura) then made little sense. How could that idea, unprecedented before the Renaissance and ungrounded in Tradition or common sense, be true? I have found no sensible argument in favor of it.
What would His mouthpiece be, though? His Bride (Mark 2:18-20), the Church, of course! As a wife understands the workings of her husband, so does the Church understand Christ. From there, how is She structured? This is where apostolic succession (the lineage of bishops from the time of the Apostles to the present) comes in. Bishops are given special power (Luke 21:15) – which even Simon Magus knew was handed down (Acts 8:18-19) – after the laying on of hands (1 Timothy 4:14; 2 Timothy 1:6) in their consecration ceremonies. They can trace themselves back to the very beginning of Christianity. All of this “clicked” in my head when I first read these words from St. Ignatius of Antioch: “See that you all follow the bishop, even as Jesus Christ does the Father, and the presbytery as you would the apostles; and reverence the deacons, as being the institution of God. Let no man do anything connected with the Church without the bishop.”
Now, who leads it? This is answered by Matthew 16:18, the famous verse, which helped me grasp that Christ built His Church on Peter (aka Cephas), the faithful “rock” (Greek, Aramaic). It’s a parallel to the story of Eliakim (Isaiah 22:20-22), who represented his king. St. Peter, called by Christ to “feed [His] sheep” (John 21:17), likewise represented his King. Some in the historical-critical movement have, naturally, raised objections to St. Peter’s primacy. But even agnostic Protestant historian John Julius Norwich wrote of the pope, “It seems more likely than not that St. Peter did in fact come to Rome and was martyred there, probably somewhere on the Vatican Hill…[and] there can be little doubt that he was the generally acknowledged leader of Christ’s disciples.” Whenever I doubt, I latch on to this information: the historical basis for the Papacy is rock-solid.
My goal is to increase the powers and jurisdiction of this great entity to the fullest capacity, because I recognize the impact that She has had and can have on the world. Documents like Humanae Vitae and Evangelium Vitae urge respect for the sanctity of life, Rerum Novarum and Quadragesimo Anno offer economic principles rooted in good morals, and so on. If only humanity would follow the path that the Church has set forth! This temporal aspect, even by itself, is enough to drive me, despite how burdensome this desire can be.
In conclusion, I will leave the reader with a quote from G. K. Chesterton. “The difficulty of explaining ‘why I am a Catholic’ is that there are ten thousand reasons all amounting to one reason: that Catholicism is true.”
For Protestantism to make much sense, the Church must have, at some point, abandoned the truth and become apostate. Otherwise, Protestantism has no license to exist. But when was this “Great Apostasy”? Protestants offer varying opinions, but none of them hold up to scrutiny.
Was it right after the deaths of the Apostles?
A view most supported by Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses is that, after the Apostles, the Church quickly fell into apostasy. This would be a massive blow at both God’s promise to guard His Church (Joshua 1:5; Matthew 16:18) and all of the doctrine mentioned hereafter. But if this were true, would not one of the disciples of the Apostles have spoken out? We have writings from many of them, including Pope St. Clement I, St. Barnabas, St. Polycarp, and St. Ignatius of Antioch. None of them mention a “Great Apostasy”. But even if we indulge the other side and admit the possibility that even these men fell away, we still have early documents and creeds (like the Didache) that were probably formulated under the authority of the Apostles. Because Christians continued to be in accord with these extra-Biblical teachings, we know that they must have been in accord with the true Church.
Was it at the time of Constantine?
A semi-popular view is that Constantine corrupted Christianity by encouraging “pagan” elements and demanding a decision from the First Council of Nicaea. This is the view that I come into contact with most often, but it is also the most problematic. If the Church became apostate by 337 (the year of Constantine’s death), then the Biblical canon – which only really started to be compiled by St. Athanasius in 367 – may be wrong: we would have no assurance of its infallibility. Also, on top of that, all later theology would be necessarily nulled.
Was it during the Middle Ages?
The possibility of an apostasy in Medieval times seems far-fetched, too. This theory revolves, primarily, around hatred for some “bad” popes. Rather than focusing on doctrinal issues, proponents of this theory typically resort to character defamation. Many attack the Crusades, which tamed a fanatic Islam, and such. But in this period, literacy rates increased, art flourished, the university system developed, laws were better-codified, and the Bible became more accessible to lay people [1, 2]. The only seemingly objectionable doctrinal development was Pope Boniface VIII’s declaration, “Outside of the Church, there is neither salvation nor the remission of sins”, but even this originates with St. Cyprian! The teaching relates to: 1) the fact that baptism (whether by water, blood, or desire) brings one into the Church (even if done within a Protestant community), because the sacrament was entrusted to Her and She allows anyone with the right intent to perform it, and 2) the importance of conscience and the dangers of apostasy. Nothing worthy of damnation here!
Was it just before the “Reformation”?
The idea of a “restoration” being needed just before the “Reformation” also seems improbable. This common idea is based on the “selling” of indulgences [1, 2, 3] (Martin Luther attacks the practice multiple times in his Ninety-Five Theses), but is mostly due to a misunderstanding. Again, the Protestant understanding usually relies on the assault of characters: people like Johann Tetzel are demonized — perhaps rightfully — for abusing the system. But this abuse was not a doctrinal problem of the Church; rather, it was a disciplinary problem of men. Indulgences simply remove the temporal punishment due for past sin — they are not a “Get out of Hell free” card — and even when they were “sold,” they required some sort of penance. Indulgences only have a salvatory effectiveness (remittance of time in Purgatory) if the recipient is already destined for Heaven. So, it would seem that the fuss is all about nothing.
In conclusion, I see none of these options as likely.
Protestants claim that Confession (aka the Sacrament of Reconciliation) is unnecessary, but that claim totally contradicts the Word of God.
Kevin M. Tierney wrote at Catholic Lane:
When one repents of their sins in the Bible, it is always done to another individual.
The clearest case of this is with David after he commits adultery and arranges the murder of the woman’s husband. David only repents of his sin once God’s representative Nathan confronts him. (2 Samuel 12:1-13) David knew he had sinned grievously in his adultery, otherwise he would not have had Uriah killed to conceal his crime. Even knowing the extent of his guilt, he refused to repent. This speaks to the human psyche’s ability to rationalize away what they do so that it is no longer a sin. This is a skill humanity has nearly perfected in today’s age.
Another thing worth considering is how professing something vocally changes things. It is very easy to say something silently with no witnesses. It is something altogether different when you have to acknowledge your faults before another. One could say it becomes a far more serious endeavor when you are not only willing to renounce your sins, but renounce them forcefully out loud. The first step on the road to repentance requires you to renounce those sins. While it possible to fake such, it becomes far harder to do so. (It goes without saying that such a faked confession would be a sacrilege, and compound sin upon sin!)
Whenever I hear Protestants say that confessing sins to a priest is wrong, I am reminded of Luke 5:21, in which the Pharisees say that only God can forgive sins, and doubt Christ’s ability to do so. They are so blinded by their ideology that they can not recognize that God (Christ is God in human form, both fully human and fully divine) is before them.
Am I brazen enough to compare priests to Christ? In a way, yes, because priests serve in persona Christi (a Latin phrase, meaning “in the person of Christ”).
In John 20, Christ clearly gives the Apostles the power to forgive sins.
“And when He had said this, He breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, their sins have been forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they have been retained.’” – John 20:22-23 (NASB)
From there, the Apostles passed down their “powers” through apostolic succession (a topic I plan on writing about in the future). Those “powers” are possessed by our bishops and priests today.
So, like Devin Rose asked, would you have confessed your sins to an Apostle? If not, you contradict Christ. And, if you would have confessed your sins to an Apostle, it only makes sense that you would confess your sins to a priest.
My first confession was the week before I entered the Church. I was so nervous, but I tried to be prepared: I had done an examination of my conscience and had printed out a version of the standard Act of Contrition. I was ready, or at least, I thought I was. But there was just something unexplainable about that few minutes. I truly felt like I was speaking with God. Like Laban felt with Jacob in Genesis 30:27, I felt that God blessed me, forgave me, and transformed me through His priest.
That is why the Church teaches that Catholics should confess at least once a year (the saintly Cardinal Arinze commented on that here). The Sacrament of Reconciliation is an amazing gift from God, so we should utilize it.
There is nothing wrong with asking the heavenly saints to pray for us.
Many Protestants argue that asking the saints to pray for us is “unbiblical,” while throwing around verses like 1 Timothy 2:5. But they are incorrect.
1 Timothy 2:5 — the infamous “one mediator between God and men” verse — refers to salvation, not prayer. The verse reminds us that it is only because of the graces found through Christ (God Himself) that we are able to have any real relationship with God and reach Heaven. It does not, however, absolutely negate relations with angels or heavenly saints. After all, it was an angel (Gabriel) that spoke to Mary before Christ was conceived in her body, not God Himself.
I was raised in several Protestant denominations. They all placed a major emphasis on Christians praying for each other — which is encouraged in 1 Timothy 2:1-4 and other passages. I would contend that a heavenly saint, one who is holy and in Heaven with God, would have a lot more sway with God than a rebellious sinner on Earth would.
To put that another way, if someone asked you to do something for them, would you not be more likely to help them if they were your best friend, as opposed to a complete stranger? Of course, you may very well be willing to do something for a complete stranger, but you would probably be more willing to do something for your best friend.
And there is evidence in the Bible of the saints praying to God.
“Another angel came and stood at the altar, holding a golden censer; and much incense was given to him, so that he might add it to the prayers of all the saints on the golden altar which was before the throne. And the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, went up before God out of the angel’s hand.” – Revelation 8:3-4
The word for “saints” in that passage comes from the Greek word hagios. Thayer’s New Testament Greek-English Lexicon says that the best definition of hagios is “most holy thing, a saint”. This would seem to undermine the Protestant assertion that “saints” in this context can only refer to people on earth.
Now, what would the saints be praying for? Themselves? Doubtful. They are in Heaven, so they do not need anything, as eternal life with God is perfect. That really only leaves one option: they are praying for us. And because they are praying for us anyway, how could it be wrong to ask them to pray for us about something specific? It is like interacting with a DJ at an event. He’s playing music anyway, so what is the harm in asking him to play your favorite song?
Here’s my Scripture-based defense of the practice that should answer most Protestant objections:
Matthew 17:3-4 & Luke 9:28-31.
Moses and Elijah (who are clearly heavenly saints, not “saints” in the way Paul would sometimes use the word) are with Christ during the Transfiguration.
The martyrs can talk to God.
From those three passages, we can gather that the saints in Heaven interact with God.
The angels and saints (who, in Luke 20:35-36, Christ says are equal to the angels) are aware of earthly events.
1 Timothy 2:1 & James 5:16.
It is good for Christians to pray for one another.
Now, if the saints interact with God and are aware of earthly events (and can therefore hear us), why wouldn’t they pray for us, considering that it is good for Christians (which the angels and saints definitely are) to pray for one another?
Nothing imperfect will enter into Heaven.
Psalm 66:18 & James 5:16.
God ignores the prayers of the wicked, and the prayers of the righteous are effective.
Because the saints have reached perfection (they are in Heaven), their prayers are more effective than the prayers of those that are less righteous, so that’s why one might ask them to pray instead of asking another Christian on earth or simply doing it themselves.
When I was contemplating converting to Catholicism, one of the biggest factors in my decision was, as silly as this may sound, this clip of the Litany of the Saints being prayed (in Latin!) before the 2005 Conclave:
I was so in awe of the sheer beauty of the procession and the Litany itself. The clip opened my eyes to the glorious splendor that is found only in the Church.
I have asked many saints to pray for me, but my most profound experience was before my conversion, when I — after watching a movie about her life — asked St. Therese to pray for me about something that weighed heavily on my mind. I also asked her to send me a red rose (I was very specific about it being a singular red rose, too) to let me know that she had heard my plea. Three days later (Trinitarian symbolism!), a red rose appeared in my house. It obviously got there due to, at least in part, human action (my grandmother happened to bring it home with her that day), but that does not undermine the importance of it to me. Soon after that moment, my big problem was solved, and it was then that I truly believed in this practice.
Catholics do not “worship statues,” as some Protestants have accused. I know that firsthand.
(All verses are from the NASB translation.)