Between Scylla and Charybdis

(Fourth Sunday of Easter, Year C)

The Greek hero Odysseus had to pass through the double threat of Scylla and Charybdis. The two mythical creatures stood for very real dangers in the Straits of Messina between the toe of Italy and the Island of Sicily. Scylla represented the rocky coast – if a captain tacked too close his ship would go aground and several lives could be lost. However, farther from shore was a much greater danger – Charybdis, the whirlpool that could consume an entire ship.

In our spiritual lives we face similar threats. Over-rigidity is a Scylla, which can cause us to miss great opportunities. I remember once being so set on a certain task I did not respond to an emergency. I kicked myself for several days. However, I must admit more easily being drawn into the Charybdis of indolence, the lack of clear goals.

Regarding correct teaching about eternal salvation we must also steer between twin dangers. Perhaps nowhere is that more evident than in the central issue of today’s readings. Jesus says:

“I give them (my sheep) eternal life and they shall never perish. No one can take them out of my hand.” (Jn 10:28)

A verse such as this has led some to claim an assurance of salvation that we Catholics would call presumption. When combined with other verses, as in today’s first readings, it can lead to a full-blown doctrine of predestination:

“All who were destined for eternal life came to believe.” (Acts 13: 48)

Calvin, one of the towering minds of Christianity, took such statements to a logical, but horrible conclusion. He taught double pre-destination: some to eternal life, but all others to eternal condemnation. Calvin’s logic is like a rock. Even as we move near it, we must not come too close for fear of shipwrecking the notion of human freedom.

Most of us are a long way from the rigidity of Calvinism. However, we face a much greater threat – the Charybdis of universalism, the doctrine that all men will be saved. The patristic giant, Origen, using certain verses from St. Paul (e.g. I Cor 15:28), taught Apocatastasis, a final recapitulation when even the devil would be saved. The Catholic Church eventually condemned “origenism” because it went against Jesus’ teaching about the seriousness of this life and the real possibility of eternal loss (hell). Moreover, universalism readily turns into a whirlpool where good and evil are mixed together, becoming indistinguishable.

How do we steer a course between the Scylla of pre-destination and the Charybdis of universalism? Fortunately we have a navigation chart. It is called the Catechism of the Catholic Church. On one hand it tells us to avoid presumption. To not presume one can have forgiveness without conversion nor that one can save himself without help from on high. (#2092) At the same time it cautions against the great sin of despair – to cease hoping for personal salvation from God, for help in attaining it or for forgiveness of sin. As the Catechism states, “Despair is contrary to God’s goodness, to his justice – for the Lord is faithful to his promises – and to his mercy.” (#2091)

If we remain close to Jesus, we can have a profound (but not reckless) assurance: “I give them eternal life and they shall never perish. No one can take them out of my hand.”


Spanish Version

From Archives (Fourth Sunday of Easter, Cycle C):

2016: Second Priority
2013: Tend My Sheep
2010: One With The Father
2007: The Time of Great Distress
2004: The Father and I Are One
2001: Between Scylla and Charybdis
1998: The Lamb Will Shepherd Them

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