I no longer wanted to be Evangelical, so becoming Presbyterian (moderate/liberal) was fine with me. I no longer agreed with Evangelical doctrines, such as the necessity of a “born again” experience for Christians who were born into the faith, the purely symbolic idea of the Eucharist and baptism, baptism being “wrong” for babies, or the literalist view of the End-Times.
I wanted nothing more to do with all the furor over Dungeons and Dragons, Harry Potter, Halloween, public schools vs. homeschools, evolution, school prayer, etc. etc.
The strange thing was, I found out that Presbyterians could be Evangelical if they wanted to, and that my church was Evangelical without the fundamentalism. It was very confusing.
Still, the PCUSA was a very safe and comforting place to be. I had no reason to leave it, no reason to look elsewhere. My research into other theologies was mostly out of intellectual curiosity, as I also learned about Presbyterian theology.
I was on my way to becoming a liberal Presbyterian. I principally studied both Lutheran and Presbyterian theologies, since they both came from the Reformation and had similar ideas. I also had some questions about theology, things which I did not understand, trying to figure out which teachings from my upbringing were correct, according to the PCUSA.
The PCUSA does not teach the Nazarene, Fundamentalist or Evangelical version of Hell, a version which I had begun doubting. But what it does teach is unclear. I discovered that some people in the denomination are universalists, that it is allowed, so out of curiosity I began checking it out.
Universalist webpages described teachings of Origen and St. Gregory of Nyssa, claiming that the Early Church was originally universalist, but when Constantine made Christianity legal, paganism infused the church–leading to the demise of universalism. They also debated the use of the translation “eternal” for “aonion” or “ages of ages.” I didn’t know what to make of this.
Then, one day, some time in mid or late 2005, this guy Richard posted on a Goth Christian Web forum, listing the problems with Evangelicalism. We were on the same three Goth Christian forums. He was Greek Orthodox, a new convert. He wasn’t received very well by the other posters, but I had (thought I) left Evangelicalism by going to the PCUSA, so I was more receptive.
I knew very little about Greek Orthodoxy, so I asked Richard what GO believes on various doctrines I’d been pondering. He couldn’t answer everything, but his answers amazed me, especially one that said his priest told him that the meaning of “eternal” has never been dogmatically fixed. I was impressed by the ancientness of the Orthodox church, and that it still uses and understands the original Greek, not Latin translations.
Universalist writers described it, particularly its five ancient patriarchates and various Greek writers, such as Origen and St. Gregory of Nyssa. I’d been searching for information to confirm or deny the universalist version of church and doctrinal history, such as the idea that universalism was the original view of the Church, only changed when Constantine made Christianity legal and pagans supposedly poured into the Church.
If the Orthodox history matched with the universalist history, then I would know whether or not the universalist doctrine had a leg to stand on.
So I began checking into the Orthodox view of Hell, using websites Richard linked for me, and came across River of Fire by Alexandre Kalomiros in late 2005. It blew my mind. If you read it, you’ll understand why, after that, everything changed. As I sometimes describe it, on my way to becoming a universalist, I tripped over Orthodoxy and fell into the Apostolic Church.
I kept searching the Orthodox websites Richard gave me, such as for GOARCH, OCA, and Orthodox Info. Originally I just wanted to find out whether or not the universalists were right about Church history.
Instead, I found that the Orthodox version of history was a bit different, though it did indeed have the five patriarchates. Also, the Orthodox had better theology about Hell than the universalists, acknowledging that the wicked must be punished, but more loving than the fundamentalist doctrines I was used to.
They say that Hell is locked from the inside: Whether Hell is a literal fire or the metaphorical fire of the wicked soul’s response to God’s searching love, it is of our own making.
They don’t presume to say how God will judge non-Christians or Christians of other denominations. The Spirit works where he wills; He could even be the reason why some people who haven’t heard of Christ become Christlike, according to my priest.
The Orthodox point to the way Christ divided the sheep from the goats at the Final Judgment: The goats didn’t care about people, while the sheep did. They point to the words of Christ that some who called him Lord, will still be shut out of Heaven, because they did not do what He said.
(This may very well refer to those who follow outward forms of Christianity, such as not drinking or smoking, and talk “Christian,” but have no love in their hearts. For examples, see Rev. Trask on Dark Shadows or the “benefactor” of Lowood Hall in Jane Eyre.)
My dad had told me about the Harrowing of Hades, though he didn’t tell me the name for it; it always comforted me when thinking about the pagan generations who died before Christ.
Then Cugan told me that Lutherans don’t believe in it, and figured those generations would have been saved in exactly the same way as later ones, because the Cross was effective for the past as well as the future.
I didn’t know what to believe. Then I discovered that the Orthodox do believe in the Harrowing of Hades, and that was a great relief.
I also learned that the Orthodox do not believe in the single predestination of the Lutherans and moderate Calvinists, or the double predestination of the traditional Calvinists.
Rather, they believe in synergy, or God and man working together: It is not Pelagian, the heresy that man does everything on his own power, or Reformation doctrine, that man can do absolutely nothing while God does everything.
God predestines, but this is based on the choices He foresees us making, not on His own decision. Because He loves us, He lets us decide, and does not force us–just like ideal human love. This was another great relief.
The Orthodox and Catholics seemed to have similar interpretations of End-Times prophecies; it was not at all like the premillennial dispensationalism of the Evangelical/Fundamentalist churches. (For more information, see page 1.)
The more I searched, the more intrigued I became. I used to think the Orthodox were just Eastern Catholics who let their priests get married and had a Great Schism with the Pope in the Middle Ages.
Instead, studying the Orthodox Church became, for me, like an archaeologist coming across an island full of Stone Age people: the Early Church preserved throughout the ages, untouched by the various changes in Western Christianity.
I had issues with various doctrines–what Protestant doesn’t? Unfortunately, in the beginning I used Orthodoxy and Catholicism as tools to prove to those “fundies” on the message boards that even the ancient churches did not agree with their biblical literalism. It was a way to prove that the Evangelicals and Calvinists were wrong about literal creationism, the Rapture, God caring about reputation more than us, tithing, etc.
Orthodoxy and Catholicism did not agree with me on women’s ordination, birth control, homosexuality and other issues, so I was not looking at conversion in the beginning. (I still disagree with them on those issues.)
However, as time went on, and I read various articles on the Web and posts by Orthodox and Catholic Christians on message boards, Orthodoxy became more and more intriguing.
I began to wonder if the Orthodox claims were correct–Did it really have Apostolic Succession, or the Spirit passed from one bishop to another, a succession which was broken by the Protestant churches? Would I really “plug into” the current of the Holy Spirit by becoming Orthodox?
Was the Holy Spirit not absent from, but diminished in, the other churches? Was the Eucharist really the body and blood of Christ? Was women’s ordination truly not an issue of gender, but of the priest representing Christ, who in His earthly form was male?
Did the Early Church look more like Orthodoxy or Catholicism than like the Evangelical churches which claimed to imitate the Early Church? Was it truly desecration to cremate? Was it truly wrong to use birth control to prevent having children when you weren’t poor and had no medical reason to avoid childbirth?
Was homosexuality truly a sinful passion, not just “the way God made you,” but something to fight rather than embrace? Was singing contemporary music in church really a symptom of wanting what I want rather than what God wants in worship?
What I knew for sure was that dozens or even thousands of Protestant denominations and countless, competing doctrines had worn me out. I didn’t know who to believe. I wanted to find the doctrine and worship of the Ancient Church, the standard against which everything else must be compared.
[UPDATE: This was written in 2006. I had to admit, the theology for the pro-homosexual stances seemed poor, and article writers seemed to have no qualms about twisting and beating God and the Bible to fit their views. But by 2012, I had moved back to my 2005 beliefs that homosexuality, birth control, etc. are not sinful. I’m also not happy with the rule on cremation, because all these billions of people will fill up a lot of needed space if they’re not cremated. My views these days, both in religion and in politics, have become liberal–though not to the extremes I’ve seen at times, such as throwing out the Virgin birth and that sort of thing.]
To be continued….