conversion story here
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Here is an excellent article on this subject, with several contributors: Why do the Righteous Suffer?–Sermons from Presbyterian (USA) Pastors
Also see question 14 from the Presbyterian Study Catechism of 1998.
Since I converted to Orthodoxy after writing this webpage, now for an Orthodox point of view:
Why Does Evil Exist? by a guy named Jeremiah who includes a pic from Boondock Saints on his blog post. 😀
Talking to Children when bad things happen by Rev. Deacon Nicholas Jannakos
Greek Orthodox Church of America’s brochure, Why do bad things happen to good people?
Should we criticize our brethren’s artistic or evangelistic attempts? Or, how should we evangelize, then?
An amusing and scathing take on the value of criticism in the church–as opposed to saying, “You shouldn’t criticize praise music/popular writers/mega-churches/people doing the Lord’s work”: “Talk Hard” by the late Internet Monk
Moving New Religions from the Fringes to Mainstream shows that we must critique these things, since many trends damaging to the witness of the Church have been allowed to go on, unchecked.
For example, says the writer, Philip Johnson,
Laity and pastors alike seem to be enamoured with Christian fiction, particularly novels that cast new religions and alternate spiritualities in the role of an identifiable social and spiritual enemy.
This observation is supported by the massive sales for Frank Peretti’s novels This Present Darkness and Piercing the Darkness, and the Left Behind series of novels by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins.
He refers to the plots of such works as propaganda, morality tales, McCarthyism. He says that depicting new religions as “the source of Antichristic power” leads readers to not respect the followers of those religions, which damages our witness to them.
He also is disturbed that the attitudes of readers toward these religions are being “powerfully influenced by pop novels.”
This page also addresses courses you find in evangelical churches these days on how to evangelize, discipleship, etc.
For example, he complains that many of these courses have apparently not been “road-tested” with non-Christians who are not influenced by churches. The courses give answers to questions that are important to Christians, but often have little in common with questions people are actually asking.
He also says that Rick Warren’s Purpose-Driven Life program is a product of “Southern California Christian culture,” and does not work so well in other cultures.
I know what he means, because I have experienced a few of these courses. For example, one course gave a lot of pat answers to a list of stock questions a non-Christian might ask, but these answers may not always work in the real world.
One stock question was, “But what about people who sincerely believe in their religion?” The pat answer was, “You can be sincere, but sincerely wrong.”
This might work on some people. But there are many people in this day of cynicism and alternative religions who would say to that, “Well, how do you know that you’re not sincerely wrong?”
Or, “That’s arrogant!”
Or, “My religion calls that attitude, morally reprehensible.”
Or, “I’m a Pagan, and you’re focusing on the path rather than the ultimate goal of religion. The kind of person your religion makes you, is more important than which religion.”
The problem is getting into a logical argument over religion, which cannot be proved scientifically. If you want an effective witness, then your life must be your most important tool. Show that Christianity is different; don’t just use theological arguments, because a determined person can always find some way to disagree with them.
Here’s a more useful tool for witnessing to Pagans: “How to Share the Gospel with Pagans,” written by a Pagan.
DON’T use Chick Tracts. The ignorance and paranoia in these tracts is appalling, as is the intolerance (see how Roman Catholics are treated).
They seem to have gotten their information about witches, Satanists, Dungeons & Dragons, etc.–
–from 700 Club episodes, Bob Larson, medieval propaganda, and various other questionable sources–
–rather than asking real, honest-to-goodness Wiccans etc.
If any of that depraved stuff described in the tracts does happen, it’s probably done by serial killers and rebellious teenagers who want to shock their parents.
Also, some of the other tracts are, frankly, appalling: In the “Happy Halloween” tract, a child gets hit by a car and goes to Hell. The tract about gays portrays ridiculous, stereotypical caricatures, and celebrates a child’s use of the word “queer.” Various tracts about Roman Catholics say that they are going to Hell, too.
Any D&D gamer can tell you that “Dark Dungeons” has nothing to do with actual Dungeons and Dragons games. They are not a “gateway drug” into real witchcraft.
How can you make an honest convert through fear and misinformation?
I was shocked one day to discover that we had one of these tracts in our house, the “Who, Me?” tract. It seemed innocent enough, but its identity as a Chick Tract makes it worthy of Gehenna (the burning trash heap). It was given to us by an evangelical minister as a tool. I can only hope he was not aware of the more ridiculous Chick Tracts.
The Religious Tolerance site also has articles on practically any other religion you might think of, such as Satanism. Articles on Satanic Ritual Abuse are here. You can research the truth so that you can witness with knowledge and respect, such as the Apostle Paul did.
Evangelicals have gotten a bad name among the followers of alternative religions because many have tried to convert without knowledge or respect, trying to scare with Hell rather than appealing to one’s desire to connect with deity. This hinders the work of Christ.
Here is an Orthodox perspective on the absolute necessity of religious tolerance, despite our belief that Orthodoxy is true. The reason: We must not bring injustice on others.
My own feelings: We must be tolerant of and respect other people and their religious beliefs. Tolerance does not mean that you must adopt other beliefs or say that they are correct. It just means respecting that other people have the right to think differently than you, even if you believe they’re wrong.
Back when I first read the book This Present Darkness in high school (around 1989), I thought Peretti had uncovered amazing truths in his research. People treated This Present Darkness like divine revelation of angelic and demonic activities. (Also see here and here for more writers trying to counter the trend of seeing Peretti as an expert or prophet rather than a fantasy writer.)
I seem to recall Peretti going on The 700 Club because of this and saying it was just fiction. This helped me to treat it as such.
But it still took quite some time to stop seeing demons under every bush, as the saying goes. Much of the world’s evil comes from the human heart.
When I was a kid, Halloween was just the time to trick-or-treat in a cool costume and get candy. When I was real little, we trick-or-treated from one Sunday School classroom to another. And I grew up in a fundamentalist church!
Nowadays, Halloween is the “Devil’s Holiday,” a day for Christians to avoid at all costs and complain about.
Where did this come from? It’s not based on truth. Maybe it came from The 700 Club, since that’s where I first heard it was “evil” (late 1980’s).
But according to Kenneth C. Davis, writing for USA Weekend, this is the true story of Halloween: basically an ancient harvest festival, no worse than the pagan traditions absorbed by Christmas and Easter celebrations.
(Please note: This is NOT the same as calling Christmas and Easter baptized pagan holidays. See below. It simply means that over the centuries, pagan traditions have merged into Christian holiday celebrations, whether deliberately or naturally, for various reasons.)
Here is even more information, from the Religious Tolerance website, which strives for accuracy and fairness.
Apparently, according to this person who asked an official church source, the Orthodox Church allows Halloween fun.
But according to James Jordan in Halloween: A Distinctly Christian Holiday, Halloween’s roots are actually Christian, not pagan.
David Commini makes the same point in On Halloween, noting that All Saint’s Day originated before it was placed on November 1.
In checking Commini’s sources, I note here that All Saint’s Day was first celebrated on other days, and that scholars disagree on why it was moved to November 1. Another source, All Saint’s Day, makes the same charge as critics of a pagan origin of Christmas: that it’s based on bad Victorian scholarship that turned into the assumed “facts” of today.
The Catholic Encyclopedia has a brief article on the subject, which–unlike its Christmas and Easter articles–doesn’t go into pagan elements of the day.
Now, I always figured Halloween was just a secular holiday with unknown origins when kids trick-or-treat. That it had absolutely nothing to do with religion in the first place.
My only religious holidays as a fundamentalist Protestant were Christmas and Good Friday/Easter; everything else was secular/national. I was neither Catholic, Orthodox nor Pagan, and didn’t celebrate Samhain or All Saint’s Day.
Now as an Orthodox convert, I still don’t celebrate All Saint’s Day on that day, but on the first Sunday after Pentecost (June 7 in 2015).
So it doesn’t matter to me one way or the other. But I am interested in Truth, whichever direction it goes.
I’m trying to get the bulk of my information here from official, Orthodox Church-run sites, and avoid using “River of Fire” by Alexandre Kalomiros as a resource, because many charge that he was anti-West and part of a schismatic, non-Orthodox group. Nevertheless, I find many of his claims to be echoed on official Orthodox Church websites, such as the one for the Orthodox Church of America.
In fact, I checked with the Very Reverend John Matusiak, who answers questions in the Q&A section of the OCA website, and he said that yes indeed, the Orthodox idea of Hell is of a place which is beyond time and space, not physical but in God’s presence, with metaphorical fire.
He says that apparent differences between websites and other sources are really just different ways of explaining the same truth. Also, there are many websites, especially those which are not official Church websites, which have incorrect information and theological opinion which does not match Church teachings.
However, I cannot just discount “River of Fire.” It is controversial, yes, especially because of the polemics against the West. It’s also accused of bad theology. However, it also has fervent backers among the canonical Orthodox, including priests, monks and archimandrites. Some find it too harsh against the West; some find it to be full of beauty and light, bringing them ever closer to God.
It was the first Orthodox book or article to start me down the path of investigating Orthodoxy’s claims. After I first read through it late one night, I felt as if I truly loved God for the first time ever–before was just infatuation. Not only did it discuss Hell, but the nature of God and the atonement.
A good friend, who was recommended the book by an archimandrite (unmarried priest or head of a monastery), requested me to put “River of Fire” back on my site.
He says that whether something comes from an Old Calendrist (very conservative Orthodox, no longer in communion with the official Orthodox churches), or from a New Calendrist (official Orthodox), makes no difference: You can tell if it’s of God. So here is “River of Fire” by Alexandre Kalomiros.
My research is pulling up an Orthodox vision of Hell which contrasts sharply with the famous sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” by Jonathan Edwards.
In essence, this “Hell” is not necessarily a physical place. Many say it is within the heart. God will not separate anyone from him; he will bathe every single soul with love. But this is not “universalism”: Even in God’s presence, some will resist his love, while others bask in it.
For those who accept the consuming fires of his love, which burn away all impurities, this love will be bliss. For those who resist them, this love will be Hell.
Is it eternal, or never-ending? Some Church Fathers disagree, but there seems to be a consensus that it will never end, that after the Resurrection when all souls are given eternal bodies, that eternal nature means we can no longer change or repent.
The Fathers who disagree say it’s possible for the soul in Hell to repent; it’s also possible to never repent, but become so full of despair that you enter an existential void from which you never escape. (A friend’s priest told him that the meaning of “eternal” has never officially been fixed.) So whether you’re dealing with physical flames or metaphorical flames, Hell still should be avoided.
Also, demons will not torture the condemned, because they and Satan will also be condemned–their own fault. God is not raging at them; he loves them and wishes they had chosen another route. But they could not be allowed to continue in wickedness.
St. John Damascene wrote in Book IV Chapter XXVII of An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith:
Again the divine apostle says, For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality.
And again: It is sown in corruption, it is raised in incorruption: it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power: it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory: it is sown a natural body (that is to say, crass and mortal), it is raised a spiritual body, such as was our Lord’s body after the resurrection which passed through closed doors, was unwearying, had no need of food, or sleep, or drink.
For they will be, saith the Lord, as the angels of God: there will no longer be marriage nor procreation of children.
The divine apostle, in truth, says, For our conversation is in heaven, from whence also we look for the Savior, the Lord Jesus, Who shall change our vile body that it may be fashioned like unto His glorious body: not meaning change into another form (God forbid!), but rather the change from corruption into incorruption….
We shall therefore rise again, our souls being once more united with our bodies, now made incorruptible and having put off corruption, and we shall stand beside the awful judgment-seat of Christ:
and the devil and his demons and the man that is his, that is the Antichrist and the impious and the sinful, will be given over to everlasting fire: not material fire like our fire, but such fire as God would know.
But those who have done good will shine forth as the sun with the angels into life eternal, with our Lord Jesus Christ, ever seeing Him and being in His sight and deriving unceasing joy from Him, praising Him with the Father and the Holy Spirit throughout the limitless ages of ages. Amen.
As is written on the website for the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America:
The resurrection of the dead is a miracle that will happen at the second coming of the Lord. According to the Creed: “I await the resurrection of the dead.”
This resurrection will be a new creation. However, our physical bodies as we know them now will be restored, in a spiritualized existence like that of the Lord after His Resurrection.
The final judgment will follow the resurrection of all. Some will rise to the resurrection of life, and some to the resurrection of judgment and condemnation. Christ will be our Judge on the basis of our deeds, our works of love or our acts of wickedness.
The end-time will follow, with a permanent separation between good and evil, between those who will be awarded eternal life of happiness and bliss in heaven, and those who will be condemned to the fire of eternal damnation, to the eternal remorse of their conscience for having rejected God and authentic life in Him and having joined the inauthentic life invented by the devil and his servants.
A new heaven and new earth will be established, inhabited by righteousness (2 Peter 3:13). The Kingdom of God will be fully established; the Church will cease to exist. Finally, the Son of God will turn the Kingdom over to God the Father, “that God may be everything to everyone” (1 Cor. 15:28).
Spirits first go to Hades, or Sheol; this is also where Christ went between his death and resurrection. He set free the captives there, the Harrowing of Hades (also known as the Harrowing of Hell). (Though some say this is a misreading of 1 Peter 3:18-19, my research shows that this is how the Early Church understood it. The Orthodox Church still understands it this way. See The Communion of Saints by Dr. Daniel F. Stramara, Jr. and Christ the Conqueror of Hell by Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev.)
Some theologians of different denominations say that the blessed dead go to Paradise (not Heaven, but a holding tank for the righteous) and the wicked dead go to Hades (not Hell, but a holding tank for the condemned). Some say that before Christ, there was no Paradise, only Hades; some say that before Christ, there was Paradise and Hades.
At the Resurrection and Judgment, we will go to either Heaven or Hell, which are eternal and unchanging, unlike Hades. An Orthodox catechism put out by the Russian Orthodox Church says that the spirits of sinners in Hades could potentially be saved–until the Resurrection and Judgment. After the Judgment, there is no more salvation. (It’s hard to tell if this is official church doctrine or just one school of thought.)
During a Lenten or Holy Week sermon, possibly on Holy Friday, in I believe 2011 or 2012, my priest spoke of the time of Christ speaking to the spirits in Hades as ever-present.
My priest often speaks of events in the past being ever-present: When the Divine Liturgy and Eucharist are celebrated, he says, it does not just represent Christ’s crucifixion, but we are actually there at the crucifixion. When during Holy Week we go through the services, and especially on Holy Thursday as Christ suffered his Passion, we are there with Him in the Garden of Gethsemane; when we don’t attend services, we desert him. The preaching in Hades follows the same concept.
It is a difficult concept to understand, but fits with the mystical heritage of Orthodox theology. My priest said that our relatives, when they die, will all go to that point when Christ spoke to the spirits in Hades. Basically, this means everyone gets the chance to accept or reject Christ: neither universalism nor unfair. The following passage by Bishop Hilarion might clarify:
Has this anything to do with those who died outside Christian faith after the descent of Christ into Hades?
No, if we accept the Western teaching that the descent into Hades was a ‘one-time’ event and that the recollection of Christ did not survive in hell.
Yes, if we proceed from the assumption that after Christ hell was no longer like the Old Testament sheol, but it became a place of the divine presence.
In addition, as Archpriest Serge Bulgakov writes, ‘all events in the life of Christ, which happen in time, have timeless, abiding significance.
Therefore, the so-called ‘preaching in hell’, which is the faith of the Church, is a revelation of Christ to those who in their earthly life could not see or know Christ. There are no grounds for limiting this event … to the Old Testament saints alone, as Catholic theology does.
Rather, the power of this preaching should be extended to all time for those who during their life on earth did not and could not know Christ but meet Him in the afterlife.
According to the teaching of the Orthodox Church, all the dead, whether believers or non-believers, appear before God. Therefore, even for those who did not believe during their lifetime, there is hope that they will recognize God as their Saviour and Redeemer if their previous life on earth led them to this recognition.
…Is it possible at all that the fate of a person can be changed after his death? Is death that border beyond which some unchangeable static existence comes? Does the development of the human person not stop after death?
On the one hand, it is impossible for one to actively repent in hell; it is impossible to rectify the evil deeds one committed by appropriate good works. However, it may be possible for one to repent through a ‘change of heart’, a review of one’s values.
One of the testimonies to this is the rich man of the Gospel we have already mentioned. He realized the gravity of his situation as soon as found himself in hell. Indeed, if in his lifetime he was focused on earthly pursuits and forgot God, once in hell he realized that his only hope for salvation was God .
Besides, according to the teaching of the Orthodox Church, the fate of a person after death can be changed through the prayer of the Church. Thus, existence after death has its own dynamics.
On the basis of what has been said above, we may say that after death the development of the human person does not cease, for existence after death is not a transfer from a dynamic into a static being, but rather continuation on a new level of that road which a person followed in his lifetime. —Christ the Conqueror of Hell
In On the Soul and the Resurrection, St. Gregory of Nyssa argued that, since spirits were in Hades without their bodies, it could not be a physical place, the gulf separating the blessed and the wicked could not have been physical, and the fires torturing the wicked could not have been physical. I’m not sure what he said about after the Resurrection.
St. John Damascene, as we have just seen, also said that the fires after the Resurrection of mankind are not material.
The Greek Orthodox Church seems to agree with the Russian Orthodox Church that change is possible after death until the Resurrection, though I’m not sure if they’re referring just to the saved or to everyone:
A partial judgment is instituted immediately after our physical death, which places us in an intermediate condition of partial blessedness (for the righteous), or partial suffering (for the unrighteous).
Disavowing a belief in the Western “Purgatory,” our Church believes that a change is possible during this intermediate state and stage. The Church, militant and triumphant, is still one, which means that we can still influence one another with our prayers and our saintly (or ungodly) life.
This is the reason why we pray for our dead. Also, almsgiving on behalf of the dead may be of some help to them, without implying, of course, that those who provide the alms are in some fashion “buying” anybody’s salvation. —“Orthodox Eschatology” section, The Dogmatic Tradition of the Orthodox Church by His Eminence Metropolitan Maximos of Pittsburgh
According to the Orthodox Church in America, at the end of the ages the Earth will be renewed and we, in our resurrected bodies, will all live here in God’s presence and love. For those who love God, it will be bliss (Heaven); for those who hate God, it will be torment (Hell): Eternal Life, from Vol. 1 of the Rainbow Series
So when you hear people say, “This Earth is not my home,” they are wrong: It is our eternal home, though then it will be in a perfect condition.
On another page, we see that this inner Hell is worse than the Dante-ish external Hell, so it still must be avoided. This is also proclaimed to be the teaching of the Church Fathers: Judgment from Vol. 1 of the Rainbow Series
In a book commonly used to introduce people to the Orthodox faith, The Orthodox Church, Bishop Kallistos Ware writes that God does not imprison man: Man imprisons himself. Man experiences God’s love as suffering because of his own free will.
…Yet, though Hell is viewed as eternal, several Church Fathers have believed in universalism, or that all will be saved.
…It is perfectly all right to hope that universalism is correct (even though it is not church doctrine), and we must pray for the salvation of all. St. Gregory of Nyssa even said we could hope for the salvation of Satan. —Excerpts from The Orthodox Church
Check out how Wikipedia describes the Eastern Orthodox view of Hell, and what it says (in the “Judaism” section) Jews considered Gehenna to be. Though the “Images of Hell” section under Eastern Orthodoxy, contradicts the claim that Orthodoxy does NOT believe in a material Hell. ARGH!
The Orthodox also reject the Catholic view of Purgatory. Some, Orthodox and Catholic, have argued that the Orthodox view of metaphorical purifying fires is the same as Purgatory. However, these purifying fires lead to bliss, not pain, and they are eternally part of Heaven, not a temporary place of punishment. Since these views are not officially from the Orthodox Church, they could be inaccurate. For these views, see: The Orthodox Response to the Latin Doctrine of Purgatory
Here, Wikipedia quotes from the Greek Orthodox website, contradicting both the earlier quote from the same website that change after death is possible, and the Russian Orthodox catechism, saying that the Orthodox Church has always taught it’s not possible to repent after death.
So you see why it’s so frickin’ hard for inquirers to figure out what exactly the Orthodox Church believes.
Here is an online catechism from the Russian Orthodox church, which includes an explanation of Hell and Christ’s visit to Hades/Hell. See Death & Resurrection, which says there’s a possibility of the soul being released from Hell before the final Judgment. See The Last Judgment, which talks about what happens to non-Christians. See What is Hell and A New Heaven & a New Earth.
Check this out:
In a remarkable instance of freedom from biblical literalism, St. Isaac the Syrian, arguably the greatest mystic in the tradition of Eastern Christianity, intentionally demythologizes the image of hellfire.
Although he by no means rejects the reality of hell, he reinterprets it as a separation from and inability to participate in God’s eternal love, a separation more painful according to him than any physical hell.
For St. Isaac, hell did not exist prior to sin and its ultimate end is unknown. Hell is not a place of punishment created by God, but a spiritual mode of anguished suffering created by sinful creatures willfully separated from God.
According to Isaac, sinners in this hell are not deprived of the love of God; only they suffer in the profound realization of having offended against love and of being unable to participate in it.
Hell is none other than this bitter awareness of separation and regret, what St. Isaac calls the ‘scourge of love.’ Thus, the same divine love radiating towards all is bliss to the righteous but torment to sinners.
Certainly the patristic tradition, known for its spiritual exegesis, cannot be charged with slavish literalism to an absolute holy word. In the end, as H. Chadwick has observed, the Church fathers knew that Christianity is not a religion of a book but of a Person. —The New Testament, An Orthodox Perspective–Theodore G. Stylianopoulos
Here’s another quote from an Orthodox Catechism by the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of Toronto:
Let us be careful here. All that the Holy Scriptures say regarding hell should not be understood physically, as we know these things today.
We should always keep in mind that with the Second Coming of Christ and the final judgement everything will change. Everything will become ‘new.’ The whole universe.
The Fathers of the Church explain this very well, particularly, St. Gregory of Nyssa, who writes the following:
‘Because you learned to understand something different from what exists in reality, when you hear the words fire or worm, you should not think of the earthly fire or insect.’
In other words, when you hear of fire and worms do not understand it as the fire and worms that you know of here.
St. John Damascene also writes the following: ‘eternal fire is not a material thing such as we are familiar with; rather it is something that only God comprehends.’ In other words, the fire of hell is not physical as we know it, but will be fire as God knows it. —Eternal-life-and-eternal-hell
Here is the view of the Orthodox Church of America:
Apocatastasis: The Heresy That Never Was on Eclectic Orthodoxy, argues that universalism was never actually condemned by the Church, but that this is a misinterpretation passed down as fact for hundreds of years.
This is a testimony of a convert from the Baptist to the Orthodox church. I see some similarities with him: disenchantment with evangelical Christianity, a discovery that Hell is not fire-and-brimstone but an inner reaction to God’s love, a discovery that relying on individual interpretations of the Bible (as opposed to examining doctrines of our forefathers) can be a trap. (I’ve read that even Luther did not mean “scripture alone” as “ignore tradition.”) : From First Baptist to the First Century by Clark Carlton
What does my priest say about “River of Fire”? He found it very hard to get through, with too many negatives about other faiths and not enough positives about the Orthodox faith.
But he said that Hell is not physical or material as we are: Everything will be transformed at the Resurrection, no longer material as we know it now. Pictures of Hell are made material so we understand the devastation of it. We can burn inside without being materially affected.
An interesting aside on Isaiah 66:24, which is about the continual burning of the bodies of the wicked, and the righteous looking upon them, after all wickedness is finally defeated:
The Talmudists (t) observe from hence, that the wicked, even at the gate of hell, return not by repentance; for it is not said, that “have transgressed”, but “that transgress”;
for they transgress, and go on for ever; and so indeed the word may be rendered, “that transgress”, or “are transgressing” (u); for they interpret it of the damned in hell, as many do; and of whom the following clauses may be understood:
for their worm shall not die; with which their carcasses shall be covered, they lying rotting above ground; or figuratively their consciences, and the horrors and terrors that shall seize them, which they will never get rid of. The Targum is,
“their souls shall not die;”
as they will not, though their bodies may; but will remain to suffer the wrath of God to all eternity: neither shall their fire be quenched; in hell, as Jarchi interprets it;
those wicked men, the followers and worshippers of antichrist, will be cast into the lake which burns with fire and brimstone; they will for ever suffer the vengeance of eternal fire; and the smoke of their torment shall ascend for ever and ever, Revelation 14:10,
and they shall be an abhorring unto all flesh; the true worshippers of God, Isaiah 66:23 to whom their carcasses will be loathsome, when they look upon them; and their souls abominable, because of their wicked actions;
and who cannot but applaud the justice of God in their condemnation; and admire distinguishing grace and mercy, that has preserved them from the like ruin and destruction. The Targum is,
“and the ungodly shall be judged in hell, till the righteous shall say concerning them, we have seen enough;” —Gill’s Exposition of the Entire Bible
From what I understand, the Targum was an oral explanation of the Torah given by rabbis in ancient times, to help the people understand the Torah better. So–according to the Targum, the punishment goes on because the wicked never stop sinning, yet this eternal punishment only lasts until the righteous ask for it to end?
Some have charged in recent years that Easter and Christmas have been “stolen” from pagans and Christianized, or that they’re not really Christian holidays, or that we’re ignorant to speak of “the reason for the season” being Christ.
It has become yet another excuse for scoffers to poke fun at Christians and say their own religion (or lack of) is superior. Or even for Christians themselves to scorn Christmas or Easter, refusing to celebrate them.
In truth, Christ is the reason for the season for Christians. Whatever the reasons others celebrate them, wherever many of the customs come from (whether Christian or pagan), for centuries, Christians have celebrated the birth and death/resurrection of Christ on Christmas and Easter.
The entire year in the Orthodox Church is full of various feast and fast days based on the life and death of Christ; Christmas and Easter (Pascha) form a large part on which the chronology of the rest of the year is based.
The source of the idea of Christmas being a pagan holiday, and that everyone who celebrates it is offending God by worshipping Mithras, appears to go back to the Catholic vs. Protestant wars and conflicts several centuries ago. This led to Puritans forbidding it and, for a time, England outlawing Christmas.
Such conflicts can hardly be expected to produce reliable facts about the Other. And in recent times, these urban legends have turned up again with a new vengeance, in the Internet religious “wars” of Christians vs. atheists/Pagans, or some Christian sects vs. a supposedly pagan-infused Catholic Church (aka The Whore of Babylon).
But they are no more reliable than those stories of Wiccans worshipping Satan or Satanic Ritual Abuse.
And no, this idea of people scoffing at Christians and invalidating all our holidays as “fake,” “pagan” and “stolen” is not just some Christian persecution complex. Someone who is NOT a Christian–who is, in fact, a Wiccan–addresses these very accusations with the truth about Christian holidays here, here and here.
Cassie Noble Beyer is not a Christian apologist, or defensive about Christianity, by any means. She simply wants to debunk myths and encourage people of alternative religions to be kind and truthful rather than militant and offensive. She writes,
Three times a year – Easter, Halloween, and Christmas – I find myself assaulted by claims of how Christian practices and beliefs were entirely cobbled together from pagan sources. There are filters I put on certain searches in order to limit my annoyance, but I still run into them.
First, they are generally written with a tone of superiority and contempt. They aren’t neutrally providing information but instead putting forth arguments meant to ridicule and demean. OK, Christianity isn’t your thing. Why try ruining it for those who believe?
Second, is the fact that most of the arguments you find out there are simply wrong. Not only are they factually wrong, but some don’t even make much sense if you think about them.
Third – and this is my favorite – at least half the time when I attempt to object, I am accused of being overly defensive about my faith by people who don’t know my faith, which becomes comical as Christianity isn’t my thing either.
People just presume, because heaven forbid someone would actually be interested in facts. I just don’t like people being mean-spirited about dumb things.
She also writes,
Bad history is bad. It misdirects, misinforms, and makes its champions (and sometimes the community in which they are members) look ignorant and hateful.
Theologically, Wicca and Christianity are most certainly at odds, as previously discussed about Christian Wicca. But that doesn’t mean Wiccans and Christians have to be at odds. Nothing in either religion says members have to be awful to one another.
But a lot of Wiccans are former Christians, and Christianity is the majority religion in the US, so when a Wiccan is angry at a religion or religions in general, Christianity often bears the brunt of it.
Why? Partially because of bad history. The Christian Church gets blamed for all sorts of things that happened hundreds of years ago, didn’t happen at all, or happened in a context quite different from modern Western society.
Bad history matters.
(This, by the way, is also why I do not consider Wiccans to be Satan-worshippers, or Muslims to be warmongers. I prefer to let members of a religion define themselves and their rites, because–after all these myths I’ve encountered about my own religion–I know what it feels like.)
She also writes,
Studying both history and religion, I cross paths with a fair number of people angry and jaded about both specific religions and religion in general, and they support their position with history.
Rather than simply being non-religious, these individuals are actively against it, calling it manipulative, fraudulent, and/or violent. Sometimes specific examples get conflated into tremendous generalized accusations. Other times, the information is just wrong.
Christianity, being the majority religion in the U.S., bears the brunt of ill-informed objections.
It’s one thing to simply disbelieve in another religion’s teachings. We all disbelieve in something, because our own beliefs are not compatible with every other belief.
But there’s a considerable number of erroneous facts commonly put forth to paint Christianity (and other religions) as not merely wrong but fraudulent, an actively constructed lie made for the benefit of a few.
So you see, Christians are not just imagining this. Heck, I have actually encountered a man who not only got up on his soapbox haranguing against Christians every time I saw him, but who said he was on a campaign to stamp out Christianity. Then, after all his moralizing, was put in jail for snapping dirty pictures of underage girls.
And no, we don’t have to just bend over and accept the accusations as true lest we be “overly defensive” and “resistant to facts.” The supposed “facts” we’re countering are not actually “facts.” How is it “too defensive” to counter myth with fact?
I have run into complaints about using Christian sources. Christian sources generally seem to be the ones interested in debunking myths about their holidays. But anyway, here you go, a Pagan source which says the same things as the Christian ones. AND she has credentials as a professor of Humanities.
She also writes, referring to the use of December 25 and various customs which may have pagan roots themselves,
Christmas is the celebration of the birth of Christ, whenever that birth might have been. Having to choose a day, they decided to have it coincide with a known holiday rather than just throwing a dart at a calendar.
December 25 is not, however, the birth of either Horus or Mithras, which are common claims. Neither of them have a celebrated birthday.
…The Saturnalia was a period of time starting on December 17 and extending several days, although length varies throughout the Roman period. People connect it with Christmas for a couple big reasons.
The first is the giving of presents. Really, only one culture can decide giving presents is a nice thing to do, and then the practice is tainted for anyone else?
The second is the idea of role-reversals, where masters served a meal to slaves, commoners could speak out against betters, and so on. This became quite a medieval practice as well. …
Furthermore, how does that in any way invalidate the story of Christmas? Yes, it was probably borrowed from a pagan culture, but it doesn’t speak at all to the meaning of Christmas or any of the religious practices associated with it. People decided they liked continuing to have an excuse to misbehave.
…Besides all this, purpose is important. If you are celebrating the birth of Christ, then you’re celebrating the birth of Christ. Your celebration doesn’t magically redirect to some pagan god.
So, ultimately, it doesn’t matter what day you do it. Christians just standardized it by placing it on December 25.
Also, Collier’s Encyclopedia backs up the Catholic Encyclopedia, both of which have articles on Christmas. Both give the dominant theory (which is not depicted as confirmed fact) that Christmas was given the December 25 date in the 4th century to go along with a pagan festival.
Collier’s gives potential pagan roots for many customs. But both also say that Christmas was already being celebrated in various places at various times long before this happened.
That is, and has always been, my basic point, ever since I first encountered the “haters” around 1996, and in the 20 years following.
I knew for some time–including from a Christian newsletter from Focus on the Family–that Christmas and Easter included customs with possibly pagan sources. This did not bother me.
But I also knew that Santa, while fiction (sorry to break it to you), was based on a real person, St. Nicholas, and that St. Nick originally had his own feast day separate from Christmas (still celebrated in many places).
He was not invented to baptize a pagan tradition, either, but already existed as a real person, no matter where all the Santa customs came from. His feast day was set so long ago (sixth century) that both Western and Eastern churches celebrate it.
As immigrants from the Germanic and Nordic lands settled in the United States the image of St. Nicholas, or “Sinterklaas,” as he is known among the Dutch, slowly changed to that of “Santa Claus” with little tie to the spirituality of Christianity. —OrthodoxWiki
Note that German and Nordic lands weren’t Christianized until much later than his feast day was set. See here and here. So while the Santa customs of much later times may have been from pagan sources, the name “Santa Claus” is a corruption of “Sinterklaas,” which means “St. Nicholas.” And St. Nicholas is not pagan at all.
This page gives an interesting history of Russian celebrations of St. Nicholas, and how they were banned and transformed into general “Grandfather Frost” customs during communism.
I also knew that December 25 was likely an erroneous date for Christ’s actual birth.
1996 is the first time I heard–from my ex-boyfriend Peter, once a Christian, who turned atheist then Pagan–that the roots of Christmas and Easter themselves were pagan. That we stole the holidays. That Santa was based on some pagan elf rather than St. Nicholas. That paganism is the reason we celebrate.
No, the roots of Christmas and Easter are the birth and death of Christ! If not for the birth and death of Christ, we would not celebrate the birth and death of Christ! We would celebrate something else, or nothing at all.
I looked in my Collier’s Encyclopedia, which contradicted what he told me, saying that the celebration of Christmas already existed prior to setting the date with some pagan festival. The date, really, is inconsequential. (I forget what I said about Easter, and don’t want to go dig up the e-mails to find out.)
Then over the following years–on Internet forums, in real life, on Facebook, even from Sheldon on The Big Bang Theory (who was snipping about his mother’s Christian beliefs)–I heard/read that Christmas is really a pagan holiday and we Christians are idiots to think we’re celebrating the birth of Christ. Or that Easter is really celebrating some spring fertility goddess.
And whether it was about Christmas/Easter or about Christianity in general, I’d hear the snips at every SCA event, and on SCA newsgroups.
One entire SCA event was ruined by a guy (mentioned above, the sex offender) who peppered my husband and me with all sorts of criticisms of how our religion is so fake and horrible. He then turned around and tried to make our shire website into an anti-Christian diatribe.
The ridicule even where everyone was supposedly “chivalrous” was one of the main reasons why I stepped away from the SCA for many years.
Recently, someone even wrote a letter to the local newspaper saying that Christmas is really a pagan holiday–and that Christmas trees are forbidden in the Bible. (The Bible says nothing about Christmas trees, which did not exist back then.)
I also encountered it around 1998 or 1999 when I was sent the Heirophant’s Questionnaire (more on this below). Question #49 reads,
Why are so many Christian holidays on the same day as Pagan holidays? Couldn’t the early Church fathers have converted pagans only by appealing to their reason and/or faith if Christianity really is the true religion?
So right there is solid evidence for you that people are using this to ridicule Christians, rather than simply presenting a history lesson.
But back to my sources:
Another of my sources is a biblical historian who gives his sources, on an award-winning website of biblical archaeology. This website and its corresponding magazine are highly respected, not just by Christians but by a wide range of institutions or magazines/newspapers including Time, Harvard, the New York Times and the Smithsonian. So hardly some hack on the Internet.
Many Christians think that Christians celebrate Christ’s birth on December 25th because the church fathers appropriated the date of a pagan festival.
Almost no one minds, except for a few groups on the fringes of American Evangelicalism, who seem to think that this makes Christmas itself a pagan festival.
So apparently the only ones making this into an “issue” for which to harass and mock Christians, are people with axes to grind against Christianity. And there are plenty of them, and they are loud and obnoxious.
However, the basis for their harassment and mocking–which they consider to be the “facts” we Christians are “too defensive” about–is actually not true at all. And Tighe has the credentials to say so.
The Santa Claus traditions have many pagan elements, but the original Santa was Saint Nicholas, patron saint of children. He was a real person who lived in Asia Minor in the early days of the Church:
Christmas was not “invented” to “Christianize” a pagan festival. Only the date is potentially “pagan,” and even that is under some dispute.
Christmas was apparently celebrated as far back as 200AD in Egypt (in SPRING), and at different times of the year, depending on how the local church calculated the birthdate of Christ.
The date was under dispute for some time, as church authorities tried to figure out what exact date Jesus was born. It was celebrated in various parts of the world before the date of certain pagan feasts (December 25) was finally set for Christmas by Rome in the fourth century.
The Catholic Encyclopedia has an exhaustive history of the celebrations, along with origins of some Christmas traditions, in Christmas.
But it is perhaps interesting to know that the choice of December 25th is the result of attempts among the earliest Christians to figure out the date of Jesus’ birth based on calendrical calculations that had nothing to do with pagan festivals.
Rather, the pagan festival of the “Birth of the Unconquered Sun” instituted by the Roman Emperor Aurelian on 25 December 274, was almost certainly an attempt to create a pagan alternative to a date that was already of some significance to Roman Christians.
Thus the “pagan origins of Christmas” is a myth without historical substance. –William J. Tighe, Calculating Christmas
The crucial thing is not, “Did the early Christians get the date of Christmas right?” It is, rather, “What mattered to them as they determined the date of Christmas?”
And when you look at that, you again immediately realize that what dominates their minds is not Diana, Isis, sun worship, or anything else in the pagan religious world. What interests them is, from our modern multicultural perspective, stunningly insular.
Their debates are consumed, not by longing for goddess worship, or pagan mythology, or a desire to import Isis and Diana into the Faith, but the exact details of the New Testament record of Jesus’ death, alloyed with a Jewish—-not pagan—-theory about when Jewish—-not pagan—-prophets die.
They don’t care a bit how pagan priests ordered their worship in the Temple of Diana at Ephesus.
They care intensely about how Levitical priests ordered their worship in the Temple of Solomon at Jerusalem. These Christians are completely riveted on Scripture and details of Jewish and Christian history and tradition.
They don’t give a hoot what sun worshipers, Osiris devotees, or Isis fans might think. –Mark Shea, Everybody knows that Christmas is really just a warmed-over Celebration of the Feast of the Sol Invictus: Guess what? Everybody’s wrong!
The present Feast, commemorating the Nativity in the flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ, was established by the Church. Its origin goes back to the time of the Apostles.
In the Apostolic Constitutions (Section 3, 13) it says, “Brethren, observe the feastdays; and first of all the Birth of Christ, which you are to celebrate on the twenty-fifth day of the ninth month.”
…In the second century St Clement of Alexandria also indicates that the day of the Nativity of Christ is December 25. In the third century St Hippolytus of Rome mentions the Feast of the Nativity of Christ, and appoints the Gospel readings for this day from the opening chapters of St Matthew.
…In 302, during the persecution of Christians by Maximian, 20,000 Christians of Nicomedia (December 28) were burned in church on the very Feast of the Nativity of Christ….
St John Chrysostom, in a sermon which he gave in the year 385, points out that the Feast of the Nativity of Christ is ancient, and indeed very ancient. –OCA website, The Nativity of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ
Though the pagan festivities may have served as a catalyst, the selection of this feast for this day was neither sudden nor arbitrary.
In fact, December 25th had already enjoyed preeminence among Christians as the birthday of Christ long before the papal decree. According to Pope Benedict XVI, the first person to clearly assign Christmas to its current feast day was St. Hippolytus of Rome.
…Thus, the common criticism of the celebration of Christmas on December 25 made by some Christian sects — i.e., that the date of Christmas is another trapping of paganism in which the Catholic Church has gone astray — is not based on fact.
The choice of December 25th as the liturgical feast for Christ’s birth is far more likely to have been an independent, patristic tradition of early Christianity.
The fact that it shares the same day as the birth of the sun god seems more based on the Roman calculation of the winter solstice.
The pagans observed the birth of their deity when the “great light” was at its lowest point of the year, calculated as December 25. –Hugh O’Donnell, The 25th of December Pagan Feast or Patristic Tradition?
“How December 25 Became Christmas” by Andrew McGowan
Christmas was never a pagan holiday by Marian T. Horvat, PhD
Christmas, Saturnalia, or Sol Invictus? by Jon Sorensen
Redeeming Holy Days from Pagan Lies by Pastor Joseph Abrahamson presents passages from credible sources from long before December 25 was fixed, showing that date was already considered his birthday. However, his links are now dated, so instead use this for the passage by Clement of Alexandria and here for Hippolytus.
Even Pope Benedict weighed in on this:
“The claim used to be made that December 25 developed in opposition to the Mithras myth, or as a Christian response to the cult of the unconquered sun promoted by Roman emperors in the third century in their efforts to establish a new imperial religion.
However, these old theories can no longer be sustained. The decisive factor was the connection of creation and Cross, of creation and Christ’s conception.” -Ratzinger, Joseph Cardinal; Pope Benedict XVI; The Spirit of the Liturgy (pp. 105-107)
There are examples of pagan customs that were appropriated by Christians to articulate Christian truths for the purpose of evangelization. I don’t dispute this. The use of Greek philosophy in the early Church is a great example.
The reason I can accept this with confidence is because there are writings by the Church Fathers (both pro and con) that acknowledge that this was their intention.
You don’t get that with the dating of Christmas. No Church Father ever uses evangelizing pagans as a justification for accepting Dec 25th over Jan 6. It is always related to the Annunciation or the Crucifixion. –Jon Sorensen, Christmas, Saturnalia, or Sol Invictus?
Here are websites debunking the linking of Jesus with Mithras:
It’s why silly charges that “Christmas trees are pagan” and the like just won’t stick. We probably stole them from some pagans. But they’ve been decidedly Baptized. They’re specific enough to upset the ACLU. That’s good enough for me. I would be concerned if they had lost their offense.
Neither did we borrow the date for Christmas from the pagans (that’s a 19th century German myth). The use of December 25th for Christmas predates the feast for Sol Invictus, instituted by Marcus Aurelius, by some decades. So it’s not about the winter solstice (sorry again, pagans).
Neither is the Virgin Mary a thinly disguised version of some pagan Mother Goddess. She’s nothing like her. And if the art forms of such mother goddesses influenced later iconography, well so be it. We stole their art forms. Again, sorry about that.
…Beware instead the grinches that lurk everywhere looking for pagan practices, seeking to purify a holiday which puritan ancestors long ago sought to abolish. –Fr. Stephen Freeman, Why Pagans Aren’t Really Pagan
Now on to Easter:
It is claimed—and it is not widely known that there is no solid consensus on this—that the word “Easter” is derived from the name of a pagan fertility goddess, “Estre.”
Yet the Church, since ancient times, has referred to the celebration of the Resurrection as “Pascha,” the Greek/Hebrew for “Passover,” and not “Easter,” thereby emphasizing that the Resurrection is the fulfillment of the Old Testament Passover….
This celebration is not based on pagan rituals; it is based on that which is revealed to us in Scripture and celebrated by the Church since apostolic times in the Church’s Holy Tradition.
Perhaps the term “Easter” is based on pagan terminology—hence it is appropriate for us to use the proper term, “Pascha”—but the eternal victory of Our Savior that we celebrate and in which we participate is hardly based on paganism. —Is Easter a pagan feast?
It is an ancient Orthodox Christian tradition to have red eggs at Pascha. Many people are surprised to find out that this tradition dates to the Apostolic era. The custom of presenting each other with a red egg at Pascha reflects an interchange between Mary Magdalene and Tiberius Caesar….
Mary [was afflicted with] seven demons: those of pride, envy, wrath, avarice, sloth, gluttony, and lust. Mary struggled against the fierce attacks of these demons, and never succumbed to them.
She was unable, by her own power, to totally cast them away from herself, and it was thus necessary for Jesus Himself to cast these demons out of her. Mary Magdalene is referred to in the New Testament as the “woman out of Whom Jesus cast the seven demons.”
Mary Magdalene was about six years younger than the Panagia, the Theotokos, and was well known to her. The Mother of God loved her like a sister, and it is thus not surprising that Mary of Magdala became one of her Son’s followers.
Apparently she was a woman of some means, and her family of some significance for she helped support the work of Jesus and His disciples, and later had access to Caesar in Rome.
…Mary Magdalene is painted in iconography holding the red egg once presented to Tiberius Caesar, which she used to explain the mystery of Christ rising from a sealed tomb.
…It had become customary in Orthodox Russia to not only dye eggs red, but also to decorate them in the “pysankyy” tradition. Wealthy people and the Tsar himself had elegant jeweled eggs produced to give as gifts. The Fabergé eggs are exactly this.
The “easter bunny” and his “eggs” are a secular version of this sacred tradition.
The western tradition of dying and decorating “easter eggs” developed after the Tsars sent Fabergé eggs to the monarchs in Britain, and such decorated eggs became fashionable among all classes of people in England. —The Tradition of the Red Pascha Egg
Here William J. Tighe presents the origins of the celebration of Easter. You will see that Jewish, not pagan, practices figured into the dating of Easter.
This article shows that the Resurrection has been a centerpoint of the Church since the earliest days.
No one who has been through Orthodox Lent and Pascha, would think Easter is based on anything from paganism. The whole focus of practice, fasting and celebration during that time (and any other time), is on the life, suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ:
You reflect on and repent for your sins. You are mystically present with Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane, during the Trial, and during the Crucifixion.
Services are full of the depths of sorrow for sin, Christ’s purpose on Earth, and hopeful teachings of what will happen to the souls of the dead. Then you rejoice as Christ is resurrected.
There is nothing here about pagan goddesses or fuzzy bunnies.
Also, the dating of Easter/Pascha was originally based on the dating of the Jewish Passover. You will note that while “Easter” is an English word, the rest of the world mostly uses names based off “Passover,” such as “Pascha” in Greek (see a list here):
The other difference in the determination of Easter between the Orthodox and other Christian Churches concerns the date of Passover.
Jews originally celebrated Passover on the first full moon following the vernal equinox. Christians, therefore, celebrated Easter on the first Sunday after the first full moon following the vernal equinox.
After the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. and the other tragic events, which gave rise to the dispersal of the Jews, Passover sometimes preceded the vernal equinox. This was occasioned by the dependence of the dispersed Jews upon local pagan calendars for the calculation of Passover.
As a consequence, most Christians eventually ceased to regulate the observance of Easter by the Jewish Passover. Their purpose, of course, was to preserve the original practice of celebrating Easter following the vernal equinox. –Fr. Lewis J. Patsavos, PhD, The Calendar of the Orthodox Church
(Christians celebrated on a Sunday because Christ rose on a Sunday.) Also see here.
The Orthodox date for Easter is based on a decree of the Council of Nicaea, Asia Minor, held in 325 A.D. According to this decree, Easter must be celebrated on the Sunday following the first full moon of the vernal equinox but always after the Hebrew Passover to maintain the Biblical sequence of events of the Crucifixion and the Resurrection. The Orthodox Christian churches have adhered strictly to this formula. –GOARCH News Release, April 26, 2016, Orthodox Christians to Observe Pascha (Easter) May 1st
The Eastern Orthodox Church also applies the formula so that Easter always falls after Passover, since the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Christ took place after he entered Jerusalem to celebrate Passover.
In the Western Church, Easter sometimes precedes Passover by weeks. –Borgna Brunner, A Tale of Two Easters
Those Christians who originally converted from Judaism celebrated Easter in accordance with the Jewish calendar, on the same day that the feast of the Passover, ‘Pascha’, was celebrated, that day being the 14th of the lunar month of Nisan, regardless of the day of the week upon which it fell.
The Churches of Asia Minor followed this practice whilst the other Churches both in the East and in the West, always celebrated Easter on the Sunday following this date.
…By the third century AD, all the Churches had agreed upon celebrating Easter on the Sunday following 14th of Nisan. This date was determined in accordance with the Jewish calculation of Passover, on the first full moon following the vernal equinox.
Following the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70, however, the Jews of the Diaspora depended upon local pagan calendars for their calculations. The feast of Passover consequently sometimes preceded the vernal equinox and most Christians abandoned the practice of regulating the date of Easter through the date of Passover in order to avoid the inaccuracy occasioned by the dependence on these calendars.
…The issue was finally brought before the First Ecumenical Synod at Nicaea in AD 325, which decreed that Easter must not be calculated according to Passover, but that it must be celebrated after the vernal equinox, specifically, on the Sunday following the first full moon occurring after the date of the vernal equinox.
Subsequently, the regulation concerning Passover was interpreted as requiring that Easter be celebrated after Passover. The Eastern Church then reverted to the original method for the determination of the date of Passover and consequently of Easter. —H.E. Metropolitan Makarios Tillyrides of Zimbabwe, When do Orthodox Christians celebrate Easter?
The dating of Easter has been subject to much debate down through the centuries, including some who used the Jewish Passover to date it, and some who decried this practice.
The Orthodox Church uses a different calendar (Julian) to date Easter, and must date it after Passover. This is why the Western and Eastern churches do not always celebrate it on the same dates.
But you see that the equinox dating of Easter is to preserve the equinox dating of Passover, NOT to adopt pagan practices, as some have accused.
It seems that even the symbol of the Cross is not safe from revisionism. A while back, probably around 1998 or 1999, I was confronted with an outrageously ignorant question, asking:
Does it bother you that the cross, supposedly a Christian symbol, was actually stolen from the Egyptians? Why or why not?
(The Egyptian cross, the ankh, was a male-female symbol similar in concept to the yin-yang. When the Christians stole the ankh from the Egyptians, they removed the female symbol, or yoni, leaving only the masculine symbol–a subtle way of reinforcing the idea that women are lesser beings).
You see, somebody on a Christian Usenet newsgroup–probably rec.music.christian–asked if anybody wanted to answer her questionnaire, saying that if they were answered to her satisfaction she would convert. I volunteered, so she sent me a modified version of Heirophant’s Proselytizer Questionnaire.
(One question: “Why are you trying to convert me?” Answer: “Because you asked.” No, I was not an “Evangelical proselytizing zealot,” and never have been, but I’m always willing to answer questions from honest seekers.)
This questionnaire is obviously meant to be witty and a way to shoot down overzealous Evangelicals, supposedly well-researched etc.
But as you can see if you have any knowledge of Christian history and theology–and especially if you’ve been looking around the websites I reference here–that questionnaire is full of ludicrously funny questions, full of ignorance about Christianity.
I don’t know where the “research” was done, but it sure wasn’t in theology books or a Bible–probably, rather, various hate sites around the notoriously inaccurate Web. (Here is one person’s answers to those questions, by a former atheist who turned Christian.)
I had no idea the questionnaire would be so huge (her version had about 150 questions). And she did not mention that it wasn’t her own creation, but came off some website copyrighted 1997.
(I found it just now by accident. When I first wrote this page, there was even a forum for people to answer the questions, at http://forum.cygnus-study.com/forumdisplay.php?f=3.)
Thinking she actually sat down and come up with all or most of the questions and was serious, I sighed and decided to plod through it, answering as best I could.
For question 121, after saying that whoever came up with that theory obviously knew nothing about history–the Cross came from the crucifixion, and the manner of the crucifixion from the Romans–I heard no more about such theories.
But now, in doing a little Web searching on the symbolism of the ankh, I’ve come across similar theories. Apparently, now people are saying the Cross comes from the ankh.
This theory does not mention the anti-woman element, just that Coptic Christians thought it would be a good idea to incorporate the popular ankh into their symbolism, and the other patriarchates soon copied them.
So now there are people saying that, yet again, the Christians stole something from the pagans.
(Some people don’t care where the Cross symbol came from, while some hate anything Christian, and take any excuse to accuse the Church of stealing pagan holidays/symbols/deities and call Christians “ignorant” for calling these “stolen items” Christian.)
Now, as is clearly shown in the above links, we cannot trust the sources of these theories to tell us the true origins of Christmas and Easter. So why should we trust them on this ankh theory? Instead, here is an extensive article by the Catholic Encyclopedia on the origins of the Cross symbol.
Also, this article shows the true meaning of the Cross for the Church.
Yes, the Coptic Church seems to have based its cross on the ankh. But that’s the Coptic Church, and there was nothing sexist about it.
There are many different Cross symbols, which seem to have developed on their own, and all go back to the Crucifixion–not to making a pagan symbol anti-woman.
Also see this article by W. Ward Gasque, which debunks the idea that Christianity basically stole from the Egyptians.
But just in case my research above is not enough to convince you, if you want to hear from an atheist–here ya go: Tim O’Neill’s History for Atheists website, an atheist writing for atheists, showing that the myths of Christmas/Easter being pagan are false. See especially:
THE GREAT MYTHS 2: CHRISTMAS, MITHRAS AND PAGANISM
EASTER, ISHTAR, EOSTRE AND EGGS
Though conservative Protestant denominations tend to agree that the answer is yes, this is by no means what all churches believe. See above section on Hell.
From the Orthodox Study Bible:
–The Orthodox view is that unbelievers are judged according to the natural law, the law written on the conscience which every human being has. We are naturally good; to sin is to act against our nature.
–Habitual sins can dull the conscience; the conscience is also the means by which unbelievers can ultimately be saved. The goal is not man’s praise, but pleasing God. This is based on Romans 2:14-16 and 29.
–Also, those of us who are aware of the Mosaic Law (particularly the moral one, which still stands) are also aware that it is impossible to keep it perfectly; it cannot make us righteous.
–We are accountable to both the natural and Mosaic Law. Those who “become righteous by grace through faith fulfill in Christ both the natural and the Mosaic Law” (pp. 341-343, The Orthodox Study Bible).
Jesus Christ’s Parable of the Last Judgment (Matt.25:31-46) indicates that for many people the Judgment will become a moment of insight, recognition and conversion, while for others it may turn out to be a great disappointment and frustration.
Those who were sure of their own salvation will suddenly find themselves condemned, while those who perhaps did not meet Christ in their earthly life (‘when did we see Thee?’) but were merciful towards their neighbour, will be saved.
In this parable, the King does not ask people about matters of belief, doctrine and religious practice. He does not ask them whether they went to church, kept the fasts, or prayed for long time: He only asks them how they treated His ‘brethren’.
The main criteria of the Judgment are therefore the acts of mercy performed or not performed by people during their earthly lives.
According to the teaching of the Church, the Last Judgment will be universal: all people will undergo it, be they believers or non-believers, Christians or non-Christians.
If Christians will be judged by the Gospel’s standards, pagans will be judged by the natural law which is ‘written in their hearts’ (Rom.2:15).
Christians will take full responsibility for their deeds as those who ‘knew’ the will of God, while some non-Christians will be treated less strictly for they did not know God or His will.
The Judgment will ‘begin with the household of the Lord’ (1 Pet.4:17), that is, with the Church and its members, and not with those who did not meet Christ nor hear the message of the Gospel. —The Last Judgment
The Catholic view:
So, in the Orthodox view, what does it mean that Christ is the “Way, the Truth and the Life”? It does not mean that belief in Christ is the only way to Heaven, or that Christ is a gatekeeper keeping out the unbelievers. (One Orthodox forum poster jokingly referred to this belief as “Bouncer of Heaven.”) Rather, it means that Christ is the Judge of who receives salvation.
How will people be judged if they were not properly taught about Christ? We don’t know. But, as my priest says, we who were properly taught have the responsibility to believe/live the faith, be an example of it, and pray for those who are not Christians.
And how do the Orthodox answer the question, “What’s the point of missions, then, if good Muslims/Hindus/etc. can go to Heaven anyway?”
The point of missions is not to get spiritual notches on your witness belt, or to increase believer counts, or to snatch people out of Hell. Our eternal life begins now, not in Heaven, and here we begin sanctification (“theosis”).
The point of missions is to spiritually feed the church and then the people outside the church, getting them started on theosis right here and now.
“You ask, will the heterodox be saved….Why do you worry about them? They have a Saviour Who desires the salvation of every human being. He will take care of them. You and I should not be burdened with such a concern. Study yourself and your own sins…” –St. Theophan the Recluse
For more on this subject, related to the concept of Christ preaching in Hades, see here.
This is a baffling question which continues to trouble me whenever I read Deuteronomy and Joshua, no matter what explanations people come up with. The November 2005 issue of Presbyterians Today, in the column “Troubling Texts in the Bible,” dealt with this very question.
This column is not available in its entirety online, though you can buy it here. Obviously, I cannot copy the article here. So I will summarize:
- In contrast to Yahweh’s (God’s) commandment not to murder–which Jesus Christ expands on by saying that even hating someone is akin to murder–we are told in the books of Deuteronomy and Joshua that Yahweh commanded Israel to destroy the Canaanite peoples–in many cases, even the small children and infants.
- But “biblical scholars generally agree” that these accounts were written long afterwards, during a time when Israel was disobedient to Yahweh’s commands (the time of King Josiah, according to The New Oxford Annotated Bible).
- Instead of being recorded as a human vow made in hopes of victory in battles, it is recorded as God’s command to get idolatry out of the land. So the text unintentionally becomes a lesson for us on what can happen when we try to justify killing for our own purposes.
The Jewish Study Bible (edited by Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler) agrees that much of Deuteronomy was probably written during the time of King Josiah, and considers the genocide commands to be “an after-the-fact literary compilation rather than an historical portrayal.”
This is because of major variations in how the Canaanite peoples were listed and numbered, the use of the symbolic number 7 (completion or totality), variations in numbers of peoples listed depending on where in the Bible you look, and the fact that the genocide was not carried out except in “very limited areas.”
The law of the ban, or genocide command,
first arose centuries after the settlement; it was never implemented because there was no population extant against whom it could be implemented. Its polemic is directed at internal issues in 6th century Judah. Often the authors of Deuteronomy use the term ‘Canaanite’ rhetorically to stigmatize older forms of Israelite religion that they no longer accept (p. 382-383).
Another explanation put forth recently by archaeologists or scholars is that these stories were actually rumors spread around by the Israelites to keep the surrounding nations from messing with them. Somehow, they made it into Holy Writ.
This article provides citations for this, stating that most modern scholars agree the stories of genocide are “exaggerated, fictional, or metaphorical.” This is the explanation I most hope to be true–while noting that it is also most likely to be true.
Of course, to accept such explanations, we also have to believe the Bible is true, but not always historically or scientifically accurate. This belief is supported not only by moderate and liberal denominations such as the PCUSA, but also by the Catholic and Orthodox churches.
According to Scripture scholar Raymond Brown, the awareness of these so-called historical errors moved the Church at Vatican II to teach that the Bible is free from error only in matters of faith and morals and not in matters of history and science (New Jerome Biblical Commentary, 1169).
Brown supports this claim by appealing to section 11 of the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation (Dei Verbum), which reads, “we must acknowledge that the books of Scripture, firmly, faithfully and without error teach that truth which God, for the sake of our salvation, wished to see confided to the Sacred Scriptures.”
The phrase “for the sake of our salvation” is the key reference used to argue that only those things needed for our salvation (i.e., faith and morals) and not history and science, are free from error. –Karlo Broussard, Is Everything in the Bible True?
[Genesis] has nothing to say, for or against, the theory of evolution. Its true lessons are located elsewhere. –Fr. Lawrence Farley (Orthodox), Evolution or Creation Science?
The fundamentalist approach is ideological in that it is inclined to defend an absolute position of the plenary inspiration, propositional revelation, and total inerrancy of Scripture regarding all truth–scientific, historical, and theological–beyond the claims and evidence of Scripture itself.
While the intent to uphold the authority of Scripture is commendable, the extremes to which it has led, including a kind of intellectual sophistry and fanaticism, are indefensible. –Theodore G. Stylianopoulos, Scripture, Tradition, Hermeneutics
Another option is to look at these passages from a Jewish perspective I was fortunate enough to receive:
- The Israelites did not have the option of peaceful coexistence, because the surrounding peoples were ready to destroy them.
- The commandments were not meant to be taken literally, and in fact were not.
- The written Torah was limiting; an oral tradition was passed down from God to Moses to Moses’ successors to rabbis. This tradition helped to interpret the Torah properly. The written Torah was not always to be taken literally.
- The Israelites did not destroy everyone, they often fell into idolatry from the influence of the surrounding peoples (with whom they intermarried), and eventually ten tribes were expelled from Israel, never to be seen again.
Others have also noted that, if the Israelites kept the young children and babies alive, those children could grow up to destroy the Israelites out of revenge for their parents.
It’s a tough part of the Bible to deal with, but needs to be viewed from all angles, not just accepted or discarded without care.
The Presbyterian Church (USA) no longer believes in double predestination, or the idea that God predestines some to salvation and some to condemnation.
Even predestination of a Lutheran type–some are predestined to salvation, but no one is predestined to condemnation–is taught, but I’m given to understand that you don’t have to believe it to be Presbyterian.
I believe in a more Orthodox view: God works on every one of us. He makes the first move. It is up to us to decide; because he loves us, he will not force us.
This is closer to Arminianism and different from Pelagianism, which puts everything on man’s decision, while God sits back and waits.
Predestination–as in, God determines who will be saved, based on His own unknown reasons–was not a biblical doctrine: It arose in the Latin church, particularly with St. Augustine’s writings.
The Early Church Fathers said that we can’t take texts used to support predestination “at face value without leading to unacceptable deductions about God who is loving and just, and not arbitrary” (Theodore G. Stylianopoulos, The New Testament: An Orthodox Perspective).
St. Justin Martyr and St. John Damascene both criticized the view that God decides who will be damned and who will be blessed, arguing that it would make God unjust. Apparently, this view of “fate” came from paganism.
Rather, God gave us free will to make up our own minds. Before the Reformation, occasionally, someone would teach double predestination, and be proclaimed a heretic. If not for Luther and Calvin, double predestination would probably never have taken such a hold in Christian thought. (Dr. Daniel F. Stramara Jr., Free Will and Predestination)
In this PCUSA article on atonement, limited atonement (Calvinist) is not mentioned; it is more Orthodox and even says our goal of being is communion with God.
Sacrifices and Sin
In the Old Testament, in the laws given to ancient Israel, animal sacrifices were required. But they were so that God would “wink at” sins, a purification of the flesh (Heb. 9:13).
They could not remove them from the conscience or transform the person (Heb. 10:4). They also did not cover everything; certain sins had no sacrifices, so the sinner had to beg God for forgiveness.
Since sins could not be removed from the conscience, even the righteous had to go down to Sheol/Hades, awaiting the day that Christ defeated death and led the souls of the believing dead out of Sheol. (Did anybody stay behind? I doubt anyone would want to, but nobody knows.)
Since all have sinned, no ordinary priest could be the sinless one who takes on the guilt of the sinner and atones for the sins of all mankind.
Angry God and Redemption
Our eternal salvation is not just about Christ willingly giving himself as the ultimate sacrifice. The Orthodox note at least three parts to redemption, while the Catholic and Protestant churches generally focus on Christ’s sacrifice on the cross for the atonement of our sins:
- Christ took on human nature so that we could again take on God’s nature.
- Christ atoned for our sins. He took the punishment and paid the price for them–like a fine or a price set for a slave’s redemption, or freedom–so we could be set free from them.
- When he was resurrected, he broke the bonds of Hell and defeated death so we can live forever.
Also note that Christ did this willingly, and that Christ is God himself. It wasn’t the Father beating up the Son to appease his wrath, nor was it God beating himself up to appease his wrath.
Basically, wrath was introduced into the world because of the Fall, and God’s self-sacrifice ended it.
I’ve read that the concept of the angry god who must be appeased by blood sacrifice is not from Judaism, but from paganism. That even when Abraham was ordered to sacrifice his son Isaac, the word is “Elohim”–not “Yahweh”–because the order did not come from God at all. (I read this in a Web theology forum, so I don’t know if it’s correct or not.)
The Orthodox say that God did not have to use this way to save mankind from sin and death, but chose it because it was just and righteous. God is not at the mercy of some righteous law higher than he; he creates the laws according to his righteousness.
The plan of God for man’s salvation is called the plan of ‘divine economy,’ i.e. divine dispensation. God the Father conceives the plan, the Son executes it, the Holy Spirit fulfills it and leads it to perfection and finalization. –His Eminence Metropolitan Maximos of Pittsburgh, The Dogmatic Tradition of the Orthodox Church
God could have redeemed us in another way, but wanted to demonstrate his love for us by giving up what meant the most to him: his only son.
So there is no reason for you to sacrifice an animal now: It won’t help you eternally, and you have a much better way to be redeemed.
One teaching, though by no means widespread in the modern age, is that unbaptized babies who die go to Hell. This teaching stems from the Western (European) idea that Original Sin means we all inherit Adam’s guilt.
Many Protestant Christians do seem to believe that babies are innocent, that Original Sin means an inborn tendency to (not guilt of) sin, and anyone who has not heard of or does not fully understand salvation is judged by conscience. There is support for this in Romans, that conscience condemns some and may perhaps save others.
The Eastern Orthodox church says that the Western concept of Original Sin is totally wrong: We do not inherit Adam’s sins. Since he became mortal, and we are born from his seed, we are also mortal and subject to mortal weaknesses (death, sin, etc.). Death is seen not so much as a punishment but as mercy, preventing us from sinning forever.
The Orthodox church insists that the concept of a God who must be appeased in the proper way or he will send you to everlasting punishment in a Hell he created, is a Western perversion.
Instead, God is loving. Even his wrath, justice and judgment are loving, not cruel or discriminating. Our eternal suffering comes from us (NOT God).
And we cannot say how he will judge those who are too young, mentally deficient, uninformed or misinformed, or of other religions. We must remember that his justice is “the divine energy which accomplishes man’s salvation”–full of mercy, compassion, love, fidelity, and truth.
The earth too had a beginning and man was created by God’s love. The creation of man and of the universe was not out of necessity. Creation is the work of the free and unconditional will of the Creator.
If He had so wished, He need not have created us; the absence of creation would not have been a privation for Him. The creature’s love is not one that gives Him satisfaction. God has no need to be satisfied. He needs nothing.
God’s love cannot be compared to human love, even as His other attributes such as paternity, justice, goodness cannot be compared to their human counterparts. God’s love is a love that constitutes a mystery unfathomable to man’s reason or intellect.
God has no ’emotions’ which might create passion, suffering, need or necessity in Him. Nevertheless, although the nature of divine love remains incomprehensible and inexplicable to human reason, this love is real and genuine and I confess, in agreement with Scripture, that God is love. —I Believe…: A Short Exposition of Orthodox Doctrine
Note that the Nazarene church (in which I was raised) agrees with the Orthodox church on the meaning of original sin:
We believe that sin came into the world through the disobedience of our first parents, and death by sin. We believe that sin is of two kinds: original sin or depravity, and actual or personal sin.
We believe that original sin, or depravity, is that corruption of the nature of all the offspring of Adam by reason of which everyone is very far gone from original righteousness or the pure state of our first parents at the time of their creation, is averse to God, is without spiritual life, and inclined to evil, and that continually….
We believe that original sin differs from actual sin in that it constitutes an inherited propensity to actual sin for which no one is accountable until its divinely provided remedy is neglected or rejected. We believe that actual or personal sin is a voluntary violation of a known law of God by a morally responsible person….
We believe that personal sin is primarily and essentially a violation of the law of love; and that in relation to Christ sin may be defined as unbelief. –p. 27-28, Church of the Nazarene Manual, Nazarene Publishing House, c. 1997
The Nazarene church is not Calvinist. Traditional Calvinists believe, “Once saved, always saved,” and that because of “total depravity” or “original sin,” only God’s predestined chosen are enabled to believe in Christ.
The Nazarene church believes that saved persons can be lost if they turn away from the faith. It also believes that Christ’s atonement is full and sufficient for all human sin and all human beings, and that the grace of God through Jesus Christ is freely bestowed on everyone, allowing anyone to turn to faith and God.
The Orthodox believe that no one is totally depraved, that the image of God is still in everyone, that the Holy Spirit invites everyone to Christ.
You’re not just “saved from Hell,” as some might put it; you’re saved from “sin, death, and evil” (also more in keeping with the Nazarene and Lutheran definitions of salvation).
You receive the Holy Spirit and he begins to change you, make you more like Christ. Being like God and Christ (in heart though not in substance) is our ultimate goal. Another word for this is sanctification.
We must make a distinction between modern catchphrases and proper definitions: It’s not, “a believer knows he’s saved from Hell and a disciple knows he’s saved for glorifying God by loving God and people.”
(I’d never heard that definition before now. Is that another TULIP Calvinism-based doctrine? Based on my most recent research, it probably is. Apparently TULIP Calvinism says that were are saved from Hell for the glory of God. In my Nazarene tradition, being saved from Hell was part of it, but the most common thing I’ve always heard is, “saved from our sins.” As a Nazarene, I grew up Arminian, the opposite of Calvinist.)
A believer is anyone who believes in Christ, has repented of his sins, and is now reconciled to God. Many traditions include baptism in that.
Being saved from eternal torment (whatever exactly that means) is only part of it, and any conversion based merely on that is based on fear, therefore dubious: If you stop believing in Hell, you no longer have to believe in Christ to feel “safe.”
Another webpage which describes the Orthodox view of salvation and atonement: Why I Cannot in Good Conscience be a Protestant
Discipleship is a “life-long process of learning and living the faith” (Living as Apostles to America by Fr. Constantine L. Sitaras).
Here, we are said to be saved from “sin, death, and evil,” and redemption means “repossession by God”: Spirituality by Rev. Thomas Fitzgerald
The Nazarene church defines discipleship as Christian maturity, a way of life, “the process of learning how God would have us live in the world,” with the ultimate goal of becoming like Christ in character (We Are a Missional People).
These are the definitions I keep finding as I search the Web for definitions of discipleship: lifelong learning, lifelong seeking to be like Christ, obedience to Christ. As for what you are saved for, Catholics believe it’s for union with Christ/God. Salvation–Are You Saved? by Katrina J. Zeno
This sounds much like the Orthodox belief as well, since reconciliation with God and taking on his character and eternal life to commune with him is seen as our primary purpose in salvation.
I do see several Protestant fundamentalist sites which say that we are “saved for service.”
It seems the newer traditions look at it as, you are saved to be a tool, while the oldest traditions say you are saved for union/communion with God.
Which one seems more loving and less manipulative to you? Which one seems like God saying, “Well, what’s in it for me?”
If you are in communion with God, service is something you naturally want to do. But it’s not the biggest thing God wants out of you.
One site says that we are saved for “a full and abundant life”; some others say we are saved for Heaven. So now it’s all about us? I think I’ll go with the ancients on this one.
In all the parts of the Early Church, salvation was “understood as union with God. This was the primary focus: union,” though this union was seen in different ways by the three main branches–Syriac, Greek and Latin–of the Early Church (Soteriology by Dr. Daniel F. Stramara Jr.).
In questions 1-4, 8, 16-19, and 21, see what the Presbyterian Study Catechism of 1998 says on the subject.
From Belonging to God: A First Catechism, Question 32: “Forgiveness and eternal life with God are what we mean by salvation.”
The Lutheran view is that we are redeemed “from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil.” For what are we saved? To be Christ’s own, righteous and blameless in God’s sight; to live under him in his kingdom, being freed from the slavery of sin and freed to serve God; to serve him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness, honoring him with our whole lives and rejoicing with him on Earth and in Heaven (p. 131 and 141-2, Luther’s Small Catechism, Concordia Publishing House, c. 1986).
Redemption, Atonement, Salvation
I’ve been hearing traditional Calvinistic doctrines coming from my previous church’s leaders for a couple of years now, not just through sermons but through mailings we still get. [I wrote this webpage in 2005 or 2006. We had only just left the Evangelical Free Church in 2004, and were still in the PCUSA. I was researching the Orthodox Church.]
The doctrines probably came from the pastor reading Calvinist theologian John Piper.
Because of the absence of predestination and limited atonement doctrines, we didn’t know they were Calvinist doctrines until recently; we just knew they were totally foreign.
I’ve just discovered (from websites about or run by the Evangelical Free Church of America) that the EFCA does not hold an official stance on Arminianism or Calvinism–which means that pastors in the EFCA are free to be TULIP Calvinists–and many of them are!
And if the PCUSA ever abandons its modern Reformed, moderate theology to return to its strict Calvinist/Reformed roots, we will be right to leave it as well. As long as they’re only 2- or 3-point Calvinist, if that, we can stay.
It has been said that even Calvin focused quite a bit on mystical union with God, but in TULIP Calvinism, it’s practically absent.
The Orthodox church has a different take on salvation than Protestant denominations. I will soon describe again the three-step process which Christ took to save us, contrary to the Western view, which focuses on the atonement. For now, I will mention our part of salvation:
The Orthodox do not believe it happens at one particular time: the altar call, the time of decision, whatever. In this, they are more akin to Calvinists and Lutherans, who recognize the Spirit’s work in a person before he actually believes. That makes the altar call useless.
In Orthodoxy, salvation means you’ve been saved, “being joined to Christ in baptism”; you’re being saved, basically being sanctified; and you will be saved at the Last Judgment (p. 348, The Orthodox Study Bible).
Salvation, for Orthodox Christians, is seen as deliverance from the curse of sin and death, which makes it possible for us to enter into union with God through Christ the Savior.
Salvation includes a process of growth of the whole person whereby the sinner is transformed into the image and likeness of God.
One is saved by faith through grace, although saving faith involves more than belief. Faith must be active and living, manifested by works of righteousness, whereby we cooperate with God to do His will.
Hence, if one is ‘being saved,’ one is on the way to one’s ultimate goal: eternal union with God and participation in the divine nature, as Saint Paul writes. –OCA, Falling Away from the Faith
According to Dr. Daniel F. Stramara Jr.:
In the Early Church, the Syriac branch saw sin as rupture between God and man; salvation was universal restoration of all things, and between Creator and creation. It was union, communion, fellowship. All of creation is offered up to God; peace and Paradise are restored.
The Greek branch saw sin as alienation; salvation was reconciliation between God and man, an exchange which leads to transformation, regeneration. “Salvation is the establishment of a new creation.”
The Latin branch saw sin as disobedience; salvation was redemption and restitution. Note the legal emphasis.
To the Greeks, the “economy of grace” was “God’s taking care of the household of faith throughout history.” The word used for economy, oikonomia, meant a “steward dispensing money for the management of the household.” The stewards were the Apostles, proclaiming and explaining the Gospel. The means of salvation included Christ’s Incarnation and Resurrection, not just the Cross.
The Latins, who did not have a word for oikonomia, made up their own word, oeconomia, which they “interpreted in financial terms, and not without warrant.”
Latin culture, since it was based in the ancient Roman Empire, focused on “law, order and justice.” God seems to have been given a position similar to a king or an emperor, that of supreme Lawgiver and Judge.
Paul’s letter to the Romans–using, as he commonly did, terms and understandings of the local culture in order to explain things–used this legal terminology.
So to the Latins, the “economy of grace” was Christ paying the debt of sinners who broke God’s laws and deserved punishment. Salvation is “legal and economic redemption.” Christ’s death is the means of salvation and the center of Latin theology–and, by extension, Protestant theology.
Though the Orthodox and the Catholic/Protestant branches all include the Incarnation, Resurrection, and the Cross, and though they all include reconciliation, redemption, restitution, and regeneration, the emphases are different because of the differences between the Eastern and Latin branches of the Early Church. –Dr. Daniel F. Stramara Jr., Soteriology
The Orthodox do not believe in the TULIP Calvinist or even Lutheran forms of predestination, or that grace is irresistible. Instead, God knows what will happen, what choices we will make, and predestines based on that–not based on some mysterious or arbitrary choice of his own for his glory or any other reason.
The Orthodox say that the early church did not believe in irresistible grace.
Double predestination, the Calvinist version in which many are predestined to damnation, is pinned on Augustine–not the view of the Early Church or the Church Fathers. Though St. Augustine is considered a saint by both East and West, he is also acknowledged to have erred in certain writings. –Rev. Dr. George C. Papademetriou, St. Augustine in the Greek Orthodox Tradition
The atonement is not limited, because God wants to save everyone. Because of his love, God gives us the freedom to choose or reject him. He will not force anyone.
This is the same teaching used by Arminians, so can it truly be called “Arminianism”–as if it were a recent heresy? Shouldn’t we instead reject Pelagianism, with which Arminianism is often confused?
Pelagianism makes salvation purely man’s decision; Arminianism (and Orthodoxy) says that the Holy Spirit brings a person to faith. The Orthodox and Lutherans alike reject Pelagianism.
(I would suspect that the Orthodox also reject the idea that God plans out for us what spouse, career, etc. we will have.)
For us it is sufficient to know these two clear, understandable, basic precepts:
first, God desires that we be saved, for He loves mankind.
Second, we can be saved, for we are free.
Thus, the will of God and the desire of man make up predestination. God desires, and if man desires also, then he or she is already predestined.
Yes, God, the Lover of mankind, desires that we all be saved. This is confirmed by His three non-contradictory attributes: divine justice, divine mercy, and divine providence. . . .
Even the slightest suffering of Christ had potential to expiate the universal sin. One drop of His most pure blood could extinguish all the flames of eternal torment. His death alone, had it been natural, without sickness, could have saved the entire human race.
Yet when He suffered, He suffered as no one has. When He shed His blood to the last drop, when He died on the cross, enduring such torment and shame, can we possibly think that He did all this to save only part of the human race, leaving the remainder to be damned?
He could so easily have saved everyone. Yet, after such an effort, would He desire to save only a few? Did He expend such a priceless treasure in paying for such a small purchase, did He pour forth all the wealth of His divine mercy just to be benevolent to a numbered few?
NO! The Divine gift is for all! The wounds of Jesus Christ are healing for all. The blood of Jesus Christ is the miraculous ladder by which we all can ascend to paradise.
For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, Who gave Himself as ransom for all, says Paul (I Tim. 2:5). One died for all (2 Cor. 5:14).
If He died for all, then He wants all to be saved. “The Son of Righteousness,” we are told by St. Gregory the Theologian, “shown forth for all, lived for all and died and is risen for all.” –Bishop Elias Minatios, On Predestination
Also see: Elder Cleopa of Romania, On the Presuppositions of Our Personal Salvation
Works vs. Faith Salvation
First of all, God does the saving, based on our faith. We are saved by grace through faith.
Second, we are inspired to do good works as the Holy Spirit works within us to make us righteous.
If we don’t do good works, if we don’t love anyone but ourselves, if we care nothing for obedience to God or following Christ, if we do not repent for sins we still commit, then how can we say we have faith? The issue is not works vs. faith, but works and faith. –OCA, Grace and Salvation
The works don’t cause our salvation, but are the proof of it. The Orthodox and the Nazarenes agree that “once saved, always saved” is unbiblical: You can be saved but still turn away and lose your salvation.
But can you be a good Christian, then lose your salvation by stubbing your toe and letting out a string of obscenities? Or do you have to turn away from Christ and the church to lose your salvation?
The Nazarene church says you have to turn away from Christ, though I have heard of a school of thought which says you have to repent every time you do something or you’ll be condemned.
This school of thought never seemed to predominate in my church, however. Salvation was seen to happen at a moment in time, but you had to reject Christ to lose your salvation.
With the Orthodox, since salvation is a process rather than a moment in time, it comes out the same: You don’t “apostasize,” or lose your salvation, unless you totally reject Christ.
While some Protestants would say that once a person is saved, he or she is always saved, and other Protestants would say that once a person is saved, he or she can lose his or her salvation,
Orthodoxy, by virtue of its understanding of salvation as an ongoing process of spiritual growth,
would say that one can indeed jeopardize one’s salvation, but that it is not realistic to say that one has ‘lost’ something that one has yet to experience or possess in its fullness. –OCA, Falling Away from the Faith
So, I don’t think they’re saying that you will go to Hell if you are a faithful Christian but cut somebody off in traffic and die.
It is important to continually pray for forgiveness; this is a discipline I started in my childhood, so it is totally familiar to me, even as a Protestant. Public confession is also included in the liturgies of various denominations, such as Presbyterian and Lutheran.
Continual repentance shows that you are truly interested in following God, and allows God the opportunity to forgive you.
You don’t repent for a lifetime of sins over and over again after your first repentance, but for new sins. You don’t lose your salvation if you do something, but it does hurt your standing with God.
If you forget something, you won’t stand before God at Judgment and hear, “But you never repented for hitting the cat when you were five years old, so you are now condemned to burn for all eternity.”
Or, “You were a faithful Christian, but you really should have eaten less, held your tongue, and worked at a soup kitchen, so you will now burn in Hell for all eternity. How could you have been imperfect? Didn’t you understand what I told you to do?”
The Orthodox Church teaches that we are saved only on the basis of God’s grace. However, God himself has established conditions for us to receive this grace, namely faith and works–the first of which must be repentance.
These conditions do not earn our salvation, but God nonetheless requires them of us, and this is what the Scriptures and the Holy Fathers through every century have taught. In fact, it is also what many Protestants teach.” –Fr. John Whiteford and Patrick Barnes, Miles from the Truth: A Response to “Thema: Eastern Heterodoxy”
As we find in Salvation by Christ: A Response to the Credenda/Agenda by Carmen Fragapane, we do these works out of free will, but even our free will is the work of the Holy Spirit. In the doctrine of synergy, or cooperation with God in our salvation, we do our part because of the Holy Spirit’s work in us.
Even our initial faith is from the work of the Spirit. Justification and sanctification, “accompanied as it is” by good works, is “totally grace driven” because only God can give us the strength to keep doing them.
As seen above, the Orthodox insist that, though we must work for our salvation, we do not earn it: a contrast with the Roman Catholic teaching of merit, which Luther disputed.
How do they reconcile Paul’s words–“we are justified by faith, not by works”–with James’–“we are justified by works and not by faith alone”? (Luther did not like the book of James, which contradicted the theology he had built up.)
The answer is quite simple: According to the Orthodox Study Bible, they were talking about two different kinds of “works”:
Paul fought self-righteousness and Christians who demanded that Gentiles follow Jewish laws. He meant the works of “formal, legalistic obedience,” such as circumcision, observing festivals, etc.
James fought “dead, legalistic Christianity” and faith which merely agrees to Christian doctrine, without living it. By works, James meant “willed actions flowing from belief, as the life of faith,” such as the Ten Commandments, giving to the poor, etc. Works and faith are not separated from each other (p. 539, The Orthodox Study Bible).
I see no indication in Orthodox doctrine that we are expected to be perfect in this life. After all, salvation is seen as a lifelong process.
Neither do I see that we are holier than others because we follow a set of dos and don’ts. Rather, it’s about discipline, learning obedience to Christ.
The “good works” lists tend to include fasting, repentance, vigils, almsgiving, works of charity–rather than legalistic rules such as, wear your hair a certain way, wear certain clothes, don’t drink alcohol, don’t smoke, don’t cuss, tithe ten percent gross and give it all to your local church, etc.
As a Protestant from a Holiness background, I don’t understand the “vigils” or “fasting” part, but even Protestants know about repentance, giving to the poor, and works of charity. We know they are expected of us.
Other Orthodox “good works” lists I have seen are simply based on Christ’s question at the Judgment, in which he asks how we treated our fellow man: the poor, the sick, the hungry, etc.
The Orthodox say there is no quota of good works which we must fill. What is important is that we show our faith through our lives and how we treat others. Our salvation depends on our willingness to do this.
You’ll note that, at the Judgment, Christ divides us based not on how we worshipped or what we wore or what we put into our bodies or how many church programs we headed or whether or not we went on Work and Witness teams, but on how we treated each other. –OCA, Grace and Salvation
Every Christian is called to holiness and throughout the Church’s history there have been true saints; however, saints who have managed to transcend sin and the passions are very few.
The majority of Christians are sinners who are members of the Church not by virtue of a holiness attained, but by virtue of their striving for this holiness and their repentance.
The Church’s task is to sanctify them and lead them to God. In this sense it is said of Christians that they are in patria et in via–in the homeland and on the way, that is, simultaneously within the Church and yet on the way towards her. –Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev, The Attributes of the Church
A good explanation of the Orthodox doctrine of synergy and faith vs. works is here.
The meaning of justification and sanctification
The understanding of “justification” and “sanctification” is different from the Protestant understanding, as well:
Justification means “make righteous” (which the original Greek supports), rather than just a legal term meaning “declared righteous.”
Sanctification means “make holy.” They’re basically two sides of the same coin: being made righteous and holy, a continuous process.
The moral law–the part of the Mosaic Law that did not pass away, as opposed to the civil (legal) or ceremonial Mosaic Laws–was given for our benefit, not to make us sinners deserving of wrath. Through following the law, we receive blessings.
God requires us to be holy because that’s what we’re created for, not so he can have something to hold over our heads. We also do not have to be perfect to be forgiven.
As you can see under the heading “Justification vs. Theosis?” in Salvation by Christ: A Response to the Credenda/Agenda, Lutheran and Orthodox scholars have discussed justification and discovered their teachings are much the same. Check out this article if you want a full understanding of the Orthodox view of justification.
If we look at the beliefs of the Early Church for a guide, we find that they looked at the whole of the teachings by Paul, Peter, and James. And if we read “justification” as “make righteous,” then it has to include acts of charity, prayer, and the like–especially if you want to strengthen your faith.
After all, we wouldn’t consider Ebenezer Scrooge to be saved, even if he were to say he had faith in God. Christ Himself railed against those who cared nothing for the poor and needy, culminating this teaching in a parable which showed a rich man in suffering, while the poor man he neglected, Lazarus, experienced bliss.
(Both were in Hades, where all souls went. But their experiences differed because of, and were separated by, the spiritual gulf of their different choices, as St. Gregory of Nyssa explains in On the Soul and the Resurrection.)
The danger is getting faith and deeds out of balance. Just as we wouldn’t believe Scrooge if he called himself a Christian, we also should not concentrate on good deeds over faith, as if they will somehow get God to love us more. In the late Middle Ages, the Catholic church overemphasized works, which led Martin Luther to say that salvation is by faith alone.
In the final analysis, faith holds primacy, and that is why the Early Church (both East and West) consciously said one is saved by faith and good works, not by good works and faith.
Just as meaningful doing should naturally flow from authentic being; life-giving good works should spontaneously arise from a living faith. –Dr. Daniel F. Stramara Jr., Faith and Good Works
Orthodox view of redemption, again
First of all, the reason for the Cross is a bit different.
God is seen as impassive; that is, he’s not stirred to strong passions for evil in the same way we humans are, passions which drive us to defend ourselves or our good name at the expense of rational thinking or love or justice.
He does not hate sinners, as demonstrated when Christ spent so much time with sinners. He hates sinful deeds–those are what condemn a soul.
And when the Bible speaks of his wrath, that “wrath” is actually the way sinners experience his love and sense of justice–you know, just as with a parent and child.
A good parent loves the child, protects him, and tells him not to do things because they will hurt him, make things difficult for the parent changing his diaper, or will hurt someone else.
But the child does not like being told no, and will act up. The parent punishes, but not to upset the child or be a tyrant, though the child thinks so. Assuming the parent is not abusive, this is corrective discipline and loving.
“Wrath” was not meant to be literal, but so the writers and readers of the Bible could understand. It basically means “consequences.” Redemption redeems us from sin’s consequences; it heals our spiritually diseased condition.
The way I understand it, though some disagree, the Orthodox do not reject the idea that the Cross redeemed us from our sins. Make no mistake, it has great importance. But it is only a part of what Christ accomplished:
Again, Original Sin, as the Orthodox and Nazarenes agree, is not inherited guilt, but inherited weakness. Babies are not guilty of any sin. Our own sins make us guilty.
When Adam fell spiritually and became mortal, he passed on his mortality to us. Three things now separated us from God: our nature, sin, and death.
When Christ was born, he took on human nature so that we can take on God’s nature, or character (not abilities).
When Christ died, he broke through the barrier of sin which prevented the Holy Spirit from dwelling inside humans.
He became sin so sinners could become holy. Since Christ was innocent, he paid the debt for us and redeemed us, like a slave or someone who owes a fine to a court. We no longer have to be slaves to sin.
(The Eastern view is that it satisfies God’s righteousness and justice, that it is propitiation, or reconciliation. The atonement is not just Christ’s death, it is his offering of himself.
(The way I understand it, the Orthodox church accuses the Catholic church of taking the figurative terms of the Apostles and, in the Middle Ages, making them overly literal terms fitting with the Latin view of Original Sin.
(The Latin view of Original Sin is that Adam infinitely offended God, the guilt has been passed to all of Adam’s descendants, and only Christ’s sacrifice could appease this angry God.)
And, most importantly, Christ defeated death by dying, which he had to do so he could resurrect. When he rose again, he made it possible for us to also rise again and live eternally in new bodies.
(The Latin view is that Christ came to Earth so he could be the sacrifice for our sins, and that the Resurrection shows his glory.)
We are saved not because we say a magical prayer, but because we repent, are baptized, receive the Holy Spirit, and begin the process of becoming like Christ.
Being just like God and Christ is a goal to strive for, though not a goal we’ll reach until the Resurrection. This is done not just for God’s glory, but so that we may have communion with God. This is his desire, and inside every one of us is this desire.
So why don’t the translators of our English Bibles bring us such understandings? The Orthodox claim to have a better understanding of Greek (since they have always spoken it in the Greek branch), and that they have faithfully held to the interpretations of the Early Church.
To Greek and some Syriac Early Church Fathers, the Incarnation had nothing to do with Adam and Eve sinning. Its purpose was union between God and mankind, a union expressed in marital terms.
To the Latin Fathers, the Incarnation only happened because of the sin of Adam and Eve. This offended the Eastern church and even some Latin Popes, but after the Schism in the 11th century, it became the official doctrine of the Roman church. As explained by Stramara in Soteriology,
From the Eastern perspective, God’s desire and reason for the Incarnation was loving intimacy, not punishment for sin. The Sacrifice of the Paschal Lamb, while foreknown by God, was not the primary motivation for the Incarnation.
The East accentuates God’s mercy over God’s justice; the West is vice versa.
According to an Orthodox catechism by Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev, some Western Medieval theologians came up with the idea that the redemption, or ransom of humanity, was paid to God the Father, that the Fall
aroused God’s anger and that divine justice necessarily required satisfaction: as no human sacrifice could suffice, the Son of God Himself became the ransom in order to satisfy divine justice….
This theory, which rose at the heart of Latin scholastic theology, bears a juridicial stamp and reflects the medieval concept of an offended honour that demands satisfaction.
The Bishop continues that the Eastern Orthodox Church stated in 1157 that the sacrifice was not just to the Father, but to the whole Trinity.
Christ voluntarily offered Himself as a sacrifice, offered Himself in His humanity and Himself accepted the sacrifice as God with the Father and the Spirit….
The God-man of the Word offered His redemptive sacrifice to the Father, to Himself as God, and to the Spirit. —Redemption
For more detailed information, describing not only redemption in detail but also how the Orthodox view the Western view of atonement, see:
(I used to include a link to a thread in Theology Web forums, in which Orthodox and Protestant posters debated the meaning of the atonement. One of the posters was so good at this that I wished I could clip and paste everything he wrote, with phrases such as, “God is not some boiling rage-pot” who needs to vent on somebody, that somebody being Christ. He also went into the meaning of the Hebrews passages about sacrifices. However, that forum thread no longer exists, not even in the Internet Wayback Machine. 🙁 )
Links on Orthodoxy and original sin:
Here is a brief, easy-to-understand article by Fr. John Breck, “God’s ‘Righteousness,'” on the Orthodox views on righteousness, works vs. faith, justification, deification/sanctification/theosis, and original sin.
It says we are saved from death, not as a “forensic liberation from guilt through imputed or imparted righteousness.” Rather, salvation is “incorporation, by baptism, into Christ’s death and resurrection, such that we ‘die and rise’ with Him.”
Also, “Good works should thus be understood to be a response rather than a means to salvation. And God’s righteousness should be seen as a gift of loving, merciful, saving grace, rather than as a forensic tool, wielded in the service of divine judgment.” —God’s “Righteousness”
The Orthodox do not say that other Christians are not saved, and they do accept previous baptisms by converts as long as they were done in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. (No “Parent, Child and Spirit” baptisms are considered valid, for example. I heard of such things in the PCUSA.)
But they do say they have the fullness of truth, just as many Christians say that other religions have elements of truth but Christianity has the fullness of truth.
Many Protestants hold some teachings similar to Orthodoxy. I think that Luther and Calvin had many good things to say as well.
But I also think that the West has,
- at one extreme, made God into a monster so horrid that it’s easy to see why so many people run to alternate religions,
- and at the other extreme, made God into a loving but overly indulgent Father who cares more about making you happy than about saving the world (the “Buddy Christ” image).
One extreme is too strict; the other uses snappy catchphrases and McPraise & McWorship music that often talks about feeling good.
One extreme has a neo-Gnostic view that everything of the world is evil, including holidays and rock music; the other extreme has another neo-Gnostic view that we should do whatever we want, even if it means bringing in Pagan rituals and beliefs.
(See Paganism in Our Churches. You see, there were different kinds of Gnostics in the Early Church: One denied the flesh, the other embraced it.)
The Orthodox church’s insights can help bring us all back into line with true Gospel. One thing on which they and the liberals agree is that God has been sorely misrepresented for centuries, and his love should be emphasized.
Individual interpretation is the way to confusion; we need to have the church examine theologies and bring them into line with truth. But finding a church which can be trusted to do this, is another matter.
One abandons all tradition and won’t even recite the Apostle’s Creed; another does not want to change any traditions, no matter if the traditions are from God or manmade. (This also makes it hard for me to take quotes from the writings of just one denomination.)
The Catholic and Orthodox churches are right that just abandoning tradition has led to our current atmosphere of thousands of denominations arguing with each other.
It’s funny that many of the spiritually abusive cults claim to resurrect the Early Church’s practices. Many of the mainstream, non-abusive churches also claim this. Yet these are fundamentalist or evangelical Protestant churches with little resemblance to the Early Church.
The Orthodox Church, on the other hand, has practices and beliefs which have been carried down intact through 2000 years.
Check this out. It’s amazing, and sometimes even changes how familiar verses are to be understood. Yet it is biblical, since I checked my Greek New Testament and found the word energeia where this article says it is:
The Uncreated Energies: The Light and Fire of God by Peter Chopelas
Another webpage which describes how these uncreated energies save us: Why I Cannot in Good Conscience be a Protestant
Disclaimer: I am not a preacher, theologian, prophet or teacher. I’m just a Christian who loves to research theology and other subjects.
I used to be Evangelical and once I even watched “The 700 Club” religiously, but I’ve discovered there are many weaknesses in Evangelical theology and the applications of it. I believe in doctrinal truth, which ultimately led me to Orthodoxy.
I try to make my postings as accurate as possible, but there is always the possibility of error. These pages are, therefore, opinion–not theological dissertations–and a collection of links–a database, if you will, which I invite anyone to share with me.
Also, please note: In quotes, I try to follow the exact punctuation/grammar of the source. So if it’s wrong, blame the source.
This website is meant for informational and personal-musing use only, so no copyright infringement is intended.
Last updated 11/5/16
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