Wednesday, August 09, 2006


It's become more and more evident to me that I need some kind of response prepared for Evangelicals who ask about Orthodoxy and salvation. This issue in some respects tends to be a higher priority for Evangelicals than for Orthodox themselves. As evidence, consider the results when you google eastern orthodox salvation--almost everything that comes up (in the first seven pages or so, which is as far as I got) is either general interest (,, wikipedia, etc.) or some kind of Evangelical polemic (something written by Evangelicals for Evangelicals about Orthodoxy, mostly to point out what's wrong with it). These results contrast with several other topical searches that I've done online over the past couple of years--normally, if it's an issue that Orthodox writers address, you'll find it on an Orthodox site without too much searching.

The reason for this outcome, I submit, is not that Orthodox adherents are unconcerned with salvation per se; rather, their approach to salvation is different in several respects that affect the way they talk about it. A question like, "Are you saved?" makes sense in an Evangelical context (although those who are sensitive about evangelism would advise against using it, since it's not terribly meaningful to outsiders--presumably the target audience of the question). It makes a good deal less sense in an Orthodox setting, as I hope to explain. This is partly a matter of convention--different groups use different terminology, sometimes to refer to the same things. It goes beyond that, though. In this case, as is so often true of convention, terminology is driven largely by the underlying ideas that need to be expressed in the group. A question like, "Are you saved?" never really needs to be answered--for that matter, cannot be answered--in Orthodox circles; therefore, a convention never developed for asking it.

You see, Orthodoxy takes the long view of salvation. Salvation is something we experience in process now and ultimately in the future. Salvation in Orthodoxy does not stop with a declaration of someone's status or an abstract spiritual turning point. From an Orthodox perspective, the wisdom in avoiding terms like "saved" when speaking to those outside the fold is found precisely in the fact that their meanings are non-intuitive as used by Evangelicals. They carry a great deal of symbolic meaning for Evangelicals themselves, but for anyone else, they don't seem to mean much of anything, or at least don't mean what one might naturally think they would mean. "Are you saved?" for instance, is a question almost exclusive to (Evangelical) religious discussion. In normal life, one might say, "Were you saved?" referring to deliverance that occurred at a specific time in relation to a specific threat; but "saved" does not describe a definable state for most people (aside from something like a "saved seat," but that is not talking about a person).

In this case, Orthodoxy would agree with standard intuition--salvation is something that goes on in process while a threat persists and is completed only when the threat in question is gone or has been effectively overcome. In terms of the Christian life, we are being saved out of our fallen condition and the dangerous consequences that lie ahead, and at the final judgment those who belong to Christ will be saved from eternal punishment. But going beyond this quibble over language, the differences get even more significant. Because Orthodoxy does not tend to focus on the act or process of salvation as defining in itself, you're not as likely to hear or see it discussed. Instead, they talk about things like theosis--the process of being conformed to the image of God--or sainthood, which is the end-goal of the process.

Another critical difference is the role of the Church. Whereas in Evangelicalism, the Church is understood to be the collection of all saved individuals, in Orthodoxy, the Church is the ark of salvation, where we are all saved together. This is not to say that personal faith is unimportant; rather, it is a different way of understanding what "personal" means. In Western terminology, "personal" and "individual" tend to be interchangeable on a certain level, and particularly when used to describe faith. In Orthodoxy, "personal" is understood in Trinitarian terms. For us to be persons is meaningful as an aspect of our creation in God's image. The nature of God defines personhood for us. The three persons of the Trinity are always understood in their relationship to each other, and likewise we are persons as we relate to others. There is still an element of the individual here, because for two persons to be in relationship there has to be some differentiation between them. So each person is marked off as distinct from every other, but this is only in the context of a relationship. Individuality, on the other hand, looks at the defined entity in isolation. An individual can be in relationship, but they are unassociated factors. In fact, to put an individual into relationship involves making that individual into a person.

So, in Orthodoxy, personal faith and personal salvation have to do with community. Yes, I believe, but I believe as part of a believing community, and my faith is defined by the faith of the community. Yes, I am being saved, but I am being saved as part of a community of salvation. There is no need to choose between individual and collective salvation, individual and collective faith. They are integrally linked, and their sequence is not fixed. In Orthodoxy, you might have one person who is baptized as an infant in the faith of the Church and later embraces that faith as an individual, while another person embraces the faith first and is baptized into the Church later. Salvation in Orthodoxy is truly synergistic--with both divine and human elements in the process--and things that happen outside of God's own nature do not happen all at once. Evangelicals like to pick apart the material and spiritual components of sacraments and ask whether regeneration precedes or follows the ritual of water baptism, for instance. Orthodox simply accept that it all goes together--that we experience it as separate elements in time, but in the divine mystery it is one act.

Inevitably, discussion with Evangelicals about Orthodoxy will come to issues considered critical to the Evangelical concept of salvation. How do you know whether someone is going to heaven or hell? How can you be sure of your salvation? Is it possible to lose your salvation? And wrapped up in this line of questioning is usually the further inquiry, what is the fate of non-Orthodox Christians? I don't claim to have great answers for any of them, but I'll offer what I can:

How do you know whether someone is going to heaven or hell? Simply put, you don't. There are some exceptions, of course, but in general, Orthodox are not encouraged to judge the eternal fate of anyone. Recognized saints are known to go to heaven, but many saints of the Church are unknown. Also, there is a distinction to be made between what one can know about one's own situation and what can be known about others. I'll come back to one's own situation when we get to some of the other key questions. Where others are concerned, we generally don't know. We might have a pretty good idea, but we don't know for sure. We are all engaged in a process of growing and striving (or at least we should be), and continuing the journey is the most important thing. God will take care of getting us there in his own way and time.

How can you be sure of your salvation? In one sense, you can't. This will relate directly to the next question, but the point here is humility. We always recognize our sinfulness before God. We always look for ways that we still need to grow. The struggle in this life never stops. This is not as bad as it might sound. Martin Luther agonized over never knowing if he'd thought to confess everything or if he'd adequately paid for his offenses. In this respect, Protestantism started from a legalistic system in Catholicism and didn't substantially change the legalistic framework. They preserved the primary image of God as judge--they simply found a way to separate our specific sins as believers from the implications of negative judgment. Orthodoxy accepts the idea of God as judge and the forensic metaphors used in Scripture, but its fundamental understanding of salvation has to do more with relationship and spiritual health. Yes, our sins against God damage our relationship. Yes, they hurt us spiritually. But the answer to spiritual injury is healing, and the answer to a broken relationship is reconciliation. God is our loving father, who waits and watches for his prodigals to return home. He's not looking for us to mess up, so he can strike us dead and then sentence us to hell because we didn't have time to repent.

Is it possible to lose your salvation? Well, again, we have to begin from the idea that salvation is something you don't really have in this life anyway. Is it possible to stall the process and walk away? God has given us freedom as humans, and Scripture contains severe warnings for apostasy. He respects our choice, if we decide to turn back. More to the point, there is a sense in which God's action is the same regardless of how we end up. There is a common notion in Orthodoxy that the same divine glory is experienced in one of two ways. If we arrive in a sound relationship with God, we come into the light of his glory as something for which we were already created. If we arrive in a state of enmity with God, his glory burns us as the fires of hell. So God has done everything for us that is necessary to make relationship possible. The rest is our choice.

What is the fate of non-Orthodox Christians? This is a question I have asked myself on various occasions from various Orthodox individuals, including more than one priest. It is also a question I have heard from several Evangelical friends. The standard Orthodox answer is agnostic. God's grace works both inside and outside the Church, and we cannot judge the fate of any individual. We certainly don't limit God's grace from working in unexpected ways. There are Orthodox who will say definitively that non-Orthodox Christians are as lost as anyone else outside the Church. They will appeal to unequivocal statements like, "There is no salvation outside the Church." This kind of statement is truly part of Orthodox tradition, but for most Orthodox, it doesn't seem to be the end of the story. As one concrete example, there are Orthodox churches where memorial services for the dead can be performed for non-Orthodox Christians. If they were known to be in hell, or if their status were equated with that of any non-believer, there would be no point offering such a service, and certainly no point in making a distinction between them and non-believers.

Saying that there is no salvation outside the Church may be taken in dfferent ways. Perhaps it was appropriate to a certain time and set of circumstances, but now that millions of people spend their lives ignorant of Orthodoxy yet striving to follow Christ, it is not quite so directly applicable. Perhaps it means we don't know of any salvation outside the Church. Perhaps there is some sense in which those who are outside the Church but who love Christ are striving to get in, if they could only find the way, and God honors this desire. I don't have a fully satisfying answer, even for myself. But even if it is written off as a contradiction, the contradiction must still be allowed to stand on its own two feet. Maybe it doesn't make any sense, but the widespread belief among Orthodox that God is somehow working with those outside the Church has to be acknowledged.

There is more that could be said, but I suppose this has gone on long enough. I welcome suggestions, questions, comments, etc.


Fabian Jalil said...


Jim N. said...

This is well written!

In relation to your statements at the end, I think you'll like Fr. Tom Hopko's Apocalypse series. He spends the last CD talking about such things. He even says that upon our death, when we meet Christ, it's our 'last chance', if you will. There are some who will have searched for him all their earthly lives and when they finally see Him will say (sic) "that's Him! That's who I've been looking for!", while other will still hate Him even at that moment. So...

Trevor said...


Trevor said...

Yeah, I've seen this kind of idea expressed in Orthodox writings before, although I can't recall where. It reminds me of C. S. Lewis's portrayal in The Last Battle, where the devout follower of Tash (Allah?) is surprised to discover that he has been worshiping Aslan (Christ) all along. It raises some eyebrows among Evangelicals, and I think it could easily be taken too far, but it does seem in keeping with the whole idea that you're either for Christ or against him.

It also reminds me of a promise I made to a Muslim friend of mine after one of our discussions about Christianity and Islam. Since Muslims believe that Jesus will return to earth before the end to preach the true faith one last time, I told her that, whatever Jesus says when he comes, I'll follow it :-) I really meant it, of course, because if he does come preaching Islam, there won't be much point remaining a Christian after all. I wonder, though, if it is at all possible that a devout Muslim, when faced with Jesus himself (probably surrounded by the saints from the Bible whom Muslims also consider to be prophets), would respond at that moment in faith, realizing that the truth really was in Christianity all along.

The flip side of all this seems to be the concept of toll houses, which I must admit I am still a bit uncomfortable with. (And I don't mean that in the good sense, that thinking about them makes me uncomfortable enough to repent.) I understand the distinction between them and Purgatory, and I understand that they are understood to be in some sense metaphorical (certainly not real toll houses, perhaps not even real places or encounters); but it does seem like a very legalistic, demanding setup, where the mistakes you made in life come back to torment you, and quite possibly keep you out of heaven. Maybe I'm still missing the point.

Jim N. said...

Sorry I lost track of this...

I asked my SF about toll houses a while back. He indicated that the Church hasn't officially spoken one way or another on the issue. St. Nikolai Velimirovich seemed to believe in them, at least from the way he wrote the Prologue, and many of the Dormition homilies have traces of them.

Frightening to consider.

Trevor said...

Yeah, I know there's no official position on tollhouses. (Good cookies, though . . . mmm . . . tollhouse . . . ) I saw the traces in the Prolog and the Dormition homilies, and Fr. Michael Pomazansky defends them in his theology. I notice that Fr. Thomas refers to them as illustrative of the pain of disincarnation at death. There seems to be somewhat more involved here--I think if you're going to take them seriously, there's a real demonic assault. I guess I'm more comfortable with the notion that they make the attempt to claim recently deceased souls as they pass out of their domain than with the idea that refuting their claim is mostly about having more good than bad works. I guess I would look for it to be somewhat less legalistic.

Jim N. said...

Fr. Michael Pomazansky

You know more than I do, then. :) He online somewhere?

Trevor said...

I read it in his Orthodox Dogmatic Theology, but it looks like you can read his thoughts at OCIC.

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