Salvation in Christ: The Orthodox Approach

by Metropolitan Kallistos Ware

Let me begin with a question that was put to me sometime ago in the railway train. A person sitting opposite fixed me with a piercing gaze and said, “Are you saved?” Now how did I answer? How would you answer?

I’ll tell you my answer, but not now. You will have to wait till the end of the lecture.

Are you saved? In order to reply to that, we have to ask ourselves what do we mean by salvation. From an Orthodox standpoint, there are at once four points to be made. “Great is the mystery of our religion,” it is said in the pastoral epistles. “God was revealed in the flesh, justified by the spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among the gentiles, believed in throughout the world, taken up in glory” (1 Tim 3:16). Equally we may say, “Great is the mystery of our salvation.” Salvation is not to be easily explained. It is a mystery, reaching out into the dazzling darkness of God. There is so much that we cannot express in words. Here I recall a hymn that we Orthodox use each year on holy Saturday: Let all mortal flesh keep silent, and stand with fear and trembling.

Of this mystery of salvation—this is my second preliminary point—this at least may be said (in the words once more of the pastoral epistles), this time 1 Timothy 2:4: “God desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” That was a text greatly emphasized by John Wesley; but it’s a text emphasized equally in Orthodoxy. The offer of salvation is extended to every human being without exception.

But this is the third point—that at the same time we human beings can refuse that offer. God is free. And so, each human person fashioned in God’s image is likewise free. From the words of Soren Kierkegard, the most tremendous thing granted to humans is choice, freedom. And Saint Augustine says, “God made you without your agreeing to that, but he will not save you without your consent.” We cannot be saved without God, but God will not save us without our voluntary consent. As it says in the homilies of Macarius (an impor­tant influence on John Wesley), the will of man is an essential precondition, for without it, God does nothing: our salvation results from the convergence. The Greek word is synergia. Of two factors of unequal importance, yet both essential—divine grace and human freedom.

The fourth point that I want to mention at the beginning is this: for the Orthodox tradition, salvation is personal but it is not isolated. We are not saved alone but as members of the body of Christ, the Church, through sharing in the sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion. Now exploring a little further the meaning of salvation, what we find in Scripture and Tradition is this: not a single systematic theory of salvation but many images, metaphors, and models. Not by one path only do we approach to understanding so great a mystery. So we find in the Bible many symbols of great meaning and power. Yet for the most part, these are not explained. They are left to speak for themselves. And we must be careful not to turn these images and symbols into a rational syllogistic argument. Nor should we isolate any one image or symbol, placing exclusive emphasis upon it, ignoring the others. We need to balance one image by another image. We need to say not either/or but both/and. And if the images are not alternatives, we need all of them.

This reminds me of my experience when I first came to the United States as a student in 1959. In those days, if you wished to travel by air you had to be extremely rich. So I came by boat on the Cunard liner the Queen Elizabeth. Five or six days journey. In the price of your ticket was included all meals. And I was delighted to find, coming to the restaurant, that you were allowed to choose as much food as you wanted. You weren’t limited just to three courses. At breakfast, if you wanted, you could have both porridge and cereal and fruit juice and grapefruit and then afterwards you could have both bacon and eggs and kippers, if you felt like that in the heaving waters of the mid-Atlantic. At dinner, my companions at the table were very unimaginative. They just had soup and then a main course and then dessert. I worked out each evening a seven course meal. Now we should do just the same with the different models for the saving work of Christ. Choose every course! Follow the pattern of the Cunard menu. There is safety in numbers.

Here let me quote some words of the Romanian Orthodox theologian Dumitru Staniloae, and he’s speaking about the apophatic theology of the Orthodox church—the kind of theology that uses negations that says not primarily what God is but what he is not, the kind of theology that emphasizes God’s transcendence. “The mystery of salvation,” says Father Staniloae, “cannot be expressed except in the form of paradox, and Orthodoxy has therefore sought to safeguard the element of paradox against any attempt to unravel the mystery in a series of rational propositions.” The paradoxical and apophatic fullness of the mystery of salvation is more genuinely suggested by symbols than by intellectual defini­tions. To consider the cross or the resurrection in images, to express them through symbolical and liturgical acts, is to hint at this mystery of salvation in a way more real and more existential than is possible through Anselm’s theory of satisfaction or the penal theory of the Protes­tants, which cannot express more than one aspect of the incomprehen­sible mystery of salvation. Such theories are acceptable only on condition that they do not claim to replace the mystery itself in its incomprehensible fullness but merely to expound some particular point and that in a relative and provisional way.

Now tonight, I would like to look with you at five models of Christ’s work of salvation. And with regard to each model, I would like you to ask yourselves four questions. The ques­tions are these:

  • First of all, we should ask: Does the model in question envisage a change in God or in us? If it presupposes that God is being changed, then something has surely gone wrong. We should reject the image of God the Father as an angry despot who has somehow to be appeased. Some theories of the atonement seem to suggest that we need to be rescued from God rather than from sin and evil. But in the key text that I’ve put at the top of our sheet, Paul says God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not reconciling himself to the world. It is we who need reconciling and healing, not God. We who need changing, not God.
  • Then my second question is: Does the theory in question separate Christ from the Father? If Christ is separated from Father, then again something has surely gone wrong. Paul says God was in Christ. Salvation is God’s work in Christ. We are to see Christ in his ministry as God’s representative, not his victim. Even if we affirm Christ’s solidarity and union with ourselves through the incarnation, this must not be in such a way as to separate him from the Father. The unity of the Trinity is to be upheld.
  • Then the third question: Does the model isolate the cross from the incarnation and the resurrection? Some theories of the atonement are rather exclusively cross-centered, but the cross should not be isolated from what went before—the incarnation, and from what comes after, the resurrection. Otherwise, the continuity and coherence of Christ’s economy is broken. We are to see Christ’s saving work as a unity: birth, life, miracles, death, resurrection, ascension. Altogether constitute a single, undivided action.
  • And then question 4: Does the model presuppose an objective or subjective under­stand­ing of Christ’s work? Does the saving work of Christ appeal primarily to our feelings and emotions, or does it change the state of the universe? Surely the latter. God was in Christ altering our total situation. Christ has done something for us objective.

Now, with those four questions in mind, let’s have a look at five models—and the list isn’t meant to be exhausted. First of all, we may think of Christ’s saving work in terms of an exchange. Here a key text is 2 Corinthians 8:9: “Though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor so that through his poverty you might become rich.” Now the riches of Christ are his divine glory. The poverty which he takes upon himself —this is our broken condition. And so Christ empties himself, in the words of Philippians 2, empties himself of his divine glory, becomes obedient to death, even death on a cross. He enters fully into our broken condition. He takes up all our human brokenness into himself and by taking it up, he heals it. An exchange of gifts shared in. Christ shares totally in what we are, so that we may share in what he is. This is a master theme in the Fathers. St. Irenaeus says, “In his unbounded love, he became what we are so that we might become what he is.” And St. Athanasius states this yet more concisely: “He was made man that we might be made God.” Now of course Athanasius does not mean that we become literally, by nature, God. We do not in salvation become additional members of the Holy Trinity. But what he means in speaking in this way of salvation as deification or divinization, theosis, is that salvation is not just an alteration in our legal status, not just the question of imputed righteousness. Salvation signifies a total transformation of our created nature so that we are permeated and transfigured by the eternal life of God. We become, as it says in the 2nd letter of Peter, “partakers of the divine nature.” Behind this model of salvation, which in many ways is the most fundamental one in the Orthodox Church, there are two principles.

First, only God can save. Salvation is a divine act. A prophet cannot be the savior of the world. The death of a mere man does not destroy death. It has to be God who dies for us on the cross. So if Christ is to be our savior, he must need be true God. But then there is a second principle of salvation. Divine salvation has to reach the point of human need. Only if Christ the divine savior is genuinely human in the way that you and I are human, can we humans share in what he has done for us. So if Christ is to be our savior, he must need be true man. This is set forth in the epistle to the Hebrews, chapter 4 verse 15, one of the most important Christological texts in the whole of the New Testament: “We do not have a high priest who cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities”—what could be rendered, “who is unable to sympathize with us in our weaknesses”—”but one who was tempted in everything just as we are only without sinning.” So these are the implications of the sharing or the exchange model. If we make Christ less than God, if we make him less than human, then we undermine the whole pattern of salvation. Christ our savior is not half and half. He is not 50/50. But he is 100% God and 100% human.

Now let’s apply this exchange model to our four questions. Does the model envisage a change in God or in us? At first sight, we seem to be speaking about a change in God. The second person of the Trinity, the divine logos, who from all eternity is true God from true God, equal to the Father, at a sudden point becomes human, is born on Earth. But this isn’t really a change, fundamentally, in God. God is love, and the incarnation is the supreme expres­sion of God’s love for us. It says in John 3:16: “God so loved the world that he gave his only son.” So God in becoming human is being true to himself. On this theory, secondly, God is not separated from Christ. On the contrary, this model assumes that Christ is God. Thirdly, the cross is not isolated. Deep significance is indeed attached to the incarnation as a saving act, but the cross remains central. On this model, God not only shares in all the fullness of human life but he shares also in all the fullness of human death. The cross means that for the ultimate, possible extent, Christ shares in all our anguish, suffering, our aliena­tion. This, to me, is perhaps the most effective of all the models. But let’s have a look at some of the other ones.

Secondly in Scripture, Christ’s saving work is some times understood as a work of ransom. “The Son of Man,” says Mark 10:25, “came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Now the basic point about this metaphor is freedom. Previously we were enslaved to sin; now we are liberated. As Paul says in Galatians 5:1, what Christ has done is to set us free. But this act of liberation is enormously costly. The ransom that Christ pays on our behalf is nothing less than his own life laid down on the cross. How far does this meet the demands of our four questions? First, clearly the change is in us. Okay. Secondly, Christ is not separated from the Father. In paying the ransom, he acts in God’s name. though on our behalf. The third point is less clear. Ransom theories often tend to be very much cross-­centered, but they not need be exclusively so. And fourthly, the ransom effects an objective change in our state. So far, so good. But don’t let’s press the metaphor too far. We should not ask to whom was the ransom paid. The New Testament does not in fact ask that question. Subsequently, however, many Christians have done so. Frequently with melan­choly results. If you say the ransom is paid to God the Father, then you are bringing in the image of the angry Father who has to be appeased, who is vindictive and punitive. And that image of God has driven away innumerable people from Christianity in the last hundred years. Surely we have to avoid separating the Father and the Son in this way. Surely God forgives us freely. He doesn’t require any payment. But then are you to say that the ransom is paid to the devil? This is what Christians have often said and they developed a whole theory of how the devil was tricked. For example, St. Augustine uses the metaphor of a mousetrap. The devil is the mouse, the cheese is Christ’s humanity, the mousetrap is his Godhead. The demonic mouse sees the cheese, and he creeps up and starts eating it, and then the divine trap closes on him and he’s caught. You laugh at that, and very possibly St. Augustine intended it as a joke, but other people have taken this kind of imagery seriously. But Gregory of Nazianzus, Gregory the Theologian, rejects this kind of imagery as unworthy of God. God doesn’t use trickery. The devil has no rights. So the essential point in the ransom metaphor is not the idea of a transactional bargain. It is the idea of liberation. Don’t ask who is being paid. Stick to the basic meaning. Christ has set us free.

So we come to our third image—sacrifice. For us today, this is a difficult notion. We’ve largely lost the sense of what a sacrifice signifies. But in the ancient world, where the Hebrew or Greek or Roman, sacrifice was omnipresent, it was assumed, taken for granted, but not usually explained. There is in the Bible and in the classical tradition no single theory of what a sacrifice means. In the Old Testament, there are many different kinds of sacrifice. The paschal lamb, where the sacrifice was eaten. The sin offering on the day of atonement, where the sacrifice was not eaten but the blood was sprinkled on the people. The sacrifice of the scapegoat in Leviticus 16 where the goat is driven out into the desert, bearing the sins of people, an offering to Satan. All these ways of understanding sacrifice are to be found applied to Christ. Behold the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world—the paschal lamb. Christ, our Passover, has been sacrificed for us—paschal lamb again. He is the expiation, helasmos, for our sins—the idea of the sin offering on the day of atonement.

If we are to understand sacrifice right, we must recognize that the real point is not the death of the victim. The real point is the offering of the life of the victim to God. When the sacrifi­cial animal was killed, the blood that was poured out meant that the life of the offering was being offered to to God. When the sacrificed was burned in whole burnt offerings, as the smoke went up to heaven, so the offering ascended to God. We have the same sense in the Orthodox Church when we offer incense. And the smoke going up from the incense is seen as an offering to God. So the essence of sacrifice is a gift. To sacrifice is to offer, above all, to offer yourself. So a sacrifice presupposes the idea of love. Unless a sacrifice is made volun­tarily and out of love, it isn’t truly a sacrifice at all. That which is taken from me by force and violence unwillingly, that is not a sacrifice. And when things are taken from me against my will, I am diminished. I suffer loss. But if I make a voluntary sacrifice, a willing offering, I do not suffer loss. I am enriched. As C.S. Lewis says, “Nothing that you have not given away will ever be truly your own.” So Christ’s death is a sacrifice because he offers and lays down his life on our behalf, out of love, voluntarily. “No one takes my life from me,” he says, “I lay it down of myself.”

Now all of this, I think, responds to our questions. Christ in offering a sacrifice doesn’t change God, but he changes our situation. Christ’s sacrifice has power and effectiveness because it is the sacrifice of God. Christ is God. Not just a human sacrifice but a divine sacrifice. The sacrifice is not limited, coming to our third question, to the cross because the sacrifice is not limited to death. The whole of Christ’s life is a voluntary self-offering to God. The whole of Christ’s life is a sacrifice. The incarnation is already a sacrifice. We have a variance on the sacrifice motif, for example, St. Anselm’s satisfaction theory. And my quotation from Father Dimitru Staniloae has suggested that Orthodox don’t much like this particular theory. The theory is that Christ’s death is an act of reparation. It satisfies the Father’s offended honor. We’ve got a feudal background here. But surely God the Father is not a feudal overlord who has to be appeased in this way by the sacrifice of his Son. And in fact, the idea of Christ’s death as making satisfaction is not found in the Greek Fathers nor I think in the early Latin Fathers. It is a medieval addition, and it separates Christ from the Father, so that can’t be right.

But there is another variant which has more importance—the idea of substitution, that Christ dies as a sacrifice instead of us. Now that is certainly scriptural. As it says in the prophet Isaiah, the servant songs, the songs of the suffering servant, and this is applied to Christ in the New Testament. Isaiah 53:5: “He was wounded for our transgressions and crushed for our iniquities. Upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed.” So there’s a clear idea of substitution there. And that comes out again in 2 Corinthians 5:21: “For our sake, God made him, that’s Christ, to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” St. Athanasius applies to Christ the word antipsychos, meaning the one who lays down his life instead of us. But if we are going to develop the substitution—and there’s certainly a place for this in Orthodoxy—we must be careful not to separate Christ from the Father, not to fall into the angry father imagery.

When I was a student at Oxford, I heard a celebrated evangelical preacher speaking, none other than Billy Graham, and I was very impressed by his message. I felt he teaches the true and full Christian faith. In general, Protestant missionaries are not welcome in Russia. But, Billy Graham was always an exception. He would call when he went to Russia on the patriarch of Moscow, and he was given a blessing for his preaching. But he did say one thing that sticks in my memory, and I didn’t feel happy about. He said, “At the moment that Christ died on the cross, the lightning of God’s wrath hit him instead of you.” I didn’t feel that was quite the best way of putting the substitution theory.

But there is the essential truth in this language of substitution. That Christ has died instead of us. It emphasizes that Christ has done something for us that we could not do for and by ourselves. We could not find the way back to God by ourselves, so God came to earth and died on our behalf. I am an avid reader of the ghost stories of M.R. James. And there is there one such story called “A School Story.” The boys at school are learning Latin, as we had to do in earlier generations, and they are learning conditional clauses. Clauses beginning with the word “if.” And here the rules are excessively complicated. The master tells the boys, each of them, to write in Latin a sentence, a conditional sentence of their own invention. And they all do so and the papers are given in, and the master takes up the first of the papers, and he grows pale and with a look of horror on his face, he rushes from the room. The boys wonder who has committed such gross grammatical errors as to have this effect on this teacher, so they come up and look at the top sheet of paper and it is written in a handwriting that is not that of any of the boys. And the piece of paper says, “If you do not come to me, I will come to you.” Well, I shan’t tell you the rest of the story. What was it that the master was so afraid would come to him? And what happens when this thing does indeed come? Read the story. But, let’s apply this to the work of Christ. We could not come to Christ, so Christ came to us. We could not save ourselves, so Christ to save us has died on our behalf. But perhaps not instead of us, because we have to associate ourselves with Christ’s saving act.

Let me come now to my last two images. Victory—the so-called dramatic theory. This is very popular in Orthodoxy. We are to think in terms of a cosmic battle. Christ the victor triumphs over the power of the devil of sin and evil. We might find a New Testament basis for this in Christ’s final cry on the cross in the gospel of St. John: teteleste, “it is finished.” This is not a cry of resignation and despair. Christ is not saying it’s all over. Nothing more to be done. It is a cry of victory. It is accomplished. It is fulfilled. It is completed. Paul uses this image when he says God disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them through the cross. And again he says, when he ascended on high, he made captivity itself captive. Any of you who have been to the Orthodox paschal midnight service will recall how strong is the sense of victory on that occasion. “Christ is risen from the dead,” we say, “trampling down death through his death.” And the same is very definitely an idea in the west. That paschal sequence of the western liturgy includes these words, “death and life have contended in that combat tremendous. The prince of life who died reigns immortal.”

So this approach to atonement emphasizes the cross but also very strongly the resurrection, which are not to be seen as two separate events but as a single drama, an undivided action. Because Christ is risen from the dead, we need not be afraid of any dark thing in the universe or in ourselves. In the early days of the persecution of Christianity in Russia, an atheist lecturer came to speak at the village and all the people were assembled to hear him, and he spoke for a long time explaining that religion was all a falsehood and deceit. It was all nonsense, and communism has come to set them free from this illusion. At the end at the back of the hall, the priest of the parish raised his hand and said, “Can I say something?” The atheist lecturer sensed difficulty, but he didn’t want to refuse to allow him to say anything. So he said, “Yes, but ou must be extremely brief. I will only give you one minute.” And the priest said “Oh I shan’t need nearly as long as that.” And he came up and simply said to all the congregation the Easter greeting, “Christ is risen.” And all the people present replied together with the response, “He is risen indeed.” “Thank you,” said the priest to the atheist lecturer, “that’s all I wanted to say.” So on this image of victory, the change is definitely in us. Christ and the Father are closely joined. Christ’s victory is our victory. The death of Christ on the cross is joined to his resurrection and ascension. And it is objective.

But there is a disadvantage. To many present-day believers, the imagery here is too military. The saving work of Christ, so it appears, is seen in terms of superior force or coercive power. But we can demythologize this image. The victory on the cross is a victory not of superior force, not of military might, but of suffering love. Christ’s victory is a kenotic victory, victory of self-emptying, a victory won through weakness and vulnera­bility. In a moving phrase, St. Ephraim the Syrian calls Christ “the mighty one who put on vulnerability.” So Christ’s victory is won precisely through the refusal to use force and violence. As Gregory of Nyssa says, “His descent to our lowliness is the supreme expres­sion of his power. God is never so strong as when he is most weak.” Humble compassion­ate love is the strongest thing in the universe. As Karl Barth says, “The God of Christianity is great enough to be humble.”

And now I come to my fifth and final example. I am conscious that I am going on for rather long time. When I first began to lecture, I used to be afraid that I would dry up in the middle and find that I have nothing more to say. Curiously, that’s never actually happened. But the day before I was to give my first lecture in the university, another newly appointed lecturer went through a very distressing experience. He prepared what he thought was enough to last an hour, but in his nervousness he delivered it so quickly that he finished in 20 minutes. Now what he should have done was to begin all over again because nobody had understood anything at all. But instead of that, he looked up and said, “I’m sorry, that’s all I’ve got to say.” And he rushed out, but in his extreme nervousness, instead of taking the exit he went and shut himself in a broom cupboard. In a humiliating way, he had to be let out by his audience. So I’ve been looking around carefully here to see where the broom cupboards may be in case I have to leave quickly.

Let me then turn now to our fifth example. This is associated particularly with Abelard— the notion of Christ as being the supreme expression, Christ’s life and death as being the supreme expression of love-in-action. “Love,” said Abelard, “is deeply attractive.” So the love of Christ shown in his life and death evokes the response of love in us. As we say in the hymn, “Oh dearly, dearly has he loved, and we must love him too.” As St. John says, “I when I am lifted up from the Earth will draw all people to myself.” Now there is an immense advantage of this fifth model for present day Christians. It moves completely away from the notion of God the Father as jealous, vindictive, bloodthirsty. It moves away equally from legalistic categories such as satisfaction. It moves away from militaristic images. It interprets God and his salvation in terms of love.

But does it answer our fourth question? Surely, this fifth approach treating the cross as the supreme example of love is subjective not objective. If Christ does no more than set us an example, then he has done nothing exactly to change our situation. We are left to follow his example by our own efforts. In fact, we have to save ourselves, and that is Pelagianism. Let me give an example from the life of the Scottish leader, Robert the Bruce. He was fighting against the English. He was repeatedly defeated. In despondency, sitting alone, he thought he must give up the struggle. Then he looked and he saw a spider hanging down from its web. And trying to climb up again into its web. And it kept falling back, but it kept persisting climbing up again, falling back. Over and over again until finally it got back inside in the web. “Well,” said Robert the Bruce, “If the spider can do that, then I can do the same.” So he went out and defeated the English. But has Christ done no more for us than the spider did for Robert the Bruce? My answer is, this criticism totally misconceives the scope and dynamism of love. Love is creative. It’s not just a subjective feeling. It’s an objective energy in the universe. By loving others, we change them. We change the world in which they live. The same is true of hatred. Love enables, hate depotentiates. The love of another for me infuses into me a transfiguring force, a transformative power. And this is very true for example in the case of parents and children. If the love of a human mother of father has such a far reaching effect on the future of the child, how much more does God’s love for us? So in fact the objective/subjective distinction collapses. It implodes.

So perhaps we can combine 4 and 5 and get an effective theory of atonement here. Christ’s victory of suffering love, of vulnerable compassion in demilitarized form. And then we take 5 in an objective sense. Love is creative and transforming. Precisely because of that, Christ’s victory sets us free. In the words of the Song of Songs, “Love is strong as death, many waters cannot quench love.” And the poet Edith Sitwell says, “Love is not changed by death and nothing is lost and all in the end is harvest.”

There, I leave my five models with you. But I’ve got still a promise to fulfill. St. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 9:27 that he’s afraid after preaching to others, he himself will be rejected. So long after his Damascus experience of conversion, he was afraid that he might fall away. Christ’s saving work is in accomplished fact. His victory is complete. But my participation in that saving work, in that victory, is not yet complete. I retain free will and with it the possibility of falling away. St. Anthony of Egypt, the father of Monks says “Expect tempta­tion until your last breath.” I am on a journey, yes, but that journey is not yet completed. So should I have answered, “No, I’m not saved.” He might well then have said, “Well what are you doing going around dressed like a clergymen.” And would that not be a denial of the grace I received from Christ, my Savior. Well perhaps then I should have answered, “I don’t know.” But wouldn’t that sound rather feeble. So, in fact, I chose to answer using the present tense but using the continuous form of the present tense. “I trust that by God’s grace, I am being saved.” Not complete. Salvation is a process. Lifelong. But I can be saved. I trust by the divine compassion and mercy I am being saved. But up to the gates of death, I have to go on repenting.

There’s a story told of one of the great Desert Fathers, Abba Sisoes. He was dying, and in earlier ages death was a public event. Lots of people stood watching you as you died. And all his disciples around him and he begins talking. And they say “who are you talking to father?” and he says, “I’m talking to the angels. I’m asking them to give me more time.” “Why?” say his disciples. “I’m asking them to give me,” he answers, “more time to repent.” And his disciples say, “Father you are holy, we all know that. You don’t need to repent.” And he replies, “Wurely I do not know within myself if I have even begun to repent.” Then his face lights up and he says the Lord has come. And he dies with radiant light shining from his face.

Well that is my hope. That I may die as Abba Sisoes did.

Thank you.

Q & A

My question has to do with an article of yours that I read: ‘Can we hope that all be saved?’ So I was wondering if you would talk a little bit on the foundation of our dare to hope, starting with Origen and starting with the hope that all will be saved. So I was wondering if you could elaborate on that.

Alright. You said the questions must be brief, and I took you to imply that the answer must be brief as well. When I first began to speak, I was given 3 rules. Stand up, speak up, shut up. As I said at the beginning of my lecture tonight, God desires all to be saved. So that undoubtedly is the divine intention that all should, in the end, enter into his joy. But we have free will. We have the power to say no to God. To reject his offer of salvation, and God will not take away our free will. In the second century, there’s a text and I quoted it to some of you earlier today. In a letter to Diognetus, which says, “God persuades, he does not compel for violence is foreign to him.” So God will not force us to be saved against our will. We might even say God can do anything in his almighty power except compel us to love him. Love has to be free, and willing, and voluntary otherwise it is not love. You can evoke the love of another, but you cannot force or compel it. Nor can God. So we have two basic principles. God is love. And secondly, human beings are free. God is love, inexhaus­tible love. God will never stop loving. But we have the freedom to refuse that love, to shut ourselves up from Him. And if we do that consistently into the end, that is hell. Hell is not a place where God puts us. It’s a place where we put ourselves through refusing to respond to his love. As C.S. Lewis says, the gates of hell are locked on the inside. So it is wrong to say all must be saved. This is inevitable. This is bound to happen. God’s love is bound to triumph in the end because that seems to deny our free will. It seems to imply that we have in the end no choice. But while it is wrong to say all must be saved, it is legitimate to hope that all may be saved. Hell exists because free will exists, but perhaps in the end there will be nobody in hell. But we do not know and we have to be extremely cautious in expressing views on this matter.

Origen got into trouble because he was overconfident about the final restoration of all things. He thought even the devil would be saved. St. Gregory of Nyssa, hero to John Wesley, believed the same. But he didn’t get condemned, perhaps because he was Basil’s younger brother. I remember once asking a Greek bishop. We were traveling 4 hours together by car, and I thought, what are we going to talk about all this time? Now I knew this bishop loved St. Gregory of Nyssa, so I thought let’s try a Nyssen question about the salvation of the devil. And so I said, “If St. Gregory of Nyssa is right in thinking that the devil might be saved, why do we never pray for him.” Unfortunately, this did not lead to the long and interesting conversation for which I hoped. The bishop answered briefly, “Mind your own business.” And that’s a good answer, because for us the devil is our enemy and our adversary. We don’t pray for him. That’s not our business. But what plans God has in the end for the devil, we don’t know. We leave that to God himself. So we may hope, but we have to say that is a mystery in the hands of God.

I’ve been told by Catholics and Orthodox alike that they believe that they are practicing the ways of old, so I’ve been told that (as I was raised Catholic) if I worshiped as Catholic I would essentially be doing it the right way and vice versa. And even being saved as a Protestant that that even broke off still even further, and there’s still belief that they are getting away from what’s been done to do it a better way. And as Paul says in pretense and in earnestness, Christ is worshipped. I guess my question is (I’m explaining kind of weird) do we hinder the work of Christ by believing one way to worship Christ as better than another, being Orthodox, Catholic or Protestant?

I don’t think it should be said that we hinder the work of Christ. We do hinder the work of Christ if we show arrogance in upholding our own church tradition. We do hinder the work of Christ if we show intolerance and aggressive contempt towards other Christians who differ from us. That is a sin against love and sins against love do hinder the work of Christ. But in remaining faithful to the Christian tradition in which we were brought up, we are not hindering the work of Christ so long as we uphold our own tradition in a humble and loving spirit. I would say as an Orthodox that we should never indulge in aggressive propaganda against other Christians seeking to disturb them in their faith. If people come freely to us and want to talk to us about what the Orthodox church believes, then of course we are happy to talk to them, but all we say is the door is open. We do not try to disturb them and make them hostile towards their own church tradition. Negative propaganda of this kind is in my view profoundly unOrthodox. We bear witness positively for what we care about, and we expect other Christians to do the same. What does hinder the work of Christ is that we Christians are divided. At the Last Supper, Christ prayed that we might all be one as he and the father are one. That we might be true, living icons of the love of God the Holy Trinity. And we’ve failed to do that. Our Christian divisions do hinder the work of Christ, and we should pray that they may be overcome. But in this present situation by remaining faithful to our own church tradition, we are not hindering the work of Christ so long as we reach out to other Christians, listen to them, try to understand their point of view. So long as we work for reconciliation.

You spoke earlier that God was a God of love and not a God of vengeance. But how do you reconcile that to views in the old testament of God punishing the Israelites?

This could perhaps be answered in two ways. It’s a good question. First, what we see in the Old Testament looking at it in a historical manner is the gradual revelation of God. The people of Israel do not understand fully at the beginning all that God requires of them. God guides them from generation to generation, gradually into a fuller understanding, and so gradually in the Old Testament, we find a deepening and refinement of the religious ideas of the Jewish people. We should not treat the Old Testament as if everything stood on the same level. All is part of the inspired word of God, but each section has been put in its proper context and the Old Testament is really the story of God’s providential guidance and way which he prepares for the incarnation for the coming of his Son. So the blood­thirst passages in the Old Testament ought to be seen as part of Israel’s religious evolution, but they are not regarded as the final word of the subject. We should not isolate state­ments in Scripture. We should understand Scripture by Scripture, see each passage in the context of the whole.

Then, however, I would add a further point. It is true that not only the Old Testament but the New does speak about the wrath of God. What does this mean? Not that God is angry in the way that we act, that he loses his temper, that he is offended and wishes to get his own back. Such a picture would be deeply unworthy of God. The wrath of God is nothing else than his love, but if we do not accept his love then we suffer. We know this in our relations with our human persons. To reject love is to cause often deep anguish in ourselves. When we know that we’ve been loved by someone else and we cannot return that love, that may sometimes hurt us and sadden us. So if we reject love, then that may bring suffering upon us. Not that God wants to punish us, but we’re punishing ourselves. So from a very period already from the first century, it seems that baptism was adminis­tered in the Trinity. And the early practice of baptizing only in the name of Jesus repre­sents a transitional state. But there’s no contradiction between baptizing in the name of Jesus and baptizing in the name of the Trinity because Jesus Christ as the second person of the trinity is always united with the Father and the Spirit. So if you baptize in the name of Jesus, you are baptizing in the name of the trinity even if you don’t invoke the Trinity explicitly. So I don’t see any contradiction here, though I do see a certain evolution in very early, apostolic times.

I’m not sure how I word this, but I’m wondering how Mary in the Orthodox Church. she dispenses grace. Or what role she has according to the Orthodox faith.

In the Orthodox Church, we most definitely honor and love the Blessed Virgin Mary. But she is always to be seen as under Christ. She needed to be saved by Christ just as we are all saved by Christ. In the Orthodox Church, we believe that she was in fact sinless and we call her all-holy. But nonetheless, Christ is her Savior just as he is the Savior of the whole human race. We ask the Blessed Virgin Mary to pray for us and we believe that her prayers have great power, but we would not say that grace comes from Mary. Grace comes from God, though the grace of God may be mediated to us by human persons. Sometimes we experience God’s grace through the help of our friends among the living. We have a particular generation that wants the Blessed Virgin because of her closeness to Christ. She, as mother of Christ, mother of God, is closer to him that any other human being. And so we do see her as playing a special part in God’s redemptive work. It is through her that God became incarnate, that Christ was born on Earth. And she was not simply a passive instrument. On the contrary, at the annunciation the angel tells of the divine plan but then waits for her willing response. He waits for he to say, “Behold the handmade of the lord, be it unto me according to your word.” Mary could have refused the divine plan. She could have said no. So she plays an active part in the story of redemption. But nonetheless, she is a human being as we are, uniquely close to Christ but Christ is her Savior too. And whatever grace we receive through Mary is the grace of Christ, the one Savior, the one Mediator.

Make it an easy one.

I hope this is easy for you, father. Good evening. As a science student here at the university, a lot of emphasis is put on the divisions between faith and science and the divisions between evolutionary theory and individual faith, and I was hoping you would share some of your wisdom with myself and many of the other students here that are concerned with these issues and how we might reconcile these personally. And I’m sure with your wisdom that this is fairly easy for you.

Of course that’s a very easy question that could be very briefly answered. [Laughter] Religion and science are working on different levels and are following different methods and using different kinds of evidence. And indeed, then, what each is saying is relevant to the other, but we mustn’t confuse these two levels of discourse. The scientist is working from the evidence of our senses; the theologian, the religious thinker, is using the data of revelation, Scripture. So here are two different forms of evidence and two different ways of arguing. As I see it, there need not be any conflict between religion and science if each is properly understood. The scientist is telling us what there is in the universe, and he is also saying, as far as we can discover this, how the universe came to exist in the form which it now has by what stages it developed. In the religious sphere, we are asking why was the world created and what is the purpose of our life on earth. Now in my view, those are not strictly scientific questions and the scientist does not claim to answer them. though what he tells us about how the world is and how it came to be as it is may help us to answer these religious questions. Some scientists would say the questions “Why is there a universe? Where did it come from? What existed before the big bang?—some scientists would say well these are simply non-questions that shouldn’t be asked. But in fact there are questions that as human beings want to ask and need to ask. But I don’t think the scientist simply on the basis of his scientific discipline can answer them. What about the theory of evolution. Very many Orthodox reject this. Some of them uphold the form of intelligent design. I don’t care very much for the theory of intelligent design because I believe it is mixing the levels of science and religion in an unhelpful way.

For myself as an Orthodox, I have never had difficult in accepting the evolutionary picture of the universe that is presented by modern science and I think that we should say that evolution is merely a theory of a speculation. The evidence is very powerful. I don’t find a problem here for my faith as an Orthodox Christian. It is possible for God to work through evolution. He did not have to create everything as it is now in the beginning. He could work through the evolutionary process, but of course in saying that we are moving outside the realm of science, which is not going to make statements of that kind. Again from the religious point of view, we wish to affirm that human beings have a unique status in the universe because they are made in the image and likeness of God. The human being is not simply a superior ape. But again, using a phrase like the image and likeness of God, we are saying something about human beings that science can neither confirm nor deny. We are moving outside the scientific area. So I believe that a correct understanding of science and the way it works can indeed help our task as religious thinkers, but we need to keep a proper distinction, and if a distinction is kept, I do not think we need to see science as a threat. Thank you. Religion and science are working on different levels and are following different methods and using different kinds of evidence and indeed what each is saying is relevant for the other, but we mustn’t confuse these two levels of discourse.


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10 Responses to Salvation in Christ: The Orthodox Approach

  1. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    The above is a transcript of a lecture given by Met Kallistos at Seattle Pacific University. I have used a transcript I found online, but it is very rough and inaccurate. I have therefore had to listen to the lecture and make corrections. I am sure I have made many mistakes. If anyone finds an error, please bring it to my attention, and I will correct the transcript. Thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Excellent article. Thanks for sharing father.

    1. One small point that I feel compelled to dispute: I actually disagree with Augustine when he says that God made us without our agreeing to it. I tend towards a more Latter Day Saint and/or Origenistic understanding of protology which includes some sort of doctrine of pre-existence (the details of which remain to be nuanced so as to fit with ecumenical catholic and orthodox dogma). According to this understanding, we did indeed agree to be made and come down to earth – all of us are simply incarnations of God under a dyophysic kenosis, and via theosis we will eventually ascend back to the miaphysis of the eschaton from which we came. cf “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end” declares the resurrected Christ; ie, from God we came and to God we will return.

    Protology and eschatology are inseperable, even in scripture. It was a travesty that the later Catholic and Orthodox tradition came to regard this view as heresy, on account of that fake ecumenical council commonly referred to as the fifth.

    2. Another thing, I’m still utterly baffled by this idea that “Christ died instead of us”. This is empirically false: Everyone both before and after christ has either died or is destined to die. Substitution theories of atonement just don’t do it for me.

    3. It’s very interesting in the Q&A that the bishop claims that baptism in the name of Jesus is valid. I like his reasoning.

    4. Summary of the question about science and faith: Broadly speaking, science asks “How?”, faith asks “Why?”


  3. On the note of sacrifice: are not we, also, to be in Christ, sacrificed to God? And, is this not also a way of seeing salvation? (Never to deny that He died instead of us, so that we may die & rise in Him.)

    I, too, have understood it as – none of these images, metaphors, analogies, may stand alone; all point to the Mystery our minds cannot comprehend, much less our words describe.

    I, too, think analogies like the one about the mousetrap are unworthy of God.

    Doesn’t the Exchange picture hint at most of the other pictures given to us?

    I very, very much liked the entire talk! I, myself, am not at all interested in the question of whether or not “salvation can be lost,” and I think there is much interest in that controversy that is not profitable, but I could have given very much the same answer. “I trust that by the grace of God I am being saved.” It rings true!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Dan says:

    Thank you for this.
    May we not also confidently say, “I, in Christ, shall be saved.”?

    Liked by 1 person

  5. QUOTE: “As I said at the beginning of my lecture tonight, God desires all to be saved. So that undoubtedly is the divine intention that all should, in the end, enter into his joy. But we have free will. We have the power to say no to God. To reject his offer of salvation, and God will not take away our free will.”

    This seems to be the standard “Weasel Clause” for all those who are cornered by the numerous arguments in favor of Apokatastasis. It is their fallback position, that man can and will say a loud “NO!” to God’s offer of salvation, even in the next age, even seeing the beauty of Christ, even after coming to know the futility and emptiness of life without Him.

    To which I have written a small reply:

    And BTW – God doesn’t just “wish” to save us all. Scripture teaches that it is His will, which opens the reasonable question about whether or not God brings all His good will to pass.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Iain Lovejoy says:

      It is entirely possible to imagine someone casting themselves down into hell in the foolishness of their own free will, but not imagine them of their own free will staying there.

      To envisage someone being permanently confined to hell seems to require either that the denizens of hell are in fact perfectly content with their accommodation and satisfied with their lot, with no desire to leave, which seems unlikely given that they are in literally the worst place it is possible to be, or that they do in fact realise that there is something wrong, that they shouldn’t be as they are, or be where they are, and God declines to assist them, at which point they are no longer there of their own free will.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Ed says:

    I also think the free will argument is rather weak. Indeed, Scripture is very clear that God can and does bring about His purposes without violating man’s free will. Even in the natural world this is true. Do we doubt that the existence of each one of us is a part of God’s eternal plan? And yet, we are quite plainly the result of a whole lot of free choices and random events. Our parents might not have met. And even when they did meet, they need not have entered into a union with one another. If God can ensure our coming into being without violating the free will of our parents (and their parents, etc….), clearly He can do the same with regard to salvation (which, after all, is nothing other that the fulfillment of HIs creative purposes).

    Liked by 1 person

  7. John H says:

    I particularly liked the 5th image of the atonement viewing Christ as unconditional love drawing all of creation to Himself. It dovetails beautifully with the classical Christian notions of Divine simplicity and impassability. Nothing in God is changed by the death and resurrection of Christ. The change is always in us and indeed in all of creation. In addition, penal substitutionary atonement is not a classical Christian concept since there is actually a change effectuated in God by Christ’s sacrifice. One might say that under that view the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ activates a potential within God to be merciful to those who accept Jesus. Which completely vitiates both Divine simplicity and impassability.


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