I am struck by how often people correspond with me who have a wrong idea about Christianity altogether. I don’t mean non-Christians, atheists and agnostics. I mean people who have been brought up in the Orthodox Church and just haven’t understood the Orthodox Gospel at all. Perhaps they were taught by those who had a wrong idea of the teaching of the Church? Perhaps they misunderstood what they were told? Perhaps they were not taught at all and had to try to pick things up as best they could? Almost every day I am in contact with some dear soul who is distressed because life is not turning out as they want or expect, and at the root of their confusion is usually a false view of the Orthodox Gospel.
There are three wrong views which I will describe, and then I will explain what the Orthodox Faith actually teaches.
Wrong View #1
God is angry and hates those he has created. There are those who make contact with me who are finding it very hard to participate in the Liturgy or to develop a fruitful spirituality. This is often because they have been taught that God is distant from us and looks down with anger and rage at those who commit any sin, and waits to send them to Hell as soon as possible. Those who have adopted this view usually believe that when Jesus Christ was nailed on the cross, God the Father poured out all his anger and hatred onto him, and we are able to escape this punishment only if we believe in Jesus in some way, and adopt a Christian way of life. It is suggested that since God is infinite and has been offended by our sin, then he has been infinitely offended and must infinitely punish that offence. This is not an Orthodox teaching at all. It is a late Roman Catholic belief which has crept into some Orthodox communities. Who would want to grow close to a God who was filled with hatred and anger, and who poured out his hatred on his own Son? A God who will punish in Hell for eternity those who do not submit to him? This is not the Christian God I find in the writings of the Fathers of the Church as they explain the Orthodox Gospel of new life in Christ.
Wrong View #2
God is a divine accountant. This false view is also widespread and causes great spiritual harm to those who hold it. It makes our spiritual life like a series of business transactions. We have to do more good things than bad things, and the we will possibly go to Heaven when we die. This undermines our spiritual life because we don’t have to have any real relationship with God, we just have to do enough things to please him. This might include reading prayers, and attending services. It means that we avoid things that we think God doesn’t like. In such a view sin becomes a black mark we need to overcome by gaining some credit with God. We are essentially able to save ourselves. We even come to imagine that having a belief that God exists is a credit on our account, even if we have no experience of participating in his divine life. How can such a view lead to a fruitful spiritual life? How is it possible to have love or respect for a God who counts up all of our good actions and balances them with our bad actions? We might fear him, and his judgement against us, but it is hard to love the God described by such a false view. It seems to me that such a view leads to people thinking that they are good enough to go to Heaven and that they are good Christians just because of outward behaviour. It can even lead to us believing that we must be OK because we belong to a particular ethnicity, and have been baptised as an infant. Adopting a certain culture, or outwardly embracing a certain morality is not the same as Christianity. Such a God, busy adding and subtracting our behaviour is not the Christian God and not the God whom the Fathers of the Church describe.
Wrong View #3
God is a divine Father Christmas. And this last view, also wrong, is very common in my experience. Many people send me messages, Orthodox Christians, and they complain that God has not given them what they want. And rather like children sitting on Father Christmas’ knee they insist that they have been good and do not know why they did not get all the things they had asked for. But God is not Father Christmas, and he is not a divine Vending Machine. We cannot make some vague efforts to do what we think might please him, in the expectation that he will satisfy all our worldly desires. Indeed this is essentially a pagan way of thinking about God. Perhaps we don’t sacrifice a chicken, but we might think that if we sit through a liturgy or read a bit of the Agpeya for a week, then God should make sure we get what we have asked for. And what we ask for is not usually spiritual growth, but is a long list of material and worldly things. What do people often say to me? Why has God abandoned me? Why am I without – a job, a boyfriend, a girlfriend, money, high grades at school etc etc. The one who knows God does not ask for these things, but if a person has been taught to think of God in this way then it is not surprising that their spiritual life is fruitless. Such a God, giving us what we want in return for some religious behaviour, is not the Christian God either.
The Orthodox Gospel
What would I want each of those who contact me in distress and confusion to realise? What would I want them to understand as the authentic Orthodox Gospel? The word Gospel means Good News. The Orthodox Christian Faith is Good News for mankind. These false views about God are bad news, and the people who message me holding onto them are usually not feeling good about the sort of false Christianity they have been taught to follow.
What is this Good News? God is love!
The Holy and Consubstantial Trinity is love, eternal and divine love. In this love the whole of the cosmos was called into being by God. When he saw what he had created he said that it was good. And the greatest of his creations was mankind, Adam and Eve. He created us to bear his image, to express something of his own divine character in the world, and he filled us with his divine life, breathing the Holy Spirit into mankind. What was his purpose in this? It was to be able to share the divine love with those he had called into existence, and to allow those whom he had made to participate in the divine life of the Holy Trinity by the grace of the indwelling Holy Spirit.
Of course we know that Adam and Eve were set just one test, which would enable them to express their loving desire for union with God, who had made them for this blessed existence. But they chose to satisfy self, and in disobedience turned their will against God, against life and love, and embraced darkness and non-being. Sin is not a thing. It does not exist as any sort of substance, but it is the wrong use of the human will choosing other than God. The consequence of their sin was that they experienced the withdrawal of the Holy Spirit from them, because the Holy Spirit cannot dwell in the heart that has turned to sin, and they were also left to experience their own mortality, because everything which is created is mortal, subject to dissolution, unless sustained in immortality by God, who alone is immortal by nature.
What was God’s response to the sin of Adam and Eve? It was not one of hatred and anger. In love the Holy Trinity determined that a way would be made for mankind to be restored to the relationship which God had intended. God could not bear that those he had created in love and for love should be lost forever. In love man was forced to endure his mortality, because in mercy God did not wish mankind to endure an eternity of separation from his life and love. And in mercy the outcome which had Adam and Eve had been warned of was mitigated, so that the soul remained in immortality as the gift of God, and would always draw mankind to a remembrance of that which had been lost, for his salvation.
The righteousness of God could not simply forgive Adam and Eve, since what had taken place was a fundamental change in relationship, and the choice of non-being, of death rather than life, had consequences. But the love of God would not allow man to be lost forever without a divine effort to restore mankind. Therefore even from the beginning God willed that he himself, in the divine person of the Word of God, would become man himself, and as true man, without ceasing to be God, would live that life of obedience which God had required of Adam. More than that he determined that as man he would take up again that contest with the enemy, with Satan the deceiver, and would overcome him by the steadfast and unfailing turning of his own human will towards the will of God. Death, as the separation of man from God, would be overcome by God experiencing death, and as man destroying death in his divine power.
Through the long years of the Old Testament, in the times of the patriarchs and prophets, we find a record of mankind both losing contact with God, and slowly being prepared for the entry of God into the world. At one extreme there was the worst excesses of demon worship, leading even to the sacrifice of children. This truly brought the wrath of God upon those who perpetrated such evil against the most vulnerable. But at the other extreme we find a growing awareness of God as an Holy Trinity of love, and finally the birth and life of the Virgin Mary, the Theotokos, the best that mankind could present to God, a soul committed to the service of God in humble obedience from her infancy. She was one in whom God was well pleased. But even in her virtue she was separated from God according to that which he had desired, an interior spiritual union.
In her self-sacrifice, her words – Let it be unto me according to your word – the Good News was made manifest in the world. For the Father chose you, and the Holy Spirit overshadowed you, and the Son condescended and took flesh from you as we pray in the prayers of our Orthodox tradition every day. The Son took flesh from the Virgin Mary and became man, not entering into a man who already existed, nor having only the appearance of being a man, nor moving and animating a lifeless body. But the Word of God himself, was conceived of the Virgin Mary, the Theotokos, by the Holy Spirit and became that unborn child, that baby born in Bethlehem, that youth in the Temple at Jerusalem, that teacher and miracle worker, Jesus Christ, the Messiah and Saviour of the world. But he did not become man by ceasing to be God, nor did he become man by changing his humanity into something else. While remaining the Word of God, perfect in his divinity and upholding the whole universe, he also became man, a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths, an adult beaten and crucified and laid dead in a tomb, and the risen Saviour restoring humanity to a right relationship with God.
Why was it that God came into his creation? He tells us himself. For God so loved the world… And all that he did during his time on earth was in the same love that sent him to earth. His whole life on earth was a restoration of that which Adam had ruined. He fasted for 40 days in obedience just as Adam had been unable to resist eating the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. He received the gift of the Holy Spirit, his own divine Spirit, as man, when he was baptised on our behalf, and standing in the waters he heard the voice of the Father speaking to all mankind when in a right relationship with him, this is my beloved.
In the several years of his ministry he revealed to us the heart of God by his teaching and by his loving care, shown to all and especially the most vulnerable and marginalised. Then on the cross, sinless on behalf of us sinners, it was not the wrath and hatred of the Father which he bore, but he freely embraced the sentence of death which had been given to Adam as the consequence of his sin. As man he entered into death, but as God and sinless death had no power over him at all. He rose to life because he is life itself. And having died the death that we deserve because of sin, death and the sentence of God against Adam had no more power over him.
What does this mean for us all? Death has no more dominion over us because Christ has taken away the sentence of death in his own body on the cross. He has become a Second Adam, a new start for humanity. United with him we may also receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, the divine life restored to mankind in Christ, and we may enter into an experience of the life of eternity now, as we seek and participate in a living unity with God by the indwelling Holy Spirit.
Is this not Good News? We need not experience the living death of separation from God, nor fear our own mortality, since the resurrection of Christ is the guarantee of our own life in eternity. We can experience life with God now. This is the meaning and substance of the Christian life. We are not trying to do enough to get to Heaven in the future if we are lucky. We are called to experience Heaven on Earth, and by that experience to find peace and joy in every circumstance.
If we are hoping to get to Heaven by various means then we have not understood the Christian message. Heaven is a prayer away, for those who are united with God in this life. God has become man, truly man, without ceasing to be God, that we might share in the divine light and life, without ceasing to be human, but by glorification and transfiguration. Who would give their life for an angry and hate-filled God, or a God with whom we must bargain, or a God who needs to give us what we want if he is to expect our attention. But it is worth giving all that we have of ourselves to a God who has made it possible for us to become all that he created and desires us to be.
The fulfillment and satisfaction of all human life is found in such a relationship with such a God. And it is a relationship of love with a God who is love. Have you believed otherwise? Then you have been taught a terrible and harmful error. Such a relationship does not take away all of our problems and difficulties in this life, but entering into a unity with God by the indwelling Holy Spirit bears the fruit of the Spirit, transforming our experience of these trials with love, peace, joy, patience, long-suffering and every other blessed spiritual consequence.
This is the Good News to which I have committed my life, no less filled with pain and difficulty than others. And the growing participation in the divine life of the Holy Spirit is already an experience of the life of eternity. This is the God and this is the life which the authentic Orthodox Gospel invites us to embrace.