This is a talk I recently gave at the Orthodox Homeschooling Conference. (Listen to the recording here.) This topic has been of great importance to me over the past several years, and I must admit to a little bit of frustration regarding what I describe especially in its opening paragraphs.
I normally do not publish full talks like this on my weblog, but I thought I would put this one here to make it available to a wider audience. As with anything someone publishes online, please do not copy and republish it (sharing the link via social media is fine, as well as sharing excerpts) without asking permission.
I know it’s long for a weblog post, but I hope you’ll bear with me and consider reading the whole thing.
The Gospel Message: The Heart of the Orthodox Christian
Introduction: Is the Gospel Actually Orthodox?
It would probably be no big stretch to say that, if one were to ask the average Orthodox Christian the question, “What is the Gospel?” he would not have an answer.
Think about that for a moment. This “good news” proclaimed by the Apostles that was given to them by Jesus Christ Himself, for which they labored intensively, for which they suffered and for which most of them died has somehow escaped the notice of the members of the very Church which is constituted by its proclamation.
That should frighten anyone trying to be a serious Orthodox Christian. And it may well explain why the missionary outreach of Orthodoxy, which in history is literally the stuff of legend, is in our own time weak almost to the point of non-existence. There are of course some bright exceptions, but they are really quite small.
Just to give us some sense of scale here, consider the zeal of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Mormons. There are currently some 88,000 Mormon missionaries delivering the Mormon gospel to the world. There are more than 15 million Mormons. That’s one missionary for every 170 Mormons. If the Orthodox sent out missionaries at the same rate, we would have about 1.3 million currently working.
That’s an extreme comparison, of course, but it should really bother us that a religion whose worldwide membership is only a little larger than the population of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and not even 200 years in age has an almost unstoppable zeal, while the ancient Orthodox Church, founded by Christ Himself on His Apostles for the salvation of the world, is doing so very much less.
But if our sense of religious competition leads us to worry about keeping up with the Mormons (who are, at best, 1/15 our size), we should be a lot more worried that we, as a whole, do not know the most central, most fundamental, most critical part of what it means to be Orthodox Christians. I have not done any polls, but perhaps you could try this when you get back to your parishes. Ask people what exactly the Gospel message is. I think it’s fair to say that most Orthodox Christians do not know. But even if it’s not most, it’s certainly a lot. And that’s enough for the worrying.
Perhaps another thought experiment might be even more revealing. Rather than asking fellow Orthodox Christians what the Gospel message is, ask them what it means to be an Orthodox Christian. Would the Gospel be the thing they mention first? Would they mention it at all? I have a sense of worried foreboding just thinking about it.
So what are we to do about this? I have no grand plan for catechizing everyone’s children and fellow-parishioners. But I do think that we should work on articulating the Gospel message for our own generation, because it seems to have become lost somewhere.
Much like the head of John the Baptist, whose rediscovery by the Church we celebrate not just one but three times, it seems that, at least for some of us, this most precious gift, far more precious than any relic, seems to keep getting lost somewhere. It is not so much that it has been refuted or stolen from us but that we just seem to have lost track of it.
And that’s just crazy. Isn’t the Gospel the reason we’re here to begin with? Isn’t the Gospel why we are Christians? Isn’t the Gospel the thing that we believe in order even to be Christians?
Orthodoxy without the Gospel is like football without a ball—lots of running around, moving about in impressive formations, heads butting, injuries and scandals, yet no one scoring any points, winning anything or even knowing what the point of it all is.
Or, to use a Scriptural image, if we are Orthodox but have not the Gospel, we are like the bodies of the slain seen in the Prophet Ezekiel’s vision in the thirty-seventh chapter of his book. We hear about this vision in the Matins of Saturday in Holy Week, usually celebrated on Friday evening. These bodies started out as dry bones in a chaotic pile, but then were connected together, given flesh and sinews. Yet they are without the breath of God, the wind, the Spirit giving the prophetic word of the Gospel, and they remain dead and lying on the ground. They have the appearance of those who are alive, but they are not. They lack the Word of God breathed into them.
So let’s be honest—the situation is bad. I do not know what the solution for the big problem is, the problem of the Gospel being so difficult to find spoken by Orthodox Christians. I will not say, of course, that the Gospel has been missing from Orthodoxy—it never left. But I will say that catechism—the teaching of the fundamentals of the faith—has suffered much in our day. The Gospel is everywhere in our faith, yet many of us do not seem to see it. I don’t have any big solutions for that phenomenon. But let us, nevertheless, make a beginning.
Before we begin, though, we might ask whether we might want to make such a beginning. Do Orthodox Christians actually evangelize? Is this something we really should be pursuing?
Some Orthodox Christians actually say that we should not evangelize. There’s a stereotype that it is primarily those who were raised in the Orthodox faith who say this—they are not concerned with people who are not of their ethnicity becoming part of the Church.
But this attitude extends to some who embraced the faith as adults, actually. I have heard one convert say to me that he found it refreshing that the Orthodox don’t evangelize, because evangelism is obnoxious and we should just let the Holy Spirit direct people to the Church.
I even once heard a presentation from no less than the head of the Department of Evangelization of one Orthodox jurisdiction whose primary advice in how to grow parishes was “Just be the Church.” When pressed for an explanation for this nebulous advice, it came out that he meant that one should set up a parish and start doing services, then just wait for people to show up. (Of course, it wasn’t mentioned that this priest’s own success in leading a successful parish might have been conditioned by being an English-speaking church plant in a rapidly-expanding local economy with a huge influx of new residents.)
If you liturgize it, they will come. Come and see. The services will teach them everything. Acquire the Holy Spirit and thousands around you will be saved, right?
As you may imagine, that kind of sloganeering does not much appeal to me, because it at least seems to me that its underlying message is “You don’t have to go into all the world and preach the Gospel. You don’t have to teach people the Gospel message.” Of course, those sayings do have good meanings, but they’re being misapplied.
They’re often treated like magic—get people in the door, and God will do the rest through the magical magnificence of Orthodoxy’s aesthetic power, which assumes, of course, that your parish is well-appointed with iconography, the choir is excellent, etc. We do indeed need to work to make sure that there’s something worth coming and seeing—it’s not magic—but even if we do all that, if we do not have the Gospel, none of that will really matter.
We need to expose that attitude for what it is—a distortion of Orthodoxy. The Orthodox tradition is missionary, and it is catechetical. We often talk about the Fathers, but I am not sure how many people read them. If they did, they would discover that the Fathers are missionary and they are catechetical. And the starting point for both those actions is the Gospel.
Preaching the Gospel and teaching the newly-baptized disciples of Jesus all that He commanded is the very last thing the Lord Jesus told us to do before He ascended into Heaven. So it’s not really an option.
One Orthodox missionary of our time, Archbishop Anastasios (Yannoulatos) of Albania, famously said during a visit in the United States, “The Church is not the Church when it is not actively engaged in mission.” And here is another quote from him which I like: “Mission will always remain the central ecclesiastical matter; an expression of the life and vitality of the Church. Unthinkable as it is to have a Church without liturgical life, it would be even more unthinkable to have a Church without missionary life.”
So that is my brief case that we Orthodox should be focusing on the Gospel. I will admit that it almost sounds crazy to me even to have to say it, were there not so much evidence that it has to be said. I was raised as the son of missionaries, though, so perhaps I am particularly sensitive to this insanity. I will gladly admit my weaknesses, but I don’t think sensitivity to indifference or even hostility to preaching the Gospel is a weakness.
So let’s make that beginning.
I should say that what follows here is not the only way of articulating the Gospel. But it is what was taught to me and what I understand, and it is, I believe, a useful way of organizing what the Apostles preached and what the Church has proclaimed for twenty centuries.
This model of explaining the Gospel is focused on three affirmations of faith: 1) Jesus is the Messiah. 2) Christ is risen. 3) We can be saved as a result.
Now, there is much we can say about each of these three affirmations, and the Church has spent some twenty centuries saying it. There’s no way even to give a fair survey here. But we should nevertheless say some things, especially asking why each of these affirmations is constitutive of the Gospel message. Let us begin with the first.
Jesus is the Messiah
To say that Jesus is the Messiah is to import a huge history into the conversation. It is the history of not only the Israel of the Old Covenant, the People of God prior to the coming of Jesus into the world, but also of the history of mankind and his fall in Adam and Eve. That Jesus is the Messiah says something not only about His role as the Saviour of mankind but also about the creation of the universe. So let’s start there.
In the beginning[1. This paragraph and the three that follow are adapted from An Introduction to God, pp. 20-21.], God created the universe, including mankind, His final creation, whom He placed at the center of the creation. He created us to live forever, without sickness, suffering, or death, and in perfect, ever-deepening communion with Him—we were not naturally immortal, but we continuously received our immortal life from God. But because Adam and Eve, the first parents of mankind, chose to sin—to miss the mark of God’s design for them—corruption and death entered into man. This is commonly called the “Fall of mankind.”
And because mankind was chosen by God to act as the priest of this world—offering up the creation to God and then receiving it back as a means of blessing—the creation also fell away from the harmonious peace God had designed for it. This happened because God is the Giver of life and the Creator of order, so when humanity cut itself off from God, death and chaos were introduced into humanity and, through us, into the rest of the world.
Over time, as corruption and death touched everything mankind did, the world came to be ruled by violence and oppression. God began a process of revealing to humanity the way out of this corruption, the way to reconnection with the life of God. He did this first through a man He chose especially for this task, Abraham, and then by giving a way of life to Abraham’s descendants, who were first called Hebrews and then later Jews. God spoke to these chosen people first through the Prophet Moses and then through other prophets.
To Moses, God revealed that He was to be known to the Hebrews as Yahweh, which means “I am” or “The One Who Is.” (As an aside, I am told by a Hebrew scholar that Yahweh literally means “The One Who causes to exist,” and that “I am” is a kind of exegesis of this name, from the Hebrew phrase ehyeh asher ahyeh, meaning “I am that I am.” The New Testament makes use of this “I am” in Greek.) This revelation showed that the way of life He was revealing was intended to enable people to know Who God is, not just intellectually, but in a truly personal way. This way of life revealed through Moses had only one purpose: to teach the Hebrews and the nations around them how to get back in connection with God so that they could truly know Him. And He showed Himself to Israel not only as their deity, but as their Father, which spoke of His desire for an intimate and close connection. Over the centuries that followed Abraham and Moses, the nation of the Jews, called Israel, was sometimes faithful to God but often lost its way.
Throughout the prophecies of these men of God and growing in the tradition of the Jews was the hope for the one called the Messiah, a word from Hebrew which means “anointed one.” We tend to think of messiah as a word reserved for Jesus, but in the Old Testament, it had already been in use for some time even aside from the specific hope for a saviour figure who would rescue Israel.
Moses was a kind of messiah—a man sent from God to lead his people out of slavery in Egypt. God set him apart specifically for this task, to rouse his people out of their bondage to the Egyptian pharaoh and to bring them to the Promised Land. In Jewish tradition, the messianic hope would sometimes be expressed by comparing the Messiah to Moses. Moses is even called a “messiah” in an apocryphal text from the Dead Sea Scrolls (4Q377 Apocryphal Pentateuch).
In Leviticus (4:3,5), messiah is used to refer to “the priest that is anointed,” and it was used not just for a particular priest but for anyone set aside for God’s service. It is particularly used for the king of Israel, especially for David, whose kingly line came to be seen as particularly set apart by God. We may remember that David is anointed by the Prophet Samuel, making him an “anointed one.” But even though David and his line, established by God as kings over Israel, loom large in the messianic tradition, others are still called messiah, such as the Twelve Patriarchs or even Cyrus, the pagan ruler of the Persians whom God used to conquer Babylon and send the Jews back to Jerusalem after their long exile among the Babylonians.
The messianic promise as the delivery from captivity and the hope of the restoration of the kingship of David developed particularly after that return from exile, when the kingship was not taken up by a descendant of David but rather by the high priests, who did not declare themselves kings but nevertheless acted as the rulers of Israel down to the time of the Maccabees. The Maccabees, who were also not descendants of David, produced the Hasmoneans, who ruled Palestine for about a century until the conquest by the Romans. The Romans, of course, set up their own client kings such as Herod, also not descended from David.
The hope remained that a deliverer would come, one who was both “the son of David” and “the Lord’s anointed.” We can see from the history of the use of messiah in the Old Testament how there is so much there that prefigures Jesus, Who is the Son of David, prophet, priest, king, the deliverer of captives, the One Who leads His people out of the wilderness, and so forth.
The Messiah is mentioned a number of times in the Psalms, and he is prophesied in the Book of Daniel, where he is particularly described in terms of the restoration of Israel after return from exile in Babylon. We recall, of course, that Daniel himself spends his whole life in the Babylonian exile.
But we should not think that the messianic hope is some provincial hope confined to Israel, though it seems that there were some in the time of Jesus who very much thought so. No, this hope of a redeemer, one who would restore his people, is something that extends even to Adam and Eve and all their descendants.
The story of Israel in the Old Testament often tells us the story of mankind in microcosm. We see both the Exodus from Egypt and the return from the Babylonian exile, and both are images of the return of mankind back from the exile from Paradise with the fall of Adam and Eve, a restoration to the kingdom of God. And in both stories, there is a struggle and a purification of the people of Israel as they wandered Sinai in the Exodus and as they were in captivity in Babylon. That is also our own story, a story of struggle on the way to the Promised Land of the Kingdom of God (cf. I Cor. 10:1-12).
This is why we need to know Israel’s story in the Old Testament. It is not just the historical origins narrative of some Middle Eastern conglomeration of tribes but rather the story of mankind, both Jew and Gentile. As the Prophet Hosea’s marriage to the unfaithful woman was an image of God’s relationship with Israel, so is God’s relationship with Israel an image of His relationship with mankind as a whole. What Israel was, mankind also was. And what Israel has become, the New Israel, the Church, is what mankind may also become.
At the fullness of the story of the old Israel, the Messiah, the Anointed One of God—in Greek, Christos, rendered in English as Christ—finally appears.
About two thousand years ago[2. This and the four paragraphs that follow are adapted from An Introduction to God, pp. 21-22.], a young virgin named Mary, a descendant of David, the greatest of the kings of the Jews, who himself had been called “God’s anointed,” was betrothed to an old, pious man named Joseph, also a descendant of David. Because of her purity of heart and her willingness to do as God asked her to do, she was chosen by God to give birth to the Son of God, Jesus Christ. She willingly assented to this pregnancy, which was announced to her by the Archangel Gabriel, and the One born of her was called Jesus, which means “Yahweh saves.”
Jesus was not only the Son of the Father but was also God Himself, and He revealed that God is the Holy Trinity—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, three divine Persons who share one essence, one God in three Persons. And when Jesus was conceived in Mary’s womb—miraculously, without any earthly father—He Who had been fully God also became fully human, taking His humanity from her. Because of Who Jesus was (and is), both God and man, humanity has the possibility of being restored to full communion with God. Through His humanity, we can access His divinity. The gap opened by Adam and Eve has been bridged.
He was the coming, expected Messiah, Who would know all things and reveal the truth to mankind. As the Samaritan Woman said to Jesus, “I know that Messiah is coming. When He comes, He will tell us all things” (John 4:25).
During His ministry on Earth, Jesus taught the people the way God wants us to live, healed them of their physical and spiritual sicknesses, and forgave them of their sins. He especially focused His ministry on twelve disciples, who were not members of the religious or intellectual classes but mostly fishermen. When His mission drew to a close, He was betrayed by Judas, one of these twelve, and was arrested by the Roman authorities. The Romans were acting on behalf of the religious leadership of the Jews, who saw Jesus as a threat to their established order. Although He had done nothing wrong, He was convicted as a blasphemer and crucified—nailed to a large wooden cross to suffocate to death—by the Roman imperial government on behalf of the Jewish leaders.
Jesus died on a Friday, the day before the Jews’ greatest annual holy day, the Passover, a day that commemorated the delivery of the Hebrew people from slavery in Egypt. Jesus rose from the dead on the third day, Sunday. Through this voluntary death and resurrection, Jesus broke the power of death over all mankind forever. After His resurrection, He was seen alive by many, including the eleven disciples (Judas, in his remorse for betraying Christ, had meanwhile committed suicide) and many others. He spent another forty days on Earth, further instructing His eleven disciples to help them become apostles, a word which means “those sent out on a mission.” After those forty days, He physically ascended into heaven while the apostles watched.
So when we say that Jesus is the Messiah, this first affirmation of the Gospel message, this is what we mean. We mean that He is the hope not only of the people of Israel but of all mankind. Israel as the chosen people of God served to provide the image for the narrative that defined all of humanity. And Jesus is the Messiah of Israel—the Christ—the One Who would redeem them, the Son of David Who would lead them out of the exile, the Anointed One Who would restore kingship and priesthood to Israel.
But because He is fully God and fully man, He is the Messiah not only of the Old Israel but also of the New Israel, the Church, into which all mankind is invited, including the Jews. He has led us all out of bondage in the Egypt of our sin, out of exile in the Babylon of our passions.
When we say that Jesus is the Messiah, we assume all this Old Testament background. If we do not know it, then it makes no sense to call Him messiah. It makes no sense to call Him the Anointed One, if we do not know what the purpose is for which He was anointed. It makes no sense to call the Church the New Israel if we know nothing about the Old Israel.
As we preach the Gospel, we do not necessarily have to have all this history memorized—and there is a great deal more to know, too! But we do need to know that Jesus as the Messiah is the Anointed One Who was sent from God to lead His people out of slavery and exile, to restore kingship and priesthood, and that He is the fulfillment of all the prophecy of the Old Testament, the culmination of the hopes not only of the Jews but of all mankind since Adam and Eve. That is something we can all remember.
So now that we have explored this first point, that Jesus is the Messiah, let us explore the second, that Christ is risen.
Christ is risen!
Christianity is unique in this claim: God became truly man, truly died, and then truly rose bodily from the grave. No other religion makes this claim about itself. No one else dares to say that the God-man has died and come back to life.
Now one may quibble: Are there not ancient pagan gods who become man? There are certainly many who appear in the form of humans, to be sure. But those same gods were often just as likely to appear as bulls or snakes or cats. But no one ever said that they became man in the sense of truly having human nature while also retaining the nature of God. Gods were one thing, and mortals were another. A god might appear to be a man, but he didn’t become one. The best you get is an avatar, a god in the shape of a man, or a demi-god, a kind of half-god, half-man.
Jesus Christ is unique among all claims to deity in the claim to be the Son of God, truly God in all things, become the Son of Mary, truly human in all things. That anyone ever claimed such a thing is kind of crazy, given the prior background. And it only got crazier once philosophers started settling on monotheism. Once they agreed on a God so far outside of time and space that He no longer resembled the petty pagan gods, the idea that He would come among us as truly man was even more unthinkable. The religious trend was not to make deity seem more like humanity. On the contrary, religion was de-humanizing God.
One may also quibble: Were there not ancient pagan gods who died and then came back to life? In the nineteenth century, the category of the “dying and rising god” came to be much-discussed in scholarly circles. Many names were put forward—the Semitic Baal, the Greek Adonis and Dionysius and Persephone, the Egyptian Ra and Osiris, the Akkadian Ishtar, and the Korean Bari. But most pagan gods that die do not rise again. And most who do rise again do not rise again as the same deity, but are transformed into someone else in some way.
But none of them—no, not one—are God in the sense that the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is God. None of them are the one, true God Who is the reason that existence exists, the One Who sustains reality by His thought, the One Who created all things, is above all things, is outside all things and is yet within all things. That kind of God doesn’t get proposed until later.
And when that kind of God does get proposed by Greek philosophy, the idea that He could die was just bat-crazy to anyone who suggested it. If all of existence depends on “the One,” the term often used for the Creator-God, the Unmoved Mover, then how could that One ever die? Death has no meaning in that world of uncreated deity.
So while in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries scholars played around with the idea that Jesus is just one “god” among many who die and rise again, the reality of the integrity of those pagan stories is that none of them actually make the claim that Christians do about Jesus—He is the one true God become truly human, Who truly dies and then truly rises from the dead. Even non-Christian scholars have basically abandoned that argument, though of course it still gets currency in Internet social media.
When we say “Christ is risen,” it is not just some provincial variant on a universal religious theme. We are daring to say something that no one else is saying, never said before and has never said since. And even none of the religions that followed the rise of the Church have dared to say the same thing. They all backed off in one way or another—usually in terms of the true deity of Jesus or His true humanity. They just can’t bring themselves to say that the one true God became true man, truly died and then truly rose.
It’s critical that we understand the uniqueness of the traditional Christian message about the death and resurrection of Jesus. This is why, when the Gospel message was first preached, most people found it unbelievable—it was preposterous and like nothing they’d ever heard before. And even now, it is unbelievable to most people for exactly the same reason. That God could truly become man and that there could be a resurrection from the dead, and that that resurrection should begin with the God-man is crazy to most people these days—even to Christian people!
I recently had a conversation with someone who told me about an exchange with his nineteen-year-old niece that he had with her in Paris. She had been raised as a devout Methodist in the South. They were attending Easter mass at Notre Dame Cathedral. His niece turned to him and said, “Where is Jesus’ body?” He replied, “He rose from the dead.” She said, “Yes, but what happened to His body?” It turned out that this young lady, raised a pious churchgoer her whole life, believed that Jesus’ soul had been raised but that His body was left somewhere behind. And she wanted to know where they kept it.
It’s critical that we emphasize that when Jesus rose from the dead, it wasn’t some ethereal “spiritual” experience. We mean that that heart that had stopped beating began pumping blood again, that that soul that had descended into hades was put back in His body, that those lungs that had stopped breathing air suddenly inhaled once again. The God-man Who had nails stuck through his hands and feet and a spear stuck into His side, from whence flowed out blood and water, Who cried out with a loud voice, bowed His head and then gave up His spirit—that God-man Who had been crucified like a thief walked up out of His tomb on the two legs that had formed when He was conceived in the womb of His mother, the Virgin Mary.
When we say that Christ is risen, we should say it so clearly that people will laugh at the idea because it’s crazy. It should sound crazy to people. It should sound just as freaky as the idea of a body lying in the coffin at a funeral suddenly getting up, throwing all the stuff people put into coffins out on the floor, and asking for a hand in climbing out. And this is no zombie-life, either, an undeath where a mindless, moaning body animated by some evil force goes wandering about in search of brains to munch on. No, this is life, a life you could see in His eyes and in His smile, in His speech, in the fact that He ate fish and bread and even honeycomb for dessert.
He’s alive! Christ is risen, and this changes everything.
If it were not enough that we make the crazy claim that God became man and that the God-man died, now we are talking about someone who is dead getting up and being not dead. This is not normal, people.
I think we have to get a better sense for how nuts the Gospel actually sounds, especially in this point—that Christ is risen! And then we have to grab hold of it and proclaim it from the rooftops. This is no denatured little bit of spiritual comfort that makes us feel good about our prejudices and aesthetics. This is the God Who created all things blasting His way into our reality and smashing up death and wiping out its power.
Christ is risen, and death is slain. O Death, where is your sting? O Hades, where is your victory?
As the Apostle Peter stood up on the Day of Pentecost and said, “Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly that God has made this Jesus, Whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:36), this Jesus, Whose “soul was not left in Hades, nor did His flesh see corruption. This Jesus God has raised up, of which we are all witnesses” (2:31-32).
This message was so powerful that all but one of the twelve apostles were killed for teaching it. They voluntarily went to their own deaths, proclaiming that they had seen Jesus alive, that they would preach the resurrection no matter what happened, that they would obey God rather than men (Acts 5:29), that they would stand in the temple and in the synagogues and in the streets and travel to the corners of the earth to speak all the words of this Life (Acts 5:20).
Our God is not dead, they said! He’s alive!
One of the most magnificent summaries of the resurrection of Jesus Christ is found in the anaphora of St. Basil the Great, in his Divine Liturgy. Hear this ancient celebration of this greatest moment in the history of the universe:
He gave Himself a ransom to Death, whereby we were held, sold into bondage under sin. And having descended into Hades through the Cross, that He might fill all things with Himself, He loosed the pains of death, and rose again on the third day, making a way for all flesh unto the resurrection from the dead, for it was not possible that the Author of life should be held by corruption, that He might be the First-fruits of those who have fallen asleep, the First-born from the dead, that He might be in all things the first among all.
And those who know well that sermon of Peter at Pentecost will hear some his words there spoken by Basil, along with words from Paul (I Cor. 15:20, Col. 1:18) and John (Rev. 1:5).
This is what we believe! This is who we are. If you don’t believe this, then what are we doing here?
The Apostle Paul put it this way: “But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ is not risen. And if Christ is not risen, then our preaching is empty and your faith is also empty. Yes, and we are found false witnesses of God, because we have testified of God that He raised up Christ, whom He did not raise up—if in fact the dead do not rise. For if the dead do not rise, then Christ is not risen. And if Christ is not risen, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins! Then also those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men the most pitiable” (I Cor. 15:13-19).
But there is resurrection from the dead. Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in the tombs. We, too, shall be raised.
And that brings us to the third affirmation of the Gospel message: We can be saved as a result.
We can be saved as a result.
Because Jesus has risen from the dead, we also will be raised. He redeemed all of human nature in that act, and so all humanity will rise from the dead.
We need to be very clear here about this, because there is this kind of watery doctrine that many people believe in about what salvation means. Many people have the idea that salvation means “going to heaven when you die.” Even plenty of Orthodox people believe this. But this is not what the Scriptures teach nor what the Church affirms. Salvation isn’t about “going to heaven when you die.” Salvation is about the resurrection.
Biblical scholar and Anglican bishop N.T. Wright refers to this as “life after life after death,” a fitting phrase that very briefly conveys what we’re talking about. Traditional Christian doctrine holds that, after death, human souls are separated from their bodies and go to a place of waiting, where they received a foretaste of their eternal fate. In the story told of the rich man and Lazarus, Christ calls the place where the righteous are waiting “Abraham’s bosom” (Luke 16:22-23). When Christ returns, all the dead will be raised, their souls reunited with their bodies forever, and be judged at the Last Judgment, with the righteous entering into everlasting joy and the wicked into everlasting punishment (Matt. 25:31-46).
When Jesus is raised from the dead, He makes possible the resurrection of all mankind. Human nature has been redeemed. Everyone will be raised—not just the righteous, but everyone. But there are two kinds of resurrection according to the Lord Jesus. He says in John 5:24-29:
Most assuredly, I say to you, he who hears My word and believes in Him who sent Me has everlasting life, and shall not come into judgment, but has passed from death into life. Most assuredly, I say to you, the hour is coming, and now is, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God; and those who hear will live. For as the Father has life in Himself, so He has granted the Son to have life in Himself, and has given Him authority to execute judgment also, because He is the Son of Man. Do not marvel at this; for the hour is coming in which all who are in the graves will hear His voice and come forth—those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation.
That everyone will be raised from the dead means that, like the wounds of Christ still visible on His resurrected body, all that we have done in this life finds eternal presence and meaning. There will also be a new heaven and a new earth, but they are not some other place—they are new, but they are still heaven and earth. And so, too, will we be new, but we will not be some other people. We will be ourselves. That is why what we do in this life matters so much, because we as human persons in history will pass into eternity, bringing our history with us.
I believe that, when we preach salvation, we have to begin with the resurrection, our hope in life after life after death. The Apostles stressed the resurrection repeatedly in their preaching and their writing, so we should be doing the same. It is, strangely, lost in so much Christian evangelism of our day—even sometimes for the Orthodox.
While pop Evangelicalism stresses “going to heaven when you die” as the main point of salvation, the Orthodox, at least in the English-speaking world, tend to de-emphasize the issue of what happens at death and afterward as all largely a mystery but instead wish to discuss theosis and healing. That doesn’t mean the resurrection is absent for us—God forbid! Look at Pascha! But it does mean that we’re not emphasizing our own resurrection enough, at least not in my experience.
Do we believe in theosis? Yes. Do we believe in salvation as healing? Yes. But the goal of those models of understanding salvation is the resurrection, the fulfillment of the work of the Messiah in redeeming His own people out of slavery and exile and leading them to the Promised Land.
Let’s talk briefly about theosis as salvation, because we really should here. This is the soteriological model most often put forward by the Orthodox, and with good reason. It’s all over the Scripture and all over the writings of the Fathers and our liturgical tradition. We won’t do a full survey here, but I wanted to focus especially on some important things, especially those which can help us to have a fuller vision of what it means to be saved.
Theosis, also called “deification” or “divinization,” is the doctrine that salvation means becoming like God by means of His abiding presence in us and through our cooperation with Him. Perhaps the most famous statement of this doctrine is Athanasius’s famous dictum, “God became man so that man might become god” (De Inc., 54:3).
Patristic reflection on theosis often emphasized a quotation from Jesus, in which He quoted from Psalm 81 (82 MT):6, which reads, “I said, you are gods, / And you are all sons of the Most High.” That is, our becoming “gods” is linked with our adoption as “sons of the Most High.”
For this point, I am especially indebted to my late friend Fr. Matthew Baker, who in a paper on Athanasius and deification, showed how the saint linked theosis with adoption, a theme which is also found strongly in the New Testament, such as in 1 John 3:2, which reads: “Beloved, now we are children of God; and it has not yet been revealed what we shall be, but we know that when He is revealed, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is” (emphasis added).
In Fr. Matthew’s paper, titled “Deification and Sonship According to St. Athanasius of Alexandria,” he stresses that the patristic emphasis on theosis did not centrally find its focus on the divine energies of God—such as one finds in St. Gregory Palamas and especially popularized in the twentieth century in a particular way by theologians like Vladimir Lossky. Rather, the emphasis was on the person and saving work of Christ, especially His role as the redeemer and our incorporation into Him as adopted sons and daughters of the Most High. As Fr. Matthew writes:
While these accents are important, such presentations often fail to do justice to the central point. Unfortunately, the teaching regarding theosis is sometimes presented without robust reference to the evangelical message concerning the person of Jesus Christ and his redeeming work. Likewise, the Trinitarian shape of deification is left obscure. In fact, although certainly crucial, the doctrine of divine energies does not form the central focus of the tradition of patristic teaching on theosis.
I will leave it to you to read the whole paper for yourself (it is available on the OCN website), and even if you do not agree with his assessment of how modern Orthodox writers often present theosis, his larger point is, I believe quite critical. It is one thing to say that salvation is becoming like God, but it is another not to mention exactly how this is accomplished, especially within the context of the historical events of the life of Jesus Christ, our Messiah and Redeemer.
A fair look at both the Scripture and the whole tradition of the Church will find that theosis is bound up with its purpose in resurrection, which comes from our being in Christ, being adopted sons of the Most High God. Athanasius, for instance, emphasizes the freedom from death as part of what it means that there was this exchange of humanity and divinity between God and man. He says, for instance, that Christ “manifested himself by a body that we might receive the idea of the unseen Father; and He endured the insolence of men that we might inherit immortality” (De Inc., 54.3). Thus, Christ’s passion and death are made for us the way to theosis and resurrection.
Fr. Matthew also goes on to mention how enthusiasm among the Orthodox for talking about theosis often leads to neglect of other Biblical and patristic models of understanding salvation, sometimes even hostility, actually, as they are wrongly identified as being heterodox. He tracks in Athanasius salvation understood as Christ’s substitution for us on the Cross (37.7), “in the stead of all” (9.1; 10.1-2; 20.2). He also notes that Christ paid “the debt of death exacted by the Law (6.2-3; 9.5; 20.5).”
While some presentations often wrongly and polemically oppose deification to atonement, for Athanasius deification is closely allied to Christ’s atoning work, understood in clearly substitutionary terms. In the famous formula of deification drawn from the conclusion of On the Incarnation (54.3) – all too often quoted as a slogan, with little regard for context – we are to understand the Son’s whole redemptive assumption of the concrete historical situation of sinful man under the Law and death, as climaxing in the Cross. Moreover, there is a distinctly ecclesiological dimension here. Having suffered death in a manner which — unlike the deaths of Isaiah and John the Baptist — kept “his body undivided and in perfect soundness,” so that “no pretext be afforded that would divide the Church” (24.4), Jesus now takes up his abode “in one body among his peers” (9.4; cf. 9.2-4). Deification, according to Athanasius, is the fruit of Christ’s atoning work, and takes form in the Church.
So theosis is not only bound up in the atonement on the Cross but is expressed ecclesially as the Church and all of its works in this world, as “the fullness of Him Who fills all in all” (Eph. 1:3). Do you see how that phrase from Ephesians brings the Church to the forefront in the doctrine of theosis? The Church is Christ’s “fullness.”
I would also add to Fr. Matthew’s observations from Athanasius that salvation is also described in the Scripture as being “ransomed” from death, an identification made directly by St. Basil in his anaphora, that Christ “gave Himself a ransom to Death, whereby we were held, sold into bondage under sin.” Note the “ransom” here is “to Death,” the death that enslaves us to sin. And if we are freed from that bondage, we are therefore bound for resurrection.
We often talk about salvation as healing, as well, but if we think of this healing in an essentially therapeutic sense, that we will somehow get “better” as a result of being Christians, then we miss the point. Yes, we can receive a peace and wholeness in this life, but the healing of salvation is ultimately about resurrection, when everything about us will finally be restored, including our bodies. Even the healing that we receive “for the soul and body” in the mystery of holy unction must finally be referred to the resurrection. Why is it that Holy Wednesday night with its unction service in many traditions, does not have swarms of people walking out with miraculous cures for bodily ailments? It’s because, although those miraculous cures sometimes do happen, the aim of these mysteries is preparation for the resurrection.
I won’t belabor the point here, but I will summarize: If we are to ask, “What does it mean to be saved?” then I believe we must begin with the resurrection and proceed from there. In that context, we can discuss theosis, certainly, and healing from our spiritual wounds in preparation for resurrection. But we should also not hesitate to talk about adoption as children of God, of Christ as our substitute on the Cross, of Christ as the ransom to death, of Christ paying our debt, of the participation in the sacraments as our participation in the life of Christ, in His atonement and His resurrection. We should also not shy away from language depicting God as punishing the wicked or using His wrath to burn away corruption.
None of these themes were invented by Catholics or Protestants. They are in our Bible and in our Fathers and in our liturgical life. The problem comes when salvation is reduced to one of these themes—and it’s a problem that sometimes can be there for the Orthodox, too. The Orthodox tradition is full and robust, and we have many ways of talking about things, especially salvation, which is itself the whole point of Church life.
So what does it mean to be saved? It means that we will be raised with Christ at the last day, that we shall see Him as He is, and that, being children of God, we will be like Him.
So this is one way to talk about the Gospel message, with these three affirmations: 1) Jesus is the Messiah. 2) Christ is risen! 3) We can be saved as a result.
None of this is to say, by the way, that this is all there is to the Christian life. It is not. There is a good deal more that the Church does which flows from all this, such as asceticism, pilgrimage, pastoral care, etc. But my purpose here is to try to capture the kerygma, that public proclamation of the Gospel which constituted the Church when the Apostles preached it. It is roughly, for instance, what one finds in the summary of the Gospel that Paul gives at the beginning of the fifteenth chapter of I Corinthians.
Let’s close this reflection with thinking about the word gospel itself. In Greek, the word is evangelion, literally meaning “good news.” This is also the word which we use for the book that resides on the altar table in our churches and from which we read during the divine services—the evangelion, the Gospel book, the book of good news.
That should tell us something about what the Gospel is. It’s the stuff in that book. It’s the coming into this world of Jesus Christ, His life, His teachings, His death and resurrection, His ascension into heaven, and His abiding with us through the work of the Holy Spirit in the Church. If we are to know the Gospel message, we cannot only know these three affirmations. We have to know what they are conveying to us, and their primary communication is what is in that book, what is written in those four Gospels about Jesus.
But of course that is not taken in isolation. We do not only read those four accounts of the life of Jesus and leave it there. There is more Bible. There is the Fathers, the liturgy, the councils, etc. But there is also a big temptation, one that I think many Orthodox Christians fall into, to focus on all those other things to the detriment of the Holy Scriptures. But all those things are predicated upon knowledge of the Scriptures. If we do not know the Scriptures, then we do not know the Gospel. And if we do not know the Gospel, then we do not know our Lord Jesus Christ, His Father and the Holy Spirit. If we do not know the Gospel, then we are not really Christians. How can we be?
There is also something beautiful I would like to bring to your attention regarding the English word gospel. It is part of our Anglo-Saxon inheritance, that core deposit of our language that we use the most often and which still defines us as a Germanic-language people. Gospel comes from the older form godspell, a “good spell.” It also literally means “good news.” But listen closely, and you hear the word spell in there, too.
We may think of “magic spells.” We may think of feelings of foreboding, like, “that spells trouble.” Spell is not just “news,” but rather may be thought of as “a word that contains power.” We don’t have to think of magic spells or impending doom, but we can realize that the Gospel is indeed a word of power.
When the Gospel is truly preached, the Holy Spirit works to constitute the Church, both in ourselves and in other people. The Gospel truly has power, because the Holy Spirit gives it power. It has power, because we are preaching Christ. He told us to do this, to preach this Gospel, and so we obey. But we obey not only out of a sense of duty to the ultimate Authority, but rather because doing so brings Christ into our deepest heart and into the hearts of others. Doing so sets us on the path toward resurrection, the resurrection of life.
We should not be afraid. This word may be foolishness to some, but to us who are being saved, it is the power of God (I Cor. 1:18). The Gospel message is indeed the heart of the Orthodox Christian.