The Problem with Going to Heaven

heaven“That man might become God…”  On its surface this statement simply sounds blasphemous. Interpreted in a wrong manner, it would  be worse than blasphemous. When read correctly, however, it is the very essence of salvation itself. “To go to heaven…” from my childhood this phrase has been used as the goal of a Christian life. But, interpreted in its most common manner, it is only a Christianized version of paganism.

The distinction between these two statements can be found in their treatment of the interior life. The first, “to become God,” suggests profound, even transcendent change within a person. The second, “to go to heaven,” suggests only a change of location. It is this change in location that is essentially pagan.

It is essentially pagan, meaning that it differs in no way from the sentiments of the ancient Romans, Greeks and the Norse. For to “become a God” in their pantheon would only mean a change in location. The gods of the ancient pagans differed in no way from human beings, other than being bigger, more powerful and in a larger location. But they had their faults. They could be greedy, angry, vindictive, jealous, lustful, etc. And because this was so, human beings needed to be careful not to offend them or to provoke their envy.

For many people the statement, “to become God,” still carries a pagan meaning. It infers the acquisition of divine power and ability and somehow becoming a rival to the one God. This is the blasphemous meaning of the phrase and we do well to instinctively oppose it. We sometimes say of someone, “He thinks he’s some sort of a god,” and we never mean it as a compliment.

But within the New Testament and in the long history of Christian teaching, there is a perfectly acceptable use of the phrase. In 2 Peter we read:

Grace and peace be multiplied to you in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord, as His divine power has given to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of Him who called us by glory and virtue, by which have been given to us exceedingly great and precious promises, that through these you may be partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust. (2Pe 1:2-4 NKJ)

This is synonymous with concepts such as being “transformed” into the image of Christ (Ro. 8:29; 2Cor 3:18). But the right understanding of this “divinization” is not a transformation into a pagan deity, nor a rivaling of the One God. Indeed, the Fathers, with later theological precision, are careful to say that we become “by grace” what God is “by nature.”

But it is utterly essential to the Christian telling of the gospel, that our salvation should be understood in terms of transformation, of an inner metamorphosis towards the image of Christ. Salvation is not a mere change in location (going to heaven).

And this makes sense when it is considered thoughtfully. The problems within our existence are not rooted in location. I do not hate, cheat, lie and hurt others simply because I’m living in the wrong place, and my re-location to some ideal paradise will not, in-and-of-itself, make a difference in what must be changed. If you put me in paradise right now, with no change in me, then I’ll ruin the place for others in very short order.

I have observed on a number of occasions that parish Churches are either paradise or a colony of hell. This is true simply because of the state of the heart. Those who carry hell in their hearts make the world hell for all around them. Those who carry paradise within are the bringers of paradise. And so we pray when we approach communion that the Holy Gifts would be “neither for our judgment nor our condemnation,” but “for the healing of soul and body.”

That “healing of soul and body” is measured by “the fullness of the stature of Christ” (Eph. 4:13). Anything less than this is not the salvation promised in the Scriptures. In truth, if heaven is not dwelling in our hearts, then nothing outside of us will seem as heaven. And if hell is dwelling in our hearts, everything around us will seem like hell. In the words of St. Macarius:

The heart itself is but a small vessel, yet dragons are there, and there are also lions; there are poisonous beasts and all the treasures of evil. But there too is God, the angels, the life and the kingdom, the light and the apostles, the heavenly cities and the treasuries of grace—all things are there.

This marks the daily struggle of the Christian – the life of paradise versus the life of hell. These are not external rewards and punishments but simply ways of speaking about the state of the heart – ways of describing what we are becoming.

It has been my experience that those who judge others are almost always inwardly condemning themselves. Those who regularly speak well of all and even excuse others have an inward peace. It is troubling that there are so many of the former and so few of the latter. Will there be many who are saved?


  1. Great questions. Learning to ask the right questions can be as important as teaching the truth. The right question can slip past my defenses and open me to the possibility that there are vital truths that which I haven’t even considered yet but once considered can change everything. Keep up the excellent work, Father.

  2. Quote: That “healing of soul and body” is measured by “the fullness of the stature of Christ” (Eph. 4:13). Anything less than this is not the salvation promised in the Scriptures. In truth, if heaven is not dwelling in our hearts, then nothing outside of us will seem as heaven. Unquote

    The past couple of days after studying more on ascetic living in this secular age, and trying to live that kind of life. I had the feeling and belief that “heaven is nearer than it was before”. It seems I am captive to that thought and I hope and pray that it never leaves. Can you try to explain this Fr Stephen?

  3. This post reminded me of a conversation my little boy and I had a few nights ago. We were getting ready for bed and had just finished praying together. But, I wondered . . . “Luke,” I asked, “do you know who Jesus is?” Without a breath of pause he answered, “Heaven.”

  4. Susan, your comment reminded me of the movie that came out last year, “Heaven is for Real.” I haven’t seen the film, but its popularity (and that of stories like it) does underscore the culture’s fascination with “heaven” as a place.

  5. An excellent explanation of theosis, Father! I will definitely share this with others.

  6. “The problems within our existence are not rooted in location. I do not hate, cheat, lie and hurt others simply because I’m living in the wrong place, and my re-location to some ideal paradise will not, in-and-of-itself, make a difference in what must be changed.”

    What if someone is born in a location where they learn from the beginning to hate, cheat, lie, and hurt others (let’s say in a mafia family, or in a family of drug dealing, violent gansters, or in a home of white-supremacists, etc.)? Does being born in a different location (let’s say a loving home family of people who follow Christ in truth) make a significant difference in the likelihood of ever achieving this transformation? Or even the likelihood of ever even being aware of such a transformation?

    The thing is, I agree with everything you say about “hell” and “heaven” being a state of the heart, but, to me, it appears that some people are blessed with being born in a location closer to heaven, while others are burdened by being born in a location closer to hell. The ones born in climates that seem overly suitable for producing crops of lusts, hatred, etc, seemed unfairly disadvantaged compared to those who are born in climates that seem suitable for cultivating love, selflessness, etc.

    If I am born to parents who are white supremacist, and am indoctrinated my whole life by this evil ideology of hate, and die without ever transforming into the likeness of Christ, does God take into account that had I been born by holy, Orthodox Christian parents I would have had a slightly different heart, namely a heart with a little more heaven in it and a little less hell?

  7. And also, the fact is, is most all people seem to be a mixture of hell and heaven at the same time. So, if my heart is mostly hell, filled with hateful judgments of others, always seeking to take dishonestly take advantage of my neighbor, etc, and yet I harbor a selfless, sacrificial love towards even one person, like perhaps my child or grandchild, what happens when I die? Will that love survive in my heart? Or will that gift be taken away from at death, because of the hell that exists so dominantly in my heart?

    In other words, the heart is a mixed bag in this world, so does it continue to be a mixed bag in the New World?

  8. Michelle,
    Yes, the mystery of our change is indeed a mystery. There are things about the heart that seem very deep-seated that are in fact quite incidental and things that are indeed quite deep that might seem less important to us. And here I offer a certain bit of speculation:

    I do not want to over-burden the body as a culprit of our sin, or somehow blame materiality. But I find it useful to describe somethings in the following manner. If I die with a broken leg, nobody expects me to spend eternity with a broken leg. There are many things about our earthly existence that are indeed quite physical, including certain so-called “habits of the heart.” But the heart is by no means the same thing as the brain, and many things that we treat as inherent in a personality are, in fact, only artifacts of the brain.

    I have good friends who suffer from certain mental disorders. I do not take these to be anything other that artifacts of the brain. But as good friends, I know these persons, and I know them in a way that easily transcends and overlooks many of their most bothersome defects that are, in fact, merely artifacts of the brain. I look forward to a day when such things simply melt away, much like a broken arm, and they are free to express a beauty of the soul that was often hidden and obscured.

    This example can be greatly expanded. Discerning the true nature of the heart’s content is quite difficult (thus we do not judge). Some people are indeed burdened by an anger that is really more of a wound (an artifact) than a true passion. Others might not ever be aware of the inner struggle within the heart that is occurring in such a person, nor the brilliance that will be manifest when such temporalities are stripped away.

    But there is nothing hidden that will not be made manifest. The heart of a child, even one raised in a world of hate, may harbor more hidden love than others could imagine. God will make it manifest.

    And there is this:

    For no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on this foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, each one’s work will become clear; for the Day will declare it, because it will be revealed by fire; and the fire will test each one’s work, of what sort it is. If anyone’s work which he has built on it endures, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire. (1Co 3:11-15 NKJ)

    It is ultimately the heart that will be revealed “by fire” (the Divine energies of God’s love). We indeed “suffer loss,” but are ourselves saved. This is a mystery and something we should not speculate too much about.

  9. Reminds me a bit of NT Wright’s reorientation of people’s dualistic understanding of heaven up there and resurrection as going up there. Heaven is God and man together, in a renewed heavens and earth.

  10. Father, is the St. Macarius you quoted St. Macarius the Great of Egypt? Thank you for your posts and comments.

  11. BL,
    I’ve had the quote so long that I’m not sure. I would tend to say yes, but there’s something niggling at the back of my mind that says no. It has to do with a Macarian thing about the heart. I’ll dig it up and expand if I can.

    Ah, yes. It comes from the “Macarian Homilies” that are of a different author. They indeed, seem to belong to a corpus of Messalian writings (an early heresy), but these were preserved because of their essential Orthodoxy. Fr. Andrew Louth has a bit of good detail on this in his Origins of Christian Mysticism.

  12. Michelle’s questions around born circumstances reminds me of that arresting example by Dorotheos of Gaza where two slave girls are purchased, one by a pious Christian woman who will raise her in all Godliness and love, and the other by a “dance troupe” (which I take to be a prostitution front by the way he speaks of it):

    “What can we say about this frightful judgement? Here were two little girls taken away from their parents by violence….one is found in the hands of God and the other falls into the hands of the devil. Is it possible to say that what God asks from the one he asks also from the other? Surely Not! Suppose they both fell into fornication or some other deadly sin; is it possible that they both face the same judgment or that their fall is the same? How does it appear to the mind of God when one learns about the Judgement and about the Kingdom of God day and night, while the other unfortunate knows nothing of it, never hears anything good but only the contrary, everything shameful, everything diabolical? How can He allow them to be examined by the same standard? Wherefore a man can know nothing about the judgments of God. He alone is the one who takes account of all and is able to judge the hearts of each one of us, as he alone is our Master. Truly it happens that a man may do a certain thing (which seems to be wrong) out of simplicity, and there may be something about it which makes more amends to God than your whole life; how are you going to sit in judgement and constrict your own soul? And should it happen that he has fallen away, how do you know how much and how well he has fought, how much blood he sweated before he did it? Perhaps so little fault can be found in him that God can look on his action as if it were just, for God looks on his labor and all the struggle he had before he did it, and has pity on him. And you know this, and what God has spared him for, are you going to condemn him and ruin your own soul?”

  13. Karen, I think you may have misunderstood my comment. My little boy was saying that heaven is a person, not a place.

  14. Susan, I understood what your little boy was saying–he certainly got it right. The “heaven as a place” aspect of my comment had to do with the observations in Fr. Stephen’s post.

  15. Recently Saint Paisios of the Holy Mountain mentioned something similar to Saint Dorotheus’ words from Athos: There was a monk who would scandalise visitors because he was -it seemed- an alcoholic. Little did they know that as a child his mother turned him into one (to keep him subdued and quiet due to persecution, but I’ll forego some of the details here), in truth he was a saintly person who fought a titanic war without complaining.

    In a nutshell it’s all about how we deal with the cards we have been dealt and not about those cards. If anything, the cards we have been dealt will be taken into account as to how much is expected of us. The seasoned thief enters when the disciple (who might have possibly even performed great miracles himself) betrays.

  16. Reading this post reminded me of the “invitation” that I heard so often growing up in a small Baptist church. Our pastor always reminded the unsaved that life is full of peril and that they might not survive the drive home from church, and then asked whether they would rather spend eternity in heaven or hell? He’d pause while we all pondered that, then urged the lost ones to repent and ask God to “take me to heaven when I die.” Now, many years later, I am blessed to be an Orthodox Christian. I love the story of St. Vladimir, who sent a committee to find the best form of worship for the Russian people. After witnessing the Liturgy of the Greeks, they went home and told their king that the beauty of it was so great they could not be sure whether they were in heaven or on earth. I know just what they meant.

  17. Thank you Fr. Stephen,
    We too often avoid the topic of theosis. However, in my simple understanding of divinization is that I do not know where I end and where God begins (forgive the reference to the ontology of God).

  18. “Will there be many who are saved?”

    If salvation is “the fullness of the stature of Christ” then I doubt the vast majority of people who ever existed will be saved. Isn’t Christ’s “fullness” paradoxically infinite? So, probably the only ones saved before their deaths are the Saints whose faces literally shined with Christ’s glorious light. So, what can the rest of us expect when we die, should our faces never shine?

    Fr. Dumitru Staniloae expresses the majority view of the Church Fathers when he states, ““Holy Scripture shows that life on earth is the arena in which the human person decides his fate for eternity, for after death he cannot change his fate.”

    Fr. Aidan explains what happens upon our death according to Fr. Staniloae (who is aptly expressing the majority teaching of the Church Fathers) on his blog here,

    “Death arrives. The soul is sundered from the body. The sinner begins the climb up the ladder of judgment to hear the eschatological decision of Christ. Angels stand on the upper right, demons on the lower left. Each step represents a challenge posed by a passion that the departed may have failed to effectively resist in his mortal life. Demons assail the soul, reminding him of all his past sins. If he fails one of these tests, if he is shown to be still enslaved to disordered desire and thus incapable of communion, he falls into the dark abyss, “the sterile hole of egoism,” in the words of Dumitru Staniloae, “from which no light shines forth and from which no one can exit, because such a person does not want to come out: his weakened will has become accustomed to the illusion that there is freedom in this existence for himself.”

    And he goes on to explain what damnation is like:

    “Temporarily severed from the earthly veil imposed upon spiritual consciousness, they experience a liberation of “the spirit’s rich contents and deep functions” (VI:25). The fullness of memory is restored. They are enriched “with the knowledge of wider and deeper dimensions of reality, with its transcendental and fundamental dimensions” (VI:25)……….But those who did not follow Christ and who lived their lives immersed in selfishness and the delights of their disordered desires are definitively deprived of any revelation of the spiritual life. Death burns everything in them, “as in a fire, with nothing left behind after the blaze” (1 Cor 3:13-15). Their existence is emptied of spiritual content and they are “incapable of forming or receiving such content” (VI:25). To them is spoken the terrible word of judgment: “Take the unbeliever away so that he may not see the glory of the Lord” (St Symeon Metaphrastes). At this point, Staniloae writes, the divine Son “ceases any attempt to approach them and to take them out of their attitude of refusal toward Him; this is not because He no longer wants to show them His love but because they are hardened in the passion, whose basis is denying and disobeying Him” (VI:53). The divine judgment confirms them in the state of their denial and impiety. Desire for God is lost. They are condemned to the “phantasmagoric effervescence of passion” (VI:43). This is their everlasting torment…..He is totally imprisoned in the hole of solitude. Only the demons and his passions bite him like serpents” (VI:44). The condemned soul loses the good of the other. He is trapped in his subjectivity, cut off from authentic reality, malignant spirits his only companions. The egotistical wall he has built around himself becomes impenetrable to love and light….”

    Ok, so now I’ll express my concern using an example of someone I actually know, not because I believe they are condemned, but because it’s the clearest way I can think to express my concern in relation to what’s been revealed about damnation above:

    I personally know a women who appears to reject love from others, and appears to not love others, probably because she grew up in a home that was pretty devoid of love, filled with abuse and neglect instead. It appears that she abandoned her young children because her heart is cold, even towards her own babies. I say “appears” because I do not presume to actually know what’s in her heart. I’m going to assume throughout the rest of my post that what appears is the actual reality of the situation, purely for the sake of argument, and not to condemn her in anyway. I love this woman like a sister.

    God has graced her with the beautiful gifts of His love in the form of her own children, but she does not perceive them as gifts at all. She is hardened against receiving the love that comes to her through her children, and thus is incapable of giving thanks for them. She possesses no love for them, so she has nothing to give thanks for. Its the closest thing I’ve witnessed as hell on earth. A person like this is frozen in this hardened state, because they perceive love with a sense of hatred for it. If her children graced her for eternity with their undying love for her, she would be in an eternal hell, because she rejects their love with a sense of hatred for it. Of course, her children, being good, will never cease show their love to their mother, because they love her unconditionally.

    This is how I’ve come to understand hell. I think it is a perfect example of what Fr. Staniloae expresses as hell. But what if this woman who is filled to the brim with selfish self-love does come to experience just the slightest, smallest spark of love towards her children. What if one small pang of repentance strikes her heart before death? It still stands that she has not struggled ascetically in anyway towards a transformation in Christ in order to battle the throngs of temptations and demons that await her as she ascends the “ladder of judgment.” She didn’t fight her passions with fasting, prayer, and almsgiving. She is severely unprepared. If she falls off the ladder then, will she even lose that small spark of love for her children; that small, yet, glorious pang of repentance? Surely God will not take away the only little crumb of good she ever possessed briefly in her otherwise miserable life on earth?

    I think this applies not only to the most extreme cases, like the one I described above, but to all who will find themselves unprepared in one way or another in their ascent up the ladder of judgment. I feel quite unprepared. I have hardly defeated my passions through my ascetical practices (my “ascetical practices” can hardly even be called “ascetical” because they fall so horribly short). I hope I would never betray Jesus for a measly 30 pieces of silver, or for the sake of comfort, or for the sake of any other passion, but I wouldn’t be surprised at all if I do. I’m full of passions.
    But if someone should fall off the ladder because of their selfish, self-loving passions, do they lose the many gifts of love they received while on earth? Will they lose the ability to love their loved ones, or lose the ability to receive the love of their loved ones, since they are “totally imprisoned in the hole of solitude. Only the demons and his passions bite him like serpents,” as Fr. Staniloae says, once they fall off the ladder? I guess if their passions cause them to sell Jesus for a measly “30 pieces of silver”, and thus eternally losing the ability of receiving His love, and likewise giving love back in return, then they probably are capable of selling the rest of their loved ones for “30 pieces of silver” too, and thus truly living in a hellish solitude for eternity.

    Sorry for this long, rather depressing comment (I don’t mean to bring everyone down), but I just happen to have done a little studying (and I do mean little) of Fr. Staniloae’s theological works on the interwebs this past week, and your blog post here has opened up the opportunity to ask this question that has been weighing on me ever since.

  19. Fr. Dimitru’s work is magisterial. That said, the “little crumb,” is deeply important. And all of this did not consider the prayers of the saints for the salvation of others. At most, the Church says, “They are of benefit.” I rather appreciate the thoughts of some Fathers that the prayers of others for us are echoes of something in our life, like ripples on a pond of water, etc. I can do nothing more for my salvation after death, but I am not alone, and the prayers of others are of benefit (maybe even infinite benefit). I am hopeful because I know the mercy of God. I am sober because I know my sin. I am encouraged because I know the prayers of the saints.

  20. The prayers of others are wonderful. And just don’t forget, we don’t live a linear existence. So who knows, the prayers of others after we are dead are already of benefit. They are certainly known to God I suspect.

    They key for me is to strive to live a life of mercy, joy and repentance and not worry too much about the rest. What ever is written is but an inkling of what is to come.

    The child’s recognition that heaven is a person is the best I have seen.

  21. Michelle,
    I often ruminate that central to understanding what leads some to a trajectory of damnation (and others to a movement towards ‘theosis’) is always pride, pride as fixation on ‘me’ (or not)… It is not so much other passions and addictions that keep us ‘repelling’ forever… Whether as an addict or a monk I am still in this danger, crude for the first, refined for the second. Pride here happens to be synonymous with untruth. In Truth there is one God, only one. And He is the ground and axis of all being. If I –to all intents and purposes- take myself as ‘god’ and ‘axis’, then I cannot ever interpret this ‘other’ God rightly – I misinterpret Him, and I likewise misread all that exists (for it all exists with Him as axis – a frustration to the self-centred ‘I’). It is very easy to happen. I then either do not see His Light (or any other light) – like a black hole eternally foundering further into my dark hole of solitude-, or alternatively, interpret His godly Light – or any other light – as the utmost inconvenient Truth, a most painfully exposure of the fact that I am not the god, (the centre of all that exists), that my self-absorption convinced me I am.
    This truly luciferean pride is the core of all falleness and of damnation. Inability to love, stems from this…
    Yet, unlike our adversary, man’s capacity for Christ-centeredness (in place of self–centeredness) has infinite chances of restoration –chances of an infinite variety- until time is no more; especially since we are all communicating vessels, and these vessels include all the Saints, the Mother of God and Christ Himself. The “risk” of a hope residing outside of “me”–even a hope that’s less than a single crumb- is also an ability to open up to Grace, and Grace can then rush in to transform all darkness and self-preoccupation to light and gratitude as we see with many souls at the very last seconds of their lives. If we consider this we soon realise that, painful though it may be to be saved, it would be difficult to remain resistant. This is also therefore very easy to happen in another sense. The passions will obviously continue with us on the way up that dreaded ladder –the Thief on the Cross never had a chance to fight them ascetically- but ultimately it is God who saves the soul that turns to Him, not man who saves himself through his saving methods and battles with the passions.

  22. This is what’s confusing to me, that “it is utterly essential to the Christian telling of the gospel, that our salvation should be understood in terms of transformation, of an inner metamorphosis towards the image of Christ,” meaning we must comes to freely submit our will to the Father out of free, un-coerced love for Father, just as Jesus does, hence being transformed into the image of Christ, which is equated with salvation. Anything short of this free-will submission of love is not salvation. So, it does not make sense to me that God can lower His expectations for some people whose self-loving passions prevent them from freely submitting their will to the Father through free, un-coerced love of the Father, simply because of “the cards they were dealt with,” as Dino has said. It equates with God saying that the persons will be allowed to possess salvation (which is free submission of their will to His, out of totally free, un-coerced love for Him) without actually ever achieving the ability to freely submit their will to the Father through free, un-coerced love for the Father. Isn’t this a contradiction?
    Or is this because “the cards we have been dealt” strip the freedom to choose to freely love God away from us? How can we discern the difference within us from the passions that are a result of lack of freedom due to our circumstance, compared to the passions that we commit that were acts of complete freedom, unaffected by our circumstances? How about this, can someone be born into circumstances that completely and utterly make it impossible for them to achieve any kind of transformation whatsoever, to the point that God simply gives them a free ticket to ride? This would be the ultimate contradiction.

    Likewise, if salvation is the metamorphosis into a person who freely submits their will to the Father out of free, un-coerced love for the Father (as Christ did), then if we don’t achieve this before death, and thus the person “can do nothing more for [their] salvation after death,” then how do the prayers of others, such as the Saints, achieve in us this personal ability to freely submit our will to the Father out of free, un-coerced love for the Father?

    In short, the definition of salvation as being a personal (“personal” as in meaning no one can do it for you), free-will offering of love to God creates a contradiction if we somehow achieve salvation by any means short of a personal, free-will offering of love.

  23. Dino,
    I didn’t see your comment before posting my last one. Ill read through it and see if it answers my questions.

  24. Michelle,
    It certainly has to be real – and because of that – transformation must occur. But there are many layers to transformation, many or most of which are unseen. The hand of God is generally unseen as well. There is always freedom – it is essentially to our existence as persons.

    I like the image of a tiny spark (or coal, etc.) that you referenced earlier. It can be so hidden.

    We must also understand that we are saved “by grace.” Thus our efforts are always “grace-assisted” efforts, for no matter what we ourselves do, it would not be enough. No amount of devotion, etc. turns mud into a God. Only grace does that. And so, “efforts” are also something that can be quite hidden. We may even ask, “What constitutes an effort?” For we don’t know. I know some things that seem to me like they would certainly be efforts, but I can imagine other things that might not appear so.

    There’s the story of the “Onion” in Dostoevsky, a sort of parable, in which an old woman’s single good deed was giving a rotten onion to a beggar. It would have been enough, but she would not share the benefit of her good deed when it came down to it, and she was lost.

    We must remember the Widow’s mite. Who is a widow in the world of salvation? What is her mite? Perhaps her mite is just the tiniest action of kindness – but it might have been all that she had.

    This is the kind of reasoning that the Fathers engage in when they’re thinking in this direction (trying to teach us about the mercy of God). Other times they can sound quite stern when they are trying to teach us to take matters seriously, etc.

  25. Michelle,
    From what I understand with my head, the work of salvation is hard. But “unless The Lord builds the house, the labourers labour in vain”
    All things work together for the good of those who are called according to God’s purpose, and you needn’t lose sleep over that which you have no control.
    God is in control.
    The only thing we need to do is recall ourselves when we forget this.
    Lord, Have Mercy.
    Like Fr said… and I paraphrase… Heaven is not a place, but a state.
    The prayer of St Ephraim is good medicine for the heart.

  26. So you can be sure of Him when you know and have confessed when you’re not sure of yourself…
    He who began a good work in you will be faithful to complete it!

  27. When you’re not sure of yourself, you can be sure of Him…
    He who began a good work in you will be faithful to complete it!

  28. thank you for this post. i’m in the evangelical world. the language of heaven being a location is everywhere. it amounts to an escapism that fails to deal with here, now, and Jesus’ call to take up our cross and follow him, a call given to those first disciples who followed Jesus without a hope for life in heaven.

  29. Love the post but Michelle’s comments highlight a frustration I have with Orthodoxy. If salvation is synergism, then that puts the emphasis on me and my work towards salvation. Instead the focus needs to be on Christ and not on myself. When that occurs you get the whole package of life in the spirit. The love of God is poured into our hearts. I wonder how many orthodox sermons are not about the love of God but cleaning up your act? I have no idea but I bet the majority are about ascetical practices for attaining the holy spirit. Synergism creates uncertainty and fear because no one can have confidence that he will be saved.

  30. Paul,
    You’re caught up in your imagination. You’re actually wrong. Most sermons I hear (and the ones I give) are on the love of God, His mercy and goodness and the work of Christ. We recognize the importance of asceticism, but it’s mostly just part of the life we live. I don’t think I’ve ever done a sermon encouraging people to “try harder.” The truth is, I’ve heard lots of Evangelical sermons that were quite moralistic, etc.

    What is true about synergism is that it’s far more theoretical – a teaching – but much less what you hear and stress. Grace (the power and life of God given to us that works our salvation in us) is so vastly more than any work of asceticism we might do, that our efforts are like nothing in comparison to it. But they are not nothing. But none of them earn us anything. They are part of the kindness of a generous God who so honors us that He lets us assist in this great work. But at the end of the day, we must say, “At most I am an unprofitable servant.” Actually, Paul, the “work” of salvation that we do is simply repentance. Nothing more. Fasting, etc., are only things that we do to help work a heart of repentance within. Truly, nothing more.

    So, your imagination is incorrect. You have misjudged. May God give you grace and forgive you.

  31. Paul,
    The timeless simile of human labours merely accumulating ‘zeros’ next to one another, to the left of which God’s grace places the decisive ‘one’ -hence making them into 10’s, 100’s, 1000’s-, offers a fitting image, assisting one’s grasp of the definite paradox of synergism which you seem to have somewhat misinterpreted.

  32. I think Paul’s question is interesting, because of the importance he places on the sermon. In my experience, especially in the Greek churches I’ve been to here in the US, the sermon is almost a throw-away compared to the liturgical work.

    First, as Fr. Stephen says, the sermons I’ve heard have never been about works; even coming into Lent, the fast was only mentioned as a brief comment at the end of the announcements, and then only to remind the parishioners not to start the fast early.

    Second, the liturgical work is of utmost importance to the life of the Church. The assembled body does a work, so to speak, of worshiping God, and the Holy Spirit descends and heaven is united with the church (and the Church). Yes, people are chanting and standing, and giving incense, and all of that, but there’s no way that a group of people could ever lift themselves up and make themselves a part of the eternal chorus of angels singing God’s praise simply through their works.

    Recognizing that the life of the Orthodox is in the Divine Liturgy, and not in the 10 minutes everyone gets to sit between the two halves (or at the end, if attending one of those aforementioned Greek parishes), is integral to understanding that the Church does not teach a doctrine of salvation by works.

  33. Perhaps I have misjudged. Please forgive me. I should have listened to more Orthodox sermons before making such a comment. I used to attend an evangelical church and most of sermons were how to get better. I’ve listened to only two orthodox sermons so again I apologise. With that said my struggles with synergism are the same. Thank you though fr Stephen for better explaining it to me.

  34. I recently heard an interview with Kallistos Ware and he placed a great emphasis on the importance of preaching. I am sorry I got sidetracked into orthodox preaching.
    As a Lutheran I get the centrality of the liturgy. My comment was mainly a reaction to what Michelle quoted about failing the test and being enslaved to passions. Who can say they arent enslaved to a passion. Free yourself from one passion and another rears its ugly head. That view of the final judgment is terrifying.

  35. Paul,
    My general experience with Orthodox (as a convert, I might add) is that conversations about salvation mostly center around God’s goodness and mercy. I’ve never had a conversation in which someone seemed to be saying that they thought their asceticism, etc., was producing salvation. My recent series on morality (the Unmoral Christian, etc.) should be quite revealing in this light.

    However, synergism, the sense that what we do actually matters, does make Orthodox Christians take their actions more seriously, even if not in a determinative manner. I contrast that with a kind of Christian laziness and utter laissez faire approach that I see among many in popular forms of Christianity – a kind of “cheap grace” that results in a spiritual reductionism.

    If Orthodox synergism were taken to the place that some fear, it would be a heresy. In point of fact, it’s not something we actually talk about among ourselves. It’s mostly in contrast to the extremes of sola fidei that it even gets noticed…meaning, that if Protestantism is not in the conversation it just doesn’t come up for us.

    But it comes up naturally in response to passages in the NT that clearly indicate some kind of role for our efforts (“work out your salvation with fear and trembling” etc.). But because we’ve never elevated the extremes of sola fidei in our Tradition, we never seem to need to “balance” it.

    In the US, with so many former Evangelicals, etc., within Orthodoxy, it gets some treatment – mostly because they are reacting to their past. That reaction can indeed overemphasize something that should be as seamless as it is in St. Paul, who can say “no works” in one verse, and “work out your salvation” in another without blushing.

  36. Just to back up what others are saying, I have been a part of at least 8 Orthodox parishes since converting to Orthodoxy about 20 years ago (that’s off the top of my head – could have been more). Because of jobs/education, my wife and I have lived in several places in the south, midwest, south east, and south west (we don’t like cold so anything north is out 🙂 ).

    In my opinion, in general there is a distinct lack or even de-emphasis of ascesis in sermons. When it is brought up, it is almost always in light of it’s limitations or dangers of excess, etc. In other words, if anything, it seems that the “trend” is in the very opposite of what Paul had feared.

    Now, obviously an opinionated blow hard like me has no business being a pastor, so I can only assume there is a good reason pastorally for this de-emphasis of Orthodox Christian acesis in your typical American parish. However, almost everything significant I have learned about it and incorporated into my life (for the positive I believe) I have learned through my own reading, etc. The only exception might be the Great Fast (in preparation for Pascha) which is given some attention, though the food prescriptions get the most attention.

    I have to wonder out loud if there could not be more attention paid to acesis and if this would not have a positive effect.

  37. Hi Paul, you said,

    ” Who can say they aren’t enslaved to a passion. Free yourself from one passion and another rears its ugly head. That view of the final judgment is terrifying.”

    Just to clarify, the idea of failing the walk up the ladder isn’t a matter of merely having passions, but rather the idea that, in the midst of a temptation, one might actually reject God in their deepest heart with prideful favor of his or herself as the god of their existence. Its what Dino was talking about earlier when he said, “In Truth there is one God, only one. And He is the ground and axis of all being. If I –to all intents and purposes- take myself as ‘god’ and ‘axis’, then I cannot ever interpret this ‘other’ God rightly – I misinterpret Him, and I likewise misread all that exists (for it all exists with Him as axis – a frustration to the self-centred ‘I’).”

    Passions can sometimes be a symptom of this deeper seated pride within a soul. This creates the solitude of hell within us, when we crucify all others because we see them as imposing themselves upon our true, prideful desire -ourself. In the example of the woman I know who does not love her own children, and in fact seems to harbor a hatred for them, I was postulating that this is exactly what is going on -she hates her children because they are imposing themselves upon her in a way that she either needs to decide to sacrifice herself out of love for their sake, or she has to sacrifice them, and crucify them out of hatred, to continue to enjoy herself being the selfish center of her universe. If in her heart she has chosen the latter, then this is the best example of hell on earth I’ve ever personally witnessed.

    Now, were my frustration came in was not so much in this idea of hell, but rather the all or nothing way that certain theological concepts can be taken, particularly in the way they are phrased, such as the phrase Fr. Stephen used when he said, That “healing of soul and body” is measured by “the fullness of the stature of Christ” (Eph. 4:13). Anything less than this is not the salvation promised in the Scriptures,” following it later on with the question, “Will there be many who are saved?” Nothing about this is untrue, but standing alone it is possible for this concept to be taken in the wrong way.

    Becoming the image of Christ is to become the fullness of Christ, and anything short of this fullness is not the fullness of salvation. This I believe. And I also believe that Christ in His fullness possesses a free-will as a human being, by which He submits Himself freely to the will of the Father, out of free, un-coerced love for the Father. So, if salvation is to be the image of Christ, then salvation is to be a human being who freely submits their will to the Father, out of free, un-coerced love for the Father. And I also believe that some of the Saints, who could truly say “it is no longer I who lives, but Christ who lives in me,” whose faces literally shown with the glorious Light of Christ, have probably actually possessed this fullness of being transformed into Christ, the God-Man, on earth. They became God-Men by grace, in other words. But obviously Orthodoxy does not despair over the vast, vast majority of departed persons who have not themselves had shining faces, possessing the obvious attributes of God-Men. And in my comments I was expressing my own personal angst when I come across theological writings, such as Fr. Staniloae’s, and writing of the Church Fathers, and blog posts ☺, that can easily be interpreted in ways (especially those like myself whose brains always interpret things in overly-literal extremes) that would cause any Christian who is honest with themselves about their “lack” of deification to despair. I just wanted to draw out the merciful, comforting side of Orthodox reflections on God, which all of the other commenters here succeeded in providing ☺.

    But as far as synergy goes, I demonstrated earlier a good comparison of free-will synergy to something more akin to the Lutheran understanding of our human condition (I used to be Lutheran myself, LCMS) when I said this:

    “How about this, can someone be born into circumstances that completely and utterly make it impossible for them to achieve any kind of transformation whatsoever, to the point that God simply gives them a free ticket to ride? This would be the ultimate contradiction.”

    You see, the Lutheran doctrine of total depravity leaves all persons in this position; we are born in circumstances that leave us so corrupt that we no longer possess a will that is free, and thus we are no longer capable in anyway of submitting ourselves freely to the Father’s will, out of free, un-coerced love of the Father. According to Lutheran doctrine we find ourselves in a position that God must indeed coerce. But this is the ultimate contradiction, because the definition of salvation itself internally entails complete freedom from coercion. This is the definition of salvation –to be like Christ, and Christ submits Himself to the will of the Father by His own human free-will, out of a free, un-coerced love for the Father. Anything short of this is not salvation. Christ is a person, and an aspect of His personhood is freedom. We are person, created in Christ’s Image, thus we are free.

    Now, if we were utterly un-free due to our circumstance (total depravity), then the only thing God could due is “give us a free ticket to ride,” which would imply coercion, which is what Lutheran’s would say God does in conversion. But then why is it possible at all for anyone to be damned as a reprobate, as Lutheran doctrine holds as possible?

  38. “I recently heard an interview with Kallistos Ware and he placed a great emphasis on the importance of preaching”

    Not really surprising given the source. I am personally of the opinion that this might be necessary because of historical circumstances of the West, but I don’t think there is any intrinsic need to emphasize the sermon.

    Of those 8 churches I have been a part of, I can honestly say that 2 of them had priests who regularly give a sermon that is of a quality that (speaking for myself) I regularly “get something out of it” or am challenged, etc. (thankfully my current priest is one of them). The other six, well, I think my time would have been better spent in prayer, reading a saint or a life of a saint, etc. This is not to say that these priests did not have other very positive qualities, it’s just that homeletics was not one of them (speaking for myself – perhaps others in these parishes were benefited). Well, I say “speaking for myself” but my wife was of the same opinion. I have to admit I never discussed it with anyone else simply to avoid offense/scandal and the fact that I recognize that for others these sermons could have been very positive. Perhaps this is something Ware is trying to get at, that if your going to do it, do it right.

    My experience could be an outlier though…

  39. Michelle, when you said:

    ” I just wanted to draw out the merciful, comforting side of Orthodox reflections on God…”

    It reminded me of that story I recently read in Fr Joseph Huneycut’s “Defeating Sin” where a person wakes up in heaven and when he sees who is there, he keeps asking the angel (who turns out to be Christ) “how did they make it here, I know they were a fill_in_the_blank sinner” and the answer is “because they accepted our invitation”. He then sees some of his most hated enemies, and realizes that he still hates them, and asks the angel “how come I am here – I hated these people” and the angel replies “don’t you remember, you managed to pray for them, halfheartedly, once or maybe twice”. At the end of the story, the angel reveals himself to be Christ, and returns to the gates of heavens. The person then asks one of the others there “Why does Christ look sad, and why does he wait by the gates” and the answer is “He waits there for Judas”.

  40. Everyone mostly has the instinct to travel. Hardly any just stand in the between part. That is where killing time is not anything but sacrifices that are remembered as leaks. Now I do not know why that happens all over, even if that is just sensed as what immortality becomes, with mercy. Probably a hard road, the only One that remembers.

  41. The story that Christopher mentions about the imperfect man who finds himself in heaven with other imperfect persons is basically what I was getting at in all my previous comments. The definition of salvation itself, being no less than the perfection that is Christ, appears to contradict this notion of imperfect heaven-dwellers. It is repentance that opens us up to being filled with the grace that is the perfection of Christ. Some people’s repentance amounts to only a small spark, and some people’s a blazing bonfire, which is why some people still only seem to flicker in Christ-likeness, going completely unnoticed by others as they lead a seemingly sinful lifestyle, while other people’s faces literally glow with Christ’s Light itself, openly living out the virtues of Christ in plain view for all to see (these are the Saints I talked about). The imperfect person who can only manage a spark of repentance is the bearer of an imperfect repentance, while the person ablaze with repentance possesses are pure, untainted repentance. But as Fr. Stephen pointed out, the Widow’s mite can still end up being of greater value, because her mite was given under more desperate circumstances. But if heaven is in fact possessing within our hearts the perfection of Christ Himself (whose perfection is infinite, by the way), then it seems that this Widow’s journey towards perfection must not end when her earthly life ends, does it? It’s a mystery, because her repentance, by virtue of it being given under desperate circumstances, is of greater value do to the pure, glorious beauty of it, and yet it is still imperfect. She is still imperfect. That’s why I brought Fr. Staniloae’s stark image of damnation into the conversation, with his doctrinally sound proclamation that this earthly life is the arena where salvation is won, where we have the ability to repent, and after our deaths their is nothing more we can gain towards salvation.

    I understand that we do not earn salvation for ourselves, and that in turning with repentance towards God, He then gifts us with Himself -this gift of Himself is salvation. But then why does the small, yet gloriously beautiful spark of repentance not cause a more obvious perfection in this life by grace? Why are all the “Widows” of this world still ruddy-faced with sin and imperfection? Because salvation is a journey, right? This perfect gift of grace from God is not implanted within us by force. That’s why its a journey, because God graces us with gifts that we must then freely accept. And most of us are pretty slow on the receiving end of this arrangement. If we accepted these gifts more willingly our journeys’ to salvation wouldn’t take so long. But I don’t see how this journey can end with our earthly lives, as Fr. Staniloae postulates. The journey’s ultimate end is in fact no less than the infinite perfection of Christ Himself, after all.

  42. Oh, and sorry about my inability to write short comments. Yeesh, my long comments even annoy myself!

  43. Michelle,
    Actually, a coin dropped for me in reading your question. It has to do with the importance of hiddenness.

    Let’s say the Truth of God were always as manifest for all eyes as if it belonged to the normal category of “objective truth.” God’s existence, etc., would be utterly undeniable – and – it would be experienced as oppressive to any but an unfallen angel. Our life would already be past the judgment, and we would have been condemned. It is the kindness and love of God that hides Him. With His hiddenness, we remain free – free to ignore Him, etc. And we are free to accept Him and move steadily towards Him.

    In a similar manner, the transformation within our lives is also largely hidden (even from us) and for the same reason. Such objective proof would also be overwhelming and destructive of human freedom. Many try to use what transformation there is (the saints) is just such a manner – banging people over the head with it as though it was undeniable. It remains deniable.

    The truth of things, even the Cause of things, remains hidden and for important reasons. They are accessible, and can be known, but “just out of reach,” etc. But there is nothing hidden that will not be revealed. In a moment. In a single moment.

    But the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and no torment will ever touch them. In the eyes of the foolish they seemed to have died, and their departure was thought to be an affliction, and their going from us to be their destruction; but they are at peace. For though in the sight of men they were punished, their hope is full of immortality. Having been disciplined a little, they will receive great good, because God tested them and found them worthy of himself; like gold in the furnace he tried them, and like a sacrificial burnt offering he accepted them. In the time of their visitation they will shine forth, and will run like sparks through the stubble. Wisdom 3:1-7

    That last phrase, “like sparks through the stubble,” expresses the revelation of these hidden things. “In the time of their visitation.” Visit us, O God!

  44. I enjoy the comments of so many people here.

    May I add two comments from my son, Vasily at around age 7?

    1. Papa, WHY did Adam have to eat that apple? (He asked this rhetorically from an even earlier age!)

    2. After his first confession in Germany with Archbishop Mark, I asked him if he was relieved. He said, “Yes, God brushed the dust away from the top of my heart.”

  45. Thank you, Father. You’ve made all of my annoyingly long comments worth it with your last reflection. Wonderful. You should expand it into a blog post, if possible.

  46. Paul, although I greatly desire to become Orthodox, for the present time, I too am an Evangelical. The wild irony to me in what you said is this: my church talks quite often about God’s grace. They sing songs about it. But when it comes time for preaching, it’s all about what we all must do. Point after point about what I must do. When I attend Orthodox Divine Liturgy, what I hear most often in the homily is about God and His immense love for us. Sure, I hear some talk about what I must do, but not nearly as much as I hear in the Evangelical world.

    Secondly, it simply must be noted how many times in this thread alone that Fr. Stephen and others have emphasized that we can’t work out way to Heaven.

  47. Heaven is also a place, a place defined by ontological transformation and forgiveness, but a place nonetheless. So we pray for our desd that they be “in a place of brightness, a place if verdure, a place of repose where all sickness, sorrow and sighing have fled away”.

    And for all His hiddeness He is closer than hands and feet.

    The evidence is always present for those who seek with love and humility.

    That has come to me most often when I cannot deny my brokenness for I am a stubborn and willful man.

    Lord forgive me.

  48. Thank you father. I have come to a better understanding that heaven is in the heart. I have also, discovered that I have been confused about pride and sin.
    Because I know that my true nature is the one that remains unseperated from God, why don’t I yearn for the repentance that will bring me there?
    For me, it is a denial of who I really am. I think I live in a place, like many, who have been told I need to be perfect. Like most, I think most, we externally will admit our sin, but brush it off as just human nature, thinking…I’m not any worse than the next person. By doing this, we disown a part of ourselves. Kind of not owning the sin. Able to blame upbringing, genetics, whatever. This pride is a perverted form of self love.
    When I see this, I begin to own my sin and repent, regardless of why I have it.
    I am careful to not fall into the trap of punishment. Repentance is different. It brings healing. Christ shows us the way, and is the physician that heals.

  49. Father,
    I am wondering how I simplify this idea for a child.
    We pray to ” our Father in heaven”.. We hear that Christ ascended and descended, that Christ prepares a place for us..etc.
    While it makes sense to an adult that heaven is not a “place” it’s not so easy to explain it to a child or teen.

  50. AJ,
    It is one of the reasons we speak of “place.” If I were speaking to a child about it, I would speak of heaven and I would speak of becoming heavenly – happy and not angry and filled with love for everyone and everything. But do not become too philosophical with children.

  51. Father, regarding Christopher’s comment on March 5 @ 11:49 AM, and his quoting of the story from Fr Joseph Huneycutt, is there a reason that the rest of the quote has been taken off? Or, is it perhaps my outdated web browser that it giving me problems and not allowing me to see it?

  52. I’m sorry Father. Please disregard my previous comment. I guess it helps to use a good web browser.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *