Hi! This has been a nagging question for me and my friends. Is eternal life promised only to those who have received and known Christ? If yes, then does orthodox faith imply that God denies this gift of eternal life to mortal men just because they are born and brought up in a family that is not Christian? Let me illustrate.
I (Almost any Christian) am (would be) a Christian owing to being born in a Christian family and nurtured in right faith. So, I’m sure now that any attempt to radicalize me to other religions will not work. But, if I were born in a non-Christian family and suppose that I would have become so staunch in my own religion, that I would quash any missionary attempt to convert me to Christian. In such a case, if I die without accepting Christ, Who accepts every good person irrespective of their nature (here, my religion), will not I be given a second chance?
Before we begin to answer the question, it’s important to note two things. The term Heterodox means all those people who do not confirm with the faith of The Holy Orthodox Church
1. The answer for this question is extracted from the book ‘Cosmic Man – The Divine Presence’ by Late H.G Dr. Paulose Mar Gregorios (1922 – 1996), Bishop of the Indian (Malankara) Orthodox Church, who is also called by many as ‘Gregory of India’. For more details about the author refer to http://paulosmargregorios.in/ or https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paulos_Gregorios
2. This book is a result of Late H.G Dr. Paulose Mar Gregorios’ research studies on the works of St. Gregory of Nyssa, one among the Cappadocian Fathers, and the theme of this blog also revolves around the works of Cappadocian Fathers. Hence it is important also to know a bit more about core teachings of St. Gregory of Nyssa.
Holy Scripture is a way opened by God for the mind to direct itself to the God who created it. Scripture opens up our mind to see the design of God and thus leads us to God’s mind and purpose. But the meaning of Scripture itself is not always self-evident. According to St. Gregory of Nyssa, certain passages in Scripture are like peacock’s feathers. The side that is first visible may be dull grey, but if you turn it around its beauty and glory are manifested. Such turning around can be done only for one who is grounded in the faith of the Church. Otherwise he stands in danger of misinterpreting the Scripture. Every passage of the Scripture has to be interpreted in consonance with the faith of the church.
St. Gregory speaks of the faith of the church as of divine origin, and as the light that guides to the truth, in our understanding of Scripture as well as in our sifting of outside knowledge. This does not mean however, that local custom can be used to contradict Scripture. The teaching of the church has to ‘agree with divine words’ (Scripture). Holy Scripture is God-inspired, but this does not mean that every individual by his own free will can understand the meaning of Scripture. The true intention or skopos of the Scripture is evident only to one who lives in the faith of the church – especially the teaching about the Holy Trinity and the teaching about the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. This means that there is no one given method for interpreting every passage of the Scripture. For one who lives in the faith of the church, the skopos of Scripture becomes clear and he would know which method to use to interpret a particular passage, so that its meaning does not contradict the faith of the Church.
St. Gregory of Nyssa lived in 4th Century, which was an age much like ours – an age of prosperity and affluence when philosophy becomes devalued and science-technology gains upper hand. St. Gregory had the unusual ability to create a philosophical system which neither was antagonistic to science nor failed to make use of it. He integrated science and philosophy on the foundation of the Christian tradition. This principle of integrating science and philosophy on the basis of the Nicean tradition of Christianity, using Trinity-Incarnation as central category is what stands out in St. Gregory’s works. St. Maximus the Confessor (580-662 AD) had praised St. Gregory of Nyssa as the ‘Ecumenical Teacher’ and owed much of his framework to him. The second Council of Nicea (called Seventh Ecumenical- 787 AD) referred to St. Gregory as ‘named by everyone as the Father of Fathers’. Cardinal Danielou gives a balanced evaluation as below:
“The work of St. Gregory… combines the toughness of research with loyalty to the faith. His work is in touch with the thought of his time, but it is not enslaved by it. It conveys at the same time the meaning of being and the meaning of history. It brings together confidence in the capacity of the mind to apprehend reality, and the sense of inescapable mystery that surrounds everything that the mind so apprehends. These are the things that truly respond to the questions we are asking today”
That sums up our own interest in St. Gregory’s thought. Surveying the whole intellectual field of 4th Century Byzantine culture it manages to escape being dated, and speaks with fresh relevance to the issues of our time.
To answer this question we need to understand
Sin, Original Sin and Nature:
Human nature cannot be sinful, for nature is what is created by God, and it was not created evil or sinful. What is the constitutive of our nature is that it was created in the Image of God, who is the perfection of all goodness. But precisely because freedom is part of the image, the created nature has to be ‘worked out’ through human freedom. There are two possibilities open to man – one, to say ‘yes’ to the existence given to him by affirming that it comes from God and by working out in freedom its true nature as good. This is life. The other possibility is to say ‘no’ to that existence by refuting to acknowledge that it comes from God, thinking it’s one’s own and by refusing to work it out as a manifestation of God’s own glory. This is alienation or death.
What is the origin of sin in humanity? Sin came by ‘eating’, by an act of being drawn to the ‘Tree of the knowledge of good or evil’ through external persuasion and actual tasting of the fruit of that tree. But what is this ‘tree’, and what is this ‘eating’? According to St. Gregory of Nyssa, sin of Eve was not simply in choosing evil with the knowledge that it was evil, but in choosing something which seemed good, but was not good for her. The tree of knowledge of good and evil could not have been evil, for it was created by God, and everything God created was necessarily good. But it was not good for eve, for it had been forbidden. She could have, if she had adhered to the word of God, seen without actually tasting it, that it was not good for her. But the enemy persuaded her that it was good for her, and she adhered to the word of falsehood. If it had appeared as pure evil, she would not have tasted it. Only because it had an appearance of Good, capable of making men “like Gods”, which she must have rightly judged to be a good thing, she had a wrong discernment of what was good for her at that time. So while the tree and the fruit are not evil in themselves but good, they become evil to her, in so far as falsehood was the basis on which she approached it.
The ‘knowledge of good and evil’, as St. Gregory of Nyssa exegetes it, is thus being drawn towards something which one wrongly or falsely judges to be good for oneself, on the basis of false belief and desire for gratification rather than for the sake of the good itself. Evil is a latent possibility in the misuse of the good. It was this misuse of the good that constituted the first sin. So the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, good in itself, and good for man and woman also if one refrains from eating its fruit, thus can be misused by eating it against the commandment. St. Gregory says:
“Since he foresaw this possibility, the Serpent points to this evil fruit of sin, not as having evil as its nature, or manifestly appearing as evil [for then men would not have been deluded into choosing manifest evil], but decking the phenomenon she saw with the glamour and conjuring up in her taste the potential pleasure of sense-experience, he [the serpent] appeared convincing to the woman, for as the Scripture says: “And the woman saw that the Tree was good for food, pleasing to the eyes, and ripe for knowledge, and she took the fruit thereof and ate.’ But this food has become the mother of death to human beings”
Sin is an act of will, not the bodily drives or the surge of the passions. St. Gregory leaves us no doubt what the source of evil is – the freedom of man…
St. Severus of Antioch (465 – 538 AD) says “Sin is a sin because it is voluntary. Otherwise God would not condemn us for it. ‘It is a disease of the will, and the disease is not natural.’ ”
All sin is against nature. This is the fundamental principle in Eastern patristic thought. Human nature has become enslaved to sin and through sin to evil, but sin is an alien master that now rules man, not something that belongs to his nature. The source of sin is man’s changeability which is also the arena of his freedom and self-creation. Human nature is not sinful in itself, but ever under pressure to change, either for the better or for the worse. The need is to reverse the direction of change; not to become changeless, which is impossible for any created nature, but to be redeemed from slipping down the path of evil, to be set up again on the upward climb to infinite good.
Evil in human nature is “nothing”, for it is not created by God, but is merely the movement of the created nature by its own free choice. It leads the doer of evil to nothingness. Evil is “nothing”, only when the relation to the source of all good and of all being is restored through grace, repentance, and the separation from evil. Evil destroys human nature and reduces it to nothing when man persists in evil, remains separated from God and disregards sin as something unimportant and passing away.
Human nature is not evil, for it is God’s creation. Human nature is still free to choose between good and evil, and that is the basis on which the call to repentance can be addressed to man. But the call is not merely in respect of each individuals act, but for a continuing life separated from evil and re-united to God.
Despite the fall, man retains a measure of freedom. He is fallen and he is now a slave to the passions and to evil. But he is not totally impotent slave, for if he were, he could not be held morally responsible for his actions.
This being the background the following questions may now come forth to our mind. What are the options available to man? Does he choose and effect his decisions entirely his own? What about the grace of God? What is the relation between the Grace of God and the effort of man?
The Life of Virtue and the Effort of Man:
Here is how we should understand the effort of Man through other religions to lead a life of Virtue and how God’s providence is available to the whole mankind through the teachings of St. Gregory of Nyssa.
The idea that the man’s resemblance to God was primarily seen in a life of virtue, and this concept is at least as old as Plato, Aristotle and the Stoics never fundamentally departed from this notion, so much so that this was one of those few areas on which there was basic agreement between the three major schools of Greek Philosophy. St. Gregory of Nyssa simply acknowledges this basic Platonic-Aristotelian-Stoic definition of virtue, as mentioned in below quote:
“Who does not know that the virtue is the right direction of the faculty of choice? And flesh is the instrument of choice, pressing forward by the effort of the understanding, being transformed into that towards which the motive force leads it. The faculty of choice is thus nothing else than the mind and the disposition towards something”
In understanding grace from God, for St. Gregory of Nyssa, human initiative is essential, for without it there is no freedom; without freedom there is no moral good; and without moral good there is no Image of God. He sees the dominance of evil in the majority of men; but he has to take into account the opposite fact also – there are a few rare human beings who are good in a large measure, in the history of mankind. If one looks at man phenomenologically, one finds that man is capable of both good and evil. But all good that man does is purely because of grace. God alone is good. God is the source of all good. Man’s goodness is not self-derived, but given by God. But it is there, even after the fall. Man is not all evil, though no man is all good. Human nature cannot be defined as wholly evil. It is still capable of good and evil; the capacity for good as the original gift of God is still there, though obscured.
The effort of man to do good in no way denies the grace of God. The very capacity to make an effort towards the good is a gift of grace. Everything that happens for the salvation of man and for the good of human race comes from God. St. Gregory leaves us no doubt on this matter:
“Whatever has come to be from God for the good and salvation of Man, it has all happened because of (God’s) grace and goodness, since we do not have in ourselves the originating cause of Good; on contrary, since we have come to be in all kinds of evil, -evil itself having no natural existence of its own, what it is, that it does [through us]. Neither is it likely that the good (nature) would activate something besides its own nature”
“To choose what is good belongs to the good volition of the man who desires it: but to realize the choice of the good volition belongs to God. For this, a man has need of God’s help” St. Isaac the Syrian.
It is for this reason that St. Gregory regards the true action of the human nature to be virtue. Human nature is acting in its own conformity with its own being only when it practices virtue. All good action has its original cause in God’s goodness and is therefore the result of grace. But only when man acts in freedom to perform the good, does he become truly man, acting in conformity with good, in freedom.
Virtue, or acting that which is good, is acting in accordance with human nature, the essential character of which is neither to sin, nor passively to be molded by a sovereign grace, rather to be good by free choice. In this sense, virtue is the true nature of man, and the basis of man’s participation in God’s goodness.
St. Isaac the Syrian (7th Century) defines Virtue as follows “The fear of the God is the beginning of Virtue, and it is said to be offspring of faith. It is sown in the heart when a man withdraws his mind from the attractions of the world to collect its thoughts, wandering about from distractions, into reflection upon the restitution to come. No one can draw close to God except for the man who has separated himself from the world. But I call separation not the departure of the body, but departure from the world’s affairs. The Virtue: that in his mind a man should be unoccupied with the world. As long as the senses have dealings with external things, the heart cannot have rest from imaginations about them.”
Virtue is thus the true character of the new man, who puts on Christ, and this means to put on love, holiness and righteousness. It is the new garment, the garment of immortality that makes us human again, free agents of the good, akin to God. It is this same virtue, or growth in the practice of the good, that becomes the knowledge of God.
St. Gregory makes this point clear
“Now the divine nature, as it is in itself, according to its essence, transcends every act of comprehensive knowledge, and it cannot be approached or attained by our speculation. Men have never discovered a faculty to comprehend the incomprehensible, nor have we been able to devise an intellectual technique for grasping the inconceivable. For this reason Apostle calls God’s ways unsearchable [Rom 11:33], teaching us by this that the way that leads to the knowledge of the divine nature is inaccessible to our reason; and hence none of those who have lived before us has given us the slightest hint of comprehension suggesting that we might know that which in itself is above knowledge”
“Such then is He whose essence is above every nature, invisible, incomprehensible. Yet He can be seen and apprehended in another way, and the ways of His apprehension are numerous. For we can see Him, Who has made all things in wisdom [Ps 103: 24], by the process of inference through the wisdom that is reflected in the universe. It is just as the human works of art, where the mind can in a sense see the author of the ordered structure that is before it inasmuch as he has left his artistry in his work. But notice that what we see here is not the substance of the craftsman, but merely the artistic skill that he has impressed in his work. So too, when we consider the order of creation, we form an image not of substance but of the wisdom of Him who has done all things wisely… For being by nature invisible, He becomes visible only in His operations, and only when He is contemplated in the things that are external to Him”
“Lord does not say that it is blessed to know something about God, but rather to possess God in oneself: Blessed are the clean of heart, for they shall see God [Matt. 5:8], By this I do not think He means that the man who purifies the eye of his soul will enjoy an immediate vision of God; rather I think this marvelous saying teaches us the same lesson that the Word [Christ] expressed more clearly to others when He said: The Kingdom of God is within you [Luke 17:21]. And this teaches us that the man who purifies his heart of every creature and of every passionate impulse will see the image of divine nature in his own beauty. So too in this short sentence the Word, I think is giving us the following advice: All you mortals who have within yourselves desire to behold the supreme Good, when you are told that the majesty of God is exulted above the heavens, that the divine glory is inexpressible, its beauty indescribable, its nature inaccessible, do not despair at never being able to behold what you desire. For you do have within your grasp the degree of the knowledge of God which you can attain. For, when God made you, He at once endowed your nature with this perfection: upon the structure of your nature He imprinted an imitation of the perfections of His own nature, just as one would impress upon the outline of the emblem. But the wickedness that has been poured all over this divine engraving has made your perfection useless and hidden it with a vicious coating. You must then wash away, by a life of virtue, the dirt that has come to cling to your heart like plaster, and then your divine beauty will once again shine forth.”
“Once he has scrapped off the rust-like dirt that has accumulated on his form because of the evil degeneration, then will he become good once more and shine forth in the likeness of his archetype [God]. For surely what resembles Good is in itself Good. Thus if such a man will look at himself he will see within himself the object of his desire, and thus he will become blessed, for in gazing upon his own purity he will see the archetype within the image.”
“It is just like men who look at the sun in the mirror. Even though they do not look up directly at the heavens, they do see the sun in the mirror’s reflection just as much as those who look directly at the sun. So it is, says our Lord, with you. Even though you are not strong enough to see the light itself, yet you will find within yourselves what you are seeking if you would but return to the grace of that image which was established within you from the beginning. For the Godhead is all purity, freedom from passion and separation from all evil. If these qualities are in you then God is surely within you, when your mind is untainted by any evil, free of passion, purified of all stain, then you will be blessed because your eye is clear. Then because you have been purified you will perceive things that are invisible to the unpurified. The dark cloud of matter will be removed from the eye of your soul, and then you will see clearly that blessed vision within the pure brilliance of your heart. And what is this vision? It is purity, holiness, simplicity, and other such brilliant reflections of the nature of God, for it is in these that God is seen”
Here is the true knowledge of God, the blessed vision, or beatific vision. It is not all a ‘mystical experience’, but something which happens when man becomes truly human, untainted by evil, in full control of oneself, grown in goodness and holiness. In this way knowledge of God, itself becomes an act of love, inseparably linked with holiness and true inner liberty. As St. Gregory of Nyssa says in his writings On the soul and the Resurrection “Knowledge becomes Love.” Regarding the grace, St. Gregory rejects the idea of sovereign, compelling and dictatorial grace as conceived by Augustine. According to St. Gregory of Nyssa, greater than the compelling grace, is the grace that allows man to be free source of good. To love the good freely and not by compulsion- that is the greatest gift of God, and this gift is given to man. The one thing that is truly Good is God, and when our passionate and self-directed will finally fixes itself upon God as the one good to be chosen above all others, then we begin to see God and also become God. Here the love of God becomes the true expression of human freedom.
It is the grace which makes human effort possible. The grace of Christ in the incarnation now acts as a special means of grace, drawing human beings to the love of the good. The sacraments of our church also confer grace. But in no case can grace become compulsive, for then it can no longer effect the truly moral good, for “virtue compelled is not virtue”.
Without Christ, human nature, the ‘sheep gone astray’ could not have by itself returned to the Shepherd. So without that grace humanity could not have produced any virtue. This is to say that the “Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ” is freely available to non-Christians, since they do in practice do good. St. Gregory of Nyssa would not make the mistake of saying that without the grace of God as mediated in Jesus Christ no man is capable of doing any good. He clearly cites Moses and Elijah as people who used their freedom in the right way, rather than mere recipients of a special grace not received by others.
The understanding of grace in the Orthodox Church is in accordance to St. Gregory of Nyssa and not as what Augustine has defined, hence a bit more detailing on this point may help us. Augustine is not a recognized saint in the Orthodox Church… The difference though rather subtle, is exceedingly important today for us in dealing with the realities of secular societies and in our understanding of extent of God’s grace present in other religions. The argument of the Pelagian monks of Hadrumetum [North Africa] is summarized for us by Augustine in para 6 of de correptioneet gratia:
“They say, if God gives the grace to do good, then clearly my not doing good is due to God’s not giving grace. So you should not admonish me, but pray that effective grace be given to me. There is no use admonishing me, because, if the gift is not there what can I do?”
In the above reply, Augustine evades the question by saying that the one who is unwilling to be admonished, should for the reason of his unwillingness be admonished. Augustine goes on to make out a case why such a person should be admonished; but he does not say what meaning admonition could have if the will of God is sovereign, and if the grace of God is capable of producing its own effects without any admonition.
St. Gregory takes a different line. For him grace is primarily manifested in the great acts of God and in the sacraments. Grace par excellence connotes not the help God gives for performing individual good deeds, but rather God’s great intervention in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ to redeem man from sin and death. Grace is the mighty act of God, not some petty help given to each man from time to time. It is manifested in the conversion of Paul, who before grace was a persecutor, but after grace becomes Apostle. The message of gospel is the annunciation that the grace of God has appeared in Jesus Christ.
It is only because the grace of God has appeared in Jesus Christ and renewed the whole of human nature in one single act of redemption, that human beings now have the possibility of practicing “virtue” and living in the good.
St. Gregory emphasizes the grace of God in creation, the grace of God in the Redemption through Jesus Christ, and the grace of God in the mysteries of Baptism, Eucharist, Chrismation, Priesthood, etc (Sacraments of the church). The good acts of man are proper response to the grace of God, who has created man to be a free agent of the good, and when man lost that capacity, restored it to him in Jesus Christ. There are three factors that makes it possible for man to do good, they are (1) the grace of creation, (2) grace of redemption (Christ died for the redemption of whole mankind) and (3) the sacramental grace, but good has to be a free act of man and not something compelled by a sovereign grace. It should be noted here that two of the factors are available to all mankind in the world which is the grace of creation and the grace of redemption. Only the third factor, the sacramental grace, is the one which is additionally available to the members of the True Church.
Man’s velle, willing is an essential element in the act of virtue. God does not do historical acts of virtue except through the human agency. Therefore human agent is an essential element in history. What man does in his freedom, contributes greatly to the glory of God.
“…One must clean the royal house from every impurity and adorn it with every beauty, then the king may enter into it. In a similar way one must first cleanse the earth of the heart and uproot the weeds of sin and the passionate deeds and soften it with sorrows and the narrow way of life, sow in it the seed of virtue, water it with lamentation and tears, and only then does the fruit of dispassion and eternal life grow. For the Holy Spirit does not dwell in a man until he has been cleansed from passions of the soul and body.” St. Paisius Velichkovsky, (1722-84)
“Everything that breathes, breathes by air and cannot live without air; similarly all reasonable free creatures live by the Holy Spirit, as though by air, and cannot live without Him. Every soul is quickened by the Holy Spirit.” Recognize that the Holy Spirit stands in the same relation to your soul as air stands in relation to your body.” St. John of Kronstadt (1829-1909)
Authentic Eastern Christian [Orthodox] thinking does not think of grace as a special entity with a hypostasis of its own. Grace is the action of Holy Spirit, and though this is “unmerited”, it is not a thing itself. It is clear that according to St. Gregory of Nyssa, all human acts of good are God’s acts not only in the sense that God has given man the capacity to do good, but also because the Spirit, i.e. God Himself, is in person to help him to do good. But what God gives is only possibility and help. The agent is man. Otherwise it would not be a free act. In the western Christian [Roman Catholic and Protestant] doctrine of grace, God becomes the agent, and our own wills only cooperate. While according to Orthodox Christian understanding, God is before the act of good as the One who gave man the possibility of doing good, and in the act of doing good as helper, but never assumes the role of agent, for that would be to deny the freedom of man. Man can perform acts of good which seem to be beyond the normal capacity of human nature. But man is still the agent.
The gift of Eternal life is indeed a gift of the Spirit. St. Gregory of Nyssa says that it is the Spirit of God who gives this gift, but we acquire the worthiness or capacity to have and enjoy this grace, through faith which is manifested in the tireless capacity to strive for the good.
This special power of the Spirit to generate and enhance the capacity for good actions is what the ancient tradition of the Church regards as grace. It is an act of God, but God’s agency does not overwhelm the agency of man. The receiving of the Spirit is not an arbitrary and capricious matter, however. The Holy Spirit acts more effectively in those who have made themselves holy – negatively separating from sin and positively by practicing acts of virtue. The Holy Spirits special capacity is to do good through the will and agency of man without destroying man’s freedom. Grace as help for good deeds, is the consequence of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, and that indwelling does not take place until one has become a worthy abode for the Holy Spirit through the separation from evil and the practice of virtue. The Holy Spirit comes and dwells in those who fights the other loves(love for the worldly materialistic things/passions) that distract the man from the love of the good, and who take up their cross with joy and hope. But then neither does St. Gregory of Nyssa want anyone to boast or even be conscious of his own virtues: “ The lover of grace from on high endures every labor for the sake of those things which attract the Spirit and, having obtained a share in the grace from that source, he produces fruit and enjoys the harvest which the grace of the Spirit cultivates in his own humility and active zeal. It is necessary to endure the toils of prayer and fasting and the other works with much pleasure, love and hope, and to believe that activities are flowers of labor and the fruits of the Spirit. If anyone imputes those things to himself and gives himself the entire credit for them, in place of the undefiled fruits there grows up in such a person false pretension and pride, and these passions, like blight glowing in the souls of those easily satisfied, destroy and nullify the labors”
The spirit, giver of grace, does not bestow his gifts in such a way as to abrogate or overwhelm the freedom of man. But the Spirit’s presence in Man and His willingness to work through and in man together constitute one of the great mysteries of our present-day existence, particularly since the Incarnation and Pentecost. The one great consequence of God’ becoming man is the fact that the Spirit is now present in the community of Faith and Holiness. The Spirit Dwells in man and inspires his knowledge and his action, and transforms his very being- but all this neither as a servant, nor as an arbitrary dictator, but as One who works in a mysterious way as God’s Presence in the whole of creation, but particularly in Man.
Man’s freedom, however, has to be used even for providing the set-up in which the Spirit has to work. When man separates himself from evil, attaches himself to God. Lives a life of holiness and service, and dedicates himself unremittingly to prayer and virtue, then the Spirit abides in Man and Man becomes the Presence of God in creation- which is what it means to be Image of God.
As St. Gregory says
“The husbandmen of Christ and truth who through faith and toils of virtue, have received goods from the grace of the Spirit beyond their nature, harvest with unspeakable pleasure, and without effort they attain a guileless and unshakable love, unmovable faith, unfailing peace, true goodness and the rest of the things through which the soul becomes stronger than itself and more powerful than evil of the enemy, and furnishes itself as a pure dwelling place for the Holy and adorable Spirit. From the Spirit, it receives the eternal peace of Christ and, through it, unites with and cleaves to the Lord”.
The Spirit thus unites human person to Christ, but only when Man has separated from evil and cleansed himself, through baptism and the Eucharist on the one hand, and through the intense self-discipline of the love of God on the other. But the will of man is a necessary precondition for the perfection of man. For a person, who is not part of the church, but lives intense self-discipline of the love of God as mentioned above receives the grace of God, by the activities of the Holy Spirit. Grace of God is available to all humans through the grace of creation and the grace of redemption, may they be part of any religion and it is up to God to decide on his/her salvation.
Now we will see few references from Bible, with regard to this…
“For He saith to Moses, I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. So then it is not of him that willeth, nor of him that runneth [struggleth], but of God that showeth mercy” (Rom. 9:15-16).
One more way of looking at the status of heterodox (people who does not belong to Orthodox Church, may they be Christians or from other religions) believers is to compare them to New Testament “God-fearers” like Cornelius (Acts 10:2) or the Roman centurion (who, by the way, had greater faith than anyone in Israel; Matt. 8:10).
As we discussed earlier, Man’s effort in his own freedom to work towards good, develops virtue and this has its own value, wherever it is to be found. Before meeting the Apostle Peter, Cornelius neither believed aright concerning God, nor taught others the truth. But God, beholding his diligence in that which he knew, and foreseeing also how willingly he would embrace the truth, brought him to know Christ in a wondrous manner.
Saint John Chrysostom, commenting on [Acts 10:2], has written, “. . .if He did not overlook the Magi, nor the Ethiopian, nor the thief, nor the harlot, much more them that work towards righteousness, and are willing, shall He in anywise not overlook.” The righteousness of Cornelius was not overlooked by God; it prepared him to receive the Gospel and so to be joined to the Church, wherein was the fulfillment and reward of that righteousness.
A related example from the Old Testament may help, as well. Rahab, who was not visibly in the covenant community (Israel), nonetheless feared God (Joshua 2:8-21; cf. Saint Matt. 21:31); she is listed in the “Hall of Faith” (Hebrews 11:31) for her righteous act of hiding the three spies. Does anyone doubt her eternal destiny?
Hence what should one say of those outside the Church, who do not belong to her?
St. Paul provides us with an idea: “For what have I to do to judge them also that are without? Do not ye judge them that are within? But them that are without God judgeth” (1 Cor. 5:12-13).
God “will have mercy on whom He will have mercy” (Rom 9:18).
Also wherever the Gospel has not been preached or have not reached, people will be judged according to the clarification cited by the Apostle Paul in his Epistle to Romans; that is, he/she will be judged on the basis of the law of his conscience: “…when the gentiles (all those who do not have a written, moral code) instinctively uphold the stipulations of the law, to them –albeit having no written law- the law shall be their own self. They prove that they have the enforcement of the law written in their hearts”. (Romans 2: 14-15)
God has placed inside every single person, without exception, wherever they may be found on this earth, that unbiased tribunal – the inherent ethical law – based on which they will be judged. If they lived faithful to that innate moral code, they shall enter Paradise; if they don’t, they will not qualify to enter.
A man who will be judged according to the inherent ethical law, will be held accountable to God, only for –let’s say for example-the actual act of adultery that he had committed. But a Christian will be judged much more severely: even for his one, single, lustful glance, for example. He will be judged “in his words, in his acts and in his thoughts”. The benefits may be more for a Christian, but the criteria will be more austere and his path will be far more difficult to walk. Everything is fair. God is meticulously just. As Elder Paisios of the Holy Mountain (Mt. Athos) had said, “God doesn’t have even two identical scales; He weighs every single person on separate, personal scales”. Depending on where the person is born, what kind of environment he was brought up in, the kinds of parents, the school, the country, the religion, the peculiarities of every single person. God makes no mistakes.
In the Orthodox Church we have the path of salvation indicated to us and we are given the means by which a person maybe morally purified and have a direct promise of salvation. The grace of the Spirit, coming to us in the preaching of the Word, in the water of baptism and in the heavenly food of the Eucharist has to be perfected through a life of virtue. For this life of virtue, as well as for the bearing of the cross which is the inescapable outcome of the life of virtue, we need the grace of the Spirit in our bodies and the souls energizing us and strengthening us beyond our normal capacity to greater degrees of good.
In the Church is given that of which Apostle Peter writes to Christians (and only Christians): “According as His divine power hath given unto us all things that pertain unto life and godliness, through the knowledge of Him that hath called us to glory and virtue: Whereby are given unto us exceeding great and precious promises: that by these ye might be partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust. And beside this, giving all diligence, add to your faith virtue; and to virtue knowledge, and to knowledge temperance; and to temperance patience, and to patience godliness; and to godliness brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness charity. For if these things be in you, and abound, they make you that ye shall neither be barren nor unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Pet. 1:3-8).
The Holy Orthodox Church is the repository of the divinely revealed Truth in all its fullness and fidelity to apostolic Tradition. Hence, he who leaves the Church, who intentionally and consciously falls away from it, joins the ranks of its opponents and becomes a renegade as regards apostolic Tradition. The Church dreadfully anathematized such renegades, in accordance with the words of the Savior Himself (Matt. 18:17) and of the Apostle Paul (Gal. 1:8-9), threatening them with eternal damnation and calling them to return to the Orthodox fold. It is self-evident, however, that sincere Christians who are Roman Catholics, or Lutherans, or members, of other non-Orthodox confessions, or people living in virtue but belonging to other religions cannot be told that they shall not for sure inherit eternal life. They have been born and raised and are living according to the creed which they have inherited, just as do the majority of us who are Orthodox; in their lives there has not been a moment of personal and conscious renunciation of Orthodoxy. The Lord, “Who will have all men to be saved” (I Tim. 2:4) and “Who enlightens every man born into the world” (Jn. 1.43), undoubtedly is leading them also towards salvation In His own way.
For St. Gregory of Nyssa the redemption of Christ restores unto man the possibility of being and doing good. As he separates from evil and cleaves to God in Christ by the Spirit, the Spirit indwells him and empowers him. It is this empowering that enables him to be transformed into the Image of God. But the empowering is not a thing called grace, but the presence of God and the power of God. But the presence and the empowering of the Spirit takes place without annulling the agency of the human will. It is still man’s act, but with God’s power.
With reference to the question asked, it is particularly instructive to recall the answer once given to an inquirer by the St. Theophan the Recluse (1815-1894). The blessed one replied more or less thus:
“You ask, will the heterodox (all who do not belong to Orthodox Church) be saved… Why do you worry about them?
They have a Savior Who desires the salvation of every human being.
He will take care of them. You and I should not be burdened with such a
concern. Study yourself and your own sins…
I will tell you one thing, however: should you, being Orthodox and
possessing the Truth in its fullness, betray Orthodoxy, and enter a
different faith, you will lose your soul forever.”
Orthodoxy is the only sure path for salvation. It may not be the only path for salvation, but it is the only safe road…
What should be of chief concern is OUR OWN salvation. The question “What about him?” that St. Peter asked, regarding St. John the Evangelist (John 21:21) – in other words, “What will become of him?” – was a “show of compassion”; it was an external display of his caring for John. We, however, take this expression and use it simply informatively i.e.: “What will become with the heterodox or the non-Christians?” without concerning ourselves with our own salvation! Therefore, the proper thing to do is to attend to the salvation of our own soul, and at the same time show an interest in the salvation of other people who have entered the Orthodox Church (of their own free will), and not merely wonder in our minds what will become of them.
St. Peter spoke these words as he paid a lot of attention to John. He did not want to be separated from him. Therefore the Lord wished to show him that His love for St. John was much greater than his. Therefore He said, “If I will that he remain till I come, what is that to you?” St. Peter had always been fiery and rash in these matters, so the Lord wished to restrain him and teach him not to go beyond his limits by uttering these words. Hence we should also understand that God loves every human being that is born into this world more than anyone.
Finally, let us keep in mind the words of St. John Chrysostom “The Lord teaches us not to mourn, or be upset, or curious. We should not ask questions that seem to be outside the scope of matters directly affecting us.”