The other day Suzy and I had the opportunity to meet a lovely young lady who asked us: “What are the main differences between Protestantism and Orthodoxy?” (paraphrase). Talk about a hefty undertaking!
“Where do I begin,” I thought out loud.
One of the biggest differences is that the Orthodox turn to a slew of Christian leaders over the past nearly 2,000 years to understand the faith, so there is a wealth of depth that has accumulated over time, that is unfortunately overlooked by many Christians today.
To show her what is lost by not having the benefit of thousands years of Christian teaching, I asked her a question that I’ve asked non-Orthodox Christians for years, and I have yet to ever receive the right answer. And when they realize what it is I’m asking, and the answer they are giving, their intrigue is always peaked as they realize something is missing regarding an integral aspect of their understanding of salvation.
Here’s the question:
“Where did good people in the Old Testament go after they died, before Christ’s manifestation in the flesh and the salvation He accomplished for us?”
People like: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David, Daniel, Solomon, Levi, Moses, Jonah? Adam? Eve? Where did they go when they died?
The answer I usually get:
“Heaven?” (often asked with the intonation of question rather than actually giving a confident answer).
So then I ask a follow-up question.
“If before Christ they went to heaven, then on what basis did they go? Was it their being good?” (Interestingly, the Orthodox are often criticized [wrongly] for saying that “being good” is the basis for salvation. Yet here, in the answer usually given, it seems this is the distinguishing factor for determining who went where after death.)
If all these “good” people had access to heaven before Christ, then what was the purpose of Christ’s death and resurrection? What did He save us from?
Allow me to explain:
Adam and Eve sinned and cause a separation between mankind and God. Everyone who died prior to Jesus Christ’s loving and redemptive act on the cross was not allowed to enter into heaven, including some of the most favored of God, such as Abraham, Moses, and King David, because “death reigned” (Rom 5:12) over all mankind after the fall of man caused by the sin of Adam, precipitated by the persuasion of Eve.
The punishment for this sin was set out in no uncertain terms to Adam and Eve: “Of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (Gen 2:17). The term “surely” exemplifies the notion that the death spoken of here meant more than just physical death, but also no access to eternal life in heaven and a condemnation upon all humanity to live eternally away from God after death in Hades, a point with which the earliest Christians are in agreement, as illustrated by the remarks of Pope Alexander of Alexandria, Egypt (c. AD 324):
“When man afterwards had inclined to death, because of the fall, it was necessary that man’s form be recreated anew to salvation by the same Maker. For the form [i.e., the body] lay rotting in the ground. However, that inspiration [i.e., the spirit] that had been as the breath of life—it was detained separately from the body in a dark place that is called Hades. So there was a separation of the soul [i.e., spirit] from the body . . . banished to Hades while the body was returned back to dust.” Epistles on the Arian Heresy 3.3 (ANF 6:300).
The Coptic Church also reflects these beliefs during worship services in a variety of places, such as the Ninth Hour Exposition of Great Friday: “Rejoice Today, all you righteous, prophets, and patriarchs! The first man. . . . God is the Word, in its perfection, and went to Hades by the soul which He took from Adam’s nature and made it one with Himself. He lifted with Him the souls that were in captivity according to His great mercy.”
Christ came and reconciled humanity with God. Instead of being a distant creation in servitude (like slaves) to a distant Creator, Christ embraced us as a bride is embraced by her bridegroom, and lifted us to become heirs of God’s kingdom, children of God. See what the beloved apostle Paul teaches us (Galatians 4:4-7):
When the fullness of the time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, that we might receive the adoption as sons.
And because you are sons, God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into your hearts, crying out, “Abba, Father!” Therefore you are no longer a slave but a son, and if a son, then an heir of God through Christ.
The above information was taken from my upcoming book Orthodox Afterlife. To learn more about what the Orthodox Church teaches about the afterlife, and what dozens of Orthodox Christian relate of their purported afterlife experiences, visit:
Releasing this month in print and all major eBook outlets.
I also highly recommend everyone from any Christian denomination read On the Incarnation, by an early Christian named Athanasius. The book today is often distributed with an introduction by C.S. Lewis who touts its praise and encourages every Christian to read it. It is a fundamental book to help explain salvation.
Blog image credit: “The Witch of Endor Raising The Spirit of Samuel” by William Blake, 1800 AD.
For more on this subject, see also H.H. Pope Shenouda III, Many Years with the People’s Questions, Part II (El Kawmia, Cairo, Egypt: Dar El Tebaa, 1993), 155–56; Eusebius of Caesarea Proof of the Gospel 4.12; Basil the Great Psalms 49.14; Clement of Alexandria Stromata 6.6; Hilary of Poitiers On the Trinity 10.34, On the Councils 85, On Psalm 53 14; Cyril of Jerusalem Catechetical Lectures 4.11, 14.18–19.