Journey to Orthodoxy:
Can We Truly Know?

by Thomas Katsampes

February 26, 2008

Yesterday's class was taught by Fr. Nathan of Holy Myrrhbearers Orthodox Church in St. Cloud Minnesota. We spent a lot of time talking about John 14:6: "Jesus saith unto him, I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me." Depending on which word one chooses to emphasize here, different meanings of this verse can be brought to light. Since no one living today heard Jesus speak these words, we simply don't know what word He chose to emphasize. But perhaps we can take an educated guess. When Moses asked God, whom shall I say sent me? "God said unto Moses, I AM THAT I AM: and he said, Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, I AM hath sent me unto you." (Exodus 3:14) In the garden of Gethsemane when the soldiers come to arrest Jesus, He asks them, "Whom seek ye?" "Jesus of Nazareth," reply the soldiers. "As soon then as he had said unto them, I am he, they went backward, and fell to the ground." (John 18:6)

Emphasis on the "I AM" leads to the conclusion that Christ is the ultimate reality. If a thing has nothing to do with Christ, that thing is ultimately meaningless. Christ is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and no one comes to God except through Christ. So what can we say about those who worship other gods? What can we say about Hindus, Shintoists, Zen Buddhists, Muslims, folks of other religions? Can we truly say that - if they continue in their present course - that they will not see God? That they will spend eternity without God because they rejected Him? "He that believeth on Him is not condemned: but he that believeth not is condemned already, because he hath not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God." (John 3:18) Judge not, lest ye be judged. So I judge no one. I simply repeat Christ's words. According to Christ, if we reject Him, we are condemned.

But it seems to me from yesterday's conversation that the Orthodox perspective is that, even with the help of Jesus' statements in John 3 we simply cannot know, we cannot tell whether those who do not believe are condemned if they continue on their present course. As a good friend of Fr. Kroll put it, "I assume that God will extend His saving mercy to everyone except me. Now I know what I have to do." We are to then "work out our salvation with fear and trembling," as writes St. Paul.

As I listened to Fr. Kroll, I got the impression that in Orthodoxy although we do care about the unsaved, we don't judge them in their present course. To do so is to limit the power of God to save. Doesn't this undercut the reason to share the Good News in the first place? If God will ultimately save everybody, or at least provide everyone the opportunity to say "Yes!" to Jesus, then what reason is there to "Go and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit?" The purpose of missionary work is secondarily to feed the hungry and clothe the naked. The primary purpose of missionary work is to "save souls." (With the understanding that only God can truly save of course). That primacy of that purpose is driven in large part by John 3:18 and because we love our fellow human beings, we believe that without the saving knowledge of Christ they will be eternally separated from God, and since we do not want this to happen to our fellow human beings, we are compelled to share the Gospel of Christ.

On the other hand, the Orthodox approach is certainly a more humble approach. When the motivation for sharing the Good News is that "we have the truth and if you don't believe this truth you're going to be cut off from God," as Fr. Nathan pointed out we come very close to the exactly the sort of judgment we are not supposed to make - a judgment as to the ultimate salvation of another person. The Orthodox approach avoids all of this by simply claiming that we cannot know God's ultimate destination regarding another person. The Orthodox approach claims we cannot even say that those who do not follow Christ are in fact condemned: Jesus says it but that is Jesus speaking and since we are not Jesus, we have no right to make those pronouncements. But I'm not convinced that in quoting the words of Christ we are making a moral pronouncement or judgment. To the contrary, by sharing what Christ has said on the issue we are making it clear that these are not OUR words, but words from the mouth of Christ Himself. It is not we who condemn, it is Christ who condemns - all the more reason to pay careful attention.

I remain of the view that we should share the Gospel with others. That is one of the reasons I wear the cross. If I am asked about it, that is a sharing opportunity. However, the Gospel is not all pleasantries. According to the Scripture there are eternal consequences for unbelief - perhaps not in this world, but certainly in the next. Along with John 3:16, don't people need hear John 3:18 as well? I believe the answer is YES. Do we really judge others by sharing John 3:18? I am not persuaded that we do.
Journey to Orthodoxy
God Became Man and other thoughts
Thoughts on Mary
Visiting the Church
Returning to the Church
The Communion Question
Losing the Sense of the Sacred
Conversation with Fr. Tom
Icons and Worship
Differing Viewpoints
Can we truly know?
Faith and Works
Child Baptism