I’ve been thinking a fair bit about relations with evangelical Christians this last week, and I hope that what I say here will not be too offensive. (And I fear that my thoughts may also be somewhat rambling). I suppose that that is in large part because I seem to increasingly realise that what many, perhaps most, people in South Africa understand by Christianity is some version of evangelical Protestantism, even if they have rejected it or moved into some form of post-evangelical consciousness.

Yesterday, during coffee after Liturgy, a non-Orthodox woman present complained at how exclusive we Orthodox are. Admittedly, we had been reacting to certain things and I wondered whether we had been unfair. But others responded by pointing out, quite bluntly, that there really are fundamental differences between Orthodoxy and evangelical Protestantism. I could certainly relate to this as I had had a conversation with a colleague earlier in the week that had left me feeling that the differences are very great indeed. And yet I was also uncomfortable drawing the lines too sharply – after all, I have known thoughtful evangelicals and some things do need to be said with a certain nuance.

But then I went to a shopping mall on the way home. (For the record, I hate shopping malls, but there was a shop I needed to go to). And walking past a large “Christian” bookshop I thought that I may as well go in and see what they had. In all fairness it was probably one of the worse examples of that sort of genre – a big space but most of it taken up with religious kitsch and hardly any serious books. However they did have a rather large selection of bibles and I thought that I may as well see if I could find something reasonable – except that I soon discovered that the large selection had more to do with packaging (men’s bibles, women’s bibles, girl’s bibles, boys’ bibles, soldiers’ bibles, teens’ bibles) than with variety of translations and that of course they didn’t have anything with the deutero-canonical books. (In fact they didn’t even have the RSV and when I asked a shop assistant he told me that he thought it was out of print!) But I did manage to find a tiny KJV New Testament and Psalms which was cheap and will be fun to bind. And as I was paying for it the teller popped something else into my bag which he said was a present.

When I got home and opened my “present” I saw that it was a thin paperback New Testament together with an Audio CD of the New Testament. I was actually quite pleased with the CD until I realised it was a dramatised version, but I must still listen to it and see what it is like. But it was the tract that accompanied this gift that really shook me. It was entitled “The Good News of Easter” and already in the shop I had noticed that there was some sort of Easter promotion going on. I had found the main marketing image that they used, that of a crown of thorns, a rather odd image to portray Easter, but I had told myself to not be judgmental and that one could hardly expect them to use an icon of the descent into hell. But reading the tract I could not help but think that, however many elements of truth it had, this was a rather different gospel to one that I would be happy to preach. It’s fundamental message was that “on the cross of Calvary Jesus Christ suffered and died in our place so that we would not have to face God’s judgment for our sins. And on that first Easter morning he was raised to new life – God’s seal of approval that Christ has paid for our sins in full.”

Now I don’t intend to get into a detailed discussion about the penal substitutionary atonement theory, most of the details of which I’ve long since forgotten. But what has struck me recently about such beliefs is not only that they are wrong, but also that they are woefully inadequate. Quite apart from the objectionable nature of Jesus needing to satisfy the Father’s wrath, such a perspective reduces salvation to simply being a ticket to heaven. And it reduces the Resurrection to simply being the Father’s acceptance of this bloody sacrifice. No wonder that the best visual image they can find is that of a crown of thorns! Surely the Resurrection of Christ is about more than this!

And then, a couple of hours after reading this tract, I was reading the stichera of the Resurrection from the Octo-echos and I couldn’t help but be struck by the fundamental differences in the understanding of salvation. Instead of being there to placate a vengeful God, the life-giving cross renews our human nature and shatters the power of death. This is what the Gospel is about, this and nothing less:

With fervent love we bow down in worship to your life-giving cross, O Christ God, and we glorify your resurrection on the third day, for by it You renewed our fallen human nature, Almighty One, and gave us the assurance of our ascent to heaven: for You are gracious and the Lover of Mankind.

Accepting of your own will the crucifixion on the tree of the cross, You solved the problem of the tree of sin; and when You went down to Hades, You broke the fetters of death as befits You, the Almighty God. Therefore we bow in worship to your resurrection from the dead, crying out with joy: “O Lord, Almighty One, glory to You!”

O Lord, by your death You shattered the gates of Hades and destroyed the power of death. You saved the human race from corruption and gave life, incorruption and great mercy to the world.

Come, all you peoples: let us sing a hymn of praise to the Saviour’s resurrection on the third day, by which we were all delivered from the strong fetters of Hades and received life and incorruption; and let us cry out: “O You who were crucified and died and were buried and rose: save us by your resurrection, O You the only One who love mankind!”

O Saviour, angels and men sing a hymn of praise to your resurrection on the third day, by which you lighted up the earth to its limits and redeemed us all from the enemy’s slavery. We now cry out: “O Almighty, Maker of Life, save us by your resurrection, for You are the Lover of Mankind!”

You shattered the bronze gates of Hades and broke its fetters, O Christ God, and You raised up the fallen human race. Therefore we cry out to You in harmonious melody: “O You who are risen from the dead, glory to You…

Now, somewhere at the back of my mind in these reflections on evangelicals has also been the latest round of discussions in the evangelical-cum-Protestant world on what is termed universalism. I haven’t followed these except insofar as I’ve seen comments on them on Orthodox blogs, but it would seem that a certain Rob Bell has got himself into trouble for suggesting that all people will ultimately be saved. As Father Gregory Wassen pointed out in a comment on Wei Hsien’s blog, there is nothing new in this and it is really no big deal. It seems to me that there are two separate issues involved here, the first being the salvation of “non-Christians” and the second being the whether anyone can ultimately refuse the gift of salvation. But what has struck me about evangelicals getting all worked up about such things is that it seems to reduce salvation to a ticket to heaven, rather than a process of cosmic proportions. Indeed to continue quoting from the Octo-echos above:

He found the lost sheep on the mountains, carried it on his shoulders, offered it to his Father, generously numbered it among the Powers of heaven and saved the whole world, since He is Christ of great and rich mercy.

I’m not really interested in speculating on the ultimate salvation of all – and, much as I love Saint Gregory of Nyssa and Saint Isaac, I do recognise that there are problems in asserting it as a definite fact. And I have also become aware of how easily some strands of Christianity – and I have certainly been influenced by this – have domesticated any idea of divine judgment. But what seems absolutely clear to me is that God desires the salvation of all, that we are also called to desire and pray for it, that every Liturgy is offered “on behalf of all and for all” and that to deny that would seem, well, really rather blasphemous. In the words of Saint Silouan, “we must pray for all.” And I am, rather uncomfortably, aware of how much I fail in that, that that, perhaps more than anything else, is what I will have to answer to God for.

But, to get back to the evangelicals with whom I began, what bothers me is that when people begin to question and reject such teaching, whether on the substitutionary atonement or on the universality of salvation, they don’t have much to fall back on and, at least in my experience, often seem to drift into a vague postmodern interest in “spirituality” devoid of dogmatic content. This is what is understood as Christianity, at least in South Africa. And that is, well, that’s a travesty of the Gospel. 

Update: Father Christian Mathis has a rather perceptive review of Bell’s book here.