Elder Nektary of Optina
[Ivan Kontzevitch, Elder Nektary of Optina, p. 181]
We Orthodox are accustomed to thinking of other people (of other faiths) in a snobbish manner. "They are heretics!" or "faithless"! we tend to say. And we shake our heads in sorrow. But we are also inclined to push away the thought that most of the people on this planet are not Christians, and of those who are, very few are truly Orthodox.
For those of us who have lived and associated with heretics or people of other faiths, it is difficult to not have thought about the future of these people and about God's intentions for them all. Quite often, with agony and tears, we pray for their salvation also, and we ask this from the God of all mankind - from our God.
I happen to be one of those people who is possessed by such an agony; because, although I am Orthodox, I nevertheless have good friends from innumerable dogmas - even from the most extreme - and from every corner of the planet. This is because I consider as friends all those who seek God; even those atheists who are zealously looking for a meaning and a reason for their existence. To me, these people are friends and companions in the struggle for the "likeness of", and only those people who are not concerned about the purpose of our life leave me entirely indifferent when it comes to seeking their friendship - even if they are members of my very own family. Those who seek the purpose of life are my "brethren, my children, my parents and my friends" (according to the word of the Lord), and they are my travelling companions in the great adventure of "THE ROAD" leading to God and Salvation.
I spoke of a "road", because as you know, the Christian faith was originally called "the road" according to the Holy Bible. Being a "road", therefore, it presupposes a starting point, a destination and a constant movement. If you are at a standstill, you are no longer "on the road", but "in a place". The Christian "road", however, has a destination: it is known as: "the likeness of" and its course is a long one. On this course, there are some who are at the starting point, others who are further behind and others further ahead. Some move at a faster pace and others at a slower one; some venture off the track for a while and return later on, while others wander off and are lost... but EVERYONE is on that one, same road, from the moment they decide to create a personal relationship with God, or at least to discover whether there is something at the end of that road. Those who are under the impression that they "have reached their destination" have missed their goal altogether and have ceased to "walk the path".
On this road, the further behind one is, the hazier and vaguer can he discern his destination. Those who are at the start of the road have a "shadowy" perception of the Kingdom, while those who have progressed further along can perceive it "pictorially". Everyone on this road has deficiencies; some have more, others have fewer. However, they are all "students" and they all continuously strive to correct them and to delve into increasingly deeper clarifications regarding the desired goal, which is the future aeon. Those who have progressed further on the road will, despite their deficiencies, begin to discern in the background the sight of God Himself, and will realize what it means to know Him "face to face". These people often find it difficult to even vaguely describe to others what they have seen, and resort to explaining it through parables and other virtual forms. Thus, they tell us of "the fires of Hell", of "enlightenment", of "perdition", etc... These are words that can be perceived, only in a limited sense in the present aeon. As for those who are "further back" on the road, it is among them that the procedure which as children we called "broken telephone" begins.
Some have attempted to interpret the notions of "hell", of "enlightenment", of "salvation" and of "perdition" on the basis of their own scant experiences, given that they have never had even the faintest sighting of the reality of the future aeon. This is why they say certain things somewhat altered to those who are further behind them on the road. And they in turn distort those things even more, and relay them even more altered to the others who are behind them. This is how heresies are created. However, this is also how the religiously INTOLERANT are created. These are usually the ones who believe themselves to be very close to the end of the road, and who even see mirages of the Kingdom (which are actually images that are a far cry from those of reality). These people threaten the others with "eternal hell" and they confront God as though He were a "common sadist" and "unjust" - a God that one can only fear and hate. It is people like these who become the cause for "the road to the Truth to be blasphemed", according to the words of the Bible. And while in reality they are under the impression that they are nearing the end of the road, they are actually still at the beginning – quite simply because they are displaying hatred, when this course is inextricably interwoven with LOVE (since the end of this road leads to God, Who is "Love").
Both the religiously intolerant and the heretic are on the same road, albeit on the opposite sides of it, yet they too are moving forward. The odd thing is, that quite often, a heretic or a very sinful person may "overtake" a religiously intolerant person along the way, simply for "having loved so much", according to the words of the Lord to the whore.
But we must also understand that - in spite of what is being taught by certain misinformed persons regarding the judgment of non-Christians - the ORTHODOX faith (in the sense of the word that I always use), does not depend on what they believe or say. The Orthodox dogmas are formulated only by those who are far, far ahead of the others on the road, and who already have a view of the first abodes of the celestial kingdom and it most certainly requires a clear mind to properly understand what is meant by those things that are said, to those who are further behind on the road.
So much for the introduction.
Now, in reply to the question: "What will become of the non-Orthodox during the Day of Judgment?" (given that I personally am still far behind on the road, and for fear of warping the words of the Saints), I prefer to let them speak for me, and you, the reader, can judge for yourself, according to the distance you have covered on the road.
I shall speak by moving through Time, beginning from the very foundation of the faith - Christ Himself (for "no-one can lay any other foundation"), through to our day.
So, by commencing with the Beginning of everything - the Lord - we notice that He Himself had said: "you shall see people from the East and the West seated alongside Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the Kingdom, and you (the children of Israel) shall see yourselves cast out." Wasn't He referring to us also? Or was He referring to the Israelites only?
He had also said: "and do not say 'we are children of God', for God is able to raise children even from stones". Or could it be, that God is unable to raise children from stones today as well? Well, if He can raise children from stones, He most certainly can raise children from amongst the strayed (but faithful) people.
When He had said that He had come "only for the lost sheep of Israel", He not only cured a Gentile woman, who waited patiently like a puppy for "the crumbs" to fall from the hands of the then "children" of the God of the Israelites; He in fact commented that: "Such faith I have not found among anyone in Israel". Can we truly say that there is absolutely no-one, amidst the thousands of heresies, with faith just as strong - or even stronger?
He had also said the following, in the parable of the wedding feast, when the "invited guests" did not show up: "Go forth, and gather the lame, the blind, the handicapped, and fill the house of the wedding-feast". Do you believe that He is now going to leave vacant the space that was designated for the Orthodox guests who will not be honouring His wedding feast, and not invite those who -albeit "lame" and "blind" in the Faith- seek Him with fervent zeal and who equally aspire to entering His heavenly Kingdom?
Now let us continue with the Apostle Peter, when he said the following in the case of Cornelius: "I truly believe that God does not discriminate between people, but that in every nation, whosoever toils for justice shall be acceptable to Him". Will God be prejudiced against the strayed workers of justice, who however rise and sleep with a prayer on their lips, calling upon Him and saying: "Yes! Come, my Lord Jesus"?
Let us also examine the Apostle of Nations, Paul, in the first chapters of the Epistle to Romans. In there, he says: "if the uncircumcised uphold by nature the contents of the Law, won't their prepuce count as circumcision? For the uncircumcised shall one day judge you, the circumcised.....for the true Judean is the one who is latently Judean....". But what is Paul saying here? Is he addressing Romans and yet is telling them about circumcision? Or could it be that he was implying the "circumcision of the heart" (which was an expression for the Christian baptism), and that with these words, he was clearly specifying that even the unbaptized will receive God's blessing, according to their heart?
Now let's move on in brief, to Saint Justin (110-167 A.D., in his "Apologia", vol.A, 46,3): "And those who have lived in accordance with the word are Christians, even though they may be considered atheists, just as Socrates was among the Hellenes, and Heracletus, and the others who were like them".
And moving a little further along, a few centuries later to Saint Nephon, to whom the Lord had shown a vision - a vision of the Judgment that is to come. This was a kind of "zooming in" to the Book of Revelation, whereby the Lord extracted a section of the Apocalypse and gave it to the saint in more detail. In that vision, among other things, he saw the entry of the righteous into Paradise, and at some other point, he says that he was shown "the good idolaters" also entering Paradise, except they were "blind". Obviously, this was God's way of showing that the blessings they were to receive would be lacking in something, as compared to those who entered Paradise as Christians. What is characteristic however is that he saw priests and monks in the worst possible spot in "hell", who -albeit Orthodox Christians- had not proven themselves worthy of their responsibility. Because the truth is a responsibility, and not just an excuse for boasting and self-justification.
I shall not refer to other examples, nor shall I dare to speak about the amazing things that Saint Gregory of Nyssa had said, concerning the salvation of the unfaithful, because I consider him too "far ahead" on the road for me to understand or to express the meaning of his words.
I would like to simply conclude with a clarification:
Yes, Christ has only one Church, united and unbroken - the Orthodox Church. This Church of His has the mission and the obligation to preach the Gospel -unadulterated- to all mankind. Because this is the Gospel of Salvation and it is the one that is binding, for each and every person who wants to be saved. However, it is not binding for God, because God can discern each person's innermost self; He knows that certain people -for various reasons- may never ever hear of the Gospel, or that they may misunderstand it. He also knows what lies in the depths of their hearts as well as their intentions. He knows if someone has merely been led astray because "that was as much as he could handle", or because he chose heresy and alienation for his own, self-seeking purposes. If that person was led astray, not on account of his ego but because "that was as much as he could handle", then God will provide him with innumerable opportunities to correct his mistaken ways. If he does not bother to correct them, he will have no excuse whatsoever - not only towards God, but also towards his own conscience. Because salvation is IMPOSSIBLE for those who stubbornly reject God's truth -the one and only Church, Orthodoxy- simply because "that's what they believe". Their very own conscience will sentence them, when the time comes. And God knows how to reciprocate to each and every one, according to their works, their intentions and their endeavours - regardless whether they are Christians, or heretics, or of other religions.
The reason I am writing this, is that so no-one will be under the impression that the Lord will save him without his personal, all-out endeavour to seek the truth. God will see his good intention -if it exists- and He will eventually lead that person to the truth, provided that person actually wants it.
THE ONE AND ONLY CHURCH will continue to preach the one and only Christian Gospel, right to the very end. And when the Lord returns, all those Christians who have learnt to love - all those who have drawn closer to the "likeness of" at the end of the "Road" - will be harbouring no complaints if the Lord wishes to place heretics by their side, even "blind" ones. In fact, they will be joyfully crying out to the Lord with gratitude for His infinite kindness, and will be rejoicing together with them.