I have never heard anything but the truth about baptism or any of the other ‘mysteries’ of the Christian faith from an Orthodox priest. Maybe that’s why, in spite of any of its flaws, I cannot get away from the Orthodox Church. Just when you think they’re going to pull some magical nonsense about the Church or the sacraments (I use this word here, though I really prefer to call them ‘mysteries’) out of their hat, behold! What they pull out is what you’ve felt deep inside you was right all along, yet never, or almost never, heard come out of a clergyman’s mouth.
I may as well tell you up front, if you hadn’t noticed this before. Orthodoxy does not accept the doctrine of original sin in the sense of us being guilty of Adam and Eve’s sins, even if we aren’t guilty of anything of our own. This doctrine comes from a mistranslation into Latin of Psalm 51. The Western Church reads, ‘and in sin my mother conceived me.’ The Eastern Church, following the Greek, reads, ‘and in sins my mother conceived me.’ This has been taken to mean that, though the divine image in man was broken, and continues to be broken, by Adam and Eve, and by their descendants imitating their disobedience, man is not utterly and totally depraved, by nature, only by will. A very subtle difference? Yes, but it matters.
‘But the Bible clearly says that anyone who isn’t baptized can’t be saved.’ Well, yes and no. In ordinary circumstances, when baptism means repentance, conversion, and the subsequent ceremonial acts that confirm it for the individual and the community, yes. But even in the gospels we have the example of the good thief who was saved without baptism, without righteousness, without belief in any particular doctrines, saved by only one thing, ‘whoever calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved.’ He had personal trust (the word in Greek we usually translate as ‘faith’) in Jesus as who He said He was. If anyone could tell us whether or not we would be saved, it would be Christ, and if there were stipulations, He would have spelled them out clearly. Was He too busy to do that on the Cross? Wasn’t there enough time for Him to go over the points He talked to Nicodemus about? No, it’s not that at all. Salvation comes through Jesus Christ alone, and it is appropriated by our personal faith in Him, and if nothing else is possible, that faith alone, without works, without knowledge, without self-sacrifice, without membership in a religious body, that faith alone is enough.
When Christ goes to raise Lazarus from his four-day burial, He meets the sister of the dead man, and He tells her the astounding fact that He Himself is the Resurrection and the Life, and He asks her whether she believes that or not. She doesn’t answer with a straight yes or no, but rather declares her faith in an almost dogmatic utterance, ‘I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, the One who was to come into this world.’ In this encounter, Christ states first of all, that anyone who believes in Him, even though he dies, will live, and then repeats Himself in slightly more detail, ‘whoever lives and believes in Me will never die.’
What is this ‘never die’ business He’s talking about? Can it be something other than being saved? What was that paradise He promised the good thief when He said, ‘this day you will be with Me in paradise’? Is this different than being saved? Though He says things like, ‘unless a man is born again, of water and the Spirit,’ is He revealing a new legislation, a new Torah, for His would-be followers?
Christ is Himself eternal life, He is Himself paradise, there is no other ‘place’ to go to be considered ‘saved.’ What I am writing here is not my personal philosophy, but what has been handed over to me by the Church fathers among whom I was brought up, in the environment of the Orthodox Church, which I was already beginning to enter long before I walked through the doors of an Orthodox temple or was chrismated.
Why baptise infants? If they die unbaptised, there is no punishment for them, there is no isolation in a place called limbo, which has now been emptied by proclamation of the pope, and there is no hell for them either, because they have not rejected Christ, the Light of the world, through whose name alone under heaven mankind can be saved. So in this the Orthodox would agree with many Protestants, maybe even with some Baptists, though I wonder if sometimes the agreement is flakey, based on the similarity of conclusions reached by quite different logic.
The Orthodox know that a real God does not make impossible demands and is not looking for a reason to condemn us: hence, babies, children, imbeciles, the insane, even the suicides are in no danger of divine wrath. Some of the others may come to this conclusion because they think God is really just a big softy, and His scary pronouncements are only there to trick us into being good. No, God means what He says, the terrible as well as the awesome things He tells us, but in no case is He a heavenly policeman, judge, torturer and executioner all rolled into one.
His revelation is given only to tell us, ‘this is how it is’ and ‘you can’t come Home until you come Home.’