When I was a kid, I used to have a set of Bible storybooks. Appearing throughout those volumes were artistic depictions of heaven. I’ve seen pictures like them all my life, in all sorts of Christian books. I’m sure that most of us have. See if this doesn’t sound familiar. In the foreground of this painting is an idyllic park setting. Beautiful flowers and trees dot the landscape. The footpaths weave between lush, grassy meadows and crystal ponds. Lions and lambs and all sorts of animals cavort about with little children. Men and women, all clad in white, stroll about, conversing with angels. Just behind the park is the shining New Jerusalem, the pure, white city of God, gilded with gold. Farther in the background, overarching the city, is a giant halo, the glowing aura of the presence of God.
What I didn’t realize until I began to investigate Eastern Orthodoxy was that this artistic illustration of heaven reflects much of the unique theological mindset of the Christian West. This picture tells us something about the Western Christian understanding of the nature of God. It speaks very clearly about what God’s ultimate desires are for us, his human children. We also see illustrated here the fundamental concept of salvation to which the West holds.
To make it clear how this artistic image reflects a peculiarly Western Christian view of these matters, let’s consider this: How might I redo the picture if someone asked me to turn it into a more specifically Eastern Christian image of the heavenly kingdom? First of all, I’d have to say that I’d be a little reluctant to try that. I don’t think we have the foggiest notion, really, of what that realm will be like. We’re not capable of envisioning it. As St. Paul puts it in I Corinthians 2:9, it will be something “eye has not seen nor ear heard.” But if you forced me, I might produce a different image for you, if only in an attempt to point up some crucial differences between the Orthodox Christian vision and the Western Christian mind.
But I’ll tell you now, the painting I’d end up with would be significantly less interesting from an artistic point of view, and that’s not just because art’s not my forte. No, it’s because I’d be trying to make my picture more consistent with the teaching of the Scriptures and with the life and experience of Eastern Christians since the day of Pentecost. Looking at my new picture, you’d find that it contains only one element from the Western mural I described initially. The fact is, all you’d see in my new version would be the halo, but it would be blown up to fill the canvas. That’s right. The entire image would be one great light. In comparison with the first image, I think that would be a much closer depiction of what heaven will really be like.
Now, keep those two contrasting pictures in your mind. What do they tell us about the fundamentally different concepts of God and of salvation that underlie each of them? Let’s think about the Western Christian view of salvation. From that perspective, salvation is the working out of a problem that exists between God and humankind. In solving this problem, each of the parties involved—God and human beings—have particular goals they want to achieve. Each has needs that must be met.
What does God need to happen? Well, when Adam and Eve sinned, they terribly wronged God. Their disobedience, a selfish defiance in which we, their children, have heartily, stubbornly, and unabashedly joined, did infinite dishonor to God. It offended his perfect character beyond all measure. Because he is supremely holy and perfectly just, God demands that all human beings pay a penalty to satisfy his demand for justice and to atone for the wrong they had done him. The penalty he inflicts, of course, is death.
Yet at the same time, the God of infinite holiness and justice desires to be merciful. So he decides to take upon himself in the Person of his Son, Jesus Christ, the death sentence he has pronounced upon every human being who ever has and who ever will exist. By his death on the cross, Christ becomes the substitute that satisfies God’s holy and just demands. So God’s needs are met. His honor is restored; his need for justice is satisfied. He even gets to be merciful in the process.
On the human side of things, the concerns are much simpler. We just want to escape hell. Adam and Eve condemned us to it, and we have no power in ourselves to break free of it. But, thankfully, God has found a way to satisfy his need for justice without plunging us all into the fires of perdition forever. For us to be freed from that horrible destiny, all we must do is tell God we’re sorry for our disobedience and trust in the fact that through his own death on the cross Jesus has paid the required penalty for us. Just do that, and heaven is ours.
So in this version of salvation, everyone ends up happy. God is satisfied; human beings get their reprieve. The relationship between God and humankind becomes like that of the reconciled parties in a legal dispute. The contract of salvation has been set forth. God says, “I’ll do this for you. You just accept it.” By our act of believing and receiving, as the popular evangelists put it, we, in effect, sign our names to the contract. Nothing more is demanded of either party. The legal obligations are fulfilled.
But there’s something important that Western Christians tend not to recognize about this contractual understanding of salvation. According to their contract, God and his human children get right with each other, but there’s nothing in the agreement that makes them tight with each other. That is, as far as their actual day-to-day existence, as far as their personal interactions are concerned, God and his human children remain importantly removed from one another.
Western Christians often say that they are saved by a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, yet there’s really nothing personal or relational in their contract view of salvation. Once a human being accepts the contract, once they say, “Okay, God, I’m sorry, and I gratefully accept your offer of salvation,” hey, it’s an entirely done deal. God is fine. He resolves his inner conflict, the tension between his uncompromising justice and his merciful side. He can get on with peacefully being God. And human beings can at last get down to enjoying the good things in life—careers, financial success, pizza, baseball games—without worrying about a fiery future.
In short, there’s absolutely nothing in the contract that requires them to get any closer to each other than that. Most certainly, this transaction doesn’t demand what some fanatics propose, that God and his children should forsake everything else they love in order to give themselves entirely to intimate communion with one another. Perhaps that sort of interpersonal connection between the divine Creator and his human creatures might have its rewards, but as far as being saved goes… Well, it’s just not necessary.
Now, if I wanted to paint a picture that captured the vision of salvation that I’ve just described, how could I do it? Well, how about this? What if I showed a bunch of extremely happy human beings spending a lovely day playing with the animals and strolling about the pretty parks of paradise while away off in the background a satisfied and invisible God sits on his brightly shining throne somewhere in the New Jerusalem? See what I mean? The Western artwork fits the Western theology perfectly.
That they see their relationship with God essentially as one of disputants who have been legally reconciled but whose hearts and minds and lives still remain separated, shows up in more than just the artwork of Western Christians. It also manifests itself in the words that they use, in the common ways that they explain the workings of salvation. For instance, I’ve heard this a thousand times and probably more; I’ve said it over and over myself. It’s the way most Western believers describe their status with God. It goes like this: Because of what Jesus did on the cross, when God looks at me, he doesn’t see me; he sees only Jesus instead.
When I was an Evangelical, I found myself rejoicing in that, but long before I knew anything about Eastern Orthodoxy, I came to the conclusion that there wasn’t much in that profession to be excited about. For what does it really proclaim? It declares that the contract hasn’t done anything to change God’s mind about me, really. The implication is that he tolerates me because his Son paid the price of my salvation. But I got to thinking: what if Jesus were to step aside? What if God suddenly found himself looking directly at me? I had this feeling that I’d vanish in a puff of smoke. So as a human being, am I to rejoice because the God of heaven puts up with me for the sake of his Son? It’s easy to see why the Western artwork doesn’t have God out there in the park with us, or us back there in the light with him. The contract has freed me from hell, but it has done nothing to make God and [me] intimate friends.
Someone to whom I said this the other day responded, “Tell me: just what makes you believe salvation is supposed to do that? I for one like the picture you’ve described. I believe that salvation is about God simply declaring us righteous. Because of what Jesus did, he now looks at us as if we are righteous. But we still remain sinners who by nature are separated from God. To me, that’s the good news of the Gospel: we don’t have to do anything. We don’t have to change at all. We are just grateful to God that he saves us in spite of what we are. And where do you get this business of God wanting to be intimate lovers with us, anyway?” he continued. “That just sounds way too mystical to be Christian.”
Well, it may sound mystical, but it’s precisely what the Scriptures teach. No one puts it more beautifully, straightforwardly, and completely as Jesus himself. In John 17:20-23, we read:
I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they all may be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be one in us, that the world may believe that you sent me. And the glory which you gave me, I have given them, that they may be one just as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may be made perfect in one, and that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them as you have loved me.
How closely united are the Father and the Son? They’re so intimately joined that, while they are different Persons, they, together with the Holy Spirit, are just one God. Their individual beings completely interpenetrate one another’s. Where one is, there is the other. For example, Jesus tells his disciples that in seeing him, they have seen the Father (John 14:9).
How does that relationship of perfect oneness, that incomprehensible intimacy of being, come to be? Come back next week and we’ll explore that together.