In this installment of my series on why I’m not an atheist, I will briefly demonstrate how the Orthodox Church can be proven to be the Church founded by the Apostles and guided by the Holy Spirit to preserve the ancient Apostolic Faith and, after that, I will give a brief summary of the central truths of the Orthodox Church.
Most of you are probably wondering why I’m doing a post like this in a series that is supposed to be arguments against atheism. Well, as I’ve made clear already in this series, I am not defending some general category called “religion” or even “Christianity” as one mass — I am specifically defending the Holy Orthodox Faith and speaking as a member of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church (i.e. the Orthodox Church). I’ve also already mentioned that, as an Orthodox Christian, I believe all others who call themselves Christians to be in schism and/or heresy.
I found this post necessary because so much of what passes for Christianity in America today is anything but. Evangelical fundamentalism — one of the loudest “Christian” voices in America and the standard stereotype of Christianity found amongst atheists — is a small minority of world Christianity (~5%) and a radical departure from the Faith originally proclaimed by the Apostles. I’ve met a great many atheists (in fact, most of the atheists I’ve met) who have turned to atheism because of their rejection of the false gospel of this pseudo-Christianity, which portrays God as angry, wrathful, arbitrary, and maleficent. I say kudos to you for rejecting such an evil conception of God! I’m doing this post to give those atheists who read it a chance to know what the real Gospel really looks like and so to have adequate information with which to make a choice of accepting or rejecting Jesus Christ.
So, how can I prove that the Orthodox Church is the original Church founded by the Apostles and that it continues to hold to the teachings of the Apostles to this day? That, obviously, would take going over 2000 years of history, theology, doctrine, ritual, and liturgy, something that is possible (I’ve done it), but not in a single blog post. Instead, I will tell you how I did it and so give you some direction for your own search:
I’m naturally a very skeptical person; I question everything — there’s hardly a thing I read or hear that I don’t source-check — and then source-check the sources. My incredulous nature has always been both a blessing and a curse for me. It’s always made it hard for me to trust people and it certainly made my journey to Christianity — and then Orthodoxy — a much longer one than it might have otherwise been. But, once I reach a conclusion, I tend to have a firm conviction that I’ve arrived at the truth, if for no other reason than that I’ve exhausted every possible objection I could raise to it.
So… Of course, I applied my principles as I learned about the Orthodox Church. The Orthodox Church said it was the ancient Church, so I learned about the ancient Church, reading every bit of the source texts of the first 300 years — even the Gnostics’ gibberish; the Orthodox Church said it had never changed the Faith in the last 2000 years, and everybody else has, so I read everything I could get my hands on about Church history — from every perspective possible; the Orthodox Church said it was the True Church — so, in short, I source-checked it. And, of course, you all know the conclusion I reached.
I want to share with everyone the three “methods” I used when I was “source-checking” the Church’s claims, and I hope they’ll help someone who reads this to make an informed decision:
- First, I started in AD 33 with Pentecost and followed the Church to today. This involved reading lots of histories and all of the early Fathers and quite a bit of the later Fathers (and even the various heretics). The question that I kept asking myself the whole way through is “who is changing? who is innovating?” The reason this is important is because any departure, however slight, from the Faith of the Apostles is a betrayal of that Faith; it’s basically saying that the Apostles had things wrong or didn’t have everything, that Christ left them incomplete. And this is obviously wrong. Scripture tells us to “cling to the Faith which was once for all handed down to the saints” (Jude 1:3) and so I knew that’s what I had to look for along the way: who is clinging, as Scripture commands us to do, and who is changing? And I followed that through to today. And I ended up in Moscow, Damascus, Alexandria, Bucharest, Sofia, Athos — in short, I ended up in the Orthodox Church.
- I then did the reverse; I started with today and worked my way back. I knew it was impossible to look at each and every individual Christian group and trace each individually back, as there are several thousand. So, what I decided to do was divide them into five umbrella groups:
- Orthodox Church
- Roman Catholic Church
- “Traditional” Protestantism (Lutherans, Anglicans, Presbyterians, etc.)
- “Low-church” Protestantism (Baptists, Pentecostals, “Evangelicals,” etc.)
- Restorationists (Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh-Day Adventists, etc.)
- And the third way I took was to take everything I had learned about what the ancient Christians believed and practiced, especially those of the first and second centuries, as they are the closest to the Apostles, and compare it with those five groups of Christians I gave above. I compared even the minutest details. I made columns in a notebook for each group and marked wherein they agreed or disagreed with the Christianity of the year 100 or so; early Christians fasted on Wednesdays and Fridays – check; early Christians believed in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist – check; early Christians Baptized via triple immersion – check; early Christians used incense in worship – check; early Christians venerated martyrs – check. And, when I had finished, I found only one “group” whose column was filled top to bottom with my little checks — the Orthodox Church.
Starting with these five basic “movements” in Christianity, I traced each back to their roots from today. I found the roots of the Restorationists in the 1700’s and 1800’s, mostly in America. I found the roots of the “Low-church” Protestants in the 1600’s and 1700’s in the Anabaptist movement and, in the case of the Pentecostals, in the early 1900’s in America. I found the roots of the “Traditional” Protestants in Germany with Martin Luther, England with King Henry VIII, and Switzerland with John Calvin. The Roman Catholic Church was a little harder, as I certainly found its roots in the ancient Church, but I also saw a single Patriarch, the Pope of Rome, split from the four other Patriarchs (Constantinople, Alexandria, Jerusalem, and Antioch) in 1054 to go and form his own Church, the Roman Catholic Church of today. And so it was only the Orthodox I was able to trace all the way back, through time, to the first century in Judea with the 12 holy men called Apostles.
So that’s a little bit about how I reached my conclusions. It’s not the full story by any means. Of course, there was a lot more prayer and tears involved than the dry mathematical equations I give above — not enough, but there was quite a bit of it. I don’t know if I’d recommend my methods to others — many people would probably get tired after a while; it’s a long, often mind-boggling process, and I’m sure many would find it a little too calculated for religious matters. I understand the objections to my methods, but that’s how I did it — and I’m certain that anyone who does the same will reach the exact same conclusion as I did.
So, what are the central beliefs of the Orthodox Christian Faith? What is the true Gospel of Jesus Christ?
God has eternally existed as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and they have eternally existed perfectly loving each other. God is love. But God’s love overflows, and therefore He created mankind, which He intended to come into full communion with Himself. However, man sinned, and turned away from the right path towards communion with God. God was grieved because man had turned away from Him, and because of the fallen world they now lived in, men could not turn back on their own power. Therefore, God the Father sent God the Son into the world. God the Son took on a human nature in addition to His divine nature. He united the divine and human natures in one person, enabling humans to partake of the divine nature once more, and return to communion with Him. Jesus Christ died on the Cross, and because He is God, death could not hold the author of life, and the bonds of death were broken.
Because of death’s destruction, Christ rose up from the grave. Christ appointed certain sacraments, or mysteries, which enable union with God through Jesus Christ. He gave us Baptism, so that we may be united with Him in His death and resurrection. He gave us Chrismation, so that men may truly be sealed and indwelled with God the Spirit. He gave us the Eucharist, so that we may truly partake of the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ so that we are united to God incarnate and commune with Him. He gave us repentance, so that we may come forth and plead before God for forgiveness, which He has promised to grant us. God wishes all men to be saved, for He loves all. However, God cannot force anyone to come to Him, because true love only exists in free choice.
God therefore enabled free choice by sending everyone a certain amount of grace which enables them to come to God. In the end of time, Jesus Christ will return and consummate history. Since the bonds of death are broken, all men will rise up from the grave. Those who are in close communion with God will now feel the presence of God – they will feel it as joy and bliss. Those who are apart from God will feel the presence of God as well – but because of their lack of union with God, they will naturally feel it as shame and regret.
As you can see, unlike the pseudo-Christianity so common in America (and in Europe as well), the ancient Apostolic Faith has no pagan conceptions of a wrathful God demanding the blood of a righteous man (his Son), nor of a hell of fire and brimstone and sadistic devils with pitchforks, nor any other such nonsense.
The original Greek word which is translated as “gospel” is euaggelion. The literal meaning of the word is “glad tidings” or “good news.” And the Gospel — the real Gospel — really is good news. The all-loving and all-forgiving God has become one of us and united us to himself; he’s waiting on us to accept his offer. If you choose to reject it, at least know what beauty and what goodness and what immeasurable charity you have chosen to reject. God is always waiting; as the Apostle Peter wrote about 1950 years ago, the Lord is “longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9).
Clearly I haven’t been able to cover the history, theology, and practice of the Orthodox Church in depth in this post, so I will now give a few resources for those who would like to learn more.
Some good websites:
- About Orthodox Christianity (on the website of the Orthodox Church in America)
- Introduction to Orthodox Christianity (on OrthodoxWiki)
- Get to Know the Original
Some good books:
- The Orthodox Church: New Edition – Bishop Kallistos Ware
- The Mountain of Silence: A Search for Orthodox Spirituality – Kyriacos C. Markides
- The Story of Christianity: An Illustrated History of 2000 Years of the Christian Faith – David B. Hart
My next post in this series on why I’m not an atheist will be my last. In that post, I will address the issue of nominal Christians a.k.a. functional atheists and state very clearly and very bluntly: Christianity is not a religion that allows for nominal adherence.
(some of this post was originally featured in my post “Why I’m an Orthodox Christian, Or: How I can prove the Orthodox Church is the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church” on 10 December 2009)
(thanks to my friend and brother in Christ Thomas Seraphim [aka Kabane the Christian] for letting me use [in a slightly edited form] his description of the Orthodox Gospel from his post “Orthodoxy and Calvinism: Can Both Be the Gospel” at the Orthodox Apologetics blog on 16 July 2010)