Fr.Bedros Shetilian – OCP Articles – 29/10/2019
Who will be saved?
“Grant me my Lord, impersonal happiness”,
Misag Medzarents, Armenian poet
Whoever says that they know a complete answer to this question is not saying the truth. We really don’t know. We know only one example when Jesus said to somebody that he was saved and that one was a criminal, the one who was crucified with Jesus on his right side. That man actually did two things; acknowledged Jesus as God and indirectly confess his sin when as a response to the other criminal who was also crucified and was harassing Jesus, said that they deserved to be punished while Jesus was innocent.
I always say that when the time comes we will be surprised by seeing where this or that person will be. We will see that many who we thought are bad will be in heaven and many that we thought are good will be in dark. That’s why Jesus says not to judge; because of no matter how much we think, we still know little. The above mentioned example of two criminals crucified with Jesus clearly shows that the appearance of people can be completely opposite to who they really are, in other words, who they are in the deepest of their hearts and most importantly from the perspective how they deal with the voice of God in their consciousness and that is their conscience. Two criminals in appearance, but completely two different people in their essence.
Is any sin forgiven? Another question that I was asked many times how it can be that someone who lived a sinful life and confesses his sins, even though in the last moment of his life can be saved. Somehow to get an answer to this question it is interesting to see how people who committed big crimes, cruel dictators, tyrants, mafia bosses, people who perpetrated wars for their personal reasons, how such people did die? Did anyone of these people repent and ask for forgiveness? Did Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Talaat and Enver Pashas, Saddam Husain, Usama Ben Laden acknowledge their sins? There is no single example that anyone who had such a scale of being evil did. And here is why; in sinning and doing the evil there is a line if somebody crosses, there is no way back. There is a difference between when somebody sins because of circumstances, weakness and background factors and somebody who sins intentionally, knowing exactly what he is doing. Jesus’ words of blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven, is for such people, the ones who completely cut any relationship not only with God but with goodness as a value, people who completely bury their consciences with no return. It is not that God is not willing to forgive them, but they are the ones who don’t care for forgiveness, they even don’t acknowledge what they did was wrong. In contrast, if someone is not completely disintegrated, there will be a possibility to repent since he still may have goodness in his soul and his conscience is not completely silenced.
Will non-Christians be saved? Another very important question we face especially in the US is the faith issue. Before going forward I would like to indicate that this issue is not controversial in Europe as much as it is in the US. In the US there are large numbers of fundamental Christians, Newborn Christians and others who understand the Bible literally. Actually, this is due to the lack of intelligence, education, and knowledge. The thing is that religion is a very sensitive field of our lives and if it will not be overlooked by logic, knowledge and deep knowing of science and history and other disciplines that easily and quickly become weird and extreme. Coming to salvation, these people quote Jesus’ word: “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me”, John 14:6. I always respond to such claims by quoting the Beatitudes where Jesus clearly mentioned some values in order to be saved:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven”.
This is so important. Jesus said many things. It is important to know the context of His each words, the language that was used, circumstances, the environment and most importantly whom His words addressed to, and actually in contrast to the Beatitudes where Jesus clearly talks on salvation, in the verse mentioned above He talks on coming to the Father, which can also mean to know God and that is right, since we believe that Christ is the most perfect way to know God. Still, there might be other ways to know God, but in contrast to Christianity, they are far less perfect and indirect.
Most importantly, if we read that chapter we can see that Jesus’ words of coming to the Father only through Him were said during the last supper to His most inner circle, His disciples for whom it is natural that faith is a must in order to be saved. For large masses, for big crowds, for humanity, in general, He has different messages. As support for my argument we can see that after addressing to the large crowds, and in the end, Jesus turns to His followers and talks to them directly by saying “blessed are you” and here He adds faith as an additional condition for survival:
“Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for, in the same way, they persecuted the prophets who were before you”.
We have to read Jesus’ words very carefully and always look to the large picture, to what Jesus said with regard to any issue in different verses and chapters of the Gospels.
Once I asked this question to late Archbishop Zareh Aznavourian by whom I was ordained, a sacred man, a man who was very well – educated and self-educated not only on religion but on any aspect of culture; music, history, arts, literature, etc. someone, if everything was right, should be becoming a Catholicos (Patriarch). I asked him how we can understand that everyone now in the modern world can hear of Jesus and they still not believe in Him, will that mean that they won’t be saved? He answered that there is a difference between hearing and knowing Jesus. Hearing something is not enough to know. And I completely agree with what Archbishop said. Many people didn’t and don’t have a chance to know Jesus. In order to that happen there should be circumstances which in most cases are out of the control of these people.
Continuing on the subject it is hard to believe that people like Gandhi, people like the governor of Malatya Mustafa Bey, a Muslim, who was killed by his own son during the Armenian Genocide for helping Christian Armenians, such people will not be saved. To be Christian is to live a Christian life. German philosopher Karl Reiner refers to such people as “anonymous Christians”. And let see also what Billy Graham, who is highly admired by fundamental Christians, says regarding who Christians are and who will be saved. In an interview in 1998, he says: “I think that everybody that loves or knows Christ, whether they are conscious of it or not, are members of the body of Christ … [God] is calling people out of the world for his name, whether they come from the Muslim world, or the Buddhist world or the non-believing world, they are members of the Body of Christ because they have been called by God. They may not know the name of Jesus but they know in their hearts that they need something they do not have, and they turn to the only light they have, and I think that they are saved and they are going to be with us in heaven”.
Nevertheless, there will be different areas in heaven for different people from different religions and non- believers who will be saved. I think Jesus’ words of: “My Father’s house has many rooms” indicates that God’s house is very large and has enough places for anyone who lives to have God’s Love in his soul, who lives a Christian life, for unconscious Christians.
To conclude this chapter it is very important to be clear that saying non-Christians who live a Christian valued life could be saved doesn’t mean to equalize Christianity with other religions. We still believe that Christianity is the most perfect religion known to us since the founder of Christianity in contrast to other religions is not a human being, but God Himself. Religion is not an ideology to have the same kind of discussion as we have in other aspects of our life. Before and besides anything else, religion is about our hearts and our souls. We have faith or not. We respect and love people of other religions and people who have no faith, but we openly and clearly confess that Jesus Christ is the Incarnated God, God in flesh, who descended from the heaven to save us and by His resurrection gave us a real hope of our resurrection and we wish that every human being will have a chance to know Jesus and believe in Him.
Does God judge? Going back to the judgment and the subject of who will be saved and who not, it is very important to understand that we are the ones who in charge of our destiny; God just confirms who we are. By our free choice, the ability to choose between good and evil while we are still here, we make our destiny where to go after we leave this world.
What will happen after we die? Somehow to get an idea of what will happen, I believe everyone understands that words of fire, burning are all material understanding, these are words were used at the time when the Bible was written to describe what the hell is. In reality, we don’t know exactly, we don’t know how and on what scale someone will be punished or not for sins that he committed.
We know about some people have no chance, the blasphemers against the Holy Spirit as Jesus put people who themselves cut completely any relation to God and goodness, people who throw themselves intentionally out of God’s presence. We know also that any sin that is confessed sincerely in our hearts, not in words, will be forgiven. Any sin:“And so I tell you, every kind of sin and slander can be forgiven”, Matt.12:31, and the case of the criminal on Jesus’ right side during the crucifixion is a proof. We also know in general that Jesus talks about two things in order to be saved faith and deeds. But those are general words and there are many things in between these words that we don’t know because we don’t know what is going on in the deepest of any human being heart. I think that what matters most is not the appearance of someone or something, but motivations, backgrounds, knowledge of God’s morality, circumstances, etc. All these things matters and that is why we cannot judge anyone. Not judging someone doesn’t mean to identify evil, to keep distance and to protect ourselves. These are different realities.
Heaven and hell: What we think of heaven and hell? How do they look like? I think heaven is easier to identify. Heaven is to live in the presence of God, and God is LOVE, the big love, unconditional LOVE, Agape. If we live by this Love while we are still here, that is in part a foretaste of what heaven is. But in contrast to our life here, this condition of love, peace, and tranquility will be permanent. In heaven, there won’t be our everyday concerns, stresses, survival struggle that we experience here in the world.
The issue of hell is more complex and that is coming from pictures used in the Bible of hell; fire, burning, etc. Before going forward I would like to point out that hell is not a place where the devil is in charge, in Jesus’ words hell was “prepared for the devil and his angels”, Matt. 25:41. This is important to know since many think that the devil is the one who punishes the condemned ones, that the devil “burns” people and also to show that the devil is not powerful enough.
Somehow to understand what the hell is, we have to see what Jesus Himself said about hell. Before going forward I believe everybody understands that hell is out of God’s presence zone. In the hell there are no benefits that come as a result of God’s presence; peace, tranquility, happiness, clear conscience and of course Love. When Jesus talks on hell He describes it sometimes as darkness and sometimes as fire. Actually darkness and fire contradict each other. And several times after He uses darkness or fires. He continues saying:” where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth”. This last sentence is repeated seven times in the Gospels by Jesus; in Matt. 8:12; 13:42,50; 22:13; 24:51; 25:30; and Luke 13:28. Actually, what these words mean it’s hard to understand. Certainly there is a punishment for the condemned ones, and certainly, these things are not material realities. And here we come to one of the most controversial issues related to salvation and that is “Universal Reconciliation”.
Universal Reconciliation: This is a theological and philosophic idea that says,in the end, everybody whoever they are will be saved. The idea indicates that God’s Love is unlimited so He cannot let anyone of His children, anyone to be punished forever. Even the evilest ones.
Here People may ask a justifiable question: Will Hitler, Talal, Pol Pote, and similar people be saved? Actually this idea started with Origen one of Church’s early well-known thinkers. However, Origen was not elevated to be saint mainly for this reason, although he has some other valuable ideas and writings. There is more, “Universal Reconciliation” was condemned by the fifth ecumenical council in 553 AD (Oriental Orthodox Churches were already split from other Churches). Nevertheless, I couldn’t avoid mentioning this phenomenon in this article, because still, some highly respected Christian thinkers in one way or another follow it. Personally I don’t accept it. I will seriously question God if people who committed big crimes and didn’t regret will be saved in the end, and I will base my rejection on Jesus’ words of blasphemers against the Holy Spirit not being forgiven. But I believe that won’t happen because if that happens God’s longtime revelation to us won’t make any sense, the Bible won’t make any sense.
Who will be saved? Having said that I still don’t know what will happen to the people who are in between the most evils and most goods ones. Personally, I believe that Hitler is in hell and Saint Mother Teresa is in heaven, but there are billions of people who are not completely evil and not completely good and those are in the vast majority, actually I think around ninety percent of people are in this category, people who are weak, people who are not stable, people who are not morally and religiously educated, people who might trapped with a serious sins but are still bare goodness in their souls, what will happen to such people? What will happen for example to Martin Luther King Jr., an American Gandhi, a Christian pastor, a martyr for justice and peace, who was also a womanizer while he was married? I have no answer to this question and I will doubt anyone who says that he certainly has. I can only guess that as the most-just judge God will look to the whole picture and He will put on a scale and measure our good and bad sides, and if people who in general are good but have some failures they will get some kind of punishment, but in this case the punishment won’t last forever in the opposite to the blasphemer against the Holy Spirit. My idea mentioned above should not be confused with purgatory, most common to Catholics since purgatory doesn’t apply to the ones who committed “mortal sins”. In my idea I am talking on a possibility of God’s forgiveness after punishment for people who committed serious sins, especially if they were not deliberate, and if such people were still connected to God or/and if they didn’t lose completely their understanding of goodness and conscience. This is just a guess. We will know when the time comes. We have also to be careful of the word eternal since there is no time in the other world. What eternal means, in this case, we also don’t know.
My personal imagination: Since we don’t know exactly what the hell is, we can just sometimes think of it based on our limited minds. I’ve been thinking about this issue. The thing is if someone’s priorities in this life are his ego, power, and money, what will such a person do in the other world. We have to remember that the moment we leave this world we will be transferring in the same condition as we were here. We won’t be able to change anything. Now, what such a person will do in the other transcendent world where there is no power issue, there is no money? At least he will get bored because there is nothing that may be in his interest. This sounds logical. The result is eternal boring, what a horrible punishment. In contrast, a person whose priorities while he is still living are spiritual life and goodness, such a person will be living in an environment good for him, he will be “busy”, he will be happy. Logically this might look right, but it is just a personal imagination. Certainly, heaven and hell are parts of God’s plan. Again, we will know when the time comes.
Heaven starts in this world, we can foretaste heaven. A perfect religious life is when someone does good, sin little not because of fear, but because that how he is because he cannot be another way, because he lives under God/Jesus’ Love, unconditional Love. Such an individual’s salvation journey starts in this world and when the time comes it just continues into the other world. Let’s try to be such a person. That is really what happiness is, not self-directed happiness, but impersonal happiness that leads to salvation.
About the Author
Fr. Bedros Shetilian was born in Aleppo, Syria, in 1963. After high school, he moved to Armenia and then to Russia to pursue a musical education and graduated from St. Petersburg Conservatory with a master’s degree in symphony conducting. Between 1992 and 2003 he successfully worked as a conductor, with concerts in Russia, Armenia, and Europe. Fr. Shetilian attended the Catholic College in St. Petersburg and the Seminary of the Catholicosate of Cilicia in Lebanon. He was ordained as a married priest in 2003. Afterward, he was assigned to serve in the US. Since 2005, he has been the priest in residence at St. Gregory the Illuminator Armenian Apostolic (Orthodox) Church in Springfield, Massachusetts. Fr. Shetilian continues to combine both his callings as a clergyman and a musician.
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